Your Friendly Neighborhood Cash-In
There’s no real art to cashing in. Tie-ins, knock-offs and imitations inevitably follow success or hype. One glance at the cover of Edward Gross’ Spider-Man Confidential: From Comic Icon to Hollywood Hero—assuming you can see past the cover’s high gloss red—reveals the phrase “the unauthorized history.” Unauthorized, of course, because Hyperion wants to cash in on the upcoming Spider-Man movie but doesn’t own the rights to the character.
In terms of disclosure, I should note that I might fall a bit out of the book’s target audience. I read comics when I was younger. Somewhere in my house I have three or four boxes of comics that were never thrown out and, although Daredevil was always my favorite, many of those are Spider-Man comics. Some of those Spider-Mans may have even been sealed in protective bags before going into the boxes, but I couldn’t swear to that. I stopped buying comics a long time ago. The last comic I actually purchased may have been the wedding of Peter Parker and Mary Jane. Although I don’t buy them anymore, comics have some nostalgia for me and I probably will see the Spider-Man movie this summer. What I’m trying to say is that I understand the appeal of comics and I know the character of Spider-Man, but I’m not like a supergeek fanboy or anything.
I’m not sure Hyperion has a grasp on their intended audience either. The 43 page Part One of Spider-Man Confidential concerns Spider-Man’s creation and history. In the early 1960s, the comics industry relied on western, horror, romance, science fiction and crime genres, with superheroes making only a small comeback from their previous dominance. After his modestly successful launch of the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk, Stan Lee wanted to release Spider-Man. His idea was ridiculed by Marvel’s publisher. A hero could not be a teenager, could not have the powers and the name of a despised creature and could not be plagued by the problems of an unlucky, unpopular high schooler. Lee was allowed to publish his story only in a comic that was being cancelled anyway. Thus, Amazing Fantasy #15 becomes one of the most valuable comics ever.
Although there’s nothing terrible about this, Gross adds nothing new to a story known by anyone with even a passing interest in comics. The quotes from Lee and John Romita are lifted from other sources. The section continues with a sort of biography of Peter Parker. Each of the first 20 issues of Amazing Spider-Man gets a paragraph or two description (did Gross lay his hands on the Marvel Masterwork reprints?) and then later highlights are described. The origin, the death of Gwen Stacey and the Green Goblin, the romance with Mary Jane, the creation of Venom and the “Peter Parker was always a clone” debacle are described as if a story 40 years in the telling were a novel.
Again, there’s nothing terrible, inaccurate or badly written about this part, but anyone interested enough to buy a book on Spider-Man will find nothing new. The information will only be news depending on when you stopped reading the comic. (Peter and Mary Jane are divorced? What the hell. Now I feel like a sucker for buying that Wedding Issue.) Gross sums up the charm of Peter Parker as a character, emphasizing his Everyman status and his un-heroic circumstances, but adds no great insight. The chapter on Marvel Comics in Bradford Wright’s Comic Book Nation does a better, deeper job explaining the originality and appeal of Stan Lee’s heroes in the ‘60s and ‘70s. (So I’ve read two books on comics in the past year? Maybe I am a geek . . .)
While Part One is for newbies only, Part Two could only appeal to a hard core fan. Gross presents a “checklist” for two Spider-Man books, Amazing Spider-Man and Marvel Team-Up, listing story title, page length, writer, artist, villain and (for Team-Up) guest stars. Do you want to know that in Marvel Team-Up #31 Spider-Man and Iron Fist battled Drom the Backwards Man? There it is.
Also in Part Two, Gross provides brief episode guides for the different TV shows dating back to 1967. Completists and nostalgia buffs might rejoice at this. Gross presents guides for the character’s two most successful shows, Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends and Spider-Man: The Animated Series. But I found I enjoyed the guide to the mute Spider-Man on The Electric Company most of all. “Spidey must thwart the plans of a villain who is ruining the birthday parties of little boys and girls” in “The Birthday Bandit.” (Anyone out there going “Oh yeah”?)
Gross gives the impression he hasn’t even seen the Japanese live action TV version, but he lists the episodes by title, air date and villain of the week anyway. This will amuse fans of bad TV. “The Turtlenger features a metal jaw on its left hand and can fire a pair of machine guns from its chest.” Titles like “I Saw the Snake Woman’s Tears in a Flaming Hell” make me wonder if something was lost or perhaps gained in translation.
At least in this section Gross lands a few quotes from some of the principals, such as Ralph Bakshi, who worked on the Spider-Man cartoon of the ‘60s, and John Semper, producer and head writer of the ‘90s’ Spider-Man: The Animated Series. Some of their complaints about the creative and financial restrictions that hinder “children’s” cartoons are interesting, but not enough to appeal to anyone but the hard-core fan. And not just a hard-core fan of Spider-Man, but a hard-core fan of Spider-Man on TV. I’m not sure such a person exists.
Besides, don’t we have an Internet for this sort of useless crap?
Part Three describes the lengthy struggle to get Spider-Man in a movie. The rights to this character with obvious potential brought many companies, several of them nearly or completely bankrupt—including Marvel itself—into a lengthy legal battle. Given the obvious blockbuster potential of Spider-Man, it’s shocking to read how close we came to “Spider-Man, from the people who brought you Invasion U.S.A., Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Deathstalker II and Prehysteria 3!” After the legal battles, the rights went to Sony and casting rumors, script decisions and set pictures went to the Internet. Gross concludes Part Three by compiling facts, rumors and public appearance transcripts surrounding Sam Raimi’s adaptation. Spider-Man fans with access to sites like Coming Attractions and, of course, Spider-Man Hype will learn nothing new here.
Part Four is an alphabetical listing of Spider-Man villains, complete with their origins, powers and first appearances, from Absorbing Man to Xandu.
Spider-Man Confidential is harmed by not having the rights to Marvel characters. Illustrations and covers would break up the monotony of the villain list and comic book checklist. Gross describes how Romita drew Mary Jane but doesn’t show us a single panel. The only pictures in the book are of the movie cast at a press conference and Stan Lee mugging it up at conventions. Gross doesn’t really make use of the “unauthorized” label. There’s no dirt or harsh criticism slung at the Marvel enterprise and no secrets revealed. He mostly skips the nitty-gritty of what was a brutal legal battle. I doubt there’s anything in Spider-Man Confidential that would bring Marvel and Sony’s disapproval. I mean seriously, what’s so “confidential” about a press release?
Since there’s no real art to cashing in, I expect a few other books about Spider-Man to hit bookstores soon. I have to believe some of them will be better than Spider-Man Confidential.