Beyond JMS: Concurrent Spidey Titles of the early 2000s

Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man: A hit or miss series of about 24 issues that was book-ended by two lackluster crossover events: The Other and One More Day. Within the constraints of those events, FNSM was written at the same time JMS’ series went into its steepest decline. Peter David, normally a very talented writer who has masterminded some incredible story arcs, including Spider-Man: Death of Jean DeWolff and the newly revitalized X-Factor series that kicked off with the under-rated gem: Madrox: Multiple Choice. Unfortunately, David’s writing on this series is not up to snuff, though the art by Mike Wieringo is solid enough. The influence of the JMS title’s decline is pretty apparent early on in FNSM, as the series struggled to find its place and delivered some weak arcs that seemed to masquerade as “untold stories” of Spider-Man but ended up just being off key. After The Other, they first had the weird, single-issue arc about a delusional web-blogger had potential but fell flat. Then there were stories about a Mexican wrestler and some weird futuristic timeline with a grumpy Hobgoblin, neither of which felt very Spidey-like. It all felt a little underwhelming.

The truly unfortunate thing about this series is that it did actually have some potential. Even though the writing on the actual title character was sub-par, there were some elements of the characterization of key supporting cast members and villains that made for some entertaining reading. The handling of Flash Thompson, Betty Brant, and a couple of interesting issues surrounding the Vulture and Mysterio were worthwhile on their own. The middle issues between #11-19 were actually ok. Not amazing, but solid enough to make them moderately enjoyable. The problem was that even the series’ strengths were often overshadowed by the gloom of JMS’ core title, as the unresolved story bits from The Other ended up finding their way into this series. FNSM had to deal with the fallout of those weird wrist spikes Spider-Man developed out of nowhere and spent most of the series developing a pretty weak case that the nurse, Miss Arrow, was actually that walking ball of spiders from the end of The Other, which wasn’t even a good lead when it happened the first time.

In the end, the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man series was definitely skippable and only worthwhile for those middle issues if someone is really yearning to see some traditional Spidey characters that JMS has avoided in his own series. Rating: 4 of 10

 

Tangled Web of Spider-Man: (2001) The Tangled Web series is concurrent with some of JMS’ earlier and stronger work on the Amazing Spider-Man title. Though, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, this series was intended to give newer, artsier creators the creative leeway for an anthology series only loosely in continuity. The idea was that the Tangled Web series would draw creators from DC’s Vertigo titles or other indie companies to dabble in a Spidey title without all of the messiness of continuity. The nature of a rotating cast of creators brought some big swings to the tone and quality of the series over time, so each mini arc has to be taken separately, as there is not really a central theme to the series beyond those.

First up, Garth Ennis, the mastermind behind a brutal revival of the famed anti-hero Punisher, took a turn on Spidey. His arc, “The Thousand” is weirdly grisly and involves a bully from Peter’s past becoming a disgusting host of spiders. It’s not a great arc and I didn’t like the concept or the art, as it’s highly cartoony and not nice to look at (art by John McCrea). The second “arc” was only a one-shot by Greg Rucka and Eduardo Risso, that didn’t show Spidey at all, instead focusing on the Kingpin’s code of conduct. The story was a solid entry into the series and showed an inside view of the extent of the Kingpin’s depravity, as well as the perceived honor among thieves from a doomed lieutenant’s perspective.

The third arc, #5-6, is listed on comicherald.com and many other serious comic sites as one of the better recent Spider-Man stories. Titled, “Flowers for Rhino,” the two-issue arc, written by Peter Milligan and penciled by Duncan Fegredo, is a retelling of the story “Flowers for Algernon,” but from the doltish super-villain, Rhino’s perspective. It is a well-written and enjoyable take on the story that is worth the read and should give a new appreciation for the inner thoughts of super villains.

After the Rhino arc, the series continued to change authors and pencillers, but the general tone as a Spider-Man-adjacent line that is barely within continuity remained consistent. The Tangled Web series is a fun but non-essential read for Spider-Man fans who want to see into the daily lives of super-villains, or neutral third-parties who are affected by Spidey’s adventures and shed different lights on many iconic characters involved in primary Spider-Man continuity. I recommend this series to die-hard Spider-Man fans who want to get their hands on everything Web-head-related, and for those who get sick of the inter-connectivity and barrier of entry to many in-continuity titles. Tangled Web is a refreshing change that highlights creator independence and a certain flexible creativity of storytelling. While rarely groundbreaking or iconic, these stories are consistently enjoyable and easily digestible reading. Rating: 7 of 10

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Amazing Spider-Man by JMS

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

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JMS puts Peter Parker back in the classroom. This time as a teacher! Issue #31; Cover Artist: John Romita, Jr.; Source: Marvel.com

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.

