To be blunt, choosing to give this issue a review all its’ own was a decision which took roughly two days of thought and mental debate. It is normally the routine of this column to review all of the regular week’s worth of comics in one slog, with exceptions to indie creations or items received as review copies. “Amazing Spider-Man” is a title which has a long history not only in the realms of Marvel Comics and comic books, period, but in the personal lives of many readers (including yours truly). As one of Marvel’s biggest and most well known franchises, it has been the subject of more editorial focus and overhaul than some other titles, and such focus, expansion, and exploitation can lead to overreach or error. Some of the biggest stories in Marvel Comics history were Spider-Man stories, whether in terms of quality or promotion – recent examples include “Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21” (the wedding issue), “the Clone Saga” of the 90’s, and “One More Day” from late 2007. The last such story was one of the most drastic overhauls in the history of the book as then editor-in-chief Joe Quesada both drew and personally wrote a story which saw Spider-Man’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson not only undone, but said to have never existed despite no end of previous stories and continuity becoming more complicated due to such an omission. In short, it was as close to a DC Comics style “Crisis on Infinite Earths” stories that Marvel Comics has ever done to one of their franchises in continuity (without simply creating or ending an imprint, such as “Ultimate” or “New Universe”). The logic, presented and promoted at the time, was that the twenty year marriage between Spider-Man and MJ was something which was presumably hated internally by many within Marvel since its’ beginning in 1987 and that it somehow robbed the series of a key dynamic – not “with great power comes great responsibility”, as one could hardly imagine a greater responsibility to a superhero than juggling a career, a marriage and a heroic calling. Rather, it was the belief that a Peter Parker unable to date different women or “marrying a super model” (despite the fact that MJ’s success as either a model or an actress waxed and waned) somehow made Peter too difficult for kids or younger readers to relate to; despite the fact that those same audiences seem to adore Goku, the lead of the internationally well known franchise “Dragon Ball Z”, despite the fact that he is a happily married grandfather.
From then on began various eras of “Amazing Spider-Man”, with “Brand New Day” beginning in January 2008 with issues coming out thrice a week and a rotating cast of three writers under one editor handling the series. What was old seemed new again, with some new characters debuting (Mr. Negative) as well as old dynamics (“Heavens, Peter has to miss a date because he’s wrangling Electro!”). By late 2010, one of those rotating casts of writers – Dan Slott – was chosen to take over the series under the “Big Time” promotional banner. After earning accolades for his work on “Spider-Man/Human Torch”, “GLA”, and “She-Hulk” as well as writing one of Marvel’s biggest books under an experimental editorial scheme 1/3rd of the time, this was now set to be the biggest run in Slott’s career at Marvel. The angle was to truly handle the “big” elements of Spider-Man’s new life as a member of the Avengers to bring his adventures into new adventures – a job at Horizon Labs, more appearances by the Avengers, etc. While the big concepts of this era were entertaining, the series always faltered under the romantic subplot segments – after all, if a twenty year marriage could be undone on a whim, why should readers get excited if Spider-Man is dating Ms. Writer’s Pet #14? As the run wore on, Slott began organizing his own “Spider-events” once a year; “Spider-Island” in 2012 and “Ends of the Earth” in 2013. Each one seemed to get bigger and longer, leading up to the most controversial story of Slott’s career – “Superior Spider-Man”, where Dr. Octopus successfully “kills” the webbed hero by swapping minds with him and then allowing him to “die” in his own mangled body, and then sets about to live life in Spider-Man’s form being a hero in his own way. Beginning as one of the most hyped and suspenseful “mind-swap” story in decades, the plot holes and character misrepresentations required to keep it going for longer than six issues – much less at least thirty issues – quickly wore it down (at best). The more extreme Ock’s actions as Spider-Man would become, the more absurd it was that none of Peter’s friends or allies seemed to notice, treating his actions such as murdering people on TV or organizing an army of giant robots as little more strange than if he’d donned an odd haircut. Additional “highlights” included using this story, at many intervals, to try to “put a stamp” on any relationship with MJ, whether from Ock’s terrible treatment of her or her “moving on” with a random fireman, or even by having her act in ways which vastly differed from previous ones.
