We’re back, with another December of Mark’s “Lost Gems” — stories he considers among the very best Spidey tales, that are also unlikely to appear on any “best of” lists. For this year’s entry, Mark is going to pick one Spider-Man story per decade (60s, 70s, 80s, etc.). Hope you all enjoy and happy holidays!
This entry looks at Avengers #236-237 by Roger Stern and Al Milgrom:
I know, I know, everyone is sick and tired hearing about Spider-Man and the Avengers. Hey kids, did you hear that there’s going to be a new Spider-Man movie, and in it, he interacts with the Avengers? They even make jokes about the Avengers in the trailer. Who could have seen this coming?
Even with all of the Spider-Man/Avengers saturation, when you start identifying some of the more popular/famous Spider-Man/Avengers comic book stories, there’s a relatively short list in circulation: the “first” Spider-Man/Avengers team-up in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #3; the big New Avengers reboot in the early-2000s when Spidey and Wolverine joined the team; Civil War; and (if you’re a nut like me) that Marvel Two-In-One Annual story where Spider-Man saves the Avengers from Thanos (it’s still an essential story to me!). All of these stories have their merits and should be on your reading list, but for this next “Lost Gem,” I’m going to propose what is arguably my favorite Spider-Man/Avengers tale, Avengers #236-237, aka, “I Want to be an Avenger.”
The first thing you got to understand about this two-parter is that about 95 percent of my enjoyment of it can be credited to its enormously entertaining and funny script by Roger Stern. At this point in the early-80s, Stern was in the midst of being the best writer not named Stan Lee to ever script Amazing Spider-Man, while also establishing himself as one of the all-time greats on The Avengers. So it only made sense that he would marry these two properties together.
Stern’s knack for dialogue, and specifically Spider-Man’s voice is just all over these two issues. While the storyline appears in the pages of The Avengers, this is unmistakably a Spider-Man story first and foremost. As the first issue gets underway, it’s just another boring, day-in-the-life for “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes,” before that pesky “Web-Slinger” shows up and immediately causes chaos by belatedly deciding to take Thor up on an offer to join the team (or so Spidey thinks). From there, the arc devolves into a tale of Spider-Man trying way too hard to impress his more established superhero peers, screwing everything up, and still getting a sorta-invite from the team, only to find out that because he’s Spider-Man, and is thereby tragically unlucky, the offer gets rescinded due to interference from the federal government (while the alien, Starfox, who we learn is harboring secrets from the team, is allowed to party hardy with Cap and company without nary an eyebrow raised).
Part of what makes this storyline such a hoot is just how much of a loser Stern plays Spider-Man for. Spidey’s ineptitude here actually ruffled my feathers the first few times I read it, and led to a rather “you missed the point, Mark” type rant from me at my old haunt, Chasing Amazing. Stern has obviously demonstrated on many occasions that he’s an excellent Spider-Man storyteller and he has a firm grasp on the character and what makes him special. Beyond that, Stern clearly, unequivocally believes that Spider-Man works best as a loner. Even when he’s forced into a team-up situation like, Marvel Team-Up, or an event book like Secret Wars, one of the core tenets of those stories is that Spider-Man has to overcome his loner qualities and inability to get along with others, to ultimately emerge victorious.
In Avengers #236, Spidey’s inner-monologue reveals why he’s trying to join the superteam in the first place, and naturally it’s for a pretty bad reason: money. Sure, he initially talks about getting more “respect” as an Avenger (and this angle would be later played for laughs during Brian Michael Bendis’s New Avengers run in a great scene involving J. Jonah Jameson), but then he quickly follows that up by talking about that sweet $1,000 a month paycheck (which, even in early-80s dollars, doesn’t seem like much).
Then, when it becomes clear that Spider-Man won’t be accepted on the team unless he takes a lowly “trainee” position, he actually stows away on the underbelly of a Quinjet to participate in a mission with the Avengers. Captain America’s exasperation when he sees Spider-Man emerge from his web cocoon is absolutely priceless. That moment is later topped by Cap freaking out when Spider-Man thinks he’s doing everyone a favor while fighting the dreaded Lava Men (who Spidey initially laughs off as a non-threat) and webs them up (rather than use his webbing as a deterrent as Cap asked). Once the Lava Men are covered in webbing, they panic and ignite, melting it and causing a fire in the process. In addition to making a dangerous situation worse, Cap also mentions how Spider-Man ruined the element of surprise because now the Lava Men were aware that his webbing could be easily melted off. Captain America, you’re just so smart!
In case there were any doubts about this arc being a Spider-Man story, in the second installment, Spidey and the Avengers fight a random hodgepodge of baddies, including two classic Spider-Man rogues in Electro and Rhino. Spider-Man is able to prove some of his usefulness during the ensuing battle, but in typical “Parker Luck” fashion, it’s all for naught when the offer for him to become an Avengers trainee is rescinded upon the government finding out that Spider-Man is auditioning. The fed tells Cap that Spider-Man on the team is a non-starter — he’s a total headache and has so many secrets he would never work on the team. And that’s when Spider-Man says the most prophetic thing of all: him being on the Avengers was “a stupid idea anyway.”
Truer words have never been spoken. Except that’s just not the world we live in anymore, boys and girls! Still, check this storyline out (it’s easily found on the Marvel Unlimited app) as it’s a great glimpse at both the Avengers and Spider-Man at the peak of Stern’s creative prowess.