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Gimmick or Good? – Spider-Man #1

I’ve written in the past about Mark Ginocchio’s blog, Chasing Amazing, where he writes about his quest to collect every issue of Amazing Spider-Man ever made. Mark wrote me with an idea for a column where he would take a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and give his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence “Gimmick or Good?” Here is an archive of all the comics featured so far. We begin with 1990′s multi-cover Spider-Man #1…

spider-man1

Spider-Man #1 (published August, 1990) – script and art by Todd McFarlane

Superstar artist Todd McFarlane’s first foray into both scripting and illustrating his own series is also considered one of the prime contributors to the comic book collector speculation bubble that dominated the first half of the 1990s. McFarlane was fresh off a stint on Amazing Spider-Man where he truly made a name for himself as the illustrator responsible for the co-creation of Venom. After asking off ASM essentially because he was bored of doing artwork for someone else’s story (something McFarlane himself explains in the notes page at the end of Spider-Man #1), Marvel, in a show of appeasement, decided to make McFarlane the focal point of what was to be their fourth ongoing series dedicate to the Wall Crawler (fifth if you count the Marvel Tales reprint series). In addition to having McFarlane’s name and a “collectible” #1 issue tag to create buzz about this series, Marvel also published multiple variant covers using different ink colors (silver, gold, platinum, etc.). The variant cover idea became so popular, that retailers even took advantage of a printer error on some of the interiors, selling a “Blue Lizard” variant (with a price mark-up, of course) based on the poor mix of yellow and cyan on somebody’s printing press.

But what about inside the comic?

The story itself is noticeably lacking any pizzazz or pop that would make me want to buy this comic book outside of its marketed “collectability.” McFarlane is unashamed by the fact that he’s an artist first and a writer second. The end result is something that reads more like an exercise in a weekend writer’s workshop. The opening page features a stilted monologue that feels like McFarlane’s version of a love letter to New York City, but instead is full of clichés that seemingly come from a writer giving it a go with that whole “word writing thing” for the first time: “Below is where the city’s heartbeat is,” or “Littered with towering concrete giants that seem to swallow up the sky.” Perhaps if this were a Spider-Man comic dedicated to exploring the hero’s relationship with New York City, this kind of introduction would make sense. But within a few pages, Manhattan sinks into relative anonymity filled with the same old petty thugs and crooks (or “punks” as McFarlane writes too many times), dirty alleyways, and city folk who all have the same set of exaggerated facial features and pouty lips.

Which is not to say I have an issue with McFarlane’s art. It’s certainly a divisive style, but because of how he exaggerates, I’ve always thought his heroes and villains look great. He’s always celebrated the art of web slinging in his Spider-Man illustrations, and even makes note of it in Spider-Man #1, joking about how caped crusaders could never have the freedom to do “these great mid-air cartwheels.” In fact, the entire issue features a Peter Parker who actually seems to enjoy being Spider-Man (though, of all the adjectives, having him call his web line “advantageous” is a head scratcher), which is obviously a huge departure from past characterizations of the reluctant hero who needs to be responsible with his great power But it’s at least consistent with McFarlane’s celebration of the superhero art-style. You either love it or you don’t and since McFarlane’s Spider-Man is one of the earliest visual impressions I have of the character, I can be an apologist for it.

For an inaugural villain, McFaralane gets the Jekyl and Hyde Lizard to play with. Though the first issue chooses to focus on the Hyde portion exclusively. For a #1 issue designed to draw casual readers in, I would have thought there would be at least some mention of the Lizard’s alter-ego, the good-natured Dr. Curt Conners, who only takes on reptilian form thanks to an experiment gone awry. But McFarlane insists on featuring “the perfect killing machine” who does a fair amount of “killing” to boot. Some splattered blood on the walls after the Lizard takes out a gang of criminals is certainly a huge departure from the usual illustrated fare of other Spider-Man titles.

