7.28.2015

15 X-Files Episodes Worth Your Time

Like many who came of age during the latter decades of the last century, I loved me some  X-Files


And like many who loved them some X-Files, I have ambivalent feelings towards the movies and the finale. Particularly the finale. It's not the most disappointing finale ever made or anything - it just doesn't properly resolve the mythology storyline. But in all fairness, I'd punted on the mythology episodes a few years before the actual finale, so barring a miracle-finish, there wasn't much they could do to bring me back in the fold. 

Well, I wanted to, at least.

Let me give you some background. The height of my X-Files mania was probably 1997 or so. I jumped in right around the end of Season 4 - more specifically, the summer re-runs of Season 4. We had a weekly Sunday night party at my friends' apartment, and it became a tradition we continued in one form or another for many years. In those days, I loved the mythology episodes and vastly preferred them to the Monster-of-the-Week episodes, which I saw as just occasionally-amusing sidetracks. This was before the days of DVD-or-streaming binge-watching, but I caught up on the first few seasons via the Dayton Public Library. (And my folks back east, who sent me VHS tapes on a semi-weekly basis, God bless their hearts.) Slowly but surely, I mastered the backstory before the start of Season 5.

I couldn't tell you exactly when I soured on the mythology of it all. Sometime over Season 6? With each impossible-to-reconcile-with-what-came-before event in and after the Fight the Future movie? That movie still baffles me... it could have been the coolest thing ever. It should have been the coolest thing ever. Instead we got this huge domestic terrorism set piece, pointless moments

- ahem -

and all that FEMA tomfoolery. And that ending - ai yi yi. What a missed opportunity.

The premiere of Season 5, which resolved the cliffhanger from Season 4, was probably for real the most fervently-anticipated season premiere of my TV-watching life. I loved those episodes ("Gethsemane," "Redux" pts. 1 and 2) at the time. Nowadays? With hindsight of the whole mythology arc? I don't think you could pick better examples of how the mythology-episodes collapsed under their own weight than these 3 eps.

One man's opinion, of course. Here in the Internet Age, you'll find no shortage of fan sites, re-watches, speculation, disagreement, analyses both qualitative and quantitative, and woolgathering on this topic. 


For my part, my disillusionment with the mythology arc opened up the Monster of the Week episodes in a way my previous obsession with them hadn't allowed. I found I really loved them. Well, a lot of them, anyway. The X-Files has its low points, and its middling points, but its high water marks are some of the greatest TV ever made. 

So here are my own 15 faves. This is just a list or tribute of sorts, not a sincere attempt to convince anyone of anything. I'm assuming a basic familiarity with the show on the reader's part. I may post something more substantial on any of the following or maybe even one of my honorable mentions, such as "Home," which has a legitimate claim to being the best horror movie made in the 90s despite being a one-hour television program, and "Post-Modern Prometheus." Or "Humbug," another of my faves. Or maybe I'll finally take the plunge on the Doggett years and unearth some presently-unknown-to-me gem that I'll need to get on here and gabatcha about.

Time will tell. In the meantime, Dog Star Omnibus presents:

The X-Files 
Monster-of-the-Week
Furious Fifteen 

15.
Season 6, Episodes 4 and 5.
Directed by Kim Manners (pt. 1) and Michael Watkins (pt. 2).
Written by Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, and Frank Spotnitz.

PLOT: An anonymous tip brings Mulder and Scully to that center of UFO lore, Area 51. They're prevented from entering the base by a group of soldiers and Men in Black, but upon witnessing a flyover from a mysterious aircraft, Mulder and one of the MIB, one Morris Fletcher, discover their minds have been swapped into the other's bodies. Can Mulder first convince Scully of the truth and then somehow reverse the effect?

WHY I LIKE IT: This two-parter has many comedic moments, ranging from a fun Marx Brothers tribute from Michael McKean and David Duchovny to all the great moments from Gillian Anderson as she responds to her partner's increasingly bizarre behavior. But the comedy definitely has an edge: due to the space-time "re-do" that gets them back into their own respective bodies, both Mulder and Morris forget the lessons they've learned. i.e. Morris forgets he really does love and respect his wife. Back to their lonely and alienated existences, none the wiser.

Maybe not, though - the waterbed Morris bought for Mulder's pad stays put, even if he doesn't remember it, so maybe Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher live happily ever after. (But I doubt it).

