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The Amazing Spider-Man – The Gauntlet: Electro – Power to the People (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.

Trying to channel Batman while writing Spider-Man is a risky business. The two characters are iconic – each can make a credible claim to be the most iconic character at their publisher, and perhaps the most iconic superhero ever. Both have imprinted themselves on the public consciousness; both have enjoyed multiple iterations across cartoons and movies; both have iconic stories and popular runs, as well as bucket loads of merchandise; both have truly wonderful supporting casts.

However, trying to use Spider-Man to evoke Batman is a risky move. You can end up with a mess like Spider-Man: Reign, demonstrating that the dark cynicism many associate with the Caped Crusader does not translate to the wall-crawling web-head. Alternatively, you get a sense that what makes Peter Parker unique and appealing is being crushed in a desire to fit a round peg in a square hole, like with The Amazing Spider-Man.

Shocking...

Shocking…

That said, The Gauntlet is a pretty spectacular Spider-Man story, one only enhanced by its similarities to the iconic Batman saga Knightfall. It’s a massive sprawling epic that seems to have been written with those comparisons in mind, with the writing staff very cleverly using the story as a springboard to emphasise the differences between Spider-Man and Batman. The Gauntlet, like Knightfall, is fundamentally a story about trying to break the central character a sinister new adversary launches a sustained assault using a collection of classic baddies.

However, The Gauntlet serves as an argument that Peter Parker can never be completely consumed by darkness. Even in his darkest hours, even when the story twists in a way that it really shouldn’t, there is an inherent optimism and reserve of strength and hope that keeps Spider-Man from tipping completely into the abyss. The entire Knightfall saga is about Batman clawing his way back from the abyss. The Gauntlet is about how Spider-Man really can’t be pushed into that abyss in the first place.

Swinging into action...

Swinging into action…

The comparisons between The Gauntlet and Knightfall are inevitable. They are both big “event” stories for iconic characters that see the hero under siege by a number of classic bad guys in quick succession; this blizzard of baddies is ultimately the work of more sinister “big bad” who cleverly used the familiar villains in order to weaken our hero before their inevitable confrontation. It’s a great storytelling device for superhero comics – indeed, even Hush returned to the concept for Batman. There’s no shame in trying to use it with another character.

In fact, The Gauntlet works so well because the writers seem to acknowledge the similarities up front. One of the recurring threads throughout The Gauntlet is the idea that Peter Parker was already weakened before the games even began. Like Bruce Wayne’s convenient cold at the start of Knightfall, Peter Parker is not feeling particularly well at the start of The Gauntlet. When he complains that he feels hung over, his room mate corrects him. “It was nerves,” Michele suggests. “Maybe you caught a cold.” It’s a wry tip of the hat, an overt nod to a similar premise, acknowledging the overlap from the outset.

To thundering applause...

To thundering applause…

Spanning eight months of real-time and building to climax in Grim Hunt, The Gauntlet is an audacious piece of comic book plotting. Unlike a lot of contemporary superhero comics, The Gauntlet is not a sustained run by one individual writer. Instead, it seems more like a television writers’ room – a bunch of different writers collaborating on an overall story and then assigning the individual “episodes” out amongst themselves. The analogy is strengthened by the fact that – at this point in its life cycle – The Amazing Spider-Man was almost coming out weekly thanks to rotating art and script teams.

Indeed, the first issue of Power to the People, the Electro story, credits “Gale, Kelly, Slott, Van Lente, Waid and Wells” as a collective of “web-heads”, while Mark Waid is the writer. You could argue that even Roger Stern’s Something Stopped the Juggernaut could be read into this Amazing-Spider-Man-as-television-show analogy, with Stern a former member of the writing team drafted in to plug a hole in the schedule and offer something a bit different towards the end of the season.

Along came a spider...

