Monday, March 23, 2009

From The Box: McFarlane’s Spider-Man Number 1

by Scott

[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?]


Jason said...

Scott, yeah, that's pretty much accurate. The superstar artists were bringing in lots of money, and in particular Jim Lee became the regular penciller right after a string of Uncanny issues (262-266) drawn by rotating fill-in artists of varying quality. The inconsistent art at the time actually led to Uncanny being NOT the #1 comic for a few months there (the other factor being -- you guessed it -- the new Todd McFarlane Spider-Man series).

So when Jim Lee came on, the fact that he was both pretty sharp-looking AND gave the comic a consistent look for the first time in months, the comic was cool again. It doesn't seem to have taken long for Bob Harras, the editor, to have decided that Jim Lee was necessary, so suddenly for the first time since John Byrne, an artist was allowed to influence the creative direction of the comic alongside Claremont. Not good news for the latter, who was used to steering the ship pretty much solo.

The wind really started blowing against Claremont then. Jim Lee had been a fan of the classic X-Men (both the Lee-Kirby stuff and the Claremont-Byrne stuff). So naturally Lee wanted to draw the classic stuff, like the X-Men vs. Magneto. For Claremont, this was going backwards, but Harras sided with Lee, not least because *Harras* was a fan of Claremont/Byrne as well, and because it made sense from a marketing side to keep everything status-quo with the series. (Sidenote: On the marketing side, any Marvel spin-off in other media contained the Claremont-Byrne team, including a cartoon that first aired in 1988 or 89. Any kid seeing that cartoon would've gone to the store to buy an X-comic hoping to see Professor X and evil Magneto and the mansion and the danger room, etc., and instead have been greeted by Longshot, Gateway and Psylocke in the Australian Outback. Sidenote of the sidenote: This is in fact what happened to me as a kid.)

Harras (and the Marvel shareholders) didn't like this arrangement. They wanted the X-Men brand to be consistent. Lee wanted to do more mainstream stuff anyway. So it was that Lee became more and more the driving creative force on X-Men, with Harras' full support. So the series became more conservative and less radical, Claremont's ideas for where to take the series got nixed more and more often, and by 1991 the X-Men were back in the mansion, Professor X was back in space, Magneto was back in Asteroid M, and the status was back to quo.

And Marvel Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco found himself accepting Chris Claremont's resignation.

Gordon Harries said...


There was also a major blow up between Claremont and management over his plans for Wolverine (which involved Wolverine being killed, resurrected by the Hand, going ‘evil’ for a couple of years, Jean Grey attempting to rescue him and becoming ‘His evil babe’ before finally returning to the light in some fashion.) not unreasonably, Harras said that he couldn’t do that, Logan had his own title and their were larger issues to consider.. To which Claremont responded ‘I’ve got seniority here.’

I’m sourcing all of this from memory, but it was in an print interview Claremont gave a couple of years after his exit from the X-books. (maybe around the time of his work with Wildstorm where he debuted a character in Wildcats that was all set to launch into his own franchise and …didn’t.)

Jon Brown said...

Claremont has commented many times that Jim Lee wanted to revert the X-men back to the status quo and re-hash all the old ideas that have been done dozens of times before. Claremont wanted to continue telling the life story of these characters, so the editors decided to take Claremont off plotting the book. That was why Claremont left.

The problem with Macfarline and Lee and all the other Image style artists is that they have a style that is good for creating beautiful poses and pin up shots, but not very good for narrative story-telling. The X-men always looked best when they were innocent, vulnerable people with flaws like the rest of us. That is the way John Bolton, Paul Smith, and John Bryne drew them. Jim Lee draws every character as a beautiful, heroic chiseled jawed musclebound types, and suddenly the characters are no longer vulnerable but instead look like Gods.

Todd Macfarline's art is beautiful in Spider-man 1, but his story telling is sloppy. He seems to be more interested in drawing poses of spider-man jumping around the city than actually telling a story that makes sense. The scene were MJ looks at Peter and "listens, and listens, and listens" is unbearable to me. The dialogue is horrid.

Jason said...

Gordon, Claremont's quote in the interview as not that HE had seniority but that Uncanny X-Men is the parent title, and Wolverine is a spin-off, so Uncanny should be considered the "senior" title.

