Friday, March 22, 2019


Writer/Storytellers/Penciler: "Fabulous" Fabian Nicieza & Steve "The Dude" Rude
Inker: Bob Wiacek | Letterer: John Costanza | Colorist: Greg Wright
Assistant Editor: Brian Smith | Editor: Ralph Macchio | Editor-in-Chief: Joe Quesada

The earliest days of Joe Quesada's reign at Marvel feature some curiosities -- stories which fly in the face of the philosophies he and his corporate overlord, Bill Jemas, forced onto creators and readers. SPIDER-MAN: LIFELINE is one of these. Though Quesada had been Marvel's editor-in-chief for over a year by the time this series was published, it seems pretty clear it was greenlit under the previous administration. Clue number one is that it's drawn by Steve Rude, a notoriously slow artist, so Marvel probably wanted to give him a lot of lead time to complete these three issues. But beyond that, LIFELINE is edited by Ralph Macchio, who had turned over the stewardship of the Spider-Man comics to Axel Alonso only a few months earlier. It's written with third-person narrative captions and thought balloons galore. It's heavy on continuity, being a direct sequel to, and featuring numerous reference to, a storyline in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN from more than thirty years earlier. All these things had been (or would soon be) outlawed by Quesada and Jemas in their attempts to make Marvel's comics as bland and awful as possible -- and as a result, when it was published, LIFELINE was breath of fresh air in what was fast becoming an unreadable and downright unenjoyable Marvel line.

But! I don't want to start this thing off on a negative note. I mean, I'll take every possible opportunity to talk about how utterly wretched the majority of Marvel's output was circa 2001 - 2005ish, and how, for the most part, the comics have never recovered from the harm Quesada and Jemas did when they took over -- which is why I had absolutely no choice whatsoever but to write the preceding paragraph -- but from here on out, we're going positive.

I've noted here more than once that I revere the Stan Lee/John Romita run on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. Taking Steve Ditko's creation of the character, his cast, and his villains for granted, it is Romita's version of Spider-Man, in collaboration with Lee, that I consider definitive. And for my money, the apex of that duo's run on the character is the "stone tablet" saga. It ran for a whopping ten issues (if you include the two-part coda featuring the Lizard), which was pretty unusual at the time. It followed Spider-Man's travails as he struggled to keep an ancient tablet out of the hands of the underworld's top gangsters, including the Kingpin and Silvermane, the latter of whom believes the tablet holds a key to eternal youth. In the end, Silvermane drinks a formula derived from the tablet's inscription and dies when he de-ages to nothingness.

(Okay, I'm gonna go negative one more time. Silvermane died. Definitively. He de-aged to nothingness before Spider-Man's eyes. Yet for some reason, he was brought back about six years later. Why?! He wasn't some major villain who fans needed to see back in action. He was a one-off. He existed for this storyline alone, and when his purpose was served, he died. [He was also one of the few characters to die during Stan Lee's time writing AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, making his return feel even cheaper.] I have no issue with resurrections in comics -- though Marvel has become entirely too cynical about killing and bringing back characters in recent years -- but only if they're necessary and make sense. Silverman's return falls into neither of these categories. Fortunately, LIFELINE wisely makes no mention of his coming back [and eventually -- ugh -- becoming a cyborg], limiting all references to his appearances in the original storyline.)

And now, four paragraphs into this thing, let's start talking about LIFELINE itself. Set in then-current continuity, it finds some new fragments of the tablet unearthed. Once again, mobsters are after it, with warring Maggia dons Hammerhead and Caesar Cicero (a character from the original story) both hiring super-villains -- the Eel and Boomerang, respectively -- to retrieve the pieces. Also appearing on Cicero's side is Silvermane's right-hand man from the Lee/Romita story, Man-Mountain Marko, as well as Doctor Curt Conners, kidnapped by Hammerhead to create a new formula from the tablet's full text, in a role similar to the one he played in the original saga.

Spider-Man gets caught in the middle, tracking the tablet and battling the villains, and then, in a case of déjà vu, finding himself up against the Lizard when Conners ingests the formula and transforms into a supercharged version of his alter ego. Not long after, a deus ex machina of sorts appears, and the story comes to an end. There's a sub-plot as well, following Doctor Strange as he learns more about the tablet's history from Namor, and at the tale's conclusion, Curt Conners has supposedly been cured of being the Lizard "forever" (and he also has his missing arm back, which I suspect was a mistake on Rude's part as no one mentions it.)

This story is a gem from a period where Marvel was, in my opinion, producing mostly garbage. As noted above, I have to imagine it was greenlit, as Obi-Wan Kenobi might say, before the dark times -- before Quesada and Jemas. And I'm thankful it was. I still have a vivid recollection of picking up the first issue at the comic shop. Somehow I never saw any solicits or Bullpen Bulletins or anything talking about it, but the cover jumped out at me from the rack. I flipped through it, fell in love with Steve Rude's interpretation of John Romita's Spider-Man, and bought it immediately. I wasn't disappointed with my choice.

Besides Rude's phenomenal artwork, the script from Nicieza is great, too. I've felt for years that Nicieza would have been a great fit on Spider-Man for an ongoing run. He's done projects featuring the web-slinger here and there over the decades and I've found that he always has the character's voice down perfectly, witticisms and all. I do think the mystical angle goes overboard as the story reaches its conclusion, though. The original story dealt with a de-aging formula, it's true; but magic was kept off the table. Here, the magic stuff becomes overt, taking center stage in the story's final pages, and that sort of thing never really a good fit with Spider-Man.

