By Stan Lee & John Romita (Marvel/ Panini Publishing UK)
By 1977 Stan Lee had all but surrendered his role as editor and guiding light of Marvel Comics for that of a roving PR machine to hype-up the company he had turned into a powerhouse. In that year two events occurred that catapulted Marvel’s trademark character into the popular culture mainstream. One was the long anticipated release of the Amazing Spider-Man live action TV show – a mixed blessing and pyrrhic victory at best – whilst the other, and one much more in keeping with his humble origins was the launch of a syndicated newspaper strip.
Both brought the character to a wider audience but the later offered at least a promise of editorial control – a vital factor in keeping the Wallcrawler’s identity and integrity intact. But even this medium dictated some tailoring of the “Merry Marvel Madness” before the hero was a suitable fit with the grown-up world of the Funny Pages.
Which is a longwinded way of saying that completists and long-time fans will be happy with this collection of strips, as will any admirer of the black-and-white artwork of the senior John Romita (latterly inked by the great Frank Giacoia); but the stories, tame, bowdlerised and rather mediocre, struggle without the support network of a Marvel Universe, and are necessarily dumbed-down for readers not familiar with the wider cast or long history.
If the reader is steeped in the common folklore of Spider-Man, the adventures introducing Dr. Doom and Dr. Octopus are merely heavy-handed, but for newcomers they are presented as if all participants are already familiar, with no development or real explanation. A new villain The Rattler comes next, followed by the more appropriate (for strips at least) gangster The Kingpin before the strip finally gets around to a retelling of the origin, but now based on that aforementioned TV show rather than the classic Lee/Ditko masterpiece. It is safe to say that in those early years the TV series informed the strip much (too much) more than the comic-books.
A revised Kraven the Hunter came next, which presented an opportunity to remove Mary Jane Watson from the strip in favour of a string of temporary girl-friends, more in line with the TV version, and this also signalled a reining-in of super-menaces in favour of a less fantastic string of opponents such as a middle-Eastern terrorist. The launch of a Spider-Man movie took Peter Parker to Hollywood and a new version of deranged special-effects genius Mysterio, before Dr. Doom returned, attempting to derange our hero with robot pigeons and duplicates of Peter Parker’s associates.
This is followed by an exceptional run as three street thugs terrorise Aunt May for her social security money, and Spider-Man has to foil a crazed fashion-model who has discovered his identity and is blackmailing him. These human-scale threats are a perfect use of the hero in this more realistic milieu – and they are the best stories in this collection (reprinting the first two years of the feature; from January 3rd 1977 to January 28th 1979), which regrettably ends with a (feel free to shudder) protection racket story set in the Disco owned by Flash Thompson and Harry Osborn.
The wonderful art sadly can’t counteract the goofy stories that predominate in this collection, nor has time been gentle with the dialogue, which is so antiquated that it might be dug up on Time Team, but there is nonetheless a certain guilty pleasure to be derived from this volume if you don’t take your comics too seriously….
© 1977, 1978, 2007 Marvel Characters Inc. All Rights Reserved.