Book Of The Week – AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #666
After months of “Infested: The Road To Spider-Island” prelude material, mostly being a few two page sequences here and there, Dan Slott finally starts off on the biggest storyline that this series has had since he took over for it as the solo narrative drive in November: SPIDER-ISLAND. While Slott’s run has seen him have some co-writers on a fairly consistent basis – often Fred Van Lente and Christos Gage, who even filled in for two issues – he is still the top script-slinger of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN right now, and has apparently been preparing for this stretch for some time. Stefano Caselli is the artist of this issue, and Humberto Ramos will soon be stepping up to the plate in an issue or two. The duo have remained in their roles of the title’s top two circulating artists – the riddle is finding a third, as Marcos Martin vacated that role for DAREDEVIL very soon into BIG TIME’s run. While this issue flows organically from the previous issue (http://joltleft.com/comic-books-in-new-york/picks-of-comic-book-week-for-7-13-11-my-non-super-ex-girlfriend-review), it isn’t essential reading. In fact, this issue goes through great pains to summarize several months of subplot from previous issues as well as from the Free Comic Book Day Special (http://joltleft.com/comic-books-in-new-york/free-comic-book-day-2011-what-s-worth-reading-or-propping-up-a-table-review) via narration boxes and editor’s notes – all in service to extra readers coming in for the hype. Whether this will occur is unknown, but AMAZING SPIDER-MAN has been able to boost sales several thousand copies through promoting a particular story arc, and SPIDER-ISLAND has been promoted to the hilt. Perhaps it is an unfortunate detail that after months of covers that promised preludes to this story, this issue is also a prelude, or at least a prologue.
The gist is that while it may seem that Peter Parker/Spider-Man has his life in order, the consequences of hitting the “big time” is that when things go wrong, they go wrong on a massive scale. Spidey is on two Avengers teams and the FF, he gets to work as a hotshot inventor for Horizon Labs and still swing as a solo hero. He has a steady (even if often stale) girlfriend in Carlie Cooper and even his aunt May has settled and is planning on moving on to Boston with her new beau. While Spidey never has a moment to rest, he is managing to juggle it all well, and it feeling a sense of accomplishment that he’s stopped “stumbling” into being a hero. Unfortunately, his old enemy the Jackal has returned with a new evil scheme – he has unleashed a horde of bed-bugs upon NYC that bestow Spider-Man like abilities to anyone they bite. Thus, the gimmick of SPIDER-ISLAND is that more characters will be gaining spider-powers due to this; from average citizens to named supporting cast members to even other Marvel heroes like Shang Chi and the formerly powerless Spider-Girl. While Spider-Man has lost his “spider-sense”, Shang Chi and the new Madam Web (Julia Carpenter) have sought to train Spidey in martial arts to compensate, hinting that he’ll need it in the coming conflict. As Carpenter can see into the future, she speaks in terms that will seem common to readers – hinting at the future while telling the hero nothing constructive, definite, or useful – like every precognitive seer in known fiction. At the very least, Spidey himself mocks this trope.
The return of the Jackal is one of few reappearances that marks special attention. A villain created in the 70’s, he has been linked to the Spider-Man Clone Saga ever since then. He was at the center of the massive revival and explosion of said storyline in the 90’s, and hasn’t been seen sense. The story was so loathed by the end that for years, Marvel has sought to wash it’s hand of it – not even mentioning details or characters from it. That stance has eased a bit since 2008, and Marvel has sought to goad fans of the original clone – Ben Reilly/Scarlet Spider – for about two years (and even as recently as this weekend:joltleft.com/comic-books-in-new-york/marvel-comics-news-7-26-11-the-…). Marvel brass seem to love the idea that a story and character that were universally hated barely a dozen years ago now have entire online communities of ravenous fans begging for a come back. What this does for the Jackal is that it makes his return an event precisely because he hasn’t been overused to oblivion in about a decade’s time – perhaps Marvel could learn this lesson with other villains? There is something to be said for a villain who comes around once a decade, but it is always something big – versus a villain who shows up a dozen times a year until fans are sick of him (Norman Osborn, Hood, Magneto, Bullseye, Red Skull, etc.). So not only has Jackal made sure to empower more Manhattanites for some dark purpose, but he has one of his original clones, Kaine, working for him as a tarantula-like monster, and is actively recruiting some of the recently empowered. He is working for a mysterious woman, and the final pages portray a previously “perfect clone” being further enhanced and transformed. The story also covers other supporting characters like Betty Brant, Carlie Cooper, Flash Thompson/Venom, (more on him later), J. Jonah Jameson, and even Phil Urich (the new Hobgoblin). Nothing is wasted and it all is woven together into a fine tapestry, or web if you will.
Fortunately, Slott is a master at shifting tone. While this issue has plenty of suspenseful and dramatic moments in service to the larger arc, there is a lot of humor to be had. From fun references to “SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS” to super hero poker games, the issue does not treat it’s “epic” tale with so much seriousness that it becomes a parody of itself – unlike FEAR ITSELF. Slott even is willing to poke some fun at Jackal and his clone fetish while portraying him as his major villain, for example. Urich’s subplot with Norah Winters continues to evolve, and he is quite an engaging figure as a youthful Hobgoblin who is a darker mirror of who Peter used to be as a freelance photographer. In fact the only hiccups may come only to fans who know too many details. Jackal claims that Kaine was his third clone of Peter Parker, which is false – that would be Spidercide, who is presumed dead (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spidercide_%28comics%29). Still, who IS that “perfect” clone? Is it Reilly reborn? Or some previously unseen clone? While it is likely the latter, Marvel will tease the former to the hilt.
