Comics : Amazing Spider-Man: Adventures In Reading

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: A Word From Our Sponsor

This review was first published on: 2008.

Background...

The "Adventures in Reading" comic was a social promotion comic produced by Marvel Comics, and supported by First Lady Barbara Bush (wife of George Bush, Sr.). The back of the book contains promotions for the National Literacy Hotline, and the Reading is Fun-damental program.

The comic was released originally in an unbranded version, then re-released several times with sponsorship from various civic-minded companies. The commercially sponsored variants are much sought-after by hardcore collectors.

Some of the later releases feature slightly cut-down variants of the comic, as I'll indicate in the review. Full and short-length versions are:

Full Versions:

  • Original (unbranded)
  • Squirt

Abridged Versions:

  • Orange Julius (abridged story only, no promo section)
  • Giant (abridged story, extended promo section)

In Detail...

Amazing Spider-Man: Adventures In Reading
Year 1990 : SM Title
Summary: 1990 Indicia, Yellow Background + Zap on Back Cover
Editor:  Bob Budiansky
Writer:  Louise Simonson
Pencils:  Jon Bogdanove
Inker:  Hilary Barta
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Review

Here's what happens in the full version. We'll deal with the truncated variants later.

"Somewhere in a Major American City"... (but not Manhattan), three teens are "hangin' out", playing basketball, and complaining about how nothing ever happens. As is pretty mandatory in a social comic, there's a good politically correct mix - white male (Mike), African-American male (Dwayne), and Hispanic female (Cara). Suddenly, Spidey comes bursting into scene. Web-head's in trouble, and that means the kids are too!

Spidey picks up the three kids and jumps in through a window (into a public library, make a note of that, it's very important). I guess that Spider-Man figures that by keeping the young'ns close to him, he's helping them avoid being accidental targets of an attack aimed at him. Of course, that makes no sense, what he's doing is making them more likely to be targets. But Spidey has no time to think about that. In fact he has no time to do anything except sit down and explain what's going on.

Seems Spidey was in Manhattan, hot on the trail of "The Troglodyte" (a cave-dwelling creature, from the Latin, naturally). The Trog has acquired some sort of beam weapon, and Spidey was on his trail. But just as he web-swinged past a poster of "your fair city" (as he explains to the three teens), he got zapped by the beam, and transported to the (unnamed) city that the poster was displaying.

Aha... so the beam interacted with Spidey and the poster, and transported Spidey into the place depicted by the poster. And the Trog followed. And he's still following. In fact he bursts into the panel right now, spreading mayhem and firing ZOT! beams. The ZOT knocks over a bookshelf (remember we're in a library). Among the books is "The Lost World" by Conan Doyle. And... ZOT! Spidey and friends are surrounded by hot green dinosaur-infested jungle.

Cue T-Rex. Seems those things were so common back then that anywhere you went there was guaranteed to be one within ten feet. That's what comics and books have taught me, anyhow. Spidey webs up the T-Rex (telling him that the webbing will dissolve in half an hour, guess it was a faster-melting batch than normal). Spidey and the kids grab some of the books that also got transported with them. Mike says "they might make a good weapon". Really, I think I'd prefer a sharpened rock. There's a reason why so few people are clubbed to death with hardbacks.

Still, they "head for the hilltop, it's a good vantage point from which to spot The Trog!" Actually, it's not such a good move. The hilltop is a pterodactyl nesting ground formed around what appears to be the crater top of an extinct volcano. On the other side of the crater rim, Spider-Man spots four white men hunters with rifles. Oh no, those hunters are in "Mega-Trouble!"

Spidey swings across the crater, with Cara on his back, trailing the other two on a web-line beneath him. And he is web-slinging off... what? How do you web-sling across a crater? Basic physics says no, but he does it anyhow. Naturally battle ensures - Spidey, hunters and kids vs. pterodactyls. But the Trog has caught up with them. Just as Mike prepares to bean a flying dinosaur with a copy of "War of the Worlds"... ZOT!

...and Spidey + kids are in Victorian England, surrounded by angry Brits who think Spidey is a Martian. So why didn't the the hunters or dinosaurs get ZOT'd too? Don't ask, don't think. It's not that kind of story. Some nice gentlemen points out that Spidey's not a Martian, that in fact the Martians are attacking from over there!

And here they come, giant tripod walkers with heat rays. Spidey fights and destroys a couple of them. He doesn't seem to care that there are living, intelligent alien beings inside. That's a bit odd, normally he cares about that sort of stuff. Maybe the fact that they're fictional makes it alright. But if so, then why fight to save the hunters, they're fictional too.

