Saturday, February 16, 2008

I (Heart) Marvel: Web of Romance #1 & Spider-man's Tangled Web #11

Blogger’s note: In order to compensate for my extremely delayed posts lately, I’ve decided to review two comic books for Valentine’s Day, Thursday, February 14, 2008! As an added bonus, both issues star the spectacular Spider-man in two separate but equally entertaining Valentine’s Day adventures! Of course, this wouldn’t be a A Comic A Day review without some superfluous, embittered commentary, so let’s let the torrid love affair with comics truly begin!

I (Heart) Marvel: Web of Romance #1, April 2006, Marvel Comics
writer: Tom Beland
penciler: Cory Walker
inker: Cliff Rathburn
colorist: Avalon’s Matt Milla
letterer: Dave Sharpe
cover artist: Gez Fry
editors: Aubrey Sitterson & Tom Brevoort
EIC: Joe Quesada

Spider-man’s Tangled Web #11, April 2002, Marvel Comics
writer, penciler: Darwyn Cooke
inker: J. Bone
colorist:Matt Hollingsworth
editor: Axel Alonso
EIC: Joe Quesada

I didn’t read Spider-man: One More Day. Actually, I did read some of it -- ten years ago, when Aunt May was on her deathbed and Peter was blessed with one more day with her, in which she revealed her knowledge of his dual identity before kicking the bucket for good. Well, not for good, as she returned when the Clone Saga subsided, sans knowledge of her nephew’s web-swinging. It’s the vicious cycle in which our favorite heroes are trapped; their editors decide to alter what we’ve always accepted as canon (or worse, mortally wound these icons, betraying a projected streak of masochism in the higher ranks of DC and Marvel), then send a press release to the appropriate media outlets and attempt to garner naïve eBay-happy collectors, until, when this fleeting attention fades, return things back to normal to satisfy seething or forsaken fans. I’ve said it before -- our favorite superheroes’ worst enemies are often the men and women behind their contemporary storytelling.

Of course, you don’t need me to tell you this. You’ve discovered this phenomenon yourself and read about it in countless other blogs. I’m not writing this for you, though; I’m writing this for me, to see if I really understand it. One year, Batman’s back is broken and he’s wheelchair bound, the next, he’s back to swinging effortlessly around those Gotham rooftops. Eh, whatever, right? This Batman is preferable to the one in those goofy old ‘50s yarns about time-traveling and fighting dinosaurs, or fighting weird little aliens in flying saucers?

So, what does all of this have to do with I (Heart) Marvel: Web of Romance #1, you ask? Well, quite frankly, I’m not sure if this issue still exists. I mean, it obviously still exists, as I’m holding it right here in my hands. What I’m struggling with is, is its content still relevant, or “in continuity,” as it were? I know Marvel’s EIC Joe Quesada has claimed that the stories from Spidey’s past are essentially intact, including Mary Jane yet not as our hero’s betrothed, and further that stories like this should be enjoyed as the singular pieces of graphic art they were intended to be, but I cannot accept that. I can take enjoying any comic book sans context or continuity baggage, but the truth is, this creative team -- these artists -- intended to tell a story about a married couple on Valentine’s Day. To strip away their intentions is to cheapen the impact of comic book storytelling as an art. It’s like Photoshopping the Mona Lisa into a lunch lady by adding a hairnet and everything; it’s still the Mona Lisa as Di Vinci captured her, but you’ve tweaked his work so it’s dishing out crap. Countless web pranks do just this kind of thing.

Or would the comic book community simply dub such a project an “homage” for the sake of humor and respect? I know, I know -- bitter much, right?

Well, Web of Romance is a story that cannot shake the apparently evil notion that Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson-Parker were once wed and in fact living in Avengers’ Mansion. In this issue, Spidey struggles with what to get his wife for Valentine’s Day, since, in the past, the likes of his picture frame for her have been consistently trumped by the likes of her iPod for him. It’s a struggle every man endures this time of year, though we don’t get to hash out the problem with Captain America and Power Man during a battle with Dragon Man. When Pete puts together his wife’s resourcefulness with her contrasting unsuperpowered nature, he enlists Iron Man’s help and give Mary Jane a pair of web-shooting bracelets -- fashionable and practical in a world of Electros around every corner. Thankfully, she loves them and is totally willing to show Spidey -- on the roof no less. I guess those skyscrapers aren’t just for web-slinging and brooding, eh?

