William Baker, aka Flint Marko, aka the Sandman first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #4, September 1963. Over the intervening forty-four years he has appeared in scores of comics; he's been a bad guy, a good guy and a guy somewhere inbetween. He's developed new friendships, and new enemies; played the part of a super-criminal, Avenger, and mercenary for hire. He even got himself mixed up with Hyrdo-Man and became the Mud-Thing (really). Recently he teamed up with Spider-Man to exonerate his imprisoned father of murder. Most importantly, the Sandman is the principle villain in the movie Spider-Man 3 (currently on general release), and Marvel are quick to leap on the chance to push out a few extra comic books. In this story we return to the earliest origins of the character, as a Peter David explores Baker's childhood.
We open with a reproduction of the cover to Amazing Spider-Man Vol 1. #4. The mood suitably set, the scene changes to a Coney Island beach many years ago. William Baker is about seven years old, but he is still sporting the same taste in haircuts and green-striped clothing. He has just finished building the world's most elaborate sandcastle - seriously, it's eight feat high and looks as though it was designed by a bevvy of architects. This scene, and indeed the entire issue, is narrated by the adult Sandman who kindly gives us insights into his character and the events as they unfold.
The Sandman's mother was not a good mother. Abandoned by Baker's father shortly after the kid was born, she had a hard time making money and turned to drink. She seldom did anything with her son (taking him to the beach was an exception) and even then she was too far gone to see her son's uncanny sandcastle. By the time she wakes up the weather has taken a turn for the worse and the rain and tide have washed away the sandcastle (a great loss to art). The mother comments that such is the way of the world: nothing lasts. These words had a profound effect on Baker. He vowed then to find a way to make something that would last: that people would remember forever.
Cut to a fight between the Sandman and Spider-Man at a fun fair in Coney Island - close to that beach as it happens. The narrator comments that whatever happened in his life, everything seemed to bring him back into conflict with Spider-Man.
Back in the past, a teenage William Baker is at school, having a pleasant chat with his art teacher, Miss Flint. It seems Baker has a talent as a sculptor (using sand as his medium, of course) and has created many impressive works of art. There's nothing quite as incredible as that sandcastle he made when he was seven, but then it's a small room so we can forgive him that. Baker has a crush on Miss Flint, and is gutted when she off-handedly remarks that she is to be married. Baker knows that the guys with the money get the girls - not him. More likely it's the guys that have gone through puberty that get the girls, but he's young and the young are prone to their wild fancies. Fortunately, William doesn't have the chance to be dejected for long as the school's three stock bullies arrive, smash up all of Baker's sculptures and beat him to a pulp on account of him being a "pantywaist". Looks as though young William Baker and young Peter Parker had much in common - ah, but not so much in common. Where Peter had the saintly Aunt May and Uncle Ben, Baker only has his mother. She cries over his wounds, blaming herself that Baker didn't have a father figure, so he could learn to defend himself and "be a man". This is something else Baker takes to heart.
Back to that fight with Spider-Man at Coney Island. The Sandman comments that the events on his life were all pretty inevitable. A philosophy which led his teenage self, years earlier, to decide to stand up to those bullies in a way that Peter Parker never could. Sitting at the beach (next to another one of those fabulous sandcastles - he should really just leave school and sell those things) Baker watched the sand and the water. He saw the effect the water had on the sand: that, unlike people, sand did not try to oppose the force of change, it went with the flow; it adapted, changed shape, and was stronger for it. Baker decided to be more like the sand.
Next time the bullies attacked, Baker fought back and beat the snot out of them. Suddenly people feared and respected him; the girls liked him - and this was a feeling that Baker liked. He liked it very much. Soon Baker became the boss of the kids in the school, and the old bullies were his sycophantic gang. He changed his name to Flint because it sounded edgy (and reminded him of the lovely Miss Flint from his youth). He grew strong, and had great success on the football field due his his violent tactics. The world was at his feet, and so were the cheerleaders. It was a good life. Then it all went wrong.
