Comix Zone — Todd McFarlane’s (Adjectiveless) Spider-Man

I grew up with an affinity for Todd McFarlane’s artwork ever since I saw it for the first time in a trade paperback collection of Spider-Man stories that my little brother owned in the 90’s. I remember two distinct things the most: how McFarlane innovated the ways in which artists drew Spider-Man by contorting his body in humanly possible ways while web-slinging with enough webbing to make one wonder how he does not end up tangled in his own stuff; secondly, I recall the Black Cat vs Venom fight that:

This scene is what made me a fan of (80’s and) 90’s edgy Venom. I can hear, feel the rage in “YYYYYAAAGGGG WOMAN!” Neither her acrobatics nor her needlessly exaggerated and exposed secondary sex characteristics can preserve her from a brutal assault, because Venom’s ruthlessness spares no one.

As I approach middle age, I am less fond of Venom. The fact that he was invented to serve as a foil for Spider-Man underscores his shallowness as a character. Now that he is an “anti-hero,” well, there are many other characters who serve in that role better than a Spider-Man facsimile. Venom is best as a villain.

McFarlane recently told a story about how Venom came to fruition on his Instagram:

At any rate, I was a the library one day and I saw that it had procured a Spider-Man by Todd McFarlane omnibus. It is a miniature for sure, at only 404 pages. This is because when Marvel granted Todd McFarlane his own series to write rather than merely illustrate Spider-Man, his run lasted for only fourteen issues in the original “adjectiveless” Spider-Man series. McFarlane’s breakup with Marvel is the one of comic book industry’s most-known stories, so seeing this hardcover took me by surprise as the nostalgia came over me.

McFarlane’s “adjectiveless” Spider-Man is underwhelming and disappointing, though I stand by what I said in terms of his craft as an illustrator. He maintains a certain “dirty grit” to his line work that I appreciate even more now comic art is more “clean” because of digital tools. He would carry over that distinguished style over to Spawn, yet here within Spider-Man, I would argue that one can find the prototype for Clown, Violator’s alter-ego (note that Violator, like Venom, is also one of my favorite edgy 90’s comic book characters).

I could go on about McFarlane’s art, but that’s why he is famous. The promise of excellent art combined with his own writing is why Spider-Man sold successfully. However, in terms of legacy, the writing is…what one might expect from someone who is immensely talented in one field, but not another as he shoots for florid.

McFarlane’s first story, “Torment,” is his attempt at horror not dissimilar to what Alan Moore accomplishes with success with Swamp Thing. After all, he deploys the Lizard as Spider-Man’s main combatant, who is, for all intents and purposes a monstrous creature that one would expect to find in a swamp (sorry, no Dr. Connors here, only the savage Lizard). But Spider-Man thirves on the rooftops of Queens; the combination of two previously dispatched foes—the ghost of Kraven the Hunter, gunshot wound to the skull intact, and the Lizard—is supposed to enhance the tension. But the dialogue, the setup, the improbability—as a lucid Spider-Man would have suspected Mysterio in the least and Mephisto at worst—fails to deliver.

The ultimate blow for “Torment,” is the big reveal of the actual big bad, Calypso Ezili. She has hypnotized the Lizard, and has poisoned Spider-Man to cause his hallucinations of Kraven the Hunter, her belated lover. Ok, sure. At the time I suppose the more interesting Spider-Man villains were indisposed in other books, so McFarlane resurfaces a character that everyone had forgotten. Additionally, I am looking hard at how he draws this character, and I wonder…is she…black??? Because besides Storm (and arguably Shard), dark-skinned black women in comics were simply not allowed in the 90’s. Yet that giant web of hair, full lips, and of course Voodoo magic means that yes, she is indeed black.

Kinda racist, in retrospect. I know in the 90’s, American Evangelism was still seen as an innocuous thing, if not the status quo. Then, Voodoo was closely associated with demoinc worship primarily because it is “pagan,” or not Christian. And un-Christian things had to be demonized. Of course, Voodoo, being a primarily Caribbean thing, is doubly “dubious,” because it is of a non-white orientation. McFarlane probably is not an “active” participant in this racist depiction of a Haitian religion. I would attribute this to 90’s Western ignorance.

“Masques” is as daft as “Torment” and increasingly incoherent, utilizing two self-righteous characters rather than one “unholy” one. Hobgoblin wields powers that seem unbefitting of the character, making me wonder if McFarlane had mistaken the character with Demogoblin. After all, Hobgoblin is full of lines about righteousness and whatnot, and has abducted a child to be his blessed protégé. Of course, Spider-Man intervenes, and ends up in a fight with Ghost Rider who completely ignores his pleas.

“Sub-City” is a tacked story about Morbius. He subjugates some homeless and forlorn folks who abduct additional homeless and forgotten ilk so that he may feed. Remember what I said about Venom the anti-hero lacking depth? Morbius as a “good guy who does bad things” is similarly uninteresting.

After throwing at his readers cameo appearances from the B-tier of Spider-Man’s rogues gallery, “Perceptions” is an exceedingly boring story about an alleged Wendingo involved with child murders in British Columbia. In other words, this is Wolverine’s home territory, and he, too is on the trail, outshining Spider-Man with his investigative skills in Spider-Man’s own comic book!? Yes, that is how McFarlane treats his titular character by sidelining him.

I am not even going to discuss the X-Force “Sabotage” crossover with Rob Liefeld. That’s just bros taking care of bros.

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