Monday, November 23, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #1 - August 1990

Torment - Part One

Credits: Todd McFarlane (artist/writer), Rick Parker (letterer), Bob Sharen (colors)

Summary: As Spider-Man stops a mugging, a mysterious woman practices voodoo. The Lizard emerges from the East River, hypnotized and bloodthirsty. For the next several hours, he goes on a killing spree throughout the city.

Continuity Notes: This issue has a cover date of August 1990, which means it was published three years after Spider-Man married Mary Jane, during the period they lived in a SoHo loft owned by Harry Osborn. The Lizard last appeared during 1988’s “Inferno” storyline, which had the demonic influences of the city forcing Curt Connors to briefly release his Lizard persona.

Approved By The Comics Code Authority: There’s a lot of blood during the Lizard scenes, and it’s actually colored red (as opposed to black, which is what the CCA preferred).

We Get Letters: The letters page is a text piece by Todd McFarlane, with editor Jim Salicrup interrupting for a few sarcastic comments. My favorite is “well, la dee da” after McFarlane talks about his desire to expand his “artistic horizons.” It’s interesting that McFarlane says that there are already four existing Spider-Man books, which includes the reprint book Marvel Tales. There are actual Spider-Man comics with original material that aren’t considered “real” Spider-Man books today!

Gimmicks: This issue comes polybagged with…absolutely nothing. It was originally polybagged because polybagged magazines apparently sold better than normal ones (I guess video game magazines had already started polybagging at this time). Originally, the bag was only going to be on the newsstand version, but allegedly comic shop owners complained so Marvel made all versions polybagged. There are also alternate covers with different colored backgrounds.

Panel Count: I got into comics at the very end of the era where most of Marvel’s books were still drawn grid style and the majority of artists seemed to be imitating John Romita, Sr. or John Buscema. McFarlane’s giant panels actually annoyed me in the beginning, so much so I took to counting how many actual panels were in a given issue of his comics. This issue has eighty-three panels (I’m counting splash pages and double-page spreads as one panel), which seems to be a little higher than his normal count. By contrast, Marvel workhorse Sal Buscema had 130 panels in this month’s Spectacular Spider-Man.

Where’s Felix? : One of McFarlane’s trademarks was drawing hidden Felix the Cat images in his comics (in a later Spawn letter column, McFarlane said he did this to amuse a stoner friend of his). Felix is on page two, on the back of a random pedestrian’s jacket.

Review: This used to show up on those “Worst Comics Ever” lists, and probably not coincidentally, I also remember it as the most-hyped comic from my short period of collecting at the time. Spider-Man #1 marks Todd McFarlane’s debut as a writer, and if you want to know the genesis of this series, McFarlane goes into great detail in the letters page. Essentially, he no longer wanted to draw other people’s ideas, and began to inquire about writing a book for Marvel, thinking that he would be given a second-string, low-profile title. Spider-Man editor Jim Salicrup was already considering another Spidey book, and offered the writing duties to McFarlane. I didn’t have access to a lot of fan press magazines, but it seems like this drove people insane at the time (this book certainly printed enough letters from people claiming Todd was “unfit” for a writing job). McFarlane brings even more heat on himself in his text piece, proclaiming that he doesn’t consider himself a writer (he credits himself as “artist-writer” on the title page), and that his stories are just going to be based around what he feels like drawing. If every aspiring comics writer didn’t already hate McFarlane, it’s almost as if he’s begging them to.

McFarlane also claims that his book will be outside of the normal Spidey continuity. This being the Marvel of the Gruenwald/DeFalco days, that doesn’t mean his book is truly out of continuity, it’s just not going to be referencing the events of the other Spider-Man books. The stories are all self-contained, supporting cast members (aside from Mary Jane) will rarely appear, and there are no subplots to be found. Just as the cover’s text box jokingly alludes to, this is a Marvel version of Legends of the Dark Knight. The book is further distanced from the main Spidey books by the higher-quality Baxter paper, and the $1.75 cover price. To put this in context, Web of Spider-Man was still being printed with Flexographic print, which is responsible for some of the ugliest looking comics of all time. Marvel’s other Baxter books cost $1.50 in 1990, so I was shocked to see an extra quarter added on to this book. I don’t know if Marvel raised the price because they knew enough people wanted a McFarlane Spider-Man comic it didn’t matter, or conversely, if the extra quarter was meant to discourage younger fans from reading the more “adult” book. The difference might not be noticeable today, but the Baxter books like Punisher War Journal did seem to push the envelope a bit more than the mainstream Marvel titles.

