Sunday, July 23, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man, Len Wein: Thickening the plot (ASM #156, 179)

Thickening the Plot: Amazing Spider-Man with Len Wein (ASM #156, ASM #179)

Writers need somewhere to stow away ideas, and if they wish to develop them, they have to let the artist depict them. Once they’re on display, development’s in play. Whether we’re talking Len Wein or X-writer successor, Chris Claremont, in the last half of his run on Uncanny X-Men, writers attempt to make space for interesting ideas. An idea on display too soon might seem half-baked; a plot opened too soon might languish in the background without space for development. Writers have to work between the poles of inspiration and creative spontaneity, and seeing concepts through that have begun dramatic play. The more space you make to keep up with ongoing subplots, the more elements you must balance while not losing the individual issue’s dramatic concision: is it a coherent episode on its own? Does the pace of the single episode suffer while moving a main storyline forward? How far apart can these circumstances hope to develop without entwining in plots that resolve or develop more than one thread?

On the blog The Essential Exploits of Spider-Man, the writer makes a point about the agonizing distance between introducing plots from Len’s first issue all the way to his last. Just as he spun off an idea from his own predecessor, in Gerry Conway’s clone saga, Wein would introduce a mystery man in #170 trying to claim the old Parker residence for a purpose left unspoken until the end of the run of the next Spider-writer, Marv Wolfman! Fortunately for his “mystery photos” plotline, while it takes a year and a half between Spider-Man’s disposal of his clone and JJJ’s confrontation with Peter over the photos (which depict him murdered!), when Len reveals who took them, he’s tying up a compact multi-part story many consider his best on Amazing Spider-Man.

I intend to talk about, basically, two issues that embody my point about continuity and plot formation, around the first two Wein issues of Spider-Man I ever read. The fact that I found them as individual stories underscores two points. An issue should stand as an episode on its own: this was especially vital during the spottier distribution of comics in the 1970s, but if a trade collection’s not a foregone conclusion, it’s still the best policy to please the person willing to try a single issue. In the Marvel tradition, you want to establish: this is a piece of a larger tapestry, of characters sharing a universe across multiple titles, and this is a series building upon, and towards, other interesting events.

Peter’s first girlfriend Betty Brant eventually drifted into a relationship with reporter Ned Leeds; their engagement marked a phase of Parker’s life from which he’s moved on. There’s not much drama on hand by the time they finally marry a hundred issues later, but Wein at least acknowledges, since Conway brought Leeds back to help Peter resolve the Gwen Stacy clone mystery, Ned and Betty still had a date to set! So here, Len’s plotting a new story using an existing, never-used set-up. All this, and we get a new villain, Mirage, in Amazing Spider-Man #156- which I found reprinted as one of the last, Marvel Tales #133, before the title reboots reprinting Amazing from its beginning. The supporting cast is the true focus here, the villain, incidental: we follow the thoughts of Daily Bugle mainstays Joe Robertson and J. Jonah Jameson leaving for the ceremony, a hard luck comedy bit where landlady Mamie Muggins swats Spider-Man atop his apartment building, and MJ attending the wedding as Pete’s date.

Mirage and his gang, crashing the chapel’s entire roster of simultaneous weddings, feel like a gimmicky DC robbery crew; in fact, he’s sort of Mirror Master, the Flash rogue. It’s a fun encounter, great for the constantly-rotating audience of kids. But the randomness of his altercation doesn’t set up any compelling return. He could’ve served as any crimefighter’s foil, but after years of disuse, he’s simply another patron of the Bar With No Name when Scourge massacres nineteen villains in Captain America #319. We’re still early in Wein’s run; in preserving Spidey’s status quo, he instead opts for short story approaches, such as “Whodunnit!” in #155 and “The Longest Hundred Yards” in #153. We do start out having fun with Pete’s friends at a JJJ-hosted party, the first re-appearance of newly-released Harry Osborn, and Spidey rogues The Shocker and The Sandman.

“On A Clear Day, You Can See The Mirage!” does end by paying off a sub-plot. Len’s built suspense now to reveal a recurrent spying street person is actually Doctor Octopus, apparent return from the grave! He knows bringing back a classic arch-nemesis and fan favorite requires both build-up and space, in his first multiple issue clash reviving the “ghost” of Hammerhead, too, built on Conway’s own simmering sub-plot about the Canadian nuclear facility blown sky-high in Amazing #131. He even reunites Ock with Aunt May on the last page; his one-time bride in#131 is the first person to whom he reveals he’s alive!

But my actual first exposure to Wein plopped me into the penultimate chapter of the story that not only pays off the mystery photographer behind the scenes in Wein’s debut-that person’s the prime suspect to be the returned Green Goblin!
There’s something for the long-time fan or back issue collector: Harry Osborn’s already skulked around, discovering the secret of his father Norman and posing as a second Green Goblin. That’s all from his predecessor Gerry Conway’s issues; in fact, that’s from a long-running Conway plotline Gerry carefully built for over a year! If you’re going to build on someone’s work, found yours on the best possible. And of course, give it a surprise twist!
You even get a call-back to the original Goblin’s motivation, to use his abilities and arsenal to gain power over the criminal underworld. There’s a reasonable amount of mystery: is this somehow the return of the original Norman Osborn Goblin? (Nah, that doesn’t really seem possible.) Has Harry’s therapy failed? Spider-Man’s a title that always depended as much if not even moreso than usual on a reader’s identification with the titular character’s perspective. It’s not that the author’s dishonest with us: it’s Spider-Man’s reasonable assumption he’s dealing with a relapsed Harry Osborn (that could probably happen, right?).

