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Dan Slott’s Run on The Amazing Spider-Man – Spider-Island (Review/Retrospective)

Dan Sott’s Amazing Spider-Man run has been pretty well received by fans. Credited with giving the title a sense of fun after the continuity-tangling mess of One More Day, Slott has managed to inject some fun back into the franchise. Or so I’ve heard. Despite being a fan of Slott’s Mighty Avengers, I remain somewhat disappointed that there’s been no effort made to collect his Amazing Spider-Man run into either an omnibus or an oversized hardcover collection. Still, I recently had the pleasure of devouring Slott’s Spider-Island plotline in a nice oversized hardcover, and I have to admit that I was more than a little impressed with Slott’s epic “event” comic book.

New York, New York, it's a hell of a town!

I believe that it was Grant Morrison who once made the observation that every panel in a comic book should be an “event.” While Spider-Island does feature tie-ins from other series and a few stand-alone miniseries, I have to admit that I’m delighted Slott and his editor, Steven Wacker, decided to keep the story relatively confined to The Amazing Spider-Man. It seems that, these days, every big “event” needs its own lead-in and main miniseries and required several other books in order to make any sort of sense. It’s to Slott’s credit that literally all that the reader needs to make sense of Spider-Island can be found within the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man.

After all, Slott clearly has the right focus for his storyline. Although the plot involves the citizens of Manhattan acquiring Spider-Man’s iconic powers, and documents the resulting chaos, Slott remains acutely aware that this is a Spider-Man story. Although he does draw in characters from outside the Spider-Man mythos – the Avengers, Steve Rogers, the X-Men – the story beats and the character moments pretty much all belong to Peter Parker. Rather than being an epic world-altering event that just happens to involve Peter Parker, this is a story about Peter Parker than happens to be an epic world-altering event. It’s a subtle distinction, but it’s one that a lot of comic book “events”would do well to learn from.

Ain't nothing but a Thing!

Slott has a wide variety of guest-stars, including extended roles for Captain America and Reed Richards, but he never loses sight of Peter and his supporting characters in the midst of all the chaos. He uses his guest-stars economically, and in a way that makes sense. The Avengers show up, for example, to handle a massive fight in down-town Manhattan with a bunch of imposter Spider-Men. Peter shows up, but is promptly brushed aside. “Beat it, kid,” Luke Cage warns him. “You’d just get in the way.” Slott uses the characters rather shrewdly. While the Avengers manage the knock-down action and provide the plot-necessary function of containing the outbreak, it leave Peter free to investigate and to process what is occurring. None of the guest stars are extraneous.

And, again, in fairness to Slott, he handles the impressive supporting superhero cast quite well. Slott seems to have a wonderful understanding of the Marvel Universe, and how all the characters fit together. It’s interesting to see a writer who can so skilfully reconcile various parts of the mythos and get them to fit seamlessly as part of his own storyline. Second-tier D-list characters like Anti-Venom or Kaine all play important roles in the story arc, but they are all well-characterised and developed.

The Jackal's on the prowl...

Each character seems to have a character arc and a place to go. Nobody seems to have been included “just because.” Even regular Spider-Man villains or rogues, like Morbius or the Shocker, are included in ways that seem organic and logical. Neither eats up too much panel-space or detracts from the main story arc. They show up, prove relevent to the plot and then leave. We don’t cut away to the Kingpin or Osborn or anything irrelevant to the matter at hand just because the character is expected to appear in a Spider-Man event. Everything has its purpose.

In fact, Slott appears to have a keen eye for Spider-Man continuity. It’s very tough to balance respect for a character’s history without locking out a new reader – or even a casual reader. I’ll freely admit that I’m not well-versed in my Spider-Man lore, but I could see Slott actually bending and stretching certain maligned elements of the character’s back-story to make them work here. Much like Brian Michael Bendis’ superb Ultimate Spider-Man, Slott has found a way to make the oft-hated Clone Saga work for him. “I swear,” M.J. states at one point, probably speaking for many readers, “if we’re doing the clone thing again, I’m going back to L.A.” Revisiting the Clone Saga might think like the last thing in the world that any Spider-Manwriter might want to do, but Slott does it with style.

A big-eyed monster...

Spider-Island plays heavily on the Clone Saga, even if we aren’t ever treated with an in-depth history of it. The main villain of that confusing earlier storyline, the Jackal, is the driving force for most of this crossover. It even finds a major role for the character of Kaine, one of the clones from that earlier crossover – Spider-Island ends alluding to a new purpose for the character. Hell, Slott even finds time to make reference to J. Michael Straczynski’s somewhat controversial Other story arc. “She’s a god now,” Madame Web observes of the Spider-Queen, recalling the Spider-God from Straczynski’s origin-tweaking retcon.

However, none of this feels like it excludes casual readers. It doesn’t matter whether the reader is familiar or not with those old story arcs. When Slott introduces characters and plot points, he tells the reader just what they need to know – not too much and not too little. I’ve argued that most mainstream American comic books are far too continuity-heavy to ever really attract new readers, but I think Slott demonstrates that you can play off past stories without locking out those without a higher-level degree in a character’s fifty-year history.

