Friday, December 26, 2014


Written and Illustrated by Charles Vess
Lettered by Gaspar Saldino | Edited by Jim Salicrup
Editor-in-Chief, Tom DeFalco

Well, it's the day after Christmas, but I thought I'd talk a little bit about a Christmas present I received some time back. SPIRITS OF THE EARTH, an original graphic novel from Marvel, was published in 1990. I'm not absolutely sure that I got it that year; it could've just as easily been '91 or maybe even '92.

I do, however distinctly recall the circumstances under which I received it. I was at the local comic shop (Flying Colors in Concord, California) and my mom was with me, and I saw the book on one of the shelves. It seemed to call to me. Even back then, apparently, I was a hardcover comic book snob, because the fact that the book was a nice sturdy volume was the first thing that drew me to it. Here was a comic book, starring Spider-Man -- but in hardcover format! Surely it had to be something far more special and wonderful than any old issue of his monthly series, right?

I wanted it then, but I didn't have the money for it and the $18.95 cover price was a bit much for an impulse buy from my mom. But apparently she kept it in her mind even as it drifted from mine. I moved onto other things, but come Christmas morning of that year (be it 1990, '91, or '92), SPIRITS OF THE EARTH was under the tree waiting for me. I read it right there on Christmas Day and, at the time, I really liked it.

SPIRITS' plot finds Peter Parker's wife, Mary Jane, inheriting some land from a distant relative in Scotlond. She and Peter head over to check it out and find that the village may not be long for this world as developers from out of town are offering the townspeople money to sell their land and move away. The plot thickens when a local "witch" named Mairi begins spouting prophesies which seem to link the area's troubles with the missing grandson of the town's laird, Hugh Munro.
Peter spends some time as Spider-Man investigating Munro's castle, which was recently damaged by a fire, and eventually learns that Munro's nephew, Angus, is behind everything, having discovered a large crystal deposit beneath the castle which could be used, in conjunction with an orbiting satellite, to act as the focal point of a doomsday weapon. Angus has enlisted the resources of the Hellfire Club, per a hereditary membership, to harness this power.

Spider-Man makes his way through holographic "fairy folk", Hellfire Club guards, and natural disasters to rescue Hugh's grandson and stop Angus. In the end the day is won, with the aid of Mairi's magic, but Hugh perishes.

I enjoy tales where Spider-Man is a fish out of water (the story where he goes to the moon and fights the Stranger with Adam Warlock is one of my favorites*), but SPIRITS just doesn't feel right as a Spider-Man vehicle. I like the story well enough, and the artwork by Vess is absolutely gorgeous -- he draws a great John Romita-style wall-crawler -- but Spider-Man running around the Scottish highlands and exploring spooky old castles just isn't a good fit. Put Captain America in this story or even Wolverine, and I could buy it. For Spider-Man, it just doesn't work.
I think part of my issue is that Vess tries to have it both ways with regards to magic in his tale. We're first led to believe that the village is haunted by ghosts, until it turns out that those ghosts are really holograms created by Angus. So there's no magic after all; it has an earthly explanation. Except that later, Mairi uses magic to stop an earthquake from destroying the castle. So which is it? I realize that magic is a constant in the Marvel Universe, and Spider-Man himself is no stranger to it -- he's palled around with Dr. Strange numerous times (and even invokes his name in SPIRITS) -- but if you establish that "magic" in your story is actually the result of technology, you can't suddenly have real magic show up too. It's not playing fair with the audience.

That said, the best parts of the story are the interplay between Peter and Mary Jane -- Vess sells them nicely as a married couple -- and the scenes of Spider-Man infiltrating Angus's underground operation and fighting the Hellfire Club goons. Spider-Man vs. the Hellfire Club is a nifty idea and I'm surprised no one thought of it sooner. He lives in their backyard, after all. Even now, I can only think of one or two more times when the web-slinger has encountered the Club -- and Spider-Man vs. those uniformed guards is a nice visual.
But overall, much as I enjoyed is as a child, SPIRITS OF THE EARTH doesn't do much for me as a story nowadays. It's part Scooby Doo mystery, part Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge comic, and part Bond film -- which is all well and good, but the problem is that nowhere is it part Spider-Man story. I like the plot just fine, and the lush artwork is gorgeous, but this story, this setting, just doesn't fit the webbed wonder. But I still read it now and then nonetheless, simply to admire the artwork and to enjoy the childhood nostalgia that accompanies it.

*Yes, I'm aware I complimented a Bill Mantlo Spider-Man story. There's an exception to every rule!


  1. Spider-Man running around the Scottish highlands and exploring spooky old castles just isn't a good fit

    while for a Donald Duck story it makes an absolute classic, referring of course to Carl Bark's The Old Castle's Secret where Scrooge McDuck makes his second appearance ever.

    Other than that, someone assaulting Hellfire commandos from the ceiling and calling back to Dirty Harry has a vague familiar ring to it...

    1. Hey, somehow I never caught that "made my day" line as a DIRTY HARRY reference, but I bet you're right: this has to be Vess turning in an homage to Claremont and Byrne. I love it!