Monday, June 26, 2017

Tie-ins, Part XXVI: Spider-Man #1

Some random Spider-Man books, Part 1
The Fall of Todd McFarlane

Call it pride, hubris, or ambition – it still doesn't justify all the $1 back issues in circulation

"Torment, Part 1"
Writer – Todd McFarlane
Art – Todd McFarlane
Letters – Rick Parker
Colorist – Bob Sharen
Editor – Jim Salicrup
Editor-in-Chief – Tom DeFalco
August 1990

Few artist have soared so high as Todd McFarlane. His work for Marvel in the tail-end of the 1980's created some hot sale numbers on two of that company's biggest characters.

Todd's run on Hulk made me believe that the man-monster could be just as intimidating without making him a jade giant. And his time on Amazing Spider-Man redefined how people would draw web-head and his webs for years.

I seriously LOVE his art.

By all rights, McFarlane's legacy should have been years and years of providing the very best visuals for some of the top tier writers that Marvel afford to bring in.

Instead his legacy is Spider-Man #1.

For me, and I know I am not the average comic book guy but bear with me a bit here, this was the tipping point of McFarlane's career arc. His comic profile reads like a parabola for me. It crests right before Spider-Man #1 and then it begins a steep and ever-increasing descent into obscurity and … *poof* -- invisibility.

What happened?

After a couple of years of becoming the most popular of Marvel's new bullpen of great artists, McFarlane leveraged his position to force the powers that be at Marvel to allow him step way outside his comfort zone. On their dime. After building himself into my generation's John Romita, he decided he wanted to be my generation's Jack Kirby.

McFarlane wanted to write his own books too.

So? Plenty of artists have moved over to being writers. They've worked as co-plotters and learned what it takes to craft good characters and stories, figured out how to construct dialogue and plot that felt natural, and built enjoyable tales that respected the audience and the genre.

But McFarlane couldn't do that. He didn’t see the need to learn the craft. As he put it in this issue's back page, "he would get comfortable" and not advance from co-plotting to writing. He was sick of drawing what someone else told him to draw. He wanted to make art that told his story and he wanted to draw whatever came into his head, not slavishly drawing pages of things some other person had written.

He expressed this to management by turning in his notice on Amazing Spider-Man. At least that's what he said he did.

I've seen Todd in person and watched a few of his interviews. He's got the brash swagger typical of a New York native (although he's actually an import from Canada.) He acts sure of himself and a little cocky, if you ask me. It doesn't take much to believe that he demanded a new Spider-Man title all his own.

You don’t have to believe me on this speculation, but just read between the (mostly redundantly repeating themselves and full of run-on sentences) lines from the back page of Spider-Man #1. Jim Salicrup’s parentheticals only add to what feels like a growing discontent between Marvel and McFarlane.

But Marvel corporate and editor Jim Salicrup weren't stupid. The prospect of losing Todd to DC had little appeal and there were plenty of benefits to be reaped if they created a new title for Todd to "work his magic on." They laid the idea at Marvel marketing's feet and the next thing you know we had seven different variants of Spider-Man #1 headed down the distributing channel. This included some polybagged issues that would never be opened by anyone for fear of decreasing the issue’s “value.”

Two and a half million copies of Spider-Man #1 were sold to retail shops. At the time, it was the most any one issue had sold in the history of comics. And most of those were bought, boarded, bagged or slabbed in anticipation of one day reaping a huge reward.

That day will never, ever come.

Too many in circulation on a book that, as we are about to see, is mediocre at best and howlingly bad at worst. I suppose I should talk about the actual issue at this point. Let's do this...

If someone ever writes a book on how NOT to open a comic book story, this will be their first point: Don’t open on a cityscape and spend a page talking about the setting. Nothing says “I’m going to bore you for a page” like describing the setting right out of the gate. That’s why “It was a dark and stormy night…” is always used as a horrible way to begin a story.

Reach out and grab your reader. Like this:

His name – Todd McFarlane!

His penciling skill – Extrodinary!

His writing – Sparce!

My interest – NON-EXISTENT!

Okay, so going in for my first read of these in many years, this first shot of Spider-Man and the oddly simple text boxes seem a precursor of things to come. Note that this page isn’t all that bad. It even makes the prior page almost forgivable. But where Todd takes this…well, let’s continue on.

We get a full page of a violent purse-snatching in progress and something seems a bit off. First, this is way more graphic than prior Spider-titles would be. Parker would typically swing in BEFORE innocent victims got smacked around too bad. The bruising points to this being the “Dark Knight” flavor of comics, which flies in the face of the tone set on the page prior.

This consistent tone issue is something that comes up a bunch in the book. Is Todd making something violent and adult or is this a bright and happy book where we can describe Spider-Man in one word adjectives without any navel-gazing?

Next page we have what looks like our answer as the fun and quip-filled Spidey appears looking darker than Batman on a bad night and stealing lines from a Clint Eastwood movie.

For his efforts, Parker gets shot at. He dodges all of them, of course.

We turn the page and tone shift. Parker is now bright and funny again. The book is an amusement park ride that doesn’t know if it is a rollercoaster or a carousel.  