Along came a spider…

As such, The Gauntlet is clearly constructed around a bunch of thematic principles that reverberate through the individual stories making up the mega-arc. Unlike Knightfall, this isn’t quite a “greatest hits” trip through Peter Parker’s iconic selection of foes. Instead, it is a bunch of individual stories that fit together. They all build towards Grim Hunt, and they are all tied in together, but the individual stories stand on their own two feet, each telling its own story and advancing the larger arc forward.

In that respect, Power to the People seems structured as a season-opener. In many ways, Mark Waid has been tasked with setting the mood for the stories that lie ahead, establishing some of what is to come while still telling his own story. So the first pages of Power to the People play out almost like a teaser for what is to come, all the information the reader might need about what came before is imparted here, as the comic is treated like a jumping on point.

Support for Electro really fizzled out...

Support for Electro really fizzled out…

More than that, though Power to the People really sees the arc starting, but it starts with a statement of purpose. The readers are informed that the months ahead will bring “an unrelenting storm of pain and sorrow the likes of which Spider-Man has never known.” More than that, there’s a sense that Power to the People has to explain what we are playing for here – an attempt to catch the readers off guard and demonstrate what’s at stake.

Part of what’s interesting about Mark Waid and Paul Azaceta’s work here is how classic it feels. Waid is a writer who tends to appeal towards nostalgia, who always seems to be writing with one eye on the past. Power to the People features that most delightfully out-dated of comic book storytelling techniques, the thought-bubble. While Azaceta’s work hardly evokes the past in the way that Mike Allred or Chris Samnee might, his technique here seems decidedly old-school. Rather charmingly, his version of Spider-Man seems to lack a nose, with a face resembling the classic cartoon version.

The newspaper business just collapsed...

The newspaper business just collapsed…

These stylistic choices seem to hark back to a simpler time for the web-crawler. In a way, they seem to channel the entire ethos of the Brand New Day era – a desire to “reset” the character of Spider-Man back to his roots, to a classical “golden age” of the character that just happens to correspond to the version of Peter Parker that editor Joe Quesada grew up reading. The decision to wipe away decades of character development as part of One More Day is still divisive, but one gets a sense that Quesada wanted something resembling the version of Spider-Man seen here.

All of which makes it much more satisfying when Waid and Azaceta decide to juxtapose their classical aesthetic with decidedly modern touches. For all that Quesada baulked at J. Michael Straczynski’s original proposal for Sins Past that Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy may have had “sex out of wedlock”, one of the recurring threads of The Gauntlet has Peter dealing with fall-out from a one-night stand with his room mate. Power to the People is also (admittedly, a little ham-fistedly) set against the backdrop of the financial crisis. However, Power the People is also brazenly iconoclastic.

Electro really looks fried...

Electro really looks fried…

The complete destruction of the Daily Bugle at the climax of Power to the People is far from the worst thing to happen during The Gauntlet, but it’s a powerful statement of purpose: nothing is safe. If an iconic piece of the lore like the Daily Bugle can be destroyed, then what is next? It sets the tone for what is to come – a demonstration of what the next eight months hold in story for the swingin’ superhero.

To be fair, Waid labours this point just a little bit too hard. There are points where Power to the People really feels like an extended advertisement for what lies ahead, rather than a story in its own right. Towards the end of the story, Spider-Man reflects on Electro’s massive power-up, “Man, if that guy can turn heavyweight… imagine the trouble I’d be in if Spidey’s other enemies started leveling up…” Cue a nice montage of various recognisable Spider-Man baddies who will be appearing in the comic in the months ahead. Power to the People is anything but subtle.

Everything just piles up...

Everything just piles up…

Still, Power to the People is clearly intended to set the stage for what is coming. Indeed, it seems to treat Electro as a pretty low-level adversary. Power to the People is packed with jokes and gags about how pathetic Electro is, with the impression that if this guy can cause problems, what happens when a real bad guy appears? After all, later issues of The Gauntlet reduce Electro to little more than a middle-man. The character who has the biggest threat of the opening salvo is nothing more than a gopher in the grand scheme of things.