Handling the entire 30 page story, Caselli’s art is on top form, matched perfectly with Marte Gracia’s colors. Caselli has done some great work for AVENGERS: THE INITIATIVE as well as SECRET WARRIORS, but is doing some great things on his regular ASM tours of duty. This issue is no exception, and while Ramos’ pencils have gotten stronger lately, Caselli always seems to hit a home run here.
This debut issue to SPIDER-ISLAND goes as well as anyone could have hoped. It refreshes the subplots for both long term and new term readers, has drama, horror, as well as humor and heart, utilizes Spidey’s cast and connections effectively and gets the reader pumped for the next issue in about two weeks. While FEAR ITSELF is chugging onward as a very loud dud of a story, SPIDER-ISLAND has so far risen to the occasion and the spotlight. This could very well be the tale of Slott’s career, and as of the starting gun, he’s off and running.
INVINCIBLE #81 – After so much time spent in space (about eight issues), Mark Grayson/Invincible is continuing to adjust to life back on earth. This hasn’t been easy; his mother has decided to go into space with his father Nolan, a former despot, and his long time girlfriend Atom Eve has endured (and unleashed) no end of drama. Mark’s attempt to save Las Vegas from new enemy Dinosaurus went spectacularly wrong (http://joltleft.com/comic-books-in-new-york/picks-of-comic-book-week-for-6-15-11-summer-school-is-a-crossover-review), and this causes another of his enemies – the vengeance minded PowerPlex – to come after him again. The focus of these past two issues, but especially this one, is for Mark to re-examine his crusade as a super hero and perhaps see what is and isn’t working, and how much of a difference he does make. While he tries to save people, and has, civilians have still died in his battles, and his failures also are costly. The bank robber with his own home-made tech that Invincible talked down last issue brings a new subplot in for this issue, and Mark seems to be shifting into a more pragmatic individual. Series creator and writer Robert Kirkman has seemed to address the lack of major enemies for Invincible, and has thus sought to amplify Dinosaurus and PowerPlex in these regards. Both have sympathetic angles, but can also be dangerous threats. One may expect Galaxia – the last new villain Kirkman introduced before THE VILTRUMITE WAR – to return in due time. The dilemma of the schedule means that this story hints at the finale of GUARDING THE GLOBE, which is at least 2-4 months behind schedule. While this series can offer epic battles and even high octane gore, it is these smaller, quieter issues that often showcase the strength of the franchise. Longtime artist Ryan Ottley continues to knock things out of the park on art. The only hiccup are the colors by Nikos Koutsis and Mike Toris – their style takes getting used to, and their angle of making people’s skin purple in low light is awkward. While this may not quite be the highlight of the series thus far, it is still a franchise that does bold things and make the reader feel that past events always have consequences and that the central characters all grow and change – and not always in expected ways. Given that Image Comics always finds new ways to repackage old material into larger and larger phone book sized trades, now is as good a time as any to catch up.
VENOM #5 – Initially solicited as some sort of prelude to SPIDER-ISLAND, this merely means this is the last issue before writer Rick Remender is obligated to acknowledge the crossover event spiraling out of parent title AMAZING SPIDER-MAN; which will also consume BLACK PANTHER, HERC, and apparently DAREDEVIL and PUNISHER. As such, Remender chooses to utilize this issue before the chaotic action to delve into Flash Thompson as a character and into his own past, apart from the alien costume that empowers him. After spending the first six pages taking down serial killer the Human Fly as Venom, Flash is brought down to earth by a more personal challenge – his abusive, alcoholic father hitting the bottle again, and what such things do to his mom. This issue has loads of narration boxes summarizing Flash’s upbringing as a bullied child, who went on to bully others, and who even became an alcoholic himself before moving on. There are moments that come close to being heavy handed, but the messy history works to Flash’s favor. As a long time supporting character to Spider-Man, this issue does a good job of showing that there is some depth to him as a lead without having to invent any new elements – merely expand on what is already there. Thus, VENOM comes off as more than simply a gimmick, which is perhaps why fans have responded to it in a way that they haven’t towards any ASM spin-off in years. While it would be easy to focus on the militaristic aspects of this Venom set-up, which Remender has on occasion, the writer continues to divert equal focus to his leading man. While Peter Parker does show up here – as, ironically, one of Flash’s supporting characters – he doesn’t distract from this. Much like AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #665, this was actually a solid little tale that might have been seen as filling the pages before a crossover, but actually stands on it’s own. Even Betty Brant, Flash’s steady, gets to shine as a reporter who doesn’t let frequent kidnappings get her down (http://joltleft.com/comic-books-in-new-york/picks-of-comic-book-week-for-6-29-11-that-s-anti-venom-not-anti-pasto-review). As for art, regular artist Tony Moore hands the first chunk of the comic, with Tom Fowler coming in to handle the rest, alongside colors by John Rauch and inks by Crimelab Studios. VENOM continues to be a very strong relaunch from Marvel, in a manner that has pleasantly surprised many fans. Sales are stronger for this series at this point than they were for AVENGERS ACADEMY, and that title looks set to reach a second year. Thus, Remender may have enough time to really play with this set-up, and so far he is coming up aces. The only riddle will be whether Remender can succeed in crafting new villains for Venom without merely re-making ones that Spider-Man had.
Another Good Read: SECRET AVENGERS #15 (Marvel Comics)
Dud: FF #7 (Marvel Comics)
Last Week’s Reviews – http://joltleft.com/comic-books-in-new-york/picks-of-comic-book-week-for-7-20-11-that-had-better-be-your-billy-club-review