A Gold, Holo-Foil Heart – McFarlane’s Spider-man #1

1st all-new collector’s item issue! The legend of the arachknight! Arachknight? Yes, I am looking back to the year 1990 because before Spawn and the boom of Image Comics Todd McFarlane debuted his  chops as a comic book writer on a certain Marvel Comics character.

The book infamously known as Spider-man #1 holds a certain place in American comic book lore. Some remember it for its ridiculous amount of collector bribing, variant editions while others recognize it simply as a poor, confused example of the medium. All of that aside though, Spider-man #1 channeled a zeitgeist excitement felt by the industry at that period. The book fell right in line with Liefeld’s New Mutant’s and Lee’s X-Men. It was a comic book on the edge, presenting unorthodox artwork and design. Spider-man looked new and different, panels knew no bounds, and the impossible seemed possible once again in a super-hero comic. Nearly everyone had to own a copy and every company needed a copycat, McFarlane-esque artist.

Deep down, though, past the 2.5 million copies sold, the holo-foil, scratch-and-sniff covers, and the rock star attitude lay an artist looking for a break. McFarlane at this time was still relatively new to the comics industry. He was coming off his two year run on The Amazing Spider-man with writer David Michelinie and nothing else really to his name. Granted, it was an impactful run from both a plot standpoint as well as an aesthetic mark, but still, a two year run is nothing in an industry where Jack Kirby penciled numerous titles per month. There was much to prove for this young artist. Thus, after a few short talks with editor Jim Salicrup, McFarlane’s own title appeared in the web-slinger’s line of funny books. A twenty-some page pamphlet where he could stretch his legs and push his ability.

 

Now, let me just say, Spider-man #1 does, in some regards, deserve the criticism it receives. It’s a comic book so short of plot it’s laughable. The story, if one could call it that, depicts Spider-man web-slinging through the streets of New York along with a scene of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson flirting in cute couple fashion. At some point, the villain The Lizard is brought in to rough up random street thugs.These events, under the hands of craftsman, could work as a fine first issue, but the problem is the drive and tie of these events. There really isn’t any. These events feel like randomly disbursed thoughts throughout a comic book, and they’re overwritten with corny caption boxes of narration – a technique that only results in great or terrible quality with no inbetween. No theme is present, no greater purpose exists, and the dialogue would make a twelve year-old version of yourself laugh.

It’s a pretty awful script, but McFarlane manages to take away some of the bad.

“I don’t profess to be a writer, but I do think I can tell a story. What this means is that most of the issues will rely heavily on the artistic side. It will also allow me to draw who I want when I want, so I can get wound up artistically and be even more enthusiastic while I am doing the work.”

Continue on.

“My writing will expand and get better as the months go by, but I will strive to present Spider-man in a fashion not seen before, and thus be able to justify the question of why a fifth Spider-man book.”

–          Todd McFarlane, Text page in Spider-man #1

Could he be anymore clear? If I had just read Spider-man #1, the comic, by itself, I would have put it down with very little to say, but after reading the afterward text page, I suddenly found a lot in this comic. This is a book that doesn’t pretend to be anything bigger than it is. It’s not Dark Knight Returns, and McFarlane knows and admits this! Instead, it’s Spider-man #1, and McFarlane clearly states his intention is to make Spider-man look cool and basically nothing else.

I’m pretty sure he accomplishes this.

The contents of the issue, even now, are visually striking. McFarlane’s vision of Spider-man, even to this day, stands unique with edge. His powerful splash pages send elbows to your face and panel layouts never slow down to anything resembling a nine-panel grid.  It is a cool looking comic book, and at the time the artwork was a game changer in the market of hero books.

Not that it stops there, though. If anything, that praise is the usual praise for an artist like McFarlane or really any of the Image guys. No, McFarlane accomplishes something else with his artwork. Rather than characterizing his cast by usual means of situational development or dialogue, McFarlane takes the John Woo approach and depicts his characters through their body language and physical action. Take a look at any Todd McFarlane Spider-man drawing and admire the way he positions the character in a very acrobatic, gawky way. Without a beat of speech, you should understand who McFarlane’s Spider-man is; a masked hero who swings through the New York concrete jungle, hangs upside down, and performs daring flips and acrobatic feats to catch criminals.

The awkward twists in the body posture even depict Peter Parker’s wise guy persona. The liberal crouching and skin tight costume provide a sense that Spider-man is unlike the usual super-hero. That instead, he is some sort of punk rock warrior. A man not following the traditional super-hero protocol, but rather cracking jokes on the crime scene, running from the law, and receiving the hate of New York City.

The weird, almost disturbing poses even speak to a primitiveness of the character. Traditionally, comic artists focus on the human aspect when they draw Spider-man; a young guy in tights trying to make a difference.  When Spider-man clings to a wall in a McFarlane comic, something animalistic seeps from the hero. The spider element becomes a bit more vital. The character becomes inherently a little darker. The popping veins and big, bug eyes communicate an idea of torture. A reader understands Spider-man’s guilt, determination, and origin point.

The artwork says a lot, surprisingly, and when it’s combined with the comic’s own idea of self-awareness, I think it actually makes Spider-man a rather interesting comic instead of a bad one. If anything, this book is much more personal than the gimmick it’s made out to be. McFarlane did as he pleased with this comic, and the book provided the young artist an opportunity to express his creative needs. It’s the comic McFarlane always wanted to do. An a-list character at an a-game publisher and he was the sole creative force behind it. McFarlane’s Spider-man really is McFarlane’s Spider-man. In some ways, I find it possible to believe that this comic may have started the creator-owned conversation for Todd. McFarlane experienced a taste of control by doing this book, and I believe that as the years past that sense of control only grew harder and harder to give up. The man yearned to own what he drew and draw what he owned, but Marvel Comics could not harbor such desires as they had, and still do, a business run. Still,  I now like to think that Spider-man, in some way, was owned by McFarlane. His artwork defined the character for a period of time, and for a period a time the character was all his in a title he wrote and drew.

In some form, Spider-man #1 was the first Image Comic: bold, unorthodox, creator-controlled.

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