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J. Michael Straczynski’s (and Ron Garney’s) Run on the Amazing Spider-Man – Civil War (Review/Retrospective)

This April, to celebrate the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we are taking a look at some classic and modern comics featuring Spider-Man (and friends). Check back daily for the latest review.

Spider-Man is a pretty important character in the whole Civil War event. Indeed, he’s probably the event’s third most important character – aside from Captain America and Iron Man. So it makes sense that J. Michael Straczynsi’s extended run on The Amazing Spider-Man would stop and engage with the massive crossover spanning the entire Marvel Universe. And, from a logistical “structuring a comic book crossover tie-in so it makes any sense to a reader picking up the book” point of view, Straczynski does a great job. You can read The Amazing Spider-Man without needing to even pick up the Civil War miniseries.

However, as a piece of writing on its own merits, Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man tie-in is a mess. Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man run has been collecting trouble aspects for quite some time, particularly when Straczynski seemed to brush up against the editorial demands for the book. Sins Past was perhaps the most obvious example, but with Civil War the comic entered a phase where it was pretty much an editorial means to an end. Everything from this point on was pushing towards One More Day, an event that would wipe decades of continuity from the title. (Including Straczynski’s run.)

Civil War really gets the ball rolling on these sweeping editorially-mandated changes, but that’s not the only problem with the story arc. Given Spider-Man’s importance to Civil War, and his role as defector from one side to the other, it seems like Spider-Man would really be the perfect lens through which Straczynski could explore the issue. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear upon which side of the issue Straczynski comes down.

A tangled web...

A tangled web…

It’s worth noting that both of Straczynski’s Civil War tie-ins are based around characters divided between the two sides of the Civil War debate. His Fantastic Four issues document a family divided over a controversial political issue, with the group splitting up based around the stances taken by various members. In The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker starts out as a staunch ally to Tony Stark before switching his allegiances to Captain America.

Most of the characters embroiled in Civil War start and finish on the same side of the line. Very few of the high-profile characters switch side during the event. Straczynski had a rare opportunity to straddle the issue at the heart of Civil War, to explain why either side might plausible sound convincing. And, despite how the event ultimately played out and the sides taken by the majority of writers, there was a way to make both sides seem convincing.

Wanna fight about it?

Wanna fight about it?

Unfortunately, it’s quite clear which side Straczynski supports. Even the joke editorial captions in an early Road to… issue betray the author’s position. In the middle of a conversation between Tony and Peter, a conversation unfolds between two editorial personalities. One sides with the pro-registration camp, while the other with the anti-registration camp. It’s a nice fourth-wall breaking joke that goes on a little too long, but it’s also quite clear where The Amazing Spider-Man falls on the debate.

The anti-registration side gets to outline its position clearly and concisely, expressly disagreeing with an opinion rendered by a character in the story. When Tony expressed his concerns about what might happen if superheroes are not regulated, a box appears assuring readers, “Some of us at Marvel disagree with this statement, and feel that many of those options are perfectly reasonable.” In contrast, the pro-registration editor resorts to ad hominem attacks on the other side. “I’m tired of you rolling in here every day at noon, drinking all the coffee without making a fresh pot, taking three-hour lunches…”

Suitable company...

Suitable company…

From the outset of the arc, it’s perfectly clear that Tony Stark is the bad guy in the story that Straczynski is telling. This isn’t the story of two good men who find themselves at odds, with Peter trapped in between them. This is the story of a coercive and controlling bully who manipulates a naive young man into being part of something horrible. Even before we see Tony, Mary Jane is wondering whether he is using his advanced technology to watch her in her own bedroom. And it gets creepier from there.

Tony re-designs Spider-Man’s outfit. This is unnerving on several levels. The most obvious is that Tony effectively gives Peter an evil suit makeover. Indeed, the re-design is even more obviously evil than the black suit that Peter got during Civil War. The familiar blue is removed from the costume completely, turning it into a red bodysuit with gold markings. However, Stark also gives Peter controllable arms that simultaneously make him look more like a creepy human spider and also evoke the design of Doctor Octopus.

The redesign is pretty terrifying...

