Ep. #5: The Fifth 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
Aug 1962 - Jul 1966 (4 years)
The Second Age
The Stan Lee Age
Amazing Spider-Man #39Amazing Spider-Man #150
Aug 1966 - Nov 1975 (9 years)
The Third Age
The Experimental Age
Amazing Spider-Man #151Amazing Spider-Man #251
Dec 1975 - Apr 1984 (9.5 years)
The Fourth Age
The Black Costume Age
Secret Wars #1Amazing Spider-Man #299
May 1984 - Apr 1988 (4 years)

Last episode we settled the "Fourth Age of Spider-Man" to be the "Black Costume Age". It was the dawn of Marvel's hyper-commercialization, and featured Secret Wars and Secret Wars II as the foundational universe-spanning "Marvel Events" which were to become a permanent structural fixture over the years to come.

We pick up the Fifth Age of Spider-Man in 1988. Peter Parker has just ditched the Black Costume, and Venom has taken it up. Todd McFarlane is just about to play the central role in re-inventing Spider-Man comics.

[Theme Song - "Blues in C minor"]

Jonathan: Hi Spider-Fans, and welcome to episode five of the Ages of Spider-Man — our pass through the ages of Spider-Man looking at the key turning points both commercial and creative... and structural. With me today I've got Al Sjoerdsma. Hi Al!

Al: Hello Jonathan!

Jonathan: Nice to (er) see you as we transition from (er) spring into summer.

Al: Nice to see you as we transition from autumn into winter.

Jonathan: Exactly! Last time we... covered off the Fourth Age of Spider-Man, being the "Black Costume Age of Spider-Man" which we started in Secret Wars #1 and we ran all the way up to Amazing Spider-Man #299. And with Amazing Spider-Man #300 and the start of Venom, we called that the beginning of the Fifth Age.

Al: Yes, I believe we did.

Jonathan: Let's talk about the characteristics and the attributes of the Fifth Age. What kind of attitudes Marvel had towards the character, what creators were important, how comics changed.

Obviously Venom was huge. And I think Venom represented a transition that Carnage then... extended. That darker, more gritty... what Venom did on a scale of 5, Carnage came and did on a scale of 10.

Al: Yes. You know, I don't know what the state of the comics code was at this point. But certainly it was a lot laxer than it used to be.

Just as you had a point where the comics code suddenly allowed vampires again, and all of a sudden you had a Dracula comic and Morbius the Living Vampire and so on. At this point for whatever reason, it seems to me that, the mainstream comics were getting more violent. Heroes were becoming killers, to some extent. Like the Punisher, Wolverine, and so on.

So it's sort of a natural progression I think to go from Venom being this murderous... villain, who because of (uh) his popularity ends up on some level becoming a hero.

The way you make him a hero of course, is you make a similar villain who is even worse than he is.

Jonathan: Heh heh. That's right. You... you move the goal posts.

Al: Right, exactly.

Jonathan: The extremes become the center.

You know, I think... Punisher, Wolverine, and Ghost Rider are important because there was a changing of the guard at this point.

I call these "The Cool Kids". It was very clear that there was a "club". The Punisher/Wolverine/Ghost Rider — Spider-Man was among them. Putting aside the X-Men for now. They were the guys that you guest-starred in order to kick off a new comic.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: If you had one of these series of endless "number ones". Then you would, you would put Spider-Man in it to make sure that at least an extra thirty-thousand people went and bought a copy of that comic.

Al: Right. There was the "new Fantastic Four", briefly. What was that? That was like Spider-Man, Wolverine, Ghost Rider, and Hulk. Or something like that.

Jonathan: That was very brief, but yeah, absolutely.

Al: Yeah, it was very brief. But that is emblematic of what you're talking about.

Jonathan: It, it absolutely is. And... there always an A-List/B-List thing, and that the A-List... even back in the 60's and 70's was Spider-Man, Captain America, and the Hulk. They were the go-to guys. They were the guys that you would see on, on a Slurpee's cup.

Al: Ha ha ha. I have a lot of those Slurpee's cups!

Jonathan: Heh, heh. Well exactly my point!

Al: Ha ha ha ha ha.

