In the good old days of long-running team-up books, Marvel Team-Up starred Spider-Man and Marvel Two-In-One starred the Thing. So teaming the two in Avenging Spider-Man’s first annual is a natural. But is the story worthy of the team-up?
Frankie and Spags, two rather dim brothers from Brooklyn, use a metal detector in Central Park. (Is anybody really named Spags? Even in Brooklyn?) As Frankie puts it, “Central Park is where the FF and the Avengers always come to fight invading aliens.” He reasons that some “cool alien stuff” must have been left behind. And he’s right because the brothers dig up a device. When Frankie pushes a button, everyone around them starts acting violently but the brothers are too dim to notice.
It isn’t until they take a taxi, which gets in an accident, that they notice all of the violence around them. (“Wow,” says Frankie, “it’s cousin Darla’s wedding all over again.”) Realizing that they are the only ones unaffected, Frankie and Spags figure out that the “box” they are holding must be causing it. Frankie gets on his phone and calls his friend Beans to set up a meeting with a Brooklyn hood called the Top Dog. (Yes, that’s right. Frank and Beans talk on the phone setting up a meeting with Top, rather than Hot, Dog. I’m not even from Brooklyn and already I’m getting insulted by this.)
Spidey is also in the area and he does his best to break up the fights. (Spidey does not seem affected himself. Why? I don’t know.) He webs up a bunch of pedestrians then notices Frankie and Spags driving off, having stolen a cab. “When you’ve been in this game as long as I have, you can usually recognize a getaway car,” he says and attaches himself to the cab. But he is knocked off his perch by the Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Thing who definitely is affected and screams at Spidey, “You owe me thirty bucks from our last poker game, ya cheatin’ wall-crawlin’ bum!” They fight for a page until interrupted by Franklin Richards and his always-annoying sister Val, both souped up with rage. Val annoyingly tells Spidey, “Leave Uncle Ben alone! He’s plainly having the inherent aggressive tendencies enhanced by some form of nefarious artificial external energy field! We need to find the projector of said field and deactivate it before people get badly hurt! That said, touch my Uncle again and we’ll rip your freaking head off!” Sigh.
Spidey has a pretty good idea where the “external energy field” is so he takes off after Frankie and Spags who have again driven off in their taxi. Seeing the increasing mayhem around him, Spags has second thoughts and tries to talk Frankie into turning off the box. Frankie shoves him out of the cab and carries on alone. He arrives at a warehouse where the Top Dog is waiting for him. The Dog is surrounded by a half-dozen slavering curs and a crew of armed men wearing boxing headgear with (I kid you not) imitation dog ears attached on each side of them. Before Frankie can pick up his 2 million dollars, the box works on the gang and they begin shooting each other. Then Spidey and the Thing come crashing in, battling each other. Frankie tries to turn the box off but the Dog snatches it away from him. Spidey snatches it away from the Dog but the Thing attacks him again and the box hits the ground hard, its setting changing from hate to love. The Dog cuddles up with his animals. Spidey and the Thing get into some serious kissing. As Frankie tries to retrieve the now-spilled money, Spags shows up. When Frankie sees him, the love seems to work on him as well. Spags asks the Thing to smash the box and he, with love, complies. The Thing, himself again, mops up the floor with the Dog and his gang. Frankie and Spags run for it. Spidey pursues. “They kinda saved the day, Spider-Man,” Val says, “Be nice.” And Spidey is, only hanging them upside down in his webbing. The brothers seem unconcerned by their fate, apparently still feeling the love from the box. Spidey has residual effects too. As he web-swings away he wonders, “Why do I feel the urge to buy flowers for the Thing?”
For all of his wise-cracking, Spidey has traditionally lived in a deadly serious super-hero world. This doesn’t mean that all of the web-slinger’s stories have to be serious. There have been some excellent humorous issues (Amazing Spider-Man Annual #19, 1985 comes to mind) but the key to a humor issue is that it, you know, has to be humorous. Spidey writers, of late, seem to think that the character’s constant quips mean he is a happy-go-lucky comedian rather than the clown who is laughing to keep from crying. (How else to explain Spidey’s new characterization of a wiseass whenever he is in the costume, no matter who he is dealing with?) They have increasingly used that wiseass characterization as a license to create silly stories that put Spidey in embarrassing situations. The danger isn’t usually to Spidey’s life but to his dignity. Avenging has become a magnet for such stories which have appeared in #s 7, 9, 10, 12, and 13. (Where we had cats in Avenging Spider-Man #7, we have dogs here.) Those issues have mostly failed because they are too silly to suspend our disbelief but not silly enough to be truly funny. This story has the same problem.
It begins with the characterization or lack of same. Whatever characters details are there are used only in the service of the joke. Frankie is the best example of this. He is so stupid as to be an utter caricature. (Again, if I was from Brooklyn, I’d be a little insulted.) Are we really expected to believe that Frankie thinks the working day is 9 to 4 (with the last hour overtime)? Or that his brother needs an operation even though Spags keep telling him he doesn’t? No, none of this is to be taken seriously. It is stupidity as humor, except that none of this is very funny. The Top Dog is supposed to be a stone-cold killer but his entourage with their dog ears makes mockery of that and he doesn’t seem to pose much of a threat. And did the Top Dog really bring two millions dollars in a suitcase on the say-so of a guy named Beans? He was really going to pay Frankie all that money?
The super-heroes are also two-dimensional. Spidey is the sad sack, even in the one page in which he appears as Peter Parker where he is shoved out of an overcrowded subway car by a snide couple who lecture him on the obsolescence of print media. The Thing gets one page of embarrassment babysitting a pack of kids before being reduced by the device to an angry oaf screaming for his poker winnings. Val Richards becomes even more annoying than usual, if that’s possible. And even the box has no characterization. It has no origin, no rationale. It can control emotions but to what end? It is simply a device in more ways than one. If this was a theatrical production, I would say that it is not a play but, rather, a sketch.
The thing is, I like Rob Williams' work from 2000 AD. I know he is capable of good writing. But I think he got caught up in the whole “a wise-cracking Spidey needs a wise-cracking story” idea and, like Kevin Shinick in issues #12-13, is trying too hard. Rob finishes here with a short essay on the letter page in which he decries the cynicism of the world and how Spidey is beloved because he is capable of so much kindness. Kind of makes me feel like a heel (especially for my dislike of the Richards kid). But it doesn’t change my opinion of this issue.
Artist Brad Walker has worked on Guardians of the Galaxy, Batman, and Superman, but this is the first time I’ve seen his work. His art is clean and detailed, with expressive faces and dynamic action. Check out the detail of the city on page 1, panel 1 (there’s even some birds flying in the background). Check out Spidey practically bursting out of the panel even as he relaxes on top of the bus on page 6, panel 3. Check out Spags and Frankie smacking up against the taxi’s window on page 7, panel 5. Check out the enraged Thing standing over Spidey on page 11, with speed lines crossing nearly the entire page to propel the fleeing taxi and the shadows on Spidey’s mask to show his vulnerability. And check out Frankie’s face throughout the entire issue as he runs a gamut of emotions all perceptible at a glance. I’d like to see more Brad Walker on Spider-Man.
Two webs, mostly on the strength of Brad’s artwork. And Rob, I know you can do much better. I’ve seen it. I’d love to see you tackle Spidey again. But, next time, don’t try so hard.