Spider-Man’s almost-60-year history is filled with colourful villains, quips and plenty of web-slinging. And aside from a murdered uncle and the odd girlfriend being thrown off a bridge, the Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man isn’t really known for dabbling in darkness. Yet there is an exception: the historically super-grim chapter for the character that also coincided with that time Spider-Man visited British Columbia.
Spidey’s visit to Canada took place in issues #8-12 of Spider-Man (‘90-91) – a series, written, drawn and (mostly) inked by comic book superstar Todd McFarlane.
For comic book-collecting kids in the late ‘80s, artist McFarlane’s take on Spider-Man in Amazing Spider-Man (with writer David Michelinie) was super-cool and unlike anything seen before: the webhead’s iconic mask had big, buggy eyes. His body contorted like a ninja. His webs were weird, chaotic spaghetti-like strings. And it wasn’t just Spider-Man that had a new look: perpetual-nerd Peter Parker seemed suddenly hipper when drawn by McFarlane.
With the success of Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel was keen to keep their superstar artist happy, and in 1990 they gave McFarlane a brand-new series where he would do it at all, as writer and artist.
The first issue of the adjectiveless Spider-Man sold 2.5 million copies – partly thanks to a variant cover scheme and a growing speculator market – and set a brief world record. The book would remain a monthly best-seller for McFarlane’s time on the series.
In Spider-Man, McFarlane’s splashy take on the character remained unmatched – and now that he could draw whatever he wanted, the stories were also a stark departure from previous Spidey tales too. This is primarily because they were a monthly nightmare-fuelled horror show, pushing the usually-friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man into the darkest corners possible; and where an ongoing thread was that terrible things consistently happened to children.
The epitome of McFarlane’s time on Spider-Man was the five-issue “Perceptions” storyline when Spider-Man visited the small town of Hope, BC, Canada – a good place for a brutal story. (The choice for Spider-Man to visit Hope may seem random, but at the height of his Spider-Man popularity, McFarlane was living around Vancouver and/or Vancouver Island – a likely influence on Spidey’s trip out of NYC.)
The “Perceptions” storyline begins when a child’s body is found alongside a highway in the wilds of BC. From there, a national media storm soon engulfs the small town and Peter Parker is sent by the Daily Bugle to take photos. In Hope, he makes friends with a Vancouver Sun reporter who’s making a name for herself covering the story and swings around BC’s ancient forests.
The media quickly points the finger at Wendigo – a Marvel bigfoot-type character – and the RCMP and Canadian hunters are out for the monster’s blood, while more murdered children keep turning up. Wolverine shows up too, and enlists Spidey to clear Wendigo’s name.
The story concludes on an even darker note when an RCMP officer confesses to abducting and murdering kids and framing Wendigo. (You see, the real monsters are people.)
McFarlane brings a nice sense of moody atmosphere to the story, but the pacing mostly crawls across its five issues.
Luckily, there’s an Alpha Flight joke too, because when in Canada:
All in all, Spidey’s visit to BC is a major bummer, consistent with the rest of McFarlane’s Spider-Man series: visually dynamic with a super-dark and padded story. Like everything else he did, it was also a best-seller.
In the back pages, the letter column published a letter by would-be Rolling Stone critic and reviewer Alan Sepinwall, that calls out McFarlane for the writing on the gothic Spider-Man series – and adds the only reason the book likely exists is because Marvel was afraid to lose him. And he’s not far off on both accounts. (Looking back 30 years later, Sepinwall says the letter was written when he was “already dreaming of being the next Roger Ebert, and this was me being a very snarky young version of that.”)
McFarlane rebuts in the letter column, saying: “If you can forget, for the twenty minutes you read my book, the way that the other Spider books have been written for the past thirty years then I think you might get a bit more enjoyment out of it.”
30 years later – and with an open mind – enjoyment is still hard to find in the overly-serious series, but it is interesting to see in hindsights that the series is such an obvious precursor to what McFarlane ultimately wanted to do in comics.
McFarlane would walk off Spider-Man with issue #16, moving from BC to Portland, Oregon with his biggest professional accomplishment ahead of him: forming Image Comics (along with the five other founders) and launching his creator-owned character, Spawn. The gothic tone of McFarlane’s Spider-Man series was in full force and it’s very much a precursor to the gritty ‘90s superhero comics that were in full force in the early days of Image Comics.
However, in the Spawn’s 300+ issues – a Guinness World Record-setting run for a creator-owned comic book – as the character has not dared visit Hope, BC.