In my grand review of the Howard Mackie/John Byrne relaunch of Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 2), I am first looking at the two writers’ individual work on the character. Throughout this retrospective, I have taken particular interest in how Spider-Man creators handled serialization. In Part 1 and Part 2, I discussed Howard Mackie’s less-than-stellar contributions to the Spider-Man mythos in the B-title, Spider-Man. Now, I will analyze writer/artist John Byrne’s miniseries, Spider-Man: Chapter One, the only extended Spider-Man run he both wrote and drew.
By the point that he decided to take on Spider-Man, John Byrne was already a legend within the comic book community. He is well-known for breathing new life into fatigued franchises with brilliant runs on titles such as Uncanny X-Men, Fantastic Four, Sensational She-Hulk, and Superman. However, by 1999, his popularity was nowhere near as widespread as it had been a decade or so earlier. His runs on Avengers, Iron Man, and Namor, the Sub-Mariner are bland or incomplete, and therefore have been largely forgotten. Nevertheless, the Spider-Office was scrambling to revive Spider-Man and recover from the Clone Saga even years after it ended. The opportunity to recruit Byrne, the writer/artist that reinvigorates franchises, was an editorial no-brainer.
While he collaborated with Mackie on ASM (Vol. 2), Byrne was more involved with the miniseries Spider-Man: Chapter One, which ran simultaneously with the reboot. This miniseries was no small side project for Byrne; Marvel hyped it as the definitive, new version of Spider-Man continuity, a revisal of Lee/Ditko’s first two years on Amazing Spider-Man for a modern audience. During the month between the Final Chapter and the relaunch, this miniseries debut was the only book featuring Peter Parker, compelling average readers of the main title to pick it up. Chapter One was supposed to be to Spider-Man as Byrne’s Man of Steel is to Superman. Unfortunately, this analogy is far from reality. Spider-Man: Chapter One #1 is easily the most controversial installment of the series, in which Byrne revises Amazing Spider-Man #15. His greatest deviation from the source material is making Uncle Ben’s killer deliberately seek out Peter’s house after discovering that Ben bought a new computer. The burglar decides to rob the house after witnessing Spider-Man swing from a window and figuring he could become the costumed icon’s partners in crime (or something). This scenario is Byrne’s attempt to explain why the Burglar robs a suburban house in Forest Hills, but this explanation is more convoluted than simple coincidence. Why does the Burglar assume Spider-Man is a criminal as he leaves the house? How does the Burglar’s motive change from stealing the computer to becoming Spider-Man’s partner? By invading the house, wouldn’t he be infringing on the house that his potential partner is “casing out?” Isn’t it an even greater coincidence that Spider-Man lets the Burglar that has been spying on his secret identity’s house run past him? Frankly, Byrne’s “logical” explanation falls apart under any form of rational analysis, but the technicalities distract from the larger point that this plot point misses a fundamental theme of Spider-Man’s origin. The coincidence that the Burglar kills Uncle Ben demonstrates that even the least possible consequences can occur if one neglects their responsibility. In his arrogance, Peter doesn’t expect that the Burglar he lets escape will go on to kill his uncle, nor should he. Yet, even this crime that he seemingly has no business stopping comes back to bite him. Above all, the pure randomness proves that Peter can’t neglect any minor responsibility. In attempting to remove this fundamental aspect of Peter’s origin, Byrne proves he lacks a basic understanding of the character’s fundamental underpinnings.
Oddly enough, this type of major deviation is rare in Chapter One. The other alterations are largely cosmetic and unnecessary. Another change involves the radiation exhibition that Peter attends. While a minor mishap during which a radioactive spider bites Peter is featured in most retellings of the origin, the entire lab explodes, killing many, in Byrne’s revision. Even more surprising is the fact that Doctor Octopus is the scientist responsible for the accident. Besides the odd interruption in pacing due to Peter’s recovery and his notable lack of survivor’s guilt, this adjustment has little significance. Doctor Octopus’s involvement certainly isn’t a bad idea, but this plot point barely affects Byrne’s Doctor Octopus story, which is simply a blow-by-blow retelling of ASM #3. The most infamous change in Chapter One is that Sandman is related to Norman Osborn, Byrne’s way of demonstrating that everyone with cornrows must be related. Further, Sandman had an identical twin in French Polynesia, which is how he gained the nickname William Baker. Oh, and Norman Osborn is behind Electro and Sandman fighting Spider-Man because a rich, evil supervillain must control everything behind the scenes. This odd reworking of Spider-Man continuity is laughable and convoluted, especially since this nick-picking has little importance in Byrne’s overarching story.
