Wednesday, September 30, 2015

ADVENTURES OF THE X-MEN #8 - November 1996

My Brother’s Keeper
Credits:  Ralph Macchio (writer), Andy Kuhn (penciler), Ralph Cabrera (inks), Paul Becton (colors), Michael Higgins (letters)

Summary:  Gambit receives word that his brother Bobby is engaged to Bella Donna.  He travels to New Orleans to talk Bobby out of the marriage.  Bobby refuses, claiming that he’ll be the one to unite the Thieves and Assassins Guilds.  He quickly changes his mind, however, which leads Bella Donna to send the Assassin Beau after Bobby.  Beau throws a blade into Bobby’s back while he’s outside talking to Gambit.  Gambit chases Beau and eventually forces him to reveal Bella Donna’s plot: Bella Donna arranged the marriage to gain access to the Thieves Guild’s immortality elixir vials.  Gambit sneaks into Bella Donna’s home and destroys the vials.  Later, at Bobby’s graveside, he says goodbye.

Continuity Notes:  This is a direct sequel to the nineteenth episode of the animated series, “X-Ternally Yours.”  The footnotes claim this episode was adapted in X-Men Adventures #6, presumably the second volume.

“Um, Actually…:  Amazingly, the opening page gets the name of the X-Men’s school wrong.  There’s no such school as “The Xavier Academy for Gifted Youngsters.”  The cartoon went with the classic “Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters,” while the comics at the time had updated the name to “The Xavier Institute for Higher Learning.”  

Approved By The Comics Code Authority:  Gambit is allowed to smoke in the Adventures comics, unlike the cartoons.  Bobby also has a more graphic death scene than the show would ever allow, even though the comic does have him bleed white blood as opposed to red.

Miscellaneous Note:  The Statement of Ownership lists average sales for the year at 66,165 copies, with the most recent selling 58,945.

Review:  Oh, wow.  This is a rough one.  The Thieves Guild.  The Assassins Guild.  Ridiculous phonetic accents.  (“Gotta tell you, brot’er, you was makin’ me proud back dere!”)  That’s already asking a lot of the reader, but even if someone has the goodwill to ignore these elements, there’s no real reward.  Unless you’re just absolutely desperate for a Gambit solo story, it’s hard to decipher what the appeal of this issue is supposed to be.  

For some reason, the cartoon’s shrill, irritating interpretation of Bella Donna returns, which means she’s a one-dimensional harpy who can’t conceive of a villainous plot that doesn’t involve marriage.  This time she’s selected Gambit’s brother Bobby as her husband, a role he stupidly agrees to even after she kidnapped him and held him hostage as a part of her previous marriage scheme.  For the sake of plot convenience, it takes a one-page conversation with Gambit to convince him that this is an idiotic idea, but unfortunately for Bobby, he’s deemed expendable enough to die in the cartoon tie-in book.  That’s pretty much the height of obscurity, Bobby.  

Gambit spends the rest of the issue hunting down his brother’s killer, spouting unconvincing action movie revenge clichés that sound even more laughable through his “dis an’ dat” accent.  He then exacts vengeance on Bella Donna, which just means he spends a few panels destroying her precious elixirs.  (As someone who’s endured far too many Guild stories, I don’t even remember if the Thieves Guild was the side with immortality elixirs in the first place.)  There’s also an underdeveloped plot involving the Thieves Guild blaming Gambit for Bobby’s murder, a thread that goes nowhere and is resolved off-panel.  

This is as bad as you’d probably expect an Adventures issue to be.  I can’t even throw much of a bone towards Andy Kuhn, since his interpretation of Gambit often resembles a frog wearing Johnny Depp’s wig.  “X-Ternally Yours” set an incredibly low bar to clear, but amazingly, this issue might be even worse than its predecessor.

