Big Box of Comics: Amazing Spider-Man #301

ASM 301 coverWhen I first started to get more emotionally invested into comic books, I often defined the authorship of the issue by the artist. For Amazing Spider-Man, there was the Todd McFarlane era followed by the Erik Larsen era and then the Mark Bagley era before giving way to a period where I stopped reading altogether. Of course the writer of the vast majority of these issues was David Michelinie. But don’t expect my teenaged-self to make that connection.

What’s funnier now is as an adult and a professional writer  myself (that’s right boys and girls. I actually have a day job where someone pays me to jot things down on a virtual piece of paper), I almost universally identify with the writer of a comic book. ASM is of course, Dan Slott territory, much to the chagrin of certain elements of the Spider-Man fan base. I recently purchased my first Hulk comic in years because Mark Waid, I writer I really respect and adore, is working on the title now.  I was initially hesitant to jump on the Hawkeye bandwagon because I was so disappointed by Matt Fraction’s work on Fear Itself (though I’m glad I reconsidered, bro). It’s not that there aren’t some talented artists working on the comics I’m reading, it’s just that I find the illustrations at this point to almost be secondary to the text – unless of course the artwork is ridiculously bad.

And yet, despite the shift in my perspective and the fact that I identify almost every other era of ASM by the writer (Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Roger Stern, JMS, etc.), when I flip through the late 80s/early 90s issues, I still think of it as the McFarlane-run, not the McFarlane/Michelinie run. And for some reason, I’ve come to believe that Amazing Spider-Man #301 has a lot to do with my mindset.

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For starters, I’ve always been struck by the fact that the cover to ASM #301 is a direct homage to the series’ preceding issue, #300. While it’s a fun bit of continuity to have Spider-Man in the same pose on the front from one issue to the next, albeit with a change in costume color, I’ve always interpreted that editorial decision as a way for Marvel to put McFarlane on some kind of pedestal. In other words, ASM #300’s visuals were so successful critically and commercial, let’s just repackage it and do it all over again for ASM #301. People will eat it up with a spoon – and they did.

Inside the comic, there is nothing that truly distinguishes the content beyond McFarlane’s artwork. There’s a more “yuppie-fied” Peter Parker trying to earn extra coin to help support his new married life, a dryly told espionage tale starring one of my least favorite Spidey supporting cast members Silver Sable (yet another reason when last spring’s “Ends of the Earth” fell so flat for me), and no confrontations with actual classic supervillains to speak of. But the artwork is so definitively McFarlane, that it doesn’t really matter that the issue is a bit of a chore to read all these years later. There are always Todd’s pretty pictures of densely spun webbing, beautiful Spidey web slinging poses, and a supermodel-esque Mary Jane to keep you occupied beyond the umpteenth mention of Sable’s hometown of Symkaria.

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Is this to say I think Michelinie is overrated as a writer? Well, he’s responsible for one of the most well-known Iron Man stories of all-time, so that would be stupid for me to think, and he’s responsible for my all-time favorite issue of Amazing Spider-Man. And yet all the same, there was just something so innocuous about his work on ASM that he was always able to seemingly blend into the background and  yield creative ground to artists who would go on to become (arguably) bigger and brighter stars in the industry. Obviously the comic book landscape would look a lot different without the defections of McFarlane, Larsen and X-Force’s Rob Liefeld to the upstart Image Comics in the mid-90s, yet all got their start illustrating far more popular Marvel properties scribed by respected folks in their own right.

So even though he first joined the title for ASM #298, ASM #301 will always mark the official “start” of the McFarlane-run, which also includes a really cool Lizard cover, a super cool Goblin vs Goblin battle, that Assassins Nation Plot, which I always thought was too weighed down in jargon (and Silver Sable again), and nothing else of much consequence from a historic perspective beyond the always awesome early Venom stories.

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On that final note, for reasons that I can not hope to intelligently verbalize or explain, I have always given Michelinie appropriate credit in his role in creating Venom in ASM #299-#300 (despite claims of the contrary), but anything else extraordinary about the character was always due to McFarlane’s influence visually. Why this one artist has made me betray colleagues in my own profession this way remains one of Chasing Amazing’s great mysteries.

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