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J. Michael Straczynski’s (and John Romita Jr.’s) Run on the Amazing Spider-Man – The Best of Spider-Man, Vol. 1-2 (Review/Retrospective)

It’s easy to forget just how iconoclastic that early parts of the new millennium were at Marvel. The comic company was in the midst of recovering from its bankrupcy, and was going throw a massive creative shake-up. Many would argue that the late nineties represented the company’s creative nadir, and there was a very definite sense of change in the air. Some of that change involved a radical restructuring of core concepts, placing them in the hands of more radical creators.

The early part of the last decade gave us Peter Milligan on X-Force, Grant Morrison on New X-Men and Garth Ennis on Marvel Knights: Punisher. It also saw a number of big-name creators working on these characters. Kevin Smith wrote the introductory arc of the new Daredevil book. While J. Michael Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man has a controversial and divisive legacy, it was a product of those times. While it was flawed even in its early days, it’s still a bold re-working of an iconic comic book mythos.

King of the swingers…

In many ways, Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man feels like the poster-child for the creative history of Marvel over the early years of the new millennium. Straczynski starts out strong, with his own clear authorial voice, with his own take on the character and his own ideas. These concepts are new, and they shed a new light on the character and his world, while reimagining core parts of the established mythos. It’s bold and it’s radical, especially for a character as iconic as Spider-Man.

However, a few years into his run, something happens. Suddenly Straczynski is no longer writing his own story with his own bold and radical high concepts. Instead, he’s stuck in a long chain of event tie-ins, writing to editorial mandate While his early run was relatively stand-alone in terms of the shared universe, Straczynski is suddenly writing a tie-in to Civil War, dealing with the aftermath, crossing over with other Spider-Man books and ultimately putting pen to paper to write a story dictated by editor Joe Quesada to wipe out any progression the character has undergone. While these first issues are boldly Straczynski’s, the author had to be convinced to sign his name to the creative disaster that was One More Day.

It’ll never catch on…

That’s still a long way off, but it casts a significant shadow over Straczynski’s run. No matter how interesting or bold his ideas here, he’s still the writer who signs his name to the decision to revert all these changes.The start of the run is about modernising the concepts and the characters who populate The Amazing Spider-Man, but the last few issues are about wiping away anything that is new and scary for something old and comfortable. The same conservatism would follow Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run, but at least Morrison wasn’t pressuring into undoing all his own stellar work.

That said, the start of Straczynski’s run is quite interesting on its own terms. At the time, Marvel was revising a lot of its key franchises and characters. Some (like The Punisher or The Fantastic Four) were brought closer to their roots. Others (like the New X-Men or Daredevil) were pushed outside of their comfort zone. Straczynski actually does an excellent job shaking up the foundations of Spider-Man. While I don’t think his reimagining is quite as good as the others mentioned here (and I think it pales in comparison to Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man), it does offer a few interesting and clever takes on familiar concepts.

“This looks like a job for… Spider-Man!?”

It’s possible to argue that, by the time Straczynski took over, the Spider-Man mythos had become a little like Peter’s old school. The first issue has Peter return to his high school from those early Stan Lee and Steve Ditko issues. “It’s kind of fallen on hard times,” Peter confesses. “Fraying at the edges, covered in graffiti…” It needs some tender love and care, some fixing up, some modernising. Straczynski returns Peter to the high school where we first met him, but on new terms. Peter is a teacher, not a student. Peter is working a steady job and making a difference, rather than chasing freelance cheques.

The first arc is pretty bold. It challenges the origin of Spider-Man, one of the most ubiquitous superhero origins in pop culture. My gran could probably tell you Spider-Man’s origin, and Straczynski has the guts to challenge it. It’s a gutsy move, but it demonstrates just how much the writer is putting up for grabs. “You think you got your powers from a radioactive spider-bite,” the mysterious Ezekiel states, “and you may believe you know it to be true, but can you prove it?”

By Jonah!

To be fair, Straczynski doesn’t commit to the idea completely. He’d be foolish to do so – some later writer would just restore the original origin anyway. It’s suggested merely as a possibility, with even the dreaded hunter Morlun seeming to doubt it for a moment. (At one point, the villain concedes, “There’s something… wrong about him.”) However, it’s presented just logically enough for Ezekiel to suggest that Parker “does not comprehend the power he holds in his hands.”

