In comics books, time marches to a beat unlike in any other medium. The gods, monsters and heroes populating the comics page are immortal, and while one could make the same case for most literary characters, the iconography of comic book characters (specifically superheroes) propels them to a different level. Superheroes are, and probably always will be our new pantheon of gods. They are our modern mythology, their stories parables for the greatness humankind can achieve and cautionary tales for succumbing to our inherent trappings. For any property or any character that has withstood the test of time to become immortal in the eyes of their fans, there are ups and downs in the quality of their stories. And while the highs can be up in the stratosphere in terms of euphoric storytelling, the lows can be low -- incredibly, amazingly low.
Marvel Comics continues its Fresh Start initiative with Amazing Spider-Man #1, written by Nick Spencer (AKA the guy who gave us Hydra Cap) and artist Ryan Ottley (the man who drew some of goriest superhero on superhero violence ever seen in the pages of Invincible). In following up a ten-year stint by writer Dan Slott, these two gents had quite an undertaking. Spencer and Ottley had to continue what some comic fans considered one of the most iconic runs on the series, one that redefined the old web-head, while other readers felt Slott’s work drove Spider-Man into the ground.
Back to Basics
A legacy that divisive is difficult to honor. What portions should the new creative team sweep under the rug, and what bits should be utilized to continue the story? There’s no easy answer. Luckily, Ottley and Spencer do an admirable job of cherry-picking the perfect elements to bring into their vision while leaving a lot of the past ten years on the floor. The work Slott has done is by no means ignored; it’s just not harped upon. Mostly.
Spencer seems pretty comfortable in writing Peter Parker, even if his dialogue can feel a smidge too expedition heavy and some of the jokes fall flat -- and we’re not talking about Spider-man’s lame jokes. Most of those are fine. We mean the situational comedy gags, specifically regarding Peter's current work and living situations. Those are very hit or miss. But Spencer does a great job of bringing some of Slott’s storytelling devices into the fold while lovingly poking fun at how ridiculous some of them are (*cough*Superior Spider-Man*cough*). This first issue isn’t enough to really gauge whether or not Spencer will be the next big thing when it comes to Spider-Man scribes, but it’s clear that he is having a blast writing the character.
Spider-Man was one of comics’ first everyman heroes. He was a lower middle-class kid from Queens who wound up with amazing powers on a fluke. The fact that Peter Parker is extraordinarily ordinary actually defines Spider-Man. And one of the biggest strengths of this first issue is that Spencer and Ottley make Peter kind of, well, suck -- which is the best thing for the character.
Weaving the Visual Web
Let’s talk about the artwork. Ottley seems to be perfectly poised to draw sinewy web-slinging heroes, having worked on the Robert Kirkman-written superhero comic Invincible for over a decade, in which Ottley drew panel after panel of thin, wiry, spandex-clad heroes. So the guy has put in the practice. But how is the execution?
Overall, it's quite good. It’s early to tell if Ottley is fully comfortable wearing the shoes as rock star artist of Marvel's most popular superhero. He does seem to be pulling some punches with regards to panel layout and flow, though this might be due to Spencer’s more exposition-heavy scenes. Hopefully in future issues Ottley will be able to work with the copious word bubbles and move away from some of the more static facial expressions and character iterations that hamper portions of this book. But when he’s on point, the art in Amazing Spider-Man is quite good.
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Where Ottley really shines is in the action set pieces. There's a beautiful two-page splash in which the Avengers are fighting an onslaught of alien invaders, pages awash in green gore and severed limbs, and Ottley feels right at home. After all, during his tenure on Invincible, he drew some of the most violent and gut-wrenching panels in modern comics (that Conquest fight still haunts our dreams). Of course, Ottley will never really be let off the chain in a Marvel book when it comes to violence. Spider-Man’s not going to punch through someone’s skull, and that’s a good thing. Ottley also gets a huge leg up from colorist Laura Martin. Her work is crisp, vibrant, and everything a Spider-Man comic should be. They make quite a team.
The Bottom Line...
Spencer and Ottley have done the unthinkable and actually created a pretty solid jumping-on point for new readers. Now, having knowledge of the last decade of Spider-Man comics will certainly help in understand where we are, but it isn’t exactly paramount in The Amazing Spider-Man #1. Nick Spencer does a good job of hitting readers with condensed explanations of the last ten years (which do lead to those heavy explosion moments) and some basic character motivations that have been part of the cultural zeitgeist since the ‘60s. This issue works surprisingly well in a vacuum, but does not disregard the past. The Amazing Spider-Man #1 strikes a perfect balance of appealing to an extremely broad audience despite some rough edges.