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Spider-Man Visionaires: Todd McFarlane By Christian Farrell
I have to admit to some reluctance in reviewing the new trade paperback Spider-Man Visionaries: Todd McFarlane (Marvel Comics, Writer - David Michelinie, Artist - Todd McFarlane). Although McFarlane is a fan favorite and the most influential artist of the past twenty years, I personally never liked his style. In fact, I still have a collection of Spider-Man issues from the years McFarlane worked on Amazing Spider-Man, but the issues I own are almost exclusively from Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man. Back then, despite all the hype, I just never liked McFarlane’s art that much. And later, when he left Marvel, the first nail in their bankruptcy coffin, I began to hate him.
Still, his influence is palpable. Almost every artist in almost every mainstream comic book today is doing an imitation of Todd McFarlane. McFarlane proved that when a book’s art takes the focus away from the story, not only will the book sell, but it will sell well, as Amazing Spider-Man’s readership exploded to the point that Marvel tapped it as their first biweekly comic book. Other artists took notice, the art in other comic books became flashier and vibrant in exactly the same way, and now the whole industry is in the toilet.
Much later in McFarlane’s career, after a power struggle with Marvel management, he left Marvel after the management made the fateful decision that good comic book characters were more important than good comic book artists, and that anyone could draw a successful Spider-Man title. Landing on his feet, McFarlane then co-founded Image comics, where he created Spawn, the comic that launched a thousand independent titles, most of which sank, many of which are cast adrift, but all of which strive to seize the glory from the DC/Marvel Ileum.
McFarlane’s artwork, which changed the face of comics, is well represented in this collection, as it highlights both his high points and low points. This Visionaries trade paperback collects eight issues that make up five separate storylines, and the art, writing, and total stories run the gamut from intoxicating to tepid.
The writer, David Michelinie, does a pretty good job overall of giving McFarlane interesting things to draw. Michelinie’s best story in this collection, and one of the greatest Spider-Man stories ever, is the classic “Venom”. This story introduces one of Spider-Man’s most popular villains, Venom, the being made up former journalist Eddie Brock and Spider-Man’s former parasitic black costume. Michelinie, realizing that a story about this new kind of villain would need to center around the artwork, wrote what is a fairly typical one-on-one superhero/villain story, but showed his prowess by giving McFarlane the opportunity to draw fantastic panels, such as the symbiote suffocating a policeman, or Brock wearing the alien as a priest’s frock (or the Thing in his bathrobe). This issue, the 300th issue and 30th anniversary of Amazing Spider-Man, is almost worth this collection’s cover price on its own. McFarlane drew a perfectly creepy Venom, and the last page of this issue still gives me chills even thirteen years after first seeing it.
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Michelinie wrote well on three other issues. Two of them, “(Mid) American Gothic” and “California Schemin’,” are primarily humorous stories. Outside of “Venom," “(Mid) American Gothic” is the collection’s strongest story. In it, Peter, visiting a laboratory in Kansas, meets a construction foreman named Wes Cassady who hides his superhuman leg strength that he gained after being bitten by a radioactive jackrabbit. No, really. This absurd situation turns serious, however, when Spider-Man, being pummeled by a mad scientist, calls out Wes to join the fight, and Wes has to decide whether helping Spider-Man is worth revealing his superpowers.
“California Schemin’” is another fun story. This time, the Daily Bugle allows a publishing company to make a book out of Peter’s Spider-Man photos, and although Peter won’t see a dime from the sales, he is asked to go on a book tour to promote it. While at one charity event in LA, Peter discovers the thief called the Black Fox in a back room stealing a precious artifact, and, after changing into Spider-Man, runs after him.
The collection’s only other above-average story, “The Sable Gauntlet,” shows Silver Sable testing a building’s security system that some old enemies secretly rigged to kill her. The plotline is tired and begs of the villains, “Why not just shoot her in the head?” but the story captures some interest when Spider-Man discovers who the actual villains are. Besides these issues, however, Michelinie’s writing was only meant to give McFarlane things to draw.
McFarlane had one major difference from every other contemporary artist. Well, two actually, since one was to draw Felix the Cat as many times as possible, but the second was to use more lines to show more detail, especially in people. This works very well with the superheroes themselves. Spider-Man, who had previously been drawn a bit thin and wispy, was portrayed in McFarlane’s artwork as toned and sculpted with clearly defined muscles. And Venom, a Spider-Man on steroids, was literally made for McFarlane to draw, with a pumped physique as well as a slobbery tongue. McFarlane even famously reinvented Spider-Man’s webs, adding swirls and loose threads to what had previously been straight lines. Where McFarlane failed, however, was with everyday people. He overused his lines in people’s faces, giving Peter and Mary Jane unnecessary wrinkles, and making Nathan Lubensky and Aunt May look like corpses.
There is one more issue I have with both Michelinie and McFarlane that was a big problem for me when these issues first appeared and is still a problem now, although for a different reason. That problem is the adult situations thrust into the storylines. When these issues were first published, all Spider-Man titles, and almost all Marvel/DC comics, were aimed around an 8-17 age target. With more sexual overtones, Amazing Spider-Man seemed to raise their target to ages 12-24. At the time, from reading other Spider-Man titles, I had envisioned Spider-Man as a more wholesome superhero, so the very concept of him in adult situations bothered me. Now, after more than a decade of a more adult Spider-Man, this issue still bothers me, not because of the concept but because the heavy-handed way it was applied.
The most obvious example of this sexual content is McFarlane’s drawings of Mary Jane. While previously Mary Jane had been drawn as a cute girl-next-door-type, McFarlane used almost graphic detail to turn her into a Playboy bunny, and frequently drew her in skimpy outfits like nighties or hotpants. While this surely appeals to moaning adolescents and dirty fanboys, it distorted Mary Jane’s very history. Similarly, Michenlinie alluded to Peter and Mary Jane bumping uglies numerous times and used crude one-liners like the doorman in “The Sable Gauntlet” watching Peter and the voluptuous Mary Jane leave their apartment and thinking, “Nice couple. Nice legs, too.” This writing interrupts the flow of the story, as if Michelinie had been in the locker room with his boys promising them he’d wedge their jokes into his comic book.
Altogether, this collection earns 3.5/5 Slushies. Were it not for one story and extenuating circumstances, this collection would be mediocre. But “Venom” makes this worth the $19.95 cover price. And, additionally, this collection gives the reader the opportunity to view the trendsetting artwork of the man who came closest to killing Spider-Man.