Saturday, April 08, 2006

It Came From The Longboxes: The Assassin Nation Plot

Issues: Amazing Spider-Man 320-325
By: David Michelinie, Todd McFarlane, and Erik Larsen
Collected in: The Assassin Nation Plot TPB
Why It's Here: Eventitude, 80s-style

The year was 1989. Batman and Joker tore up theaters and box office records, George Bush broke his most important campaign promise (but not his last), and a young Saddam Hussein taught us how to laugh. In the midst of all this, Marvel started a pilot program of running its most popular books biweekly during the summer months. This included, unsurprisingly, Amazing Spider-Man, then a big seller due to the work of McFarlane, then the hottest thing in comics besides the Human Torch.

To draw added attention to the event, editor Jim Salicrup instructed Michelinie to come up with a six-issue storyline that would offer readers something extra for their extra dollar-per-month, a rollicking mini-epic featuring guest stars, intrigue, lots of nasty villains, and twists and turns. All-in-all, a memorable experience. Since Dave had had success in the past with intrigue-laden, political thriller plots in Iron Man, he decided to do an intrigue-lade, political thriller plot for Spidey.

Now, of course, Spider-Man and Iron Man are different characters; Iron Man gets into political thrillers in the course of his everyday life as (1) a multibillionaire businessman and (2) inventor of a weapon of mass destruction. Spider-Man beats up muggers and fights guys like the Eel. The fate of the free world is rarely if ever in his hands, and as far as he's concerned, good, because if it is, that means a lot of way more qualified people have already been taken down.

Nonetheless, Michelinie had to get him on the course to just such a situation, and chose the method by which Peter Parker has found himself in every other major turning point in his life: plain bad luck. Spidey thought he was just beating up some bad guys attacking a catering truck. Then the caterers pulled out laser rifles and started shooting at, not just the bad guys, but him. And before he knew it, there he was in the basement of the National Archives with a ticking bomb and the Red Skull.

Let's back up: The caterers, as it turned out, were employees of the Life Foundation, a survivalist-opportunist group who believed civilization was due to collapse under its own weight any day now, and planned on getting rich post-fall by offering secure and safe living facilities to the wealthy while the have-nots fought each other in the streets for food. (That's actually a pretty good idea, and I'm surprised no one capitalized on Y2K fever in the real world to try the same scam.) Spidey, along with the mercenaries Paladin and Silver Sable, learned that the Foundation had also leased space in one of its condos to an assassin to use as a hiding place after he killed a high-ranking Symkarian official. Cue the failed attempt to stop the assassin, some planted evidence implicating the CIA, and an allusion to Franz Ferdinand (the archduke, not the band), and you have the world on the brink of war, with Spidey, Captain America, Solo (while he lives, terror dies, and the readers snore), Sable, ULTIMATUM (yes, those letters stand for something, and no, I'm not looking up what), Sabretooth (although Spidey never ran into him during the course of the story), and the aforementioned crimson-craniumed Nazi all arm-wrestling for the future. Although not literally, although that would make a cool idea for a comic.

I first read this story about three or so years after it came out, in trade (which is by now out of print, but can probably be tracked down on eBay or at a well-stocked comic store), and most recently read it over last Christmas. It holds up pretty well; late 80s/early 90s Marvel was an interesting period in the company's history, when the comics more or less sold themselves, but the artistic boundaries of the medium were being pushed on several fronts, leading to mostly workmanlike, "house-style" stories that nonetheless featured creators pushing themselves within those boundaries to do their best in terms of challenging the characters and the readers. The result was some darned good, unpretentious adventure fiction that's enjoyable by pretty much anyone. The fight scenes are, of course, McFarlane's best (and Erik Larsen does a nice job in his fill-in issue, the one with Sabretooth, who looks suitably menacing as he hangs an ex-henchman up on a meathook). The ULTIMATUM soldiers make for good cannon fodder, and seeing Spidey just plow through acres of the guys is a good deal of fun. Plus, he goes gonzo on the webbing on more than one occasion; seeing a bunch of pissed off soldiers struggling to break out of a web ball the size of a small sedan is just funny.

Throughout the story, Spidey is on Silver Sable's payroll (the only way he can get security clearance to be involved in most of what's going on), and gets his nose rubbed in it whenever he tries to take the moral high ground over his more ruthless "teammates;" in private, he wonders if there isn't a glimmer of truth to the insults; no matter how driven he may be by his sense of moral responsibility, he's also got a wife to support and a new apartment to pay for, not to mention yet another heart scare with Aunt May.

And that leads to the best moment in the story, the climax, where Spidey, being the only one to have seen through the Skull's red herring clue, confronts the mastermind at the National Archives (Skull plans to blow up the building, destroying priceless originals of historical documents like the Constitution and the Declaration, and blame Symkaria). Skull, with plenty of weapons at his disposal to deal with the webhead, chooses possibly the most destructive: a suitcase full of money. And Spidey, of course, tells him to shove it up his bony ass (not in so many words, but that's the gist of it). Cue Skull telling his goons to kill Spidey and the timer on the bomb starting to click down to zero…

As an afterword: There's a lot of brou-ha-ha about Civil War right now, but I look at this story, and I look at the overwrought preview pages, and the hype-filled interviews, and I just think, "Man, they're trying too hard." I'd honestly take another story like this, simple, character-driven, unassuming, over the Event of the Decade of the Week.

1 comment:

Cory said...

Absolutey great read! I'd forgotten most of the plot, but always remembered loving that series. Thanks for bringing back some really fond memories.