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Dan Slott’s Run on The Amazing Spider-Man – Ends of the Earth (Review)

While Ends of the Earth might not work quite as well as Dan Slott’s other epic from his Amazing Spider-Man run, Spider-Island, it does succeed in playing to the writer’s strengths with the character. It seems like Slott is fascinated with how Spider-Man interacts with the world – both in terms of the other fictional constructs of the shared Marvel Universe, but also in how the character tries to make his world a better place through more than beating up bad guys. Apocryphally, Stan Lee once argued that comic book fans don’t want change, but “the illusion of change”, and Slott manages to do something which almost seems impossible. He offers a take on the web-crawling wonder that is by turns classic and yet boldly new.

The last sand…

Everybody knows the basic premise of Spider-Man. A poor kid gets superpowers, loses his uncle and uses his gift to make the world a better place. Spider-Man is a pop cultural icon, and so there’s a sense that everybody is familiar with the basic unspoken “rules” of a Spider-Man story, or what to expect from it. The lead character will face impossible odds. He has to balance being a young guy with an unnatural amount of responsibility. He will endure whatever the world can throw at him, but at a heavy cost. It’s fair to argue that a character approaching his fiftieth anniversary merits some measure of internal reflection. Surely by this point, after half-a-century and with over seven-hundred issues, virtually every Spider-Man story has been told?

I think that’s part of what makes Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man so fascinating. While Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man takes the core ingredients of the story and serves them in a fresh way, Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man is really about exploring the boundaries of the character. Slott has been fascinated with the idea of Spider-Man within a somewhat larger context than most writers. Most people imagine Spider-Man as a “street”hero, fighting thugs and goons and low- to medium-tier supervillains. (With bigger threats reserved for annuals, crossovers and tie-ins.) Spider-Man has his own place in the wider tapestry of the Marvel Universe, and most writers are content to really explore and develop that.

Some men just want to watch the world burn…

Slott’s approach is very much the opposite. Slott is fascinated with where Peter Parker becomes bigger than a guy in suit fighting a wackjob in a silly costume. Spider-Island saw the hero facing a catastrophe that threatened to destroy Manhattan Island, affecting millions of people. Ends of the Earth goes significantly further, and puts Spider-Man in a position where the fate of the world rests on the skill of a twenty-something kid from New York.

In a way, Slott is simply taking the familiar Spider-Man tropes and playing them significantly larger. Sure, it initially seems like something quite unique and different. “This is war,” Silver Sable reminds him at one point. “It’s my war,” he corrects her.As the world itself lies in the balance, Peter confesses to her, “I’m not used to this ‘end of the world’ stuff. Gimme a bank robbery or one of my regular bad guys. Now that I could handle.”To a certain extent, Slott is shrewdly taking Peter out of his comfort zone – one of the aspects of his writing that I really appreciate.

Eight-legged freak…

However, Slott cleverly frames it in iconography and ideas that those familiar with the character will recognise. The mid-point in the crossover sees the character elevated from a mere New York vigilante to “the global menace called Spider-Man.” The game is the same, just played on a different, immensely larger canvas. As the world hunts him down, Peter admits, “I’ve been public enemy number on before… but never for the whole planet!”

The Rhino explains the situation in more simple terms, “They are alone. With the entire world against them.” Peter has been hunted by the New York police, attacked in the New York press and even vilified by the New York mayor. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko made it seem like it was Peter Parker against the world. In Ends of the Earth, it literally is.

Earth’s mightiest villains?

And I respect that – it’s part of Slott’s writing that I really like. However, Ends of the Earth can’t help but feel like an atypical Amazing Spider-Man story – as if Peter Parker and his villains have wandered into The Avengers. That is, of course, the entire point – and that’s why I like it so much – but it really deserves to be said. Ends of the Earth is very far from your typical Spider-Man story, from its settings through to its stakes through to the environmental themes. Slott makes sure that it is still a distinctly Spider-Man story, in tone and in character work, but it’s hard to really recommend the book to somebody looking for a quintessential Spider-Man story.

Of course, Slott’s innovation runs considerably deeper than just the style and scale of the story. Throughout the run, Slott has actually made a point to show Peter Parker using his skills for good – and not just of the “punching evil in the face” variety. (Although there is plenty of that.) At one point, Peter rescues people from a burning building, only do discover a scientific device he developed did as much to help minimise the damage as possible.

