When Spidey Jumped the Shark, Pt. 9: The David Michelinie Era

The David Michelinie Era of Amazing Spider-Man was a lengthy one. Stan Lee had worked on Amazing for its first hundred issues (plus several more after issue #100), while Michelinie was on Amazing from issue #290 (Jul. 1987) through #388 (Apr. 1994). Minus just a few odd fill-ins here and there, he’s just shy of a hundred issues himself, so he’s in second place behind Stan all-time. When you consider that Ditko was plotting Amazing by himself for nearly half of his collaboration with Lee, Michelinie may have written more actual issues of Amazing than Lee did, though I’m not about to try to count and judge all the issues individually.

Amazing Spider-Man was the title that got me into comics,” Michelinie remembered. “It was a dream job, and I really couldn’t turn it down.” [David Michelinie, Comics Creators on Spider-Man, ed. Tom DeFalco, New York: Titan Books, 2004, p. 134.]

We already knew Michelinie was a great writer based on his prior Iron Man run (which included the all-time classic “Demon in a Bottle” arc), still considered the definitive run on the character by many, including myself. But coming off the volatile Tom DeFalco Era, when everything was already starting to feel like it was moving in the wrong direction, Michelinie really had his work cut out for him on Amazing. Despite all the forces working against him, I still think Michelinie did some good work under far-from-ideal conditions.

When Did It Start to Suck?

I have to grade the David Michelinie Era on a bit of a curve, otherwise one could make an argument for day one, as circumstances forced poor Michelinie to start immediately in the wake of that dreadful Hobgoblin resolution in Amazing #289 (Jun. 1987). With the stink of that awful resolution still lingering, the David Michelinie Era kicks off with Amazing #290 (Jul. 1987), and in this issue, his very first issue, Michelinie has to begin setting the stage for the marriage to Mary Jane, a direction imposed upon him and not his own idea. Pressure to get Peter and MJ married in the comics at the same time they were getting married in the newspaper strip made it virtually impossible for the comics to build organically toward this end.

Obviously, I feel for Michelinie during this period. Given the freedom to write what he wanted, I have no doubt he would have been a fine, if not great, Spider-Man writer. But of course, he never enjoyed such freedom.

When Did It Pass Its Peak?

If I put aside all the plot developments that were forced upon him, I’m not sure the David Michelinie Era would have jumped the shark at all, in any sense of the phrase. But it’s impossible to ignore those ruinous plot developments. There are a number of points that you can call the shark jumper—Pete and MJ getting married is an obvious choice, if not the obvious choice. Or when Spider-Man expanded into even more titles beyond Amazing, Spectacular, and Web (which had already been too many titles). Or maybe it was when Todd McFarlane gave Spidey’s mask those monstrously-huge eyes. Or perhaps it was when Venom started getting overexposed; or maybe it was the messy “Maximum Carnage” crossover.

Going by my own experience reading it at the time, I endured all this stuff, but by the time we got to the return of Peter Parker’s parents in ASM #365 (Aug. 1992), I knew the strip had become something I no longer liked. I should have quit Spider-Man at this point, but I didn’t, thus condemning myself to suffer through the beginning of the 90s Clone Saga (which began right after Michelinie left). Now this would be the definitive, inarguable shark jumper for Spider-Man comics. It is a testament to my love for Spider-Man that it took a storyline this bad to finally get me to quit.

Is He Still Pete/Spidey?

The character was still Pete/Spidey, but his circumstances were not. I don’t agree with Pete being married—not to anyone, really, whether we’re talking about Mary Jane or whoever else. I don’t agree with Pete’s financial problems being all but wiped away by his wife’s wealth and fame. I don’t agree with many depictions of the supporting characters, as I touched on last time. I don’t agree with killing off so many characters, as they tended to do during this period. I don’t agree with the sales stunts, all of which damaged Spider-Man in the long term, even as they bumped sales in the short term. But again, none of these things are on Michelinie.

The David Michelinie Era

Technically, the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man ever credited to Dave Michelinie was published in 1980. It was Amazing Spider-Man #205 (Jun. 1980), the conclusion of a Black Cat two-parter. As this was written primarily to tie up loose ends left dangling by Wolfman’s abrupt departure from the book, it’s not really Michelinie’s story, so I’m not paying any attention to it beyond bringing it up here, just for the sake of historical completeness.

As I mentioned, the issue that began Michelinie’s proper run on Amazing was ASM #290 (Jul. 1987) and, also as mentioned, the story here began the set up for Peter and Mary Jane’s eventual marriage, with Pete proposing in the final, full-page panel of the issue. Let me point out that Peter was still in a relationship with Felicia/The Black Cat just one issue prior, so yes, the development of the romantic relationship between Pete and MJ was outrageously sudden. For any reader at the time that didn’t keep up with the comics press or the Spidey newspaper strip, this development would have felt like it literally came from out of nowhere.

Issue #291 (Aug. 1987) then opens with Mary Jane responding to Pete’s proposal with a very firm “No!” She then leaves Manhattan for Pittsburgh, alone, to tend to some family matters. Spider-Man battles Alistair Smythe’s Spider-Slayer while MJ is out of town. As the family problems pile up in Pittsburgh, MJ realizes how much she needs Pete and how foolish it was to try and tackle all of this without him. By the end of the issue, she calls him and asks him to come to Pittsburgh, ending the call with “I love you.” By the end of the following issue, #292 (Sept. 1987), MJ agrees to marry Peter.

As I said, this was all extremely rushed, but given the unreasonable circumstances, I feel Michelinie acquitted himself well.

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, 1987, “The Wedding”

The wedding in that year’s annual, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 (1987), comes next in continuity. Michelinie’s original idea for the story was very different from what we got. As he told it:

I wrote a plot for the wedding issue [Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21], but Marvel decided to go with another approach. I had tried to do something a little different, something to make the story stand out from the usual supervillain-crashes-hero’s-nuptials thing. As the story developed, I had Peter Parker discussing matters with dead people—Uncle Ben, Gwen Stacy, etc.—as if this was a common occurrence. It turned out that Peter had been suffering a concussion from a recent battle with a bad guy, and these conversations were all in his mind, the way he dealt with his insecurities about whether he was ready for marriage, whether he’d be a good husband, whether he’d be putting Mary Jane in danger, etc. I was told that Marvel liked my plot, but they wanted to go with a more standard format because they hoped the event would bring a lot of non-comics readers to the book, and they wanted something that would be accessible to mass audiences. I understood that, and was happy to script from Jim [Shooter]’s plot. [Dan Johnson, “Pro2Pro Roundtable: Twenty Years of Webbed Bliss,” Back Issue #23, August 2007, p. 8.]

Jim Shooter would add, “I generally didn’t get involved in the creative process on individual issues, but [Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21] was important. . . . As usual, time was a problem, so for expediency’s sake, I ended up plotting it myself.” [Ibid., p. 9.]

Artistically speaking, I prefer Michelinie’s idea. But commercially speaking, Shooter’s plot was probably the better way to go—first-time readers would have found it easy to follow, which would have made it much easier for them to become new, regular readers of Spider-Man comics. Apart from a brief skirmish with Electro at the beginning, there’s not much superhero stuff to be found here; it’s mostly all the standard stuff regular folks go through in planning a wedding, including a significant amount of doubt from both bride and groom. A lot more doubt than one might have expected, in fact. After Spidey takes MJ to the top of the Empire State Building, she drops Gwen’s name and Peter reacts—a reaction that continues across three pages.

