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A Spider Island Post-Mortem Review

Review by Arnie C

Your tour of Spider Island starts here.

With the recently concluded Spider Island crossover event, Marvel comics and Spider-Man writer Dan Slott have spun a web of fun that has too long been missing from comic books and created a cure for Event Fatigue.

If you are a casual comic book follower, for the past two months the only comic event you may have heard about is DC’s “New 52” line reboot, aimed at drawing in new comic readers.  But DC’s primary competitor, Marvel Comics, has also been having some smaller scale events aimed at increasing comic sales.  Head into your local comic shop, or Barnes & Noble bookstore, and you will see two common themes spread across most of the Marvel books.  The first is Fear Itself, a multi-book crossover that Marvel hyped heavily at its launch.  But the second theme that graces many covers is Spider Island, a Spider-Man centric story in which all the people of Manhattan have been given spider powers by genetically modified bedbugs.  Of course, to most people it seems like Marvel Comics is always having an event.  House of M, Civil War, World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, the list is seemingly endless.  According to Wikipedia Marvel has had 8 crossover events in 2011 alone!  Due to this endless string of events, with each event seemingly leading directly into the next, “Event Fatigue” is a common term among comic readers.  Many feel like the events become less special, more watered down, when almost every comic is part of a big event.  But to comics publishers events mean sales.  Simply, more people buy comics when they’re part of an event crossover.  It’s a way to spur sales of newer or lagging comics, while bolstering mainstays even higher.These sales are helped by the free advertising given to comics by the mainstream media.  Usually these events are “game changers”.  In Civil War Captain America was killed.  In Secret Invasion characters readers had followed for years turned out to be alien impostors.  It seems most events come with the tag line “Nothing will ever be the same again” (right before the next event that resets the status quo).

But with Spider Island Slott and company have beaten the odds and done the unthinkable–they created a comic book crossover event that doesn’t feel the need to make seismic changes to the Marvel Universe.  At the end of Spider Island no major character dies, no deals with the devil reset continuity, and no superhero zombies eat each other.  As such, Spider Island hasn’t gotten much mainstream media coverage.  Instead of relying on gimmicks, Spider Island has just given readers a fun, funny adventure that reminded me why I love to read comic books.

In Spider Island Spider-Man’s old villain The Jackal has modified bedbugs to give Manhattan residents powers similar to Spider-Man’s.  But while Spider-Man’s motto is “With great power comes great responsibility” the majority of newly super-powered New Yorkers are not as responsible with their powers.  Instead of a city full of superheroes, many Manhattan residents use their powers for crime, or just in reckless and dangerous ways.  Of course, as is always the case, the plot isn’t quite what it seems and if the heroes aren’t able to stop the spider-people the entire world could be overrun.

Cloak and Dagger headline their own title once more as part of the Spider Island crossover.

It’s a crazy plot that careens from borough to borough, and comic to comic.  Spider Island covers Amazing Spider-Man 666 to 673, but also Cloak and Dagger 1 – 3, Venom 6 – 8, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu 1 – 3, Herc 7 – 8, as well as numerous one-shot comic releases bringing in fan-favorite and lesser known characters from Marvel’s roster.

The core of the story is told in the Amazing Spider-Man books following Peter Parker, the true Spider-Man, as he becomes but one of the many Spider-People of New York City.  Amazing Spider-Man has had a long history of ups and downs, and recently angered long time fans with its One More Day storyline.  After One More Day Spider-Man went through a time of renewal and rotating writers, and finally Slott has come to be the series’ sole writer.  Even some of One More Day’s biggest detractors have come to admit that Slott has given Amazing Spider-Man an energetic and fun spirit that were missing during previous runs by authors like J. Michael  Straczynski.

With Spider Island, which Slott said on Twitter was the largest writing project of his career thus far, Slott has kept the fun and irreverent attitude and injected a good deal of heart, spirit, and character development.  I can easily say the Spider Island issues of Amazing Spider-Man are the best I’ve read in 20 years.

Spider Island is action packed.  With so many people gaining superpowers almost every page of every issue is jam-packed with fights.  The Avengers, Cloak and Dagger, Spider-Girl, Spider-Woman, the X-Men, and many more are all dealing with outbreaks of criminal activity relating to the new spider people.  But while those heroes try to deal with the symptoms of Spider Island, Peter Parker, former girlfriend (and wife though no one remembers that) Mary Jane Watson, Venom, and a few others work at finding the cause, and a cure, for these events.

It’s a crazy plot, and in the wrong hands the story could be a debacle.  If taken too seriously, played for horror, this story would be easily mocked.  Likewise, played just for laughs this event would lack import.  But Slott has found the perfect balance of action and whimsy which makes the issues simply fun to read.

Additionally, Spider Island brings in a good mix of major and minor characters from the Marvel roster.  It makes sense as the majority of the Marvel characters are based in New York, and it is a blast to see a great mix of heroes dealing with these events in their own way.

The first few pages of Amazing Spider-Man 673 feature many of these characters in the aftermath of the Spider Island events and Slott’s handing of these characters comes close to breaking the fourth wall with its commentary on superhero conventions, but I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time.

For all my issues with Ramos' art, has Mary Jane Watson ever looked hotter?

