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J. Michael Straczynski’s (and Mike Deotado’s) Run on the Amazing Spider-Man – The Best of Spider-Man, Vol. 4-5 (Review/Retrospective)

Opinion is somewhat divided on J. Michael Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man run. the general consensus is that started strong, but that it lost its way somewhere along, before culminating in the much-maligned One More Day arc that effectively wiped decades of character development for Peter Parker and his cast. More importantly for the author of One More Day, it also completely wiped out a large volume of his contributions to the character – which is a bit of a shame. Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man would get tied up in various crossover “event” storylines like The Other, Civil War and Back in Black, to the point where Straczynski’s run went from being driven by the author’s own ideas to being dictated by editorial whim.

The start of the writer’s work with artist Mike Deodato seems to be where Straczynski was placed on a somewhat tighter editorial leash, with Sins Past mangled in the back-and-forth between author and editorial, perhaps a sign of things to come. It’s telling that it remains one of the most controversial facets of Straczynski’s run, even today.

Is it still a blast?

Note: This review or retrospective covers Straczynski’s run with artist Mike Deodato up until the “Other” crossover event. It doesn’t take up the full fourth hardcover, but it starts with the Sins Past story arc. Just so you know.

It’s very clear that there’s a bit of a tug-of-war going on here between Straczynski and the editors at the company. It’s a massive shame, as many of the best runs Marvel was producing at around this time were the product of authors working relatively free from that sort of interference. Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run concluded before editorial could mess it up, though they made a conscious effort to botch the aftermath. Peter Milligan’s X-Statix read more like an independent comic than anything else Marvel was putting out at the time.

Osborn to be wild…

Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man run began with the author daring to challenge that most holy of sacred cows – Spider-Man’s iconic origin – and Sins Past seems to mark a very clear shift in Straczynski’s relationship with the publisher. From here on out, the author would be towing the editorial line, rather than doing his own thing. I have said it before and I’ll say it again – I dislike that model of comic book storytelling because it fetters the author’s ability to tell the story they want to tell. The same sort of basic conflict between authorial intent and editorial mandate led Straczynski to depart his wonderful Thor run, and has damaged countless potentially classic comic book runs in the past decade alone.

I think Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man really serves as the perfect model for Marvel’s shifting editorial priorities during the time it was published. Originally, the goal was to recruit great storytellers to tell bold stories with a large amount of creative freedom to do so. However, during the middle part of the last decade, Marvel’s editorial tightened its grip and really began pushing “the event” as the be-all and end-all of their publishing schedule, with Civil War being the most significant example. The Amazing Spider-Man as written by J. Michael Straczynski allows the reader to chart that awkward transition.

No long HYDing in the shadows…

This part of the run is very clearly and very tightly controlled by editorial. There’s nothing as iconoclastic as the suggestion that Spider-Man’s powers might be mystical rather than scientific. Sins Past has the potential to be a major turning-point for the character, but instead ends up as a rather disjointed effort that lacks any sense of thematic consistency. I know that a lot of fans are opposed to the basic idea of Sins Past – in any form – but at least Straczynski’s original plot was thematically consistent with everything he’d been doing with the character throughout his run.

Peter’s age has been a recurring theme throughout Straczynski’s tenure on the title. Not his age within the story, but the years that the character has been in publication. Straczynski has made a point, time and time again, to draw attention to the fact that Spider-Man is a character who had been in publication for about forty years when he first took over the book. A lot of Straczynski’s arcs and stories reference it, and it seemed like the author’s main objective was to update the character to reflect the fact that he was a grand old man of popular culture – to justify his changes by explaining that Peter ran the risk of becoming a little too stale, a little too comfortable.

Birth of a Goblin…

His major supporting character, Ezekiel, was introduced at around the same age that Peter would have been had he aged in real time – a rather pointed observation since Ezekiel was basically a version of Peter Parker who never became a superhero or an icon, and perhaps never achieved immortality. The villain Digger came from a few years before Amazing Fantasy #15 was published. Here Peter jokes that he first saw Tony Stark “on a black-and-white newsreel”, something not too far from the truth. Describing an incident involving a knife at his school as a teenager, Peter tells us, “It was, you understand, a different world then.” It wasn’t so different in the nineties… but in the sixties, it certainly was.

