Friday, November 28, 2014

WHAT IF…? #105 - February 1998

Legacy…in Black and White
Credits:  Tom DeFalco (plot/script), Ron Frenz (plot/pencils), Bill Sienkiewicz (finishes), Matt Webb (colors), Chris Eliopoulos & Virtual Calligraphy (letters)

The Plot:  May “Mayday” Parker’s spider-powers begin to emerge during a basketball game.  While out with her friends that night, the Green Goblin appears, telling May to send a message to her father.  Later, she overhears her parents discuss Peter’s life as Spider-Man, and the final battle with Green Goblin that led to his retirement.  Peter figures out that the new Goblin is Normie Osborn, but is unable to gain help from the Fantastic Five or the Avengers.  Peter prepares to meet the Green Goblin at the Brooklyn Bridge, while MJ takes May to the attic and reveals to her Peter’s past.  Soon, May arrives at the bridge, wearing Ben Reilly’s old costume.  During the battle, she spares Normie’s life when he’s caught in the path of a semi-truck.  With Normie institutionalized, the Parkers have a ceremonial burning of Spider-Man’s possessions, unaware that May is designing her own costume and webshooters.

The Subplots:  May is popular with the school jocks and nerds.  She has a crush on football player Brad Miller.  

Web of Continuity:  
  • This issue marks the debut of Spider-Girl, even though she’s never called that during the story.
  • The recap page essentially confirms that the “package” Alison Mongrain stole for Norman Osborn at the end of “Revelations” was baby May.
  • Spider-Man retired after his final battle with the Green Goblin fifteen years ago.  The battle left Norman Osborn dead and Peter with an amputated leg.
  • The Fantastic Five and A-Next debut in cameo appearances.
  • Foggy Nelson is married to Liz Allan, who is suffering from a fatal disease.  He also claims that Daredevil died years earlier.

Review:  Tom DeFalco always maintained that he created Spider-Girl as a one-off character for this issue of What If…?, even though the genesis for the entire MC2 Universe is here.  I’m not quite sure how the concept of Spider-Girl evolved into not only an ongoing series, but the anchor of an entire line of comics in late 1998.  I do remember a Spider-Girl ongoing was first promoted as a part of Stan Lee’s “Excelsior!” line of comics during the spring of 1998 (inside the same insert that promised X-Factor #150 would reveal Graydon Creed’s killer).  “Excelsior!” never materialized, but within a few months, Spider-Girl and the youth-skewing MC2 line arrived in comic shops.  Tom DeFalco’s critical reputation as a writer had taken a hit after his run on Amazing Spider-Man, and many fans instantly hated the idea of a line of “kids” Marvel titles, so the early buzz for the series was mostly negative.  Within a few issues, however, Spider-Girl had developed a healthy cult following, and most online reviewers were vocally supporting the book by the end of its first year.  Spider-Girl became the little comic that could for several years, never becoming a hit but defying cancellation after cancellation thanks to the efforts of a devoted fanbase.

Spider-Girl developed a following in large part because it was a deliberate attempt to move away from darkness and embrace a friendlier Silver Age ethos.  Ironically, the character is debuting during the “dark” era of What If…?, a conscious effort to save the low-selling comic by just flagrantly giving fans what they seemingly wanted.  Most What If…? issues of the day seemed to be stories about various X-Men dying in horrible ways, as rendered by Leonardo Manco.  This issue isn’t nearly as dark as the standard 1998 What If…? comic, but it’s not the lighthearted, all-ages romp I tend to view Spider-Girl as either.  The tone’s more solemn than what I normally associate with DeFalco’s work, and he seems to be making a conscious decision to lay off the corny retro-dialogue.  Normie Osborn is recast as Robert DeNiro’s character from Cape Fear, a tattooed, buff lookalike of his grandfather, now sporting dreadlocks.  This description might sound ridiculous, but wow, is he freaky-looking.  Bill Sienkiewicz provides the finishes, which automatically adds a certain amount of grit and shadows to the proceedings.  Pairing him with Ron Frenz is a fantastic choice, giving the issue a hint of a traditional Spidey feel, but there’s also a sense of menace that you don’t normally get with a DeFalco/Frenz collaboration.  

Thankfully, the story doesn’t succumb to the normal What If…? clichés of radically altering established characters or just killing them off.  The closest we get is Peter’s severed leg, which does serve a legitimate story purpose.  I’m not prepared to say that May Parker is an obvious choice to headline a long-running series after reading this issue, but she is likeable enough, and the basic premise of the Parkers’ teenage daughter becoming a hero does have potential.  The issue finds a nice balance between a traditional superhero origin and the darker material of late ‘90s What If…?, and DeFalco’s able to deliver the needed exposition rather smoothly.  It’s a solid comic all around.  I really wish we could’ve seen work on this level on Amazing Spider-Man during this time.


Harry Sewalski said...

Off the top of my head, I think the only Spider-Girl stories I've read are the ones that ran as a backup in the Web of Spider-Man stories from a few years back (2009, maybe?) Even so, I like Spider-Girl from what I know of her, just because the title seems to very much be a Silver Age-y comic and looks like good fun. If Marvel started reprinting the old issues, I'd seriously consider picking them up.

(That being said, I'm not sure how I feel about the rest of MC2).

Matt said...

I read all of SPIDER-GIRL vol. 1 and all of vol. 2, but lost track when it went digital only and then came into print months later in the SPIDER-MAN FAMILY book. But somehow, I never read this issue of WHAT IF...?

In my opinion, Spider-Man's story ended somewhere partway through Byrne's "Final Chapter" story, when DeFalco's version took over and reunited the Parkers with baby May. Marvel has done very little worthwhile with Spider-Man since the Byrne reboot, so I'm happy to just pretend SPIDER-GIRL is the official continuation and the ongoing series, starting with the reboot, are the alternate universe.

Is this just a one-off in relation to your Spider-Man reviews from the era, or will you cover any of the ongoing SPIDER-GIRL series?

G. Kendall said...

Nah, I only reviewed this issue because it seems to be the only significant Spidey-related comic from this era, in terms of long-term impact. I figured I should at least acknowledge Spider-Girl's first appearance.

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