Like many other Spidey stories I’ve been covering for this series, it’s likely been a couple decades since I last read this one, but I did remember Gwen popping up here. I just didn’t remember her taking up this much space in the tale. I also didn’t recall both Pete and MJ wrestling with this much doubt before the wedding. Before Stan Lee decided to marry off Pete and MJ in the newspaper strip, DeFalco and Frenz had planned a storyline where Pete would propose and MJ would then leave him at the altar. Shooter’s story for this annual feels like it’s building toward a flip of this, with Pete leaving MJ at the altar.

Literally all of the build seems to be telling us that neither Pete nor Mary Jane are ready for marriage. I believe Shooter’s idea was that the two getting married despite all their doubts would have made the wedding feel like a triumph; but since none of those doubts were ever truly answered or resolved, it feels more like Peter and MJ are making a big mistake that they will both come to regret.

Is my present-day Gwen bias coloring my interpretation of the story here? Possibly, but honestly, I don’t think so. Even back then, when I was an MJ partisan, I was against them getting married. Firstly, I was against the idea of Peter being a married man at all, regardless of who his wife might be. Secondly, I don’t think many, if any, would argue against the criticism that the marriage was ridiculously rushed and never properly built. I was also keenly aware that this was all a marketing stunt being coordinated with the newspaper strip, which also fed my disapproval. Part of that marketing effort was staging a wedding at Shea Stadium, presided over by Stan Lee himself.

Sidebar: Gwen was mentioned/referenced in the 1980s more often than I remembered, but it still didn’t feel like a lot. Part of the reason it may have felt this way was because they were publishing so many Spider-Man comics in the late 80s and through the 90s that when you weighed the Gwen references in proportion to the massive number of Spider-Man comics coming out, it was actually was not a lot, relatively speaking. Plus Mary Jane was a regular every issue (and Peter’s wife for most of those issues), which further lessened Gwen’s standing—in my memory, at least.

Genesis of the Marriage

So why did Stan Lee want Pete and MJ to get married in the newspaper strip in the first place? Some history would seem in order.

The Spidey newspaper strip got its start on January 3, 1977, with Stan writing and John Romita Sr. doing the art. Aunt May, Mary Jane, Flash, Harry, Jameson, and Joe Robertson were all part of the supporting cast. Early on, Pete and MJ would date sometimes, but MJ also dated Flash Thompson and even Kraven the Hunter (believe it or not). After leaving to go on tour with Kraven(!) for his sorta-circus act, Lee and Romita introduced a new love interest to the strip named Carole Jennings in the spring of ’78. Evoking Gwen Stacy in many ways, Carole would be a mainstay through August of 1980. MJ then returned around the same time Pete broke up with Carole and resumed the role of primary love interest thereafter. (For a more complete overview of the earliest days of the Spider-Man daily newspaper strips, I would recommend starting with this post on the Not a Hoax! Not a Dream! blog.)

Now in many ways, Stan Lee, as groundbreaking and innovative as he was as a comic book writer, was a traditional guy and a traditional writer at heart. He loved his wife, Joan, and had already been married to her for decades by the time the 1980s rolled around. Wanting Spidey to get the same happy ending he had gotten for himself, Lee decided to marry off Peter and Mary Jane. As Stan put it: “After a few years of Peter and MJ having a romance, their marriage just seemed like the most natural event. It had to happen.” [Dan Johnson, “Pro2Pro Roundtable: Twenty Years of Webbed Bliss,” Back Issue #23, August 2007, p. 3.]

Jim Shooter would elaborate:

It was my decision. The way that came about is this: Both Stan and I were guests at the Chicago Con the summer before the wedding, 1986 (I think). Stan was supposed to do a one-man panel Q&A, but at the last minute, he asked me if I’d come up onstage with him because he knew that most, if not all, of the questions would be about things going on in the comics, with which he was very out of touch. I was happy to help. We worked pretty well as a team in such situations, with me handling the comics questions and Stan adding color commentary, anecdotes, reminiscences; essentially doing snappy patter and being entertaining, as only he can. . . .

So there we were on this panel and someone asked whether Spider-Man and Mary Jane were ever going to get married. Stan said that it was up to me but that he thought they should. He turned to face me and asked me, extra politely, if they could get married. The audience was screaming. Trapped! Nah. Actually, if Stan thought it was a good idea, I sure didn’t have a problem with it. [Ibid., pp. 3-4.]

Should Spider-Man Be Married?

In 2007, Back Issue published a large roundtable article for BI #23 (Aug. 2007) in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the wedding of Pete and MJ. Participating in this roundtable were Stan Lee, Jim Shooter, Tom DeFalco, Marv Wolfman, Ron Frenz, John Romita Sr., Gerry Conway, David Michelinie, Danny Fingeroth, Sal Buscema, Paul Ryan, Erik Larsen, and Jim Salicrup. The digital edition of this issue of BI is still available for purchase and download here. It’s a must read for any Spider-Man scholar.

As this Back Issue piece went on (and I’ve already quoted from it a few times), the only voice offering any real support (apart from Lee and Shooter) for the characters getting married was Jim Salicrup’s. Nearly everyone else, including all the other former Spider-Man writers, disagreed with it. Of all the roundtable participants, I think Michelinie put it best when he said, “Having Peter get married would change the character forever; he could never be single again. He could only be widowed or divorced, which is an awful lot of baggage to carry around.” [Ibid., p. 6.]

Marv Wolfman later added, “Peter Parker is the everyman, the loser. . . . Once he marries a supermodel, you can’t ever feel sorry for him again.” [Ibid., p. 11.]

Even Shooter changed his mind at this point in the discussion, saying, “I obviously went along with the idea, but in retrospect, I agree with Marv.” [Ibid.]

And even Gerry Conway, the writer that put Pete and MJ together in the first place, didn’t think they should be married: “Some aspects of a character are defining, some are not. Peter Parker, single and in need of approval from the world and those he loves, is a defining aspect of the Spider-Man character. Marrying him off destroyed an essential part of his character dynamic.” [Ibid., p. 6.]

Roger Stern did not participate in this particular discussion, but he has made his feelings on the subject plain elsewhere. In 2004, he told Tom DeFalco:

Spider-Man doesn’t quite feel like Spider-Man to me anymore. It all seemed to fall apart when he got married. I’m not saying that I would never have married Peter off, but I wouldn’t have paired him with Mary Jane. She worked best as a spoiler, an old girlfriend who would occasionally appear to mess up Peter’s life. She and Peter really cared about each other, and they had some good times together, but they were like oil and water. I never thought the marriage would work. [Roger Stern, Comics Creators on Spider-Man, ed. Tom DeFalco, New York: Titan Books, 2004, p. 112.]