To be fair, one of the fun parts of The Gauntlet – and something that does distinguish it from Knightfall – is the way that the writers are using the event as an excuse to re-work and renovate iconic Spider-Man baddies. Spider-Man has some of the best villains in comic books; only Batman can compete for depth and breadth. Since Peter Parker got a massive overhaul over the course of One More Day and Brand New Day, it seems like the perfect opportunity to bring his opponents up to speed.

A spark between them...

A spark between them…

The Gauntlet features just about every major Spider-Man bad guy with the exception of the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus – and the Kingpin, if you still consider him a Spider-Man bad guy. Inevitably, some of the attempts at rehabilitation and renovation work better than others, with some writers successfully mining the pathos of these iconic bad guys in a way that makes them more modern and relevant and exciting than they have been before.

Electro is a character with practically limitless potential. He is a character who can control electricity. Along with Magneto’s power over magnetism, this must rank as one of the most amazing and devastating super-villain powers. Given that the human nervous system is comprised of electrical impulses and fact that virtually everything that exists is now electronic in some form or another, Electro really should be a big deal, even if he has typically been something of a joke character.

I always loved how Electro managed to stay so grounded...

I always loved how Electro managed to stay so grounded…

Imagine the threat posed by a character who can control the impulses from (or inside) your brain; tremble at the thought of what a person could do with the ability to re-write anything connected to an electrical socket; fear the villain’s power to distort and reshape any digitised data. These are all a lot more abstract than the ability the throw electric bolts from the end of his arms or to ride electric currents. Brian Michael Bendis opened New Avengers with Electro causing the massive prison break that led the Avengers to re-form – that barely scratches the surface of the character, but it demonstrates the level he should be playing at.

There’s a reason that the trailers for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seem to present Electro in the same mould as Doctor Manhattan from Watchmen. While Electro may not have the ability to perceive all of time and control all matter, he really should be a heavy-hitter. Giving the ubiquitousness of electricity in the modern world, Electro is a character who could benefit from a reinvention or reimagining more than most of Spider-Man’s rogues.

A web crawl...

A web crawl…

As such, it’s a little disappointing that his reinvention here feels a little generic – particularly when compared to the work that Dan Slott does with Mysterio in Mysterioso or Zeb Wells does with the Lizard in Shed. There are quite a few clever ideas in Power to the People, but none of them feel like they change the character – none of them feel like they are helping a character on the very edge of the A-list assert his right to be at the front and centre of Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery.

Still, there are nice touches. The appropriation of Electro’s iconic three-bolt mask as a popular symbol (like the marijuana brand) is an ingenious artistic touch. The attempt to re-write Electro’s origin as class warfare is a clever spin on a classic origin. “I was dead to the electric company,” Electro explains to us. “They claimed I was off the clock. Denied my benefits and fired me.” It’s a way of adding extra relevance to the character’s back story.

Lighting up the city...

Lighting up the city…

While the whole political subtext of the story feels like a painful attempt at social commentary, it helps that Waid embraces the goofiness of the concept. Power to the People is really just a great name for an Electro story, and the comic has a great deal of fun with the wordplay made possible by juxtaposing Electro with the financial crisis. “Greedy men like you have taken all my currency, Bennett,” Electro offers at one point. “All I have left to give… is current.”

Perhaps the best part of the way that Power to the People deals with Electro is the way that Waid underscores how pathetic Max Dillon’s existence has become. For all his rhetoric and ranting, this is just a man who wants power – somewhat ironic, given that he has been literally transformed into power, while remaining quite powerless. “God, how long has it been since I’ve felt?” he asks himself at one point, longing for human touch.

A bolt from the blue...

A bolt from the blue…

While characters like Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin tower over the classic Spider-Man villains, it is worth underscoring that many of the classic baddies are just as pathetic and tragic as Peter Parker himself. They just never learnt the lesson about what comes with great power, coping with their situations through violence and anger. Despite all the damage Electro causes, it’s hard not to pity the man.

