Aaaand I'm back! And we're right into more of this Spider-Man by J. Michael Straczynski run that, like myself anytime I decide to take back up jogging, started off strong and confident and quickly devolved into broken bodies weeping on the floor.
The next thing up to talk about in this run was "The Other," another much maligned tentpole event of this JMS era. Here's the thing about "The Other," it's not that it's a particularly bad story, it's just overwrought and overextended. It was JMS' last run on his Totem plot and making Morlun a large player in the pantheon of Spider-man villains, earning him the title of the one foe that "finally killed Spider-man." This story was also the payoff to a running plot of Pete's powers being on the fritz and having to rely on some of his new allies to help him out of the bind, particularly Tony Stark. And that payoff was that, yes, Peter "died," but he was also really just entering a new stage of his spider powers developing, so he shed his old skin, literally, and became a new and improved (!!) Spider-man, complete with webs that shot out of his wrists naturally, not through tools of his design, and that totally didn't have anything to do with the super successful Spider-Man movies Sony were putting out at the time where he had natural web shooters. Also, he apparently got weird stinger jabber things that came out of his wrists as well and that he used all of like twice before this run ended. It was weird. As a capper to what JMS had been doing with the totem stuff all this time, sure, whatever, it did its thing. As one last push to solidify Morlun as an all-time Spidey baddie and then to wrap up his tenure in Peter's life, sure, check that box also. And as something that was twelve parts of melodrama galore, it pretty much let us know that the darker material like Sins Past wasn't going away anytime soon.
At the least I can give JMS credit on this, it wasn't like he mislead us about the shift he was making. Hell, the art style switch alone to Mike Deodato Jr. with "Sins Past" was a pretty big precursor that the "fun times" were over. Deodato very much has a cinematic and more dramatic style than something like what John Romita Jr. brought to the table with a more cartoonish affair. This change was dramatic to the point where even during "The Other" when the parts that ran through the newly launched FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD SPIDER-MAN title featured art from the much loved and missed Mike Wieringo, Ringo's art was the one that felt terribly out of place despite it being such a perfect style for Spider-man. It would have made a seamless transition for a post-JRJr timeline, but it was obvious that's not JMS was playing at anymore. There is no greater proof that the darker shift was in full effect on this era of Spidey when Ringo's more jaunty and light hearted affair looked so out of place alongside the other titles that "The Other" crossed into and the brutal, bloody battles with Morlun and then very animalistic imagery as Peter wrangled with and submitted to the totemic forces to get back to his loved ones. JMS does use this rebirth to really bring home some melodrama into Aunt May coming to full grips what this double life could mean for her nephew and their little family and it makes MJ realize just what her encouragement means to Peter each night in his fight just to make it home because, finally, he didn't and succumbed to the job for once. At the end of the day, it was a capper to the cornerstone theme of JMS' run, but that run was more and more showing that it was getting cannibalized by forces beyond the creative teams' control. Enter "Civil War." Mother$@#!ing "Civil War."
It's going to be hard for me to not discuss this next and penultimate chapter in the JMS Spider-Man era without first clearing my opinion of Civil War proper, since the two things are pretty much intertwined for the rest of the run. And, my opinion of that universe shaking run is that, well, it was pretty much shit. It's the worst payoff of the past couple decades trend at that point of comic books being written by grown ups for mostly other grown ups. Now, I opened up Part 1 of this series talking about how I was brought back into comic books because of ones like what JMS was writing in RISING STARS and that played more toward mature angles and took more "real world" views on how things would work, and yeah, that's totally what I wanted at the time and still do, but in their own places. The issues that come about analyzing a perpetual fictional universe like the Marvel one in that light is that, a) you will never, ever properly get to analyze, discuss, debate, propagate whatever the idea itself because the opportunities aren't as plentiful as you think they are even with dozens of titles and the benefit of such broad, serialized storytelling and b) you either have to live with the consequences of those "debates" (and usually the battles and deaths that ensue from them) for years and years of storylines to come, or you have to pull some bullshit to make them go away and become forgotten. The amount of sweeping of broken pieces you have to displace under rug way more often than not make you forget that the rug was supposed to be something pleasant that brought the room together. Instead you're just left with a raggedy, lumpy ass rug from all the junk you pushed underneath it and then you're off to find a replacement rug.
