“Marvel Premiere Classics” was a 107 volume series of high quality and affordable hardcover collections that reprinted classic Marvel Comics stories along with rarely seen gems and classic series runs ranging from X-Force, Avengers, West Coast Avengers, Spider-Man, and Hulk. The series ran from 2006 to 2013, collecting a wide variety of material, much of which had never been reprinted before.
Spider-Man Torment (Marvel Premiere Classic Volume 27) Review
By Jesse Baker
In the late 1980s, the arrival of Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie onto “Amazing Spider-Man” had ushered in a new golden age for the Spider-Man franchise and record sales for the book. But as McFarlane’s star grew overnight, he began demanding more control over the story content for Amazing Spider-Man. In particular, McFarlane wanted Amazing Spider-Man to feature darker stories with Spider-Man facing truly monstrous foes and stakes which would steer the direction of the book into a more overtly horror driven direction.
Between this and the fact that Todd McFarlane had no experience whatsoever as a writer, the company needless to say had a crossroads. They couldn’t fire David Michelinie and give Todd the flagship Spider-Man title. Let alone allow McFarlane to turn the flagship Spider-Man book with a horror book with dismemberment and gore. But they had to come up with something to keep Todd McFarlane happy so he would not quit the book and derail the gravy train.
The solution to the problem would ultimately come from DC Comics, of all places.
In 1989, at the height of the buzz over the live action Batman movie, DC Comics launched a new Batman comic. “Batman: The Legend of the Dark Knight” was a Batman anthology comic that would for them to have big named writers write Batman stories without having them commit to writing the two main Batman books at the time. It also had the added benefit of producing material for the fledgling graphic novel market, with “Legends of the Dark Knight” creating the formula of a single story being dragged for multiple issues (in LOTDK’s case, five issues) explicitly for the sake of a single story being told in said trade paperback release.
So Todd McFarlane was taken off of Amazing Spider-Mand given a brand new Spider-Man comic to write. Simply called “Spider-Man” (or “Adjectiveless Spider-Man, as fans would come to nickname it as time went by), the series would be the centerpiece of a huge push Marvel Comics embarked on in 1990; a year that saw the launch of multiple new books which would help define the company in the 1990s.
But as production on the series began, there was a severe worry about how it would turn out. McFarlane was an artist first, not a writer and his editor Jim Scalicrup had to take an active role in guiding McFarlane through the process of writing a monthly comic book. Going into it, McFarlane wanted access to all of the big name Spider-Man villains (including Green Goblin and Venom) and had already had a wish list of plots he wanted to do and guest stars he wanted to feature (such as Wolverine). Furthermore, McFarlane had seen one of the more central flaws for DC’s “The Legend of the Dark Knight”; the book existed in a sort of nebulous limbo of actually mattering, continuity-wise. While some arcs on LOTDK could be treated as canon, some of the stories did not fit so easily into the established lore of the franchise. DC Comics did not give a definitely “yes” or “no” to the issue of which arcs were definitive post-crisis canon and which ones were the then modern-day version of “imaginary stories”; a term used to describe one-off tales from the 1950s and 1960s that were not canon to the lore of the Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman franchise.
In the end, McFarlane and Marvel Comics were made to compromise: McFarlane got his Wolverine team-up, plus assurances that his comic would be considered canon, that any redesigns/retools of major villains would carry over to the other Spider-Man titles along with assurances that he would be allowed to tell darker, scarier, and bloodier Spider-Man stories. In return, McFarlane was allowed only one of his planned stories (a team-up with Wolverine) and given usage of Lizard as the villain for his first storyline instead of being granted access to other more big name villains. He was also informed that while he would not be allowed to use Venom and Green Goblin, he WOULD be allowed to revamp Green Goblin’s successor, the Hobgoblin, per his vision of turning the villain into a literal demon and not just a guy in a fake demon costume. Finally, McFarlane was instructed to not portray Mary Jane Parker, Spider-Man’s wife, as a housebound figure who spent her nights worrying about her husband’s safety in between domestic vignettes of the Parkers. Instead, he was instructed to continue longstanding portrayal of Mary Jane as someone with an active social life and who threw herself into distraction to avoid dealing with her fears relating to her husband’s super-hero career.
Which leads us to “Torment”, the first arc of “Adjectiveless” Spider-Man. Reprinting Spider-Man #1–5 and material from Marvel Age (Marvel’s in-house promotional magazine), “Torment” serves as Todd McFarlane’s coming out party as a creative giant for better or worse.
The first thing to be said about “Torment” is that it’s a gruesome affair. And an unofficial sequel to one of the darkest Spider-Man stories ever written: “Kraven’s Last Hunt”. McFarlane brings back a long forgotten villain, Kraven’s voodoo priestess girlfriend Calypso (who in one of the story’s flaws, is never explicitly named in the arc) to seek revenge on Spider-Man for her lover’s death. And her agent of vengeance is one of Spider-Man’s long-time enemies-friends: The Lizard.
