Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
February 2011

Living on the Edge, Fighting Crime and Spinning Webs. Except Replace The Fighting Crime and Spinning Webs Part With Eating Cupcakes For Breakfast.

Spectacular Spider-Man Season One (2009)

Every so often I overcome my better judgment and write a column about Spider-Man. Typically it goes like this: I hate what they did to the marriage, I hate what they did to the marriage, I hate what they did to the marriage, I hate what they did to the marriage, I really hate, I really hate, I say, I say, I really hate what they did to the marriage.

Not this time!

It so happens that today, true believers, we review a Spidey story that really has nothing to do with One More Day and One Moment In Time, and whatever the next horrible retcon will be called (One More Kick In The Nuts?).

To do so, we go to that sad shadow of a medium that wishes so badly it could be a comic: animation.

(Because to get a good Spidey comic other than Ultimate Spider-Man these days, you actually have to go to a different medium.)

Spectacular Spider-Man Season One is the latest in a long, long series of animated series about Spidey. As a kid, I watched Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. As a teenager I watched, with my brothers, the series known more or less as "the 90s Spider-Man animated series." When I was in college, there was a mature-audiences computer-animated series on MTV, though my roommates and I didn't get MTV. (Or TV. What kind of college student can pay for cable? I think we had a VCR.)

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Spidey on TV has never been high art. The main contribution of the TV series to the Spidey mythos has been the theme song from the old 60s show: "Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can . . ." etc, etc.

The animation was always cheap. Even in the 90s it looked too flat, awkwardly spliced with computer animation. The MTV series had good effects but the characters' movements were crappy, and Aunt May never appeared because MTV feared she would drive off the oh-so-precious young demographic. (Man cannot measure the amount of stupid in that last sentence.)

I've hoped for a good Spidey series for a long time. I don't know what it is, but for years Marvel was unable to produce any good animated series, and certainly nothing that came within miles of DC's incredible animated Batman, Superman, Justice League, Teen Titans, and soon-to-be Young Justice series. I had pretty much given up. At least in the comics, we had Ultimate Spider-Man, which was about the best young Spidey story a man could hope for.

But the wife and tried Spectacular anyway. We were still hungry for animated goodness after Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the episodes were on Hulu.

It's . . . spectacular.

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Actually, I don't even want to say spectacular, since the root word is spectacle, which might be a bad thing. Nor do I want to say amazing for its obsolete meaning of confuse.

It's transcendent. There you go. Spectacular gets everything that every Spidey animated series, and most of the comic book series, have gotten wrong.

The series wisely starts with Spidey kicking butt, filling in his well-known origin story a few episodes later. It makes plenty of sense, since kids watching cartoons want to start with Spidey action, and all the older fans have seen the origin done dozens of times.

A word about the butt-kicking: it kicks butt. The animation is . . . well, forget it, there aren't adjectives for it. It just moves: dances around with a sense of wonder and dynamism, all simple angled lines that come alive with energy. You can feel the Shocker's blasts hammer into Spidey's chest or the concrete cracking when Venom slams Peter against it.

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Computer animation is wisely subdued in the background, but it accentuates the hand-drawn action as Spidey darts through city canyons or hops from subway to subway in a moving tunnel-fight against the Lizard.

But that is not the best part. Spider-Man is, more than any other superhero, as good in his secret identity as he is in his mask. And Spectacular uses Peter's circle of friends in a masterful way that puts all his comics to shame.

Peter is in high school, and a persecuted nerd. Villains-to-be hide among his supporting cast, and mob intrigue pulls the strings of crime, but he can hardly keep up when his personal life is so crazy. He is broke, and Aunt May can't make the bills, and then there's high school and the fact that he must, in one memorable scene, let himself get smacked around by the bullies just to keep up his secret identity.

In battle, Spidey is hilarious. When the Shocker yells, "Stop mocking me!" he matter-of-factly replies, "I mock! I'm a mocker. It's what I do." To Doctor Octopus: "Come on, Doc. You're a cephalopod. I'm an arthropod. Can't we just hug it out?" He tries to trip the Rhino by knocking over a rack of bowling balls. "This always works in the cartoons," he says. When the Rhino smashes the bowling balls to dust, Spidey meta-quips, "I so cannot trust cartoons."

