Personal Best: SPIDER-BOY #1

This was perhaps the first truly excellent comic book that I put out, a single issue that accomplished its mandate exceptionally well and delivered on teh promise-of-the-premise in fine fashion. It’s always going to be a little bit awkward talking about books I worked on in such glowing terms, so please understand that when I say this, I’m speaking first and foremost about the work that was done by the creative team–in this instance, Karl Kesel and Mike Wieringo. And that’s what this category is here for, to give me a place to delve a bit more deeply into the individual comics that I feel were the most successful or impactful to me–my Personal Best. So while I don’t have a whole lot of artifacts left over from SPIDER-BOY #1, there is a bunch of stuff that I can speak to about it.

First, a bit of explanation for those not in the know. SPIDER-BOY #1 was released during the first wave of AMALGAM titles, which came out 2/3 of the way through the larger MARVEL VS DC crossover project. They were intended as a bit of a publishing surprise: the buy-in concept to MARVEL VS DC was that the assorted heroes of the two rival companies would contend with one another in a winner-takes-all competition in which only one universe would survive. The twist, which wasn’t revealed ahead of time, was that after the third issue (the one that showed the results of teh fights that were fan-determined) the plot called for the Marvel and DC Universes to be smushed together, creating a new amalgamated history that combined the characters from both worlds.

The entire event, and specifically the Amalgam swerve, was the brainchild of editors Mark Gruenwald and Mike Carlin. Carlin had gotten his start in comics working as Mark’s lieutenant before eventually finding his way over to DC, so their relationship was cordial and mutually respectful. They also had similar senses of bent humor, and they spoke teh same language–all of which made the process of wranging the beast that was MARVEL VS DC a little bit easier.

The main MARVEL VS DC series was co-written by Peter David and Ron Marz, but I don’t think that either gentleman was much involved in working out what the 12 Amalgam titles would be. You see, the idea was that, for the one week after MARVEL VS DC #3 shipped, neither company would put out any of their regular releases. Instead, the fiction of the amalgamation would be carried over into real life–each company would instead release six one-shots, each of which operated as though it was a part of a long-running continuity. With a little bit of input from the senior editors at each organization, Carlin and Gruenwald came up with what those twelve books would be. One of which was SPIDER-BOY.

SPIDER-BOY was something of a weird choice given how central Spider-Man is to the Marvel Universe–you’d more naturally expect the web-slinger to have been matched up with/merged with Batman or Superman or even Wonder Woman, rather than Superboy. But the problem is that the twelve Amalgam titles were all intended to co-exist within the same cosmology, and there were other combinations that proved more attractive to people: Superman and Captain America as Super Soldier, Batman and Wolverine as Dark Claw, and so forth. You could say that Spidey drew the short end of the stick on this assignment. But the SUPERBOY character and title had been created during Carlin’s time editing the SUPERMAN books, and so had perhaps more meaning for him than it might have for others. And it did allow for a fusion of some of the iconography of the Man of Steel, even if our star wouldn’t be known as Clark Parker.

This all came about during the strange year that Marvel did away with a central Editor in Chief. Rather, the editorial department had been subdivided up into five different groups: X-Men, Spider-Man, Marvel Heroes (the Avengers titles, mostly), Marvel Edge (Ghost Rider, Hulk, Punisher, etc) and Epic/Everything Else. Bob Budiansky, who had overseen Marvel editorial’s Special Projects division (focusing on movie adaptations and press posters and licensing artwork and, most crucially, trading cards) was put in place as the Spider-Man EIC. As Bob;s right-hand man, I came along with him, and wound up editing a wide variety of Spider-Man-related series that weren’t the core titles starring the wall-crawler.

At a given point, Gruenwald informed Budiansky that we were going to need to do this SPIDER-BOY one-shot, and after some obligatory back-and-forth about the wisdom of combining Spider-Man with Superboy (about which the train had already left the station), the assignment was put into my hands to carry out. Because this wasn’t a regular Spider-man title, while Bob was of course concerned with the quality of the thing, he wasn’t as worried about any of the story details, meaning that I had a bit more of a free hand here to build as I desired.

