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500 issues of Spider-Man

Last year, Marvel released a set of CD-ROMs containing the first 500 issues of Amazing Spider-Man digitized into PDF format, along with the character's debut in Amazing Fantasy #15. This set differs from previous reprints in that the entire issues were scanned -- letter columns, Bullpen Bulletins (I'll explain in a second), ad pages, and all. I received the set as an Easter gift, and geek that I am, I proceeded to read them all. I finished in September. Here's some of what I learned from reading 40 years' worth of comics in the space of a few months:

The Bullpen Bulletins tell a story of their own. For those of you uninitiated into the Marvel mystique, Bullpen Bulletins are a page that appears (or, rather, used to appear) in most every Marvel comic. They're kind of a combination of company newsletter, editorial page, and shameless hype machine. Part of the charm of Marvel's approach, at least for the first part of its existence, is the way that it tried to humanize both its creators and itself as a company. This is evident in things like the innovation of displaying credits at the beginning of each comic (as opposed to the anonymity creators suffered in earlier eras), but it shines most clearly in the Bulletins. At least once a year, sometimes much more, the page would detail some editorial reshuffling that had occurred at the company, explaining in painstaking detail who'd changed offices, who'd moved on to freelancing, who'd been promoted, and so on. Why should we care about such internal company activities? Because we're part of the Marvel family, that's why! For a long stretch in the '80s, each bulletin boasted a "Pro File", wherein a Marvel staffer would answer a questionnaire along the lines of "My greatest ambition in the comics industry is:" and "People who knew me in High School thought I was:". Frequently, the page would contain a "Stan's Soapbox" section, where Stan Lee would dispense some of his thoughts about life, answer questions from readers, or (far more often) shill for the company's latest product.

To read the Bulletins page through the years is to watch the waves of hype swell and recede. In the beginning, the page consisted of rather naive, personal communiques, to be replaced by the hard sell in the '70s. The '80s reign of Editor In Chief Jim Shooter meant that the hype got contained to a small section called (appropriately) "The Hype Box", while the rest of the page contained lame gags, softball scores, and grainy pictures from the company Christmas party. Bullpen Bulletins in the '90s were mainly slick advertisements for upcoming art and (to a far lesser extent) storylines, reflecting the dominance of the artist during that era. In fact, it wasn't just one page anymore -- Marvel comics suddenly featured huge spreads hawking the latest Big Thing. Finally, in the last few years, the page has disappeared altogether, due in part to the sudden prominence of the Internet as the primary channel for company communications.

Today's pro is yesterday's letterhack. Along with the Bullpen Bulletins, these scans offered the pleasure of The Spider's Web, Amazing's longtime letter column. Marvel's evolution is on display here too. In the early days, they gushingly offer free subscriptions to servicemen, non-Americans, and people who say really nice things. They also give out plenty of "no-prizes", a clever non-award to acknowledge fan contributions and corrections without actually spending any money. When they admit a mistake, it's with great self-deprecation, expressing amazement that they only made a dozen errors rather than a thousand. As the years went on, the free subscriptions dried up and the no-prize policy got much stricter, demanding that fans only point out substantive mistakes, and that those who find a mistake also find a way to explain it away. Of course, the tighter policy is understandable in the face of thousands of letters saying things like, "In issue #167, on page 2, panel 4, the I in Spidey's dialogue balloon really looks more like a T. Please send me a no-prize." Then again, Marvel rather haplessly encouraged this kind of behavior when it introduced a "credentials" system that allowed no-prize winners to list spiffy-looking initials after their names when they write in.

Probably the most fun aspect of reading the old lettercols was the regular appearance of people who made big names for themselves in comics well after their letters were published. From Steve Gerber to Evan Dorkin, dozens of future comics professionals first poked their heads into view by writing a letter to Spider-Man. You can sometimes even see a hint of what's to come, as when Gerber shows an early flair for boundary-testing by suggesting that Spidey team up with Millie The Model, from Marvel's "girly" line. Probably the least fun aspect of the letters are the boneheaded and/or bloodthirsty suggestions people make in them. There's usually at least one letter demanding that somebody be killed off, and at least one opining that the story should go in some ridiculous direction like Peter joining the Army or Norman Osborn getting resurrected. (Oh, whoops. That last one actually happened. Maybe the bonehead who wrote that letter went on to become a comics pro.)

