Wednesday, November 26, 2014

SPIDER-MAN/KINGPIN: TO THE DEATH - November 1997


Credits:  Tom DeFalco (plot), Stan Lee (script) John Romita, Sr. (penciler), Dan Green (inks), Steve Oliff (colors), Bill Oakley (letters)

The Plot:  Spider-Man is framed by a series of lookalikes who have super-strength and web-shooters that fire bullets.  Daredevil suspects Spider-Man is innocent and offers to help him investigate the scheme.  They soon discover that a scientist working for the Kingpin, Dr. Mindella, has created Death’s Arrow, a drug that induces super-strength before causing death.  While fighting the Kingpin’s men, Daredevil is exposed to the drug.  Kingpin takes advantage of Daredevil’s confused mental state and uses him as a secret weapon against Zoltaro, a terrorist who has arranged to purchase a supply of Death’s Arrow.  Spider-Man crashes their exchange, as Zoltaro and Kingpin turn on each other.  Spider-Man is able to inject Daredevil with the antidote and spare his life.  Kingpin kills Zoltaro and safely escapes, while Dr. Mindella is arrested.  Later, Peter Parker submits photos clearing Spider-Man of his doppelgangers’ crimes.

The Subplots:  None.

Web of Continuity:  Captain America and the Fantastic Four appear in a scene that has various Marvel heroes attempting to apprehend the framed Spider-Man.  This means the story must take place after Amazing Spider-Man #430, which features Spider-Man’s relieved response to the return of the Fantastic Four and the rest of the “Heroes Reborn” characters.

Creative Differences:  Zoltaro is referred to as a “gang-lord” on the back cover, but portrayed as a terrorist in the actual story.

I Love the ‘90s:  Rosalind Sharpe, the head of Matt Murdock’s legal firm, says that a Spider-Man trail could potentially be “a bigger case than OJ!”

Production Note:  This is a forty-eight page bookshelf format comic, with a cover price of $5.99.

Review:  Marvel would occasionally boast of Stan Lee “returning” to Spider-Man throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, although most of these comics were plotted by someone else and only scripted by Lee after the art was completed.  To the Death is no exception, with Tom DeFalco stepping in to provide a story for John Romita, Sr., who agreed to pencil the comic as his big return to Spider-Man.  (I believe it was promoted as his final Spider-Man comic.)  Daredevil is here essentially because Romita demanded it -- Romita makes clear in the one-shot’s text piece that he considers Daredevil Marvel’s best character.  Why Kingpin maintains a top billing when Daredevil is truly the co-star is beyond me.  I wonder now if this was intended as Kingpin’s major return to the Marvel Universe, or at least the Spider-Man line, and no one thought to change the title as the plot evolved.  (Kingpin's appearance in the recent Batman crossover of course isn't an "official" return.)

Unfortunately, the Kingpin’s role is interchangeable with any mobster character, or just generic supervillain really, which is a major reason why the story feels like nothing special.  Marvel could’ve made the six-dollar comic more of an event if it truly served as a reintroduction of the Kingpin and impacted future issues of Daredevil or the Spider-Man titles.  Instead, it’s a glorified fill-in plot with Kingpin as the very generic villain.  Spider-Man, for the most part, doesn't fare much better.  Stan Lee became famous in the '60s for making the heroes, and even some of the villains, well-rounded fictional characters with distinct personalities.  Spider-Man only feels uniquely Spider-Man in this one-shot when he concocts a quickie antidote that will save Daredevil at the story’s end.  The Kingpin is a ruthless thug, but also an intelligent businessman, a patriot in some regards, and a father and husband with a complex relationship with his family.  The plot exploits none of these elements.  Instead of wanting to stop a terrorist, Kingpin’s motive for double-crossing the ridiculously named Zoltaro is that he simply wants to keep Zoltaro’s money and the drugs he just sold him.  Surely, as a “legitimate businessman,” the Kingpin must know that this kind of stunt will ruin his reputation and kill any future deals.  Statistically, spurned terrorists tell at least fifteen other vaguely Middle Eastern terrorists when they’ve had bad business dealings with an American imperialist pig.

There’s also the utterly gratuitous plot element concerning the fake Spider-Men.  Not only does this idea feel like it belongs in a different story, but it’s too dumb to be taken seriously.  Why do the fake Spider-Men have super-strength and bullets that shoot out of their wrists?  Why would they take this drug, which is fatal within a few hours of ingestion, when they can blast machine gun fire out of their wrists?  I realize that Marvel wanted Romita to draw as many heroes as possible in the one-shot, so Spider-Man’s been framed in order to set up their appearances, but is this really the best excuse DeFalco could think of?  If you are going for the Marvel Universe vs. Spider-Man plot, why isn’t that the main story?  Who cares about Zartan-O the terrorist when you could have more pages of John Romita drawing every Marvel hero?  Also, of all the heroes, why is Daredevil the only one smart enough to even suspect Spider-Man has been framed?  And did Tom DeFalco not realize that he was using a nearly identical plot in Amazing Spider-Man #429?

The one-shot does have John Romita’s art going for it, though.  If you just want Romita drawing Spider-Man and Daredevil, this is exactly what you’re looking for.  The characters are all well-constructed and consistently on-model, and it’s interesting to see how Romita conforms to the larger eyes Spidey developed post-McFarlane.  In a perfect world, Spider-Man’s look on the cover would be an excellent model for future artists to follow.  I don’t think the paper stock really does Steve Oliff’s colors any favors; the preview pages I saw in Wizard looked great, and Oliff’s work on Spawn at this point was considered the best color art in the business, so it’s a shame that the published book looks so drab.  The Spawn paper stock of this era, which was very glossy but didn’t have that obnoxious glare that’s so prevalent in comics printing, would’ve been perfect for this book.  Also, as ridiculous as the plot is, I have to give Stan Lee credit for a decent scripting job.  He manages to work in a crack or two regarding the more clich√© elements of the story, but the relentless jokiness that often appeared in his later scripting jobs is mostly gone.  He’s not given much to work with, but Lee still delivers a perfectly competent script that’s old school but just shy of corny.  Honestly, his dialogue is more plausible and natural than most of DeFalco’s work from this period.

1 comment:

Matt said...

I agree with pretty much everything you said here. I was excited for this one-shot when it was announced, but a little trepaditious over Stan Lee's script since his more recent work had usually been too light-hearted. I was surprised by the decent script and I loved the Romita artwork, but I thought the plot was pretty awful.

I love the name Zoltaro, though. It's such an old-school Stan Lee name. I wonder if it came from DeFalco or Lee? At any rate, I've only read this story once, back in '97, but I've never forgotten the name Zoltaro.