Comics : Book 1: Spider-Man, Mayhem in Manhattan

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Book of the Month Club

This review was first published on: 2003.

Background...

As a cross-media sensation, Spider-Man has made many leaps and bounds to new formats and new genres. In 1978, after sixteen years, Spidey was already in comics, kids books, and newspaper strips as well having been transferred (with varying degrees of success) into the TV and movie format.

Now it was time for a major literary leap. A full-length novel. Could it be done. Surely there was enough material for a talented novelist to create a story which would demonstrate that Spider-Man was a force to be reckoned with, in prose as well as in picture.

Under the eye (and guiding hand?) of Stan Lee, the task was given to Len Wein and Marv Wolfman. Let's have a look at what they came up with, and how it has stood the test of time.

In Detail...

Book 1: Spider-Man, Mayhem in Manhattan
Apr 1978 : SM Title
Writer:  Len Wein, Marv Wolfman
Introduction:  Stan Lee
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First up, the basics. Weighing in at 176 pages, it's a light-weight by modern standards. The pocket format is the same height as a regular paperback, but is about an 1/8" narrower in width. Full-color softback jacket, but inside is completely B&W. Each chapter features a half-page black and white line drawing showing Spidey in a classic pose. There are perhaps four different drawings which alternate throughout the nineteen chapters of our epic.

The book is "A Kangaroo Book", published by Pocket Books New York. Back in 1978 it would have set you back a buck-fifty. Nowadays you can get a pre-read copy in perfectly servicable condition for $10 or more on eBay or Amazon's bookfind service. A near mint copy, if one existed, would probably fetch more like $50 from a collector, but the price drops very rapidly for lower grades.

Enough preamble, let's open the pages and see what we are offered. Nearly all Spider-Man books feature an introduction by Stan Lee, and this early offering is certainly true to form. In fact, it's quite a good introduction. Over two pages, Stan talks about Spidey's creation being somewhat of a "private joke", and his subsequent surprise at his success. He talks about the multi-faceted phenomena which Spider-Man has become, and all-in-all sets the scene for our launch into this ground-breaking work of literary fiction.

Given Stan's massive over-exposure and ever-diminishing sense of judgement in the last twenty years, it's understandable (if not fully forgivable) to forget that back in 1978, Stan truly was the man. Stan was riding high back then, and justifiably so. This introduction is honest, well-written, and genuinely interesting.

Shame the story which follows sucks so badly.

Yes, that's right. It sucks. Len and Marv are both fully-proven editors and comic plot-writers. But this sorry excuse for a novel is right down the scraping end of the literary barrel. Let me explain why.

Firstly, the characterisations have the same depth as the newspaper strip by which they primarily appear to be influenced. Characters featured in this novel are few... Spidey, MJ, JJJ, Robbie Robertson, and Doc Ock. In addition there are a few thugs, a few blackmailed U.S. oil barons, and a fair handful of security guards and beat police.

Just like the newspaper strip, the story is timeless, facile, and superficial. Spider-Man has two moods... happy-go-lucky, and downtrodden. He flips between them like a bipolar poster child on fast-forward. Mary-Jane flips between happy-go-lucky and jealous, while JJJ is stuck on rant. Aunt May only appears in the obligatory "Peter having a nightmare" scene, and the "I have to get out of this fallen rubble for the sake of Aunt May" scene.

Structurally, the story is completely linear. No sub-plots here. As for the co-operation between the two authors, I'm not quite sure how it was done. Did one of them write the framework, and the other the text, or did they agree a framework and then alternate chapters.

In any case, there is a stilted, jarring feeling to the way that each chapter is pre-allocated its slice of action, and the chapters feel correspondingly clunky and constrained. Some chapters have been allocated tasks that turn out upon writing to be trivial, e.g. the full chapter devoted to Spidey crossing the water. Pointless detail is constructed to stretch the chapter out. Others turn out to have been over-burdoned, and leap to their conclusion uncomfortably fast.

The writing style is banal at best, and childish at worst. Every now and then, an attempt at imaginative description or empathic narrative is made - nearly of all of which fall crashing to the ground before they are complete.

Where creativity fails, cliche is confidently applied. The afore-mentioned "Peter Parker, every body hates me, Aunt May knows my secret nightmare" is hauled out. There's the "Spidey accused of murder because he was seen near a dead body" hack. Add in the famous "Trapped under rubble, oh, who cares if I die, no I have to live in order to save Aunt May the shock when I'm unmasked" number, and you're well on the way to collecting the full set. Oh, the stock-standard "Spidey muses on his origin" is in there too, in case you were wondering.

Linear stories, 2D characters, xeroxed scenarios... perhaps I could forgive Len and Marv if they had made a little effort, paid some attention to detail. But no. No care, and poor editing ensure that giant plot holes add injury to injury. Gaping, stupid, ruinous plot-holes. Many of.

There's some U.S.-centric ignorance, like Doc Ock blackmailing the top eight CEO's of U.S. oil companies in order to get a strangle-hold on U.S. oil. Kind of ignores the fact that U.S. originated oil is a small fraction of the U.S. market.

But far worse than that is the brain-clubbing stupidity of the villainous master plan behind it all (pardon the spoilers). Ock's plan is to convince those same CEO's that he had rendered their oil radioactive, hence useless. For one year, those CEO's must secretly agree to buy oil from Ock instead, and at the end of that time, they can go back to business.

Ming-bogglingly infeasable as it is to even imagine that a CEO should actually be able to arrange this in secret - restructure the entire business process of a huge operation, without the blackmail being revealed. But wait until you hear the "twist". Ock is planning to secretly steal their oil (which isn't really radioactive, it's just that Ock has hired a couple of key technical people in each company to lie and say that it is) from storage, and sell it back to them.

The logistics of this are insane. It's a completely impossible plan. In order for that to work, all those all companies would need to keep pumping "radioactive" oil at full capacity into storage, where it would mysteriously vanish. Meanwhile, to steal that oil, Ock would need to create a new giant pipeline to suck it all away, un-noticed by anybody, and then another pipeline to bring it back to them. All this, without the board, shareholders, police, or regulatory authories figuring out that something was fishy. Ludicruous! Sheer lunacy.

As well as the sheer absurdity of the whole concept, there are tragic errors in characterisation. Spidey sneaks in and overhears somebody (Ock, as yet unmasked) threaten those eight CEO's. Ock tells one CEO that since he had discussed it with one of his VPs, Ock would have that VP killed by morning. Then, as Spidey evesdrops, Ock explains his plan to blackmail them all for a year, and take control of the U.S. oil industry.

Spidey's response to murder, blackmail, federal crime on a huge scale...? He slopes off, saying "it's not my problem - I don't even drive a car!". You have got to be kidding me. There's many more massive holes like this, where consistency has been completely sacrificed in order to keep the story dragging on towards its uninspiring conclusion. Every chapter has at least a couple of epic flaws. Spidey's Spider-Sense, his webbing, his capabilities are all massively abused to fit the immediate requirements of the storyline.

In General...

All in all, I was relieved to finish reading this story. For a lightweight one-track novelette, this story sure did take a ton of effort to get through.

This could have (and could have) been a glorious day in Spider-History. The comics genre is often compared unfavourably against others. This was a chance for Marvel to prove that the super-hero could stand proud in the world of literature. An intelligent, well-written novel could have changed the public perception of super-hero stories for the better, and been a massive feather in the cap for Stan himself.

But no. This is a classic for only one thing, being the first full-length Spidey novel. In every other sense, it's a travesty of a book, and really something of an embarassment.

Overall Rating...

Disappointing in every way. Nice intro, shame about the story.