There's a coming-of-age story between the lines. The Bulletins and letters pages both tell stories of growth and change, but that story is most apparent when reading these extra materials in conjunction with the stories themselves. The explosion of early creativity at Marvel is legendary -- in the space of a few years Lee, Kirby, and Ditko created the Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, the Avengers, the X-Men, Iron Man, Daredevil, Dr. Strange, and many more heroes, not to mention all the villains and groundbreaking storylines. During this time, Marvel seems constantly amazed at its own success. When a radio DJ somewhere in the country would mention Marvel comics on the air, a Bullpen Bulletins page would proudly announce the fact, marveling at how their sleepy little company was garnering the attention of the "mass media." When the first t-shirts and merchandise appeared, emblazoned with Spider-Man and the other Marvel heroes, the ad copy almost boggles at the fact, much as I might if people were suddenly buying t-shirts with my picture on them. All in all, it feels innocent and childlike, all wild imagination and gee-whiz enthusiasm. Then, as its prosperity continued, the company settled into a long fertile period of superhero creativity, even as it continually tried (with limited success) to expand its comics into romance, horror, science fiction, and one movie adaptation after another. The first real seeds of trouble in the superhero realms appeared in the '80s, with a massive crossover event called "Secret Wars." The story removed every major Marvel hero from their regular storylines, transporting them to a "battle planet" where they fought all the big-time supervillains. It was a one-dimensional action figure fantasy. It lobotomized every character, squashing them into caricatures of themselves. It sold like gangbusters. (I'm as guilty as anybody -- I own a complete set of not only Secret Wars but its abysmal sequel.)

From that time, Marvel began an accelerating decline into the sordid life of the gimmick junkie. In just a few years, comic-store shelves overflowed with holograms, inserted trading cards, die-cut covers, endless crossovers, multi-part stories requiring the purchase of separate titles, and on and on. The lovable kid company was suddenly a troubled adolescent who'd fallen in with the wrong crowd. What's worse, the ascendancy of the marketing department had disastrous effects on the actual stories being told, which I'll discuss a little more in the next item. Meanwhile, Marvel itself was spiraling into bankruptcy, driven by the collapse of a collector's speculative "bubble" and by the greed and misjudgment of then-owner Ron Perelman. Reading these comics felt like watching a steadily increasing corruption of innocence. There's a happy ending to this story, though, or at least I think there is. When Joe Quesada became Editor-In-Chief of Marvel, he presided over an increase in quality and a decrease in gimmicky crap. That is not to say that Marvel's quality is now uniformly high, nor that gimmickry is entirely gone, but things are much, much better than they were ten years ago. The company is now like a college student, its stupid days fewer and farther between as it finds its adult identity.

My dream job has just as much dysfunctional office crap as my real job. Probably more. In my opinion (and there's a fair amount of consensus on this), the creative nadir of Amazing Spider-Man was the horrendously complicated and unbelievably bloated "Clone Saga." This story stretched, astonishingly, over two years (1994-1996) and dozens of issues. It was a sequel of sorts to a plotline from 20 years earlier, in which a supervillain called The Jackal clones both Peter Parker and his dead first love, Gwen Stacy, resulting in a number of reader fakeouts before a big "Spidey vs. himself" battle. The clone dies at the end of this battle, and Spider-Man incinerates its remains in an industrial furnace. Or so it would appear. This first story was kind of stupid, but at least it only lasted a few issues. The Clone Saga brought back the Peter Parker clone, revealing that it had never really died after all, but instead had hit the road and established a separate identity as "Ben Reilly," only returning to New York upon somehow finding out that Aunt May was ailing (as if that were somehow a new state of affairs.) That was the beginning. From there, surprising endings, bizarre revelations, and freak twists piled upon each other in ascending order of absurdity. By the time the whole thing had wrapped up there were at least three different Peter Parker clones and two different Spider-Men; Peter and Mary Jane's fetal daughter had suffered either a stillbirth, an infanticide, or a kidnapping (it's never made definitively clear); Aunt May was dead (killed off in an emotional issue whose story was later to be totally overturned); and Norman Osborn was alive (Norman was the original Green Goblin, whose death had occurred in a classic, landmark 1972 issue, an issue whose power was respected for 23 years before being trampled upon by an army of clones.) Most egregious of all, Reilly was revealed to have been the real Peter Parker all along, which meant that the guy we'd been reading about, rooting for, and empathizing with for the last twenty years was suddenly drained of legitimacy. My friend Trish aptly compared this revelation to those TV shows where we suddenly discover that the last three seasons have all been a dream or a drug trip or something.

Reading these issues is an exercise in frustration, not least because so many of them are just story fragments. See, Marvel was publishing four different Spider-Man titles at the time, and marketing figured out that if you published a four-part story with one part in each title, everybody's sales would go up. Nevermind the fact that scattering a story across multiple writers and artists made for a less-than-satisfying reading experience, or that people who just subscribed to one title could never possibly follow what the heck was going on. Succor came for me in the form of a 35-part series of articles about the Clone Saga, published on the web by Andrew Goletz and Glenn Greenberg. This series, titled "The Life of Reilly", does an invaluable service by summarizing the action in the many clone issues I don't own, but the behind-the-scenes information it provides is even better. Goletz is a fan writer, but Greenberg actually worked at Marvel during the clone era, editing and writing several of the involved books. His comments illuminate a wretched tale of editorial turnover, meddling, and mismanagement, paired with increasing corporate greed and rudderlessness. The story was originally intended to span only a few issues, but as those initial issues were published, Marvel's owners restructured all of its editorial departments, eliminating the position of Editor-In-Chief and replacing it with five different "group editors." The clone story (not yet a saga) got stretched a bit, the plot treading water during this transition. However, marketing noticed that those first issues had sold like crazy, and issued marching orders to the editorial side: "More clones!" From there, things spiraled horribly out of control as writers, editors, and marketeers all struggled against each other and their predecessors, creating an unfixable, irredeemable garbage heap of a story.

