Ep. #4: The Fourth Age of Spider-Man

Al Sjoerdsma and Jonathan Couper-Smartt continue their journey through the "Ages of Spider-Man". Our progress so far:

The First Age
The Ditko Age
Amazing Fantasy #15Amazing Spider-Man #38
The Second Age
The Stan Lee Age
Amazing Spider-Man #39Amazing Spider-Man #150
The Third Age
The Experimental Age
Amazing Spider-Man #151Amazing Spider-Man #251

During the "Experimental Age", Marvel tried out various new concepts and formats under a constantly changing editorial leadership. It wasn't until the Secret Wars cross-over "Event" that they struck upon the magic formula which was to define their direction for the coming decades – an extended limited series which impacted all of the regular titles.

And that's where we pick up the Fourth Age of Spider-Man, early in 1984 with Secret Wars #1.

[Theme Song - "Blues in C minor"]

Jonathan: Hi Spider-Fans, welcome to Spider-Fan podcast number four.

Just to recap where we'd got to last time, we decided that the third age of Spider-Man ended with Amazing Spider-Man #251 with the end of the Hobgoblin Saga. And this new age began with Amazing Spider-Man #252 or Secret Wars #1.

With me today, I've got Al. Hi Al!

Al: Hey Jonathan.

Jonathan: There was a bunch of things we didn't mention last time. She-Hulk. Spider-Woman – to protect copyright of those characters, but also an attempt to attract more women comic readers. Tigra. Hellcat.

Various attempts – Black Panther, Luke Cage, Hector Ayala, Hobie Brown – panthers, tigers, cats everywhere – in an attempt to get African-American, Hispanic readers interested in comic books.

All of that pretty much failed. When you and I were down at our brand new comic books stores that we were visiting instead of our newsagents, we were a pretty generic bunch of white guys.

Al: Ha ha ha! We were highly generic, yes.

Jonathan: Heh. Now, we were nerds. And comic book collecting was still a little bit shameful back in 1984.

But at least we had friends.

Al: Oh yes! Yuh, we had shameful friends.

Jonathan: Heh. We did. We would go down to our comic book store instead of the newsagent. And our comic books would be given to us without writing on the cover. Yay! Without being creased and folded. And we would put them in bags, and we would take them home and stack them. We were changing our habits.

Al: That right. Whether for good or ill, I don't know. But we were indeed changing our habits.

Jonathan: Well, we were becoming slightly obsessive-compulsive...

Al: There you go.

Jonathan: We were... we were buying back issues. We were reading long complex story lines.

Al: Right, you know. And we were obsessive-compulsive before that. But I can remember any number of times where, as obsessive-compulsive as I was, I would still miss issues. And then you just, you had to be philosophical about it, because there wasn't any place to go to get those issues.

Jonathan: But that all changed.

Al: That all changed with the comic shop, absolutely.

Jonathan: Comics were starting to become – a little bit valued. They were still something weird for specialist collectors, but... Howard The Duck... sold for a lot of money.

Al: Yes it did... at first.

Jonathan: Uh, Punisher came out. Wolverine, in his Japanese phase.

Al: Uhuh.

Jonathan: There was a gradual shift towards... individual comics being worth money, and an increasing amount of attention paid towards individual creators. Superstars were starting to be born, and I'm talking about guys like Frank Miller – and John Byrne as well, was a big name.

Al: You had a situation where, because of comic shops and because of the direct market, you could suddenly put out mini-series, you could put out things that were direct market only, that you hoped would focus in on fan favorites. So suddenly fan favorites became a big deal, and they commanded a lot more money, and a lot more prestige.

So, you may have had fan favorites in the past with Stan, and Jack, and Steve. But that didn't help them financially, because you didn't have this market that was pin-pointed right to... an older market as well. Not just kids.

And once you take advantage of that market in a certain way, then you can bring about change. Some of which was very good for the creators, like Frank Miller and John Byrne.

Jonathan: Yeah, now. Because of that different environment and because of our different expectations, and because we were growing older. Those of us who'd started as young children or teenagers were now earning money. And we belonged to this nerdist little club, and we were prepared to pay our dues – we were prepared to buy three Spider-Man comics and nine X-Men comics per, per month.

