I’ve been reading comics for a good two-thirds of my life now, and it often strikes me how many great runs by various writers or artists are forgotten. We all know the classics: Lee/Kirby’s Fantastic Four. Lee/Ditko’s Spider-Man. O’Neil/Adams’ Batman and Green Arrow/Green Lantern. Claremont/Byrne’s X-Men. Walt Simonson’s Thor. And on and on; the list is as long as your arm.
But for any and all of those classic and oftentimes definitive runs on various characters, there are dozens of great, fun runs by writers that are utterly glossed over at best, or completely forgotten at worst. And that’s a real shame, because most readers don’t have a firm understanding of the true history of the characters they love beyond their own lifetimes. I myself am guilty of this, having only recently discovered the Bronze Age works of Gerry Conway, including Amazing Spider-Man and a brief stint on Avengers. True, these older writers’ styles and narrative sensibilities might seem dated in today’s terms, but that’s no reason to brush them aside as though they never happened! Is it somewhat obnoxious to have to trod through several pages’ worth of recap from a character’s thought bubbles when he or she is in the middle of a life-and-death firefight? Yes! But it was the standard of the time, because nobody had THOUGHT OF recap pages yet! Gotta start somewhere.
To that end, I’ve decided to revisit and appreciate certain writers’ and artists’ runs on various titles where I see fit, if for no other reason than to tip my hat to the men and women who created their bodies of enduring, if overlooked work. Some of them are within my own lifetime, and others not. It really doesn’t matter, because good work is good work regardless of when it was produced.
So today, I’m going to look at writer David Michelinie’s tenure on Amazing Spider-Man, issues 296-352 and 359-388. He had written some sporadic issues prior to taking over the book full-time, most notably 290-292, in which Peter Parker proposes to Mary Jane, and the subsequent annual in which they were wed (#21, 1987). He also had brief run on Web of Spider-Man in the mid-’80s, most notably writing the sequence in which an unseen assailant–later revealed to be Eddie Brock, A.K.A. Venom–shoved Peter in front of an oncoming subway train without setting his spider-sense off. After Michelinie was removed from that book, it would be three more years before he could revisit that subplot in Amazing, when just a handful of issues into his run on that book, he introduced Venom.
Up until that point, Michelinie was primarily known as the man who turned Tony Stark into an alcoholic, during artist Bob Layton’s and his epic “Demon in a Bottle” saga in Iron Man. His second tenure on that book featured the seminal “Armor Wars” story, and introduced perennial foe Justin Hammer. But in my mind, he topped all of that with his Spider-Man work.
Up until that point, it had been a few years since Amazing had lived up to its name. Writer Roger Stern’s tenure had been cut short as of issue 252, leaving the book–including the ongoing soap opera revolving around his creation Hobgoblin’s identity–in the less-than-capable hands of editor-turned-writer Tom DeFalco, whose style is largely known for contrived plots, atrociously stiff and expository dialogue, and eye-rollingly unmemorable villains such as the Rose and the Black Fox. There was a need for someone to come in and clean things up, to bring back a sense of fun to Spidey’s flagship book. David Michelinie was Marvel’s man for the job.
Fortunately, his arrival coincided with artist Todd McFarlane’s, whose own career (and ego) were about to shoot into the stratosphere thanks to his work on Spidey. McFarlane had been around the industry for a few years, and had recently wrapped an extremely well-received run with writer Peter David on The Incredible Hulk. (For my money, NO ONE ever nailed the cocky, emotionally defensive swagger of the grey Hulk like McFarlane.) It also didn’t hurt that, as stated above, his first few issues introduced Venom, the definitive Spider-Man villain for the ’90s, and is one of only two Spider-Man villains to debut in the last three decades to have any sort of meaningful staying power. (I’ll get to the other one in a bit.)
As a grinning, psychopathic “anti-Spider-Man,” Venom proved to be an instant hit with fans, a shot in the arm to the then-tired Spider-mythos. With McFarlane along for the ride, Michelinie couldn’t miss. Which was a good thing, as one other little thing had recently occurred that had some fans’ hackles raised–Spidey was a MARRIED MAN! With his marriage to Mary Jane still a new and unexplored plot point, Michelinie got to be the point man on defining their married relationship. Anyone who’s married knows that that relationship is a vastly different one than the unwed relationship–but no writers up to that point had had much of an opportunity to explore how it affected Peter and Mary Jane both as individuals and as a couple. Sure, Gerry Conway was writing both Web and Spectacular Spider-Man at the time, but for as much fun as those books were, they weren’t much focused much on the domestic side of Spidey’s life. Conway would be succeeded on Spectacular by uber-drama queen J.M. DeMatteis, who, though talented, wasn’t the man to focus on anything other than psychological torment; and over on Web, he was succeeded by an endless litany of no-name hack writers whose contributions to the overall Spider-Man mythos amounts to the silver-and-black Spider-armor, known mostly as a variant costume in any number of Spider-Man video games. With that in mind, the task of defining the Peter and Mary Jane marriage fell to Michelinie, and in that I feel is where his legacy should truly be secured.
