Wednesday, December 31, 2014

SPIDER-MAN BY ROGER STERN: AFTERWORD

Counting my split of SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #60 into two installments and the White Tiger serial as its own review, I've written a series of more than sixty posts on Roger Stern's Spider-Man, covering the gamut from his early days on SPECTACULAR to his beloved run on AMAZING, including some annuals, a couple guest spots in AVENGERS, and the coda in HOBGOBLIN LIVES and its sequel, "Goblins at the Gate", plus the more recent "Something Can Stop the Juggernaut". That's a lot of material. Other writers have produced more Spider-Man issues than Stern -- Stan Lee, David Michelinie, and Brian Michael Bendis spring to mind off the top of my head -- but few have captured the character, his supporting cast, and his trappings as well.

I figured that, while all these issues are relatively fresh in my mind, I might as well mention some of my favorites. Five seems like a nice, round number. These aren't in any sort of ranking order other than chronological; they're just my personal top five issues from throughout Roger Stern's time with Spider-Man. Some of them probably seem like the safe or obvious choices, but it occurs to me that certain things are obvious for good reason:
  • PETER PARKER, THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #46 - Stern's fourth issue, featuring the unmasking of Belladonna and the fate of the new Prowler, reads like an old pulp noir story and is possibly the high point of the writer's SPECTACULAR run.
  • AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #230 - Against all odds, Spider-Man's tenacity stops the Juggernaut in the best of Stern's stories pitting the wall-crawler against a "borrowed" villain.
  • AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #238 - One cold, wind-swept afternoon, Spider-Man turns his back on a "small fry" crook and within 24 hours, the Hobgoblin, Spider-Man's highest profile villain of the eighties, is born.
  • AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #249 - The Hobgoblin's third story arc begins as he blackmails several of New York's top businessmen and we truly begin to see what a shrewd manipulator he is.
  • HOBGOBLIN LIVES #1 - I like this mini-series, though I think it could've been better. But the first issue reeks of atmosphere and drama, and promises great things to come in subsequent installments.
Okay, maybe I'm a little biased toward the Hobgoblin, with three of his appearances listed above. But when I was a youngster, the Hobgoblin was the preeminent Spider-Man villain. At any rate, choosing this list wasn't easy since there are so many more great Stern issues to pick from. "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man" (ASM #248). "Options" (ASM #243). The Brand Corporation saga (PPTSSM # 57 & ASM #233-236). The Cobra/Mr. Hyde two-parter (ASM #231-232). Practically the entire Stern AMAZING run is one hit after another. The SPECTACULAR material is much more iffy, due mainly to a parade of mediocre artists keeping it from rising above its station as the secondary title. But once Stern hits AMAZING, with John Romita, Jr. on pencils, the series really takes off.
The Stern/Romita Jr. Spider-Man reminds me of the Stan Lee/John Romita, Sr. Spider-Man; in my opinion the best version of the character. Stern plays to his artist's strength and preference by keeping the majority of the action "street level" and the villains relatively down-to-earth (Will-O'-The-Wisp notwithstanding). Given free reign to guide Spider-Man's destiny rather than follow from another lead writer, Stern amps up the sub-plots and begins to bring the (in some cases) long-missing supporting characters back into circulation. First Ned and Betty Leeds return, followed by Liz and Harry Osborn, then Mary Jane Watson. Sadly, Stern never gets to Flash Thompson, but otherwise he touches on all the major classic characters. And of course he keeps the stalwarts -- Jonah Jameson, Robbie Robertson, and Aunt May -- around throughout his run on both series.

My only real issue with the Stern run, taken as a whole, is something unavoidable, at least for the writer: he's sharing Spider-Man with others. First on SPECTACULAR, where he must follow the lead of Denny O'Neil's AMAZING -- and must put up with O'Neil co-opting Debra Whitman, with whom Stern had been doing some nice character work before losing her -- and then on AMAZING, where he regularly has to perform damage control on Bill Mantlo's frequent hare-brained ideas. It's evident from reading Stern's SPECTACULAR that he was playing nice with O'Neil, who was both the flagship writer and editor of Stern's series. But when reading Stern's AMAZING, one gets the distinct impression that Mantlo was not writing the sister title in the same way Stern had. Where Stern on SPECTACULAR worked around O'Neil's AMAZING plots without trying to forge his own direction, as one would expect from the secondary writer, Stern on AMAZING seems to be embroiled in an ongoing power struggle with Mantlo, frequently forced into justifying the actions of both Peter and Spider-Man as depicted in SPECTACULAR. It seems Mantlo believed he was Stern's equal, where Stern had previously, correctly admitted he was O'Neil's second fiddle.

But in spite of sharing the character with lesser writers, Stern turns in a high-quality run on Spider-Man. There are many fans who consider him the last truly good Spider-Man writer, and while I wouldn't go that far, I do believe -- as I've noted before -- that Stern's period on AMAZING was the last time Spider-Man felt like the classic Stan Lee/John Romita version of the character. There were plenty of good stories starring Spider-Man to come after Stern's departure, but none of them starred the same Spider-Man about which Stern had written.

(And yes, as I noted once before, Stern does take some of the blame for this transformation, being the writer who dropped Peter Parker out of graduate school, inadvertently starting a path which would artificially age the character, leading eventually to marriage and to school playing an extremely minor role in Spider-Man's life. But we don't know where Stern was originally headed with this plotline, and it's more the fault of subsequent creators that they took the wrong cues from it.)

Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Spider-Man. Lee and John Romita refined him. And it was that refined version, that definitive wall-crawler, about which Roger Stern wrote. He didn't try any "bold new directions" and he didn't try to reinvent anything. He just took the best version of the character and told new stories about him. That, in the end, is why I love Roger Stern's Spider-Man so much. It's the Lee/Romita Spider-Man transplanted into the eighties. Roger Stern's Spider-Man, particularly the AMAZING segment, is a run I've returned to time and again over the years, in various formats. Even now, after writing sixty-plus posts on the subject, I'm ready to jump back in and read it all over again. That's the highest compliment I can pay to any comic, to any form of fiction in general -- when you want to dig into it another time right after finishing it, the work is really something special.

Uncle Rog Speaks: "[Spider-Man] is out there, doing the best he can with what he's got and trying hard not to screw up. I think he wants to do right by the people he loves. And he wants to be there, to help the little guy and stand up against all the big bullies. Like the song goes, 'Action is his reward, to him, life is a great big bang-up, wherever there's a hang-up, you'll find the Spider-Man.'

"May it ever be so."


-- "Roger Stern, the Spectacular Spider-Writer", MARVEL SPOTLIGHT: SPIDER-MAN, Marvel Comics, March 2007

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