And Sins Past introduces a fairly significant nod towards the web-crawler’s actual age, with the revelation that Gwen Stacy, his ex-girlfriend, has two adult children. Sure, the story gives a polite nod towards the sliding Marvel time-scale, where Peter has only been Spider-Man for a decade or so – we’re told they’re “ageing two or three years for every year in real time”, in a reversal of what is normally the case.

Girl of his dreams, eh?

In fact, Marvel editorial nixed J. Michael Straczynski’s original plan to make the children Peter’s offspring because they felt that it would “age” the character. If ever there was a sign that editorial had no idea what a writer was doing, or no real care for a talent they seemed so proud of, this was it. Of course it aged Peter. That was the point. Straczynski’s whole run was about accepting that The Amazing Spider-Man had been around for about forty years and that it needed to change to stay with the times.

Straczynski seemed to justify his bold changes to the mythos by making the argument that Peter Parker was in a situation faced with the choice of evolving or growing stale. The second half of Straczynski’s run, tracking through the crossovers, seems in direct contradiction to the bold iconoclastic first half of his tenure. While his first arcs were about how everything we knew about Spider-Man might be up for grabs, his last few were about returning us to the old status quo. Through the most force deus ex machina possible, and one that wasted countless story-telling opportunities. In many ways, Sins Past is the first big sign of things to come.

Goblin it all up…

That’s not to say that Straczynski’s original story would have been a masterpiece. It takes a particular writer to pull off a story featuring babies with super-growing-up powers, and I’m not quite sure Straczynski was ever the man for that tale. It seems a little too conventionally “comic book-y” for him, the type of high-concept that Grant Morrison, Bob Haney or Jonathan Hickman could turn to gold. However, looking at the mess that we got, with problems beyond “bad storytelling”, I find it incredibly difficult that any other take on this story could possibly be worse.

You could argue that Sins Past is a thematic sibling to DC comics’ Identity Crisis. Both stories seek to recast the Silver Age, painting it as a time that was far less optimistic than we were originally led to believe, revealing characters to be much more complicated than we might have originally expected. After all, the death of Gwen Stacy is accepted as one of the possible end points of the Silver Age, depending on who you ask, and Straczynski adds in several pieces of retroactive continuity to darken those original stories. (While, like Identity Crisis, relying on Silver Age concepts. In Identity Crisis, it’s Zatanna’s mindwipe. Here, it’s super-growing-up powers.)

The semi-naked truth…

Unfortunately, that’s not the only similarity. Both stories sought to add ambiguity to the world of the heroes by treating a female character as entirely disposable. In Identity Crisis, a completely pointless rape was inserted into Sue Dibny’s backstory. Here, Gwen Stacy – one of the loves of Peter’s life – is reduced to another thing that Peter can get mad at Osborn about. Stacy here is nothing but an idle plot device. In seeking to make Peter’s world more complex, Straczynski reduces Stacy to nothing but convenient plot element with no real life or vitality of her own.

How she ended up sleeping with Osborn is brushed aside. We’re told he was charismatic and macho bravado. Of course, it’s all about him. The fact that Gwen and Osborn had sex was because she couldn’t resist his animal magnetism – not because she made a conscious decision. In fact, the entire story arc is focused on Gwen as a sex object. Peter spends more time wondering about her sex life than he does remembering the time they spent together.

Just swingin’ by…

(It is, ironic, that Marvel thought that marriage and children aged Peter Parker, only to very emphatically shoot down the idea that Peter and Gwen may have had consensual sexual intercourse with one another. “Gwen and I didn’t — we never –“ Even in the sixties, it would not have been such a radical concept, and who would care? Of course, it speaks to a sadly puritanical attitude in modern comics, where it’s okay for women to be sex objects as long as they don’t actually have fulfilling sex lives. It isn’t even the fact that Peter and Gwen didn’t have sex that’s the issue here – it’s the fact that Sins Past goes out of its way to explicitly state it. Repeatedly.)

In fact, Peter appears most visibly shaken by the idea that Gwen slept with Osborn instead of him. He’s not concerned about her emotional state, or about the issues she might have been dealing with. Instead, he’s more concerned with whether Osborn took her virginity. “Did she say if she’d ever… if he was the first man to –“ Sins Past essentially reduces Gwen to a notch on Norman Osborn’s bedpost, and portrays a version of Peter who is more upset that his arch enemy slept with his girl than he is with the idea that she must have been going through a very dark place she couldn’t share with him. Peter certainly has his priorities straight.

