8.14.2015

Spider-Man in the 1980s: Epilogue

SPIDER-MAN in the 1980s: pt. 13 of 12


"Well, that about does her, wraps her all up. Things seem to have worked out pretty good for the Dude and Walter, and it was a pretty good story, don't ya think? Made me laugh to beat the band. Parts, anyway." - The Stranger, The Big Lebowski (1998)

I hope you've enjoyed this personalized tour of 1980s Spider-Man. Sorry to end on such a down note. In case you missed the headline from last time:

Terrible copy. They even misspelled "affect."

But hey, comics are doing just fine. As is Spider-Man. As a movie property it may still be wandering between the realms along with its X-siblings and FF, but that won't last, I bet. The industry survived the crash of the mid-90s that all of these late 80s / early 90s shenanigans that I've been describing made inevitable. Comics aren't the same anymore, of course, but don't believe for a second that all the good Spider-Man is in the past or anything.

I can see where you'd think that was my personal belief, but all I've tried to get across here was how the Spidey of my youth was a one-time thing. This was the last era of Spidey close enough to the character's beginnings to still be able to reference it as the active past/ active present. As I wrote here:  

"(At the time) I was unaware of occupying the sweet spot of Marvel's mk-1 continuity: not too far nor too close to the beginning. I was actively engaging with Marvel's Silver Age through things like Marvel Saga and The Official Handbook, and most of the books were, too. 80s Marvel was not encumbered by its continuity; it was illuminated by it. The inevitable entropy of all serialized fictional universes would eventually materialize at Marvel, as well, but in 1983, it was blue skies and smooth sailing."

* I hope you'll forgive me for quoting myself, but this is a wrap-up post after all so why re-invent the wheel. 

In 1990, Erik Larsen took the Spider-reins on Amazing but as the decade began, the big news was McFarlane's Spider-Man #1. Before I get to that, though, let's have a quick look at:


SPIRITS OF THE EARTH



Charles Vess had a damn good run of memorable Spider-covers throughout the 80s. Here he was given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted, so he took Spidey (and himself) to Scotland.



His talents perhaps did not lend themselves to such a project. While the landscape is often glorious, as are some of the early-pages web-slinging panels -


such as this one. Looks like fun.

his style isn't the best fit for Peter and MJ. Luckily, Peter has plenty of opportunities to switch into his Spider-duds, but ultimately the story simply doesn't justify the big graphic novel treatment. Outside of Spider-Man Zaps Mr. Zodiac - which probably needs its own series, not just a sequel - all of the Spider-Man graphic novels we've seen (Hooky, Parallel Lives, and Spider-Man vs. Wolverine) could have probably just been stand-alone issues. Not that it's bad or anything, just that Vess has done much better work elsewhere - and plenty of it. 


SPIDER-MAN 1 - 5 

McFarlane felt he had outgrown both David Micheline and the idea of working with a writer altogether. So he proposed a new Spider-book to Jim Salicrup and Tom DeFalco. They agreed, and Spider-Man #1 was born. 


Like a lot of kids, I bought multiple copies of this issue. One for reading, and two (including a McFarlane-autographed copy of the black-and-silver variant cover that my buddy Joe got for me as a present, which was damn cool of him) for the doomsday vault. We were all going to retire on these things - this was our generation's Amazing Fantasy # 15 and so on. 


Needless to say, it very much was not.

So, Spider-Man #1 sold three million copies, more than any comic book before it. It wouldn't hold the record too long; McFarlane's future business partners at Image both surpassed it (Liefeld's X-Force #1 and Lee's X-Men #1). But this was a whole new ballgame, both for Spidey and for McFarlane.

How does "Torment," the 5-issue story that opens the series hold up all these years later?

Three guesses.

McFarlane delivers exactly what fans seemed to want in 1990, I'll give him that:

- Showy two-page spreads with lotsa webbing.
- Mallet-on-head narrative tricks (and in the case of the "Doom!" motif, lifted from Simonson's Surtur vs. Odin saga from Thor.)
- MJ's Medusa-like hair (and OMFG, those "And tug. And stretch" are horrendous.)
- Clusterf**k covers.
- Crazy teeth.
- More crazy MJ hair (and mismatched eyes). Though I do like the background, here.
- More crazy teeth, now with crazy tongue!
- and inexplicable capes (or in this case, the Lizard's lab coat, which apparently must trail several feet behind him when he wears it in the lab.)