However, that was soon all over. “Superior Spider-Man” ended with an exciting if not a little sloppy ending in April with the genuine article back in the swing of things in May, just in time for the latest Sony film blockbuster (which wasn’t). “Amazing Spider-Man” got a fresh number one and a desire to move onto grander things. Unfortunately, very quickly the signs were in that the next sell (or “event”) were on. Crossover events in Marvel have become such a routine that not only are there 2-3 a year, but even the build-up to them gets crossover exposure. In addition, it was very clear that having Peter Parker react to his time as a hostage within his own body, watching a villain use his form to commit no end of horrors was very low on the priority list for Dan Slott; he was far more concerned with amplifying some of his newer characters like Anna Maria Marconi at any costs, or creating new ones for the upcoming “Spider-Verse” crossover. Immediately a tie-in with “Original Sin” introduced Cindy Moon, a.k.a. Silk, as a figure who was retroactively attached to Ezekiel Sims, a character from J. Michael Straczynski’s near seven year run on the book. In theory she was everything one should strive to create in a new character – a woman of color (Asian) in a franchise which always lacked some without decades of baggage attached to her. In practice, however, Cindy Moon has become a case example of how a new character can be created as shorthand for some details on a page, or to fill a hole in a story, without feeling like an organic creation. Captive for ten years, not only has Cindy been studying Spider-Man for half her life, and not only does her release vaguely relate to “Spider-Verse” in an as-yet-unexplained way, but due to vaguely defined “spider totem hormones” she and Peter literally cannot remain in a room together without making out. In essence, now presenting a worthy romance for Peter Parker despite his marriage being erased has become so difficult that Dan Slott is throwing in the towel as to the lead up or motivations for such subplots and instead is going with “random magic spider hormones”. Throw in a web-costume that Cindy makes for herself which resembles no end of “exposed skin ninja” designs, and you have a heroine who both fills the role of designated lover in addition to a walking MacGuffin. Peter seems to have no qualms with allowing hormones to get the best of him with a woman barely old enough to bring to a bar who was imprisoned for half her life, treating such a thing as a hindrance of a dilemma. The same critics who used to roll their eyes at the idea of a teenage Peter Parker landing a freelance gig at a major newspaper in high school must be driven mad at a woman with no experience or any sort of presence in society since she was ten years old landing an internship position at a TV station which pays well enough to rent an apartment in Manhattan despite a lack of a credit history. Even the angle of her being “better” at her Spider-powers seems to play into a long running trend of characters who seem “better” at these powers than Peter, which include Dr. Octopus (the maniac dismissed merely as “a jerk” despite wanting to kill everyone on earth as a dying wish) and Carlie Cooper during “Spider-Island”.
