Spider-Man: Fever by Brendan McCarthy

Posted by on December 21st, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Here we have the much-vaunted return of Brendan McCarthy to comics.  After years adrift in the world of television and movies, the British artist finds his new home at Marvel, riding the wave of ’70s revivalism with a series that channels two of Ditko’s most pop creations.  The Spider-Man and Dr. Strange that appear in Fever, however, also owe a debt of gratitude to ’90s psychedelia and the European sci-fi of Heavy Metal — Moebius’ designs for the unfilmed Dune resonate in many of the scenes — all tossed into the McCarthy mixer with his signature acidic colors and shamanic sensibilities.

The story itself is played relatively straight, unlike McCarthy’s take on Batman and The Flash in his issue of Solo.  Dr. Strange opens a booby-trapped grimoire (actually, even Stan The Man might grimace at this MacGuffin, but the naïf tone works with what is to follow) and in the supernatural fallout, Spider-Man is kidnapped by extra-dimensional spiders.  These nightmarish creatures force poor Spidey to hunt for them, while Strange attempts to undo the damage he has wrought.  Needless to say, these shenanigans all take place outwith Mighty Marvel’s current continuity clusterfuck, which allows McCarthy to add his own mystic twist on Spider-Man’s origin.

Where the book really comes into its own is in the depiction of the various magical realms and, for most, the prospect of the artist responsible for Rogan Gosh and Shade the Changing Man taking on Ditko’s realm of imagination would be enough to sell the series.  They won’t be disappointed.  Just look:

McCarthy’s art almost transcends representation into pure artistic expression.  It’s no mean feat that he’s able to make his visions so vague and suggestive, while presenting them in such a loud, bold manner.  The closest analogue to this technique is the abstract way in which instrumental music works.  Indeed, when McCarthy talks about his art, it’s the vocabulary of music that he reaches for: his colors are “remixed” (Spidey spends most of his time in Fever rendered in a sickly green and purple), he “samples” Ditko and, in the design notes, even says, “I regard the digital in comics as the equivalent of the electronic in music.”  Heck, the story even ends with a double devil-horn salute.

The series is framed as a fever dream, side-stepping any damage that could have been done to the characters.  Unfortunately, this results in a predictable “phew, what a crazy dream” ending.  You can practically hear the artist’s gritted teeth as this hackneyed ending is played out.  It’s endlessly frustrating that Marvel won’t let indy creators play in their sandpit without raking it clean afterwards.   Somehow, their universe would seem all the more lively if feral cats did eat church ladies, or characters like McCarthy’s spherical dog-creatures were waiting in the wings.  It’s equally frustrating when we consider the Ditko Spider-Man and Dr. Strange story (from 1965’s Spider-Man Annual #2), which has an undeniable weirdo sensibility to it — not just in Ditko’s designs, but also in its goofy story of wizards and amulets, right down to Spider-Man’s closing remark of, “May your amulet never tickle.”

Perhaps it’s appropriate, though, that Fever is left out of continuity as a story that could happen at any point in these characters’ histories, and not one that can be retconned out of significance. It would be fascinating to see what McCarthy would do with certain other Marvel properties in this manner and let his influence linger in the mainstream a little longer than may be comfortable.

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