Gimmick or Good? - Spider-Man #1

I've written in the past about Mark Ginocchio's blog, Chasing Amazing, where he writes about his quest to collect every issue of Amazing Spider-Man ever made. Mark wrote me with an idea for a column where he would take a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and give his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence "Gimmick or Good?" Here is an archive of all the comics featured so far. We begin with 1990's multi-cover Spider-Man #1...

Spider-Man #1 (published August, 1990) – script and art by Todd McFarlane

Superstar artist Todd McFarlane’s first foray into both scripting and illustrating his own series is also considered one of the prime contributors to the comic book collector speculation bubble that dominated the first half of the 1990s. McFarlane was fresh off a stint on Amazing Spider-Man where he truly made a name for himself as the illustrator responsible for the co-creation of Venom. After asking off ASM essentially because he was bored of doing artwork for someone else’s story (something McFarlane himself explains in the notes page at the end of Spider-Man #1), Marvel, in a show of appeasement, decided to make McFarlane the focal point of what was to be their fourth ongoing series dedicate to the Wall Crawler (fifth if you count the Marvel Tales reprint series). In addition to having McFarlane’s name and a “collectible” #1 issue tag to create buzz about this series, Marvel also published multiple variant covers using different ink colors (silver, gold, platinum, etc.). The variant cover idea became so popular, that retailers even took advantage of a printer error on some of the interiors, selling a “Blue Lizard” variant (with a price mark-up, of course) based on the poor mix of yellow and cyan on somebody’s printing press.

But what about inside the comic?

The story itself is noticeably lacking any pizzazz or pop that would make me want to buy this comic book outside of its marketed “collectability.” McFarlane is unashamed by the fact that he’s an artist first and a writer second. The end result is something that reads more like an exercise in a weekend writer’s workshop. The opening page features a stilted monologue that feels like McFarlane’s version of a love letter to New York City, but instead is full of clichés that seemingly come from a writer giving it a go with that whole “word writing thing” for the first time: “Below is where the city’s heartbeat is,” or “Littered with towering concrete giants that seem to swallow up the sky.” Perhaps if this were a Spider-Man comic dedicated to exploring the hero’s relationship with New York City, this kind of introduction would make sense. But within a few pages, Manhattan sinks into relative anonymity filled with the same old petty thugs and crooks (or “punks” as McFarlane writes too many times), dirty alleyways, and city folk who all have the same set of exaggerated facial features and pouty lips.

Which is not to say I have an issue with McFarlane’s art. It’s certainly a divisive style, but because of how he exaggerates, I’ve always thought his heroes and villains look great. He’s always celebrated the art of web slinging in his Spider-Man illustrations, and even makes note of it in Spider-Man #1, joking about how caped crusaders could never have the freedom to do “these great mid-air cartwheels.” In fact, the entire issue features a Peter Parker who actually seems to enjoy being Spider-Man (though, of all the adjectives, having him call his web line “advantageous” is a head scratcher), which is obviously a huge departure from past characterizations of the reluctant hero who needs to be responsible with his great power But it’s at least consistent with McFarlane’s celebration of the superhero art-style. You either love it or you don’t and since McFarlane’s Spider-Man is one of the earliest visual impressions I have of the character, I can be an apologist for it.

For an inaugural villain, McFaralane gets the Jekyl and Hyde Lizard to play with. Though the first issue chooses to focus on the Hyde portion exclusively. For a #1 issue designed to draw casual readers in, I would have thought there would be at least some mention of the Lizard’s alter-ego, the good-natured Dr. Curt Conners, who only takes on reptilian form thanks to an experiment gone awry. But McFarlane insists on featuring “the perfect killing machine” who does a fair amount of “killing” to boot. Some splattered blood on the walls after the Lizard takes out a gang of criminals is certainly a huge departure from the usual illustrated fare of other Spider-Man titles.

It’s also worth noting that every Lizard panel features repetition of the word “Doom,” made out to sound like a drumbeat driving the villain on his bloody rampage. Once again, it’s a gimmick implemented by McFarlane that reads more like an exercise than something I would actually want to see published on multiple pages of a comic book. The issue ends with the Lizard waiting in the shadows to strike Spider-Man (with “doom, doom, doom” around him), but without an actual confrontation between hero and villain, nor an actual motivation for the Lizard to be on the hunt like this, to serve as a more appropriate cliffhanger.

As an admitted web-head who has found reasons to push on with the character despite every reason for Marvel to disinterest me over the years (the Clone Saga, Brand New Day, ASM #700), years later, Spider-Man #1 and the launch of this entire series still feels like a blatant cash-grab by the publisher years later. Despite his disillusion with “drawing someone else’s ideas,” McFarlane clearly wasn’t ready for the prime time of doing his own series from stern to sternum. And while the comic book has a legacy due to the variant cover madness it inspired, it’s certainly not memorable as an actual comic book.

Verdict: Gimmick

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