1987 And All That: Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #122-130

A column in which Matt Derman (Comics Matter) reads & reviews comics from 1987, because that’s the year he was born. Click here for an archive of all the previous posts in the series.

Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #122-130 (Marvel) by Peter David (#122-123, 128-129), Roger McKenzie (#124), Danny Fingeroth (#125-126), Len Kaminski (#127), Bob Layton (#130), Rich Buckler (#122), Malcolm Davis (#122), Dwayne Turner (#123), Greg Larocque (#124), Jim Mooney (#125), Alan Kupperberg (#126-129), Jim Fern (#130), Mike Esposito (#122), Bob McLeod (#122), Art Nichols (#122-126), Vince Colletta (#125, 130), Nel Yomtov (#122-123, 127), Bob Sharen (#124-125, 128, 130), George Roussos (#126), Julianna Ferriter (#129), Rick Parker, Jim Salicrup

I went back and forth a few times while reading these issues, debating with myself about whether or not it would be better to look at this entire run (meaning every issue of this title from 1987 before the "Kraven's Last Hunt" crossover*) or if I should simply choose a single issue/storyline and zero in on that. Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man (henceforth referred to as PPSSM) is effectively a collection of Spider-Man short stories, with most of the issues being self-contained one-shots. There is a throughline that connects several of them, but it comes and goes from month to month fairly arbitrarily, separated from itself by stories that have absolutely nothing to do with it and don't even all take place at the same time. That lack of connective tissue is a big part of why this series leaves me feeling fairly cold, so ultimately I decided it made more sense to look at these nine issues as a whole, because when viewed together they leave a slightly different impression than taken individually. Any given issue is just fine, each of them a decent but largely forgettable Spider-Man tale that stands up on its own and is equal parts accessible and comprehensible; there are no mind-numbingly dreadful installments in the bunch. But if you read them back-to-back, it's a much bigger letdown, because there's nothing of particular note or interest included in these comics, either. They all have a certain brand mid-level, medium-stakes, continuity-light storytelling that offers very little to care about or sink your teeth into, so in the end PPSSM reads as largely pointless. It may not be terrible, but it's also never wonderful, an amalgamation of mediocre Spidey narratives that, while mildly entertaining, carry too little weight between them to have any real impact.

The formula for an issue of PPSSM is pretty standard: a pseudo-mysterious threat presents itself, that threat is explained, and then Spider-Man figures out how to beat it, typically with superior violence. That's all well and good, and it's a typical set-up for superhero stories, where villains are always trying to carry out some new scheme and the heroes are always punching them into submission. Within PPSSM, though, there are two main problems that arise from this structure. Firstly, it gets very repetitive very fast, and secondly, the explanations of the threats are almost always forced into the script in an unnatural and rushed fashion. There isn't space to properly introduce the bad guys' various plots, because the solutions to those plots need to be contained in the same issue, so we learn about most of them through stilted expositional dialogue. Doc Ock tells himself that he's building a nuclear reactor, even though he of course already knows that, because the reader needs to be clued in. Except that, actually, we don't, since another character delivers the same information to Spider-Man just a few pages later, making Ock's speech all the more unnecessary. There's a lot of that kind of sloppy, wedged-in material, inserted in the name of narrative clarity but often having the opposite effect, crowding the pages with needless thought balloons and speech bubbles just to make extra sure everyone knows what's going on. On the one hand, I'm in favor of making every issue of a series understandable to every reader, even someone who's never picked up a comicbook before. But there's a fine line between accessibility and over-exposition, and PPSSM crosses it way too frequently.

This constant explaining and re-explaining of the narrative details, coupled with a format that wants each issue to be a complete story, makes the book tiresome to follow. Every issue throws the reader into a new situation, describes and discusses that situation to death, and then wraps it up as quickly as possible to clear the floor for whatever is coming next. Even the one story that does span several issues—involving Spider-Man being manipulated by both Black Cat and the Foreigner while they also manipulate one another—is broken up into consumable little segments that don't rely on each other to work. There are also issues that come in between the chapters of that story which are wholly unrelated, meaning that following the Black Cat/Foreigner arc as a single, consistent narrative is actively discouraged by the comic itself. It's a tough storyline to get invested in because of this jarring stop-start-stop rhythm, besides which, the whole thing is based on several of characters maintaining various lies, so it's never entirely clear who is on whose side or what anybody's goals are. Until the end, that is, when both Black Cat and Foreigner lay out all the details of their respective plans in long, dull, stiffly-delivered monologues that are frustratingly typical for this title. (Ok, yes, technically Black Cat's "monologue" is a letter she writes, but the effect is the same).

I place no blame at the feet of any individual creator, nor even any of the creative teams who contributed to these issues. I have to assume that this book would've been a fun, low-pressure place to do odd stuff with a classic superhero that didn't really have to "count," and as I said, no single issue stands out as being especially awful. For the most part, I believe they are what they aim to be, namely simple, digestible Spider-Man stories that can be housed in a small space and don't make any significant (or even minor) changes to the character. At the time PPSSM was being published, there were several titles starring Spider-Man, and this one served a very specific purpose which it basically achieved each month. And I also have no doubt that if I looked at the entire history of the title from its very first issue to its very last, it would have lots of highs and lows, eras that were both much better and much worse than the handful of 1987-dated issues I read for this column. So this is not to say that PPSSM is a bad book or a failed experiment or really to make any sweeping statements like that about it at all. It's just that, during this specific time period, it was an exceptionally unremarkable series, churning out lightweight Spider-Man fare that was neither good enough nor bad enough to get any strong reactions out of me. I barely reacted at all as I made my way through these issues, beyond thinking, "Well...I guess I've read that, now," after each one concluded.

To end things on a high note, and also just because it bears mentioning, I will say that Spider-Man's wit and sense of humor are spot on in this comic. That's most true when Peter David is providing the scripts, but all the writers at least get that aspect of the character right. Not everyone writes Spider-Man with exactly the same personality, which is another aspect of the book that makes it less enjoyable than it might be with a more consistent protagonist, but when it comes to Spidey's mid-battle quips and general playfulness in the face of danger, he's as reliably amusing as ever. It's the thing that most effectively carried me through these issues, because whenever I was feeling bogged down in exposition or worn out by the endless stream of new but equally unimpressive stories, some awesome joke would land and pull me back in. It's such an important part of Spider-Man's whole appeal, so it was nice to see it done well by so many different creators in so many different contexts, all within the same comic.

I'm not here to completely tear down these issues of Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man, but I also won't lift them up. They aren't worth the energy it would take to do either of those things; they're too fluffy and bland to deserve any passion, positive or negative. And maybe that's the point, maybe this title's only aim was to fill the not-great/not-horrible slot in the Spider-book roster, to be a series that could be both read and forgotten rather quickly, that you could buy as infrequently as you wanted without missing out on anything, and that could fade into history as one of the more insignificant series ever to star the friendly neighborhood hero. I'd like to think there were higher ambitions behind the book at some point in time, as I would with any comic, but it's possible that this was always supposed to be lower-rung, and that'd be ok, too. Whatever the original point of it was, PPSSM definitely went through a boring stretch in 1987, producing stories that never needed to exist, but didn't really do any harm, either.

*Someday, of course, I'll have to do "Kraven's Last Hunt" as its own column, but today is not that day.

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