There are a lot of reasons to be intrigued by Marvel Action: Spider-Man. The cover(s) proudly proclaims a series starring the classic Spider-Man, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Ghost Spider, seemingly signaling a shift in Marvel’s handling of the multiple Spider-Men of late. For my part, I’ve been shocked and a little disappointed that Marvel didn’t have a monthly all-ages Spider-Man title for years. It’s fantastic to see Spider-Man returned to his roots and given back to the demographic to whom he means the most. And, of course, this is a seismic issue because this is Spider-Man not published by Marvel! So, yeah, there’s plenty of mystery surrounding this title, but what can we expect now that it’s here?
The story begins with Spider-Man, that is Peter Parker, facing off with a mutant rat. Peter is back in high school, sixteen years-old and eager to figure himself and his powers out. He’s confident in himself, perhaps recently settled into his role as Spider-Man, but he’d really like a second opinion, particularly Tony Stark’s, the only superhero he knows how to find. To that end, he’s taken a summer(?) internship at the Daily Bugle, where he meets the shy but exuberant Miles Morales and the fearless and stubborn Gwen Stacy.
Right there, Marvel Action: Spider-Man gives us a lot to unpack. Peter’s our viewpoint and main character for the moment, but Gwen and Miles are introduced almost immediately, with much of the issue focusing on the kindred spirit that Pete and Miles share and Gwen’s rebellious confidence. There’s almost no other supporting cast. Aunt May presumably appears as a voice from offscreen and Joe Robertson and Betty Brant get brief appearances, but there’s no JJJ, no Mary Jane, no Osborns of any kind, and none of the usual Spider-cameos that we normally see early in these reimaginings. The focus is very tight.
Despite this, we also see, right up front, that this is a shared Marvel universe, with a Tony Stark, a Captain America, and a Black Panther.
Perhaps the strangest element of the issue is that there is no villain yet. Spider-Man and friends spend this first outing introducing us to the status quo and fighting off a horde of mutant dogs. It seems reasonable to assume that these genetically unstable mutts are not natural parts of the New York City ecosystem, but no explanation or source is provided as yet. That means that there’s neither a particularly high sense of stakes nor any chemistry between Spidey and his adversaries.
This will likely disappoint some readers who were hoping for a bigger threat; Peter even notes that the mutants are “not [dangerous] to me, of course. But to anyone not bitten by a radioactive spider.” Given the high likelihood that all three of the named characters to share the scene with these creatures fall into that category, there’s not much of a thrill in wondering how they’ll get out of this, but Delilah S. Dawson is obviously not oblivious to this fact.
Dawson uses the low stakes to put the three heroes at the center of the action and builds tension by pitting the readers’ knowledge of the Spiders’ identities against their own cluelessness. It’s a move that will mollify some older fans and likely excite younger ones. This set up also ensures that Spider-Man’s proclivity for bad jokes is on display, ensuring that his teenage forays into dad humor get the reception that only a six-legged bulldog can deliver. I admit that I’d like to see a slightly higher level of quip from Spidey if it’s going to be taking up the book’s page space, but it quickly communicates who Peter and Miles are to hear them spout nerdy memes and one-liners that even they groan at, given a moment’s interrogation.
I also adore the attention paid to Pete’s webshooters. Prominently displayed on the outside of the tweaked costume, the web shooters are given ample opportunity to show off. Even better, Dawson remembers that Peter built his pair, immediately differentiating him from Miles and Gwen. Miles, on the other hand, gets to use his stealth powers and Gwen, while sadly not offered many opportunities to show off, leaves no doubt as to how she differs from the Spider-boys. It’s only a hint at this point, but we’re already seeing lines of similarity and contrast between our leads.
Fico Ossio bucks the tradition of square-jawed middle schoolers and depicts Peter, Gwen, and Miles as actually looking a bit younger than 16, which is actually fantastic given the aspirational readers in the book’s presumed demographic. These are characters that unmistakably look like the contemporaries of the teens and tweens who will hopefully be reading this book. In art and writing, Peter seems to take inspiration from Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man. There’s an earnestness, at times charming and at times insufferably adolescent, to Peter that makes him feel like a real nerd, even in the age of nerds.
That feels real. That communicates cleanly and honestly. But that’s not always the case. The opening page in particular is one of a couple of instances of insincere kid speak. Nothing sticks out to a tween reader more than an adult failing to write to them and, though she’s pretty spot on in specifics, in generalities, Dawson occasionally stumbles.
Though it can be sussed out, there is an annoying lack of clarity on what exactly Spider-Man is fighting. At times the mutants are called dogs, even when they plainly look like rats. Later they’re acknowledged as rats. The news continues to refer to them as dogs, because they’re too big to be rats, but then a mutant dog shows up alongside something that looks like a rat/dog hybrid and Spidey makes dog jokes all throughout the issue, regardless of what anyone else says.
The art is classic Spider-Man, especially circa the late 90s and early 2000s. There’s a dramatic McFarlane perspective about the whole issue and some spindly, spidery stylized proportions about our characters. The effect is attractive and summons up a distinct feeling of Spider-Man without becoming off-putting to the average reader. The art lives up to what it is, effectively melding the particular, cartoony vibe of a young reader series with something a little more ‘mainstream comics’.
The dynamism of the art is set a little high at times, seemingly trying to cram the book full of energy, when the true stand outs are often more mundane: the first true panel of Gwen Stacy or Peter reaching for his costume, for instance.
Ronda Pattison’s colors definitely lean the book even harder in the directions that Ossio is taking it. Slick, light drowned primaries define this Spider-Man and bring us even closer towards the early Ultimate look. The out-of-costume scenes, on the other hand, use fewer lower-contrast, sometimes pasty hues that are rather nice and soothing in their simplicity but immediately communicate the change that occurs when Peter dons his webshooters.
The clever hints of the Ghost Spider colors in Gwen’s civilian appearance are another obvious coloring highlight that make the character pop.
Ever since its announcement, Marvel Action: Spider-Man has been a series rich with potential. With the release of issue #1…it remains so.
The lack of a compelling villains hurts and helps this opening issue, removing a distraction from an issue devoted to its protagonists, but limiting their options for expression and keeping the excitement lower than it needs to be. The Bugle internship and establishment of the Spider-boys’ bad jokes get a little too much page time and Gwen could use a little more. Though it does serve as an introduction to the series and the concept of the Marvel Action line, it’s not a particularly memorable issue in its own right. It does nothing to diminish excitement for the series but doesn’t encourage it either.
Nevertheless, this is a fun and true-to-core reintroduction to Peter Parker with some decent set up for Gwen and Miles to enter the series as heroes in their own right. The art is stylish, pleasantly distinctive in civilian scenes but gaining a shot of Spider-Man energy as soon as the mask comes out. It’s a sturdy, weird little issue that feels like a plot from a forgotten Web of Spider-Man issue translated through Ultimate Spider-Man’s tone. It remains a tremendously exciting prospect, but I expect that this issue won’t knock it off many pull lists or cement it there. The slow drip of insight into this new line of books is fascinating but, if you’re on the fence, the next issue might offer you more to work with.
Marvel Action: Spider-Man is currently available in comic shops from IDW Publishing.