Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Spectacular Spider-Man #2. The Goblin Lives

(Cover from November 1968.)

"The Goblin Lives!"

Written by Stan Lee.
Drawn by John Romita/Jim Mooney.
Inked by Frank Giacoia.
Lettering by Sam Rosen.

OK, so the big news I’ve been trumpeting about the site isn’t that big at all but it does mean the one glaring omission from its pages is finally filled as I’ve managed to get my hands on the one comic I hadn’t reviewed but always knew I needed to.

Long before the launch of 1976’s Spectacular Spider-Man, there was another comic of that title. Launched in 1968, it was one of Stan Lee’s early forays into larger format comics aimed at a slightly older (and wealthier) age group.

As it only lasted two issues, we have to conclude the world wasn’t yet ready for larger format comics aimed at a slightly older and wealthier age group. Still, no good deed is wasted. The story from issue #1 was recycled to create Amazing Spider-Man #116-118, and the second at least gave us the return of Spider-Man’s deadliest foe.

Spectacular Spider-Man #2 gives us a mammoth fifty-eight page epic as the Green Goblin makes his first comeback since his memory loss.

Attending a George Stacy slide show about the Green Goblin, Norman Osborn starts to get distinctly uncomfortable.

Then he gets sweaty.

Then he gets unconscious.

Next thing you know, his memories stirred, he’s back in full-on psycho mode and out to get his revenge on everyone’s favourite web-slinger.

For me, the tale has three highlights. The first being the scene where Norman Osborn’s tormented by his own half-memories, in hospital, before suddenly realising he’s the Goblin. You can practically hear thunder and lightning crashing around you as he suddenly sits bolt upright in bed, the Goblin's image looming maniacally behind him.

Second highlight’s the dinner party Osborn then throws, at which he taunts and teases Peter Parker in front of his closest friends. I seem to remember the scene being recycled in the original Spider-Man movie but this does it better, as Osborn seethes, scowls and leers his way through it. His insanity virtually a physical force thrusting itself out of the pages at you.

The third highlight’s the one that lets us know the strip’s well and truly arrived in the late 1960s, by having the Goblin use a psychedelic pumpkin on our hero. This sequence is terrific as Spider-Man’s tormented by visions of the Goblin, monsters, his own friends and finally gigantic versions of his main enemies. The double-page spread Romita and Mooney gives us here’s a wonder to behold and reminds us of Romita's mastery of the art of visual story-telling.

But what can be a threat can be a salvation as it gives Spider-Man a solution to the problem of how to get rid of the Goblin without killing Norman Osborn.

Turning the tables, Spidey uses a psychedelic pumpkin on its creator, reasoning that inflicting such a device on a mind with an already weakened grip on the cliff-face of sanity will send it plummeting and force Osborn to return to normal. It’s strong stuff, both visually and spiritually. Had any super-hero ever before set out to defeat a foe by snapping his mind?

This story’s fab. Unlike the Richard Raleigh tale, which was pretty routine, it’s like a pure distillation of all that made Spider-Man tales of this era great, with Peter Parker’s personal and heroic lives so hopelessly entangled on every level. I don’t know if it’s the best Spider-Man tale of its era but it’s certainly one of them and, perhaps as much as any other tale, it captures the very essence of what Spider-Man was about in those days. It’s also something of a tour de force by Romita and Mooney who, given the larger format, really do seem to have been inspired to give their all.

Great Thought Balloons Of Our Time: "How can I subject this gorgeous creature to the Green Goblin?" (Peter Parker, of Gwen Stacy.)

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Giant-Size Spider-Man #5. Man-Thing and the Lizard

(Cover from July 1975.)

"Beware The Path Of The Monster!"

Written by Gerry Conway.
Drawn by Ross Andru.
Inked by Mike Esposito/Dave Hunt (Hunt uncredited).
Letters by Arty Simek.
Colours by Petra Goldberg.

Curt Connors really is a wally. Leaving aside the fact that, in this tale, he and writer Gerry Conway both seem to have forgotten that his surname's spelt "Connors" and not "Conners", he's merrily experimenting with a gas that could turn him into the Lizard, when, surprise surprise, he knocks over its container and promptly grows an arm, a tail and more scales than a tank-full of goldfish.

Still, it's an ill wind, and at least it gives him a chance to make another bid for taking over the world.

