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.
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I can see the story meeting. “We’re going to need to make this triple sized because we’re erasing EVERYTHING and then going to need to explain it.”
I liked it, I love Ottley (shoot, my two favorite comics ever are Amazing Spider-man and Invincible, Ottley is now the artist on both of them), I think this is a natural fit for Spencer…
I just found myself distracted by the changes. Not the changes themselves, I like most of those I guess. I can see how they’re setting up new Spider-Stories and it seems cool. It just felt… deliberate? Which of course it is, it’s the writer doing it. I guess the pacing of the huge changes that signified huge shifts in how Peter Parker is going to live was a bit fast to me. Which is dumb, because I like faster paced stories and I like most of the changes.
Idea 2: I got back into comics by reading the New 52. I chose DC instead of Marvel and Spidey for one specific reason – I looked at Spider-Man and he was fighting the Vulture. It was obviously a new comic physically, but it felt like looking back at 1976. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read comics for that. So I’m a bit leery that Pete’s gone back to poor, single, dating MJ, fighting the Kingpin and Goblin and Rhino and Shocker. It may be new, but is it different?
I’m not going anywhere, I’ll still buy them every other week. But I’m curious as to where Spencer is going to go with this. Slott had a lot of the same faces, but in very new scenes. The picture that Spencer is painting feels very, very familiar.
They do feel like really unnatural, lurching changes in Peter’s life, that’s for sure. I was doing a thought experiment where I was trying to decide if it would be better or worse if there was some kind of in-universe force making all these bad things happen to Peter at once, and I don’t really know where I land on that. It’s all so purposely stripping away modern Spider-Man mythology, and for once we’re actually seeing the stripping. It’s fascinating and makes me think that we’re not just seeing the will of the writer (or editorial or whatever) at play. This is Nick Spencer we’re talking about here. He may be holding on to some kind of mindfuck reveal that will cast all of this in a new light like 18 months down the road.
All I know for sure is that this issue left me unsettled and excited, and I’m certain it was meant to make me feel those ways.
This is sure to be controversial, but I don’t think you can have Peter and MJ get back together without acknowledging One Moment in Time’s explanation for how Mephisto changed history.
Not because continuity is important, because it isn’t. Or because One More Day was good, because it most certainly wasn’t. But this issue feels like it wants to essentially ‘correct’ One More Day instead of address One Moment in TIme’s retcon, and it creates massive issues with this issue.
But before I go in deep, this discuss this issue as a whole. Generally quite good. Peter workshopping jokes at other crimes is a wonderful idea. A great set of villains throughout the issue all promising interesting storytelling. Great jokes, as you’d expect from Nick Spencer. And a real focus on the humanity of Peter, which is also an essential element of Spencer’s best work. The Aunt May scene was powerful, especially with the wonderful set up of hiding the newspaper and turning the TV off. I don’t even have a problem with how Spencer erases the progress of Slott’s work, largely because I don’t think he does (also, even Slott’s run agrees that Doc Ock will always be second to Goblin). When I first read the issue, I was annoyed and frustrated at how backwards facing it was with respect to Slott’s work, until I saw the giant, Lizard-shaped payoff. Not only is Peter being taught by a giant lizard an idea worth doing any amount of reversion to justify, I think the fact that Peter now is earning his doctorate for real means that it isn’t backwards looking. Spencer hasn’t thrown away the doctorate, he has taken the plot point and evolved it. He found a weakness, and exploited it to cause conflict adn now Peter is forced to address this flaw. Being forced to return to grad school as your almost arch nemesis made you complicit in plagarism isn’t going backwards. As the dynamics of this story can only exist if Slott’s story happened.
But on the non-MJ related weaknesses, there are not many. Black Cat’s appearance feels random and inorganic, existing to set up a great punchline (and possibly foreshadowing a future role in the book) but doesn’t feel right. And more importantly, there is a real timeline confusion in this book. What came first? The alien invasion or the plagiarism reveal? The nonlinear narrative generally works well. But the use of form suggests that the alien invasion happens before Peter’s early morning. Yet the issue’s end suggests it was the last thing to happen. Nonlinear narratives require extra thinking work on behalf of the reader, and mistakes like this distract from what should be important. And Ottley’s art is a problem. Patrick, I think I found MJ’s face at the end there a hell of a lot more uncanny than you, because that face goes right past slightly askew and into straight horror.
But onto MJ. Because Spencer’s treatment of MJ has problems. The big part is how Spencer has a strong arc throughout the issue building to the climax, but it is built around iconography. Not character. It was obvious from the first panel that Spencer was going to get them back together. And the midpoint then builds this arc by mentioning Brand New Day and having Peter zapped by the machine that explicitly confirms you made a deal with Mephisto and punishes you for your transgression, just in case it wasn’t obvious enough (even if Peter got zapped for a different reason entirely).
The problem with this arc, though, is it is not built on character, but the meta discussion of Spiderman canon. For all the humanity SPencer writes Peter with, the actual arc has not human element, it exists merely to discuss what should and shouldn’t be canon. The arc is actually ‘This is what should be canon -> This canon is bad -> Therefore we correct it’. Which isn’t dramatic storytelling.