The sands of time…

“Amazing,” he muses. “The Cryo Cube 3000. One day, it’s something I threw together to take out Hydro-Man… the next, it’s transporting hearts and lungs and — feet, to the people who need ’em the most. Sometimes I’m so busy being Spider-Man, I don’t see it… but it’s all out there, isn’t it?” Rather than hoarding his gifts and inventions for his own use, Slott has chosen to reimagine Peter as a dynamic young scientific mind, working to make the world a better place in more ways than simply wall-crawling or web-slinging.

His technology has redesigned motorcycle helmets and even headphones. “But still… in the grand scheme of things, my work here at Horizon Labs is making a difference in the world. Me. My work. Peter Parker’s work.” Slott’s Peter Parker feels more dynamic, more enthusiastic and more energised than he is often portrayed – a character trying to do good in the world. He remarks early on that he hopes that Uncle Ben would be proud, and one imagines that he would. For the first time in quite a while, it seems like both the Peter Parker and Spider-Man sides of his life are relatively satisfied.

He’s flyin’ along!

Slott’s Spider-Man is focused and determined – but also, crucially, optimistic. At one point, taking down the villain Equinox, Spider-Man even uses some Goblin technology to assist him. “Couldn’t make it into a web formula, so I’m borrowing a few tricks from someone else’s bag. And honestly? I don’t care how this looks. ‘Cause when lives are in danger… I’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done!”

That’s not to suggest that Slott gives Spider-Man an easy time. In the finest tradition of the character, Slott is sure to have this bold and enthusiastic philosophy come back to bite Peter Parker in no small way. Ends of the Earth brings Spider-Man’s “nobody dies!” streak to a crushing halt, but Slott more shrewdly twists things around so that even Peter’s attempts to make the world a better place turn out to have an ironic sting. In this case, it’s Peter’s technology that is at the heart of Doctor Octopus’ evil schemes.

Are you sitting comfortably?

“All my inventions for Horizon,” Peter observes, “everything I’ve put out into the world — Doc’s modified it! Twisted it! I’ve given him everything he needs!” Slott understands that Spider-Man has always been defined by responsibility. Operating on a smaller scale, he felt responsible for the loss of individual lives. Here, where he had been trying to save the world, the guilt is even greater. While a “street” hero messing up might get Gwen Stacy killed, a hero playing on this larger stage has much more to lose.

While Slott understands a lot of the web-crawler’s philosophy, he also does a great job with the character’s foes. In some cases, Slott simply plays to established strengths. He portrays Mysterio as a very “Hollywood” supervillain, one obsessed with “the show.”He understands that Doctor Octopus is, in many ways, a twisted mirror to Peter – a science nerd given strange super-powers, only Doc Ock couldn’t handle it. Here, Doctor Octopus’ decision to think globally mirror’s Peter’s increased global consciousness, and his promise to use his scientific gifts to make the world a better place seems to echo Peter’s sentiments.

A very sinister six…

“I am a brilliant man who is dying,” he pleads to the world. “A man with a terrible past who wishes to be remembered as one thing — the man who preserved Earth for all time.” Of course, the thing about Doctor Octopus is that he lacks the brilliance of Peter Parker, divorced from his intellect. While Peter can change the way that he acts and responds, Doctor Octopus can’t. While Slott’s Peter Parker has genuinely changed his modus operandi, Doc Ock can only affect the appearance of change. In the end, Doctor Octopus falls back on familiar patterns. He even recruits another iteration of the Sinister Six. How uncreative can he get?

That said, I did have a bit of bother with Doctor Octopus’ master plan. It turns out that infamy is his goal – villainy for villiany’s sake. So why did he need to get the nations of the world on board? He reveals at the climax that he doesn’t really need them, and one suspects that his plan might have worked better had he waited in the shadows until the second-to-last moment before announcing himself in finest pantomime villain style. Still, perhaps that’s Slott’s point – it doesn’t make sense, Doctor Octopus is insane, and he’s still stuck in the same old patterns while at least Peter triesto change them.

Spidey never believed that An Inconvenient Truth deserved the Oscar…

Slott’s high concepts work especially well with Sandman, who is an interesting villain, if you stop to think about him. Of course, he’s also possibly headache inducing, but it’s fun to think about the pseudo-physics of a and monster who can change his mass and form at will. A logical conclusion, Slott has Peter form a theory on the nature of Sandman. “What if — at your core — there was only one constant grain of sand? A ‘queen bee’ particle, telling all the others what to do. A magic grain that was your consciousness. Your heart. Your soul.” It’s pretty much the only pseudo-scientific way for Sandman to make sense, and it’s quite ingenious.

