I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.
When I look back at the seismic events in the comic book field during my most devoted reading days, I’m never completely certain if I recognized the transformative moments as they happened. I’m not referring to the staggering turns of events with the narratives. Those were often touted urgently on the covers and in the agitated alliteration of Bullpen Bulletins listings. What I’m thinking of are those instances when a creator absolutely upended the field, whether by ingenuity or a lucky convergence with the zeitgeist. I liked Frank Miller’s Daredevil, for instance, but surely I didn’t have an awareness of the massive shift in the character and broader superhero storytelling it represented.
But I’m reasonably sure I knew Todd McFarlane tilting his pencil at Bristol board pages in the service of Marvel’s flagship Spider-Man title was a big deal, and I believe I knew it from the jump.
Although far from the comic and toy magnate with enough excess cash to buy ludicrously expensive baseballs like they were mere gumballs, McFarlane was already a burgeoning fan favorite when he took over monthly art duties on Amazing Spider-Man, paired with writer David Michelinie. McFarlane came to the title straight from an immensely popular run on Incredible Hulk, including at least one issue that set collectors hopelessly aquiver. He was an up-and-comer, ushered onto the biggest, most important stage Marvel Comics had to offer.
Eventually, McFarlane’s art, defined by its hyper-aggressive line work, could grow wearying in its constant visual collisions, but when he first started with the wall-crawler the dynamism he brought to the pages was thrilling, even somewhat dizzying. He largely stayed on model — his Peter Parker was recognizably the same character invented visually by Steve Ditko and then fully locked into place by John Romita, a full generation earlier — reserving the most stylized renderings for side characters and new figures.
Among the main cast, the only one who was noticeably changed was Mary Jane Watson, who’s recently added a hyphen and a “Parker” to her name, thanks to a heavily hyped marriage that even spilled onto the field of Shea Stadium. Mary Jane had barely changed one iota visually since she first informed Peter that he’d hit the jackpot. McFarlane caught her up to the late nineteen-eighties in a big hurry.
In the context of the fictional world, Mary Jane had grown up from the idealized girl next door to an in-demand fashion model. Reasonably, it was time for her to look the part. Of course, as many discovered retrospectively, trafficking too freely in late-eighties style was a dangerous endeavor.
Be careful, gents! Legendary Casanova Paul Shaffer is on the prowl.
Even as McFarlane was jarring the fairly staid look and feel of Amazing Spider-Man in the art, Michelinie was poised to make his own monumental contribution. The antagonist in McFarlane’s first issues was the entirely forgettable zooming mercenary Chance, but another villain was lurking, ready to bring the requisite weight to issue #300, a milestone anniversary for the book.
In the wake of the major crossover event series Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars, Spider-Man adopted a new costume, forgoing his familiar red-and-blue duds for a sleek black-and-white number. Found in its original form on a distant planet, Spider-Man learned that the costume he thought was a garment with remarkable pliability was actually a living alien being sheathing itself over his form, leeching some energy of him in the process. Spider-Man rid himself of the symbiote costume, opting for a fabric version of the same design, but the alien being found a different host. Both the human and the alien were bent on revenge against Spider-Man. Bonded together, they went by the name Venom.
Bold and just a touch untethered from the basic human physics, Venom was a character made to showcase McFarlane’s skills. The anniversary issue delivers precisely the massive superhero punch-around outrageousness that any eager comic book reader would want. I’m not sure every bit of the story makes sense, but, in the manner of a summer blockbuster film, it didn’t really matter because the sheer spectacle of it was so satisfying.
In the end, the tussle with Venom was the catalyst for the return of Spider-Man’s best-known costume. Mary Jane was terrorized by Venom, and wasn’t all that excited about her husband working his night job with a similar look.
The reset to the more familiar Spider-Man branding was basically inevitable, but it still felt somewhat like it was an extension of McFarlane coming onto the title. The guy liked drawing lines, and they’re all over the classic costume.
The run on Amazing Spider-Man cemented McFarlane’s fame in the comic book field, and was central to the expansion of his creative efforts. Just a couple years after his auspicious debut on the title, Marvel gave McFarlane his own Spider-Man series, which he would draw and write, mostly serving to establish that he wasn’t all that great at the latter. From there, he would go on to help form Image Comics, established in part with his series Spawn. McFarlane clearly understands the importance of the original Amazing Spider-Man issues in his career, as evidenced by his recent choice to pay homage to them as Spawn comes to its own milestone. Sometimes, the comics of historic importance are as clear as can be.
Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.