Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Pain, And The Power!


An origin/retrospect story like Amazing Spider-Man #181 came at a peculiar time in the book's run, given that there seemed to be no major need for such a story other than the fact that ASM "switched gears" a bit around this time. Writer Len Wein had departed the book with its previous issue; long-time artist Ross Andru would be doing likewise four issues later, when Peter Parker graduated college (sort of); Marv Wolfman would replace Wein as writer, while Keith Pollard became the new artist (albeit temporarily for both); and the milestone of the book's 200th issue was just around the corner. From that point, ASM would resemble something of a "try-out" book, with a number of writers, pencillers and inkers pitching in (some more frequently than others)--and when the dust finally settled, Roger Stern and John Romita Jr. would take up residence for a two-year run.

So a recap of Spider-Man's life to date, while folding in another take of his origin story, closed out Wein's tenure by "taking a breath" after 180 issues before moving on. For anyone already familiar with the history of the mag or simply with Spidey's origin--or with both--the issue does little else, other than provide a visually interesting interlude, thanks to artist Sal Buscema who compiles the life of the wall-crawler nicely and hits the noteworthy points. That said, parts of this issue will feel like padding in that respect by both Buscema and writer Bill Mantlo, often grouping together characters in a panel and groping for descriptive text that fits the scene. Mantlo's narrative at times is uncomfortably almost patronizing, and prods the reader into feeling that the narrative is channeling their own feelings and thoughts on the scenes being presented. In the framing sequences, where Spider-Man reflects at the site of his uncle's grave, Mantlo shifts back to write some touching dialog--and you can only wonder how this book would read if it were Spider-Man who dictated the scenes, rather than Mantlo.

One example among many might be a scene which features Gwen Stacy, indicating an upturn in the life of Peter Parker--a scene which almost coaxes the reader to nod in agreement at the assertions made.



It's unclear how Joe Robertson connects to this scene, other than a shared association with the Daily Bugle. What does his desire to see people happy have to do with anything? (Is it some loose reference to handing Peter plum photo assignments?) Ditto for Capt. Stacy's approval of the relationship between Peter and Gwen--how is that important here, other than as reinforcement that isn't needed? Stacy's presence only sets up the following scene which shows his death during Spidey's battle with Dr. Octopus.

Buscema, of course, does his usual excellent job at presentation. While there are certain stock shots that Buscema has in his repertoire, with many of them trotted out here, he can also be very creative when tackling an assignment that leaves room for his imagination. Early in the story, of course, we get a run-down of Spider-Man's origin, which can be condensed fairly briefly; but have a look at how those familiar scenes become part of the clever format that introduces the character to the world.





From there, we have another impressive glimpse into Spider-Man's early history, while giving a more than generous amount of exposure to Spidey's civilian nemesis, J. Jonah Jameson--perhaps too generous, considering that there's more than enough ground in Spider-Man's life to cover without taking time to supply a virtual dossier of the publisher of the Daily Bugle.



On the other side of the coin, Buscema provides a decent sampling of the villains who have made appearances in the mag, a well-rounded assemblage that could easily have become too bloated.


(Mirage? Stegron? Really? No one else who could more memorably fill those slots?)


Then there's the nice framing story that gives some measure of worth to all of the history (as well as the superfluous eye candy) that comprises the issue, set off with a dramatically appropriate cover by Gil Kane that probably does the most to sell this issue. Remembering his Uncle Ben fondly and missing his presence has never been difficult for Peter--partly due to the example his uncle set for him, and partly because of the responsibility that Peter feels for his untimely death.




Peter's Aunt May has also paid a visit to the gravesite, which Spider-Man observes out of sight; but when his aunt departs, we see the symmetry that Mantlo brings to the scene, though we don't fully realize it until another person arrives at the site. Give Mantlo credit for pulling the unexpected in the way this scene plays out--but it appears to sap this story's ending of its effect on both Peter as well as the reader.




It's difficult to put into words how we feel about this man, isn't it. There's no mistaking the parallel between his son, Tommy, and a young Peter Parker, while the father shows a genuine concern for Tommy's situation and his future; but on the other hand, he feels no guilt whatsoever at pilfering someone's sentimental gesture toward a loved one who's passed away. Nor does Mantlo help matters much, with an "oh, well" final comment that effectively erases whatever feelings these scenes brought to the story.

. . .

However you ended up feeling at the end of "Flashback!" (the title of this tale), you could still find yourself quite touched by flipping the pages to the Bullpen Bulletins section, where a sad note announced the passing of a true giant (both literal and figurative) in the comics field--inker and Production Manager John Verpoorten, who died at just 37 years young. What a pleasure he must have been to work with, and to know.


Amazing Spider-Man #181

Script: Bill Mantlo
Pencils: Sal Buscema
Inks: Mike Esposito
Letterer: Annette Kawecki

3 comments:

Colin Jones said...

Perhaps Spidey was subconsciously hoping that the microscope WOULD be taken by somebody and put to good use as a sort of tribute to Uncle Ben - otherwise he must be rather naive to think he could just permanently leave a microscope by a grave. Reminds me of an incident when I was about 6 years old - my mother had an elderly friend called Emily and one day Emily and I were in the local cemetery (no, I don't remember why an old woman and a little boy were in a cemetery, we just were) and Emily saw some flowers that had been left at a graveside. "Fetch those flowers for me" she said and I just obeyed without question. She took them home and put them in a vase.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Will-o-the-Wisp made the cut! Cool beans!
M.P.

Comicsfan said...

Good grief, Colin, I'm aghast! I'm guessing the last thing we can presume of Emily is that she was the sentimental type. :)

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