SPIDER-MAN FOR BEGINNERS
You’ve just watched the SPIDER-MAN movie on its opening weekend. Thrilled by what you saw, you found yourself curious about the comics featuring the character. You searched the web and found this Comic Book Resources site, and figured it sounded like a good bet for more info on the red and blue webhead.
If you go to the comics shop on Saturday 04 May, two things will most likely happen to you.
The first is that it is Free Comic Book Day. In an attempt to capitalize to some degree on the movie spectacle this weekend, comic book shops all over the country are participating in the event to draw new readers to comic book shops and the reading material they contain. They’ll do this by giving out a variety of comic books for free. You can get a comic featuring STAR WARS, SPIDER-MAN, TOMB RAIDER, THE MATRIX and more, including some independent and alternative stuff. Comic books these days are about more than just super-heroes. However, if you’re walking into a store tomorrow after watching Spider-Man, you’re probably thinking of a super-hero book. Don’t be ashamed.
The second thing that you’ll notice is that there will be a mess of Spider-Man comics on display. Marvel’s reprinting everything they’ve got starring Spider-Man, plus licensing out the character’s image for t-shirts, action figures, bobblehead dolls, candies, and more. Let’s concentrate on those books, though. If you’re interested in reading more about Spider-Man, the good news is that you won’t be lacking for it. The trick is in finding what’s right for you. Ask the comic store employee and hope for the best.
Here are my thoughts on some of the trade paperbacks that will be available out there for you. (Trade paperbacks are collections of individual issues that have previous been published. They’re very popular today as a nice way to get a complete story in one sitting available in one thick book, as opposed to the usual monthly grind waiting from issue to issue to see where a story takes you. They’re a little more expensive, but they offer a more complete and satisfying reading experience.)
There are two books that reprint stories from the series, PETER PARKER: SPIDER-MAN. The first is “A Day In The Life,” while the second is “One Small Break.” Both are comprised of stories written by Paul Jenkins and drawn by Mark Buckingham. The two have been the regular creative team on PETER PARKER: SPIDER-MAN for more than a year now, and these two books reprint much of their first year together, plus some stories Jenkins wrote before assuming regular writing duties. Buckingham’s art is reminiscent of the classical era of Spider-Man. It doesn’t have the flash and style of some of the other modern artists, but it fits the slightly more cerebral style of Jenkins’ script. Jenkins has the ability to make a fight scene into a battle of minds. Spider-Man’s inner monologue is worth the price of admission by itself. The second book is the favored of the two, for the story in it titled “Maybe Next Year.” It’s my favorite story from all of last year. It’s a touching look at a young Peter Parker, his Uncle Ben, and the game of baseball that bonded them. It’s classic Americana on display.
If, on the other hand you’re looking for the super-villain of the month and a more stylistic artist, SPIDER-MAN VISIONARIES: TODD McFARLANE is the book for you. Todd McFarlane was the regular artist on THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN for close to three years starting in the late 1980s. His vision of Spider-Man is the one that sticks in my mind to this day, if only because it’s the first I followed. The look he gave Spider-Man’s — the large eyes, the webbing style, the funky poses — eventually became the norm. While he went on to bigger and better things, this is the book that earned him his reputation. The VISIONARIES book collects his first 8 issues on the title, starting with the return of Spider-Man’s classic costume. (For more on that costume, you could pick up the SPIDER-MAN VS. VENOM trade, by the same creative team as this book. It reprints a couple of the same issues in this book, but also a couple of issues that occur a little further down the line with the same villain.)
The stories in the VISIONARIES book are pretty simple. David Michelinie is the writer, and he wasn’t busy becoming the second Shakespeare on this book. He writes basic super-hero/super-villain conflict tales. There’s someone new for Spider-Man to fight every month (and for McFarlane to interpret with his pencil), the stories are relatively uncomplicated, and there’s very little to make parents queasy. In other words, it was the perfect book for my 13-year-old mind when I picked it up. It’s inoffensive. There are a couple of clunker moments in the book, but the art, at least, will make up for those.
McFarlane eventually moved off of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN to his own book, simply titled SPIDER-MAN. His first five issues comprised one long story, called TORMENT. There’s a trade reprinting that out there, as well, simply called SPIDER-MAN: TORMENT. This is a story drawn by a much more confidant artist three years later. It’s busy-looking, with wonky layouts and dark art. It’s grim and gritty, more in line with the style of comics made popular after Frank Miller’s BATMAN: DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. It’s also McFarlane’s first stab at writing, so it can be amazingly clunky at times. You could peg your slightly older teenage boy for this title, although the blood and violence happens mostly in silhouette and off-panel, so there’s nothing to be directly worried about.
The recently issued BEST OF SPIDER-MAN hardcover volume reprints a nice selection of stories from last year from all the Spider-Man books. J. Michael Straczynski’s initial AMAZING SPIDER-MAN storyline is the core of the book, featuring beautiful art from John Romita Jr. This is a nice sampler of all the modern incarnations of the character, but might be a little expensive for a new reader.
