Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Want to know why he's always called your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man?

It's because Spidey is so cross-cultural. Wherever you live, Peter Parker's daily struggles with school-bullies, his aunt May, rent and crazed super-powerful tyrants with big wings are so relevant to humanity everywhere that they require no adjustment whatsoever to retell in a foreign culture. (well, apart from maybe respelling 'neighborhood' with a 'u' in the middle)

In the US, in 1962, Stan "The Man" Lee™ created the amazing Spider-Man™. The rest of Spidey's story is publishing history. Well, in the US, anyway.

In Britain, in 1973, Marvel UK launched Marvel Presents the New Spider-Man Comics Weekly to reprint Spidey's adventures for the benefit of any British kids who weren't already picking up the American imports. A year later, sales were still good.

After all, how could such a business plan possibly go wrong? Spider-Man was hugely popular, appealed to kids and adults of all ages, and, thanks to the recent TV cartoon, even had his own catchy theme-song. And all they needed to do was something as easy as reprint strips that were already finished, and already in English. Not even the most out-of-touch editor could possibly mess this product up.

And, y'know, for eleven years, no-one really did.

That's pretty staple for Spidey, isn't it? His angry boss, his silent long-suffering pain, his wisecracking internal monologue, all served-up with Stan Lee's enthusiastic narration and the likes of John Romita's action-packed artwork. (not that in evidence above, I accept) That's the sort of thing we would sacrifice our pocket-money for.

Granted, the prohibitive cost of colour ink in the UK in those days meant that it was all in black-and-white initially, (with the odd page of colour creeping-in over the decade) but the payoff was that our A4 pages printed everything much bigger than in the US. Everything was sound.

Well, for the first three years, anyway, until the first of many joyous dice-rolls at improving the format…

So in 1976, the mag briefly became Super Spider-Man With The Super-Heroes, as the problem of fitting the American pages onto the British A4 pages was solved for a short while by ingeniously printing the whole mag landscape:

With everything that much smaller, this had the great benefit of packing-in twice the amount of comic-strip.

I guess that reducing the size of the strips to fit the landscape format wasn't too popular though, as even after it was abandoned in 1977, Marvel UK sold-off box-loads of back-issues, by simply binding them together into collections to sell off cheaply.

And cheap would definitely be the word. Aside from flicking through an issue before buying, there was just no way of knowing which random issues of which Marvel titles one could find in these. If you got into an ongoing story, chances were that you would never find out what happened next. Still, it's a culture-shock to flick through these cropped collections today and find the covers, adverts and letters pages still intact.

Anyway, the new format was abandoned just shortly after the proud new name was abandoned too.

And right there I reckon is the secret of this weekly's 12-year longevity – the merger. No matter how many other Marvel UK titles got cancelled and incorporated into this one, Spider-Man absorbed them all. I think there's a metaphor here about spiders eating their enemies, but I'll move on.

As if to prove the point, mere weeks later, yet another merger took place…

The Anglicisation of Spidey was now in full swing. As the monthly American strips were being broken up into shorter instalments for the back-up-strip burdened British weekly, this necessitated the creation of some form of recap to add-onto the start of any episodes beginning mid-issue. This wasn't limited just to Marvel's Super Spider-Man title, other contemporary series such as Star Wars Weekly were doing the same thing.

And it wasn't as simple as it looked, because in this next clip:

a) in the first frame they mis-spelt their own title-character's name, and

b) in the the last frame they had to make sure that the villain began the same sentence that he would finish at the start of the next page!

And did ya notice how in that final panel they even subtly respelt a word the British way?

However when Captain Britain also failed to survive the merger, (always a bad sign to be the second name in the new title, even in your own country) the comic seemed to have a fair degree of trouble figuring out what its new long-term title was going to be. For example, it could have been any of these variants...

Until, finally, inspiration struck:

Ooh, that last cover's a bit for the older kids, isn't it? I dunno, apart from horror, what else could they put on the cover that might get teenage boys to buy it?

Yeah, anyway, those readers who could reach the comics on the slightly higher shelves found that the soaring cover-price (over twice what it had started at a decade earlier) now allowed for a couple of color, I'm sorry, colour pages inside. A logical enough progression, you might think. But Marvel UK were even keener than that to give their readers value-for-money. They couldn't afford to print the whole comic in colour, but they could afford to, every week, print six pages in… red. Just the red, mind.

