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The Spider: King of Crooks
Writers: Ted Cowan and Jerry Siegel
Artist: Reg Bunn
Published by Titan Books; $19.95 USD

U.K publisher Titan Books has recently begun reprinting collections of classic British comics, originally published in such weekly publications as Lion, The King of Picture Story Papers. The Spider: King of Crooks, their first effort, collects three complete Spider stories, The Spider, Return of the Spider, and The Spider v. Dr. Mysterioso (all serialized weekly in 1965 and 1966), along with a bonus short story from the 1969 Lion Annual, The Spider v. the Red Baron. My knowledge of comics history in general, and British comics history in particular, is slim, I'll admit at the outset; not only was I not born when these stories were published, I was also on the wrong continent to have read them in the first place. So my point of view on these stories is unfortunately unaffected by nostalgia and bittersweet pining for the halcyon days of my misspent youth; I wish it were otherwise - if I would have had access to this stuff, I would have eaten it up. Titan has done a fine job of collecting these stories in an oversized hardcover edition, including introductory notes and historical background introducing The Spider and his creators, a checklist of Spider stories, including reprints and updates, and some information on the magazines in which the stories first appeared. Reproduction quality varies from issue to issue, depending on the quality of the originals used, but even in the cases of the poorer copies, the quality does not detract from the stories themselves.

The Spider was a mysterious super-villain with dangerous-looking eyebrows and Spock-esque pointed ears, a spiffy pair of elf-boots, a collection of non-lethal but highly effective weaponry, and visions of grandeur; his only goal, it seems, was to rule the wonderful world of crime. And with the aid of his helpful henchmen, Professor Roy Ordini, safe-cracker extraordinaire, and scientific mastermind Professor Pelham, The Spider set out to to achieve his dastardly plan. Along the way, The Spider faced opposition from both sides of the law - on the side of all that is good, a pair of detectives who were constantly on his trail, and in the opposite corner, rival super-villains who also coveted the number one ranking on the world's "Most Wanted" lists.

Reg Bunn's black and white artwork is sterling throughout the series, making this collection worthwhile based on its merits alone. While there are few character close-ups, Bunn's rendering of figures and movement is consistently spot-on; his mastery of perspective and ability to draft realistic backgrounds combined with fantastic action sequences is also most impressive. According to the book's introduction, Bunn was called "The Cross-Hatch King," and was known for his reliability in sticking to a schedule. Such consistently high-quality output is all the more impressive considering the fact that this was considered "disposable art," if it was considered to be actual artwork at all. But, 40 years later, Bunn's work still stands as a fine example of the talents that were put to use in these "throwaway" publications.

While Bunn's artwork is a constant treat throughout, what surprised me the most about this collection of strips was how much superior Ted Cowan's writing was to that of Jerry Siegel. While the first two stories in this collection, written by Cowan, are smartly paced, intelligently plotted, and very entertaining, everything goes downhill when Siegel arrives on the scene. The Deuses start coming ex the machina faster than super-strength thread from The Spider's web gun as Siegel pulls out all the stops in using cheap techniques to save characters from the brink of grim and tortuous deaths. At one point in The Spider V. Dr. Mysterioso, the Spider has, as far as the reader can tell, perished in a helicar explosion perpetrated by the nefarious Dr. Mysterioso. In a flashback, the Spider, alive and well (surprise, surprise), says to himself, telling us all what we didn't see in the previous week's episode, "Instants after I entered my craft, I noticed... The bomb detector signal-light is flashing! Someone must have planted explosives aboard!"

Not an unusual technique, to be sure, and one wouldn't expect more from a weekly two-page action comic aimed squarely at a market made up of pre-teen boys, so Siegel's use of gimmickry is hardly shocking. What is remarkable, though, is Cowan's ability to avoid the typical sort of pulp-style cliffhangers so liberally employed by his Super-Famous American counterpart, while still leaving his readers wondering how The Spider could possibly escape and go on to achieve the status of World-Dominating Underworld Mastermind that every little boy dreams of. The character of The Spider was also transformed under the writing of Siegel, and not for the better. While, as written by Cowan, The Spider was fond of saying thing like, "I never helped the cops before - but I can't watch anyone fall to their death!", Siegel's Spider is much more sinister. "Yes, I live," he declares ominously in v. Dr. Mysterioso, "but you will perish, Mysterioso... together with the two lawmen who have dared to oppose me." At least in the stories included in this collection, I felt a lot happier rooting for The Spider as Cowan envisioned him than in Siegel's incarnation.

There are two ways of looking at a collection like this; on a strictly historical, archival level, King of Crooks is a fine look at the comic stories of 1960s Great Britain, and makes for fascinating reading on this basis alone. On the other hand, as a collection of stories, a diverting way to spend an evening, this collection caught my attention in a way I hadn't expected; Cowan's stories provide straight-up entertainment (with some chuckles thrown in at the expense of some over-the-top, melodramatic dialogue and narration), while Siegel's efforts provide entertainment on a much more ironic, distant level. Anyone interested in enjoying a collection of entertaining tales of intriguing characters largely unfamiliar to a North American audience would do well to check out The Spider: King of Crooks.

-- Jim Witt

Send review copies to:
Jim Witt
3311 Springvale Crt.
Burlington, Ontario, Canada
L7M 3Y6

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The ADD Blog by Alan David Doane. Trouble with Comics Reviews of comics and graphic novels. Commentary about the artform and industry of comics. Get back to the main page.

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