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“This Spider — No More!”

By (December 1, 2009) 2 Comments

Spider-Man Newspaper Strips, Vol . 1

By Stan Lee, art by John Romita
Marvel Comics, 2009

This book is long overdue: the first volume of Marvel Comics’ collection of the Spider-Man newspaper strips that began in 1977. This volume goes from ’77 to ’79 and features two years of two and three-panel black-and-white newspaper strips written by Stan Lee and drawn by John Romita.

Just reading that sentence, older comics fans will already feel the commencement of a warm glow. For nearly a decade, in the monthly comic book Amazing Spider-Man, Stan Lee and John Romita created the definitive feel and ethos of the Spider-Man world (with all due respect to the legendary Steve Ditko, whose artwork created the character but whose work is simply too odd – and Lee’s writing in those early issues too ‘Teen Romance’ – to lay the proper foundation). You non-comics people out there (and you know who you are!): when you think of Spider-Man, the image that will come to your mind – the image that was on your lunchbox when you were a kid, on your TV screen, on your bed sheets … the poses, the web-shooting, even the look of the costume – all that comes from John Romita’s assured, fantastic take on the character. And the grounding depiction of that character as a happy-go-lucky ordinary young guy who fights for right but never really catches a break – that perfect formula was created by Stan Lee. Don’t get me wrong: lots of very talented people have taken their turns re-inventing this character over the years. But those Lee/Romita years were as archetypal as anything you’ll find in comics. With their visual splendor and uneasy teetering between melodrama and hijinks, they virtually defined Spider-Man.

Eventually Romita left Amazing Spider-Man to become Marvel’s Art Director (there’s a parlor game – admittedly, a nerdy parlor-game – to be made out of spotting the Marvel covers doctored to various extents by Romita during this period, when you might assume he’d have other things to do) and Lee left the book to become Marvel’s publisher and public face. Writing duties on Amazing Spider-Man were taken on first by Roy Thomas and then by Gerry Conway, both of whom continued to move the title toward grimmer and more complex stories, and both of whom were extremely good at what they did. The artwork was shouldered first by industry legend Gil Kane and then by talented workhorse Ross Andru, whose photographic backgrounds subtly altered the idealized Manhattan of Romita (Andru does several uncredited art assists in this current book – an ironic P.S. to all those uncredited cover “assists” Romita was doing at the time?)

There were woeful directions too, and in general The Amazing Spider-Man inched toward becoming as dark and serious as virtually all other comics did in the 1980s. The moment when Kraven the Hunter – one of Spidey’s more insipid foes – shoots him in the head at point-blank range and buries him can probably serve as a good enough dividing line between the good old melodrama of the Lee/Romita era and the ‘we’ll start with the mutilation, then move to the gang-rape’ mindframe of the current comics world. And who knows? Since the comics-reading demographic has grown steadily older (chronologically, anyway), we may see this trend continue – the Lee/Romita years may mark the high point of a particular kind of innocence in comics storytelling. Certainly when those years ended, those of us who’d loved them could no longer wear our Spider-Man underoos with quite the same vim.

That’s why this present volume is long overdue, and that’s why it’s so special: years after these two industry giants had moved on to other things (been “kicked upstairs,” as the saying goes), they reunited to create this weekly comic strip featuring the character they had made world-famous. It’s tempting to call this volume “Spider-Man’s Last Hurrah.”

Here again is that old glory on full display! Here again are the meticulous, beautiful pencils of John Romita, proving once more that he was never so visually comfortable as he was working with this particular cast in this particular world; and here again is the earnest, hyperventilating, and often very funny writing of Stan Lee, hooking you almost against your will with the flash and pathos of his plots. I remember being very happy when the comic strip debuted way back when (even though the ongoing monthly title was still pleasing me greatly), but now, after following this character through forty years of creative ups and downs, I’m practically ecstatic.

