Today we will be taking a look at Night of the Flag in SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN vol. 1 #137-138 by Gerry Conway and Sal Buscema from 1988.
In recent years, the comics industry (Marvel most notably) has suffered significant financial decline while alienating much of their readership.
While there are many factors behind the industry’s decline, a common critique from displeased fans is the overuse of and incessant political commentary that is constantly being railroaded into the comics.
The biggest problem with this is that the politics have taken precedence over the stories themselves. Many writers are simply using the medium as a means to express their personal political views. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, they seem to be forgetting that there still needs to be an entertaining and engaging story surrounding the politics. If the tales themselves aren’t interesting, it can come off as political pandering and alienate long-time readers.
Despite this, political commentary in comics is not a bad thing in of itself. In fact, when done efficiently, it can even enhance a story–which brings us to today’s gem.
Our tale begins with a janitor at the Daily Bugle receiving a rather unexpected and entirely unwelcome visitor.
The Tarantula has been hunting down people who spoke out against his state’s tyrannical government and fled to America to avoid their wrath. Unsurprisingly, things don’t end well for poor Armando.
A few blocks away, our friendly neighborhood web-slinger hears the commotion and decides to investigate.
As Spider-Man ponders what he’s gotten himself mixed up in this time, the scene shifts to Mary Jane Watson-Parker’s latest modeling gig. However, things aren’t all sunshine and rainbows over there either.
This is how to properly set up a character like Elvira. Gerry Conway skillfully establishes her as a realistic human being with believable and understandable fear instead of merely using her status as an “illegal immigrant” as her defining trait. In other words, Conway remembers to write Elvira as an actual person instead of a simple prop for his own political opinions. What further strengthens the character is the fact that she actually plays a vital role in the story (as we will see) instead of being a throwaway mouthpiece for the writer’s personal views.
We then transition over to The Tarantula’s hideout located in a secret garbage scow (how fitting).
The Tarantula’s targets:
DUN-DUN-DUN!!!! Sorry, I couldn’t resist.
Getting right to it, The Tarantula and his goons soon locate their targets and give chase.
Panicking and unsure of where to turn, the Corona family takes refuge in a church. The Tarantula, however, could care less where they’ve hidden and charges in guns blazing–literally.
As Tarantula closes in for the kill, guess who arrives to save the day? Hint: his name is on the cover.
I’ll let the action speak for itself here:
After a some great fight sequences (Spidey-style) with plenty of quips to boot (also Spidey-style), The Tarantula flees once the police show up. However, it’s not exactly a happy ending for the Corona family.
The only person more upset than Spidey at this moment is The Tarantula himself for failing his mission. But fortunately for him, he is about to receive some rather unexpected backup.
Why in the world is Captain America working with scum like them? Is he brainwashed? Is he misinformed? Does he actually believe in their cause? And how is Spidey going to be able to fight both of them at the same time? Why are you asking instead of reading the story for yourself?
Despite being obvious political commentary on undocumented immigration, writer Gerry Conway is still able to craft an engaging arc. Everyone is still in character, the immigrants are written as real, believable people instead of dull caricatures, the villain is downright evil and despicable, the conflict is interesting and there is plenty of action to go around.
In short, Conway’s politics are in service of the story instead of vice-versa. If more modern Marvel writers were able to write intriguing stories around their own personal politics such as this without being consumed by their beliefs and becoming too preachy, I doubt the current fan backlash and sinking sales numbers would be as dire as they currently are.
You can track down the individual issues, or look for them in the Spider-Man: Tombstone TPB.
Whether you personally agree with the politics presented in this story or not, it’s still a darn good tale that is well worth reading at least once. In fact, I think it should be held as a template on how to use political commentary effectively in comics.