Another way to say all that is to reference one of the many, many great Heath Ledger Joker moments from "The Dark Knight; "You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it!"
"Civil War" was a bunch of dogs in a writing room thinking they caught the biggest, coolest tire (take) on superheroes ever and that they were going to tell such gritty, realistic material and it was going to be the hottest shit ever. Instead it devolved into just every piece of schlock that makes Big Two comic book events unbearable ninety percent of the time. Mischaracterizations, big dumb fisticuffs for the sake of having them and the property damage to match to add "weight" to the story, and "shock" deaths that are usually significantly more empty than impactful. And "Civil War" had that all in spaces, especially in the main series itself. In tie-in issues there was definitely some good work going on, particularly in the characterization department, like the work Brian Michael Bendis did with characters like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones in his AVENGERS books and, as I will get to soon, what JMS partly did in this AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. But there was some straight up insulting bullshit being piled high in front of us as well (again, as I will get to in the JMS stuff) and watching the "wouldn't it be cool if we came up with this very realistic reason to have superheroes fight and sell more books" story degenerate into a goddamn Thor clone killing C-tier characters (ugh), such brilliant and "future thinking" minds like Tony Stark and Reed Richards running a gulag in another dimension because that was the best idea they could come up with when of course they met resistance to their pro-registration stance (ugh), and then the wet fart follow up to the series that was the extra edgy "Dark Reign" era where the Avengers were made up of super villains like Norman Osborn and Bullseye (ugh). I've disliked many eras of the Marvel and DC Universes in the twenty years I've been really back into comics, and the couple years surrounding "Civil War" and then "Dark Reign" pretty much take the cake.
All that said, let's go back to this JMS Spider-man run and say a few nice words about it before I pack this away with one more rant or two (oh goodie!!).
Playing to his strengths and developing as what I assume the writing room and editor pool imagined the whole build to and execution of "Civil War" to be, I am going to give JMS credit as being pretty much responsible for the best-handled material surrounding this whole ordeal here in his Spidey run. Well, outside of the "Bucky" Captain America material that Ed Brubaker wrote and that followed Steve Roger's demise in the wake of the titanic clash of superheroes. Fully riding the Stark train, Peter has become the apprentice of Marvel's "futurist" to the point that he's accepted a powerful new costume upgrade from the man and is accompanying the man to Washington D.C. where the beginnings of the Superhero Registration Act are coming together. And this is the last time frame where the idea of Civil War is somewhat cohesive and sensible. Tony knows that some very scared and/or power hungry government officials are going to push for a program that gets superheroes at the least under the American government's thumb, at the most gets itself an army of superpowered individuals who don't want to retire but also want to be out there saving lives. He knows this and sees it as a future the world is moving but also understands this is more a game and power grab to these people and presents a case as such and that these powers already do a fine job of saving the world without being on a leash, especially one that could make them targets in their other lives. The way he figures it, if he at least makes a compelling enough case superheroes work in their current form, he can run out the clock and the monotonous churn that is government will work this notion out of the political zeitgeist of the time. Having Peter there with him to, of course, make some impassioned pleas about the notion of how not every superhero is doing what they do because they were always aspiring to be that presence, but they happened into the powers and were compelled to out of a sense of greater responsibility.
Obviously, we all know how that works out. An elementary school and six hundred students in Stamford go "kaboom!" during a superhero showdown and the Registration Act goes from an item that Stark hopes would die in committee to the unanimous will of the people and then the event known as "Civil War" proper really takes the grips of this run. Then flows forth upon it all the brutal mischaracterization and nonsensical leaps of logic that mired that event and the Marvel Universe for the better part of a year. In the span of seven issues after the more levelheaded "Mr. Parker Goes to Washington" arc, we see Peter Parker, the quintessential "everyman superhero" who has ALWAYS lived in fear of what would happen if one of his villains found out his real identity and went after MJ or Aunt May, just casually ripping his mask off on national TV at the behest of Tony Stark. The same Peter Parker who recently had to live in Avengers mansion with MJ and May because a villain who didn't even know Pete was Spidey and was just trying to get back at Pete and Tony destroyed their homes. The same "futurist" Tony Stark who knew this Registration Act would become an issue at some point but did no planning for that future. The same Tony Stark whose skyscraper HQ Pete lived in with was where Pete saw his Aunt threatened by a very tech savvy newbie villain named Tracer who got past its defenses literally just twelve issues earlier. "Sure thing Mr. Stark! Yoink!" Then Peter sees the dumber aspects of "Civil War" like gulags and villains being conscripted to fight against Captain America's resistance and, like me to a lot of Marvel comics at the time, and just three months into the war of civil says "I'm out" and goes on the run with what family he has left as the superhero world implodes around them.
