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The Amazing Spider-Man by David Michelinie & Todd McFarlane Omnibus (Review/Retrospective)

The Amazing Spider-Man by David Michelinie & Todd McFarlane Omnibus is a fun comic book collection. Todd McFarlane was one of the rising stars at Marvel in the late eighties, and it’s no exaggeration to suggest that his work on The Amazing Spider-Man (along with Jim Lee’s work on Uncanny X-Men) had a massive influence on how the company would develop during the nineties. McFarlane’s artwork still looks absolutely superb, but it’s easy to forget that McFarlane worked for an extended period with author David Michelinie, crafting stories for the iconic web-crawler. While the stories and characterisation might not have been as strongly influential as McFarlane’s artwork, they still remain impressive until today. This might not be the finest or most important collection of Spider-Man adventures ever collected, but it reads incredibly fluidly and has a great sense of fun behind it.

Itsy-bitsy Spider...

McFarlane is renowned as a hugely important comic book artist. Honing his skills at Marvel during the eighties, the artist would enjoy extended runs on both The Amazing Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk. In fact, I’m surprised that a nice oversized collection of McFarlane’s work with Peter David has yet to be collected, since that really was a definitive run for the green goliath. Although McFarlane took the artistic reigns on The Amazing Spider-Man towards the end of the eighties, it’s hard to deny that the artist helped to shepherd in the nineties for the character.

Although nineties artwork tends to be much-maligned in comic book fandom these days, I have to admit a fondness for the early work of Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee. I think the company only really suffered after the pair (and other notable artists of the time) left to form Image. It seemed that, in the wake of their departure, Marvel spent a lot of energy seeking imitators rather than looking for original artistic talent. And there’s no denying that the decade produced its own artistic excesses.

Go for Brock!

Still, I have a soft spot for a lot of the work from that late eighties and early nineties period. Perhaps it’s a sense of nostalgia. After all, the handful of comic books I would have read as a child came from that era, and it undoubtedly colours my perception of the time. That said, I think that the defining artwork of time, courtesy of artists like Jim Lee or Todd McFarlane, was nothing more or less than a particular style. It’s no different than the artwork of the sixties or the seventies, which had its own stylistic quirks. Art is, after all, inherently subjective and people will like what they like and hate what they hate.

Still, I can’t help but admire McFarlane’s decidedly stylistic Spider-Man. A lot of people point to the way McFarlane illustrated the character’s webbing as a mesh rather than a straight line. I think that’s part of the appeal, and it points to a greater stylistic approach McFarlane adopted. As illustrated by McFarlane, there was something vaguely unsettling about Spider-Man. In the iconic red-and-blue suit, McFarlane’s Spider-Man didn’t quite seem like a real person. His limbs were more gangly and, as he moved, his body seemed to contort in a rather awkward manner.

Happily married...

In the afterword to the omnibus, David Michelinie refers to McFarlane’s art as “real world cartoony”, and it’s an apt description. However, there’s also a decidedly gothic spin to McFarlane’s work, which is perhaps why he worked so well on his own Spawn character. McFarlane’s artwork reminds me of Will Eisner filtered through the lens of Tim Burton, and it’s to David Michelinie’s credit that he’s able to write so perfectly to fit that mood, at one point even presenting Spider-man as “a dour, crouching gargoyle that seems eerily — familiar!”

Indeed, David Michelinie seems unfairly overlooked when it comes to comic book creators of the era. It’s not uncommon to see this collection listed omitting his name almost entirely. Of course, McFarlane would go on to take creative control of his own adjectiveless Spider-Man book, much like Jim Lee would on his adjectiveless X-Men, but Michelinie would continue to write The Amazing Spider-Man after his collaborator left. In case anybody in Marvel’s collected editions department happens to read this, I wouldn’t object to a nice collection of either – despite of the criticism that McFarlane’s writing might have received.

I can't sand it any longer!

I wonder if part of the reason Michelinie is so easily ignored is because he’s a very generous writer. Over the course of the issues collected here, he seems to tour the Marvel Universe, offering McFarlane the opportunity to draw characters like Paladin, Justin Hammer, the Red Skull and even the Hulk. In issues from guest artist Erik Larsen, Michelinie pulls in Magneto and Saberwolf. McFarlane does an excellent job illustrating foes like the Lizard, the Chameleon, the Goblins and even Taskmaster in a slightly unnerving and almost gothic manner.

It’s also worth noting how much the plot seems to get pulled one way or another by events outside the writer and artist’s control. As if demonstrating that event fatigue is not a concept limited to twenty-first century comic books, The Amazing Spider-Man transitions rather quickly between the X-Men crossover Inferno and the Avengers crossover Acts of Vengeance. In fact, it seems, at times that Michelinie is a little bit frustrated at the prospect of having to continually tie-in to larger world-altering “events.” At the height of Acts of Vengeance, Peter declares, “I’m sick of being attacked for no reason at all!”

Nice guy Eddie...