Baker's friend Vic (one of the old bullies from school) came knocking at his motel room door one night. Baker's not happy with Vic disturbing him and Marcy (the comely cheerleader) but Vic is in deep trouble. He has heavy gambling debts to the mob, and he needs Baker to throw a couple of football games so he can make some money. Baker doesn't want to do it, but it's his friend's life compared to a football game - what's he going to do? He throws the game, but his coach notices and rounds on him. The coach thought that Baker was going to make his mark on the world, but now he is going to amount to nothing. Thems fighting words as far as Baker is concerned. The coach has inadvertently played on all those childhood insecurities nurtured by his mother. Baker lashes out with his helmet and clubs the coach unconscious.
From this point the Sandman feels his life spinning out of control. He couldn't seem to catch a break. Baker and Vic fell into petty crime, robbing convenience stores to make some money. They weren't very good at it, and Baker wound up in jail.
In prison, William Baker met his father, Floyd Baker, for the first time. He struck up a friendship with his dad, but never revealed who he was. He called himself Flint Marko ("Mark" for the mark he was never supposed to make in life - see?) Baker was in and out of prison for the next few years. He always returned his girlfriend Marcy, and to Vic who was now working for the mob and got them jobs as enforcers. It was these jobs that usually saw Baker go back to prison - but he didn't mind as he got to see his father. Then came the day when Baker was in prison, but his father wasn't. So Baker escaped and fled all the way to Georgia looking for his dad. That's when he had the accident that transformed him into the Sandman.
The Sandman went back to New York to find his friends, only to catch Marcy and Vic in bed together. Baker snaps and very nearly kills them both. He doesn't go through with it however, because they aren't worth it - he needs enemies that are worthy of him. Which brings us to his first encounter with Spider-Man, when the Sandman was beaten with the application of a vacuum cleaner (a priceless moment of Silver Age silliness). Baker the narrator maintains that he let himself be captured so he could be sent to prison, because he knew his dad was back inside. Soon after the Sandman and Floyd Baker escape prison together.
Sandman took his father to his hideout in Coney Island (it was a wild and stormy evening). However, Aunt May and Peter were there at the time, which leads to the fight between the Sandman and Spider-Man that has been foreshadowed twice in this issue. To the Sandman, Spider-Man personifies all the failures in his life. Like Marlon Brando in the On the Waterfront Baker thinks that he "could have been a contender". The fight is brutal, and the Sandman throws a car from the roller coaster at Spidey. He dodges, and the car appears to hit Floyd Baker, killing the Sandman's father. The Sandman goes wild with rage and grows to gigantic proportions. He pulls the Ferris wheel off the ground to smash Spidey, and he thinks he is going to win until the wheel is struck by lightning and blown apart.
Floyd Baker is not killed. Spidey saved him at the last minute. Floyd denies ever knowing the Sandman, he was obviously some "good for nothing bum". Spidey swings off - he can't find the Sandman. A few days later the Sandman is hiding on the beach disguised as one of his signature sandcastles. A little boy comes over to admire it, and runs away in shock. A sculpture of the Sandman defeating Spider-Man man appears from one of the turrets. Killing Spider-Man: that, thinks Baker, would be an achievement that everyone would remember.
Compared to the number of Doctor Octopus related series that appeared in the wake of Spider-Man 2, Marvel have been extremely restrained when it comes to the Sandman. Perhaps they think the character doesn't quite have the iconic power of Doc Ock, or perhaps they overdid it last it time - I would vote for the latter. Whatever the reason, instead of three limited series we're getting a single one-shot instead. Is less more?
In Peter David, Marvel certainly have a safe pair of hands. Even on the worse day of his life, David produces stories that engage the readers with the character, that are witty and never a chore to read. This issue certainly delivers on those fronts. The writing is crisp, the development of William Baker from dreaming kid to notorious super-villain is well crafted and as believable as it gets in this genre. Ronan Cliquet's art is an excellent fit for the story and (ludicrous sandcastles aside) he isn't allowing style to overshadow substance. This is an artist who is drawing a comic to tell a story and not to showcase his talent. It's clear, it's simple and I'd be happy to see him as the regular penciller on an ongoing spider-title.