It’s also worth noting that every Lizard panel features repetition of the word “Doom,” made out to sound like a drumbeat driving the villain on his bloody rampage. Once again, it’s a gimmick implemented by McFarlane that reads more like an exercise than something I would actually want to see published on multiple pages of a comic book. The issue ends with the Lizard waiting in the shadows to strike Spider-Man (with “doom, doom, doom” around him), but without an actual confrontation between hero and villain, nor an actual motivation for the Lizard to be on the hunt like this, to serve as a more appropriate cliffhanger.

As an admitted web-head who has found reasons to push on with the character despite every reason for Marvel to disinterest me over the years (the Clone Saga, Brand New Day, ASM #700), years later, Spider-Man #1 and the launch of this entire series still feels like a blatant cash-grab by the publisher years later. Despite his disillusion with “drawing someone else’s ideas,” McFarlane clearly wasn’t ready for the prime time of doing his own series from stern to sternum. And while the comic book has a legacy due to the variant cover madness it inspired, it’s certainly not memorable as an actual comic book.

Verdict: Gimmick

45 Comments

“Once again, it’s a gimmick implemented by McFarlane that reads more like an exercise than something I would actually want to see published on multiple pages of a comic book.”

Didn’t Walt Simonson do it in Thor over multiple pages? (The difference being, it worked.)

Wasn’t McFarlane’s reason for wanting to write because writers would keep making him draw conversations and other stuff that wasn’t splash pages?

McFarlane’s writing was a horrible rip off of JM DeMatteis’ “Kraven’s Last Hunt” storyline. It truly made me cringe at the time…

I agree…total cash grab…and I was happy to give them my cash for it at age 11 and still happy to give them my cash for it in hardcover form 20 years later…

I actually just read it the other night again…yeah, story stinks but the book is beautiful…to someone who started collecting right at that time, those covers are all almost iconic to me…

But the gimmicks in Spider-Man #1 are far beyond reproach, beyond any critical words of the petty internet punks. These gimmicks…

I’m going to defend this book. Slightly.

I think, in concept, this book had a reason to exist. We’ve got another thread running on these blogs right now about “Why don’t movie sales translate to comic sales?” with the chief complaint that the comics are too violent and barely resemble the broad and youthful appeal of the films. However, there has to–in theory–be a market for these violent books, or else DC and Marvel wouldn’t keep publishing them. (Those MAX books keep getting published, y’know.)

My recollection is that McFarlane’s series was pretty independent of the other three Spider-books on the market at the time. Correct me if I’m wrong, but at the time, Amazing was being written by David Micheliene with Erik Larsen having replaced McFarlane; Spectacular was drawn by Sal Buscema; “Web of” was drawn by Alex Saviuk. I can’t remember who wrote Spectacular and “Web of,” but it was the same guy–I want to say Tom DeFalco. Maybe Gerry Conway. Two points: one, Amazing, Spectacular, and “Web of” all dealt with more traditional, Saturday-morning superheroics with Spider-Man fighting Magneto or mutant werewolves or the Kingpin. Two, they all continued the same thematics–Spectacular and “Web of” in particular really being the same book published bi-weekly with different artists. Peter Parker’s job stuggles in “Amazing” tended to show up in “Spectacular” and “Web of” as well.

So McFarlane’s “adjectiveless” was removed from that trifecta. It never dealt with Spider-Man’s problems with the Puma buying the Daily Bugle or Peter and Mary Jane needing to find a new apartment. It also didn’t have the younger-aimed superheroics. If you wanted the “grim n’ gritty” Spider-Man and didn’t want to be sucked into the other three books, this was the way to go. It wasn’t removed from the continuity of the other three books, but it didn’t depend on them either.

The execution was awful, of course. My adolescent self thought all of Todd’s webs and the violence were the bee’s knees. Today, I know better. However, had this book had a better writer and better marketing, the idea of the “adult” Spider-Man to appease the audience who wanted a more “mature” book could have worked.

