by KC Carlson
This has been one of those periods in which I’ve been unable to read many comic books for about six weeks. Moving across country and having all the comics locked in a moving van will do that. Whenever this happens, and I need to get back up to speed, I try to find a series that can ease me back into the swing of things. Something not too cerebral (so no Grant Morrison). Nothing too confusing (pick one — there are dozens of series out there that make no sense unless you’ve memorized the last hundred or so issues). And ultimately something familiar. And for me, there’s nothing more familiar than Spider-Man.
This is not a bad thing. Spidey’s the character who first lead me into the Marvel Universe, by way of the the original cartoon series in the 1960s. Later, I started looking for the comics — difficult in my area since Marvel’s distribution was frequently inconsistent. The first Spidey book I bought off the racks was Amazing Spider-Man #86 (July 1970) which featured the Black Widow with her all-new, youthful, hip-huggin’ updated look. (She previously dressed like a high-class society dame in her 40s — with a big hat! — I later discovered.) I thought it was great, decided to collect it, and from then on I’ve bought every issue of all of Spidey’s major series (and most of the minis and one-shots). Plus, within a few months, I had all the previous Spidey stories, in back issues I picked up from garage sales or other kids selling their collections.
It used to drive me nuts why the kids across town had old Marvels that I had never seen, which caused me to start riding my bike to other places across town to get comics. This eventually led to my regular weekly “comics route” around town, so that I wouldn’t miss anything. It also got me into a career in periodical distribution, after I discovered that the paper route that I worked daily was operated by the local magazine distributor — who also distributed comics and the pulpy mass market paperback series of the day (Doc Savage, The Shadow, etc.). Soon I was working for them on the weekends and after school, “stripping” comics (cutting off the cover logos and sending them back to the publishers for credit for “unsold” comics). It was here that learned why I couldn’t find Marvels on my side of town. If the stores hadn’t requested them, they didn’t get any. A lot (more than half) of the comics I was stripping for credit never left the back room of the distributor. It was an amazingly inefficient and wasteful method to do things, but I was told that was the way it had been done for decades.
Anyway, back to Spidey. The other very important way I finished my back-issue collection of Spider-Man was to find issues in which earlier stories were reprinted, such as Marvel Tales, where most of the Spidey stories were re-run. Today, we mostly scoff at comic series that reprint other comic books, largely because hardcover and trade collections have superseded them. But back in the day, comic titles like Marvel Tales, Marvel Super-Heroes, Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics, Marvel’s Greatest Comics, and Fantasy Masterpieces (which largely specialized in Golden Age reprints) were a godsend to fans trying to keep the continuity straight on the exciting new Marvel series of the day, when many readers probably never saw the originals because of Marvel’s poor distribution in their early years.
GROUND FLOOR OF AN AMAZING RUN
I had made a great decision in starting to read Amazing Spider-Man at this time. Just four issues after my first, one of the major supporting characters — Captain George Stacy (father of Gwen, Peter Parker’s then-girlfriend) died, and Spidey was involved (Amazing #90, but you saw this in the most recent movie). Six issues after that came the famous drug stories that Marvel published, defying the Comics Code — and ultimately forcing the Code to update their out-of-date standards to catch up with the times (Amazing #96-98). And then, 23 issues later, you-know-who dies (Amazing #121)! But before then, Spidey grew four extra arms, visited the Savage Land (w/ Gwen!), got involved in a gang war, and got pummeled by the Hulk! It was a great time to be reading Spider-Man comics!
I’ve never regretted reading it in all those years. Although — full disclosure — I actually haven’t read all of the issues. During the time I was actively editing for DC Comics (the early 90s), I got behind on my regular Marvel reading. I still flipped through them all every week — gotta keep up with the competition! — but that kind of reading wasn’t always fun. What I ended up not reading was the entire Clone Saga, although I was kept up-to-date on the proceedings by the DC assistant editors — who were generally horrified.
When I left DC, that story was originally high on my list to get caught up on (despite my fears in ever re-assembling it in the correct reading order), but most people I asked (including one of the creative team at the time — Hi Todd!) told me not to bother, because it would just drive me crazy with all its inconsistencies. In more recent years, it seems that the Clone Saga’s reputation has gotten better (probably because Marvel reprinted the whole thing — in order — in several collections), although plot points from it don’t seem to come up much in current Spidey storylines, unless the characters from the Saga — like Ben Reilly or Kaine — make an appearance. When those stories come up, I just jam my fingers into my ears and yell LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA, until they get back to the regular storyline.
I probably will read the Clone Saga at some point. I do have all the issues, after all. And there’s been a tremendous amount of fan scholarship and chronology about the Saga, which I appreciate and can obviously put to good use.
CATCHING UP WITH SPIDEY
This year marks Spider-Man’s 50th Anniversary, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening in Spidey’s world. We’ve recently seen the Spider-Men of two fictional universes (Marvel and Ultimate) team up in the five-issue Spider-Men, a fast-moving and often heart-rending story. I’ve enjoyed Spidey’s time in both the Avengers and the Fantastic Four of late. His nervous energy is a great foil to the often “why so serious?” members of the Avengers, and I never get enough of Spidey interacting with Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm. Spidey performed a very important role while Johnny was “dead” (especially as a friend for Franklin), showing us sides of Peter Parker that we’ve never seen before.
