On Mark Millar’s Spider-Man

Spider-Man #1
Marvel Comics / Marvel Knights – Mark Millar (w); Terry Dodson (p); Rachel Dodson (i)It’s not often that I look at a solicitation text, roll my eyes and absolutely WANT to dislike a book. Spider-Man managed to provoke that reaction from me though, so it’s in rarified company (up there with Astonishing X-Men, most recently). Generally speaking, and I think we can all agree on this one, there are more than enough Spider-Man (and Batman and Superman and, God help us all, X-Men) books on the market these days. Chances are, the last thing we need is another one.

Then again, the more good books being published, the better, right?

So if you look at it that way, you can’t help but be glad that Spider-Man (or, as I call it Adjectiveless Spider-Man) is on the market, because it’s a flat-out good time.

Spider-Man starts out with a bang, with Peter semi-conscious in a trash heap, in the midst of a citywide brawl with the Green Goblin. Taken to the brink once more by his long-time archenemy, Spider-Man finally ends the fight, resorting to tactics that alternately excite and shock the crowd of gawking on-lookers (such as smashing a mail box over the Goblin’s head). Confident that the situation is under control, Peter flees the scene before New York’s finest arrive, eventually staggering back to Aunt May’s house with the aid of a plainclothes cab ride.

The second half of the issue takes a more subdued tone, with time split between Peter and May discussing the impending sale of Peter’s boyhood home (and, as such, reminiscing about the years Peter spent hiding his other life from his surrogate mother) and Parker’s banter with his students (who, it turns out, have done a fair amount of internet research on their teacher) the following day at school. However, the scenes with May carry a sinister undertone, as a menacing presence watches their interactions from afar. As well, Peter’s snappy repartee with his class is interrupted by the news that Uncle Ben’s tombstone has been vandalized. Standing amidst the shattered remnants of his beloved uncle’s marker, Peter receives a call from an unknown antagonist, a faceless villain who reveals the fact that he knows about Peter’s costumed identity. And the game, it seems, is afoot.

It’s no secret that I’m a long-time, die-hard Batman fan. But in all of comics, there’s only one character that I have even close to the same affection for, and that’s Spider-Man (“He’s a big Batman and Spider-Man fan? How unique,” I can hear you say). As such, I’ve read a fair amount of Spidey books and, simply put, the ones that work the best are the ones that have a writer that understands how to script the relationships between Peter Parker and the women in his life. The trick, I think, in writing Peter’s interactions with Mary Jane and Aunt May is in keeping his banter light and snappy (that trademarked Spider-Man smart-ass wit), but with an undercurrent of genuine affection. At the same time, it needs, obviously, to feel like natural dialogue and to be at least remotely amusing. It’s a fine line to walk and while a lot of writers can do it competently, few can do it well.

It’s a little surprising, frankly, to see a writer whose career has so largely been based on shock value stories get down to the business of writing a character for whom self-sacrifice and nostalgia are part-and-parcel. It’s even more surprising to see him pull it off with such aplomb.

Mark Millar, in my opinion, is a writer who succeeds at it. It’s a little surprising, frankly, to see a writer whose career has so largely been based on shock value stories get down to the business of writing a character for whom self-sacrifice and nostalgia are part-and-parcel. It’s even more surprising to see him pull it off with such aplomb, as Millar’s script is basically spot-on in every facet of the story. His fight scenes are scripted like those from the character’s big screen debut, the fight scenes visually entertaining and the banter classic. On the flipside, the more down-to-Earth material feels very natural, something that’s often lacking in lesser Spidey titles (Spectacular Spider-Man, for example, I’ve found to be a bit too super soap opera at times).

The artwork from the Dodsons is every bit as good as you’d expect it to be. The pair has a reputation for fine cheesecake work, so it’s not such a stretch to expect that their talking-head sequences would come out nicely, but it turns out they draw a pretty mean fight scene as well. Of particular note is the fact that they understand that Peter, when swinging about on his weblines, should strike exaggerated, contorted poses (but nothing too far out of the realm of possibility), a touch that’s often lacking in portrayals of the character.

If there’s any complaint to be made about the book, it’s the fact that it’s a Marvel Knights title. I mean, seriously, at this point, what the hell does that imprint even stand for? The Ultimate line is self-explanatory and the MAX books boil down to “the hard R-rated material,” so what exactly is Marvel Knights supposed to be? At one point, it was all about reviving second-tier characters. Then it was about more street level guys like Daredevil and Punisher. After that it was ostensibly out of continuity, where John Ney Rieber wrote some of the most God-awful Captain America stories to ever see the light of day. But that didn’t seem to make too much sense, since some of the other Knights books clearly were in continuity, so that little clause was quietly shuffled off-stage. Now we’ve got Wolverine, X-Statix and Hulk joining 4 and Spider-Man to make up the imprint’s roster (supposedly Captain America is rejoining the Marvel Universe proper). So, I say again, what the hell is this imprint? I don’t have any answers here, as I can’t really find any common theme connecting these books.

At the end of the day, all bitching about Marvel’s mind-boggling branding aside, Spider-Man is nothing more and nothing less than a well-written old-school superhero romp. Its plot, so far, appears to be a little too close to the recent Batman arc, “Hush,” for my liking, but that’s mostly a question of timing more than anything else (I mean, no one’s claiming “Hush” was exactly ground-breaking material, but you’d think Marvel would wait more than six months before they tried their hand at it). All the same, it’s a damned fun read and visually quite stunning, so despite the fact that its cover price is $.74 more than the other two Spider-Man books, it’s definitely worth picking up.


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