Comics : Untold Tales of Spider-Man Anthology

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

This review was first published on: 2008.

Background...

I have a "to read" book stack as well as a comic book stack. Occasionally they intersect. Yes, in answer to the question of millions (Joe Millions... old Stan Lee joke) I do read other things besides comic books. (My last read was "Portrait of a Lady" by Henry James. I've never been a big James fan but this is a remarkable book and I recommend it highly.) Right now, though, I am reading Untold Tales of Spider-Man. Released in 1997, it features fifteen prose tales that purport to take place (like the comic series of the same name) between events in the original comic continuity. I'm going to try to review them story by story as I read them. They are placed in chronological order as Spidey events go, which is a fine idea in theory but means that the book begins with Will Murray's "Side By Side with the Astonishing Ant-Man!" which doesn't exactly start things off with a bang.

In Detail...

"Side By Side with the Astonishing Ant-Man!"
Untold Tales of Spider-Man Anthology (Story 1)
Oct 1997 : SMURF 002.700 : SM Title
Find ISBN 1572972947
Summary: Paperback
Editor:  Kurt Busiek, Stan Lee
Writer:  Will Murray
Illustrator:  Steven Butler
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Review

Scientist Henry Pym (who is also Ant-Man) is worried about the new mysterious character known as Spider-Man. He sends a message to his ants via his cybernetic helmet, asking them to report any Spider-Man appearances. This message is picked up by a shadowy figure (who should be a secret except that Steven Butler's illustration that precedes the story prominently features Egghead) and this figure hatches (no pun intended) a plan.

Two weeks later, a giant tarantula appears at the top of the Excelsior Building and spins a web from it across to the Goodman Building. A panhandler named Oleck witnesses this. I don't know what it is about these prose stories that inspire the writers to use proper names as an honorarium but Murray is big on it here. "Excelsior" is Stan Lee's longtime rallying cry, Martin Goodman was Marvel's publisher all through the 60s renaissance (and before). Jack Oleck was a prolific EC and DC writer from the 50s to the 70s. Anyway, the ants spy the tarantula and send a frantic message to Pym. He interprets the image of the giant spider as the ant's version of Spider-Man and ventures out to investigate. Spidey investigates too. The two heroes meet and Ant-Man, assuming Spidey is behind the tarantula, initiates a fight. (The misunderstanding that results in two heroes fighting is as annoying in prose as it is in the comics.) During this dust-up, Spidey gets socked with Pym's reducing gas and ends up as tiny as Ant-Man. As Spidey fights off an army of ants, Hank makes his way to the tarantula and discovers it is a robot and that Egghead (er... that is, a "hulking figure" with a familiar "bullet shape of the head") is inside. He tries to summon his ants and discovers that his ant frequency is jammed. So, he makes amends with Spidey and the two swap headgear. With Hank's cybernetic helmet, Spidey can now summon spiders, which he sends to sabotage the Tarantula. Realizing that Spidey and Ant-Man are allies, not enemies, Egghead (er... "the man calling himself the Tarantula") uses an ejection seat to make his escape.

In the aftermath, Ant-Man makes Spidey regular-sized again. He tells him their enemy is Egghead who had "cracked the secret of my ability to communicate with ants, and attempted to turn them against me. He failed because my ants are my allies, not my slaves." It seems Egghead has made the same mistake in his view of Spidey and Ant-Man. Ant-Man offers to make Spidey a helmet so that he can contact spiders. Spidey turns him down because "up close and personal, spiders creep me out." The two say their good-byes, sure that they will meet again.

In General...

This story takes place between Amazing Spider-Man #2, May 1963 and Amazing Spider-Man #3, July 1963. Will Murray (ordinarily a reliable writer of adventure fiction) is trying to inject a little of that early Silver Age nuttiness into things. (One colleague told me, "I think you have to read Will's story thinking of it as a Tales To Astonish tale from 1964.") However it never gets off the ground. The premise (Egghead overhears Ant-Man's chat with the ants and whips up a giant spider to get Spider-Man on his side) is perfunctory and rushed, then the story takes forever to get to an inconsequential ending. In between, Spidey and Ant-Man take their time getting to the point of recognizing each other as allies and defeating the bad guy. When the duo splits up, the story even resorts to alternating passages portraying each hero's progress. "But Spider-Man had no time to catch his breath..." "Henry Pym clung to the fiercely vibrating strand..." "Spidey took out the lead soldier..." "Ant-Man launched himself at the hairy leg..." Back and forth like the world's most predictable tennis match until it leaves you numb. Murray makes a point of explaining that Ant-Man's costume is composed of unstable molecules so that it will shrink with him but then has Spidey's costume and web-shooters shrink with him with no explanation at all. And the web-shooters still work! I already mentioned that the identity of the villain is ruined by the illustration (although it's not really much of a surprise.) But did I mention that the story is 20 pages long? Yes, it takes its time meandering through this silliness only to abruptly drop you off absolutely nowhere.

Overall Rating...

Would I buy all this if I read it in an early sixties Tales to Astonish complete with some first-class Kirby-Ayers artwork? Probably, but as a nostalgic prose tale it only falls flat. One web.

Footnote...

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