HIGHLIGHTS: (Mulder-Morris to Lone Gunmen) "There's no Saddam Hussein! This guy's name is John Gillnitz. We found him doing dinner theater in Tulsa." (Morris-Mulder to JoAnne Fletcher) "Does Scully sound like a girl's name to you?" Also, Mulder falling asleep to porn in the Fletchers' living room, or any/ all of his fumbling attempts to be a family man in general. 

14.
Season 6, Episode 3.
Written and Directed by Chris Carter.

PLOT: When the Queen Anne, a British ship that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle in 1936 re-appears in 1998, Mulder is sent to investigate. When he is knocked unconscious after wrecking his raft, he wakes to find himself aboard the ship in the past, during a Nazi take-over of the vessel, surrounded by people he knows from his own time (Scully, the Cigarette-Smoking-Man, etc.) in different identities. Proverbial hi-jinks proceed apace. Meanwhile, in 1998, the Lone Gunmen and Scully go to the Triangle to rescue him.

WHY I LIKE IT: I'm a sucker for any Bermuda Triangle story. Ditto for Nazi bad guys and time travel, big band scores, or Wizard of Oz-esque doubling for familiar characters (Skinner as a double agent is probably my favorite.) All of this plus the fact that it was originally aired in letterbox, and Mulder's and Scully's kiss - which works here and is a great moment, not the slashfic-bait of the first movie -  followed by a punch and a leap into the sea all add up to a very satisfying hour of X-Files TV. 

It's not without its drags, though. In particular, the long-shot gimmick becomes just that after awhile: a gimmick. The story in no way demands the technique, and the long sequence at FBI headquarters where Scully basically runs around in-between Kersh and others who want to trap her is kinda-sorta pointless. Using a flamethrower to lightly toast a bagel. Wrong tool for the job. 

HIGHLIGHTS: (Mulder to Nazis) "I hope you guys speak Russian." (Scully to Mulder) "Get your Nazi paws off me before you get one in the kisser." 

13.
Season 3, Episode 20.
Directed by Rob Bowman. Written by Darin Morgan.
 

PLOT: Scully and Mulder are interviewed by a famous author (Jose Chung) as research for a UFO-abduction novel he is writing.

WHY I LIKE IT: I like stories that explore the "unreliable narrator" concept, and X-Files played around with that every so often in a really compelling way. Darin Morgan (the author of this episode) was good at this sort of thing. (He wrote three eps which would be covered here if this was a top 25 list: the aforementioned "Humbug," and season 3's "Clyde Buckman's Final Repose" and "War of the Coprophages.")

That said, he could sometimes get a little clever - a few too many parodies-within-parodies and send-ups-within-send-ups for my personal tastes. (Oddly enough, this is exactly what I love about this sequel to this episode, Millennium's "Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense.")

HIGHLIGHTS: Well, Alex Trebeck and Jesse Ventura as Men in Black, obviously. And Chung's description of Mulder as "a ticking timebomb of insanity" has never left my head.

12.
Season 7, Episode 12.
Directed by Michael Watkins. Written by Vince Gilligan.
 

PLOT: The crew of popular reality show Cops follow Mulder and Scully around as they search for a monster that feeds on fear. (Oooh, so many layers of meta in that plot description.)

WHY I LIKE IT: On first glance, this might come across as a gimmicky Season 7 "What the hell do we do now?" play from the writers. But the gimmick actually works pretty well, and there's not an awful lot of winking at the camera. Vince Gilligan had this idea as early as Season 4, as well, but I'm glad it had time to gestate. I think it fits S7 better than s4.

HIGHLIGHTS: Scully's continued annoyance with the crew, the other cops' exasperation at Mulder's theories (that they can still mine gold from that trope this far into the show is remarkable), and the long line of dubiously-credible witnesses for Mulder's monsters. "In the end," writes Sarah Steagall, "the only credible witness is the camera," which is there only to record Mulder's biggest fear: not finding the monster. And in front of a live audience, to boot. 

11.
Season 1, Episode 8.
Directed by David Nutter. Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong.

PLOT: Mulder, Scully, and three other scientists travel to the Arctic to investigate what went wrong at a remote research station. Whereupon they discover an organism that appears to make its host want to kill other people. It's up to Scully to science things right before Mulder starts shooting everyone in the face.

WHY I LIKE IT: I like this one more or less equally with "Darkness Falls," also from Season 1, but since they're basically the same sort of episode, I went with the one that reminds me more of The Thing. This is a useful rubric for tiebreakers.