For good or ill, Nicieza uses the then-current continuity in this tale -- meaning we get a couple references to a questionable choice the core Spider-books were running with at the time: the idea that Peter was a widower; his wife, Mary Jane, having been killed in a plane accident. But on the other hand, the story also features appearances from Arthur Stacy, brother of the late Captain George Stacy, who factored into the original stone tablet storyline. Arthur and his kids, Paul and Jill, were members of Spider-Man's supporting cast circa 1997 - 2001 or so, and I've always felt they were a great addition to the series. Here, Spidey goes to Arthur for some investigative assistance in tracking down the original tablet after the newfound pieces are stolen.

I need to mention colors and letters, as well. For one thing, this series is lettered by John Costanza, by hand -- something Marvel had stopped doing (pretty much entirely, to the best of my recollection) years earlier. I assume hand-crafted letters were used to better tie LIFELINE in with the Lee/Romita stories (though since this series was set in modern continuity, I'm unsure why hand letters were necessary) -- but the thing is, the original issues were lettered primarily by Sam Rosen. Costanza's work here just looks like John Costanza -- which is fine; he's an excellent letterer (even if these letters aren't quite as bold and exciting as his seventies and eighties work). But if the goal was to make LIFELINE look like a genuine sequel to the original, then someone who could mimic Rosen's style should've been picked. If any old letterer was going to be used regardless of their style, why not go with Comicraft, who had done some great retro-looking projects for Marvel in the late nineties, and who probably could've made this job look even more like a product of the sixties than Costanza?

Lastly, the colors are a throwback as well, which is a very nice touch, and something Marvel often overlooks when doing retro-style books like this one. Greg Wright's palette is almost entirely flat, with only a few modern gradiant-style tricks employed. More than Costanza's letters, the colors are what really help this series feel like something that could've been produced in the sixties.


  1. This is a very pleasant review on the "Spider-Man: Lifeline" storyline.

  2. Thanks for this review of a series that I admit is news to me, since it fell during the period when I was checked out from Marvel Comics. I've never been a big fan of Nicieza's writing -- he mainly serves to make me deeply appreciate the work of Scott Lobdell -- but it certainly seems like he has a great handle on vintage Spidey-patter. Funny, actually, that he and Lobdell both seem to have a natural feel for that character even though neither got a turn to steer his main titles. Who knows what they might have done during pretty dim period for the Spider-Man line during the cloneified '90's?

    Meanwhile, the artwork and coloring here look absolutely gorgeous. And while I'm not sure I *totally* agree with your assessment of the Jemas/Quesada period (I think there was an awful lot of fascinating innovation, even if it doesn't balance out the wholesale, permanent discarding of shared continuity), the descent into muddy, brown-scale coloring for ten years was definitely a low point.

    1. It's funny -- and I think I may have stated this previously at Gentlemen of Leisure, but -- when I was a teenager reading X-MEN and UNCANNY for the first time, I vastly preferred Nicieza's book over Lobdell's. But now, rereading them at age 40, I find that Lobdell's series is easily the superior one of the two, no contest. I wonder why that is?

      That said, I loved Nicieza's THUNDERBOLTS in the late 90s, as well as NEW THUNDERBOLTS and CABLE AND DEADPOOL in the mid-00s. I wonder what I'd think of them today?

      (THUNDERBOLTS is on my short list of things to read and write about here someday, so hopefully I'll get a chance to see how it holds up sooner rather than later!)

      I admit that when it comes to Jemas/Quesada, my hyperbole can ramp up. I tend to place all the blame for what I don't like about modern comics on their philosophies circa 2002ish, but the truth is that Marvel was already starting to lose me during the final year or so of Bob Harras's time as editor-in-chief. Spider-Man's relaunch was pretty bad, I hated the X-Men "Revolution" and "Counter-X" stuff, and George Perez leaving AVENGERS somehow dampened my enthusiasm for all the "Heroes Return" titles. Joe Kelly was off DEADPOOL, Kurt Busiek had left IRON MAN... I still enjoyed Marvel in 2000, but not to the extent that I had previously.

      Anyway, now I'm getting nostalgic. I guess I really just wish that 1997-1999 period could've lasted a few years longer! I loved so, so much of Marvel's output from that brief window.

    2. I was the same in preferring Nicieza's book over Lobdell's as a young 'un, but I suspect that had more to do with the lineup (which better matched the animated series) and artwork (which was much closer to the Jim Lee style sheet than the alarmingly cartoonish work of Joe Mad) than the actual writing. Even at the time, I vastly preferred the character work in Uncanny to whatever Bill Mantlo-esque Betsy/Kwannon nonsense Nicieza was perpetrating in his book.

      Oddly enough, I missed the entire 1997-99 renaissance at Marvel, having burned out on the company during the year between Onslaught and Zero Tolerance. Consequently, I have yet to catch up on Thunderbolts and Avengers, even though mid-'90's Busiek is brilliant, and I've heard no shortage of praise for those runs. I'm in the middle of a read-through of every Marvel comic between 1961 and 2015, so I'll be getting to those books soon enough, though!

  3. I'm sorry but cyborg Silvermane was in my third ever Spidey book (PPtSSM #95-96) and thusly is the definite version.

    1. Teemu, I may not like cyborg Silvermane, but I'll never argue with someone over what they liked about their earliest comic books!