Starting with Issue #30 of Volume 2, John Michael Straczynski started his definitive and critically acclaimed run on Ol’ Web-head. This run is simultaneously famous and infamous, beloved and reviled. It is definitely one of the more divisive runs on a Marvel character, which is enough of a reason for me to seek it out. Up front, I would say that the vast majority of this review will refer to specific plot points within the run, making it pretty *spoiler* heavy. If you want to avoid spoilers, I’ll say up front that you have two halves: a strong first half that may still leave you shaking your head if you’re a classic Spidey fan, and a weird, not-so-good second half that will definitely leave you shaking your head. This is an absolute must-read for completionists and die-hard Spider-Man fans, though you probably won’t like the end, unless your name is Joe Quesada…
A Strong First Half
The first 6 issues, an arc titled “Homecoming,” also won an Eisner Award in 2002 for the Best Serialized Story. The story features some brand new characters for Spidey lore and take the whole concept of Spider-Man’s origin to a new and mystical direction. The addition of Morlun, the Spider totem, Ezekiel (a Stick-like character) all happened pretty quickly. I’m not sure how I feel about the totem replacing radioactive spider bite — it’s all a bit too mystical for my liking, but I can’t argue with the execution. The character development, and the trials and tribulations Spidey endures during this adventure are quite good. JMS has a good voice for SM: snarky and smart, but still with some emotional depth. John Romita Jr (JRJR) penciled the first half of JMS’ run and it has that same blocky look as most of his other stuff. I will say that the squarish heads take some getting used to, but there’s no doubt JRJR is a top Marvel artist in the game today. He does a great job of showing emotions and his action sequences are always well drawn, but I think his unique style takes a little getting used to.
The first arc is probably the best in the whole run, but the next 26 issues (rounding out the first half of JMS’ run) was also pretty great. The real strength of JMS’ run is that he can capture Peter’s internal dialogue so well, drawing upon the history of the character, as well as deepening his relationships with Aunt May and MJ (with whom he gradually repairs the semi-estranged separated marriage situation he inherited from previous writers). JMS seemed to pay homage to the emotional notes of Spidey’s past, even as he took the plot and underlying mythos in an entirely new direction. The plot of the run saw Peter reestablish himself in a school setting, this time as a teacher. It is a great fit and also helps to explain some of his more complicated scheduling issues living a double life. Being a mentor for other bullied science nerds and giving him an outlet for his scientific genius was a good fit. It blends the compassionate sense of duty and his need for some intellectual engagement very well and JMS writes the school scenes perfectly. As the run goes on, JMS spends less and less time in the classroom, which I think is a definite mistake. Some of the best moments in this whole run involve Peter looking after his students and using tips he overhears at school to right wrongs in the community. Making Spider-Man a local hero is an important part of the mythos and really helps to differentiate him from the Avengers and FF, who spend much more time on the larger, existential threats.
The pinnacle of JMS’ reverence of Spider-Man as a local hero came in issue #36, the 9/11 special issue. It is an honest reaction to the horror and pain of one of the worst events in the American history and an incredible tribute from the eyes of the best-known NY-based superhero. From the solid black cover to the horrifying splash pages and obvious pain felt by Spider-Man and the other heroes, JMS deftly managed a balance between pain, perseverance, and hope. The importance of seeking justice, staying strong, and not vilifying an entire culture were important tenets of JMS’ heartfelt, well-written, and genuinely good take on the tragedy of 9/11. It is definitely a must read and is the high watermark of the entire run.
The plot points through #502 are pretty good, though they do focus primarily around JMS’ new revelation of the mystical Spider Totem and some enemies that have similar back stories (i.e. Spider-Wasp and more Ezekiel backstory). There are a couple of spoilers (kind of) during the run involving Peter’s home life: he and MJ get back together, and May figures out he is Spider-Man. The former is well done, built up across multiple arcs, including a fun and kind of silly plot in Los Angeles, where MJ is in a film called “Lobster Man” with some cheeky allusions to Spider-Man’s real life. The latter is fairly abrupt, but the issue that deals with it is very well done and involves some great dialogue between the two. The revelation leads to an even deeper connection with May that also involves her coming to terms with such a complicated reveal gradually through issue #502.
The end of the first half started to decline slightly, plot-wise with the weird “Digger” arc and some metaphysical focus in Dormammu’s time-traveling spiritual takeover of New York around issue #500. Despite some iffy plot decisions, this portion of the story is still well-worth reading for Spidey fans since JMS continues to grasp the essential voice of his characters. Such good characterization is pretty rare in comics, and as such, it is easily worth enduring some less than stellar plot lines to get them. All in all, the first half of JMS’ run (with JRJR’s wonderful art, of course) is highly enjoyable with an interesting mix of the very new concepts and the classic Spider-Man feel that earned him praise at the time and endures today as a solidly above-average run on Spider-Man. First Half Rating: 8 of 10
A Second-Half Decline
My definitive line here between the first (read: good) half and the second (bad) half is somewhat subjective. The last two arcs of the above section weren’t great, but they weren’t bad either. The same is true of these first two arcs of this half. I ended up settling on issue #503 as the start of the decline because it reinforces the trade paperback breakout of this run. This decline opens with the first issue of the Amazing Spider-Man by JMS: Ultimate Collection, Volume 3. The metaphysical and nontraditional Spider-Man stories didn’t slow down as I had hoped they would, but instead sped up starting with #503. A two-issue arc starring Loki was bizarre and did not feel like Spider-man at all. A Loki/Spidey team-up is up there for weirdest comic duo I’ve ever seen. Then, a middling arc titled, “The Book of Ezekiel” sought to wrap up the loose end of JMS’ first arc, where Ezekiel had learned Peter’s secret identity. The arc is decent, but not spectacular, and has weird implications about the Spider Totem’s nature being potentially evil, which I don’t think makes sense for a Spider-Man origin. However, the story is most notable as JRJR’s final arc on the series.
