Spider-man: Chapter One: written by John Byrne; illustrated by John Byrne and Al Milgrom (1998-99): Well, it’s not as bad as I feared, this attempt at a retcon of Spider-man’s origins that fared so poorly in the marketplace and among those who actually read it that Marvel subsequently ignored everything herein. Nonetheless, Byrne is not at the top of his writing or drawing game here. Not even close.
Basically, Byrne decided that Spider-man’s first 20 appearances back in the 1960’s constitute Year One. However, Marvel can’t call this Spider-man: Year One because DC had already cornered that title extension. Hence Chapter One. Things are then updated so that everything occurs about eight years prior to the then-current Spider-titles, setting Spidey’s origin around 1991.
Then come the changes. Stan Lee first posited in a never-produced screenplay that the same radiation experiment created Spider-man and Doctor Octopus. Byrne takes that and runs with it. He also has the radiation accident that created that little radioactive spider kill about a dozen other people and put Peter Parker in the hospital for weeks. Wow, what larks!
Then, with the benefit of hindsight that the Green Goblin was really crazy industrialist Norman Osborn, Byrne attributes the origins of many of Spidey’s greatest foes to Osborn. And those he doesn’t create, he enlists to attack Spider-man.
Furthermore, because Steve Ditko drew the Sandman and Osborn with similar Ditko-stylized hairstyles (hairstyles that would translate literally into the real world as some very out-of-place, out-of-time combination crew cuts and corn rows), Byrne has the Sandman and Osborn turn out to be cousins. I think. Norman thinks of the Sandman as ‘cousin’ in quotation marks at one point, perhaps suggesting that Osborn is lying, or perhaps suggesting that Osborn just likes making air-quotes.
Along the way, Byrne gives Electro a boring new suit, something the filmmakers of the upcoming Spider-man movie have also chosen to do. He comes up with a rationale for the burglar’s murder of Spidey’s Uncle Ben that is a marvel (or maybe a Marvel) of obsessive problem-solving of continuity problems that are not actually continuity problems. And he makes Peter Parker’s relationship with Daily Bugle secretary Betty Brant somewhat ickier by making it clear that she’s a 20-something dating a 17-year-old boy.
There are some nice moments here, especially in some of the action sequences. But throughout the book there’s an obsessive tying together of threads best left untied (did every super-villain work for Norman Osborn?) and some uncharacteristically sloppy artwork from Byrne (the low-point comes late, with a panel showing a Daredevil who is apparently either a very peculiar-looking dwarf or possibly a giant, costume-wearing fetus; the Green Goblin is the worst-served throughout, possessed as he is of a gigantic, grinning, orange-on-a-toothpick head).
That Byrne periodically draws Aunt May to look exactly like his version of intermittent Fantastic-Four nanny (and practicing witch) Agatha Harkness actually confused me a couple of times. And why does Flash Thompson’s hair change back and forth between blonde and red throughout this compilation? Who’s checking the colours for the reprint? Lightly, lightly, lightly recommended for Spider-man completists or those curious to see why this miniseries continues to be hated by comic-book readers 16 years after it debuted.