Friday, January 30, 2015

SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #257 - May 1998


Prodigy
Credits:  J. M. DeMatteis (writer), Luke Ross (penciler), Al Milgrom & Dan Green (inks), John Kalisz (colors), Comicraft (letters)

The Plot:  Prodigy, Peter Parker’s newest alter ego, foils an attempt by Conundrum’s men to kidnap Ambassador Chaliz.  Unbeknownst to Prodigy, the event was staged to draw attention away from the kidnapping of Chaliz’s daughter, Tabriaz.  Conundrum announces his ransom demand for Tabriaz, the priceless Hand of Mumthazi.  Ambassador Chaliz is unable to deliver the Hand because it’s recently been stolen from a museum by Mad Jack.  Prodigy promises Chaliz that he’ll rescue his daughter.  Meanwhile, Conundrum confronts Mad Jack in an abandoned bar.  Prodigy arrives and interrupts their fight.  To his shock, they team up against him and shrink him to a doll’s size.

The Subplots:  Flash, who’s now officially dating Betty, reflects on how well his life is going.  Anna Watson gives Peter the details of her affair during her first marriage.  She was married to struggling radio drama writer Jacob Hilliard when she fell for singer Johnny Diplama.  Consumed by guilt, she left California and was taken in by Aunt May and Uncle Ben.

Web of Continuity:  
  • Billy Walters is portrayed as a photographer during the opening of the issue.  A line of dialogue later clarifies he wants to be a reporter, however.
  • The mysterious Conundrum makes his debut.
  • There’s a ridiculous amount of cryptic hints regarding both Conundrum and Mad Jack this issue.  Conundrum supposedly has no knowledge of his past life, but does seek guidance through meditation from his deceased “master.”  Later, Mad Jack claims that he taught Conundrum most of his tricks.  Mad Jack, we discover, has a bond with the abandoned bar Maquire’s (also the name of his cat), dwells on the “torments of his past,” has a connection to Conundrum through an “old man,” and has a “romantic streak” according to Conundrum.

I Love the ‘90s:  Flash’s three guesses for Betty when she plays the “Guess Who?” game with him:  Courtney Love, Kate Winslet, and Fiona Apple.

Production Note:  Numerous lettering mistakes this issue.  The title is on the wrong side of the opening splash page, omniscient third person captions show up in quotation marks, lines of dialogue repeat in one panel, and the final splash page bungles Mad Jack’s gigantic word balloons.

Review:  The credits page acknowledges that this is J. M. DeMatteis’ final issue, but I wonder if he even knew this when writing the story.  I’d like to think that he wouldn’t introduce yet another mystery character, drop more fruitless hints regarding Mad Jack’s identity, and leave on a cliffhanger in his final issue.  It’s a shame that the J. M. DeMatteis and Luke Ross era of Spectacular had to end like this, with so much unrealized potential.  There were a few rough spots during this stint, but the signs of a potentially classic run were there.  A more polished Ross and a more focused DeMatteis, working on material that could gel within the confines of a franchise comic, would’ve produced some great Spidey stories.  Stories that, perhaps, could’ve brought some fans back to Spider-Man without all of the hype surrounding a reboot.  Instead, Spectacular was left to practically languish with no support from the rest of the franchise.  The events of this title should’ve been felt across the line, but the “hands off” policy of the era instead left one book attempting to tell bold Spider-Man stories and three other titles that often read like fill-ins.  And with Spectacular cancelled, the readers are stuck with numerous plot threads left dangling and mysteries that will only end in even more frustrating resolutions.

As the introduction of the fourth false identity, “Prodigy” is a fairly average chapter in the “Identity Crisis” event.  To be honest, I suspect J. M. DeMatteis wasn’t overly thrilled by the crossover but is playing along and trying to make the best out of the concept.  The hook for Prodigy is that he’s based on the classic superheroes from the comics Peter found in Uncle Ben’s attic.  That means he acts and speaks like a Silver Age DC superhero, “square-jawed, decent, uncomplicated -- and everyone seems to loves him!”  He’s the hero Peter wishes he could be, were he not plagued by self-doubt and rotten luck.  It’s a solid starting place for an idea, but intentionally making the character generic is a risky move.  Of the four identities, Prodigy arguably has the least interesting visual and powers (he can fly, somehow, and that seems to be it).  I also question why the concept of Norman Osborn adopting Prodigy as his personal hero, and weapon against Spider-Man, is showing up again when it’s already being used for the Hornet in Sensational.  How did no one catch this?  There’s also the dubious arrival of Prodigy at the story’s end, when he’s magically able to locate the villains in time for the issue’s climax.  This month’s Peter Parker, Spider-Man already used that specific plot convenience.  These event stories require tight editing, which is not a hallmark of this era of Spidey.  Finally, there’s the introduction of Conundrum, the mystery villain that Spectacular absolutely did not need at this time.  I give credit to Luke Ross for the visual, a bizarre Arabic puzzle mask that folds like a Rubik’s cube, but there’s more than enough cryptic, unexplained behavior in this book right now.  Unless Conundrum is being introduced as a means to unravel the Mad Jack mystery, he’s best left on the shelf for a while.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

I agree with you that Dematteis is the strongest writer of this era and it's too bad John Romita Jr. wasn't working with him. Roger Stern's upcoming issues are even better than Dematteis's, though. They blow everything else in this era out of the water.