[Scott: For those of you who missed the first one of these, the premise of ‘From The Box’ is that I go through a box of my old comics and find an old comic to analyze and see if I can determine, basically, whether or not it is any good, why I may have bought it in the first place, how my taste have changed since I bought the comic or, as is the case here, what can be learned in hindsight about the significance of a particular issue. As always, I invite others to join in the fun and dig out some of their old comics and write something up for the blog]
When I first got into reading comics (that is REALLY reading them and following titles on a month-to-month basis), I was a DC loyalist. I thought that they were ‘more-realistic’; to my 11-year old sensibilities this had a lot to do with the fact that DC seemed to be more lenient with the casual swears (characters were much more prone to say ‘damn’ or ‘hell’). Also, with their recently streamlined continuity and emphasis on ‘the grim and gritty’ they seemed much more like ‘superheroes in the real world’, years later, of course, I realize that this was something that Marvel had been doing for years and DC had only recently caught up.
But I digress, it was Todd McFarlane’s work on Spider-man that had the biggest role in my conversion from Marvel to DC (I had, of course, owned Spider-man comics previously but this was before I read titles on a regular basis and, like any kid, would just randomly pick one up here and there). This actually took place well before the issue being discussed here when some relatives, knowing that I liked comics but not knowing my particular taste, got me a box of comics for Christmas. That box contained The Amazing Spider-Man 300, McFarlane’s third issue on the series which also happened to be the first full appearance of Venom, 298 and 299 containing cameos (Fun Fact: I know what a cameo is because of comic books), which also happened to be a milestone/double-sized/anniversary issue. I was immediately drawn to McFarlane’s art which was a lot fresher than anything that I had been seeing over at DC at the time. If I still had this comic it would be the most valuable comic that I own, I think I saw a copy recently priced at something like 75-100 dollars in mint condition in a price guide (Unfortunately, it was stolen by a kid I used to trade comics with). So, when the 13-year old me heard that McFarlane was about to debut his very own ongoing Spider-Man series, he and his friends were totally psyched.
The collector’s bubble is important to understanding the significance of Spider-Man number 1; at the time, this was a major event. It was one of the first instances I can remember of the variant covers: there was the standard retail cover, the silver, ‘direct market’ cover (the one that I am currently in possession of), plus various bagged and reprint editions. A big part of the collector’s bubble was the marketing of ‘superstar’ artists of which Todd McFarlane was, arguably, the first. Before McFarlane, it had been creative teams that were championed: Claremont/Byrne, Wolfman/Perez, O’Neil/Adams etc. Of course, there was the occasional artist/writer like Frank Miller, Keith Giffen, or John Byrne (On his FF run), however, these artist/writers typically had to earn their chops. They tended to ‘apprentice’ underneath a seasoned writer, first getting a ‘co-plotting’ credit then, later, taking over scripting duties. This would change with Spider-Man 1; McFarlane was given complete control over the storytelling of the comic without, as far as I know, any experience in narrative storytelling.
That being said, McFarlane doesn’t do a half-bad job here (this is especially apparent after looking at Liefeld’s Youngblood for my last post in this series); its obvious that he’s emulating Miller circa his Daredevil run here and the stuff with the Lizard can be a bit pretentious but, then again, every comic was being a bit pretentious in 1990. The Spidey stuff is appropriately light-hearted, with him cracking the requisite bad jokes and just enjoying the simple pleasures of web-slinging through the city’s skyscrapers (my friends and I have often wondered what it would be like for Spidey in a town like Radford, where buildings tend to max out a 3 stories). The stuff with MJ is cutesy and fun with the two engaging in the typical newlywed shenanigans; even having a tickle fight. McFarlane draws MJ as super-hot pinnacle of fashion; which works great with a character who is supposed be an aspiring actress/model. In fact, if I recall, I think McFarlane was the first artist to really update MJ’s look from the iconic but, by 1990, slightly outdated, John Romita look. The light stuff is intercut with the ‘Dark’ stuff: the Lizard being summoned by the beating of sinister drums; a more feral, savage version than we have seen before.
What’s interesting in terms of the story contained here is that not much really happens. We have a comic where the primary protagonist never crosses paths with his chief antagonist. This was, of course, the first of a 5 part story entitled “Torment” and so, primarily, this issue was intended as a set-up for the rest of the story-arc but you’d think, at least, we would give Spidey some super-villains to put the smack-down on. Instead, the only action he gets is a simple mugger. So, for a superhero comic, there really isn’t much superheroic-action going on here. With the decompressing of storytelling in comics storytelling these days, an issue like this where virtually nothing happens is not all that uncommon but, in 1990, it was a pretty radical approach to storytelling…. Especially in the first issue of a major new series.
Anything the story lacks is intended to be compensated for by the art, which was the main selling point for the book after all. Some may have issues with McFarlane’s art, but I think it’s pretty good, actually. Definitely a really dynamic artists and, as little happens in this story, the characters still seem to be leaping off the page and every other page features a poster-ready glamour shot of Spidey or the Lizard. While the adult me can definitely see the flaws in the story, the 13-year-old me was totally blown away by the art. Seeing as how the primary audience for this comic was intended to be 13-year old boys, I have to say that it was quite successful in that respect and, even as an adult, I can appreciate the effectiveness of the art and I have to admit that the visual story-telling is pretty tight here: They splash pages are eye-catching and the layouts are pretty compelling.
A word on the rest of the series and the direction that McFarlane was about to take it; this is only the first issue but the remainder of this story arc was woefully dark. Comics were actively trying to be appreciated as a more serious art-form during this period and most creators felt that, in order to accomplish this, the stories had to be more serious. After this arc, it would only get worse; a few issues down the line Spider-man would team up with Wolverine and the Wendigo to catch a child murder/molester. That issue would feature a panel, quite controversial at the time, of Wendigo carrying the body of a murdered child. It did not help the case that the art was rather graphic showing a partially decomposed and possibly dismembered body. Had a more skilled storyteller been at the helm this could have been pulled off but, in McFarlane’s hands, it seemed more sensationalistic and could only be appreciated for its shock-value.
McFarlane’s Spider-man was the beginning of a trend of such artist driven titles in the early 90s. Within a year, Jim Lee’s X-Men and Liefeld’s X-force would debut and, while these artist didn’t take over the sole scripting duties, these comics were marketed based on the art, not the story (and a year after that, Image would be founded where the writers would take even more of a backseat).
[Question for Jason, I think I remember hearing that a big part of Claremont’s departure from the X-men had to do with the fact that Marvel felt that they could continue to sell the series based on the art alone. i.e. As long as they had a strong artist, they no longer needed Claremont. Any truth to this?]