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Contrary to the only other review of this now rather old Spiderman graphic novel, written by Todd McFarlane who before had mostly only illustrated, I actually really liked this and have fond memories of reading it for the first time when I was much younger. Even after several years, the attraction of this much grittier, darker Spiderman story than any we had ever seen before still holds and it is just as good now as when it was first written!
The basic premise is thus: Spiderman has grown over confident and is right in his element cracking jokes as he busts two incompetent villains who have attempted to rob a fragile old lady in a back alley. After checking in with M.J, his long-time girlfriend and now wife, Spidey heads back out again and finds himself at odds with old arch-nemesis, The Lizard, whom he once knew as Doc Connors in his other life as Peter Parker. Connors became The Lizard after taking a serum he had created to try and replace a missing arm; the theory being that Lizards can replace their own missing limbs. Unfortunately when things went wrong, Connor transformed into the irrational Lizard!
This time however, The Lizard is even more enraged than usual with a crazed blood lust about him that Spidey has never seen before. Infected with a poison coated on The Lizard's claws, our hero finds himself weakening and disorientated, unable to appeal to any last remaining shred of Connor's humanity that normally resides there. Slowly it becomes apparent to Spidey, as he lies in the debris of their ongoing battle with his costume in tatters, that he is the pivotal point in some dastardley plot to finish him off once and for all. The Lizard is being controlled, by someone Spidey may not have met before, and someone who has a very personal and deadly score to settle....
With all of the action set in the middle of the night in the midst of pouring, torrential rain, this could be a story right out of Frank Millar's Sin City if it wasn't for the fact that the whole thing is in colour! My fellow reviewer has commented on the fact that often we are presented with very similar images over the course of this story and that it seems a bit convoluted to be stretched out over five parts. Whilst in some ways I would agree, also I disagree and I shall tell you why....
Read in weekly installments, I found this worked really well; continually building the tension and suspense with each chapter until the whole thing reaches a terrific and sudden climax. As a single story collected together, much like Stephen King's Green Mile which was serialised upon first publication, it kind of loses a bit of its impact!! Still, it is still a very good story and a great first effort from McFarlane who definetely brings his own unique style to this much-loved character. Though this plot carries on from events in Kraven's Last Hunt, you don't need to have read that paticular story to enjoy this but I do think a basic knowledge of Spiderman and his adversaries is useful!
Certainly this is a much darker Spiderman story than most fans will be used to as our friendly neighbourhood web-slinger is forced to face his own mortality at very close lengths at a time when everything in his life seems to be going well! As such, it may not appeal to all fans but I simply love the direction McFarlane takes here with one of Marvel's favourite ever heroes!
Artist Todd McFarlane first became famous and (briefly) Marvel Comics new golden boy for his work on The Amazing Spider-Man in the late eighties and early nineties. McFarlane's art was richer and more colourful than that of other Spidey titles and he famously eschewed the standard image of Spider-Man swinging through New York like Tarzan on a vine to make the character stranger, swinging past skyscrapers on countless weird knotted arachnid webs with his body and legs often at impossible angles, gently playing up the slight creepiness factor inherent in a character who has taken on the agility of a spider in human form. This new approach to Spider-Man was soon imitated by other Marvel artists. When McFarlane grew tired of illustrating stories written by others and hinted he might leave to do his own stuff, Marvel offered him a brand new title of his own - simply called 'Spider-Man' - to both write and illustrate. Spider-Man #1 became a big event, sold a couple of million copies, and began with a five issue story arc called Torment which is collected together here in this 128 page graphic novel. Sadly though, Torment proved that at this stage of his career McFarlane was an awful lot better at drawing comics than he was at writing them.
Torment has precious little plot for a story that was stretched over five issues and is an ill-conceived attempt to go much darker than usual for Spider-Man. It begins with Spider-Man dealing with a pair of crooks attempting to rob an old lady in an alley in his usual wisecracking fashion. Later, at his loft apartment with Mary Jane, Peter (as in Peter Parker obviously) tells MJ he finds it amusing that two small time crooks even had the gall to challenge Spider-Man and is generally full of himself. Peter's confidence and sense of invincibility as Spidey is soon to be shattered though when The Lizard surfaces in New York and begins a gruesome killing spree. Peter has battled this character before and used to know The Lizard when he was Dr Curt Connors (Connors tried to regrow a lost arm with reptile DNA and turned into a lizard super villain etc, etc) but is shocked when he encounters the creature again as Spider-Man. The Lizard is far more feral and bloodthirsty than he remembers and he detects no trace of Connors at all. When The Lizard poisons Spider-Man with something on his claws our hero is soon helpless and disoriented and slowly realises that he is the intended victim of a very sinister plot.
Torment ties in with the events of Kraven's Last Hunt to minimal effect and is festooned with pretentious narrative captions that soon become a little bit wearing. These captions are often a tad clunky. 'The city is covered with a blanket of rain. It is just past midnight. But weather and time have no meaning to this sprawling landscape. Stoic, the towering behemoths are totally unaware of the environment.' There are several of these on every page and they are far too grandiose and pompous for the actual quality of the story. By all means be pretentious if you've written The Dark Knight Returns but Spider-Man: Torment is a very ordinary comic in terms of its story and writing. Turning The Lizard into a ravenous beast attacking people in New York like a werewolf is a mildly interesting idea but after a dozen or so pages of The Lizard smashing through walls after Spider-Man slobbering you sort of wish you were reading a story with Doctor Octopus instead so at least a few moments of levity and some wit might encroach on the comic.
One of the problems with Torment, apart from the fact that it has practically no story whatsoever, is that Spider-Man, generally, is a funny character and a funny comic. Torment is an attempt to move away from this and put Spider-Man through the mill, the story taking place almost entirely in the dark and playing out in abandoned buildings and lonely alleyways littered with rubbish. There are pages and pages of a woozy and drugged Spider-Man being smashed through walls by The Lizard and then, his costume all ripped, sitting in rubbish wondering over and over and over again (via thought bubbles) what is happening to him. The Lizard is being manipulated by a surprise villain (that most people will never have heard of) and it's all part of some voodoo capers or something. One of the problems is that you probably could have told this story in one or two issues and yet it was stretched over five. McFarlane's pacing and ability to flesh out a story is very suspect here and Torment, which isn't much fun for a Spider-Man story, soon becomes repetitive.
The best thing about the comic is (unsurprisingly) the art. McFarlane goes for a more abstract approach here with the story often told in long, narrow panels that are the length of an entire page. The colours are vivid and the background details are excellent. He is great at drawing Spider-Man and Peter and MJ are good here too, if a tad cartoonish with square faces and little button noses. One problem though is that because Torment is such a murky comic at times with all the night panels and darkness, sometimes it's a little difficult to actually tell what is going on. As a drugged and bloodied Spider-Man fights for his life, a subplot of sorts has Mary Jane out for a night on the town clubbing. The themes here are that Mary Jane is learning to accept that Peter is Spider-Man and is needed elsewhere sometimes whereas Peter's harrowing night with The Lizard will teach him that he shoudn't take MJ or his own life for granted.
Spider-Man: Torment is a misfire that finds Todd McFarlane struggling with his new role as a writer and is essentially some nice art in search of a story. It abandons the fun and humour of Spider-Man and embroils him in a dark and murky story (and setting) that seems more appropriate to Batman than Peter Parker. Ultimately, these first issues of 'Spider-Man' amounted to much ado about nothing and both McFarlane and the Spider-Man comics would go on to do better things in the future.