Thursday, May 30, 2013

Book Review: The Amazing Spider-Man Volume 4 (Marvel Masterworks)

Since 2002, there have four different movies about Spider-Man, and each of them grossed over $750 million worldwide.  In 2011, there was even a Broadway show about Spider-Man -- with music and lyrics by Bono and the Edge.  The epic saga of Peter Parker, Uncle Ben, Aunt May, and the various girlfriends and villains that Parker meets as Spider-Man has become one of the great American legends -- a story known to almost everyone with even the faintest interest in pop culture.

At the other end of the cultural spectrum, all the smart folks these days are watching high-end TV shows like House of Cards or Mad Men -- shows with limited runs of 10 to 13 episodes at a time.  Each episode tells its own stories, but larger arcs run through the season as well.  David Chase brought this formula to HBO with The Sopranos and it has now become the dominant form at the critically-acclaimed end of TV watching.  Since 2007, the Emmy Award-winners for Best Drama have been The Sopranos (2007), Mad Men (2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011), and Homeland (2012) -- all shows that aired on cable and that fit this pattern.

Now here's the thing -- Spider-Man isn't that far removed from The Sopranos.  In fact, if you go back to the original comics of the 1960's that made Spider-Man famous, you'll see that while each issue (usually) stands on its own, every episode also contributes to the longer arcs that run through the whole story -- just like your typical high-end TV show.

But come on, you say.  Spider-Man doesn't have the depth or characterization that you would find in an Emmy Award-winning TV show.  There's some truth to that.  These stories were designed to be enjoyed by intelligent 10-year-olds, and there are large aspects of the human experience that they don't address.  But on the other hand, you shouldn't under-estimate how well these characters are drawn, or the passion that they can inspire.  I doubt very much that people will be making movies about Tony Soprano in 40 years.

And the more you start paying attention to comic books -- which is inevitable if you live in a house with three intelligent boys -- the more you realize how large Spider-Man bulks in the culture.  It's not just the hit movies.  It's a whole concept of heroism that is very different from the strong, silent types who dominated American culture in the age of Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart.  Peter Parker is a nerd.  He talks all the time.  He gets nervous around girls.  He worries about his aunt.  He worries about money.  He loses his temper when kids make fun of him.  He makes really funny jokes (mostly to himself).  Some times -- a lot of times -- he is petty and small-minded.  But in the end, he is honorable and brave, and willing to risk his life for others.  In short, Peter Parker resolves the tension between the tough guys who fought World War II and the Beatniks who felt alienated from mainstream culture in the late 1950's and early 1960's -- he combines the strength and decency of the first group with the ironic distance of the second.  No wonder he is so popular in a society that wants desperately to do the right thing -- but isn't quite sure what that is.

Spider-Man was developed in the early 1960's by Stan Lee, who was -- at the time -- a 40-something genius in the middle of re-inventing comic books altogether.  Lee took a genre that had almost died out in the 1950's and revived it, creating characters like the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, and Spider-Man.  But more than that, Lee really thought about how annoying it would be to live as a super-hero in our world, and so he developed the type of conflict-ridden characters so popular today.  But none of those characters was as well-done as Spider-Man, who burst onto the scene in 1962 and quickly established himself as Lee's greatest creation.

By late 1965, Lee and the rest of the team at Marvel Comics were on an incredible roll.  Month after month, they rolled out new characters and stories who remain part of American folk-lore.  And so if you get The Amazing Spider-Man Volume 4 -- which includes ten issues from December 1965 to September 1966 -- you are in for a treat.  The volume works almost exactly like a modern hit on cable television.  It starts with a three-part epic in which Peter Parker starts going to college, meets future love interest Gwen Stacy, worries that his Aunt is going to die, and is almost killed by one of greatest enemies -- Doctor Octopus.  Peter Parker's trevails continue through the middle episodes, as he fights lesser villains, while a larger force is steadily moving against him.  And then in the last two issues, he is captured by his other great enemy -- the Green Goblin -- who not only defeats Spider-Man, but actually uncovers his secret identity.  That sets up a slam-bang finish to the volume that's better than almost anything you'll find in a movie theater this summer.

Some people don't like any comic books, and that's fine.  But I think you should look for quality wherever you can find it, and in my opinion, Spider-Man at his peak was about as good as pop culture gets.  If Stan Lee were in his 40's today, he'd probably develop a show for HBO or AMC that would win lots and lots of awards.  His imagination and writing is that good.  But in 1966, everything was a lot more rigid than it is now -- and so all of this energy was channeled into comic books that sold for 12 cents apiece, and that were never read by anyone over the age of 20.  We can only be happy that those kids loved what they read so much that they kept it alive, and that kids today can have the same fun of wondering just, how, exactly, Spider-Man will escape this time.

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