The Things I Do For Comics – Spider-Man #1
Continuing in my series of masochistic comic reviews, today we’re going to have a look at another of the best-selling comics of all time. Much like last week’s selection, X-Force #1, this book was a new series placed entirely in the hands of a superstar artist, only this time the stakes were a bit higher. While Cable and the New Mutants were very popular in those days, they were nothing compared to the consistent appeal of…… Spider-Man!
That’s right, this time around we’re going to take a look at Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1. Another book from my formative years, it took me far longer to realize that this story was just plain terrible. During my lapse from comic reading, spanning the years 1995-2001 or so, I still occasionally popped into my local comic stop to see what was on the shelves. I’d normally grab a Wizard, sometimes a new issue of Spider-Man or Uncanny X-Men, or just an old back issue to replace a long-since-destroyed copy from my youth. One particular day, I noticed a rack of discounted comic sets. On this rack there were bundle packs of the first few story lines of the McFarlane Spider-Man series. Since I had nothing but fond memories of these books from their initial moment in the sun, I grabbed the first two sets (which contained issues 1 – 12) and started rereading them as soon as I got home. I did not enjoy them. Now, at the time I foolishly, even arrogantly chalked it up to my having outgrown comics so I thought nothing of it and stayed away from the store for a while longer. When the Ultimate line launched and I quickly became a regular customer again, I realized that these had , all the while, been terrible books.
What could have gone wrong? Todd McFarlane was easily the most popular comics artist on the scene. Even today, while I’ve lost my own taste for his art, I don’t fault people for liking it. Like most artists, McFarlane evolved quite a bit during his career in comics. He started out drawing in a fairly conventional style, and as he began to bring in higher profile assignments, his art became more and more stylized. In McFarlane’s case, this was a very successful strategy. A few short years after having received multiple rejection letters from Marvel, Todd had become their golden boy. Immediately after taking over art chores for Amazing Spider-Man, the character Venom was introduced and the world had McFarlane fever, and over the next two or three years his art style changed drastically to the point where (and once again I want to be clear that I’m not a great detractor his) his conception of human anatomy was no longer compatible with that of the world at large.
The point I’m trying to get across here is that, while the art in Spider-Man #1 is not beyond reproach, I’m going to let it slide on the grounds that McFarlane had gravitated toward this style from a more conventional one. I don’t think he was, in 1990, a terrible artist. I do, however, think he was a terrible writer.
Okay, this is almost a complain about the art… but it’s not the actual figures, just the composition. While I have to admit it is eye-catching to use vertically framed panels instead of the traditional horizontal ones, there’s a reason people opt for the old fashioned way. Blame our Western culture all you like, but the primary audience for these comics was trained to read left to right, top to bottom, in that order. All the same, it was an interesting gimmick. The reak fault here lays with the script. McFarlane has a whole lot of fun making metaphor soup, but not a single thing is accomplished by this rambling narration. I don’t want to simply paste the comic page by page in this review, and the haphazard placement of the word balloons makes it very difficult to snip them without doing so, so what I’ll do instead is copy some key phrases from the first few scenes. Picking up from the end of the first page, we have ” — AT TIMES SOME WISH THEY COULD — RISE ABOVE IT ALL! HIS NAME — SPIDER-MAN! HIS POWERS — EXTRAORDINARY! HIS WEBLINE — ADVANTAGEOUS!” BELOW, THE PEOPLE CONTINUE TO SCURRY. SOON IT IS NIGHT. A TIME FOR THE SCUM AND VERMIN TO PLAY AMONG THE SHADOWS. IT IS ALSO A TIME WHEN SHADOWS MOVE. WHEN THINGS START TO CRAWL. THINGS LIKE — — SPIDERS! ”
What — The Fuck! Did I — Just Read?
Now, here’s what I think is going on here. Todd McFarlane was trying to be Frank Miller. I understand the motivation, Miller was an artist-turned-writer who revolutionized the industry with his gritty and hard-boiled work on Daredevil and Batman. McFarlane seems to be aping Miller’s style without any of the substance which backed it up. This scene is set in a dark alley, standard Batman territory. And to cement this point, McFarlane uses the word “punk” twice in quick succession to describe the mugger that Spider-Man takes down. That’s textbook Frank Miller stuff, and I’m sure I’ll eventually do an entry on McFarlane and Miller’s eventual collaboration on Spawn/Batman, in which “punk” is used to hilarious excess.
So, we’re six pages of “story” into the book and not much has happened. It’s reminiscent of the opening scene of Tim Burton’s Batman, and I’m sure that was no accident. Strangely (and I only realized this about Batman after noticing the similarity here) neither hero goes to any real lengths to see the muggers brought to justice. Batman leaves the criminals dazed but conscious on a rooftop with police fast approaching, whereas Spider-Man webs up the armed assailant and leaves him dangling unattended in the same out-of-the-way spot he used to mug this woman.