And it leads to the final sequence being really, really poorly done. SPencer uses the complete wrong trope, because his arc is poorly designed. From the stand point of someone interested purely in the facts of canon, keeping the person that Peter is talking to a surprise is the right move. The anticipation is about what the change in canon would be.
But the trope of the character talking to a mysterious figure off panel is built around a punchline. A surprise. The point is that the person Peter is talking to should be a surprise, an unexpected reversal to what you think was happening (I’ll talk more about this later, but Spiderman loves Mary Jane had a great example of this in one issue where Mary Jane appears to be having a massive confession to Spiderman, only for it to be revealed that she is actually talking to her Spiderman plushy). The book made it so obvious that MJ would be the woman, that the sequence doesn’t work.
Because Spencer looked at things purely from an iconography perspective, and the reveal is what is canon again, Spencer missed the tension of the scene. The tension isn’t ‘Who is Peter going to?’ We know ti is MJ. It can’t be anyone else. It is ‘What will Peter do?’ This section should have been from MJ’s perspective, seeing her see Peter arrive and unsure what he is going to say, until she (and we) get surprised with just how much he says and that Peter and MJ are already going to kiss.
It would also help the big problem with this issue, which is that MJ feels passive. Any story whose big climax involves two characters kissing is a romance. No matter how many alien invasions or crossovers with the Avengers you put in, it is a romance. And the big part of any romance is that kisses are the most important thing, and kisses work when both characters are sufficiently motivated. Romances only work when there is a feeling a genuine connection, and that requires two characters. Otherwise, you end up with Tom King’s monstrosity in the Batman books, and no one wants that.
This week, I have been reading Spiderman Loves Mary Jane, and my annual reread of Vaughn’s original Runaways books. Both great runs, especially Runaways (though let me be clear, Spiderman Loves Mary Jane is the platonic ideal of a certain type of Spiderman story. So good, and Marvel should do more books like that). Which means I have been reading lots and lots of kissing. And every kiss in those books are done well. Every time Nico kisses someone, or every time one of the many kisses in SPiderman Loves Mary Jane happens, you understand exactly why each party is kissing (or not kissing, in one particularly unfortunate kiss from Nico).
I don’t think Mary Jane has that in this issue. She exists entirely as a prop. Let’s hope that Spencer fixes this in future issues. He needs to. Batman is living proof of just how awful a book can get if you don’t, and that is one of the ugliest and hateful books on the market. But it doesn’t change the fact that Mary Jane doesn’t work in this issue. We need more than a big ‘your favourite relationship is coming back’ ending. We need an MJ with skin in the game. An MJ who we care about. An MJ who is an actual character.
And I know everyone wants to forget OMD/OMIT, but maybe we do need to acknowledge the reasons OMIT gave to explain how Mephisto’s rewritten reality justified Peter and MJ breaking up. Because as bad as all of that is, it gives us something that MJ desperately needed this issue. A conflict to address. Some character.
Some reason to care about the kiss for reasons other than meta reasons about continuity.
Because this book will only work if it can place character over iconography.
“I don’t think Mary Jane has that in this issue. She exists entirely as a prop… But it doesn’t change the fact that Mary Jane doesn’t work in this issue. We need more than a big ‘your favourite relationship is coming back’ ending. We need an MJ with skin in the game. An MJ who we care about. An MJ who is an actual character.”
This is an incredibly ignorant statement for a few reasons. Let’s ignore how we get insight into how MJ feels earlier in the issue when she is uncomfortable.
Let’s ignore how the comparison between this and SMLMJ or Runaways are false equivalencies since both are ensemble, not solo, books.
No let’s instead consider ASM #1 isn’t ASM #1…it’s ASM #802. You can’t DIVORCE this one issue from all history between these characters.
If you knew that history and knew those characters then you’d understand entirely why that kiss happened and why it happened the way it did.
If you knew that then you’d know exactly WHY MJ has skin in the game. 20+ years of comics showed us what that skin is and looking around you are very much in the minority in thinking we ‘needed more’ on this one.
So yeah, MJ totally worked in the story.
“And I know everyone wants to forget OMD/OMIT, but maybe we do need to acknowledge the reasons OMIT gave to explain how Mephisto’s rewritten reality justified Peter and MJ breaking up. Because as bad as all of that is, it gives us something that MJ desperately needed this issue. A conflict to address. Some character.”
WTF are you talking about? OMIT didn’t give us a conflict to address because it forced the characters to act against their established characterizations.
You really need something to have the characters work towards acting in character?
“Some reason to care about the kiss for reasons other than meta reasons about continuity.”
Oh you mean like every reason given ever at any point in older stories explaining why Peter and Mary jane mutually love one another and what they get out of the relationship?
Again you CANNOT read read the comic in isolation. The continuity argument doesn’t even make sense since this isn’t fixing continuity, it’s just putting them back together.
“Because this book will only work if it can place character over iconography.”
Peter needs MJ.
MJ loves Peter.
What more do you NEED?
It’s not like they should be together just cos. Decades of stories elaborated and explained why they should be together already