Having read Todd McFarlane’s run on “Amazing Spider-Man” last year, I decided to revisit his later run on “Spider-Man” (1990). It had been over two decades since I’d read my original issues from this series and I was curious to see how I reacted to the material as an adult.
What I found was that McFarlane had cast Spider-Man as the lead in a horror comic. The idea of ‘grim-and-gritty’ heroes was a relatively-new phenomenon that had started to become the norm in the later-1980s and that trend seemed to suit McFarlane due to his having been a fan of 1970s horror comics such as Marvel’s “Tomb of Dracula.”
“Spider-Man” launched at a time when artists at Marvel Comics were becoming transcendent superstars and the controversy of the era revolved around the importance of art vs. writing. Obviously both quality art and writing are needed to create comic book masterpieces but the old-guard writers of the 1970s and 1980s found themselves being pushed aside by young superstar artists. The resulting convention wisdom became the notion that it was okay for the writing to be weak so long as the visuals were superb.
McFarlane was perfectly suited for that particular climate, being one of a handful of the best-regarded artists at that time while using the leverage afforded him from that fame to demand that he be allowed to write his own material. Given McFarlane’s success as the artist on “Amazing Spider-Man,” Marvel decided to keep McFarlane associated with Spider-Man when granting his wish for his own series.
“Torment” from “Spider-Man” (1990) #1-#5
The plot of the series’ first story arc was very simple, with McFarlane stretching out the equivalent of one issue worth of material into five. The villain initially appeared to be The Lizard, out on an uncharacteristic murder spree. Spider-Man investigated and found that a woman named Calypso was actually behind the situation.
Despite being poisoned at one point, Spider-Man defeated both Calypso and The Lizard in what was a pretty familiar situation whereby Spider-Man used his will-power to overcome fatigue and his enemies. I couldn’t help but frequently think that McFarlane was paying extended homage to Spider-Man’s iconic moment in “Amazing Spider-Man” #33 when Spidey freed himself from wreckage wrought upon him by Doctor Octopus.
Roughly in parallel with the ‘torment’ that Peter Parker faced, his then-wife Mary Jane Watson Parker went to various dance clubs and had a generally dissatisfied night out alone. Her purpose throughout all five issues was to either chime in as the overly-confident wife or to fret as the worried spouse.
Prior to researching the background of “Torment,” I’d not realized that Calypso was actually a semi-established character. She first appeared back in “Amazing Spider-Man” #209 as a voodoo priestess from Haiti who had encouraged Kraven the Hunter to hunt Spider-Man.
While I didn’t make a rigorous comparison of McFarlane’s art on the new series to his earlier work, he seemed to have steadily improved from “Amazing Spider-Man.” As was the case on that run, I found myself less interested in the exaggerated style of humans that he drew but still captivated by his work on Spider-Man himself. Also, McFarlane’s layouts were still fantastic. I’d not noticed in the past that McFarlane increasingly leveraged vertical panels in much the same way that Frank Miller was doing back in his early “Daredevil” run.
Decades later, “Torment” wasn’t a horrible read, but it sure didn’t have much substance. Reading the five issues was sort of like eating a candy bar or a Twinkie – it tasted fine in a quick dose but didn’t really offer much sustenance. The entire five-issue arc could be easily read in under an hour and its decompressed nature in a collected format didn’t come off as frustrating as it did back when these issues were coming out with month-long breaks between installments.
To be clear, McFarlane’s writing at the time was very rough and simplistic. The captions and dialogue had all sorts of problems with them, such as confusing character perspective changes. A hammy “Rise above it all!” caption motif grew old with readers after only the second issue but McFarlane persisted with its use. McFarlane admitted in his letter column remarks that he expected the art to carry the book and he was candid about the difficulty of learning to be a writer on-the-job with such a large audience.
McFarlane would later make an astute statement about how the bestselling comic that he’d ever worked on ended up being his worst (and first) written. Talk about a strange situation to be in. That thought spoke to the mentality of the time though. McFarlane initially assumed that he’d work on becoming a writer while staffed on a more-obscure title but Marvel instead pushed out a high-profile flagship product. If anything, with this move Marvel encouraged the later Image Comics ethos of writing taking a back seat to drawing.
“Masques” from “Spider-Man” (1990) #6-#7
McFarlane’s next story arc, “Masques” featured another prominent Spider-Man villain with Hobgoblin causing problems in New York. Those problems involved disappearing people and that element of the basic setup wasn’t shockingly different from the dark setup of “Torment.”