The first move I made was to bring on board writer Karl Kesel. This was something of a no-brainer for me: not only had Karl co-created and written Superboy during the Death of Superman, but I’d also been a fan of his writing going back to the HAWK AND DOVE series. We’d talked about him doing something at Marvel a few times, but weren’t able to every get anything really going, thanks to the fact that I was still a young editori with limited assignments and limited pull. But this seemed like an ideal fit. I seem to remember that there was some initial hesitation in me going to a guy who was perceived as a DC writer, but the fit was good and I was convincing, plus the powers-that-be realized that this would be one fewer demand on the time of the main Spider-Man writers if it was done by somebody from outside the circle.

Kesel, it turned out, was a magnificent choice as it turns out, as he instinctively understood the appeal of the Amalgam books: they weren’t really stories so much as they were jokes, extended riffs on the central concept of a peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate combination between the history of both Marvel and DC. No other writer in the Amalgam project used those combinations more cleverly, or with greater complexity. For example, Spider-Boy was created at Project Cadmuss as an attempt to clone Super Soldier, The base was run by General Thunderbolt Ross, who adopted the kid, who thereafter went by the civilian name Pete Ross. But when his “Uncle Gen” was killed by a burglar, Pete adopted the persona of Spider-Boy to track down his killer–and thereafter became a media figure, appearing on television and in the press. It was also a big subliminal help that Kesel had worked under Carlin for so long–Mike trusted Karl implicitly, so ideas that might have been questioned on the DC side had they been pitched by other talent sailed through without any problem.

We had a slightly more difficult time on the art front, but only slightly. Right from teh start, teh person that Karl wanted to draw Spider-Boy was Mike Wieringo. Again, Mike was at this point seen as a DC artist–he hadn’t done much of anything for Marvel at this point apart from one ROGUE limited series. Bob Budiansky, though, had different ideas. He saw this as an opportunity to establish a working relationship with an artist who hadn’t yet done any work for Marvel, but whom he coveted; Humberto Ramos. I was as convincing as I could be, but in the end, the mandate came down; Call Humberto for SPIDER-BOY. And in fairness, Humberto would have been great on SPIDER-BOY–my hesitation was all about knowing what Karl wanted, which was also what I wanted at that point.

In the end, though, it was all for nothing. I called up Humberto and pitched him the project, and he turned it down. years later, he told me that when I called, since this was a Marvel book and he had been working for DC, he wasn’t sure that he would be allowed to do it, so he said no. A missed opportunity on his part. But it did open the way for me to reach out to Ringo for this book–and he killed on the job. So much so that it caught the attention of other people, and was directly responsible for Mike being offered SENSATIONAL SPIDER-MAN a few months later when Dan Jurgens left that book.

Apart from that, there were only one or two stories relating to the work on SPIDER-BOY that I can recall–the main one being an instance where I worked the edges of teh system in order to get what I wanted. If you look at the cover of SPIDER-BOY #1, you’ll see that it was colored using full process color. This was still a period in which most Marvel and DC books were done using old fashioned color separations. But in the case of SPIDER-BOY, the sales and marketing department under Steve Saffel had gotten the first cover colored for promotion–and they had a much bigger budget to do such things than was available to editorial. I liked what they did, and decided that we’d just use that same coloring for the cover to the actual book. that would help to make SPIDER-BOY look a bit more sophisticated and high-end on the stands, thought I. (in those days, there was a small bit of an arms race when it came to comic book coloring, largely set off by the Image founders, particularly Todd McFarlane on SPAWN, who raised the bar for how mice coloring could look and how much of an effect it could have on teh finished product. A game-changer the industry was still adjusting to.)

Bob Budiansky, though, had a problem with the coloring–and he wasn’t really wrong. Bob felt that the deep blue background didnt’ contrast with Spider-Boy enough, didn’t help him to pop. I can remember that he wanted the background to be a strong, primary 100% yellow. I didn’t love that for two reasons. First off, rightly or wrongly, a strong, flat yellow background on a cover by 1996 somehow made the book feel old-fashioned and a bit childish. Everything would pop, but the aesthetic of the piece would be totally different. My second concern was that, in order to change the background color, I’d have to get the whole piece recolored–which mean discarding the fully painted version in favor of the standard straightforward hand-separations of the period. But once again, I could not budge Bob on this point.

