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Todd McFarlane’s Run on Spider-Man (Review/Retrospective)

This April, to celebrate the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we are taking a look at some classic and modern comics featuring Spider-Man (and friends). Check back daily for the latest review.

Todd McFarlane is undoubtedly one of the best artists ever to work on Spider-Man. His take on the character is iconic and influential. He really captures the sense of Spider-Man as a character who should be unnerving or disturbing – a character who is part insect, whose limbs are able to bend and contort in ways that would seem unnatural to a casual observer. His run on The Amazing Spider-Man with writer David Michelinie is one of the most underrated Spider-Man comics ever produced.

McFarlane was working at Marvel around the time that the company was investing more power in its artists. More and more, artists were becoming more essential to the creative process – whether credited as “plotters” or “writers.” Jim Lee was wresting control of the X-Men franchise from veteran writer Chris Claremont. Rob Liefeld was writing and drawing on his popular X-Force, launched from New Mutants.

Holding it together...

Holding it together…

In this context, it made sense to allow Todd McFarlane to branch out and write his own Spider-Man title. Launched to run alongside The Amazing Spider-Man, McFarlane’s adjectiveless Spider-Man remains one of the comic book success stories of the nineties, selling 2.5 million copied on initial release. It remains one of the best selling comic books of all time, with the original artwork recently selling for over $675,000.

As with many of its contemporary artist-drive series, McFarlane’s Spider-Man is a compelling read. It’s a glimpse inside the mindset of the comic book industry, a snapshot of trends that were still developing. McFarlane’s writing might be a little over-cooked, his plotting a little weak and he may not have the strongest sense of theme or structure. However, McFarlane’s artwork is absolutely spectacular, and there’s something very fascinating about McFarlane’s attempt to write Spider-Man as a horror comic starring the iconic web-slinger.

A sting in the tale...

A sting in the tale…

The notion of doing Spider-Man as a horror comic is intriguing. The character is an iconic superhero, and his design – along with the design of many of his villains – is bright and cheerful. The comic’s traditional colour scheme is comprised of heroic reds and blues, contrasted against villainous greens and purples. The character typical wrestles with bank robbers and street crime, spectacular supervillains in eye-catching designs. On the surface, it’s a very conventional superhero set up.

At the same time, there is always something vaguely unsettling lurking just beneath the surface of the Spider-Man mythos. The character is modelled on an arachnid – hardly the most beloved of creatures. He can stick to walls and swing on webs; he has a sixth sense that borders on premonition. Much of the comic is anchored in nuclear anxiety – Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, and the comic is populated with science gone horrible wrong. Adding in the bestial theme that runs through his iconic selection of foes (and goblins!), it’s easy to see why Spider-Man might be suited to a horror comic book.

Drumming up excitement...

Drumming up excitement…

McFarlane taps into that aspect of the character’s mythos. He emphasises this side of Spider-Man in a way that no artist had before and no artist had since. Without distorting the character, or altering the mythology, McFarlane was effortlessly able to skew things just a little bit sideways, offering a glimpse through a distorted lens of a world where Spider-Man is a strange hybrid of a horror comic and standard superhero fare.

This is McFarlane playing to his own strengths. McFarlane’s artwork is undoubtedly suited to horror imagery. He has a knack for drawing distorted and grotesque body forms, as if these characters escaped from nightmares. Villains like the Hobgoblin become long and skinny and pointy, while other body forms seem exaggerated and unsettling. Capes are reimagined as cloaks, often looking moth-eaten and decrypt, as if inviting the reader to imagine what lurks inside.

Spidey needs this like he needs a hole in the head...

Spidey needs this like he needs a hole in the head…

The choice of characters appearing in McFarlane’s Spider-Man make it clear that the artist was treating Spider-Man as something haunting and uncanny. Torment sees Spider-Man facing a bestial and vicious Lizard; Masques reimagines the Hobgoblin as a demonic form and teams up Spider-Man with Ghost Rider; Sub-City sees a group of underground mutants ruled by Morbius, the Living Vampire. Appropriately enough, given that Sub-City was the last arc McFarlane finished before moving over to Image, Morbius’ chief henchman bears an uncanny resemblance to McFarlane’s Violator from Spawn.

There is something very interesting about thrusting Spider-Man into a horror story. The character is clad in bright blue and red, and embodies good-old-fashioned heroism. Even though McFarlance doesn’t make the point as clearly as he might, there’s some excitement to be had in throwing a character like Spider-Man into a far more cynical and nihilistic world – watching how he reacts. Torment is a mess of a storyline, but McFarlane has the root of a good idea.