The redesign is pretty terrifying…

It’s telling that the first appearance of Spider-Man wearing the suit doesn’t feature the character sticking to a wall or swinging through the sky. He’s standing fully erect, fists clenched, staring down on the city below. It seems like Peter engenders more terror from citizens in this new outfit, with a police officer warning a suspect not to make Peter angry. “So, like, I don’t think ya should do anything to, y’know, upset him.” Yes, the cop is specifically referencing an event from an earlier story, but it’s hard not think that Peter’s new upgraded outfit plays a part.

Peter is – of course – completely oblivious to all of this. He’s unaware of how Tony has made him more ominous and serious. During his test drive of the new suit, he cracks wise as he always does – making reference to Simon and Garfunkel’s The 59th Street Bridge Song, a song about being footloose and fancy-free. It’s quite clear that Peter Parker has absolutely no idea of the chess game that he has wandered into. Which immediately establishes Tony as ambiguous at best.

A Monumental shift in the status quo...

A Monumental shift in the status quo…

However, this isn’t the only thing that Tony does to immediately earn the audience’s suspicions. Even Peter Parker is acute enough to realise that Tony Stark wouldn’t be acting out of the goodness of his heart, trying to make life easier for a fellow Avenger. “But I know you now, I know how you think and I have a suspicion that there’s more to all this than helping me accessorise,” Peter remarks, and he is correct. Tony immediately asks Peter to swear an oath of loyalty, with no real explanation.

It’s a cynical move on Tony’s part, playing off Peter’s naivety and innocence. Tony knows what lies ahead, but he doesn’t share that information with Peter. Instead, he tries to leverage his authority to make Peter buckle. The Civil War tie-in is packed with none-too-subtle jabs and threats and manipulations made by Tony, where it seems like Peter is only complying because he promised blindly that he would.

Making news...

Making news…

Straczynski never actually bothers to convince the audience that Peter believes in superhero registration, let alone that he agrees with Tony. Instead, Peter only complies with Tony for so long because he made a promise, and Peter Parker is the kind of guy who makes a point to keep his promises. So any hint of nuance is gone. Peter isn’t ever convinced by the pro-registration side, so we never really get an honest attempt at justification of the debate. Instead, Peter is an unwitting henchman to a supervillain wearing the face of his friend.

And Straczynski portrays Stark as a predatory opportunist rather than an idealist. He seems to be cynically exploiting his knowledge of Peter Parker to get him on-side, rather than trying to convince him that it’s the right thing to do. Pressuring Peter to reveal his identity, Stark knows exactly what buttons to press. Refusing would make Spider-Man an outlaw. “Not just you,” Stark quickly adds, “but MJ and your aunt, because they’d be considered accomplices.”

Peter's world comes crashing down...

Peter’s world comes crashing down…

It isn’t too long before the threats become even more obvious. At one point, Stark plans to send Peter out to Los Angeles. Peter inquires after Mary Jane and Aunt May. “Don’t worry about them,” Stark assures his ally. “As long as they’re with me, they’re safe.” It’s precisely the sort of thinly-veiled threat you’d expect from Doctor Doom, not from an Avenger. Stark repeatedly treats Peter as an object rather than an ally, coopting him on to a “strike team” without consulting with him, and using the re-designed suit to spy on his friend.

This version of Tony Stark is guilty of hiring the Titanium Man to attack a Congressional Hearing in the hopes of swaying the public to support his position. He isn’t a character so much as he’s a two-dimensional bad guy. He needs to grow the moustache out slightly so he can twirl it better. This is a character who slips into fascism incredibly quickly, suggesting that internment-without-trial is now standard operating procedure. When Peter suggests the Negative Zone prison is temporary, Stark corrects him, “This isn’t temporary, Peter. This isn’t interim. This is permanent. Get with the program.”

Starry, starry night...