HIGHLIGHTS: (Mulder) "Before anyone passes judgment, may I remind you we are in the Arctic." Also, nice turn by Jeff Kober as Bear.

10.
Season 7, Episode 21.
Written and Directed by Vince Gilligan

PLOT: The genie episode.

WHY I LIKE IT: Honestly, what's not to like? It's a fun spin on a timeless theme. I agree with Zach Handlen, this "feels almost like the ultimate X-Files fan love letter. There’s so much stuff in here that should feel like fan service but just doesn’t, like that final scene where Mulder and Scully settle in on a couch to talk about nothing in particular and the weirdness of having just found a frickin’ genie."

HIGHLIGHTS: (Mulder, naturally) "Schwing!" (Jenn, reading the text of Mulder's unused wish) "'This plane of existence' - what are you, a lawyer?" (It's funnier in context.) Also: Anson's eventual screams-of-the-damned once he returns from the dead.

9.
Season 5, Episode 3.
Directed by Kim Manners. Written by Vince Gilligan.

PLOT: In 1989, the Lone Gunmen meet for the first time when they assist a woman who claims the government plans to use civilians in a secret experiment. She is being chased by an agent determined to stop her: Special Agent Fox Mulder.

HIGHLIGHTS: The opening - SWAT team discovers a naked and highly agitated Mulder, screaming 'They're here! They're here!" When we see things from his point of view, the agents resemble The Greys. Also: Lone Gunmen origin story, Mulder's cellphone, and Detective John "Do I look like Geraldo to you?" Munch crosses over to yet another universe. (That line, by the way, is a tribute to the character's first appearance way back in Homicide: Life on the Street, s1, e1 ("Do I look like Montel Williams to you? I am not Montel Williams.")

"No matter how paranoid you are, you're not paranoid enough."
(Susanne Modeski) Amen, sister. 

8.
Season 6, Episode 21.
Directed by Kim Manners. Written by Vince Gilligan and John Shiban.

PLOT: When a young married couple's skeletal remains are found in the middle of a North Carolina field near the Brown Mountains, Mulder suspects they are victims of the regionally famous Brown Mountain Lights. When he investigates further, he nearly becomes a victim himself, not of the Lights, but of the carnivorous mushrooms that line the field and nearby caves. The spores from the mushroom induce hallucinations so overwhelming that whomever inhales them is comatose while the mushroom slowly ingests them.

WHY I LIKE IT: To be honest, when I sat down with the idea of this list, I thought this would be my #1 episode. At least top 3. This time around, while I was certainly thoroughly entertained and still love the twists and turns and weirdness of it all, it fell a few slots in my rankings, as you can see. 

HIGHLIGHTS: Oh, so many. But the ending where Mulder and Scully, barely alive after almost being digested by the mushrooms, weakly touch hands in the ambulance, is one of my favorites. I never cared about any will-they-or-won't-they stuff between Mulder and Scully. To me that was always misplaced. What makes them Mulder and Scully is not hidden attraction; it's their co-dependence, mixed in with their platonic loyalty and earned respect.

7.
Season 7, Episode 19.
Written and directed by David Duchovny.

PLOT: Skinner pimps Mulder and Scully out to his old college buddy, a Hollywood writer/ producer who is gathering material for an FBI script. When they see the finished version, they are less than pleased with the results, while Skinner is absolutely thrilled.

WHY I LIKE IT: Duchovny's second outing as writer/ director is an improvement on Season 6's interesting-failure "The Unnatural." (An episode I like, don't get me wrong, I'm just not sure if it's wholly successful.) This one, like "X-Cops," could be a gimmick-gone-awry, but it's fun fan service from start-to-finish.

HIGHLIGHTS: Naturally, the Hollywood versions of Mulder and Scully (played by Garry Shandling and Tea Leoni) steal a considerable part of the show. But the Lazarus Bowl (a concept you don't see discussed much outside of this episode) is a pretty cool idea. 

6.
Season 3, Episode 13.
Directed by Rob Bowman. Written by Chris Carter.

PLOT: A rare planetary alignment gives two teenage girls telekinetic powers, which they use for their own sick amusement. The townsfolk - unruly rubes, as is often the case when Mulder and Scully venture out into the country - are sure it's the work of Satanists. An exasperated Scully and an even-weirder-than-usual Mulder try and suss out what's what.