Aunt May’s had a heart attack during a Grey Panther demonstration, which is to say, she’s gotten into political activism and found it a strain. So her health’s in jeopardy, while Peter’s in the dark, busy with the returned Green Goblin. Mary Jane, however, is there, beside the woman who is her aunt’s best friend and the original match-maker between herself and Pete. This familial level of involvement demonstrates how integral MJ is, how much she’s virtually part of the close Parker unit. That in itself will springboard an upcoming plot that starts the run of Amazing’s next writer, Marv Wolfman, who has old-fashioned Peter Parker realize how much this green-eyed, red-haired bon vivant’s come to mean to his life. May’s ongoing fragile health will also set up the climax that ends Wolfman’s run. For now, once again the responsibility of two lives has put Parker/ Spider-Man in tension.

So, Amazing Spider-Man #179 has a struggling, hooded hostage secreted in one of those delightfully infamous Goblin hideouts, as Spidey tries to free himself from Green Goblin, who’s captured him on the way to the hospital for his aunt! The second half of the story involves the Goblin’s attempt to assassinate returned crimelord Silvermane, who’s been revived over in Daredevil as a Hydra associate after his own apparent tragic demise in Amazing Spider-Man #75. I certainly knew none of that: it’s the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man I ever held, a swap meet acquisition bought for my kid sister (while I was bought a Marvel Tales presenting Stan Lee’s last issue of Amazing). No question, though: I found it enthralling! The battle over Radio City Music Hall centered three ways on the Goblin’s glider makes a very cool climax, rendered fairly well by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito.

Maybe I didn’t know about Wein’s efforts to update Harry and his ongoing mental health recovery, which makes the stakes all the more restless. But after the Goblin’s taunts about therapy sessions, monthly readers could draw a logical conclusion: if the hostage who unmasks on the last page is Harry Osborn, then the Goblin must be his doctor, psychiatrist Bart Hamilton! Then a really cool-sounding idea comes into play: Harry risks his sanity and his life, taking on the Goblin guise once more, but this time to bring the Hamilton impostor to heel. Who lives? Who dies? What will this decision do to Harry’s mind? There’s stakes for a supporting character now, with great personal value to Peter. If there’s one thing Goblin sagas have taught us, it’s that danger could well spell doom for supporting Spider-Man characters.

So here, you have the best of all possible worlds for an issue of this era’s Spider-Man: seeds sewn for the return of the Green Goblin, the mystery of his identity, there’s stakes to ongoing characters, there’s action all the way! Wein closes his run, resolving the first mystery he surreptitiously set up, perhaps retroactively. He builds his conflict on the years-long trials of Harry Osborn, which didn’t need space every single month. At the same time, each installment of the five part series run climax not only brings back not one, but TWO incarnations of a classic Spider-Man villain, but works episodically with a pace each its own as well.
When you put together how many elements culminate in the cliffhanger of “How Green Was My Goblin,” you can appreciate what’s good in Len Wein’s writing. His dialogue’s competent; here, his plotting’s creative and well-designed, paced very professionally by Andru. The finishing touch is that element for which no outgoing writer can plan control: without dangling plots, Wein’s story serves as a the foundation for future adventures. Wein likes criminal psychiatrists- see Doctor Faustus- but he’ll finish off #180 in a way that won’t leave that possibility in the cards. All the way to the present day in 2017, however, Goblin incarnations will return...ever green.


  1. it's very strange for me to read this article (which was, by the way, an excellent analysis of that particular title at that particular time), since I was with Spider-Man from the beginning (issue #1, not AF 15) and I grew up on Ditko creating the look and Romita redefining things years later. It's strange for me to see such an analysis from someone who didn't read any of it until after it had been reprinted years later

    1. I really appreciate that. I tried to make everything I posted special, as I mean to incorporate it into my Creating Marvels book, which just got a huge boost thanks to photos of fans and pros related to Marvel Con '75, which I'm also covering for BAck Issue Magazine. Fortunately, some particular unique angle about story-telling started me off on each one. Aside from reading ASM #178 when I was barely able to read, I encountered Len's work first through the Olshevsky index, then a friend found many back issues from the run, when we were about 12. I've put so much energy into figuring out how comics are written- how a series develops- it's a joy to share as I learn. It's remarkable to hear from someone who's been with the wall-crawler since his brilliant inception, and encouraging that you enjoyed my writing!

  2. Maybe most surprising to me was, as I was deciding to focus on each Spidey writer at least in part, Len himself died about a month after I wrote this. I imagine that's in part to thank for the uptick in viewers for this post- I like to think they each came away with something sparked off.