In fairness to Michelinie, though, he actually does a decent job of tying into these bigger stories without compromising his own narratives. During Inferno, for example, he makes sure that the plots involving the Goblins and the Lizard continue as planned, just with all manner of sinister supernatural events unfolding in the background. In Acts of Vengeance, it seems like Michelinie might be a little overwhelmed, dealing not only with editorially mandated super-villain attacks, but also a “cosmic Spidey” story arc that began in another on of the Spider-Man titles.

Still, Michelinie’s Spider-Man is a wonderful fun title. With the exception of the six-part Assassin Nation Plot arc, most his work consists on done-in-one stories that feature a collection of classic Spider-Man villains and assorted characters. This lends the run a rather breezy quality – plots tend to develop in the background before getting pushed to the fore when the time comes to resolve them. Michelinie’s issues are remarkably accessible to modern fans, and he never gets too heavily bogged down in some of the character’s more complicated back-story. It’s just a very easy to enjoy super hero comic book.

McFarlane's career just ballooned after this...

It helps that Michelinie writes a great Spider-Man. The very first page of this collection opens with a charming Peter Parker moment – Spider-Man walking down the street because his webshooters ran out. It reminds me, in a good way, of that great scene in Spider-Man II where the webcrawler was forced to take the lift to get down from the roof. There are other nice touches, like the revelation that Peter uses his powers when he can’t afford busfare, as he fantasises about having a regular job, “And I’d take the bus like a normal person, instead of saving a few nickels by going everywhere as — the Amazing Spider-Man!”

In fairness, Michelinie seems to have a very rational and logical take on Spider-Man, in particular the somewhat symbiotic relationship between Peter Parker’s photography career and Spider-Man’s crime-fighting. Michelinie is shrewd enough to observe that Parker is, to an extent, exploiting those victims of crime by actively seeking to take advantage of their suffering to take photos to earn money. “Great, I need money, and it seems the only way to get it — is to find a tragedy to exploit! Some fun.” Indeed, Michelinie’s Spider-Man seems a great deal more reflective than most takes on the character, as Michelinie dares to retool and reimagine the character slightly.

Sweeping her off her feet...

Stan Lee reportedly once boasted that comics aren’t about change – they’re about the illusion of change. The idea is that the characters have to remain stable and consistent while teasing the possibility of growth and development. After all, you can’t tweak Spider-Man’s status quo too much or he drifts too far from the public perception of the character, and his marketability suffers. However, writers have generally done a great job offering the “illusion of change” within the life of Peter Parker, updating his surroundings and his world without ever deviating too from where he began. Stan Lee himself proved adept at this early on, moving Peter Parker from secondary school to college.

Michelinie’s Amazing Spider-Man offers far more of the illusion of change than that. There’s a constant sense of movement and evolution in the issues in question, even if little ultimately changes. Peter and Mary-Jane move several times over the course of the run, bouncing around. “I can’t believe I’m really going to live here!” Peter declares on viewing their condo. “I mean, it was such a big deal when I got my own place! Now I feel like I’m getting my own palace!” Naturally, it doesn’t last, but it feels like the characters are progressing, even if the net gain doesn’t feel too substantial.

Don't be stupid, be a smartie...

More interesting, however, is Michelinie’s observations about Peter Parker’s work. “Peter, you seem to have a chronic difficulty making a living as a freelance photographer,” Robbie explains. It’s a pretty rational observation to those comic book fans who have observed Peter falling into the old routine of the Daily Bugle photographer. “So maybe… well, maybe you should consider some other line of work.”

Even Peter himself seems aware that he is stuck in a bit of a groove and that photographer kind of became his status quo just because. “All through school I wanted to be a scientist,” he confesses. “Taking pictures was a sideline, a way to pay for my education. But somehow, photography became a way of life, an end instead of a means to–“ While Michelinie teases a new job a research assistant, perhaps inspiring the career change during Dan Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man run, he ultimately sends Peter back to college – it’s regression, but Michelinie cleverly a deftly structures it so that it seems like character progression. (I also think that having Peter develop his own tech like the “Tracer launcher” might also have influenced Slott’s portrayal of a more proactive Spider-Man.)

Honey, I'm home!

However, Michelinie does hint that Peter Parker is finally growing up and maturing. After taking a beating from Doctor Octopus to save the city, Peter muses, “To the rest of the world, I was a loser today, just a clown in a costume. I should be angry, frustrated, smashing my fists into walls! But… I don’t feel that way. I did what I had to do. I know that, and somehow that’s enough. Well, I’ll be. Take yourself a bow, Peter Parker. I think you just became an adult.” My more cynical side imagined that an adult might follow that up by drinking something a bit stronger than a Tab, but it’s still a nice sentiment, and a clear illustration of how far Michelinie believes the character has come.

In fact, it’s remarkable how clearly Michelinie and McFarlane treat Peter Parker as an adult, consciously illustrating that the character has come a long way since his origin as an adolescent making his way through High School. A decade later, Marvel would re-write continuity so that Spider-Man and Mary-Jane never got married, claiming that the pair didn’t work as a couple and that Spider-Man didn’t work as a married superhero. I think the presentation of the Peter and Mary-Jane in this collection puts paid to that theory, showing a loving and mature couple without infringing on the fun and excitement of being Spider-Man.