The story itself is a rehash of "Kraven's Last Hunt" though without any of that story's storytelling sense, heart, or daring. (Nor its Mike Zeck-ness). But no worries, bro - it's only there as a kick-ass delivery mechanism for all the above. He even boldly asserts that in the editorial in the first issue, trumpeting the death of the writer and the new age of the artist. Who needs narrative skills when you got guns like this, gibrone?

Calypso, the onetime companion of Kraven and voodoo priestess that we saw in these pages many moons ago, returns as a grittier, edgier, barely-discernible version of herself who gets some new powers and bends the Lizard to her will, which is to do... something or other.


INTENSE!!

It's a steaming pile of something-or-other, but it sold marvelously, at first. McFarlane would later lament that the company stopped pushing it after the big first issue, and had they not, sales would have climbed higher and higher. (No one in the early-to-mid 90s ever blamed poor writing for sales dropping off on anything; it was always "failure to promote," "market conditions," etc. Funny, though, how things like R.L. Stine's Goosebumps or Harry Potter which took the time to invest in character, plot, and narrative sense kept right on selling gangbusters to kids when comics readership dried up.)

Fed up with Marvel and under the guise of "creator rights," McFarlane persuaded Marvel's most popular artists (Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Mark Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, Erik Larsen) and Jim Valentino to jump ship and start their own company, appropriately named Image Comics. Jim Lee was the real coup of all the above. He was a company man and loyal to Marvel, but when Marvel President Terry Stewart began mouthing off about how he wasn't going to pay for Jim's wife to accompany him on convention tours and official company appearances, Lee felt insulted and undervalued. It was the perfectly worst thing to say at the perfectly worst time. Marvel was more profitable than ever thanks to its superstar artists, whom it was turning around and nickel-and-diming to death.  


So, adios Marvel; hola, Image.
The founding fathers at a 2007 panle.

The full story of Image is beyond our scope here, but here's Will Jacobs and Gerard Jones' The Comic Book Heroes:

"'Artists don't need writers,' McFarlane had written, and all the Image money was going for pencillers, inkers, and colorists. Artists who'd been thrilled to get a $150 a page at Marvel or DC were being offered $300, even $400 at Image. It was like rock and roll, running on "stupid money," as some old hands were calling it. The Image moguls were setting young stud  artists up in L.A. houses, throwing money at them and making them feel like geniuses for aping the Lee-Liefeld look before they'd learned how to draw a straight line. The studs would draw a splash page, play some pick-up basketball, buy a car or two, cruise the babes at Venice, draw a two-page spread. And when a whole comic had been slapped together out of splashes, spreads, and giant panels that made no narrative sense, Lee or Liefeld would slap the big Image "I" on it and it would sell a half-million copies."

Ironically, a cover I really enjoy. Who cares if he just re-colored the Prowler's costume and added some chains and skulls.

Little did anyone realize at the time, but this was the beginning of the end. Image broke huge, other publishers broke huge, and a deluge of new product hit the shelves. The bubble  burst in the mid-90s. It had to - the comics market simply couldn't sustain the amount of titles in circulation. Not that it destroyed the industry or anything; it just expanded too fast and then withdrew into itself. The red giant became the white dwarf.

Image is still around, though many of its first creators have mostly gone on to other things. Erik Larsen has proven the most consistent of all of them; he keeps his Savage Dragon readers well-fed, month after month, even all these years later.


When I stopped collecting back in the day, I stayed away from comics for many years. It was that Jacobs/ Jones book, which I came across totally randomly at Waldenbooks during the short time I was working there, that got me interested in them again. That was also where I first discovered all of the behind-the-scenes stuff at Marvel; that was a revelation to me. I finally had the missing pieces of the puzzle as to why Marvel changed so radically during those last years of my fandom.

Outside of some targeted runs here and there, I never really returned to the world of monthly collecting, and outside of this run of posts, I never again stepped foot in the Spideyverse. Not counting the movies, obviously, or the occasional retrospective in Back Issue or wherever. I know the broad strokes and all - I know what the Clone Saga and Brand New Day refer to, I know who Miles Morales is, and I've seen plenty of great post-80s Spider-Art. I might have given the impression that all the art subsequent to Ron Frenz et al was McFarlane-esque, but that's certainly not the case. (Among many others, JRJR's return to the title in the 90s and beyond is amazing stuff.)

But, it's not "my" Spider-Man, is it? And that's perfectly fine - in many ways, it'd be weird if it still was. 


I hope I was able to give you a little glimpse into how it all felt at the time and my confusion/ frustration with where it was going when I punted. Who cares now, of course - more power to everyone, everywhere. That includes you, Messrs. Liefeld and McFarlane. 