Also, Claremont offered his solution to how to handle an Uncanny X-Men plot that had Wolverine turned evil ... make the solo title all about Wolverine battling with other Marvel Superheroes, kind of an inverse "Marvel Team-Up."

As for whether this was workable, well ... ask Mark Millar, author of "Enemy of the State."

Gordon Harries said...

Jason: not (quite as) hubristic as I thorght then.

Also, I thoght his idea was to have Wolvie's adventures set in the past until the reversal of his current situation?

It's been many years since I read the interview!

Jason said...

Well, I guess the possibility should be acknowledged that you and I may have read two different interviews. :)

hcduvall said...

I have a copy of the black cover of Spider-Man #1 still in its unsealed bagged somewhere, that I won off a contest in Wizard.

I imagine at the time that I must have thought it was the coolest thing in the world.

Kyle said...

The same plot was actually used years later when Wolverine was turned into the horseman Death and replaced by a double (which was when he got the adamantium back).

scott91777 said...

I actually think, and Jason would probably agree with me on this, that one of Claremont's greatest accomplishments was, not only writing a series for as long as he did, but also continually trying to move forward and resist the urge to return to the status quo... which is something that he pretty much managed to accomplish until the final few issues of his run which are, of course, the editorially mandated changes to return to status quo.

In fact, something the the McFarlane Spider-man was very much responsible for was the attempt to generate as many concievable titles into commercial properties.

Jason said...

There's a really interesting installment of Peter David's "But I Digress" column that I wish I had a copy of, where he talks about how Marvel had a good system going around the start of the 90s, which they screwed up not long after.

Basically, for the big franchises, Marvel had four comics, the idea being that there'd be something new in the store each week. So the Spider-fans would be coming in every week for their one issue (be it Amazing, Spectacular, Web of, or McFarlane's). Same with the X-fans.

The second part of the theory went that comic fans would probably be inclined to pick up something else that week as well. So the lower-selling stuff (like David's own Hulk, for example) would be spread among the four weeks. An X-fan comes in for that week's X-spinoff, and maybe his eye gets caught by the cover of the latest Hulk, so he picks that up too, and voila, you might just have gotten a new monthly Hulk reader.

The problem, says David, is that Marvel decided to put all their eggs into one basket. X-spinoffs and miniseries proliferated, so there would be two, even *three* new X-comics in the store every week. Now an X-fan isn't going to bother to buy an eye-catching Iron Man issue, because all his comic-book money is going into being an X-completist.

This is fine for as long as you keep that fan. But let's say an X-fan *really* despises the latest X-crossover, and says, "Screw it, I'm done with this." He drops the X-books cold turkey.

This is fine under the old model, because your hypothetical readers was still buying some other titles like Hulk and Darkhawk or whatever, and so they keep coming to the store to get their other titles despite no longer buying X-stuff.

But under the eggs-in-one-basket model, you've quite possibly lost a reader entirely, because X was all he got, and when he drops that he's dropped all his titles and has no need to return to the store even *once* a month.

Really an interesting analysis -- to me at least, probably because it's actually exactly what happened to me, back in '92. (Suck it, "X-Cutioner's Song.")

Gordon Harries said...

Also: Back in the X-crossovers were ENDLESS. (seriously, people complain about Event fatigue now's comparably nothing.)

scott91777 said...


Same thing happenned to me too, although I stuck it out a bit longer than you... maybe a year or so after X-ecutioner's song... it was shortly after wolverine lost the admantium.

And, exactly like you said, I ended up dropping all titles but the x-titles just so I could keep up so that, when I finally dropped the X-titles (those alone had become too expensive for me to keep up with... mostly due to every other issue having a hologram or something on the cover) I dropped comics.

Also, Even though I read Spider-Man and Amazing Spider-Man... I could never get in to Spectacular or Web Of... the art seemed to be a lot weaker on those titles. However, one thing that it did get right, is that you wouldn't suffer from burn out as those titles rarely crossed over and, holy cow, you were actually getting 4 completely different spidey stories rather than different installments of just one story.

Mikey said...

I was back home and one of the local stores was selling a copy of this for £2.50 (and a copy of Crisis on Infinite Earths #1 for 25p).

"Pretentious" is probably the word ("Rise above it all...!"). The 'Torment' trade was one of my first purchases back in about 1994 and I remember feeling slightly soiled by the art and a bit bored by the endless captions. Do I remember a vision of Kraven the Hunter with half his head missing and purple blood oozing out?