“I was the hero this time!” he yells at Spider-Man, convincing nobody except himself. Electro wants to be the hero, even if he is just rationalising thuggish behaviour and extortion. He blackmails Bennett in order to get money he desperately needs; however, he is so hooked on the feeling of power he cultivated from the masses that he cannot stop his campaign against Bennett. What began as cynical fund-raising ploy becomes a misguided crusade.

Gee... I wonder who is going to be showing up over the next few weeks...

Gee… I wonder who is going to be showing up over the next few weeks…

Power to the People isn’t the strongest chapter in The Gauntlet. It doesn’t even rank in the top tier. It’s a little clumsy, and it never quite manages to reinvent Electro as much as it should. On the other hand, it’s a solid introduction to the arc, setting the stage (and the tone) for a lot of what is to come.

You might be interested in our other reviews of The Gauntlet and Grim Hunt:

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4 Responses

  1. My biggest problem with the Gauntlet is that it takes place over an indefinite period of Marvel time and an incredibly long period of publishing time. Because we can never tell exactly how fast the problems are coming and because Spider-Man never falls into the abyss you mentioned, it all just kind of seems like the usual pace for Spider-Man, who’s had at least three books and countless guest appearances at any given moment for 20+ years.

    • That’s a fair point. Knightfall was very concentrated. Logically it could only be a few days at most.

      With the Gauntlet, there’s no firm chronology to it. (Indeed, the only firm date seems to be New Year’s around the Vulture story, I think?) It could definitely have done with some tightening.

      On the other hand, it’s probably a problem that is less noticeable the way that I read comics. I tend to save ’em up and splurge. I hate waiting a month between cliffhangers. I waited until Waid finished this volume of Daredevil to dive on in. So I read The Gauntlet over about two days (if even) and so it felt very close together.

      (I also like the structuring, the arcs starting in three parts (Power to the People/Mysterioso), and then down to two (Scavenging) and then a number of one-issue stories (Endangered Species, The Sting). It creates a nice tempo, leading to three “bigger” stories in the third act. Something Can Stop the Juggernaut would work a lot better as a one-issue or two-issue story, but Shed and Grim Hunt both seem epic after a selection of one- and two-issue stories.)

  2. I would like to mention two things:

    1. You keep referencing Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus as the top tier Spider-Man villains, but you never mention Venom. You can’t deny the impact the impact he’s had on the Spider-Man mythos since his inception. I’d say he has the greatest origin of any supervillain, and while you say a villain like Two-Face has trouble living up to his potential, I’d say that honor really goes to Venom.

    2. If you’re looking for a great reimagining of Electro, look no further than Spectacular Spider-Man. (Once again. Great show.) Here Electro is shown to closely resemble an exaggerated version of the Ultimate or film versions, with his body constantly producing electricity. Here, it’s a constant problem to where he can barely eat and drink, and is forced into a containment suit. He only joins the Sinister Six out of a need for a cure from Dr. Octopus and in the end becomes insane out of the situation.

  3. With due respect, whilst I can understand why this is compared to Knightfall, I never got the idea that The Gauntlet was intentionally Spider-Man’s equivalent story, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard the comparison either.

    Seeing as how Brand New Day intentionally strayed away from the classic villains and invented new ones, The Gauntlet feels – to me at least – more like the writers saying, “Well, we’ve kept them away for long enough, guys: let’s see what we can do now that we’ve got a little bit more freedom.”

    I’m not sure whether there were plans back then for Slott to take over writing Spidey full-time, but if there were (doing the maths in my head, I believe Slott took over roughly a year after The Gauntlet started?) then it makes sense: start off Brand New Day with a few new characters – both supporting and antagonistic – and a few plots being set up, then work through them. After most of them have been worn through, go out on a bang by having a slew of arcs around classic characters before Slott takes over. Hell, after The Gauntlet – I’m including Grim Hunt as part of The Gauntlet since it more or less is – there’s just OMIT, to explain how the entire Brand New Day stuff started off, and then Origin of the Species, which was even more Gauntlet-y than The Gauntlet itself.

    Anyway, just my musing 🙂

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