However, a story such as this needs to be judged in several ways. With continuity implants we are obliged to ask: does the story adds something to the character, does it contradict what has gone before, and if it does make changes, are those changes for the good? For the most part, Peter David steps through the continuity raindrops quite adeptly. This story fits into Spidey's overall continuity directly after the Sandman's first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #4, as can be evidenced by the SMURF code above.
However, Peter David seems to be tying things up a little too neatly. There was never a hint in any story published previously to this that the Sandman had a particular love for sand. William Baker was turned into the Sandman by accident - he was lying on a beach when a nuclear test went off in annoyingly close proximity. It's a bit of a coincidence that the beach-loving, sand-obsessed child gets turned into a man made of sand isn't it? Okay... the Marvel universe is replete with such coincidences - the villainous despot called Von Doom, the eight-armed criminal called Octavius - but for the most part these were the creations of the 1960s. To do this in a modern day comic just feels a bit silly, and although David doesn't do anything that directly contradicts the Sandman's character as presented to date, I think that this was an unnecessary modification to the character.
Or perhaps I am doing Peter David a disservice. I'm judging the comic as if the events depicted in it are the truth, but this is not necessarily so. This comic doesn't have an omniscient narrator, it is told by the Sandman from his own point of view. All the events we see, all the words that come out of the mouths of all the characters have been filtered through the Sandman's memories and perceptions. Bear that in mind and read the issue again. This is a tale of the Sandman narrated at a point in his life when all he can think about is killing Spider-Man. From what we know of the Sandman from previous stories he has always been portrayed as a morally conflicted character: wouldn't he have wanted to remember things differently, to convince himself that he truly had no choice in his actions, that his criminal life was inevitable - that he just played the hand he was dealt and had no power to change it?
I'm not using this argument to trying to undermine the content of the story, or 'justify-away' the changes that have been made. If I was reviewing the work of a lesser writer, this would not even have occurred to me, but this is Peter David we are talking about. He has written some of the best comic book stories, and some of the best Spider-Man stories, that have ever been published. Yes, his current run on Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man is meandering all over the place, but when he's on form, there are few writers who can touch him: and he's on form here.
If I felt any disappointment with his issue, it was that it was telling the story of the far less interesting version of the Sandman. Howard Mackie told some truly misguided stories when he was writing Spider-Man, but for me the worse thing he ever did was having the Wizard turn Sandman back into a villain again. Flint Marko struggling to go straight, Flint Marko the Avenger... that was the period of his life when the Sandman was at his most interesting and versatile. I would liked to have seen Peter David direct his considerable talent in that direction. Perhaps for the future.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Peter David didn't intend there to be any ambiguity in the Sandman retelling his origin, maybe this is a three-web comic and just a cynical movie tie-in; but I don't think so. I think this is the tale of a conflicted super-villain trying the justify his life. I think it cleverly tells a story on two levels. And I think it offers new insight into the character of the villainous Sandman. This is a worthy addition to the canon. Four and half webs.
This is the second version of this review. I originally had trouble placing this story chronologically. In the first version of the review I wrote:
"There's some confusion following the Sandman's first defeat at the hands of Spider-Man. He couldn't have immediately broken out of prison with his father and then gone to Coney Island to lie low. For one thing Aunt May makes a reference to Nathan Lubensky at this point in the story, which dates this scene as somewhere in the 1980s (in publishing terms)."
Well, Aunt May doesn't make a reference to Nathan Lubensky. What she actually says is that she is going to buy "Nathan's hotdogs". A very helpful Spiderfan reader pointed out that "Nathan's Hotdogs" is actually the name of a fast food chain based in New York.
Now, despite the fact I've been reading Spider-Man almost all my life, I've never been to New York and so I didn't get the reference. My bad. If you remove the reference to Nathan Lubensky from the equation, then it's actually very easy to see where this fits in Spider-Man's overall story (as I mention in the review above).
So, thanks to Daniel for taking the time to write in. Fortunately, my lack of knowledge of New York City's famous fast food eateries doesn't affect the overall rating of the issue. It's still one of the good ones.