Wednesday, December 30, 2009

X-FORCE Annual #1 - 1992

Previously…in “Shattershot”: Arize, the geneticist responsible for creating bipeds in the spineless Mojoworld, escaped to Earth. After avoiding attempts by Mojo and a rival network to retrieve him, he agreed to team up with Spiral to end Mojo’s rule once and for all.

The Mirror Liars - Shattershot Part Four

Credits: Fabian Nicieza (writer), Greg Capullo (penciler), Harry Candelario (inker), Mike Thomas (colors), Chris Eliopoulos (letterer)

Summary: Over a hundred years in the future, Arize has successfully overthrown the Spineless Ones in Mojoworld with X-Force’s help. Shatterstar is now the ruler of the planet, and despite his misgivings, oversees the Biped’s oppression of the Spineless Ones. Arize comes to Earth, approximately ten years from the present, to inform X-Force that Shatterstar has followed in Mojo’s footsteps. They travel to Mojoworld, where they disrupt a gladiator game Shatterstar is overseeing. When Shatterstar sees his creator Arize fighting with the Spineless Ones, he realizes he’s made a mistake. The Scheduler, the man who posed as Shatterstar’s assistant but was secretly manipulating him, refuses to give up power to the Spineless Ones. He stabs Shatterstar in the back and nearly kills Arize. Shatterstar fights back, and refuses to honor the crowd’s demand that he kill the Scheduler. He promises that Bipeds and Spineless Ones will find a peaceful way to live together in freedom.

Continuity Notes: The X-Force of ten years in the future consists of Cannonball, Cyberlock, Magik, Sunspot, Powerpax, & Siryn. Cyberlock resembles Douglock, Magik is a teenage Illyana Rasputin, and Powerpax is "Frankie Power" from Power Pack (apparently an altered version of Alex Power). Cable is supposed to be dead at this point. An elderly Longshot has a brief cameo at the end, approving of Shatterstar’s new direction.

Review: So, after many, many years, I’ve finally come across the final chapter of this storyline. I’ve occasionally seen this cited as one of the strangest conclusions to a story Marvel’s ever published, and I can only assume it came about because someone wanted to leave the Mojoworld continuity of the present day alone. Jim Lee’s final X-Men arc was published around this time, and since it ended with Longshot overthrowing Mojo (who had Spiral as an aide again, even though she left with Arize in the last chapter of this storyline to overthrow Mojo), I can see why this story might’ve gone through a rewrite or two. Nicieza shifts the scene to the future, dropping hints about potential storylines that haven't happened for the most part. We did get “Cyberlock” as Douglock in a few years, but none of the other clues ever paid off. In fact, literally ten years from the publication of this comic, X-Force was in the process of becoming X-Statix, which is something no one in 1992 could’ve seen coming. Doing stories set in the future can work if you have an audience naïve enough to think there’s a master plan and every vague hint will have a payoff, which is a place the comics industry hasn’t been for a while. I probably would’ve eaten this up if I read it when I was twelve, though. This issue is somewhat notable for being Greg Capullo’s first X-Force work, and while it’s a little shaky (Shatterstar looks awful on the cover, doesn’t he?); the majority of the art is pretty solid.

The Crush

Credits: Gavin Curtis (writer & penciler), Dan Panosian (inker), Ed Lazellari (colors), Joe Rosen (letterer)

Summary: Wiz Kid is jealous of Patrick Conrad, his teacher’s new boyfriend. While spying, Wiz Kid learns that Conrad is actually an anti-mutant activist. He convinces Artie and Leech to help him pursue Conrad. After Conrad nearly kills the boys, the police take him into custody. Wiz Kid asks Ms. Huntington to wait for him to grow up, which cheers her up.

Review: I assume this sat in a drawer for a few years, waiting for a New Mutants annual that never arrived. Actually, these guys are castoffs from the original incarnation of X-Factor, aren’t they? At any rate, this is a dated reminder of the pre-shoulder pad era, where kids with innocuous powers could be peripheral X-characters and clutter up the back of an annual. There’s not much of a story here, but I do like Gavin Curtis’ Cockrum-esque art.

Know Your Enemy

Credits: Dan Slott (writer), Sandu Florea (penciler) Brad Vancata (inker), Dana Moreshead (colors), Richard Starkings (letterer)

Summary: Cable drills X-Force on their potential foes. Cannonball and Boomer leave in protest after seeing Sunspot and the X-Men on the list. Cable tells Domino that X-Force can’t stay dreamers while fighting a war.

Continuity Notes: The foes listed include Masque, Kane, Black Tom, Juggernaut, G. W. Bridge, Deadpool, the new Brotherhood, Sunspot and Gideon, Proteus, Stryfe, the MLF, and the X-Men. There’s really nowhere for this to fit in continuity, unless Cable is briefing X-Force on characters he thinks they’re going to meet.

“Huh?” Moment: Proteus? Proteus? X-Force never fought Proteus! I know the final New Mutants annual featured a storyline that had someone trying to resurrect Proteus, but this is still an odd addition.

Review: Dan Slott wrote a similar backup in this year’s UXM annual, which had Wolverine counting down the X-Men’s most dangerous foes to Jubilee. (The number one threat? Human intolerance. You just learned a lesson, Jubilee.) This is obviously filler, memorable only for Sandu Florea’s attempt at out-Liefelding Liefeld by giving Cable the largest shoulder pads in history. I think all of these top villain countdowns should just be given to Fred Hembeck. Can’t we all agree on that?

Monday, December 28, 2009

X-MEN VS. THE BROOD #2 - October 1996

Day of Wrath- Part Two

Credits: John Ostrander (writer), Bryan Hitch & Sal Velluto (pencilers), Paul Neary, Andy Lanning, & Harry Candelario (inkers), Joe Rosas & Malibu (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (letterer)

Summary: Hannah Connover, sensing that more Brood assassins are coming, flees from the X-Men. Her followers find Hannah in the desert, and against her wishes, transform into Brood and attack the newly arrived Brood assassins. Meanwhile, more Brood assassins kidnap Hannah’s husband, William. When Hannah senses he’s in danger, she transforms into her Brood form and confronts the assassins. Hannah is injured in the fight and reverts to her human form. The X-Men arrive, distracting the Brood while Iceman places Hannah in a cryogenic freeze. The Brood lose mental contact with her and commit suicide, thinking their task completed. The X-Men say goodbye to William, who maintains hope that Hannah can be cured one day.

Review: The first issue seemed to be a nice fit for the forty-eight page format, but this one doesn’t work as well. There’s a lot of running around, as the X-Men are constantly trying to find Hannah, and the issue opens with a gratuitous “we’re fighting but we don’t really want to hurt you” fight between the X-Men and Hannah’s Brood followers. The art also isn’t as strong as the first chapter, as two additional inkers and a fill-in artist are brought in to finish the book. Some of the pages look like Bryan Hitch-Lite, which might be a case of Sal Velluto trying to mimic Hitch’s style, or perhaps the inking job is just rushed in a few places. The basic story still works, in part because Ostrander handles the character drama well. And while it’s nice that he’s avoiding the stereotypical portrayal of religious characters as hypocrites or psychopaths, I don’t think we needed two overblown narrative sequences describing the X-Men as angels. I like the internal conflict within the team, as Wolverine advocates killing Hannah while the X-Men want to find that good ol’ fashioned “better way.” Sure, the ending is a bit of a copout (I wonder if Bastion found Hannah’s body when he later raided the mansion), but I prefer it to a pessimistic conclusion like Hannah killing herself, or Wolverine finally killing her, which is probably how this story would end today.

