Steve Saffel used to work for Marvel Entertainment, and helped to develop promotional materials for Marvel comics and spin-off properties, as well as specialty comics for third parties: Spider-Man promoting the joys of reading for literacy organizations, that sort of thing.
In other words, he worked on merchandising Spider-Man. Now he's leveraged that experience into a history of Spider-Man merchandising, a history ranging from the creation of the character to as late as earlier this year.
Spider-Man: the Icon is divided into five chapters, one for each decade of the web-slinger's existence. Each chapter is stuffed with visual imagery of the period: not just pages from the comics, but anything and everything that had Spider-Man's picture on it. You name it, it's here: trading cards, video games, stills from the many TV shows, Happy Meal toys, action figures... and the list goes on: tablecloths, bar stools, Hostess Cupcake ads, vinyl records, silly-string webshooters, and anything, everything else.
The narrative arc, such as it is, traces Spider-Man from his inception as just another superhero, to his quick emergence as a counterculture symbol, his steady popularity through the decades even as the comics industry declined, to his present position as a cultural icon.
This book falls into the genre of 'coffee-table book.' The text here is only present to complement the pictures. Although the dustjacket suggests this book "traces the history of popular culture over five decades," that's an overstatement. There's nothing here to explain why Spider-Man became so big so quickly, or the relationship between his popularity and American culture in general: the war in Indochina, Watergate, the Cold War, or anything else. The treatment of Spider-Man's history in comics is also scanty, and biased in favour of recent events. Readers are given about one sentence on Steve Ditko's departure from Amazing Spider-Man, for example, but four pages on the execrable The Other storyline from 2006.
What this book does do is provide a documentary history of Spider-Man merchandising: it's hard to imagine there ever being a more comprehensive treatment of the subject. It can't be done justice in words. Anything you've ever seen with Spider-Man in it, from 7-11 Slurpee cups to Heroclix figures to Big-Wheel-style kids' tricycles, it's here... not to mention all sorts of captured images from the comics, featuring art from all the great Spidey artists (Ditko, Romita Sr., Romita Jr., Bagley, and more).
I repeat: a text review can't capture how absorbing this book is, because the power lies in the book's images. It will hold any Spider-Man fan captivated for hours.
With its lavish illustrations, this book is a delight to leaf through, and provides an invaluable history of Spider-Man merchandising from the 1960s up to the summer of 2007. Any Spider-Man fan will enjoy this book, and any collector of Spider-Man merchandise will find it indispensable.
Author Steve Saffel writes:
"I want the readers to be brutal, letting me know if there's something in the record that needs to be set straight. At the same time, I want to hear stories, about favorite moments in the comics, a reader's first encounter with the web-slinger, or that one collectible that will never be forgotten...
"This is 21st century publishing, allowing us to keep the book flowing long after it's been printed. I hope you'll help, and perhaps even join in the fun yourself."