Stew Reviews: The Child Within

Not BAMF

I have had a cold for 14 days.

It’s not great!

Five days ago, I had completely lost my voice, but luckily I regained enough of it to be able to semi-successfully podcast last night. But we recorded essentially two whole shows, and the end of the night, I was done. Can’t wait to listen to those segments and see how abominable I sounded. Especially towards the end. Whoof.

TITLE: Spectacular Spider-Man: The Child Within

Writer and Artist: J.M. DeMatteis and Sal Buscema

Publisher: Marvel

Protagonists: Spider-Man

Antagonists: Vermin, Green Goblin

“The Child Within” is a seven issue series (if you include the Aftermath issue, which you should) that took place from Spectacular Spider-Man #178-184, and it serves as a pseudo-follow-up to “Kraven’s Last Hunt” while also bridging into what would be the driving plot line of the run of that title leading up to its 200th issue. It has SOMEHOW never been collected in trade paperback format to this point, which is a damn shame, because I consider the run (and the whole lead up to #200) to be one of the greatest Spidey stories ever told.

In this story, Spidey enlists the help of Dr. Ashley Kafka to help revert Vermin from his bestial form back into the human he once was, Edward Whelan. Unfortunately, the feral Vermin is extremely troubled by trauma from his youth, and he eventually breaks free to hunt in New York again… but this time, Kraven isn’t around to stop him.

Speaking on trauma from youth! While all this is going on, Harry Osborn is haunted by the ghosts of his past, causing his precarious grip on sanity to lapse. He once again takes on his father’s costume and glider as the Green Goblin, and he blames Peter Parker for the death of Norman Osborn. After a confrontation, Harry’s gas bombs cause a mental break for Peter, but with Dr Kafka’s help, he is able to find his way back from his fears and insecurities in time for final confrontations with both Vermin and Harry.

It wraps up with Spidey stopping Vermin from attacking his own parents and getting him back into treatment with Dr Kafka, but with the win comes a loss: he is unable to save Harry, and the Goblin flies off, swearing revenge on Spider-Man and leaving his own wife and child behind.

At the risk of sounding like extreme hyperbole, this was a transformative book for me as a kid, and one where I still remember where I was when I was reading it. When it came out, I had not read Kraven’s Last Hunt, but you don’t have to have to appreciate this story. This arc happened within the first two years of my comic book buying, and it was the first time I felt that comics could be… “big”? I don’t quite know how to put it. But it was the first time comics made me feel something. I recall being in the car with my mother on the way to visit family, and I was, in my unaccomplished ten-year-old way, trying to explain this story arc to her after just having finished it. I was trying to convey how the book affected me and awakened the notion that these characters and their lives are powerful and emotional and can make you think about things beyond shooting lasers at each other. She dismissed me with a whole “No, comics are stupid” kind of rebuttal, like some prescient Bill Maher-in-training. Didn’t matter, though! I felt like I had some new knowledge about my hobby because of this arc, and if no one wanted to share my secret, then that was their loss.

I’m talking a lot about how my personal life was affected by this book when I read it at a particular age and moment in my life. That’s not the best review! So does the book hold up? It absolutely does. Everything here is as good as I remember, if not more so because I can appreciate the layers more than I could as a kid. DeMatteis and Buscema really tell a gripping story that takes Vermin from a generic monster all the way to a fully-developed and sympathetic victim. They turn Harry Osborn into a tragic villain, but also one that makes a long-term impact and enters the upper-echelon of Spidey foes. The way moments are built though nine panel pages of just photographs or just video footage of Vermin in his cell… it’s all so damn well done. And it’s also set up for future storylines with each villain that pay everything off down the road. DeMatteis is a master at the top of his craft here.

Not to dismiss Sal Buscema who is a divisive artist among fans, though I’ll never understand why. I’d read stuff drawn by him all the time if I could. It’s funny to remember, but during this era when there were no internet forums, people would write into the letters page to alternatively either bash or defend Sal. Imagine posting on social media and having to wait five months or so until someone could reply! But I think Sal was amazing. Everything was bright and clearly defined, and facial expressions so brilliantly conveyed terror or skepticism or empathy. And honestly? No one in the world drew someone getting sent flying across a room from impact like Sal. It’s the weirdest thing to have lodged in the memory, but I know exactly what Sal Buscema characters looked like when they got punched, all wincing eyes and contorted jaws and spittle. Love it!

Talking Point: Best Spider-Man story of all-time… what is your pick? Go!

OVERALL

Spectacular Spider-Man is a book that was often overshadowed by Amazing Spider-Man, but DeMatteis and Buscema did their best to make it the premier Spidey title of the 90’s, even while ASM was getting all the press for Venom and Carnage and artists like McFarlane and Larsen. And this arc was all about substance over style.

9.5/10

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