Starry, starry night…

There’s never really a suggestion that Stark and his allies are doing any of this to make the world a better place, or to save lives. Reed Richards is doing it because he is scared. Tony is doing it because it’s easy. And then Straczynski hints at an even more cynical motivation:

“Both Stark Enterprises and Fantastic Four Incorporated have received no-bid contracts totalling nearly two billion dollars for development of such facilities and ancillary research and development. Though the latter is a private holding company, this is certainly a huge boost to Stark’s position on the stock market, making him one of the wealthiest men in the country.”

In short, Tony Stark is a war profiteer. Okay, the character’s past as an arms merchant is problematic – his financial empire is built off the suffering of others. However, modern writers have tried to push the character away from that. And there is a massive difference between making a profit from war and engineering a war to turn a profit. Again, Straczynski is pushing Stark into Bond villain territory.

I'm sure they'll iron out their differences...

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

Stark is portrayed as a collaborator, a cynical man with no loyalties or affections. “Are they going to expect you to name names?” Mary Jane asks Peter Parker at one point. “You mean, like back in the fifties?” Peter responds, unsure about how far this will go. Helpfully, Straczynski can’t let a heavy-handed comparison lie, so we get a scene later in the arc where Tony unequivocally explains that he will name names if his hand is forced. There’s no sense of a willingness to reach a peaceful agreement on this, or to agree a half-way point where the two sides could meet. Stark seems to be angling for open war in the superhero community.

Of course, all of this is slightly undermined by the fact that Straczynski never manages to construct a valid reason why Peter should swap sides in the middle of the event. He has a nice rooftop chat with Captain America, where the latter quotes Twain at him, trying to justify his willingness to launch a superhuman war over this. “This nation was founded on one principle above all else: the requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or consequences,” Captain America explains, which is a nice sentiment to put on a postcard.

Eight-legged freak...

Eight-legged freak…

Unfortunately, it’s a problematic philosophy applied to real life. If Wesley Snipes believes that he shouldn’t have to pay taxes, does he have the right to wage a one-man war against the state? What if you believe in something like fascism or slavery? Does that justify you taking aggressive actions to pursue that goal? Captain America isn’t advocating democracy, he’s advocating anarchy – a world where any objectionable law is enough to justify a bloody conflict with mankind caught between two enraged camps of superhumans.

Straczynski never addresses the irony of Captain America’s sentiment – the idea that Tony Stark and the majority of the American people are also standing up for their beliefs opposite him. There’s a sense that Straczynski buys entirely into that line of logic, and Peter is immediately swayed – joking about how he wants to follow Captain America around and just listen to him talk. There’s no self-awareness here, nothing particularly clever or well-observed. It’s just cheesy sentiment packaged and served up straight.

Spidey's foreshadowing sense is tingling...

Spidey’s foreshadowing sense is tingling…

Then again, Straczynski is not afraid to indulge in cheap sentimentality. At one point, Spider-Man visits the Lincoln Memorial, where he reads the most oddly-formatted inscription ever that happens to conveniently foreshadow everything that is to come – warning of “a great Civil War” that lies ahead. It’s a moment that is clearly meant to come across as profound and earnest, but winds up feeling pretentious and overblown.

In fact, the entire Civil War arc feels like a means to an end. Peter Parker only publicly unmasks because it’s necessary to force his hand to get us to One More Day. It actually has little to do with the plot, save providing a nice cliffhanger. The storytelling opportunities presented by an unmasked Peter Parker are practically limitless. Instead, they seem like an after-thought here, lost amid all the other stuff going on. (Indeed, Brian Michael Bendis’ Daredevil had already demonstrated that an unmasked hero makes for great fodder for stories like this.)

"I'm talking to the man in the mirror..."

“I’m talking to the man in the mirror…”

Instead, there’s a few brief nods to the controversy that this causes at the Daily Bugle – where the fact that Peter has been lying to J. Jonah Jameson for decades is treated as something that is only problematic if people ever find out about it. There’s a lawsuit filed, and a few threats of other lawsuits made throughout the arc. And then the Kingpin acts, to move Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man run towards its end game. It feels strange that none of Spider-Man’s other villains are acting on this. With one of the deepest and most diverse rogues’ galleries in comics, you’d imagine they’d have some sort of response planned for this.

