Friday, May 22, 2015

PETER PARKER, SPIDER-MAN #95 - September 1998


Free Fall
Credits:  Howard Mackie (writer), John Romita, Jr. (penciler), Scott Hanna (inks), Gregory Wright (colors), Comicraft (letters)

The Plot:  Following a recent increase in mob violence, the mayor declares war on guns.  Spider-Man does his part by helping the police stop gun traffickers.  As Peter Parker, he meets Betty Brant at the Daily Bugle to discuss the gun story.  They run into Norman Osborn and his grandson Normie outside of the elevators, shortly before Nitro appears.  Nitro detonates, forcing Peter to shove Betty into the elevator for cover.  The elevator falls to the ground, trapping everyone inside.  After enduring Osborn’s taunts, Peter finally uses his super-strength to move the rubble and enable everyone to escape.  Luckily, Betty is knocked unconscious and Normie looks away, ensuring Spider-Man maintains his secret identity.

The Subplots:  MJ tells Peter that their finances have grown too tight.  She also mentions that Aunt Anna is considering moving back to Florida.  Meanwhile, Kingpin delights in the mayor’s crackdown on guns, boasting that it makes his life easier.  While Osborn is attacked, other crimelords are also targeted by the Kingpin’s hitmen.  Later, Osborn tells a mystery figure on the phone that it’s time for the “gathering of the five” to begin.

Web of Continuity:  Peter has to check into the hospital for broken ribs after escaping the elevator.  While there, Jonah informs him that Fortunato is at the same hospital, near death, following a mysterious attack.  This was perhaps an effort to write Fortunato out of the books, because he seems to disappear after this point.

How Did This Get Published?:  Witness Peter’s speech to Norman on page nineteen.  Yes, it is “painful for us all.”




I Love the ‘90s:  Spider-Man comments on the unnamed mayor of New York’s focus on “quality of life” crimes, which was a staple of Rudy Giuliani’s term as mayor.



Review:  Admittedly, there is a great hook behind the issue.  Peter and Norman trapped in an elevator together, neither one able to reveal his enhanced strength without compromising his secret identity, should’ve been the setup for a fantastic story.  And, by now, is it a shock to learn that the execution doesn’t live up to the premise?  

Howard Mackie had recently been named as the sole current-continuity writer of the titles following the relaunch, so there was more of an effort on Marvel’s part to push his work on this book.  I recall a few online critics picking up this issue after months away from the titles, and the results weren’t pretty.  It was hard to find anyone willing to defend Peter Parker, Spider-Man at this point.  I’m willing to forgive the clumsy opening pages that focus on the gun crackdown; I realize that they’re mainly there to provide a few pages of Spidey-in-costume action and to give Peter an excuse to go to the Bugle.  I’m willing to overlook the shockingly bland characterization Kingpin has received since returning to the titles, since he’s playing a small role this issue.  I’ll even keep my mouth shut when MJ makes yet another comment about how young she and Peter are (MJ is at least less shrewish this issue.)  But don’t dedicate virtually half of your issue to Norman Osborn if you absolutely cannot write Norman Osborn.  This Norman Osborn isn’t clever enough to get underneath anyone’s skin, nor is he particularly intimidating.  He also isn’t the sweaty-browed, borderline loon from the Stan Lee days.  I have no idea what Mackie was going for when scripting Osborn’s dialogue, unless he was honestly under the impression that Osborn is some form of robot.  Then again, practically every cast member in this book now talks in some unnatural, stilted speech pattern.  And those giant blocks of text…not even Tom Orzechowski could make this pretty.  

Even if you’re able to forgive Howard Mackie for not being David Mamet, the plot mechanics of the issue are also a problem.  Yes, we’re presented with a great predicament for Peter to get out of, but the story immediately gives him a series of copouts that kill the drama.  How will Betty respond when she sees Peter lift the girders?  Who knows, since she was knocked out as soon as Nitro exploded.  What will little Normie see?  Nothing, since Peter tells him to turn his head.  Are the security cameras still working?  Let’s check…nope.  They’re not.  So, you’re all clear, Peter.  Give a thoroughly unsatisfying speech and just get the story over with.  I’m not naïve enough to expect Peter’s secret identity to be revealed before the issue’s over, but shouldn’t the story have some tension running through it?  And if Norman Osborn is going to be the main villain of the titles again, shouldn’t he become a compelling antagonist in some way?  And have schemes that consist of more than just throwing little barbs at Peter while they’re in public?  Okay, that last complaint will be dealt with soon enough, but I'd like to meet the human being who thinks "The Gathering of Five" is a classic Norman Osborn story…

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

So why Howard Mackie? After your reviews of PP,SS it's even more amazing to me that this writer would have been picked to write both parts of the Spider-Man relaunch.

