Rave : 2016 : Run Review: Len Wein

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Date: Feb 1, 2016
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Looking back in retrospect, the mid-70s to early 80s are probably the years of the Amazing Spider-Man title that fans talk about the least. Often, fans will mark the essential runs of Stan Lee with Ditko and Romita, Gerry Conway, Roger Stern, and on. But between Conway and Stern is a gap of about six years and about 70 issues of Amazing Spider-Man. The three writers of this era, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, and Denny O’Neil, have all gained success writing on other titles, but their runs on Spider-Man are usually forgotten. Here, I will review the first writer of the batch, Len Wein, and his 30-issue run on ASM, from issues 150 to 180.

Around the time Wein was writing the core Spider-Man title, he gained great success in reviving the X-Men franchise with the creation of brilliant, classic characters such as Wolverine, Storm, and Nightcrawler. Of course, he also had fairly fruitful runs on Batman, Swamp Thing, and the Incredible Hulk. He began his run on Amazing Spider-Man in what some may consider the apex of his creative tenure at Marvel, a few months after Giant-Size X-Men #1, one of the biggest X-Men issues of all time.

Reviewing the time period of Wein’s run, I will declare this was the arguably point where Spider-Man officially become a widespread franchise. Around this time, the first true Spider-Man B-title, Spectacular Spider-Man, began (and many more would be launched thereafter). Additionally, Spidey appeared monthly in the Marvel Team-Up book, showed up regularly in the 1977 live-action television program, and took a part in many episodes of The Electric Company show. (There was also a very odd Spider-Man television show running in Japan as well.) Obviously, Len Wein had a lot of pressure to maintain the franchise with the core Amazing Spider-Man title. Therefore, he chose to play it safe with a cautious run that did little to change Spider-Man. In essence, Wein’s run consists of a bunch of light, utilitarian stories that present the character in perhaps his truest form.

Wein’s run has fairly neat beginning and starting points on tenth issues of the titles, running for 2 ½ years total from late-1975 to mid-1978. As far as plot is concerned, he began with a highlight story of his run. The opening two-parter establishes the Shocker as a serious threat to Spider-Man and sets up a legacy for the Shocker as a credible villain. While the character had only been robbing banks and getting beaten rather easily by Spider-Man during Stan Lee’s run, Len Wein establishes the Shocker up as a major rogue by having him take control of the electricity of New York and threaten the city. The arc includes a sewer battle between Spider-Man and the Shocker that spawned an incredible cover by John Romita Sr. and inspired Mark Waid’s critically acclaimed story, Unscheduled Stop. The climax battle in a power station is also particularly intense. As far as introductions go, Wein’s is surely worthy of the main Spider-Man title. Additionally, he neatly ended his run with the longest and most popular story of his run, “The Green Goblin Returns!” Throughout that story (which I will discuss further), he wraps up most of the plotlines of his tenure, which is actually an unusual activity for comic book writers to do (See Terry Kavanagh’s Live and Let Die). All in all, Wein showed a concern for the comprehensiveness of his run with bookends and issue counts. Either that or it was simply coincidental.

Overall, Len Wein’s scripting of Spider-Man and Peter remains true to the character. Spider-Man’s dialogue is fairly snappy and light, and the dialogue during battle flows well, a skill many comic book writers fail at. His Peter Parker is fairly comical and charming. This is well-displayed in Peter’s humorous responses to the hand-down furniture his friends lend him to decorate his apartment in ASM #163. Wein also wrote an intelligent Peter Parker and this was well-displayed in the brilliant confrontation between him and J. Jonah Jameson in ASM #169. Jameson received pictures of Spider-Man disposing of his unmasked clone, and he is convinced that Spider-Man killed Peter Parker and took his place. Peter discovered the pictures earlier and made altered copies of them. Using these copies, he is able to convince his frustrated boss that the revealing photos are actually copies of pictures he had already taken. This, of course, makes Jonah embarrassed for his (perceived) mistake and a little angry due to Peter’s request for a raise.