Al: Right.

Jonathan: This direct channel also gave the ability to put up posters and to create some noise about upcoming events and get some excitement going. There was a guy behind the counter who knew about comics, he wasn't just selling newspapers – he actually could talk to you intelligently and get you hyped-up about things that were coming out.

He was incented to sell you comics, as well. Because in the newspaper model, the comics would ship to the stand. If they didn't sell, they would ship back again and there was a lot of wastage.

But in this direct comic book market, the guy behind the counter had bought twenty copies of Amazing Spider-Man. And if he didn't sell them, he was stuck with them. They would go in "the bins" and maybe they would sell eventually. But he was definitely motivated to get you excited.

Al: Right.

Jonathan: Look, the other thing as well, is the gradual increasing of comics book conventions. Now, I didn't get to one of those because I lived in New Zealand. But these conventions that started off very quiet one a year, started to spread throughout the United States, and these people were meeting these heroes and getting hyped, and announcements were being made and big reveals were being done.

Al: Yeah. And that of course, again, helps the stature of the creators. And it helps in terms of their financial well-being.

Jonathan: And that leads us to Frank Miller and John Byrne. Although Frank Miller didn't work actively on Spider-Man at that point, he was a critical turning point in the relationship of Marvel with their creators. They'd ended up in this awkward situation with Superman [over at DC of course, but Marvel was watching that closely - Ed.] and Captain America where it was muddy. Jack Kirby. It was not at all clear about who owned what.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: And this was hanging over them. And so there was a lot of pressure. Jim Shooter. To put contracts in front of the writers, which took away their rights.

Al: Right.

Jonathan: And a lot of them signed that, because they wanted to stay in business.

Al: Exactly. I mean, you had, of the comic comic industry you have a whole history of creators being screwed – going all the way back to, as you just referenced Superman, to Siegel & Schuster. And that starts to change amongst the creators. They start to want to become more than just work-for-hire.

More opportunities open up. There are more, what they call "independent" comic companies. There were companies coming up at this time like Eclipse and First.

Jonathan: Yeah... those are made possible because of guys like Frank Miller who made his name big with the Death of Elektra and Bullseye and that story-line within Marvel.

He eventually went to DC with his own creation Ronin. Simultaneously Marvel suddenly realized, especially when he went, that they were in trouble. And they succumbed to pressure in the reverse direction and starting giving commissions/incentives to writers [and especially to writer/artists - Ed.] who were writing hugely popular books.

Al: Right, exactly. So you have people like Frank Miller going to DC. You have John Byrne eventually going to DC and revamping Superman. And then you have these other companies putting out independent comics. So you have creators of the time like Marshall Rogers, and Steve Englehart, and Steve Gerber, and Doug Moench, and so on.

Which means that you have a situation where the major companies have to do something. They can't just say "You're going to have to take this work for hire contract or else you're gone..." because there are other avenues for people.

Jonathan: So, as part of them becoming these fan favorites – they play to that I feel a little bit, and they start to become more extreme in their individual styles. And that leads us to – obviously the third member of that rock star trio which is Todd McFarlane, who is specifically for Spider-Man.

Al: Yes, and I think that that's where this age ends and the next one begins.

Jonathan: You think Todd McFarlane's that big?

Al: I do. Because I think he influences not just the artistic style of all sorts of people that come after like Eric Larson and Rob Liefeld, and so on. But I think he assists in the transition to what becomes in the nineties the emphasis almost totally on artwork as opposed to story.

Then you come to this change where you have big guns... heh, heh.

Jonathan: Heh.

Al: Heh... and big physiques. And lots of just sort of... issues that are nothing but battles for the whole thing. With hardly any story there to speak of at all.

Jonathan: And we're getting... we're getting art with... full page art... no panels, just one big panel.

Al: Yes exactly.

Jonathan: Or two pages, side-by-side, making one panel. Or a gatefold so you can get three pages making up one panel. And of course each of those panels is filled with heroic figures with tiny heads and triangular-shaped bodies with twelve abdominal muscles – which they need to lug their seventeen guns from one fight to the next.

