Monday, June 17, 2013

SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #241 - December 1996

A New Day Dawning
Credits:  J. M. DeMatteis (writer), Luke Ross (penciler), John Stanisci (inks), John Kalisz w/GCW (colors), Richard Starkings and Comicraft (letters)

The Plot:  Spider-Man swings through the city, reflecting on the second chance he’s been given.  He stops by J. Jonah Jameson’s office and advises him not to work so hard.  Meanwhile, the Chameleon retreats into insanity after learning he’s been scheduled to leave Ravencroft for federal custody.  Later that night, he wakes in Ravencroft’s basement and sees Dr. Ashley Kafka.  She reveals she isn’t ready to remand him to the authorities.

The Subplots:  Mad Jack, a new incarnation of obscure villain Jack O’Lantern, spies on Jameson’s office.  Meanwhile, MJ discusses losing the baby with her aunt Anna.  Later, Peter takes MJ web-slinging and they watch the sunrise together.

Web of Continuity:  
  • This story is set in early December, placing it over a month after the Halloween setting of “Revelations.”
  • Since the previous issue, Ben Reilly has been revealed as the clone…and killed.  (By a resurrected Norman Osborn, no less.)  The Parkers’ daughter has also had a vague death scene, although the books will hint for months that the baby is still alive and in Osborn’s possession.  Also, Aunt Anna has apparently moved into Aunt May’s old home with Peter and MJ.
  • Peter promises MJ that they’ll move out of Aunt May’s old house soon.  I think this idea is totally dropped until the Mackie/Byrne relaunch that happens almost two years later.

Miscellaneous Note:  Marvel used “Revelations” as an excuse to debut new Spider-Man logos, which ran through most of the titles.  It wasn’t long, I believe just one or two issues in some cases, before the books reverted to the ‘90s “spikey” logo, however.  Oddly enough, this logo design did resurface over ten years later on the Spectacular Spider-Man animated series. 

Review:  I’ve mentioned before that I am not a fan of the post-Clone Saga era of Spider-Man, and was actually kind of surprised to discover that this period of the titles has its supporters.  This was largely an ignorant opinion, I admit, gleaned from a handful of comics from late 1996 to early 1997.  I tried a few issues of Amazing and Spectacular, an issue or two of Sensational, and steered clear of Spider-Man after being burned so badly by Howard Mackie on X-Factor.  Over the years, I’ve compiled most of the books from this era, and I have to acknowledge that my initial opinion of the books was mostly wrong.  Mostly.  There is absolutely some good stuff here, and since this remains a largely overlooked period in the character’s history, I’ve decided to expand my Sensational reviews to include the rest of the Spider-canon until we get to the 1998 relaunch. After  I'm not touching Chapter One, or The Next Chapter, as the present-day books have been retroactively labeled. No.

Of the four monthly Spider-Man titles, the one written by J. M. DeMatteis would seem to be the obvious contender for the best of the pack.  And it usually is, even though he’s oddly matched with Luke Ross on the book.  This issue, J. M. DeMatteis takes the order the writers have been given (Peter and MJ must move on), and makes this a story about…moving on.  You get all of the DeMatteis classics: silent panels, repeating images, introspective narration, and touching moments between Peter and MJ.  I say that Luke Ross is an odd match if only because his style is, out of all of the artists on the books at the time, the least reminiscent of DeMatteis’ traditional Spider-partner, Sal Buscema; so seeing pages that are just begging to be Buscema pages drawn by someone with a polar-opposite style is a little disconcerting.  

Still, Ross doesn’t stand in the way of the emotion of the story, and as unpleasant as the prospect of a “Spider-Man and wife deal with miscarriage” story could be, this is as unobjectionable a delivery as you’re going to get.  Regarding the superhero storylines, I think the reintroduction of Jack O’Lantern in a new form is a solid idea, even though time will show this is not one of comics’ greatest mysteries.  Regarding Ashley Kafka and the Chameleon, I don’t care for the mentally unstable Chameleon, nor do I find Ashley Kafka as sympathetic as DeMatteis seems to.  She’s certainly more tolerable when written by DeMatteis, but her actions in this storyline will make her even more incompetent, and frustrating, than we’ve ever seen her before.  

Luke Ross is coming off a series of mediocre fill-ins for the X-office at this point, and given that his major deficit is his inability to draw convincing human features (especially his females, with their weird cat faces and tiny noses), he doesn’t seem like an obvious choice to draw a book that relies heavily on a supporting cast.  To his credit, this issue shows that he’s come a long way from those X-Man fill-ins.  His human characters have an attractive, cartoony style that rivals what McFarlane was doing on his best days.  In fact, Ross is clearly far ahead of McFarlane’s early work; it took McFarlane a few years to work his style into the book so well.  And Ross’ interpretation of Spider-Man in costume is also hard to dismiss.  That opening splash page of the character gazing over the edge of a roof is powerful (I’ve noticed that it still shows up in some of Marvel’s merchandising).  

Unfortunately, that shot just might be the best Spider-Man drawing Ross produces during his entire run.  After the first half of the comic, the quality declines noticeably.  Spider-Man’s eyes, and the shape of his head, are inconsistent from panel to panel, and the web-slinging shots become much less energetic.  The anatomy also starts to get shakier, and some of the faces begin to revert to his previous (almost inhuman) look.  Plus, when the story requires him to draw an inspiring cityscape under the morning sun at the story’s climax, he chooses an odd time to skimp on the buildings.  I don’t want to unfairly pick on Ross, it’s obvious that he’s quite good even at this point, but the inconsistency is frustrating.  I’m assuming some deadline problems were involved, since the quality begins to drop off in the second half of the issue, and the inking is also less dynamic in the later pages.  (When John Stanisci is on, though, he’s amazing.  His inking of the opening splash page, and Mad Jack’s giant reveal panel, look like something McFarlane would’ve inked before his obsession with scratchiness sunk in.)

