To paraphrase Marvel’s intro page, three things you can count on are death, taxes and an Amazing Spider-Man Annual issue — except in those years where Marvel doesn’t release an annual … or that one year in the 90s where a “Planet of the Symbiotes” “special” one-shot allegedly counted as one of ASM’s 42 annual issues (I’m not bitter about that, right Dan? Right?).
Anyway, before I completely get lost in a downward spiral of annual-based toxicity, for the 42nd installment of this (semi) annual Marvel tradition, readers get the unique wrinkle of Dan Slott, ASM’s primary writer of the past seven years, scripting his first ever annual issue (with lead story art from Cory Smith and Terry Pallot). Obviously, getting Slott to write this story raises the stakes a bit and thus expectations, when compared to a “standard” annual (which only count when I say they do). And for the most part, ASM Annual #42 delivers on those stakes and expectations, even if the actual narrative/drama at its core is somewhat unremarkable.
Like most annuals, the issue is a diversion from the primary storyline (“Threat Level: Red”) that has been driving ASM the past few installments. But it also brings back one of Slott’s infamous dangling threads — a phone call Betty Brant (formerly Leeds) received from her long-presumed dead husband, Ned Leeds, during the Slott-scripted “Dead No More/Clone Conspiracy/What is the Official Name of this arc?”
To be totally fair, I actually needed to be reminded that Ned, who was last seen in non-clone form being falsely unmasked as the Hobgoblin just as he was killed by a bunch of assassins, had uttered a cryptic message to Betty (“Blood Creek”) before disappearing again. Fortunately (or not, depending on your opinion of comic’s laying on too much exposition), ASM Annual #42 reminds the reader of these words with rapid-fire ferocity within the first few pages, setting up “Blood Creek” as a cold case Ned was apparently trying to crack before biting the dust.
From there, the comic settles into a fun little detective piece, akin to one of the last great Betty Brant-led stories, the three-part “Hobgoblin Lives” where she learns the true identity of her husband and the Hobgoblin. With that said, one’s actual enjoyment-level of the comic hinges almost exclusively on how invested they are in the rather preposterous “conspiracy” that the words “Blood Creek” have unearthed.
Similar to my criticisms of Slott’s story craft during some of his Sterank-era inspired S.H.I.E.L.D. stories during the beginning of ASM’s “Parker Industries” phase, ASM #42’s story stumbles a bit when it starts criss-crossing genres. The superhero-centric elements of the story are fun and peppy — watching Spidey web-sling away from a bunch of security guards during a break-in at City Hall is the epitome of a good time. But the book crawls to a halt when the narrative echoes DaVinci Code-esque conspiracy theorizing about made-up Revolutionary War battles and explosive statues. This is just not the kind of writing that Slott excels that, though there’s still enough superheroics to push this comic into the “harmlessly fun” category. It’s also nice to be occasionally reminded that Betty exists in this universe and is a pretty strong female character when used correctly.
Similar to the story’s narrative, the Smith/Pallot art team is serviceable if not unremarkable. Smith’s figures are clean and clear and his renderings of New York City’s underworld have some nice detail and flair. But after getting a steady diet of a superstar like Stuart Immonen, the bar has been raised a bit in my Spider-Man comics.
The B-story effort from Broadway playwright David Hein and Marcus To is the standard inventory fodder you’d come to expect from a Marvel annual (and even features some inconsistencies regarding just how potent Spidey’s Spider-sense can be). But again, it’s a mostly harmless story with a sweet/ironic ending that will only annoy the most anal retentive of fans out there. In other words, it’s a good first comic book effort from Hein, who has some potential here as long as he’s paired with a well-versed editor who can nip any continuity confusion in the bud.