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Dan Slott’s Spider-Man – The Amazing Spider-Man & Human Torch (Review/Retrospective)

The Amazing Spider-Man and Human Torch is a sweet little book, if just a little bit too nostalgic for my tastes. A five-issue miniseries, it allows Dan Slott to show us five vignettes exploring the relationship between Marvel’s iconic webhead and the youngest member of the Fantastic Four. Slott leans a little bit too heavily on continuity in places, trying too keenly to fit the story inside an established mythology, but The Amazing Spider-Man and Human Torch reads like an affectionate homage to the relative innocence of the Silver Age. I don’t doubt that Slott’s solid character work here helped secure the writer his current position as author of The Amazing Spider-Man, and the story is a fun (if light) look back on the hokey adventures of yesteryear.

At liberty to discuss it…

Slott is, of course, more than ably assisted by artist Ty Templeton. Like Mike Allred, Templeton has a style that seems to hark back to the old days of comic books, a very “pop” 2D approach to illustration that lets the story feel more than a little magical and whimsical, as if these adventures had been written and illustrated decades ago, but left tucked away in some safe somewhere. It’s the kind of artwork that lends itself to bright dynamic colours, giving the impression of perpetual movement and adventure. I think Slott got exceptionally lucky with Templeton, as Templeton’s aesthetic suits the material perfectly. In fact, it’s hard to imagine the book working quite as well with any other artist handling the illustrations.

Reading interviews and commentaries from Dan Slott, it’s clear that the guy loves Spider-Man. And, being the guy who gets to write Spider-Man, he loves his job. There’s a lot of enthusiasm here for the character and his world, and Slott clearly knows his Spider-Man mythology inside and out. That applies to the classics like The Night Gwen Stacey Died to bits of kitsch trivia like the rather unfortunate Spider-Mobile. (“probably got some Spider-Cave and a Spider-Butler too!” a bum protests) He even makes sure to show a great deal of respect for J. Michael Straczynski’s then-current work on The Amazing Spider-Man, coming up with a clever use for Peter Parker’s relatively new spider-related abilities and referencing his job at the school.

Driving Jonah up the wall…

All of this is great, and it’s clear that Slott knows his material inside and out. However, sometimes it all just feels a little bit too much – like there’s too much continuity-referencing going on here. The winking through the panel at the reader can’t help but get a bit distracting from time to time. “Oh, no!” Peter thinks when Aunt May announces they have a visitor in the first issue. “I bet it’s that Mary Jane girl Aunt May’s been trying to set me up with!” Later on, as Flash gets ready to ship out, Harry jokes to Mary Jane, “Geez, MJ. Why don’t you just marry him already?” Of course, that comment seems slightly harsh in hindsight.

Slott goes out of his way to try to fit every story neatly into the Spider-Man canon, to the point where it’s quite distracting. It’s clear that these vignettes serve as a series of snapshots of Peter’s ever-changing status quo, but there are so many shout-outs it becomes overwhelming at times. That said, there are times when Slott’s context adds a hint of poignancy to events (when Spider-Man confesses that the Human Torch is helping him cope with the loss of Gwen Stacey) or even just a nice bit of fun at the expense of a gloriously silly concept (the aforementioned Spider-Buggy). To be fair, Slott balances this quite well, but there are moments when it seems like we get continuity-for-the-sake of continuity. I never really saw the appeal of continuity as an end in and of itself.

Showing some cop-on…

Still, that’s a minor quibble. I do kinda like that Slott goes out of his way not only to incorporate the status quo of the era in which the story is set, but also to (within reason) gives the dialogue an old-fashioned ring to it. Peter Parker soliquises to himself at length in a style that would be unacceptable in a modern comic. When Gwen’s father arrives, he reminds his daughter of her boyfriend’s name, just in case she’s forgotten. “You haven’t seen your boyfriend Peter around, have you?” he asks, providing the sort of clunky exposition one expects from early comics. I would note, however, that the effect might have a greater impact if the final (present day) issue did away with the clunky thought balloons and replaced them with more modern captions. It would hammer home the rather “meta” journey that Slott is taking us on.

