Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest - Amazing Spider-Man #539

Posted: Sunday, March 18, 2007
By: Keith Dallas

ďBack in Black: Part OneĒ

Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artists: Ron Garney (p), Bill Reinhold (i), Matt Milla (colours)

Publisher: Marvel Comics

EDITORíS NOTE: Amazing Spider-Man #539 arrives in stores this Wednesday, March 21.

Average Rating:

Michael Deeley:
Kelvin Green:
Luke Handley:
Shawn Hill:
Dave Wallace:

SPOILER WARNING: The following reviews reveal and discuss plot developments of the issue.

Michael Deeley

Peter Parker turns into Batman. Thatís the whole story.

The details: Aunt May is shot by an assassin working for The Kingpin. Peter gets her to a hospital, but sheís lost so much blood she lapses into a coma. The doctors donít think sheíll survive. Peter canít even visit her because heís now a criminal. So he goes looking for the assassin dressed in his black costume. He says heís going to kill him.

Thereís lots to like about this issue, but theyíre counteracted by the negatives. The art of Garney and Reinhold takes on a resemblance to JRJRís work. They convey the darkness, grit, and action the story needs. So visually itís a success. And this really is Peterís worst nightmare come true. His Aunt May might die because he is Spider-Man. He has no job, no money, and no way to help her. All he has is anger. So he does the one thing he can do: take revenge. Heís the teenager chasing the burglar again. In that respect, the story was inevitable.

The problem is the long history behind Spider-Man stories. Does anyone really believe Aunt May is going to die? Sheís been comatose before. Iíve lost count of the number of times sheís hovered near death. Parker got dark and grim in the 90s just before the Clone Saga, so thatís not new. And heís never killed anybody. Even when fighting Norman Osborn, just after Osborn killed Gwen Stacy, Parker couldnít bring himself to kill. So when Parker says heís going to kill someone, I donít believe him.

Finally, I canít believe heís had the black costume stored under a ledge on top of the Empire State Building (or whatever it was) for all these years. If heíd hidden it under his house or a storage locker, I might accept it. As for saying he was keeping it expressly for the day when heíd want to terrorize criminals implies he was angry when he put it away. That would have been just after his first fight with Venom. Remember that? He was newlywed to Mary Jane and living in a loft in Chelsea. Not much about that that puts you in a dark mood.

So it looks like Spider-Man, but acts and sounds like Batman. I donít think anything really dramatic is going to come out of this. If May dies or Peter actually kills somebody, then Iíll be shocked. Now, Iím just waiting for the next big surprise, if any.

Kelvin Green

I get the feeling Iím supposed to find this an exciting turning point in the life of Spider-Man. Iím supposed to be on the edge of my seat with anticipation and uncertainty, but the truth is that weíve seen all this before. Aunt May lies near death in hospital, Spider-Manís off on the prowl for the criminal that hurt a member of his family, and the Kingpin is behind the whole deal as he wants to destroy Spidey indirectly, by destroying his life. Itís all so familiar and well worn that it almost feels like a homage. And yet, despite the cosy familiarity, the implication seems to be that all of this is supposed to be shocking and new, and it just doesnít work on that level.

Of course, the other big talking point of this issue is the return (again) of the black costume. A number of Marvel editors, notably this titleís Axel Alonso, have recently made statements on the subject of continuity, suggesting that it shouldnít be a hindrance to storytelling, and thereís considerable truth to that. But when youíve got Spider-Man conveniently forgetting that the reason he retired the black costume is because Venom brutalised his wife while wearing a copy, youíve got to wonder. That was a fairly important event in Spideyís life, and while his justification for putting the costume back on now does make a sort of sense, it just comes across as clunky to specifically mention the reason he put it away in the first place and then to get it wrong. A minor point, admittedly, but the minor stuff is surely the easiest to fix; if Marvel werenít so desperately rushing headlong into doing these whizz-bang events, they could perhaps craft them a bit more successfully.

Ron Garney turns in some odd panels here and there (thereís one particularly distorted panel in which Peter looks like his face has melted), and his depiction of Aunt May as the dusty old biddy of the Ditko era rather than JRJRís more modern interpretation annoys me far more than it should, but on the whole heís settled in nicely as this titleís penciller, producing solid if unflashy work. Straczynskiís script is adequate, certainly a step up from some of the aberrations of earlier parts of his run, but nowhere near his heights, due mostly to that overly familiar feel to proceedings. All in all, this is a good solid issue of Amazing, with no major flaws other than that strange feeling that Marvel are trying to pass off copies of decades-old storylines as something new and exciting, and thatís just not good enough.