Monday, September 28, 2015

ADVENTURES OF THE X-MEN #7 - October 1996

Rites of Passage
Credits:  Ralph Macchio (writer), Andy Kuhn (penciler), Ralph Cabrera (inks), Matt Webb (colors), Michael Higgins (letters)

Summary:  While the X-Men return from Russia, Jubilee is left alone with Xavier at the mansion.  Sabretooth, who has emerged from the depths of a pit in the arctic, sneaks into the mansion.  He knocks Xavier unconscious, forcing Jubilee to face him alone.  She fights Sabretooth to a standstill until he eventually gains the upper hand.  Fortunately, Xavier enters in time to hit Sabretooth with a mental blast, enabling Jubilee to push him into the War Room’s exposed wiring.  The X-Men return home to discover a captive Sabretooth.  Jubilee declares that she’s now officially an X-Man.

Continuity Notes:  This issue is a direct follow-up to Sabretooth’s appearances in the first season.  Sabretooth knows the mansion’s location and its layout after staying there in episodes three and four.  His escape from the arctic in the opening pages is a reference to the end of his fight with Wolverine in episode six.  In the animated series, Sabretooth’s next chronological appearance is in either “Bloodlines” or “Weapon X, Lies, and Videotape,” depending on which episode order you follow.

“Huh?” Moments:  Sabretooth claims that because he’s been to the mansion before, he knows how to block Xavier’s mental scans.  This is utter nonsense.  Xavier is also adamant that Jubilee carry a mini-communicator with her while searching the mansion, which is completely pointless since in every incarnation of the character, from his first appearance, Xavier has been able to stay in mental contact with his students.

Review:  Well, I asked for an Andy Kuhn issue and I actually got one.  His interiors aren’t nearly as strong as his covers, which is a disappointment, but he’s still a marked improvement over what we’ve been getting in this series so far.  Kuhn’s work at this point is a strange combination of Bruce Timm and some of Bret Blevins’ more outré art in New Mutants, which of course means it looks nothing like the X-Men cartoon, but it fits the style Marvel’s chosen for this book.  Some people will absolutely hate it, and admittedly it is pretty rough in places, but there are a few scenes that show real potential.  When Kuhn isn’t totally distorting the cast, there’s a genuine charm to his cartooning.  In places, Jubilee is a cute caricature of a teenage girl and Sabretooth is a menacing beast.  Xavier never looks right, however, either grimacing, squinting, or grinning the creepiest smile in history.

Even more annoying than the occasionally off-model art is the story.  Like most of the previous issues, the basic idea is fine, but the execution is hindered by blindingly obvious mistakes.  If Ralph Macchio doesn’t even know how Xavier’s powers work, I think it’s justifiable for the audience to question just how much he knows about the X-Men in the first place.  In addition to getting the powers wrong, Macchio often seems to have only a vague understanding of who the characters are supposed to be.  Yes, Jubilee is a teenage valley girl, and she was fairly annoying in the cartoon, but when did she ever say “like” every three seconds?  (And why is she thinking the placeholder word “like” in her thoughts?)  I’m not going to pretend that “like” has never shown up in her dialogue, but just throwing that in there (repeatedly) and pretending that you’ve somehow established a personality for her is absurd.  

It’s a shame, because this had the potential to be a solid issue.  The premise springs straight from the show’s canon, the cast is kept small and manageable, and there is a clear arc for Jubilee to complete before the story’s over.  Even though the censors would tone down much of this material (Jubilee spits in Sabretooth’s face after he orders her repeatedly to beg for her life), it’s not hard to imagine this plot serving as a springboard for an episode of the cartoon.  There are moments this issue that evoke what a quality Adventures book for the X-canon might be like, making the screw-ups even more frustrating.

Friday, September 25, 2015

This Post Will Not Be Followed With a New #1

It wouldnt be accurate to say that the post-clone titles bombed.  I think “languished” would be a better term.  Most of the books were decent sellers, but Spider-Man still wasn’t competing with the X-titles, and there didn’t seem to be much enthusiasm from the fans.  What worked and what didn’t?