What McFarlane really did was draw grotesques and I found it quite unappealing. However, it did work quite well in some of the contortionist poses he gave Spider-Man. I also remember liking it when he would draw the eyes on the mask changing to show facial expressions, even drawing a mouth on it a few times during the Wolverine/Wendigo arc

This aspect of McFarlane's art really lends to the unpleasantness and queasiness of the child murderer arc - the villain of the piece basically being the ur-vision/cliche of the child molester. You can imagine Miller, the other king of grotesque, going to the same image. And McFarlane would return to it more than once in Spawn as well.

McFarlane's panels in 'Torment' - the really thin vertical ones - struck me at the time as being really neat at expressing the verticality of the city but also the claustrophobia of the story. Now I can totally see some of Miller's Daredevil in it.

Also - it's the first time I remember seeing Spider-Man's costume getting trashed with this level of detail and in every issue: shattered eyepieces, tufts of hair sticking out of the headpiece etc. Which is something Mark Millar and Terry Dodson were very conscious to make use of in their Marvel Knights run on Spider-Man (and which was reprised in the films and made them surprisingly violent, I felt). Man, Millar shows up more than once in these 90s discussions, huh?

Anagramsci said...

I think McFarlane did some fantastic work on Infinity Inc (with Roy Thomas) and Hulk (with Peter David), but I truly despised everything he did on the Spider-titles (some which can be blamed on David Michelinie)

I think I was the only person in the world who preferred Peter David and Gerry Conway's stuff (with Sal Buscema and Alex Saviuk) on Web and Spectacular during that period...

I quite comics around the time that new series got started, but I did buy the first few issues... I was lucky to miss the Image years, but I guess I saw a pretty complete preview of that nonsense with "Torment..."


Geoff Klock said...

Gordon (and everyone) -- I made a typographical error with this post: when scott sent it to me he included a note at the bottom in brackets, which is usually the sign that I am weighing in. In the future bracketed comments like that will always be mine. Sorry for the confusion.

Anonymous said...

I bought the first issue of McFarlane and stuck with in through the Erik Larsen run that followed right after. I don't think I've re-read "Torment" or the Wolverine team-up or the demonic Hobgoblin story more than once apiece. They're just that badly written. I have re-read the Spider-Man/X-Force teamup (McFarlane's last ish on Spidey, if I recall correctly) several times and found it horrible each time. However, I love McFarlane's fun on "Amazing", mostly for the Webs book tour storyline and "The Assassin Nation Plot", both of which I loved when I was a kid.

Interestingly enough, I got the first issue of Spawn (and still have it, in fact), likey just because of all the hype around it, only to find the same plodding, unimaginative storytelling. I didn't buy any further issues.

The new generation of Marvel artists had a disturbing lack of commitment. "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" were created specifically to show off the talents of McFarlane and Lee, respectively. Neither artist stuck around for more than a year and a half, if I remember correctly. Marvel really shot itself in the foot handing the keys over to these guys and alientating long-time writers like Claremont. The crazy thing was, Marvel was apparently so desperate they did it again with the "Heroes Reborn" debacle that ended up being wiped out and the reins to Marvel's biggest characters being handed over to guys like Busiek, Perez, and Waid.

So really, how did Marvel do from being at the top of its industry to bowing and scrapping before the new generation of "hot" artists? Why did these guys not have the same work ethic as their predecessors?

I still own all of McFarlane's Spider-Man comics and will probably hold onto them, but I can only bring myself to read the "Amazing" run with writing done my David Michelenine. The McFarlane-scripted stuff is just too hard to read.

I remember scratching my young head in puzzlement over the X-franchise being reset like it was. Claremont and the Simonsons had done a lot of work to change and develop these characters and upset their status quo. Cyclops and company were out of the X-Men and doing their own thing, and it worked. Shoe-horning them back into the X-Men just cluttered up the place. Great "Uncanny" characters like Forge, Banshee, Longshot, and Dazzler were swept under the rug. It DID open the door for the new X-Factor, which under Peter David was a great comic, starring some oddball, under-used characters who really came into their own (and continue to do so in the new X-Factor Investigations comic).