When the whole thing finally petered out (uh, no pun intended), the Reilly revelation was overturned and the original Peter Parker restored in a book emphatically retitled "Peter Parker: Spider-Man." But the damage was done. New Editor-In-Chief (yeah, the position was reinstated) Bob Harras, who comes off as quite the jackass in "Life Of Reilly", had finally shoved through a series of catastrophically bad decisions that ended the Clone Saga to the satisfaction of virtually no one. Reading these comics in conjunction with Greenberg's insider comments was very instructive for me. See, it's easy to fall into a mental trap about work, the belief that a job that holds particular appeal will also lack everything that's unappealing about other jobs. Not true. It might be my dream job to write Spider-Man, but at least if I were doing it during the '90s, it would still be terribly frustrating, rife with just as much bureaucratic chaos and boneheaded management as any other corporate job.

This comicbook is recyclable. When Peter Parker decided to give up being Spider-Man in issue #50, it was a great story and a landmark moment in the comic, one that still gets respect 35 years later (as evidenced by its reverential treatment in the second Spider-Man movie.) Every subsequent time he decides to discard his superheroic identity is progressively sillier and less powerful. The thing is, at this point, we know he's coming back. Even in the Clone Saga, when the writers really did intend to banish Peter Parker for good, it didn't happen. It will never happen, at least not as long as Spider-Man is being published. There is really no benefit to pursuing that plotline, and yet it crops up over and over again. Reading 500 issues of Spider-Man all in a row really demonstrates how much idea recycling some writers do. I'm not talking about the simple reappearance of certain villains, or even about thematic elements like the Daily Bugle persecuting an innocent Spidey. That kind of repetition can actually be welcome, since the reappearance of certain characters over a decades-long story can be powerful, as long as there's some feeling of difference between this appearance and the last one. Similarly, repetition is what makes a theme a theme, though variations on a theme are even more satisfying. Less satisfying are literal plot repetitions. Mary Jane has a stalker at least twice. Aunt May is dead, then alive, multiple times. I've lost track of how many Spider-Women there have been. Is it just that there are no new ideas left after all these years? Certainly not -- current writer J. Michael Straczynski keeps pushing the series into new and interesting areas. Which brings me to my last point...

For me, it's all about the writer. Reading comics from the '80s and '90s reminds me what a big deal artists are to some people. I'm not wired that way. Sure, the art has an effect on me -- sometimes positive, sometimes negative. I can recognize and appreciate the creative contributions of certain artists, like Steve Ditko's wild designs, John Romita's polished romanticism, or Todd McFarlane's very spidery take on Spider-Man's action poses. On the flip side, bad art can certainly ruin a story for me -- if I never see another comicbook woman with breasts the size of her head, it'll be too soon. Even so, I'm a word person. I come to music for the lyrics. I come to interactive fiction for the writing. And I come to comics for the stories. That means that no matter who the artist is, when I read something by a really good Spidey writer, I'll probably enjoy it. Conversely, no amount of great art can save a terrible story, which is bad news for people like Howard Mackie. So, in that spirit, here are my top five favorite writers and their major contributions to Amazing, in case you'd like to seek out the best stuff rather than read every single freaking issue:
  • Stan Lee: Of course. #1-#118
  • Gerry Conway: Death of Gwen Stacy and the Green Goblin, as well as some other seminal stuff. #111-#149
  • Roger Stern: The Hobgoblin and some very solid '80s stories. #206-#252
  • J.M. DeMatteis: Kraven's Last Hunt and some of the only good characterization done during a rather dire era. #293, #294, #389-#406
  • J. Michael Straczynski: At last, Spidey is funny and thrilling again. #471-#524, and still going. Note that #471-#499 are numbered as volume 2, #30-#58 for reasons too annoying to explain.

Those are just writers who've contributed to Amazing -- others deserving honorable mention are Brian Michael Bendis (Ultimate Spider- Man), Chris Claremont (some great mid-period Marvel Team-Ups and others), and Kurt Busiek (Untold Tales of Spider-Man).

Comments

This is great. And I know just the little tyke who would like a copy for his upcoming birthday...
Cool. Thanks for writing this up.