Monday, April 12, 2010

WEB OF SPIDER-MAN #8-#9, November - December 1985

Local Super Hero!/The Twilight Heroes

Credits: David Michelinie (writer), Geof Isherwood (penciler), Vince Colletta (inker), Janice Chiang (letterer), Bob Sharen (colorist)

The Plot: Peter Parker is sent by the Daily Bugle to investigate a small town superhero, the Smithville Thunderbolt, in Pennsylvania. He discovers the Smithville Thunderbolt, Fred Hopkins, lost his powers a year ago after decades of heroics. With the aid of cybernetic enhancements, Fred has been staging harmless “disasters” to maintain his image. Local reporter Roxanne Dewinter has discovered Fred’s identity and plans to reveal it, hoping the story will land her a job at a big city newspaper. Meanwhile, Ludlow Grimes, a simple farmer who last year found the other half of the meteor that powered Fred, arrives. Angry over the ostracizing he’s received since gaining powers, Ludlow lashes out at Fred. During the fracas, Fred saves Roxanne’s life, and Ludlow realizes that Fred isn’t the source of his problems. Spider-Man assumes Roxanne will now kill her story, but she reveals Fred’s identity anyway. Fred, fearing a public backlash, commits suicide, not realizing the town was gathering at his house to thank him for his years of service.

The Subplots: None.

I Love the ‘80s: Roxanne declares that when she’s a big city reporter, all of her vehicles will have cassette decks.

Review: We’re now in an odd stretch of the title, where neither David Michelinie or Danny Fingeroth seems to be the regular writer. I suspect this was written as a two-part fill-in, since it doesn’t contain any subplots or set up any ongoing storylines. This is a rather unusual story; along with its dark twist ending, it could be read as a nasty commentary on the superhero genre. Or maybe just Superman specifically. Fred works as a small town reporter, surrounded by Daily Planet analogues. After a meteor grants him powers, he becomes a rural equivalent of Superman, even though he usually doesn’t have a lot of crime to fight. Once the power fades away, Fred has no idea what to do, so he begins staging fake disasters. The story keeps Fred sympathetic, since no one is ever hurt in the “disasters” (he uses smoke bombs instead of actual fire, for example), but he’s clearly supposed to be pitiful.

While Fred basks in the attention, Ludlow gains powers and gets the “feared and hated” treatment. Even his family is terrified of him. He’s also a farmer, which parallels the Smallville portion of Superman’s canon. Adding to the cynicism, Ludlow isn’t a noble, salt-of-the-earth farmer like the Kents; he’s a simple-minded dunce in overalls. I don’t think Michelinie is actually saying this is what a real farmer with superpowers would be like, but that interpretation might not be too much of a leap. The portrayal of 1950s Smithville certainly seems like an attempt to shoehorn reality into old superhero tropes. When Fred gains his powers, he’s surrounded by racists and anti-Semites, which I guess was pretty edgy in 1985, but it’s now become the standard portrayal of the ‘50s. (“Hey, maaan. Life wasn’t really Leave it to Beaver in the 1950s, y’know.”) It’s possible that Fred becoming a beloved hero in the ‘50s and Ludlow becoming an ostracized freak today is intended as another meta-commentary on the superhero genre. The original DC heroes were universally beloved in their world, which obviously isn’t the direction Stan Lee would follow.

Finally, there’s Roxanne, the thinly veiled Lois Lane analogue. Her storyline mirrors Lois’ decades-long quest to reveal Superman’s secret identity, which I’m sure never got old. I’m not sure if Roxanne is intended as a ruthless parody of Lois, or if Michelinie is playing off the disdain a lot of fans had for old-school Lois. Maybe this is what the “real” Lois would be like.

The story isn’t all gloom, as we learn that Fred honestly wants to help people, in spite of his faults. Plus, Ludlow is recruited as a potential SHIELD agent, so he gets what appears to be a happy ending. The twist comes when Roxanne refuses to learn the traditional lesson secondary characters are supposed to learn from these comics and publishes her story anyway. Turning the screw further, we learn that Fred committed suicide over nothing, since the crowd just wanted to thank him. In the final panel, a remorseless Roxanne takes a picture of Fred’s body.

I think I’ve read the entirety of Michelinie’s Amazing Spider-Man run, and I don’t recall anything approaching this level of cynicism. In fact, I seem to remember fans criticizing his ASM run not being serious enough. Since the editor was also responsible for pushing Spectacular in a dark direction during this era, I wonder what role he had in shaping this story. Like most of Michelinie’s comics, this is well paced, has a few surprises, and the dialogue is pretty sharp. All of this has little to do with Spider-Man, but he’s worked into the story as naturally as could be expected. I just wish this wasn’t so dark. Of course, I’m saying this as someone who’s read years’ worth of gloomy comics with disparaging analogues of classic characters. I’m sure this felt appropriately daring when originally published.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I only had the second part of this story, and it kind of depressed me when I was young! Between this, and that issue of Peter David's Spectacular where that mutant kid accidentally incinerates his parents then gets killed by S.H.I.E.L.D. (and to a lesser extent the issue where Sabretooth inadvertently rips his own face off), I was turned off of the "secondary" Spider-Titles for years. Whenever I picked up a Spider-Man comic at this time, it was pretty much always Amazing.

(I should probably mention that I was only about 7 years old at this time, so I doubt I was ready for this sort of material -- which kind of bothers me because I don't think it should've been so overtly presented in a kids' comic!)

I do think Owsley/Priest may have had a lot to do with the tone here (and in Spectacular. When he starts writing Amazing after DeFalco and Frenz leave, that becomes darker, too, as I recall -- though not to the extent of this story.

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