As part of that plan, he decides to use his control of swamp creatures to control the Man-Thing.

Sadly for him, Manny's not as easily controllable as he expected and the rapacious reptile and the muck monster end up fighting, as Spider-Man does battle with alligators and snakes, before it's all sorted out by a failed businessman who does the usual necessaries with Dr Connors' antidote.

The failed businessman, gone down to the swamp to kill himself, actually feels like the least Conway part of the tale and seems to be an attempt by him to import a bit of the feel of the Man-Thing's own comic, with someone blundering into the swamp in need of salvation and finding it through an encounter with the monster and other strange beings. The truth is the move doesn't really work because, for it to do so, the story would've needed to centre around him and and his problems and back-story but, this being a Spider-Man tale, he's too much on the sidelines for that to happen, and so his subplot feels like a bolted-on extra rather than a central plank of the tale.

Interesting that, unlike the other Giant-Size Spider-Mans, this tale ties in with the continuity of the monthly titles, with Peter Parker spending time with the newly resurrected Gwen Stacy. I assume the powers-that-be felt the return of Gwen Stacy from the dead was simply too big a story to be ignored.

And that's it. I've finished again. As far as I can make out, that's every annual and special published in the appropriate time-period reviewed. As far as I can make out, the only things left are the two 1960s Spectacular Spider-Mans. As I don't have a copy of either of them and they aren't in the Essential Spider-Mans and I refuse to read comics off a screen, it looks like I'm going to have to wait till I can get my hands on copies of them before I can offer my long-awaited (by me) opinions. Given my usual levels of poverty, this could take some time but at least it gives me something to look forward to.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Giant-Size Spider-Man #3. Doc Savage

(Cover from January 1975.)

"The Yesterday Connection!"

Written by Gerry Conway.
Drawn by Ross Andru.
Inked by Mike Esposito.
Lettered by Ray Holloway.
Colours by George Roussos.

If ever a story was going to have a tough time making me dislike it, it was going to be this one, for the simple reason that it features 1930s' adventurer Doc Savage. It's not that I love Doc Savage. It's that, the 1970s Ron Ely movie apart, I don't actually know anything about him. I don't even know if he's literally made of bronze. So, anything that allows me to see the legend in action's going to grab me.

From how he goes about things in this tale, with his secret lab, speeding automobile, gadgets and blatant wealth, he appears to have a distinct Bruce Wayne vibe to him. I'm not sure about his seeming army of assistants though. With all of those knocking around, his section of the tale seems somewhat overcrowded. And not a woman among them?

Fortunately, a woman soon appears to fill that particular gap in Doc's life, as a half-naked, light-blue space-babe called Desinna appears in order to enlist the aid of first him and then Spider-Man in dealing with a giant energy being called Tarros.

While Doc Savage more or less falls for the tale Desinna spins him, Spider-Man's made of more cynical stuff and does the exact opposite of what she wants. Enabling Tarros to take the treacherous Desinna back to her own world of Saku. It's a pleasing twist that, when we're expecting Spidey to have a fight with the monster and finish the battle Doc Savage started forty years earlier, instead he helps the thing. Of course, there's the point that Spidey might know Desinna's been economical with the truth but that doesn't actually mean Tarros is a good guy, and Spidey has no way of knowing just what fate the monster has in store for Desinna as he takes her away. Oh well, I suppose we just have to put it down to his spider-sense or something. Or maybe we just have to accept that super-heroes always get things right, despite all evidence to the contrary.

This is the issue where we learn that Spider-Man has a lot more learning than we even knew he had. Not content with being one of the world's great scientific minds, it turns out he can decipher Morse Code and has a knowledge of comparative languages that enables him to get the gist of what the alien Tarros is saying. Loiks, is there anything Peter Parker can't do?

Like Giant-Size Spider-Man #1 where our hero never actually got round to meeting the character he shared the cover with, in this issue Spider-Man never actually meets Doc Savage and his cohorts. Whereas in that earlier tale, the non-meeting was a weakness, here it's a good thing. The only way for such an encounter to happen would've been for time travel to be involved and, for me, Spider-Man and time travel never sit comfortably together. It's fine for the likes of the Fantastic Four or the Avengers but Spidey's world should always be that bit more humdrum than theirs.