WHY I LOVE IT: A Buffy episode, more or less, or perhaps it's more of a Heathers send-up, as Connie Ogle at PopMatters thinks. Either way, it works just fine for me. I'm not surprised when some people tell me this is one they actually hate - I split pretty hard with some folks on the teen-drama-as-metaphor-for-worldly-horrors genre. Similarly, I've seen people cite Mulder's speech at the end ("We are but visitors on this rock, hurtling through time and space at 66,000 miles an hour, tethered to a burning sphere by an invisible force in an unfathomable universe. This most of us take for granted while refusing to believe these forces have anymore effect on us than a butterfly beating its wings half way around the world. Or that two girls born on the same date at the same time and the same place might not find themselves the unfortunate focus of similar unseen forces, converging like the planets themselves into burning pinpoints of cosmic energy, whose absolute gravity would threaten to swallow and consume everything in its path.") as out-of-step with the tone of the rest of the episode.

I disagree. Moreover, this was actually the very speech that turned The X-Files into something I casually enjoyed into a show I watched and loved. Whether it's astrology, Bigfoot, conspiracy theory, or whatever-you-like, the only belief system I hold in contempt is that which claims that what we know in 2015 (or any given year) is the end-destination of all knowledge everywhere. If you happen to stand in that section of the Venn Diagram which is mutually exclusive to such mental short-sightedness, Mulder's speech is a breath of fresh air.

You know, in today's climate of hard-black-and-whites and reactionaryism, I doubt The X-Files ever would have taken off at all.

HIGHLIGHTS: (Terri to Margi) "I said 'Hate him, wouldn't want to DATE him!'" (Scully) "Shut up, Mulder." (Mulder) "Sure. Fine. Whatever." Also, Mulder's flirting it up with Mrs. Stanwyck from Fletch is great stuff. (As is "I was just never sure if your little feet could reach the pedals." Oh no he didn't!)

5.
Season 6, Episode 14.
Directed by Kim Manners. Written by Vince Gilligan and John Shiban.

PLOT: Mulder and Scully are caught in a time loop where they are blown to bits in a bank robbery gone awry. During one of the repeat-days, Mulder is stopped by a woman, Pam, who is the only person not oblivious to living the same day on repeat. It is her boyfriend who keeps blowing up the bank. There are subtle changes in the events, but the results are always the same: Bernard detonates the bomb, usually after shooting Mulder, and they all die. Finally, Mulder and Scully hit upon the one tragic way to stop the loop.

WHY I LOVE IT: I love the repeating-day storyline. Fans at the time thought it was a retread of Groundhog Day, but Gilligan and Shiban maintained it was an homage to the classic Twilight Zone episode "Shadow Play." It definitely has some hallmarks of those, but the one I thought of was Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Cause and Effect." 

But I also love it because this is one of my favorite Mulder-episodes. Mulder was a complex guy, lots of facets, but underneath it all, he has a good heart.

HIGHLIGHTS: (Pam) "This has never happened before." All the stuff with Mulder's waterbed, as well.

4.
Season 5, Episode 12
Directed by Cliff Bole. Written by Vince Gilligan.

PLOT: After Mulder drives a stake through the heart of a would be vampire while on assignment in a small town, he and Scully review what happened before they meet with Assistant Director Skinner.

WHY I LOVE IT: Another episode I assumed would be either my favorite or top 3. As you can see, it's still knocking on the door. This is basically a perfect episode. A lot of these top 10 ones are. Humor, heart, genre deconstruction (both the vampire genre and The X-Files itself), and a great Rashomon-style structure.

HIGHLIGHTS: The whole thing, really, start to finish, but most of the fun comes from Scully's and Mulder's radically different version of events. (And impressions of one another - Mulder in Scully's retelling is especially funny). 

3.
Season 5, Episode 11.
Directed by Rob Bowman. Written by William Gibson and Tom Maddox.

PLOT: While investigating a shoot-out that leaves a renegade computer software genius dead, Mulder and Scully (with some help from The Lone Gunmen) are led to Invisigoth. She tells them of a vast government conspiracy involving artificial intelligence that allows them to see everything and take action against all enemies. Gelman (the man killed in the shoot-out) actually created it. The only way to stop it is to feed it the "kill switch", a CD containing a neutralizing virus.

WHY I LOVE IT: I'm lukewarm on everything I've read by William Gibson except for this episode, which is just start-to-finish badass. Here's one I always remembered liking, but a re-watch shot it all the way up to position 3.

