Spider-Man: The JMS years
Because his run ended in scandal and controversy, it’s tempting to dismiss all of J. Michael Straczynskis long tenure on Spider-Man as disposable. Far from it. In fact, it’s JMS’ run that got me back reading Spider-Man after years and years away from the book. People forget that before JMS, Spider-Man was a floundering stunt book full of clones, death, and sadness, and featured every dumb gimmick Marvel could think of to bolster sales. JMS went back to basics on the character, but also attempted to add some depth to his origin. Peter Parker as avatar of a long dead Spider-God might not have taken off with the masses the way Marvel hoped, but they’ve had worse ideas over the years, and the concept garnered some great stories. And some terrible ones.
Amazing Spider-Man – Coming Home, Revelations, Until The Stars Turn Cold, The Life & Death of Spiders, Unintended Consequences, Happy Birthday, The Book Of Ezekiel
This run started off with a huge bang. JMS introduces Morlun, a new addition to Spidey’s rogues gallery, and one that was perfect as a starting point for what the writer was trying to accomplish in his run. JMS is known as a fairly talky writer, and to his credit he counteracted that by putting together one of the great Spider-Man battles as his first order of business. And not only is there plenty of action, but there’s also plenty of attention being paid to characterization. No, it’s not the same Peter Parker stumbling through personal problem after personal problem that we know and love. This Parker is starting to get his shit together. And we love him for it. After Morlun, comes the big reveal: Aunt May finds out that Peter is Spider-Man. And so we get several years of poignant character moments between those two icons that we’d never been privy to before, simply because of one simple change to the status quo.Also? Funny. Really funny. JMS’ Spidey isn’t quite as quippy as previous incarnations have been, but the laughs are subtle, and frequent. Oh, and John Romita Jr turns in some of the greatest art he’s ever done. And this is a guy who turns in great art the way you turn in your parking pass at work. It’s a regular occurrence. In short, the first 7 trades of this run are pretty much magic.
Amazing Spider-Man: Sins Past, Skin Deep, New Avengers, Spider-Man – One More Day, The Other, Back In Black
And then one day the magic died. I’m not sure whether or not it was John Romita leaving the book, the heavy-handed interference from Marvel EIC Joe Quesada, or something else that caused the not-so-gradual decline of this book, but decline it did. It was obvious by this point that JMS’ heart wasn’t in the comic anymore, and Sins Past was just the first of many terrible creative decisions. Mistake number one: Introducing two new villains as the long-lost love children of Gwen Stacy and Norman Osbourne. Stacy is a much-loved character in the Marvel canon, so much so that her 1973 death is considered the official end of the Silver Age of comics. To retcon her into a needy whore with daddy issues enraged fans and critics alike. And worst of all, it wasn’t a good story. And that was just beginning of two years worth of terrible decisions: Peter joins The Avengers. Peter tells the world his secret identity. Peter makes a deal with Satan to nullify his marriage with the love of his life in order to save the life of a woman near death anyways. Nah, that last one would never happen. Oh, wait. It did? Crap. As I said, it’s obvious from the quality of this dreck that JMS was under the gun here, and that he was essentially under orders for a lot of this. And since he’s written some fine comics since then he can be forgiven. But the end of this run was where a lot of long-time Spidey fans jumped off the book, and judging from recent sales numbers, they never came back.
Spider-Man – Tangled Web Vol. 1-4
This was a series that ran concurrently with a lot of JMS’ run, and man is it ever missed. Basically the premise of this is that it’s an anthology series, featuring stories both short and long, that fit neatly into the Spider-Man mythos, but don’t always star Spider-Man. And to top it off, if features plenty of indie and top creators that aren’t always known for their take on superheroes.And so you get fantastic, quirky little Spider-Man stories by people like Duncan Fegredo, Garth Ennis, Greg Rucka, Eduardo Risso, Paul Pope, Peter Milligan, Brian Azzarello, Sean Phillips, Darwyn Cooke, Kaare Andrews, and Ted McKeever. Now, this book isn’t for those who need continuity and punch-ups to pervade every page of their comics. But if you love short, stand-alone superhero stories by unconventional creators, you’re not going to get much better than this.
Spider-Man: Blue by Tim Sale and Jeph Loeb
This was from a brief moment a decade ago where the pairing of Loeb and Sale could do no wrong. Every publisher wanted them to work their magic on character after character. It’s popular now to trash Jeph Loeb for every thing he’s written in the last 5 years. But his work with Sale still stands up. For the most part. This is a small story about Peter Parker reminiscing about the first love of his life, Gwen Stacy. And so there is plenty of over-the-top schmaltz, but it’s good schmaltz, and quite frankly it’s the stuff than Loeb writes the best. But as pretty much everything that Loeb and Sale did together, it’s Tim Sale that isn’t just the real star, he’s the whole damn thing. I don’t think I could name 5 mainstream artists that are operating at the level that Sale is at, and this is a great example of his finest work. As a Spider-Man story, I can’t say that it’s particularly engaging. But as an example of one of the best writer-artist partnerships of the last 20 years, it’s pretty much essential.
Spider-Man – Kraven’s Last Hunt
This is the greatest Spider-Man story ever told. Or at least that’s the conventional wisdom. And for once, I agree with conventional wisdom. This story, originally done in the late 1980’s, stars Kraven, a Spider-Man villain who never really fulfilled his promise as a bad guy. Although he always had a great look, he was a fairly one-note character. That is, until J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Zeck got ahold of him. This is really his story, and it’s the story of a dying man. Nothing is wrong with him per se, but he’s at the end of his life, and he knows it. And so he wants to do one last thing: Destroy Spider-Man. Not kill, though that’s part of it. Destroy. And for Kraven, destroying your greatest enemy means becoming him. And he does.
This, my fine friends, is one of the great ones. One of the true, epic superhero stories that give you faith in a genre famous for telling truly epic stories. And it stands up so well. Even though it’s 25 years old by now, it would still kick the ass of 99% of the superhero comics out right now in terms of emotional impact, and in terms of pure entertainment.
Ok, here’s what you do. Grab a Spider-Man comic. Any one, really. Ok, start reading. Now, smoke a carton of cigarettes. I’ll wait. Done? Ok, now here’s a thermos full of whiskey, beer, and coffee, and I’m going to need you drink that in one shot. Oh, and I’m going to need to inject your eyeballs with heroin and speed.
Now you know what reading Brendan McCarthy’s Fever is like. It’s a trippy mindfuck to end all trippy mindfucks, and it’s more about paying tribute to 1960’s Steve Ditko Doctor Strange comics than it is about telling a solid superhero story. If you love batshit crazy indie comics (and I do), then this book is for you. And only for you.
Next up: Spider-Man and his little buddies!