Spider-Man is Marvel’s greatest icon, its most instantly recognizable contribution to pop culture. Endless merchandise and two blockbuster hit films have brought the company millions upon millions of dollars from this one character since his creation in 1963, by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. But beyond the wildly successful Todd McFarlane title of the early nineties, actual Spider-Man comic books haven’t garnered much attention recently. Even when Spidey shows up in company-wide crossovers like House of M, or joins up with the New Avengers, he’s mostly relegated to whiny benchwarmer status. Have a seat, Pete, while Iron Man handles the galactic menace, or Wolverine threatens someone with his mighty adamantium claws…again.
Some of this has to do with the man under the mask. Peter Parker was driven to the heroic life by his guilt over his complicity in the death of his Uncle Ben, but the lack of a guiding hand through his early transformations left him in a state of arrested development. Peter became a thrill seeking wise-ass, cracking jokes while he cracked heads. Lacking either the benign grace of a Superman or the brooding remorse of a Batman, Spidey is simply your Friendly Neighborhood Wall Crawler. He may put J. Jonah Jameson in a tizzy every now and again, but he’s no real danger to anyone, not in the way that the Marvel Universe sees the X-Men. Therefore, he’s very easy to take for granted. Why bother buying a Spider-Man book when he’ll just be dealing with the same crap they’ve been putting him through for forty years? Is Aunt May in the hospital again? Is one of the Osbornes dead or dying or back from the dead? Is that really The Vulture they’re trotting out again?
So last year, The Other came along. Subtitled Evolve or Die, it bombastically promised to change everything about the Spider-Man mythos and was written by a Spidey All-Star team: the mastermind was J. Michael Straczynski, the writer of Spidey’s flagship title, Amazing Spider-Man since 2001; Peter David, who had written for Web of Spider-Man and Amazing, and was launching a new Spidey title, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man with the arc; and Reginald Hudlin, who had written Spidey before in Marvel Knights: Spider-Man. For all its shock and awe, The Other failed in its intentions. At the end, Spider-Man had more powers, had cheated death, and had a new look; but Peter and his readers seemed no closer to understanding the man inside the red and blue suit than they ever had.
Peter David handled the first part of the story (which ran three issues, one through each of the Spider-titles), and what an opening: Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #1 was a brilliant, lively book. Mike Wieringo is the perfect artist for Spider-Man; his art is as lithe and playful as the hero himself. His sense of drama and action is perfectly tuned, and he brought out the best in every one of his partners during The Other. Though the arc at large failed, Wieringo made every FNSM issue compelling.
We begin with a dream. Peter is describing a confusing dream to Mary Jane filled with omens of death. “It started with Morlun…that lunatic who wanted to ‘eat’ my spider-powers, remember? And he’s rolling a body into the morgue. And I’m afraid it’s me…except if I’m dead and inside the bag, I couldn’t be seeing it, right?” Peter continues, “and ever since then I’ve been afraid I’m gonna lose it all. That’s a problem with having a ton of blessings. You keep waiting for God to notice and say, ‘wait, that’s not supposed to happen’.” We are immediately reminded that Peter is a deeply wounded soul, unable to appreciate his gifts in life, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. As his lovely model / actress wife purrs next to him, all Peter can do is brood on his own mortality. Peter fights crime not only out of that sense of moral obligation to Uncle Ben but, as with any workaholic, to ignore the dreadful tick of the clock that’s always in the back of his mind.
He’s soon given ample opportunity to hide his grief, as a villain called The Tracer robs a bank across town:
“Oh wow!” Peter quips from under the mask, “A new bad guy! I can tell y’know, ’cause you still have that new bad guy smell.” Unimpressed, Tracer opens fire. Spider-Man dodges the bullets effortlessly, but they swing back around to chase him, and only him. “Now that they’re locked on,” explains the Tracer with glee, “They’ll avoid any other person just to get to you.”
We follow Peter in his desperate escape from the bullets through the skyscrapers and billboards of New York. Then David takes us out of the action and flashes back to Peter and Mary Jane in Avengers Tower. Concerned with her husband’s recent erratic behavior and his omen-filled dream, Mary Jane seeks the advice of Captain America who decides to take the couple through a Tai Chi exercise to demonstrate focus. “One considered, calculated move,” he tells Peter, “can be better than twenty reactive moves, no matter how well executed they are. And that requires focus.”
David brings us back to Spider-Man’s escape from Tracer’s bullets:
Spidey collapses, but we have seen a phenomenal demonstration of abilities that he never even dreamed were available to him. The dual nature of Peter Parker is on full display. On one hand he is unstoppable, and on the other he fails himself.