Kraven’s Last Hunt

While the wedding was covered in the Amazing annual that year, the honeymoon would be covered in the Spectacular annual, #7. After this, the honeymoon was truly over in every sense of the phrase, as the very dark “Kraven’s Last Hunt” would begin in Web of Spider-Man. This six-part storyline by J. M. DeMatteis, Mike Zeck, and Bob McLeod was originally commissioned by former editor Jim Owsley, who intended to run it in the pages of Spectacular, but new editor Jim Salicrup decided to run it across all three Spidey titles, getting all six parts published in just two months. The reading order was Web #31 (Oct. 1987), ASM #293 (Oct. 1987), Spectacular #131 (Oct. 1987), Web #32 (Nov. 1987), ASM #294 (Nov. 1987), and Spectacular #131 (Nov. 1987).

The plot sees Kraven hunt Spidey down, drug him, shoot him with a rifle, and bury him. After this, Kraven dons Spider-Man’s costume and starts performing acts of vigilante justice around the city, with some of these acts proving lethal. At the same time, while Spidey is buried in the ground for TWO WEEKS, Vermin is making news as the “Cannibal Killer.” Kraven (costumed as Spider-Man) hunts him down and captures him. After clawing his way out of his grave, Spidey tracks down Kraven, and Kraven pits Vermin against him. After Vermin wins, Kraven sets him free. When Spidey recovers, Kraven suggests he concentrate on catching Vermin, as he himself will “never hunt again.” Spidey goes out and captures Vermin while Kraven kills himself with his rifle.

This is considered by many as one of the greatest, if not the greatest Spider-Man story ever. The flavor was certainly in vogue at the time it was published, as it fit right in with the tone of Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. It was as grim and as gritty as “grim and gritty” gets. And it had stunning art by Zeck and McCleod, which was probably why the teenaged me enjoyed it at the time. As the years went on, however, I found myself liking this story less and less.

Sumptuous art by Zeck and McCleod from Web of Spider-Man #31 (Oct. 1987).

The most obvious flaw is the TWO WEEKS Spidey spends buried underground without food, water, or air. Superhero fans are asked to suspend a whole lot of disbelief, but this is just too much. Superman or Thor could do this, but not Spider-Man.

Then there’s Kraven’s personal background. In his first appearance in Amazing Spider-Man #15 (Aug. 1964), his arrival in the States is covered by the press as a big deal. Then, after Kraven is beaten by Spider-Man, he doesn’t go to jail, he gets deported. Kraven was never a U. S. citizen and his family never immigrated to the States. He was also not insane, as “Last Hunt” so clearly paints him. He was always a fairly-straightforward character prior to this: he was a hunter. He prided himself on this and it was the root motive for all his actions; the reason behind all his choices. The character made sense this way and his actions made sense in this context. There was nothing insane or crazy about any of it.

Now we knew DeMatteis was a big fan of Russian literature based on the Dostoyevsky references made during his Marvel Team-Up run. Turns out this is why he decided to make Kraven nuts. In DeMatteis’s own words:

To this day, I don’t know if this was something that was established in continuity, or if whoever was writing the [Marvel Universe Handbook] entry made it up, but they mentioned that Kraven was Russian. For me, a total Dostoyevsky fanatic, the idea that Kraven was Russian and had the same tortured, Russian soul that the great Dostoyevsky characters had, unlocked this door in my head and suddenly I had a new understanding of this character. I thought about Kraven and the forces that had driven him to be who and what he was. This was a character I had never had any interest in whatsoever. I always thought he was one of the stupidest Spider-Man villains ever, but suddenly I had this whole new take on the character. [Dan Johnson, “Pro2Pro In Our Sights: Kraven’s Last Hunt,” Back Issue #35, August 2009, p. 4.]

The problem here is, as I said, there was never anything in his prior appearances to suggest Kraven was insane. To suddenly impose this condition on the character after twenty-three years of comic-book stories rings false and feels utterly forced. The potions and herbs that gave Kraven his strength and other powers were also never shown to reverse aging—so he was definitely not born around the time of the Russian Revolution, as DeMatteis’s text tells us.

But even ignoring all of this, the one word that comes to mind when I think of this story today is pretentious. The story is trying too hard to be artistic and “deep.” It’s got surface elements that evoke the artistic, but no true substance in this category. You can’t take Blake’s “The Tyger,” replace the word “Tyger” with “Spyder,” and call it art. The story also goes for symbolism with all the rats and spiders we see, but this is lazy, obvious symbolism. (Can we even call it “symbolism” when it’s this obvious?) Spider-Man clawing out of his grave feels like it’s meant to symbolize Spidey returning to life after having died, but is it even possible to call it symbolism when it’s literally happening in your story? Spider-Man literally bursts free of his own grave here. Again, it’s all too obvious and lazy; there’s nothing clever or subtle about any of it.

And at the very end, of course, Kraven is dead. One of Spidey’s earliest villains, a Ditko-designed, original member of the Sinister Six, just tossed onto the trash heap. Another character wasted for the sake of a “shocking death.”

Todd McFarlane and Venom

Next up was a three-parter by Ann Nocenti with pencils by Cindy Martin, where Pete finds himself prisoner in a psych ward. This storyline was once again published across all three Spider titles, Web #33 (Dec. 1987), ASM #295 (Dec. 1987), and Spectacular #133 (Dec. 1987). Then came the “Force of Arms” two-parter with Doc Ock in ASM 296–297 (Jan.-Feb. 1988), with pencils by Alex Saviuk and inks by Vince Colletta. Todd MacFarlane then joined Michelinie to make the new regular creative team on Amazing with a Chance two-parter for issues 298–299 (Mar.-Apr. 1988). Venom makes his first (cameo) appearance at the very end of #299, setting up the first battle between Venom and Spidey for the big three-double-zero, ASM #300 (May 1988). After this battle, Spidey would return to the red-and-blue costume full time.

I had liked McFarlane’s work on Infinity Inc. when he drew that title for two years between 1985 and 1987. He was very experimental and innovative with his panel and page layouts and his penciling style was his own, making his work feel fresh and new. But I can’t say I saw this level of stardom coming for him, as he absolutely blew up during this run on Spider-Man. And the character of Venom blew up with him.

From Amazing Spider-Man 301–375, Venom would appear in issues 316–317 (Jun.-Jul. 1989); 332–333 (May-Jun. 1990); 346–347 (Apr.-May 1991); 361–363 (Apr.-Jun. 1992), which also contained the first appearance of Carnage; and 374–375 (Feb.-Mar. 1993). Just a couple of months after this, we got the fourteen-part “Maximum Carnage” storyline, which included both Venom and Carnage and went across every Spider-Man title then being published. Venom would then appear in his own six-part limited series, Venom: Lethal Protector 1-6 (Feb.- Jul. 1993) by Michelinie and Mark Bagley. This was the first of several series the character would get.

During their partnership, nearly all of the stories Michelinie and McFarlane were giving us in the pages of Amazing were perfectly fine and entertaining stories. There were instances when Peter’s supermodel wife became a bit distracting, like when Pete was rubbing elbows with Eddie Murphy and Paul Shaffer at some celebrity shindig with MJ in ASM #299. But there were also times when this happened without Mary Jane. Like when the Daily Bugle published a book of Pete’s Spider-Man photos (titled Webs) and Pete goes on a tour to promote the book, he gets booked on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon in ASM #305 (Sept. 1988).

