This handy omnibus collected the entirety of Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie’s run on “Amazing Spider-Man,” namely issues #296-329. That included several Erik Larsen fill-in issues near the end, as Mr. McFarlane juggled a bi-weekly schedule and also prepared to move to his successor “Spider-Man” series. ‘Bonus’ items included a backup feature that Mr. McFarlane did in “Spectacular Spider-Man” Annual #10, as well as his covers for various Marvel titles, such as “Marvel Tales.”
In regard to the book’s construction, two editions were released, with only their covers differing. The mass-market version had Spider-Man in his the regular red and blue costume on the cover. The direct-market edition featured Spider-man in his black costume. I went with the variant edition, since I’ve always had a thing for that old black costume. Also, I thought that if I was going to spend a hefty amount on a book, I might as well get the one with the lower print run.
The construction was the usual top-notch Marvel Omnibus quality, with a sewn binding. The paper was thick and durable, with a semi-gloss coating. Colors were bold and vibrant. Unlike some omnibus books, this volume isn’t uncomfortably thick.
In terms of actual content, it was surreal to suddenly have so much of Mr. McFarlane’s material all in a collection, as I’d wanted to read a number of these issues for over twenty years. For fans of this particular phase of Mr. McFarlane’s career, this collection was a ‘holy grail’ of sorts. The first four issues started slow, focusing on the mercenary Chance, before moving into Spider-Man’s first battle with Venom in “Amazing Spider-Man” #300. This was classic material to be sure. “Amazing Spider-Man” #300 has been looked upon as a milestone of the era and it delivered an exciting double-sized story that was worthy of the landmark issue. There was a dark tone to Venom that was well-handled, bringing an edge to his stories but still balancing in the ‘fun’ that was expected in a Spider-Man comic book. With Spider-Man’s return to his original costume during issue #300, the stage was set for what felt like a near-relaunch for the character. That was the point where Mr. Michelinie and Mr. McFarlane really started to hit their strides and that energy would keep going through the next thirty issues.
I found myself surprised to warm up to the stories that followed Venom’s first defeat. Those issues didn’t get the sort of reprint exposure that either the Venom arc(s) or the “Assassin Nation Plot” would get in later years, so I wasn’t familiar with them. They featured several ‘villain of the month’-type stories intermixed with interesting ongoing plot threads. One ongoing thread involved Peter deciding if he should take a job outside of New York City, while another involved Mary Jane being stalked by her new building’s wealthy supervisor, Jonathan Ceasar. The cross-over issues with the “Inferno” event were mostly stand-alone in nature. A notable one featured the appearance of Harry Osborne as the Green Goblin. A nice Christmas-themed issue followed that event.
The return of Venom, over a three-issue arc was another high-point of the collection, although his rematch against Spider-Man rematch never quite lived up to expectations. While Venom’s alter-ego Eddie Brock got a couple of lucky breaks and made things interesting, particularly when he found out where Peter Parker lived, Venom never came across as a deadly menace this time around. The final fight that ensured in that sequel trilogy was oddly short.
The six-part “Assassin Nation Plot,” the longest story in the collection, should have been the high point of the book. Unfortunately, the espionage elements didn’t entirely work with Spider-Man. There were many fun guest stars, such Silver Sable, but the story felt like it would have been better in “Captain America” or “Iron Man.” One jarring element of this storyline was the first appearance of Erik Larsen’s art, as he began filling in for Mr. McFarlane. Mr. Larsen appeared to be trying to approximate Mr. McFarlane’s style, but the result simply looked ‘off’ and was often unappealing.
The final issues related to the “Acts of Vengeance” cross-over that Marvel was running at the time. Those issues could be read stand-alone, but none were overly-memorable. Issue #328 was the most notable of that grouping, in that it featured an appearance by the Hulk and was the only issue that Mr. McFarlane drew between issues #326 and #329. The final issue of the book was actually an issue drawn by Mr. Larsen.
One thing to note about this entire era was that Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson had recently gotten married. As a result, the ‘domestic’ scenes often felt like the Mr. Michelinie was trying to figure out how to make that marriage believable, while still keeping Peter Parker relateable to the often-teen male readers. Given that Mary Jane worked as a well-known model, many of Peter’s supposed ‘problems’ regarding money seemed ridiculous. The most compelling early motivations for Peter seemed rooted in his desire to be the ‘breadwinner’ of the couple, but even that didn’t feel right, since Peter complaining about the stress of being married to a supermodel seemed like a problem that most guys wouldn’t mind having.
Mr. Michelinie did eventually figure out ways to make Peter and Mary Jane’s lives less-ideal throughout the second half of the collection. Their stalker landlord Jonathan Ceasar continued terrorizing Mary Jane from jail by both causing her assets to be frozen and also preventing her from getting modeling jobs. Peter and Mary Jane were forced to move in with Aunt May and the series briefly got back-to-the-basics. Life started to smooth out for the couple by the end of the book, as their luck turned around when Mary Jane landed a role on a soap opera.
Mr. McFarlane’s art didn’t quite excite me now like it did when I was living through his peak of popularity. In that era, he was considered the most popular artist in comics and, even if some elements of his style now seem dated, it was easy to see how influential it was. For better or worse, his style defined much of the comic book art that followed in the 1990s and, while my tastes have moved away from his exaggerated forms, his dynamic panel layouts remained something that I admired. ‘Back in the day’ I’d never really thought of Mr. McFarlane as drawing in a ‘cartoony’ style. Of course, upon re-review, it was very obvious that his cartooniness was what made his style so unique. It’s hard to explain, but at times it seemed like Mr. McFarlane somehow drew a gritty, ‘realistic cartoony.’ How I didn’t notice that 20 years ago was beyond me.
The low points of the omnibus always seemed to be the fill-in issues with Mr. Larsen. I had hoped that revisiting his “Amazing Spider-Man” art might provoke me to appreciate something that I’d not previously noticed, but that was not the case. For example, Mr. McFarlane drew a very ‘cute’ Mary Jane, whereas Mr. Larsen’s drawings of her always had a bizarrely ‘sleazy’ look to them. It took Mr. Larsen a few years to find his own style, during which he was one of the more vilified guys in comics. Eventually, he did turn into an artist whom I enjoyed whenever I read his work on “The Savage Dragon.”
Despite running out of gas near the end, this collection was a worthwhile purchase due to most issues having really fun stories to read. In that regard, the writing by David Michelinie turned out to be the pleasant surprise of the book. Mr. Michelinie’s work on “Iron Man” in the late 1970s and early 1980s was hailed as greatness, but many forget about his lengthy run on “Amazing Spider-Man.”
While these might not have been the most ‘profound’ Spider-Man comics, the development of Venom certainly made several into notable classics. The remaining issues often contained a sense of whimsical joy that was very appealing. Also, Mr. Michelinie was very good at ending each issue on a cliffhanger, compelling me to want to learn what happened next. As much as I came to this book for Mr. McFarlane’s art, the warm-and-friendly stories by Mr. Michelinie helped bring the total package together for me.