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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…

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Non-Review Review: The Amazing Spider-Man II

What is remarkable about Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man II is how much it resembles a comic book. Not a particular comic book – although there are numerous shout-outs to iconic Spider-Man moments, right down to the choice of costuming – but in general terms. It isn’t that Marc Webb tries to construct his film to evoke the look and feel of a comic book – this isn’t Ang Lee’s Hulk; in fact, Webb seems much more comfortable here than he was with The Amazing Spider-Man, making a movie that feels more playful and relaxed within its medium.

Instead, The Amazing Spider-Man II borrows the structure of a comic book. It offers its own story, but that story isn’t constructed particularly tightly. Instead, the story seems to have been fashioned as part of a greater – as if part of a larger serialised narrative that has yet to take form. It’s quite distinct from the approach taken with Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, where the films feel more like blocks that fit together. Instead, this feels more like the second chapter in a larger story, without being dissolved completely into the larger narrative.

The Amazing Spider-Man II has its own themes and motifs, and it documents a pretty epic selection of events, but the emphasis isn’t so much on this one encounter as what this encounter says about its hero. It’s much more interested in what these events tell us about our hero than it is in documenting a single self-contained story. It’s a novel (and somewhat bold) attempt at a serialised superhero narrative, and the results are absolutely fascinating.

Electro-fying!

Electro-fying!

Note: This is a spoiler-filled review of The Amazing Spider-Man II. You can find a spoiler-lite version here. Continue reading for more in-depth thoughts on the film, with the knowledge that absolutely everything is up for discussion. Continue at your own peril!

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Ultimate Spider-Man – The Death of Spider-Man Omnibus (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.

It’s amazing how much can change in a decade or so. When it launched, Marvel’s Ultimate Universe was an incredibly fresh playground for some of the top creators working in comic books. It was an opportunity to relaunch iconic characters without the baggage of continuity – to allow creators to tell stories unburdened by decades of history and back story. It was something fresh and exciting, classic characters boiled down their purest essence.

This approach worked, particularly when juxtaposed against a wider Marvel Universe populated with characters that had drifted away from their roots a bit. Modern storytelling conventions, popular writers and artists, and easy of access all made the Ultimate Universe a very exciting place to be. The early years of the Ultimate Universe offer some of the best gateways into comic books for anybody looking to branch into the medium.

At your service...

At your service…

However, things change. Over time, the Ultimate universe lost a bit of its sheen. This was partially due to the way that the comics built up their own tangled continuity over the years that followed – it was soon as difficult to jump into an Ultimate comic book as it was to jump into the mainstream Marvel universe. At the same time, storytelling in the mainstream Marvel universe adjusted to incorporate the aspects that had made the Ultimate Universe so popular.

So the Ultimate Universe wound down a bit, with the decline assisted by some very questionable creative choices. Allowing Jeph Loeb to kill off most of the cast in Ultimatum was a bit of a miscalculation, and it seemed like titles like Ultimate Fantastic Four and Ultimate X-Men became a bit messy and less focused than they had been. There was a sense of redundancy to the entire Ultimate line. Relaunches followed, with a number of attempts to re-brand and re-energise the Ultimate line.

A bridge to nowhere...

A bridge to nowhere…

With all of this going on, a bold decision was made. The Ultimate Universe was introduced as a place populated with very boiled-down and iconic takes on the famous characters, as if offering readers a glimpse at the very essence of these heroes. However, as times began to change, the editors became a bit more willing to experiment – to try new things. Having served its purpose as an accessible alternative to the mainstream Marvel Universe, it became the place where Marvel could try new things, things impossible in the mainstream universe.

And so the comic attempted a variety of new approaches. Mutants were no longer quirks of evolution, but the result of government experiments gone horribly wrong. The X-Men became a bunch of teenage runaways. Reed Richards became a large-scale supervillain. However, perhaps the most audacious approach taken to the Ultimate Universe was the decision to kill off Peter Parker, with the original Ultimate Spider-Man creative team of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley conspiring to close the book on this version of Spider-Man.

Everything blows up in his face...

Everything blows up in his face…

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The Amazing Spider-Man – Grim Hunt (Review)

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.

Although not technically part of The Gauntlet, Grim Hunt serves as a climax to eight months of stories in The Amazing Spider-Man. It comes at the end of what has been a pretty tough slog for the wall-crawling web-slinging superhero, after a string of pyrrhic victories and out-and-out losses. In essence, Grim Hunt is the culmination of all the plot threads running through The Gauntlet, as the sinister plot against the iconic superhero enters its end game.

It also comes towards the end of the Brand New Day era of The Amazing Spider-Man, only two story arcs before regular writer Dan Slott would take over the series for the next stage of the character’s development. Brand New Day was a controversial era for Spider-Man fans, building off a clumsy continuity reset in One More Day and trying to balance the weight of the character’s history against bold new directions.

