Friday, March 28, 2014

SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED #17 - August 1997

I, Robot Master
Credits:  Glenn Greenberg (writer), Howard Mackie (plot assist), Joe Bennett (penciler), Joe Pimentel (inks), Christie Scheele (colors), Jack Morelli (letters)

The Plot:  Betty Brant and Peter Parker investigate mysterious robotic toys left at various children's hospitals.  Peter recognizes one of the toys as a miniature Robot Master, leading him to suspect Mendell Stromm is still alive.  With Arthur Stacy’s help, Peter discerns which hospital will receive the next toy delivery.  As Spider-Man, he meets Stromm the next morning, and is shocked to discover he has amnesia.  Stromm takes Spider-Man to his old lab, explaining that he was wandering aimlessly until he passed the abandoned building and felt drawn to it.  He began to make toys for local children, inspired by vague memories of being a sick child.  When Spider-Man mentions Norman Osborn, Stromm’s demeanor changes.  He dons one of his robotic suits and attacks Spider-Man, assuming he’s associated with Osborn.  The building is destroyed, but Spider-Man saves Stromm with Arthur Stacy’s help.  

The Subplots:  Arthur Stacy visits the Daily Bugle to gain more information on Spider-Man’s connection to the deaths of George and Gwen Stacy.  Jonah Jameson sends him to lunch with a reluctant Peter, who was at the offices to research Mendell Stromm.  Later, Peter discovers MJ is still up at 3 AM studying.  She advises him not to allow his anger over Norman Osborn’s actions cloud his judgment when dealing with Stromm.

Web of Continuity:  
  • Mendell Stromm was left for dead by Norman Osborn in Amazing Spider-Man #418 as punishment for failing him.  His amnesia was caused by an electrical blast to the brain.  The reality is that Tom DeFalco meant for this to be an actual death scene, but Glenn Greenberg was interested in bringing Stromm back.
  • At the end of the story, Spider-Man takes Mendell Stromm to Dr. Kafka for an evaluation.  She confirms that most of his memories of the past nine years are gone, which means Spider-Man’s secret identity is safe.
  • Robbie Robertson and Arthur Stacy meet for the first time this issue.
  • Jonah Jameson is hale and hearty this issue, and Ashley Kafka is still employed at Ravencroft, meaning this is another story that has to occur before Spectacular Spider-Man #246.

Forever Young:  Speaking of Ashley Kafka, she mentions that Stromm’s heart attack, which was his first death scene back in Amazing Spider-Man #37, occurred nine years ago.  That means Peter Parker was a college freshman nine years ago, putting him firmly in his late 20s.  Marvel’s unofficial de-aging of the character is only a year away, at which point reboot co-architect John Byrne will declare Peter merely 22.

I Love the ‘90s:  While staking out the hospital early in the morning, Spider-Man wishes he had a portable TV to watch Dionne Warwick and the Psychic Friends Network.

Miscellaneous Note:  The title of this issue is a reference to Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot.

Review:  The best Spider-Man Unlimited issue in ages, no doubt about it.  Not only is this a much stronger Joe Bennett job, whose Amazing Spider-Man work I would say is obviously suffering from deadline problems, but it’s a well-constructed story that uses the current status quo of the titles in a thoughtful way.  I’d put this issue up against any of the contemporary monthly Spider-Man books, assuming we had to compare for some reason.  It just feels more like a Spider-Man story than the vast majority of the material being published at this time.  The characters are likable, past events are influencing current events in logical ways, and the connection between Peter’s life and Spidey’s life feels organic.  When MJ gives Peter a small lecture, (lovingly) telling him not to let his anger over what happened to them earlier cloud his thinking…when Betty realizes that visiting kids in a children’s hospital might be hard for Peter after losing his own daughter…when Arthur Stacy has a chance to unmask Spider-Man but instead saves Stromm’s life…these are simple human moments, sharply written, and it’s hard to think of too many of these scenes occurring in the monthly titles.  

As we discover in the final “Life of Reilly” installment, the inspiration for this issue came from Greenberg’s desire to tie up some loose ends from the Clone Saga, and to actually address a dangling plotline from the current titles.  What exactly was Arthur Stacy supposed to be doing in these books?  The only writer who even seemed interested in covering the Stacy family was Howard Mackie, and his interest was sporadic to say the least.  Why were the Stacys revived if no one was going to do anything with them?  What’s the point of establishing Arthur Stacy as obsessed with learning the truth about Spider-Man and then putting him far into the background?  It’s possible that Mackie did have plans to address this, and I’m sure he did help Greenberg to make this a better story when consulting with him, but it’s slightly ridiculous that it takes an issue of Unlimited to give this story any traction.  It’s a good use of Unlimited, which of course is usually filler, but these are ideas that should’ve been addressed months earlier.  And given Greenberg’s ability to effectively use the supporting cast, make good use of the line’s current status quo, and humanize a throwaway villain like Mendell Stromm, it’s a shame he wasn’t assigned more Spider-Man work during these days.  At the very least, he should’ve been given a chance to make something out of Unlimited on a regular basis.


Matt said...

On the few occasions he wrote a Spidey story, Greenberg seemed to have a very strong grasp of the character. I really think the line would have benefitted from giving him one of the four monthlies during this period. I believe he did eventually get Spectacular, but it was right before the title ended.

I can only assume he didn't write more becuase of Marvel's policy at the time (which I generally believe to be a good one) of not letting editors also freelance as writers.

Matt said...

Speaking of "Life of Reilly", I wonder whatever happened with that? It doesn't appear Goletz has updated any of his blogs since 2010. I was really looking forward to that revised and expanded book he was working on!!

Kerry said...

Matt, I was wondering this, too. I would buy a TwoMorrows-style book on the Clone Saga in a heartbeat.

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