“Back in Black: Part One”
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artists: Ron Garney (p), Bill Reinhold (i), Matt Milla (colours)
Publisher: Marvel Comics
EDITOR’S NOTE: Amazing Spider-Man #539 arrives in stores this Wednesday, March 21.
Peter Parker turns into Batman. That’s the whole story.
The details: Aunt May is shot by an assassin working for The Kingpin. Peter gets her to a hospital, but she’s lost so much blood she lapses into a coma. The doctors don’t think she’ll survive. Peter can’t even visit her because he’s now a criminal. So he goes looking for the assassin dressed in his black costume. He says he’s going to kill him.
There’s lots to like about this issue, but they’re counteracted by the negatives. The art of Garney and Reinhold takes on a resemblance to JRJR’s work. They convey the darkness, grit, and action the story needs. So visually it’s a success. And this really is Peter’s 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. He’s 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? She’s been comatose before. I’ve lost count of the number of times she’s hovered near death. Parker got dark and grim in the 90s just before the Clone Saga, so that’s not new. And he’s never killed anybody. Even when fighting Norman Osborn, just after Osborn killed Gwen Stacy, Parker couldn’t bring himself to kill. So when Parker says he’s going to kill someone, I don’t believe him.
Finally, I can’t believe he’s had the black costume stored under a ledge on top of the Empire State Building (or whatever it was) for all these years. If he’d 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 he’d 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 don’t think anything really dramatic is going to come out of this. If May dies or Peter actually kills somebody, then I’ll be shocked. Now, I’m just waiting for the next big surprise, if any.
I get the feeling I’m supposed to find this an exciting turning point in the life of Spider-Man. I’m supposed to be on the edge of my seat with anticipation and uncertainty, but the truth is that we’ve seen all this before. Aunt May lies near death in hospital, Spider-Man’s 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. It’s 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 doesn’t 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 title’s Axel Alonso, have recently made statements on the subject of continuity, suggesting that it shouldn’t be a hindrance to storytelling, and there’s considerable truth to that. But when you’ve got Spider-Man conveniently forgetting that the reason he retired the black costume is because Venom brutalised his wife while wearing a copy, you’ve got to wonder. That was a fairly important event in Spidey’s 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 weren’t 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 (there’s 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 JRJR’s more modern interpretation annoys me far more than it should, but on the whole he’s settled in nicely as this title’s penciller, producing solid if unflashy work. Straczynski’s 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 that’s just not good enough.
Peter Parker rushes his injured aunt to hospital, but due to the Registration Act and S.H.I.E.L.D. he can’t 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 “Back in Black”!
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. It’s also made it’s way into the mainstream media; in the U.K. The Metro, this country most read tabloid (due to the fact it’s 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. There’s one thing most of these articles agree on: death isn’t forever.
Last issue, part 7 of 7 of Amazing’s Civil War tie-in, Aunt May took a bullet to the gut. Marvel had been promising tragedy in Spider-Man’s life, and here it was. Except the tragedy didn’t resolve itself within that story. Instead, it’s carried straight on into “Back in Black.” 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 it…, well…, let’s just say the situation still isn’t resolved. I was hoping she’d 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 May’s 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 he’s had reason to give in to his dark side before, but there’s just something really appealing here in seeing him in his civvies punching the living daylights out of a bunch of “hoods” who don’t 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 Peter’s 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 he’ll be sporting his black threads, but it’s 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 don’t like him? His calm composure and immense powers of manipulation make him a key player in the Marvel Universe, even when he’s 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 everyone’s fingers.
Ron Garney continues to provide the webslinger’s 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 doesn’t look silly in any way. The only odd bit comes when May is admitted to the hospital and the doctor remarks on how “she’s lost a lot of blood…god…an awful lot of blood… ” whilst the art just shows a rather small red patch on her dress.
Unfortunately, I just don’t really care all that much about where this story goes. It’s nice to see Spidey back in black and the possibility of Aunt May’s demise will no doubt have Spider-fans waiting impatiently for the end of this arc. But for the casual reader, this drawn out, “will she, won’ t she” situation is slightly annoying, and there’s 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 won’t be buying them.
Plot: Someone’s been shooting at Peter’s family. This makes him very, very angry. They won’t like him when he’s angry.
Comments: Garney is bringing his A-game to this series right now. Peter’s position is an unenviable one (when isn’t it?), but given he did it to himself (with help from Iron Man’s mind games), he’s finally starting to deal with the aftermath. The horror of seeing Aunt May hurt is the motivating factor here, and while it’s clearly being used to justify a possibly reckless decision, it works pretty well as motivation. Peter’s in a very dark phase, and he can go Wolverine with the best of ‘em when he has to.
Peter’s 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, he’s 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, we’re also free of the awkward retcons dealing with past loves and betrayals from the Deodato issues.
Garney doesn’t succumb to the tendency to have Peter be all gangly and elongated in his wiry arachnid outfit; rather, he’s very much the angry young man, emphasis on the man. He looks strong, athletic and intimidating. Peter is taking responsibility. He’s doing it emotionally, as always, because that’s 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.
Pity poor Spider-Man. If he’s not moaning about girl troubles, having difficulty paying his rent or getting caught up in fistfights with metal-tentacled doctors and airborne goblins, he’s 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 Marvel’s 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 uncle’s killer.
Whichever way you look at it, this mess is all Peter’s fault, and that gives Straczynski the opportunity to explore Spidey’s most defining characteristic: not his power, not his responsibility, but his guilt. Pete’s 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 Spidey’s 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 May’s sniper is a particularly well-conceived and well-illustrated sequence), and his final assertion that he’s 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 it’s highly unlikely that they’ll 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 can’t help but feel anti-climactic, and the bottom line is that we’ve 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 I’d 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 let’s forget about that), but this story doesn’t even have the courage of its convictions to follow through with May’s death. Instead, she’s plunged into a coma (read: she ain’t dying) for no good dramatic reason other than Wilson Fisk wanting to make Spidey’s life miserable. It’s not even as though the Kingpin has been a major player in Amazing Spider-Man recently, so May’s 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 Straczynski’s writing: I like the fact that Pete’s public outing would prevent him from being at May’s 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 don’t 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!