Well, before we get the chance to examine that too much, it's ZOT! time again, and we're in "The Jungle Book" with Spidey and the three teens. It's night-time. Spidey webs up a bear. A talking bear named Baloo. The bear is drawn real bear-like, not cartoon bear like the Disney version. Nope, this is the gritty, original Jungle Book, and Mowgli is about to fight the tiger Shere Khan to the death. The teens decide to help Mowgli. Have you ever seen a real tiger? I have. Three unarmed city teens would be dog meat against a tiger.

But we don't get to see the messy scene. The Trog is back, and he ZOT's 'em all into "That Was Then, This Is Now" by S.E. Hinton. Not a book I'm familiar with, but apparently it's some novel set in the sixties and involves some teen boys fighting over some girl. There's a scrap in a parking lot, and the modern kids get involved.

ZOT! We're in a medieval jousting arena, it's "Ivanhoe". This time, the Trog ported in right with Spidey and the kids. There's a king, some knights, some girl (beautiful of course) accused of witchcraft. Spidey and Cara grab the Trog's teleporter, which got knocked free in all the kerfuffle. The two modern boys get about saving the girl, but then let Ivanhoe take over that job when he turns up on his mighty steed.

Now that the good guys have the teleporter, Dwayne whips out his library card, and Spidey points the teleporter beam at it. ZOT! They're all back in the library. The police are there too. The cops take the Trog away. The scientist who created the teleporter is there too.

Scientist: "Why did you take my teleporter, Trog?"

Trog: "Because *sniff* it's the only way I can get into those adventures, because... I can't read."

Policeman: "Prison has a reading program."

Spidey: "Everyone should read. Even you, Trog. There's no greater adventure in the world."

There's no greater adventure in the world? Reading a book is more of an adventure than climbing Everest? Than going to space? I mean, I love to read. But the greatest adventure? Hmmm... big call there, Spidey.

The regular book then has a couple of pages of world puzzles, and some information about where to find books. Where to find books? It baffles me to imagine that some kids don't know where to find a library. But I guess they don't. It's sad that comics like this are needed. There's some promo for the National Literacy Hotline and the Reading is Fun-damental program. Finally there's a description of the five books referenced in the story, and the answers to the puzzles.

In General...

I'm sure you get the gist of this. It's a promo comic. It doesn't really respect Spidey's characterization, it makes no sense at all, and it can't help but preach just a little. Did you expect anything different? On top of that, every character is a slightly condescending portrayal of a politically correct stereotype, and the final message is as subtle as a sledgehammer. The art work is a bit scrappy too.

So, what about those abridged versions, then? Well, the original story is twenty-eight pages, and it feels a bit long. My comic-reading instincts cut in right on cue about page twenty-two and said "hey, when is this finishing"? You can have too much of a mediocre thing, ya know.

By contrast, the truncated version is way too short. The first four pages setting up the story are contracted into a single splash page which has Spidey and the teens already in the library. There's no explanation of how Spidey met the kids. I actually picked up a shorter version the first time I sat down to read this story, and I was scratching my head right from the start thinking "Did I miss something? What's going on here?"

Without the description of Spidey meeting the kids, and the background about the Trog zapping the post of the city, then everything really is a bit of a shock to the system.

Then there's two of the four pages removed from the dinosaur scene, two of the four removed from the Martian segment, but only one of the five Jungle Book pages is cut. Actually, the Jungle Book segment didn't really work that well for me, I'd have probably considered cutting it entirely in favor of including most of the introduction. Two of the sixties pages are cut from the four, and two of the five or so pages from the Ivanhoe segment are removed also. The wrap-up is left untouched.

Then we diverge even further between the different variants. The "Orange Julius" version is just a thin comic, it has the abridged story and no promo content.

By contrast, the "Giant Foods" variant has the abridged story, but has retained the full page count and simply extended the promo section. The information on finding a library is present still, along with the summary of the five books mentioned. But then there's a wad of semi-advertising pages. There's puzzles (with product promotion), send-away stuff (with promotional advertising), crosswords (the answers are food product related), a maze (with promotional images).

So... let me get this right. The positive "learn to read" message to kids is... "Snip out half the story and replace it with thinly disguised advertisements?" Gee, that's a great message!

Overall Rating...

It's very hard to rate these promo comics. It's probably not fair to judge them on quality of story. By themselves, neither the full nor abridged stories deserve more than a single web - they're both disjointed, senseless rambles. The shorter version is almost entirely incomprehensible.

Were they effective in getting kids reading? Well, I don't know. I'm not a semi-illiterate teen, so I really can't judge. I didn't find them persuasive at all, so I wouldn't rate them highly there.

The art work was rather scratchy, no rating boost from that angle. The best I can offer is an extra web for being such a desirable target for collectors, and quite rarely seen on eBay. Let's stretch it up to two webs on that front, and leave it at that.