Jonathan: You know, they were the headliners, but... I always felt of that as being a very gentle sort of elitism, in that they were the more recognized but there was nothing mean about it.

Whereas I kind of feel that the Punisher/Wolverine/Ghost Rider it was more of a "Mean Girls", "Cool Kids Club" that you didn't belong to if you, if you, if you were a B-lister.

So that is a major aspect of this age. We've got these cool kids running around with their guns and their knives and their hellfire, making guest appearances left, right, and center. Spreading themselves very thinly.

Al: And that is an aspect I think of... of where we are with this age. I think another aspect of it is that the art becomes much more important than the story. The art takes precedence.

And that is exemplified in Spider-Man with Todd McFarlane, and then later Erik Larsen.

Jonathan: Yes indeed. There's a number of subtle changes going on. We've talked about the shift towards violence and edginess. Guns become a far more prevalent feature and you get characters like Solo. Obviously Punisher as well.

But it's far more common to see villains with guns, and even the anti-heroes with guns.

Al: That's right, and the guns get bigger and bigger.

Jonathan: And correspondingly the characters get more extreme. Spider-Man was always a little wiry guy and he was exempt from the worst of it. But over in the X-Force and the X-Men the heads got smaller and the chests got bigger.

Al: Well you have to have a big chest like that in order to heft up those big guns!

Jonathan: Well, exactly. One leads to the other!

Even outside of Marvel, we're seeing, aah... Spawn I think is worth mentioning. Todd McFarlane eventually goes on to have his own successful character.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: And it's a constant shift towards the edginess and the darkness, and the anti-heroism.

Look, the other thing that is happening increasingly in America, genuinely R16 and R18 comic books with real sex and real violence. Genuine "adult" comics. Which historically have been a thing in Europe for a long, long time.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: And the underground has featured them to some extent in America. Comix – C.O.M.I.X.

But there becomes a genuine, almost edge of mainstream commercial comics market for sex and violence. Which generates its own push-back, of course.

Al: Yes, yes.

Jonathan: I don't think it's important commercially, because they were always a niche market. But to my mind again it's indicative of... you introduce an even more extreme and suddenly what was the center has space that it can move into. Become itself more "sexy".

For example, Mary Jane was all of a sudden a "cheesecake" figure in Spider-Man after, or even slightly before the marriage. We're seeing her in lingerie, and posing on couches.

Al: Yeah. And I think it's around this time that you end up with these Marvel Magazines that are the marvel "Swimsuit Issues". Uh, there were actually men in there as well, to be fair. But mostly these women super-heroes in bikinis... drawn in bikinis.

Jonathan: I mean that's exactly right. There became a whole series of what they called "date magazines". Mostly independent, mostly outside of Marvel.

So, we've just talked about sex and violence. Obviously the final point in that trilogy is money! Because all of this was about money.

Al: Oh yeah, it's always about money.

Jonathan: Well it was always about money, but the amount of money suddenly increased.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: So when it comes to money. There's a couple of groups of people I want to talk about. The first is Ron Perelman, who really was making money. He bought into Marvel from Revlon, and he was growing the business as quickly as he possibly could, to cash out big time through the junk bonds.

And I don't want to get into the details of that. That's a whole separate discussion. And the book to read on that is a book called Comic Wars which talks about that in painful detail blow-by-blow. Although of course the Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe is also a great reference for that.

But the deal was that Marvel went public, and all of a sudden they were looking at big bucks. And we saw that in the comics, by the increasing number of comics. The increasing number of "number ones" – you know, Cage #1, Silver Sable #1, Solo #1, Black Cat #1. Anybody who moved that looked they might start another comic got a... a new series thrown at them.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: But also of course we're getting the die-cuts, the foils, the holograms, and those evil, evil variant covers.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: So Marvel... Marvel decided to double down on that growth of the market, even if it ended up that they consumed themselves.

Al: Right, well. It's very short-sighted thinking. But then it's always short-sighted thinking.

But it was also the time of great speculation in comics.

Jonathan: Exactly. And those are the guys in my second group when it comes to talking about money – these guys who are buying lots of comics, not because they love the comics but because they think they can sell them for a profit in the future.