While the superstar writer/artist concerns himself with “fixing” minor details with which nobody had qualms, his actual retelling of the Lee/Ditko stories is extremely lazy. In a typical installment of Chapter One, Byrne cuts a classic plot into two halves. He ends a Lee/Ditko story within the first ten pages of an issue, often through a flashback, robbing the climax of dramatic tension. Then, he begins the next Lee/Ditko plot mid-issue, ending on a cliffhanger. Byrne then wraps up this plot quickly in the next issue and begins the next mid-issue. This formula of chopping up classic Spider-Man stories is frankly annoying, especially since Byrne makes little attempt to tie any of the self-contained Lee/Ditko plots together to improve his pacing. While he does gain a cliffhanger out of this quickly-tiring structure, he loses the appeal of the done-in-one element of these stories. In a typical issue of Chapter One, new readers don’t gain a complete story but two halves of different plots. Even more frustrating is Byrne’s reluctance to change anything major in the original stories. Besides the annoying separations, every story unfolds exactly how it did in the 60s. There is nothing “cutting edge” or “modern” about these stories, and I fail to understand how they might appeal more to modern readers than the originals. Often, this empty rehashing feels like blatant plagiarism. Byrne is so conservative in his retelling of classic Spider-Man that he only feels comfortable in warping unimportant details while keeping everything else completely unchanged.
While Byrne unashamedly copies the Lee/Ditko plots, his dialogue often feels just as dated as Stan Lee’s 60s scripting. In fact, many of Byrne’s lines are slight variations on Lee’s. As proof, I am flipping to random pages of random Chapter One issues and finding the most “groovy”-sounding dialogue. In Spider-Man: Chapter One #1, a police officer says, “Hold it, sonny!” In Spider-Man: Chapter One #6, the Human Torch shouts, “If Spider-Man has gone over to the dark side, he’s gonna get his head handed to him – pronto!” Spider-Man: Chapter One #11 features Giant-Man telling Spider-Man, “And why don’t you scurry on back to your website, junior. We don’t need you here – and we never did!” (The use of “website” makes no sense, but you have to give props to Byrne for using weird lingo about that silly ethernet the hooligans surf these days.) In Spider-Man: Chapter One #4, the Vulture thinks, “The fool! Does he think one with my speed and agility can be taken so easily unawares?” In Spider-Man: Chapter One #9, Kraven boasts, “Those magnetic bands will take away your strength advantage, Spider-Man.” Frankly, these lines are not the worst imaginable, but for a comic that prides itself as “modern,” the dialogue is anything but. Byrne even retains old-fashioned gimmicks that the most “cutting edge” writers of the time had already abandoned, like characters explaining their every move during battles in thought bubbles. The script does little to prove that Chapter One is little more than a boring rehash of Lee/Ditko classics.
Frankly, the most frustrating part of Chapter One is there is very little original content to discuss. The only truly novel aspect of this series is Byrne’s artwork, most of which he inks himself. The storytelling is as great as you would expect from someone with his reputation, each panel clearly conveying what the story requires. The splash pages are fantastic, many of which would make for great pin-ups. However, the disadvantage of Byrne’s penchant for open layouts with large panels is his inability to fit as much story into one issue as Ditko could with his smaller panels. As a result, many Chapter One issues end up feeling like the Cliff Notes versions of the classics, retelling the major plot points while skipping over many details that breath life into the originals. Further, Byrne’s rough inking tends to make his work look rushed, especially in later issues. While his sketchier art is certainly interesting, this style feels inappropriate for a modern retelling, especially when Ditko’s art from the 60s is objectively more detailed. As popular artists became more and more obsessed with crisp details and slick inking in the late-90s, Byrne’s art feels old-fashioned. Additionally, the primitive digital coloring of the period meshes poorly with Byrne’s style and looks particularly aged now. Nevertheless, the big selling point of Chapter One is John Byrne’s art, but I would personally take Steve Ditko instead any day.
