Review: Spider-Man: The Sinister Six Trilogy

Spider-Man: The Gathering of the Sinister Six
Spider-Man: The Gathering of the Sinister Six by Adam-Troy Castro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not sure if I’ve ever actually read a prose version of an actual comic character which wasn’t a novelization of a film (I read the original Superman novel back in the 70s) but I love comics (and this book was written by Adam-Troy Castro, an acquaintance) so I figured I’d give it a shot.

It’s good. It’s also the first book of a trilogy and so sets things up nicely for the next two installments. In this one, a mysterious villain known only as The Gentleman (original to this series of books) is reforming the supervillain team of ever changing members, The Sinister Six (This time around featuring Dr. Octopus, The Chameleon, Electro, The Vulture, Mysterio and Pity, who is the new kid on the block). The problem is Mysterio, who has his own agenda to deal with before he can commit to the team. And that agenda is to destroy the lives and/or careers of the people who mocked his directorial debut in Hollywood. As motivations go, it’s not a bad one. Of course, things get personal when the first victim is an old friend of Mary Jane Watson-Parker, wife of Peter Parker who is also The Amazing Spider-Man. This drags our hero into the fray with his own set of motivations beyond the simplistic idea it’s his job to save people.

The book moves along at a good pace, never really feeling like a novel of over 300 pages. Castro really captures the flavor of Spidey’s personality while at the same time allowing us inside his head to feel his fear when his wife is in danger. He also fills the books with innumerable nods and winks to popular culture, other marvel comics, and even characters from that other company which also does superheroes. I got a fair few of them but I guarantee I didn’t get them all. But they are not so intrusive that if you don’t get them you don’t feel like you’re being left out of the joke. Instead, you just read straight past them. If you do catch it, though, it’s good for a momentary laugh before you move on.

Where I did have a slight problem, though, and why this gets a four and not a five, is twofold. One, there were some language issues. The amount of repetition of words and ideas did get intrusive after a while. It felt like the book needed one more pass from the copy editor since a lot of these particular passages had the feeling of making a change on one end of the sentence without cleaning up the other end – something we all do, but in this case should have been caught. The other problem had to do with Peter and Mary Jane’s marriage. We get a lot of how in love they are and that’s wonderful. As I said earlier, it’s really nice to see Spider-man nervous not because he’s fighting the bad guy, but because he’s worried about getting home to the missus or, worse yet, she herself is in immediate danger and he can’t afford to make a mistake. But then there are scenes where we get back story – like she was friends with the first of Mysterio’s victims, which don’t come out until they become major plot points. As a married couple, this seems to be one of those things which would have been discussed, especially since it started and was continuing during the time of the marriage. Further, there’s a scene at a gloriously bad Broadway Musical (and a side kudos for nailing the musical-style lyrics) and we find out later Mary Jane was in the running for the lead of that particular play. As an actress, devoted to her husband, you would think he’d have been told she almost got the lead in huge broadway hit. We find out they had fights over here career path in the past so why did she never mention her prominent audition before the show was shut down by a bad guy?

It was these few moments which pushed me right out of the book. There weren’t many, mind you, but enough that it left me a little disappointed, especially since the rest was so good.

Spider-Man: Revenge of the Sinister Six
Spider-Man: Revenge of the Sinister Six by Adam-Troy Castro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second book in Adam-Troy Castro’s Spider-man trilogy, Revenge of the Sinister Six, picks up pretty much right where the first book left off. This time, though, the action revolves around all six of the Sinister group as opposed to just one, Mysterio. In effect, the first book acts as a prequel to this one, a gathering of forces for The Gentleman. We get to see him put together this incarnation of the Six in that preliminary novel, but it’s until we get started in Revenge we begin to see his plan come to fruition.

Unfortunately, this book suffers from the same lack the first one did, the lack of a good editor. I have it on the best authority that these books almost literally went from Castro’s word processor to the printer so the fault doesn’t lay with him. In fact, what’s amazing is the insight we get into the raw process of writing a superhero novel. I fear that had there been more editorial oversight we wouldn’t have gotten the book we did – and in the book we did get, Castro is writing far above the usual conventions of the genre.

In this segment of the story (and like all good middle books, he leaves us breathlessly wanting to read the last installment) we get two thirds of a 430 page book devoted to the ultimate battle of Manhattan (this week’s version). The Six (the aforementioned Mysterio, who is immediately sprung from jail after last book’s funeral hi-jacking, Electro, Dr. Octopus, The Vulture, Chameleon and a new girl, Pity), under the direction of The Gentleman, decide to help Spidey relive all his past failures and set up a tour of the city where he can stop in, see the death of ex-girlfriend replayed repeatedly, and fight a bad guy while he’s there. Yes, there’s a bit of set-up. We get a prologue about Peter Parker’s parents and some stuff about Mary Jane Watson Parker (Peter’s wife) and her acting woes, but generally, we get a battle royal with some pretty great action sequences.