Straczynski, who worked on other cult projects, knows that he’s being provocative here. He’s effectively challenging the fundamental basis of The Amazing Spider-Man“I am about to yank your chain like nobody else has before and nobody ever will again,” Ezekiel boasts, and it’s hard not to imagine Straczynski grinning from ear to ear as he wrote it. He even offers a good-natured self-parody later on with the movie hero Lobster-Man. The writer of the film protests that the classic origin has been thrown out. He complains, “They want something bigger, like he was summoned to the job by… get this… some kind of Giant Lobster God!” Such a suggestion is, of course, sacrilege. “Everyone on the internet who heard the rumour about this thinks it’s stupid.”

Things fall apart…

I’ll confess that while I like the message the idea sends (that nothing is sacred), I’m lukewarm on the idea itself. Straczynski tries a bit too hard to justify it, with Ezekiel retroactively suggesting that Spider-Man’s iconic villains support this new theory. “The kind of enemy you get tells someone a lot about the kind of person you are,” Ezekiel explains. He suggests that the animal theme can’t be a coincidence, as if they are bound by meta-fictional forces. However, I think there’s a much more natural and logical link between Peter and his foes.

Ezekiel claims that they are “pretenders” and Peter is “the real deal”, but I’d argue it’s not about the animal theme. Most of Peter’s foes are characters given a great gift, like he was, but unable to cope with the power and responsibility. Doctor Octopus’ lab accident didn’t make him stronger like Peter, but insane. Curt Connors didn’t get wall-crawling abilities, but became a sinister monster. The Rhino and the Scorpion and Electro use their gifts for financial gain, rather than the greater good. Retroactively grafting a “totem” on to them seems a bit forced.

Swatting a spider…

Still, I like what the move suggests – that the whole mythos is fair game, and that Straczynski is free to do what he wants with the character, to do something relatively new. After Peter gives him the classic “with great power comes great responsibility” bit, Ezekiel demands, “And then what?” That’s really what Straczynski is getting at. Rather than being a writer stuck in a holding pattern, there’s a sense that Straczynski wants to push forward, and I can’t help but admire the energy that this gives the book.

That’s not to suggest that Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man is flawless. In fact, it has several considerable flaws evident even this early on. For one thing, these early issues are far too earnest. They border on “after school specials.” Peter deals with events like high school shootings and September 11th in ways that are far too blunt for their own good. (Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Marvel Team-Up would explore the attacks in a more considered and less emotionally blunt manner.)

Spidey phone home…

At one point, dealing with homelessness and drug abuse, Peter Parker actually thinks, “I always knew what to do with Electro. But this… You can’t beat this by hitting it. It’s not that easy.” He’s very quick to lay on the rather stereotypical life lessons, most of which involve a serious amount of angsty self-pity. “I pass this neighbourhood a dozen times a month. How could I not know this was here? How could I not see this? Worst of all… when did I stop seeing this?”

This is J. Michael Straczynski trying to make a point, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It’s very much in the blunt straight-forward style he’d bring to his much-maligned Grounded arc on Superman. There is, of course, a place for socially-conscious superheroics, but Straczynski writes as if he’s drafting a seventies comic book, something left over from Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams’ Green Lantern/Green Arrowrun. While those comics were provocative at the time, that sort of in-your-face earnestness has dated rather poorly.

Come what May…

There’s also the issue of Morlun. Straczynski seems to make a conscious attempt here to avoid Spidey’s iconic villains (with the exception of Doctor Octopus), and begins his run with the introduction of Morlun, a hunter vampire-type being who feeds off the animal “totems.” This is grand – I think Spidey has enough classic stories featuring his bad guys and appreciate a conscious effort at creativity. However, Straczynski can’t resist the urge to hype Morlun ridiculously, despite the fact the baddie is appearing in his first arc.

Before their first proper encounter, Ezekial warns Peter that all his foes are “only echoes of something far darker… and infinitely more lethal.” When Spider-Man encounters him for the first time, he repeats how grave and serious the threat is. “And for the first time, I don’t have a wisecrack right at hand. Because nothing’s funny anymore.” Given everything the world has ever thrown at the character, it seems a little ridiculous that Spidey is struck silent even before he makes proper contact with Morlun.

If you can make yourself Morlun just a man…

And the hyping continues into the fight itself. “Just been hit harder than anybody’s every hit me before,” Peter observes – a line that might seem like playful hyperbole if divorced from the other constant references to how impressive Morlun is. At another point, Straczynski even has Spider-Man explicitly state that Morlun has a special place in his rogues’ gallery.  “Listen, buddy,” he warns the vampire, “I’ve fought every kind of nutball on the planet. I’ve fought freaks, mutants, aliens and high-tech gangs… heck, I’ve even fought my own costume. And you know what? You’re the first one who’s really ticked me off.” Really? All the stuff that Norman Osborn has ever done never “really” ticked him off?