Looking quite chipper!

Michelinie and McFarlane cleverly and repeatedly underscore just how grown-up Peter and Mary-Jane are through repeated thinly-veiled references to their shared sex life. Peter at one point greets his wife in a Chippendale outfit. Mary-Jane jokes about “dessert” at one point. Peter even jokes about showing Mary-Jane “the Venus Butterfly”, the infamous de-fictionalised sexual maneuver that began life as an obscure reference on Law & Order. These small moments suggest that Peter and Mary-Jane have truly grown up, and that they are no longer just a pair of high school kids infatuated with one another, but a couple with a fulfilling married life.

The run features quite a few pointed references to Superman, the iconic DC character. The cover to Amazing Spider-Man #306 is a direct homage to Action Comics #1. Peter Parker does the iconic shirt reveal at one point. He reveals himself as a bit of a fan of the Man of Steel, even referencing his own crush on Supergirl (“the girl in the mini-skirt”). When asked to contact Spider-Man, he responds with a rather direct reference to Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen. “Do I look like Spider-Man’s Pal? You think I can push a button on my watch and he’ll come running like a trained puppy?!”

A smashing run!

Michelinie and McFarlane’s run is perhaps best known for its introduction of Venom, the hugely-popular anti-hero. Building off a variety of earlier stories not collected here, the first proper appearance of the character is careful to paint Eddie Brock clear bad guy, avoiding the clichéd anti-hero characterisation that would prove so popular during the subsequent decade. Indeed, Michelinie seems to quite pointedly mock the character’s so-called “code of honour.” Venom observes at one point, “The death of an innocent is always a tragic affair, even when absolutely necessary. We’re sorry.” Of course, the sentiment is somewhat undermined when Venom literally just killed him (and could have easily resolved the situation non-fatally).

Unfortunately, however, Venom’s early appearances seem a little dated – both featuring the awkward and slightly sexist comic book cliché of women in refrigerators. In both cases, Venom brutalises a female character close to Peter in order to strike at his enemy. He terrifies Mary-Jane and then beats up the Black Cat. “Tell me where he is!” he demands of the Black Cat, her skintight leotard torn. “Now! While you still have a face!” It feels just a little uncomfortable – I can’t help but feel that there must have been a better way a (a.) present Venom as a threat and (b.) present Venom as a clear-cut villain without resorting to the old “striking a hero through the women he knows” schtick.

Not a cool cat...

I do like Michelinie’s portrayal of the rest of Spider-Man’s iconis rogues. In particular, he seems to take great pleasure in presenting Spider-Man’s villains as somewhat pathetic, as hard-on-their-luck characters who struggle just as much as the hero and have the same rotten luck. “You?!!” Humbug declares. “Th- This isn’t fair!” It’s a clever take on them, building thematic continuity between Spidey and his bad guys, and Michelinie often does it without compromising the villains. Doctor Octopus is terrified of Spider-Man, but still plots (and nearly executes) mass murder.

David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane’s Amazing Spider-Man is great fun. It never takes itself too seriously, even as it does offer a compelling examination of the title character. This is, after all, the same comic that offers us a panel of Prime Minister Limka and an “Ultimatum Soldier” sharing some champagne, with the soldier’s mask rolled up so he can enjoy it. “I feel silly,” Spider-Man confesses later on, attending a formal function wearing a tuxedo overhis costume. It is gleefully silly, and McFarlane and Michelinie acknowledge that without undermining their work on the character.

A little tied up at the moment...

There are a few missteps, to be honest. The storyline featuring Mary-Jane’s abduction by a billionaire psychopath seems a little… surreal and out of left-field. It is quite creepy, and yet strangely camp – in a way that doesn’t really balance properly. During the six-issue Assassin Nation Plot arc, the exposition at the start of each chapter (designed to bring the reader up to speed) does feel just a little stilted and awkward. (With Silver Sable using lines like “…or need I remind you…”) Still, these are relatively minor problems.

There are a slew of pop culture references to things like Oliver North and Miami Vice that serve to date the comic, but they are actually quite charming in their own way. I have to admit that I liked the small cameo for Stan and Steve during the confrontation between the Hulk Spider-Man.

Nice suit!

This isn’t essential Spider-Man. McFarlane’s art defined the character for years to come, but the stories aren’t especially ground-breaking or ingenious. However, these are a hugely enjoyable collection of well-illustrated tales that demonstrate a clever and innate understanding of how Spider-Man and the world around him happen to work. I breezed through the collection in about two nights, and I really liked virtually every chapter in the collection.

Spider-Man is sorely under-represented in Marvel’s oversized hardcover library, but this is a rather wonderful collection. It’s whole-heartedly recommended for anybody looking for a fun collection of classic Spider-Man stories that are easily accessible to modern readers, feature a selection of the character’s iconic bad guys and some great art and writing. With a wonderful collection of extras, Marvel’s collected editions department have done themselves proud. Let’s just hope we can get the rest of Michelinie’s run collected in a complementary format. And I wouldn’t object to the rest of McFarlane’s work either.

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