Todd McFarlane DOOMDOOMDOOM Lizard DOOMDOOMDOOM This Still Sucks – Spider-Man #1-5, “Torment”
The Spider-Man film reboot is hitting theaters next week. It features the Lizard, and a version of that character that may or may not be awful beyond words. Will Curt Connors’ Mr. Hyde persona have the same resonance without a white lab coat and purple pants? WE SHALL SEE. And today, to honor that classic villain’s first silver screen appearance, we’re going to go back in time and look at one of the more memorable stories featuring the character (at least for people who came of comics-reading age in the late-80s, early-90s). Yes, boys and girls, we’re going to reach twenty+ years into the past, to the much ballyhooed launch of the Todd McFarlane-infused Spider-Man. Brace yourselves for “Torment.”
I come to praise “Torment,” not bury it. JUST KIDDING. There’s going to be a fair share of burying going on here, but, surprise, I actually have one or two nice things to say about what was McFarlane’s first attempt at doing everything on a major series. (Others have written more than enough about this subject over the years, so I’ll be brief.) And we’re not going to touch on the thousands of money-grab variant covers that the premier issue had. Again — JUST KIDDING. To clear that topic from the table, I’ll say only this: It seems that people are, if not uncovering new versions of that iconic bestseller, at least still tabulating the print runs for each of the different covers, and then calculating their values based on relative scarcity and plenitude. Who knew that there could be so much sweat over a simple pic of a crouching, web-enshrouded Spidey?
Look up that first issue in Overstreet sometime. It’s a section unto itself.
Spider-Man. It took Marvel almost three decades to drop the adjectives and the nouns, but they finally did in 1990. It’s really no surprise that the House of Ideas decided to hand the reins to the new flagship title for the company’s flagship character to McFarlane. His run on The Amazing Spider-Man remains one of the most commercially successful eras in the character’s history. He brought a new kind of comic energy to the book, and the way he’d twist and contort his friendly neighborhood subject was like something out of a Chuck Jones Looney Tunes cartoon. It fit the character like a glove. On a personal note, I always loved the detail he put in into Spider-Man’s costume’s web-pattern. I know that whenever I’d try to draw him, I’d get about halfway through putting in those endless intersecting wavy lines and loudly proclaim “You know what? F–K THIS.” Patience is a virtue, and I admire those who possess what I lack. So pick your reasons for it, but his books were fun to look at, and they sold accordingly. And that last reason is, literally, the bottom line as to why McFarlane got the keys to the new Porsche. To quote a white guy quoting Wu-Tang: “Dollar dollar bills, y’all.”
McFarlane was a superstar. He was profiled in People, for crissakes. And this was before he got all caught up in buying steroid-tainted baseballs.
But, for all his box-office appeal, he was an awful, awful writer, and that was especially true in “Torment,” his maiden effort. That it was his first attempt at scripting something of this magnitude — a new, instant best-seller Spider-title — might normally counsel that we temper our criticism. Give the guy a break. It’s not easy to start out with that blazing spotlight on you. But it was such a loud, dumb, over-hyped waste of time, all that reticence is (rightly) thrown out the window. Because this series-opening yarn sold so many copies means we as a a society have collectively purchased the right to dunk it in the tank over and over and over again.
The five issue “Torment” arc told the story of a relentless, even more beastly than normal Lizard and his murderous return to the streets of New York. Calypso is the grand manipulator in the tale, controlling the Lizard and driving Spider-Man close to madness.
And that’s pretty much it.
It’s the thinnest of paper-thin plots, and it’s stunning how little transpires over the course of the five issues. I say stunning, because McFarlane never knows when to shut up, and that makes the whole story seem to drag on interminably. His narrative text drones on and on and on, stepping on the art in every single panel. One of the hardest things to learn when smithing words is when to step back and let what’s already there do the talking. I get that, and I certainly have a hard time checking my own blathering. Nevertheless, it’s an inescapable truth that, once the story train is moving, you don’t have to keep throwing more coal on the fire. This page, part of the first of 57 fights between Spider-Man and the Lizard, features one of the few dialogue-free panels. ENJOY IT WHILE IT LASTS:
(On the subject of verbiage: I’ve read other critiques that note McFarlane’s mixing of first-person and third-person narration. This is valid, as sometimes the voices can get all jumbled. It’s Peter. Wait, now it’s McFarlane. Now it’s Mary Jane. No, wait, is it Calypso? Now it’s back to Peter. It’s like being inside the head of a lunatic.)
The biggest beef I have with this arc is its volume. It seems like it’s yelling at you from start to finish, assaulting your eyes and inner ear with an unstoppable barrage of flashy art and text. And the recurring DOOM DOOM DOOM theme, as Calypso plays with our hero’s head, doesn’t help any. Spider-Man may be speaking for all of us in this panel:
Even the art, which was the sole reason anyone bought this title and would ever return to it in subsequent years, suffers from compression. The great Carmine Infantino often used narrow, vertical panels in his page layouts, and in his hands they were a stylish affectation. They were engaging, and you never lost track of what in God’s name was going on. McFarlane uses them too, but in sequences like this, featuring our primary players in a church, you just get a headache. Or vertigo. Or motion sickness. Something:
And Mary Jane is in this. Her sequences are useless, as she goes through the vapid, good-time-loving stages of her life, hoping poor Peter is okay. It’s clumsy filler. Sawdust in meatloaf. Like everything else here.
Is there anything good about the story? Yes. Spider-Man, when you can see all of him and he’s not obscured by dopey narration, looks good. All those tiny web-lines are present and in full effect. And the Lizard, with his tattered but magically intact and clean coat and pants, looks terrifying. His rows of teeth seem like they could reach right out of the page and bite off your goddamn arm. You should feel fear when you see this man-sized, muscular Godzilla. You’d feel fear here if McFarlane would just zip it for a page or two. Still, even the selling-point art feels sloppy and confused, much like that scan above. Perhaps this gives us the greatest lesson we can take from the story: McFarlane’s work was at its best when it was bounded by the confines of someone else’s script. When it was disciplined, and couldn’t indulge every whim.
Some would say McFarlane improved as a scripter over time. I’m not sure of that. Spawn certainly read better than this, but it played too much like the crappy ideas I’d have for stories in junior high. Hey, he’s a black man who comes back from the dead with great powers, but get this, he can only turn into a white guy COME ON, TODD. (Maybe that’s why I liked it so much when I was in junior high. Man, this is awesome — it reads like something I’d write...) And McFarlane brought a bunch of heavyweight writers in for a few issues, and we know how that worked out. He was damned either way. But you know what? The HBO Spawn show was all kinds of superb, so there’s that.
There you go. McFarlane. “Torment.” Lizard. It doesn’t seem that it’s been twenty-plus years since this came out, but it has. And it hasn’t improved with age.