By Drew Baumgartner and Patrick Ehlers
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Drew: If you only had one word to describe Spider-Man, what would it be? Strength? Responsibility? Verbosity? These are all great answers, each with plenty of classic Spidey stories that emphasize those characteristics, but they aren’t quite perfect. Plenty of heroes are as strong and/or responsible, and a few even talk as much as Spider-Man, but there’s something else that makes him unique. With Amazing Spider-Man 1, Nick Spencer and Ryan Ottley offer up their own answer — one I had never considered, but feels obvious on reflection: Karma. Beyond his powers and the responsibilities that come with them, Spider-Man is a person plagued by the consequences of his past mistakes.
This issue drops us into Spidey’s life after those consequences have manifested for some new mistakes. On the superhero side, Wilson Fisk has successfully driven a wedge between Spider-Man and the rest of the superhero community by giving him preferential treatment. It’s an insidiously cruel plan that I might expect Spidey’s peers to see through if it wasn’t so funny. This isn’t specifically the consequence of a new mistake, but the fact that Spider-Man had made himself Fisk’s arch-nemesis singled him out for this special treatment.
But it’s in Peter Parker’s private life that he really suffers for his mistakes. Shiny new anti-plagiarism tech at Empire State University reveals that some of Peter’s graduate work was actually written by Otto Octavius (a fact he can’t explain without revealing that he’s Spider-Man), stripping him of his PhD and costing him his job and the respect of Aunt May. These are brutal consequences for what Peter frames as simple inaction. But then Spencer ties it back to another key moment of inaction Peter lived to regret:
And the inaction piece is also key here: Peter’s narration emphasizes that it’s not doing the wrong thing that haunts him, but failing to do the right thing. That is, his most important responsibility is to act — succeed or fail, at least he won’t regret not trying.
It’s a lesson that seems to inform Peter’s actions throughout the issue. He swings off to stop the attack on Midtown without much concern for his own safety — something needs to be done, and he can’t afford waiting for somebody else to do it. And at the end of the issue, he bares his true feelings to MJ. Here again, he admits that it might be a mistake, but at least it isn’t inaction.
And, of course, Peter/MJ shippers are already going nuts over this issue. Spencer makes a point of name-checking both Mephisto and “Brand New Day” early in the issue, suggesting that he might be interested in digging up what many fans regard as similarly haunting mistake for Amazing Spider-Man. I don’t have enough history with the character to comment on it (I only started reading ASM just before issue 700, so have never really seen these two characters together in print), but Spencer certainly seems to be inviting the speculation.
It helps that Ryan Ottley’s art has its own throwback quality, leaning into some of the visual ticks of Todd McFarlane’s seminal work on Spider-Man (which not so coincidentally featured during Peter and MJ’s married years). Check out those big eyes and spaghetti webs!
Superficial similarities aside, Ottley is clearly his own visual storyteller, and a great match for Spencer’s sense of humor. Few Spider-Man jokes have hit me harder than the thought that Spidey rehearses/reuses the same lines, and Peter’s frustrations with Boomerang early in the issue capture much of the irreverent tone of Spencer’s Superior Foes.
So even without any inherent investment in the Peter/MJ relationship, this issue has me hooked. It’s a fun, funny take on the character that respects the depth of his suffering without becoming a pity party. With that much nailed down, I’m up for wherever Spencer and Ottley want to go.
Patrick: I’m excited by the quality of Spencer’s writing and Ottley’s art, but I might not be quite as excited to revisit of the Spider-Man status quos (statuses quo? stati quo?) as you are, Drew. You already mentioned the nods to McFarlane, Brand New Day and Pete and MJ’s relationship, but there’s also a little reference to fan displeasure about the Superior Spider-Man arc. Pete mentions that Doc Ock was maybe “[his] runner-up nemesis at best”, echoing criticisms about who finally got the better of Peter Parker. I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with angry fans about the injustice of Otto being named as Spider-Man’s greatest enemy. Evidently, Pete’s got some of the same opinions.
But it really seems like both the creative team and Peter himself are struggling to square the past with the present. Ottley has to interject on every third page with a washed-out flashback to explain the complexities of Peter’s life, usually in the same breath that Spencer is wiping it away. That scene where Peter is revealed to be a (sorta) plagiarist is a perfect example.
It’s almost like the creative team is gloating in their ability to illuminate history while undoing the effects of it all at once. It’s all presented as consequences for Peter’s choices, but it all serves to make the developments of the last decade of Spider-Man comics irrelevant.
Of course, I think there’s something to that kind of forced-irrelevance. One of the characteristics Drew didn’t touch on in his “describe Spider-Man in one word” game was his youthfulness. Even as he gets his doctorate or runs his own mega-company, we’re never going to shake the idea that Pete’s a kid. Spencer seems to like that characterization of Pete too – I was stuck by how young it felt to give Parker two roommates. Sure, it’s a funny gag that he’s living with Boomerang, but the underlying message is that Pete’s sort of perpetually living in his early 20s.
But also, a sort of out-of-touch 20s. Again, Boomerang keeping his roommates up because he’s playing online games with Korean players sure sounds like a good gag, until you realize the punchline is essentially Peter telling the kids to get off his lawn. Or how about when he tries to intercept the the fucking newspaper from Aunt May, only to discover that she’s obviously already read the news on her phone because it’s 2018. Even the problem of messaging Spider-Man around being perceived as Fisk’s favorite speaks to Peter’s total inability to navigate the world of young people as we know it in the 21st century.
Which makes Peter’s decision to get back together with MJ feel less like development and more like regression. It might trip the nostalgia centers of my brain, but there’s an eerie comfort to MJ intimating that they’ve always been together.
This is where I really love seeing Ottley’s ever-so-slightly askew faces. It’s something in the teeth, or the eyes, or maybe the extra creases around the mouth that make some of his expressions uncanny, and movingly awkward. Does it feel good to be getting back to Spider-basics? Is that even what we’re heading toward? This creative team is smart enough to only give us half-answers, and to even let those half-answers make me the slightest bit uncomfortable.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?