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Untold Tales of Spider-Man by Kurt Busiek Omnibus (Review/Retrospective)

I am of two minds about Kurt Busiek’s and Pat Olliffe’s celebrated Untold Tales of Spider-Man run. On the one hand, Busiek manages to affectionately evoke the spirit of those classic Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Spider-Man stories, without getting too bogged down in minor or confusing continuity. On the other hand, the stories feel somewhat trapped and confined by having to contort around the existing storylines. Naturally, for example, Busiek can’t resolve any plot threads he doesn’t keep exclusive to the book, and we all know how various situations unfold. It’s a strange cocktail, and it works slightly more often than it doesn’t work. It’s very much in the spirit of the author’s much-loved work on the Avengers, and there’s no denying the skill and love that went into crafting the issues collected here, but I find that I respect The Untold Tales of Spider-Man more than I love it.

They were on fire with this run…

Busiek is generally, and rightly, regarded as a king of continuity. I think the author has contributed one of the most thoughtful, clever and influential mainstream comic books in his Marvels miniseries. I can’t help but wonder how much that collaboration with Alex Ross shaped the comic book industry we have today – it certainly fostered a movement towards nostalgia, firmly opposed against the somewhat radical reinvention that took place at the major companies during the nineties. Marvels demonstrated that stories drawing on the earliest days of those fictional universes could still attract fans and still be well written, and that it was not necessary to tear down or deconstruct classic superheroes in order to engage readers.

Marvels fostered a market in nostalgia in mainstream comic books, for better or worse. Old concepts that had been brushed aside at Marvel or DC were reintroduced and reintegrated into continuity. In response to disasters like The Crossing, both companies leaned gradually towards safer old-fashioned approaches, revisiting classic set-ups and old stories. Comic books became, arguably, even more reflective (and reflexive) than they every had been before. Busiek’s Avengers felt like a conscious throwback to earlier days, but Untold Tales of Spider-Man is probably a very good example of this sort of nostalgia.

That old-fashioned Spider-Man still packs a punch after all this time…

Untold Tales of Spider-Man has an interesting premise. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko wrote thirty-eight issues of The Amazing Spider-Man together, and those thirty-eight issues pretty much laid a blueprint for the iconic web-crawling super hero. Sure, there would be influential runs that followed, and they would contain big events. Mary Jane Watson wouldn’t be introduced until after Ditko left, and Gwen Stacy would die under writer Gerry Conway. However, that initial run set down all the tropes and rules and conventions that we expect from a Spider-Man story, no matter in what medium or from what writer.

However, those initial issues were written during the sixties. That was a long time ago. It’s almost another age. Many of those familiar with Spider-Man weren’t even alive at that point. While Stan Lee and Steve Ditko codified a lot of super hero conventions, those early issues of The Amazing Spider-Man are very much the product of another time. While they introduced a huge and varied supporting cast for the web-crawler, characterisation and plotting would evolve significantly in the years that followed. That’s not to diminish, in any way, what Lee and Ditko did, but to acknowledge that they were working in a genre that was still forming and yet to solidify into a particular form.

Like talking to a brick wall…

So it’s tempting to look at those issues and to wonder… what’s going on underneath the surface? Why are certain characters acting the way that they do? Lee and Ditko breezed over a significant amount of time in that issue, what happened between the panels? Where were characters who will become important but didn’t appear until later in the run? Busiek has fun with these sorts of questions, and even some more minor ones as well. (For example, as an illustration of how thoroughly Busiek is familiar with Marvel’s continuity, it appears he even wanted to resolve the plot thread involving Flash Thompson’s Spider-Man costume from The Amazing Spider-Man #5.)

In many ways, Untold Tales of Spider-Man excels at adding this sort of “shading” to the world that Lee and Ditko defined. In fact, I’d argue that the best issues in the collection are actually the prelude to Untold Tales of Spider-Man, the Amazing Fantasy issues that Kurt Busiek wrote (with wonderful artwork from Paul Lee) designed to bridge the gap between Spidey’s debut in Amazing Fantasy #15 and his spin-off series in The Amazing Spider-Man #1.