Born Curt Connors, the Lizard was one of the first villains introduced in Spider-Man’s history. A heroic super-scientist who lost his arm while serving in the military as a combat medic, Dr Connors dedicated his career as a super-scientist trying to find a way to restore lost limbs. Seeing potential in the regenerative abilities of certain lizards, Connors underwent a process to try and replicate the regenerative process in himself only to have it backfire mightily. The lizard DNA he entered into his body turned him into a realistic lizard/human hybrid that wanted to destroy humanity along with restoring his lost limb.
McFarlane had already drawn the Lizard in 1989, during his “Amazing Spider-Man” run. In that story, McFarlane ditched the long-held Steve Ditko realistic lizard design in favor of a new look. One that was more alien-esque in movement and pose, with a new face look that was more tiger/lion-esque than reptile to allow McFarlane to portray a more beastly creature.
The story doesn’t offer any explanation for how Calypso turned Curt Connors into Lizard again, as it opens with her scheme already in progress. Calypso is driven by revenge, blaming Spider-Man for Kraven the Hunter’s suicide and wishing to inflict a slow and painful death by poisoning.
Calypso’s revenge involves making further modifications to Lizard; besides giving him a reptilian venom (something he never had before), she has taken his regenerative powers to a new level of terror. The Lizard is now immortal and comes back to life each time he dies (which happens several times in the story).
As such, “Torment” takes one the tone of a horror film, with the Lizard as it’s unstoppable monstrosity terrorizing the hero. This is a radical change to the character, who up until that point, had been more or less a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde type figure. Adding to this, is the fact that McFarlane explicitly keeps the Lizard mute during the entire story. No humanization, no reference to his family, no wanting to create a reptilian master race (which was his normal villain MO). Just mindless, silent blood lust backed up by the fact that nothing can kill him.
Using the “writing for the trade” format, aids McFarlane in a lot of ways for his first time out as a writer. McFarlane gets plenty of pages to showcase his art skills and build tension and dread as Spidey tries to deal with an unkillable Lizard and the puppet master pulling his strings. Calypso in particular, benefits from McFarlane’s desire to redesign the villains in his comic, visually recasting Calypso as Lisa Bonet’s voodoo priestess character from the cult classic horror film “Angel Heart”. But as with all stories written for the trade paperback, the pacing issues can also harm the story. Spider-Man and Lizard don’t actually fight until the second issue and Mary Jane’s subplot (her going out for a night on the town rather than sit at home, paralyzed with fear over Peter’s safety) drags on and on with McFarlane repeating the same beats (which is to say, Mary Jane would rather party and have fun than be forced to confront painful emotions such as her constant fear that her husband might die in battle) repeatedly.
Sadly, in spite of it’s premise as a sequel to the “Death of Kraven the Hunter”, the ending fails to properly pay off the continuity McFarlane is clearly leveraging. There is no scene where Calypso reveals her motivation to Spider-Man and she vanishes at the end of the story when her lair collapses upon her. Lizard dies multiple times and escapes at the end; the accursed immortality Calypso gave him is never mentioned again when he next appears in Amazing Spider-Man #365 (which came out shortly after McFarlane bailed to found Image Comics). The later of which is kind of galling, as Curt and Spider-Man were extremely close friends and Peter historically would do whatever it takes to restore Curt’s humanity. Instead, Peter allows his friend to wonder off into the night, knowing he’s been driven irreversibly insane with unholy voodoo magic; his mind reduced to that of a rabid beast with a taste for human flesh.
But the most fascinating issue relating to the “Marvel Premier Classic” edition of Torment is the trove of behind the scenes material. Besides reprinting editor Jim Scalicrup’s revealing introduction to the original trade paperback release of the story, a large amount of behind the scenes material from Marvel Age #90 is included as well. This includes a candid interview with Todd McFarlane, detailing McFarlane’s plans for the series (including his desire to write a Green Goblin story and a third Venom story in the title) and other insights of McFarlane’s with relations to working on the Spider-Man franchise at the time. Also included is a special comic strip by Fred Hembeck promoting the title’s launch, and a collection of variations on the book’s iconic first issue cover. Also included is a Spider-Man quiz from the issue and a selection of letters from subscribers of Marvel Comics; who were gifted an advance copy of the first issue of the series, in a stealth bit of focus group testing that Marvel did for the book to help build buzz for it.
In conclusion, “Torment” is worth reading for the way in which it presents a major milestone in the history of the Spider-Man franchise. Spider-Man #1 remains one of the top selling comics of all time and presents the Spider-Man franchise at the pinnacle of it’s commercial success. Furthermore, provides a fascinating look at the evolution of Todd McFarlane as an artist and the groundwork laid for when McFarlane would leave Marvel to found Image Comics and create “Spawn”.