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Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Super Blog Team-Up: Shades of Gray - a Review of Spectacular Spider-Man 1



Spectacular Spider-Man #1 (July 1968)
"Lo, This Monster!"
Stan Lee-John Romita/Jim Mooney

Welcome back, friends, to this space as well as to another round of Super Blog Team-Up! This time around we're looking at gimmicks and excess in a theme called "Chromium". While that might seem to have a 90s or 00s vibe, you know this blog hearkens back to the Bronze and sometimes Silver Ages. And that's what I have for you today - a review of a book that lands squarely in that transition from the Marvel Comics of the 1960s heading into the 1970s.

The Spectacular Spider-Man was the brainchild of Marvel's Editor-in-Chief, Stan Lee. Always seeking new ways of keeping Marvel fresh, and narrowing the gap with the Distinguished Competition, Stan could be daring when twisting publisher Martin Goodman's arm. Warren Publishing, MAD Magazine, et al. had already created a market for more adult-themed comics, so Stan wasn't exactly inventing the wheel. Despite its timing, Spectacular Spider-Man was a beautiful book and truly a shame to have been a one-and-done in the black-and-white format. The second issue, in full color and featuring the Green Goblin, stands as one of the great Spidey stories of the Lee-Romita era.

Take a peek at the Bullpen Bulletins at left, and enlarge it. You'll see some typical Stan Lee huckstering, both in the third "Item!" as well as in The Mighty Marvel Checklist. Nearly sold out? Stan even remarks that Jazzy Johnny couldn't find it in his own neighborhood! Know what? I think he was right. Sales figures (I've looked for some exact numbers, but can't locate them) were presumably swell for the first issue, yet Goodman elected to print the second ish in color. We all know that the third issue never saw the light of day. So what happened? My guess is, from everything I've read across numerous histories of Marvel Comics, that Martin Goodman's impatience and general skittishness at potentially losing a nickel most likely ruled the day. It would be another three years before Marvel took the magazine plunge again, with 1971's Savage Tales. And even then, that mag would see a start-stop-start genesis.

NOTE: This book would have landed at the drug stores and supermarkets in between Amazing Spider-Man's 62 (featuring Medusa) and 63 (with the Vulture).

But enough backstory... let's get on with my thoughts on today's selection.


100-Word Review:
Richard Raleigh is a mayoral candidate who has charmed the populace of New York City. But a man-mountain of an assassin apparently wants him dead. Encountering our favorite Webhead, the mystery deepens as Spidey is unable to defeat the monster. Later, various underworld factions take shots at Raleigh. Behind-the-scenes, we find that Raleigh’s not the good guy who’s endorsed by J. Jonah Jameson’s newspaper. Rather, he’s scheming for power by creating plots that seem to run against himself. Can our hero protect his loved ones and the city, and defeat the 10-foot giant bent on killing Captain George Stacy?
The Good: Do you mind if I go on about the art for the next three hours or so? Yeah, that would be excessive. Let's see if I can be a bit more concise. I loved it! Since we're talking gimmicks and marketing today, some of our time should be spent on the black & white art. MAD Magazine was selling a little less than two million copies monthly; we know Warren was well-established by 1968. But no Marvel title had pursued this style yet - Stan's decision to dip his toe into this water could have been a disaster on many fronts: sales, fan response, execution, etc. But wow - did Jazzy Johnny and Jim "Madman" Mooney nail it. This book is beautiful. I read/scanned from the The Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection, volume 4 - admittedly remastered. I think this would have played well on regular ol' newsprint, too. I used to own a copy of Spectacular Spider-Man #2, and I can tell you that it was printed on standard comic book paper of Silver Age vintage. I'm pretty sure the Marvel magazines of a few years hence would be printed on slightly different paper quality. Anyway, I hope you'll agree with me (based on the samples I've provided) that the pictures are simply stunning.


I've remarked in previous reviews that when I see John Romita's Spider-Man and his cast of characters, it just feels like a comfortable pair of jeans or a warm blanket. This is the way these characters are supposed to look. Yes, Spidey's been blessed with a wonderful stable of artists through the years. But for me, everyone's compared to Romita. I'll get to Stan's script shortly... had it been the most gawd-awful piece of trash (which it wasn't), I'd still have had the pretty pictures to look at. Case in point: The three pages below serve as microcosms of my joy. On the left, the second panel with Spidey's mask sort of washed out is a solid effect. In the middle page, the large panel at bottom showcases four of our main characters and shows why Romita is my gold standard. And finally, the third selection seems a preview of pages we'll see in a few years from the likes of Ploog, Wrightson, Buscema, Mayerik, and some of the other B&W and horror masters.