Practically ecstatic, but in a melancholy kind of way (if such a thing is even temperamentally possible – certainly in the world of Stan Lee comics, it would be!). After all, by 1977 Marvel’s founding era was over – its second age had begun, meaning, in simpler terms, that Stan Lee and his various collaborating artists had relinquished the controls to a younger generation. This last blast of stylish fun only looked more doomed because it was taking place off to stage left, in the newspaper, in tiny panels.

And that’s not all the melancholy: Stan Lee in his prime was very much a mimetic writer, breaking with comics tradition by liberally sprinkling his pages with topical references – so this volume can’t help but serve also as a snapshot of a now-vanished New York. It’s not just the big afros and long sideburns (both of which – sigh – have come back in fashion, despite looking not one bit less stupid than they did back then), and it’s not just the pop culture references (although Walter Cronkite and Henry Kissinger are on hand, and Kojak and Baretta get several adoring mentions) – the city itself is here on these pages, breathing its hot, noxious fumes like it would live that way forever, instead of being turned into the bright shiny fascist paradise it is today. At one point J. Jonah Jameson, the eternally-angry publisher of The Daily Bugle and inveterate Spidey-hater, is stuck in midtown traffic and growls, “Blasted traffic! I could get to the paper faster on foot – if I could outrun the muggers!” – which probably prompted any Gossip Girl-generation readers to hurriedly Wikipedia that last word (is it a sporting event? A kind of muffin?). And Jameson isn’t done by a long shot – when a doorman innocently says “lovely day, isn’t it?” J. Jonah lets him have it:

Compared to what? The city’s bankrupt! The streets are a jungle! You can’t even see the pollution – because of the smog! We haven’t had a nice day since Herbert Hoover!

Of course, some kinds of nostalgia are decidedly better than others – Peter Parker’s infatuation with the local disco is lamentable to say the least, and the new dance craze some mobsters are hoping will catch on and make them rich – the “Spider Hustle” (alas) – is better passed over in silence. The Amazing Spider-Man was often the least science-fictiony of all the books Lee wrote in his heyday, but his uncanny knack for science fiction is still here, as when Peter Parker displays for his date a miraculous device he’s invented: a hand-held box whose buttons allow him to change the records that are playing – without even touching them! It can also control the lights. His date is open-jawed with amazement.

But nostalgia can only take you so far, and that’s as it should be: all comics must stand or fall based on how entertaining they are. These strips are mighty damn entertaining. There are old familiar bad guys here – Doctor Doom gets invited to address the United Nations and surprises everybody by demanding complete control of the world (they were expecting fruit baskets? Yeesh); Doctor Octopus romances Peter Parker’s saintly Aunt May as a diversion from plotting to steal a priceless artifact; Kraven the Hunter is hired by The Daily Bugle to capture Spider-Man like he was a rogue ocelot. And despite the radically different format – three small panels instead of twenty full pages – the stories always pop right along. Lee displays his bottomless capacity for churning out snappy, entirely humanizing lines (at one point, while dodging police bullets, Spider-Man says, “I can’t understand their hostility! I think I’m adorable!”), and Romita’s brilliance for capturing the steeply vertical world of Manhattan looks so easy your eye can almost miss it. No other Spider-Man artist has ever succeeded like this in making sticking to buildings and web-slinging look so believable and so thrilling at the same time – the only contemporary artist who comes close is Romita’s son John, also a fan-favorite Spider-Man illustrator.

Inevitably, there are ironies. One story arc involves the mountainous (and hence, villainous) Wilson Fisk, the so-called “Kingpin” of underworld crime, who contacts Spider-Man (by gassing him and kidnapping him, of course – this is still comic books) to make him an offer he can’t refuse:

After years of selfless crime-fighting, seeking to help others, you’re still feared by the public, hounded by the law – a penniless fugitive! While I, the Kingpin, who serve only myself, bask in the lap of luxury! (Spidey interjects, “I may throw up”) But even a loser can get lucky! I’m giving you a chance to join me! With my wealth, my wits, and my organization, I can take over this entire city! Help me, and I’ll make you rich! Oppose me – and you’ll die!