(And let’s not forget, this book pretty much became “the directionless Spider-Man” once McFarlane left. Other than a lengthy story by Erik Larsen, it became a bunch of unmemorable single or 3-part stories until it eventually folded into the continuity of the other three books.)

My first time reading this was just last week. I was busy reading other comics when this originally came out. For reasons I don’t quite understand, I found myself getting the 3 Marvel Premiere Classic volumes that reprint McFarlane’s run this month.

The writing, as you note, is painfully amateurish. In the reprint, Jim Salicrup writes defensively of allowing this level of writing into the world as the editor of the series. I’m not convinced of his sincerity. Although, honestly, I can think of plenty of examples where a newish artist has been paired with a more experienced writer.

The art is much more crude than I expected based on what I remember from McFarlane’s Hulk run, and the few issues of Spawn I picked up when Moore, Sim etc.. were writing it. Comparing it to his Amazing issues, you can see that he’s going for more densely detailed pages here. Unfortunately the anatomy suffers in a lot of places as a result.

By issue 5 this story still feels like an idea of a story, and not a fully thought out concept. There’s a gleeful nihilism in the villain-behind-the-villain that conveys roots in exploitation movies. As a code approved book though, a lot of that sleaze sits under the surface, it’s potential unmet.

I agree with you that losing the human element of the Lizard kind of misses the whole point of the character and removes the trademark Marvel tragic elements from the character. Both with the Lizard, and later in the run with Morbuis, each character comes off as more villainous than morally ambiguous.

At least his learning curve as a writer is a sharp one. He’s never great, but the raw high school notebook poetry vanishes pretty quickly.

I’ll agree with the “gimmick” verdict on this one.

From the art standpoint, it’s McFarlane. It does what it says on the tin. McFarlane was the hottest thing going in 1990. Everything he drew was, effectively, a license to print money, so I can’t fault Marvel for wanting to greenlight this one and milking it for all it was worth. Teenage me went gaga over the Image-era artists. I was more than happy to buy this stuff. Marvel’s mission was accomplished.

The writing, on the other hand, doesn’t hold up well at all. I cut McFarlane a lot of slack on this going into it, though. He was a first-time writer. I wasn’t expecting Shakespeare. I think he would’ve been better suited plotting the series and having a, more experienced, writer handle the scripting (similar to the arrangement Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza had on X-FORCE). I did see a noticeable improvement in his writing by the time he moved on to his next project (SPAWN), so he was, in time, finding his footing.

And yes, Adam, it was Gerry Conway who wrote WEB and SPECTACULAR, at the time. I wouldn’t call the post-McFarlane SPIDER-MAN “directionless”, just “stand-alone”. After McFarlane’s run, the book, basically, became the “LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT” of the Spider-books with self-contained arcs by different creative teams. The title didn’t get another “regular” creative team until it was in it’s 40s. It joined up with the continuity of the other three titles for “Maximum Carnage”.

Maybe McFarlane’s writing got better after Spider-Man #1, but Spawn wasn’t exactly good. After a reasonably decent set-up, the series wandered aimlessly for years. Even 15 year-old me dropped the series when it got boring.

Say what you want, but I liked it then and I still like it now. It’s a classic.

I found this McFarlane story painfully bad. In general, he did some great things with spidery poses and the way that webbing was drawn, and for that i give him credit. My biggest complaint with MacFarlane’s Spider-Man work was his version of Mary Jane as a big-haired, empty-headed looking, that made her appear as somewhat less than the elegant young woman in Peter’s life that i was used to seeing.. You could almost hear the chewing gum snap.

… RISE ABOVE IT ALL!!!

I still have a few copies of this somewhere. McFarlane’s writing was pretty bad, but it wasn’t significantly worse than any of the other Spider books at the time, and the art was much better. At least it was ambitious in its way.