I get that Bob Harras, both at Marvel and DC, has a taste for writers who will do what he wants (Lobdell and Mackie in particular). I even sort of sympathize with him, if only because he gets so much grief from reviewers who prefer writers with more strongly individual styles, and because his biggest success as an editor - Age of Apocalypse - was an example of a comic that had to have a strong editorial hand guiding it.

But in 1999, especially after the successes of 1998 had largely been due to good writer/franchise matchups (Busiek/Avengers, Priest/Black Panther), literally doubling down on Mackie seems like one of the biggest blunders that cost Harras his job.

G. Kendall said...

I think there was a sense at the time that online fans only represented a small fraction of the audience and weren't worth listening to. Negative online response to the announcement of CHAPTER ONE didn't deter Marvel, obviously.

Mackie was close to Byrne and Harras, so from their perspective, maybe they viewed him as a natural fit for the new direction.

Anonymous said...

Tom DeFalco wrote a book in 2004 called "Comic Creators on Spider-Man". It's a little weird because he interviews the various creators and often times he was intimately involved in the stories himself. But still a good read.

There's a page in the Mackie interview that seems to confirm @Anonymous' theory...

Q. When Marvel re-launched the entire franchise, you were chosen to be the sole Spider-Man writer. How did that come about?

A. It wasn't something I sought out. I mean, it's not like I went in and petitioned for it. It just happened, and I was surprised to be chosen. I enjoyed the way things were, the four of us working together . Being the only writer was pretty lonely.

Q. Did you want to bring back Aunt May?

A. Absolutely not! As you may recall, when Marc first pitched the death of Aunt May I helped him act it out. I loved that story. I didn't want to bring her or Norman Osborn back. I dug my heels in, but it was made clear to me very quickly that the new Editor-in-Chief was calling the shots, and both Aunt May and Norman were coming back. I was either going to write those stories or someone else was.

One last point from the book. One of DeFalco's earlier questions/comments in the interview is...

Q. Marc was our spiritual father, because his stories were always full of philosophy and insight. You handled the street level scenes, and Todd just had a real knack for contemporary dialogue.

If that was the common belief I could see why Mackie would be picked. The reboot definitely wanted to go back to a street level Spider-Man.

Matt said...

I know I've said it before, but I'll just note, since it came up, that I was very happy with Mackie's selection at this time. He was my favorite of the four Spider-writers and I was looking forward to more of his PETER PARKER: SPIDER-MAN "street-level" type stuff bleeding over into AMAZING. It's weird because I never liked his X-stuff, but Mackie had generally been my favorite Spider-writer going all the way back to WEB's "Name of the Rose" storyline (when, at the time, I'm pretty sure the sister titles were written by Michelinie and DeMatteis).

Now I admit that I haven't re-read any of his stuff since it was published, so it probably is as dull and poorly written as G. says here. But at the time, for whatever reason, Mackie's Spider-Man resonated with me more than DeFalco's (too bland), DeMatteis' (too dark) or DeZago's (too little substance).

But in retrospect, I'm pretty sure I just liked the Romita Jr. artwork. Mackie had worked with Romita going all the way back to the "Clone Saga" and in my mind they were inextricably linked. The more I think about it, I'm pretty sure I would've liked Mackie's work much less if it was illustrated by Joe Bennett or Luke Ross.

(Though, on the flip side of that notion, I barely tolerated Straczynski's AMAZING even with Romita's art, so there must have been at least something to Mackie's writing that appealed to me.)

All that said, with regards to this particular issue, for some reason I thought it actually was acclaimed. Interesting to learn it was the opposite. Maybe I just figured it got good reviews because the concept felt like it should.

G. -- I can't recall if this has been asked and answered before, or if you're keeping mum, but will you continue into the relaunch? That was where Mackie's mediocrity finally started to become evident to me, and I'd be curious to see your thoughts on it.

G. Kendall said...

No plans for the relaunch. I doubt I have anything new to say re: Mackie's writing that I haven't already said, and honestly there are elements of that era I don't want to ever revisit.