The Art
All of the artists assigned to the books in late 1996 would seem to be commercial draws.  Steve Skroce and Luke Ross were coming from the X-titles (okay, they did X-Man, but thats still an X-title), Mike Wieringo had done some fill-ins for the X-titles and had built a name for himself at DC, and John Romita, Jr. was a Marvel legend with lengthy stints on Amazing Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men, Iron Man, and Daredevil in the past.  Cracks develop early on however, with Skroce dropping out of Amazing a few issues in and Ross cartoony style not meshing with DeMatteis psychologically dark stories in Spectacular.  In addition, Wieringo seems to struggle to find a style that fits Spidey for a while there, and Romita’ title is given some extremely disappointing fill-in artists.  On any given month, the average quality of art in the Spider-Man books could only charitably be called inconsistent.  It’s a shame that the most consistent writer wasn’t paired with the most consistent artist -- why didnt Ralph Macchio pair DeMatteis/Romita together on Amazing Spider-Man?

The Villains
The Clone Saga concluded with the “shocking” reveal that the original Green Goblin, Norman Osborn, had been behind the entire fiasco.  And even though Norman apparently died yet again in the closing chapter, there was no doubt that he would be returning soon.  Marvel actually showed some restraint and waited a year before giving Norman his big comeback in Spectacular Spider-Man #250.  There is a sense that the creators were often spinning their wheels while waiting for Norman’s return.  Dr. Octopus was revived, Electro got a power-up, and the Chameleon fought off insanity long enough to learn Spider-Man’s secret ID, but none of those storylines were sold as Big Important Events.  It’s obvious that Marvel considered the original Green Goblin to be the villain with the most marketing potential, and to be fair, his return issue in Spectacular is executed very well.  

Within a few months, however, it’s clear that the creators have no real interest in doing Norman Osborn stories, or at the very least, can’t think of anything worthwhile for him to do.  He buys the Daily Bugle, threatens some cast members, and tries to sell “m’boy” as a catchphrase, but he doesn’t seem to do an awful lot.  The creators even seem reluctant to have him don the Goblin disguise again, leading to an utterly pointless mystery surrounding the new Green Goblin.  (I thought we were supposed to be psyched to see the original Green Goblin!)  The books have an awful lot invested in Norman’s return, and when that eventually flops, the dearth of credible villains becomes even more obvious.  Even when one of Spider-Man’s foes actually accomplishes something, like in the Chameleon story mentioned above, the story just exists in the vacuum of one title.  Spider-Man never seems particularly concerned in his other titles about this villainous loon learning his secret identity, and within a few issues, it’s even forgotten in Spectacular Spider-Man itself.

The Supporting Cast  
Everyone knows Spider-Man has the greatest supporting cast in comics, right?  So why is it that this two-year period brings us only one memorable storyline featuring a supporting cast member?  Inserting Flash Thompson into an alcoholism storyline probably isn’t the greatest use of Flash, but J. M. DeMatteis does generate a lot of credible character work out of the idea.  Yet, if you followed any of the other titles, you wouldn’t even see an acknowledgement of the ongoing storyline starring Peter’s oldest friend/rival.  Instead, each book seems to claim a supporting cast member or two and keep exclusive focus on those individual stories.  

Allowing every creator to follow the character of his choosing might seem like a nice way for each writer to put his unique mark on each title, but in practice, it’s a mess.  Peter Parker’s interest in the lives of Robbie Robertson, Flash Thompson, and Billy Walters seems sporadic at best.  And most of these character subplots are absolute duds.  Robbie’s conflict boils down to his wife nagging him into retirement…a misguided concept that drags on for months.  And the rich, new supporting cast members that the Empire State University setting was supposed to bring us -- do the names Shantal Wilsk and Marina Caches ring a bell?  No, of course they don’t, because they’re ciphers that no one ever developed into believable personalities.  

