Creator Showcase #3 – Zeb Wells

“Zeb is a flat-out funny writer”Steve Wacker

Zeb Wells is an award winning TV writer, best known for his work on the comedy sketch show Robot Chicken. However Wells has also had a ten-year plus career in the comics industry. Since 2002 Wells has made regular submissions to almost every area of the Marvel Universe, including event tie-ins for Secret Invasion and Dark Reign. From 2006 to 2008 he also wrote Snake-Woman for the short-lived Virgin Comics.

If anyone is looking for analysis of Snake-Woman, I’m afraid this is not the place as I was unable to find any of those issues. However if you are interested in Wells history with Spider-Man, that I can accommodate.

Wells first Spider-Man story was published in Spider-Man’s Tangled Web #12. The Tangled Web anthology series featured a revolving door of writers and artists, and focused on the background character’s from Spider-Man’s immediate universe. Well’s contribution to the series, “I was a Teenaged Frog-Man”, focused on the son of a reformed Spider-Man villain. Like many creators early work, Wells relied heavily on dialogue over art, causing the issue to be over written in parts. However the short appearance by Spider-Man is very well scripted and captures the versatile nature of the character. Wells returned to the series a year later with “Behind the Moustache”, a close examination of J. Jonah Jameson and his relationship with his father. Not Jay Sr, the man we know now to be his father, but a man later retconned to be his Step-Father.

Wells spidey1Following on from his first outing in Spider-Man’s Tangled Web, Wells wrote a two issue fill in arc for the Peter Parker: Spider-Man series. “15 Minutes of Shame” satirised youth culture, and picked up on a dangling plot threat concerning the Sandman, which Paul Jenkins had introduced earlier in the series. Wells would return to the title eight issues later and continue this thread in the series conclusion. During his short run, Wells told a number of arcs which all shared a common theme. In “Rules of the Game”, “Manic Monday” and “Reborn” Peter became increasing depressed at the repetitive nature of his heroics, particularly after a group of business men began betting on the outcome of his fights. However while watching Sandman fall apart due to indecision over his purpose, Peter was able to find his strength and continue on as Spider-Man. Wells era on Peter Parker: Spider-Man shares a similar sensibility to his work on television. His sense of humour, which is an important component of any Spider-Man writer, is always featured heavily in his stories. This approach allowed him to explore an underlining bleak subtext, without become too morose and gave Peter a different sort of enemy to overcome. Mainly, his own pessimism.

Wells stayed with the title until it ended with issue #56, and, years later, was one of a number of writers asked to script the flagship Amazing Spider-Man during the Brand New Day experiment. Wells arc was the fourth in the new status quo and featured human sacrifice, ancient gods and focused on the newer characters such as Vin Gonzales and Carlie Cooper. Like his early Spider-Man work, the story dealt with a bizarre subject matter, which Wells defused using Spider-Man’s humour and by addressing the ridiculous nature of the narrative.

What Wells will probably be best remembered for was his short back-up story in Amazing Spider-Man #583, in which Spider-Man saved the recently elected Barack Obama from an attack by the Chameleon. The issue was a huge sales success, and went back to the printers five times. During Brand New Day, Wells also scripted a Punisher team-up issue and the Anti-Venom mini series: New Ways to Live.

Wells humour is the strength in all his work.

Wells subtle humour is his strength.

Despite being a member of the original Brain-Trust, later rebranded the Web-Heads, Wells only contributed two multi-issue arcs to Amazing Spider-Man during this time. Wells final solo story to feature in Amazing Spider-Man was part of the Gauntlet arc, leading up to the Grim Hunt. Each writer took it in turn to bring a classic villain back to prominence. Wells’ story, Shed, reimagined Dr. Curt Conners aka the Lizard. Shed represents a very ambitious story for Marvel and for Wells as they both tried a new approach to the Lizard during this arc. Over the years Lizard stories had developed a very strict formula:

Connors turns into the Lizard.
Connors love for his son, Billy, cures him.

It’s a formula that had worked several times, but which over the years has become quiet predictable. Here Wells drew attention to the problem and then attempted to remove it. Unfortunately Billy’s murder took Wells away from his strengths as a writer. I feel Wells works best using satire and parody to explore darker story element, he is unable to do that in Shed as the story is explicit in its use of gore and violent imagery. I cannot belittle Wells for trying to move the Lizard concept away from its troupes, unfortunately in the end he still falls on the cliche at the denouncement of the story. Despite removing Billy as a cure all, Wells has Spider-Man invoke his memory at a crucial point in their final encounter. Undoing the tension he had built earlier in the arc.

Wells spidey3

Spider-Man, always to blame

Shortly after the Grim Hunt, which Wells partially co-wrote with Joe Kelly, the Web-Heads disbanded. However Wells would return as the sole writer of a new Spider-Man anthology series, Avenging Spider-Man. A series he launched with fan favourite artist Joe Madureira. The series focused on Spider-Man and a rotation of guest-stars from the Avengers. Wells left the series with issue #5, and a story originally planned for Avenging Spider-Man was moved into a different anthology series as part of the Marvel Now relaunch. His arc of Savage Wolverine, also with Joe Mad, mirrors the earlier Teenaged Frog-Man story. Wells used Spider-Man for a small, but well scripted cameo, which demonstrates the humour and depth of the character. His small role in the plot however was probably partly responsible for the story being moved from Avenging Spider-Man to Savage Wolverine.