Here, again, Slott suggests that part of what separates Peter from his foes is a lack of imagination, or an ability to think outside the box. While Spider-Man is coming up with fancy theories, neat gimmicks and suits of armour, Sandman is stuck falling back on the same old routine. “And that’s your problem, Flint. The power of half a continent — and no imagination. Giant mallet fists? Please. Haven’t seen you do that a kajillion times.”

“But the one thing he didn’t count on was my power of chest expansion!”

That said, Slott is careful to provide himself with an “out” with regards to Peter’s social responsibility, proactive nature and his desire to change the world. After all, the status quo is god, and there’s a tendency to revert a writer’s more significant and fundamental divergences from the status quo after they leave. Just look at what happened to Grant Morrison’s New X-Men. Slott seems to be working on tidying up his own bold ideas, suggesting that there’s a reason why a world-changing armour-wearing high-tech-inventing Spider-Man might not be tenable.

After all, Doctor Octopus used Spider-Man’s technology to almost destroy the world. That’s reason enough to justify locking the technology away and any future refusal by Spider-Man to share his inventions with the wider population. Even during the confrontation with the Sinister Six, Spider-Man’s seemingly prudent decision to wear high-tech armour turns out to be a fatal error. “Can’t control it!”he gasps as Doctor Octopus hijacks it, something that would never have happened with his simple and iconic outfit.

They were never going to see eye-to-eye…

That said, I do hope that Slott doesn’t use this as an excuse to roll back his well-thought-out and bold ideas, at least not yet. There is, after all, a lot of potential in the idea, and it gives Slott a bit of a unique take on the character. It would be a shame to lose that and to revert to more generic Amazing Spider-Man holding patterns. I like that Slott has sewn the seeds for a future decision to revert the character closer to his roots, but I think that Slott’s ideas merit further exploration.

Another aspect that Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man plays up, both here and elsewhere, is the notion of Spider-Man existing in a shared universe. Here, event eh villain is aware of the forces at work outside the wall-crawling hero. “The Fantastic Four, the Defenders, and the X-Men are occupied, off Earth, or in other dimensions,” Doctor Octopus tells his men. “Now is the perfect time to strike.” I’ll freely concede that I’m not a fan of continuity for the sake of continuity, but Slott uses the wider Marvel Universe as an excuse to pull his lead character a little further out of his element. This is, after all, an Avengers-scale story, and it begins as such. It just so happens to be Spider-Man’s foes behind the threat and Spider-Man the only person to handle it.

What’s up, Doc?

For the bulk of the crossover, Slott’s work is illustrated by Stefano Caselli and Humberto Ramos. Both are superb artists, and the collection looks pretty great. That said, I’ve always had a soft spot of highly stylised takes on the wall-crawling superhero, so I have a fondness for Ramos’ arts – which tends to be cartoonish, portraying Spider-Man as this gangly figure with strange and unnerving proportions. It does feel a bit strange that Ramos’ issues don’t feature the character doing too much wall-crawling or web-slinging, given the fact that he’s visiting the Sahara, but they still look quite good.

I would note that the tie-ins included in this hardcover are a tad disappointing. They aren’t written by Slott, which is understandable given his workload, but they do feel like idle padding rather than anything essential. (Of course, if they were essential, they’d have been published as part of Slott’s Amazing Spider-Man.) The Ends of the Earth special throws the pacing off in the middle of the book. While the Avenging Spider-Manissue thrown in at the end seems like it would make a fitting coda, it feels like a lazy excuse to tell a flashback Spider-Man and Silver Sable story. I can’t help but feel like they’d have a bit more resonance had they been structured better – had the entire issue been devoted to the aftermath of the event, rather than simply using that as a framing device for a conventional team-up.

Glidin’ along…

Again, like Spider-Island, this collection makes me wish that Marvel would release a nice omnibus collection of Dan Slott’s run. It would likely involve a significant amount of double-dipping for me, but I would take that hit. I’ve read bits and pieces and I’ve actually quite liked it all, so I can’t believe that Marvel hasn’t announced plans for a gigantic tome of Slott’s work. Then again, there are a lot of modern runs competing for slots in Marvel’s hardcover publication calendar. But Amazing Spider-Man is certainly deserving.

Still, these are relatively small complaints. Ends of the Earth is a bold take on The Amazing Spider-Man, and proof that Slott is continuing to take the character a little bit out of his element to play with the established “rules” of Spider-Man stories. It’s not a story I can recommend as “definitive” or “essential”, but it does illustrate that there’s still life in this pop culture icon.

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