Spider-Man: Spirits of the Earth original hardcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Charles Vess
Letters: Gaspar Saladino
Editor: Jim Salicrup
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $18.95 US/$22.95 CAN/£11.50 UK
The local Sunday flea market was defunct for a few weeks as it searched for a new venue, its previous locale becoming unavailable to it a little while ago. It found its summer home at a downtown curling club, and when I drove by a couple of times, the parking lot indicated sparse attendance. A few weeks ago, I found myself in the area on a Sunday afternoon, and looking at the time, I realized there was about a half hour left before it wrapped for the day. I had nothing on the agenda at that moment, so I pulled in and checked it out. There wasn’t much in the way of comics to be found. I saw one vendor who specialized in some back issues, all priced pretty too high. One doesn’t go into a flea market looking for comics valued by means of a price guide. One is after bargains; once in a blue moon, I haul some boxes to the flea market and blow them out, most of them for 50 cents apiece.
On my way out after a quick 10-minute reconnaissance of the market, I spied something on a table just 15 feet from the door. It looked like Spider-Man, and it looked like a book, so I took a closer look. Sitting there in pretty good shape was a hardcover copy of Spider-Man: Spirits of the Earth, a graphic novel of which I was aware in mostly a passing fashion. On top of that, it was a first printing of the 1990 book. The dust jacket showed a little wear but no tears, marred only by what I assumed was dried little bits of Play-Doh that flaked off easily. The price tag: three bucks. With only minutes left before the venue closed, I offered the grizzled old guy behind the table two, and he accepted. I fished a toonie out of my pocket, gave it to him and made off with what I felt was practically treasure (at least at that price).
Mary Jane Watson inherits a property in a remote village in Scotland, and she and her new husband Peter Parker head overseas from New York for a second honeymoon to check it out. Upon their arrival, they find a colorful array of characters, a community struggling financially and a populace haunted by tragedy and local legends. Peter can’t help but investigate, but as Spider-Man, of course. He encounters ghosts and paranormal destruction, but the Friendly neighborhood Spider-Man doesn’t believe the in the hocus pocus, and he’s determined to uncover what he suspects to be a man-made cause for the strife in the Scottish Highlands.
A few minutes ago, as my wife stood near my desk, chatting as I wrote this review, she looked down at the copy of Spirits of the Earth next to my monitor and commented, “Hey, that’s by the guy who drew Blueberry Girl!” She loves that Neil Gaiman-written children’s book, and that someone who doesn’t follow comics at all was able to pick out Charles Vess’s style with seeming ease makes it clear what a striking and unique style he has. What’s most beautiful and haunting about the book are his depictions of Scottish landscape — the craggy hills, the ancient castles, the quaint village. As the essay in the back of the book attests, Vess is absolutely in love with the beauty of Scotland, and this book is clearly a love letter to the natural and historical allure of that country.
The artist seems more comfortable with those settings, mind you. His approach to the various characters’ faces is distinct, but sometimes, those visages look a bit distorted. On occasions, that works well with the story, granting various figures a monstrous or supernatural appearance when it’s called for. At other times, the everyday characters look odd or off-model; it’s especially noticeable in Vess’s depiction of the missing child that serves as the catalyst for the story. The muted colors for the Scottish scenes are absolutely lovely, but those employed in the more conventional super-hero scenes are far too bright and garish in contrast. Of course, one has to bear in mind this book was printed almost a quarter century ago, and printing processes have vastly improved since then.
I think what’s most distracting about this book is how the story Vess wants to tell just doesn’t work in the context of a shared super-hero universe. For the hero to continue on, he has to deny the possibility of magic, of the unexplained. Spider-Man has to do that, a character that has teamed up Dr. Strange time and time again (which he even acknowledges in this script). Furthermore, the reader has to get over the fact that Peter Parker pretty much exposes his secret identity to the world here, as Spider-Man turns up in a village at the same time the young New Yorker visits. This is just one of those stories that doesn’t work when burdened by the history of the Marvel Universe.
There are a number of elements in the story that are heartening. Vess conveys Peter and Mary Jane’s deep love and newlywed status adeptly, and as I noted before, the celebration of Scottish culture and nature draws one into this almost exotic world. But at the heart of this book is a plot that’s rather familiar, the sort of mystery we’ve seen in just about every Scooby-Doo cartoon that Hanna-Barbera every produced. This was a delightful flashback to an early, pivotal point in Charles Vess’s career in comics and art, but it lacks the sort of polish, maturity and magic I’ve come to expect from him since.
Still, what a bargain. And it’ll display nicely on my bookshelves. 6/10
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