As such, Grim Hunt also serves as something of a meditation on the history of The Amazing Spider-Man, a reflection on editorial attitudes to continuity and character development – an astonishingly self-aware and reflexive story arc that feels like a commentary on the character and the way that comic book storytelling tends to work.

A shot in the arm...

A shot in the arm…

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The Amazing Spider-Man – The Gauntlet: The Lizard – Shed (Review)

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.

Shed is the climax of The Gauntlet. It is The Gauntlet pushed to its logical extreme – just about as dark and grim as you could possibly make a story in The Amazing Spider-Man. In many respects, Zeb Wells and Chris Bachalo’s Shed starts out as a typical Spider-Man story. Curt Connors has relapsed, as he tends to do. Connors has transformed into the bestial Lizard, and the Lizard has decided to target Connors’ family in order to assert his dominance.

The basic plot is familiar. It is standard Spider-Man fare. Our hero will react to this crisis and fight the Lizard to save the Connors family from the monster that their husband has become. Indeed, Spider-Man may even use Curt Connors’ love his family to help vanquish the Lizard, thus offering readers a “happily ever after” ending to what was an emotional ordeal for all involved. It’s one of the most basic and archetypal of superhero stories, one so compelling because it’s about humanity winning out over basic instinct.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

That isn’t what happens in Shed.

What makes Shed so brutally effective is the way that it manages to completely subvert expectations. Thanks to the meddling of outside forces, Peter Parker isn’t able to protect the Connors family; he can’t save the life of Billy Connors; he can’t redeem Curt Connors. The Lizard wins. The Lizard dominates. However, what makes the story so clever is the way that Wells layers another twist on top of this, suggesting that although the mosnter has vanquished the man, the monster may not be unchanged.

Balancing the scales...

Balancing the scales…

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The Amazing Spider-Man – The Gauntlet: The Scorpion – The Sting (Review)

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.

Like Scavenging before it, The Sting saps a little of the momentum of The Gauntlet. In fact, The Sting might just be the weakest single chapter of the entire epic – a one-shot story that has little interesting or insightful to offer. While Van Lente’s fourteen page It is the Life represents the shortest single story in The Gauntlet, The Sting feels like the most hollow – the story that could be removed most easily from the sequence of events without any sense of loss or absence.

Indeed, even branding it as “the Scorpion” feels a bit cynical. While the Scorpion is a classic and iconic Spider-Man adversary, the character included here has no real connection to the wall-crawling adventurer. This new Scorpion has no history with Peter Parker, and was really a supporting character in the Avengers spin-off The Initiative. Along with the guest appearance from New Avengers baddie the Hood, The Sting seems like the wider Marvel Universe is encroaching upon The Gauntlet.

While it’s occasionally nice to get a sense that Spider-Man coexists in the same world as the Avengers or the Fantastic Four, The Gauntlet really isn’t the place for this. In fact, all the outside characters serve to undermine the otherwise effective claustrophobia of The Gauntlet – chipping away at the sense that Spider-Man is alone and isolated, being hunted and pursued by an ominous adversary.

Something to chew over...

Something to chew over…

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The Amazing Spider-Man – The Gauntlet: The Rhino – Rage of the Rhino/Endangered Species (Review)

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.

The Gauntlet is structured very carefully. The opening salvo of The Gauntlet is comprised of stories spanning a reasonable number of issues. These aren’t epic six-month-long encounters with classic bad guys. Thanks to the thrice monthly shipping schedule of The Amazing Spider-Man, few of the stories lasted longer than a month of real time. Still, stories like Power to the People, Keemia’s Castle and Mysterioso unfold across a number of issues.

As The Gauntlet races towards its climax, the stories get shorter. We begin to get a series of one-issue interludes, like It is the Life or The Sting. These are shorter, quicker affairs – they create a sense of heightened pace, as if the story is speeding up and gathering momentum as it moves towards its endgame. This is the middle act of The Gauntlet, working from the premise that the stage has been set and the band is engaged.

A smashing success...

A smashing success…

Then, as we push on into the third act of climax of The Gauntlet, we get three extended storylines. Something Can Stop the Juggernaut serves as something of a breather story arc, insulating the events of Shed and Grim Hunt from the rest of The Gauntlet. However, the four-part Shed is very much the climax of The Gauntlet – pushing much of the arc’s tones and themes to their logical endpoint. After that, Grim Hunt is the culmination of it all; a meditation on what this has all been about.

This clever structuring is in evidence for Joe Kelly’s story about the Rhino. The two-issue story arc is structured as two one-shots cleverly split over the course of The Gauntlet. The first part of the story, Rage of the Rhino appears nestled between Keemia’s Castle and Mysterioso. It appears to stand alone. And then, as The Gauntlet gathers pace, Endangered Species hits. And it hits with the power of a freight train.

Building up momentum...

Building up momentum…

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