It’s a shame, because there’s a lot to like about Morlun as a character. Straczynski consciously models the character on Dracula. He arrives by boat (in this day and age), has lived forever and “feeds”off unlucky souls. He even has a Renfield-type character in Dex. I know that Spider-Man already has a vampire archetype in the form of Michael Morbius, but I think that a more villainous and archetypal Dracula-style villain works.

Itsy-bitsy spider…

After all, Spider-Man is very much a “monster” – he’s a “freak” with unnatural abilities whose rogues’ gallery already features quite a few goblin-themed baddies. His powers are based on those of a creepy crawly, and I’ve always thought that is might explain why the citizens of the shared universe react so instinctively horrible towards him. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and Spider-Man II illustrated how well the character and his cast fit within a sort of classical monster movie framework, and I think Morlun is that idea taken to its logical extreme.

While you could argue that the “convenient” resolution to Spider-Man’s dilemma after defeating Morlun is a rather cheap way of avoiding an important issue, I think Straczynski handles it reasonably well. Cornering Morlun, Spidey wonders how he can resolve this situation. No prison will hold the monster, and he represents a very clear and present threat. “How far are you prepared to go?” Spider-Man asks himself, as he contemplates murder. The matter is taken out of his hands, but Straczynski shrewdly observes that this isn’t a clear outcome – Spider-Man will have to live with the idea that he could do such thing, rather than knowing that he couldn’t.

Back for Morlun…

To be fair, while Morlun is a mixed bag, Straczynski’s other new villains work quite well – including the “wannabe Doc Ock” poser and the mystical criminal Shade. These are introduced without too much hype or exaggeration, and allowed to stand on their own two feet. I’d argue that, despite the fact they get less build-up and development than Morlun, they work much better – if only because we aren’t subjected to countless quotes about how Spidey is out of his depth or in trouble now.

While Morlun presents a problem, Straczynski does exceptional work with Spidey’s supporting cast. There’s a conscious effort to update the hero, and to examine the parts of his mythology that are considered to be sacred cows. Perhaps the biggest change in Straczynski’s run – and one of the changes I was most disappointed to see reverted at the end of it – sees Aunt May discovering Peter Parker’s secret identity, leading to an issue-long conversation which seems to have inspired the way Brian Michael Bendis dealt with the topic in Ultimate Spider-Man.

We need to talk about Peter…

Straczynski carefully and meticulously picks apart the justifications and rationalisations Peter has used to explain his decision to hide his identity from his closest living relative. Responding to the most often-repeated one, one that has been around since the Lee and Ditko days, she challenges him, “What did you think would happen if I found out, Peter? Did you think I would just keel over and die?” Straczynski seems to suggest that Peter was ultimately being selfish – and arguably causing more long-term harm.

The irony, of course, is that it’s not really as big a deal as Peter may have thought. “All my life, I’ve dreaded having that conservation. I’ve lived in fear of it for years. Years. For a conversation that took a little under three hours.”May accepts him for who he is. Straczynski doesn’t afford Peter a cop-out by having his loving aunt endorse the idea, but he does suggest that May loves Peter enough to support him whatever her personal view.

Spider-Man loves Mary Jane…

Straczynski’s Aunt May is a wonderful creation – finally an iteration of the character who feels like more than just emotional baggage to keep Peter tied down. Once she discovers her nephew’s secret life, she does everything in her power to encourage and support him. Straczynski’s Nuff Said issue, one constructed without any dialogue, features May proactively attempting to support Peter in an organised and constructive manner. She constructs a “to do” list including items like “cancel subscriptions to papers that don’t like Peter” and “try to improve Peter’s image.”

She feels very much like a real character instead of a piece of background furniture. She’s smart and creative in her own terms – at one point she tricks a raving lunatic into getting off at the wrong floor just to get some peace in the lift. A fellow passenger confronts her. “Well, that’s what happens when you get old, you see,” she explains. “I don’t see how I could have made such a mistake.” She’s no longer the fragile old dear who seems on the verge of collapse. She tells Peter, “I just need to keep moving, Peter. That’s all.”

The last days of the Condor?