Friday, December 25, 2009

X-MEN VS. THE BROOD #1 - September 1996

Day of Wrath- Part One

Credits: John Ostrander (writer), Bryan Hitch (penciler), Paul Neary (inker), Joe Rosas & Malibu (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (letterer)

Summary: While vacationing with Cyclops at the Grand Canyon, Phoenix psychically overhears a message sent from the Brood Empress to Hannah Connover, a minister’s wife in a nearby town. The duo follows the psychic trail, leading Phoenix to realize that Hannah is actually a Brood Queen. After turning to her faith in God, Hannah fought against the Brood infection and has tried to maintain her humanity. The Brood Empress sends an army of Brood assassins to kill the defiant Hannah. Their attack leads the humans Hannah infected to become Brood and defend their queen. The fight is soon interrupted by the newly arrived X-Men. After defeating the assassins, Wolverine advocates killing Hannah before she fully becomes a Brood. Realizing that she’s created an army of Brood-humans, Hannah asks the X-Men to kill her.

Continuity Notes: This mini is a direct sequel to a Claremont/Silvestri storyline that began in Uncanny X-Men #232. Hannah Connover is the wife of William Connover, head of the Glory Day Ministry and the “first major religious figure to align himself with mutant rights.” A Brood-infected human named Josey Thomas cured Hannah’s arthritis and gave her “healing” powers that actually infected people with the Brood. Josey Thomas is jealous that Hannah is a Brood Queen, and points the Brood assassins towards her. The Brood kill Josey because she’s been tainted by contact with the rebellious queen.

Where exactly this fits in continuity is a bit unclear. An editorial note says that it takes place before the “Onslaught” crossover, which was recently completed when the mini was actually published. I place it right after Bishop got his haircut in the X-Babies storyline (X-Men #46-#47). It can’t take place much later than this, as Wolverine isn’t in his (sigh) feral dog-state.

Bishop wonders if Hannah might be the first of a new race of Brood. He claims that there are several factions of the Brood in the future, including benign ones.

Beast says this is his first encounter with the Brood, which ignores his role in the X-Men/Ghost Rider crossover, which had the Brood infecting Gambit’s family.

Review: I’m not sure what the genesis of the limited series is, outside of the fact that Marvel was pushing out X-related minis and one-shots like crazy during this era. The format is a little strange, as it’s two issues with forty-eight pages each and no ads. It seems like something that should’ve been in a bookshelf format, even though it isn’t. Maybe the collapse of the comics market made Marvel skittish about the more expensive format.

Regardless of its origins, this is a self-contained story that isn’t earth-shattering, but does use the characters well and picks up on a long-forgotten plotline from the later Claremont years. In some ways, it’s very reminiscent of an ‘80s Marvel comic, as all of the cast is introduced in tidy narrative captions, characters have long inner-monologues explaining their deep conflicts, and the threat of nasty aliens coming to Earth is treated as serious drama. Hitch’s art, along with Neary’s inks, is also reminiscent of something Marvel might’ve published ten years prior to the mini’s release. Thankfully, a feeble Image or manga clone wasn’t used, and this is Hitch before the photo-referencing days. Some of the dialogue is pretty stilted, and perhaps added later by editorial (Cannonball: “Shoot! Wasn’t all that long ago Ah didn’t know how t’land mahself, and here I am pilotin’ a big ol’ jet. Times are strange!”), but Ostrander handles most of the cast well enough. He also makes Hannah Connover and her husband sympathetic characters, and paces the story so that all of the necessary exposition is covered while the plot keeps rolling. I think Ostrander’s work for the X-office only consists of this and a few issues of X-Man, but it seems like his style would’ve worked out well on one of the main titles.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

This Time, It’s Personal

I’ve spent the last few months acquiring numerous new-to-me X-books from the 1990s. Most of these are from around 1996-1998, which covers everything from Joe Casey’s Cable to forgotten cash-grabs like the Beast miniseries. My new goal for the site is to spend one month on the X-books, then alternate it with a month dedicated to another series or franchise (the most recent reviews should give you an idea of what’s ahead). There is a staggering amount of mid-90s X-material I’ve never read, or didn’t even know existed, so I shouldn’t run out of material for a while. For better or worse, spending two years reviewing the ‘90s X-family left me with a desire to properly finish the job, so that’s my plan for the foreseeable future. And even if I finish all of this material, I still haven’t read most of the Wolverine serials in Marvel Comics Presents, or the various mutant guest appearances from throughout the ‘90s. But you guys wouldn’t want me to go that far, would you?

Monday, December 21, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #16 - November 1991

Sabotage - Part One

Credits: Todd McFarlane (artist/writer), Chris Eliopoulos (letterer), Gregory Wright (colors)

Summary: Spider-Man swings past the World Trade Center, just as Black Tom detonates the top floor of one of the towers. Spider-Man assists X-Force against Black Tom’s partner, Juggernaut, as Cable and Gideon argue over what to do next. After Shatterstar stabs Juggernaut in the eye, he lashes out and plows into one of the towers. The building lands on top of the heroes, yet they emerge ready to fight again.

Creative Differences: In future years, McFarlane will cite Marvel’s demand that he redraw Juggernaut getting stabbed in the eye as the final straw before he quit. In this issue, he says he’s leaving the book for the foreseeable future to spend time with his newborn daughter. There’s certainly no mention of McFarlane helping to form a new comics company.

Panel Count: Fifty-three panels.

I Love the ‘90s: This feels like the tenth comic I’ve reviewed that features the World Trade Center.

Where’s Felix? : There’s a tiny Felix head in the debris during the Juggernaut fight.

Review: This is the Spider-Man chapter of “Sabotage,” the crossover that ran through fellow modern classics X-Force #3 and X-Force #4. Like X-Force #4, this issue is drawn sideways, which is a gimmick that occasionally works during the Juggernaut fight, but often feels pointless. While McFarlane works in a few dynamic shots of Spider-Man, his interpretation of X-Force leaves a lot to be desired. It’s not much of a shock that McFarlane has rarely drawn team books, since he struggles with an awkward, lumpy interpretation of the mutant team on almost every page they appear.

Most of the dialogue consists of typical tough guy fight prattle, but it occasionally reaches the level of inexcusably bad. After Juggernaut refers to him as “Tonto,” Warpath replies, “Why does it not surprise me that your evil also includes racism? Looking to make yourself better at the expense of others.” There is one decent dialogue exchange between the original, tool-ish Cable and Gideon. Gideon questions why anyone is following Cable, pointing out that Cable doesn’t seem to particularly care about the civilian causalities and just wants to continue the fight. I think we were supposed to question the New Mutants’ decision to follow Cable originally, but it’s an idea that got lost as X-Force was swallowed into a sea of stereotypical‘90s awfulness.

So, this is how Todd McFarlane exits Spider-Man, and Marvel Comics. Even when Marvel and Image began doing crossovers in the ‘90s, McFarlane didn’t participate. McFarlane’s Spawn has teamed up with Batman on a few occasions (another crossover was announced a few years ago, although that announcement is a distant memory now), but he seems adamant about staying away from Spider-Man. One of Joe Quesada’s earliest publicity stunts after taking over Marvel was to publicly offer a Spider-Man/Spawn team up to McFarlane, on the condition that he draw it himself (I believe Quesada said he’d do the Marvel chapter with Kevin Smith, making this the holy grail of unbelievably late comics). Apparently, this only served to annoy McFarlane. Reading this series, it seems obvious that whatever affection McFarlane has for Spider-Man is overshadowed by his desire to draw hideous monsters, graphic violence, and other material that doesn’t particularly suit the character. I’m sure McFarlane is grateful for the recognition Spider-Man brought him, but I doubt he’s spent more than a second thinking about the character since leaving this book.

Friday, December 18, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #15 - October 1991

The Mutant Factor

Credits: Erik Larsen (artist/writer), Chris Eliopoulos (letterer), Gregory Wright (colors)

Summary: After discussing the possibility of having a child with Mary Jane, Spider-Man travels to ESU to speak with the Beast after a genetics lecture. Spider-Man and the Beast team up to stop a mutant terrorist and anti-mutant extremist at the college. Afterwards, Beast explains the various complications Spider-Man’s radioactive blood could cause during pregnancy. Their conversation is interrupted by another mutant’s rampage. Eventually, the mutant reverts back into a small boy when he sees his parents. Beast explains to the parents that a facility called the Nursery can help the boy. Spider-Man returns home, learning that Mary Jane is also unsure about having children. The couple decides to wait.