Speaking of ciphers, the issue of the Stacy family has to be addressed.  Added to the titles at the urging of editor-in-chief Bob Harras, but with apparently no guidance on what to actually do with the characters, the Stacys languished in the background for a few months and predictably contributed nothing.  Eventually, it’s simply declared that Jill Stacy is MJ’s best friend, although no creator seems willing to explain how exactly one explores a friendship with a piece of cardboard.  Paul Stacy is allegedly Peter’s academic rival, a role that serves no real point since none of the writers are invested at all in Peter’s college life.  And Arthur Stacy makes a few empty threats to investigate Spider-Man, a plot that’s referenced in a surprisingly great issue of Unlimited, and then pretty much disappears.  Marvel promised a revived focus on the supporting cast upon Peter Parker’s return, and this is what it delivered.

The Marriage
I’m not interested in debating whether or not Peter and MJ should be married.  Everyone has his or her opinion on this and it’s hard to see anyone budging by now. However, Peter and MJ are married at this point in the titles, and since Marvel has no nerve to separate or divorce the couple, then the stories should contain a genuine focus on the dynamics of their relationship.  And almost none of them do.  J. M. DeMatteis steps up once again and puts in a real effort, while Todd Dezago’s stories in Sensational occasionally hint at the fun, sexy side of their marriage.  To the other creators, the marriage seems to be a subject to be avoided at all costs, or an excuse for Spider-Man to endure another lecture from his unsympathetic wife.  More annoyingly, MJ’s personality shift seems to happen overnight with no real justification within the stories.  

The Status Quo
This era of Spider-Man begins with Peter and MJ returning to New York.  The baby, as far as they know, was stillborn.  Aunt May is dead.  They can’t afford a place in Manhattan so they live in Aunt May’s old home with MJ’s Aunt Anna.  Peter returns to work at the Daily Bugle.  Both Peter and MJ enroll at ESU and try to start their life as a couple over again.  There’s clearly an effort to go back to a situation that the readers are familiar with, while not outright pressing the reset button.  The lost baby is always a thorny issue, but there is the occasional scene that manages to broach the subject in a tasteful and poignant way.  Aunt Anna initially comes across like a replacement Aunt May in this situation, and never seems to outgrow the role.  (Anna’s considered such a nuisance by the writers that she goes several months at a time without even making an appearance.)  

Having Peter and MJ move back into Aunt May’s old place is an idea I’ve always liked, and it’s a shame that more isn’t done with the Forest Hills neighborhood.  The new neighbors introduced in Sensational seemed to have some potential as recurring characters, although we’ll never know what might’ve been.  The return to ESU always comes across as something Bob Harras thought was a great idea, but none of the people working day-to-day on the books had the slightest interest in.  There is the occasional “Chaos on Campus!” plot, but for the most part, the college is a background element that adds nothing to the stories.  The idea that MJ is suddenly desperate to study psychology also comes across as arbitrary.  The Daily Bugle makes a welcome return, although it’s hard to think of any particularly great stories that use the setting.  Jonah Jameson has his moments in Spectacular Spider-Man, but the grand mystery involving him and Mad Jack fizzles out in a, well, spectacular fashion.  

In retrospect, this setup should’ve produced several memorable stories.  The only elements that don’t fit into the “classic Spidey” mold are holdovers from the clone days that would’ve eventually faded away.  At some point, the status of Peter and MJ’s baby would have to receive a definitive answer, and someone needs to find a unique role for Aunt Anna; outside of those issues, there’s no obvious reason why this status quo shouldn’t work…unless you’re absolutely adamant that a) Aunt May shouldn’t be dead and b) Peter shouldn’t be married.

The End of Spider-Man (?)
From 1996 to 1998, the post-clone era usually remained under the radar.  As I mentioned earlier, not bad sellers, but certainly not great ones, either.  Perhaps the die was cast when Wizard (still rather powerful within the industry in the mid-90s) printed an article in late 1997 detailing the ennui that surrounded the Spider-Man titles.  In another piece from this era, Wizard stated its belief that Aunt May shouldn’t have been the one to die in Amazing #400…it should’ve been MJ!  Yes, that pesky marriage is the problem, along with a series of issues the magazine claimed were holding the titles back.  Wizard’s solution seemed to boil down to “go back to the Roger Stern days.”  Marvel was thinking retro, but not in the way Wizard probably expected.  (You can read the article on the "What Would Spidey Do?" blog. It's typical of Wizard’s writing of this era -- arrogant and ignorant simultaneously. I have a hard time making it through the piece, even though I agree with many of their points.)

