Rave : 2017 : Title Review: Web of Spider-Man

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Anthology titles are complicated. Without a consistent creative team taking control of a book, readers can never know exactly what to expect. In some cases, this suspense can be an advantage, and anthologies usually churn out at least one stellar, noteworthy issue. Nothing is more exciting than reading a comic with no expectations and coming across a truly brilliant story. Sadly, anthologies most often get bogged down by mediocre to cringe-worthy stories. These titles often come across as directionless and pointless. This, unfortunately, is how the title Web of Spider-Man stumbled along in the mid- to late-eighties.

Web of Spider-Man began in April of 1985 under the editorial direction of fan favorite editor Jim Owsley. It replaced the long-running Marvel Team-Up title, becoming the third core title published at the time with Spider-Man as the lead. The title remained an anthology until around its fiftieth issue, when Gerry Conway began his takeover of the Spider-Man B-titles in the late-80s. For purposes of this review, I will look at the first thirty issues of the title, as this is the only totally complete run I have of the early issues (thanks, Marvel Essentials).

In reflecting upon the Spider-Titles on his informative, interesting blog (digitalpriest.com), then-editor Jim Owsley (or, referring to his actual name, Christopher Priest) explained his vision for the division of the three Spider-Man books. Amazing Spider-Man by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz contained classic Spider-Man stories, and Spectacular Spider-Man by Peter David boasted darker, street-level stories. In describing his vision for Web, Priest said the title “kicked off a brief era of greatness with David Michelinie, Marc Silvestri and Kyle Baker's moody, off-beat WEB (which took place mainly out of town and mainly concerned Peter's assignments for NOW Magazine).”

Owsley brings up the Michelinie run as the driving force for Web, but the title runs for fourteen issues until he comes on board full time. His run only lasts nine issues (or eleven, counting an earlier two issue stint). Although it’s a stretch to call his tenure a run, Michelinie stays on the title longer than any other writer, and his issues certainly have the best direction. As Owsley remembers, the run mainly focuses on Peter’s adventures out of New York, giving the title a unique setting. Mainly accompanied by journalist Joy Mercado, Peter handles misadventures in Europe, rural Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Atlantic City. Generally, the stories show Spider-Man handling the changes in scenery and facing threats he usually would not have to, such as terrorism and rural conflict. Although the run does not always stick with this status quo, it’s enough to set it apart from the other two Spider-Man titles.

Fans know Michelinie for his later, nearly 90-issue run on Amazing Spider-Man. They will also remember that the plots mainly featured action to highlight the art of industry giants Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, and Mark Bagley. In the same way, the driving force of his earlier Web run is the memorable artwork. Kyle Baker inked four issues of the run, and his embellishments provide a dark, eerie quality to the stories (that is heightened in the black-and-white format of Marvel Essentials). Marc Silvestri, before his X-Men fame, penciled five issues, providing exciting dynamics to the action-packed scripts. All Michelinie had to do was set up gripping battle scenes with villains like Magma and Chance, and his artists took over.

Probably the highlight of Michelinie’s run is his opening two-parter, Local (Super) Hero. In this story, the Daily Bugle sends Peter Parker to check in on a small-town Pennsylvania hero. Of course, he gets more than he bargains for, and the resulting story is an off-beat, somewhat bizarre tale. Deviating from Michelinie’s typical plots, action takes a back seat to the story, and the chain of events unfold feature complex characters and perfectly-paced tragedy. City boy Peter has to adjust to small town life, and artists Geof Isherwood and Vince Colletta complement the script with a simplistic, clean style. The story is a highlight of not only Michelinie’s Web run but his run on Spider-Man altogether.

Unfortunately, many mistakes occur before Michelinie comes on the title. Web of Spider-Man starts off with the creative team of Louise Simonson and Greg La Rocque, and the debut issue hosts the famous conclusion to Peter’s struggle with the alien symbiote he picked up during Secret Wars (before it bonded to Eddie Brock, of course). The scene of Spider-Man ripping the symbiote from his body in the bell tower is a classic. What is not classic, however, is the plot device that occupied most of Simonson’s three-issue run: the Vulturions. A group of laughable thugs steal the Vulture’s wing design and somehow occupy Spider-Man for three issues! At no point is a serious threat posed by these stupid villains, and although the story is not entirely dreadful, it does nothing to set the overall title apart from the other two Spider-Man books at the time.

