Spider-view: "Round Robin: The Sidekick’s Revenge"
This team-up tournament tells an entertaining narrative with decent heart, despite some clunky coincidences and few connections to recent history
—by Nathan on May 16, 2023—
Back when I originally plotted this blog series, I shifted the contents around repeatedly. Plans changed, stories came and went, the shape of “Spider-view” was molded and remolded until I found the exact construction I wanted. One of my earlier prospects was jumping from larger story to larger story. Big tales, such as “Kraven’s Last Hunt” or “The Death of Jean DeWolff”...but they didn’t all have to be “big” as in “significant.” They just needed to be longer than an issue or two, tales I figured would be substantial to discuss at a decent length without struggling for a word count: crossover arcs like “Evolutionary War” or “Atlantis Attacks,” or even Spidey-centered stories such as “The Return of the Sinister Six” or the tale we will presently discuss.
I never intended on lumping in a bunch of shorter stories–tales where Spidey fought doctors-turned-vigilante, clones of former foes, or the patients of a psych ward. Those all kind of floated their way into the schedule, nestling between the grander narratives. But “Round Robin” has, more or less, been on the list since the early planning stages, some three years ago or so.
I had vague memories of this narrative, barely remembering giving it a read-through when I devoured my digital ASM collection in high school. I remembered it being a longer narrative, akin to “Last Hunt,” but I couldn’t remember the substance. Was it a good story? Or even just mildly entertaining? Faded figures flashed through my mind…a bunch of other vigilantes popped up, right? Frank Castle’s gun-toting Punisher? The New Warriors’ Night Thrasher?
Modern-day me couldn’t rely on circa 2012’s Nathan to remember the details correctly. So I dove into the fray once more, to refresh my memory…and see if the ensuing narrative was worth remembering.
“Round Robin: The Sidekick’s Revenge”
Writer: Al Milgrom
Penciler: Mark Bagley
Inkers: Randy Emberlin
Colorist: Bob Sharen
Letterer: Joe Rosen
Issues: Amazing Spider-Man #353-358
Publication Dates: November 1991-January 1992
Our Spidey’s been a busybody lately, palling around with all kinds of friends. If you missed him fending off Ultron’s robots alongside Iron Man and Black Panther, maybe you espied our hero stopping a three-headed Sentinel with the New Warrior known as Nova or facing an enraged Juggernaut with X-Factor.
The “Super Friends” quota gets ratcheted to the stars in this six-part saga, however, as Spidey finds himself buddy-ing up with a whole host of men in tights: Darkhawk, Night Thrasher, the Punisher, Nova, Moon Knight, and, uh, Moon Knight’s best friend/pilot chauffeur Frenchie. It’s a funky Venn diagram of “teenage superheroes,” “violent vigilantes,” and “guys who probably appreciated the publicity by appearing in a Spidey mag.” Our Webbed-Wonder has been a roll, and this feels like a suitably sizable narrative as our series of team-up tales unfolds.
To be sure, the scope isn’t quite as prominent as prior stories. Our assembled allies aren’t trying to keep the Tri-Sentinel from taking out a nuclear power plant or making sure a cabal of criminals don’t steal some unstable vibranium. There’s a decent amount of personal stakes involved here that writer Al Milgrom juggles well: Moon Knight wishes to save a former partner and friend, Midnight, out of a life as a cyborg enthralled by the Secret Empire (the pre-Hydra-Captain-America terrorist organization); Midnight plots and schemes in the background to usurp control of the Empire (he's the subtitle's sidekick seeking revenge, see?); Darkhawk has the chance late in the story to try and redeem an earlier mistake. "Character" sits at this story's core.
Milgrom, a fairly capable writer, handles the overall plot well. He has many, many moving pieces to maneuver throughout the six-issue story and works in a host of interesting ideas that keep the story flowing. We’re given multiple fights, most of which seem unique and purposeful: several of our heroes try to keep the Empire from breaking Dr. Elliott Franklin (aka, “Thunderball,” aka “the most interesting member of the Wrecking Crew”) out of a prison (which, as a chronological aside, I assume happens prior to his transfer to the Vault); Midnight leads multiple heroes on a chase across New York City; our heroes are pitted against a trio of armor-clad supervillains hired by the Empire; and a final battle royale brings all the players together.
