The comic book that started it all for me was THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #318. Written by David Michelinie with art by Todd McFarlane, it captured my imagination, pushed my "cool" buttons, and led me on to want more just like it. I quickly devoured SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN and WEB OF SPIDER-MAN, but they weren't as good. While I enjoyed the character of Spider-Man and all the soap opera happenings surrounding him, the other books lacked something.
It didn't take long for me to figure out that it was Todd McFarlane's art.
I can remember going to my local comics shop to hunt up back issues of AMAZING just a few months later. While they had plenty of issues of WEB and SPECTACULAR in those long boxes, the AMAZING section was empty, completely bare of McFarlane issues.
This was my first encounter with Todd McFarlane's popularity.
It would be another year or so before his adjectiveless SPIDER-MAN #1 came out and set a sales record or two.
For the better part of the past decade, I've been scrapping up issues of McFarlane's run on the book from dealer bins at conventions as money allowed. I'm about halfway there, but the lure of the back issue bins has faded a bit now with Marvel's recent release of SPIDER-MAN VISIONARIES: TODD McFARLANE. It collects issues #298-# 305 inclusive for $20.
The stories are soap opera formula. You get all the high points of the storylines. Plots carry over from issue to issue without concern. Everything flows, including background stories of Peter and Mary Jane's apartment and Peter's job hunt decisions. Scenes are started and ended quickly. There are usually three plots going on in each issue and Michelinie jumps from one to the next quickly until the big action scene ending in the second half of the book. Things are pretty straightforward. The good guys are good; the bad guys are bad. There's not much in the way of gray area. These are simple stories, although not ones lacking in the drama or, depending on your tastes, melodrama department.
The stories, to put it nicely, aren't high literature. The low point comes in issue #304, where Spidey visits Kansas and meets a man bitten by a radioactive jackrabbit. I only wish I were kidding. While it's not portrayed nearly as ludicrously as you might imagine, it is something of a funny stretch. If played for laughs, it would have been funny. It wasn't. It was straight up. A later issue (as yet uncollected) dealt with a crazy insect fan that attempted to transform himself into a super-villain to hilarious results. This Super Jackrabbit Man took himself much more seriously. While the point of the story had less to do with his specific powers than with the onus of having any powers at all, it's still hard to overlook this one. But to a 13-year-old mind with an active imagination whose spirit has yet to be trounced by the Real World, the stories hold up pretty well.
AMAZING was clearly the title of the Spider-Man family meant to be a showcase for the villain of the month. McFarlane's design sense helped that become reality. People were interested in seeing what his vision of classic Spidey characters would be. Only McFarlane could make a character like The Prowler seem so cool. (It's all in the cape.) Heck, even his cityscapes are impressive, although those wouldn't hit their highest point until he got his own title.
McFarlane's storytelling is rather simple. He doesn't crowd panels with detail, but he doesn't skimp on backgrounds. There are clear establishing shots. If anything, he sometimes depended too much on close-ups of faces. Later on, it would get worse to the point of extreme close-ups on eyes, but in this volume you get panels where characters reacting in surprise would be shown from the mouth up with large effects lettering just above. There were also some shortcuts later on in his run when the series would go bi-weekly for six issues at a stretch. It's one of the reasons McFarlane gave at the time for leaving the title a couple of years later. For six issues, he had to rely on guest inkers to finish his work, and even some guest pencillers. Erik Larsen filled in for a couple issues in the 1990 summer run, and would later take over the title when McFarlane departed.
Over the span of the eight issues reprinted in the book, you get to see how much of an effect an inker can have on a penciller's work. Far and away, the best looking stuff in this volume is that which McFarlane inked himself. I've read interviews with him in the past where he's said that he does most of his work in inks, and I imagine that's partly to blame for some of the variable level of quality in the stuff that's inked by others, such as Bob McLeod and Joe Rubinstein.
While McFarlane had already done runs on such books as INFINITY INC. at DC and THE INCREDIBLE HULK with Peter David at Marvel, it was the Spider-Man run that earned him his dynamic reputation. You can see the beginnings of that with this volume, as you slowly watch his comfort level with Spider-Man grow and grow. There's been no word yet on future collections of McFarlane issues. There might be some problems with the issues of summer 1990, though, as Erik Larsen did a couple of fill-ins. (You don't want to publish a Visionaries edition with two Visionaries, do you?) Nevertheless, I'd like to see McFarlane's entire run repackaged like this. If guest artists near the end of the run (such as Larsen and even Colleen Doran) make it more difficult to justify the volume's title, then rename it. There's a great Hulk issue at the end of the run that needs a reprinting.
Production values on the collection are high. Marvel is going against the concept of cheap trade collections and opting to keep the cover price a couple of dollars higher. In exchange, you get improved reproduction values with heavy glossy paper and retouched colors. It's still the same color scheme and design as the original printings, but Marvel has re-separated them to get rid of all those dotty colors you used to get in the old newsprint non-computer coloring days. It makes for a cleaner looking package, although part of me wonders how cool the book might have looked if they had gone all the way and had the book entirely recolored. That's just a pipedream, though, as I imagine the financial end of that would be too great.
