The ’90s were a unique time in the comics landscape. An emphasis on style over substance had seeped into many major works, and the speculator market was in full swing. For Spider-Man in particular, this era is mostly looked upon with distaste. The specter of the Clone Saga casts a shadow over this time period even though it largely encompassed the latter years of this decade. Amazing Spider-Man Epic Collection: Lifetheft” finds its place prior to this and serves as a precursor of what was to come.
This collection picks up immediately after the bombastic Maximum Carnage saga in which New York was under siege by a host of villains. One gets the sense that the title wanted to return to some more smaller-scale stories before ramping up towards the end of the collection. This leads to some brief standalone arcs such as Spider-Man and Doc Sampson teaming up against an out-of-control Hulk, Spider-Man being put on trial for Venom’s existence, and even another brief showdown with Carnage. These early stories each have their moments, but the lurking background plot surrounding Peter’s recently returned parents is what kicks the latter portion of this collection into gear.
At this point in Peter’s life, his parents’ miraculous returns had been a recent event and the Parker family was still getting used to it. Though Peter is elated to have his parents back in his life, Aunt May has reservations about their true identities and motives. This causes a rift to form between May and Peter that only compounds his personal life’s struggles. Now with Peter having to juggle his seemingly addled aunt alongside his wife and crimefighting career, it begins to push him to his limits; but when Aunt May’s suspicions are confirmed by his Spider-sense, Peter’s whole life begins to crumble beneath him.
One of the strongest aspects of this collection is how each arc dovetails into the next. It creates this feeling of one big story unfolding and makes for an extremely compelling read. Eventually the subplot surrounding Peter’s parents becomes the main plot with horrifying ramifications. Without going too many into spoilers, this conspiracy plot and the revelations that ensue set Spider-Man on one of his darker journeys.
The 5-part “Pursuit” arc marks a tonal shift for the collection. It comes in about halfway through and spans each Spider-Man title of the time. This arc leans into the gritty comics style of the times as we see Spider-Man tear across the city in search of the Chameleon. His rage knows no bounds as he barrels through any and all crime in his path. Besides being a tonal pivot, this arc changes up the artistic pace with different teams tackling the issues. There’s a great issue drawn by the legendary Sal Buscema, as well as some grittier styles from Alex Saviuk and Tom Lyle.
While the book does house many artists across the different series, Mark Bagley’s work comprises the bulk of the material here. His style is unparalled for the time and encapsulates the era. His range in particular has quite the showcase. He can go from pacing out extremely dramatic dialogue scenes to high-flying superheroics in a single issue. In particular, the moments where Spider-Man’s rage crescendos are incredibly compelling. Often without words or sound effects, the visuals convey Peter’s emotions and how his rage cannot even be contained by the panels themselves. it’s really compelling stuff that draws you further into the stories.
By far my favorite portion of the book is when J.M. DeMatteis takes over writing duties in Amazing #389. Tasked with closing out the “Pursuit” arc, he comes in to not only give a satisfying conclusion to this storyline but also pay off previous plot points from his earlier writings, specifically “Kraven’s Last Hunt.” He takes the same themes from that previous story and finds new ways to rhyme them with the ongoing plotline and it makes for an extremely rewarding experience for consistent readers. It’s emotional, compelling and tragic all at once and makes for some great comics.
Though there are some great highs in this collection, not every aspect excels. Some of the melodrama, particularly in the early issues, can be hokey. There’s a subplot around Mary Jane’s smoking habit and its overly exaggerated effects on those around her. Random bystanders’ thought bubbles criticize her smoking and her acting career even becomes endangered because of it. It’s easy to pinpoint the message the comic was trying to instill in younger readers, but reading it in a modern context it comes off as forced and wraps up in a laughable sequence of events.
At the end of the day, this is a well rounded collection. It’s a slow build of a story that reads extremely cohesively. Though there are some dated moments throughout, they never detract too much from the overall experience. The artistic talent here also knock it out of the park and provide a nice variety of styles. This is a collection well worth revisiting, especially for those who the ’90s left a bad taste in their mouth.
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