Al: Of course, the other thing that I think makes McFarlane important is that he is the guy who spearheads the transition to Image comics, which is also a big deal at that time. So I think that McFarlane essentially becomes his own age, and so I think the next one should begin with Amazing #298.

But we're talking about the previous age.

Jonathan: What are the characteristics of this Fourth Age? If, if we go with #298, the first Todd McFarlane. It's unfortunate that it doesn't exactly line up with the first Venom. Because #298 and #299 of course were the Chance two-part story, with Venom appearing at the end of #299 and making his full appearance in the unforgettable Amazing Spider-Man #300.

So, what are the – what are the characteristics of this age then. The big thing I guess we have to mention is the marriage of Peter Parker and Mary Jane. Which also was the first variant cover – a little taster of much more to come in the 90's.

Al: Well, I think as you have the company become more and more aware of the fact that their audience is now adult, and their audience is a group that will buy issue after issue after issue, and will buy things like variant covers, then that allows them to do certain things that they could never do before.

Besides variants, you have multiple part stories that run through several different titles.

Jonathan: 'Cos we're buying three different titles, and we're committed to it.

Al: Exactly. So you have for instance Kraven's Last Hunt which is in Amazing, Spectacular, and Web.

Jonathan: Times two.

Al: Times two. And then you have the Secret Wars, which sort of spreads over this entire little period of time I think. In which you are trying to get people to not only buy a maxi-series, which is something else you couldn't have really, necessarily, years before.

And then you try and tie in various issues to that maxi-series. So you not only have Secret Wars, but it erupts into Secret Wars 2.

Jonathan: Yeah, Secret Wars 2 carries on this thing of actually putting specifically on the cover "Secret Wars II Tie-In" so that you can stand down at the comic book shelves and you can look along and say "Well, I need this and that and this and that..."

And I bought all of those Secret Wars tie-ins. Just to make sure they were complete.

Al: Yeah, but when you bought all those tie-ins, a lot of them had very little to do with Secret Wars 2.

Jonathan: Exactly. But this was Marvel testing the boundaries of our wallets.

Al: Yeah. And you also had the beginning of something which still continues today, where you had disruptions of continuity because issues had to conform in some way to Secret Wars 2. So in the midst of different things going on with Amazing Spider-Man you suddenly get these strange issues where the Puma is trying to kill the Beyonder, or whatever the heck that all was.

Which really was not anything that the dedicated Amazing Spider-Man reader really wanted to read at that time.

Jonathan: There's plenty of other little things that do happen. The death of Ned Leeds and his reveal to be, temporarily, the Hobgoblin...

Al: Right, exactly. There's a number of things that are, seem like very big changes in this period of time – a couple of which are still with us today.

So you have the, you have the introduction of the black costume of course, after Secret Wars. Both the symbiote, and the, the cloth costume that's black that the Black Cat makes for Peter.

Peter quits school. Peter quits school, for a while.

You have the, the whole notion – which I've never cared for, because I don't think it works continuity-wise – that Mary Jane has known that he was Spider-Man from the very beginning. You have J. Jonah Jameson marrying Marla Madison. You have the birth of Normie Osborn. One other thing that is important during this time, and that's the death of Jean DeWolff.

Jonathan: Uh, if we had to pick one thing that defined the whole age?

Al: Even though there's a lot of things going on, I tend to think that the age has been mired-down by two things. So I would pick one or the other as the age.

It would either be Secret Wars 2, or it would be the Hobgoblin, which went on and on and on and nobody knew how to end it, and then it was ended in a really unsatisfying manner.

Jonathan: I would toss a third option into the mix, because it matches very tidily. Which is, the black costume.

The age starts with the black costume, and it finishes at essentially the moment where Peter strips off the costume and promises to Mary Jane that he will never wear it again.

Al: That's good. That's very good, actually. The whole notion of the black costume, I think you're right. You first of all have him come back from the Secret Wars. Then you discover that it's a symbiote, which is drawing his life force or whatever the heck it's doing.

Jonathan: Hmmhmm.

Al: He continues in the black costume that is not the living black costume. And a long the way, the black costume is debased in various ways. And one way of course is that Kraven wears it in Kraven's Last Hunt.

