Monday, July 27, 2009

Swinging along for 600 issues with Spider-Man

We mark our lives by odd little milestones. One for me is that I have been pretty consistently buying "Amazing Spider-Man" comics for nearly 30 years now, through thick and thin, red costume and black costume, good stories and dire ones. I bought Peter Parker, Spectacular Spider-Man issues off the spinning comic book rack at Lucky's Drug Store 27 years ago, and I've kept going ever since.

Spider-Man is far and above my favorite comics character, probably because of his quintessential everyman qualities. Plus, the guy is funny and has a great vast rogue's gallery of villains. The comic has gone up and down, but I've been there for much of it – and this week, "Amazing Spider-Man" #600 hit the stands. It got me thinking about the previous "milestone" anniversary issues of Spider-Man over the years, and how they played out – hang on tight for a ride through Spider-Man's "100th anniversary" issues from 1971 to now!

PhotobucketAmazing Spider-Man #100 (1971) - The only anniversary issue I didn't read in the original publication (seeing as I was born the same year it came out), I finally read this one in the nifty "Essential" reprint books a while back. Although it's a milestone issue, I have to admit, this isn't particularly classic – in an attempt to remove his powers, Peter Parker concocts a crazy formula that leaves him hallucinating battling all his greatest foes. But the shock cliffhanger comes at the end when Parker wakes up find he's grown four extra arms - becoming a real "Spider-Man"! It's more than a little corny and cheesy -- writer Stan Lee was clearly running out of ideas in his epic run on the title. It got even wackier and a bit more fun in the next few issues as a vampire super-villain was thrown in for good measure. The big saving grace in this otherwise kind of mundane "poor Whiny Peter Parker story" is the utterly gorgeous Gil Kane artwork. Rating: Three webs (out of four)

PhotobucketAmazing Spider-Man #200 (1980) - This was one of the very first comics I remember reading, and I tell you, for an 8-year-old, you don't get a much more awesome cliffhanger than the freaky Mysterio apparently killing Spider-Man at the end of #199 -- I still think that's one of my favorite cliffhangers of all time. #200, of course, revealed Spidey didn't die, but has temporarily lost his super-powers. Peter Parker thinks it might be a chance to live a "normal life," but of course evil interferes once again in his plans – this time in the form of "the Burglar," the cheap hood who, it turns out, shot his Uncle Ben many years ago and is now gunning for his Aunt May. This Marv Wolfman-penned tale is a concise, yet deeply felt little epic – we get a real sense of Spider-Man's never-say-die gumption and courage, and learn it's not the powers that make the hero. I read the heck out of this one back in the day, and it's still my personal favorite Spidey anniversary issue, a terrific little read that sums up everything great about the character. Rating: Four webs

PhotobucketAmazing Spider-Man #300 (1988) -- We're oh-so-1980s now, with young hot talent Todd McFarlane on the art and the introduction of some character called Venom (foreshadowed in another nifty cliffhanger at the end of #299). Now, years later, we're all well and good and sick of Venom, who was never as interesting a character as they tried to make him in the 1990s with endless spin-offs, miniseries and apperances. But in this first appearance, yeah, he's pretty cool, a black-clad maniac mirror of Spider-Man (at the time he struck me as Spidey's version of the Joker), with McFarlane turning in some impressively ornate, if somewhat unpolished art -- Spider-Man and Venom in action look fantastic, while all the human characters look a bit like plastic dolls. As a story, this is a good done-in-one as Spidey faces off against the seemingly unstoppable Venom. Sure, lots of terribly dull and lame tales came in its Venom-frenzy wake, but don't hold that against it. Rating: Four webs.

PhotobucketAmazing Spider-Man #400 (1995) - In which Aunt May dies. No, really! But then it turns out she was a clone. Or an alien, I forget which. Yeah, welcome to comic books. This one came right in the middle of the much-reviled "Clone Saga," and it was actually during one of the rare times I've stopped regularly buying "Amazing Spider-Man" over the years – but this was #400, so heck, I picked it up. It was a dire time for comics, full of gimmicks (witness the hideous "tombstone" cardboard cover). In this comic you've got at least three Spider-Men running about, lots of ponderous villains and hanging plot threads. Yet, oddly, in the midst of all the clutter, writer J.M De Matteis crafts a nicely human, small story about May Parker finally giving in to her fate. It has some lovely character moments between Aunt May and Peter, and a genuinely heartbreaking ending. But... this would've been a much better tale if they didn't erase it from memory a few years later and made it all "never happen." As it is, it just kind of stands as one of the many 1990s oddball turns for Spider-Man as a character, decent at the time but undermined by later editorial tap-dancing. Rating: Three webs.

PhotobucketAmazing Spider-Man #500 (2003) - Curiously enough, even though this came out only 6 years ago, I had to re-read it to remember what happened. Not a good sign! Writer J. Michael Straczynski had a long run on Spider-Man for a while there, full of good ideas but also a little too convinced of his stories' own self-importance. Spider-Man is "lost in time," battling through various dark alternative futures, and, much like in #100, facing off against hallucinated re-enactments of all his deadliest battles as he bounces through space and time. It's one of these stories that strives to feel big and epic, yet I have to admit I find it kind of boring – lots of smash and bash, little heart, a feeling that it's a big "coming attraction" for more stories. Even what's meant as a big emotional moment at the coda, a reunion of sorts with Peter Parker's beloved Uncle Ben, falls flat. Also like #100, though, what saves a rather prosaic tale is some fantastic artwork, this time by perhaps the most reliable Spider-Man artist of the last 25 years, John Romita Jr. But as for Straczynski's rather pretentious writing, this one is a bit of a miss. Rating: Two webs.

PhotobucketAmazing Spider-Man #600 (2009) -- And now the latest anniversary, 47 (!!!) years after Spider-Man debuted. This big-overstuffed 102-page issue is a lot of fun, particularly the main story which features the return of Doctor Octopus, in a new and eerie fashion. And our old pal John Romita Jr. is back on the art – his figures a little blockier perhaps than they once were, but generally a good effort. I enjoyed the main tale here a good amount, as it mixes big action with a generous dollop of heart and humor (missing in some of these anniversary issues). Cameos galore by heroes like Daredevil, Wolverine and the Human Torch, but they don't feel too gratuitous. Some of the back-up stories here are rather forgettable, but none are actually objectionable. It's too soon to tell if this will be a "classic" anniversary issue, but it definitely continues the good strong solid run "Amazing" has been on the last year or two. And it's nice to have a hefty comic that actually feels worth the money rather than some of the quick reads I see these days. Rating: Three and a half webs.

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