Oh, brother. Every time the villain appears in this story, the word “DOOM” shows up on the page numerous times. I think it’s supposed to be a sort of musical queue in the style of Jaws, maybe? Anyway, on the first of these pages there’s a sort of red herring which pays off a little further down the line.
To all appearances, we’re looking at the return of Kraven the Hunter. Just before McFarlane took over as the artist on the Amazing Spider-Man, writer J.M. DeMatteis and artist Mike Zeck collaborated on a fantastic story, often considered one of the best in Spider-Man’s history, in which one of Spidey’s oldest foes finally defeated ol’ Webhead and celebrated by eating a victory bullet. In the grand scheme of things, it hadn’t happened all that long ago, but it certainly had been long enough for a comic book resurrection. As cool as Kraven was, thankfully that was not the direction in which they were going with this. The actual villain showcased in this series’ inaugural story is none other than Dr. Curt Connors, the Lizard. A big part of what made the Lizard interesting was his Jekyll and Hyde style personality split. The Lizard was a remorseless monster, but Connors was a brilliant man who was tortured by the Lizard’s actions. That schism kind of goes out the window in this story, since the Lizard is apparently being controlled by some kind of black magic. So, now he’s just a mindless monster terrorizing the streets. Why not just use a character who already fits that mold, you ask? Why, indeed.
Cut to Peter and Mary Jane’s Soho apartment. Peter is musing on the fact that, despite his having fought countless super-powered foes, common criminals still bother trying to go up against him. Parker is normally portrayed as a brilliant polymath, yet here he is shown as so dense as to think every mugging in New York is perpetrated in an attempt to piss off Spider-Man. The MJ/Peter banal conversation sequence is broken up with scenes of the Lizard following that DOOM noise (which we learn is meant to be a drum beat) and senselessly killing people all the while. Thankfully, one of the people he attacks is carrying a revolver for some reason and manages to land a few rounds in the Lizard.
Again with the horizontal panels. And this time they’re accompanied by this sputtering narration. The mystery witch doctor pours a drop of blood into a cauldron to the beat of the drums and the Lizard pops right back into action. He’s bleeding pretty badly, but we get the idea that he still managed to dispatch the aforementioned victims. And then things start making even less sense. Notice how in the image above the sky is that inky black color? I personally live on the Eastern coast of the United States, not too far from this story’s setting of Manhattan, and I can tell you that a dark black sky is, barring some kind of unusual cosmological event, a good indicator that it is night time.
Dusk, eh? Pretty unusual to eat breakfast at dusk, but certainly not out of the question. Peter Parker very likely keeps strange hours as a masked vigilante, so maybe we’ve skipped ahead almost a day to dusk of the next evening? Although, Mary Jane has changed out of her weird Peg Bundy fishnet outfit from earlier in the issue into a bathrobe, and Peter has ditched the bottoms of his Spider-Man suit in favor of bubble boxers..
Before classes, eh? Must be night school or something. Wait… what’s going on in the background, there. Between those buildings, I can swear I see a sort of sky blue color. I must be seeing things, it’s just after dusk and since dusk happens immediately after sunset, the sky wouldn’t be that color. Or perhaps it’s a coloring error? That’s an easy enough mistake to make, right?
Now you wait just a goddamned second. A nice FRESH day? Warmth and sunshine? Are you honestly telling me that Todd McFarlane doesn’t know the difference between dusk and dawn? Does he really think that roosters crow at dusk and that vampires head out of the house at dawn? Let’s say that he does and he made a legitimate mistake, why didn’t the editor say something about this? Why not the letterer? I think it’s very possible that they weren’t allowed to correct him.
Anyway, let’s keep moving through this mess. We glimpse the cover of the Parkers’ morning/dusk edition of the Daily Bugle that the authorities don’t yet realize that last night’s killings were the work of the Lizard. They’ve also missed the meaning of the “CNNR” scrawled in blood on the wall of the alley, and Peter didn’t bother to take a look before leaving the house! As he swings through the air toward the university, Parker makes a hilarious joke about the impracticality of capes!
And then it’s dawn? Wait…. seriously? I’m so confused right now. It was dusk just a moment ago when Peter was eating breakfast, facing a new day, and commenting on the newly delivered paper. Now it’s dawn, and we see this.
No! No, no, no! This doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Dawn is the other one, Todd! The sky doesn’t get darker at dawn, it gets lighter, so this guy’s alley should be a little better-lit. That way, he wouldn’t have to worry about Lizard attacks!! We barely get to know Ralph Dill before he is savagely murdered (and maybe even eaten?)! Damn you, McFarlane… across those four expository panels you’ve made the audience fall in love with this man. We were hoping to see him go back to work after his break and enjoy that coffee and doughnut but now we’ll never even known what kind of jelly it had inside. With one drawing of a Leapin’ Lizard he crush all of our hopes like a styrofoam cup. All we’re left with is this final page.
I’d like to make a few suggestions if I could?
But definitely keep that “Hero of Youth” bit. That’s gold.
Well, that does it for today! But don’t fret, I’ll be back in no time with another installment. Any suggestions? Leave ’em down below.
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