(yes, even the Hulk would become red sometimes)

However all this long-term hard work to reach the more mature teenage boy – which I'd like to naively believe was why we now had more intellectual text-only recaps - was not to last. As in the case of the live action TV series that had taken-over the comic a year earlier, another Spider-Franchise was about to hit Britain's TV screens and once more change everything.

In 1983 the cartoon series Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends was about to air, in which Peter Parker and his Aunt May also lived with Iceman and Fire-Star's secret identities, thanks to a spare room that could transform into a computerised hide-out.


And, inevitably, printing an adaptation of the TV cartoon's opening episode resulted in a slightly chintzier tone…

Anyway, this was a bit like jumping out of a plane without a parachute, as the original American comic Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends had only run for one issue, leaving no other such Spider-Friends tales for the UK title to reprint. So Iceman and Fire-Star consequently had to disappear from the UK comic-strip after a mere three short episodes, to be replaced with the regular Marvel universe again. (To this day, the one-shot Spider-Friends adaptation is not generally considered to be canon.)

Still, for about six months the British comic did retain the cartoon's title anyway, despite two-thirds of the Amazing Friends not actually appearing inside. Iceman And Fire-Star's faces remained on the cover for a full two months, until they were quietly replaced with… well, just about anyone, as it turned out…

(I think they meant to cut-out the letter 'r' from 'Friends' on that last one)

Until, finally, the simplicity of their earlier lesson was re-learnt:

Reverting to the title Spider-Man in 1984, the comic was bold enough to reprint the arguably more-canon-than-Amazing-Friends US issue pencilled by Marvel parodist Fred Hembeck, complete with eyes stuck together and everything…

But the real breakthrough came later that year, when Marvel UK got into producing their own original Spider-Man comic-strip. That's right – in the UK, in-between reprints from the US, we got our very own extra British Spidey-episodes, scripted by Mike Collins, pencilled by Barry Kitson, inked by Mark Farmer and published by Marvel UK itself!

It was a bold new beginning for Marvel UK's Spider-Man. He had a whole new cast of colleagues to work with at the Daily Herald newspaper in London, and the comic's editor was plainly inviting feedback on whether these were good ideas.

This was Spider-Man Weekly's (or whatever you call it) finest hour. Yet that very definition meant that we would never get it this good again.

With three monthly US titles all already producing far too much story to fit into a weekly reprint (unless you sat down and gave it some thought), issue #620 began the title's quick decline towards cancellation.

I only mark it as starting at that issue because that was the first one that I bought when it was current. (I got back-issues later) As I was collecting the US versions at the same time, that's the point from which I was aware of how incomprehensible the ongoing story was getting, particularly since not much attention seemed to be going into picking which stories to reprint. From so much apparent care, it all began descending into carelessness.

And then, it very very suddenly happened.

In issue #631, Spider-Man's new alien black-costume was introduced.

Nothing wrong with that (albeit about a year after it had arrived in the US – there was talk of us never getting it), however the amount of rewriting that had gone on for the UK audience was staggering. Panels were reworded, two pages had been inserted from Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars #1 complete with episode title…

… two more pages of British material had been commisioned for the middle, and much of the rest of the story had been cut out. By "much of the rest of the story" I really mean the next twelve months.

As if to explain, the back-cover of the second half featured a full-page "goodbye" from the apparently outgoing production team, together with an announcement of another great "new look"…

As mentioned above, the following week (in #633) a story from a year later was printed, featuring Spider-Man in a woolen duplicate of the new alien costume, complete with an offhand line about what had so awesomely become of the original they had introduced a mere fortnight earlier.

Whoa, back-up a sec. What did he say in the second balloon of that last panel? The "top designer"? Somehow, those two words don't look like they fit with the rest, do they? I had also bought this strip in the original American printing...

As you can also see, even all the page-numbers seemed to have been deemed above the heads of British readers. In fact, I think this was the most shamelessly tweaked UK reprint of a US strip I've ever seen. When you factor-in the removed page-numbers, Anglicised words and alternate back-issue references, I counted a whopping 35 changes to this one strip alone. Perhaps, in aiming for a younger audience, they should have picked a story that didn't feature a birth.

