“Yet — At times, some wish they could — RISE ABOVE IT ALL!”
Todd McFarlane, creator of Spawn, Image Comics co-founder, and founder of McFarlane Toys is one of the key figures in late 20th century western/American comics. His breakout work was a phenomenally successful run on Amazing Spider-Man. McFarlane’s popularity, coupled with his desire for more creative control, led to the creation of the so-called “adjective-less” Spider-Man comic in 1990.
Spider-Man by Todd McFarlane collects the entirety of the artist/writer’s run on that book, as well as an issue of the Rob Liefeld/Fabien Nicieza comic X-Force, which Spider-Man crossed over with during a two-part story that closed out McFarlane’s time with the character and with Marvel in 1991. The next year, McFarlane would join Erik Larsen, Jim Lee, Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, and Jim Valentino to found Image and launch Spawn.
“Adjective-Less” doesn’t mean dull, even if it’s never quite “Amazing” or “Spectacular”
McFarlane’s Spider-Man is a solid, striking superhero comic. His illustrations are excellent throughout, especially in the way they capture the rhythms of the stories he’s telling. His plotting is similarly strong, pitting the web-slinger against a selection of foes and scenarios that feel true to Spider-Man as a whole while enabling McFarlane to layer horror into his superheroism – as he would do to a much greater extent with Spawn. His Peter Parker is likable — he’s a deeply good guy, a veteran superhero happily married to Mary Jane Watson-Parker, his favorite person in the world, and he’s still struggling with the sharper, stranger parts of the duty he carries
Even for a longtime superhero, the Marvel Universe can be a strange, overwhelming place. Spider-Man doesn’t quite run a gauntlet in these comics, but he goes through A LOT. In “Torment” he fights the malevolent witch Calypso while zonked out of his mind by her hallucinogenic poisons and sinister spells as she seeks revenge for the death of Kraven the Hunter. In “Masques” he tries to keep anyone from getting maimed and/or incinerated in a face-off between Ghost Rider and the demonically-empowered Hobgoblin.
As Peter Parker, Spidey travels to Canada to cover a series of child murders and joins forces with Wolverine to discover the all-too-mundane, all-too-horrible truth in “Perceptions”. When someone begins kidnapping homeless people, Spider-Man dons his black costume and delves into the darkness to learn why in “Subcity”. And he teams up with X-Force.
Of these stories, “Torment” is the strongest, and “Perceptions” is the most interesting. “Masques” and “Subcity” both boast striking moments. The X-Force crossover, however, is poor. It awkwardly crowbars Spidey into an ongoing X-Force story, and it feels detached from the rest of the book. It doesn’t help that the entire issue is presented horizontally, rather than vertically. I dig formal experimentation, but in this case it just plum does not work. It’s a big, awkwardly choreographed fight scene that uses its change in format as a change in format, rather than anything interesting.
It’s disappointing, given how formally strong the rest of McFarlane’s work is – with “Torment” again being the highlight. The “DOOM” beats of Calypso’s spell weave throughout the story, pulsing from her hidden lair and continuing ceaselessly – to the point that they even seem to attack Spider-Man himself at times, as seen above. It builds an oppressive rhythm to the story, one that commands attention and propels the tale forward as Calypso’s poison tapdances on Spider-Man’s sanity. It’s tremendously effective storytelling and a thrilling piece of comics craft.
Beyond McFarlane’s formal playfulness, his Spider-Man visuals really are just a ton of fun to read. Whether he’s in action or at rest, Spider-Man is a dynamic, bendy figure who knows his powers inside and out. Consider the above panel from “Subcity”, a quiet moment just before everything goes sideways. Spider-Man isn’t just hanging upside down, he’s relaxing. His feet are firm on his webs, in case he needs to move, but otherwise, he’s at ease with himself – indulging in a bit of physical goofiness even as he ponders the identity of whoever has been targeting members of New York’s homeless population.
Plus, it’s one of the run’s bigger Felix the Cat cameos, and per McFarlane himself, the reason Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer’s feline hero keeps popping up throughout the book is a fascinating tale itself.
But, while McFarlane’s art is terrific and his macro-plotting intriguing, his dialogue and micro-plotting are dicier. The dialogue is often florid and grandiose, and while that can work for some characters (the religious fanatic Hobgoblin, for instance, or Morbius the Living Vampire during a low point), it can drag – or worse, eat characters whose voices should be distinct. The Ghost Rider is a supernatural hero with ties to religion, but he’s got his own history with his powers and the powers-that-be. His language and cadences should be his own. Instead, his dialogue hews close to the Hobgoblin’s extravagant, pseudo-religious speechifying, so much so that it gets distracting.
And while this may just be a matter of taste, McFarlane’s Spidey quips cannot match his art. They’re wordy and tend to overstay their welcomes, and while there are some solid gags in the run, it never quite catches the right tone on this particular front. McFarlane’s characterization of Peter is strong enough to overcome the issue, but it’s a hurdle nonetheless.
Likewise, while McFarlane’s story outlines are strong, he struggles with the details and landings. None of them are bad per se, but interesting ideas are left unexplored and the wrap-ups can feel aprupt. The abruptness works in “Torment”, where Spider-Man is just trying to survive Calypso’s attack, but it really hurts the more investigatively-focused “Perceptions”, which puts Spidey in an incredibly interesting scenario (he’s reporting on a series of disturbing child murders in Canada, well outside his usual haunts and support crew) but despite all the intriguing threads McFarlane introduces (the killer weaponizes media salaciousness, pre-existing tensions and local legends to cover his tracks), the ideas never quite cohere.
With those failings in mind, as well as the heaviness of the material (it would not be my recommendation for a young child looking to try out Spider-Man comics for the first time) there’s a lot to dig in Todd McFarlane’s Adjective-less Spider-Man. The narrative ambition is admirable. The formal playfulness is a blast. And gosh-darn does McFarlane draw stupendous web-slinging. And hey, for fans with an interest in the medium’s history, this collection includes some of the letters pages. They are a fascinating glimpse into western superhero comics in the early 1990s, one that’s sparked some serious curiosity on my end.
Spider-Man by Todd McFarlane is good, imperfect cape comics. If you dig the character, this era of his history or McFarlane’s work as an artist, it’s worth checking out.
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