Pocket Star Books (a division of Simon and Schuster) are the current source of Marvel tie-in novels. Their range includes four Spider-Man books so far, one every year from 2005 to 2008. This is the third in the Spider-Man run, published late in 2007.
All are in standard paper-back format (4.25" x 6.75") each around 300 pages. This one is by Christopher L. Bennett, who like his predecessor Jim Butcher is a huge fan of Spider-Man, Star Trek and much other Sci-Fi. Bennett's writing credits to date are predominantly a half-dozen or more Star Trek novels. This is his first foray into Marvel territory.
WARNING: This book is a bit of a "who-dunnit". I'm going to reveal the mastermind behind it all, so stop reading right now if you intend to read the novel yourself and you don't want to spoil the surprise.
Spider-Man novels all suffer from the same great curse. To truly succeed novel needs to advance its characters from a starting point, to a finishing point. The journey is the thing. However, true plot advancement is forbidden in comic tie-in novels. Add to that the fact (both wonderful yet tragic) that comic books and prose fiction are not the same format. A story can work well in serialized sequential art, yet fall completely flat when bereft of illustration.
But that's not the end of the challenge. Part of the joy in most novels is the discovery, the revealing of the protagonists. Again, a comic book tie-in novel begins with its main characters already fully developed, set in stone. With such terrible constraints, the author is working with at least one hand tied behind their back. I don't envy them their task. Having said that, Jim Butcher did a pretty good job in the preceding novel, Spider-Man: The Darkest Hours. But that's certainly one of the exceptions.
So what can poor Christopher L. Bennett hope to do? Well, all is not lost. He does have a few options remaining, and he attempts them all. Firstly, he can look to take existing characters and examine key characteristics from different angles, or similarly he can attempt to identify common attributes in characters. Secondly, he can go for all-out action. Thirdly, there's the "whodunnit" option. His success varies.
Let's get the negative aspects over with first. Number one for me is that Bennett continually breaks the number one rule of fiction writing. "Show me, don't just tell me." A simple example:
The ducts were narrow, and a normal human being couldn't have negotiated their curves, but Spidey could bend in ways a normal human could not.
Now, class. Who can tell me what is wrong with this sentence? Yes, you at the back. Correct. The writer is telling us what happened. He does not show us. For example, better would be:
Entering the narrow ducts, Spider-Man wormed his way through the constricting curves. At every turn, his uncanny musculature bent into angles no normal human could ever achieve.
This is just one paragraph, and you may think I'm being picky. But the book is filled with countless examples of this passive writing habit. So many times a half page, a page, or more would pass with Bennett telling us what Spider-Man could do, and not letting Spider-Man himself free to actually perform the actions. The final result is dead writing, full of detachment and leached of any sense of action or urgency.
There other terrible habits, equally as distracting. The writing is frequently verbose.
[Spider-Man tossed his web cartridges...] through the blades, aiming just beside the central shaft. There the blades were at their slowest, having the smallest angular distance to cover in a given amount of time.
How irrelevant. If you understand angular velocity, then the explanation is unnecessary. If you don't then it adds no value. So sure the following suffices:
[Spider-Man tossed his web cartridges...] through the blades, aiming just beside the central shaft, where the blades were at their slowest.
This habit of over-writing is repeated in other ways. Sometimes the extra information is simply an irrelevant distraction (e.g. page 116, a description of MJ visiting a bookshop at some time in the past). At other times (e.g. page 100, again MJ) Bennett pauses to describes a characters personality and motivation in such overbearing detail that nothing is left to us, the reader, to imagine. What role then do we the audience serve?
When the writer tells you everything, forcing the details down your throat - well, it's hard to find much pleasure in the act of reading. But wait. There's more. Bennett has an irritating habit of tossing in obscure literary and pop culture references every page or two. He also tends to edge into "sexy" territory when Peter and MJ are alone, in a naive way that makes me cringe. Both annoying, but there's still one more big problem to mention.
The last big problem with this book is the way that every character's background is described in extensive detail when they first appear. In this, the writer is clearly exercising his considerable knowledge of Spider-Man's in-continuity history, for which I naturally commend him. But since I'm already familiar with all these characters, then I find myself completely frustrated by these continual pauses for two-page back-histories every time a new character drifts past.
In some cases, these detailed back-histories can almost be justified... for example, Electro and Mendel Stromm are both major villains, and some exposition is unavoidable - though as always, Bennett can't resist passing from helpful to excessive. But in other cases, there's no possible excuse at all. Flash Thompson and Liz Allen both make a cameo appearance, and their current status is explained in detail... why is Flash crippled, what is Liz's current status. A couple of pages is allocated to doing this. But to what possible end? Neither character plays any further role in the story! The same goes for Betty Brant, Caryn & Barker, and others.
It's almost as if this detail is added purely to demonstrate that the writer is familiar with the current comic book continuity. Well... yes, well done. Very clever. But only two years on, the comic continuity is changed out of recognition. Flash is no longer (as per the novel) in a coma... instead he's now (in current comics) a crippled Iraq veteran. Instantly the novel is fatally dated, and those pages serve to do nothing but to bore the reader.
Really, perhaps Mr. Bennett should have written a Spider-Man Encyclopedia, where his page-long theories on how Spider-Man's Spider-Sense and Wall-Crawling powers work would be much better fitted in context. Instead his character profiles and musings leave us with 300 pages of story, but only 50 pages worth of plot scattered thinly around.
With writing errors that should have been picked up in lesson one of a "how to write fiction" course, and far too much of the book given over to describing characters rather than actually using them, this makes for a pretty tedious read. That's a shame really, because there's nothing particularly wrong with the underlying plot.
Oh yeah, that's right, I was going to spoil the ending for ya. Hmm... well, let's just say, the story follows on (a couple of years later) from the events which concluded in Peter Parker: Spider-Man (Vol. 2) #28.
It's not all bad. There's Electro, some robot battles, and a guessing game to figure out which villain (capable of controlling both people and robots) is behind it all. There's also a theme about Peter deciding to get tough and act on instinct (which fails him in this case), and another theme where both Peter and JJJ imagine the other is the mastermind (which of course neither is).
But really, it doesn't fill the book. There's too much padding, too many pointless character expositions, and a silly little sub-plot to do with Peter's students accidentally stumbling into the path of one of the robots. Perhaps a trimmed-down and heavily edited version of this tale could have made a decent short story. But for a novel, it's a failure.
One and a half webs.