It seems like once a year (or once an episode of Amazing Spider-Talk) that the debate over the merits of annual issues of Amazing Spider-Man is waged. Fans of the issues will point to Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, 3, 5, 21 and even Superior Spider-Man Annual #1, which respectively saw the introduction of the Sinister Six, Spider-Man’s first attempt to join the Avengers, Peter’s investigation of his parent’s deaths, his marriage to Mary Jane, and Aunt May’s discovery of the evils of the Superior Spider-Man as epitomes of the brand. But, as much as it hurts me to say it, for every one of those stories is an annual issue like Amazing Spider-Man Annual #6-7 (both of which reprinted other stories) and last year’s Amazing Spider-Man Annual (vol. 3) #1, which was stuffed full of inventory stories.
This year’s annual, Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 4) #1, is a bit of a mix of both, featuring what appears to be two inventory stories and one short story, which is an update on a recent story from the main comics line. Even then, it’s largely inconsequential, light Spider-Man fluff only for those readers desperate to read content that is strikingly different than what is going on than in “The Clone Conspiracy.”
The first story, “Mask of Death, is written by Humberto Ramos and Christos Gage, a strange writing team-up if there ever was one, and illustrated by Francisco Herrera, an artist who has worked with and styled himself off the works of Ramos. It sees Peter Parker travelling to Mexico City to present the Benjamin Parker Scholarship for Young Scientists to a young Mexican scientist. That is, until an earthquake interrupts the ceremony! It turns out that the earthquake awakens Itzpapalotl, an Aztec demon that seeks purification and rejuvenation through human sacrifice. Now it’s up to Spider-Man to put a stop to the monster before it destroys the city.
The story is nothing special, though it is nice to see a different culture take a prominent role in the narrative in this so-called international period of Spider-Man’s existence, even if is just in name only. However, it is Herrera’s art that is going to be the draw for a number of readers who remember him from his short run on Peter Parker: Spider-Man from over a decade ago. As an understudy to Humberto Ramos, Herrera’s art reflects Ramos’ looser, more cartoony style from over a decade ago and as such it isn’t quite nearly as refined as Ramos’ modern pencils. But combined with Fernanda Rizo’s bright, saturated colors, they deliver a short story that is a kind of big, punchy fun that we rarely see in Spider-Man comics these days.
As a back-up, quick-read story it’s hard to be disappointed in this tale, though the ending promises additional tales that I’d be surprised to see a follow-up to. As the main advertised story, “Mask of Death” doesn’t quite fill the title.
The second, and longest, story in the book is “Neon Dragon” by writer James Asmus, penciller Cory Smith, and a series of different inkers who take turns filling out the images, to visibly mixed results. The story follows up on “The Dark Kingdom” story, featuring Mr. Negative, which finished earlier this year. This time Mr. Negative’s Inner Demons are back to destroy the cure to the shade narcotic introduced in the previous story. New to the fight is the Neon Demon, a glow-in-the-dark version of the White Dragon, who leads the group and their attack on Drs. Chang and Wu, who themselves suit up to fight off the attack.
However, the main draw to this story is to check in on the healed Cloak and Dagger who replace Spider-Man in the role of main protagonist. James Asmus’ Tandy and Tyrone trade jokes enthusiastically as they dispatch their enemies, once more tantalizing readers with a long-desired Cloak and Dagger comic series that Marvel has yet to deliver on. One wishes this story could have been contained in a one-shot or beginning of a new ongoing, as it is rather odd to have the main story of an Amazing Spider-Man Annual not feature Spidey himself.
Lastly is “Whose Crime is it, Anyway?”, written by none other than Wayne Brady and Jonathan Mangum, with art from Bruno Oliviera. In this tale Spider-Man learns that his humor isn’t being appreciated by either the criminals he stops of citizens he saves, so he enrolls in a “Whose Line is it, Anyway?”-styled improvisation class to get better. Honestly, there’s not much to say about this tale except to beg that this be the final guest-celebrity written tale that Spider-Man fans have to cringe through for quite awhile. I’ve barely recovered from the Penn Jillette authored issue of Spider-Man/Deadpool and now this… At the very least, Bruno Oliviera draws an attractive Spider-Man, whose exaggerated movements provide more of a chuckle than the attempt at humor in the writing.