Writer Tom Beland writes a very light-hearted tale that references past and present elements in the Marvel Universe to establish a quaint story of superhero domesticity and adventure. In one sequence, MJ watches football with Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, and Luke Cage, laughing it up with the boys while Pete admires her from the kitchen with Aunt May and Jarvis. That’s right, seven completely different Marvel mainstays, dwelling together naturally and comfortably, in a scene that invites fans of these characters to virtually pull up a chair alongside them. Later, Peter recounts a “classic” Marvel sequence in which he “punks” the girl-crazy Johnny Storm with a web-bat, a story that elicits MJ’s appreciation of the web-shooters’ technology. My favorite moment in this issue is the obligatory origin panel, but Beland pulls it off most effectively. Spidey literally wraps up decades worth of MJ continuity in a few simple reflective captions (even mentioning Jonathan Caesar, a nefarious character from when I read Amazing Spider-man in the ‘90s), giving the reader a true sense of why she, above all of the other women in Parker’s life, stole his heart.

So how can Quesada expect us to toss those nostalgic stories to the wind? When the incredible talented Cory Walker is illustrating a love story like this one, who would dare relegate it to mere continuity fodder? I suppose this is where Tangled Web #11 comes in.

Darwyn Cooke is a master comic book storyteller. The fact that his Justice League: New Frontier is coming to DVD this month is a testament to the many facets of his skills as a writer and an artist, and though Spider-man's Tangled Web #11 is really just a footnote in his overall career, it’s still an excellent example of his process with any of comics’ superhero icons. In this issue’s tale “Open All Night,” Spidey tussles with the Vulture and falls into the old bird’s best laid trap, which results in ol’ Webhead plummeting mask-first and passing out in an alley. Meanwhile, business as usual proceeds at the Daily Bugle, as two women prepare for a date with Peter Parker and Jonah’s latest intern succumbs to a barista’s jealousy and accidentally gives Mrs. Jameson an Exlax-laced coffee. Jonah surely gets his revenge against the angry coffee boy, and both girls stumble into a beaten Peter Parker to express their mutual outrage, but his charms get the best of them and apparently they both agree to nurse him back to health. It’s a happy but peculiar ending to an upbeat but outrageous Valentine’s Day story.

Of course, this issue left me with a few questions. Since Jonah mentions that Peter is a teacher, I assume that this story parallels the J. Michael Straczynski era of Amazing in which Spidey teaches science at Midtown High and is temporarily separated from MJ, allowing for the time to date. Still, I don’t know how Peter could reconcile the irresponsible error of scheduling a date with two women on Valentine’s Day, unless the unspoken threesome that results from their shared sympathy for his beat-up state was a part of his plan. In the end, when the Vulture presents the diamond ring he stole to a long lost love some twenty years removed, the old lady embraces the villain and proclaims, “Let’s make love!” Surely, Cooke, in all of his breathtaking renderings in this issue, tops his best efforts with the shocking unseen sequence that must follow! Yes, I’m talking about the Vulture swiping a bottle of Viagra from Rite Aid! I wonder, with this issue’s implications, would Spider-man prevent that crime, or finally find a common ground with the winged geezer. “Hey, you go do whatever a spider can, big guy! Spin a web, any size!”

So, these two issues, both starring Spider-man on Valentine’s Day (and brilliantly drawn, period), essentially represent both sides of the “One More Day” argument. One issue perfectly captures the strengths of the Parker marriage, while the other shows the potential of a swingin’ single bachelor. Did either of them give me an idea of which I’d prefer? Hey, why not both? Both stories are richly entertaining and certainly do not fail in capturing the attention of an all-ages audience (no matter what Quesada thinks kid make of a wedded webslinger -- because, oh, yeah, the life of a bachelor is much more relatable to youth) -- so why not offer both? What if, at the end of “One More Day,” Mephisto created two parallel worlds in which both realities coexisted? Rather than publish Amazing weekly, why not tell Spider-man’s story through both lenses, with two issues a month starring either option? Marvel could call one title The Wedded Webslinging Spider-man, and the other The Swingingly Single Spider-man! Hey, in a medium where two Spider-men could coexist for the better half of a decade, though one called himself the Scarlet Spider, why couldn’t this come to pass? Couldn't everyone have a virtual one more day of the hero they’d prefer?

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