Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Spider-Man Newspaper Strips Volume One

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Spider-Man Newspaper Strips volume one (Marvel, 2009)

When it comes to reviewing books and records and movies, I'd like to think that I got all the nasty negativity out of my system when I was in college, writing for the newspaper as a rawk critic and wishing I was Steve Sutherland or Nick Kent or Swells, somebody like that. Not Bangs, he wasn't British. Those were the days I could legitimately spend a full calendar year wishing that chowderhead Daniel Ash would release just one more record so that I could savage it so well that word'd later get back to me that Professor Fink in the j-school had held my piece up as an example of how to write.

These days, though, I just try to quit reading something I'm not enjoying, and I'd really, really rather not engage in ugly vitriol. Plus, nobody pays me for this. Well, I might try and make a joke every once in a while, but instead of uncapping a poison pen, I'd rather consider what sort of compromises were necessary to get something so completely misguided and ugly as the first volume of Spider-Man Newspaper Strips in print in the first place.

I find it curious that the comic blogsophere has had so little to say about this book. If Marvel Comics promotes a new release on the back of somebody else's promotion, the circles I read explode for two weeks. Similarly, everybody is very keen to hear what IDW and Fantagraphics have to say about their archival reprints of classic newspaper strips, and anything from those companies along those lines is guaranteed to be discussed and debated. Yet when Marvel released a collection last year of their 1970s Spider-Man strip, giving it the full hardcover treatment, with restored artwork by the mighty John Romita (or was he "Jazzy"...?) and some supplemental material, the internet discussion sites were surprisingly muted. Was everybody just being inordinately polite?

I don't know whether the design or the actual strip is the main problem, but the coin came up heads, so here you go: this is one butt-ugly book. It's printed sideways.

The best I can figure is that Marvel uses one printing company for their hardcovers, and they can only do a single trim size, and printing three strips per page would have required that the art be shrunk at least 10%, and the designer didn't want to do that to Jazzy John. That's just a guess, and it's the best I've got. Seriously, nobody planned to come up with something this stupid, did they? Perhaps the designer was told that the book would be in the wide format similar to what IDW and Fantagraphics have popularized and laid out the strips accordingly, and somebody else later decided they wanted to rack it next to the Marvel Masterworks?

That said, it's more than just the stupidly awkward format. The tan background is perhaps a nice notion, to make the art stand out more, but it doesn't really work for me. Adding fussy little spiderwebs and red explosions around the page numbers distracts readers, and makes the product look like a third-party coloring book, even more juvenile than the strip itself. And that's saying something. This strip was for dimwits.

When I was in elementary school, I liked Spider-Man just fine, but I never read this strip, which appeared locally in the evening paper, The Atlanta Journal. The morning Atlanta Constitution ran the competing World's Greatest Superheroes featuring the DC characters. That was a pretty ridiculous guilty pleasure, beloved today by pretty much only me, but even at the age of eight, I knew that goofball mess was miles better than the Marvel offering.

Adventure strips have to use a curious pacing to keep casual readers interested, while not moving so quickly as to confuse people who only see it twice a week. Some writers can do it amazingly well, but Lee's constant rehashing of the same bored tics and tropes just grate, and you'll want to never again read about Peter Parker after the fourth or fifth time he refuses to defend himself out of costume, because he apparently cannot control his super strength and is afraid he'll punch somebody too hard. What the heck? Compilations like this sometimes chafe because older comics would restate certain character traits every month for newcomers, but I swear it seems like Lee was doing it twice every week, especially when the agonizing Aunt May spends day after day worrying about poor, poor, poor Peter. It's like trying to wring sympathy out of Gladys Kravitz; it can't be done.

I'd give Lee some leeway if the storylines were worth the boring, redundant character quirks, but apart from one interesting plot by the Kingpin to get Spidey to work as his lieutenant, they are never more than Spidey Super Stories-level. Doctor Doom somehow manages to be boring in a convoluted scheme to drive Spidey onto the couch of a psychiatrist who's actually a robot, and there's a deeply seventies tale about Flash and Harry Osborn opening a hot new nightclub which is even more ridiculously wish-fulfilling and G-rated than the plot of Xanadu.

But the booby prize has to go to the Mysterio story. In an apparent attempt to promote CBS's oddball Spider-Man TV series of the time, some Hollywood producer decides to make a Spider-Man movie, and Peter decides to go to California to "star" in it by doing the Spidey stunts, and J. Jonah Jameson decides to send Parker out there to cover it, and the special effects guy decides to kill the lead actor. I started counting the things wrong with that, and ran out of fingers.

Perhaps at a lower price, this might make for a cute little curiosity and period piece, the sort of thing that internet comedians like Chris Sims and Kevin Church would enjoy clowning. After all, as the duo behind the monthly Amazing Spider-Man comic in the late sixties, Lee and Romita spun some terrific yarns - I actually, heretically, prefer that period to the original days of Steve Ditko - and their reteaming should have been worth at least a look, even if it turned out so lousy. But to put such mediocre material out there and package it so badly and to charge forty bucks for it, well, I'm not sure who I'm angrier with, Marvel for releasing something so lousy or me for still not learning the expensive lesson to actually have a product in hand to look at before I ask Bizarro Wuxtry to order me a copy.

Oh, wait, this book arrived shrinkwrapped. It's like Marvel knew something we didn't. Not recommended. Avoid.


Alan David Doane said...

Wow, that is one ugly looking book.

ChristopherAllen said...


Good review. The only reason I can think that this didn't get much attention (and count me as a Spidey fan who didn't give this a moment's consideration) is that the Spider-Man strip is such a known, bad commodity. Now, given how terrible something like The Family Circus or Gasoline Alley have been for most of my life, I was pleasantly surprised with the reprints of the early years of those strips. But I was reading Spider-Man in the paper back when Lee and Romita were doing them, and even as a kid I knew they weren't any good, and that a three panel strip is an awful way to deliver superhero action.

ion said...

Can you tell me if this episode (http://wrappers.ru/?act=coll&acm=coll&id=38 )
are in the book?

Thank you.

Grant, the Hipster Dad said...

ion, yes, that story is included.

ion said...

Thank you for the answer.
The wrappers are in turkish language and I have them since I was a little boy (years 1984-1985).I am from Romania and in those years comics was very rare in my country.
Could you make me a photo or a scan with this episode?

Grant, the Hipster Dad said...

Not much chance of that, mate. The episode is about 35 pages long. You can order the book from Amazon.

ion said...

OK, thank you anyway :)