Every so often, some of the skirmishes blend together, and convenience sometimes gains the upper hand on logic. The Punisher just so happens to be trailing the Secret Empire when our cadre of caped crusaders stumbles upon him; citizens are kept from becoming potential victims of supervillain plots right at the last minute; a few plot points are introduced later which would have benefited from earlier discussion. As noted, there’s a lot Milgrom needs to keep track of, least of which the whereabouts of a variety of costumed heroes, so it’s difficult to fault him for not tying absolutely everything down.
I expected, at worst, a story about as messy as “Maximum Carnage” (which I have read but not yet reviewed), a narrative executed (pun totally intended) as a series of pitched battles between adversaries, with neither side gaining much ground. “Round Robin” makes sure its battles have scope and stakes. The Punisher is injured at one point, and Nova is kidnapped. Yeah, it leads to a lot of regrouping and re-planning by our heroes, and the exposition may get a little long-winded at points, but there is a nice intentionality on Mantlo’s part as he guides us from scene to scene.
The narrative even offers up a genuine twist or two, and though the set-ups are not necessarily subtle, they’re not ham-fisted either. One character in particular weaves their way throughout the tale, revealing themselves to not quite be who they say they are. But “not who they say they are” and “who they actually are” end up being two different things, leading to a satisfying reveal late in the story.
Ex-Moon-Night-sidekick Midnight, surprisingly, becomes the story’s heart–multiple scenes focus on his machinations while Marc Spector’s alter ego (well, one of them anyway) wrestles between his own guilt at “losing” his former partner and his dedication to rescuing Midnight from the Secret Empire. It’s tragedy, written well. Moon Knight mourns his friend’s loss anew–Midnight, once believed dead, is alive but no longer the man he once was. He might as well be dead a second time, and Moon Knight yearns to bring him back to some semblance of life.
The narrative tends to falter when feeling connected to recent continuity. It’s more an inconvenience or annoyance than a flat-out problem, but Mantlo very rarely throws in references to prior narratives. We just focused on a Spidey/Nova team-up two posts ago, a tale featured in the previous month’s ASM issue at the time of this story’s publication. We get not a single recollection from either hero that they just took down a sauntering behemoth of a machine, shook hands, and then respectively swung/flew into the sunset. We get a handful of historical references–Spidey retells his origin for Darkhawk’s benefit, the injured Punisher hallucinates his family’s death, and a group of armored mercenaries from a few Iron Man and Fantastic Four issues duel with our assembled heroes–but no nods to recent continuity. Perhaps I’m spoiled by the way Michelinie has tethered recent stories together, but given Spidey’s history with a few of these guys (particularly the Punisher), I was disappointed by the lack of connections. To be fair, it also means Mantlo foregoes some awkward, cliche banter–do we really need another “No killing” conversation between Spidey and the Punisher?–but a nod here, an editorial footnote in the corner of that panel there, would have been appreciated.
In sports, “round robin” generally refers to a tournament where each participant matches up with every other participant (as far as I understand it). Each team has a shot at going against each of their opponents. Mantlo and Bagley seem to apply the title in two ways: each hero is given opportunities to tussle and team with every other hero, and our menagerie of villains (Midnight, our armored mercenaries, the Secret Empire’s goons) match their heroic adversaries in battle. It makes for some highly dramatic, wonderfully illustrated match-ups (Bagley, believe it or not, makes Thunderball look cool in a “90s techno suit of armor” kind of way). It creates tension between players as our heroes align their different histories and relationships towards a common goal. So some of the aforementioned banter is necessary, fueling tension or letting characters hash out their grievances and work to build bridges between each other as they come to understand one another better.
Mantlo plays well with the story space provided, adequately creating a narrative that defends its six-issue length. Conflict spirals out of prior tensions, and motivations are derived by unfolding plot points. Each chapter leads into the next segment, supported by our team of costumed vigilantes as they uncover the devious plot at hand. You may want to head into this knowing some of Moon Knight’s history or with even a vague notion of who Darkhawk is, and you may find it a little odd (possibly because of the writer switch) when Mantlo doesn’t acknowledge recent team-ups between characters. So though it feels somewhat oddly slotted into the middle of Michelinie’s ASM run while being disconnected from it, Mantlo nevertheless carries the torch (without the Torch…no Johnny Storm here) across this saga. “Round Robin” may not be the most profound piece of “Put ‘er there, partner” pandemonium you’ll ever read, but it’s more consistently entertaining than I would have given it based on memory alone.