Al: And I'm not sure what prompted that. I'm not sure what is the chicken and what is the egg in all this.

But you certainly had people that were thinking they were going to invest in comics. There was somehow this notion that if you bought all the covers of Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man #1 that you were going to be amassing a fortune.

For the briefest of times, you could've. If you were like, a short-seller.

The prime example of that, it was the whole "Valiant" comics company which exploded in terms of value in the short term... and then collapsed down to be essentially worthless I think at this point.

Jonathan: Well that, that was the lie. The lie was that there was money to be made.

The reality is that only one in a hundred comics actually were worthwhile as an investment, and attempting to predict those was very difficult.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: The comics that I remember, the Marvel comics that I remember that started that second phase, you know, putting aside Howard the Duck #1 which was an earlier aberration.

Al: Right.

Jonathan: The Wolverine four-part limited series, and the Punisher five-part limited series were the comics that weren't printed in huge numbers and then those characters did take off. And they did jump in value maybe by, they went from one dollar comics to genuinely being forty or fifty dollar comics.

But Wizard Magazine were the, the real evil guys there. And of course, the Comic Book Price Guide – "Overstreet".

Al: Well. So. You know. In the short term, if there's a feeding frenzy for a particular issue, it's going to jump way up in value. But it's holding no long term value at all.

Now you mentioned the Wolverine and the Punisher mini-series. That's another aspect of what you were talking about, with characters exploding into their own series. You had the beginnings in the 80's of the mini-series.

And I think actually the first "mini-series" ever... ah, I believe it was a DC series. I think it was... World of Krypton?

[Correct. In fact it was 1979. -- Ed]

But that allows you suddenly to do things, again, in the short term. You don't have to worry about where, uh, the Black Cat's going to be, fifty issues down the line. And you can tell complete stories. But that certainly helps them in terms of putting out [a] lot more number ones.

Jonathan: That certainly does. And that was when we started to see the special covers. The "number ones" typically would have a die-cut cover, or a glossy cover. That was the beginning of the attempt to squeeze more money without creating new material – without the expense of hiring an artist and a writer.

To say just... "Hand over more money please". And we said "Yes" most of the time. I certainly did.

Al: Heh, heh, heh. Yes, we did.

Yeah, but you know, in the meantime. When you have this emphasis on this certain art style, the stories really suffer. And if you look back at a lot of those stories, during that period of time. Many of them are almost unreadable, now that we're sort of past the fascination with the big chests and the big guns and that particular art style.

It's like waking up after a bad trip and saying, you know... "What in the world was that?"

Jonathan: Yeah, you know. What did, what did we do to ourselves? What were we prepared to accept from Marvel.

Because, I think, the focus on money at Marvel showed itself[es] in those stories. It was very much about superficial, whatever would capture the eyes on the stands.

And there were some under... underlying writers who will still doing their best.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: But under very difficult and very constrained circumstances.

Al: Yeah, and, and you did have guys that were doing their best. David Michelinie was doing his best on Amazing Spider-Man.

But I'm assuming this was a dictate from on high. This was not his choice. You have a lot of these multi-part stories that start coming into Amazing Spider-Man. And a lot of them are, you know, six issues when two would suffice. Just dragging things out.

You know, I know that some of those stories have their fans. I'm assuming that's people that were at "the golden age" at the time those things came out.

Jonathan: Sure, as in... "The golden age of comics is whatever you read as a fourteen year old."

Al: Exactly. But stories like the Round Robin, Sidekicks, or whatever that was, and Maximum Carnage... what are some of the other ones... The Revenge of the Sinister Six...

Jonathan: Look, you're quite right. Amazing Spider-Man is, creatively, a disaster during this period. Despite some crossovers into... Maximum Carnage for example that historically was a long-lasting piece of intellectual property for Marvel — they got a lot of mileage out of it.

But again, from a creative point of view, is there anything that is salvageable from Amazing Spider-Man during that period?

Al: To me, the, the Amazing... the best Amazing stories were the Venom stories. They actually I think are quite good, if you look back on them now. Until of course they have to make Venom an anti-hero. Then they fall apart.