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The powerful 9/11 remembrance issue featured a somber, black cover. #36; Source: Marvel.com

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

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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.

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Actually, don’t listen. The sin isn’t in the past, it’s present in this very story… #511; Cover Artist: Mike Deodato; Source; Marvel.com

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.

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‘Nuff Said is right, but I don’t think it’s for the same reason, or this wouldn’t have been published… #545; Cover Artist: Joe Quesada; Source: Marvel.com

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.

Marvel Knights: Spider-Man

By 2004, the Marvel Knights imprint had already been well-established. Initially a risk back in 1998, the semi-independent label was basically sub-contracted out from Marvel to Joe Quesada’s now defunct Event Comics company. A more complete history of the Marvel Knights imprint, as well as some of its early titles, can be found under reviews for the Black Panther and Daredevil series. This run is concurrent with the middle of John Michael Straczynski (JMS)’s run on Spider-Man in the primary Amazing Spider-Man title, which had embraced some of the more mystical elements of the Marvel Universe. Though JMS’s  run has a lot of strengths, Millar (and subsequently Hudlin) provided a nice contrast to that high-minded mysticism with some more classic Spidey vs. villain stories in this Marvel Knights title. Though admittedly darker in tone and consequences than the original Lee/Ditko Spider-Man, this Marvel Knights run was a good reminder of the kind of adventures we were used to seeing Peter Parker have.

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Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #1; Cover Artist: Terry Dodson; Source: Marvel.com

Mark Millar Run #1-12: Great story arc that is a kind of blend of Miller’s Daredevil: Born Again and Kevin Smith’s Daredevil: Guardian Devil, in that there is a mysterious character who is pulling strings behind the scenes to destroy Spidey’s life. Oh, and he knows his secret identity as Peter Parker. The mysterious villain has captured Aunt May and is holding her captive to get to Peter, making him increasingly desperate and strung out. The following 12-issue arc is a good blend of psychological thriller and good, old-fashioned superhero battles. Spidey has to fight off the Vulture, Electro, Doc Ock, a new Venom, and even more baddies all in his attempt to rescue May. The series has a very compelling plot progression and feels very much like classic Spider-Man. The inclusion of so many of his classic villains, as well as key supporting cast members like MJ and the Black Cat only make the characterization stronger. The majority of the art was penciled by Terry Dodson, with a couple of issues by Frank Cho, both of whom deliver some high-quality art. It’s not innovative or overly stylized, but it’s all clear, faces are expressive, colors are bright and details are precise. Dodson even did some costume upgrades for Electro and the Vulture to make them look a little more modern and a little more menacing. The plot is a very compelling read and, though it does take some logical shortcuts, especially in the last couple of issues, it is well worth the read. Rating: 8 of 10

Reginald Hudlin Run #13-18: An interesting arc with some strong positives and some mixed execution. Absorbing Man, Ethan as new Skrull hero/baddie/crazy. To me, the whole Ethan character is basically a riff on two other stories that had already been published by this time: first, Paul Jenkins’ The Sentry, which explores a forgotten, all-powerful, Superman-like hero who struggles to find his way in the modern world (not to mention some significant mental health problems); and second, the second arc from Allan Heinberg’s run on the Young Avengers, in which Hulkling discovers his Skrull heritage and struggles to find his identity. It seemed a little too much of a Superman parody to be considered a genuinely good Spider-Man arc. Though it was certainly amusing, SM’s character development was certainly secondary. I will say, though, that the further elaboration of the Absorbing Man’s powers was a good idea. It makes a lot of sense to have someone like him be pretty close to all-powerful, but his biggest weakness is that, as one of duller tools in the shed, he lacks the imagination to truly make the most of his awesome power. Putting someone like Spidey up against that is actually a pretty cool matchup, so props to Hudlin for going that direction. Overall, it’s certainly not a bad arc, but I wouldn’t call it necessary reading. Rating: 6 of 10

#19-22 — the last four issues of this Marvel Knights run was part of a crossover title called, “The Other: Evolve or Die” which will be reviewed soon!