Just in case…

Those three issue feel almost like a companion piece to Marvels. It helps that Paul Lee’s paintings evoke Alex Ross’ iconic work. The help contextualise Peter Parker within the evolving Marvel Universe. Of course, Spidey was always an integral part of that shared tapestry, even teaming up with the Fantastic Four in his first issue, but Busiek cleverly explores how Peter must have felt in a world changing so incredibly rapidly. “It really is amazing, the kind of things that are happening in the world today,” Peter muses, conceding that he’s “not in the same league as the Fantastic Four.” Marvels was more concerned with the large-scale super hero community, so it is fascinating to see that development from the perspective of the little guy.

Along the way, Busiek makes a point of developing the character’s characteristics. These are aspects of Peter Parker that Lee and Ditko would just take for granted, but Busiek has clearly put a bit of thought and care into explaining how they came to be part of Spider-Man’s persona. For example, why is introverted Peter Parker so loud-mouthed as Spider-Man? Busiek suggests that it’s because the mask gives him a degree of freedom he wouldn’t otherwise have. “I’m just saying whatever pops into my head,” Peter observes in a heated confrontation, “but it’s like something’s broken free inside me — something’s been let out that’s been caged for years.”

Electro-shock therapy…

There are lots of clever moments that I’m very glad Busiek included. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Peter Parker reflect on the emergence of the mutants. As illustrated by Lee, Scott Summers has more than a passing resemblance to Peter, chased from his school – is it possible that the mutant hysteria contributed to Peter’s decision to carefully guard his secret? “I have nothing in common with that boy on the TV screen,” he insists, as if trying to convince himself, “I’m not being chased by a bloodthirsty mob — I’m not cut off from the rest of humanity by an accident of birth — but still — I think I know just how he feels…”

And, in fairness to Busiek, he also just has a very solid understanding of the fundamentals of super heroes – he’s very astutely aware of what makes particular characters work. He writes a good Spider-Man, regardless of context. “I’m not a super hero,” Peter remarks. “I’m just a kid with a little something extra.” Busiek seems to have Peter reflect on how he’s distinct from most of the super heroes of the time – what made Peter such a break out character in a genre that had already been around for well over two decades. “Super heroes are strong and brave and noble — they don’t have frail aunts and money troubles, and they’re not outcasts at school — and they don’t have physics homework–“

Goblin up Spidey’s foes…

Busiek revisits this distinction later on through the character of Flash Thompson, Spider-Man’s biggest fan. Here, we see Flash’s father has a bit of a drinking problem, and Busiek insinuates that Flash pursues the super hero as a means of escapism. Flash even outlines many of the traditional attributes of these super hero characters, and facets of those earlier comic books that made them such great escapist fare for kids. “That’s what I like about the web-head!” Flash Thompson observes. “Things are simple to him! He doesn’t hesitate or second-guess himself! He spots a bad guy, and – bam! boom! – the problem’s solved!”

However, Busiek has a keen sense of irony, and while Flash Thompson’s observations might have explained the success of super hero characters that came before Spider-Man, Spider-Man’s success seems to be based on just the opposite – the character blends that escapist fantasy with the more mundane reality of teenage living. On hearing his classmate Jason’s angst, Flash insists, “Spidey wouldn’t waste his time, listening to this dopey soap opera! He’d be cracking wise and tossing fists!” However, Flash himself seems to come around, resolving the tense situation by listening to Jason’s heart-break rather than resolving the situation with his fists.

That one kinda got away from him…

In case the irony wasn’t obvious enough, Spider-Man is simultaneously trying to resolve a tense stand-off without violence by uniting a mother and her long-lost child. It’s that sort of weirdly intimate personal drama blended with the fantastic that gives Spider-Man a large part of his appeal. And Busiek makes an argument for the validity of Untold Tales of Spider-Man by writing in these sorts of personal touches only fleetingly suggested by Lee and Ditko – because the style of the time wouldn’t have allowed these particular sorts of teen angst, like domestic abuse and survivor’s guilt.

