Saturday, November 10, 2012

BAB Book Review: Spider-Man Newspaper Strips, Volume 1

Doug:  Hi, friends.  You may recall about a month ago I mentioned that earlier in the fall I purchased (at a great deal, natch) the tome you see pictured above.  And since I found an hour or so to sit down with it back on the 26th of October I figured I'd pen a write-up of not only the highs and lows of the book itself, but also go ahead and review the first story inside.

From the outside this is a great looking book!  The dust jacket is sharp -- love that Romita pose on Spidey swinging right at us.  The back of the jacket has a large panel (one of the rotating title panels that ran at the top of the Sundays) in black and white and a short amount of text.  The faux leather cover is black with silver lettering and is pretty nice.  So in your hands this really looks swell; did I mention that it's oversized?  It's larger than a Marvel Masterworks edition, standing about 11 inches tall and almost 7 1/2 inches wide.  And therein lies my main reservation about the book.  The strips are printed sideways (the pages are even numbered that way as well), so you actually have to rotate the book 90 degrees to read it.  But the strips are only 6 3/4 inches wide!  Keeping in mind that this is the 11" side of the book, we're giving up about 2" of usable space in the margins!  As far as the handling of the book, I got used to it pretty quickly; I'll admit it was easier reading once I rested the book on a pillow on my lap.  There are three strips on a page, so six on the spread.

If you're looking for extras, "Easter Eggs", etc. then you're going to be disappointed.  There is no introduction and only short (separate) interviews with Lee and Romita at the back of the book.  On the final page is a color print of the oft-reprinted self-portrait of John Romita at his drawing board.  But that's where the color stops -- the Sundays?  They're here, as they were integral to the storylines; but all are reprinted in black and white which is very disappointing.  At an msrp of $39.99, certainly Marvel could have printed 1/7 of the pages in color.  Apparently, nope.  The reproductions are for the most part OK, but not stellar.  Often the linework is light, which causes me to wonder what the source for photography was?  I'm guessing it wasn't always the original art, simply because there is variation in the quality of the various dailies.

Who is Spidey mixing it up with between these covers?  Well, below you can see my thoughts on his first fracas -- with Victor von Doom.  That's followed by Doc Ock, a new character called the Rattler, the Kingpin, Kraven the Hunter, Mysterio, and Dr. Doom again.  In between, there are 2-3 stories that feature non-super-powered nemeses.  It's a blast seeing Jazzy Johnny on Spidey again, and the '70's hairdo on Peter is awesome!   The newspaper strips would have debuted around the same time Amazing Spider-Man #166 was on the spinner racks, I'm guessing -- give or take a month.

So how about it?  Should you pick this up?  If you were like me, I tried to get in the habit of riding my bike to the Convenient about a mile away to pick up a Chicago Tribune each day.  But you know how that went, huh?  I'm glad I have this and at some point will probably pick up the second volume if I can get it cheap.  But there's no way I'd pay cover price for it.  I just don't feel like, as a consumer, Marvel "took care of me".

Stan Lee's plot to the first story arc (running approximately 7 weeks and four days if my math is correct) is pretty simple, yet serving its purpose in getting the readership up to speed on the Spider-Man mythos.  We have to assume that many people would have been introduced to the character, and by extension the Marvel Universe (although to my quickly-perusing eye, there are no other MU heroes in these yarns) for the first time in the pages of their favorite newspaper.  In the first arc Stan and Johnny use J. Jonah Jameson, Robbie Robertson, and Betty Brant from the Daily Bugle and we see scenes in Forest Park with Aunt May, Anna Watson, and Mary Jane Watson.  Other Spidey cast members appear in subsequent stories.  Peter's general down-on-his-luck persona, his dating relationship with MJ, and of course his adversarial head-butting with JJJ are all established in this first story.  Interestingly, however, Doom's origin is partially told, but not Spider-Man's.  That being said, in one of the rotating title panels of the Sunday strips there is a synopsis of Peter's beginnings with the radioactive spider.