Again, aided and abetted by Todd McFarlane, Mary Jane went from being a rather drab, nebulously-defined party girl to a glamorous, gregarious model who wasn’t just Peter’s colorless wife–she was his friend, his support, and sometimes his critic. She was everything Gwen Stacy hadn’t been, and everything Black Cat should have been (if she hadn’t been a loon). Frankly, Peter, still scrambling to make a living selling pictures to an indifferent Daily Bugle and perpetually worrying about his never-NOT-frail Aunt May, was lucky to have her. Fans were lucky, too–anything less than an awesome portrayal of married life for Spider-Man would have been a PR disaster for Marvel. Peter and Mary Jane were young, sexy (and constantly making allusions to their sex life, at least as much as the Comics Code would allow), and just finding their way as a cohesively functioning married unit. If the idea of perpetually-down-on-his-luck Peter Parker marrying a supermodel and living in a high-rise luxury condo didn’t feel “right” to you, no worries–it wasn’t long before Michelinie had them evicted and MJ’s career put into jeopardy by the condo owner who was murderously fixated on her. Nothing says “loser” more than having to pack up your wife and move back in with your aunt in Queens, of all places.
Michelinie and McFarlane ran the gamut of classic Spider-Man villains: Sandman, Chameleon, Mysterio, the Lizard, the Green Goblin, Hobgoblin, the Rhino, and the Scorpion all put in appearances in the duo’s twenty-eight issue run. Venom returned for round two, and was (unconvincingly) defeated. Of course, Michelinie can be pegged for his introductions of less-than-stellar villains such as Styx and Stone, and eventually Cardiac, but then again, even Stan Lee invented the Kangaroo. Nobody’s perfect.
Eventually, McFarlane was crowned a comics superstar and awarded his own book, the adjectiveless Spider-Man, to draw and “write” (I use that term VERY loosely when considering McFarlane’s earliest attempts at it), thus ushering in the ’90s and the era of the artist taking precedence over the writer. The Image revolution was but two years away.
But Michelinie had the good fortune to have Erik Larsen waiting in the wings to take over ASM‘s art duties. Larsen had a looser, funkier art style than McFarlane, one that owed much to Jack Kirby and the design sensibilities of Walt Simonson. Which worked out perfectly, as Michelinie had developed his own looser, funkier style of writing, one owing less to clunky boxes of exposition and more to a witty back-and-forth between characters and the narrative boxes. Spider-Man might be lost in thought at the end of one sequence, wondering what happened to a villain who’d gotten away. The next page would transition to a scene revealing that villain’s fate, but instead of a lengthy and ultimately pointless description of the same, or a bland “MEANWHILE, AT SUCH AND SUCH PLACE…” text box, Micheline would simply say, “Nope!” or “Guess what, Spidey? You’re RIGHT!” or some other playful banter that served to move the story forward. This sort of thing isn’t present in Michelinie’s earlier work; it’s a tack he developed specifically for Spider-Man. And it worked perfectly.
Larsen stayed on for about two years before moving on to replace McFarlane on Spider-Man before scooting on to help form Image. But before doing so, he illustrated my personal favorite story from Michelinie’s ASM in issues 349-350, in which, while attempting to stop the Black Fox’s latest act of thievery, Spidey runs afoul of none other than Dr. Doom, who proceeds to kick Spidey’s ass. BAD. Spidey barely escapes with his life, and winds up with a pretty serious concussion but is still determined to intervene in Doom’s plot to kill the Black Fox, despite Mary Jane’s insistence that while she will always support her husband doing the right thing, she couldn’t and wouldn’t support him going out and committing suicide. In the end, Spidey prevails not by means of fisticuffs, but by using his head and appealing to Doom’s common sense (and ego). It’s a beautiful, relatively simple, completely overlooked story that features Spider-Man at his absolute self-sacrificing best, not unlike the classic–and far more often remembered–Spidey vs. Juggernaut yarn.
With Larsen departing, Michelinie had the good fortune of lucking into Mark Bagley for a replacement. Bagley’s style had a raw kineticism to it that was counterbalanced by a near-flawless knack for rendering emotion. His Spider-Man wasn’t overly rippling with muscles like McFarlane’s vision or endlessly, inhumanly contorted like Larsen’s, but rather had the lithe musculature and energy of a gymnast. He came on board just in time for Michelinie to take a well-deserved break for six issues while the completely forgettable “Round Robin: The Sidekick’s Revenge” biweekly tale rolled out, which basically turned ASM into a team-up book for any character who was only popular for about five minutes in 1992 (and the Punisher, who was EVERYWHERE at the time). But when Michelinie returned, after a quick detour for a rather pointless tale featuring Cardiac, the man who looked like a blue-and-white EKG reading, he had a surprise: CARNAGE, the spawn of Venom, and as I alluded to above, the only Spider-foe from the last three decades to have any sort of lasting impact.
