Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Essential Amazing Spider-Man Volume Two

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 The Essential Amazing Spider-Man (Marvel, 1998).

I suppose that I could be struck, reading this collection, as to how vibrant and wonderful Steve Ditko's art is. This collection of 25 issues of Marvel's Amazing Spider-Man contains the second half of Ditko's run as artist and co-plotter on the series, along with the first six issues of John Romita's run. I suppose that I could also be struck to learn just how steep Romita's learning curve was. Romita has been my favorite Spider-Man artist for as long as I can remember, even, heretically, surpassing the wonderful work of Ditko, but his first two issues are just stiff and awkward. Perhaps it's the inking, by Mike Esposito, not quite in sync with the pencils, but his first two issues look really sloppy and ungainly for one of Marvel's best-known creators.

But no, the main thing that strikes me about reading this collection is how utterly insane teenagers were in the 1960s. Oh, sure, they're insane now, but either scripter and co-plotter Stan Lee was coming up with laughable, flatly unbelievable elements to these stories, or they're reasonably accurate portrayals of deeply, utterly bugnuts, highly-strung freaks that are having complete meltdowns every other month. Oh, yeah, and a kid bit by a radioactive spider beats up on guys who dress like scorpions and rhinos.

You get the usual accounting of completely histrionic women that you expect in boy-targeted comics, just dialed up to eleven. Peter Parker, here aged around 17, has a few suitors, like Daily Bugle employee Betty Brant. Betty, also being wooed by a guy named Ned Leeds, flies completely off the handle, and into Ned's arms, when she learns that one of Peter's elderly neighbors has a niece around Peter's age. I mean, she flips totally out of control just hearing that somebody named Mary Jane Watson might exist. We don't even actually meet Mary Jane for many months, by which time Betty has exited the series, chased out by a possibility.

Then there's Peter's fellow classmates at Empire State, who have way too much time on their hands. During one protracted segment, Peter's Aunt May, not for the first nor the last time, is gravely ill. Peter is so upset by this that he does not talk to anybody about anything, and just goes through the day with his head hung low under a forest of thought balloons. His classmates conclude that Peter's intentionally freezing them out, prompting class hottie Gwen Stacey to alternately come onto him like a va-va-voom girl or an ice queen, with consistently weird results. Nothing anybody does in this comic has any relation to modern teenagers, who, for starters, would be blogging and Facebooking the bejezus out of how bummed they are that their aunt is in the hospital. Hell, my teenage son made a federal case out of his inability to convince his wicked stepmother to drive him twenty miles to an Apple Store. On Easter Sunday, when it was closed.

This is deeply, deeply dated stuff. I have a collection of Archie newspaper strips from twenty years prior to this, and its teen leads might be jealous, easily offended weirdos, but they're more believable than the teen attitudes depicted here. This is a shame, because the superhero stuff is really first-rate, with some impressive plots and even more impressive artwork and fight scenes, but one of the selling points of 1960s Marvel books is supposed to be how they're "realistic," and match the highwire melodrama with issues that normal readers can understand. Unfortunately, everything faced here by Peter Parker is just so utterly ridiculous, and played out with such overbearing hysteria, that it overwhelms everything around it. When it's good - when Ditko gets a dialogue-free page to show Spider-Man and the baddie of the month smacking the daylights out of each other, when Lee depicts a hero who can out-talk and outwit anybody - it is almost transcendent, but when it is ordinary, it is excruciating. Recommended for very patient readers.

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