Continuity Notes: The mutant terrorist in this issue is a prototype for the Savage Dragon character Rapture. I don’t see a name for her here, but she later showed up during Larsen’s Wolverine run as Powerhouse. Peter and MJ’s conversation at the end of the issue about knowing when the time is right to have a child is somewhat amusing, given that MJ just showed up pregnant when it was convenient for the plot during the clone imbroglio.

Approved By The Comics Code Authority: Both Mary Jane and the Rapture-prototype are wearing thongs.

Creative Differences: The Bullpen Bulletins describes this issue as an “X-Men parody,” which isn’t accurate. I vaguely recall reading that this was supposed to be a humor issue, but have no idea how this specific story ended up here.

Panel Count: Eighty-two panels, which puts Larsen somewhere in-between McFarlane and Sal Buscema’s usual averages.

Where’s Felix?: No Felix, as this isn’t a McFarlane issue. Larsen used to hide Betty Boops, but I don’t see one.

Review: McFarlane’s one issue away from quitting, but this fill-in came about due to an injury he received while playing semi-professional baseball. Larsen took this issue as an opportunity to address the baby question, which hadn’t been raised in the titles since Spider-Man was married four years prior. It’s a nice starting place for a story, and Larsen manages to work the Beast in as a logical guest star and have the superhero action tie in with Spidey’s insecurities over having children. Back when everyone had the crazy idea that there should be a forward momentum in the Marvel Universe, you could have this type of question raised in a story and actually get some mileage out of it. Of course, it’s the kind of story you can’t do if you’re twisting Spider-Man into some sort of perpetual slacker screw-up; although Marvel’s current interpretation of the character is so bizarre, I wonder how long it’s going to be before they give him a pregnancy scare anyway.

Larsen had a reputation as a McFarlane knock-off artist in the early ‘90s, which wasn’t totally fair. He did follow some of the superficial details of McFarlane’s style, like the borders-around-panels gimmick and some other layout tricks, but his figure drawing didn’t resemble McFarlane’s. They’re both drawing a big-eyed, “spidery” version of Spider-Man, but Larsen’s interpretation is kind of an amalgam of Steve Ditko, Walt Simonson, and maybe a little Sal Buscema. His Spider-Man has some exaggerated anatomy, but his head isn’t three sizes too large for his body. Larsen can also draw Spidey, and the other characters, consistently from panel to panel, which often seemed like a struggle for McFarlane. Larsen always seemed like the strongest writer of the original Image creators, so I’m not surprised that this a little better than your average fill-in. Everyone’s in character, the story has a point, and there’s enough room for the action sequences. This is the best story in the series so far, and it didn’t even have to be stretched out over five issues.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #14 - September 1991

Sub-City - Part Two

Credits: Todd McFarlane (artist/writer), Rick Parker (letterer), Gregory Wright (colors)

Summary: Spider-Man convinces the naïve sewer-dwellers to take him to their leader. He discovers Morbius now rules over the rejects, ordering them to deliver him humans for sustenance. After fighting Morbius, Spider-Man finally convinces him to ask his subjects where they’re finding his victims. Morbius, who thought his victims were criminals, learns that the sewer-people consider all city-dwellers “bad ones.” Distraught, Morbius flies away. Spider-Man leaves the rejects in the charge of their former leader.

Continuity Notes: I’m assuming Morbius last appeared in one of Dr. Strange’s numerous short-lived series (I’ll guess volume…three?). According to this issue, Morbius had been living with Dr. Strange until his quest for blood began to drive him insane.

Panel Count: We’re back to a less than three panel-per-page average, as this issue has fifty-six panels.

Where’s Felix? : Felix seems to be missing this issue.

Review: Maybe this story was popular around Marvel’s offices, since Morbius received his own solo book within a year or so. You can see another Spawn prototype this issue, as Morbius is given a cloak that’s virtually identical to the one Spawn will soon wear. McFarlane does succeed in making Morbius at least somewhat visually interesting, which is a step-up from his usual appearances.

I totally forgot McFarlane made two Spider-Man villains insane. I don’t think future Morbius stories played up the insanity bit, but it’s still disappointing that McFarlane went back to the “ah, he’s crazy” motivation so soon. I remember liking this story as a kid, since it actually made Morbius’ internal conflict seem interesting to me for the first time. I think the idea that Morbius has given in to his bloodlust and is now just choosy about his victims was revived in his solo series, so maybe McFarlane ended up contributing something to the character after all. Reading this today, I see that it’s filled with terrible dialogue (“You think it’s easy for me to prey on others for survival? Then curse you!!”), and the ending is unintentionally hilarious. After learning that his victims were actually innocent homeless people, Morbius shouts, “Noooooo! What have I become?” as he flies away, reminiscent of Conan O’Brien’s future done-to-death joke character, Cody Devereaux.

Monday, December 14, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #13 - August 1991

Sub-City - Part One

Credits: Todd McFarlane (artist/writer/letterer), Gregory Wright (colors)

Summary: Keever, a large man from the sewers, is kidnapping homeless people. While investigating the disappearances, Spider-Man chases Keever into the sewers but is flanked by an army of sewer dwellers. Convinced that his red costume is too noticeable, Spider-Man switches back to his black outfit. Returning to the sewers, he’s attacked again by the natives. Their new leader, Morbius, declares that he must pay a price.

I Love the ‘90s: Mary Jane refers to Peter as “homeboy.” Spider-Man also declares that he should do TV ads, like “Paula and M. C.,” for donuts.

Panel Count: Eighty-five panels, which is an increase from the “Perceptions” storyline.

Production Note: Todd McFarlane is credited for lettering this issue, although it looks pretty consistent with the previous issues (a major exception is the way McFarlane draws thought balloons, which look they’re made out of wavy lines instead of clouds). It’s my understanding that McFarlane is left-handed, and lefties couldn’t letter comics back in the hand-lettering days. As explained in the letters page of Punisher War Zone #8: "The reason there are no left-handed letterers is that the left hand would drag over the ink that was just written on the page. The ink that is put on the page has to dry before it can be touched and that takes approximately seven seconds."

Where’s Felix? : Peter and MJ have a Felix vase. Spider-Man also eats “Felix Hut” brand donuts.

Approved By The Comics Code Authority: If you look closely, it’s obvious Peter is pulling down MJ’s shirt as he talks about a “kinky” tickle game.

Miscellaneous Note: The “71” under McFarlane’s signature represents the number of spiders on the cover.

Review: This is the probably the closest McFarlane can get to a “light-hearted” Spider-Man story. It mostly takes place at night, most of the characters are freaky, inbred sewer people, and the villain is a vampire, but at least there aren’t any dead kids or disembowelments. It’s a simple plot about Morbius manipulating some misfits into collecting homeless bums for him to feed on, which is a reasonable starting place for a story. If you’re wondering if these sewer-dwellers have anything to do with the Morlocks, their original leader has a helpful monologue explaining that his group has been underground since ’62, and their ranks have been decimated by the Morlocks over the years. It seems like the Morlocks would’ve worked just as well for the story, but I guess McFarlane didn’t want to deal with any continuity issues with the X-books. The character of Keever (a fat man with terrible teeth who thinks he’s a lot funnier than he really is) seems to be a prototype of Clown/Violator from Spawn. The formulaic “we shouldn’t just ignore the homeless” message also shows up again in Spawn (although Spawn never seemed to do anything to help his homeless friends).

The big selling point of this storyline is seeing Spider-Man back in his black costume. From what I’ve read, McFarlane didn’t care for the black outfit and pushed for a return to the original costume when he worked on Amazing, so it’s a little surprising to see that he was the first to revive it. I’m sure many people thought that this would finally be the Venom issue of McFarlane’s book, but it wasn’t meant to be. (I think David Michelinie was still the only one allowed to write the character during this era. Yes, there was a time when Venom was only allowed to appear in one book.) McFarlane, to his credit, doesn’t ignore MJ’s aversion to the black costume (due to her earlier encounter with Venom), so he spends a few pages having Peter justify wearing it to her. Of course, his justification turns out to be a crock, since his claim that he needs it for “stealth” is contradicted by the giant white eyes and spider-emblems. This is briefly acknowledged in a single thought balloon (Spidey essentially thinks, “Oops!”), but it’s such a massive plot hole I’m surprised no one called for a rewrite. So, we’ve got a thin plot with a giant plot hole. The story’s more fun to read than most of the previous issues, but you really have to turn your brain off this time.