At the same time, however, Busiek also tries to keep true to the more wacky Silver Age elements of those classic stories, which creates a weird dissonance. In one issue Spider-Man visits an optometrist who brainwashes him into handing over large stacks of money, while another sees Spider-Man considered as a potential astronaut. (I should concede that Busiek’s internal logic holds up. “His reflexes, strength and agility make him an ideal candidate,” John Jameson explains… even if I doubt N.A.S.A. would ever consider an anonymous outlaw to man a space mission.) It seems surreal to see such stories measured against more human studies of grief and loss, and more subtle and shaded characterisation.

On leather wings…

As he copes with survivor’s guilt, there’s something disarmingly innocent about Jason’s revenge strategy against Spider-Man, which consists of the character dressing up as the web-crawler and conducting such evil acts as… tossing a brick through a window or letting air out of tires or stealing a kid’s bike. It truly was a more innocent time, but it feels slightly strange when it’s used as part of a plot line dealing with Jason’s survivor’s guilt.

Villains are relatively one-dimensional as well – at least the costume-clad individuals. They gleefully adhere to the conventions we expect from Silver Age characters, with little nuance or depth. “I’ll even tell you what I’ll steal next — just to prove to you that the knowledge will do you no good!” the Vulture challenges at one point, as if reading from The Big Book of Villain Clichés. And he’s not the only one, with most of Spider-Man’s rogues given fairly simplistic motivations and goals.

Winging it…

Busiek does eventually allow Spider-Man to reason with the Vulture and to appeal to his better nature, but it still feels like rather shallow characterisation. He changes his mind in the space of a couple of panels, and there’s no real nuance beyond the “if your younger self could see you now…” cliché. Of course, it fits with typical characterisation of these bad guys around the time Lee and Ditko were publishing comics, but it still feels a little strange when Busiek is working so hard to develop the rest of the supporting cast.

I’ll concede that I’m probably being unfair to Busiek here. His intention is clearly to evoke the feeling of those early Amazing Spider-Man issues, which were every bit as gleefully surreal and insane as anything collected here. There’s even a robot that works out (or seems to work out) Spider-Man’s identity, for crying out loud! Those stories read as hokey today, despite my own respect and affection for them. I like to think I’m as tolerant of the fantastical as the next person, but those plot points were just as strange for me there as they are here.

Things come to a Head…

However, since I can forgive Lee and Ditko due to age, I suppose it would be hypocritical for me not to forgive Busiek and artist Pat Olliffe for the fidelity of their imitation. It’s still a bit of a stumbling block for me as a reader, but I can respect Busiek and Olliffe for refusing to “ground” the series or simply to tell stories set in the past rigidly adhering to modern conventions. After all, their characterisation only builds upon the work done by Lee and Ditko, it doesn’t try to “reimagine” or “repurpose” it.

And, truth be told, there is some fun to be had in the gleeful manner that Busiek seizes upon those old-fashioned story-telling devices. Indulging in some honest-to-goodness exposition, Busiek does take care to make sure no reader is left behind, while writing in a style that seems like affectionate homage. “As you already know,” Curt Connors begins at one point, before outlining Bat-wing’s origins that Spider-Man (and the audience) already heard about only a few issues earlier.

The original radioactive man!

That said, it still feels a little awkward when modern writers revisit classic storylines and threads that have dated somewhat poorly. In the Annual ’96, Busiek crafts a crossover between Lee and Kirby’s Fantastic Four and Lee and Ditko’s Spider-Man, writing everybody perfectly in character for that point in time. However, gender roles have evolved significantly since the sixties, and none of the characters come out of it looking especially appealing. Busiek carefully avoids even a Mad Men style deconstruction of the sexist and chauvinist attitudes, and the story winds up as “everybody objectifies Sue” without even a hint of self-awareness.

