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.

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