Last year, I was scouring a local comic convention and came across a Spider-man collection that I hadn’t seen before. Usually, I’m pretty up on my Spidey stories, so I picked it up to discover that this collection was actually a run of classic early issues and a miniseries from the early aughts smashed together.
The Lifeline Saga collects Amazing Spider-man issues 68-75 (1969) from Stan Lee, John Romita, Jim Mooney, and John Buscema along with Spider-Man: Lifeline (2001) by Fabian Nicieza, Steve Rude, and Bob Wiacek. This collection is unique in that it does contain one story, but with a 30 year gap and totally different creative squads in between the two parts. The catch is that while it is a satisfying whole overall, each of the two parts are of their own time, and as a result, very different from each other.
The first part of the story comes from a classic era of Spider-man. Stan Lee is in charge off the words, John Romita is sometimes handling pencils, sometimes just layouts, and often just billed as “innovator,” frequently leaving Jim Mooney behind to handle the rest of the heavy lifting as illustrator. I almost forgot that John Buscema steps in as innovator for an issue or two, bumping John Romita to “coordinator.” Whatever they did, whoever was responsible for what, it doesn’t matter, because these issues of Amazing Spider-man are magic. Frequently, when I’m going through a book, I’ll annotate it with post-its along the way to pull out pages or panels that I think are important for these articles, and I kept finding myself frequently making notes that were just smiley faces or “this is how Spider-man should be!” and things of that nature.They encapsulate everything that made post-Ditko Spidey great.
Let’s look at the story first. The story contains all of those soap opera elements that brought a richness to Spidey’s world without ever slowing down. When you think of today’s decompressed style of storytelling writers shoot for a 4-6 issue collection to tell one tale–this isn’t that. You start out with the Crisis on Campus storyline that involves the Kingpin seeking out an ancient clay tablet and introduces Randy Robertson, son of…Robbie. I guess that’s a little on the nose. Anyway, I’ll let Pete and a bunch of floating heads explain.
Anyway, that leads to JJJ’s shocking collapse storyline that leads into Quicksilver trying to apprehend Spidey which leads to the Shocker going after Captain Stacey, but not too long before Man Mountain Marko gets the tablet in question to the crime boss Silvermane, who has Curt Connors, the Lizard, on staff to translate the tablet which leads to Silvermane gaining the fountain of youth just in time as he deals with potential mob usurpers. Whew! Meanwhile, Robbie and his son Randy are having heartfelt conversations about race relations, Spider-man is dealing with being villainized by the police and media before Robbie takes over the Bugle and publishes stories to help vindicate Spidey ….and there’s more! There’s so much going on in these seven issues and it never stops. Did I mention Aunt May is sick? Then she’s sent to Florida for some sun while Gwen is busy questioning Peter Parker’s courage and Peter’s being a jerk to Flash Thompson. Anyway, a lot goes on in these issues, all while perfectly mixing action, drama, and spot-on characterization. This storyline that’s loosely based around a mystical tablet contains enough story-goodness that it would take six years, three titles and an event-capping mini-series events if it happened today.
Are there dated elements to the story? Sure. Some of the mustache-twirling exposition of Kingpin and his goons doesn’t make sense.
First, the Kingpin doesn’t even have a moustache! (Harry Osborne gets a terrible one in this story, but that’s later!) If that’s how Wilson Fisk regularly works out, why are the goons surprised when he stomps them so quickly? Must be a concussion-memory-issue thing, I guess. I hope being a goon comes with a good health plan.
It’s almost like that whole scene is just to establish how tough the Kingpin actually is. The comics, too, were aimed at a simpler audience, so motivations were more simplified. That’s ok.
There’s also the whole bit on the crisis on campus where Stan Lee writes black characters, trying to capture the slang and issues of the time. This is a tough one, because I believe in my heart of hearts that Stan is genuinely trying to help address a serious issue by connecting to the youth. At the same time, some of the dialogue can come off as clumsy or maybe inappropriate by modern standards. Never let it be sad that Marvel was afraid to tackle “social justice” issues, though.
Stan Lee steers head-on into issues with economic and racial bigotry, and even with folks like Peter Parker who are trying to help, but may not be received as such. Is Stan Lee, a white male, the ideal person to write about racial inequality and issues with the white man’s establishment? Maybe or maybe not, but at the time, he was trying to do his part to help spread understanding and equality. I’ll never fault a person for trying there.
–Especially when that person gives me pages of J. Jonah Jameson going crazy because his paper is defending Spider-man. He’s too sensitive–too gentle for that. Bugle! Not a Music Store! Bagle? Bugle! Beagles? Bugle! I love it!
