Monday, December 15, 2014

SPIDER-MAN: THE OCTOPUS AGENDA - November 1996 (Part One)

Prologue, Chapters 1 & 2
Written by Diane Duane

The Plot:  Dr. Octopus and his henchmen invade Consolidated Quartzite, a mine in upstate New York.  They drill into the mine and detonate a small nuclear bomb.  Later, Spider-Man stops a group of jewel thieves in New York.  He discovers numerous cell phones in their vehicle.  When the police arrive, Spider-Man learns from Sgt. Stephen Drew that the weapons used by the thieves are Russian military.  At the Daily Bugle the next day, Peter Parker asks Kate Cushing to pair him with Mel Ahrens, who is investigating the Russian mob.  Peter suspects that the Russian mob has ties with the shady CCRC corporation, which is allegedly out of business.

The Subplots:  MJ begins a new job as a hand model.  She’s shocked to discover her new cell phone has been cloned, leaving her with a bill that’s almost $5,000.  

Web of Continuity:  
  • This is the final release in Diane Duane’s trilogy of Spider-Man/Venom novels.  The story picks up one week after the previous novel, The Lizard Sanction.  
  • Reporter Mel Ahrens is a new creation, not seen in the comics. Sgt. Stephen Drew is a recurring character in the prose novels.

I Love the ‘90s:  Cell phones play an important role in the novel, so not surprisingly, much of this material has noticeably aged.  A security guard in the Prologue remarks that a cell costs 150 bucks.  Peter himself barely understands how to use a cell.  MJ describes the process of cloning a phone, and complains that New York law only gives the consumer ten days to report the fraud.  Unrelated to cells, Spider-Man drops one “Not!” during the fight scene.

Review:  Hey, I finally got around to this one.  For anyone who doesn’t know, Marvel licensed their characters out for a series of well-reviewed prose novels in the ‘90s.  Most were paperbacks, but Diane Duane’s Spider-Man/Venom trilogy received the hardcover format, with one novel being released each year between 1994 and 1996.  The final novel in the trilogy eluded me for years, but in these modern times, I no longer have to rely on my local shopping mall.  The first novel I loved as a teenager and was pleased to discover that it holds up well today.  The second novel had its moments, but lacked the basic entertainment value of its predecessor.  The final novel in the trilogy has a stronger opening than the previous one, thankfully.  Hopefully, "Octopus Agenda" can return to the standards set by the initial release.

It’s not hard to notice that the third novel’s opening chapters follow the same basic pattern as its predecessor.  An established Spider-Man villain attacks a team of security guards in the middle of the night.  A quick scene checks in on Peter and MJ, giving the reader some insight into their relationship.  Peter sees action as Spider-Man, then travels to the Daily Bugle to receive the assignment that will lead to even more Spidey action.  These are broad similarities, though, so it’s more of an observation than a complaint.  To Duane’s credit, even as she hits the same notes as the previous novel’s opening, the execution feels much sharper this time.  The security guards in the opening have a bit more personality, and the sequence involving Dr. Octopus and his flunkies (mistaken for aliens because they're wearing their old Ditko outfits) has a nice blend of action, characterization, and suspense.  I’ll also praise the opening for not falling for the “villain callously kills guard for no reason” cliché.  Duane certainly teases the reader with the threat that Ock might kill, which is fine, but allows the prologue to play out in a much more engaging way.  The Peter and MJ scene is a decent introduction for both characters, and I like the idea of tying in MJ’s relatively minor problem with the phone company into the novel’s larger story.  The action scene is placed just where the novel needs an action scene; it gives Spider-Man something to do, while also serving a legitimate story purpose.

Finally, there’s the introduction of Daily Bugle reporter Mel Ahrens.  Ninety percent of all Bugle reporters are doomed to obscurity, but in just a few pages, Duane does an admirable job of giving Mel a distinct identity.  He’s the Daily Bugle’s last holdout on going digital, clinging stubbornly to his fifty-year-old typewriter.  Mel’s also twenty-something years old, and just unusually old-fashioned for his age.  Mel is naturally here to dump a few pages worth of exposition regarding the Russian mob, but the delivery is smooth enough and the information is honestly interesting.  Duane’s knack for research is one of my favorite aspects of her novels, and addressing the specifics of the Russian mob’s entry into America should give the novel more than enough material.  I suspect that “research” for most mob stories in comics simply involves re-watching Goodfellas, so getting real content out of the subject is a welcome relief.

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