Spider-Man Saga

Posted by on January 4th, 2011 at 1:00 PM

One of the funniest comics of the year was unceremoniously slipped into my bag at the local shop recently. It was a freebie from Marvel called Spider-Man Saga, a mix of individual panels lifted from various recent SpiderMan titles and hilariously brusque précis of their narratives. Ostensibly, it was designed to bring lagging, lapsed or casual readers up to speed so as to more effectively gin up the Next! New! Big! Thing! in the life of the character.

First, though, the decks needed to be hosed clean of the last several N!N!B!T!s and the mess they’d made. Spider-Man Saga is a concerted marketing booklet that essentially shows how easily the momentous changes written into the character’s history by a succession of caretakers, handlers and hacks could be written right back out again. Originally these “changes” were items that broke into the advertainment menu of broader, pandering media, things like “Spider-Man Marries!,” “Spider-Man Reveals His Secret Identity To The World!” and “Aunt May Shot!”

After the initial bump they gave to sales, such turning points came, of course, to be impediments for later puppeteers. But as the Saga relates, no biggie! Apparently authors painted into a corner by prior regimes could reclaim their artistic liberty by merely walking straight back over the work already laid down. Take Peter’s marriage to Mary Jane: It turns out that those whom God hath joined together, funnybook satan Mephisto can put asunder. As for how Parker’s going public with his secret identity was reversed, well, that was just plain silly.

As far as I can tell, Spider-Man Saga is a kind of superhero Cliff Notes where no honest academic cheat ever got to compress such ripe-unto-rotting source material:

Mysterio — apparently Quentin Beck back from the dead — used a remote control Silvermane robot to make the Maggia believe their metallic crime boss had returned, while igniting a gang war against Mr. Negative and Hammerhead.

Saga goes on like this for some 15 pages (“Caught between a cosmic champion of the Enigma Force and an unstoppable brute …”), this even before the 17 pages of equally useful character profiles (“Losing his sanity again …”). Bear in mind the book is a refresher for all of maybe two years of character continuity. (For December delivery to comic shops, Marvel Previews lists four Spider-Man comics and two Spider-family spin-offs in their own special designated section, but this doesn’t include team books of which he is a member, Ultimate comics, guest-starring appearances or any all-ages adventures for the month … so lot of things happen fast for Peter!)

Individual paragraphs in this Saga remind one of the desperate bedtime ploy where, turning the tables on an adult narrator, a child makes up his or her own story to ward off lights out: “… an’ then the dragon comes back but he can’t beat up Frankenstein, who’s a giant now, `cause he’s got a ray gun from these space aliens who came from inside the earth, but they were invisible …”

Nor does the Spider-soap-opera, the melodrama that fleshes out the barrens between fistfight, go neglected: “Peter and his new roommate Michele had a one-night fling after the reception, severely straining their relationship once the morning arrived.” Finally, there are those highlights that are sui generis, beholden to no recognizable medium, tradition or normal waking mental state: “Meanwhile, Aunt May caught her boss as his alter ego, Mr. Negative, disemboweling one of his henchmen. For a time, she became the foul-tempered ‘Anti-May’ …” Is it any wonder that a rapidly aging audience can’t keep track of it all, that 40-year old fanboys need precisely this kind of short-term memory crutch?  (Guys! Hurry! The Marvel Previews for February has an all-black cover with block red letters trumpeting “THE DEATH OF SPIDER-MAN”!)

Back in 1985, I remember being surprised by the cover and featured article for issue #99 of The Comics Journal: “What’s Wrong with the X-Men?” (This from a magazine that prided itself on the rare distinction in the day of flagrantly not fronting superheroes.) Inside, Heidi MacDonald took the X-Men comic to task for its shabby regard for consistency, particularly with respect to the integrity of its characters. I believe she referred to them and their utter malleability as plastic, with the additional implication of them being synthetic and patently fake. And bear in mind this was during a span when there was only a single X-title and it was written exclusively, as it had been for years, by Chris Claremont.

