Overlooked Gems #4: “Face Dancing”

Happy Thanksgiving, Crawlspacers! I figured I’d put out my next article a little earlier than usual since I’ll be pretty wrapped up this upcoming weekend.

Today we’ll be taking a look at Face Dancing in SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN vol. 1 #241-245 by J.M. DeMatteis and Luke Ross from 1997.

J.M. DeMatteis’s first stint on SPECTACULAR in #178-200 from 1992-1993 (which I previously discussed) is commonly lauded as a classic run, but his second go-around on the same title from #241-257 is rarely ever talked about. In fact, Spider-Man comics in general from 1997-1998 are seldom spoken of. It’s not hard to see why as these years were when the big comic book crash of the 1990s was in full affect and Marvel was clawing its way out of bankruptcy. The fact that this particular period is also sandwiched in between two of the most loathed eras in Spider-Man’s history (The Clone Saga¬†from 1994-1996 and the Howard Mackie relaunch from 1999-2001) probably doesn’t help matters. It’s unfortunate because there were some really solid stories during these two years, especially from DeMatteis on SPECTACULAR. One of his best is definitely Face Dancing, where he takes a very interesting look at Spidey’s original foe: Dimitri Smerdyakov a.k.a. The Chameleon.

The Chameleon is actually the first big super-villain (despite not having any real powers at the time) Spidey has ever fought, debuting in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN vol. 1 #1 from 1963.

Despite having such a long publication history, how many great and/or memorable Chameleon appearances have there been before this point? Not very many to my mind. The character always lacked a distinct identity (which I suppose is somewhat fitting for a master of disguise), making him one of Spidey’s weaker B-list enemies. But much like The Vulture, J.M. DeMatteis comes along and crafts what is arguably the definitive Chameleon tale, or at the very least a darn good one.

Our tale begins in the Ravencroft Institute with Dr. Ashley Kafka unsuccessfully trying to treat a rather unhinged Chameleon.

Knowing that The Chameleon will soon be transferred to a more secure facility, Kafka secretly moves him to the basement for further treatment. Unsurprisingly, this ends up being a very bad idea.

Chameleon escapes and immediately seeks vengeance on Spider-Man for imprisoning him, eventually confronting the web-slinger like so:

But before Spidey can extract his own vengeance on The Chameleon for the events of the terrible Lifetheft story arc from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN vol. 1 #386-387 (a.k.a. the “Robot Parents” debacle; don’t ask), Smerdyakov outfoxes our hero.

Strange? Well it’s about to get stranger:

Well that was unexpected. How is our favorite wall-crawler going to get out of this one? How far will The Chameleon go to break him? And most importantly, what exactly will The Chameleon do now that he has unmasked his greatest enemy? Well I’m certainly not going to tell you here; read it for yourself!

The Chameleon is at his craftiest here, using excessive duplicity and manipulation to say one step ahead of his enemies the entire time. Yet in spite of his rather sinister and cunning portrayal, The Chameleon is also quite cowardly in this story as all of his doubts, fears and insecurities eat away at him. This is due to his miserable childhood, primarily his history with Kraven The Hunter, which is greatly expanded upon here. In typical J.M. DeMatteis fashion, he explores the depths of Dimitri Smerdyakov’s psyche and makes him a more interesting character as a result.

What also makes this story effective is the good amount of humor throughout it. Seeing as how this arc takes place after The Clone Saga, it could have easily been a bleak and joyless affair. Thankfully, DeMatteis avoids such tropes and packs some really solid wit into his writing. The best has to be the random intervening appearances of the new Kangaroo.

Other humorous bits such as overt, yet subtle references/jabs to The Clone Saga ensure that this story is never bogged down by too much darkness.

Also, I would be remiss not to mention the hilarious ending to this arc. The Chameleon ends up using his newfound knowledge of Spidey’s identity to impersonate Peter Parker and go after his wife, Mary Jane.

Without spoiling the outcome, let’s just say that it doesn’t quite go the way Chameleon may have expected. This ending is a firm reminder of why Mary Jane Watson is such a popular character in the first place and why she is widely considered by fans to be Peter’s greatest love interest.

Unfortunately, these five issues have never been collected in any kind of TPB, so you will have to track down the individual issues.

Face Dancing might just be the greatest Chameleon story ever told and is a strong example of J.M. DeMatteis’s writing prowess. A strong arc from an underrated era.

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