Vamping it up...

Vamping it up…

Although McFarlane explains the plot to the reader, he makes a point to keep Spider-Man out of the loop. So Spider-Man finds himself trapped in the middle of a series of horrific events with no context or reason to explain why these terrible things are happening. “It is the fact that being a hero makes you a target,” the closing narration sums up. “Unprovoked attacks that make no sense, that give no answer.”

It’s a nice and effective juxtaposition – throwing a character all about responsibility and consequences into a story that holds him to account for earlier actions, but without letting him realise what is going on. It underscores how random the world can be – how we often set events in motion that we don’t appreciate and those events have consequences that we can’t possibly fathom. Spider-Man is very much a stranger to the story of Torment, a superhero who wandered into the wrong narrative.

Talking heads...

Talking heads…

There are other narrative opportunities offered by this contrast. McFarlane’s somewhat over-wrought introductions make a point to mention how Spider-Man effectively “rises above” the horror unfolding around him. This is perhaps most obvious in Masques, where Spider-Man finds himself caught in a feud between the demonic Hobgoblin and the vengeful Ghost Rider, refusing to tolerate Ghost Rider’s violent form of retribution against the Hobgoblin.

At the same time, there’s a sense that McFarlane isn’t entirely consistent on this theme. As much as Spider-Man remains a largely untainted hero over the course of these stories, his effectiveness tends to vary. In Perceptions, Spider-Man teams up with Wolverine to investigate a string of dead children in the ironically-named town of Hope, Canada. Naturally, their methods come into conflict. Wolverine is all anger and vengeance, while Spider-Man is more optimistic and idealistic.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

“Spider-Man’s methods don’t get results,” Wolverine opines. “I don’t know why he’s just a goody two-shoes.” So, naturally, the two come into conflict about how to deal with this sort of violence. Shockingly, McFarlane effectively sidelines Spider-Man for the climax of Perceptions, allowing Wolverine to pretty much solve the case single-handedly and bringing the killer to his own brand of justice. This feels like something that undermines Spider-Man as a hero, that chips away at the character’s integrity.

There are other awkward moments where it seems like McFarlane is somewhat cynical in his approach to Peter Parker. In Sub-City, Spider-Man ventures into the sewers to investigate a series of disappearances. The media and authorities are utterly uninterested in the disappearances of the homeless people, but Spider-Man isn’t willing to let them just vanish into the night. When he confronts Morbius, Morbius claims that he was only feeding on the “bad ones.” Spider-Man retorts, “Do you think I’d be down here if nothing but drug dealers and murderers were missing?”

Slice o' life...

Slice o’ life…

This is a little bit of a double-standard. On the one hand, Sub-City is outraged that the media could so wilfully turn a blind eye towards the disappearance of outcasts. On the other hand, it seems weird that Spider-Man would be perfectly fine with Morbius feeding on criminals. Don’t those criminals deserve a fair trail? Doesn’t being used as vampire food count as cruel and unusual punishment? It’s hard to imagine Wolverine getting too shaken up about the idea of feeding criminals to vampires, but it feels weird for Spider-Man to tacitly condone it.

To be fair, it feels like McFarlane’s heart is in the right place. Stories like Perceptions and Sub-City bristle with moral outrage about the news media – upset at the way that casual violence has become so common place that it is quietly buried in the backpages while sensationalist nonsense eats up the front page. McFarlane doesn’t really have the finesse to do this sort of story justice, but he’s trying. There’s an endearing energy to all of this, a sense that McFarlane is at least trying to engage with the big issues of the day.

Itsy-bitsy spider...

Itsy-bitsy spider…

Of course, all of this dances around the fact that McFarlane was still a relatively inexperienced writer when he took the reigns on Spider-Man. He has interesting ideas and great visuals, but there’s a sense that he lacks the practical skill to tie them together. McFarlane’s captions are so deliciously overwrought that they make Doug Moench look understated. Recounting Spider-Man’s origin, McFarlane recalls the night that Uncle Ben died. “In that moment you grew up. You became a hero. You became a man. A Spider-Man!”

The comic is littered with clumsy juxtapositions that feel like McFarlane is trying to channel the work of more successful and acclaimed comic book writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore. In particular, the first issue of Torment closes with a rather clumsy attempt to juxtapose Spider-Man and the Lizard, a nice literary device that feels just a little bit too over-the-top for a comic about violence and giant lizard men. “He swings above it all,” we’re told of Spider-Man. In contrast, of the Lizard, the script notes, “It crawls below.”