Of course, even the chance to learn more about Doc Savage can't blind me to all flaws and there is one quibble. I'm not sure about the fact that, unlike Doc Savage, Spidey sorts out the situation because, unlike Savage, he lives in a time when men know that women aren't always trustworthy. Really? Has he never read any of those hard-boiled detective novels that were so big in Savage's time?

Or what about all those old pulp magazines - you know, the sort that Doc Savage used to appear in - where, whatever else she might be, the one thing the beautiful dame isn't always is trustworthy?

Friday, 25 June 2010

Giant-Size Super-Heroes #1. Man-Wolf and Morbius

(Cover from 1974.)

"Man-Wolf At Midnight!"

Written by Gerry Conway.
Drawn by Gil Kane.
Inked by Mike Esposito.
Lettering by John Costanza.
Colours by Linda Lessmann.

Morbius is back in town - and he's decided to take control of the Man-Wolf.

Why? I couldn't say. While the sight of a vampire and werewolf heading off together down the street's an appealing one, Morbius' plan is to get an ESU professor to give him a total blood transfusion and cure him of his vampirism. Why he needs the Man-Wolf for this, I don't know. Maybe he needs his lupine lackey to distract Spider-Man while he visits the prof but why does he expect Spider-Man to turn up? Spidey wouldn't even have reason to suspect he was in town, let alone that he was about to pay the professor a visit. By blundering around New York at street level, with the Man-Wolf in tow, all he's doing is guaranteeing he'll be spotted.

Then again, Morbius isn't the only one acting irrationally. Spider-Man clearly realises Morbius wants the professor to cure him. At this point, anyone with a functioning brain and sense of social responsibility would offer Morbius all the help he could in order to end the threat his vampiric state poses.

So, what does Spider-Man do?

Everything he can to wreck Morbius' plan! And then, when he succeeds, he seems to think he's achieved a victory, happily ignoring the fact he's preserved the existence of a menace and guaranteed that more innocent people will die.

It's not the first time our hero's acted like this. He did the same when confronted by the Molten Man's attempts to cure himself in Amazing Spider-Man #133. Interesting then that that encounter gets a name-check in this tale. Maybe we have to accept Spider-man really is as big a menace as J Jonah Jameson has always said he is.

The story's entertaining enough but it seems to me the main problem is that its "Giant-Size" tag's completely unearned. The story's too short. When it comes, the ending really is abrupt. It seems like we're about to get another ten-or-so pages of action, as Spidey tracks down and defeats Morbius - and the Man-Wolf, but, instead, from out of nowhere, we get an epilogue. The end of the tale came as such a surprise I genuinely had to check I hadn't turned two pages at once and missed something. Nothing's resolved and the tale seems to serve merely as a means of bringing back John Jameson's furry alter-ego. While I've no objection to his return, the fact he's shown as a mere patsy for Morbius, and no great threat to Spider-Man, does mean you're given no reason to feel excited that he's back.

Speaking of mysteries, I'm still baffled as to how Morbius worked out from a story in the Daily Bugle that the Man-Wolf is in fact John Jameson, and it does seem a remarkable feat for him to just happened to have found the only drunk in New York City who saw the climax of Spider-Man's first fight with the Man-Wolf. In the next panel, Morbius says that finding the gem that causes Jameson's condition was the only bit of luck he needed in the whole plan. Really? Some might say that finding the only person, in a city of some ten million people, who happened to have the information he needed took a fair bit of good fortune.

It's hard for me to comment on the artwork. It's by Gil Kane so I assume it's fine but I'm using a copy of Essential Spider-Man Volume 6 and the quality of reproduction's terrible. It genuinely looks like the it came out of a fax machine. I know the Essentials are supposed to be cheap and cheerful but you can't help feeling it wouldn't have killed Marvel to have got someone in to touch-up the inking so it at least looked publishable.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5. The Red Skull

(Cover from 1968.)

"The Parents Of Peter Parker!"

Written by Stan Lee.
Drawn by Larry Lieber.
Inked by Mickey Demeo.
Lettered by Art Simek.

It's amazing what you discover when you accidentally break open a padlocked trunk in your basement. I once discovered my parents were exposed by the world's press as traitors at the time of their deaths.

Well, no I didn't but Peter Parker does. Faced with this revelation, our hero has no doubts what he must do. Out to clear their names - despite having no reason at all to think they were innocent - he heads off to Algeria and uncovers a plot involving that dastardly cranium of chaos the Red Skull.