To help with his bullet wound, Peter goes to Dr. Castillo, a doctor commonly used by the superhero community. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” Peter asks. The doctor responds, “Probably because their initial impulse is to hit you with a rolled up newspaper. They can’t see any part of your face, you keep to yourself, and you dress like something icky.” “Point taken, doc.” Is all Peter responds with, but she’s absolutely right: Spider-Man is one of the few heroes to be completely covered with his costume. Peter has been hiding from the world all his life, first by burying his nose in books, and then by becoming a masked vigilante. Dr. Castillo tells him she’ll call him with the results, and next we see Peter and Mary Jane arguing as Peter suits up to chase after Tracer.
MJ: Look at you! You’re wounded!
PETER: Come on, MJ, you know I get better fast.
MJ: Yeah? What if you die? What’re your odds of getting better then?
PETER: Seriously? Surprisingly good.
Peter runs out, leaving Mary Jane stewing at the window. He swings across town, using his Spider-sense to locate the tracer device he planted on Tracer (“Gotta love the irony” he tells MJ):
Forever charging into battle without a plan, acting without thinking, Peter is his own worst enemy. As he lies on his bed, summoning the courage to ask Tony Stark for the cash to repair J. Jonah’s limo, Dr. Castillo calls with bad news.
Exactly what kind of bad news? That’s the cliffhanger. But The Other‘s first great failing is that we never find out what is wrong with Peter. We are told that it is a ‘radiation-based infection’, but we’re never given an explanation beyond that. Even for comic books, that’s lazy writing.
Speaking of lazy writing, and adding to it lazy art, Marvel Knights #19, the next issue in the arc, features both.
The issue is Mary Jane’s, and focuses on how she deals with being the wife of a superhero. In a conversation with Captain America she compares them to Don Quixote. “So you’re wondering whether all of us…are just a group of insane knight errants?” Cap asks. MJ responds: “It’s not like people are asking you to do it…think of everything you give up in order to do what you do.”
The issue is scattershot. Focusing on Mary Jane; while thematically important, it takes us away from Peter for a long stretch very early in the arc. We see Mary Jane being stalked by Morlun (who tells a cabbie “You’re talking to a man who has returned from the dead to kill Spider-Man” in dialogue so shameless they wouldn’t give it to a James Bond villain); we see her being stalked by a crazed fan (who she neatly dispatches with a pool cue to the groin after he pulls a gun on her); and we see her stalking Peter, as she searches desperately for news about his fight with Tracer. She watches news coverage in a local bar:
The above panels are just one example of artist Pat Lee’s complete inability to convey emotion. And, unfortunately for Pat, he is given the issue that makes the greatest requirement on the artist to do just that. It’s a very talky issue, and Lee is not up to the challenge. But then we are taken away from Mary Jane’s story and to the fight with Tracer, and now Iron Man, whose suit Tracer is manipulating to use against Spidey.
The switch to Tony and Peter’s conversation is jarring, and is only necessary to set up the full scope of Tracer’s powers in the next issue. Mary Jane has been our strict focus this issue, to the detriment of Peter’s story, but now, when it’s convenient for David’s run, he gives us a little action. Lee is a little better here; you can see that they put him on Spider-Man because his lines are unpredictable and jumpy, and also because Spidey has a mask on most of the time. But it’s still unclear why they would put an artist with such limited capabilities on an event this important.
Its not until Peter returns home, and Mary Jane confronts him, that the issue gains any emotional foothold. Peter tries to explain what happened, and why he rushed into the fight, but MJ’s not having any of it, “You were so sloppy out there,” she says, “Like you didn’t care anymore. You could have died. Except…I think you’ve wanted to die for years.”
She’s right. Mary Jane is a smart woman, and (as the whole point of this issue has been) she’s a strong woman. But Peter is at once strong and weak. He brushes aside Mary Jane’s comments (again Peter avoiding reality) by confronting her with his test results (which we see lying on the floor at the end of the issue, again: revealed to the characters but not to the audience). “You’re wrong”, Peter says,” I don’t want to die…because I read this. And I didn’t want to believe it.”
For the first time in the issue, David hits the right emotional tone, but here again Lee’s art derails the emotional impact. Look again at Mary Jane’s speech: the exact same image repeats six times, making the scene look overly wordy and ultimately boring. Clearly, Pat Lee does not own a copy of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way.