Marvel tried to revive interest in the titles with two connected crossovers, “Spiderhunt” and “Identity Crisis,” but before the second crossover was even finished, the big announcement had been made.  The Spider-Man line was getting relaunched with a series of new #1s.  John Byrne was coming over from DC to reboot Spider-Man’s first year with Twice Told Tales (later renamed Chapter One), and Howard Mackie would be the sole present-day continuity Spider-Man writer.  The reboot/relaunch turned out to be a critical flop, and after an initial sales bump, the Spider-Man titles were no better off than before.  

The Chapter One/Next Chapter era was so hated for so long that memories of the preceding era seemed to fade away.  In most fans’ minds, Spider-Man goes from Clone Saga to reboot to J. Michael Straczynski, with no gap in-between.  There is an era nestled in there, though.  I wouldn’t argue that it’s best forgotten -- there are numerous stories in there that are true to the character and worth any fan’s time -- but perhaps it is easily overlooked.  Let’s face it, the titles rarely interacted with one another, there seemed to be no overall direction for the line, and no title seemed to generate a momentum that could last for more than a few issues.  It’s hard to name one element that defines this era, and even though individual story arcs can be singled out for praise, overall the Spider-line was so unfocused and aimless that it feels as if there’s nothing to hold on to.  It’s a quirky, brief blip in the character’s overall history, doomed to obscurity.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Does the Post-Clone Era Even Have a Name?

I’m not quite sure what Marvel expected to happen when Peter Parker returned to the Spider-Man books in the fall of 1996.  Yes, it’s easy to make the case that the majority of fans wanted the Clone Saga over and Peter reinstated as Spider-Man (even though Ben Reilly turned out to have a more dedicated fanbase than anyone could’ve predicted), but Marvel’s approach to the return seemed strangely low-key.  There wasn’t a new title with a fresh #1 issue.  No multi-title crossover to herald his first month back.  No cover gimmicks.  No variant covers that I’m aware of.  Heck, the creative teams even stayed basically the same.  The only new addition was J. M. DeMatteis on Spectacular Spider-Man, and by “new” I mean “back after a year away.”  Marvel’s assumption seemed to be that by simply giving the fans what they claimed to want, all eyes would return to Spider-Man and things would work out okay.  

Looking back, I wonder now if Marvel was reluctant to give the Spider-Man titles a large marketing push so soon after the launch of the “Heroes Reborn” books.   Perhaps someone thought that pushing a new Spidey #1 just a month or so after Avengers, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and Captain America received new #1s would’ve been too much for the market to bear.  That doesn’t really sound like Marvel, though, does it?  Also, “Heroes Reborn” was famously hated within the halls of Marvel’s offices (due to the titles being farmed out to Image creators), so it’s hard to imagine Marvel making a conscious effort to downplay one of their brightest properties in order to appease creators that were still viewed as the competition.  Honestly, I think it’s entirely possible that Marvel believed that a quick sweep under the rug of any clone silliness was all the books really need at the time.

So, by late 1996, the Spider-Man line consisted of Amazing Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man, Peter Parker: Spider-Man, Sensational Spider-Man, Spider-Man Unlimited, Spider-Man Team-Up, and one title set in the past, Untold Tales of Spider-Man.  In addition to this rather lengthy list, Marvel also published a monthly series of Venom miniseries, and numerous one-shots featuring Spider-Man.  The only real marketing push I can remember for the post-clone titles were a few blurbs in the Bullpen Bulletins, boasting that the titles would have more of a “classic” feel, with Peter and MJ returning to college and new supporting cast members like the Stacy family possibly creating some fresh conflicts.

Did it work?  I’ll continue the retrospective in my next post, concluding my Spider-Man review series (which stretches all the way back to, geez, 1985!)