Fortunately, I found an ally in Mark Gruenwald. I don’t know that he cared especially one way or teh other, but he could tell that I cared, and that was good enough for him. Together, we hatched a plan–and a few weeks later, on a day when we knew Bob had some vacation scheduled, we assembled and sent the cover to print, with Mark signing off on it, since he was similarly an EIC. If it ever became an issue, Mark intended to tell Bob that he was unaware of there being any concern about teh cover and conveying that he thought it looked fine. But ultimately, it turned out that Bob didn’t care about it particularly either–and so if Gruenwald was okay with it, that was good enough for him.

My one regret on that cover was in not being able to lick the tag line. From the outset, I knew I wanted to banner the book with an alternative take on the famous Spider-Man mantra of “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.” But for teh life of me, I couldn’t come up with an alternative that I thought worked. Eventually, in the rush of needing to get the cover out of house while Bob was away, I bit the bullet and settled for “With Great Power Comes Great Possibilities”–which even then, I knew wasn’t really strong enough. By that same token not that I’ve really been thinking about it, but I don’t know that I have a better alternative even today.

One other minor bit of business: the name Bizarnage was coined by Dan Slott, whom I think had left staff by that point but who was still trying to break into teh field as a super hero writer. As we talked about this project at lunch one day, he tossed off teh name, and said that I could give it to Karl as an option. (Later on, he’d also come up with some other names for teh second round of Amalgams, including Ra’s Apocalypse, which I always loved.)

Each of the Amalgam titles carried a fake letters page, the idea of which was to reinforce the fiction of there being a long publishing history of this combined company. I wrote the letters page for SPIDER-BOY, a fac that becomes obvious when you realize that I signed all of the made up letters with the names of incidental characters from the Dick Van Dyke Show. All of the references here (and within the book proper) had to be coordinated through Gruenwald and Carlin, so that everything could be kept consistent across the twelve titles. It was a lot of effort expended for a fiction that not many readers especially cared about. (I am told that DC accidentally printed their titles for this event containing ads for other DC books and so pulped and reprinted them, because the idea was that there would be no evidence of the original universes. Over at Marvel, we were astounded by that dedication to a meaningless bit–had we made that mistake, we would have simply rolled with it rather than spend thousands of dollars replacing those books.)

Overall the Amalgam titles were a big hit and were remembered well, even by people who otherwise didn’t love MARVEL VS DC. They proved popular enough that a year later, Marvel and DC joined forces again to produce a second flight of titles. There was a follow-up to SPIDER-BOY called SPIDER-BOY TEAM-UP, but I didn’t edit that one. I let it go so that I could helm up CHALLENGERS OF THE FANTASTIC (again with Kesel) and IRON LANTERN (with Kurt Busiek & Paul Smith). of course, I wound up having oversight of all of the Marvel books in that flight after the untimely death of Mark Gruenwald, including THORION OF THE NEW ASGONDS by Keith Giffen and John Romita Jr, which he had intended to edit himself. That book had the added benefit of priming the pump to have John take over the returning THOR book a few months later during HEROES RETURN–but that’s a story for another day.

Once the book was done, Karl gifted me one of the pages from it that he had inked. It’s remained displayed on a wall in my home to this day.

5 thoughts on “Personal Best: SPIDER-BOY #1

  1. Loved the Amalgaverse so much. Since you’ve brought it up, there’s a question I’ve long wondered about: was there any sort of guiding rule on creating the amalgamated character other than “it looks like fun!” Clark Kent and Steve Rogers become Super-Soldier; Tony Stark and Hal Jordan become Iron Lantern. But while Logan becomes Batman, Bruce Wayne is an unmerged individual, though in Earth-Amalgam he’s running SHIELD. And Speed Demon was actually a triple merger — Ghost Rider, Etrigan and Flash.
    This is not a criticism. I was happy with the results, just curious.
    I agree Kesel did amazing work, though I think Busiek’s Iron Lantern is at the same level.

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    1. It was really whatever different creators and editors wanted to do, assuming that M.M.Carwald would bless it. Some people understood and embraced the rules more fully than others did.

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  2. The entire Amalgamalgamalga titles/stories truly need to be digitized and released in one “volume.” You can wait on the huge hardback reprint until we close on the house and I build a reinforced bookcase.

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