These past two issues as well as spare material (such as two extra issues of “Superior Spider-Man”) introduce the “Spider-Verse” concept as “Edge of Spider-Verse”. The high concept is that a dangerous incident across all of reality causes “every Spider-Man ever” (except for ones Marvel legally does not own the license to) to team up for one grand spectacle. Such a threat is Morlun (another figure from the JMS era) being flanked by a cast of characters from his race and dimension with various designs but zero personality stalking and “consuming” the energies of Spider-Men across existence. The routine quickly has become tedious; Morlun or one of his imitators shows up to a different Spider-Man’s world and either kills him or causes him to flee through a portal. It was obvious after two issues, and has become tiresome after more than half a dozen. The fact that crossover events are marketing schemes more than actual stories within the “big two” is nothing new, but so far “Spider-Verse” hasn’t even pretended to be about much more, with event being used as a push towards a new “Spider-Woman” series, but newer characters like “Silk” and “Spider-Gwen” (supposedly the highlight of the era so far) getting their own comics. “Edge of Spider-Verse” has now become a back up strip in “Amazing Spider-Man”, with last issue’s installment proving to be both so graphic and blunt in its’ delivery that any pretense of the event being more than what it appears to be withered and died. Unable to convince readers that the “genuine” Spider-Man could ever die and apparently finding the life of a superhero married to a well known model and actress an impossible dynamic to create interesting stories around anymore, “Spider-Verse” has to make up for such shortcomings by manufacturing outrage in its’ audience. How to do that? Butcher alternate versions of Spider-Man with nostalgic or optimistic feelings surrounding them with all the grace and dignity as fornicating teenagers are dispatched by a slasher in one of eighteen million made for video films made since 1980. Rather than being a story about something which happens to have a controversial element as a consequence of a narrative about something (such as, say, Greg Weisman teasing with splitting up Goliath and Elisa Maza in “Gargoyles: Clan Building”), “Spider-Verse” is a narrative about nothing more than stringing readers along for the next four dollar issue with the graphic slaughter or mangling of beloved characters from the past and the promise (or threat) of more. The last issue saw the cast of “Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends” graphically executed as any fan who saw them as a kid in the 1980’s got to have that image as well as a villain lambasting them for being sickeningly sweet in their minds. It was an issue so cynically loathsome that it changed how I could view this run.
“Amazing Spider-Man #8” will not only be such an issue for tens of thousands of other readers (at least), but it stands as a naked indicator of where Dan Slott’s priorities at this time writing it are. Characters either he created or that Marvel Comics has a vested interest in promoting (such as Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel) are of utmost importance while Spider-Man himself is just a cog in the endless machine that is the eternal crossover season. Alternate versions or visions of the franchise are expendable, positioned in a way to anger readers or entice the next sell, and nothing more. For this issue, it is the “Edge of Spider-Verse” back up strip which rules the cover, but in reality the main story wraps up the team up between Spider-Man and Kamala Khan. Dan Slott does his best to capture G. Willow Wilson’s voice and energy for what has become the most defining run of her career, and struggles at best. Some of the banter works; Ms. Marvel freezing at the sight of a giant Dr. Minerva despite being no stranger to facing “giant” enemies in her own book (such as giant robots or a giant mutant crocodile) does not. One of Dr. Minerva’s henchmen just so happens to be Casper Cole, the villain formerly known as Clash, who was retroactively introduced into Spider-Man’s teenage years in the five part “Learning to Crawl” mini series. Dan Slott is hardly the first writer who used a “retcon” story to insert a character into the past that he then sought to make a big deal; Kurt Busiek attempted the same thing with “Sundown” in 1997. The fact that most readers will now have to click on that link because of how obscure a reference that is merely demonstrates how rarely such a feat succeeds. Silk is very hastily being given her own position at the Fact Channel, despite how little sense it seems that she’d even have been able to land such a gig. Her boss, seeming to speak as if she’s been reading online critics for the past few months, lambastes Silk’s costume and seems to believe that’s the only reason she’s “coming off terribly”. Somehow, Silk happens to have a new costume underneath her webbed costume, which she would have had to have made or bought before such criticism. Such a feat either means she can spin actual cloth with details and colors, or Cindy preemptively decided to change her costume despite not being aware of the criticism until that aforementioned scene. Having Kamala Khan – a new character who works because her creator makes her about something as well as puts thought into every detail of her creation – appear in any issue alongside Silk merely makes the latter stand out more as a merchandising MacGuffin more than a genuine creation. At least Alpha (Slott’s last attempt at starting a new franchise from 2012) didn’t embody outdated “Asian seductress” stereotypes.