My only negative with the Spider Island issues of Amazing Spider-Man is the art.  The primary artist on Amazing Spider-Man was Humberto Ramos, who drew issues 667-672.  While his art is incredibly detailed, I cannot warm up to his angular style.  To me, Ramos’ drawings are reminiscent of political cartoons more than comic books, and the people are more caricatures than characters.  Issue 666 and 673 were drawn by Stefano Caselli and I wish he’d had the entire run as every single page he drew was gorgeous.  His last page of 673 deserves to be framed due to both the art and the emotional closure it brought to the event.

The Spider Island stories in the crossover titles ranged both in quality as well as in importance.  I understand that it makes sense from a marketing perspective to put the Spider Island logo on as many books as possible to spur sales (it worked for me as I bought every Spider Island issue the day it was released), but as a reader it can be a frustrating experience.  30 comics were released with the Spider Island imprint, and there was no way for the reader to tell which issues were “must reads” and which were elective.  Given the price of each issue, it was an expensive gamble.

The most important of these other series were the Venom comics.  In a shocking move, some of the events biggest revelations happened in these pages, and readers who stuck to the core Spider-Man issues were left to play catch-up.

Venom also remained very serious, a large tonal shift from the Amazing Spider-Man issues.  It shows the events from the perspective of Flash Thompson, the current Venom, who has to try and infiltrate Manhattan while his father lies dying in a hospital.  Complicating matters, Thompson’s father was abusive and Flash isn’t sure if he even wants to see his father one last time.  It’s a portrayal of parental death far more moving than any of the times Aunt May has been near-dead to dead.

Those readers who did buy the Venom books were doubly rewarded, though, as they both had necessary plot and carried an emotional punch that stuck with me long after I put down the books.

I have not been a fan of old Spider-Man classmate Flash Thompson taking up the Venom mantle–I’m a traditionalist who wants Eddie Brock still trying to dine on Spider-Man’s brain–but despite my feelings towards Flash these Venom issues are a great example of how comics can tug at the heartstrings.

All other Spider Island crossovers are less vital, telling stories against the backdrop of the Spider Island events.  They range in both tone and quality.  My favorites of the tie-ins are the ones that matched Slott’s playful tone, infusing action and humor with their stories.  These include the issues of Herc, Spider-Girl, and the most silly of them all Spider Island Avengers.

Several of the other series, including the Black Panther tie-in, Heroes For Hire, Cloak and Dagger, and Deadly Hands of Kung Fu were more serious stories.  These issues were purely elective and I found my enjoyment was directly related to my affinity for the characters involved.  I was happy to see Cloak and Dagger headline a comic again, and found myself mostly confused at what was going on in Black Panther.   If you are a fan of Black Panther, Cloak and Dagger, or Misty Knight you will already be buying the issues featuring those heroes, but for the characters I did not regularly read these tie-in stories did nothing to make me return.

Spider-Island Deadly Foes gave some great background to the motives of the Jackal and Hobgoblin for these issues.  For those who want more of these two, there was also Spider Island: Emergence of Evil reprinting some of the early appearances of these two Spider-villains.

Finally, Spider Island: I (Heart) New York City is the ultimate example of stories told in the backdrop of Spider Island giving an anthology of stories about everyday people getting spider powers.  From a Spider-Toddler to a Spider-Mom, these stories were completely unnecessary but well done.

Extra, extra...you don't have to read all the extras.

Spider-Man is Marvel’s most recognized character, with surveys showing Spider-Man ranks with Mickey Mouse as the most recognized fictional character in the world.  Yet, for his popularity, Spider-Man’s everyman quality often makes him feel like the odd man out in events from Secret Wars in the 80’s to Infinity Gauntlet, House of M, and others.  While writers try to find a way to shoehorn Spidey into most events, it’s rare that he truly feels as integral to the story when put next to beings of awesome power such as Onslaught, Thanos, and The Beyonder. By putting Spider-Man at the heart of this crossover, Slott has leveraged Marvel’s most popular character to use him at his best.
He also used this as an opportunity to undo a couple convenient changes to Spider-Man’s world in the controversial One More Day storyline.  Though I do question one revelation in Amazing Spider-Man672 sure to rub salt in the still fresh wound of Peter and Mary Jane’s forced break-up.  But while some may be angered, Slott has hooked me and I can’t wait to see where this is heading.
In the end, Spider Island is a success both artistically and commercially.  Amazing Spider-Man 666 topped sales charts, and many Spider Island issues sold out at my local stores, and I cannot imagine anyone who bought the issues regretting their purchase.  I hope that going forward Marvel remembers that with Spider Island it was proven that you don’t have to kill people to have an event, and that fun is an essential ingredient in a good comic book recipe.
Spider Island reminded me why I love comics, and why Spider-Man has always been my favorite superhero.  Kudos to Slott for an Amazing run.  I was bitten by the Spider Island bug, and will be sticking with this comic for some time to come.
Spider Island is told in:
  Amazing Spider-Man 666 – 673
  Black Panther 524
  Herc 7-8
  Spider Island Avengers
  Spider Island: Cloak and Dagger 1-3
  Spider Island: Daily Bugle Free Preview
  Spider Island: Deadly Foes
  Spider Island: Deadly Hands of Kung Fu 1-3
  Spider Island: Emergence of Evil – Jackal & Hobgoblin
  Spider Island: Heroes for Hire
  Spider Island: Spider-Girl 1-3
  Spider Island: Spider-Woman
  Venom 6-8

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