As for me, my heart will always be with the old stuff, but likewise I wish the web-slinger well in whatever pursuits and in whatever guise his wall-crawling takes him.

 

7 comments:

  1. Fun series, McMolo! I'll have to check out those Charles Vess issues at some point. (And oy, that medusa hair. I want to punch my 13-year-old self in the face for loving McFarlane.)

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    1. You weren't alone - the nation was gripped in McFarlanemania. So many artists and characters that were "super-hot" in 1990/1991 (McFarlane and Liefeld, Lobo and the rebooted Ghost Rider) had a short shelf life. It'd have been hard to believe at the time, when they were all bigger than Elvis.

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  2. I had a horrible thought while reading the early part of this post: what if somebody hired McFarlane to do a comic-book series focused on all of Stephen King's villains when they are in that occasional mode where they do that prancing / shucking-and-jiving / weird-yelling thing? Like, the Crimson King from DTVII meets the Trashcan Man meets the crazy preacher from "The Talisman." Toss in the worst moments of Randall Flagg, the worst moments of Pennywise, Brady from "Mr. Mercedes," and turn McFarlane loose.

    I've had worse ideas, but not today.

    My familiarity with Image in its heyday comes almost exclusively from the work Alan Moore did with them. What an odd fit. You sense that Moore got into it for the opportunity to issue a big fuck-you to Marvel and DC, quickly sensed that he'd gotten mixed up with a bunch of no-account ruffians, and then spent a decade trying to disentangle himself from the whole mess. And yet, he produced some very good (and underrated work) during those years. Also, the lessons he learned there resulted directly in America's Best Comics, which is a very happy end result.

    Moore aside, looking at most of that McFarlane art just makes my eyes hurt. God, the nineties; not a complete wasteland, but not for lack of trying.

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    1. "McFarlane Draws the Kingverse Villains" is the overpriced bad-art coffee table book I wish I had. If only to keep under lock and key, away from impressionable minds who'd otherwise see it. Scary stuff, indeed.

      The original version of this post had a few paragraphs about Alan Moore's work at Image, and his reaction to the "grittifying" of all comics in the wake of Watchmen, best summarized by himself in "In Pictopia," for my money. I ended up taking it out to keep things breezy, but Moore At Image is a fascinating sidebar.

      The issue he wrote of Spawn with McFarlane drawing isn't bad. His writing is fine, just that McFarlane Panel and Character Design (tm) isn't my thing. (In case anyone missed that from reading these posts!)

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    2. I agree about that issue of "Spawn." And anyone who hasn't read "In Pictopia," you are strongly urged to do so -- it's wonderful.[

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  3. I've read a wee bit of Spider-Man during the years after these. Mostly, that happened via the Brian Michael Bendis "Ultimate" series. I read maybe the first dozen issues, and then (much later) the first dozen issues that featured Miles Morales. All of what I read was terrific, and I'd love to splurge on a complete set of trades some day and sit down and devour the entire saga.

    I also read J. Michael Straczynski's run on "Amazing" for a while. This was during my days of peak "Babylon 5" fandom, so I came back to Spidey for the JMS. Very odd, but true. I couldn't get into it; I think this is maybe where the bizarre and stupid focus on the secret history of Peter's parents came from. I might be remembering that incorrectly, though, so don't take my word for it.

    I think you've made a lot of great points during this series about the precision of the precipice in comics history that your fandom occupied. It's certainly true, and I've got a touch of the same thing (although the degree of your comics fandom vastly outstrips my own). I wonder if people who were a decade or so younger than us have similar feelings about the nineties era of comics? I bet they do, God help 'em.

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    1. I'm sure there are, and while I don't doubt the sincerity of their own affection and nostalgia, they're just a few years too late. Through no fault of their own, of course, just the way that it goes.

      I'm trying to remember when Marvel started rebooting their stuff - around 1990 or so. They had to - they reached that point where keeping Tony Stark's origin story in Korea just wasn't working, for example, so suddenly it was in Vietnam. I think this was just after Armor Wars 2. Once you start doing that - or when you just ignore it for too long, as DC did, and Marvel, to some extent, did too - the continuity dissipates.

      The inevitable entropy of our fictional universes! A good comics continuity only has a 30-40 year shelf life before it necessitates the kind of course-corrections that prove its destruction. I wish I had a chalkboard filled with fancy equations behind me and a McFarlane-tattered-Lizard's-labcoat on to accompany these remarks.

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