We also get Castro’s take on the psychology of the super-powered. We get glimpses of the pathos Parker needs to be able to pull on the red and blue pajamas and go web-slinging. We understand the kind of toll it takes on his wife to watch the news and see her husband getting pummeled on national television. We are privy to the inner-workings of the villain mindset. But mostly we just get a really good story with well developed characters.

For my money, this is one of the things which separated Marvel from DC back in the 60s and continues to do so today. The DC universe is populated by ideas dressed as people while Marvel has people who are trying to live up to ideals. And Castro gets that. As he writes them, these are all three dimensional people, living real lives (even the bad guys).

One of the things I really appreciated was the way Peter Parker and Spider-man, while being the same physical being are actually two distinct emotional entities. It’s fascinating to watch Parker succeed at something Spidey failed at and see Spidey, in the midst of bad guy fighting madness, rely on the Parker in his mind to problem solve his situation.

On the down side, though, there are points where the book is over-written and needlessly expanded. Also, while I loved Castro’s nods to references in the first book, where they were more subtle, here they’re obvious and over the top. You don’t have to work hard to figure out who Jay Sein and Cosmo the K are supposed to represent and they’re examples of restraint when compared to the on-the-nose lifts from other pop culture movies and TV shows. Given the talent on display in other sections of the book, My personal feeling is these slots could have been used to mark satire rather than references which are so obvious you know if you you’re not getting them and should. It feels like a writer putting in a joke with the full knowledge it’ll be taken out later… and then someone forgets to take it out. But hey, if that’s my only complaint, it’s not a bad one.

Overall, this is a fun, fast read, worth the time invested. Can’t wait to see how the third part pays everything off.

Spider-Man: The Secret of the Sinister Six
Spider-Man: The Secret of the Sinister Six by Adam-Troy Castro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like the other books in the series, Spider-Man: Secret of the Sinister Six uses Adam-Troy Castro’s storytelling abilities to overcome poor copy-editing and typos. As the third book in the trilogy, this is the one where everything gets tied together and the bad guys are soundly defeated while the good guys, despite being battered and pounded and ending up in the hospital, emerge as victorious, once again. Even so, there are a number of nice surprises and a few startling revelations.

There’s also Castro’s incessant inclusions of pop culture references. In the first book, these were clever and veiled, if you didn’t get them you weren’t at a loss and it didn’t affect your enjoyment in any way. Here though, he seems to finding his only joy in writing the book in how many ways he can shoehorn in a reference and while many of them are cool, there are points when they become distracting… not because they’re there, but because you notice when you don’t get it and you feel like you’re missing out on something, like a private joke you’re not in on.

That all said, I did breeze through this in 2 days. It’s a quick read, full of action and character development. Castro’s best relationship (and probably his best drawn character) is Red herself, Mary Jane Watson-Parker, and her relationship with her husband as Mrs. Spider-Man. She is followed closely by his work with Max Dillon, the living lightning bolt known as Electro. Castro bounces between viewpoints, inhabiting the minds of several of the participants in this drama but these two stand out as offering particularly new insight into both the world of the super-villain and the Hero support network.

Castro also seems to be having a good time playing with the tropes of the comics (which it’s obvious he either knows very well or had studied extensively before embarking on this work). The various agencies involved in the operations, the references to other characters and events within the Marvel universe all serve to create a fully realized world.

The only downside, really, is the moments of dropped threads and missed opportunities. When the plot hinges around a a device which can replicate the powers of on of the bad guys, you have to wonder why the bad guy didn’t just create the desired effect rather than having the group go through the motions of stealing the device? Also, and this was a big one for me, Castro ands a chapter with Mary Jane watching the news and hearing about her husband’s death in an Italian restaurant (and really, where was the Billy Joel reference here?) and the next time we see her, the action is over and the happy couple has been reunited. This seemed to me to be an amazing opportunity since at the moment this occurs, MJ is with Jill Stacy, Gwen Stacy’s sister (and if you’re not a comic fan, just know that Gwen’s death came at the hands of Spider-man trying to save her after the Green Goblin had thrown her from the Brooklyn Bridge). This is also just after Jill has expressed something akin to PTSD when she seed Spidey on TV and MJ has to assure her (although she can’t say why) that she knows Spider-Man is really broken up about Gwen’s death. Just imagine the scene when Peter Parker’s wife totally loses it when she hears about Spidey’s death in front of a woman who blames Spidey for the death of her own sister. That’s dramatic gold and character development silver right there. Would have loved to see that play out onstage rather than have it swept under the rug in favor of more action sequences.

Finally, the epilogue is fun, and again provides a nice look into a character we’re not expecting who also gives us answers we’ve been waiting for. It’s a bit of a cheat that he comes in deus ex machina-like to reveal all but given the action of the final battle, it’s the only way the information can reasonably be presented without even more severe convolutions and writerly betrayal of characterization.

In the end, the trilogy is worth reading. It’s a faithful superhero story and adds nicely to the cannon (and introduces a character who may show up in the next Spider-man film… an added bonus for sure). – Concordance

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