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‘Avenging Spider-Man’ #1 Teams Up with Red Hulk, Savvy Digital Marketing [Review]

I love team-up books. Brave and the Bold, Marvel Team-Up and Marvel Two-In-One are some of my favorite comics of all time, because they operate on the simple premise that if one super-hero is good, then two must be great. So you take one of your best characters, someone with a strong personality and a knack for working in any kind of situation, and then throw them in with somebody else and send them on an adventure that can be as wild as you want it to be. That’s exactly what Marvel’s doing in the pages of Avenging Spider-Man, — which also comes with a download code for a free digital copy — and if the first issue from Zeb Wells and Joe Madureira is any indcation, they’re definitely doing it right.This doesn’t exactly come as a surprise: As part of the rotating cast of writers in Spider-Man’s “Brand New Day” era, Wells was able to write stories that stood out even among three years of exceptional comics by creators like Dan Slott and Mark Waid. “Shed” wasn’t just a standout, it was the best Lizard story I’ve ever read, turning a premise that could’ve easily come off as pure shock value into something that was genuinely affecting, emotional, and thrilling.

But to see the roots of what he’s doing with Avenging Spider-Man, you have to go back a little further to 2008 and Amazing Spider-Man #577, an extra-sized issue written by Wells and Joe Kelly, guest-starring the Punisher. I love that comic, and while a lot of that has to do with Paolo Rivera’s mind-blowing art — he draws one of the single greatest Spider-Man fight scenes of all time in that comic — the story is a textbook example of how to pull off a team-up.

Wells showed that he knows exactly what makes it so fun to see Spider-Man interacting with other characters and how that clash of personalities can make for such a fun interaction, and he’s back at it here without missing a beat.

One of the great things about Spider-Man, something that makes him the best Marvel character, is that for all his power, he always seems to be a little bit overwhelmed. It’s one of the most well-crafted and well-maintained fictions in comics: We see him triumph over impossible odds again and again, but when he’s done well, he’s still believable as the hard-luck hero. It’s probably because his victories almost always come at the cost of some other aspect of his life, but it lends itself to the feeling that Spider-Man is at his best when he’s a little bit out of his depth.

That’s the sort of thing that Wells is crafting here, and once again, he’s doing it right in the face of any sort of logic, which all points in the exact opposite direction. After all, Spider-Man’s an Avenger! It’s in the title of the comic!

But it’s something that Wells uses, showing us Spider-Man in relation to guys like Thor, Iron Man, and the other half of this issue’s team-up, the unfathomably powerful Red Hulk. Of course, we’re never told why it’s Spider-Man who has the inferiority complex and not the carny who shoots arrows at stuff, but whatever. Dude’s got brain problems.

Regardless, it’s a great setup, with some fun character work that — after a few of the issue’s laugh-out-loud funny J. Jonah Jameson moments — build to a fantastic set piece. It’s one of the most ridiculously over-the-top setups for an action scene that I’ve seen in a while — an army of the subterranean Moloids attacks the New York Marathon! — but in a story like this, that’s not a bad thing. It’s hilarious, it’s got thrilling action, and it even gives Joe Madureira the chance to break out some pretty great visuals.

I’ve never been a huge Madureira fan — his work on X-Men came at a time when I wasn’t all that into the franchise, and since there were never two issues of Battle Chasers released during the same geologic era, I never got into that one either — but I really enjoyed his work here. The word for it, I think is dynamic. There’s a lot of motion to the characters even when they’re essentially standing around and posing, and while the slightly unfinished look to it might turn some readers off — it looks in a lot of places like it went straight from tight pencils to Ferran Daniel’s coloring without being inked — it’s done well enough that it really adds to the kineticism of the art.

Madureira’s exaggerated style works perfectly for Spider-Man and the Hulk, and Wells even calls for a couple of hilariously World of Warcraft-lookin’ dudes to cater to his artist’s legendary love of video games. It’s a slick package on all fronts, and while his work often goes without being mentioned, Joe Caramagna’s lettering is at its usual high level of quality.

There’s something beyond just the content of this issue that’s worth noting, though: The fact that, at least for the first three issues, every printed copy of Avenging Spider-Man is being shipped with a download code for a digital copy of the issue.

It’s hard to look at this and not see it as a direct response to what DC’s been doing with their $4.99 “Combo Packs” of print and digital Justice League issues. The titles themselves might not be on the same level in terms of promotion, but they’re definitely both books starring flagship characters that are drawn by guys who rose to prominence by drawing the X-Men in the ’90s, and really, they’re the only two major publisher comics coming out right now with download codes, so the comparison is inevitable.

And it’s a comparison Marvel’s inviting with a cover blurb that advertises the “FREE” digital copy. Granted, the book still has a hefty $3.99 price point for 22 story pages and a digital version of the same comic, but it’s still a buck less than the equivalent version of Justice League, which adds an extra dollar to its price tag for the privilege of downloading something you already own. Throw in the fact that it is a “version” of Justice League that you have to seek out in order to get the digital copy — again, paying a higher price than the standard version — as opposed to just getting it with every copy, and Avenging Spider-Man is a far more attractive deal for the reader. In fact, while I was interested in the comic just because I like Wells on Spider-Man, the inclusion of the digital copy was what really sold me on making sure I ordered the first three issues of Avenging Spider-Man. This is a model of digital and print comics coming together that I want to support.

So far, only the first three issues are advertised as coming with the digital download code — which expires after a year, meaning that you might even be able to snag it out of the back issue bin if your store cycles through its stock pretty quickly — but I’m hoping that they keep it up as the series continues. I mean, if I’m being honest, I hope this is something they adopt across the line and that it comes with a corresponding price drop for the digital versions. That might be a little too much to hope for right now, but a guy can dream, right?

In the end, the digital copy is just another thing to like about a comic that I already thought was great. In fact, the only thing I’m not all that keen on is the name. I get why they went with Avenging Spider-Man — I’m going to guess we’ll be seeing Spider-Man teaming up with a lot of Avengers over the course of the series, and honestly, who isn’t an Avenger these days? — but it just doesn’t fit with what’s going on in the book. “Avenging” conjures up images of lurking in the night, inflicting brutal retribution on those who committed wrongs rather than, you know, teaming up with the Hulk and punching giant monsters and some Level 90 Orcish Berserker-lookin’ dudes.

As far as I’m concerned, this comic is Marvel Team-Up, and with this issue, it’s earned the name.

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