Next, JMS starts to go downhill fast. In the “Sins Past” arc, JMS is joined by Mike Deodato on pencils, whose spindly Spider-Man and high-definition muscles makes for an abrupt transition from JRJR’s wonderfully blocky, shaded lines. Deodato does a decent job, I just don’t like his style as much as JRJR or other more classic looks. Plot-wise, JMS committed a huge party foul here, messing with one of the untouchable characters from Peter’s past: Gwen Stacy. This isn’t the same as Conway’s “Clone Saga” where the Jackal tormented Peter with a fake clone of Gwen – no, here, JMS has decided to change Gwen’s entire legacy through some story tweaking or retconning* that makes Gwen look bad. I don’t want to give it away, since the plot is SO RIDICULOUS you just may want to read it, but suffice to say I wasn’t Goblin’ it up…
After that, it goes even more downhill. Once Spidey joined Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers following the Scarlet Witch shenanigans in Avengers Disassembled (New Avengers is pretty great by the way), JMS used a weird flashback arc with even more retconning! The story involves some previously unknown science nerd from Peter’s past to synthesize some drama, blow up his apartment, and force Peter, MJ, and May to move in with the Avengers in Stark Tower. The following arcs all but gave up on every Spider-Man plot-line JMS had started, basically making the Spider-Man title into New Avengers-lite with a couple of arcs that were only barely focused on Spidey. After his integration into the New Avengers, Spider-Man went through the incredibly unnecessary and over-hyped Spidey crossover titled, “The Other: Evolve or Die.” The oddly corny title fit this bizarre mystical explosion that crossed over with the end of the pretty solid Marvel Knights: Spider-Man title and coincided with the launch of two additional lackluster Spidey titles, The Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man and Sensational Spider-Man. In “The Other,” Morlun, the mysterious mystical predator of JMS’s opening arc, is somehow back to munch on some Spider Totem soul, which would undoubtedly be fatal to our web-spinning hero. However, the odd sickness Peter had been developing, combined with an epic beat-down from Morlun cause a spidery death-ish scenario with a “once in a lifetime” molting opportunity, allowing Peter to cash in on one extra life. It’s super goofy and not very compelling or well-developed, but the worst part is the weird wrist spikes and the otherworldly “Man vs. Spider” conversation Peter has with a grumpy Shelob-esque monstrosity. It was definitely a letdown after the opening of the Morlun story was so well done.
Then there’s the Civil War set up, where JMS attempts (and kind of fails) to establish Spider-Man’s motivations for abandoning one of his most ardently held beliefs, the importance of anonymity and a guarded secret identity. *Spoiler Warning for Civil War and some Spidey reveals here* (Note: here’s my review of the Civil War event). When reading the Civil War event as a stand-alone comic, the unmasking of Spider-Man works as a powerful symbol and provides some serious shock value, but in the context of the Spider-Man solo title, it’s an absolute butchering of his character. It makes no sense that Peter would give up everything just because his new buddy, Iron Man, wants him to. The father/son relationship JMS sought to cultivate between Tony and Peter was kind of cheap and sold Peter short, making him that emotionally fragile that any kind of positive reinforcement from a male role model should cause him to change so much.
The sad truth is that the longer this run went, the worse it got. The strongest arcs were in the first 20-ish issues, but each progressive arc after issue #500 seemed worse than the one before. Though I didn’t really love the concept of the Spider Totem JMS established at the beginning, it was hard to argue with the compelling characterization of Morlun and Ezekiel and the exciting feeling of Spidey getting a new direction after 40 years of comics. I was willing to accept the premise, despite my own misgivings, because some strong writing, beautiful John Romita, Jr. art, and the brilliant move of sending Peter back to a school as a teacher, all made for something genuinely intriguing. If only JMS had been willing to keep the mysticism on a leash and not send him down a spiral of retconning and magical mumbo jumbo, I think the series could have had a strong finish. Later issues showed Peter less at the school and more in temples and Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum. I understood the desire to show a new side to Spider-Man, but it appeared that there was some contempt for the old ways, as JMS never had him fight any of his old enemies. Doc Ock was the only classic baddie to appear in the course of JMS’ run, and one of only two, along with Norman Osborn, to be mentioned at all. In a run of over 70 issues, this must have been intentional, in which case it most certainly was a mistake.
The unfortunate result is that the second half of this run is much, much worse than the start, so while I would have given a pretty solid grade to issues #30-58 & 500, I feel compelled to punish JMS for his abysmal choices in the latter parts. I know, I know, most ardent JMS supporters will shift the blame to Joe Quesada, the editor in chief at the time, who was quoted as wanting to return Spidey to his past glory. The misguided assumption was that in order for Spider-Man to be true to his roots, he and MJ had to be “unmarried” and having girl problems was apparently deemed an “essential” aspect of Peter Parker’s life. Well, regardless of who is to blame, the results speak for themselves: and they speak poorly. The end of this run is bad, though essential for continuity buffs because of the far-reaching consequences of this foolish “One More Day” storyline. Second Half Rating: 3 of 10
Overall JMS Arc Rating: 6 of 10
* For those unfamiliar with the term, “retcon” refers to retroactive continuity, or the editing of previously established canon. A practice that is unfortunately common in comic books, but rarely effective (Brubaker’s Bucky as Winter Soldier notwithstanding). Retcons are widely reviled in the comic fan community, as it shows a lack of respect for the same canon we hold dear.