Giving a novice writer a franchise book might seem foolish, but the setup prevents McFarlane from doing any real harm. His stories have to have very clear beginnings and endings, since the book has the “miniseries in a series” format. The plot of each issue is extremely thin, because McFarlane needs room for giant splash pages and space to stretch events for “dramatic” purposes. He’s not using the supporting cast, and as we’ll see in the coming months, the only established villains he’s interested in are the ones that he can use as monsters. So, every story arc can fit in-between the stories in the other writers’ books, and most of the characters in the other titles won’t even be appearing. I think the only real contribution to Spider-Man continuity McFarlane goes on to make is his Hobgoblin makeover, and it seems like most people agree it was Howard Mackie who really screwed that one up later on.

So what does McFarlane do with his first issue? He reveals he’s Joe Quesada with a time machine. It’s a decompressed story with a negligible plot, it’s needlessly dark and moody, and it’s obviously following the works of Alan Moore and Frank Miller. I guess the major difference is that Quesada tries to hire the writers he admires, while McFarlane usually just does it himself. There are two lines in this book that are still held up for ridicule, almost twenty years later. One is the third-person caption that refers to Spider-Man’s webline as “advantageous”…as in, “His webline…Advantageous!” To be fair, it's possible this is an intentional joke on McFarlane’s part. In the context of the rest of the captions, I can see how the line might be intentionally ridiculous. It depends on how willing you are to give McFarlane the benefit of the doubt, I guess. The most notorious line, however, is repeated in the first five issues. “Rise above it all!” somehow manages to make its way into the opening narrative captions of every chapter of the story. It’s a little too melodramatic for the first issue, and it gets more embarrassing as the issues go on. This is a serious story about one of Spider-Man’s villains becoming a vicious zombie, so of course we need solemn caption boxes to remind us that we’re experiencing true art.

When McFarlane isn’t trying to write like Alan Moore on Swamp Thing, he can handle the conversational dialogue well enough. His Peter Parker is a little too cocky (and not great at the wisecracks, since his big insult to a mugger is just “idiot”), but I can live with it. Peter’s interactions with Mary Jane actually bring some warmth to the book, and McFarlane makes their relationship seem fun. The basic idea for the story (which McFarlane admits he got from Marvel editor Glenn Herdling) isn’t bad either. A woman with a grudge against Spidey uses a brainwashed Lizard as a weapon. Since the Lizard can regenerate his limbs, he’s an unstoppable killing machine. The obvious problem with the first issue is that we get page after page of Spider-Man web-slinging, stopping a mugging, cuddling with MJ, then web-slinging again while the Lizard eviscerates people. McFarlane’s really just drawing what he feels like and taking his sweet time getting to the point. Of course, the audience is used to this type of story today, but it felt like a rip-off at the time (unless you were absolutely mesmerized by McFarlane’s art). As for the art, it’s definitely of its era. Time has certainly been kinder to it than Liefeld’s X-Force, but McFarlane has some quirks that look odd in retrospect. Obviously he’s not going for photorealism, but you would think McFarlane would’ve had a better grasp on how to construct the human head, or how to draw two consistent eyes on the same character by this point. There’s obviously a lot of energy, and every page is interesting to look at, which I guess was enough to compensate for some odd anatomy. McFarlane’s rendition of the Lizard really is impressive, as he transforms the old villain into a toothy, drooling monster that could intimidate any superhero. It’s too bad the arc is stretched out over five chapters, because I think the first few installments could’ve been edited down into a competent first issue.


Jeff said...

Ah, the birth of extreme decompression. I have to admit, I loved this series as a kid even if I thought it was a little weird, but looking back on it, it's really pretty poor. I don't think needlessly grim really works for Spider-Man. Although I will say that Calypso is probably more memorable here than she ever was again. I also remember being disappointed that we didn't get one last Venom story drawn by McFarlane before he jumped ship to Image.