Monday, September 21, 2015

PETER PARKER, SPIDER-MAN #98 - November 1998

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

The Plot:  Spider-Man webs up the deranged Green Goblin, but soon notices one last pumpkin bomb in the rubble.  It explodes, causing the Daily Bugle building to collapse.  Spider-Man holds up the building with its support beam, giving its occupants time to escape.  Finally, he lifts the building’s remains and webs them into place.  He then races to the hospital to warn Reed Richards not to remove the implant in Aunt May’s brain.  Eventually, Reed figures out a way to remove the implant without setting off the DNA bombs.  Later, the Green Goblin is taken to a padded cell.  His doctors are shocked to discover what’s under his mask.  The Scriers suddenly appear and confiscate the Goblin.

The Subplots:  Jonah Jameson is more determined than ever to bring down Spider-Man after the Daily Bugle building is destroyed.  After learning that May will live, Peter burns his costume and tells MJ that he won’t allow Spider-Man to interfere with their lives again.  MJ tells Peter that her agent is helping them find a new apartment, and that she’ll make enough money to help pay for Aunt May’s medical bills.

Creative Differences:  According to John Byrne, an earlier concept of this storyline had Peter Parker driven to the brink after a series of events, wishing for a simpler time.  His wish was to be granted by the Shaper of Worlds, transforming his desire into reality, returning the teenage Spider-Man to present-day continuity. (See this Comic Book Legends Revealed column.)

Gimmicks:  This issue comes with two covers, at no extra cost.  One is the happy ending cover, and the other depicts the “end” of Spider-Man. Some copies have the happy cover on the front, others have the death” ending stapled on top.

Review:  Naturally, this title is cancelled as well, although it’s one of the “fake” cancellations.  Peter Parker, Spider-Man will continue with the same creative team and a new #1 in only two months.  Ending Peter Parker, Spider-Man at #98 just comes across as bad planning, doesn’t it?  Why not end Sensational or Spectacular an issue or two earlier, and then allow PPSM to reach #100?  It’s surprising that Marvel passed up on an opportunity for a big anniversary issue, although I guess they reasoned that the new Peter Parker, Spider-Man #1 would be an equal, or better, commercial draw.  Why not have both?  End this era of Spider-Man with a giant-sized Peter Parker, Spider-Man #100, and then launch into the new Peter Parker, Spider-Man (vol. 2) #1 a few months later.  Better yet, just retire Peter Parker, Spider-Man and make the companion title Spectacular Spider-Man, the original spinoff.  Ah, well.  The numbering issues are the least of the titles worries at this point.

It’s obvious by now that the remit for the relaunch is “back to basics.”  Not only is John Byrne rebooting the first year of Spider-Man continuity in the Chapter One maxi-series, but the new status quo established this issue has a sickly Aunt May back from the grave, Spider-Man rejected by the public, Jonah Jameson out for Spider-Man’s blood, and Peter Parker ready to throw away his tights forever.  I believe this is the first time the Spider-Man titles simply embraced nostalgia so unashamedly.  (Nostalgia was likely a partial motivation for introducing Ben Reilly, but it seems as if the creators also wanted to try something new at the time.)  Fan response was mostly negative, to say the least, and it’s not hard to discern why.  For decades, the focus on the Spider-Man titles was the Life of Peter Parker.  The direction Peter’s life should take was always up for debate, but I don’t recall any significant segment of fandom wishing that the status quo could just revert back to the 1960s.  After Bob Harras left as editor-in-chief, Marvel seemed to veer away from the retro-approach for a few years, but any attempt to progress Peter’s life was ultimately futile.  Nostalgia wasn’t the culprit in the 2000s, however.  For the sake of synergy with the movies and cartoons, Spider-Man couldn’t be allowed to move past his “classic” status quo, which means the basic setup isn’t going to vary much from the Stan Lee days.  Spider-Man in a crappy apartment, can’t get a date, can’t keep a job…the seeds of the retrofitting begin here.  Marvel wasn’t willing to go quite that far in 1998, but it’s not hard to guess how much they wanted to.