Reed ignores Sue, so – rather than dealing with it – she goes out on a date with Spider-Man. Spider-Man, despite the fact he’s already in a committed relationship to Betty Brant, only asks Sue out to strike back at the Human Torch. While that’s hardly the most progressive portrayal of Peter Parker, he also seems like a bit of a jerk over dinner as she tries to talk to him about how tough it is to live with the Fantastic Four. “Blah, blah, blah,” he thinks to himself. “Here I am, out to dinner with one of the most glamorous gals in the world, and what’s she doing? Talking about other guys.” It feels like he might as well be asking her to sit there and look pretty. (Although, I suppose, it is in character with Lee and Ditko’s Peter Parker who was quite the product of his time. Indeed, Ditko’s Parker was remarkably conservative even for the time.)

As the crow flees…

In a way that is perfectly in character, Namor nearly levels New York to defend her from an alleged kidnapper. However, Sue seems almost flattered by this male attention from Namor, rather than insulted. “Thank you, Namor,” she assures him. “I know you were only acting out of concern.” Of course, she may simply be trying to placate him, but it still presents Sue as something of object to be fought over. How about either “… but I can take care of myself” or “… perhaps next time you might try asking me about my situation before levelling several city blocks”?

Busiek is, to be reasonable, only writing in the same style as Lee, Kirby and Ditko. He isn’t trying to offer a commentary on the inherent and socially acceptable sexism of the time. However, it still reads awkwardly to a modern reader, and I can’t help but wonder if the story might have read better as an attempt to develop Sue rather than simply use her the same way as she was used at the time. Surely Busiek could have foreshadowed her development into a character capable of defending herself and resolving her own problems.

Mocking J…

In fairness, it’s also worth noting that Busiek does bring some measure of depth to even those most rigidly-observed clichés, as if attempting to retroactively justify them. One of Busiek’s original villains, Menace, is revealed to speak perfectly normally when alone. He only reverts to “supervillain speech pattern #1” when Spider-Man reveals himself. Menace justifies this as playing the role of a mutant supervillain, suggesting that such awkward and stilted dialogue is expected from larger-than-life costume-wearing bad guys.

That’s one aspect of Untold Tales of Spider-Man that I really like, to be entirely honest. In the issues collected here, Busiek somewhat subtly tries to rationalise and develop the shift that must have been taking place off-panel during Lee and Ditko’s original run. Of course, Lee and Ditko’s cavalcade of costume-wearing supervillains all wore funky-lookin’ outfits because… well… that’s what supervillains wear, right? Busiek instead explores what must have been happening against the backdrop of Spider-Man’s arrival to create a set of circumstances where a grown man dressed as a Goblin could take control of the city’s mob.

An arch(er) foe…

Busiek presents, through the character of the Crime-Master, a world where “novelty crime” is fast developing into the future of organised law-breaking. “When I began building this scale model of Manhattan, a criminal mastermind only had to be strong, smart and ruthless in order to seize power!” the Crime-Master laments. “That changed with the advent of costumed villains like Doctor Octopus, Electro and the Green Goblin! I remade myself as the Crime-Master because a man likes to stand out from the pack — and I believe I’ve finally stumbled upon a super-gimmick which will help me to crush my competition!”

Later on, explicitly explaining how the Green Goblin could become such a powerful figure despite his insanity and rather colourful get-up, the Crime-Master considers the Goblin’s suggestion of an alliance.  “And I must admit, the game is changing,” the Crime-Master concedes. “Super heroes are becoming more and more of a force to deal with — and it might be wise to work with someone with experience on that front.” It’s quite a clever little way of explaining a shift that Lee and Ditko took for granted.

Parker there, lads…

Indeed, Busiek retroactively grafts an entire arc for the Green Goblin into Spider-Man continuity. During Lee and Ditko’s tenure, the identity of the Green Goblin was a mystery. It eventually turned out, in the issue after Ditko left, to be Norman Osborn. Osborn originally appeared in the background of The Amazing Spider-Man #23, but was only officially introduced in The Amazing Spider-Man #37, two issues before his identity as the Goblin became known. As you can imagine, it didn’t necessarily give the character the chance for too much development.