Although the majority of Wein’s work is two-part stories, the tension and emotion of the plots increase fairly quickly. A primary example is the standout issue, The Longest Hundred Yards, which is the most poignant arc of his run. It follows a former college quarterback, Bradley Bolton, who is blackmailed with his daughter’s life on the line. While he was not able to reach the goal line in his final college game years ago, Bolton manages to accomplish it, despite a rain of gunfire, in order to save his daughter. Although she survives safely, he is fatally wounded by the bullets. His death causes Spider-Man to curse for the first time in his superhero career while avenging Bolton. Other tense arcs include the climax between Spider-Man, the Punisher, and the Hitman atop the Statue of Liberty in ASM #175. The battle between the Kingpin and Spider-Man in ASM #164 was also riveting, and even the silly battle between Stegron and the Lizard in “T’Was the Season” carried its own weight. The important element of these stories is Wein’s key to plots: effective personal motivation for the characters, even if they are not Spider-Man. The life of J. Jonah Jameson is at stake in Spider-Man and the Hitman’s battle, the Kingpin is motivated by his son, Billy Conners arouses Spider-Man to action in the (and the Lizard, to an extent) in the Stegron fight, and Bolton is driven by his daughter. Of course, Wein relied a bit on children and filial relationships for his main stories, but they provided effective emotional cores.

While Wein easily understood the key to a good story, the largest dilemma with his plots is the obvious illusion of change he implemented. Once a story played itself out, everything typically reverts back to the way it was when the story began. The character in distress usually returns to safety. After his son is endangered by the prehistoric villain Stegron, Curt Conners returns to his family as if nothing happened. Of course, Wein’s villains always get what is coming for them with either their arrest or their death (although he seemed to prefer the latter). If he kills a character during his run, they are usually unpopular, like the Hitman and Stegron, or recently introduced like Bradley Bolton or Bart Hamilton (who I will discuss later). Deaths usually occur at the end of arcs with fairly little fanfare.

The only part of stories that Len Wein really changed is Peter’s personal life (or rather the personal lives of people around him). Being quite the romanticist, Betty Brant and Ned Leeds marry each other early in his run, and Liz Allen and Harry Osborn become engaged. Jameson, a character seemingly destined to stay the same forever, softens up while he begins dating the intelligent, composed Marla Madison, who Wein creates. Even Aunt May, despite keeping her health problems and annoying doting of Peter, becomes a protestor for the civil rights of the elderly! Yet, despite everything, Peter Parker’s social life remains the same. He is stuck in a relationship with Mary Jane that is not advancing, his job at the Daily Bugle remains the same, and the Parker Luck lingers as always. His grades in Empire State University are even dropping to the point that he may never be able to graduate, leaving him in the seemingly unending college loop. While his supporting cast evolves, Peter Parker remains largely unchanged.

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment of Len Wein’s stores is his reuse of already created Spider-Man villains. He brought back the Shocker after about 80 issues of absence in the core title, the Tinkerer after about 160 issues, the Kingpin after about 70 issues, and Silvermane after about 100 issues. One must keep in mind that ASM was largely the only Spider-Man titles being regularly published (besides Marvel Team-Up) until Spectacular Spider-Man begins. Wein’s predecessor, Gerry Conway, often created his own characters during his Spider-Man run and ignored earlier villains that Lee created (some of which Lee also ignored shortly after creating them). Len Wein rectifies this, and without of his good memory of Spider-Man continuity, readers may have never seen characters like the Tinkerer or the Shocker ever again.

Sadly, Wein’s primary accomplishment is also responsible to his primary downfall. The reason so few fans remember his run is probably the lack of new characters. His contribution to Spider-Man’s rogue gallery includes fearsome villains like Mirage, Will ’O Wisp, Rocket Racer, the Fly, and Toy, the Tinkerer’s frightening assistant! Yeah, they are not particularly good characters and only the most dedicated of Spider-Man fans would actually know them. Certainly, none of these characters will be seen in any Spider-Man movies (maybe once Marvel Studios has gone through the A to D-listers of Spidey’s rogue gallery) and many of them have become the butts of jokes (see Mirage in Spencer’s hilarious Superior Foes of Spider-Man run). Wein’s lack of inventive villains is especially tragic as he followed one of the most creatively fertile runs in Spider-Man history. Gerry Conway created actual hard-hitting characters for Spidey to skirmish with like the Punisher, Jackal, Man-Wolf, and Hammerhead. From a creative standpoint, it is obvious how Wein failed compared to his predecessor.