So, perhaps not the greatest beginning of a brand new direction, but the issue accomplishes what it needs to.  Peter and MJ's decision to move on feels organic, even if it was an editorial directive, and the title’s in a position to go forward without any clone baggage.  This is the only quiet, introspective issue to follow the deaths of Ben and baby May, and it’s clear the story was assigned to the proper writer.  And even if the art is spotty in places, Luke Ross produces some McFarlane-style Spidey that rivals even McFarlane’s better work.  Now, can any of the other titles match Spectacular in their post-clone first issues?


thinkingcog said...

I'm delighted to see that you're expanding the Spider-Man reviews a little to give us some post-Revelations commentary.

To be honest this was the era that truly lost me as a completist. Around the same time as X-Men too. I realise both books were coming out of big saga, Clones and Onslaught but it just felt like we'd gone through a lot only to end up somewhere less satisfying. I know it's the nature of the beast but I got burnt out on Marvel around this time.

Also the Chameleon story where he learns Peters identity felt really off to me despite being a big DeMatteis I just wasn't feeling it.
And was the re-design of Kafka an editorial mandate?

Austin Gorton said...

I’ve decided to expand my Sensational reviews to include the rest of the Spider-canon until we get to the 1998 relaunch.

Have you gone ahead and re-read those books already (vetting them, so to speak), or will you be discovering/re-discovering them as you go along? Just curious about your process when it comes to something like this, where you maybe haven't read every issue you're going to review previously.

In any event, I'm excited to see your reviews expand!

Jeff said...

This period has some pretty good stuff (and is way better than the Clone Saga era). Oddly, I think the Mackie/Romita Jr. run was my favorite of these, although the set ups are much better than the payoffs (big surprise with Mackie...)

I dropped Spidey shortly before the Clone Saga, picked it up again for this and then immediately dropped it again for the Byrne reboot. Paul Jenkins basically saved my Spider-Man fandom at that point.

I think Spectacular probably had the strongest plotting of the 4 comics, but Luke Ross's art really turned me off at the time.

Are you going to cover Hobgoblin Lives? That one is awesome, but it's also Roger Stern and Ron Frenz so it's more of a throwback to the 80s era than anything else. It's also crazy continuity heavy.

G. Kendall said...

I reread most of these issues not long ago. There a few issues from the era that I actually don't have yet, but I think they're mostly from 1998, so I won't be needing them for a while. The major challenge is trying to figure out a way to reconcile the order with the order I'd like to review the issues.
And "Hobgoblin Lives" is coming, but not in the immediate future.

Anonymous said...

@ Jeff

I've heard from a lot of other people, and I am of a similar opinion, that Mackie's Spider-man is actually pretty decent, especially for the time. I can see where some people would prefer DeMatteis's writing on Spectacular (and I do), but Mackie's writing isn't far behind his plus I much prefer JR Jr's pencils from this era over ROss's (although I also kind of like Ross's pencils too).

Anonymous said...

Spectacular Spider Man was easily my favourite Spidey book from this period.
Both of DeMatteis' run on Spectacular rank highly on my list of favourite Spider Man eras.
I was done with all the Spider Man books after DeMatteis left Spectacular.
Jenkins' run on Spider Man made me a fan again, but I mainly lost total interest in Spider-books after Jenkins.

wwk5d said...

I never read Chapter One. What was so controversial about it? And the Byrne re-launch?

G. Kendall said...

"I never read Chapter One. What was so controversial about it? And the Byrne re-launch?"

If you search Google Groups from 1998-1999, you'll get a very good idea. Essentially, this was Marvel's first attempt to make Peter Parker seem younger, and to wallow in flagrant '60s nostalgia. So, for example, Flash Thompson is back to acting like a bully again for no reason, while Peter is desperate for money to pay for Aunt May's pills, etc.
Aside from being a terrible idea in the first place, Howard Mackie's execution of it in the current day books accounts for some of his worst work ever. Truly awful stuff.

Andrew Brown said...

Usually I can't stand photo referencing, but Luke Ross became such a better artist after he started tracing. It's like some weird anti-land or hitch.

Matt said...

I'm one of the weird ones who likes this era quite a bit. I have very fond memories of these two or so years, particularly the DeZago/Wieringo Sensational and (yes...) the Mackie/Romita Spider-Man (I agree with the assessment that Mackie's Spider-Man was light-years better than his X-stuff -- though he was certainly elevated somewhat by Romita).

It wasn't till the Byrne relaunch that my interest in Spider-Man started to wane. I had been a Mackie apologist for a long time, enjoying most of his Spider-Man material dating all the way back to Web, but the relaunch was too much even for me (though I continued to collect and read for too many years afterward, well into the awful JMS era).

The particular items I recall really enjoying from this period were:
-the return of the classic supporting cast,
-the addtion of the Stacy family (still irritated they just up and disappeared years ago),
-the more light-hearted stories coming out of the relatively dark Clone Saga,
-the status quo of Peter and Mary Jane living in Aunt May's house with meddling Aunt Anna,
-the artwork of Romita Jr (this is, to me, the best he ever was in his career, before or after).

I bought all the big trades Marvel recently released of the Clone Saga and the Ben Reilly era, and I would gladly shell out cash to do the same for a series covering these couple years.

I look forward to your upcoming reviews -- and I'm very happy to hear Hobgoblin Lives! is in the pipeline! As a child of the 80's, I absolutely devoured that mini when it came out, and I still love to re-read it to this day. Really wish they could've found a way to bring Stern in as a regular Spider-writer around this time.

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