I appreciate a little more why Todd McFarlane is a name that people don’t sneeze at. I’ve heard it batted around, read a couple Spawn issues, but I wasn’t a comics reader in the 90s, so I didn’t get the reverence the name carried. After Spider-Man: Torment, I understand a little better. There’s a lot to be considered with this comic. McFarlane was the sole creator and it is now over twenty years old. Not only that, but it stars Marvel’s icon: Spider-Man. It’s a lot of pressure for a title, but I think McFarlane does it justice.
My first big concern was whether the comic stood the test of time. The answer is a bit of yes and no. My caveat is that I’m a big fan of Spidey, so this is written through web-covered glasses. That aside, the comic has a lot going for it. When you open it up, there is no doubt that you’ve stepped into the folds of an older issue. Hand lettering, limited color palette, and those frenetic McFarlane lines, key you in that you’re jumping into a 90s comic. As much as those may come off as detractions, I’d really like to point to them as compliments.
Before going further into the nitty gritty, let’s tell you what the comic is about. The story doesn’t receive the forefront of the review because it is very simple. It’s more of a vehicle to deliver McFarlane’s other strengths to the reader. Over five issues Spider-Man is confronted by the Lizard and needs to defeat him. It’s a treat to see the Lizard as the unstoppable bad guy, because he usually isn’t taken seriously. It’s always the beloved Curt Conners, near being able to regain control, but just needs some great deliverance from Spider-Man to bring back his humane side. Not this Lizard. This Lizard is consumed by bloodlust, which puts his friend Spider-Man in a bind. That, and the forces behind this new crazed monster are what Spider-Man is plagued with over this deliciously paced, five-issue series.
The most effective element of this comic was the lettering. That also sounds like a slight, but after being treated to so many computer dumped-in lettering effects, the results lettering can have when treated like part of the structure of the page are shocking. The whole idea of the comic is that the combination of lettering, dialogue and pacing create an atmosphere that lift the story from being more than just, “Spider-Man fights the Lizard” to a pressured feeling of imminent happening that carries across the entire storyline. There’s a haunting lettering effect of, “DOOM” that begins in the first issue, and never leaves. It starts off innocuous, it’s there and it isn’t a big thing. As time passes, and the size and number of “DOOM”s on the page varies you feel more and more affected by them.
Coupled with the great lettering are wonderful page layouts. To really impart the idea that Spider-Man is in danger there has to be really kinetic pages. Often meaning that panels need to impart information quickly, to match the pace of the panic. McFarlane takes that challenge and runs with it. The comics’ style is working off of McFarlane pencils, which are lively and action-packed on their own. Spider-Man gets to contort as he should, the Lizards tail looks like it is capable of moving so lithely it could slice a person in half with ease. That drawing, coupled with the color choices make for some gorgeous pages. True, I did say the palette was limited, and that hasn’t changed. The choices made with that smaller selection are still impressive. Selecting from your standard Roy. G. Biv, the comic uses a great deal of shadow and contrast of compliments to get its point across. Without all of the gradients allowed by Photoshop today, it packs a more visceral punch. Not because that’s true of all old comics, but because the choices made are very smart.
When you match all of these details with how the page is carried out? There are some stunning comic pages. McFarlane is not afraid to play with the page. Spreads are large, thin, vertical, diagonal, across two pages, and more. Frequently there will be large background images, maybe a characters face or city skyline, with story panels laid across it. And as the story bounces from Spider-Man, the Lizard, and Mary Jane’s night, there are great transition panels between them.
If I had to excavate detractions I could point to the narration and some of the artwork. There’s little dialogue in the comic, most of the story lies with the narrator. Since the whole conceit of the story lies in the atmosphere, the narration get a little too ham-fisted in parts. Then again, it lends to the experience of the story, and matches the spectacle of what a comics promise: two powerful guys duking it out. When it comes to the art, McFarlane might take a few tastes before acquiring. Really though, I’m just hunting down nitpicks now.
If you’re looking for more depth to the story, there isn’t much, but that’s not the point of Spider-Man: Torment. McFarlane has crafted a comics experience that most titles can’t deliver on. You feel as panicked, calmed, and as rushed as the creator wants you to, and control over that demonstrates a real mastery of the craft.