Friday, December 11, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #12 - July 1991

Perceptions - Conclusion

Credits: Todd McFarlane (artist/writer), Scott Williams (ink assists), Rick Parker (letterer), Gregory Wright (colors)

Summary: Wolverine convinces Spider-Man to watch over Wendigo in the forest while he investigates the town. After picking up the murderer’s scent, he calls police to the woods. While Spider-Man webs up the approaching policemen, Wolverine grabs Luke Thorpe, the famous hunter. He tells Inspector Krahn that Thorpe is the killer. Wolverine pretends to stab Thorpe, then reveals to Krahn that he knows that he is actually the killer. Krahn confesses, divulging that he incited the media hysteria and pointed clues towards Wendigo as a distraction. He tries to escape, but is killed by a hunter who mistakes him for Bigfoot. Wolverine gives Thorpe a tape of Krahn’s confession, which ends the media circus. As Wolverine recovers the remaining bodies, Spider-Man returns home.

Panel Count: Seventy-eight panels.

Where’s Felix? : It’s another issue without a Felix. I imagine it was harder for McFarlane to work them in during the issues that mainly took place in the forest.

Review: Okay, Todd. Are you through with dead kids now? (Answer: No.) The last few issues seemed a bit rushed, and this one is no exception. McFarlane’s inking style has drastically changed from his normally elaborate look, as he now goes for more shadows and abstract lines. This puts the colorist in an awkward position since it’s not obvious when lines are supposed to begin and end, giving much of the issue an unattractive, blurry look. McFarlane’s intricate page layouts are also gone, as most of the issue is giant panels and splash pages intercut with tiny panels that are forced to carry the actual story.

This is the big finale, and it wastes the first seven pages with Spider-Man and Wolverine bickering with one another. When Spider-Man grows tired of taking orders from Wolverine, we even get the cliché sight of Wolverine popping two claws near Spider-Man’s head and threatening to unleash the third under his chin (seriously, including the various media incarnations of Wolverine, I wonder how many times we’ve seen that one). The tough guy posturing serves no real point, outside of making Spider-Man seem unnecessarily wimpy. After that, the task of actually resolving the mystery begins. McFarlane rushes through a lot of this, saving the actual revelation of the murderer and his confession for a cramped page. If there weren’t so many gratuitous splash pages and giant panels of Spider-Man and Wolverine posing, maybe this scene could’ve carried some dramatic weight, but this is what we get.

If this entire arc was really supposed to be a murder mystery, it never even bothered to give us credible suspects. The only two characters that could be the killer are Thorpe and Krahn, and both have barely appeared before this issue (Krahn’s name was even spelled differently in a previous issue). It’s also been established since the second chapter that the police have been behaving strangely, so it’s not much of a shock that a cop is the killer. On top of that, Spider-Man has had literally nothing to do for the past three chapters. Wolverine’s taken over the case, and now Spidey is stuck babysitting Wendigo or wasting his time contacting the authorities. That wouldn’t be so bad if this was appearing in Wolverine, but it’s a five-part story in a new Spider-Man series. It’s a pretty shoddy way to treat your lead character.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #11 - June 1991

Perceptions - Part Four

Credits: Todd McFarlane (story & pencils), Todd McFarlane & Rick Magyar (inks), Rick Parker (letterer), Gregory Wright (colors)

Summary: Peter Parker tries to convince Anna Brooks, Melvin Gooner, and the authorities that a man is responsible for the killings, but his inability to name his source leads all of them to dismiss him. In the woods, Wendigo succumbs to his gunshot wound. Wolverine uses his claws to remove the bullet, then asks Wendigo to help him find another body. Soon, they discover the body of a third boy.

I Love the‘90s: After praising Greg Wright’s colors, Todd McFarlane asks readers in the letters page to write to Marvel in support of computer coloring. Editor Jim Salicrup isn’t sure if the readers will know what McFarlane is talking about.

Panel Count: Sixty-four panels this issue.

Where’s Felix?: I couldn’t find a Felix in this one.

Review: If you thought the last issue was mostly filler, this one proves just what padding is all about. For yet another issue, Spider-Man only appears for some web-slinging shots while in-between Peter Parker’s errands, while Wolverine gets the action. The “action” in this installment just consists of watching Wendigo fall over and then performing surgery on him. The idea that no one will listen to Peter because he can’t name a source is classic Spider-Man, but there’s barely anything else going on in these scenes. McFarlane is trying to make a statement about the media, one that now seems pretty quaint. Spidey muses that the press only cares about the story because a “Bigfoot” is involved, and that no one would pay attention to a standard missing kid story. Oh, Todd. You couldn’t have predicted a dozen twenty-four hour news channels, could you? I suspect this issue was another rush job, as Rick Magyar shows up to ink the first half (plus, at least a few of the original art pages don't have lettering, which apparently happened when a book was late). McFarlane’s art often drops out his trademark detail lines, leaving characters as half-shadows, occasionally standing in front of non-existent backgrounds.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #10 - May 1991

Perceptions - Part Three

Credits: Todd McFarlane (penciler/writer), Todd McFarlane w/Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Scott Williams, & Rick Magyar (inkers), Rick Parker (letterer), Gregory Wright (colors)

Summary: The police officers flee from the enraged Wendigo. Wolverine distracts Wendigo, allowing the remaining policeman to escape. Wendigo realizes that Wolverine doesn’t mean him harm and abandons the fight. In town, Wolverine recognizes Spider-Man’s scent. He arranges to meet Spider-Man in the woods, where he explains that Wendigo is innocent. The scent of a man was on both bodies, and Wendigo’s scent was only on the body of the boy he found. Spider-Man teams up with Wolverine to stop the real murderer.

We Get Letters: McFarlane reveals that several guest inkers pinched in to help him during an illness. He promises to reward the first fan who correctly identifies which page each inker did with a page of original art. The only style I can confidently identify is Rob Liefeld’s, since the inking on a few pages is virtually identical to the early X-Force style. I wonder if the guest inkers had anything to do with Spider-Man’s word balloons going back to their non-McFarlane style this issue.

Panel Count: Fifty panels, the lowest number yet.

Where’s Felix?: Peter sleeps in Felix the Cat boxers. Melvin Gooner wants a pair.

Review: This, rather obviously, was put together during a deadline rush (the first page mainly consists of a Wolverine silhouette against a black background). The only plot advancements come from Wolverine convincing Spider-Man that Wendigo is innocent, and another hint that the police are aggravating the media hype. It’s also contains some of the worst dialogue in the series so far, leading me to believe that McFarlane didn’t have time to go back and polish this up. (Wolverine gets the most egregious lines: “Okay, then let’s go catch us a murderer!” “It’s the killings!” in response to Spider-Man asking why he’s in Canada. “I wanted to put on something that reminded me of a time when I didn’t know you!” “A few dead kids and all sense of reasoning disappears.” And, my favorite, “Curse my conscious.”)