How about that cover, then? “Spider-Girl’s Last Stand”, it promises, even though within the actual six page strip the heroine spends half of it on her back, and the rest fleeing from the incident in question (while carrying her infant brother). It is her parents Peter and Mary Jane who make a “last stand”. But, perhaps this review is getting ahead of itself. For perspective, Spider-Girl (at least this incarnation of her) is the longest running super-heroine who had her own ongoing series in Marvel history. Marvel has attempted to add to this rank by celebrating iconic triple digit issues of She-Hulk or Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, but both were accomplished by combining various cancelled series volumes together. In February 1998, one of the final issues of Marvel’s long running exploration into alternate realities, “What If?”, published their 105th issue detailing what would have happened had the baby that Peter and Mary Jane believed was stillborn in the main Spider-Man series had actually lived and become a teenager. Written by Tom DeFalco (longtime Spider-Man writer and former editor-in-chief of Marvel) and drawn by Ron Frenz, the result was not only the creation of the “MC2” universe, but the debut of May “Mayday” Parker, who would soon inherit spider-powers of her own from her father as well as his legacy as a red and blue webbed superhero. “Spider-Girl”‘s initial volume would last for a hundred issues, accomplished without any renumbering stunts, crossover gimmicks, breaks, fuzzy math, or bring priced above $2.99 an issue. Although the series often struggled in monthly sales, it had the backing of the editorial board as well as a very vocal collection of fans, and it began seeing the same sort of success reprinted in cheaply priced digests that “Runaways” had. In 2005, the series was relaunched as “Amazing Spider-Girl” and continued for another thirty issues before seeing another cancellation ax loom; for perspective, by this year Marvel’s editors likely consider it a miracle if a spin off series starring a lady lasts beyond issue twelve. By 2009, the series continued as a then digital exclusive “Spectacular Spider-Girl” series which was eventually reprinted, and finally saw a conclusion as “Spider-Girl: The End”, shortly before Marvel Comics sought to re-brand another struggling heroine, Arana, into the next “Spider-Girl”. Regardless, Mayday Parker wound up starring in 130-150 issues of her own series which was unlike many others offered to fans new and old at the time. Although it saw the late 90’s as a launching point and envisioned a very different “future” universe with many longtime heroes retired and their progeny assuming command as the next generation of heroes, it offered a fresh, progressive, and overall optimistic universe for its’ readers. The series had its’ own extended cast of newcomers and long time Spider-Man figures, and tackled stories both bombastic and mundane, sticking to a format where every issue told a unique story which linked together as a whole to satisfy monthly and quarterly readers. Considering Marvel Comics’ current push for female audiences, one could consider the heroes not only ahead of its’ time but also a golden opportunity to entice the incoming flock of lady readers the company covets.
To say that Spider-Girl is among the most popular and successful alternate Spider-people is an understatement; only Miguel O’Hara (Spider-Man 2099) and arguably Ben Reilly (Scarlet Spider) come anywhere close. At best, “Spider-Verse” could have been used to showcase how different and wonderful her alternate universe is not only in order to return Mayday to center stage once again in a major story, but to shrewdly encourage sales of her reprinted adventures which could have been recollected in new tomes. And in fact, Marvel may very well do the latter anyway; a minor cameo in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” film got some “Howard the Duck” trades back in print, after all. Seeing and meeting Mayday could have shown “our” Peter a vision of the future which wasn’t bleak or full of a parade of short term lovers, but one where he managed to succeed not only as a hero, but as a man in a way which would have made Uncle Ben proud – a universe which wasn’t perfect but was worth saving at all costs. Instead, within six pages, Dan Slott and artist Humberto Ramos have transformed that universe into another violent and bleak horror show where bloody revenge is the only option – an angle which was wonderfully original back in the mid 1980’s when Frank Miller was printing money with it, but has been mindlessly repeated into irrelevance ever since. Readers and any old or potential fans of Spider-Girl are treated to watching a hulking brute kill her boyfriend, her father (the retired, one legged, crime scientist Peter Parker) and her mom immediately. Poor Mayday doesn’t even get the honor of it being the well known Morlun; it’s actually his larger but otherwise identical brother Daemos, who much like his other siblings has no personality besides being an arrogant, unstoppable killing machine. Despite being the star heroine for more issues than many male heroes have graced at any company, Spider-Girl doesn’t even get to be active in her own tragedy. She spends half the strip on the ground, and then is left fleeing with her baby brother while crying in a torn costume. She’s been reduced to the panic stricken survivor of a cheap slasher movie, which is usually produced and written for similar means and ends – a cheap way to elicit emotions and cash from an audience based on expectations. Little does Dan Slott and his editors realize that heroes who end a story vowing to kill someone to avenge their murdered families has become mundane and tired, and that modern readers like large casts full of progressive developments capable of reproducing something close to real life, which operates in highs and lows. A successful marriage and a child didn’t “end” all of the drama or adventure in Peter Parker’s life, nor end any sense of responsibility. And being a part of a stable family with a community of heroic allies around her didn’t make Mayday boring or stale either; she managed to thrive beyond the flash in the pan chasing of fads that had led to Marvel’s bankruptcy to their current age. Over ten years of development, history, legacy, and continued potential has been mindlessly wasted and sacrificed for no other reason than to provide more bodies for fans to mourn online and to anger them into talking about it or buying the next issue.