It’s a bit of a mystery how Mary Jane became this media superstar, as it doesn’t appear to have been a conscious creative choice by editorial. As Ron Frenz recalled it, “DeFalco and I had established Mary Jane was a runway model. That’s very different from a supermodel. And it was in a story by another creative team that a policeman recognizes MJ from a magazine cover. And that ended up taking Mary Jane in a direction that we never intended.” [Ron Frenz, “Pro2Pro Roundtable: When Hobby Met Spidey: A History of the Hobgoblin,” Back Issue #35, August 2009, p. 17.]

Peter Parker hobnobbing with major stars and celebrities certainly felt “off,” but none of these things amounted to more than a page or two in any comic, which made it easier for me to shrug off as a reader. All of Pete’s adventures as Spider-Man were still good comics in my eyes. In ASM #306 (Oct. 1988), Michelinie also had Pete go back to grad school on an “assistantship grant,” which was a good move, as I prefer to keep Pete a student attached to college in some form or other. It’s just part of who the character is, in my mind.

An experiment with the pub schedule for Amazing got its start with issues #308 (Early Nov. 1988) and #309 (Nov. 1988), and though it only lasted the one month, they would later return to publishing multiple issues of ASM each month in the years to come—which is how Michelinie managed to accumulate nearly a hundred issues as writer in only six-plus years.

Spectacular & Web

Meanwhile, in the other Spider-Man titles, Peter David finished off his Spectacular run with a three-issue story revisiting Stan Carter/the Sin-Eater in issues 134–136 (Jan.-Mar. 1988). Issue #134 was when “Peter Parker” was dropped from the cover title; it would be dropped from the indicia as well in the following issue, #135. David then returned to Spider-Man to pen a few more stories for Web of Spider-Man in issues 40 through 44 (Jul.-Nov. 1988).

After taking over Spectacular with issue #137 (Apr. 1988), Gerry Conway would then also take over Web of Spider-Man, beginning with issue #47 (Feb. 1989). Conway would write Spectacular through issue #175 (Apr. 1991), and Web through issue #70 (Nov. 1990). So for a sizeable chunk of the David Michelinie Era, we had Gerry Conway writing two of the three main Spider-Man titles. The established policy for Spidey at this point was that the writer of Amazing was the lead Spider-Man writer, which meant Michelinie was in charge as far as the Pete/Spidey character went. This limited Conway’s power over Spidey and any potential damage he might do to the character and the strip overall. So he couldn’t ravage the status quo as he had done before, but this didn’t guarantee great work from him, either.

Conway’s Second Spidey Stint

Based on this second go-round with Spider-Man, it appears that Gerry Conway learned few (if any) lessons from his original tenure on Amazing. The first sign of this was Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #8 (1988), which revisited the Gwen Stacy clone. Now, as I’ve written previously on this blog, I think Conway’s motives here were pure—he wanted to clean up some of the mess that the original clone stories had created—but he still couldn’t resist taking shots at Gwen in this story. (One more item of note here: this annual was Mark Bagley’s first published Spider-Man story as penciler.)

Then there’s the Harry-Osborn-as-the-Goblin storyline in Spectacular #146 (Jan. 1989), continuing through Web #47 (Feb. 1989), and ASM #312 (Feb. 1989). In the first two installments, written by Conway, Harry appears to be losing his sanity, as the pressure the Macendale Hobgoblin is putting on him seems poised to make him snap. In the conclusion, written by Michelinie, Harry actually dons the goblin costume to fight Hobby, but Michelinie makes it clear that he’s only doing this to protect his wife and infant son, with nothing to suggest he’s losing his sanity or that he’ll ever play the role of the Green Goblin again.

In Web 66–67 (Jul.-Aug. 1990), Conway has Harry flirting with the idea of making the Green Goblin a superhero identity for himself. Yes, Harry wants to fly around on a bat glider, dressed up as the infamous criminal that MURDERED HIS GOOD FRIEND, GWEN STACY and somehow present himself as a hero. Spidey puts the kibosh on this, but it’s stunning that Conway would even want to go back to this well. (And while I’m on the subject . . . as their roots together go back to high school, Gwen had been Harry’s friend longer than anyone else in their college circle, yet up to this point, the effect of Gwen’s death on Harry was never even mentioned, let alone explored.)

Finally, there was the Dr. Octopus-Aunt May relationship. Conway returned to this plot point in Spectacular #173 (Feb. 1991), and the best thing I can say about this is that Conway touched on it without dwelling on it for too long. And there was absolutely no mention of any Canadian islands or nuclear reactors.

Outside of this, the rest of Conway’s stories from this period ranged from the semi-entertaining to the formulaic and bad. He introduced Tombstone, who has proven to have some legs as a character, but Tombstone’s connection to Joe Robertson felt weak, with a lot of television soap opera clichés attached to it. From the start, we learn that Tombstone bullied and tormented Robbie in their younger days, which didn’t sit right with me, as Robbie never struck me as the type to suffer bullying. Then we see Robbie get railroaded into prison with Tombstone and eventually suffer a broken back. Robbie will recover from all these setbacks in relatively short time, restoring everything all-too neatly, just like your standard soap operas tend to do.

More soap clichés involved Mary Jane’s thirteen-year-old cousin (once removed) named Kristy, who first appeared in Spectacular Spider-Man #145 (Aug. 1988), moving in with Pete and MJ immediately. Kristy will playfully flirt with Peter and generally make things uncomfortable for the couple before developing bulimia and getting hospitalized. Kristy essentially departed the strip when her parents returned from their European vacation.

McFarlane’s Spider-Man

Most of the storylines during the Michelinie-McFarlane collaboration on Amazing were just two or three issues, though we did get the company-wide crossover “Inferno” event in ASM 311–313 (Jan.-Mar. 1989). Then there was the six-part “Assassination Plot” storyline in Amazing 320–325 (Late Sept.-Late Nov. 1989). At this point, McFarlane would take a couple of issues off, then finish his Amazing run with issue #328 (Jan. 1990), which guest starred the Hulk.

Sidebar: The two titles that really shot Todd McFarlane to stardom were Amazing and The Incredible Hulk. McFarlane got started on Hulk with issue #330 (Apr. 1987), just one issue prior to Peter David coming on as writer. McFarlane would stay on the title with David through issue #346 (Aug. 1988).

McFarlane can be a bit of a polarizing figure in comics today, but his original run with Michelinie on Amazing was fine in my eyes. These were not the greatest Spider-Man stories, but they were entertaining enough. The only real complaint I had was the ridiculous size of Spider-Man’s eyes—but I also know there are younger fans than me out there that grew up on this design and love it. And the commercial success of this run cannot be denied.

The oodles and oodles of cash McFarlane was making for Marvel at the time gave him a lot of power. (In fact, a number of star artists were gaining similar power during this period, which would eventually bring a lot of harm to the industry as a whole. But I’m getting ahead of myself.) In order to keep McFarlane happy, Marvel gave him a Spider-Man book of his own, the adjectiveless Spider-Man, which started with #1 (Aug. 1990). This comic, polybagged and with multiple variant covers, would sell approximately 2.5 million copies. One year later, Claremont and Jim Lee would break this record with their adjectiveless X-Men #1 (Oct. 1991), which would again have the polybags and variant covers and move 8.1 million copies.