Luke Handley:

Peter Parker rushes his injured aunt to hospital, but due to the Registration Act and S.H.I.E.L.D. he canít stick around. Instead, he lets his pent-up aggression and anger out as he goes after underworld gun-runners in a hope to track down those responsible for this heinous crime. After showing the crooks he means business, he retrieves some old duds and Spider-Man is ďBack in BlackĒ!

Death in comics. After the apparent passing of Captain America last week, this has become the current favourite topic of discussion for most comic fans and fansites. Itís also made itís way into the mainstream media; in the U.K. The Metro, this country most read tabloid (due to the fact itís free and not its quality!) ran a full page spread on the subject, highlighting different characters who have miraculously returned form the dead, including everyone from Jean Grey to Colossus. Thereís one thing most of these articles agree on: death isnít forever.

Last issue, part 7 of 7 of Amazingís Civil War tie-in, Aunt May took a bullet to the gut. Marvel had been promising tragedy in Spider-Manís life, and here it was. Except the tragedy didnít resolve itself within that story. Instead, itís carried straight on into ďBack in Black.Ē Obviously, Straczynski wants to keep those who followed his book for the War around for a little longer, but it was a bit disappointing not to get any proper closure. This issue, May makes it to the hospital in critical condition and by the end of itÖ, wellÖ, letís just say the situation still isnít resolved. I was hoping sheíd die here, not that I have any burning desire to see her gone but because I was expecting the big tragedy and something truly awful that would push Peter back into his black costume. Admittedly, May is far from safe, but I hope that her condition will evolve one way or the other, and soon. This may seem harsh, but after waiting with baited breath for several months, I found it slightly annoying to have this drawn out for so long.

Whatever my thoughts on Mayís condition, the shot fired by the assassin gives Peter an excuse to lose it a bit. This unbridled, angry, desperate side is an interesting one for the character. I know heís had reason to give in to his dark side before, but thereís just something really appealing here in seeing him in his civvies punching the living daylights out of a bunch of ďhoodsĒ who donít stand a chance in hell against him. This new, vicious, bone-breaking side of his personality is in stark contrast with the wise-cracking wall-crawler running around in New Avengers. More importantly, this issue presents the events and Peterís reaction to them in such a way that it makes sense to see him don his infamous black costume by the end of the issue. It could be viewed purely as a publicity stunt, given the pending release of the third Spider-Man film in which heíll be sporting his black threads, but itís not the first reaction I had when reading this.

My favourite character to have appeared in these pages over the last couple of months is the Kingpin. Who can honestly say that they donít like him? His calm composure and immense powers of manipulation make him a key player in the Marvel Universe, even when heís behind bars. The question now is whether Peter will be able to catch up to the big man in order to exact his revenge or whether, once again, Wilson Fisk will slip through everyoneís fingers.

Ron Garney continues to provide the webslingerís flagship title with some nice tight pencils. Though some of the art could be classed as unremarkable, none of it is bad. Garney does a particularly good job at portraying a frustrated and angry Peter Parker. Even though he breaks up a gun deal wearing his jeans and sneakers, he doesnít look silly in any way. The only odd bit comes when May is admitted to the hospital and the doctor remarks on how ďsheís lost a lot of bloodÖgodÖan awful lot of bloodÖ Ē whilst the art just shows a rather small red patch on her dress.

Unfortunately, I just donít really care all that much about where this story goes. Itís nice to see Spidey back in black and the possibility of Aunt Mayís demise will no doubt have Spider-fans waiting impatiently for the end of this arc. But for the casual reader, this drawn out, ďwill she, woní t sheĒ situation is slightly annoying, and thereís not enough else to really make me want to stick around. Having said that, I will no doubt flick through upcoming issues to see if the old dear makes it or not, I just wonít be buying them.

Shawn Hill

Plot: Someoneís been shooting at Peterís family. This makes him very, very angry. They wonít like him when heís angry.

Comments: Garney is bringing his A-game to this series right now. Peterís position is an unenviable one (when isnít it?), but given he did it to himself (with help from Iron Manís mind games), heís finally starting to deal with the aftermath. The horror of seeing Aunt May hurt is the motivating factor here, and while itís clearly being used to justify a possibly reckless decision, it works pretty well as motivation. Peterís in a very dark phase, and he can go Wolverine with the best of Ďem when he has to.