And, of course, Peter pays the price for everything because that's what Peter does, and because editorial by that point had a certain state of "normal" for Peter Parker in mind and they needed something dramatic to get there. Enter "Back in Black," a story centered around the aftermath of the Kingpin, fresh with knowledge of Peter unmasking on TV, ordering a hit on the Parker family that succeeds in critically injuring Aunt May, and also putting a bullet in the potential for this Spider-Man run going down in history as anything but mired more in shock and controversy than living up to its potential, at least in my eyes. Now, I don't know if this arc was JMS' one last grasp at striking out at "Civil War," I actually don't know if that story is something he was onboard with from the get go and he took it to its logical - i.e. of @#$%ing course this is what would happen, what did you think would @#$%ing happen??!? - conclusion with Pete's identity out there and this was always the plan or it was just his last ditch effort to make the next, most controversial story of his tenure work. If it's the former, sure, as much as I dislike Civil War as a whole, given the stakes and storylines that broad and reaching an event as that story wanted to be, May's all but certain death in the manner it transpired at least feels like an accurate consequence. If the run had ended that way I wouldn't have liked it, not because I'm opposed to a death like Aunt May's (and it's not like she hadn't taken a dirt nap before in my comic book reading background) but because it was in purpose of an event I abhorred for several months, BUT at least it would have made sense in the form of a price paid for the arrogance and stupidity about in the Marvel Universe at the time. As a means to an end for the final chapter of this rapidly deteriorating run by Joe Michael Straczynski, well...
Cue Ralph Wiggum going "Stop, stop, he's already dead!" With May nearing the end and desperation running rampant, Peter Parker tries to pull out all the stops to save his most beloved relative, first trying to get Doctor Strange to work his mojo and then ended up in the presence of a more diabolical and malevolent mystical Marvel character, Mephisto. We know the deal. Marvel's version of the Devil offers Peter his precious Aunt back in exchange for his precious marriage. It's a veritable "Smeagol's Choice" of bad options. MJ makes the decision for him, the spend one more night in each others' arms, and then POOF goes twenty years of one of the biggest growing points of Peter Parker's existence on the comic book page and the potential for more as well, as both the marriage is erased and so is the last minute reveal that MJ and Pete were to have a daughter together had they continued on. Pete had officially been put through it all, ring the bell, he was done. Except that he would just be back next month in a "Brand New Day" and it would be like it was a season of "Dynasty" that never existed.
Much like the idea of a not living Aunt May, I'm not necessarily opposed to such a dramatic shift in the life of a comic book character like this because, well, that's comic books. What has been written can be unwritten. What has been unwritten can be rewritten. These characters... these icons have been here longer than most of us who currently partake in their adventures and they will be here probably longer than most of our progeny. The status quo is meant to be shaken up. What does get to me is when the apple cart is overturned because someone looks at the cart and says "wouldn't it be fun to just @#$%ing flip that thing over?" and not because, hey, maybe the wheel on that apple cart was old and dated and rotting and needed some modernization. "One Day in Time" irks me because it was a combination of the two, except also someone purposefully sabotaged the shit out of that wheel. Someone high up in the company disliked the idea of a married Peter Parker because it "aged" the character. Which, y'know, is not an incorrect viewpoint. I get that these characters need to stay a semblance of "timeless" because, as I stated a second ago, they belong to the generations, not just a generation at a time. Everyone can identify with a single protagonist because that's a path we all take for a while, not everyone takes the married one. But we as humans are constantly growing, and while marriage might not be a branch all of us protrude as we age, it's absurd to think that single people or young people who don't know squat about relationships can't imagine a character they love and identify with ninety percent of the time can't at least wrap their head around. Most of us literally watch a long-running relationship and all the joys and rough patches they entail play out in out lives by watching our parents grow as we grow. So, I'm not necessarily going to agree that getting rid of one of the premiere relationships in all of comics was a must because of "accessibility" issues, but I can buy a viewpoint that says there's more storytelling pathways without it.