Given its importance to the life of our hero, I'd like to say it's a momentous issue but the truth is it's a tale that's misconceived in more ways than one.

For a start you have the basic structure of the tale which starts with Spider-Man in Algeria before having a prolonged flashback to how he got there. It may be an attempt to start the story with a bang and a mystery in order to hook the reader, or it might be an attempt to add complexity to a plot that's startlingly straightforward, lacking twists, turns and supporting characters but, whatever, it doesn't really work. It would've been far better to relate events in the order they occurred, as happened in the Amazing Spider-Man comic each and every month.

There's also a problem with the choice of villain. Somehow, like Dr Doom before him, the Red Skull feels totally out of place in a Spider-Man story. We're used to Spidey dealing with people who want to become crime boss of New York City or to steal some valuable jewels. Having him up against a Hitler substitute with dreams of world conquest just feels completely wrong for our hero.

But the biggest problem with the thing is the central idea behind it that Peter Parker's parents were secret agents. For me, one of the appeals of Spider-Man is that, despite his power, Peter lives in a recognisably real world and his life was fundamentally dull until he got spider-powers. Being told his parents were secret agents, killed by the Red Skull, is simply too melodramatic an idea to ever rest easily on the strip's shoulders.

Maybe I'm just getting used to it, or maybe he genuinely improved but Larry Lieber's artwork's better here than it was in the last annual - although he clearly gets a huge helping hand in places from John Romita. The fact that Romita-drawn panels appear seemingly at random throughout the tale suggests Romita went through Lieber's pages and replaced any panels he thought weren't up to scratch. It probably wasn't too good for Lieber's ego but it does make the thing look better and it's oddly pleasing to play the game of, "Spot who drew what."

I think this is the first annual since Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 to feature all-new material, and the back-up strip is a Marie Severin drawn comedy in which Lee, Lieber and Romita are struggling to find a plot for the latest issue of Spider-Man. They think they have it until Roy Thomas walks in and reveals he's just used exactly the same plot for that month's issue of the Avengers. Humour's a personal thing but, frankly, it's terrible and not a patch on the similarly themed Steve Ditko tale that appeared in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1.

Proof of Stan Lee's notoriously bad memory. How does Spider-man get to Algeria? Simple. He hitches a lift in a flying car belonging to the Fantastic Four. The car's blatantly the one gifted to the FF in Fantastic Four #52 by the Black Panther. Clearly Stan the Man's forgotten all about this and has Mr Fantastic tell us it's a new device cooked up by SHIELD that the FF are testing for them. This is the second consecutive Spidey annual that's visually name-checked the FF's first meeting with the Panther. Clearly that story stuck in Larry's mind a whole lot better than it did in Stan's.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #4. Mysterio, the Wizard and the Human Torch

(Cover from 1967.)

"The Web And The Flame!"

Written by Stan Lee.
Pencilled by Larry Lieber.
Inked by Mike Esposito/T Mortellaro.
Lettering by Jerry Feldmann.

Well, there's an odd thing. I came to bury Caesar but might end up having to praise him.

Having read this tale many moons ago, I was under the impression that it's quite the worst Spider-Man story I've ever read but, reading it again for the purposes of this blog, I may have to admit it's not as bad as I recalled. It's not great but it is at least more fun than it once seemed.

In truth, my antipathy came mostly from the fact it's drawn by Stan Lee's brother Larry Lieber who doesn't even get a credit. It might be a sign of my ignorance but I tend to think of Lieber as the bloke who wrote stories when Stan was too busy to do them, rather than as an artist who drew stories when John Romita was too busy to do them. Looking at his work here, you can see why. Highly simplified and kinetic, it has that Jack Kirby vibe but Kirby's style was never suited to Spider-Man. It also has that John Romita vibe and it's obvious that one or two panels have been touched up by the great man himself. So, if you've ever wanted to know what would've happened if Kirby and Romita had ever got mixed up in the Fly Machine, this comic's the place for you. Lieber's art doesn't hurt your eyes as such but it is startlingly naive in its execution and lacks the polish and slickness you'd expect of a major comics publisher.

Having seen Spider-Man and the Human Torch fighting thanks to a misunderstanding on a film set, the Wizard decides it'd be a spiffing wheeze to sign them up to make a movie and turn them against each other in the hope they'll kill each other. This has the obvious flaw that the Torch is sworn never to hurt anyone with his flame, and Spider-Man's never shown any inclination toward murder, so there's no reason to believe either of them'll be willing to kill his rival.