Straczynski takes a while to properly introduce Mary Jane within the context of his story. He seems to be allowing Peter and May a bit of space to develop on their own terms before bringing Peter’s wife back into their life. When he does, though, Straczynski is careful to make sure that Mary Jane is more than just a hanger-on or accessory. Although a little on the nose, Straczynski cleverly casts her in a film playing the girlfriend of Lobster-Man, allowing the character to state her objections to the way the love interest is written, as if Straczynski is rather gently criticising some portrayals of Mary Jane.

As she tries to understand her character, she converses with her co-star, trying to find a more proactive role for the character’s girlfriend. (The script, naturally, seems to feature her just standing around in lingerie.) She explains, “Anyway, I think that’s where someone like Spi — that is, Lobster-Man’s love interest could be, I don’t know, useful. She could help him get over the mistakes of his past, make him understand that he doesn’t have to be perfect. She could be important to him –” It’s interesting, and it’s certainly explored a bit in the issues that follow.

He hasn’t got eight legs to stand on…

Straczynski avoids the traditional villains, both here and throughout his run. He’d favour new villains in general. Even Doctor Octopus only appears briefly in a story-arc featuring a Doppelganger. (The storyarc also features the Lobster-Man movie, all forms of meta-commentary and an explicit reference to the classic Lee and Ditko “lifting” issue.) However, Straczynski seems to stress Doctor Octopus as old and outdated – perhaps prompting the reader to wonder if such arguments might apply to the other iconic villains in Spidey’s rogues’ gallery.

Doctor Octopus shows his age when he challenges his younger, meaner opponent, “As the kids say… bring it on.” His successor, a more aggressive model, even explicitly comments on how dated Doctor Octopus’ gimmick is. He has his scientists play with Octavius’ iconic four-armed harness, only to reach the conclusion that it has long passed its sell-by date. “They said it looked as if you’d built that thing in the sixties,” he snidely comments to Otto.

Predators and pray…

Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man is very much about updating and renewing an icon who was, at that point, over forty years old. In fact, Straczynski seems to draw attention to his age at every opportunity. Octavius’ harness looks like it was built in the sixties. Ezekiel reveals himself to be fifty-seven, which would be (very roughly) the age Peter would have been had he been allowed to age in real time. (In fact, Ezekiel is presented as a counterpart to Peter who used his gifts for more pragmatic and less idealistic purposes. “Using my… our… special abilities, I was able to parlay my talents into a considerable fortune,” he tells Peter. “But lately, I’ve begun to wonder if I could’ve used my abilities to do what you’ve done. Make a difference.”)

Straczynski seems to suggest that Peter is somehow young despite the fact the world around him has grown and evolved – that temporal paradox concerning superheroes. To Straczynski, it’s Spider-Man’s idealism and heroism that make him immortal, and allow him to continue to exist in a perpetual now. However, he must evolve and change with the times. Straczynski’s run is very much focused around the notion that Peter does need some measure of evolution to stay modern and relevant. And I appreciate Straczynski for having the courage of his convictions, and daring to shake things up.

Looks like we have a hit on our hands…

Straczynski would be ably assisted, for a significant portion of his run, by John Romita Jr. Romita’s father was the second on-going artist on The Amazing Spider-Man with Stan Lee, so there’s a lot of legacy to live up to. Romita’s style is divisive, and it’s very distinctly “comic-book-y.” However, I would argue that – as early as the days of Steve Ditko – Spider-Man was a character who thrived on heavily stylised portrayals, like the work of Todd McFarlane, for example. I am a big fan of Romita’s work, and I think it looks great.

Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man isn’t quite as good as the other runs from this timeframe. Part of that is due to how it ended, but part of that is also due to the fact that Straczynski was occasionally a bit heavy-handed in writing Peter Parker and his world. I don’t think it works nearly as well as his celebrated Thor run. Still, it’s an interesting run with something bold and new to say about the character. What’s wrong with that?

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

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3 Responses

  1. i loved the episode where he blames alan moore for the watchmen cashin prequels

  2. One of my favorite moments is in the very beginning, when Peter thinks about how screwed up his life is while smashing an abandoned building scheduled for demolition. If there’s one thing I love about this run is that J. Michael Straczynski endowed Spidey and his supporting cast with a lot of wonderful humanity. Even the “after school” earnestness has an endearing quality to it that’d I wish would be brought back.

    Although I don’t think his villains are particularly interesting outside of Morlun, maybe Ezekiel or Digger. With Morlun, I can’t help but hear Infinite’s theme from Sonic Forces when he shows up, that kind of edginess reminiscent of early 2000’s YouTube AMVs or something

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