As the flagship title of IDW’s Marvel Action line, Spider-Man has done a solid job of establishing its world. The first three issues, introduced the premise of the series, gradually teamed up all three of its Spider-Mans; and established a logical threat to them, but it seems that doing all that at once (rightfully) tuckered Delilah S. Dawson out and, in keeping with the general trend of the Marvel Action books, IDW’s brought on a secondary creative team for the second arc.
With all the bookkeeping out of the way, issue #4 of Marvel Action: Spider-Man fulfills the series’ promise of an accessible Spidey comic just for young readers. This is what classic Spider-Man is all about and, best of all, it isn’t just a rehash of well worn ideas!
Spider-Man is a natural for an all-ages title. Peter Parker himself, is just the right age to pitch a series at teens and tweens and his role in the Marvel Universe is to, at all ages honestly, suffer the drama and unfairness of life that children feel almost constantly. He’s a relatable hero, first and foremost – a superhero you’d want to be, but he’s also a flawed one. Spider-Man rejects the sqaure-jawed adult telling you how to live, he gives readers the example of his heroism and his failures to learn from and he does so without lecturing. These traits are on fine display this month, with a story that has a pretty overt message but is much more palatable than the moralizing fables I remember from much of my childhood media.
Peter Parker is not the only Spider-Person in New York anymore. He may be the first, but he’s not the one with the most powers or the most together image any longer. But he is the one who built a web shooter. That makes him special, right? Such questions have to wait, as those webshooters and the Parker sense of responsibility make Peter late to a school assembly with J. Jonah Jameson.
Erik Burnham positively nails this depiction of Jameson. Jonah started as a simplistic mundane villain that Spider-Man had to put up with under Stan Lee’s pen, but has since become a complex and contradictory personality. Burnham does an impressive job of collapsing the core of JJJ into a single line: “The best way to protect yourself is to get a subscription to the Daily Bugle. The second best is to learn to look at the world like a reporter would. Verify your facts.” At once readers get both sides of J. Jonah Jameson: a man whose first priority is always his ego, the authoritarian hypocrite of Lee’s Spider-Man, but whose second is truth, egalitarianism, and responsibility, despite his many flaws. It’s an incredibly elegant depiction of Jameson and the issue bears out both views of the man, showing us both an arrogant media mogul whose biases are often more important to him than verifying his facts and a dedicated newsman whose conduct on the ground lives up to his lofty ideals and even manages to teach Spider-Man a little something.
It’s equally natural to play Jameson off of a personality almost as big as his own: in this case The Looter. I applaud Burnham and IDW for really digging into the C-List of Spider-Foes for this one. A classic Lee and Ditko creation that’s nice to see utilized, the Looter is, nevertheless, completely without brand recognition to most comic fans, especially younger ones. Not only is it nice to see a reboot for a new audience calling upon lesser known parts of the brand, but it allows Burnham to staple a classic Jameson revenge angle onto the villain without question and dial his quirks up to eleven.
As for our hero, well, this issue has some solid Spidey writing in it, though he mostly keeps him in a reactive role. Burnham continues the series’ trend of giving Spidey intentionally poor jokes alongside a couple of winners, a choice that feels accurate but wasteful to me. Acknowledging how Peter’s self-esteem is tied up in being Spider-Man and inventing things is a brilliant stoke that helps avoid a preachy tone, but it does mean that we pretty much only see Peter this issue. Some readers, and especially fans of Into The Spider-Verse, may be disappointed to see a series that sold itself on the excitement of seeing three Spider-People from the same reality teaming up demoting the two who haven’t traditionally seen the spotlight pushed to the sidelines, even if it is only for one issue.
There’s a little too much lampshade hanging in place of elegant writing and, despite frequent mentions of the crowd, there’s basically a fourth wall between the stage and auditorium as long as the Looter is on screen. Despite this, the strong ideas that the issue explores and some truly excellent pacing make this a more than successful issue. Indeed, while the issue is dominated by its longest scene, the assembly and ensuing fight with the Looter, Burnham crams the core of the story into eight pages. This provides the sense of fulfillment that the issue needs and allows space to explore some charming bookends and give the next story a full five pages of lead in without feeling rushed!
It’s a very minute point, but I couldn’t help but draw attention to one tiny line in this book. As Spidey webs him up, our generic robber complains that he’s “just trying to make a buck.” It’s so brief and amounts to nothing, but it gives this character just a modicum of personality and acknowledges the financial realities of crime without in any way excusing them. It’s a small touch but it makes Spider-Man feel like a friendly neighborhood superhero and shows that Burnham is finding something to do with the dreary necessities of the superhero formula.
In yet another strong move for the series, IDW brought Christopher Jones on for this arc alongside Burnham. Jones is probably best known for his work on Young Jutice these days, but he’s been around for a long time and has become one of the most reliable artists in the industry for superhero TV tie-ins. That history brings with it a confident experience, a knowledge of how to draw superheroes for young audiences, and a look that is both malleable and forceful enough to translate the bold variety of TV ready styles he has been called upon to adapt to the page. The result is an immediately resonant look that recalls Jones’ work on Young Justice, with its deep inks and craggy lines, but loosens up just a bit to suit the acrobatic feel of Spidey.
The only real negative of this look is simply that both all ages and tie-in comics have a (often undeserved) poor reputation and this similar art style doesn’t do much to differentiate this book or the Marvel Action line from previous attempts or preconceptions to market superheroes to a wider age range, whether that be to judgey parents or hypersensitive tweens who don’t want to be talked down to with what they perceive as a watered down product. Still, that can hardly be said to be Jones’ fault and it doesn’t affect the quality of the art, only one possible contextualization of it.
One thing that is interesting about Jones’ work on this issue is how much the best panels aren’t necessarily the ones you expect. There are very few panels that one would even describe as weak, but there are a handful of eye-catching panels, big action shots and dialogue heavy moments, that on the more workmanlike side of Jones’ range, while small moments, easily passed by the in the excitement of reading have a remarkable life and storytelling about them. This is at once a criticism and a sincere compliment. Jones’ choice of moments to focus on is sometimes odd, but it shows his fundamental understanding of Spider-Man and his physicality.
One criticism I will make largely unqualified is that there can be a floatiness about some of the compositions. Many a panel plays home to an empty background, filled in with gradient color. Sometimes this works, likely intentional choices to do away with unnecessary clutter or time at the drawing board, but just as often it feels empty. And both in panels where this is the case and isn’t, the simplistic blocking of characters can feel flat.
There’s not a lot to say about colorist Zac Atkinson. Barring a couple of panels that feel a little primary and basically lit, the whole issue looks just like it ought to. The colors pop in the clear and classic hues that Atkinson intended and the lighting adds to Jones’ conservative linework without overbusying it. I especially enjoy the shade of pink that Atkinson uses for Gwen and the powerful sky that he brings to the final scene of the issue.
Though Marvel Action: Spider-Man feels as though its taking a detour from its regular creative team and plot this month, this is definitely the tone and [level of ]quality that the series should aspire to make standard. Incredible pacing, strong takes on classic characters, a couple of winning quips, and a message that is core modern Spider-Man without ever becoming overbearing make this a winning solo issue that should also serve to draw readers back for more. Add in some art that’s oozing with personality from some staples of the genre and you’ve got very little in reasons to complain. It does feel a little early in the series’ lifespan to tell this story, or really any story that ignores Miles and Gwen, but this is a worthy one-and-done Spider-Man story in any series or era. The first hit of the Marvel Action line.
Marvel Action: Spider-Man #4 is currently available in comic shops from IDW Publishing.