I’m sure they’ll Iron out their differences…

It’s sleazy, it’s trashy, and it’s sexist. It’s precisely the kind of storytelling that mainstream comics needs less of, with female characters reduced to cookies for the males in the cast to fight over. It is, it must be said, hard to imagine a version of Sins Past where Gwen would be more than just a plot point, but it can’t have been too difficult to avoid treating her virginity as anything other than “another thing Norman took from Peter.” (Which, by the way, implies it was rightfully his. And we wonder why more girls don’t read comics. Ugh.)

It’s also just clumsy storytelling. Osborn using Gwen Stacy to strike at Peter in The Night Gwen Stacy Died is hardly the most progressive portrayal of women in mainstream comics. However, adding this retroactive motivation for his choice doesn’t make it much better. “I’ll die before I let you lay a finger on my children,” Gwen vows. “Do you hear me?” Osborn responds, “You should be careful… what you wish for, Gwen… very, very careful.” It feels fairly inorganic and simply demotes Gwen from “Spidey’s disposable girlfriend” to “Norman’s disposable lover.” It doesn’t make the original story any more about her.

Stop, or my ex-girlfriend’s daughter will shoot!

There’s a nice moment in a later story where Peter has a vision of his “fairy godmother”, a rare cameo from J. Jonah Jameson in this run. “You see, Peter, there are two kinds of people in the world,” Peter’s subconscious suggests. “Those who look forward to what they’re going to do, and what they’re going to be in the future…. and those who look to the past for reasons why they can’t be anything more than what they are.” Straczynski suggests that Spider-Man should be the former – and it’s consistent with quite a fe characterisations of the hero. The problem is that editorial seem to insist that he must be the latter. Spider-Man is “aged” by his marriage, so it must be retroactively removed, and all that.

In fairness, with the exception of Sins Past, Straczynski’s run is still relatively strong. This run of issues would bring the title to a stage of perpetual crossovers and tie-ins until Straczynski would leave the book, so it’s really his last chance to make a mark on the character of Spider-Man. Surprisingly, given how iconoclastic his first few arcs were, his last couple are surprisingly conventional. (While still treading relatively new ground for the hero.)

When things look Stark…

For example, Charlie is really the first new villain that Straczynski has constructed in the classic Stan Lee and Steve Ditko mold, to the point where it’s easy to imagine that he could have retroactively been inserted into the first few dozen issues of the title. Like so many classic Lee and Ditko villains, Charlie is imagined as a counterpoint to Peter, a character who inherits great power, but without the great responsibility (or what Uncle Ben describes as “the basic moral courage”) that Peter has, and so uses his power for ill.

Even before he becomes an outright villain, Charlie is making excuses to avoid taking responsibility for his own actions. After his research experiment goes wrong (in classic Lee and Ditko style), he seeks to deflect the blame. He insist, “If I can get it off, I can at least say I wasn’t there –“ Much like Brian Bendis on Ultimate Spider-Man, Straczynski understands that Peter’s best villains mirror him – they come up short in the area of personal responsibility, refusing to accept what life has dealt them.

Alive and kicking…

Charlie is so blind that he believes that Peter, of all people, got the lucky breaks. “See, that’s the only difference between us,” he tells Peter. “You got lucky.” That, of course, is denial, and a refusal to accept that Peter has overcome the obstacles that Charlie can’t. It’s easier to believe that Peter had good fortune, rather than accept that he had a stronger moral character. “You’re going to give me my break. I suffered for it and I’m entitled to it.” And that’s the difference, right there – Peter has never felt entitled by virtue of his power or his misfortune, while his villains so frequently do.

His final arc is half-way between the past and the future. It looks to the future by embracing Peter’s new role in New Avengers, and acknowledging that Peter’s place within the shared Marvel Universe has shifted dynamically. It radically shakes up the status quo, but does it in a very clever way. The idea of Peter living in a protected environment, surrounded by people who value him feels like a radical plot development, but one that makes sense. As does the budding relationship between Aunt May and Jarvis, which sees two people connecting who have devoted their lives to enabling the heroic deeds of others.

Facepalm.

Of course, it seems Straczynski knew that Brand New Day was coming, and that all of this would be wiped, but it feels a shame that this element of Peter’s character arc was lost. (That said, Dan Slott’s Spider-Island and Ends of the Earth both play with similar ideas.) Straczynski, similarly, probably knew that Civil War was coming, but the decision to play up Peter’s relationships with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers feels like an angle that deserves development. Tony is a character who has had to learn the responsibility that so came easy to Peter, but has never struggled like he did. Steve reminds Peter of his deceased uncle, a moral ideal.