One curious error in the book: Each story is preceded by a page with the cover image with a month and year of publication. All the years are off by one. These issues were all published in 1988, yet the introductory pages list them as 1989. A quick look at the 2000 COMIC BOOK CHECKLIST AND PRICE GUIDE (Krause Publications) confirms my memory that the books were printed a year earlier than the trade says.
SPIDER-MAN VISIONARIES: TODD McFARLANE is far from the artists' best work on the series. It is, however, a great place to start and an interesting historical document from the modern era of comics if you're interested in the Image Era.
JOKER: LAST LAUGH BITS
With JOKER: LAST LAUGH concluded at last, I've got a bunch of oddball reviews and comments to make from the six week run that need to be put out there now before becoming too outdated. So here we go.
BATMAN #596 is a LAST LAUGH tie-in, although writer Ed Brubaker does as much as he can to skirt around the issue entirely. I don't mind this. He's got an on-going mob war storyline he's been brewing in this title over the past few months. Introducing a large company-wide crossover just breaks the rhythm of the overall arc. Brubaker does a good job in including a Jokerized character seamlessly into his plot. It's a minor part of the story.
It was a nice idea to get a different cover artist for each week of the crossover. Some worked out better than others, though. Jim Lee's week worth of covers was the most atrocious. That FLASH cover is particularly heinous. Where is Flash's leg coming from? And how large is that thigh? Of all the Image founders, I think his art is the one style that's slid the most. I just don't enjoy his stuff anymore. I miss Scott Williams' inks over his pencils, also. I picked up the JUST IMAGINE STAN LEE… WONDER WOMAN issue solely for Jim Lee's art. While there were some pretty panels here and there, I still haven't managed to sit myself down to read the book. I just don't have the desire.
FLASH #179, by the way, is another fine issue from Geoff Johns and Scott Kolins. I just get tired of saying that month after month, so forgive me if I don't elaborate. It mixes in the LAST LAUGH story very nicely. It's a much larger element of the plot than in BATMAN, but still furthers the on-going storyline of the title.
SUPERMAN #175 is an extra-sized special story commemorating the 100th issue anniversary of Superman's death by Doomsday's hands. Jeph Loeb writes up a story that brings Doomsday back one more time for a fight to the finish with Superman -- in front of the White House, nonetheless. Ed McGuinness' art is sure pretty, and there's a nice evil Luthorian twist near the end. But for a story with 38 pages, it seems that very little happens. There's lots of splashy art in the story – reminiscent of the original Doomsday scenario, perhaps? – but in the end I'm still hungry. Two nice bits of on-going business in the Superman titles are resolved, in a way. The "mystery" of Luthor's small assistant is finally revealed, but I predicted this one from the characters first appearance, so it held no great revelation for me.
Issue #176 is out already. I haven't read it. My enthusiasm and interest in the Superman books has waned quite a bit in the wake of "Our Worlds At War." I haven't been keeping up with them as faithfully as I once did. I'm sure I'll catch up to them eventually, but for now it just doesn't bother me.
Finally, the series wrapped up in JOKER: LAST LAUGH #6. I read the last three parts of the series in one sitting, which helped its readability a great deal. The rotating artists (right down to rotating cover artists) is a bit annoying, but easy enough to get over. My main problem with the story had to do with the bit of business with Nightwing at the very end. I have a very strong negative reaction to the heartstrings of mine that were supposed to be pulled on. It just didn't work for me. Otherwise, I enjoyed the story, particularly liking Shilo Norman and Dina Bell with their adventures at the Slab. I'd like to see more stories set there with those two feisty characters.
In the end, I think the story was an interesting one, although I think it would have worked best as a self-contained mini-series of its own. The weekly pace was a good idea, but I still would have liked to have seen the whole story drawn by one or two artists. Having a new artist nearly every issue was a bit jarring at times.
CROSSGEN CONTEST WINNER
Every now and then, I get a great reminder of how many of you are out there reading this column. My mailbox overflowed on Tuesday with the announcement that I was holding a contest to give away a CrossGen Sampler bag, complete with one issue of each title CrossGen published last month. The mail came in from all over the place: England, the Philippines, Canada (all across the Great White North, actually), Australia, Turkey, Brazil, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Norway, Italy, and a large number of states in America. Lots of entries, in particular, from New York City, Indiana, and California.
The biggest irony comes, of course, from the fact that the winner was from none of those places. This is just a random selection. There's no rule in these occasional Pipeline contests that you can't enter if you're from another country. (I've gotten some questions about that.) So congratulations and a small care package go out to Brad Curran of Harlingen, TX. His package will be hitting the post office tomorrow morning.
Stay tuned -- you never know when I might start giving more stuff away.
Special belated thanks to Dewey's Comic City in Madison, NJ for the assistance with materials for last Tuesday's column.
More than 250 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.