Boy, does this story hit all the right notes. You have a frustrated Spidey that ends up making bad decisions that put him further behind the 8-ball, you have villains who get what they want only to have it backfire, all while dealing with the character drama and misunderstandings that have always made the Spidey soap opera one worth tuning in to see!
The art is beautiful throughout. At no point does the Romita/Mooney/Buscema combo ever miss a beat! The characters are all on model and they look the way Romita defined the characters to look. Even more than Steve Ditko, Jazzy John solidified the power and beauty and humanity of Spidey’s cast and crew in a way that still holds true today. I can’t say enough good things from the late 60’s portion of this package.
And then …there’s the three issue series from 2001 by Fabian Nicieza and Steve “the Dude” Rude. It exists. It is very much of its time. It has topical references to hot properties like Sopranos and the Matrix. The story builds off of the original tale by combining some of the original mobsters in Silvermane’s crew and the Lizard with the likes of Hammerhead, the Eel, and Boomerang. I will say that Nicieza does a decent job giving Boomerang the sense of humor and desperation that I grew to love in The Superior Foes of Spider-man. On the supporting cast side of the equation, this story takes place in a bit of a lull in the Spidey lore–MJ had been written out of the book via plane crash, Pete was rooming with Randy Robertson from our last story, and Captain George Stacy’s brother, Shmorge Stacy was a supporting character at the time. What was his name, really? Nobody cares; it was a bad idea. He was just Captain Stacy with a goatee.
Arthur. I feel bad; that was harsh. His name is Arthur Stacy, not Shmorge Stacy. Although he was nowhere near as compelling of a character as Captain Stacy, he still gets a name.
This comic takes place in that inbetween time before the sea change of modern comics that began with the Marvel Knights and the heydays of the 90’s extreme sensibilities. So the writing is somewhat better than the 90s, but it hasn’t quite reached the modern style yet. It’s serviceable, nothing more or less. It’s more wordy than it needs to be, but it definitely feels like it fits in its time. It just wasn’t my favorite time, unfortunately.
The story adds onto the original saga by literally adding a few more missing pieces to the Lifeline Tablet. Apparently, Silvermane was missing some important info that caused his plan to backfire. But now, with several additional pieces, the tablet is put back together in order to grant whoever holds it immortality! This allows for Dr. Strange and Namor to get involved, which felt like a quaint little throwback to how fun the interconnected Marvel Universe can be.
The art by Steve Rude is pretty sweet in parts, too.
His layouts and character designs definitely felt like that came from that late 60’s vintage. I love his throwback style, especially when he’s drawing Spidey in costume. If Spidey wasn’t talking about flat-screen tvs or Sopranos, this whole miniseries could have served as one of those ‘lost tales’ kind of stories instead of being dated in a bad way. It could have been dated in that classy, nostalgic way instead!
Much of the rest of the tale is a throwback, frequently calling back to the stories that came before, and even the ending feels like it was taken out of 60’s era Stan Lee book. The bad guy gets what he wants, but it backfires on him before he gets to use it properly. The only portion that remains is the one alloted for altruistic goals. Spidey, on the other hand, never catches a break, and he doesn’t here, either. The day gets saved, but Spidey only gets action as his reward. That, and he gets to carry with him the burdens that comes with day-saving. It’s the way it should be, what with all of Spidey’s power and responsibility philosophy.
Ultimately, the Lifeline Tablet Saga serves as one story told over two different generations of storytellers. The 90’s portion of the story I could take or leave, but the 60’s portion is prime-time vintage Spidey at its finest. They’re stories I can readily enjoy by myself or when sharing with my kiddos, and the action, the drama, and fast-paced excitement would keep us all entertained. If you’re looking for a book to keep on the shelf in case of a rainy day or as a reminder of how great Spidey was in the 60’s, you should definitely check out The Lifeline Tablet on Amazon or at your local comics shop.
The Lifeline Tablet Saga Final Grade: A
The inclusion of the 2001 miniseries is actually what keeps it from being an A+, and for as great as that Steve Rude cover is, I think this book would have sold a lot more with one of those classic John Romita covers instead. I liked the idea that they picked up the story and tried to add to it, but the sensibilities of the time hold it back. Next time, just go full retro! I’m still smiling thinking about those classic Amazing Spidey comics though. They are the best!
Until next time, I’ll be struggling to achieve immortality by …blogging? That stays forever, right? Man, I need to proofread these blogs better. They’re immortal. Also, no more Sopranos references for me–which is good, because I never really got into that show.