Regarding the supporting cast, I really think their voices lived in Stan's head. Each one is distinctly presented throughout Stan's tenure as writer. Romita helped by giving each a unique look that remained consistent throughout his years on the book and became the template for Gil Kane, Ross Andru, Keith Pollard, and so on.



Richard Raleigh and his man-monster were effective villains in a story that sought original content. Both characters were bombastically over-the-top and effective as psychological and physical menaces to our wall-crawling hero. I liked JJJ's blind allegiance to the cult of personality Raleigh had crafted, and the opposition of Captain George Stacy. Stacy's skepticism and subsequent investigation of Raleigh proved a nice antagonism to both the candidate and to Jonah. Side Note: After writing this review, I started reading at the beginning of the Epic Collection that was my source. George Stacy had only been introduced within the preceding year to this story's publication, and his star had risen quickly. By the time Stacy would meet his demise in ASM #90, he'd only been around for 40 issues or so - a quite short "lifespan" as a somewhat-major supporting character.


The Bad: I was a bit worried as this story was beginning that Stan's script was going to whither beyond the pedestrian effort that limped out of the gate. Through the first three pages, this felt like one of the newspaper strips that would be published a decade later. I understand that, given the format and price increase (35c, when Annuals sold for a quarter) there may have been new readers who needed to be brought up to speed. But I was having a tough time getting past all the cliches. Fortunately, after the initial too-long battle, the story settled in and became what we'd call "regular Spidey fare". 

It seemed to me that Spider-Man might have drawn on Peter Parker's science knowledge in a bit more of a detailed manner when deducing how to defeat the big ugly. The climax felt more the result of luck than of Spidey actually using that genius mind that dwelt beneath the mask.

And speaking of a too-long battle, whenever I get about halfway through one of these 52-page monsters I begin to question my stamina. This was a lengthy piece of literature!


The Ugly: I got nuthin'. Fun read, fun format, easy on the eyes - it's what comics and comics magazines should be.

Before we get to some more good stuff, I wanted to show an art sample of the 10-page retelling of Spider-Man's origin, the back-up to our main feature. Stan wrote it, and art was provided (quite solidly, I might add) by Stan's brother Larry Lieber with inks by the ever-stellar Bill Everett. It's a collaboration that paid some serious dividends.



Please patronize my partners in blogging and podcasting today and in the coming days. You will find it's time well-spent!  

  
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6 comments:

  1. Hiya,

    I tried SO HARD to find that book when it came out, meaning I kept going to the jewelry store in my little town that also sold magazines and soft cover books hoping that it would somehow appear.

    It never occurred to me to try the cigar store in the town sixteen miles away.

    Or the hospital.

    Ah, the joys of living before the rise of the comic book store.

    Thank you for the look and good to see your column again. I do promise to try to take a gander at those other posts that you linked to.

    Hope to see you again soon.

    pfgavigan

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It is always a pleasure to hear from you, PFG!

      Doug

      Delete
  2. Nice review as usual Doug!

    - 'Man mini mountain' Mike from Trinidad & Tobago!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Mike! Always great to hear from you.

      Doug

      Delete
  3. Not a bad review, but I don't see how this experiment fits in the theme of "looking at gimmicks and excess". And no mention that this story was rewritten, art reworked (no Capt. Stacy, new art) and modified, then run in The Amazing Spider-Man #116–118 in color.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tim -

      Thanks for stopping by.

      I was asked if I'd like to participate in this month's Super Blog Team-Up. The focus of this blog, as evidenced by the title, is black & white comics in the Bronze Age. While my selection for the entry is admittedly on that line just between the Silver and Bronze Ages, one could argue that the fact that the subject is a black and white magazine definitely looks forward to the Bronze Age.

      To your curiosity as to whether or not Spectacular Spider-Man constitutes a "gimmick". It does, per a definition of the term: a trick or device intended to attract attention, publicity, or business. I'm not sure how it could have been perceived any other way. That the second issue went to a color format only speaks further to the element of attracting attention and business.

      To your criticism regarding the lack of "exhaustiveness" of the review. You said it yourself when you made your comment about the story being retooled for Amazing Spider-Man #s 116-118... in color. That falls generally out of bounds for what I've done here (though admittedly there have been exceptions).

      At any rate, I apologize if you wasted your time. That was certainly not my intent, which was for readers to have a bit of nostalgic fun.

      Thanks,

      Doug

      Delete

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