At the same time, with the arguable exception of Sins Past and the Doctor Octopus story, the arc is the only story in Straczynski’s run to focus on a pre-existing villain, and certainly the only dedicated to thoroughly modernising and updating that villain. Seeing Straczynski update and modernise Hydra make me regret the fact he didn’t have more space to handle other classic villains. It’s especially rewarding to see Straczynski take a threat that had become a joke and make them a genuine menace to “a world that had all but dismissed us.”

Under the white mask…

Of course, the choice of Hydra – rather than a pre-existing Spider-Man villain – seems to fit with Straczynski’s broader themes. After all, like Digger, these villains pre-date Peter, with their roots in the Second World War. Once again, they seem to draw attention to Peter’s age, while also demonstrating that sometimes old concepts need a radical overhaul in order to stay modern and relevant. (In this case, he makes them an explicitly terrorist organisation, using biological warfare.) It fits the pattern Straczynski has established.

(And, I must confess, I do like the idea that the recruits in this new and improved Hydra are treated as soldiers rather than mere mooks. While the faceless supervillain army is a classic comic book trope, it doesn’t hold up to too much scrutiny. As one recruit observes, “You really have to hand it to the Supreme Hydra. In the past, guys like us were just cannon fodder. Now they’re running things the way they’re supposed to be run, like an army.”)

Hydra and seek…

Straczynski seems to be having a great deal of fun with more conventional tropes. While it’s not anywhere near as significant as his approach to the mythos, I do like the voice that he gives to Peter Parker, and how he’s good-natured enough to play along with classic comic book clichés while drawing attention to them. On finding the stereotypical hidden base under New York, Peter observes, “So how come these guys can build all this but it’s taking the city two extra months to handle the new subway extension? Unless — no, it can’t be, this whole thing it’s — it’s — non-union!”

That said, Straczynski also seems to have forgotten a bit about the job he gave Peter as a high school teacher. It seems like the only reference to the job is Peter skipping out on work, again. While Peter works well as a teacher, I can’t help but wonder if it isn’t a sustainable status quo, as Straczynski seems to be indicating around now. Still, that doesn’t mean that it’s an idea that wasn’t worth trying. After all, how do we find new good ideas if we don’t try any new ideas?

The Uncanny Avengers…

John Romita is gone from the title. His last appearance promised he’d return soon, but with Mike Deodato taking over, I don’t mind. I generally prefer my Amazing Spider-Man in a more stylised fashion, but Deodato’s photo-referenced style works very well. Particularly since Peter spends so much time out of costume here. Deodato works very well with expressions and body language, so that sort storytelling suits him perfectly. It’s not quite as good as his work on Dark Avengers, but it’s still very impressive.

I have to admit that I like his “fantasy casting” of the book. It’s nice little touches – like Robert DeNiro showing up to tell Mary-Jane to “stop acting.” There’s even a cameo from Bruce Campbell as a snooty usher, in the style of the Sam Raimi films. (Peter even complains, “Big chin, son of a–“) Tommy Lee Jones actually works quite well as a fantasy version of Norman Osborn, and I really like Deodato’s decision to base Detective Lamont on Robert Redford. Now I can’t help but hear his voice when I read the lines. Deodato also continues Alex Ross decision in Marvels to model Tony Stark after Timothy Dalton. (In homage to The Rocketeer, although I find something hilarious about a captain of American industry played by James Bond.)

Nice catch…

It’s a shame that Straczynski’s run began to feel a little hemmed-in as it reached the end. In fact, from here on out, Straczynski’s book would find itself tied up in quite a few on-going events and crossover culminating in a story that wiped out pretty much everything that Straczynski had added to the mythos. (And quite a bit more to boot.) While Sins Past certainly taints this part of the run, there’s still quite a bit that merits attention, and demonstrates that Straczynski was certainly one of the boldest Amazing Spider-Man writers in quite some time.

You might like our other reviews of Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man run:

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One Response

  1. I bought Straczynsky’s entire Amazing Spider Man run before I read a single issue…I feel I got ripped off and demand a full refund. He completely screwed up his origin and defiled the memory of Gwen Stacy. He should talk to Geoff over in DC to learn how to develop a character and story. Bendis should talk to Geoff, too. I expect a full refund and I will gladly return every issue he wrote.

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