In-between stints writing for Peter Parker, Wells has also contributed to Spider-Man’s rogues gallery writing several mini-series including Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus: Year One, Dark Origins: Venom, Carnage and Carnage: USA. While a frequent player in the main Marvel universe, Wells has also written stories for Marvel Adventures Spider-Man (volume one). These done-in-one stories featured simple plots aimed at younger readers. Including a Lizard story so different in tone from Shed, it’s hard to believe it was the same writer. The Marvel Adventures series has never appealed to me, due to its simplistic approach, however Wells adapted his style perfectly to suit the intended audience of the book and should be commended for his adaptability.

Most recently, in his short lived run, on Marvel Now’s Nova, Wells wrote an issue featuring the Superior Spider-Man. As can be expected from Wells by this point, the scene was largely played for laughs as Otto misquoted pop culture, and mocked the fledgling Nova for choosing to be a hero in most hero-populated city in the world. Wells wasn’t able to capture the essence of Otto as Spider-Man in the same way as Dan Slott, but his small scene worked nether-the-less in the context of what Wells was trying to achieve.

In closing, Wells ten issue arc on Peter Parker: Spider-Man is a favourite of mine. He explored an interesting narrative in a small number of issues, and while it wouldn’t take long for anyone to read, you do get a satisfying conclusion at the end. I consider Wells to be a talented writer, however he is at his best when writing comedy, or action adventure. The first arc of Avenging Spider-Man is successful as it allows Spider-Man to be funny, against the over-the-top seriousness of Red Hulk. As Steve Wacker alluded to in his CBR interview, Wells is good at humour, where stories like Shed fail, at least for me, is because Wells put Spider-Man in a situation so dark, his humour was useless.

At present there are no announcements or upcoming projects that suggest Wells is due to return to Spider-Man but given his work to date, I imagine it can only be a matter of time until he writes for the character again.

Peter Parker: Spider-Man: #42-43 and #51-57
Avenging Spider-Man: 1-3

– Adam

(7) Comments

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  2. Big Al

    I'm sorry but exempting his origin story for Jonah (which isn't even canon anymore) Wells is utterly worthless as a Spider-Man writer. the Beach party story. Venom Dark Origin...Shed (I'm sorry but Shed was f***ing godawful). He's never actually done anything honestly good. I simply don't want him writing Spider-Man ever again

  3. Big John

    @1 I actually really liked "Shed" the first time I read it. I thought the Lizard's redesign was really cool (and hated it at first when Camuncoli re-redesigned it) and thought that Well's Lizard-voice was super creepy. I also appreciated how Wells and the Web-Heads opted to ignore that aweful "Lizard's Tale" story from Jenkins' SPEC run. Of course, this was all before I listened to this podcast and learned about the lizard-rape, so my opinion of the story as a whole has declined, but I still like the parts I mentioned. @4 Lol! your post made me think of Wells' hilarious line from Avenging #1: When Rulk and Spidey landed in the midst of the Molemen riot, Spider-Man goes, "Somebody ask for some Kool-Aid." I cracked up! I also loved Wells' take on Carnage. He made that character interesting again, IMHO, after quite a few story flops. Those two mini-series did a good job, I feel, of showing that Wells can write dark stories and make them interesting. However, honestly, my least favorite Wells Spidey-tale is "Venom: Dark Origin". I felt like he kind of ignored a lot of Michelinie's background and turned Eddie Brock into this pathetic character who just opportunistically rides on other people's coat tales. I recognize what he was trying to do: make Eddie into a Peter Parker shadow by taking responsibility for things he didn't do, but I wasn't sold on the result.

  4. Lockdown

    Zeb actually got his writing gig on Spider-Man thanks to his Wizard World create a super hero video story. It was about the Kool-aid Man becoming a superhero (its pretty funny) he beat out my entry: "Rogues Night at Captain Cold's." I am not a fan of "Shed" but I love "Behind the moustache".

  5. Adam Tomlinson

    If you haven't already read it, I do recommend the PP:SM run. It's an eight issue run with a strong arc.

  6. Nick MB

    Enjoyed most of Wells's stuff a lot, even quite liked Shed, but sadly he's never stayed on a monthly for long due to his TV commitments. I believe he's just backed out of the Elektra ongoing for similar reasons. Still, look forward to the day he does have a longer run on a comic of some form (even if it isn't Marvel or Spidey).

  7. hornacek

    I know Brad loved that BND issue Wells did in the snow with Wolverine and the mystic gods. And by "loved" I mean "Hated". :) Oh man, I do not have fond memories of that Beach Party story in PPSM 42-43. The story seemed to be trying to much too hard to be pop culture aware. Wasn't Sandman eating people? And that art ... And Wells will forever have an asterisk next to his name for me because of Shed. Not only did have the Lizard eat his son (bye-bye Billy!) but thanks to him we added "lizard-rape" to the Spider-Man lexicon. Still, his Avenging issues were a lot of fun. And that "Behind the Moustache" issue should be required reading for any writer doing an in depth story on Jonah. And I see his name on a lot of Robot Chicken episodes, and that show is almost always funny, so he must be doing something right there. Mixed bag, but the negatives outweigh the positives.

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