On the other hand, though the status quo reasserted itself (Danger Room, School at the Mansion, Prof. X back in a wheelchair and leading the school, Magneto as a bad guy, the original X-Men back on the team, savage Wolverine), you have to give the writers of the 90s era of the X-Men some credit. Even though they had to use Magneto as a bad guy and go with the status quo outlined above, those guys did an awful lot that wasn't status quo. Not all of it was good or interesting, but at least they were trying to do something different. You had the Upstarts, the Acolytes, Exodus, the Age of Apocalypse, the Phanlanx, etc. Compare Fabian Nicieza's stuff and Scott Lobdell's stuff to Grant Morrison's or Josh Whedon's runs. In the 90s there was no new Phoenix story, Jean Grey was kept alive, the Hellfire Club was not revisited, the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants did not make a comeback, the Shi'ar popped up here and there but there was no giant space opera story. Got to give credit where credit was due, those guys (within certain corporate-mandated limits) were going out on new ground, not re-running the old stories and characters for the most part. The problem is, a lot of it was not very good, but that is a discussion topic for another time.

ba said...

"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"

That tickles me, in that spider-man (until he got married) lived in forest hills, and as a resident of which, I can testify to the lack of tall buildings needed for web-slinging.

Also, mark me down as someone who dropped the comic shortly after a terrible x-over (in this case, onslaught), though chronological x-men has caught me up.

Jon Brown said...

I hated the X-men stories in the 90s. It seemed like that entire decade was just a bunch of lack-luster writers trying to imitate Claremont. It wasn't until Grant Morrison that the series seemed to take off in a different, non-Claremontian direction. Of course, I'm not a fan of Morrison either and I think his run did more harm than good to the X-men continuity.

The 90s seemed to be a strange time. All those stupid crossovers (remember all the Spider-man clone stuff?) and decisions seemed to be made based on corporate profit rather than what made sense in terms of narrative and character development (i.e. reverting the X-men back to the status quo).

neilshyminsky said...

re: The X-Men's status quo.

I wonder how the Classic reprints fit into this. The Classics begin in 1986 (right around the time that Jason is currently covering in his series), right at the end of the Shooter era but well before Harras puts pressure on Claremont to return to the team as it's figured in the Byrne days. So is the very act of reprinting those issues exerting a subtle pressure to reinscribe that as the definitive era in the minds of readers? (I'm guessing not.) Or, rather, do the Classics, in representing that era, create a longing for it that generates (or heightens) a desire to return to it? (I'm thinking this is more likely.)

Jason said...

I've talked about this in some blog posts that will go up in the future.

I'm not sure; Classic #1 came out concurrently with X-Men #209, the last one before the Mutant Massacre comes along and completely rips through the status quo.

Is it possible that Classic actually *relieved* some pressure at the time; with the Cockrum/Byrne material newly available to fans, Claremont was able to take the parent series and suddenly make it about Longshot, Psylocke and Gateway. Maybe ... ?

Here's one interesting thing about the Classic series that shows how much Bob Harras held the Byrne/Claremont era sacrosanct: Three months after Harras took over as editor of Classic (replacing Ann Nocenti), the new interstitial pages became a thing of the past. It's possible Claremont just didn't have time or energy to continue changing his old stories ... but another possibility is that Harras disallowed Claremont from doing anymore messing with the sacred texts.

scott91777 said...

As I remember, this was the timeline for the artist taking over:

Summer 1990- McFarlane's Spider-Man

Summer '91- Lee's X-Men, Liefeld's X-Force (and the restructuring of Uncanny and X-Factor... and, as has been pointed out, the latter of those was actually quite successful in terms of storytelling)

Summer '92- Image debuts with
Spawn, WildCATs and Youngblood.

By Summer of '94... I was no longer reading comics.

Gary said...

Let it be known that this thread has poisoned X-Men #1 for me. I used to enjoy it, now all I can see is Claremont's editorial laments being spoken with Magneto, his baby, as the mouthpiece.

Jason said...


I'll try to antidote it a bit when I get to the blog entry on X-Men #1 (which will be my third-to-last entry!).

scott91777 said...

One thing worth noting, that I meant to not earlier, is that one of the positive results of the fallout of the 'Superstar Artist' era was the fact that, in the last few years, we have seen a return to the emphasis on a 'creative team' where now comics are marketed on both who is Writing them and Drawing them.