Hello and welcome to a special St Andrew’s Day edition of Quarterbin Follies! What is St. Andrew’s Day, you ask? Well, it is the feast day in honor of St Andrew, patron saint of the nation of Scotland, and so, I thought I would take this opportunity to look into Charles Vess‘s Spider-Man: Spirits of the Earth. But what does this have to do with St Andrew? Not much, but read on!
Charles Vess, you might recognize, is an artist and painter, and frequent collaborator with Neil Gaiman. In fact, it was Vess‘s gorgeous paintings that adorn the graphic version of Stardust (sadly, I only have the picture-less mass-market paperback that was released the year before the film hit theaters, but I digress).
As recounted by Vess himself in the Afterword, Vess suffered a very similar affliction as many of us Yankees—a fascination with the mysterious Highlands of Scotland. Yes, there are many of us under Old Glory’s stripes and starry field that harbor a romance and longing for those foggy and forbidding slopes, and it was in 1983 that Vess took his first trip across the pond. Years went on and Vess found a way to combine his love of the land and people of Scotland with his job as a comics and fantasy illustrator.
In 1990, Vess released Spirits, having written, painted, and even lettered it, and it was a labor of love. The book was published by Marvel as a full glossy, hardcover book, complete with a fancy dust jacket and a $18.95 price tag. Now you might be asking why I am reviewing a $20 comic in a column called “Quarterbin Follies.” Well, I just have to say, “Thanks, Goodwill!” The other more pressing question is what is Spider-Man doing in Scotland?
This is in fact the question posited by the fancy dust jacket. After all, there may not be a comic character more in tune with and tied into New York City than Spider-Man. The book even begins with a beautiful full page in inks and watercolors showcasing ol’ Spidey enraptured with his home-turf. But before long we see our hero and his bride flying across the sea. Mary Jane (and, yes, I am going to ignore “One More Day,” thanks for asking) is the sole inheritor of a bit of farmland in the Highland town of Lochalsh. Mrs. Mary MacLeod left the cottage and bit of acreage to MJ in hopes that is would not be sold off, a fate she had lamented in the letter that accompanied the will.
Before long, Pete and MJ arrive in the scenic and peaceful village; and it isn’t more than two pages before Peter begins complaining that the Highlands are just not New York. I mean, peace and quiet are nice, but what about the noise and danger?! The couple spend a couple of days puttering about the village and in the MacLeod cottage before an evening at the Pub turns very interesting. In over-hearing the town gossip, Peter is surprised to hear tales of fairies and specters across the moors that have more and more folks talking about selling out to a faceless real estate company intent on buying all the land round about the loch and the recently abandoned castle of Duncraig.
You see, this whole village and territory has been presided over for six generations by the scions and Lairds Munro, but of late, disease and misfortune have claimed all but three of the once great house: the Laird Hugh, his nephew Angus Munro and the Hugh’s heir and grandson young Hugh. Several of the townsfolk and the Laird himself attest to seeing the young one snatched away by fairies, just like in some old legend. Not long after, ghosts and faeries sent old Hugh packing to a flat in town, and now he is a sad, broken shell of his former self.
All this sends Peter’s skeptic and curious mind a-whirling, and after his own personal encounter with the spectral nasties, Spider-Man is enlisted by a local weird hag (and I mean that in a literary sense) called Dark Mairi of the Shore to save the land from this threat, which she is adamant has nothing to do with ghost or the Fair Folk below the hills.
In the end, city-boy Parker finds himself at the crossroads of pseudo-science and magic far-far away from his beloved bright lights; and in a modern legend as at home next door to Scottish tales of the Kelpie or of Tam Lin as it is in the middle of Marvel‘s 616 Universe. I previously made mention of Peter’s obvious discomfort in the setting of Highland Scotland, away from his city and from his scientific reasoning. Nevertheless, on the pages of Spirits this complaining does not set the tone for the piece. Rather, the graphic novel as a whole serves as Vess‘s love letter to the Highlands—Peter’s discontent juxtaposing the surrounding and enthralling mystery of timeless places. It was also a treat to see MJ given a role in the victory in a way that honors her own fighter’s spirit and the supportive love she holds for her husband.
These feats Vess completes with a nuanced grace, with the ease of a studied storyteller, and with stunning visuals to make the heart weep. My one complaint with the story is that the denouement is certainly too brief, and too tidily wraps up the handful of loose ends left behind in the climax. Nevertheless, this was a joy to read and to review; and well worth checking out at (almost) any opportunity.