At the core of the story, naturally, is the relationship between Spider-Man and the Human Torch. An odd couple, the pair have worked well as a bromantic relationship. They have a long-running association as two of Marvel’s earliest teen heroes. Slott does a great deal of work here solidifying the concept of this relationship. Early writers most likely paired them off because they were two teen heroes, but Slott rationalises it pretty well. He explains that both characters see a lot of their aspirations and desires reflected back.

Trying to mask their feelings…

On visiting the Parker household, the Torch thinks, “Look at that. When Sue and I were growing up, it was just us. Heck, sometimes I can’t even remember my parents. Being the Human Torch? Sometimes I think I’d trade it all just to have something like that. Wonder if Parker realises how good he’s got it…” Meanwhile, Peter Parker is thinking, “I can’t believe this guy! He’s got it all! Super powers… but no mask. A girl like Dorrie Evans. A bottomless wallet.”

Okay, the girlfriend thing might be pushing it, as Peter was never short of a date, but the rest is accurate and astute. (And, I believe, the scene was set during the Ditko era, so Parker wasn’t quite the ladies’ man he would become.) Johnny has a freedom that Parker will never has. As he tells Johnny, “See, you’ve got all this power… and no responsibility.”You can understand why that would appeal to Spider-Man.

Going down a Storm…

More than that, Slott seems fond of the pair precisely because of the immaturity they bring – there’s something almost innocent about their pranks and petty bickering. Talking to the still-recently-deceased Gwen, Peter explains, “And, yeah, I know it’s the stupidest thing in the world, but when I’m around Johnny Storm, I can hear myself cracking wise again. And for the first time in a long time, it doesn’t feel like I’m putting on an act or going through the motions. Suddenly, I’m Spidey again. No, I’m Peter again. Your Peter.” There’s something else important about Johnny’s role in Parker’s life. As Peter confesses to Johnny, “You’re the only super friend I’ve got.” He’s the only friend of Spider-Man, as distinct from Peter Parker.

As you can probably tell, the series is just a bit more heavily geared towards Peter Parker than Johnny Storm. In fact, if you look carefully, you can see Slott’s own ideas sort of gestating here – foreshadowing a lot of the development that would come during his own work on The Amazing Spider-Man. In particular, he builds of the abandoned “Peter Parker as inventor” thread that Lee and Ditko established early on the series, but got dropped a bit in favour of Spidey’s role as an “everyman.”After all, it seems strange that peter could develop his own web fluid and yet need Johnny Storm’s help to build his… you guessed it… Spider-Mobile.

Going ape of it…

Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man run would see Parker taking on work as a researcher and an inventor, and Slott plays with that a bit here. For example, we watch him construct a Spider-Tracer that can withstand Johnny’s extreme heat. Reed even comments, “Boy’s a genius. Tested right off the charts. In fact, he equaled the score I posted when I was his age. Can you believe that?” Although I imagine Spider-Man joining the FF during Hickman’s tenure might not have been Slott’s idea, we even get to see Spider-Man going on an adventure with the team here. (And, to Reed’s chagrin, suggesting they should do it more often.)

More than that, though, The Amazing Spider-Man and Human Torch is just fun. There’s a genuinely awesome moment where Spider-Man encounters a villain gunning for Johnny – the dreaded Paste Pot Pete. And there’s another fantastic moment where the Human Torch is a little unimpressed with the Vulture, who gloats about being master of the skies. Johnny proceeds to burn the guy’s wings off, sending him plummeting as he muses, “But, basically, you’re just an old man with wings, right?” Good times.

Pot luck…

The Amazing Spider-Man and Human Torch is a fun little adventure. It’s not earth-shattering or revolutionary, and perhaps it’s a little too nostalgic for my own tastes, but it is a very sweet love letter to a more innocent time. Slott and Templeton clearly have a very deep and abiding love for the more romantic comic books of the old days, and it shines through here. It’s probably not the best place to jump on to Spider-Man, but it is a nice place for those looking to reflect on the character’s long and distinguished comic book career.

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