Peterís expressions moved from tortured to guilty to angry and back to tender in this issue. Just as Garney put his all into the Tony-built armor, heís now doing a pretty memorable version of the black suit. Since Civil War this book no longer has the fun, supernatural trappings which were an odd but appealing fit for the character, a fresh take from JMS. Thankfully, weíre also free of the awkward retcons dealing with past loves and betrayals from the Deodato issues.

Garney doesnít succumb to the tendency to have Peter be all gangly and elongated in his wiry arachnid outfit; rather, heís very much the angry young man, emphasis on the man. He looks strong, athletic and intimidating. Peter is taking responsibility. Heís doing it emotionally, as always, because thatís the only way he knows. The outcomes and his future are definitely in doubt, but judging from this intense issue, it looks like this extreme phase will be a wild ride. The villain is all too predictable in his behavior, but perhaps JMS and Peter will put a new spin on that inevitable confrontation, too.

Dave Wallace:

Pity poor Spider-Man. If heís not moaning about girl troubles, having difficulty paying his rent or getting caught up in fistfights with metal-tentacled doctors and airborne goblins, heís signing up with corrupt pro-registration regimes, exposing his secret identity to the world, and putting the lives of his loved ones in danger. Last issue, his Aunt May took a bullet to the chest as a direct result of his actions during Marvelís Civil War, and this event acts as a catalyst which pushes an angry, distraught Peter Parker to swing out into the night seeking vengeance for this attack on his relative, mirroring the classic origin story which saw him try to track down his uncleís killer.

Whichever way you look at it, this mess is all Peterís fault, and that gives Straczynski the opportunity to explore Spideyís most defining characteristic: not his power, not his responsibility, but his guilt. Peteís rage at a nightmare of his own making is convincing, and his decision to exorcise his feelings through some out-of-costume and unusually severe beatings on a group of local drug dealers appears to signify a move towards a darker, less forgiving characterisation of our hero. Seeing Spideyís friendly-neighbourhood mentality give way to a dark side is undeniably compelling (the visual of him throwing a truck into a building to take out Mayís sniper is a particularly well-conceived and well-illustrated sequence), and his final assertion that heís going to cross his moral line and kill the person responsible for the attack on May makes me interested to see where the book goes next - even if itís highly unlikely that theyíll have Spider-Man act against this fundamental principle of his character.

The trouble is, when a storyline purports to take the character to extremes and then backs off from them, it canít help but feel anti-climactic, and the bottom line is that weíve seen this kind of thing done with Spidey before - and better. Spider-Man is a character who has always grappled with serious issues despite the lightness of the character, and Iíd be surprised if there were many superhero characters who have explored the dark feelings which accompany the death of a loved one more frequently than he has. As for the much-hyped event which drives Spidey to don his black costume again, it also falls flat. The well-loved Amazing Spider-Man #400 gave Aunt May a perfectly fitting send-off (of course, she was later revealed to be an actress with plastic surgery who was employed by Norman Osborn, but letís forget about that), but this story doesnít even have the courage of its convictions to follow through with Mayís death. Instead, sheís plunged into a coma (read: she ainít dying) for no good dramatic reason other than Wilson Fisk wanting to make Spideyís life miserable. Itís not even as though the Kingpin has been a major player in Amazing Spider-Man recently, so Mayís plight attracts attention to itself as a plot device for its own sake rather than a natural story evolution, leaving the development feeling slightly hollow when it should be the keystone of the entire story arc.

There are some nice details in Straczynskiís writing: I like the fact that Peteís public outing would prevent him from being at Mayís side when she needs him most, and the fact that (as with his origin story) Spidey is driven by his wish to atone for his own recklessness with regard to his responsibilities makes the drama feel very fitting for the character. However, it only goes to show what an exceedingly dunder-headed move it was for Pete to publicly expose himself in the first place - again, for no good reason - adding further fuel to the arguments of those who feel that Civil War rode roughshod over established characterisation for the sake of a few cheap shocks. Whilst the art does much to make the book an enjoyable read (I love that final splash of Spidey in his black costume - an effective image even though the mechanics of him hiding his costume away donít make sense and the surprise was spoiled by numerous other Spidey-related books in recent weeks), the weaknesses of the story make the issue somehow feel like less than the sum of its parts.

What did you think of this book?
Have your say at the Line of Fire Forum!