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Comics: Essential Spider-Man Volume 11

Essential Spider-Man Volume 11

Roger Stern (script)

John Romita Sr. & Jr. (art)

Marvel Comics, 2012

Marvel Comics has been unrolling these extra-thick black-and-white ‘essential’ reprint volumes for years now, so it’s probably just a coincidence that Volume 11 of “The Amazing Spider-Man” should coincide with the arrival of the new “Amazing Spider-Man” $200 million special effects extravaganza in movie theaters this summer. Nevertheless, it’s as nice coincidence, since this volume – reprinting 21 issues from the (pre-Internet but otherwise blessed) early 1980s – features some of the finest work that’s ever been done on Marvel’s now-venerable web-slinger.

The writing in these issues is done by Roger Stern, whose career has had its share of high points (a very smart and underrated run on “The Avengers,” for instance) and low points (in the early 1990s, he was given the task of writing the issue in which Clark Kent finally reveals his Superman identity to Lois Lane, and Stern managed to make it boring)(he was ably abetted in this by the absolutely stultifying artwork of Bob McLeod). This run of “Spider-Man” is one long high point: Stern strikes the perfect balance between mirthful and mopey that has defined the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man from the beginning. Here we get a Spider-Man who quips his way through fights with such villains as the Tarantula, Mr. Hyde, the Vulture, and Stern’s most inexplicably popular creation, the Hobgoblin, but here we also get a Peter Parker who’s hapless in his love life, put-upon in his work life, and constantly muddled in his social life.

But as assured as Stern is in these issues, the real glory of this run is the artwork by John Romita, Jr, who early on frees himself from the scratchy, stiffening inks of Jim Mooney and starts to display the fluid sense of motion and the innovative use of perspective that would from this point on make him one of the most popular artists in the industry. His Spider-Man is lanky and flexible, firmly moving away from the uniform bodybuilder muscularity of the Jack Kirby side of the industry; his often sharply vertical panel-arrangements are every bit as vigorous now as they were in the halcyon days when Ronald Reagan was president.

And as an added treat for readers, in a handful of these issues, John Romita Jr. is joined in his work by the only artist ever to do a flat-out better job drawing Spider-Man: his father, John Romita Sr. The father’s style has all the static confidence of an earlier generation, in which it was not only acceptable but expected that heroes would strike poses rather than move – the most exaggerated example of this was long-time Superman artist Wayne Boring, but virtually everybody did it (with the notable exception, ironically enough, of Spider-Man’s first artist, Steve Ditko), and the method had its own peculiar grandeur. For these few collaborative issues, father and son bring out the best in each other – superhero comic art doesn’t get much better than these issues.

This volume also contains Stern’s fan-favorite story “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man!” – about a little boy stricken with cancer who gets a visit in his hospital room from his hero Spider-Man. The issue is drawn by mimetic artist Ron Frenz (here doing a spot-on Ditko tribute) and ladled eyeball-deep in schmaltz, but like virtually everything else in these issues, it remains effective, if tooth-grindingly hokey.

Very dark days are in store for the Spider-Man titles in the issues that will be reprinted in the next few “essential” volumes – some lousy artwork, some lousy stories, lots of lousy editorial direction. But however few the bright spots might be in those upcoming volumes, Marvel has still given fans a treat with these reprints. True, they lack the fantastic coloring job done by Glynis Wein (whose palette defined the Marvel look for a generation), but in exchange readers get 19 issues for $20 – and older fans get a chance to web-sling through some wonderful memories.