So begins the roller coaster of the title’s direction. The horrible Danny Fingeroth (luckily, he edited better than he wrote) takes up the title following Simonson to write some rather bland stories. His Doctor Octopus two-parter, Arms and the Man, essentially ruins the character for a few years. Octopus snaps and becomes so afraid of our hero that he completely freezes when they finally got a chance to fight him. Spider-Man’s second biggest villain (fight me, Dan Slott!!!) becomes a vegetable. Then, Fingeroth writes the beginning chapter of a Secret Wars II tie-in crossover with Amazing Spider-Man (marketing!!!) called Gold Rush! that turns out to be okay, although DeFalco obviously does the heavy lifting. Finally, Fingeroth writes Web of Spider-Man #10, guest-starring Dominic Fortune, although he doesn’t even bother to hide the fact that it’s practically the same plot as every generic action movie. (He would continue his obsession with Fortune later in the title, to everybody’s chagrin.) Overall, Fingeroth’s issues are among the worst of the anthology title. His plots read like fill-in issues for Amazing that were never needed and recycled. Again, these stories do little to set Web apart.

Where things truly get interesting are the amazing Peter David’s stories. Similar to his contemporary stories in Spectacular, David writes scripts with a good balance between seriousness and humor. He opens up with a dreamscape story, Welcome To My Nightmare, that acts as both a character study of Peter Parker and a light-hearted action romp between Spider-Man and the Hulk. The other two stories deal with vigilantism, and David brilliantly ends a story during which Peter becomes a neighborhood hero in Web of Spider-Man #12. He balances both humorous aspects of Peter’s vigilantism in the public eye (taking advantage of fame for extra cash) and more serious elements (confronting an assassin in his own home). Further, the standout done-in-one Point of View analyzes the complex public opinion of Spider-Man and the role the media plays in it (particularly focusing on J. Jonah Jameson’s relationship with the costumed hero). Overall, David’s stories are as excellent and mature as his stories in Spectacular. Unfortunately, that is the main problem: he fails to differentiate Web from his regular ongoing title, once again keeping it from finding its individual identity.

One beneficial aspect of Web during the Owsley editorial period is its connection to the other Spider-Titles. In post-Secret Wars Marvel, crossovers were starting to appear everywhere, and Owsley took advantage of this. Often, events of Amazing or Spectacular are acknowledged in Web or even act as important story elements, such as Spider-Man’s conflict with the Kingpin in Amazing or the attack on Aunt May’s retirement home in Spectacular. Also, Peter is constantly visiting his regular supporting cast (Aunt May, Jameson, Mary Jane), and Web even introduces Kathryn Cushing and establishes Joy Mercado as an important cast member. These continuity nods not only help hardcore fans place the events of Web on a timeline but also give the title a sense of connection.

This strength of the title tends to be a disadvantage as well. If a collector has not read DeFalco’s Amazing run, or even David’s Spectacular run, they will probably get confused if they are just reading through Web. For example, Spider-Man battling the symbiote, a long running plot from Amazing, is not nearly as exciting to new readers as it is to longtime readers. Similarly, as I mentioned before, the title directly crosses into both Amazing and Secret Wars II for an issue, which would certainly be confusing to any new readers (although they aren’t missing much with the horrible Secret Wars II). An important crossover at the time, Missing in Action, is spearheaded in Michelinie’s run, during which Spider-Man gets lost in Virginia and disappears from the other two titles of the month. Web of Spider-Man #18 explains where he was, but the drama of Peter’s disappearance is not as high if fans never read the other two titles in which he was absent. These many references suggest that Web is a title only hardcore fans should pick up.

Of course, Michelinie’s run gives the title a clear direction, and then it runs off the tracks completely. Most likely, the title falters due to the most chaotic editorial switch of Spider-Man history. Jim Owsley was regrettably and suddenly launched from the editorial chair, and Jim Salicrup took over. Within a year, the regular Amazing team of DeFalco and Frenz departs, the departing editor himself quickly ties up years of plot, the Hobgoblin is anticlimactically and posthumously revealed to be Ned Leeds, Spider-Man abruptly gets married, and the Spider-Titles suddenly go into three months of crossovers. What a horrible editorial mess. Salicrup does just about everything wrong at the start of his rein in his desperate bid to end Owsley’s editorial direction and begin his own. (To his credit, Salicrup gets the Spider-Titles running smoothly again once he got Michelinie on Amazing and Conway on Spectacular / Web.)

The most unfortunate causality of this editorial disarray is the departure of Michelinie and Silvestri from Web at issue 20. Michelinie stays on to plot two issues (which was probably prearranged before Owsley’s departure) while Len Kaminski provides scripts. These stories read much like the rest of Michelinie’s run. Peter interacts with his supporting cast, travels to Atlantic City, and runs into the Vulture and Slyde. Pretty typical stuff. Then, the creative director of Web leaves, and the book does not gain a regular writer until around issue 50.