Another issue with Wein’s characters is that the dynamics of villains remain similar or the same to their dynamics in earlier stories. A primary example of this is the two-part Molten Man arc (beginning in ASM #172) that saw the Molten Man become unhinged with his powers and ultimately die in the end. Analyzing this arc, Spider-Fans will uncertainly feel déjà vu because it shares many similarities to Gerry Conway’s earlier ASM #132 arc. Similarly, Wein’s The Ghost That Haunted Octopus! continues the conflict between Doctor Octopus and Hammerhead with Aunt May stuck in the middle, a plot that Conway used as well. Also noteworthy is Wein’s continuation of J. Jonah Jameson’s commission of Spider-Slayers to kill Spider-Man. Of course, it would be unfair of me to claim that Wein copied these stories. He often added new flavors to the mix, like bringing Liz Allen prominently into the conflict between Spidey and the Molten Man or introducing Jameson’s future wife, Marla Madison, in the Spider-Slayer plot. Still, for the most part, the dynamics are unchanged.

On a more positive note, Len Wein has an acute humor and silliness in his writing, whether it is intentional or not. For example, one of his few villain creations, the Rocket Racer, is a ridiculous enemy, and Wein clearly realized this. Everything from the Racer’s obnoxious costume to his power of flying on a rocket board screams “one-off villain.” Wein realizes this, but he at least gives Spider-Man and the Racer a fun chase around the city at the beginning of ASM #172. The Racer is even defeated when Spider-Man simply grabs his board from under his feet with webbing! Other silly developments include the return of the Spider-Mobile in ASM #160, the battle between Stegron and the Lizard, and the villainous, brilliant Doctor Octopus becoming a homeless hermit. Plus, Wein’s scenes with J. Jonah Jameson are among some of the character’s most humorous. After working hard to keep his prized artifacts safe at a crowded party, Jonah watches a precious decanter fall and smash when Peter slams a door. It’s funny stuff and reminds fans why we love to hate Jonah.

The disadvantage of reviewing many runs in retrospect, especially runs that are 20 or more years old, is that many comics are products of their time, and they often age poorly. Luckily, Len Wein’s run is not as dated as its contemporaries. The dialogue holds up especially well against the test of time; Len Wein did not use many now-outdated references, and he managed to avoid the word “turkey” (*cough* Marv Wolfman *cough*). The characters’ fashion does not look dated; Mary Jane’s wardrobe is not as embarrassing as it would become in the 90’s. Perhaps the most dated area of the stories is the Stan Lee-esque way of using conveniences to set up plots. For example, Peter visits Coney Island and in time to witness a murder in ASM #161. Or he visits the Hayden Planetarium when Stegtron invades the Museum of Natural History next door in ASM #165. Admittedly, all of Wein’s plots are not built around conveniences; many stories begin with Spider-Man finding something on patrol or Peter Parker discovering something from the Daily Bugle, both of which are fairly rational ways for a story to begin. Plus, his conveniences are not as bad as other writers (*cough* Denny O’ Neil *cough*). Overall, time has been good for Wein’s run.

Team-ups have always been an important element of the Amazing Spider-Man, and Len Wein found himself in a particularly difficult position with the Marvel Team-Up title running along his run. He recognized that he needed to write unconventional team-ups not being covered in the other book, and the crossover heroes are a sure highlight of his run. The Punisher is a recurring character in Wein’s run, following his regular appearances in the Conway run. These team-ups issues are entertaining, exploring the relationship between the two very disparate characters. Nightcrawler is used hot off his X-Men debut, and Nova also appears fairly early in his tenure as a hero. The Nova story featured the first true crossover between Amazing Spider-Man and another title, as the two-part team-up began in Wolfman’s Nova #12. Unfortunately, Wolfman’s part of the story is a hot mess, but Wein makes up for it in a very fun conclusion. Overall, the team-ups only further cemented Spider-Man’s place as a truly mainstream superhero and told a fun story while at it.