After his run-in with Wendigo, Wolverine replaces his brown costume with his early yellow outfit. This might’ve influenced Jim Lee to permanently change Wolverine’s costume back, which seemed to be a popular move at the time. This is the outfit Wolverine wore during the classic Claremont/Cockrum and Claremont/Byrne issues of Uncanny X-Men, so it’s understandable that a lot of fans had nostalgic ties to it. Even though I liked the return of the yellow outfit, in retrospect I have to acknowledge that the brown costume is a superior design. Later artists screwed up the triangle-shape Byrne drew on Wolverine’s chest, but even when it became a brown stripe, it still worked. The brown costume, in a roundabout way, was revived in the X-Men Evolution cartoon and Ultimate X-Men series, but Marvel seems determined to stick with a variation of the yellow outfit. At any rate, if McFarlane was a fan of the early Wolverine appearances, surely he knew that Wendigo really was a nasty beast who did things like kill (and eat) innocent kids. Maybe later Wendigo stories established something else (I’m not sure what happened in-between Wendigo being cured in Uncanny X-Men around 1980 and this comic), but it’s a jarring transition. McFarlane’s using the character to make a heavy-handed point about humans being crueler than animals, but he’s conveniently forgetting that this sweet animal has been portrayed as a kiddie-eater in the past.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #9 - April 1991

Perceptions - Part Two

Credits: Todd McFarlane (pencils/inks/story), Rick Parker (letterer), Gregory Wright (colors)

Summary: Wolverine continues to dissuade hunters, while Peter Parker and Melvin Gooner discuss the case. Melvin wonders why the police are leaking info and creating more hysteria. Peter comes across an old man who accuses Wendigo of being the media’s “Bigfoot.” After spying on her argument with Inspector Keahn, Peter shares the Wendigo information with Anna Brooks. In the woods, Wolverine comes across more dead bodies. Nearby, acclaimed hunter Luke Thorpe and local police have found Wendigo. A policeman shoots him, angering the beast.

Panel Count: Seventy-nine panels this issue.

Commercial Break: On the back of this comic about child murders is an ad for Trix cereal. Silly rabbit.

Where’s Felix? : Melvin is using Felix Ketchup to pour on his donuts. (He's supposed to be wacky.)

Review: This is a very Wolverine-centric issue that only features Spider-Man (in costume) when he web-slings back and forth from where he needs to go. McFarlane’s take on Wolverine is a little strange, as we’re now supposed to believe that Wolverine is a diehard animal rights activist. I understand that the hunters in the story are irrationally killing animals out of fear, which probably is something Wolverine would condemn. However, the dialogue makes it seem as if Wolverine is opposed to all hunting, which is incongruous with the character’s usual portrayal (there’s an issue of Wolverine from around this era that opens with him ripping apart a boar hog). Visually, McFarlane can draw some cool Wolverine shots, but only when his costume is obscured by shadows. As evidenced by the cover, his interpretation of the brown costume is just a little awkward.

Even though the Wolverine scenes don’t work, Spider-Man is handled well. Melvin Gooner is the latest in a long line of faceless Daily Bugle reporters, but McFarlane succeeds in giving him a little bit of a personality. Peter’s conversation with Anna Brooks is also nicely done, emphasizing his guilt over Gwen’s death and his love for Mary Jane. When he’s working with established characters, I think McFarlane does have the capability to humanize his cast, which is something I don’t recall him pulling off in Spawn. As for the murder storyline, this issue establishes the idea that Wendigo might be innocent, and introduces hunter Luke Thorpe, presumably as a red herring. The hints that someone in the police department is up to no good are about as subtle as a kick to the face, though.

Monday, December 7, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #8 - March 1991

Perceptions - Part One

Credits: Todd McFarlane (artist/writer), Rick Parker (letterer), Gregory Wright (colors)

Summary: A reporter, Anna Brooks, accidentally crashes into Wendigo on a road in rural Canada. Wendigo flees, leaving behind the body of a murdered boy. A media circus begins, leading the Daily Bugle to send Peter Parker and reporter Melvin Gooner to investigate. The hysteria swells when the body of a second boy is found. Hunters begin killing numerous animals, hoping to execute the child-killing beast. Wolverine arrives, stopping a group of misguided hunters.

Approved By The Comics Code Authority: Well, there are shots of a naked, decomposing DEAD KID.

Panel Count: Seventy-eight panels this issue. Another “less-than-four-per-page” average.

Where’s Felix? : Melvin, the goofy reporter Peter is paired with, reads a Felix comic on the airplane.

I Love the ‘90s: Peter is glad MJ is taping The Simpsons and Twin Peaks while he’s in Canada.

Review: In case the previous storyline didn’t give you your dose of terrible things done to children, we now have an arc dedicated to dead boys. Letting a novice writer deal with this material is a dangerous proposition, but this specific issue doesn't feel too trashy, and it raises (perhaps inadvertently) a legitimate question. Should this type of material be in a Spider-Man story? Is any Spidey story with dead kids automatically a bad Spidey story? McFarlane’s defense when called out on this in a later letter column is that this is the fourth Spider-Man book, and the dark approach is what sets it apart from the other titles. It’s an odd selling point (“this is the Spidey book with superhero adventures, this is the one with street-level action, this is the one with DEAD KIDS”), but it’s not the first time Marvel tried the idea. A few years earlier, Peter David’s run on Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man was supposed to be the darker, more adult book that dealt with serial killers and the like. This is the post-Watchmen comics landscape, and I guess it was inevitable that this type of material would make it into Spider-Man comics. The presence of this relentless gloom and gore in mainstream superhero comics over twenty years later is what bothers me. It’s one thing to fall in with a trend that seemed novel and different at the time, it’s another to keep beating the dead horse years after you’ve chased a mainstream audience away.

McFarlane isn’t an obvious choice to tell a sensitive story about child murders, especially since he’s already declared that he doesn’t consider himself a real writer. It’s also not a good sign when the only Spider-Man action we see in this issue is Spidey webbing a thug up several stories above a trash heap, then letting him fall when he refuses to confess to a mugging. (Of course, Todd’s the guy who went on to receive complaint letters from Amnesty International, so I guess this shouldn’t be much of a shock.) What’s surprising is that, in this issue at least, the mature subject matter is handled delicately. Most of the issue has first-person narration from Anna Brooks, the reporter who found the first boy. It gets a little overblown, but the majority of her narration is handled well. Her grief over the murders, her commitment to doing her job, and her guilt over the role she played in creating the media circus are all communicated very effectively. It’s a shame McFarlane went back to the purple prose when writing Spawn, because I think this issue shows that even in his earliest scripts, he was capable of going in different direction. I also like the phone conversation between Peter and MJ, where he admits that he had to leave the room and cry when he saw photos of the dead boy. I don’t really like the idea of Spider-Man starring in a story like this, but those character moments make it at least tolerable.

As delicately as McFarlane might’ve dealt with the material in the first issue, it’s worrying that a brazenly commercial guest star is being dropped into the story. Wolverine’s probably one of the few heroes who should be starring in this type of story, so I guess it’s not totally inappropriate, but it does feel strange that we’re getting the obligatory ‘90s Wolverine team-up in a DEAD KIDS story. His giant splash page entrance doesn’t even look that great, since McFarlane makes the brown stripe on his chest too skinny and his belt and trunks too large (this is the closest thing I could find to a scan). At any rate, the rest of this storyline doesn't exactly work (by the time you get to the final issue, it's pretty messy), but I’ll give the first installment credit for being better than I expected.

Image via

Friday, December 4, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #7 - February 1991

Masques - Part Two

Credits: Todd McFarlane (artist/writer), Jim Novak (letterer), Gregory Wright (colors)

Summary: Ghost Rider arrives, interrupting Spider-Man’s fight with the Hobgoblin. Spider-Man warns Ghost Rider to watch out for Adam, but he doesn’t seem to listen. During the fight, Ghost Rider knocks Hobgoblin unconscious after he grabs the boy, causing Adam minor injuries. Ghost Rider leaves, ignoring Spider-Man’s lecture on heroism.

Panel Count: Fifty-nine panels. That averages out to less than three panels per page.

Where’s Felix? : For the second issue in a row, I don’t see a Felix.

Review: It’s a big fight issue, although McFarlane tries to add depth with some tacked on messages about true heroism. I appreciate that he’s trying to make the stories about more than the surface-level plot, but this is just too ham-fisted and obvious. I’ve only read a few Ghost Rider comics from this era, but it seems to me like he’s not even in-character. Was Ghost Rider ever one of those anti-heroes who just wanted to massacre villains and didn’t care about the bystanders?

