Comics : Spider-Man: Valley of the Lizard

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Book of the Month Club

This review was first published on: 2009.

Background...

This Novel appeared in 1997, placing it somewhere around the middle of the Spider-Man Novels (Byron Preiss) series. While many of the other novels in that run formed trilogies, this particular offering was a standalone work.

Writer John Vornholt is praised on the cover as being a "New York Times best-selling author." On first impression, you might think that was a guarantee of quality. But let's consider this carefully. While a Man Booker finalist might a reliable recommendation, and the Oprah Book Club stamp was a good starting point, you need to be aware that Vornholt's best-seller achievement was for penning "Star Trek The Next Generation: Book 7", which rode the coat-tails of the success of the previous six which were written by other writers.

In Detail...

Spider-Man: Valley of the Lizard
Feb 1998 : SM Title
Find ISBN 1572973331
Summary: Paperback
Editor:  Steve Roman
Writer:  John Vornholt
Illustrator:  Al Milgrom, Ed Hannigan
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Review

Like its peers, this novel takes place during Spider-Man and MJ's "stable" phase. Aunt May is deceased, Peter and MJ live in Forest Hills with MJ's Aunt (conveniently out of town at this moment).

Our plot begins when a bunch of five-foot tall winged gargoyles lead by a beautiful (naturally) woman stage a series of night-time burglaries of pre-Colombian artifacts. Most involve the death of the current artifact owner. We're quickly informed that the target of the robberies are the pages of an ancient Mayan codex.

Two of Peter & MJ's friends are a married couple who run an ancient art gallery which owns some similar artifacts. They are worried about proceeding with their planned exhibition, but Peter and MJ persuade them that it will be OK - knowing that Spidey will be on hand. Of course, the gallery opening is attacked by gargoyles + woman + the Lizard, the artifacts are stolen, and Spider-Man is blamed, naturally.

Curt Connors' sobbing wife arrives at the Parkers' Place, bearing Curt's journal. Curt has traveled to Mexico to flee his reptilian alter-ego. In his travels, Curt has learned of the Chupacabras - a Mexican folk-myth of reptilian flying men who only emerge at night, and who live by sucking the blood of chickens and mammals. He wrote about it in his journal, which he then sent back to his wife just before he headed into the utter wilderness.

Through journal flashbacks we follow Curt as he heads into deepest Mexico... Valle Del Lagarto... the Valley of the Lizard. Then after the journal ends, the normal narrative continues and we learn how he meets the female leader of the Chupacabras, a shape-changing shaman of her tribe who can assume human form. As Curt, he tries to help the shaman-woman-Chupacabra ensure the survival of her race. But as the Lizard, he plans to lead the Chupacabras to victory over the fleshies.

Problem though. The Chupacabras are relatively few in numbers, and no longer produce offspring. However they do have a million eggs stored in a cave for hundreds of years. They plan to hatch the young using the formulas written on the codex. The Lizard helps them recover the codex, flying with them around the world by private jet to perform the robberies, all with the goal of assembling an army of thousands.

Attempting to confront his demons, Curt undergoes a ritual to face the Lizard. Unfortunately the Lizard turns out to be stronger, and Curt becomes effectively stuck in reptilian form.

Peter meanwhile takes all of his savings and flies to Mexico to pick up the trail where the journal leaves off. There he acquires up a local semi-competent guide named Paco, meets (not strictly in this order) some native villagers, the Lizard, the shaman-woman-shapeshifter, and lots of flying clawed/teethed Mexican gargoyles. Spider-Man fights, loses and is thrown off a cliff, fights, loses and is thrown down a deep hole, fights, loses again but is helped by the female shaman who has realized that the Lizard is just too risky to have as an ally.

The Lizard kills shaman-lady and accidentally crushes all the eggs. Finally Spidey zaps the Lizard with the antidote that he carried all the way from New York.

In General...

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with this plot. The only problem is the execution. There's no two ways about it... John Vornholt is a bad writer, and this is a bad book.

Where to start in my critique. Well, right from the outset, the attempt to give Peter and MJ adult friends is out of kilter with the childish style of the writing. There's no subtlety in this novel. Everything is spelled out in painful detail. There's no charm or magic in any aspect of the story-telling.

At times during the journal entries the writing rises to the height of mediocrity, but then it is inevitably brought crashing down with a facile paragraph or a clumsy phrase. None of the characters have any depth, none of the action scenes are particularly vivid. Every now and again there will be a token attempt to insert some poetic language, but the next sentence normally brings things crashing down to earth again.

Even the basics are poorly handled, and there are several problems with the logic of the plot. In the second half of the book, Spider-Man strips off his clothes to get into his Spider-Man costume. Then he runs around and is beaten up and sliced and diced. No mention of where he left his clothes. But then in the final battle, Spider-Man uses the restoro-human serum on The Lizard, and then strips off his costume and discards it so that Curt Connors sees Peter, not Spider-Man.

Personally, I'm not sure which would be harder to explain... why I'm Spider-Man in Mexico, or why I'm Peter Parker standing in my underpants in a cave surrounded by beaten-up and deceased gargoyles.

To top it all off, when Curt asks Peter who defeated the Lizard, Peter tells Curt it was "the shaman woman." Umm... that would be the shaman woman over there with the broken neck? Ah well, on that note, let's just put down the book and walk away.

Overall Rating...

Most of the novels in this series are insipid, but this one really must be ranked among the worst of them. Adequately conceived but badly executed, there's no reading pleasure to be found here. One web.