Christmas Comics Cavalcade: Spider-Man Holiday Special 1995

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1995 was a weird time to be a Spider-Man fan. Marvel Comics was in the midst of an almost three year long storyline wherein Peter Parker found out that he had been cloned. That clone, previously absent from Spider-Man stories for decades, returned under the name Ben Reilly and eventually took on the super-hero identity of The Scarlet Spider. The Clone Saga (as it became known) was by most accounts a colossal misstep for the Spider-Man franchise of books. Fans were disengaged from the shenanigans and became apoplectic when, in a shocking twist, it was revealed that the Spider-Man/Peter Parker character they had been following for years was in fact, the clone… and Ben Reilly was the TRUE, original Spider-Man. Ben then took over the prime Spidey gig, allowing Peter Parker and his wife Mary Jane a quiet retirement… for about 6 or 8 months before readers practically demanded that the ship be righted with the Peter character who had been front and center for most of the comic’s run returning to his role as Spider-Man.

Sound stupid and confusing? Welcome to superhero comics in the 1990’s!

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I tell you all that to explain that today we’ll be looking at the Spider-Man Holiday Special, published in 1995 by Marvel Comics. Cover price was $2.99… I got this for a quarter at a comic book convention.

Before I start digging in, I want to point out that the Spider-Man Holiday Special took the place of my beloved Marvel Holiday Specials, of which I have written about the 1993 and 1994 editions in previous Christmas Comics Cavalcades. If I had known that this comic was supposed to be the replacement for those books, I probably would have been more inclined to pick it up back in ’95… probably. Like most fans, I was steering clear of the Spider-Man titles in the mid-1990’s precisely because of the Clone Saga, which I had sampled and found head-spinningly bad… and I was fourteen years old in 1995, I was hardly an arbiter of good taste.

The Spider-Man Holiday Special is an anthology of five stories taking place in and around the end of the Clone Saga, where Ben Reilly briefly took over the Spider-Man duties from Peter Parker as the primary Spider-Man.

The first story, A Matter of Faith, was written by Glenn Greenberg with art chores beind taken care of by Kevin Maguire and Jimmy Palmiotti.

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As you can see, Spider-Man is dudded out in his post-clone era costume which, full disclosure, I think it a pretty fantastic take on the classic costume. Someone at Marvel Comics clearly agreed with me, as the design was adopted in several other Spidey comics, most notably a long run on Spider-Girl.

Greenberg’s story finds Spider-Man saving a woman named Jenny’s life as she jumps off a bridge except…

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So Spidey grabs her up and starts swinging around Manhattan with Jenny, only to encounter a super-villain named Scorcher.

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Interestingly, Scorcher first appeared in the ONLY Spider-Man comic of the 1990’s that had any critical or fan praise, Untold Tales of Spider-Man. In my recollection, Marvel spent a lot of time trying to capture what worked in UTSM in their other books. This is kind of an example of that.

During the melee between Spider-Man and Scorcher, Jenny saves the life of a homeless bystander, which reinvigorates her faith in herself and the holidays, bringing us to the end of the first story.

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So… this is a fine, B- Spider-Man Christmas tale. I will say, I find it to be kind of a waste to put Kevin Maguire on a Spider-Man story. Maguire’s stock in trade are his amazing facial expressions and when you’ve got a superhero who’s going to spend all of the story behind a full-face mask, that’s not a great use of your artist’s talents. I don’t know that Palmiotti’s inks to Maguire’s pencils any favors either. There’s also (and I fully realize I’m nit-picking here) a completely tone-deaf joke that Spidey makes about having a problem with girls on bridges which is a direct reference to the death of Gwen Stacy, one of the failures and tragedies of Spider-Man’s career… but playing it off like a gag doesn’t do this story any favors in my eyes.

The next story, The Cat Who Stole Christmas is a four page dialogue-less story featuring occasional Spider-Man ally Black Cat.

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It’s a slight story and the artist is clearly aping mid-90’s Spidey artist Mark Bagley pretty badly.

Next up, an eight page Venom story The Venom Claus, written by Eric Fein with art by Javier Saltares.

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As a character, Venom has fallen between the cracks a bit in recent years but during the 1990’s he was Spider-Man’s primo villain and Marvel Comics ran him into the ground with “guest-starring” roles in comics and an endless array of mini-series. The story finds Eddie Brock (Venom’s… I guess Eddie is Venom’s secret identity?) going after a bunch of punks who are mugging sidewalk Santa Clauses in New York City.

The story has the flaw of ALL the stories that Marvel published about Venom in the 1990’s. Venom was supposed to be a character who’d kill on a whim if he thought it was something that would “protect innocents” but when Marvel began casting him as an anti-hero, that aspect of the character had to be jettisoned, or rationalized into giving Venom a reason for not killing. Having said that, the art by Saltares is creepy and exactly the kind of thing you’d want out of a story about Venom

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…if indeed, you wanted a story about Venom in the first place.

Next up is Companions, a six page story starring none other than Willie Lumpkin, a side-character in the Marvel Universe who is probably best remembered as the Fantastic Four’s mailman although he had an extended fling with Peter Parker’s beloved Aunt May.

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Aunt May finally kicked the bucket in Amazing Spider-Man #400, so this story finds Willie mourning May around the holidays. Honestly, this is a lovely little story and, like the other fun comic I’ll talk about in a minute, it’s good because it’s addressing a continuity point that there would have been no time for in the core Spidey books. The artwork by Mike Manley is really quite lovely; I’m guessing from the credits that Manley inked his own pencils here and his use of blacks is sort of unexpected for a Christmas comic, but it works. Like most holiday stories, Companions works because it’s a bit downbeat with a hopeful ending. Imagine one of the best stories in a Spider-Man book being entirely about an old man with zero appearances from the superhero on the cover of the book.

Finally, the Spider-Man holiday special ends with Merry Christmas Mr. Storm, written by Sholly Fisch with pencils by Robert Brown and Joshua Hood, inks by the great Al Williamson.

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Like Companions, this story addresses a long-standing but not entirely crucial piece of Spider-Man lore… the friendship between Spidey and The Human Torch. The two characters had a long-standing history of team-ups and Fisch’s story addresses their occasional meet-ups on the top of The Statue of Liberty. The story is divided into two parts and directly engages with the weirdness of the Clone Saga. The first part shows a holiday meeting between the two characters BEFORE the Clone business.

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The second half details the first meeting between the “new” Spider-Man and The Human Torch AFTER the Clone Saga.

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I like this story because I always liked the Spidey/Torch friendship which was at times antagonistic and competitive but ended up casting both characters in a pretty good light. I like that Fisch thought to give us the last and first meetings of the characters with some nice moments. This is also a comic where the story and the ideas around it trump the artwork which is… rough. It’s rough in a way that only comic art from the 1990’s can be, with lots of pin heads and impossible extreme character posing.

…and there you have it. Two good stories, one mediocre one, two bad ones. That’s a fair batting average for an anthology comic!

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