Anyway, the following week, issue #634, was the watershed.

Marvel US had recently launched their new Star Comics range aimed at juniors, and for some reason that I never understood, Marvel UK were printing them in all their teenage titles as back-up strips. (Transformers was getting suffocated in the same way by Planet Terry, although the lead strip survived in tone, cut down to a tiny-page count)

But that's not all - as you may have noticed above, together with the Fraggles, Willy the Wizard (called Wally the Wizard in the US version), Captain Wally (an unrelated British strip) and Snailman (with the Dukes of Hazzard joining later), for some reason Iceman and Fire-Star were back!

It turned out that the Spider-Friends had made it into another comic strip in the US after all... in an advertising supplement in the Denver Post newspaper in 1983. This was aimed at the general public, rather than regular Spider-Man readers, and as such the stories’ simplicity took the age-range down another swoop.

In fact, the next four issues (just the two with the Spider-Friends again) would all be taken from stories designed specifically for freebie US local advertising supplements, complete with nonsensical placement advertising for overseas businesses.

Boy those sponsors in Dallas sure got their money’s worth.

Issue #639 of The Spider-Man Comic bravely took the title's new intended age-range even lower though. Just look at this cover:

The dark sinister backdrop gives the impression that this issue will see a return to the more young adult storylines, right? Wrong.

Boy, he was sure spoiling this comic.

It took me 23 years - until tonight - to figure out where this strip had come from.

Back in the 1970s, Spider-Man had appeared as a mute character in the US educational TV sketch-show The Electric Company, which had been made by the Children's Television Workshop - the same people who still make Sesame Street.

In aiming for a younger readership, Marvel UK were actually reprinting strips from Spidey Super Stories - a comicbook that had been aimed at The Electric Company's young TV audience, and consequently featured Spidey with many of the show's cast-members and characters. One such character was called Easy Reader. He loved to read. And sing. In fact, he would even sing his own theme-song.

And did I mention that in the TV show he was played by Morgan Freeman? Yes, that Morgan Freeman!

Of course, older kids were expected to now switch to buying Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars instead, which featured 'our' Spidey as a regular, albeit lesser, character.

I guess it hadn't occurred to anyone at Marvel UK that some of us might have bought both titles, had the webslinger's usual adventures continued in this series as normal. Me, even though I already had most of the US originals, I would have been happy rebuying them all again in British reprints, if only they had been presented in a proper fashion. That's how easy it was for Marvel UK to get my money.

Yet what happened instead, was that even a mug like me stopped buying the comic long before the title's cancellation six months later at issue #666. By then it was entitled just Spidey Comic, and the final issue didn't even feature Spider-Man on the cover, except in the corner box. I guess I should blame Spidey himself. By the end of the run, he was, apparently, its editor.

So about a month later, initially still edited by Spider-Man himself, Spider-Man And Zoids was launched from issue #1, which fairly reverted to the classic way of doing things, and lasted only a year. Starting again from 'Vol.2 No.1', rather than #667, it hardly carried the authority of the original. I bought them, but for some reason I didn't read them. Easy Reader had clearly put me off reading.

So, given that I never read volume 2, after 666 issues of Stan Lee™ Presents The New Super Spectacular Spidey-Man With The Super-Heroes And The Titans Incorporating... Marvel Team-Up TV Comic Plus The Uncanny X-Men, The Incredible Hulk And Spider-Woman Guest-Starring The Beast Now Featuring J Jonah Jameson And His Amazing Friends Weekly volume 1, how exactly did things end for our friendly neighbourhood (in the UK) webslinger?

I mean how do you conclude an ongoing 666-part series after twelve years? Did Spidey have a rematch with the very first villain he'd fought way back in issue #1? Did he sit atop a building reminiscing about all the great times he'd shared with us in those pages? Did he decide to finally call it a day and give up crime-fighting after all these years?

Or did he just dance off happily into the sunset?


With thanks to Herschel.

(Marvel's images in this post are copyright Marvel, and were used according to 'fair use' laws)


6 comment(s):

At 4:28 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hugeeeeeeeeeeest spiderman fan. loving this article :)
nice post.

At 9:06 pm, Blogger Steve Goble said...

Thanks Samanthar!


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