HIGHLIGHTS: "Twilight Time," that creepy-as-hell ending, and Mulder's erotic torture sequences. Plus, the oddly endearing love story between Invisigoth and the AI. 

2.
Season 5, Episode 19.
Directed by Kim Manners. Written by Vince Gilligan.

PLOT: An employee, Lambert, from a telemarketing company is convinced that his boss is literally a monster who no one else can see for what he really is. When he takes everyone (including Mulder, there investigating for the FBI after the company expressed its concerns) hostage, Mulder comes to believe Lambert may actually be telling the truth.

WHY I LOVE IT: Holy crap is this episode a masterpiece. It's very unsettling, for one, and two, just a perfect example of the kind of monster-metaphor-for-us/corporate-culture The X-Files (and particularly Vince-Gilligan authored episodes) excelled at. It takes a central theme of the show (Mulder is the crazy one; Scully is his tether to reason and reality) and finds a new and unexpected way to turn it all on its end. 

You know, a contemporary audience would feel a lot of resistance to this one, which makes me happy. This is the sort of story that exists in that portion of the Venn Diagram I mentioned above. I think there is an unfortunate tendency these days to say "Well, whatever else is going on, I just can't be on the side of the crazy guy waving the gun around" and a sort of mental block is erected. A commendable (or at least understandable) precaution in real life; intellectual cowardice in the world of fiction. 

HIGHLIGHTS: "Madness is always better when shared by two." God bless you, Mulder and Scully. 

1.
Season 6, Episode 2.
Directed by Kim Manners. Written by Vince Gilligan.

PLOT: A man, Crump, infected with a deadly pathogen climbs into Mulder's car and tells him to keep the vehicle moving or he will die. Scully keeps in touch with Mulder via cellphone and attempts to find a cure. Her search leads her to classified Naval research involving long wavelengths, and Mulder to the edge of the ocean itself.

WHY I LOVE IT: Sustained momentum, unexpected character development and bonding between Crump and Mulder, that wonderfully eerie raid on the deaf woman's trailer by Scully and the gang, which always causes a lump in my throat when we see how terrified the woman is and Scully's attempt to reverse the situation, and a turn from Bryan Cranston that is just haunting. The whole thing is just so perfectly executed, and the ending is a real gut-punch. I really believed the almost-friendship that develops between Crump and Mulder. And that final eff-you between Kersh and Mulder is the perfect coda. 

I've been thinking about this episode ever since the night it originally aired. True for many of these, but truest of "Drive."

HIGHLIGHTS: For a series known for its cold opens, this is perhaps the best cold open ever. ("Bad Blood" might be 2nd). (Mulder) "Well, on behalf of the International Jewish Conspiracy, we're out of gas."

And (Clump, later) "Mr. Mulder... can you drive just a little faster, please?" 


~

Well, looking over this list, I guess I'm primarily a fan of Vince Gilligan's X-Files, aren't I?  And I can see something of a pattern in the sort of episodes to which I gravitate.

How about you?

7.27.2015

Spider-Man: 1987

SPIDER-MAN in the 1980s , pt. 10 of 12 


Greetings, Spiderphiles. Do you like behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt and opinionated blathering of questionable importance, served up with a healthy side of screencaps? You came to the right place, true believer! Let's start with what came last. 

1. I AM SPIDER

1987 wrapped up with this three-story crossover (Web 33, SSM 133, ASM 295) by Ann Nocenti and Cyndy Martin (and covers by Bill Sienkiewicz.)


I was confused as hell by this at the time. This time around, not so much confused as overwhelmed. The most compelling hook of the story - Spidey! Insane! 


- is relegated to intermission music while a complex story about people we've never met before plays out over three issues. It's not a bad complex story about people we've never met before; it's just not really a Spider-Man story. 

2. MARVEL BULLPEN SHAKE-UP

Only months after Owsley removed DeFalco and Frenz from ASM, he himself was removed as Spider-Man editor and replaced with Jim Salicrup (current Editor-in-Chief of Papercutz). Owsley remained with Marvel (and Spider-Man) as a freelance writer throughout '87 and beyond. 

A complicated situation to say the least:

Frenz went over to Thor, with DeFalco as writer, but Asgard wasn't the only place DeFalco was going in '87.