Chewing it over...

Chewing it over…

New York is “littered with towering concrete giants that seem seem to swallow up the sky. They are silent — frozen — man-made guardians.” After an attack by the Lizard, we’re told that, “in the early evening, in a dark alley, one colour dominates the dirt and the garbage. That colour — is red. Blood red.” McFarlane goes to town on Wolverine’s internal monologue. Hunting a serial child murderer, he observes, “A living cancer is walking around killing. It’s my job to make him terminal.”

There’s a sense that McFarane is trying too hard. one can sense the influence of Frank Miller on his work here. The covers of Spider-Man seem to make frequent allusions to “the Dark Knight.” The first cover promises readers “the legend of the arachknight.” The fourth issue teases “the death of the arachknight.” The thirteenth issue, capitalising on the decision to put Peter Parker back in his iconic black outfit, offers “the legend of the black knight.”

A smashing comic...

A smashing comic…

The Miller influence runs a bit deeper. At one point during Masques, we have a cutaway to media talking heads, evoking The Dark Knight Returns. Indeed, the fixation on a corrupt and shallow media in Perceptions and Sub-City feels like it is building on Miller’s scathing critique of the media in The Dark Knight Returns. McFarlane’s Spider-Man has a bit of a tougher edge to him than usual, warning a crook, “Drop the gun — punk!” The underground society in Sub-City recalls the mutants holding Vanessa Fisk in Frank Miller’s Daredevil run, the predecessors to Miller’s mutants from The Dark Knight Returns.

There are elements of McFarlane’s Spider-Man that feel a little bit too much – playing almost as a parody of the “darker and edgier” comic book trends that were taking root in the nineties. In particular, Spider-Man is packed with dead children and religious imagery, which feels just a little over-cooked, as if McFarlane is trying too hard to unsettle the audience or make them uncomfortable. In Sub-City, the subterranean dwellers are casually confirmed to be inbred, a detail thrown out in a suprisingly off-hand fashion.

A hobbled hobgoblin...

A hobbled hobgoblin…

In Masques, the Hobgoblin becomes a twisted zealot – corrupting a child named Adam. In the same story arc, Ghost Rider punishes a paedophile priest. In Perceptions, the nation’s attention is grabbed by a string of child murders in Canada, prompting reporter to ask, “What possible meaning can this have, on a human level or on a divine level?” This all feels just a little bit overcooked, a little bit too heavy-handed. It’s ridiculous and distracting, a reminder of an era when comics desperately wanted to prove how “adult” they were in the most immature ways possible.

Similarly, McFarlane seems to struggle with the character of Mary Jane. Like David Michelinie, he makes a point to suggest that the couple enjoy a healthy (if slightly kinky) sex life, but Mary Jane often feels a little bit superfluous in these stories. It doesn’t help that she seldom seems essential to the story. When Mary Jane eventually gets a nice character beat – reacting to Peter’s decision to put on the black suit – it feels weird that McFarlane pauses to define her as a victim. Appealing on behalf of the lost homeless people, Peter tells MJ, “But those homeless people are also victims. Just like you were.” Talk about viewing her as a victim.

Sealing their doom...

Sealing their doom…

Still, despite these problems, Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man stands as a monument to a particular moment in the history of comic books – a comic book very much driven by the artist, enjoying almost absolute freedom to bring his unique vision to Spider-Man. The visuals are striking, even years later. In a way, McFarlane’s Spider-Man seems to have perfectly captured a moment in comic book history, a snapshot of the early nineties in mainstream comics.

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5 Responses

  1. I wish there was a Todd Mcfarlane Spider-Man omnibus. Of the storylines, only Torment is still in print (and only trade paperback as well).

    • It’s a little ridiculous that Marvel hasn’t capitalised more on the run, given (a.) the popularity of McFarlane as an artist, and (b.) the massive sales success of the run. It would be like printing money, you’d imagine.

  2. This is the Spiderman we need. Not that garbage,what he’s doing..I haven’t seen the new comics lately but I do know that One More Day….SUCKS!!

  3. This is the Spiderman we need now. Not what the hell’s going on in his comics. I haven’t read any of the new comics BUT I do know that One More Day sucks!! It almost single-handedly killed Spiderman!!

  4. This is the Spiderman we need now. Nowadays,Marvel kept making Peter look pathetic. I’m not up to date with the new ones but I really hate One more day for removing Peter and MJ’s marriage.

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