The fight scene’s choreography also leaves a lot to be desired. Most of the page layouts just consist of a page divided in two by giant panels, and the characters often seem to be posing instead of moving. I can’t even make out how the Hobgoblin is defeated, as he just falls over before the Ghost Rider seems to reach him on his motorcycle. (By the way, I haven’t mentioned yet that I always thought remaking the Hobgoblin into a religious freak was a dumb idea, and it only got worse when later writers tried to deal with his new personality.) I will give McFarlane credit for the Hobgoblin’s new glider, which is now a literal goblin made of fire. It looks amazing, and it’s the type of thing the Hobgoblin should’ve been doing with his new powers.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #6 - January 1991

Masques - Part One

Credits: Todd McFarlane (artist/writer), Rick Parker (letterer), Bob Sharen (colors)

Summary: Believing that he’s doing the Lord’s work, a deranged Hobgoblin kills random citizens. Hobgoblin takes a boy, Adam, as his ward when Adam is willing to look him directly in the face. Spider-Man and Ghost Rider hunt for Hobgoblin, with Spider-Man locating him first. During the fight, Adam emerges from the shadows, asking Spider-Man to leave Hobgoblin alone. Half of Adam’s face is now scarred like the Hobgoblin’s.

Continuity Notes: The Hobgoblin was given a demon’s face and powers during the “Inferno” crossover. In this issue, he’s driven insane by his new face, while in his previous appearances in Spectacular Spider-Man, he enjoyed his new look.

Approved By The Comics Code Authority: While searching for Hobgoblin, Spider-Man pours out his informant’s cocaine on the ground. Webbed up, the addict is forced to watch as the powder blows away. Also, Ghost Rider is terrorizing a man who produces child pornography and then kills the children.

Panel Count: Eighty-one panels this issue. In this month’s Spectacular Spider-Man, Sal Buscema produced 131 panels (124 if you discount the twenty-third page, since this issue only has twenty-two).

Where’s Felix?: I couldn’t find a Felix in this one.

Review: A deranged monster killing innocent people and scarring a little kid, a cigarette-smoking detective making weary remarks about superheroes, trashy street people, and a splash page of the hero on top of a cross-shaped structure intercut with news reports commenting on the story. It’s hard not to view this as a proto-Spawn story, isn’t it? The book grows even darker, introducing child mutilation of all things into the mix. The pretentious narrative captions are gone, leaving McFarlane with only dialogue and pictures to tell his story. There’s an entirely silent page that mainly consists of Peter and MJ hugging in bed that I’m sure would’ve been covered in ridiculous prose a few issues earlier. This page, along with a gratuitous splash of Spider-Man jumping out of the window, are more examples of the questionable padding that even bothered me as a young McFarlane fan. They’re not totally worthless, though, as the Peter/MJ page is used as a transition piece (The Hobgoblin hugging Adam is mirrored by Peter hugging MJ, which leads to a shot of Peter’s costume on the floor, which leads to a close-up of the spider emblem, which leads to a close-up of a spider that dangles from the rooftop the Ghost Rider is standing on. McFarlane loves his scene transitions.), and the splash page at least has a meta-joke about the amount of webbing Spider-Man always shot out during the McFarlane issues.

Artistically, this is McFarlane’s strongest issue yet. Hobgoblin’s gratuitously long and tattered cape is another Spawn prototype, and his evil eyes and horrid teeth thrilled me as a kid. Aside from the adolescent kewl factor, there’s some subtle work going on. The facial expressions of Adam’s mother, which range from terror, disgust, to absolute fear, are executed extremely well. This is a vast improvement over McFarlane’s earlier, lumpy work in Amazing Spider-Man. He also excels with Ghost Rider, having a field day with all of the fire effects. If McFarlane was born to draw anything, it’s a flaming skeleton riding a flaming motorcycle.

The lettering experimentation continues. Rather than using more turgid captions to explicitly detail Hobgoblin’s descent into madness, the opening pages instead have scattered, purple balloons without pointers that represent the voices in his head. It’s also obvious in this issue that Spider-Man will have a different balloon shape while in costume (he barely spoke aloud in the first arc, so it wasn’t very noticeable). Beneath each balloon is a tiny cloud shape, followed by a wavy pointer. I assume it’s supposed to represent the fact that Spider-Man’s voice sounds different under the mask, and it’s a gimmick I really liked as a kid. Since Rick Parker didn’t do this in the other Spidey books he lettered, I’m assuming that McFarlane was drawing the balloons and Parker filled in the letters later. All of the visual gimmicks are fine, but there are only so many ways you can distract from such a razor-thin plot.

Monday, November 30, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #5 - December 1990

Torment - Part Five

Credits: Todd McFarlane (artist/writer), Rick Parker (letterer), Bob Sharen (colors)

Summary: Rescue workers race to the scene of the explosion, narrowly avoiding an accident with Mary Jane’s taxi. Spider-Man, Lizard, and Calypso all avoid the brunt of the explosion and continue to fight. In desperation, Spider-Man throws metal chains around the Lizard, breaking his neck. Calypso decides to torment Spider-Man another day and forces the rest of the building to collapse. A bruised and battered Spider-Man finally returns home, unaware that the Lizard is still alive.

Panel Count: 80 panels this time. Another issue with a less than four panels-per-page average.

Where’s Felix? : Felix is seen on another ad on top of the second taxi MJ takes in this arc.

Who Wants To “Rise Above It All”? : The people of New York, the bimbo who placed a slutty personals ad, the buildings of New York, Kraven the Hunter, the smoke over Kraven’s destroyed home, and finally Spider-Man, who must rise above the unanswered questions of the past day.

Review: Anytime an issue ends with a giant explosion, you know you’re in for a copout, but this is pretty egregious. Spider-Man was standing right in front of the gas line before it erupted last issue, and according to the narrative captions, he didn’t move because he knew he had no time. We now see a disheveled Spider-Man in the aftermath of the blast, so clearly it harmed him in some way, but unbelievably he’s not burned to a crisp. I felt cheated by this as a kid, too.

Up until the last two pages, the entire issue is supposed to take place in five minutes. I guess McFarlane knew how long it would take to actually read the story, so he went with a real-time gimmick. The stylization is supposed to make up for another weak plot, as McFarlane goes to town on the assorted debris, smoke, and fire. The first-person narrative captions are all over the page, drawn at strange angles, in an effort to simulate Spider-Man’s confusion, which is a very effective trick. Spider-Man’s costume is shown in the worst shape I think it’s ever been portrayed by this point (McFarlane believes Sam Raimi based Spider-Man’s look at the end of the first movie on this issue’s cover), which added to the novelty appeal to me as a kid. There is some attempt at characterization, as Spider-Man finally starts to get angry over what’s happened to him in the past few hours, and MJ starts to wonder if Peter always feels this anxious after her near car accident. (McFarlane’s gone out of his way to insert MJ into this story, in part because he probably enjoys drawing her, but this being the early years of the marriage, it was common in all of the books for several pages just to be devoted to MJ). The main story receives virtually no resolution, as the villain just throws up her arms and disappears under a pile of debris. If you have a Master’s Degree in Obscure Spider-Man Villains, you might recognize her as Calypso, but she’s never identified in the actual story, nor does Spidey recognize her (which probably fits with continuity, since I don't think the two characters had met face-to-face at this point).

I had mixed feelings about this book growing up. Initially, I hated McFarlane’s artwork because it looked so different from the standard Romita-style Spider-Man I saw everywhere else (it didn’t help that one of the first McFarlane covers I saw was the one with a highly distorted Spider-Man reflected in Mysterio’s bowl-head). I gradually started to get into Amazing Spider-Man through the initial Venom storylines, and found myself gravitating towards McFarlane’s imaginative page layouts and overall quirkiness. I also had never seen anyone ink like McFarlane, as every object seemed to have an odd texture and every page was covered in heavy, dark lines. By the time this new series was announced, I eagerly anticipated it for months. A lot of that had to do with being a naïve kid who bought into the hype, but I was still a genuine fan. Actually reading the series, I wondered why there were so many splash pages and giant panels, and why I was paying extra for a comic that was a much quicker read than the rest of Marvel’s line. The letters page ran letters from people openly mocking McFarlane’s writing ability, which is something I’d never seen Marvel do before. Yet, I faithfully purchased each issue. I wanted a McFarlane Spider-Man comic, and there it was every month. I’d never read such a dark series before, or a Spider-Man comic without subplots or a supporting cast. It felt more like a movie and less like a TV show, and I think I bought into the idea that it was more “artistic” than the rest of Marvel’s books. This specific issue was probably the biggest letdown of the entire run, as we were never even told the villain’s name, or given a motivation outside of the Kraven references. The next issue had Hobgoblin and Ghost Rider, though, so I couldn’t wait.