So here's the gist of it:  JJJ and his paper have paid the way for Dr. Doom to address the United Nations at a world conference on terrorism.  Yep -- invite a totalitarian dictator and renowned terrorist himself to discuss how to bring that phenomenon to a close.  Of course Spidey's out to stop Doom, but in the process falls on the wrong side of the law (again).  This provides Stan an opportunity to not only show Spidey as an outsider in his own town, but it gives Aunt May something to worry about while watching the news bulletin -- because you know, Peter's downtown, too.  We also get to see Pete's scientific knowledge on display, and it's his skill and perseverance at stopping Doom that ends up saving the day.  It was interesting how Stan adapted to the daily format of storytelling, as just by the nature of the medium the first panel was often used to summarize the previous day's entry; at other times 2/3 of the strip may have served this purpose!  The highlight for me were the caricatures Romita drew of world leaders of the day, all in attendance at Doom's UN address:  Israel's Golda Meir, the PLO's Yasser Arafat, Canada's Pierre Trudeau, Uganda's Idi Amin, Egypt's Anwar Sadat, and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.  Now that's a party with a roomful like that!  In the end, Doom gives his address, demands that everyone follow his lead, Spidey takes him on and tricks him into defeating himself, and the sun comes up tomorrow.  But what are those strange tentacles about to knock on a door on the last panel?


Humanbelly said...

Boy, nothing at all to dislike about the art-! But, boy, even back then Stan's dialog was taking on a sort of autopilot quality. It seems to be driven less by the on-panel action than it is by the need for Doom to make a "Doom"-like comment in one panel, and Spidey to make a "Spidey"-like comment in the next one. I dunno. . . inorganic? Kinda forced?

I will say, though, that this reasonable, readable early era is a comic-strip Sistine Chapel when compared to the cringe-inducing disaster this poor strip has devolved into today. We've just started a Kraven sequence-- but prior to this was an unbearably long tale where Spidey was largely overmatched by a frustrated comic actor in a clown costume and enhanced practical joke gadgets: "Clown 9". Every day, one's jaw dropped further in horror. The daily pencils by Larry Lieber are. . . uninspired. The Sunday strip by Alex Saviuk is okay (I've always found him a C+ penciler at best). . . mostly notable because it's still being inked by Joe Sinnott.

The only aspect really going for the strip at all is that Pete & MJ are still happily married, and Stan fully intends to keep it that way.


Anonymous said...

You must have got a bad copy. I have both volumes and the linework is not "light" at all. The stories are much better than anything in the concurrent or modern Spidey comics, too. Modern comics writers should be required to read this and learn how to be succinct and make every episode a place a new reader can start without having to track down "what went before."

Inkstained Wretch said...

I must say I am amused by the fact that Stan Lee (originally Lieber) has Yasser Arafat rooting for Dr. Doom.

Edo Bosnar said...

A local bookstore has the British edition of this book (the softcover published by Panini - it's 'normal' size and the strips are laid out horitzonally, i.e., you don't have to flip the book to the side). However, it's pricey: almost 30 dollars. I keep waiting for a discount sticker to appear on it, since it's been sitting on the shelf, unloved and unsold, for a few years now.
I remember the Spider-man strip back then, I used to read it sometimes. But I could never get into it because I was used to an entire comic book, not just a few panels. Now, however, I would really like this just because of that Romita art.

William Preston said...

When these strips first ran, I clipped them from the Philly Inquirer and kept them in photo albums. I think I missed one in the first year. (I did, eventually, toss them.) As HB says, the strip was Shakespearean compared to the current Dan Brown level of writing. I know Lee's name is on the strip still, but it's pretty clearly not his writing. Is his brother doing the writing as well as the art? And MJ is a drag. Every plot has to involve some theatrical show she's in. These early strips show how to make such a constrained framework interesting.

david_b said...

I clipped 'em for a few months faithfully (my grandma got the daily paper..), LOVED the color, larger Sunday editions. Since we didn't have the daily paper delivered in my small town, I only had the Sunday installments myself, and I still have most of 'em.

