Writer: J. Michael Starczynski
Artists: John Romita Jr. (p), Scott Hanna (i)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
The book opens with Spider-Man explaining to Doctor Strange why he's paid the late-night visit, and we see Stephen Strange agrees to help Spider-Man battle the mystery kidnapper who is preying on the homeless community, by casting a spell that will allow Peter's astral self to follow the Shade onto the astral plane. We then see that one of Peter's students has become the next victim on the Shade's list, but thanks to the spell, Spider-Man tags along as the young girl is pulled through the Shade's portal. We then see the two men square off on the astral plane, and we see the battle is over rather quickly, as now that he's no longer able to attack & vanish before Spider-Man can launch his counterattack, the Shade finds himself quickly overpowered by our hero. As the kidnapped people are freed and sent back to normal space, we see Spider-Man is drawn to a section of the astral plane that is home to a giant spider-like entity, but this creature blasts Peter back into reality. The book ends with Peter discovering this adventure has caused him to miss Mary Jane's visit to the city, and naturally this leaves him devastated.
This issue engages in quite a bit of setup to get Spider-Man into a position where he can face the Shade on the astral plane, but after reaching this stage of the story, it's almost as if J. Michael Straczynski forgot to include the rousing battle that would justify this lengthy setup. Now I did like that this story took the time to establish a reason why the Shade was engaging in these kidnappings, and as far as villainous motives go it's a pretty solid one. The Doctor Strange fan in me also had fun with the opening banter between the good doctor, and Spider-Man, and there's a fairly amusing visual gag that results from Spider-Man's meditation session. However, while I understand the reason why the Shade was rather easily dealt with, as Spider-Man had effectively removed his main advantage, I've always been of the mind that it's a writer's job to ensure that when one builds up toward an encounter, it's incumbent on them to at least make an effort to deliver an payoff the rewards the reader. About the only thing this battle on the astral plane had going for it was the visually engaging backdrop that John Romita Jr. creates.
Then again I do have to give J. Michael Straczynski credit for his creation of a new Spider-Man villain who I'd rather like to see again, which is something I haven't been able to say much over the past decade. I like this character's gimmick, as while he now has reason to hate Spider-Man, this character is a strong character, who would provide a pretty solid opponent for most heroes in the Marvel Universe. The book also sets up some fairly interesting rules for the character to follow, as we learn why he does what he does, and why his services would make him the ideal man one would contact if one wanted someone to disappear. We also learn why he's targeted the street people, and the arrangement that we learn about, does a nice job establishing why he looked to have targeted certain individuals within this community. Also having the battleground set on the astral plane was also a fun twist, as Spider-Man rarely strays out of his urban setting, so this issue's little trip into the bizarre, was quite welcome. My only complaint about this villain would have to be the previously mentioned quick defeat.
John Romita Jr. is far & away my all-time favorite Spider-Man artist. Now I'll concede that his art is geared toward delivering the power shots, like the panel where our friendly neighborhood webslinger lays the Shade out with a right hook & the villain is consumed in an explosion of energy. This issue also takes a journey into the weird & wonderful world of Doctor Strange, as those opening shots of the astral plane do a fantastic job capturing the idea of Spider-Man being out of his element, and the sequence where he goes exploring established a nice ominous tone. I also enjoyed his take on Doctor Strange himself, as his aloof nature of the doctor is nicely contrasted by the comparatively super-hyper Spider-Man. The art also impressed me with its somewhat humorous moments, as we see Spider-Man adjust to moving along the astral plane, as I loved that three panel sequence where Peter's astral self decides to go a wandering. It's a shame that the covers continue to be so pedestrian in appearance, and issue's cover also neglects to make mention of the guest-starring Dr. Strange, which seems like a missed opportunity.
There's a couple fairly amusing moments in this issue, as Spider-Man finds himself the idyllic comedic partner in the deadly serious Doctor Strange. This issue also does a nice job expanding on the villain that's been running around the past couple issues, as we learn why he's on his kidnapping spree, and why he's targeted people who lack the qualities that most kidnap victims possess (e.g. the rich relatives willing to pay a ransom). However, while this book does a nice job reaching the point of the story where the two square off for their final battle, the big showdown is a pretty forgettable affair, as it never really delivers the sense that Spider-Man's in danger, nor does it make use of it's rather unique battleground which is a shame, as John Romita Jr. offers up a visually exciting playground. I also found the final scene Mary Jane a bit overly melodramatic, but it is nice to see her slowly working her way back into these pages.
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