Tuesday, April 20, 2021

The Spectacular Spider-Ham!

One of the surprise hits (for this fanboy at least) of the 1980's was Peter Porker, The Spectacular Spider-Ham. This funny animal spoof of the exceedingly famous Amazing Spider-Man really caught my fancy. Just seeing the all-too familiar story details unfold with other kinds of critters added a freshness even to the most redundant tale. In fact it proved a strength as it played against what in other context would be a deficiency, making light of a weakness. 

I'm not sure what prompted the 1980 publication of the delightfully titled Marvel Tales but it was a pleasant surprise. The upfront Spider-Ham story starring not just Peter Porker but Captain Amerikat as well battling Hulk Bunny was a hoot. And Steve Mellor's Goose Rider was, if anything, even zanier. The Mellor cover is a stunner. 

Part of me cannot help but think that Spider-Ham might've had some genesis sparked by the appearance of a certain famous Earth-Pig named Cerebus the Aardvark who began his independent existence as a parody of Conan the Barbarian and went on to tackle both Wolverine and Moon Knight as well. 

That one-off issue have been all there was if not for the sad fact that Harvey Comics went pretty much bust in the early 80's and a steady stream of kid-friendly comics featuring the likes of Casper the Friendly Ghost, Hot Stuff, and Richie Rich among others suddenly disappeared from the comic racks. Marvel moved swiftly and swept up some of the Harvey talent, most notably Warren Kremer, the architect of the Harvey look and before you knew there was a Star Comics line from Marvel featuring Planet Terry, Royal Roy, Wally the Wizard, Top Dog, and The Spectacular Spider-Ham. 

Peter Porker, The Spectacular Spider-Ham began a reasonably healthy seventeen issue run with the titular hero up front taking on weirdo menaces in a world of funny animals and funnier physics. These kinds of adventures always make for a lightness of storytelling which refreshes from what can be some pretty heavy stuff in a lot of comics of the era. 

The early issues were written by Steve Skeates and drawn by Mike Artmstrong and inked by Joe Abelo, and this trio offered up a singularly angular view of the Spider-Ham universe. While they battled some almost-recognizable menaces. J. Jonah Jackal was a mainstay of the series and appeared in nearly every issue, often in a near lead role. The stories were often surprisingly straightforward aside from some humor from the trio of kid reporters who dominated many a tale. These three little critters -- a nerdy smart bunny named Bunsen, a hip black cat named Upton Adam Stray, and even one of JJJ's nephews named J. Jeremiah Jackal Jr. 

No doubt some of the humor would raise hackles today with some ethnic stereotypes finding their way into what was once just regular storytelling. I doubt the broadness of the humor would've spared the series from critique as it seems the United States has forgotten how to take a joke. 

Fred Hembeck stepped in to draw issue number four and gave us a somewhat more adult looking Spider-Ham. Hembeck would return to the character. 

But the regular team of Skeates and Armstrong never stayed away for long. Some of these stories read so straight that you could sub in the regular Spider-Man with few adjustments. 

Joe Abelo took over all the art chores from time to time. And the humor felt a bit broader and looser when he did so. 

Thought the Armstrong and Abelo duo continued as the regular team on the book. This cover in particular is a fanciful and only mildly connects to the time-travel story inside. 

Tony Salmons stepped in, again aided by inker Abelo for an issue set in Japan and featuring a rampaging "Hogzila". The writer this issue was Steve Mellor. 

Mellor and Abelo produced one of my favorite issues about an alien come to Earth dubbed "B.O.". Whereas the film alien on which he was based seemed genuine and sweet this alien is a little greedy bastard who just wants candy. 

Joe Abelo becomes the regular penciller for the series with the writing passing back and forth between Mellor and Mike Carlin. The Terrible Terriers were I think supposed to become repeat villains but it never occurred to my knowledge. 

Art Nichols steps in for one issue which spoofed the old soap opera "Dynasty" and its star Joan Collins. 

Under the hand of Mellor and Carlin, but mostly the former the humor in the comic seemed to be more and more loose and less about adventure and more about yucks. That suits me fine as the stories felt less formulaic in some way. 

We get monsters and spooks along with parodies of modern celebrities. This one promises some nifty monstes, but alas we get a very strange plant-like Frankenstein Creature wannabe. The series for some reason liked rural settings too as often as not. 

This issue dealt with mind control and heavy metal music. One of the things about reading this series today is how much of the 80's concerns are reflected (as they should be) and how distant they all seem now. 

With issue fifteen the series really seemed to undergo a significant change in focus. To this point the Spider-Ham stories had been oddly separate from the tasty back stories, mostly Steve and Mike Mellor which were wonderful and often outrageous parodies of random Marvel characters. Just as in the original Marvel Tales which featured Goose Rider, we are treated in these warm and kinetic back-up tales to the likes of the X-Bugs, the Scavengers, Nick Furry and the Agents of SHEEP, the Fantastic Fur, the Asinine Torch, the Sub-Marsupial, Silver Squirrel, the Watchdog, Awful Flight, Thrr Dog of Thunder, Crocter Strange, and my favorite Ant Ant. Along with Hulk Bunny and Captain Americat the blended Spider-Ham funny animal universe began to become one in this issue to great effect. 

We get a world-wide spree of action and characters in the sixteenth issue as can be seen on the cover. It almost felt like an old-fashioned Marvel annual tale. More of this kind of storytelling would've been dandy. 

But then just as quickly as that Mike Carlin steps in with artist  Joe Abelo to give us a story from the old-fashioned Spider-Ham and then the series stops. But not the adventures. 

Spider-Ham had taken up residence in the real Marvel Tales as a back up. These stories are not included in this collection, but those stories written and drawn by Fred Hembeck are included in this collection. 

It includes his single issue of the original run and a two-part tale starring Ducktor Doom who wants parenting advice and a three-part tale about how poor Peter Porker was swindled as a young student by Syliva Sowmester, known professionally as the Silver Sow. Peter's girlfriend Mary Jane Waterbuffalo is along for the ride in the latter. 

More Hembeck to come when I take a closer look at The Marvel Universe According to Hembeck. 

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