When Words Collide: Dissecting Tim Truman's "The Spider"

Mon, March 26th, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

DAYS OF FUTURE (PAST): TIM TRUMAN'S THE SPIDER

The Spider first saw life as a pulp hero

Tim Truman may be better known by today's comic book audience for his work writing licensed properties like "Star Wars" and "Conan," but there was a time when he was one of a handful of writer/artists given the chance to reboot an entire superhero franchise. Deservedly so, because his work on the gritty post-apocalyptic western "Scout" was one of the highlights of the 1980s.

Truman's "Hawkworld" may have debuted a few years after Mike Grell's similarly-formatted "Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters" or Howard Chaykin's "Blackhawk," but it was as drastic a reimagining of a DC property as either of those three-issue series, and Truman's revamped, stratified and militaristic Thanagar echoed through the DC Universe for over a decade. It wasn't until Geoff Johns tried to tackle the vast tangle of Hawkman's history in his "JSA" run and the "Hawkman" series of the 2000s that Truman's armor-clad Thanagarian Space Police troops slipped away from continuity. "Hawkworld" had certainly made its mark for a long time.

But I'm not here this week to write about "Hawkworld." I'm here to look at an even weirder Tim Truman revamp -- the next big Truman project after 1990's "Hawkworld." It's "The Spider" from Eclipse Comics, a 1991 project released in a familiar, square-bound three-issue format with "Hawkworld" inker Quique Alcatena joining him to render the so-called "Master of Men."

A venerable pulp icon who has surely fallen from the general awareness of the public, the Spider is one of those 1930s gun-toting vigilantes who warranted a couple of movie serials once upon a time and occasionally pops up in comic book form. Like his original inspiration, the Shadow, he's also getting a new series from Dynamite pretty soon.

Until that David Liss interpretation premieres, Tim Truman's version of "The Spider," from 20 years ago, remains the only prominent take on the character in the past two or three generations.

And it's an insane, radically redesigned version that distills all of Tim Truman's signature motifs into a three-issue package. I love it, of course.

It's not a perfect package. The copyright belongs to Argosy Communications, and Truman apparently helped to bring the project to Eclipse, but whatever printing process the long-defunct California publisher used makes for a frequently blurry or off-register series of pages in "The Spider." Sam Parsons provides garish colors, but they fit the content of the comic, except when the black holding lines smear into the colored edges and entire pages look printed through Vaseline. And though Quique Alcatena is a fine ink artist, he smoothes over many of Truman's rougher, distinctive edges, and Tim Truman never looks as good as he does when he's inking himself, whether it's 1991 or today.

Those blemishes -- some stylistic choices, others production process problems -- don't derail the mad charm of the three issues of "The Spider," of course, and it's even possible that a pristinely printed version of the project would make it look too polished and archival, when it works best as a trashy, sleazy, hyper-violent comic that just happens to have a spine on each issue and high-quality glossy paper. Tim Truman's "The Spider" is not going to compete with the works of Chris Ware or Dan Clowes on the syllabi of any "Comics 101" course anytime soon. Then again, if you were launch a course entitled "Retrofuture Sci-Fi Pulp in the Narrative Present: The Dialectics of Righteous Vigilante Violence," it just might fit right in.

Okay, the plot.

First, you can tell from the Book One cover that "The Spider" is more than its pulp origins -- this Tim Truman comic features no masked marvel with .45 automatics and a fedora. No, this is a cloaked, knee-pad sporting, sword-and-gun-wielding savage with sharpened teeth and a feral white mane of hair, climbing through sewer tunnels over the unconscious bodies of what look to be paramilitary pirates.

(Aside #1: Truman reports, in the back matter of "The Spider" Book Three, that so many of his comic book characters in the 1980s and early 1990s wear knee, shoulder and elbow pads because his own experiences rock climbing have taught him the importance of such protection, and he imagines that any action character would want to go out and face danger with similarly protective garb. So it's quite likely that the Image-era artists who promoted knee, shoulder and elbow padded character designs were influenced by Truman's work, just as much as they were influenced by the pouch-heavy Art Adams designs of the same period.)

(Aside #2: Paramilitary pirates and sword-and-gun-wielding antiheroes are awesome.)

Truman re-imagined the classic pulp hero in the 80s

That cover image is no symbolic representation of Truman's radical new take on the character. It's merely a detailed snap shot of what happens in the comic. The Spider is a ferocious-looking wastelander type of character in this version, barely recognizable as the same guy who once looked like a mix between the Shadow and Zatara. And paramilitary pirates -- led by the leather-and-eye-patch sporting female Captain Kidd (who, I may add, wears massive shoulder pads) -- appear in all three issues as the Cobra operatives to the Spider's Snake Eyes, if I'm going with a G.I. Joe analogy all of a sudden, and if you imagine "G.I. Joe" as written by David Brin and Shane Black and directed by George Miller in his prime.

The Spider not only combats land pirates (or sewer pirates) or just "typical Tim Truman" villain-types, but he also faces off against crazed cultists, vile politicians and the wheelchair-bound elderly Adolf Hitler. Yes, this may not resemble the original pulps in its setting, but Truman takes the spirit of the pulp stories and churns them together into a blender for then-modern-day consumption. As Truman reveals, again in the back-matter of Book Three, his concept for the series was to imagine what a 1930s pulp writer would have written about the "future" world of the 1990s, and that's where and when his version of "The Spider" takes place. Hence, it's a present based on the imagined past's ideas of what their future would look like. With pirates.

The three-issues is rife with melodrama, as Truman pours some of the original accoutrements of the Spider into his post-apocalyptic-looking setting. Ram Singh, the exotic manservant, is here. So is love interest Nita Van Sloan. And the Spider's alter ego, Richard Wentworth. But they all have appropriately extreme characterizations. There's little subtlety in Truman's "The Spider." It celebrates its excesses.

For example: Professor Ezra Brownlee, weaponsmith for the Spider (the Q to the Spider's James Bond), inhabits an iron lung. But it's an iron lung with a robotic exoskeleton, so Brownlee can still walk around and create new inventions. Or Police Commissioner Kirkpatrick (the Gordon to the Spider's Batman) who walks the streets in his wide-brimmed hat and pink shirt and tie, styled like a pimp in every appearance.

Truman's "The Spider" is schlocky and glorious right up until its end, as the Spider foils racist politician Jet Skarno's plans for American genocide, electrocutes the crawling, withered body of Adolf Hitler, and delivers a bloody present of personal vengeance to Commissioner Kirkpatrick in the form of a head in a sack, complete with a spider logo on top.

A year later, Tim Truman produced a follow-up to this series, another three issues for Eclipse with the title "The Spider: Reign of the Vampire King." I don't know how I missed it in 1992, but I've already nabbed a three-issue lot from eBay and it should be on its way to my house by the time you read this. If it's half as crazy fun as Truman's first crack at "The Spider," it will be worth its weight in shipping costs, for sure. Vampire King? You had me at Tim Truman.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

TAGS:  when words collide, the spider, tim truman

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