While I like McFarlane’s art, his dialogue on the initial pages that made it into a preview of Marvel Age convinced me not to pick up the series. I agree with Cerebro that even even had the plot remained the same, having a different scripter would have made for a much better read.

I remember this was voted the worst comic of the year (In the world’s worst comics awards).

Personally I did not think it was the worst Spiderman comic of the month
though it could have been improved dramatically by removing two-thirds of the words leaving the art to tell the story.
(McFarlane was trying to imitate JM Dematteis when he would have done better imitating Mike Grell [an artist who knows a picture is worth a thousand words])

Meh, this book was sold on the art, and the art was spectacular (pun somewhat intended).

I think it holds up. Nobody (including 6-year-old me) wanted this for the story. We wanted it because McFarlane drew the coolest Spidey on the stands.

Anyway we could get interior shots (either on this one or future articles)? It would help to see what you’re talking about to help illustrate your point.

When I got to read this book I was already old enough to recognize rubbish. But like others have said, the other Spider-Man comics of the time were pretty much rubbish too. I liked McFarlane’s art at the time, but I was never really the sort of reader that buys comics for the art.

I picked this off the discount rack for 50 cents a few years ago-the owner of the store was still knee deep in them.
Total gimmick but I’m glad I bought one.

I purchased this issue when it came out. I’ve been a huge Spider-man fan since I was a small child. I actually have this cover tattooed on my right forearm (reduced in size a bit by a photocopier). It was the only issue #1 Spider-man to come out when I was a kid,I had to grab it. Maybe looking back now the writing isn’t that great but I loved the story back a the time.

While I didn’t care for this story at all, I really enjoyed the next story arc with Wolverine called Perceptions. It had a relatively clever twist that I didn’t expect (I was pretty young at the time)

Brian from Canada

March 4, 2013 at 4:33 pm

The problem with McFarlane’s work is that few people recognize it for what it really is: an early experiment in decompressed storytelling. It takes a few issues before the story materializes — something that the other Spider-books were not doing, making a point to end fights in one or two issues AND juggle subplots.

On that basis, McFarlane’s book worked. But the market hadn’t seen anything like it, really, and after buying the cleverly hyped first issue and possibly a few more, you had to realize as a reader that you needed to get them all to get the same feeling as other books could do in a lot less. So on that basis, the book fails.

It’s interesting… many of the commenters state that they were teenagers when this book came out, and it blew them away, and there’s a sense of nostalgia associated with it.

Me, I was 24 when this book came out, and I was horrified by how bad it was. I had been in college when McFarlane first hit the scene, going from Hulk to Spider-Man, and I remember people coming into the local comic shop where I worked to see how much “Amazing” #298 was worth because they found them at used book stores. I didn’t pay any attention to Spidey, so I could have cared less.

But there was no way NOT to pay attention when “Spider-Man” #1 came out. I was at Heroes Con in Charlotte that summer, and it was EVERYWHERE. You couldn’t escape it.

And the comic was responsible for one of my favorite con experiences ever: at one particularly over-priced dealer’s booth, a guy bought a polybagged version of the comic. Without missing a beat, he TORE IT OPEN in front of a horde of horrified geeks. (And the dealer… he almost passed out. ) The guy thumbed through it, said, “Huh, it’s just the same as the one I bought that wasn’t in a bag”, tossed it over his shoulder, and sauntered off. I never laughed so hard in my life. An unknown hero of mine that I will never forget.

I know it wasn’t the best Spider-man story ever written. IT was overlong and took a while to get going, Mary Jane didn’t do anything but party while Peter was cursed and beaten down. But it was McFarlane and I’ve always been a big fan of this guy. It sold millions and that’s not a bad thing.

If Scott Snyder wrote this exact story today, 80% of reviewers would give it 4.5 or 5 stars and would be talking endlessly about the ominous sense of foreboding that his long-winded repetitive prose motifs build and build and build.

The “Rise above it all” stuff was absolutely no worse than a million Snyder motifs like “Gotham is…” that pretty much everyone ate up and called genius.