But there's other issues, while they seemed OK at the time, are filled with a lot of very forgettable characters. And a lot of very forgettable villains.

You had Cardiac, you had Styx and Stone...jn

Jonathan: I was gonna say, Styx and Stone[s]. The Jury?

Al: The Jury.

Jonathan: Robots and armored suits came along with guns as well.

Al: The Tri-Sentinel. All of these sorts of things.

And meanwhile at the same time. And, you know, I'm an old-time fan. And, you know, I grew up with the old original stuff, so this is my bias.

But at the same time over in "Web" and "Spectacular", you had Gerry Conway and Sal Buscema, doing their thing, for quite a while, and putting out some really interesting stories which were mostly... ignored. Because of the flamboyance of the McFarlane/Larson Amazing issues.

Jonathan: The Tombstone stories, for example.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: I'm a fan of Sal Buscema, I like that splattery art style. That... ink all over the place.

Al: Yeah, so do I.

You know, Conway was building these, like, multi-layered stories that were going on and on.

Jonathan: Mmm.

Al: You know, almost like an old movie serial.

Jonathan: Vermin, Lobos Brothers.

Al: Absolutely, all of those characters. Some of them are, I guess, are... rather forgettable now too. But some of them, like the Lobos Brothers, came to a pretty definite end.

Jonathan: Mmm... and good endings make good story-telling.

Al: Yes, absolutely.

So there is still some really... sort of standard, good Spidey stories going on at this time... that are eclipsed by the splashiness of what's going on in Amazing.

Jonathan: Well yeah, Amazing and Adjectivers... Adju... A-ma-zing and Adj-ect-ive-lesssss... usss...

Al: Yes, heh, heh, heh.

Jonathan: ...were, were on one side of the see-saw, with superficial guns and muscles and cheesecake and death and gloom and... and on the other we've got Spectacular and Web trying to tell good stories in the shadow of the other two titles.

Al: Right, exactly. And really not getting much I think in the way of press.

Nothing is more emblematic of what's going on during this time than that Todd McFarlane gets his own Spider-Man comic as both an artist and the writer.

Jonathan: If you're going to say "writer" there, I think you put quotation marks around that, please.

Al: Heh, heh, heh, heh, heh, heh.

You know, and that first story is a classic example of art dominating to the extent that... I mean how long did that story with the Lizard go on?

Jonathan: Err... was it five or six? It was at least five.

Al: Yeah, five or six. And, you know, and it should have maybe been one or two.

Jonathan: Exactly as you say. That five part Lizard story and the issue number one that kicked it off, of "Adjectiveless" is utterly representative of the worst excesses of that incredibly superficial fifth age that we're talking about.

There was a perfect storm of a huge fan-favorite creator... artist at least... who was given responsibilities far outside his capabilities.

There was incredible marketing and fan hype that meant that Marvel sold two million copies of that book. That's six copies for every person who bought an Amazing Spider-Man issue for that same month. Which is just ridiculous. The speculation was out of control. Nobody really knew what they were buying, but they were excited.

But underneath that superficial excitement is a soggy mess of a story that our reviewer Tim Eimiller gave our lowest possible "half-web", complete bomb rating. Which it absolutely deserved.

Of course, Todd McFarlane is out the door by the second half of 1991. The question we have to answer is, how long after his departure does his influence carry on, and these terrible stories keep rolling out without any real regard to the substance underneath them. At what point do the stories regain a little bit of control and start trying to get back on track again?

Now, by the time we get to Amazing Spider-Man #400, the Death of Aunt May, J.M. DeMatteis, we're well into the Clone Saga – 1995. Does our fifth age extend that far?

Al: I think they're not necessarily great stories that it moves into. But I think that to some extent you have to end it before the clone saga. Because I think to a great extent the clone saga becomes its own age.

Jonathan: I then next age then, is when the clone saga begins. And let try and figure out when that is the case.

Al: Yes.

Jonathan: And the clone saga is interesting... the clone saga is hugely important to my mind, because this is the first time that Marvel says... "We need to go back. Stop. We've gone the wrong direction."

Because the Wedding. The Wedding when you read the story. Stan Lee OK'd that, while speaking publicly.