“Amazing Spider-Man #7” was terrible enough that I strongly considered abandoning “Spider-Verse” before it’s fully begun and abandoning the title for what is the third time in my life until better times arrive. It caused me to see the dark underbelly of crossovers in a way I had rarely done for very long, because it was so crude in its’ execution. Providing a crude excuse for combat based on stories which offer nothing besides an intent to rile the audience by picking on their heroes is a strategy which works wonderfully in the “entertainment sport” of professional wrestling or even some video games, but comic books are supposed to be a medium above that. A medium where Alan Moore can create timeless fiction for all ages, which is now being displayed in the light and in the general masses due to media productions in a way it never has. And it still is a medium where creators pour their souls out into creating something new from their hearts every month. Unfortunately, crossover events like this expose the dark underbelly of “big two” franchise comics. They’re caretakers of profitable licenses which can never age or die or change in any major way, but still have to entice readers once (or many times) a month to read comics which are supposed to be about more than spinning wheels or earning cash for a publisher. And despite the huge crash of the 1990’s, too many within the business seem to believe that in order to do so, more must be destroyed than created (and destroyed in as crude and bombastic a manner as possible). Making a violent crossover to artificially boost the sales of “Amazing Spider-Man” for another few months until the next time around is not the same as imagining a universe which endured for over eleven years. Regardless of what writers and editors say, it wasn’t a marriage or even a child which robs Spider-Man of his narrative and everlasting appeal; it’s short minded writers and editors who see nothing beyond the latest spreadsheet, the latest spectacle, and topping themselves in an endless celebration of creative nihilism. The creative wonder that Dan Slott can still inspire in his collaboration on “Silver Surfer” alongside Mike Allred is nowhere here; in its’ place is a writer who seems to want to be either the most famous, or infamous, captain of the franchise that it’s had in years. Given great power over such a franchise, it could be debated how responsible Dan Slott is being with it.
The sheer frequency of crossovers spells out the obvious; their artificial boost of sales doesn’t last, and their effect is dwindling even in the short term. Like a steroid, eventually its’ effects on the body do more harm than good. Superhero comics can be more than endlessly repeating the greatest hits of a bygone generation, even franchise superhero comics, or about making symbols for hope stand in ruined houses draped in blood as a shorthand for “maturity”. Yet shattering the creations of others for attention isn’t a sign of maturity, but is in fact a sign of the exact opposite. Mary Jane didn’t ruin Spider-Man; too many writers or editors who refused to grow up did. Rather than find difficult solutions to long term problems, too many in the business act like passive observers of a cycle which they help perpetuate, which cannot endure as it is forever. Anyone who wonders why convention attendance seems to rise as comic sales either remain flat or rise at a far slower rate, cynical issues such as this are the reason why.
“Amazing Spider-Man #8” gets two stars (out of five) because the art by Giuseppe Camuncoli is utterly fantastic, and some of the bits between Spider-Man and Ms. Marvel are fun, despite it all. A story that is about nothing more than a countdown to see what is destroyed next until it ends is not a story, it is a test of endurance. And eventually, both a franchise and an audience can reach their limit.