The only semi-important element that has an inkling of an influence is John Byrne’s costume redesigns, which are hit or miss. The Vulture’s new costume is fairly cool, merging his signature wings with a new vest. The basics of his original costume remain with the overall green design and feathers around the collar, but the vest emphasizes his age. However, the other redesigns aren’t as successful. Although Electro’s original costume is admittedly silly, Byrne rejects too much of Ditko’s inspiration in his redesign. Instead of the iconic yellow/green color scheme, Electro is white/blue. His goofy, star-shaped mask gives way to a more generic mask, and the electricity motif is almost entirely gone. Luckily, this sad costume is quickly forgotten. Doctor Octopus also gains a new costume that does him no favors. The jumpsuit is replaced by an odd tunic, and he wears cumbersome metal armor on his legs, arms, and even neck. The silliest pair of circular glasses cover his eyes while a short haircut emphasizes his impish ears. This bad costume makes one of Spider-Man’s most important villains look like a stupid, gnome-like creature. Besides their use in ASM (Vol. 2), these costumes fade into obscurity.
Above all, Chapter One suffers from a lack of direction. Editor Ralph Macchio convinced John Byrne to do a modern retelling of old Spider-Man stories, probably in response to news of a Spider-Man movie in development. Macchio likely expected Byrne to iron out the older aspects of the classics for new fans (and perhaps even movie executives). However, unlike Superman, Spider-Man’s earliest stories are excellent and largely don’t need any “fixing” to work in modern continuity. Sure, Stan Lee’s dialogue is dated, but the core message still resonates with a certain timelessness. John Byrne recognized this, and besides a few major changes in Chapter One #1, he ultimately changes very little. So, if Byrne had little intention to ruin Spider-Man continuity, and fans still objected to the few changes he did make, why didn’t Macchio just scrap the entire project from the beginning? The next modern retelling that starts exactly one year after Byrne’s ends is Ultimate Spider-Man, which is a far superior series. Bendis succeeds in updating Peter Parker, his supporting cast, and his villains in long-form storytelling that can easily be adapted into a screenplay. Interestingly, Macchio edits a whopping 127 issues of Ultimate Spider-Man. The biggest difference between the two is Marvel was passing off Byrne’s Chapter One as in-continuity while Bendis’s Ultimate is clearly an alternate universe. Perhaps Chapter One would have been better if Macchio had given Byrne the freedom to create his own sandbox free from continuity.
Nevertheless, the unfortunate, underlying truth of Chapter One is Byrne just wasn’t at his creative peak in 1999. Past his creative prime, he simply had too conservative of a view of comics to write the type of ground-breaking, modern series that a newcomer like Bendis could. The future of comics at the time was focused on writers like Mark Millar and Bendis, with decompressed scripting fit for creative cross pollination with the movie industry. They write blockbuster comics with dialogue paced to fit movie scenes. Meanwhile, John Byrne is still concerned with crafting shorter, more traditional comics with tried-and-true storytelling. These two different types of writers are almost impossible to compare because they have such drastically different goals and styles. Traditional and modern storytellers are both great at telling the types stories in which they specialize, but asking one to fill the other’s role is often ill-conceived. Just as Bendis largely fails at telling traditional, self-contained stories in Ultimate Marvel Team-Up, Byrne fails at modernizing comics history in an industry becoming more and more obsessed with Hollywood. Frankly, the modern comics industry was moving away from former “superstar” writers like John Byrne in 1999, and Macchio should have recognized this sad truth.
Chapter One is an unfortunate series because John Byrne’s talent is largely wasted on an ill-conceived retelling that didn’t need to exist. I’ve heard loyal Byrne fans defend this series by claiming that these comics target newer readers without access to the Lee/Ditko stories. However, by 1999, the classics were already republished in Marvel Masterworks, Marvel Essentials, and Marvel Tales, so this weak argument easily falls apart. For the most part, Chapter One has been forgotten and is no longer considered canon. I recommend this series to absolutely nobody. New fans should either read Ultimate Spider-Man or the classic Lee/Ditko run. Old readers will likely find this series boring if they have already read the classics. In essence, avoid this series at all costs. Due to the overall lack of creativity and direction, I give Chapter One a measly half web out of five.