Peter Parker swings into the 80s in the latest volume of Marvel's Essential series. Now into its tenth edition, this compendium of black and white Amazing Spider-Man reprints provides fans with a way to stock up on archive comics without having to scour the conventions or shell out for Marvel's costly Masterworks series. While the colour is gone, and the high-quality glossy paper of the latter replaced by grainy newspaper stock, the writing remains a standout and the quality of the artwork is as good as ever. If anything, the presentation only serves to heighten the nostalgic glow you get from this series. There's just something reassuringly old-school about the cheapness of the package.
The timespan covered in this edition take us from 1980's Amazing Spider-Man #210 to 1982's #230 via 1981's Annual #15, and while it's hardly the most enthralling of periods in Spidey's history, it's consistently entertaining and a bit of a greatest hits for fans. Our hero battles some of his most famous foes here, taking on the Vulture, the Sub-Mariner and Doctor Octopus in three of the volume's stand-outs. There's also the iconic Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut storyline, which closes the volume, and the (rather less iconic) appearance of The Foolkiller, one of Marvel's most bizarre supervillains who roams New York killing 'fools'. Mr T, presumably, was unavailable.
The 80s would prove a significant period of change for the Spider-Man series. Web of Spider-Man would arrive later in the decade, becoming the franchise's third title after Amazing and Spectacular; darker storylines would begin to creep in, most famously Kraven's Last Hunt in 1987; and the decade would be rounded out by Spider-Man finding new life through the artwork of Todd McFarlane. Frank Miller's penciling gig on Annual #15 hints at those two latter developments. A darker tale than anything else in the book, it was written by Denny O'Neil and finds Doc Ock cooking up a villainous plot to poison the ink used to publish the Daily Bugle. Dominated by shadowy figures, dark alleys and an unscrupulous media, it's low on Spidey but high on noir. In other words, it's pure Miller, and it's interesting both to see his trademark themes emerge so early, and the artist taking on such a vital creative role in a time when the writer was still king.
Considering his later work on Elektra and Catwoman, itís a disappointment that Miller never really got to tackle the Black Cat during his brief interludes with Spider-Man. She too appears in Volume 10, and it'll come as a revelation to readers who know her only through the skin-tight suits and milk baths of recent incarnations. Back in the early 80s, she was a far more rounded, bruised and interesting character than the rest of the decade turned her into, and ASM issues #226 and #227 provide a neat reminder of that. Here the previously reformed Cat escapes from hospital and is back on the prowl, treading a fine line between good and evil. There are sparks of passion between her and Spider-Man and a surprisingly sad finale that aches with pathos. Not only a neat character in her own right, the Black Cat also brings out the best in our hero, making him question who he really is: the swinging superhero or plain ol' Peter Parker. It's a dichotomy that's at the very heart of the character and the superhero mythos as a whole.
It's a shame then that beyond his experiences with the Cat, Parker is a curiously invisible figure in Volume 10. Previous volumes saw Parker's love life and friendships evolve (and inevitably crumble), but by this point, Harry Osbourne and Flash Thompson (both absent here) were bit part players, and Mary Jane had departed the title after things got too serious with our hero. So it's left to poor old Deb Whitman, the perennial bridesmaid of the Spider-Man saga, to step in and act as the love interest in what develops into a triangle between Parker, her and her obnoxious boyfriend Biff Rifkin. It's pure filler that only serves to unintentionally highlight Parker's less pleasant side: the insensitive oaf who only seeks Whitman out when a relationship with a more exciting woman has gone awry. Volume 11, in which Mary Jane will return, cannot come soon enough.
Overall, Volume 10 delivers a welcome reminder of what's been lost in both modern Spider-Man comics and the industry as a whole. What with the forthcoming Spider-Island event, the still-infamous Brand New/One More Day debacle and the imminent reboot of the DC Universe, there's a charming simplicity to this anthology that comic books seem to have shied away from in recent years. Today, the idea of Spider-Man swinging about, saving a few people, thwarting the bad guys and going back home to pay the bills seems as unlikely as a Peter/Mary Jane reunion, and that's a real shame. From the moment Spider-Man burst onto the pages of Amazing Fantasy #15, the character has always been about good, simple fun. Marvel's Essential series does a superb job of reminding readers of that, as well as providing them with great stories and compelling continuity. They're amazing, they're spectacular, they are, in every way, truly essential.