Pete himself is vivid, funny, and, like Ang of Avatar, in need of a few reality checks. The creators wisely ditched much of his neurotic personality from the comics and instead focused on his natural teenage hubris. In the first episode, emboldened by his experience as Spider-Man, he walks right up to a cheerleader as easily as if he were stopping a crime and asks her out. She shrieks at him, upset that he is spewing nerd all over her.

In the second episode, he actually tackles Electro long before the villain has committed any crime, for the sake of getting some pictures to sell to the Bugle. His careless action destroys half a city block, and he is forced to admit that he is not the altruistic hero he likes to think he is. The responsibility thing isn't so easy.

Spectacular uses his supporting cast masterfully, in a way that no one except Stan Lee ever has. Harry Osborne and Gwen Stacy are de-aged from their original college selves and made into Pete's best nerd friends in high school. Gwen and Peter have a little romantic tension, but Spidey gets in the way, and so does the cheerleader who throws herself at Peter eventually. (Yes, he gets the cheerleader, but as with all things powerful and responsible, she requires a lot of maintenance.)

He is involved with a prestigious research lab along with a certain Doctor Curt Connors, whom Spider-heads will recognize as the Lizard, and Eddie Brock, soon to be Venom who has been like an older brother to Pete since their parents died in the same plane crash.

Norman Osborne, his high school buddy's father, is mired in mob violence, creating supervillains for pay, and harbors a suspicion about Peter's identity.

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The series does a great job of keeping longtime fans entertained despite the inevitability of Pete's friends turning into villains and the inevitability of his hookups with certain girls. It doesn't feel like you've seen these stories before.

J. Jonah Jameson is even more entertaining than usual, growling and ranting and throwing Peter out of his office several times before he realizes that Pete has pics to sell him. You don't even miss his classic cigars, removed so that kids don't see smoking in the show. (Although they do see people try to kill each other . . . ah, America.)

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Then there's Mary Jane. In the cartoon, MJ is at her best as a force of hormone-baiting nature. She comes into Peter's life and teases every guy in sight while holding an obvious soft spot for Mister Parker. He can't hold onto her, but she will be his prom date and save the last dance for him, even if he spends half the prom "in the bathroom" while he is off in costume fighting bad guys.

I'm biased toward this original Mary Jane, who in 70s Marvel comics was a party girl who blew in and out of Peter's life, until she finally confessed why she was always yanking on his emotions--she knew he was Spider-Man, and wanted to get close, but her own longtime emotional issues and his secret life kept them apart.

That's why he had to marry MJ, but that's a subject I've promised to stay away from.

Spectacular feels like the real Spider-Man story, to which all others are but shades. It just gets Spider-Man. Everything about him. The heart of Spectacular is exemplified when Harry Osborne, trying to win over the popular crowd, uses his dad's money to hire a limo and throw an awesome party for prom.

Of course, they ditch him once they get bored with him, and Harry is genuinely torn apart inside.

High school is used in Spectacular as a predictor of one's fate, a crucible for the ever-present power and responsibility, and you never doubt that Peter will face deeper and deeper demons as time goes on.

We are currently gearing up for another -- good heavens, another, you say? -- Spidey reboot at the movies, and Spectacular has been canceled for a similar rebooty animated series called Ultimate Spider-Man, presumably to be closely based on the comics.

It's stupid.

Marvel had a series for the ages with Spectacular. Many of Marvel's worst animated series have run much longer, including the tepid 90s Spidey cartoon.

He's the best superhero in comics and Marvel just can't get him right. They are the comic-company equivalent of guys who can't make French toast. Here's the bread, guys: don't cancel Spectacular. Here's the eggs: don't reboot the animated series. Here's a frying pan: don't have Satan destroy the marr . . .

Dang it!

See you next time, from the Spider-marriage rehab clinic.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth

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