The next installment for Chasing Amazing’s “One Month” is infinitely more controversial than the silliness that was Marvel Team-Up #1. With Dan Slott’s “Learning to Crawl” miniseries releasing today – which will take a look at some of the untold events in Spider-Man’s life around Amazing Fantasy #15 and Amazing Spider-Man #1 and #2 – I thought the timing would be appropriate to discuss John Byrne’s Spider-Man Chapter One miniseries from 1998-99.
Chapter One which ran in 12 installments plus a random issue #0 sandwiched in the middle for sales-driven reasons, doesn’t deal with the untold elements of Spider-Man early days as much as rewrites and re-imagines them. The series is 100 percent driven from the mind and pen of industry superstar John Byrne, who provides the script and pencils, which, based on that description means that Chapter One should be awesome … if this was the early 1980s.
Not to take some shots at a guy who has been on the receiving end of a bunch of them, but Chapter One really delegitimizes Byrne’s claims as a competent comic book creator in the years that followed his epic runs on such books as Uncanny X-Men and Fantastic Four. Byrne even has a classic re-imagining of an iconic superhero origin story under his belt with the work he did on Superman in the late 1980s. But Chapter One falls so flatly on its face, it’s almost a pointless endeavor for me to talk about this series again so many years after the fact. At the time it was published, Byrne’s retconning was declared the new “canon” for Spider-Man, but that designation was quickly and rightly swept under the rug when the powers that be at Marvel realized that it was asinine to change the events of Amazing Fantasy #15 – at least in the way Byrne went about changing it.
Before I delve any further into this, let me clarify by saying I’m honestly not some militant fanboy who is reluctant to see the stories I know and accept as gospel to be changed. The medium is filled with examples of origin retellings that are far superior to the original. Frank Miller’s Man Without Fear miniseries masterfully incorporates a lot of his own mythology and creations (like Stick, the Hand and Elektra) into Daredevil’s early days and the net result is one of the greatest comic book stories ever written. In the Captain America Man Without a Time miniseries, Mark Waid establishes the modern status quo for Steve Rogers in a way that has functioned as an inspiration for the current Marvel Cinematic Universe incarnation of the character.
But Chapter One is no Man Without Fear, nor is it even on the level of a Man Out of Time. It’s just there. It epitomizes everything that was so outrageously tunnel-visioned about the state of Marvel Comics in the late 1990s. Keep in mind that at this point in comic book history, Marvel was still fighting for its financial life after getting critically burned by the excesses and over-indulgences of the early 90s “boom.” The company was grasping at every straw it could find, and while it was able to eventually pull out of its death spiral, the vast majority of the content the company produced during this period – especially in the Spider-verse – is not fondly remembered. And while I can look back at segments of other reviled storylines like “The Clone Saga” and mine some gold, it’s hard for me to justify the value or worth of Chapter One or its companion, the Howard Mackie/Byrne reboot of Amazing Spider-Man (which you can read about over at Gimmick or Good).
Before I completely come across as some crazy fanboy who just wants to be angry on his blog, let me throw out a couple of things that are so troublesome about this story. For one, the “re-imagining” of Spidey’s origin just smacks for change for the sake of change. There’s actually not a whole lot of difference between Amazing Fantasy #15 and the first dozen or so issues of Amazing Spider-Man and Chapter One, but what does get altered is significant enough that it allows Byrne to put his stamp on things. And I can’t say I’m honestly a fan of any of these tweaks because they’re so passively inserted into the story, there’s nothing for me to latch on.
Such changes include the iconic “spider bite” moment, which was changed from “teenager gets bitten by a radioactive spider,” to “teenager is caught in a radioactive explosion, is bitten by a spider and is one of the few survivors of a radioactive explosion.” For icing on the cake, Otto Octavius is present during this explosion, and that’s the moment he acquires his superpowers.
On the surface, linking Peter and Otto more closely is an idea with an enormous amount of potential (as witnessed by Superior Spider-Man), but Byrne never really gives us the rich character connection that such a retcon begs for. The two have their powers forged in the same exact moment, but it’s otherwise business as usual for Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus. This is just one of many instances where Byrne takes half measures with his story; and as a wise man on television once told me, you can’t take half measures – you have to go all the way.
Chapter One is filled with moments like these – let’s have Anna Watson break the news to Peter about Uncle Ben’s death rather than some random cop, or let’s have the Green Goblin be the mastermind behind some of Spidey’s earliest villains – ideas that could actually amount to something if Byrne had chosen to go in a totally wild and unexplored direction with the character (say, what Brian Michael Bendis did in Ultimate Spider-Man just a year or so later). Instead, Byrne just tapdances on the line of playing it safe and being provocative, and what the reader is left with is just something not worth caring about.
There are other moments that are more laughable than terrible. Like how Byrne attempts to modernize Spider-Man’s origin by having high schoolers talking about going to see the Rolling Stones in concert. I’m sure when this was published, the Stones were in the midst of one of their numerous “farewell tours” that are still going strong to this day. And heck, I love the Stones as much as the next guy, and I’m only 32 years-old. But I can guarantee that Dan Slott has the sensibilities to not work in a Rolling Stones reference in “Learning to Crawl.” In fact, judging from the preview in Amazing Spider-Man #1, the biggest issue with Slott’s world is that things might be TOO contemporary.
Beyond these finer plot points and updates, one of the biggest flaws in Chapter One is in its construction and pacing. Granted, I read this story as part of a trade paperback, so I was able to steamroll right through it. But even with that benefit, Chapter One is a maddening book to read. Byrne has this habit of starting the actual story of his comic in the middle of the issue, leaving things off at an awkwardly-timed cliffhanger, and then completing it in the very next issue (halfway through) before kicking off the next storyline. And Byrne does this trick every … single … issue. Without fail. It’s the comic book reading equivalent of being a passenger in a car with a driver who insists on riding the brake. I cannot even begin to fathom why anyone in the Marvel front office was okay with structure a story in this fashion. Is this out of deference to Byrne and his legacy, or was this just because the folks at Marvel didn’t care about how Chapter One was presented (I’ll wager it is a combination of these two factors).
I haven’t even addressed how Byrne’s story completely ignores the critically-loved Untold Tales of Spider-Man material written by Kurt Busiek a few years earlier. Similar to how I imagine “Learning to Crawl” will play out, Busiek’s story fills in the gaps in the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era of Spider-Man, providing readers with new insights about the character. By not even addressing Busiek’s work – which is universally loved by Spider-Man readers – Byrne does little to endear himself to fans, though knowing what we know about Byrne, I’m not sure he would care about that.
So, even with there being some trepidation about how Slott and Marvel might going about fixing Spidey’s origin story – the second spider bite stands to be a very controversial decision – I still feel the state of Spidey affairs is in much better hands than what we got with Byrne in Chapter One. I imagine there are a few people out there who thought fondly of this series, and it sold well enough for Marvel to make it “canon” for a short while, but reading this book in 2014 does put a lot of the hand-wringing we as fans tend to do about the direction of our favorite comics into proper perspective. I know “it could always be worse” is not the ideal way to justify things, but in the case of Chapter One, I think it’s a pertinent moral. If Marvel wants to do something outrageous, at least go all the way with it and show no fear. Otherwise, I’m better off getting my entertainment from a Rolling Stones concert.