Amazing Spider-Man #525 begins with another dream of death, but this time it’s Aunt May dreaming of the past. Her mother lies in the hospital, and it’s time to pull the plug. We see a young May, with Uncle Ben by her side, making the difficult decision. But after she does:
“You don’t give in to death! You get angry and you fight!” she screams, and May wakes up clutching her throat. She walks to her window and finds the city under siege. The narration carries her thoughts, speaking to her dead husband, “Peter’s out in this…I’m certain of it…In your name, Ben. He’s doing it all in your name. It’s bad enough you’ve never truly let me go, Ben. Can’t you at least let our nephew have his freedom?”
But Peter’s not out in the fray–not yet. He’s walking down the hall, arguing with Mary Jane because she didn’t wake him up to deal with the chaos outside. As he walks, he bumps into Aunt May, and even she understands that something is off about her nephew’s powers. “…he didn’t react fast enough to running into me. And I’m considerably slower than a speeding bullet.”
May confronts Peter, “What are you hiding?”
“Nothing. I’m not hiding anything. Will you just, for once, trust me and go back to sleep?”, he says and crawls away to join the fight.
May continues her conversation with Ben, at one point actually seeing him in front of her. She looks down, by this point speaking aloud to Ben and is answered by the Tracer, now sitting across the table from her. “My name’s Tony, ma’am. I’m a reserve Avenger.”
Tracer tells her he’s been assigned to keep an eye on the home base. He also tells her what’s happening outside, “The machines, ma’am. A number of them are rising up in revolt.”
From here we flash over to Spidey out in the thick of things, and not faring well. He collapses in an alley, unable to even climb the wall. Morlun shows up, but he’s only there to taunt him and run away, “I could kill you now, of course. But your…deterioration…is of great interest to me.” Spider-Man tries to give chase but his powers are still out of commission. He falls off the wall into the waiting arms of Wolverine who tells him that Morlun was never there and furthermore, the New Avengers don’t need him hallucinating in the middle of their battles.
We again see May speaking with Tracer as he explains his powers to her (while she makes him a peanut butter sandwich): “Well, you know how Thor is a god? Well I’m a god, too. A really new one…machines…they’re getting smarter and smarter. And they created me to worship, just as humans created their God, or gods.”
May expresses doubt, and Tracer asks her, “So…what was it like shutting off mummy’s life support? The machine told me it was pretty rough on you.” May is given pause, and even though Tracer says he’s still kidding, her guard must be up, but she goes on with the story anyway, describing how “dirty” she felt doing it. Even though it was the right thing to do.
“And I patted myself on the back for my bravery…in the face of death.”
“But you weren’t really brave,” Tracer says.”Were you?”
“No. I just put on a good show. Put on a mask, the way my nephew later would. The mask helps hide the fear.”
Right as Tracer asks who her nephew is, Spidey attacks him, kicking him across the room.
But Peter is clearly still weak. He hangs on the Aunt May for support while May asks Tracer why he’s doing all of this. He replies, “For the same reason any God does: Because I can.”
Spider-Man rushes him, and Tracer uses the opportunity to extend mental probes out of his fingers and dig them into Spidey, performing tests on the hero, “DNA samples, tissue, blood, instant analysis of…Eh? Are you kidding me? Someone in your condition is fighting me?” Tracer screams and declares that killing Peter is not worth his time. That’s when Peter really loses it, yelling, “I’m so sick of you people!”
May calls him off, and Tracer fades away, leaving a metallic shell on the floor as an exhausted Peter is helped to his feet by Mary Jane. May demands to know what is going on. “It’s something you shouldn’t have to face tonight.” Peter says, and May replies “Sometimes life is facing what you don’t want to face. Don’t worry. I can be brave.”
“Yeah, well…that makes one of us.” Peter says as he takes off his mask.
So ends Peter David’s part of the story. Like anything David writes, it was jokey and wordy, but good. Tracer was an interesting new villain, and hopefully we’ll see him again soon. The art was good overall, with the exception of Pat Lee. Mike Deodato who did the Amazing issues knows how to do Spidey very well, and his contributions throughout the arc were dynamic, especially the big showdown between Morlun and Spidey.
One thing David’s always been good at is getting to the heart of Peter’s insecurities. There is a palpable fear and desperation to everything he does in these issues. He is clearly a man on the brink.
But as entertaining as David’s run was, we’re already in trouble: Morlun is being treated as a running gag, we’ve gotten no clue as to the nature of Peter’s illness, and we’ve spent most of our time with everybody but Peter.