Friday, November 27, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #4 - November 1990

Torment - Part Four

Credits: Todd McFarlane (artist/writer/colorist), Rick Parker (letterer)

Summary: Spider-Man flashes back to the day Kraven the Hunter buried him alive. During a break in his hallucinations he learns that the mystery woman, not Kraven, is standing in front of him. She takes him to her hideout. Spider-Man finally breaks free of his bonds and fights the Lizard once more. They accidentally knock over a firepot, which causes fire to reach a ruptured gas line. The building explodes.

Continuity Notes: The story doesn’t identify her by name, but we see enough of the mystery woman to learn that she is Calypso. Calypso is an obscure character from Denny O’Neil’s brief run who was once Kraven’s lover. She has a flashback to her origin this issue, revealing that she killed her sister in her quest to become a witch. And, just to nitpick, I’ll point out that the narrative caption claims that the Lizard reappeared twenty-four hours ago, yet his murders have appeared on two different Daily Bugle covers since then.

The next issue reveals that Calypso's now-destroyed hideout is Kraven's home. It can't be the same home we saw in "Kraven's Last Hunt" since Spider-Man returned to it during 1994's "Pursuit" crossover, and in a later Spectacular Spider-Man storyline by J. M. DeMatteis.

Approved By The Comics Code Authority: We have a few more tasteful shots of hole-in-his-head Kraven.

Panel Count: Ninety-four panels this issue. The main story is interrupted by Spider-Man’s flashback to his burial, and Calypso’s flashback to her past.

Where’s Felix? : I don’t see Felix in this issue, but there is a bottle of “Cat Beer” in the debris Spider-Man’s buried under during the opening pages. Maybe Felix was removed by Marvel's lawyers.

Review: And now it becomes obvious -- this storyline is a quasi-sequel to “Kraven’s Last Hunt.” It’s not a shock that McFarlane would be attracted to one of the darkest Spider-Man comics ever published; plus it was written in the “artistic" style that McFarlane seems to enjoy so much. If McFarlane’s goal all along was to mirror the somber narrative style of KLH, then perhaps it’s not totally fair to dismiss his writing in this arc as pretentious. Of course, J. M. DeMatteis is generally regarded as a talented writer, and McFarlane was widely viewed as someone who didn’t deserve the job he’d been given. If you’re fully prepared to write off McFarlane as an amateur, seeing him go on a DeMatteis riff is probably enough to make you laugh out loud.

The subtitle to “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is “Fearful Symmetry,” which is also the name of the Watchmen issue that perfectly parallels itself. Perhaps McFarlane was influenced by both when structuring this arc, although it still reads as if he’s leaning towards Alan Moore. Another transition scene is introduced this issue, as the beats of the music in the nightclub Mary Jane visits now mirror the “DOOM DOOM DOOM” beat in Calypso’s lair. I’ve noticed for the first time that another theme also repeats itself, the origin flashback. The three middle chapters of the story all have origin flashbacks (Calypso’s origin story is even presented in a nine-panel Watchmen style grid), which might’ve been a deliberate part of McFarlane’s structure. The opening pages of each issue also have the same page layout, a five-panel opening page with long, skinny panels, followed by a giant double-page splash. McFarlane also uses long, skinny panels throughout the first three chapters of the story, usually to parallel dropping water, blood, and whatever it is Calypso is using in her witchcraft. They start to disappear in this issue, as Spidey meets Calypso for the first time in the story (which may or may not have been intentional). This type of repetition I don’t mind, and it creates the effect McFarlane’s going for more effectively than repeating “Rise Above It All!” in every issue.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #3 - October 1990

Torment - Part Three

Credits: Todd McFarlane (artist/writer), Rick Parker (letterer), Bob Sharen (colors)

Summary: Spider-Man and the Lizard continue their battle, as the mystery priestess casts spells and Mary Jane catches a cab. The priestess orders the Lizard to drop Spider-Man into a pile of trash and leave the fight. Spider-Man, disoriented from the poison, flashes back to his origin. When he awakes, he’s greeted by Kraven the Hunter, with the Lizard standing by his side.

Approved By The Comics Code Authority: We see Kraven with a giant hole in his head (as this takes place after his suicide). There is a cloud of smoke behind him, so it’s possible that someone taking a quick glance at the page might assume the smoke is actually covering part of his face. That’s actually what I thought as a kid, until another kid pointed out to me the gory details you can notice if you look close.

Panel Count: 79. That averages around three and a half panels per page. This includes a two-page origin recap that really has nothing to do with the story.

Where’s Felix? : An ad for a Felix Broadway show appears on top of the taxi MJ is riding in.

Review: Why, it’s the same thing that happened in the last issue. Spider-Man and the Lizard fight, the voodoo lady keeps spilling vials, MJ is out dancing, and the Watchmen transition riff continues. McFarlane now adds some ‘70s-style second-person narration to the mix, so you get caption after caption saying that you are Spider-Man and that you are poisoned and you are responsible for your uncle’s death and you can’t believe that Kraven is alive. Once again, McFarlane’s crazy layouts keep this from being as boring as it should be, but this is badly decompressed by any standard.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #2 - September 1990

Torment - Part Two

Credits: Todd McFarlane (artist/writer), Rick Parker (letterer), Bob Sharen (colors)

Summary: The Lizard continues his killing spree, while Spider-Man examines the morning paper. When he sees the letters “CNNR” spelled in blood at the scene of a murder, he questions if Curt Connors has become the Lizard again. While searching the city, Spider-Man is attacked by the Lizard. During the fight, Spider-Man accidentally impales the Lizard. Spider-Man grows sick, due to the poison on the Lizard’s claws. Suddenly, the rain turns into blood and a resurrected Lizard leaps out of the shadows.

Approved By The Comics Code Authority: One of the Lizard’s victims reads the following from a personals ad: “Will give you pleasure the moment you’re done working. Any place, any style. I guarantee that it will be wild, wet, wonderful and worth it!” There’s also a decent amount of red blood, although the scene that has the Lizard getting impaled is done with black ink, apparently because editorial wanted McFarlane to tone it down.

Panel Count: 97. This is another surprisingly high number. Aside from telling the main story, McFarlane also works in a flashback to the Lizard’s origin, along with a few pages of MJ clubbing. The large panels are also interrupted by smaller panels that begin to appear at a rapid pace, imitating the drumbeats the mysterious voodoo lady hears while casting spells.

Where’s Felix? : Peter Parker eats Felix Jam on his toast, which is used as a transition from the blood dropping from one of the Lizard’s victims.

Review: We reach the point we should’ve reached last issue, as the Lizard finally attacks Spider-Man. McFarlane has Spider-Man pick up on the clue Curt Connors subconsciously left at the murders, but it’s actually pointless since the Lizard is the one who discovers Spider-Man just a few pages later. Maybe this was an intentional misdirection on McFarlane’s part, setting us up for a lengthy search sequence when instead the villain finds the hero before he even gets started. Or maybe he just wasted our time. Speaking of which, why exactly has the Lizard been killing random people for the past two issues? If he was supposed to be going after Spider-Man, why was the voodoo lady screwing around with totally unrelated people?

Overlooking the plot (which McFarlane himself has already acknowledged isn’t his real focus), there are several creative page layouts, and the pacing of the Spider-Man/Lizard fight works rather well. If McFarlane eased off on the pretentious narrative captions, maybe it would be easier just to enjoy this as a mindless slugfest. The thinness of the plot is alleviated a bit with the various Watchmen style transitions, such as the blood/jam shift, and the multiple scenes of falling water, as MJ’s drink is spilled as the voodoo lady empties her vials into the potion as the rain begins to pour on Spider-Man. It serves no real point, but it at least gives McFarlane some visuals to play with.