And yet, despite all this, there are some interesting ideas here. It’s nice see Straczynski up-ending the traditional Spider-Man storytelling model. In most Spider-Man stories, Peter Parker is operating against the authorities and in accordance with his own morality. Reversing that is quite a nice hook, with even Peter noticing how surreal this situation is. “For the first time, I’m accepted,” he thinks. “I’m out. I’m on the side of the law, and the law’s on my side. May is proud of me. I’m on the right side of everything. So how come something so right just feels so wrong?”

Jumping right in...

Jumping right in…

And it’s worth noting that a lot of the ideas here open up new avenues for storytelling. While Straczynski’s run on The Amazing Spider-Man was generally provocative and almost iconoclastic, it did push the comic in interesting directions that weren’t previously available. It was nice to see Aunt May finally accept Peter Parker was Spider-Man; it was fun to see Spider-Man integrating with the Avengers; it was great to see Peter actually maturing a bit and working in the larger framework of the Marvel Universe.

The Civil War arc teases all sorts of intriguing future possibilities. Everybody now knows that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, including his expansive supporting cast and his enemies. The Daily Bugle is in an awkward position, having bought pictures of Spider-Man from Spider-Man for quite some time; a massive breach of journalistic ethics. The Kingpin is coming for Peter Parker, possibly in a manner similar to the way that he came for Daredevil. Aunt May and Mary Jane are about to have their lives destroyed by a secret that has been kept too long.

Hitting a wall...

Hitting a wall…

Of course, none of these stories actually go anywhere. All of this is just building to a magical reset button so Marvel can conveniently reset Peter Parker to Joe Quesada’s preferred version of the character. This is the antithesis of Straczynski’s approach to the comic, which has been dedicated to shaking things up and trying new things. It’s a gutless and conservative move that sets the character back decades. It’s hard not to let that editorial decision retroactively colour this stage of Straczynski’s Amazing Spider-Man run.

J. Michael Straczynski’s run on The Amazing Spider-Man was pretty impressive when it began. Unfortunately, it lasted too long. Straczynski found himself trapped between editorial demands, put in the position of writing a story that existed merely to satisfy an editorial objective. The result is unsatisfying, just as Straczynski’s soapbox writing feels like a waste of a potentially fascinating premise. The Amazing Spider-Man was positioned to be one of the very best tie-ins to Civil War. Unfortunately, it cannot realise that potential.

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

You might be interested in our other reviews of Civil War tie-ins:

4 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Famecity9ja.

  2. I’m coming to your review a couple of years late. But since the Captain America: Civil War movie is coming out soon, I suppose that the issues raised in the original comic books are probably going to be touched upon in the cinematic version.

    Captain America is one of my all-time favorite Marvel comic book characters. Therefore, I was aghast at how badly he was written in the Civil War crossover. Well, actually, nearly *all* of Marvel’s characters were written badly during the crossover, so it’s not like Marvel was picking on him.

    Nevertheless, I found much of Cap’s actions and reasoning during Civil War to be poorly thought out. By far the worst instance of this was the speech that Straczynski has Cap give Spider-Man, the “No, *you* move” speech. I found this to be an *extremely* problematic argument.

    The major problem I have with this speech is that there are many people holding reprehensive views who fully believe in the just, righteous nature of their cause. I can almost imagine George Wallace, standing in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1953, giving this rational for why he vehemently objected to the federal government’s efforts to desegregate schools, and that he would do everything in his power to obstruct it.

    I am also reminded of the Tea Party fanatics who have seized control of the Republican Party in the last several years. These are individuals who believe that legislative compromise and bi-partisanship are tantamount to treason, who are ready to send the entire government over a cliff rather than give a single inch.

    Some of the gravest problems the United States (and, indeed, the rest of the world) have ever faced were do to individuals who arrogantly refused to consider the positions of their opponents or the possible legitimacy of opposing viewpoints, who stamped their feet and hollered at the top of their lungs “I’m right and everyone else is wrong!”

    Captain America of all people should recognize the dangers of maintaining an unflinching, inflexible ideology. During World War II he witnessed first-hand the horrors of closed-minded fanaticism. That’s why this is such a poorly-conceived scene.

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