Spidey Classics: Amazing Spider-man #304

review by Ron Ferraro

For my first “Spidey Classics” review, I wanted to avoid any stories that I either really loved or really despised, but rather I picked a story that I couldn’t quite recall, but remember feeling lukewarm about. Also, I wanted to pick one that was relatively easy to find at a decent price. Sure, ASM #298-300 are almost always missing from bulk back issue collections, but the issues just after are fairly plentiful. In near mint condition, ASM #304 would sell for anywhere from $15 to $25, but copies are almost always floating around in fair or “average” condition for about what you’d pay for a new book today. So they’re accessible, for the most part.

McFarlane’s cover is well-drawn, but does little to sell this book. We see a full-page image of Spidey’s back while he hangs upside-down and the book’s main villain (The Black Fox) is afforded about the cover space he deserves: he’s roughly the size of the “M” in the Spider-man logo. If this weren’t from the highly praised and valued David Michelinie/Todd McFarlane run, you would almost never choose it as a “must-read-first” book out of a stack of any other dozen Spidey books. Never judge a book by its cover, though, right?

Once we get to the interior splash page… what do we have here? Someone is holding a book called “Webs” featuring exclusive Daily Bugle photos of Spider-man taken by Peter Parker. I am now, all at once, intrigued. The next two pages introduce Mr. Wilton and Ms. Greely and provide the set-up for a national book tour for Peter, which will take him out of New York, span several titles and involve meetings with all sorts of villains and heroes from all over the U.S. that we might not otherwise ever get to see. Fun!

After an amusing scene with a perfectly characterized J. Jonah Jameson, I’m thinking that I can’t wait to see where things will go next. But of course, what would a Spider-man comic from the 80’s be without Spidey making the obligatory one-page break from the plot to stop a street-brawl or foil a purse-snatching or whatever? Here, Spidey stops a guy from knifing another guy over a five dollar bet, and then swings on with his life. If this were a movie, this scene would have been cut before it was even filmed. Nothing happens except for an action shot of Spidey snapping a switchblade knife like a twig. Is this significant character development or just evidence of some sort of “Spider-man action” page quota being fulfilled? I’m thinking the latter. Secure in the knowledge that the reader has had enough mask-time with Spider-man swinging around narrating to himself and scaring would-be thugs into instant submission, it’s time to check in on the supporting cast.

The next page has effectively been redacted by subsequent events, but there is a reference to a Mary Jane Watson-Parker that never exists, an admission by “new husband” (read: live-in boyfriend) Peter that he’s not used to all this sharing, and a lovey-dovey smooch that would make any 6 year old say “eeewww!” MJ is moving her clothes into a huge closet at the newly-monogamous (can’t say newlywed) couple’s apartment at Bedford Towers when Peter tells her about his book tour, and the two go to surprise Aunt May with the great news. Aunt May is ecstatic about being able to see people buy Peter’s book when she goes to K-Mart, and tells Peter how proud his uncle would have been of him and how proud she is, and now the whole world smells of roses and Snuggle bears. Cue the villain.

Well, sort of; the Black Fox comes across as more of a ne’er-do-well than a true villain, and he’s actually quite sympathetic and even likeable here, much like his previous appearances in the title. A much more menacing figure, despite appearing in only 3 panels, is Jonathan Caesar. A very subtle exchange occurs between Caesar and MJ in their introduction, with him inviting her over for tea and MJ responding that she and her husband (in bold just like that) would love to, when they return from their trip to California. You know, on the book tour from seven pages ago? Now, it’s perfectly reasonable that MJ was just trying to get rid of Caesar with the husband remark, but it has a lot more impact knowing that the two actually were married than it does now, post-retcon.

So, next Peter and MJ arrive in California, and they have some spare time before their first book-related appearance at a charity gala exhibit of the Valencia Chalice. With a boyish grin and goofy-wide eyes, Peter lures his new wife to Disneyland in a bit of unexpected foreshadowing on the part of Michelinie. The scene at the park is great, and offers insight into Peter’s sheltered, bookworm past while also perfectly portraying both Peter and MJ, who says that she signed on for better or worse, even if that means playing “mommy” once in a while. In the BND re-write of this script, they’d have to leave that line out entirely. File it under “phrases never uttered” or “20 years of editorial find & replace.” If we’re counting, that’s four distinct references to Peter and MJ being married in this issue. That’s not bad, actually, all things considered. So the story isn’t exactly ruined, just slightly compromised.

There’s some light-hearted fish-out-of-water scenes of Peter at the gala with MJ before the action kicks in. The Fox shows up as a guest, having lifted an invitation from a Mr. Nussbaum, and he seems intent on stealing the Chalice. If there’s anyone who hasn’t seen this coming from a mile away, please raise your hand. Now smack yourself with it for being clueless. Of course, Peter has seen the Black Fox before and recognizes him instantly. The Fox doesn’t know Peter from Adam, so he has no idea that Spider-man is about to foil his final job and ruin his retirement. What follows is your typical “thief tries to steal valuable object, Spidey foils and gives chase” scenario, which I’m sure we’ve all seen before, though usually the thief has more curves and less facial hair. The surprise comes when Spider-man stumbles right into the gala, which begs the question, “What the heck is Spider-man doing in California?” Not to worry, MJ is on the scene and provides a quick and loud introduction for the “Webs” man, as if this were a planned publicity stunt for the book. The day is saved, except that the Fox gets away while Spidey is waylaid by schmoozers.

Grateful for his good fortune, though unaware as to what has delayed his pursuer, the Fox doubles back to retrieve the Chalice and runs into... the Prowler! Hoo-Boy! Things Are Hoppin’ Now! No, seriously. It actually says that at the end of the book.

As cliffhanger endings go, this is not one that would spare Scheherazade her life. The prowler has always been a lame character attached to a costume that is far too cool for him. As drawn by McFarlane, he looks positively bad-ass, which is absolutely not the case with Hobie Brown at all. In fact, the art throughout the book is superb, despite the fact that fashions worn by civilian characters all appear hopelessly out of date. After looking at this last panel, though, I have absolutely no doubt as to where the idea for Spawn came from. The mask, the cloak, the clawed hand smoking with energy-even the pose itself; perched on a windowsill- indicate that this Prowler panel might have been a preliminary drawing of what would later be known as Spawn. Color it differently and no one would notice the difference. The Prowler’s actual place in the overall plot of this two-parter is more a subject of review for the next issue, but where this one is concerned, his appearance does provide an unexpected (if not particularly suspenseful) twist ending.

Although it is not by any means his best work, David Michelinie demonstrates wonderful characterization throughout the issue, and provides a novel plot device in sending Peter & MJ (and Spider-man) on a book tour that takes them out of New York in a plausible, fun change of pace for the series. The lighter moments at Disneyland and the gala are a welcome respite for readers weary of the title’s darker tone since “Fearful Symmetry.” Despite being less-than-thrilled with the pacing of the issue, I was surprised that I actually enjoyed reading this 20+ years later. For anyone who is a fan of married Peter, this issue will offer you a very satisfying return to happier times, and I highly recommend it. The plot was rather predictable, but curiously its predictability seemed to work for it, rather than against it. Just like the Splash Mountain flume ride featured in the story, you know the drop is coming well in advance, but it doesn’t prevent you from throwing your arms up in the air and shouting “Hoo-Boy!

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