When Cadence, the owners of Marvel since the late 60s, was liquidated in 1986, New World Pictures took over. I distinctly remember reading this in a Bullpen Bulletin in late '87 and doing a double-take: the guys who made Freddy Krueger now had Marvel? Plenty of my friends felt the same way. Imagine the movies we were going to get now! It didn't take long to be thoroughly disappointed. Bryan Singer's X-Men - arguably Marvel's first successful realization in a medium other than comics, cartoons, or videogames - was still many years away.

According to Jim Shooter - I just spent 15 minutes looking for the right blog entry to link to and couldn't find it; sorry, folks - he spent most of 1987 embroiled in whistleblowing the shenanigans of Cadence. 


Shooter is a polarizing figure among both fans and professionals in the Bronze and Copper Age comics community. I'll leave it to others to triangulate the right perspective on his exit from Marvel - the end of the Shooter era as it impacts this series of posts is: here come a whole lot of fill-ins.

The post-Shooter era began when Tom DeFalco was promoted to Editor-in-Chief, and he would preside over some of Marvel's most profitable years. 

Unfortunately, not in time to stop: 

3. THE DEATH OF THE HOBGOBLIN

In previous posts, I've tried to sketch out both the as-it-happened-ness of the Hobgoblin story arc as well as the behind-the-scenes stuff (Stern intended the Hobgoblin to be Roderick Kingsley; DeFalco, Richard Fisk; Owsley, Ned Leeds (based on DeFalco's misdirection). This time around, the as-it-happened side of it is easy: it stunk. Literally no one was happy with either Amazing Spider-Man 289 (written by Peter David, penciled by Alan Kupperberg and Tom Morgan, and R.I.P., Alan Kupperberg) or Spider-Man vs. Wolverine, (written by Jim Owsley and penciled by Mark Bright), the two stories that tell the story. 


Spider-Man vs. Wolverine happened first. Peter returns to his hotel room and finds Ned tied to a chair and killed in Berlin -  

where he and Wolverine are involved in intrigue. (In the Cold War, simply being in Berlin meant intrigue.)

This was done while DeFalco and Frenz were still on ASM. Says Frenz (in Back Issue 35): "I can't speak to why he did it, but I can speak to the way he did it: he kept it a big secret until we felt screwed." Peter David was called in to write the other part of it, and he maintains that the way the Hobgoblin died (he's taken by surprise by a team of the Foreigner's mercenaries, some of the best-trained in the world) makes sense. I'll grant it makes sense - anything can happen; anyone can be surprised - but it's just awfully anti-climactic. Put another way, just because something technically is realistic doesn't make it the right storytelling choice. 

Not that he had much latitude; he was brought into things only after the Hobgoblin was impetuously killed - "to piss off DeFalco" - by Owsley. "He even had him killed by some unnamed terrorists, because this is how much thought Owsley had put into it." David dressed up the corpse the best he could and gave it a decent burial.

Peter is unaware that Ned is the Hobgoblin until ASM 289, when the Kingpin shares with him his intel.

Almost immediately, Jason Macendale (the artist formerly known as Jack O'Lantern) takes over the Hobgoblin identity.   


He was a poor substitute for the DeFalco/Frenz or Stern/JRJR character, but the Hobgob'o Lantern at least kept the brand alive. I looked forward to his appearances - it was better to see this version of the Hobgoblin than dwell on how the original version got so derailed.

Later, after I stopped reading Spidey, Stern came back to the title and retconned things to his original conception of the character (i.e. Roderick Kingsley). If you want to explore more on that, there's this here read from chasingamazing - great stuff. I don't know any of the 90s stuff except by reputation.

Let's have a look at how the Spider-titles fared all of this turmoil. 

4. WEB OF SPIDER-MAN 22 - 33
Written by Len Kaminski (22) with David Michelinie (23 - 24) with Stefan Petrucha (26), Larry Leiber (25), Dwight Jon Zimmerman (27), Bob Layton (28), Jim Owsley (29 - 30), J.M. DeMatteis (31 - 32), and Ann Nocenti (33). Penciled by Mark Silvestri (22), Jim Fern (23), Del Barras (24), Larry Leiber (25), Tom Morgan (26), Dave Simons (27), Steve Geiger (28 - 30), Mike Zeck (31 - 32), and Cindy Martin (33).

Short answer: not too well.

