Wednesday, December 7, 2011

GN Review -- Amazing Spider-Man: Ultimate Collection, v. 1 / J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita, Jr.

Some spoilers in this review if you haven't read this yet. You've been warned.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud makes a persuasive case that comic books don't have to be the juvenile, two-dimensional form of entertainment that they've been pigeon-holed as for decades. He suggests that the blend of text with pictures with pictures in sequential form has every bit as much potential as prose literature, film, and painting at their highest cultural, aesthetic, and narrative pinnacles as a medium for storytelling and expression. When you consider how comics had been perceived (up until, arguably, the late 1980s), it was difficult to find an example of the medium that could delight both critics and fans.

J. Michael Straczynski's run on Amazing Spider-Man was certainly not a grand first in terms of elevating comics to mature remarkable storytelling when it came along, but it was an excellent example of how a talented writer, in collaboration with a good artist and creative team, can breathe new life into a title and cause fans to fall in love with a character and his world all over again. From the get-go, JMS puts Peter Parker through the paces as fate's personal chew toy, delighting readers with clever dialog, imaginative new foes, allies, and situations, and a rock-solid depiction of Peter's persistence to do the right thing as Spider-Man even during the worst of times. Multiple overlapping story arcs and plot points converge to shake up the status quo of Peter's world in ways that both matured the series while bringing it back to its roots.

JMS has always been strong at writing engaging story arcs for characters in a series, and he really shines here, weaving a large number of events right on top of one another. We have the introduction of the totemic aspect of Peter's powers--which, like it or not, gave readers some interesting food for thought with regard to his origin--and two characters central to the concept, Ezekiel, an ally who knows Peter's identity as Spider-Man, and Morlun, a super-human who hunts and kills totemic recipients with single-minded devastation. We have Aunt May learning Peter's identity as a result of the fight with Morlun. We have her talking to Peter about it and them dealing with it. We have Dr. Strange showing up to help Peter as he tracks down missing teenagers. And we finally have Peter and May going to Hollywood to attempt to reconcile with Mary Jane--and, incidentally, help Doctor Octopus take down an upstart who's stolen his technology.

What works with all of these arcs is not only the pacing, which is varied and realistically handled, but also the dialog and plotting, both of which are pithy, fast-paced, and remarkably well tailored to the story. For example, when security guards ask Peter about his web shooters, Aunt May, who now knows her nephew's other occupation, lends a hand by mentioning that they are hers, used for gynecological purposes, making the security guards back off fast. It's a laugh-out-loud resolution to a potentially compromising situation, and one that wouldn't have been possible without May's discovery of Peter's life as Spider-Man. Peter also handles a variety of problems, from the typical super-villain fights (Dock Ock and Morlun) to the lower-powered but no less important mysteries of homeless teens disappearing from their refuge. JMS depicts a Spider-Man who's never lacking in people to help, and whose interest in helping other guarantees many and varied requests, none of which he's too good for.

Helped along by John Romita, Jr.'s strong pencil work, JMS chronicles Peter's life in and out of costume in iconic fashion. There was a time (long ago) where I didn't care for his artwork and dismissed it as too cartoony, but he really has come a long way since then. Either that or I have. His style is extremely well suited to Spider-Man and his world. Peter is his perfectly cheesy self as he struggles and perseveres through the loops he gets thrown for in his personal and "professional" lives. Mary Jane, his wife from whom he's currently separated, is beautiful and stunning in her independence she develops her career in Hollywood away from Peter. Yet she is also vulnerable and uncertain as she tries to reconcile her need to be away from the uncertainties of his costumed life with her deep and undeniable love for him. And Aunt May is the picture of quiet strength as she learns more about her nephew's life and comes to understand and accept more than she ever thought possible.

Right after the Morlun fight and Aunt May's discovery of Peter lying, bloodied, bandaged and unconscious in his bed, his torn Spider-Man costume nearby, the narrative is interrupted by a commemorative issue. It's the 9/11 acknowledgment from Marvel, which originally had a grave black cover. It depicts the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, with superheroes helping police, firefighters and EMS personnel rescue survivors, as super-villains look on, shaking their heads in acknowledging that these terrorists have gone too far. It gives weight to an horrific event that we all remember, and paid homage to the true heroes of 9/11 with a salute from Marvel's own heroes.

This volume of Spider-Man lore is a prime example of Scott McCloud's assertion that comics do indeed have the potential to be more than the juvenile, low-brow entertainment that they are commonly derided as. Super-hero stories can, with the right touch, be as captivating, poignant, and emotionally relevant as any other form of literature or art out there. With dramatic storylines, deep emotional investment, and breathtaking artwork, this tome is my go-to example of how deeply rewarding comic books can be. Very highly recommended.

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