Today, plastic would look good. This Saga summation shows the state of contemporary Spider-Man to be more reminiscent of the molten and drooping pocket watches in Dali’s The Persistence of Memory: distinctively marked and readily identifiable but grotesquely contorted, sad and pathetic and rendered completely unsuitable for their original purpose. If there’s any kind of response to be made, it is to laugh.

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5 Responses to “Spider-Man Saga

  1. Chris Reilly says:

    Great piece. As a 3 some odd year reader of Spider-Man the one thing that, no matter how bad things got, you could (almost) always say the character had continuity. Suddenly Marvel has jumped back to a DC in the 70’s approach to continuity which in the silver age of Superman did not matter, they were just trying to be fun with these weird stories to make up for the fact that for over a decade they were mirroring the dull as dishwater television show. About 8 years ago I asked a very unpopular question on the comics pro message board which was “what the hell does a Marvel editor actually do?” and I got hit from all corners of… uh, that bitchy message board. I think I would have been thrown off had Kurt Busiek not come to my defense but defense of the question itself and asked if anyone could tell me what a Marvel editor actually does. I half jokingly wrote in a column at guttergeek that if you want to write say THOR, you just grab one of those butcher counter tickets and when they call your number you get a THOR book to call your own. With the exception of Roger Langridge (hopefully they have a new book for him), Johnathan Hickman, Jeff Parker, Jim McCann and Andy Diggle that is the only way I can rationalize what goes on at that company. Again, great column and I could not agree more that Spider-Man is a stomped on, epically unreadable book. To Marvel’s credit they are not dolling up these “saga” books and tricking people into paying for them anymore. The Saga/to explain the mess they have made books are very comical.

  2. Chris Reilly says:

    That should have read as a “30 some odd year reader.” Had I jumped on-board three years ago I would have been so confused I would probably have loved this SAGA book. Spider-Man’s deal with the Devil was almost as dumb as Spawns; be careful what you wish for or I will make you the most powerful being on earth… but you’ll be ugly and if you try to turn back into that handsome black man you were you will turn into an equally handsome white man. Comic book Devil is a lame dope.

  3. Michael Grabowski says:

    I was an avid Spider-Fan from about ’75 – ’85 and retained enough affection for the character to check in every couple years, until the Clone Saga killed my interest for good. (Is the Life of Reilly website still online? That is an incredible summary of both the books and the behind the scenes editorial mess.) I don’t have any care about the marriage to Mary Jane other than the stupid way they made it go away, but I thought part of the point of that was to get back to basics. I must have had that wrong because reading this freebie when it showed up in my bag a few months ago, I was stunned at how stupidly crowded the whole story got again.

    Does anyone believe that a kid interested in the character because of the movies would come to a Spider-Man comic with these kinds of stories and character “development” and ever keep reading for a second issue? I guess Marvel must think so.

  4. Chris Reilly says:

    “Does anyone believe that a kid interested in the character because of the movies would come to a Spider-Man comic with these kinds of stories and character “development” and ever keep reading for a second issue?”

    I still buy Spider-Man from time to time and admittedly enjoyed the sequel to the 80’s story Kravan’s Last hunt “Grim Hunt” written by Joe Kelly but as a stand alone it had about a year’s worth of stories that tied in with it. When I am done reading my comics I give them to a fried’s son and his friends and they love the Spider-Man films but typically toss his comics aside. So, from my experience with 4 kids I would have to say no, kids have no interest in new Spider-Man comics and that is a shame. One of them is old enough to enjoy the weirdness of Thrizzle so maybe it is for the best.

  5. WLLilly says:

    …I didn’t know that that was a comics-shop freebie , I’m not , at this time , going to a comics shop , I saw that and bought – as in ” paid money for it ” – at a newsstand account…Why , had I but known , I’d have bought 6 and osmium triple-bagged it !!!!!!!!!!!