Carnage was, in a lot of ways, the perfect early-’90s villain. He was a serial killer, so he could tap into the post-Silence of the Lambs fascination with them, abut then he was also just like Venom–but more EXTREME. (In the early-to-mid-’90s, EVERYTHING had to be EXTREME!!!!!! RAAAARRRR!!!!!) In this, he was also fairly one-dimensional–but the fans ate him up anyway, and just a year after his debut, Carnage was the focal point of the first-ever crossover between all four Spider-Man books (and the new quarterly Spider-Man Unlimited), the aptly-titled “Maximum Carnage.” “Maximum Overexposure” was a bit more on the nose for all the depth the story had, but Michelinie couldn’t be blamed for this. As told in Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, this was an era when the marketing department was literally making editorial calls. Carnage was popular. Carnage sold. Hence, the big Carnage crossover would be spread out over fourteen comics for three months.
It was around this time that Michelinie did an about-face with one of his major characters to have contributed to Spider-Man: Venom. For all of his existence, Venom had been hung up on “innocents,” and was vociferous in his insistence that he protect them from “fiends” like Spider-Man. Once he (finally) realized Spidey was one of the good guys after witnessing him save the life of his ex-wife, Venom abandoned his crusade to kill Peter Parker and was spun off into his own miniseries, “Lethal Protector,” written by Michelinie and drawn by Bagley. Going back to the ethos that allowed beancounters to dictate editorial policy, Venom was big bucks–and therefore needed his own series. Thus did Venom go from being one of the pre-eminent Spider-Man villains to a sort of quasi-anti-hero, the star of an endless array of miniseries chronicling his solo adventures. Michelinie, fortunately, only wrote the first of these series, but the continued oversaturation of the Venom character would eventually prove to be a deathblow to the character’s popularity, and he eventually became a symbol of everything wrong about comics in the ’90s. The character has yet to regain the both the popularity or the significance he enjoyed twenty years ago.
As for Michelinie, he was nearing the end of his tenure on Spider-Man by that point. At the end of ASM #365, he brought Peter’s parents back from the dead, with a whopper of a story involving the Red Skull, spies, Taskmaster, and I think Jimmy Hoffa’s body. Mistrust was seeded for months on end as Peter debated whether or not these were truly his parents, miraculously returned from the dead. And of course, in typical Parker luck, the moment he revealed his identity to them as Spider-Man, they were revealed to be some sort of T-1000-wannabe robots who gooped around and tried to kill our hero, all part of a bizarre revenge scheme by the second Green Goblin (Harry Osborn, then dead by that point in Spectacular) that somehow also involved the Chameleon. And thus began the J.M. DeMatteis era of Amazing Spider-Man, which began in the aftermath of that event, had Spidey renouncing his humanity and wanting to be called “the Spider,” introduced a character named Traveller whose power set was so ill-defined that literally NO ONE at Marvel knew what his deal was, and ultimately kicked off the Clone Saga, the most reviled story in all of Spider-Man’s history. Michelinie had the good sense to read the writing on the wall with what the editors were wanting and jumped ship while the jumping ship was good.
And by that turn, it should be noted that David Michelinie’s run on Spider-Man was the last TRULY good run for the character (in-continuity, that is–2000 saw the debut of Ultimate Spider-Man, easily the definitive Spidey book of the 21st century) until J. Michael Straczynski’s first couple of years, circa 2001-02. The intervening years saw, of course, the unending train wreck of the Clone Saga, followed by a truly uninspired turn by professional hack Howard Mackie, and a pathetic attempt at retconning the hero’s origin by washed-up former superstar John Byrne.
David Michelinie had the stupendous good fortune of getting to work with Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, and Mark Bagley as his artists–a murderer’s row of talent if every there was one. He also gave us the definitive take on the Peter and Mary Jane marriage, which for those of us who grew up with it, is the gold standard, no matter how much retconning to it has gone on since. The man’s work wasn’t perfect, but even when introducing a silly-looking villain like Cardiac, or a groan-worthy pair like Styx and Stone, Michelinie always played it straight, and wrote the hell out of it. He truly understood not just what makes a good Spider-Man story, but also what makes Peter Parker ticks, and that’s a tricky balance. Less than a half-dozen writers or so over the last five decades have managed to pull it off. Stan Lee, obviously, followed by Gerry Conway. Roger Stern. Brian Michael Bendis. And David Michelinie. The man deserves recognition for being in that company alone, yet his run with Spidey is often glossed over and forgotten by comics historians. And that’s a shame, because writers who so thoroughly understand the inner workings of a character, ANY character, are few and far between.
Michelinie hasn’t written much since leaving Amazing Spider-Man–just odds and ends, and a weak attempt at opening his own comic publishing company with artist Bob Layton, called Future Comics, in the Aughts. It seems he has retired, as, according to Wikipedia, his last published work was a four-issue Iron Man miniseries in 2009. All good things must come to an end, of course, and at age sixty-five, Michelinie has maybe just decided to call it a day. But for me–and a legion of fans that were growing up at the time–he was the definitive Spider-Man writer in the ’90s, before it all turned so bad for so long. My hat goes off to him, and the body of work he created.
But mostly his Spider-Man yarns.
Keep Readin’ Those Funnybooks!