Additionally, the Len Wein run benefited from a strong sense of place. Spider-Man has always been tied to New York, and Wein is probably the writer with the most acute concentration on Spider-Man’s home city. Often, battles take place at landmarks; Spidey and the Punisher fight the Hitman at the Statue of Liberty, while our favorite wall-crawler squares off with Will O’ Wisp and Jameson’s Spider-Slayer at the Rockefeller Center. Besides these glamorous landmarks, Wein makes a point to include the less glamorous, unfortunate areas of New York in the late-70s. After all, one must eat the bland outside crackers of their Oreo cookie along with the delicious inside filling if they really want a taste of the cookie as a whole. his sense of place especially contrasts with that of Conway’s run, where Conway infamously mixed up the George Washington Bridge with the Brooklyn Bridge. Obviously, Wein’s scripting of New York would be nothing without artist Ross Andru’s acute sense of architecture. Andru really brings New York City alive in a way that no Spider-Man artist had succeeded in doing before him. (Ditko and Romita usually drew the same stylized building types repeatedly.)

While speaking of Andru, it would be foolish of me to write about this run without bringing up Andru’s incredible artwork. For many fans that began collecting Spider-Man in the 70’s, his depiction of the character is the most iconic. Although he began his art duties on Conway’s run, he mastered his depiction Spider-Man in Len Wein’s run, and he got a chance to draw most of, if not all, of Spider-Man’s most popular villains. Not only does Andru succeed in the dynamic style necessary for superhero comics, but he also succeeds in storytelling. With only twenty pages for each issue, Wein had much to fit into a single book, but the art never makes the story look cramped. For his work on Wein’s run alone, Ross Andru deserves a spot in the Spider-Man artist Hall of Fame (if such a reward is ever created).

Len Wein and Ross Andru were at their absolute best when it came to their final arc, which has evolved to become the most popular and memorable of the run: “The Green Goblin Returns!” Extending five issues (quite a long arc in the 70s), the plot follows the Green Goblin as he fights against Spider-Man and Silvermane for control of the New York City crime world. This arc reflects the typical Wein tradition of recycling old material into new stories, as he reuses the Goblin crime theme from the character’s early Lee / Ditko appearances while Wein also implements another reused trope, Aunt May’s heart problems, to increase the drama. The new, fresh element of the story is the running mystery of the Goblin’s identity. (Wein did love mysteries; one seemed to always be occurring as a subplot. See: “Whodunit!” and the Homeless Ock thread.) While Wein portrays the Goblin as if he is Harry Osborn and all the signs seemingly point to it as well, Harry is never explicitly seen under the mask. In fact, Bart Hamilton, Harry’s psychiatrist, is revealed to be the Goblin in the end, and in typical Goblin fashion, he is killed by his own bomb. Reading in retrospect, it seems to be obvious that Bart is the culprit because he is fairly suspicious in subplots and there would be no reason to hide Harry’s identity. Still, many who read the story as it progressed have told me it was a surprise, and since I already knew Bart was the Goblin before reading the arc, I will simply have to believe them. Nevertheless, the arc stands the test of time and is probably the most (if only) essential story from the run.

In conclusion, Len Wein’s Spider-Man is a fairly safe run. Peter Parker changes very little during the course of thirty issues; Wein prefers to rehash villains and dynamics from past stories. The run suffers from this lack of originality, especially in the case of the villains, and the illusion of change during the run is frustrating. Still, Wein’s good taste in storytelling, mystery, and humor keeps plots fresh and interesting. Perhaps a safe run where anybody could pick up an issue and read their favorite web-slinger in a light, low-risk story is exactly what was needed in a time when Spider-Man was quickly being pulled into the mainstream. Now, with more than 50 years of continuity for readers to peruse, this run is not exactly necessary for readers other than die-hard collectors. As a whole, I give Len Wein’s Amazing Spider-Man a solid 3 webs out of 5.