I've been reading Spider-Man comics for 20 plus years but my collecting did not really gain any kind of cohesion until the mid-late 90's, by then the graphic novels reprinted here for the first time were long since out of print. For years I had wanted to read 'Hooky' and 'Spirits of the Earth' so when browsing my local comic store last month I happened upon this hardcover, I couldn't buy it fast enough.
Hooky (1986) written by Susan Putney and illustrated by Bernie Wrightson is an odd one. Webhead follows a young magician through a portal into the 'dimension of Cloudsea' to help her overcome an enemy unto which she has been cursed. The beast- a morphing monstrosity called 'The Tordenkakerlakk' can never be defeated the same way twice and regenerates after every defeat Spidey inflicts bigger and stronger. This makes for some cool splash pages but it also means the story feels rather one dimensional. For me this was a case of style over substance and even the visuals are occasionally ropey with Spidey's mask being rendered rather poorly. Little things like that bug me.
Parallel Lives (1989) Gerry Conway / Alex Saviuk is a classic, but one that splits opinions as it details how MJ discovered Peter's id and how this affected their relationship through the years (as when it was revealed she knew in ASM#257 a lot of readers felt she had never displayed and prior indiction of this knowledge). Depending where you stand on that what can't be denied is how well constructed this story is. Conway brilliantly weaves the tales of MJ's and Peter's formative years together so for the first time you really get an understanding of who MJ is, before whizzing through a greatest hits of Spidey's costumed career including a memorable showdown with Doc Ock. Also worth praise is the work of Alex Saviuk- in a career defining best the whole book is beautifully illustrated in a classic Romita style way above his work on the lengthy Web of Spider-Man run.
As good as Parallel Lives is, it's Spirits of the Earth (1990) that stands as the centrepiece of the collection. Born out of writer/illustrator Charles Vess' affinity for the Scottish highlands this tale sees Peter and Mary Jane taking a second honeymoon in Scotland after MJ learns she has inherited a cottage from a recently deceased relative. I won't spoil what follows, but can tell you the story is satisfyingly slow in building, perfectly letting PP/SM adapt to his new environment, beautifully painted and overall is unlike anything else in Spidey comics before or since.
Fear Itself (1992) Don't let the shiny Joe Jusko cover fool you, despite being created by some big names- Gerry Conway, Stan Lee and Ross Andru this one is the weakest of the bunch. When megalomaniac the Baroness steals the fear inducing `cassidy crystals' from Osborn industries, it's up to Spidey and Silver Sable to infiltrate her Bavarian castle and redeem them. The story starts off well as Sable recounts the Baroness' ties to WWII nut job Baron Zemo, but after that the whole adventure is pretty routine stuff and aside from one twist late on you know how it's going to end. To summarise this collection is definitely worth picking up for the avid Spider-fan. Parallel Lives and SOTE are both excellent and along with the other two stories comprise the only in-print versions of these comics.