A bit on the dull side compared to ASM stories, but it fits the daily scripting pace of newspaper comics fine. And as mentioned, you CAN'T beat that Romita art.

Wish Romita would have just returned to the regular mag, but this was a great foray to enter.

Doug may remember the Milw Journal 'Green Sheet', the lighter blend of comic strips, puzzles, etc printed on green newspaper stock. I still have the 'launch article' with the first strip in, yes, 'green'.

Fred W. Hill said...

The Spidey strip was in the local paper my dad subscribed to, so I got to read the first few years worth of stories. Certainly fun but eventually I got bored with it, even when I was still gung ho on the montly comics. Spider-Man is much better suited for comic books than strips, IMO. Stan, however,is very wise in keeping the strip separate from what's going on in the comics -- I have a hunch that having Aunt May on the verge of death and Pete making a deal with the devil to save her at the cost of having his marriage to Mary Jane cease to have ever existed would strike most of that dying breed of regular newspaper readers as spectacularly stupid storytelling. The sort of idiocy Stan strove to avoid when he was mostly in charge of Marvel during the Silver Age.

Anonymous said...

Yeah loved to read those daily black and white Spidey strips. I gotta concur with everyone - the John Romita Sr artwork alone is reason enough to buy this collection. I think it's a good idea they didn't try to tie it in with events in the regular Spider-Man comic series. Of course, being run in daily newspapers meant that Stan had to cater for readers who might not be up to speed with the latest from ol' webhead's book.

Off the top of my head, I can recall Spidey's encounters with the kingpin ( a tragic story where his wife Vanessa is accidentally killed), another where Jameson hires Kraven to kill Spidey but Spidey saves Kraven's life, so he lets Spidey go free, and one with a new villain (the Rattler).

- Mike 'reading Pearls before Swine' from Trinidad & Tobago.

William Preston said...

Actually, Fred, for a time the daily strip entered the Mephistopholean narrative to better connect it to the comic: Mary Jane was gone; Pete was single. I think that went on for a few months at most; then the strip announced that it was going back to the familiar scenario of Pete married to MJ.

Doug said...

David_b --

I do indeed remember the Green Sheet from my 2 1/2 years spent in Milwaukee! That was "my" section of the paper, and I read it every night.


William said...

Seeing stuff like this makes really miss how awesome comic books used to be. The sense of fun in the writing and the clean, crisp artwork of a master cartoonist like Romita. This sure beats the crap out of most of the garbage they deign to call comics these days.

david_b said...


AMEN and AMEN, sir.

Fred W. Hill said...

Ah, I sit corrected, William P! Did Stan give any particular reason for the change that you're aware of? It's obviously been quite some time (a couple of decades?) since I last regularly read the Spidey strip.

Matthew Bradley said...

I'm surprised nobody else has mentioned this, but there was an earlier hardcover collection of Spidey newspaper strips a few decades ago. Unfortunately, I'm not at home to pull it off the shelf, so I can't give you any details re: dates, dailies vs. Sundays, color vs. b&w, etc. Will try to look into this and get back to you with further information.

Matthew Bradley said...

Okay, here it is, although it's an oversized trade paperback rather than a hardcover; forgive my faulty memory. Stan Lee's THE BEST OF SPIDER-MAN (Ballantine Books, 1986) contains "Spidey and Me," an introductory essay that details their "friendship" over the years, and the following eight newspaper tales, all in b&w except as noted:

"Along Came a Spider" (Romita; 10/3-29/77)
"Arms and the Madman" (Romita; 2/28-5/8/77)
"Captured by the Kingpin" (Romita; 7/18-10/2/77)
"The Imposter Must Die" (Floro Dery; color Sunday strips only; 4/22-8/12/84)
"He Prowls by Night" (Romita; 10/8-12/23/79)
"Requiem for a Superhero" (Romita; 12/24/79-2/24/80)
"When a Wall-Crawler Turns Bad" (Romita; 11/3/80-1/11/81)
"The Girl with the Golden Touch" (Fred Kida; 6/14-9/19/82)

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