For a more classical and lush style of art, I could recommend Charles Vess’ SPIDER-MAN: SPIRITS OF THE EARTH. If you want a turning point of Spider-Man mythology, DEATH OF GWEN STACY is a highly regarded story whose climax has been homaged in the movie, to some degree. KRAVEN’S LAST HUNT is a beautifully drawn tale from about 15 years ago that’s not for the feint of heart.
And if you’re an older fan who wants to relive the 1960s, then Marvel has just the deal for you. The regular AMAZING SPIDER-MAN series is up over 400 issues now, but the first 150 issues or so are available through Marvel’s ESSENTIALS program. This is the most cost-efficient way to read the original stories from which everything else is based, from the Ultimate Universe to the movie to the cartoons. Each volume reprints more than 20 continuous issues of the series in black and white. Not only do you get a great read, but your kids/younger siblings/little cousins get a thick coloring book! There are five such Essential books available today. For roughly $15 each, you can’t ask for much better than this.
SPIDER-MAN’S ORIGIN RETOLD
A couple of years ago, Marvel created a new line of titles designed to appeal to new comic book readers. The conceit is that they’re retelling the original stories from 30 or 40 years ago, but setting them in the current day with modern sensibilities. It’s a new vision for old favorites. Imagine the X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN as being created in the year 2000 instead of the 1960s.
The first book in this “Ultimate” line of comics is ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN. You’re in luck with its availability. The first issue is being reprinting for Free Comic Book Day. Two trade paperbacks collect 6 issues apiece. And a recent hardcover book reprints the first 13 issues of the series in one glorious and slightly oversized package.
Writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Mark Bagley have done every page of every issue so far, with the series about to reach its second anniversary. Peter Parker is back in high school, and newly endowed with the proportional powers of a spider. He’s still a science nerd, but he has slightly more luck with the ladies than the original 1960s version had. As Spider-Man, he’s fought modern day incarnations of Kraven, Green Goblin, Electro, Kingpin, and Doctor Octopus. (In the current storyline, as a matter of fact, the Green Goblin has made his return. The timing with the movie release is far from coincidental.) All have rethought characters in light of the modern age, and with an eye towards making more sense to today’s reader than the original versions might have. (For starters, the day where mysterious radioactive energies trigger everyone’s powers is gone.)
The book is well illustrated, with easy to read art, colorful graphics, and a nice sense of design. It shouldn’t be difficult for a new comic book reader to follow the flow of the story, without getting bogged down by overly simplistic grid storytelling.
It’s a fun book that stresses Peter Parker’s teenage experiences in every aspect, including his unpredictable style of fighting the villains. The jargon and fashion is something that won’t go over younger reader’s heads. It’s a book that will appeal to teenagers as well as traditional fans looking for new takes on old favorites.
The ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN hardcover is worthy of special recognition. While it might be a bit pricey for a new reader at $35.00, it’s an amazing package. Not only are the first 13 issues of the series collected in there (the 13th is another favorite story of mine from last year), but there’s a bunch of extras in the back which help to explain how the stories in the book were created. As a bonus, the original short story introducing Spider-Man is reprinted at the end. The book is slightly oversized, so Bagley’s art jumps out at you with the larger size and bright coloring on shiny paper.
There is a companion book of sorts to this one, called ULTIMATE MARVEL TEAM-UP. Written by Brian Bendis, it features different artists, and introduces a new Marvel superhero for each story. Wolverine, Iron Man, Hulk, and Punisher are the first out the shoot. There is a trade paperback collection the first half dozen issues of this series, as well. If you’re looking for a lot of guest stars and different art styles, this is a good place to go. Every story includes an origin, more or less, so feel free to go into this totally blind and not worry about being lost.
Wait a few more months, and all the TEAM-UP books will be collected into a matching hardcover.
TO SUM IT ALL UP
Welcome to the world of comics. Feel free to sit back with a good book and have a nice read. There’s something for everybody these days. There’s never been a more exciting time, as far as I’m concerned. While sales of comics have dropped a lot in the past decade or two, those who are left creating the comics are bigger fans of the medium than ever before. Their love for their craft shows in every comic on the stands today. Read what you enjoy. Take a look around. If you’re burned out from Spider-Man, try another super-hero, or take a flip through those funny looking black and white books off to the side. There’s some really nice work being done by smaller publishers and independent creators that are likely to appeal to anyone.
Pipeline returns next week with two more columns, on the regular days of Tuesday and Friday. Part Two of my look at the 2002 Pittsburgh Comicon is coming up on Tuesday (sorry for the delay), with a flip through the latest PREVIEWS catalog coming on Friday.
Next weekend is WizardWorld East: Philadelphia, and I will be in attendance for that. I imagine another con report will be coming down the pike shortly after that.
More than 400 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.