McFarlane would continue on the adjectiveless Spider-Man through issue #14 (Sept. 1991). Still not the worst Spider-Man comics (those were still a few years in the future), but certainly a major downgrade from the collaboration with Michelinie. The bottom line is that McFarlane was not a writer, leaving most of his stories feeling overly simplistic, as if they could have been written by an adolescent. The stories were also gratuitously “grim and gritty,” with even more gratuitous guest stars who were “hot” at the time, like Wolverine and Ghost Rider. It may have sold like crazy, but these were not good stories.

The commercial success of the adjectiveless Spider-Man title was likely a key factor in the numerous other Spider-Man titles getting their start in and around this era, as Marvel would milk Spider-Man’s ridiculous popularity for all it was worth—and then some. Among the new titles were Spider-Man Unlimited, Untold Tales of Spider-Man, Sensational Spider-Man, and Webspinners: Tales of Spider-Man.

Sidebar: So how might McFarlane be considered “polarizing” today? Because after all his great success at Marvel, he got together with Jim Lee and a bunch of other then-hot artists (all of whom had also been working for Marvel) and founded Image Comics in 1992. This was a great move as far as creators finally having a stake in what they create, but this founding group did not include any writers. They proceeded to put out a bunch of bad comics with bad stories, but they looked good and sold great, thanks in part, at least, to the speculator bubble—a bubble they helped create (and then make still worse) by the veritable mountain of lousy (and ultimately, largely worthless) comics they sold. When this bubble burst, the damage was severe across the industry, which is why McFarlane, Lee, and the other Image founders can still be polarizing figures in some corners of today’s comic-book world.

Erik Larsen

Erik Larsen replaced McFarlane as artist on Amazing, with his first issues being #327–328 (Dec. 1989-Jan. 1990). Then, after McFarlane’s Hulk issue (#328), Larsen would pick up the regular assignment with issue #329 (Feb. 1990) and continue through #350 (Aug. 1991). Just as Larsen was starting, we got the company-wide crossover “Acts of Vengeance” running from the late ’89 through early ’90 cover dates of nearly all the Marvel titles, including all the Spidey titles. For a short time during this event, Spidey was endowed with Captain Universe’s Uni-Power, which allowed him to fight off a small army of supervillains.

Then, just within the pages of Amazing, there was “The Return of the Sinister Six” in ASM 334–339 (Early July-Late Sept. 1990), with the Macendale Hobgoblin replacing the deceased Kraven in the group. The storyline killed off Nathan Lubensky in issue #336 (Early Aug. 1990).

After McFarlane left the adjectiveless Spider-Man, Erik Larsen would take the reins of that title from issue #15 (Oct. 1991) to #23 (Jun. 1992). The title would then go on for several more years, eventually being rechristened Peter Parker: Spider-Man with issue #75 (Dec. 1996) and ending with issue #98 (Dec. 1998).

Despite a style that felt a lot more Kirby than Ditko, I liked Larsen’s art and Michelinie continued to deliver some enjoyable stories during their collaboration on Amazing. And Larsen’s work on the adjectiveless Spider-Man was alright as well—he was a better writer than McFarlane, at least.

J. M. DeMatteis

J. M. DeMatteis took over writing Spectacular with issue #178 (Jun. 1991), which kicked off the six-part “The Child Within” storyline. While Vermin would play a large part in this story, its biggest development was restoring Harry Osborn as the Green Goblin—but as a 100% villain this time. Even after the conclusion of this storyline, Vermin and Harry would continue as background players in Spectacular before resuming the center stage position as the title approached its 200th issue. Vermin would be cured of his inhuman condition at the conclusion of the three-issue “Death of Vermin” arc from Spectacular 194–196 (Nov. 1992-Jan. 1993), while Harry Osborn would die in issue #200 (May 1993). And there went another classic character from the Lee-Ditko Era, dead at the hands of J. M. DeMatteis.

There are fans who love this story—particularly the way DeMatteis let Sal Buscema’s art tell the tale in its final pages with no dialogue and no captions. But I hated this at the time and somehow hate it even more now. (The only good thing about Spectacular #200 was that it finally, after two decades, showed Harry expressing some feelings about Gwen’s death.) The primary reason for this hatred is that, as I discussed in previous “shark” posts, Harry should not be the Green Goblin. Harry plays an important role as Pete’s friend, and that’s what he should be. Then, to top it all off, you kill him. And incredibly, this wasn’t enough for DeMatteis, as he would go on to wreak more havoc and do even more damage to Spider-Man in the years to come.

Mark Bagley

After penciling ASM #345 (Mar. 1991), Mark Bagley begins his regular stint on Amazing with issue #351 (Sept. 1991), picking up the book from Larsen. This was the beginning of a decades-long association with Spider-Man for Bagley.

Cletus Kasady first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #344 (March 1991) as Eddie Brock’s prison cellmate. He would then become attached to Venom’s symbiote offspring and become Carnage in ASM #361 (Apr. 1992). Carnage was basically reheated Venom, but the fans still went bonkers over him. Michelinie was continuing to spin entertaining yarns and Spidey comics continued to do great business, but honestly, I was still purchasing Spidey comics by rote. I really lost my passion for them by the end of the Tom DeFalco Era and never truly got this passion back.

Michelinie and Bagley would put out several longer storylines during this stretch, including “Round Robin: The Sidekick’s Revenge” in ASM 353–358 (Early Nov. 1991-Late Jan. 1992), and “Invasion of the Spider-Slayers” in issues 368–373 (Early Nov. 1992-Late Jan. 1993). And over the course of his whole run, Michelinie introduced new characters like Cardiac, Styx and Stone, Solo, and the Femme Fatales, in addition to Venom and Carnage, so he was adding to the Spidey mythos (as opposed to coasting on the already established characters and villains), which I always appreciate.

Bagley would end this Amazing run in the midst of the upcoming Clone Saga with ASM #415 (Sept. 1995). But Bagley’s larger association with Spider-Man would continue with the launch of Ultimate Spider-Man. While not germane to our specific discussion here today, I feel it’s still worthy of mention.

Ultimate Spider-Man #1 (Oct. 2000) came from the team of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley. This was the beginning of a historic collaboration, as with Ultimate Spider-Man #103 (Feb. 2007) the two men broke the previous record for the longest run by a creative team in Marvel history. It would end after Bagley’s last issue of USM, #110 (Aug. 2007), with Stuart Immonen becoming the artist thereafter. The series would then end with issue #133 (Jun. 2009).

Bagley is a very talented artist and a great Spider-Man artist, particularly. I’m a big fan of his work.

Maximum Carnage

About a year after his debut, Carnage (along with Venom) returned for the fourteen-part “Maximum Carnage” event, beginning in Spider-Man Unlimited #1 (May 1993), and then running through the next three issues of each of the other Spider-Man books in pub order: Web, ASM, Spider-Man, and Spectacular, before wrapping up in Unlimited #2 (Aug. 1993). I bought every issue at the time, but only have the vaguest recollection of the story today. It was one of those big events they had often in the 1990s that ropes in an army of characters. The squad of villains that Carnage recruits includes Shriek, the six-armed Doppelganger Spider-Man, Demogoblin, and Carrion. Heroes appearing and/or crossing over include Captain America, Black Cat, Nightwatch, Cloak and Dagger, Iron Fist, Deathlok, Morbius, Firestar, and Venom, who has basically become a hero at this point.