Al: Yeah, I think Stan wanted it.

Jonathan: Because Stan married off Peter and MJ in his newspaper strip, which was really his sole focus at that point.

Al: Yes, Yes. They're still married!

Jonathan: Well indeed!

And as somebody myself who grew up and got married, pretty much around that time, I liked the idea of Spider-Man growing with me and changing with me. I'm a fan of the marriage.

Al: Yeah, yeah.

Jonathan: And I understand that Stan stated in public, without really checking in with Marvel, that the characters would be getting married in the comic books.

And the guys in the comic books said "Oh well, you know, it's a huge opportunity, and Stan has said it, and he's... we can leverage that excitement to sell a bunch of comics.

But nobody at that point really stopped and thought about what the long-term consequences did. Or at least anybody who did, didn't get a voice enough to stop it.

Al: You're right that the other aspect of this particular age is that the writers are dealing with a married Spider-Man. Which comes up really at the end of the previous age.

And so by the time you get to the clone saga you've gone, you know, over a hundred issues of Amazing, since the marriage. And it is sort of a point where it's kind of: "Well... enough is enough, maybe we need to get him unmarried."

Which they tried repeatedly.

Jonathan: They tried multiple times.

Al: They tried multiple times.

You know this is actually a... something to deal with in the next age. But I'm actually a big fan of the clone saga.

I thought it was really ingenious, that they did this to keep Peter married, and yet get a... a Spider-Man who is not married.

Jonathan: Well, I've already declared myself pro-"Married Spider-Man", so that's an argument for the next age.

But right now, what we need to do is draw an end to the fifth age, by defining when the clone saga begins.

Al: Well, I'm prepared to draw a line. We'll see how you... how you feel about this.

There was a four-part story that went across all four of the Spider-Man titles, I believe. Called, uhh... Power and Responsibility. Which is where Ben Reilly first shows up I think.

Jonathan: Absolutely. That's Ben's first real appearance after a handful of teasers.

Al: It's, interestingly enough, right after the Facade fiasco, in Web of Spider-Man #113-#116.

Jonathan: Ah, right, yes. Terry Kavanagh's masterwork. Quote Unquote. Terry Kavanagh – if not a shoe-in ‐ definitely a very strong candidate for the "Worst Spider-Man writer of all time".

Al: Yes.

So, I'm happy to end that previous age with the conclusion of Facade. In which we never did find out who "Facade" was, and... we don't care.

So you go from that, to... suddenly the big plan to introduce the Spider-Man clone as being still alive after all. And that begins in Web of Spider-Man #117.

Jonathan: I'm very comfortable with that as being the start of the "Sixth Age". That Web of Spider-Man #117 is the start of the sixth age.

And that makes Web of Spider-Man #116 the absolute perfect candidate for the end of the Fifth Age of Spider-Man. It's got everything... it's got a stupid meaningless story-line, it's got Betty Brant the new sexed-up super-agent. It's got robot armored suits and big guns. It's absolutely indicative of everything that that age stood for, which is... nothing.

Al: Heh, heh, heh.

Jonathan: So now, the big question. What do we want to call the Fifth Age of Spider-Man?

Al: See, I originally was thinking it was the... the McFarlane age. Or the age of "Art Over Story".

But maybe it's the... "Speculation Age"?

Jonathan: Yeah? The age of... the age of "Form Over Substance"?

Al: Heh, heh. That's... it's a little long. But um...

Jonathan: It is... OK. No. I have it. It's "The Superficial Age of Spider-Man".

Al: There you go. You got it! You absolutely have it.

Jonathan: So. The Fifth Age of Spider-Man is the Superficial Age of Spider-Man. It begins in Amazing Spider-Man #300 with the first full appearance of Venom and Todd McFarlane's real outing as a tour-de-force.

And it ends with the conclusion of the Facade fiasco in Web of Spider-Man #116.

Al: Sounds like the Superficial Age to me!

Jonathan: Heh, heh. Brilliant. OK, well we'll be back in a few weeks with the Sixth Age of Spider-Man.

In the meantime... Thanks, Al!

Al: Any time, Jonathan. My pleasure.