BUT, the hamfisted approach to the dissolution of this once premiere institution in comics on top of the overwrought build to it never once left me feeling like this was happening because someone in the Bullpen saw a greener patch of grass this way, but because they had spent a decade sowing the current field with so much "Clone Sage, reemergence and then death of Peter's parents, and now all this Civil War bullshit" salt. A continuity wiping deal with the devil that absolutely HAS to happen because a beloved character is at death's door? That HAD to happen? You couldn't just have had Pete and MJ get, y'know, divorced? I understand that comics get absurd at times but come on, people in their 20's get divorced; it's not exactly outside the realm of reason that Pete and MJ could have a split but still be in each other's spheres of interaction while Pete goes back to his swinging bachelor days. Lord Odin forbid you reset the character - the quintessential "everyman" character - in a realistic way that happens to millions of us every day. People grow apart, learn from it and move on, and sometimes they come back together again, which easily could have been a thing to happen decades later with a different Bullpen in place to be the ones to make that decision. "One Minute in Time" was the nuclear option for a problem that should have called for a fly swatter, except the people with their fingers on the nuclear codes ran mad scientist tests on the flies for so long the swatter no longer cut it. JMS, for all the enjoyable, sometimes downright classic rejiggering he did of the Spider-man lore was also complicit in the careless manipulating of it that led to this story. I know he clashed several times with his overlords but it's not like he wasn't sewing parts of his own onto the Frankenstein's monster that was the mess of a continuity that was the life of everyone's favorite wall crawler.
Again, I'm not going to say that, with the gift of hindsight especially, this Spidery reboot at the time was the wrong call. I read most of Brand New Day through the glory of dollar bins about a year or so behind schedule and read all of the Dan Slott as primary writer material and can say that since Brand New Day hit this has probably been the most consistently enjoyable the character has been since I started reading him in 1994, and I've now read something like 400 of the 500 issues of Amazing Spider-man to have been released since. The highs aren't quite as good as those that JMS injected into the veins of the book and character early into this century and some of the lows have been near as low as some of the more rancid material I've now spent 8000ish words discussing, but it has been infinitely more consistently enjoyable and that makes it, uh, a long-running tentpole comic book. That's how it works. That's really what you can hope for is that the good runs more plentifully than the bad and sometimes you get something that's truly classic. We had that with JMS' Spider-Man, in my opinion, for about three years and then it pretty much went to the gutters of the comic book world.
That also makes this run a product of its time. The early 2000's was so full of creative and editorial teams so confident and desperate to make their marks on the comics they were writing and to have comic books make their mark on the world at large because of the mainstream exposure the film industry was granting them that everyone was shooting their shot and either hitting the bullseye or blowing half their toes off their foot. For every CAPTAIN AMERICA by Ed Brubaker and company there was a half dozen runs like this. The true tragedy is that the vast bulk of those books, whether they went on to become the true classics or true duds, almost never hit as hard and awesomely as this JMS run did for its first third. Expectations were already so high and when JMS and JRJr nailed them out of the park for so long right up front you couldn't imagine this run wasn't going down as one of the all-time greats. Then the reality of what the mainstream comic book would was about, especially during this time period, settled in and really put a beatdown on those hopes and expectations. That seems like a downer to say but, honestly, that's kind of where this material kind of left me by the time we made it out of the aughts and it's a shame that this run became the rule not the exception for that time period because it truly was exceptional for a time.
Aaaaand that's that is that. Holy hell that went way longer than I expected it to, but it was also such a lengthy run that had so many tentpole events either of its own devising or because of the greater universe around it that I felt it was correct to get in there and get a little more detailed about the specific arcs instead of taking it more as a whole. I'm hoping/imagining that as I do more of these I'll get better at doing more "broad strokes" about these things from the various standpoints that are world building, tone, etc etc. But, yeah, I'm putting this monster to bed. If anyone has something they want to strike up a conversation about after all this, go for it. It's been, uh, six years since anyone left a comment so that'll be weird but welcome. Thanks for anyone bothering to give all this a whirl and I'm hoping to polish off my GOTHAM CENTRAL omnibus this week and put a couple thousand words down about the Brubaker/Rucka Batverse next time around. Still debating if I want to reread Brubaker's CATWOMAN run to include in that but it was so much more Brubaker's baby and it's own thing that I think I'll stick with the main things. But that's me and that's this, you all be safe out there. Cheers...