It’s a wild, chaotic, very 90s story and could be considered a shark jumper; either the whole story, or just Venom becoming a hero, if you prefer. If you’re looking for more complete coverage of this story, Wikipedia has you covered here. But it basically concludes with Venom laying down a whupping on Carnage.

If you grew up on 90s comics, you might have fond memories of this. I didn’t care much for it myself, but it’s not as if the story damaged Spider-Man as a creative property. Such damage was certainly on the horizon though.

Peter Parker’s Parents

An aging couple that appeared to be Richard and Mary Parker made brief appearances in ASM #363 and #364 (Jun.-Jul. 1992). Though they were not specifically identified, it was obvious who they were supposed to be. The eighty-page, giant-sized ASM #365 (Aug. 1992), which celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of Spidey’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 (Aug. 1962), was when they were fully revealed and identified as Peter’s parents. This Richard and Mary Parker mystery would then drag on for nearly two years.

I felt something when Pete’s parents returned, something akin to a disturbance in the Force. (Or perhaps it would be more appropriate here to say it set my spider-senses tingling.) I knew that this was a sales stunt; that there was no way they could be the real Richard and Mary Parker. But more than that, I knew Michelinie was too good a writer to give us a trash plot development like this—and I was right. As Michelinie recalled:

My last year or two on Amazing were not my happiest years. Jim Salicrup was an editor who gave me a lot of freedom and I enjoyed myself immensely. Then he left the Spider-Man titles and Danny Fingeroth came back to them. He’s the one who came up with the idea of bringing back Peter’s parents. I felt a little like I was writing his stories instead of mine. The whole parent thing was difficult because he couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me where it was going; he wouldn’t even tell me if they were really his parents or not. I didn’t know if they were robots, aliens or clones! Neither did Danny. He just hadn’t figured it out. So I had to tread water issue after issue, not knowing if these characters were really his parents or not. It was just very difficult. I was writing the actual stories, but I had to fit them around this ongoing storyline that I didn’t have any control over. [David Michelinie, Comics Creators on Spider-Man, ed. Tom DeFalco, New York: Titan Books, 2004, p. 137.]

Much like with the Hobgoblin, since this story did not have a resolution in mind when it started, it ended up becoming yet another big mess. It would finally end in Amazing #388 (Apr. 1994) with the reveal that the Parkers were LMD-style robots—but from a design standpoint, they seemed to evoke the shapeshifting T-1000 from Terminator 2 (released just a couple of years earlier).

This was a bad story (though I don’t blame Michelinie) and an outlandish resolution that didn’t fit the more grounded reality that Spider-Man comics were supposed to strive for. Honestly, I can’t find anything truly good about it outside of Mark Bagley’s art. Even as these 90s stories went from bad to worse, the artists generally kept producing good work, up until the Clone Saga.

This issue would be the last of Dave Michelinie’s run on Amazing Spider-Man and marked the end of the David Michelinie Era. Based on that quote I took from him a couple paragraphs up, I’m not sure who regrets not quitting Spider-Man sooner: him or me.

The J. M. DeMatteis Era of Spider-Man then began the next issue, Amazing #389 (May 1994). Since the absolutely undeniable shark jumper came up quickly after DeMatteis got started, I’m going to cover the era here rather than make it a separate post.

Other Spider-Man Titles

Before I get to the grand finale, let me take a moment here to touch on some of the new titles that were coming out around this time. First, Spider-Man Unlimited #1 (May 1993), was a sixty-four-page quarterly that ended with issue #22 (Nov. 1998).

Then a new Spider-Man Unlimited series came out a year later, based on the same-named animated series that was just getting started on Fox Kids. In the more standard format of thirty-two pages published monthly, this ran five issues from #1 (Dec. 1999) to #5 (Apr. 2000).

Then another new Unlimited comic in the standard, thirty-two-page format with two stories per issue, published bi-monthly, starting with issue #1 (Mar. 2004) and ending with issue #15 (Jul. 2006). This one seemed to showcase new writers and new artists.

There was also the four-issue miniseries, Deadly Foes of Spider-Man 1–4 (May-Aug. 1991). The series featured the Sinister Syndicate (Beetle, Boomerang, Hydro-Man, Rhino, and Speed Demon), plus the Shocker, Kingpin, and the Tinkerer. This same group, with a couple of additions, would return in Lethal Foes of Spider-Man 1–4 (Sept.-Dec. 1993).

Set during Spidey’s high school years, Untold Tales of Spider-Man ran from issues 1–25 (Sept. 1995-Sept. 1997). Nearly all the issues, plus two annuals (in 1996 and ’97) were written by Kurt Busiek with art by Pat Olliffe.

Sensational Spider-Man started with issue #0 (Jan. 1996) and featured Ben Reilly as Spider-Man through issue #11 (Dec. 1996); then Peter Parker as Spider-Man thereafter, through the final issue, #33 (Nov. 1998).

At forty-eight pages and published monthly, Webspinners: Tales of Spider-Man ran from #1 (Jan. 1999) through #18 (Jun. 2000). This was an anthology series that offered new tales from Spider-Man’s past.

Spider-Man has starred in a number of different titles over the course of his existence—for an up-to-date list, you can check Wikipedia here. But this specific period was one of rampant overexposure for Spider-Man. It was inevitable that such a mass of titles would eventually collapse under their own weight.

Endings

Even before the storyline with Peter’s parents, I had stopped buying Spectacular after Harry’s death in the 200th issue. My purchases of Web started getting spotty after issue #70 (Nov. 1990), though I did buy several of the issues by the Howard Mackie-Alex Saviuk team. The “Name of the Rose” storyline got overly complicated as it went on, but I liked the new, Foreigner-related villains they made, Whisper and Pulse, in Web 91–92 (Aug.-Sept. 1992). The collector in me also compelled me to get the hundredth issue (May 1993), but that’s where I stopped.

In hindsight, my abandonment of religiously purchasing all things Spider-Man seems portentous, as all the core titles would be coming to an end anyway shortly after I quit them. The final issue of Web was #129 (Oct. 1995), briefly replaced by Web of Scarlet Spider 1–4 (Nov. 1995-Feb. 1996). The final issue of Spectacular was #263 (Nov. 1998). And even The Amazing Spider-Man, flagship title of the most popular superhero at Marvel (perhaps even the most popular superhero on Earth), would end (albeit temporarily) with issue #441 (Nov. 1998).

What could have caused such a calamitous circumstance?

The Clone Saga

Long-running “event” stories in comics started becoming a thing in the 1990s. DC would get this ball rolling with the “Death of Superman” event that started at the end of 1992 and continued through a good portion of 1993. They followed this up in their Batman comics with “Knightfall,” which ran from mid-1993 to mid-1994. Both events proved to be financial windfalls for DC. Marvel saw this and decided they wanted a similar event for Spider-Man, which is how we ended up with the Clone Saga.