The we get two pages introducing the villains of this arc: a shadowy mystical druid-like figure who appears be controlling…

….a Much scarier version of the Lizard, who for this issue is drawn without his tail for many of the panels. 

Note a couple of things here: First the repetition of the “Doom” sound effect, which is supposed to represent tribal drumming AND to foreshadow the downfall of the hero in this story. If this had been used sparingly, it might have succeeded. Instead, over the five issue span of this story, the word "Doom" is printed more times than it is in the entire run of the Fantastic Four. It pre-dated Gir from Invader Zim by decades, but still when I read this issue I feel that same frustration that Zim must have felt in that first episode.
The overuse of the onomatopoeia creates the opposite effect than the one McFarlane is hoping for, turning dread into absurd comedy.

The book becomes: turn page, shift tone. We move to the next page of Mary Jane, who serves little purpose other than looking pretty and adoring Peter, and Peter Parker on the couch together. Peter is going on in a very…odd manner.

Todd’s Parker is full of himself.

VERY full of himself. Whereas Peter Parker has always doubted his abilities and had moments of crisis where he downplayed his heroic successes, here we have a Parker who touts them openly like they were no big deal. Todd’s Parker channels a bit of Todd in this, the hero too big to fail, the artist too popular NOT to do well.

I don’t like it. Parker to me is a bundle of self-doubt. In fact, much of his light-hearted banter while fighting criminals has always felt like a nervous tick to me. That he isn’t cocky or self-assured, he’s worried about screwing up. He bears the weight of the world on his shoulders and his banter distracts not only the crooks from whatever villainy they are plotting but also himself from his fear of screwing up again and someone he loves paying the price. Maybe my Spider-Man is too neurotic, but I think I channel his vibe pretty spot-on through Stan’s time on the title.

McFarlane doesn’t write him that way. Parker gloats with a curled lip about how that crook didn’t stand a chance instead of being grateful that today he didn’t mess up.

And MJ says how cute he is because she is window-dressing.

Turn page – shift back to dark and gritty as the Lizard eats a rat…

…then to break the formula we shift on the next page facing that one to MJ tickling Peter because he is acting like an arrogant prick. I HATE McFarland’s Spider-Man. The character, I mean. How hard is it to understand who this character is?

Turn page and Lizard (wait, there IS a tail in this panel) eats some thieves. 

Before ripping them to shreds, of course (Note: No tail here, but look at lizzy’s sexy buttcheeks.). Now try to get Gir’s Doom song out of your head…

The book is by far the bloodiest Spider-Man has ever been, and hindsight lends the thought that what Todd really wanted to write came out a year or so later as his Spawn comic. This book had all the violence that book had, but with a hero who had to restrain himself, even if the villains didn’t. 

He was writing Spider-Man as a horror title and turning his villains into dark and monstrous versions of themselves to fit the stories he came up with. The problem with all of this is that Spider-Man doesn’t really work as horror, even if you turn the main character into a brash, self-assured mirror of himself.

There is a good reason this was kept “out of continuity” too. None of these stories mattered. Not to the Spider-verse ongoing at the time. They didn’t change Parker or his cast of characters. Todd could have killed Aunt May and no one writing the other monthly Spider-titles would have batted an eye. This was his sandbox and it is easy to see why. Whatever he screwed up here could be ignored and still Marvel reaped the sales revenue.

Spider-Man swings around for two pages and thinks about how great he is.

The Lizard (no tail again) kills ANOTHER PERSON. This is the page before the last page too.

At this moment, someone in editorial wakes up and goes to Todd and says there isn’t a single page with Spider-Man and the Lizard together. So Todd, being Todd, does this on the very last page.

It took five issues for this to unfold and I’d be lying if I said I knew when they actually fought each other. I'm not sure if they even met before issue three. Whenever it was, it seems like it took far too long to get there.

So, there you have it.

I bought this. And the issues that followed. Right up until Todd left the book and Marvel for "greener pastures." I hated every issue. The stories had no arcs, the characters were unappealing and there didn't seem to be much for the actual heroes to do but pose. Never once did I feel I got to know Spider-Man or his cast of reoccurring friends and enemies better. I never found myself truly invested in the outcome of any single issue or storyline.

I used to be very angry about these books, but time his mellowed that. McFarlane was one of the artists I "collected." Looked up to! Proselytized others to convert them to the cult of McFarlane. I went back to the bins and pulled out issues when I could find them of his prior works. I was an infrequent buyer of Amazing until he showed up, thinking Spider-Man was too popular, much like Batman. But his art brought me back and made me believe in collecting Spider-Man again. His art style with all its quirks and intricate hidden Felix the Cats and Spider logos spoke to me. It changed how many of us viewed panel layouts and splash pages and action sequences.

The McFarlane (non-Amazing) Spider-Man series severed that love. For all the reasons above, I felt betrayed as a fan and that the characters in the Spider-Man saga had been maligned. This new series promised us the McFarlane art and a good Spider-Man story, but it didn’t deliver.

They were pretty but meaningless.

And if you don't believe me, you only have to browse a few discount bins to find out for yourself. You’ll find plenty issue number 1’s out there. Guaranteed.

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