Welcome to Spider-Man Roulette! Shelfdust’s Patreon backers were asked to pick a number at random – and now I’m going to write about whichever corresponding issue of “Amazing Spider-Man” they chose! This issue was picked by Patreon backer Sara Century, who chose number 323 for the roulette!
By Steve Morris
Amazing Spider-Man #323 heads off to Paris for a story about foreign politics, diplomacy, and the threat of international warfare.
Erm, yeah – it’s a very strange fit for Amazing Spider-Man, but it almost works, in part because the creative team have the good sense to bring in Captain America for a guest star role, so he can take on the brunt of the diplomacy whilst Spider-Man stands just off-centre, wondering why he’s in this story at all. The whole thing is a curious attempt to create a political thriller out of a Spider-Man comic, especially as this is set in another country where Spider-Man is largely seen as a spectacle, and a silly reminder of all those American superheroes who swan all over the place.
The issue sees him working alongside Silver Sable’s team – itself a strange choice, because I’m sure she’s basically a mercenary who later on in this issue tortures someone off-panel with a knife. The leader of Symkaria – Sable’s home nation – has been assassinated, and now it seems like the situation is being manipulated to try and set off an international incident between Symkaria and America. The issue, written by David Michelinie, makes some attempts to indicate that this is real fish-out-of-water territory for the wall-crawler, but it really doesn’t make enough, because this is a deeply strange position to put the street-level character into. It sort of works, but you have to really stretch for it.
Before I head off into yelling “Todd! Todd! Todd” for an extended paragraph in about three minutes’ time from now, let’s look firstly at the politics of this whole thing, which is the part of the issue which put me off. This feels like the second scene in any given Bond film, for the most part – you know the part after the first action scene, where Bond returns to the bureau and has to glad-hand members of the Government and foreign diplomats whilst his next mission is being put together? That’s what we’re up to here, in the fourth part of this six-parter. Spider-Man walks around incongruously in his vivid outfit, making no effort to blend in (at one point he sits on top of a priceless porcelain statue and then gets huffy when he’s not invited into meetings with all the grownups.
A kid from Queens with a low-paying job and side-gig as a superhero is probably not the best person to be brought along to discuss international operations with actual politicians and dignitaries, which is basically just what the various politicians and dignitaries in the issue all say to him at various points. Captain America is a much better fit for this sort of story, because he can operate on a symbolic level which helps readers look beyond the as-written narratives he tends to get sent through. Spider-Man, on the other hand, feels out of place from the start – no amount of one-liners can catch up to the fact that Spider-Man doesn’t have that same kind of international credibility as other super-heroes, and that his appearance is in spite of the storyline, and not because of it. You could swap him out for any other random unsuitable character – Nova, Iceman, Johnny Storm or whoever – and this wouldn’t change in any major way.
It comes from the obvious America-centric focus of Marvel Comics as a whole, and their stuffed version of New York City. Marvel have struggled to ever give a proper international scale to their events, because everything starts off in the recognisable American streets which the home audience know best. Because Marvel’s comics don’t take place in, say Spain, or Malaysia, or New Zealand – y’know, anywhere outside of America itself – there’s a disconnect between various countries which gives the impression of reducing the heroes themselves The Avengers and X-Men rarely feel like they exist outside of perhaps three or four worldwide locations, and so their power is reduced to the areas they do cover. For the New York-based heroes like the Daredevil of Hell’s Kitchen or the Heroes for Hire in Harlem, they have a beat of a few blocks each – so what are they going to do with a whole other country? They work on a small scale, not a large scale, and besides… Spider-Man’s webshooters aren’t going to work across large portions of Paris anyway. Skyscrapers aren’t universal.
It all leads to the feeling of a small child being led out onto the international stage and told to go save the world. But Spider-Man can’t keep one city quiet when he has the help of the Defenders, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Avengers (amongst many others) all next to him. He’s just not the smart choice for a political thriller.
Right, that being said: Todd time.
You can see why Todd McFarlane ended up making a bunch of money from toy lines, because every superhero and villain here feels like they should come packaged up in plastic, with little wires holding their arms back into the box. Even the mercs feel toyetic, wearing snappy white jackets with black lycra underneath, set off with white ski masks and, of course, berets. We are in France after all, mes amis. This is probably most shown off with the first page arrival of the teleporting assassin Solo, who is shown taking on a group of the mercs in his sharpest green outfit. He’s an early signifier for what the 90s readership can expect for the next decade or so, wearing a bandolier that has several grenades clumsily strapped on – in fact, I’m pretty sure I had an Action Man figure which directly ripped off the look.
I know Solo isn’t a particularly original or loved character: but if I was reading this as a kid, I would absolutely want to have an action figure of him. The same goes for Silver Sable, who looks like Olivia Newton John’s more overtly authoritarian sister, including the shockingly ornate gloves. His Captain America and Spider-Men are study figures with multiple points of articulation – you can see a toymaker looking at this issue and going “Great! We don’t have to add anything!”
But he’s also a great superhero storyteller here, creating energetic sequences which feel stylised and cool without sacrificing story. Many of the “Image Comics” lot at the time could do one or the other, but McFarlane shows how adept he is at maintaining a contemporary feel to his characters whilst still servicing the script and the story and keeping readers engaged for the whole length of time. He’s the one who covers over the strange genre choices being made here, and the reason why Spider-Man is now hanging out with murderers and torturers. Captain America is a politicised symbol as well as a character so you can see why he’d make uneasy alliances with Solo or Silver Sable: America itself is hardly a heroic country, after all.
There’s a reason they never made a comic called “The Patriotic Spider-Man”, though. Just by being in this story and by being associated with this particular group of characters, Spider-Man’s character is worryingly compromised, and it’s a good thing the series quickly reverted away from this experiment.
Amazing Spider-Man #323: Assault Rivals!
Written by David Michelinie
Drawn by Todd McFarlane
Coloured by Bob Sharen
Lettered by Rick Parker
Steve Morris runs this site! Having previously written for sites including The Beat, ComicsAlliance, CBR and The MNT, he can be found on Twitter here. He’s a bunny.
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