So I think that by the time you get connection of the debasing of the black costume, and the symbiote with Eddie Brock. Yes, the black costume as something that Peter should be wearing has definitely come to an end.

Jonathan: Now this also ties in as well in Spectacular because he's wearing his black costume and hanging out with the Black Cat.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: Who in fact makes him a costume, as I think you mentioned.

Al: Right.

Jonathan: In a surprising piece of domesticity.

Al: Yes. Haha! Exactly! Who would have thought!

Jonathan: The Black Cat. Well, you know, she – she's supposedly tough. But, she's a sucker for Spider-Man.

Al: Yeah, as long uh, as long as she doesn't see the face underneath the mask.

Jonathan: You know, there's plenty of other stuff going on there. Did we mention the Wolverine one-shot? The Peter David issues which are delicious but very, very dark.

Al: Yeah, it gets darker. The Wolverine is actually a good point because you end up with the, uh, the standalone issue Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1 which is where Ned Leeds is killed.

Jonathan: Absolutely. And you know, Peter David – Peter David's "dark" issues again tie in with the black costume. It's almost like the, the Batman you know he goes through his Dark Knight phase.

Al: Yes, so you're starting, you see all these things sort of nascent that become things later on. So... when you have... Todd McFarlane taking over, you do have a lot of very dark stories – mainly the Venom stories.

When you have Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1 as a standalone issue, it's sort of a prelude to the period of time with McFarlane and Liefeld and so on when you're going to have all of these team-ups with what are considered the top characters. So suddenly it's Spider-Man and Ghost Rider and Wolverine and Hulk all meeting together.

Jonathan: And the Punisher, don't forget the Punisher!

Al: And the Punisher. Absolutely the Punisher. So yes, you can see that sort of... "birthing" during this period of time. But it takes McFarlane, I think, and that new direction of what his artwork is and what it represents, to really have that explode.

Jonathan: OK Al, so we have it pretty much nailed down. The Fourth Age of Spider-Man is the "Black Costume Age of Spider-Man", and it begins in Secret Wars #1. If we're going to say that it's the black costume age, then I'm going to make the case that it runs all the way up to Amazing Spider-Man #299.

Because Amazing Spider-Man #300 is the first time where Venom is the guy, fully shown, in the black costume. And Peter in Amazing Spider-Man #300 takes off his black costume and swaps to the red-and-blues.

So I'm going to say that Amazing Spider-Man #300 is the start of the Fifth Age of Spider-Man, and Amazing Spider-Man #299 is the end of the Fourth Age. How do you feel about that?

Al: Well, I was going to dispute with you, because I think that the next age is the Todd McFarlane Age, whether we call it that or not, and that it should begin with Todd's first issue, which is #298.

But... there is sort of a nice dove-tailing leading into #300, of McFarlane coming into his own, in which he is for the first time in #300 both pencilling and inking. Which he doesn't do consistently through his whole run, but he does a fair amount of both. With the first story of Venom. Which does sort of draw a close to Peter wearing the black costume.

Venom, no matter what you may think of the character, is a significant change in Spider-Man. To a very different tone and a very different look.

So maybe it's a nice way to dove-tail it and say: "Well – Todd's first two issues are sort of a practice run for the Fifth Age. And the Fourth Age does end with #299 and the Fifth Age begins with #300." So I'll go with you on that.

Jonathan: OK. Nice. Let's compromise and do it my way.

OK, so there we have it. It's a short Fourth Age – four years – but it's the Black Costume Age of Spider-Man. And it really is a little preparation, a little taster, of the excesses that Marvel is going to come back with in spades when they become taken over by Perelman and list on the stock exchange.

Then we're really into the variant covers, the die-cut covers, and all bets are off.

Al: Daugh.

Jonathan: They... they find the limits of our wallets during the Fifth Age, which we'll cover next episode.

Al: Yes they do. Don't forget those hologram covers!

Jonathan: Oh, I loved my hologram covers!

OK Al, well that's brilliant. Uh, thanks and we'll see you in a few weeks time for the Fifth Age of Spider-Man.

Al: Can't wait, Jonathan!