 

There are some decent plots here and there and some cool covers (I picked my two non-Kraven's-Last-Hunt favorites above, by Beachum and Vess, l to r) but yeah, this is a fill-in year, and it shows. Considering the other stuff we have to look at, there's really not much point in detailing much beyond that understandable-but-disappointing fact. 

I suppose you could say the same for the annual:

which is not a story, just an Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe-style overview of Spidey's life with a focus on his lesser-seen foes.

I often recommend the comics of my childhood (which included whatever reprints of 60s and 70s Marvel I could get my hands on) as good ways to get into a character. To that end, something like this would be great fun and very useful for the young Spider-fan seeking to know more. But the scene's so different now I wonder if there's even a point to recommending it? I realize I sound like a garden variety 40-year-old re: "back when things were real, man" but all I mean is that the Marvel I was reading in 1987 was still one big ongoing story since the 60s: no reboots, no retcons, just organic growth across the line. It made sense to be self-referential and to fill in even the most minute details of Spidey's past and every other Marvel character's, too; everything had a bearing on the present.

But once you start rebooting your universe, that sort of continuity-knowledge seems... well, pointless, or enjoyable only for its own sake. Until "Curator of Obsolete Comics Continuity" is a job, maybe it's more sensible to focus on broad strokes and/or individual stories or creators. 


5. SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN 122 - 133
Written by Peter David (122 - 123, 128 - 129), Roger Mackenzie (124), Danny Fingeroth (125 - 126), Len Kaminski (127), Bob Layton (130), J.M. DeMatteis (131 - 132), and Ann Nocenti (133). Penciled by Rich Buckler and Malcolm Davis (122), Dwayne Turner (123), Greg LaRocque (124), Jim Mooney (125), Alan Kupperberg (126 - 129), Jim Fern (130), Mike Zeck (131 - 132), and Cyndy Martin (133).  

Pretty much the same story as Web

Not bad, but definitely a fill-in year.
This Lizard story from 127 is fun.

The Black Cat returns in a triple-cross scenario for a few issues - when last we see her, she's on a cruise with the Foreigner, drink in hand, soaking up the sun. 


Only Mary Jane sensed her true motives in trying to reconnect with Peter, but her concerns are written off as jealousy. Naturally.

6. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 284 - 295
Written by Jim Owsley (284 - 288) with Tom DeFalco (284 - 285), Peter David (289), David Michelinie (290 - 292), J.M. DeMatteis (293 - 294), and Ann Nocenti (295). Penciled by Ron Frenz (284), Alan Kupperberg (285 - 286, 288 - 289), Erik Larsen (287), John Romita, Jr. (290 - 291), Alex Saviuk (292), Mike Zeck (293 - 294), and Cyndy Martin (295).   

The gang war... Spidey's 3rd or 4th in the 80s alone - remember the Owl/ Octopus war from a few posts back? Of course you don't; I don't, either, for eff's sake. Enough with the goddamn Gang Wars. This one spreads over 5 issues of ASM is probably a victim of the Owsley/DeFalco conflict. But even had it gone off as originally conceived, it's still overall repetitive, with Daredevil swooping in at the end to have the moral-conflict with Spidey via fisticuffs. 

It's mostly a re-tread of the Death of Jean DeWolff saga.
I appreciate the effort to make it an epic conclusion to the Hobgoblin saga -
but it doesn't quite happen.

Extra points for tying it in (somewhat) to the aftermath of the Born Again storyline over in Daredevil, but it's still somewhat misguided. Richard Fisk (The Rose) is explored a bit in Web 30, which is a cross-over to these events. It's pretty good - mainly, though, I'm just a bit indifferent to the younger Fisk. YMMV. 


7. PETER PARKER SOAP OPERA 

Check out Spidey's threads - keep in mind, this in 1987:

I love it.

The soap opera angle this time around is rather minimized. Mainly because of the events in the next section. 

Speaking of, Peter's thought bubble here really cracks me up.

Mainly, it's the big Flash/Betty wrap-up. (No mention of what happens to Sha-Shan, at least not yet. When last we saw her she was giving Betty Leeds the stink-eye at Flash's prison.) 

I don't have much to say about any of this, so here are just some screencaps. 

Enlarge for strange posters.

After Ned's death, Betty retreats into a world of denial, and she and Flash seem to end on a promising note. Time will tell.


8. SPIDEY GETS MARRIED

Peter and MJ finally decide to tie the knot.
 Not without some initial complications...

