Thursday, February 11, 2010

What Spider-Man can, She'll give a whirl: The Spider Girl: Legacy Review.

My friends and I indulge in a weekly ritual we've come to call the Comicbook Run. Basically it means meeting up mid-afternoon on a Sunday and tooling around Calgary, making a slow circuit of each of our favorite four-color haunts. If you've seen the movie Free Enterprise(and if you haven't shame on you, as it's a helluva fun flick), imagine the scene where the four guys are heading to Toys R Us and you've pretty much got our CBRs visualized. It's a chance to get together and geek out completely and it's oftentimes a much-needed stress release valve.

Unfortunately, it seems that I have come to settle into the role of the curmudgeonly bastard, the Dana Carvey/Grumpy Old Man character who often rails against things 'not bein' the way they used to be!' and 'back in my day we had gorillas with jetpacks and we liked it, by God!' sort of character. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's a fun role to play and I enjoy venting my pent-up aggression to some of the. . .shall we say. . .less stellar aspects of the genre that've come down the pike lately (time bullets? Deals with the Devil? People getting ripped in half? Give me strength. . .).My brother recently made the crack that there are really only two things I like about mainstream superhero comics anymore:

1)They're out every month


2) They're in color.

Everything else seems to just be one more thorn in the cranky old Lion's paw, sure to get him roaring and bellyaching about this, that, and the other thing. Cue laugh track, and we're walking, we're walking. . .

So the question arises; Stacy you magnificent bull-god of a man, is there a superhero comic that you do like? One that you unequivocaly love? And more importantly, is it a book that I (being an unitiated reader curious about comics and wanting to dip my toe in the water) would have a hope in hell of comprehending? My answer, dearest reader, is yes. There is a book that I do love, and have loved for years without reservation or compunction. That book is Spider-Girl(now The Amazing Spider-Girl).

One of Marvel's strengths has been it's ability to play around with it's continuity (unlike certain other Distinguished Companies whose problems with continuity could fill volumes). A longtime favorite title in the Marvel line of comics is What If?, an anthology-style book in which stories can take place outside of continuity and answer famous questions about Marvel heroes (What If Captain America were thawed out of the ice in the '90s, What If The Hulk kept Banner's mind, What If Aunt May were the herald of Galactus(I'm not kidding)). In 1998 an issue of What If? was released that introduced the world to May 'Mayday' Parker, the daughter of the Spectacular Spider-Man. The rest, as they say, is history.

May is the daughter of Peter and Mary Jane Watson-Parker. Peter retired from his life as the Amazing Spider-Man after a final battle with his old enemy Norman Obsorn, the Green Goblin, a battle that left Peter battered and missing one leg and that (seemingly) cost Norman his life. The pair settled down in the Queens neighborhood they grew up in and raised their young daughter May as loving parents(Peter's a forensic scientist for the NYPD and Mary Jane later becomes a guidance counselor). Unfortunately, comicbook fate being what it is it isn't long before their daughter (an athletic lass who dominates the basketball courts) is suddenly making decidedly nimble leaps and bounds that are as clear a sign as any that the proportianate strength, speed, and agility of a spider has passed down the bloodline from father to daughter. Peter and Mary Jane come clean with May, and just in time too as Norman's grandson (and May's childhood playmate) Normie escapes from a mental institution and takes up the mantle of the Green Goblin determined to kill the entire Parker clan, starting with Peter. May, being Peter's daughter and well aware of the correlation between great power and great responsibility, dons one of her father's variant costumes and takes Normie down as the Spectacular Spider-Girl! The issue ends with May, Peter and Mary Jane burning the costume and web-shooters, leaving the past in the past and looking forward to a future as a united family. It was a great little story, easily one of the best the What If? title ever produced, and it was a cult hit after it's release.

This worked out well for Marvel as a whole, as they were looking for a largely continuity-baggage free title to kick off a line of books meant to go back into the mainstream market, rather than the direct market of staight-to-specialty stores (namely comic shops). The Spider-Girl concept (created by longtime Marvel Writer-Editor Tom DeFalco and artist Ron Frenz) was spun (no pun intended) into a line called MC2. The MC2 universe was the Marvel universe some years in the future, with most of the original heroes retired and newer, younger heirs apparent taking on the mantle for the next wave of pulse-pounding entertainment in the merry Marvel manner. Books like A-Next(the Avengers of this new era) J2(Zane Yama, the heroic son of the X-Men villain the Juggernaut), The Fantastic Five(the future's first family and heirs to Marvel's original fearsome foursome) and Spider-Girl rounded out the initial lineup with Wild Thing (the future daughter of Electra and Wolverine, because of course no book line or Marvel series can escape the wrath of GrrrSnktBub) coming along later in the line's run. MC2 was tailor made to sell in Wal-Marts or grocery stores, each book being largely complete in and of itself and handled by a single creative team (DeFalco wrote all the books, while various artists contributed). The line eventually failed (comics being a tough sell during the Age of Pokemon) but it was a noble experiment nonetheless. However, Spider-Girl sales still remained strong, so much so in fact that the book lasted for a record-breaking 100 issues, the longest run of any female Marvel superhero title to date. Why? Let's look into it.