Monday, November 23, 2009

SPIDER-MAN #1 - August 1990

Torment - Part One

Credits: Todd McFarlane (artist/writer), Rick Parker (letterer), Bob Sharen (colors)

Summary: As Spider-Man stops a mugging, a mysterious woman practices voodoo. The Lizard emerges from the East River, hypnotized and bloodthirsty. For the next several hours, he goes on a killing spree throughout the city.

Continuity Notes: This issue has a cover date of August 1990, which means it was published three years after Spider-Man married Mary Jane, during the period they lived in a SoHo loft owned by Harry Osborn. The Lizard last appeared during 1988’s “Inferno” storyline, which had the demonic influences of the city forcing Curt Connors to briefly release his Lizard persona.

Approved By The Comics Code Authority: There’s a lot of blood during the Lizard scenes, and it’s actually colored red (as opposed to black, which is what the CCA preferred).

We Get Letters: The letters page is a text piece by Todd McFarlane, with editor Jim Salicrup interrupting for a few sarcastic comments. My favorite is “well, la dee da” after McFarlane talks about his desire to expand his “artistic horizons.” It’s interesting that McFarlane says that there are already four existing Spider-Man books, which includes the reprint book Marvel Tales. There are actual Spider-Man comics with original material that aren’t considered “real” Spider-Man books today!

Gimmicks: This issue comes polybagged with…absolutely nothing. It was originally polybagged because polybagged magazines apparently sold better than normal ones (I guess video game magazines had already started polybagging at this time). Originally, the bag was only going to be on the newsstand version, but allegedly comic shop owners complained so Marvel made all versions polybagged. There are also alternate covers with different colored backgrounds.

Panel Count: I got into comics at the very end of the era where most of Marvel’s books were still drawn grid style and the majority of artists seemed to be imitating John Romita, Sr. or John Buscema. McFarlane’s giant panels actually annoyed me in the beginning, so much so I took to counting how many actual panels were in a given issue of his comics. This issue has eighty-three panels (I’m counting splash pages and double-page spreads as one panel), which seems to be a little higher than his normal count. By contrast, Marvel workhorse Sal Buscema had 130 panels in this month’s Spectacular Spider-Man.

Where’s Felix? : One of McFarlane’s trademarks was drawing hidden Felix the Cat images in his comics (in a later Spawn letter column, McFarlane said he did this to amuse a stoner friend of his). Felix is on page two, on the back of a random pedestrian’s jacket.

Review: This used to show up on those “Worst Comics Ever” lists, and probably not coincidentally, I also remember it as the most-hyped comic from my short period of collecting at the time. Spider-Man #1 marks Todd McFarlane’s debut as a writer, and if you want to know the genesis of this series, McFarlane goes into great detail in the letters page. Essentially, he no longer wanted to draw other people’s ideas, and began to inquire about writing a book for Marvel, thinking that he would be given a second-string, low-profile title. Spider-Man editor Jim Salicrup was already considering another Spidey book, and offered the writing duties to McFarlane. I didn’t have access to a lot of fan press magazines, but it seems like this drove people insane at the time (this book certainly printed enough letters from people claiming Todd was “unfit” for a writing job). McFarlane brings even more heat on himself in his text piece, proclaiming that he doesn’t consider himself a writer (he credits himself as “artist-writer” on the title page), and that his stories are just going to be based around what he feels like drawing. If every aspiring comics writer didn’t already hate McFarlane, it’s almost as if he’s begging them to.

McFarlane also claims that his book will be outside of the normal Spidey continuity. This being the Marvel of the Gruenwald/DeFalco days, that doesn’t mean his book is truly out of continuity, it’s just not going to be referencing the events of the other Spider-Man books. The stories are all self-contained, supporting cast members (aside from Mary Jane) will rarely appear, and there are no subplots to be found. Just as the cover’s text box jokingly alludes to, this is a Marvel version of Legends of the Dark Knight. The book is further distanced from the main Spidey books by the higher-quality Baxter paper, and the $1.75 cover price. To put this in context, Web of Spider-Man was still being printed with Flexographic print, which is responsible for some of the ugliest looking comics of all time. Marvel’s other Baxter books cost $1.50 in 1990, so I was shocked to see an extra quarter added on to this book. I don’t know if Marvel raised the price because they knew enough people wanted a McFarlane Spider-Man comic it didn’t matter, or conversely, if the extra quarter was meant to discourage younger fans from reading the more “adult” book. The difference might not be noticeable today, but the Baxter books like Punisher War Journal did seem to push the envelope a bit more than the mainstream Marvel titles.

Giving a novice writer a franchise book might seem foolish, but the setup prevents McFarlane from doing any real harm. His stories have to have very clear beginnings and endings, since the book has the “miniseries in a series” format. The plot of each issue is extremely thin, because McFarlane needs room for giant splash pages and space to stretch events for “dramatic” purposes. He’s not using the supporting cast, and as we’ll see in the coming months, the only established villains he’s interested in are the ones that he can use as monsters. So, every story arc can fit in-between the stories in the other writers’ books, and most of the characters in the other titles won’t even be appearing. I think the only real contribution to Spider-Man continuity McFarlane goes on to make is his Hobgoblin makeover, and it seems like most people agree it was Howard Mackie who really screwed that one up later on.

So what does McFarlane do with his first issue? He reveals he’s Joe Quesada with a time machine. It’s a decompressed story with a negligible plot, it’s needlessly dark and moody, and it’s obviously following the works of Alan Moore and Frank Miller. I guess the major difference is that Quesada tries to hire the writers he admires, while McFarlane usually just does it himself. There are two lines in this book that are still held up for ridicule, almost twenty years later. One is the third-person caption that refers to Spider-Man’s webline as “advantageous”…as in, “His webline…Advantageous!” To be fair, it's possible this is an intentional joke on McFarlane’s part. In the context of the rest of the captions, I can see how the line might be intentionally ridiculous. It depends on how willing you are to give McFarlane the benefit of the doubt, I guess. The most notorious line, however, is repeated in the first five issues. “Rise above it all!” somehow manages to make its way into the opening narrative captions of every chapter of the story. It’s a little too melodramatic for the first issue, and it gets more embarrassing as the issues go on. This is a serious story about one of Spider-Man’s villains becoming a vicious zombie, so of course we need solemn caption boxes to remind us that we’re experiencing true art.

When McFarlane isn’t trying to write like Alan Moore on Swamp Thing, he can handle the conversational dialogue well enough. His Peter Parker is a little too cocky (and not great at the wisecracks, since his big insult to a mugger is just “idiot”), but I can live with it. Peter’s interactions with Mary Jane actually bring some warmth to the book, and McFarlane makes their relationship seem fun. The basic idea for the story (which McFarlane admits he got from Marvel editor Glenn Herdling) isn’t bad either. A woman with a grudge against Spidey uses a brainwashed Lizard as a weapon. Since the Lizard can regenerate his limbs, he’s an unstoppable killing machine. The obvious problem with the first issue is that we get page after page of Spider-Man web-slinging, stopping a mugging, cuddling with MJ, then web-slinging again while the Lizard eviscerates people. McFarlane’s really just drawing what he feels like and taking his sweet time getting to the point. Of course, the audience is used to this type of story today, but it felt like a rip-off at the time (unless you were absolutely mesmerized by McFarlane’s art). As for the art, it’s definitely of its era. Time has certainly been kinder to it than Liefeld’s X-Force, but McFarlane has some quirks that look odd in retrospect. Obviously he’s not going for photorealism, but you would think McFarlane would’ve had a better grasp on how to construct the human head, or how to draw two consistent eyes on the same character by this point. There’s obviously a lot of energy, and every page is interesting to look at, which I guess was enough to compensate for some odd anatomy. McFarlane’s rendition of the Lizard really is impressive, as he transforms the old villain into a toothy, drooling monster that could intimidate any superhero. It’s too bad the arc is stretched out over five chapters, because I think the first few installments could’ve been edited down into a competent first issue.

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