Y’know, I didn’t get the hype around this issue. That and Jim Lee’s X Men issues. Marvel created books specifically for these guys and they were gone like 4 issues later. I didn’t get the hype around Spawn and Wild Cats either. By the way, how’s that Jam book of theirs doing? Still on issue 2?

I always loved Mcfarlane’s art. I feel it to be nerd revisionists who try to paint him in a bad light in 2013. You really think the spider-man comics make now are BETTER then Mcfarlane’s run? In amazing or in Adjective less Spider-man?? Seriously? To each his own. I loved the torment series and his entire run. To me everything Mcfarlane makes is incredible. I usually don’t make 1,000 word essays calling another artists wrk a gimmick but hey, I have respect for creativity if I don’t like an artist I ignore them usually. The thought that Mcfarlane made the worst comic ever in ANY year is a joke.
His writing wasnt the best but it still had it’s moments. I think the only thing gimmicky here is your article. Find something current to write about. There are thousands of storyline’s going on write now that could use more pres. Find one. The writer is a lame and dissing legends is kind of pathetic

I admit it the first story ark sucked it was way to busy but Mcfarlane did get better with the issues afterwards I remember actually liking the Wolverine Spiderman Windigo story arch. then Todd decided to help start Image. I read Spawn for a little bit but I found it to be lacking in quality that said the Sam and Twitch series was my favorite until he Mcfarlane decided to get in to a fight with Bendis then it was down hill after that. the experimental relaunch story wasn’t better. each page was cut into three different time lines . as for the original Spiderman series I quit when Mcfarlane did Larson did not seem like and improvement the owner of the comic book shop I went to at the time never missed an issue of spiderman but disowned it after Larson secret Six story line.

The strongest memory I have of this period, and this still happens in comics today, but I remember it so much more then and particularly in McFarlane books was the odd look of the street punks. They all had purple hair, multiple piercings, white vests, said ‘Yo’ and demanded ‘tolls’ for walking into their part of town.

It was like somebody had asked my grandfather to describe a teenage criminal.

Now that one is really tricky.
Torment, in paperback format was one of my earliest forays into American superheroes, well in English that is.
I’d agree that the multicover were truly a gimmick, but the venture into a new series not so much.

Compared to todays stories, Ock killing Peter, taking over his role as a hero???, Torment comes across as very much down to earth. Given that McFarlane wasn’t, and still isn’t, the greatest writer ever, it is still an enjoyable read. Somebody mentioned it before, the storyline is more decompressed than others of that period, but that not necessarily a bad feature, if handeld correctly.

Overall I’d grade it as three and a half out of five.

By the way, I always read about people complaining about MJ’s depiction. I can’t see anything wrong. She is an independent woman, doing her thing. She doesn’t need to look after Peter, because she came to terms with him being Spider-Man, risking his life on a daily basis. The awareness of her loss is there, that is why she is finding distraction in partying.

Torment was mostly terrible and went on too long, but I really enjoyed the Hobgoblin/Ghost Rider 2-part that followed.

When I was about 10, I thought that “Torment” was just about the most incredible thing ever. At that time, I’d never read a superhero comic that was so morbid and violent, and I was blown away by the art. Naive little boy that I was, I also found myself intrigued by the big words and pretentious narration. I re-read this story, for the first time in many years, about three years ago, and I cringed the whole way through. It read exactly like something that a first-year creative writing undergraduate student might whip up when trying to appear clever. As a poster above pointed out, it also seemed like a pathetic imitation of J.M. DeMatteis’ writing style, in particular ‘Kraven’s Last Hunt’ (which is referenced in the story). However, although I can now find flaws in McFarlane’s visual storytelling, I’m still a fan of his artwork. His depiction of the Hobgoblin in a later arc will always be the perfect representation of the character for me (well, that particular incarnation of the Hobgoblin, anyway).