The book was a combination of things: it featured the adventures of a strong, intelligent young woman who--while still being a teenager and caught up in the drama of high school life and the superheroic soap opera--was nevertheless an engaging character. You felt for May and her struggle and wanted her to succeed. Indeed her adventures with her supporting cast out of costume was often just as engaging as her exploits as the wisecracking webslinger of tomorrow.

Secondly, the book was something that most superhero books sadly are not anymore, and that's accessible. Marvel comics is the relative new kid on the block when it comes to the Big Two, but that was still 1963. That's 47 years of continuity, more or less. People like to read a thrilling adventure story, but they also don't want to feel like they have to do homework in order to understand who the characters are and what's going on. With Spider-Girl, everything you got was self-contained to that title. It was in the future, an 'alternate reality' and as such was largely fireproofed against being dragged into the latest crossover du jour. The book was about Spider-Man's daughter, she fought bad guys, that was the basic gist. Simple, clear and direct. It was a comicbook for people who'd like to read superhero comics but were afraid they'd need to devote a good year or two to playing catch-up. A reader of Spider-Girl could walk into the title knowing nothing more than what they'd seen in the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film and feel absolutely at ease. Anything that needed to be explained usually was within the story as it was occuring, so the adventures never lost momentum.

Another aspect to the book is that it's kid-friendly, something else that most books sadly aren't these days. Spider-Girl exulted in action and adventure in a style that's largely been put to the side in favor of decompression and grittier storylines. This isn't a condemnation; it's a business strategy that plays into the aging of the comics reading audience from childhood to teens to twenties to thirties and beyond. But there's just something to be said for a book that you can read as a grownup and enjoy, and then be able to pass to a younger reader without concern. Nobody gets ripped in half in Spider-Girl; it's about as violent as the Indiana Jones movies or the Spider-Man cartoons of old.

Volume One: Legacy, details May's return to webslinging after an absence. Events compel her to don the webs again despite her parents disapproval, but she was raised too well to let people get hurt when she has the ability to help. The book also shines in it's depiction of May's inexperience and her efforts to deal with it; she's got a lot of heart but ultimately she realizes if she keeps charging in without a plan or proper training she's going to get badly hurt. She seeks out her 'uncle' Phil Urich, a former costumed hero in his own right (just which one is a fun little ironic twist) to help train her in dealing with her powers and abilities. May honors her father's wishes and desire not to get hurt, but at the same time she operates from a differing philosophy. Peter Parker was a hero because someone died. May is a hero because her father lived. Her decisive action saved her father's life, and she's determined to make sure that if she can help she will. This makes her an amazingly appealing character. No 'my parents are dead' uberbrooding need apply.

Now it's not all roses (and really, would it be a talk with me if I didn't get a little grumbly?); DeFalco's writing style will definitely take some getting used to if you're more familiar with contemporary fare. The dialogue sometimes veers into expressions of BOLD DELCARATIONS and DRAMA in very much the same kind of style of the classic comics of yore. Much like the old-school superhero comics, Spider-Girl is a drama, and sometimes that drama does come to bite one in the butt. Of course, it's a mild quibble and merely the grit that forms the pearl in my opinion. Ron Frenz (with Pat Oliffe) does some amazing artwork that's a blend of classic Spidey art influences like Ditko and Romita while giving it a life all it's own. The book looks good, and it's design as a manga-style digest volume means it's great for conserving shelf space and durable enough to give to a kid to read.

Spider-Girl's initial title ran for 100 issues before it shut down. . .then it came back as The Amazing Spider-Girl for 30 more. The character is now a regular feature on Marvel's web site as part of their digital comics initiative, but I encourage anyone who enjoys superheroes, fun comics, and books they want to share with younger readers to seek out Spider-Girl (or any of the MC2 books) at their local comicbook shops. Why not make a family Comicbook Run of your very own?


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