During this time in Spider-Man continuity, the Hobgoblin was a demonic creature. As a result, he was not dissimilar from this arc’s guest-star, Ghost Rider although Ghost Rider was riding (pun intended) a wave of popularity that put him briefly on par with Marvel’s top draws like Wolverine. The story’s setup involved Hobgoblin having lost his mind and thinking that he was on a mission from God to murder all sinners. He kidnapped a young boy and the boy’s mother, murdering the mother in front of the boy.
Spider-Man became involved while investigating the situation. Soon enough, Ghost Rider realized that innocents were being killed and he teamed up with Spider-Man to stop the Hobgoblin. Spider-Man seemed somewhat out of his league in what amounted to a demon vs. demon battle, but he help to ensure that the kidnapped boy remained safe. He also stopped Ghost Rider from beating the Hobgoblin to death at the conclusion of the story.
Ghost Rider’s involvement in the story seemed more like an excuse to have Spider-Man argue over heroic tactics while creating an easy way to maintain strong sales figures. McFarlane would later get a chance to work with Frank Miller on “Spawn” and he ended up referring to some of Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” plot devices in “Masques.” For example, the use of television talking-head reporters and underground mutants were both elements of that classic “Batman” mini-series.
While the boy at the center of the story was saved, one couldn’t help but feel like he was a highly-tragic figure. He would still need to come to terms with the fact that his mother had been killed and she wasn’t merely asleep, a haunting claim that Hobgoblin had made after killing her. If readers hadn’t gotten a taste of McFarlane’s future work on “Spawn” with “Torment,” “Masques” was even more clearly a primer for that later series.
“Perceptions” from “Spider-Man” (1990) #8-#12
By this point, it should be obvious that McFarlane went very dark with his “Spider-Man” stories. The “Perceptions” arc was arguably the darkest of any of the storylines that McFarlane produced on “Spider-Man,” featuring at its core the mystery behind a child abductor who molested and killed young boys. Again, this subject might not surprise later readers of McFarlane’s “Spawn,” but this sort of thing simply wasn’t the norm for Spider-Man to tackle.
At the time, it was a big event that Wolverine was going to be appearing with Spider-Man. In hindsight, excitement over such a crossover seems like madness but the oversaturation of Wolverine was still only ramping up in 1990.
In the story, Peter Parker was assigned to cover a series of child murders in southwestern Canada town of Hope, with the initial culprit appearing to be the “X-Men” and “Hulk” villain Wendigo. Misdirection with locals. Wolverine also took an interest in the situation and eventually teamed with Spider-Man on the investigation. The final resolution to the story ended up being predictably mundane, with Wendigo being cleared and a local townsperson being fingered. The criminal had been in the midst of the investigation the entire time.
Spider-Man butted heads with Wolverine over how to get results, that disagreement being not unlike Spidey’s conflict with Ghost Rider over methodology in “Masques.” Also like in “Masques,” the guest-star ended up being the character that took the lead at the very end in confronting the villain.
The Canadian forest location of the story made Spider-Man feel like a fish out of water while Wolverine was obviously in his element. As a result, “Perceptions” could have easily been a multi-issue arc in the “Wolverine” solo title with Spider-Man happening to guest-star. Spider-Man only teamed up with Wolverine later in the story after readers were treated to the obligatory misunderstanding and conflict between the two.
McFarlane’s art was its usual level of amazing and the Canadian location offered him the opportunity to show something different than the urban Manhattan that would otherwise dominate his run. This was a relatively simple story that was stretched over five issues but it was hard to complain given the gorgeous visuals.
“Sub-City” from “Spider-Man” (1990) #13-#14
It might be easy to mix up the “Sub-City” arc and the earlier “Masques” storyline given that both were two-part stories that featured underground dwellers. The main villain in “Sub-City” wasn’t immediately apparent but Spider-Man eventually figured out that the mentally-ill vampire-like Morbius was using minions to find homeless people to use as his food.
The story’s punchline was a bit thin, with Morbius having a communication problem with his minions. He’d instructed them to only bring him ‘bad’ people but Spider-Man pointed out that their definition of a ‘bad’ person seemed to include pretty much everyone. Once Morbius realized that he’d inadvertently used innocents as victims, he took off and the minions’ old leader was back in charge of the underground dwellers again.
The obvious problem with Morbius’s logic was that no one seemed outraged at the idea of having criminals die. In this regard, Spider-Man acted more like Wolverine had in the “Perceptions” arc.
Another strange decision involving Spider-Man was the use of his variant black costume. Despite Mary Jane being upset at the mere sight of it due to the costume reminding her of Venom’s abuse, Peter went ahead and used it to supposedly not stick out while investigating the underground dwellers. That plan proved futile soon after he put it into action since the costume had a bright white spider on it that was easily seen by Morbius’s minions. It seemed more to the point that McFarlane had shoe-horned use of the costume into the story as a visual sales gimmick despite its use not making much sense in the end.