The worst stories resulting from the editorial chaos come from the pen of Larry Leiber, the far less-talented brother of Stan Lee. It’s no secret that Leiber is responsible for much of the Spider-Man newspaper strip, and any fan who has read the daily comic knows how choppy and childish the plots are. (Dan Slott and Tom Grummett make fun of it in Spider-Verse #1 (Story 6).) Leiber’s two fill-ins for Web read just like extended collections of the strips. The plots are constantly jumping around with many scenes taking place in three panels. Characters are constantly recapping earlier events of the story, and the scripts are laughably horrible. In one issue, an alien named Xanja from Planet Cygnorion comes to Earth looking for his cosmultigizer. I don’t make this up, trust me. These stories are dull, cringe-worthy, and difficult to read. (Leiber’s art is as stale as his writing as well.)

The following stories read as much like filler material as Leiber’s tales. Stefan Petrucha and Kaminsky tell a story of Spider-Man tracking down a few petty thieves, Dwight Jon Zimmerman spins a yarn of Spider-Man fighting corporate greed, and Bob Layton throws in a light-hearted anecdote of Peter’s misfortunes. These stories are not as awful as Leiber’s (Layton’s is the most amusing), but they do have the throw-away, low-risk quality of filler material. Traditional Spider-Man villains do not appear, nor does Peter’s supporting cast, and they are set in the past. Most likely, these are fill-in issues Owsley lined up in case writers missed deadlines. (Similar fill-ins are common during DeFalco’s Amazing run.) Salicrup probably found this fill-in inventory and decided to publish them in Web instead of finding a new regular creative team. Of course, the title suffers from poor direction once again.

In direct contrast to the out-of-continuity substitute material, the following issues tie directly into the contemporary stories of Amazing that messily wrap up DeFalco’s many plot threads. Former editor Owsley writes two fallout issues, giving backstory on both the Rose and the Hobgoblin in Web of Spider-Man #30. These stories are well-written, carefully plotted, and clarifying for the Gang War story, but the problem is they are too involved with the other books. Any reader who is only perusing Web will be utterly confused if they are not aware of the events of Amazing. Web truly becomes the B-title here, giving it no real voice other than that of the main title. This reflects problems with the title during Owsley’s editorial run, showing how much influence he had during his tenure.

Then comes the classic Kraven's Last Hunt that I have no words to describe. It’s a modern comic book masterpiece, the type of story anyone slightly interested in reading comics should be introduced to. After this, the Spider-Man titles tie together again for Ann Nocenti’s Mad Dog Ward. This story has the novel concept of throwing Spider-Man in a bizarre, somewhat horrific asylum, but Nocenti falls apart in its execution. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting story that doesn’t get enough attention since it follows one of the best Spider-Man stories. Nevertheless, these are temporary crossovers, and once it ends, Web is left in the same rut as before. Unfortunately, I haven’t read most of the following issues of Web before Conway’s run (nor do I want to), but I expect the same inconsistencies in them.

One bright element of Web is Ann Nocenti’s two quirky annuals that ran with the title. During the first, Future Max, Peter connects with an idiosyncratic kid, and their relationship is heart-warming. In the second, Peter and the New Mutant Warlock team-up in a fun tale with an interesting message about exploitation. Both of these stories are light and entertaining. With that said, they both have many problems, the main one being Spider-Man sidelined as a supporting character in his own stories. Nonetheless, Nocenti provides off-beat annuals to match the off-beat direction Owsley was aiming for in the title. Therefore, I mark these issues as successes.

If there is any reason for a fan to collect every issue of early Web, it is the artwork. In true anthology fashion, the artists switch off frequently, and most of them are fantastic. Industry veterans Jim Mooney, with his thick inking style, and Vince Colletta, with his clean, simple inking style, often pair with or switch off with up-and-coming artists like Greg La Rocque, notable for his subtly detailed pencils, and Marc Silvestri, featuring his energetic style. Sal Buscema, the ultimate storyteller, provides layouts for two issues, and Bob McLeod embellishes a story with his highly-detailed, moody style. Arthur Adams’ work for the second annual is intricately detailed and cartoony. The art team of Mike Harris and Kyle Baker captures a gritty mood that Steve Geiger also maintains. Even the art for the Salicrup fill-in issues aren’t bad, even if they aren’t particularly memorable either. The only low art point is Larry Leiber’s boring work, but I’ve already torn him up enough. And Charles Vess does some fantastic covers as well. Overall, the artwork is phenomenal.

With everything said and done, Web of Spider-Man faces many troubles being a third Spider-Man ongoing title, and it rarely finds its way in its early issues. Michelinie gives the title the most hope, but his time on the title is short. The majority of the stories are forgettable and mediocre, and only on a few occasions does it truly shine. Hardcore fans, the true completionists, will need to collect this title, but I highly suggest casual readers only find the stories by David, Michelinie, and Nocenti (maybe the first issue as well). As a whole, I give the first thirty issues a grade of 2.5 webs. Honestly, fans might have been better off if Marvel Team-Up simply continued instead of being replaced.