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.

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