Such logic has no place in the world of the Wizard off and so, to enact his mighty plan, he recruits the services of ex-Hollywood special effects man Mysterio (who he contacts by putting an ad in a newspaper, complete with his address so Mysterio can find him!). Needless to say, with such a high level of intellect behind it, the scheme goes belly-up and, in due course, the good guys polish off the super-creeps.

The thing that strikes me as clever about this tale is that the Marvel approach to super-heroes meeting (especially Spidey and the Torch) is that they meet, have a fight and then team up to take on their mutual foe but what happens here is that Spidey and the Torch meet, have a fight, bury their differences... ...and then, mere pages later, they fall out again and have yet another fight. I could put this down to a desire to break the mould of reader expectation but I suspect it was done purely because the story's forty pages long and Lee and Lieber got round the problem of filling extra pages simply by having everything happen twice. In this sense, it's a cheat but it does make a change from what we're used to and it also means the first half of this tale is at least lively.

The second half's lively too as, misunderstanding finally cleared up, our heroes pursue the wrong-doers, along the way having to see off a variety of traps, including a giant gorilla that's clearly blundered in directly from the pages of Fantastic Four #53. There's a bizarre sequence where the Torch and Spider-Man are trapped in a giant cage. The only problem with the thing being that it's suspended in mid air and doesn't have a bottom, meaning they could get out of it any time they wanted. Bafflingly, this doesn't occur to our heroes who seem to think they're in some sort of life or death peril from it. The Stan Lee school of science kicks in to give us a magnetically activated fluid that Spidey incorporates into his webbing in order to reverse a magnetic field and send flying rocks hurtling away from our good guys.

Basically, it's not a classic. A more cruel reviewer than I might say it's forty pages of padding and running around and serves no purpose whatsoever. They'd be right but it is at least action-packed padding and though I have to admit I wouldn't care if I never read it again, it's not quite the car crash I once thought it was.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2. Dr Strange

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2, Dr Strange, Steve Ditko
(Cover from 1965.)

"The Wondrous World Of Dr Strange!"

Written by Stan Lee.
Drawn by Steve Ditko.
Lettered by Sam Rosen.

"Whoa-ho-ho, it's magic," sang 1970s' hit-makers Pilot. "Never believe it's not so." They also sang a song about their Auntie Iris. Sadly only the first of these ditties is relevant here as Spider-Man officially meets Dr Strange for the first time ever.

Of course, those with memories that stretch all the way back to yesterday's review'll recall Peter Parker met Dr Strange in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 (as did Flash Thompson's fist) but this time it's Spider-Man's turn. Sadly this is the only new tale in the mag, as the Herculean efforts of the first annual aren't repeated and this one's bulked out by a bunch of already reviewed tales from Spidey's early days [1][2][3].

In our one new outing, Spidey and Strange find themselves up against the power of Xandu the magician. Xandu has one half of the handily alliterative Wand of Watoomb and needs the other to become all-powerful. Trouble is, Dr Strange has it. So, Xandu hypnotises two bar-room bullies into being unstoppable engines of destruction and sets them on Dr Strange. Despite being the Master of Mystic Arts, Strange proves surprisingly inept in his attempts to thwart them, and Xandu has his hands on the wand.

Spider-Man though has blundered onto the scene and he and Strange join forces to defeat Xandu. The villain defeated, Dr Strange flies off, a plug from Stan Lee for Strange Tales ringing in our eyeballs.

It's an oddly naive but pleasing tale with Steve Ditko having to balance the otherworldly look of Dr Strange's mag with the more everyday style of Spider-Man's adventures. He does this pretty well although it's never going to be a totally perfect fit, and the two hypnotised thugs seem oddly simplistic visually, and out of place, in a Dr Strange tale - especially the section where they beat Strange up. The Master of Mystic Arts succumbing to mere fisticuffs? The indignity of it all. Spider-Man's not strictly central to events - serving more as a distraction to Xandu at key points in the tale, while Strange finishes off Xandu and robs the Wand of its power. But it's a pleasant bit of fluff, and even the fact that Xandu looks a bit of a berk, with his monocle and silly moustache, can't damage it.


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