But they eventually work it out, and a date is set. The wedding takes place in the ASM annual (written by David Michelinie, penciled by Paul Ryan) and the honeymoon in SSM (written by Jim Owsley, penciled by Alan Kupperberg). The honeymoon one is meh, so I'm skipping it, but the ASM annual has some fun moments of pre-nuptial anxiety.

And this dream sequence:
"Die." Nice.

Stan Lee envisioned a trifecta of media exposure, with the newspaper Sunday strip culminating in the wedding the same week the annual came out and a live staged wedding at Shea Stadium with all the major media outlets attending. But things got out of synch. Here's Jim Shooter:

"The bulk of the work on that issue was done during my final days at Marvel, during which my attention was elsewhere, and, for that matter, I was elsewhere quite a bit. (...) The deal was signed in January of 1987. I was usually either upstairs, waging war against Marvel’s corrupt top management people who had been kept in place after the sale, or out in L.A. meeting with New World Pictures principals Harry Sloan and Larry Kupin, and CEO Bob Rehme, working to help forge a positive future for Marvel Comics under the new regime, and oh, by the way, one that included me."

The whole story is fun and more blah blah here.  Including video footage of the actual wedding itself. 


In a year where the Hobgoblin dies and Spider-Man gets married, it says something that the most memorable story came out after them. Namely:

9. KRAVEN'S LAST HUNT 
Web 31-32, ASM 293-294, SSM 131-132.



Kraven was never one of Spider-Man's A-list foes. Says Mike Zeck (who drew Spidey's black and white costume better than anyone) from that Back Issue I keep quoting: "I think readers and authors alike pretty much dismissed Kraven as just some clownish lower-tier bad guy who would just reappear with the same shtick from time to time. I was floored when I read the "Last Hunt" plot and found at last an totally defined and respected character in Kraven."


Hear, hear. The story was something J.M. DeMatteis had come up with for an unused Batman story, and he modified it to fit the character of Kraven upon learning Kraven was Russian.


JMD: "For me, a total Dostoevsky fanatic, the idea that Kraven was Russian and had the same tortured, Russian soul that the great Dostoevsky characters had, unlocked this door in my head and suddenly I had a new understanding of the character." 

I feel kind of bad that I focus so much on J.M. DeMatteis' 80s work. The man's got so much more on his c.v. One of these days, I really have to catch up on all his New 52 stuff.  Until then, I'm happy to shine the occasional lantern on some of his Marvel work. Between Defenders, Cap, and JLI, and this, he was one of the most impactful writers of his generation for me personally.

This story fits into its era quite well. Actually, almost too well - it's a bit like opening an unsealed tomb from 1987. Taking a well-established character and adding dark layers to him was very much of the era, as was the style of narration DeMatteis and Zeck employ here, with the captions approximating multiple states of mind. 

Some of it ages better than others, but overall, this is still a powerful story and remains the definitive Kraven story of all time.
Visual puns/ transitions: also very much in the air in '87.

Much has been made of the darkness of the story (a recap for the uninitiated: Kraven finally succeeds in beating Spider-Man. He drugs him and buries him alive. He assumes his identity and beats a bloody, tortured swath around town, even rescuing Mary Jane from would-be attackers at one point. Meanwhile, Vermin is on a killing spree. All the plots threads converge when Spidey re-awakens...) Was it just the darkness of the era? Here's more from JMD:

"I was in the middle of a divorce, (...) the darkest, most painful period of my life. The darkness in that story, and also the struggling for the light that Peter Parker does in the context of the story, had nothing to do with Dark Knight or Swamp Thing or Watchmen. (...) It was me, expressing through the metaphor for the superhero story what I was going through in my life. I felt as buried alive as Peter Parker. I felt as insane as Kraven. And I felt as much a dweller in the darkness and the sewers as Vermin."



"His whole obsession with Spider-Man was a reflection of his mental illness. His last line before (the resolution) was 'They said my mother was insane.' But (the resolution) was not an act of honor. That was an act of insanity."

Love that "They said my mother was insane" bit. So cinematic. I decided not to screencap it and keep it somewhat ambiguous because if by some strangeway you don't know how it all ends, you'll enjoy discovering it for yourself. 

"The story is primarily about Peter Parker and his journey into the light and the power of simple human love. The reason Peter makes it out is because he has Mary Jane in his life, and that is his salvation."

~
NEXT: 70s Spidey super-scribe Gerry Conway returns! And the debut of some guy named McFarlane... everything changes.