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Lost Gems: ‘Twas the Fight Before Christmas

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Over the next month Mark is going to share his thoughts on what he considers to be some of the “Lost Gems” of the Spider-Man comic book universe. These are some of Mark’s favorite stories that aren’t likely to appear on any “best of” lists.

This entry looks at Spider-Man Tangled Web #21, aka “Twas the Fight Before Christmas,” by Darwyn Cooke and Jay Boone.

Tangled Web 21 01Gimmick comics like a holiday-themed issue are a dicey proposition for any “underrated” list since they tend to be trite attempts by publishers to appeal to our collective inner-schmaltz all in the name of “tis the season.” For a demonstration of what I’m talking about, check out the very first issue of Marvel Team-Up, which strangely enough was a Christmas-themed issue featuring a story about Sandman breaking out of prison to visit his mother and Spider-Man trying to buy a present for Gwen Stacy. In short, if you remove all of the Christmas glitz and glamour around it, such as Human Torch’s “Peace on Earth Goodwill Towards Me” skywriting at the very end, you’re left with a rather shallow story. Or how about that time Spider-Man fought a dinosaur man at the Museum of Natural History on Christmas?

Bah humbug.

But I feel different about 2003’s Spider-Man Tangled Web #21, by Darwyn Cooke and Jay Boone, which often gets overlooked in terms of “best” Spider-Man holiday stories for the aforementioned Marvel Team-Up, as well as a few other tinsel-tinged tales, primarily because Tangled Web as a series often gets overlooked by fans. 

For the uninitiated, Tangled Web is a pretty awesome concept and something I wish Marvel and the Spider-office would consider publishing again rather than a steady stream of forgettable “spinoff” books. In short, while Peter Parker/Spider-Man is a central character in Tangled Web, the focus tends to be shifted more towards his supporting cast. Plus, the series was notorious for giving other writers/artists who were not normally associated with the character (or even Marvel comics) a chance to shine.

Tangled Web 21 02For example, Tangled Web #21 put the spotlight on Cooke, who was primarily a “DC guy” at this point. Cooke’s unique, “cartoony” style would probably have been a bit of a stylistic shock for me within the Amazing Spider-Man universe, but for a quirky “B” title like Tangled Web, it’s a perfect change of pace from a more “traditional” artist. And the fact that this issue is a very absurd holiday story makes Cooke’s writing and art are even more appropriate. 

As for the comic’s story, there’s not much to dig into, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the perfect holiday-themed “one-and-done” that brought a smile to my face at the end and put me in the Christmas spirit. It’s Christmas Eve, it’s snowing, Peter has brought in a bunch of abandoned children into the Daily Bugle’s office, leading to some hilarious scenes involving J. Jonah Jameson and Betty Brant, and Mary Jane is stranded by the blizzard and won’t be home for Christmas. 

Meanwhile, Sue Storm and the Fantastic Four, and the Inhuman Crystal Amaquelin are trying to track down Crystal’s sister Medusa. This diversion oddly brings Sue Storm, Crystal and Janet Van Dyne (aka, the Wasp) to the mall to do some holiday shopping (finding something for Black Bolt is a particular challenge) when the Puppet Master is up to no good, taking control of the mall’s Spider-Man (played by our old pal Flash Thompson, ‘natch) and Medusa, in order to wreak havoc and steal whatever it is in the store Santa’s sack. 

True to Tangled Web’s usual M.O., the bulk of the story focuses on Sue, Cyrstal and Janet, with occasional cut backs to Jonah and Betty. But between the heightened characterizations, and the overall light and breezy tone of the comic (Sue thinking her butt looks too big in the Fantastic Four playset her son Franklin is requesting for Christmas is funny stuff), I can’t say I honestly miss Spider-Man. Many have said that Spider-Man has one of the best supporting casts in comic books, and this series, and more specifically, Tangled Web #21, demonstrates the legitimacy of that argument.

Tangled Web 21 03And before you’re too worried about a lack of Spidey, he naturally shows up at the end to save the day. He gets to the mall just in time to see a Puppet Master-controlled Flash and Medusa really making a mess of things (and giving Jonah an opportunity to show the children Peter left at the Bugle that Spidey is truly a “menace”).

In typical “Parker luck” fashion, he slugs Medusa right in front of the Fantastic Four, leading to some physical retribution from the Thing. But since this is a silly Christmas issue, all’s well that ends well. All misunderstandings are resolved, the Inhumans buy Black Bolt a chainsaw for Christmas, and Jonah pulls some strings to get MJ back in New York City in time for Christmas. Cooke ends the comic with the group looking right back at the reader and wishing them a “Happy Holidays” making this story feel like the comic book equivalent of a wacky Christmas variety show from yesteryear. 

That, my friends, is what a Christmas comic book should be — a fun little diversion that make us laugh and appreciate the people we love. 

So on that note, Merry Christmas!

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