(Only a little earlier, in a classic Lee soliloquy, Peter Parker has been privately coming to some of the same conclusions: “I’m all bruised – lost my shoes to a wino – ripped my costume – and not even a tax deduction for expenses! Man! I’m in great shape! Now I’m talkin’ to myself!”)

The Kingpin runs on a strong anti-crime campaign, promising voters that he’ll use his vast wealth and steely will to crush all political opposition and restore pristine order to the city. No one currently living in New York could fail to smile a grim gallows-humor kind of smile, perhaps muttering something about life imitating art (muttering because anything louder might be caught by the audio recorders installed in every subway platform).

Likewise the story involving the bad guy Mysterio, an ugly (and hence, villainous) creep whose mastery of movie-style special effects begins to give him delusions of grandeur – like convincing his movie studio to cast him in the lead for their new big-budget extravaganza: Spider-Man – the movie! This movie is the brainchild of the studio CEO’s poor sick son (in the dramatic world where Lee lives, such a boy will be named either Timmy or Tommy – this one’s Tommy), who has madcap dreams: “But Dad, you promised you’d do a Spider-Man movie!” he whines, to which his father responds, “I’m sorry, Tommy! It’s just too expensive! It would break us!” And little Tommy’s response?

But look at Star Wars and Close Encounters! You yourself said a superhero movie could be even bigger! And Spidey’s the greatest!

Three movies and about $80 billion dollars later, some Columbia Pictures executive is sure glad he read Tommy’s dream back when he was a little hatchling.

There are sadnesses too, twinges of regret only hindsight could cause. In one story, Peter Parker falls in love with a woman from “Boravia” – only to learn that her father is a terrorist who’s plotting to blow up a New York office building so that “the world will heed the cause of Boravia.” When the woman confesses her father’s target to Peter, he blurts out “No! It’ll be teeming with workers at this hour!” Veteran comics readers will be involuntarily reminded of the black-covered issue of The Amazing Spider-Man – drawn by John Romita, Jr. – in which the web-slinger fails to stop the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. Back in 1977, readers wouldn’t have believed how terrorism would one day put such an indelible stamp on the city.

This bright, titanic interval in the newspaper didn’t last very long, but that wasn’t due to Stan Lee (God bless him, he could go on churning out nifty Spider-Man stories forever), who’s still writing the daily strip even now, decades later. No, the sticking point here was the masterful perfectionism of John Romita, which could stand neither the pace nor the limitations of the tiny-panel format forever. He left the job shortly after the strips gathered in this collection and was replaced by Larry Leiber (Stan Lee’s brother), who has never in sixty years of continuous work been accused – or even suspected – of masterful perfectionism. But that very continuity is all the more reason to treasure this collection, despite its sometimes annoying limitations.

The foremost of these limitations will be obvious to anybody at a glance: despite the outright idiocy of such an approach, the strips are here reprinted standing on end like so many picket fences, rather than horizontally running down each facing page. As a result, you have to turn the book sideways and read the thing like some kind of arachnid Playboy. And since this printing approach means the innermost strips will be lost in the crease of the binding, you’re immediately forced to crack the binding on the ridiculously overpriced hardcover you’ve just bought. And the paper stock is as far from newsprint as you can get – it’s tinfoil-reflective, which means you have to squint and angle the pages to read them, and in direct sunlight they become one of Mysterio’s laser death-beams.

Considering the fact that many comics aficionados feared these old newspaper strips were lost to posterity, such formatting imperfections just have to be overlooked – the pleasures on tap here are just too worthy: for long-time fans, one last extended run by two Spider-Man giants, and for new fans, some curiously engaging adventures that bear precious little resemblance to the comics they know today. For good or ill, times have changed. Fortunately, in comics like these time travel is always possible.

Khalid Ponte grew up in Singapore, where he consumed as much American pop culture as he could. He currently works as a network systems analyst in Costa Mesa, California. This is his first full-length piece for Open Letters.

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