Monday, August 9, 2010

WEB OF SPIDER-MAN #40-#41, July-August 1988



All You Need Is Love

Credits: Peter David (writer), Alex Saviuk (penciler), Keith Williams (inker), Rick Parker (letterer), Janet Jackson (colorist)

The Plot: Flash Thompson spots Betty Leeds talking to a strange man, Guy, weeks before she suddenly disappears. Spider-Man catches Flash threatening Guy and breaks up the confrontation. He slips a spider-tracer on Guy, and snatches one of the pamphlets he was carrying. They learn he’s a member of a cult called the Students of Love. Flash continues to follow Guy, and is rescued by Spider-Man when the cult attacks him. Spider-Man locates the Students’ headquarters and finds Betty inside. He tries to sneak her out, but she screams for help.

The Subplots: When Peter explains the story to Kate Cushing, she reveals that her sister joined a cult decades ago and hasn’t been heard from since. She assigns Ben Urich to cover the story.

*See _________ For Details: Betty is emotionally distraught following the death of her husband, Ned Leeds, in Spider-Man vs. Wolverine.

Review: This begins “Cult of Love,” a four-part story arc by Peter David. I’ve heard a few people complain about this story over the years (maybe they thought four issues without a supervillain was a little much), but I’ve always enjoyed it. Peter David’s never done a long stretch of Spider-Man comics, but I think this arc gives us an idea of how he would handle the super-heroic and soap opera elements of the franchise (absent of any crossovers or events, which seemed to impact every issue of Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man I saw). Incorporating Spider-Man’s supporting cast into the superhero action is always tricky and rarely works, but David’s found an angle that plausibly merges the two. You might find it slightly ridiculous that Spider-Man’s high school girlfriend has joined a cult, but given her state of mind after her husband’s death, and previous portrayal as someone who’s at least a little emotionally fragile, the story makes sense.

One issue after Nathan Lubensky was fleshed out by Nicieza, David humanizes Kate Cushing, who previously existed only as Peter Parker’s overly demanding boss. She’s still true to her established character, but the revelation about her sister shows the first hint that she’s more than just the caricature we’ve seen before. Learning more about the supporting cast is always a good thing in my book, since it adds to the human element that made Spider-Man comics different from other superhero titles.


That Old-Time Religion

Credits: Peter David (writer), Alex Saviuk (penciler), Keith Williams (inker), Rick Parker (letterer), Janet Jackson (colorist)

The Plot: Spider-Man tries to escape from the cult’s compound with Betty, but she resists. While he’s distracted with Bruce, a Student with pyromania tendencies, Betty removes his mask. Spider-Man flees to avoid exposure. While spying in the air vents, he discovers the Students’ leader, an unassuming man called the Teacher. In disguise as a Student, Spider-Man witnesses the Teacher cure a man who allegedly has cancer.

The Subplots: MJ runs into her high school friend and fellow model, Lorraine. While Lorraine spends the night, MJ notices her suspiciously creeping around the apartment. Later, Lorraine suggests MJ try out for lingerie modeling. Meanwhile, Ben Urich investigates the realty company owned by the Students, which is selling Betty’s apartment. Flash Thompson tags along with Urich and meets Reverend Tolliver, a pastor who deprograms cultists. He explains how a con artist can fake a miracle, like removing “cancer” from an accomplice.

Web of Continuity: Betty never gets a look at Peter’s face, in case you’re wondering. Lorraine’s mystery is resolved in Web #49.

Creative Differences: MJ and Lorraine’s conversation about lingerie modeling has been re-lettered.

Review: There’s always at least a small twist in a Peter David story, and in this issue it’s the Teacher. As Spider-Man points out, he was expecting a stereotypically evil/insane cult leader, like the ones he’s encountered in the past, and is shocked to discover a seemingly reasonable, even-tempered normal man is in charge of the Students. The Teacher explains to his followers that Spider-Man wouldn’t dare go to the police, since he’s the one who’s trespassing and the Students have done nothing (legally) wrong. Spidey has to acknowledge that he has a point, and while he doesn’t abandon his mission, he does begin to question what he’s doing.

It’s obvious David has done some research into religious cults (although the Students aren’t tied to any specific religion, and just vaguely talk about “love” instead of any deity), which goes a long way towards making the Students feel real and not like the cults you normally see a superhero fight against. Having Rev. Tolliver explain in great detail how a balloon covered in fake blood could be used to trick people into believing in a miracle, as Peter simultaneously witnesses the “miracle” occur at the Students’ compound, is a great scene. It’s also fun to see Flash Thompson and Ben Urich doing their own investigation as Spider-Man fails to handle things his traditional way, while MJ has to adjust to the fact that she’s living with a superhero and make sure there’s no evidence when company’s over. There’s not a lot of spider-action, but the treatment of the supporting cast and unique dilemma given to Spider-Man more than compensate.

5 comments:

Kevin said...

I was reading Peter David's blog recently, and though I can't remember how it came up, he mentioned that his script was reworked when he suggested MJ do nude modeling. I would imagine that would be this issue, with it's relettering.

Matt said...

Funny, because a few years later in adjectiveless Spider-Man, Erik Larsen did a story in which Mary Jane was offered a part in a movie, but she would've had to do some nude scenes. But since that title was supposed to be the "mature" Spider-book, I guess it was okay...

Anonymous said...

Didn't Peter David write Spectacular Spider-Man for a pretty long stretch right around this time? The Sin-Eater story, all the stuff with the Foreigner and the Black Cat?

G. Kendall said...

Yes, he wrote those before doing this fill-in arc.
Kevin, thanks for pointing that out.

Kevin said...

I found PAD's article referencing it. It's mostly about actual cults and is rather gruesome in parts. The relevant bit is at the top.

http://www.peterdavid.net/index.php/2010/06/25/stranger-than-fiction/

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