Two issues into the Amazing Spider-Man “Learning to Crawl” miniseries and some of the fears that I first talked about last month are starting to materialize. It’s not that “Learning to Crawl” isn’t a likeable enough comic book story. Ramon Perez’s Steve Ditko-inspired artwork is absolutely beautiful and Dan Slott’s script continues to ooze reverence and respect for the early days of Spider-Man. But after reading the mini’s second installment, Amazing Spider-Man #1.2, I’m still at a loss in figuring out what this series is hoping to accomplish and why it’s being published at this point in time.
Mainly, who is this series being written for? With its vast amount of minutiae which weaves around the established narrative of Amazing Fantasy #15 and ASM #1-2, one would think Slott is writing for the hardcore fans who eat, sleep and breathe Spider-Man. But considering this series is being released at a time where Marvel has rebooted its flagship Spider-Man series (which also happens to coincide with a new movie being in theaters), perhaps the real audience is the casual fans who want to find out more about that “Spider-Man guy.”
Regardless, I don’t think “Learning to Crawl” has defined itself as being totally appropriate for either audience yet. Speaking from the hardcore fan perspective, I don’t think the series has enhanced my appreciation as to how Peter Parker evolved from a money grubbing teenager into someone who fully embraced the mantra “with great power there must also come great responsibility.” This transformation is for the most part implied and concisely illustrated via the original 38 Stan Lee/Ditko issues of ASM, which is considered one of the greatest runs in comic book history for a reason.
At this point, anything Slott is adding to Spidey’s origin story just feels like cute little embellishments. It’s a complete 180 from what I usually criticize Slott for. Typically, I find his ideas get so big and out of control, that finer plot points and characterizations get lost in the shuffle. In “Learning to Crawl,” the storyline is so detailed-oriented, all the way down to who Peter ate lunch with at Midtown High School. For the most part, these little tidbits like, what did the principal think of Peter’s “shiner” after his first encounter with the Fantastic Four, are fun, but they are also empty calories. I really enjoyed that sleeve of Oreos I just ate as well, but I don’t think I really needed to buy a bag of them when I already have a dozen apples and a bag of baby carrots in the fridge.
In terms of catering to casual readers, “Learning to Crawl” is layered with so many references to those first three appearances of Spider-Man, I can’t imagine people who haven’t read those stories and committed them to memory are catching all of them. I found it a bit humorous that after making rapid fire references to events like Spidey breaking into the Baxter Building, or saving J. Jonah Jameson’s son from the Chameleon, the only item that gets a note of reference from editor Nick Lowe was the panel where Spider-Man demands to be paid in cash, not check (from ASM #1).
I understand why Marvel wouldn’t want one of its comics to be cluttered with editor’s notes, but this is one of those things that really has to be all or nothing for Lowe and Slott; either you assume your audience knows nothing about those first three issues and you give them as much historic help as possible, or you throw them in the deep end of the pool without a life raft and tell them to sink or swim.
Of course, “Learning to Crawl” isn’t all just historical Spider-Man references, as Slott does use the story to introduce some completely new characters – the most significant of those is the uber-Spider-Man fan Clayton Cole, who uses his own scientific knowhow to fashion himself as “Clash.”
The rub here is I think the Clash segments in ASM #1.2 are some of the weakest parts of the story. Once Slott is outside of the Amazing Fantasy #15/ASM #1-2 sandbox of continuity, that’s where some of his old bad habits come home to roost. Clayton is just a mishmash of characterization and none of it feels exact or concise. He admires Spider-Man, but he wants to fight him to advance his own career as a costumed entertainer. He has moments where he seems like a sweet kid with a good family around him, and other moments where he’s like a more (thankfully) toned down version of what is arguably Slott’s worst creation in Alpha. We get a fun little scene of Clayton bemoaning his luck a la Peter in the early days, but outside of the obvious parallels, I’m not sure exactly what the point of the sequence is supposed to be? Is Clayton a spoiled brat or just a dumb kid? Am I rooting for him to meet Spidey and start a bromance, or should I be distrustful and cynical?
I only ask these questions because when the first Spidey/Clash confrontation ends with Spider-Man webbing him up and taking off with his money, we get a definitive “character turn” from Clayton that will assumedly go on to fuel future conflict in this miniseries. The problem is, because his characterization was treated so haphazardly earlier in the story, I’m not sure if I totally buy into Clayton’s “heel turn.” Slott just has to be more consistent in how he writes Clayton’s personality over the next three issues.
I wager that the direction of this series will become more readily apparent over the next issue or two (one would hope at least), but for the time being, I’m absolutely looking more forward to reading Slott’s work on the “modern” version of Spider-Man/Peter Parker. Those first two issues were filled with so much bounce and vibrancy that they are just that much more fun to read. On the contrary, “Learning to Crawl” is almost too tentative and cautious. Slott can’t cut loose without completely altering history (which would make a lot of people howl in anger), nor should he want to. But at the same time, this series still lacks a hook that demands my attention.