Wednesday, May 21, 2014

PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #43

"PRETTY POISON"
Writer: Roger Stern | Penciler: Mike Zeck | Inker: Steve Mitchell
Letterer: John Costanza | Colorist: Bob Sharen | Editor: Dennis O'Neil
Editor-in-Chief: Jim Shooter

The Plot: The Empire State University science lab is robbed of some common chemicals by a group of masked men. Graduate student Peter Parker tags one of them with a Spider-Tracer, then, after giving his statement to the police, changes into Spider-Man canvasses the city in search of his tracking device. He eventually zeroes in on the men -- along with their leader, a woman named Belladonna -- invading the office of fashion magnate Roderick Kingsley. Spider-Man saves Kingsley from the villains, but thanks to Belladonna's sense-dulling gases, the group escapes.

Peter does some research on Kingsley, learns that he has a fashion show coming up a day later, and covers the show under the guise of his night job as a news photographer in order to watch for a return engagement from Belladonna. Sure enough, she arrives in dramatic fashion, defiling Kingsley's new clothing line, then demanding all valuables from the assembled patrons. Spider-Man once more comes to Kingsley's aid and saves the day, but Belladonna and her men escape again.

The Sub-Plots: None to speak of, which is not unusual given that this is an incoming writer's first issue -- unless, of course, you count the start of the grudge between Spider-Man and Roderick Kingsley, which will play out, off-and-on, for years to come.

Continuity Notes: At this point in Peter Parker's history, he was a graduate student/teaching assistant at his alma mater, Empire State University. The main book, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, focused on Peter's career as a news photographer and defined the direction his life would take, while SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN focused mainly on his school life, and included a cast of supporting characters more or less unique to the series -- including fellow student Steve Hopkins and secretary Debra Whitman, both present in this story.

One single footnote in this issue points readers to the previous month's installment to see Peter run out on a date with Deb Whitman. Deb is one of the few SPECTACULAR characters to cross over to AMAZING on a regular basis as Peter's potential romantic interest of the era.
Peter is seen working for the Daily Globe in this issue, as it takes place during a period where he had become estranged from J. Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle. Peter has a brief exchange with Sandy Jones, Globe editor Barney Bushkin's assistant, as he searches for information on Kingsley. The Globe will, years later, play a key role in the origin of Venom.
Also, as noted above, this issue marks the first appearances of Belladonna and Roderick Kingsley, the latter of whom will continue as a minor supporting character for the next several years.
Uncle Rog Speaks: "When I left the editorial staff, I was assigned to write CAPTAIN AMERICA and I needed another book. Denny O'Neil joined the Marvel staff around the same time as editor on SPECTACULAR and MARVEL TEAM-UP. Denny offered SPECTACULAR to me. I had always loved Spider-Man, but I was afraid to write him. I didn't think I was ready yet. I only took SPECTACULAR because it wasn't really Spider-Man... to me, AMAZING was Spider-Man! I figured that I could do SPECTACULAR for a while and learn how to write the character properly in the process." -- COMICS CREATORS ON SPIDER-MAN, Titan Books, 2004

Spectacular Spider-Mail: The letter column this month introduces Roger Stern as the new SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN writer and bids farewell to outgoing scribe Bill Mantlo as he moves on to ROM: SPACEKNIGHT, among other things. The letters regard Mantlo's stories in issues 36 and 37.

Also On Sale This Month: The Black Cat goes nuts in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #205, while Spidey meets the Shroud in MARVEL TEAM-UP #94.

My Thoughts: Roger Stern's first regular Spider-Man issue is notable for featuring the introduction of two villains, even if we (and Stern himself) are unaware of that fact yet. One of the two will be a footnote in Spider-Man's history, while the other will become his premier adversary of the decade, forging a legacy which endures in Marvel's Spider-Man comics to this day.
Otherwise, the issue is an inauspicious start to Stern's monumental run. It almost reads like it could've been an episode of the short-lived, live-action SPIDER-MAN television series, in that it's a very low-key and even "low-budget" affair. Belladonna isn't exactly the cream of the villainous crop, and her visual, while kind of a cool look, is the sort of simple-to-assemble costume one might expect from a weekly TV series.
But in a way, I like this story for those very reasons. To me, Spider-Man works very well as precisely that sort of "low-budget" character. I like super-villains, but I prefer the more down-to-earth ones. So Stern's debut, while perhaps lacking certain bells and whistles some might want in a superhero comic, works perfectly for me. Plus, there's something to be said for the idea that a writer would come onto an established character's series and, in his very first issue, create a brand-new villainess rather than going to the well for one of the classics. It's an attitude I can appreciate.

And of course, Stern nails Peter Parker perfectly. The quips are present ("It's nice to meet a fellow with a decent memory!" he says to one of the crooks in their second encounter, "Most of the guys I punch have trouble recalling my name!"), the scientific acumen is on display (he develops a counteragent for Belladonna's gas after it gets the best of him the first time), and the ol' Parker Luck makes its presence known as Peter first worries about reactivating his ulcer when he drinks vinegar for his possible belladonna poisoning, and then again at the end when he muses that Spider-Man must be the only hero who can win and lose at the same time. All the pieces are present and -- more importantly -- correctly placed right from the get-go.

Lastly, Stern reminds readers of something that many fans and professionals alike had forgotten by this point -- Spider-man is creepy. He moves like a spider, skittering around on walls. His mask is kind of disturbing. This is played up via Belladonna's constant stammering and fear whenever Spidey gets near her. Our hero even thinks to himself that he sometimes forgets how off-putting his appearance and powers can be for normal people. It's a nice touch and I wish more writers would remember to do it.
Unfortunately, the one area where this issue falls somewhat short is in the art department. I like Mike Zeck. Quite a bit, usually. But his work here, earlier in his career, is not quite up to snuff. The figures are stiff and, while there are flashes of excitement in the action scenes, they're mostly pretty boring. Plus, when your work is wrapped up in a beautiful, atmospheric John Byrne cover, that can only mean it will suffer by comparison. Zeck will return for another issue not long from now; I'll be interested to see if his work has improved by then.

So -- Roger Stern's first issue might not be for everyone. The artwork certainly leaves something to be desired. But the introduction of Roderick Kingsley and the "street-level" plot and action, along with the perfect characterization of Peter Parker, guarantee that it gets high marks from me. We're off to an excellent start.

Next Issue: Roger Stern's second issue is actually a fill-in by recently departed AMAZING SPIDER-MAN scribe, Marv Wolfman. I'll explain next week!

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