[Edit: Added the 23rd of April, 2017 ] If you’re here to follow the most recent storylines in Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Alex Saviuk’s Amazing Spider-Man, the newspaper-syndicated comic strip version of the character, thanks! This link should bring you to whatever the most recent post is, at the top of its page.
Sunday has always been a problem for story comics. Sunday newspapers reliably sell more copies, and to a slightly different audience, than the Monday-to-Saturday papers. So how to tell a story when part of the audience gets one strip a week, another part misses one strip a week, and another part gets all seven strips a week? All the soap opera strips make Sundays a recapping of the previous week’s activities. It’s death to pacing; not much can happen on the weekdays so that it can all happen again on Sunday. Gil Thorp doesn’t run Sundays at all. Mark Trail runs a story-unrelated, informational, piece on Sundays. The other adventure strips … have other approaches. Here’s one.
The Amazing Spider-Man
I came to know The Amazing Spider-Man like many in my age cohort did, through the kids’ educational show The Electric Company. In segments on this Spidey battled delightfully absurd villains while staying mute. The show was about teaching reading skills; Spidey’s dialogue was sentences written in word balloons superimposed on the action. In keeping with the show’s tone the villains would be things like an ambulatory chunk of the Shea Stadium wall. Who beat Spidey, soundly. I’ve liked comic books, but somehow never got the bug to collect any normal books like Spider-Man or Superman or anything like that. (But I was the guy to collect the Marvel New Universe line, which, trust me, is a very funny sad thing of me to do.) So that formed my main impression of Spider-Man: a genial sort of superhero who nevertheless can’t outwit a wall.
(Yes yes yes the Wall was a little more complicated than a piece of baseball park wall just do we really need to argue this one? I put up a link to a YouTube copy of the sketch that I’m sure is perfectly legitimate.)
The newspaper Amazing Spider-Man comic strip started the 3rd of January, 1977. It’s credited to Stan Lee for the writing, with the daily strips pencilled by Larry Lieber and inked by Alex Saviuk. The Sunday strips are pencilled by Alex Saviuk and inked by Joe Sinnott, a division of labor that I trust makes sense to someone. The strip is its own little side continuity. It’s separate from, but influenced by, the mainstream Marvel universe. The result is some strange stuff because, even over the course of four decades, they haven’t had a lot of time to have stuff happen. Last year saw Spider-Man meeting Doctor Strange and the current Ant-Man for the first time. I don’t regularly follow Marvel Comics. But I imagine in them Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and Ant-Man spend so much time hanging out with each other they’re a bit sick of the company.
Story strips have a challenge in that the first panel has to give some hint where the story is. Amazing Spider-Man handles that like you’d expect. A lot of captions, which fits the 60s-comics origins of the character, and characters explaining the situation to each other. The problem of Sunday strips? Amazing Spider-Man just lets Sundays happen. The story progresses on Sunday at about the same speed it does the rest of the week. Monday strips often include a little more narrative incluing than, oh, Thursday’s would. But the comic trusts that if you miss the Sunday, fine, you can catch up. Or if you only see the Sundays, you can work out what probably went on during the week.
However much that is. A superhero-action comic has some advantages over, say, a soap opera strip. The soap has to clue in who’s who and why they’re tense about each other. A superhero comic can get away with tagging who’s the villain and letting characters punch each other. Amazing Spider-Man doesn’t do quite as much punching as you’d think. Well, all-action is boring too.
And a lot of what’s appealing about Spider-Man as a character is not the action. It’s that life keeps piddling on him. There’s something wonderful and noble in Peter Parker’s insistence on carrying on trying to save a city that doesn’t like him. So every story invites putting him through petty indignities of life. Another lot of what’s appealing about Spider-Man is that he’s not fully sure he wants to do this. He’d like to just skip it all, if he could. Or at least take a break. Who wouldn’t?
Thing is, the newspaper strip overdoes these. Maybe it’s hard to balance the comedy and self-doubts with the action. Maybe the strip has given in, at least partly, to its ironic or snarky readership. The occasional time I read a Marvel Universe comic book with Spider-Man he’s a bit of a sad sack, but not so much more than anyone with an exciting but underpaying job is. In the newspaper comic … well, it’s funny to have Spidey call up the Fantastic Four or the Avengers or Iron-Man for help on a problem that really does rate their assistance only to be told, ah, no, sorry, we’re helping someone move that day. It’s a good joke that he happened to pick the day that Iron-Man has to be out of the country. But there’s also something pathetic about it, especially when that isn’t the first time other superheroes ditch him on suspiciously vague pretexts.
It’s understandable that Peter Parker, freelance news photographer, would feel insecure about his job especially when Mary Jane Parker is a successful Broadway and minor movie actor. But with two or three panels a day to spend on character he can’t get into much depth. He comes across as whiny instead.
It’s reasonable that Peter Parker would get tired of what is, objectively, a pastime that’s physically and mentally brutal. Or that would be if the strip didn’t pull out a figure named Clown-9 who wants to be the … most hilarious … clown … that ever broke into a … Broadway show? It was a little weird. I liked that one more than many commenters I noticed did. But when I do read superhero comics, I like them broad and goofy in that Silver Age style. But how much emotional recuperation do you need from a guy whose menace is a more-powerful-than-usual water pistol, a duck-headed car, and a loud siren attached to his nose? You come out looking dopey.
Also, Spider-Man gets hit on the head. A lot. There’ve been multiple storylines in which he gets clonked by a brick. If it’s not a misplaced love of Krazy Kat then maybe it’s a riff on the attacking wall of Shea Stadium. It’s easier to understand Spidey’s tendency to nod off if you remember how many blunt head traumas he endures.
It’s all strangely loveable and ridiculous. Some of the characters are new. Some are minor villains of the real Marvel Universe. Some are curiously-poorly-synchronized references to the Marvel Cinematic Universe; last year they did a Doctor Strange storyline months ahead of that movie’s release. And an Ant Man storyline just after we all kind of forgot about his movie.
And that gets me to the current storyline. Remember Guardians of the Galaxy? Really wildly popular movie about three years ago? That’s finally drifted over to the comic strip, with Ronan the Accuser landing in the middle of Arizona Or Some Other Desert State just as Peter Parker and Mary Jane happen to be driving through. Fine enough. Ronan went harassing the patrons of a diner and tossed Peter Parker out the window. Just after that another spaceship, bearing Rocket Raccoon, landed.
I was delighted by that. A lot of the fun in the Spider-Man comic strip is people ragging on Spidey. And Rocket is just the kind of person to deliver no end of cracks about him. I wasn’t disappointed. They met in the traditional way of superheroes meeting one another for the first time, by fighting until they remembered they have no idea why they do that. Then they engaged in the tradition of teaming up to try finding the villain, who’s gone a couple weeks without appearing and might have escaped the comic altogether. We’ll see.
Overall, the strip is a bit goofy. I like goofy, especially in superhero stories. The newspaper Spider-Man has a couple motifs which are perhaps overdone: Peter Parker’s whininess, his strong desire to just go back to bed, everyone in the world insulting him every chance they get. The number of storylines in which Spider-Man’s participation isn’t really needed as the guest villain and guest hero keep everything under control. The oddly excessive white space between panels of the Sunday strips. I don’t care. The stories generally move at a fair pace. The villains are colorful or at least ridiculous. The heroics come around eventually. There’s a lot of silly little business along the way. I have fun reading it. I am so looking forward to when they get an appearance from Squirrel Girl.