So Busiek uses Untold Tales of Spider-Man to explore Norman Osborn’s background and to suggest that he had been conspiring against Spider-Man for quite some time. We see him loan out his equipment to the new character of the Headsman, recruit the Crime-Master and attempt to recruit the Scarecrow. He even hires the Enforcers, and only considers adopting his own secret identity when his plans don’t quite pan out.

By Jonah!

It’s not only Osborn who puts in an early appearance. We get a short cameo from “Edward Brock of the globe”, complete with Jameson challenging his journalistic ethics. Other soon-to-be-significant characters like Simon Williams or Wilson Fisk pop up from time to time. And Busiek does do a fairly good job tying his guest-stars back to Spider-Man.

I especially like the guest-appearance of Hawkeye back during his “misguided villain” days. (“Because Kurt demanded it!” the caption declares, playfully.) Even with a one-shot guest-star, Busiek successfully pitches Hawkeye as something of a counterpart to Spider-Man, right down to the sarcastic quips. “Everybody gets bad breaks now and again, Hawkeye,” Spider-Man assures the archer, “believe me, I know!” I can’t help but think that the back-and-forth banter between Brian Bendis’ Spider-Man and Hawkeye has its roots in Busiek’s writing.

Not well suited for each other…

Hell, even the Scarecrow gets a comparison to Spider-Man, allowing Busiek to use his innate knowledge of complex continuity to make connections that probably never would have occurred to anybody else. “I became a hero because I failed to stop a burglar,” Spider-Man observes, thoughtfully, “and he became a crook because he caught one! And we both feel the need to redeem ourselves.” Okay, it’s not the strongest link in the world, but it illustrates how carefully Busiek has structured his tales and how well he knows the Marvel Universe.

And Busiek has a fairly good understanding of the corse cast, even if his villains aren’t especially nuanced. I particularly like his revised origin for the feud between Spider-Man and J. Jonah Jameson, where the newspaper mogul is initially quite jealous that Spider-Man bumped his son off a prime interview slot. “What do you mean you’re bumping my son John from your show tonight?!” he demands, indignant and – though he’d like us to believe otherwise – it seems that his dislike of Spider-Man stems from that incident.

Driving him mad…

However, Busiek also explains how Jameson’s hatred is so deeply entrenched. After all, the web-slinger must surely have proven himself worthy at this point? Aware of Jameson’s central flaws – arrogance and vanity – Busiek suggests that Spider-Man’s heroism actually depens Jonah’s resentment. The more heroic Spider-Man is, the more face Jameson would lose by admitting he misjudged the hero. “He can’t be a hero,” Jonah insists to himself. “He can’t be that noble… If he’s a hero, then what does that make me… civic leader… upstanding citizen… hah… no… he must be a criminal… he must have an ulterior motive…”

Busiek does try to bring a hint of colour to the world. I don’t want to use the word ‘deconstruction’, but Busiek does introduce quite a few every day concerns into the book – the kinds of things that probably wouldn’t have been talked about, let alone published in a comic book, when the original issues were published. There’s Flash’s father’s alcoholism, and a plot involving the physical abuse of one of Peter’s classmates. While it’s nowhere near as cynical a re-evaluation as Identity Crisis, Busiek does juxtapose these real social problems against a bright Silver Age backdrop quite well.

An X-over…

Hell, even Spider-Man himself has a bit of fun at the “comic-book-ness” of it all. Trapped inside an environmental chamber, he finds himself ducking and dodging all manner of improbable objects. “What kind of environmental conditions involve steel rods zooming through the air?” he muses. As he attempts to stop some crooks stealing a high-tech gadget, he laments, “Why is it that every cool new scientific gizmo just happens to double as a ray gun?” Busiek isn’t necessarily aggressive in how he examines these conventions, but he is acutely aware of them and smart enough to acknowledge how convenient and cheesy they might be. It doesn’t make them less fun.