Morbius found himself back in the spotlight at Marvel Comics, with his 1992 “Morbius the Living Vampire” series that was launched as part of the Marvel supernatural/horror “Midnight Sons” brand. McFarlane’s focus on dark characters like Ghost Rider and Morbius might seem out-of-place to modern readers but at the time there was a modest comeback involving the Marvel horror figures of the 1970s.
One note regarding Morbius’s minions – they should not to be confused with the mutant Morlocks. That group was mentioned as seemingly a rival band to Morbius’s group.
“Sabotage” from “Spider-Man” (1990) #16
McFarlane was injured while playing baseball and his need for recovery time led to Erik Larsen filling in for issue #15. That issue focused on a team-up with The Beast and Peter Parker struggling with the notion of having a likely-mutant child with Mary-Jane. They ultimately decided not to try to have children at the story’s conclusion, although Peter seemed at peace with the notion of trying to have a family at some point.
McFarlane returned with issue #16, which was a cross-over with Rob Liefeld’s “X-Force.” It also happened to be McFarlane’s final issue of “Spider-Man.” He then jumped over to help form Image Comics and launched his creator-owned title “Spawn.”
“Spider-Man” issue #16 picked up where the storyline had begun in “X-Force” issue #3. Longtime X-Men villain Black Tom Cassidy had set off a bomb atop the World Trade Center. Half of the “X-Force” team tried to locate Black Tom while the other half joined with Spider-Man to fight the Tom’s frequent ally, the Juggernaut.
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center buildings that took place a decade after this comic was published obviously loomed large over any re-reading of this comic by modern readers. Besides sustaining damage caused by Black Tom’s bomb, the Towers also faced further destruction from the Juggernaut after he had been memorably stabbed in the eye by Shatterstar. That memorable moment was actually redrawn by McFarlane after a dispute with Marvel editorial regarding how it should be handled on-panel.
The issue’s big visual gimmick was the side-ways format that Liefeld also used in “X-Force.” This gimmick had been used in the past, such as in “Fantastic Four” #252 by John Byrne, and the widescreen effect was compelling even if it meant for a somewhat awkward experience in holding the comic book.
McFarlane’s sign-off to fans at the end of the issue was cryptic in that it only made reference to his then-newborn daughter Cyan. Obviously Marvel was not going to grant him space to publicize his upcoming creator-owned venture at Image Comics.
In hindsight, much of McFarlane’s run on “Spider-Man” read like an artist trying to shoehorn the light-hearted Spider-Man character into the dark world that McFarlane’s “Spawn” would later inhabit. Out of fifteen issues, only issue #16 featured extensive use of daylight and everything else up to that point had been a very visually dark run of comics.
As a sampling, there were references to an inbred underground society, a child who was likely scarred for life by the Hobgoblin, and even multiple human villains involved in disturbing crimes against children. McFarlane was obviously trying to push for increasingly ‘adult’ sensibilities in comic books but one had to question why he chose to use “Spider-Man” for that purpose.
McFarlane’s use of Mary Jane was also curious at times, with her largely lost in the shuffle. McFarlane carried over the same sort of references to Peter Parker and Mary Jane having a kinky love life that were a hallmark of writer David Michelinie’s run on “Amazing Spider-Man” with McFarlane. Across all of McFarlane’s solo issues, the biggest impression that Mary Jane made was as a frustrated club-goer in “Torment” and an upset wife in “Sub-City.”
It would perhaps be too easy to constantly harp on McFarlane’s poor writing throughout the series, but he grew oddly more verbose as the series progressed. “Torment” was very visual and light on text, while all issues beyond that opening arc became increasingly packed with dense text. Ultimately, he was hot and cold with interesting plots sometimes having clunker moments or dialogue being inconsistent. Unlike some of his Image Comics partners though, McFarlane would show improvement in his writing over time on “Spawn.”
Where McFarlane excelled was in his artwork and on that front he was dynamic, a leader of his generation. That aspect alone would be enough to recommend that any comic book fan check out McFarlane’s “Spider-Man.” Those curious about sampling comics from the early-1990s could also do much worse, with McFarlane touching on many of the trends of that era from guest-stars to the grim-and-gritty look that was in fashion. While McFarlane’s “Spider-Man” might not have lived up to expectations at the time, it still stands an as entertaining time-capsule into a time in comics when the market was bubbling with blockbuster projects. Image Comics was about to bring that era to a fever pitch.