Carlie needs to cop on...

That said, there is a sense that Spider-Island is very much just one chapter in Slott’s on-going Amazing Spider-Man arc. After all, the cast is recognisable, but Slott has obviously done some tweaking. Naturally, Spider-Island seems to build off various on-going story arcs in Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man, involving the new Hobgoblin or Spider-Man’s loss of his “Spider sense” or the loss of J. Jonah Jameson’s wife. Slott does outline these character beats for new readers, but there are times when Spider-Island feels like a continuation of what came before.

Not that there’s a problem with that, of course. This is Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man tenure, and I imagine it will read quite well as a single long-form story. It just feels like a bit of a shame that Marvel haven’t made a point to collect his run in a similar format, so that it could be enjoyed collectively. Despite being Marvel’s flagship title, I can’t help but feel that Spider-Man has been somewhat under-represented by the company’s collected editions department. While it seems every X-Men story arc under the sun gets a deluxe hardcover presentation, Spider-Man doesn’t seem to receive the same treatment. It’s a shame. It’s not Dan Slott’s problem, but there is a sense that Spider-Islandwould read much better as part of the whole, rather than in isolation.

Upping the Anti-(Venom)...

Still, there are some nice ideas that bleed through and suggest that Slott is doing some fascinating work with Amazing Spider-Man. Much like Jason Aaron’s work on Wolverine, it seems like Slott has attempted to reconcile that character’s increased profile on a number of superhero teams (as a result of the character’s popularity) with the historical characterisation of Peter Parker as something of a loner. Like Aaron did with Logan, Slott suggests that Peter sees this as some sort of civic duty, recognising that he can do more good by actively contributing to teams like Brian Bendis’ Avengers and New Avengers, as well as Jonathan Hickman’s FF.

“See this?” he asks at the start of the prologue. “This is me being Spider-Man for real.” Slott cleverly attributes the character’s increased presence within the Marvel Universe as an attempt by Peter Parker to be proactive. Even outside of his superhero identity, Slott is trying to present Peter Parker as a more dynamic character. “You want me on your super hero team? I’m there. Any free time? I’m in the lab building better Spider-tech… and when I’m not, I’m out here, patrolling the city, listening to my police scanner, doing things only I can do–“

Talk about doing things a couple...

In many ways, it seems like Slott is building off David Michelinie’s more proactive Spider-Man, and it actually seems like Slott has a long-term character arc plotted for Peter Parker, rather than rigidly adhering to the age-old status quo. This isn’t Peter Parker working a dead-end job and down-on-his-luck. This is a successful and fulfilled Peter Parker working at a science lab in a field that he feels passionate about and actually making a tangible difference. In that regard, it feels very much like Spider-Island is just a middle section of a grander epic that Dan Slott has plotted.

That’s not to suggest that it’s a weak story. In fact, it’s a very strong story. I think that Marvel could learn a lot about how to structure and compose an event by studying what Dan Slott and Steven Wacker have done here. Rather than requiring the reader to wade through a variety of tie-ins to understand the main plot, the only book it’s necessary for the reader to follow is Amazing Spider-Man.

He's armed and dangerous!

Even the most closely connected tie-in, Rick Remender’s superb Venom, is not essential. It “fills in” the gaps in the story, explaining how the Spider-King’s identity was revealed, or how Eddie Brock found his way to Horizon Labs, but these plot points are covered fleetingly in Slott’s main title. Some readers might balk at the duplication of content – with some dialogue and scenes transposed from one book to another – but I honestly don’t mind. It ensures that both book remain accessible to their target audience without requiring them to pick up another book.

It’s fascinating how beautifully choreographed the link between the two books is. Slott and Remender will often pick up scenes directly from each other, blending the two into one another. I think it speaks highly of the collected editions department that the issues were included here, because they aren’t necessary to the story – but they are definitely entertaining in their own right. If somebody had told me, even last year, that I would end up enjoying a Venom series, I would never have believed them. I just hope it isn’t too long before we see both Remender’s Venom and Uncanny X-Force collected in nice oversized volumes.

Help from shadow-y sources...

But enough about how Spider-Island is one of the best-executed “event” comic books I have ever seen, how does it work as a Spider-Man story? Actually, it works remarkably well. Slott never loses sight of his main character in the middle of all this mayhem, and is also expressly concerned about how the unfolding chaos ties directly back to Peter. At its core, and despite its title, Spider-Island is a story about how essential and special Peter Parker is – how vital he is to the equation that is Spider-Man. It’s no coincidence that Peter Parker spends so much of the arc without his mask and iconic outfit, because this is very much a story about Peter himself.

One might imagine that an island full of super heroes and regular people manifesting spider-related powers would somehow invalidate Peter Parker. After all, it effectively reduces the character to the same level as everybody else. “Right here, right now,” Peter laments at one point, laying on the self-pity, “there’s nothing special about me.” As usual, it takes Mary-Jane to snap him out of it. “Hey, idiot. Spider-man never made you special. Being Peter Parker makes you special!”

New York gets into the swing of things...