Ignoring the debate over whether or not Spider-Man should be stuck in this loop, “The Final Chapter” is tasked with providing some kind of transition between the old-new and new-old approaches.  It’s a miserable failure.  This issue opens with the revelation that the final few pages of the previous chapter were only Osborn’s fantasy, since he’s actually the one granted madness by the Gathering of Five.  It’s a predictable move, and Mackie’s attempts to write “crazy” dialogue are unbearable, but it could be argued that the creators are playing fair with the reader.  We’ve already been told that the Gathering’s gifts aren’t what they might initially seem to be, so within the context of the storyline, revealing that the previous chapter’s over-the-top cliffhanger was a hallucination isn’t a total cheat.  The rest of the issue doesn’t generate even that much goodwill, however.  The ultimate goals of this storyline are to revive Aunt May, recast Spider-Man as a public pariah, reignite Jonah’s hatred of Spider-Man, send Norman Osborn offstage, and get Peter to a place where he’s willing to hang up the webs once again.  It's all competently rendered by Romita, but can anyone argue that the story has succeeded in dramatizing any of these ideas?   

Aunt May’s resurrection is laughably absurd, and needlessly complicated, all because no one wanted to type the word “clone” at this stage.  Jonah’s justification for hating Spider-Man turns him into even more of a lunatic than he ever was in the Silver Age.  The basic idea of Jonah hating Spider-Man after the Bugle’s destruction is fine, but not when he clearly sees that Spider-Man a) is not the aggressor in the fight, and b) is risking his life to preserve what’s left of the building and save innocent lives.  (In a multi-page tribute to Amazing Spider-Man #33, of course.)  The public turning on Spider-Man again is just thrown in there, with a crowd gathering outside of the Daily Bugle, already carrying placards, and dutifully following the script.  Norman Osborn’s story ends in a cliffhanger, one I’m willing to bet was never satisfactorily resolved whenever he next appeared.  And, finally, Peter throws in the towel yet again.  This might actually be the most coherent scene in the issue, since it’s somewhat defensible that Peter would be motivated to quit after seeing how his life as Spider-Man nearly killed Aunt May.  Heck, I’ll be charitable and not complain too much about that one, even if Peter’s dialogue is wooden and unconvincing during his big dramatic moment.  But the rest of this…what’s the excuse?  This isn’t just a lame ending to a specific storyline, it’s the end of an era of the titles, the final issue of this series (sort of), the prelude to the brave “new” direction of the books…and it’s an outright bomb.  Only the most hardcore of fans, or the morbidly curious, could possibly want to come back for more of this.

Friday, September 18, 2015

SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #263 - November 1998

The Triumph of the Goblin!  The Final Chapter Part 3
Credits:  Howard Mackie (writer), Luke Ross (penciler), Al Milgrom (inks), Mike Rockwitz (colors), Comicraft (letters)

The Plot:  The Green Goblin knocks Aunt May unconscious, then abruptly decides to let Spider-Man escape with her.  Spider-Man takes May to Reed Richards to determine if she is truly his aunt.  While examining her body, Reed discovers a tiny implant in May’s brain.  Spider-Man charges into Norman Osborn’s office and demands he reveal what he’s done to May.  This leads to a Spider-Man/Green Goblin battle over the streets of Manhattan.  The Goblin boasts that he implanted a trigger in May’s brain that will set off DNA bombs around the globe if removed.  Eventually, the Goblin crashes Spider-Man into the Daily Bugle building.  He assaults the building with pumpkin bombs before unmasking, and killing, Spider-Man in front of the Bugle staff.

The Subplots:  MJ is having a celebrity-filled party at the Parkers’ home to celebrate her return to modeling.

Web of Continuity:  
  • Spider-Man’s dialogue reveals that Alison Mongrain actually did die in Amazing Spider-Man #441.
  • During the fight scene, the Green Goblin details how he faked Aunt May’s death.  He used Miles Warren’s technology to insert May’s “genetic matrix into that of another elderly actress who believed this to be her greatest role.”  She played the part of May for weeks while the real May recovered from her stroke in Osborn’s custody.
  • According to the Chronology Project, Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 2) #29 has a flashback that must fit in-between the pages of 18 and 19 this issue.  Those are two pages in the final fight scene with no obvious significance that I can see.