As originally conceived, it was supposed to last just a couple months and end with the Spider-Man clone from the Gerry Conway Era being revealed as the real, true, original Peter Parker/Spider-Man. The Spidey/Peter Parker we’d been reading about the previous twenty years would then ride off into the sunset with Mary Jane. The “real” Spider-Man, who had been living under the name “Ben Reilly” (a name taken from Uncle Ben plus Aunt May’s maiden name) would then become (I should say “resume”) the role of Spider-Man. Some (if not all) in creative/editorial thought this would be a good way to do some housecleaning of the Spidey continuity, which had gotten rather complicated by 1994. The new/old Spider-Man would also not be married to Mary Jane—which, even seven years after the wedding, was something virtually none of the creatives in charge of Spider-Man had liked or agreed with.

After some cameo appearances as a mysterious stranger that began in Spectacular #216 (Sept. 1994), Ben Reilly would eventually make his first appearance in Amazing with issue #394 (Oct. 1994), just five issues into the DeMatteis Era. From the beginning, this raised a lot of questions, like: “How is this possible? Hadn’t the clone died in that battle with the Jackal in Amazing #149?”

Well, no. Peter thought he was dead, but he was merely unconscious. Even though Peter Parker is a scientific genius and possesses a brilliant mind, he can still can be really, really stupid if the plot requires it. So much so that he can’t tell a live body from a dead one.

“But didn’t he then throw the ‘clone’ into an incinerator in ASM #151?”

This is tricky, as my memory is fuzzy on this one. It’s also possible I missed an issue that may have gone into more detail on this plot point. I thought I recalled them retconning this so that Peter never tossed the clone into the incinerator, but according to Comic Book Resources, the Jackal saved him, Deus Ex Machina style.

None of the attempted explanations made any real sense, and no one was truly satisfied with them, but sales still went through the roof.

Scarlet Spider

At some point, somebody thought it would be fun to have two Spider-Men superheroing around town at the same time. So rather than have Reilly just immediately replace Peter Parker, they created a new, separate, temporary superhero identity for him: the Scarlet Spider. And for two months, all of the regular Spidey titles became Scarlet Spider titles, which is how we got Amazing Scarlet Spider, Spectacular Scarlet Spider, Web of Scarlet Spider, Scarlet Spider, and even Scarlet Spider Unlimited.

But that’s not all. Since all this stuff was selling like hot cakes, they put out a bunch of minis like Spider-Man: The Lost Years, Spider-Man: The Final Adventure, and Spider-Man: Redemption. And then there was a slew of one-shots, like Spider-Man: Maximum Clonage Alpha, Spider-Man: Maximum Clonage Omega, Spider-Man: The Osborn Journal, Spider-Man: The Parker Years, Spider-Man: The Jackal Files, and Spider-Man: The Clone Journal.

All of this material, plus the pressure from Marvel’s bean counters to keep it going, wound up pushing back the creative timeline. Reilly was originally supposed to take the reins as the one, true Spider-Man with ASM #400 (Apr. 1995), but it didn’t work out with everything else that was going on at the time. Ergo, in need of a replacement big event to mark the 400th issue of Amazing, writer J. M. DeMatteis decided to have Aunt May die. DeMatteis strikes again. With him in the writer’s chair, none of the Lee-Ditko originals were safe.

Pumping out this volume of comic books also compromised the art quality at various points. The were a lot of rushed art assignments, plus some less-then-good artists getting work that they would not have gotten otherwise if not for the ridiculous demand to pump out clone comics. I’m not going to name names or specific issue numbers, so let’s just say there was some very poor art being published during this time and leave it at that.

Peter Parker would eventually leave with MJ, as originally planned, and Reilly would finally take over as Spider-Man with The Sensational Spider-Man #0 (Jan. 1996).

The Clone Mishegoss

I’m not inclined to get much deeper into this, and I’m not sure I could even if I wanted to, as it is such a convoluted mess. They would go on to introduce more clones, of course, including one named Kaine, the first Spidey clone, pre-dating Ben Reilly, and another clone called Spidercide. Then there were these two mystical characters named Judas Traveller and Scrier that entered the narrative, making everything an even bigger, more nonsensical mess. And then, at the very end, to resolve it all, they brought Norman Osborn back from the dead and killed off Ben Reilly in Spider-Man #75 (Dec. 1996), the same issue that told us that, oops, our Peter Parker was really the genuine article all along.

When it was all over, the final tally was a hundred or so issues of Ben Reilly comic books crammed into just two and a half years.

Full disclosure (just in case this wasn’t already obvious): While doing this series of “shark” posts, I’ve been going back and re-reading all of the old issues, but I refused to do so in the case of these clone stories. Sorry, but I’m just not enough of a masochist to ever subject myself to reading these terrible comics again. (And besides, I quit Spider-Man comics somewhere in the middle it all, right around when they made Ben Reilly Spider-Man, so I don’t have all the back issues anyway.) The broad overview I’ve provided here comes strictly from my own clouded, largely repressed memories and research. If you want to get neck deep into the weeds on this, I would suggest checking out the Life of Reilly Archives. It’s got all of the ugly details, plus a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff.

Since I bailed on Spider-Man during this storyline, I’ll let writer Glenn Greenberg put a bow on this very ugly period of Spidey comics:

In a nutshell, it’s a bloated, overextended, gimmick-laden, poorly-planned mess with some very good stories mixed in, some great artwork, and an ending that would have been far more satisfying and palatable had we been allowed to do it as originally conceived. [Keith Veronese, “Pro2Pro Roundtable: The Beginnings of the Clone Saga,” Back Issue #44, October 2010, p. 76.]

Agree to disagree on those “very good stories” or that anything could have made it “satisfying” or “palatable,” as the very premise was poison. Nothing good can come from any Spider-Man story with clones. Nothing. Ever.

Pointing Fingers

No, I’m not talking about the meme.

I’m talking about who bears responsibility for this clone disaster happening in the first place. And yes, it was a disaster in every way, not just creatively. Financially, it may have been a bonanza for a while, but in the long run, it caused massive damage. Shortly after the Clone Saga ended, the longest-running Spidey titles were cancelled, including the flagship Amazing, as I mentioned earlier. Then John Byrne was brought in to effectively reboot Spider-Man with the Chapter One series. (This reboot would then fail pretty hard, but that’s another story.)

So who started all this? Well, the guy who originally proposed bringing back the clone was Terry Kavanagh. The guy writing ASM at the time was J. M. DeMatteis, and he could have put the kibosh on it. The editor-in-chief of Marvel was Tom DeFalco, and he also could have squashed it. (Recalling how DeFalco had the good sense and taste to stop Roger Stern from doing a Gwen clone story in the early 80s, I’ll never understand how he let this storyline happen a decade later.) Bottom line is there’s a lot of blame to go around.

Considering how little power he had at the time, I probably blame Kavanagh the least out of all the parties mentioned. DeFalco knew better and he was the head of editorial and creative—he easily could have, and should have, put a stop to this before it ever got started. DeMatteis also could have nixed it, and had he done so, such an act might have salvaged some of his standing as a writer, at least in my eyes.