We all know McFarlande was a forerunner for comic book artists who thought “Why the hell should I only get half of the royalties when 90 % of what I get to draw is so mediocre I could probably write it myself?”, but are there any famous cases of the reverse situation? Are there any examples of comic book writers who thought “Screw it, I’ll just pencil this story myself and rake in the cash?”

When reading this I realize it sounds like a bitchy rethorical question, but I’m honestly curious!

That “?” under McFarlane’s name on the cover is, in my opinion, right up there with Paul wearing no shoes on Abbey Road. Not as well known obviously, but for those of us that saw it when it came out, it’s a touchstone of comic culture.

ADVANTAGEOUS!!!!!!!!!!!!

The thing I remember most about McFarlane’s “Torment” storyline is that it didn’t have a proper ending. I think Lizard ran away or something, but without Spider-Man actually defeating him.
The reasoning at the time was that comics should be like real life and not necessarily have a happy ending. Yet I was reading comics just because it wasn’t real life: it was Spider-Man, the X-Men, Batman, etc. having super-hero adventures. Of course they should defeat the villain in the end.

I liked Gerry Conway, was pretty cool with Alex Saviuk, have since learned to love Sal Buscema, and have always hated Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie, even when I was an 11 year old kid reading this stuff. Everything is relative, I suppose.

In hindsight, Spidey and the Lizard look pretty darn cool, the rest of the story isn’t a story, and I’m glad I only bought one issue of this piece of crap.

But I think that the idea Peter being Spider-Man because it was fun has been around a lot longer than ‘Spider-Man 01.’ It was in early post Lee Amazing, even a bit in Lee/Romita Amazing if I remember right (remember from the collected CD, like I said, I was 11 or 12 when ‘Spider-Man’ came out.) Peter was conflicted about it, because well, yeah, he was conflicted about every damn thing.

And like y’all said, it wasn’t pure ‘gimmick’ so much as ‘keep our high selling superstar artist happy, because he has a gun to our heads.’ I mean, my memory might be shaded a bit, but I submit that you could tell that from the tone of the Editor’s Note at the end of the issue.

Also ‘What The #14′ had a pretty good parody of the whole thing, which I would think hints that many at Marvel at the time were a bit leery of the whole thing as well.

“You really think the spider-man comics make now are BETTER then Mcfarlane’s run?”

Heck, yes! Spider-Man (and Marvel) was mostly unreadable throughout the nineties.

/ola

I used to feel bad about not getting SPAWN, but after reading that (and re-reading some of Todd’s early Spidey work) that McFarlane couldn’t write at all. It’s not even college level, it’s pretty sub-par. I want to believe it was written after the art was done and something had to fill all of those big boxes.

I would cut Todd some credit, but after reading several of his Spawn: Origins re-releases, it seems that he doesn’t really know how to make a story sing at all.

I have to admit, I was a McFarlane fanatic back in 1990. I’d read Hulk and was crazy about Amazing Spider-Man after seeing McFarlane’s interpretation. I copied his style into my own artwork. I was another who bought into Spider-Man #1, as a 15-year-old. I had the standard color version. I loved the art, but the story sucked (after enjoying David Micheline’s words) and gave up after issue #2. Pity. The Amazing days will always be special and the best to me.

[...] to say, while the comic is not a worthless piece of junk like some of the hologram and variant cover issues of the 90s, I never got the impression that the movie had any impact on ASM #136′s [...]

Yep, total cash grab. Toddy Mc cannot write. Comics are very visual and art alone can sell a book. Also, I won’t pick up a book if the art stinks and the story is good. Ideally we’d like to see great art and great story but that’s not a common occurrence especially from Marvel and DC (kings of the cash grab).

The writing on this book was what a 3rd grader might turn in.

They would never have given a moments thought to letting Peter David or any other writer (without training or talent) draw a comic book. Why in the world did they let an artist write!

i must be one of the few because i loved this book and still do, i love it’s simplicity.

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