Spider-Man’s moral philosophy can be succinctly stated as “with great power comes great responsibility.” To the best Spider-Man writers, like Slott or Bendis, it’s that responsibility that makes Peter special. The first half of  Spider-Island explores what happens when you give Peter Parker’s powers to a bunch of people who never learned that important lesson. The answer, of course, is chaos. Criminals use it for their own gains, but even regular people are reckless as they swing through the city. Slott suggests that the powers themselves are nothing – it’s what Peter decided to do with them that made them work so very well.

And, to be honest, I admire the optimism of Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man. In the wake of Siege, Marvel promised that its characters would be entering The Heroic Age. It seemed to suggest that the characters would be shifting subtly away from the darkness and cynical deconstruction that had gripped so many books. Some fans would argue that there was no real line-wide improvement – Daredevil, after all, turned evil and went through Shadowland, for example. Others would argue that it undermined the notion of a bright new dawn for the Marvel Universe by plowing directly into the next earth-shattering event, Fear Itself.

Web of mystery...

Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man, however, seems to reject the more cynical swing of the Marvel Universe. There’s very little deconstruction or darkness to be found here. Sure, the stakes are high and sometimes there are casualties, but there’s something strangely heart-warming about Peter Parker’s appeal to the better nature of New York City. Peter’s appeal is optimistic and hopeful, as he firmly rejects the pessimism view that most people seem to have of his native city:

Hey. If you’re watching this, you know what’s going on. Some new yorkers woke up today with spider-powers… and now they’re tearing the city apart. And all over the world, no one’s asking, ‘why would they do that?’ Because everybody knows… New Yorkers are loud, rude, obnoxious jerks!

Well, guess what? The rest of the world is wrong. ’cause today, like a lot of you, I found out that I’ve got spider-powers too! And I’m gonna do my part! My name’s Peter Parker, I’m a native New Yorker…. and when i look around this city, I don’t see a bunch a’ jerks. Know what I see?

Teachers, nurses, cops, parents, neighbours, friends… Good people who give their all! Everywhere I look, I see heroes! Now let’s show ’em this didn’t just happen to the jerks, it happened to the real New Yorkers too! And that today, we’re not just heroes…

We’re super heroes!

Sure, it’s incredibly cheesy, but it also demonstrates a wonderful sense of optimism and idealism, the kind that we very rarely see in superhero comics these days amid all the cynicism and darkness. In fact, it actually calls to mind those stories of flash mobs forming to repair the damage done at the London riots, demonstrating a unique and uplifting capacity for good in random strangers. I think Slott genuinely deserves a lot of credit for going against the grain and for offering a consciously up-beat take on the character.

A towering accomplishment?

It seems like Slott’s version of the character might have watched Doctor Who, or at least The Doctor Dances. Towards the climax of the arc, as the character manages a nigh-impossible feat to save the city, Mary-Jane notices that he seems curiously happy. “What in the world are you smiling about?” He replies, “Just because… because I’m going to do this! I’m going to save everybody!” Just this once, it seems, everybody lives!

There’s something strangely touching about the epilogue, which sees Spider-Man taking one last cure for the spider-powers up on to a roof. Madame Web appears and confirms that he could use it on himself and revert back to regular Peter Parker, without any consequences or guilt. A lesser writer might have played the moment for angst, but Slott has Spidey immediately dismiss that idea as nonsense. “There’s no way I’d consider that,” he responds to the offer. “Not even for a second. However I got these powers, they’re a gift. Throwing them away would be the most irresponsible thing I could ever do. My Uncle Ben raised me better than that.”There’s no hesitation, no temptation, no soul-searching. It seems that Peter Parker is well and truly comfortable in his own skin.

Dealing with a bug infestation...

I honestly like Slott’s delightful take on the character and his world, taking great satisfation in the sheer “comic-book-ness” (for lack of a better, or existing, word) of a plot where everybody in New York becomes a giant spider. There’s a delightful scene when everybody changes back, and some of the Avengers wonder how they still have their proper hair, or are wearing headbands and so on. It is ridiculous, but that would imply that everything else somehow isn’t ridiculous. “Guys,” Hawkeye casually remarks, “we live in a world where Hulk grows ten times his size and his pants stay on. Roll with it.” It seems like Slott’s good-natured jab at those readers whose suspension of disbelief might allow for giant spiders, but not Misty Knight’s bionic arm.

Slott is ably supported by Stefano Caselli and Humbert Ramos, who provide the art for the adventure. Both artists have a wonderfully cartoony style, so they blend rather seamlessly. I have to admit, the cartoony style suits the story remarkably well, managing to be wonderfully expressive while still capturing the more fantastic elements of Spider-Island. The pair do a great job with the material on hand.

Accept no substitutes...

Slott’s Spider-Island might be the most interesting comic book “event” that I’ve read in quite some time. It never loses sight of its character and arcs even in the midst of a large-scale adventure. It might involve the Avengers and potentially global threat, but Slott seems to realise that Peter Parker is the heart of the book, and so the focus never drifts too far from what the story says about Peter. It’s a fun, enjoyable and accessible Spider-Man comic, and it really makes me wish that there was more of Slott’s work available in oversized hardcover.

2 Responses

  1. Hahah thats so good post

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