On a side note, the first Spider-Man comics I ever bought came out during this series and even featured a pin-up advertising it. It was Amazing #349-350 by David Michelinie and Erik Larson and featured a fantastic Spider-Man vs. Doctor Doom fight. They remain some of my favorite Spidey comics just for nostalgia value and Michelinie wrote a lot of humor into his issues, which I loved. I've since read all of the Michelinie/McFarlane and Larsen run and it's one of my favorite periods of Spider-Man. I wish McFarlane would have stuck to drawing other people's ideas, although I can see why he'd want to dictate what he's drawing.

Teebore said...

Marvel's other great 90s money-printing appropriate (and great) choice!

I've read signifcantly less of this era of Spider-Man than I have X-Men (in fact, I only read this story a few years ago, well after its initial hype), but nonetheless, as usual, I'm looking forward to your take on it.

Matt said...

Like I said a few days ago, I've never read this era of this particular title. I didn't follow Amazing when McFarlane was on it, and I certainly didn't follow him to his own book! Even at the age of 12, I couldn't stand McFarlane's artwork. His people all looked like they were made out of Play-Dough, and I hated the triple-jointedness and big eyes he gave to Spider-Man. I followed Spectacular and Web at this time because Buscema and Saviuk were still drawing a more-or-less "on-model" Romita-style Spidey (although I think that even they had been forced to start drawing the big eyes by this point -- something that actually didn't look bad to me when Buscema did it).

Anyway, that digression is a long-winded way of saying that I look forward to reading these reviews of comics I've never read!

By the way, wasn't the Hobgoblin makeover done during "Inferno"? As I recall, Gerry Conway wrote the actual issue where Macedale made the deal with N'Astirh, and I think Saviuk (or Buscema) drew it. McFarlane did draw the Hob- vs. Green Goblin fight, though.

Or are you referring to Hobgoblin's recreation as some sort of religious zealot in this title? If so, I actually thank Howard Mackie for getting rid of that aspect of the character! Mackie split Hobgoblin away from Demogoblin in Web, and wrote a 2-parter called "Hobgoblin Reborn," which restored Macendale to his mercenary roots (and made him less of a joke than he'd been in the pre-demon days, as I recall).

G. Kendall said...

I was referring to McFarlane making the Hobgoblin a religious zealot, which Mackie used as a cue to create the Demogoblin. Taking Macendale "back to basics" wouldn't have been a bad idea, but I think he ended up becoming a cyborg or something before he was finally killed off.

Matt said...

Yes, Macendale did become a cyborg during the "Blood Brothers" crossover near the end of the clone saga. I haven't read that story since it was first published, but I didn't really like the "new look" Hobgoblin and was kind of glad when he was finally killed off in "Hobgoblin Lives!" (one of my favorite Spider-Man stories of the past two decades).

There was a good four years, though, between the split from Demogoblin and the cyborg-ification. But unfortunately, the character was vastly underutilized during that time due to all the clones running around. He did have a big part in a fun issue of Spider-Man Unlimited though, where he got a bunch of Spidey-villains together to fight Kaine, and his inner monologue constantly complained about their unprofessionalism.

Harry Sewalski said...

After reading some praise (gasp!) for this arc in a Spider-Man book I have, I decided to pick up the hardcover of it a few years back. I'll happily agree that it's far from brilliant, but I think that the biggest problem with Torment as a whole is that it's stretched out over too many issues. (The hardcover I have of it mentions that this was written around the time that trades were starting to come out, and I have a personal theory that McFarlane was pressured to make an arc large enough to fit it into an entire trade). I think that if this was just a two or three parter it'd be a lot more enjoyable, since there are definitely some good moments to be found here.

At least, that's my opinion.

MRPRSN said...

Advantageous! is still the first thing that pops into my head when I think of this issue. I remember being rather underwhelmed by McFarlane's foray into writing but it took me his entire Spider-Man run and the first 15 or so issues of Spawn to realize how little I was actually enjoying his work. I guess I was caught up in the hype machine. The polybag stunt was pretty lame, but I did quite like the black variant cover with the silver ink.

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