And yet, despite all this, the nature of the series does limit what Busiek can and can’t do. Anybody with a cursory knowledge of Spider-Man history knows that Peter Parker won’t end up with either Liz or Betty, so focusing so heavily on their love-triangle seems kinda pointless. Due to the design of the book, Busiek can only resolve his own plot threads, and is relegated to foreshadowing the climactic confrontation with the Goblin and Spider-Man or setting up various reveals that have already unfolded.

What’s up, Doc?

While you could make the argument that any major comic book is predictable (Batman won’t really die, Superman won’t turn evil), it seems especially true of a series like this. There’s one issue where Peter retires his Spider-Man identity, for the space of a dozen pages. It just feels strange – especially since we know that Stan Lee and John Romita would hit this exact plot point in a dozen issues or so. (And, in fact, Lee and Ditko had fleetingly included it as a plot point in their run.)

To allow him any freedom, Busiek has to come with original characters that he can plot. So Peter gets two new classmates in the form of Jason and Sally Avril. They may have appeared in the background early in Lee and Ditko’s run, but they are essentially new characters cut from whole clothe for Busiek’s series. As such, he can place them in danger and mess with their lives in fairly significant ways.

Supervillain team-up!

In particular, he uses Sally in a very clever way to compliment the moral that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko drilled into the character. Peter Parker is based around the idea that great powers comes with a healthy serving of great responsibility, but surely he needs to learn the caveat to that rule? That there is a limit to how much responsibility one man can hold for everything that happens around him. Reflecting on the loss of a life, the Human Torch tries to convince Spider-Man that somethings are outside his control. “You stopped her from doing something dangerous,” the Torch explains. “That’s all. She chose to do something else dangerous, but that’s not your fault.”

There are other nice touches. I especially like Busiek’s good-natured epilogue to the series, which sees Spider-Man meet the one and only Stan Lee, drawing on that only bit of Marvel continuity that suggested superheroes had hired Stan to “document” their adventures. Honestly, I’m kinda sad that we don’t tell kids stuff like that anymore. Anyhoo, Stan the Man (“what a ham!”) makes a comic book deal with Spidey that, of course, goes disastrously wrong. J. Jonah Jameson even ends up publishing an editorial “Corruption of the Innocent” about comic books. Heh.

What’s he going on about? Beats me…

Busiek is accompanied for most of his tenure by artist Pat Olliffe, who does an absolutely tremendous job. It manages to evoke Steve Ditko, but without seeming like a rip-off. It looks lovely, and it’s guaranteed not to age. Hell, Olliffe even takes a great deal of pride in rendering Ditko-era Peter Parker, complete with his nerdy glasses and the trademark Ditko “half-face.” Olliffe deserves a huge amount of credit for his work here.

I’d by lying if I said that I loved Untold Tales of Spider-Man, even if I do appreciate and respect it. There were times when I enjoyed it hugely, but there were also times when the dissonance between the more modern shading and the classic story-telling seemed too much for me. Still, it’s hard not to recommend the book for anybody who harbours a deep and genuine affection for Silver Age material, wondering why they don’t make comics like they used to.

Running scarecrow…

Actually, they do.

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3 Responses

  1. Have only read a few issues of this series. There is was one issue near the end that was co written with Tom De Falco that tried to say the Goblin tricked the Crime Master into believing he was really Jameson and not Osbourne. He wear two masks. Really? It is not like he wouldn’t have know it was a mask. The idea itself is sort of pointless. What do you think?

    • I haven’t read this in ages, and I’ll go back and a have a look at the weekend, but I think -as you describe it – it’s a very “comic-book-y” conceit, something ridiculous and absurd, but no more than a Goblin riding a rocket-powered broomstick.

      • It was not that is was too far fetched it just seemed a bad idea that the Crime Master would think Jonah was the Goblin. It’s the concept itself. Come to think of it,when the goblin first appeared him and Jameson were both in another state. That should be a huge clue that he could not the Green Goblin. Unless you assumed their were more than one. And there was no evidence to believe that.

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