Now that Spidey is more “active” around the Marvel Universe as part of the Avengers, it seems to make sense to spin him out in his own team-up book, Avenging Spider-Man — which is mostly, in all but name, the same concept as the classic Marvel Team-Up title. I know that a lot of Spider-philes are up in arms about the character being overexposed. I can understand that, yet at this point in comics history, there are two major points in this recent development: 1) Almost all of Spidey’s various appearances are now written in such a way that you very definitely don’t have to get all of the Spider-appearances or titles to know what’s going on. Not that that won’t stop most obsessive Spidey fans… And 2) I find that most (if not all) of Spidey’s various books are of sufficient high quality that, if you can afford it, all of them are great fun to read! And this is from a guy who historically had to struggle through long runs of Spectacular, Web, Peter Parker, Team-Up, and other old school Spidey titles that were frequently badly written, poorly drawn, didn’t make sense, or completely forgettable — occasionally all four in the same issue.
The “anchor” book, Amazing Spider-Man, has been living up to its adjective lately with a great run of stories, at least going back to the Spider Island saga. (Dumb title, fun story, mostly excellent tie-ins.) There was a great “we must fix this horrible future” time travel story in #678-679, which could have been a disaster of cliché, but was remarkably written by Dan Slott — the regular Amazing writer. I can’t wait to re-read it again.
There was a great multi-part Sinister Six storyline disguised as something called “Ends of the Earth”. I love the Sinister Six, even if I don’t always recognize them these days, since there’s been an ongoing update of Spidey-foes in this title, most all of them pretty intriguing.
That was the last thing I read before my big move, and the first thing I read when I needed a break was an incredibly scary and incredibly goofy story (and, boy are those hard to do right!). The Lizard, who recently murdered his own son in an earlier heart-wrenching tale, is back for more disturbing conflict. He ends up turning most of the staff of Horizon Labs (Peter Parker’s current employers, and some of the best new supporting characters in comics) into Lizard-lite creatures in a crazy story that also features Morbius the Living Vampire. I was both elated (about the quality of the story) and disturbed. I actually thought this would be the end of Peter Parker’s employment and contact with Horizon, based on every other time Parker has gotten the perfect job for him, and had it go bad. Kudos for that not happening this time.
Although I may be premature in that judgment. The current storyline, “Alpha”, is all about Spidey/Parker getting saddled with a wisecracking, insolent sidekick, of Parker’s own making. (Inadvertently re-inventing something that Reed Richards already invented — and discarded — in a nice touch.) And if that wasn’t bad enough, somehow the Jackal is involved. This storyline is attached to the 50th Anniversary of Spider-Man, and it’s a game changer for how we look at both Spidey himself as well as the notion of kid sidekicks in general. Alpha is no Dick Grayson. He’s a young kid of today, kinda obnoxious and a little clueless. I get the feeling that all of this is going to come to a head by the upcoming Amazing #700, maybe in a big way. I’m really looking forward to how this plays out.
One of my favorite things about the Amazing Spider-Man book is that is twice monthly. I don’t necessarily read it twice monthly, but I do like how it is structured differently than other twice-monthly books, where the artist changes every two issues or so. (I’m looking at you, Wolverine and the X-Men.) At Spidey Central, editor Steve Wacker and his series of great assistants (currently Ellie Pyle) have planned the book far enough in advance so that the artists of particular self-contained storylines can actually draw every issue of that story, like Giuseppe Camuncoli with the recent “No Turning Back” Lizard/Morbius/Horizon Labs storyline, and (hopefully) Humberto Ramos on the current “Alpha” story. Speaking editorially for a moment, the only way this can be done is with a super-organized editorial staff (Wacker kind of invented this sort of long-term editing on the breakthrough 52 series at DC before departing for Marvel) and a writer willing to work WAY ahead of normal deadlines, like Dan Slott. You also need the ability to shift back and forth between storylines as the art comes in from several different artists. Trust me, it’s like jugging a lot of balls in the air, all at once, without being able to drop any of them.
Speaking of Ramos, I once thought that he was probably the most unlikely Spider-Man artist ever with all his odd angles, facial contortions, and strange lighting effects — and nowadays I can’t wait until his next Spidey storyline. He’s ripping it up with Alpha so far.
Also notable for the Spidey Anniversary were a handful of “add-on” issues of the long-defunct Sensational Spider-Man (#33.1 and 33.2), Web of Spider-Man (#129.1 and 129.2), and Peter Parker, Spider-Man (#156.1), all written by past Spider-writers, including Roger Stern, Tom DeFalco, and Stuart Moore. Stern (in Peter Parker) tells a new story that harkens way back to Spidey’s origin, with art by Roberto De La Torre. DeFalco’s story (in Sensational, illustrated by Carlo Barberi and Walden Wong) returns popular supporting character Carlie Cooper to the forefront in a clever story featuring the new Vulture. Finally, Moore’s story (in Web, drawn by Damion Scott and Rob Campanella) is about a misfit group of would-be super-heroes called the Brooklyn Avengers of which Spidey was once a charter member. This was one of those “implanted continuity” stories that could have gone wrong, but I was won over by the quirky and good-natured members of the neo-superteam.
All three of these great stories might have been overlooked in the giant wave of comics being solicited in the last few months, but these are all still available and are worth seeking out.
Happy 50th Anniversary, Spider-Man! It’s certainly an exciting time for you, and I hope I’m somehow around for your 100th!
KC CARLSON: Does whatever a spider can. Just not very well. That web stuff is tricky.
Classic comic covers from the Grand Comics Database.