Forever Young:  The Invisible Woman refers to Spider-Man as a “young man” when he arrives at the Fantastic Four’s headquarters.

“Huh?” Moment:  “When your aunt had her stroke, and before I realized that I was alive, I decided to seize upon the opportunity to add to your troubles.”  Before I realized that I was alive…what is Norman Osborn talking about?!

Miscellaneous Note:  The Statement of Ownership lists average sales for the year at 99,059 copies, with the most recent issue selling 93,061.  Spectacular Spider-Man seems to be the lowest selling of the monthly titles, at around 10,000 copies less than the other books.

Review:  Unlike Amazing and Peter Parker, this really is the final issue of Spectacular Spider-Man.  The book will be replaced in a few months by Webspinners, a monthly in the vein of Legends of the Dark Knight, telling stories from different eras of Spider-Man’s past.  Traditionally, anthology books don’t sell, and neither do books set in the past, so I’m not quite sure what Marvel was thinking with this move.  Webspinners was a critical hit in its early months, however, until the book turned into a showcase for seemingly random creators, and eventually, just another Spidey comic written by Howard Mackie.

Howard Mackie has never been associated with Spectacular Spider-Man before, but there’s no pretense that this issue is a true farewell to the series, is it?  It’s the penultimate chapter of a crossover designed to bring this era of Spider-Man to a close, and apparently having Mackie write 3/4th of the storyline was the easiest option for everyone involved.  And, not surprisingly, it’s just as garbled and nonsensical as you would expect after reading his work in the previous issues of “The Gathering of Five” and “The Final Chapter.”  This issue is particularly insane since it’s tasked with justifying the resurrection of Aunt May.  I defy anyone to tell me that the “genetically altered actress” solution was a good idea.  I’m not debating whether or not Aunt May should return, I’m talking the specific choice made this issue.  An actress was somehow convinced to alter her DNA and play the part of Spider-Man’s elderly aunt, play that part so perfectly that Peter never suspected she was a fraud, and then die on cue?  This is essentially the height of “eh, whatever” storytelling, isn’t it?  Marvel wants Aunt May back, so screw it, here’s a few lines of dialogue to justify it.  (This absurdity doesn’t even merit its own flashback; it’s just a series of overwritten word balloons shoved into a fight scene.)  If you’re going to be this lazy, why not just say it was a clone that died?  Yeah, Marvel was petrified of associating the titles with clones again during this period, but what’s the point of introducing Miles Warren into the plot and then copping out with a genetically altered actress?  If you’re going for a copout, at least go for a less painful one.

When the story isn’t trying to justify the most idiotic resurrection in the history of superhero comics, or having Osborn elucidate even more ridiculous schemes, it’s killing time with another Spider-Man/Goblin fight scene.  Luke Ross might’ve been able to do something with the action, but unfortunately the pacing of the issue reduces the fight scene to a series of sterile, tiny panels.  For the majority of the issue, the pages are crammed with 6-8 panels, and just packed with utterly wretched Norman Osborn dialogue.  I swear, if there’s an affectation more annoying that Osborn calling any male in his vicinity “m’boy” I’ve yet to read it.  Osborn’s verbal diarrhea is so bad this issue that there’s an entire drawing of Spider-Man that’s literally covered up with an overwritten balloon filled with banal Norman Osborn dialogue.  I initially thought that the issue was unusually compressed because Mackie has so many plot points that need to be shoved in, which is partially true.  However, the story also has to make room for a giant two-page spread on the final pages, dedicated to selling the laughable cliffhanger that Osborn’s killed the unmasked Spider-Man.  Those two pages are of course a cheap fake-out, but they look pretty darn impressive.  It’s amazing that no one seems to have realized at this point that Ross excels at large figures…he is drawing upon McFarlane, of course.  Why was he given an issue filled with postage stamp-sized images to draw?  And why were the readers saddled with such wretched content in the first place?
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