Truly, I am gobsmacked by this notion of J. M. DeMatteis being one of the “great” Spider-Man writers. And while a number of people I respect have praised his Spider-Man work, in my eyes, pretty much everything DeMatteis did with Spider-Man post-Marvel Team-Up has been utterly awful. J. Michael Straczynski is the credited writer of “Sins Past,” the worst Spider-Man story ever (and probably the worst comic-book story ever), but DeMatteis is one of the worst Spider-Man writers ever—the writer who did the most damage to the strip outside of Gerry Conway. From the late 1980s onward, all of DeMatteis’s creative instincts for Spider-Man were wrong, if not completely backward.

Let me be clear: J. M. DeMatteis did some good work early in his career that I liked. His Captain America was good, as was his run on Defenders. His Ghost Rider was great. I liked his earliest work on Spidey in Marvel Team-Up. Non-superhero stuff like Moonshadow and Greenberg the Vampire were good. But his work on Spider-Man in the late 80s through the 90s was terrible and damaging. I know he’s got this Spidey miniseries, Shadow of the Goblin, going right now, which I haven’t read and don’t plan to read, but I hope he walks away from Spider-Man for good after this.

Indisputable

Any way you slice it, the 1990s Clone Saga is the indisputable, all-time shark jumper for Spider-Man comics. More than this, it might be the indisputable, all-time shark jumper for all superhero comics.

There were many potential shark jumpers in the David Michelinie Era, prior to the clone stuff, as I have noted, going all the way back to the marriage to MJ in 1987. But as a reader at the time, I was able to get past most of them without too much trouble. Pete/Spidey still felt like the same character I first met as a child, and Spider-Man still had some entertaining stories and adventures. But when we get to the Clone Saga, stunts and sales gimmicks had taken over not just Spider-Man, but all of superhero comics. Basically all this stuff just plain sucked, with the Clone Saga being the worst of them all. Spider-Man comics would never be the same and really, I don’t know if entire comic book industry has been (or ever will be) the same.

The Last Round-Up

When this blog series started, I discussed the different ways the phrase “jump the shark” could be interpreted. Now I’m going to offer my own broader view of Spider-Man comics with these multiple interpretations in mind.

The first shark jumper in Spidey history was the death of Gwen Stacy and then the death of Norman Osborn/the Green Goblin immediately after. With this, two foundational characters who should have been fixtures of Spider-Man comics forever were tossed aside, betraying the vision of Spider-Man’s creator, Stan Lee, and compromising the entire narrative going forward.

The next shark jumper would be when the Roger Stern Era closed, as Spider-Man comics would never be quite as good again afterward. While there may have been some good stuff here and there after the Stern run, the figurative batting average of Spider-Man comics would begin a steep decline in the Tom DeFalco Era and never truly recover.

And then the 90s Clone Saga was the last nail in the coffin. This storyline was just irredeemably bad. One of the questions I have posed at the beginning of every post in this series has been: “Is he still Pete/Spidey?” Well, in this case, we have a definitive answer: No, he is literally not Pete anymore, he’s this other guy named Ben Reilly. All the awful stuff that went on in this period would permanently damage Spider-Man as a comic-book property.

. . . But with the tenth anniversary of my Gwen Stacy opus looming on the horizon, I’m going to take some inspiration from that post and once again try to find a bright side to all this. And I think I’ve got it.

Five and a half years after that awful Clone Saga, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man film was released in 2002. It made over $100 million in just its first weekend and would go on to be one of the highest grossing films ever at the time of its release. Sequel films would do even better business over the next five years. Then we got the two Amazing Spider-Man films in 2012 and 2014 which, while not as successful as the Raimi films, were very profitable. Then Spidey joined the MCU and the films did astonishingly well—in fact had the last film, No Way Home, been released in China, it would likely stand as the highest grossing film of all time today. Even without China, and even without the world not having fully recovered from the COVID pandemic when it was released, the film still somehow managed to gross $1.9 billion worldwide.

And Sony’s animated Spider-Verse films have also done amazing business. Plus there’s the success of Animated Spider-Man properties on television. And Spidey’s licensed merch, which continues to sell like mad. By nearly every metric, even with all the struggles of the comic book industry, and more than sixty years after his debut, there’s no sign of Spidey fatigue in the wider market. Spider-Man is still the most popular and most beloved superhero in the world. So Spidey certainly has a big future; the only question is how much of that future will be in comic books?

3 thoughts on “When Spidey Jumped the Shark, Pt. 9: The David Michelinie Era”

  1. I agree with your assessment that “Kraven’s Last Hunt” was pretentious, though I think you are a little hard on J.M. DeMatteis as I have enjoyed some of his other Spider-Man stories. I not only wonder when MJ became a supermodel but when modeling became her goal. Spider-man 246 suggested she was interested in acting.

  2. I don’t know if I agree that the marriage makes Peter less relatable in the long run. I think the “relatable” thing has actually held back Spider-Man comics in current day, though more often as an excuse by writers for their questionable decisions when destroying Peter’s character further. I do agree the marriage was rushed, but I dunno, I’m a fan of the concept. I do agree, however, using it to wipe away all of Peter’s problems was dumb. Marriages are complicated, and could have added some new problems (and stories) for Spidey, but instead it felt like a repeat ad-nauseum of “Mary Jane is anxious, Spidey is gonna die, etc.” The way they handled getting rid of it was just atrocious, too.

    I personally like Stan’s idea of the character being married, however. One of my biggest gripes in comic books is that characters cannot “change”. There’s a happy medium to be met, I think. A character needs to be internally consistent and the same, but I think their life needs to move on as well in a story. It really takes me out of Spider-Man stories when Peter still acts like he hasn’t gotten any wiser or more experienced after several decades of stories. But I digress.

    As for Harry, you have changed my mind on him being Goblin. When I first was going through a read-through similar to yours in college, I really enjoyed the edginess (I blame my youth for that, to be fair). However, you’re ultimately right: it’s awful they tarnished Peter’s one true friend with villainy. It sucks because they’ve never been able to make a replacement quite like Harry, either. Especially now, going into my mid-20s, I certainly value the friends I have at this age. If I lost one, it would be devastating.

    I think I stopped my read-through of Spider-Man around the time Peter’s parents “returned”. By that point I was ending my sophomore year of college and that really jumped the shark for me.

    I’m surprised you didn’t talk more about Venom, but I suppose that might just be personal tastes. I really like him as a villain, he’s one of my favorites. I really liked the concept of the symbiote and him sharing a mutual hatred of Peter and connecting him to the DeWolf story. I suppose some of it might also just be because I really like the look of Venom and the symbiotes, with the big ol’ eyes and creepy smile.

    However, I do agree with you on how McFarlane drew Spidey’s eyes. They are WAY too big for my taste. It looks better on Venom. In general I’m not a big fan of McFarlane’s art, I think it looks hideous. I’m surprised he was ever popular to begin with.

  3. I think Collin is right that the marriage wouldn’t necessarily have been a bad thing if it had been allowed to result in new complications for Peter/Spidey. Instead they suddenly became celebrities (he with the “Webs” book), and it seemed like Mary Jane served only to offer Peter pep talks or be kidnapped or threatened by a villain. It’s a difficult question: should Spider-Man comics have stayed in the same general format, becoming something like Archie that’s mostly followed by readers of a certain age for a limited time, or should it have changed in a significant way? And I’m not putting down comics that don’t change format. Peanuts is a great example of a series in which the characters didn’t change much through the years and still maintained an audience.

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