The Road to Hell Part 1
Yeah, yeah, yeah – you wanna make somethin’ of it?
But then again, I suppose I owe you all something of an explanation for my nearly two year “absence” although it really hasn’t been a total absence, just the fact that there have been no updates to the Spidey Kicks Butt website. For those who follow Brad Douglas’ Spider-Man Crawlspace, you’ve been able to hear my opinions on the current state of Spider-Man, complete with that dreadful Southern Hoosier drawl, repetitiveness, senile ramblings, and the occasional expletive. Part of me even wondered whether there was really any need for a double dose of my opinions in multiple media, and should I just pull the plug on SKB?
But I decided not to. And as you’ve heard me say ad infinitum, I have a very ordinary excuse – my heart just wasn’t into it. Unfortunately, I don’t have a maudlin or heartwarming “Very Special Episode” or “ABC Afterschool Special,” story, but things just weren’t going well. As I was finishing The Goblin Prince series my employment situation became very unstable, my financial condition deteriorated, and I had some health issues (I have struggled with sleep apnea for years, and that combined with the additional stress was really taking its toll on my ability to get out of and stay out of bed, and most recently I was fighting back diabetes), so I just couldn’t muster the effort it had taken to do these essays, because a lot of work goes into them. And while most of those are better (and thank you for the concern you’ve shown and the good wishes – although if I could just win the damn lottery) – my kids, particularly my son, kept getting older and I began to become involved in their activities. My son is 8, going on 9, and as typical for boys that age, he’s very high maintenance and demanding of his old man’s attention, even more than when he was a baby/toddler crapping in his diapers and needing constant feedings. There were bike riding, swimming, and coaching his baseball team (which came out of nowhere and screwed my summer all the hell up), etc. For those of you who are parents, you realize that all of those things take precedence over writing overwrought articles about Spider-Man.
But after being gone so long, I wanted to build up a cache of material, so I could consistently have something new to offer on a regular basis when I came back, rather than write one humongous essay, then disappear again for many months, or a partitioned essay with erratic and unreliable updates. To that end, I began to write sporadically, building up a material that would allow me to move forward with a reliable release schedule. However, after more than 80 pages of material written over a period of 6 months for about 6 different topics, and knowing my penchant for never being satisfied no matter how many edits (and I know with my grammar and rambling, it doesn’t look like I edit, but really, I do) I figured that I should focus on the stuff that’s closest to being ready to go, complete that, and well, just make the best of it.
So where do we go from here – with so much territory to cover and being so far behind? After considering various scenarios, I decided that the simplest and most honest place to start was right where I left off, trying to wrap up 2007, for many of us, a year that will live in infamy. Although it’s old news now, in some ways, maybe it is for the best. After all, you’re certainly getting NO shortage of opinions on the current state of Spider-Man comics, with the infamous Crawlspace Podcast , the regular reviews by Gerald Delatour (and before him the legendary Michael Bailey), and the deep philosophical ponderings of the Profound and Wise George Berryman.
Therefore, it is my plan (and we all knows what happens to the best laid plans – or to paraphrase the Bible – don’t assume you’re even going to be alive the next day) to do what I was doing before I essentially quit. I will release each essay in installments at what I perceive to be natural breaking points, which means that sometimes the parts will be long, and others will be short (“that’s it?” you’ll be tempted to say at times). After all of the installments have been released, I will combine them into larger, but fewer essays and archive them on the SKB website.
As I am grateful to Brad Douglas for keeping me “in the loop” so to speak, for providing me with a forum, both via the podcast and my own message board, all on his dollar (it’s almost a certainty that without the podcast, SKB would have died), each new installment will debut exclusively on the Crawlspace either until the next essay installment is ready, or the present chapter gets bumped from the front page due to the Crawlspace’s frequent updates, before being directly available on the SKB website. I ask that you please me patient with me as I shake off the rust and get back into the groove. They ain’t all going to be prize winners, but I’ll give it my best effort. At least until my life goes into upheaval again.
Well, enough of the awkward set-up.
Once while I was sitting around trying to be smug and clever, I came up with a preliminary title for this Year in Review which as some of you may remember on the SKB Archive page “Back in Crap,” obviously a play on “Back in Black.” And yes, I was pretty pleased with this meager burst of creativity (but of course, my ability to turn a phrase pales in comparison with Mr. Berryman’s, but that was the deal we made with Mephisto. George got all the smarts and wit and I got the head of hair, but the Prince of Lies, fiend that he is, made it turn white). As far as I was originally concerned, 2007 was worse for Spider-Man fans than any year since 2000, the disastrous Year of the Reboot Plus 1, which for those new to the SKB game of never forgetting nor forgiving, was the year that Marvel (specifically then Editor in Chief Bob Harras), tried to kill off Mary Jane Watson-Parker (Marvel’s pathological problems with the spider-marriage predates this decade and current EIC). After all, any year that that begins with the overwrought, overlong catastrophe that was Civil War, which saw Spider-Man jeopardize his life and his family’s lives in an unrealistic, unfathomable and pathetic protest over Tony Stark’s violation of supervillains’ civil rights, and ends with Peter and Mary Jane making a deal with the “devil” Mephisto, sacrificing their marriage to save Aunt May’s life, which hung in the balance due to a sniper’s bullet. Well, with those bookends surely nothing good could come of the rest of the year, right?
Oh, it was far from a great year by any means, particularly with how it ended, but to compare 2007 with 2000, which was one utterly miserable tale followed by another, isn’t fair to Peter David, Roberto Aguirre Sacasa, J. Michael Straczynski, Tom DeFalco, or Matt Fraction. Hell, it’s not even fair to Howard Mackie, to compare his sincere, though flawed, efforts with the off the rails Civil War and the offensive “One More Day.” Regardless of quality, 2007 was certainly one of the most memorable years in Spidey history, as it saw the end of JMS’ long and often controversial six year run on Amazing Spider-Man, as well as Roberto Aguirre Sacasa’s and Peter David’s far too brief tenures on Sensational Spider-Man and Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, respectively, (which in addition to being prematurely ended, were sabotaged by descents into Crossover Hell). And we all know what happened at the end of the year. But, since that was covered in its own special article , except for a reference at the end (you can probably guess), I won’t be discussing it.
But I remembered the famous phrase “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and although I considered the “soft reboot” of the spider-titles to be misguided, ill-advised, short-sighted, and perhaps even clouded with some pettiness, I really can’t ascribe any vindictive or malicious behavior to it. We may vociferously disagree with Marvel on the direction of the titles (to the point where we apparently can’t communicate rationally with each other on many forums, which is a shame), but to suggest that Marvel wants the Spider-Man series to tank, or go to hell, would be erroneous and unfounded. They want it to succeed even more than we do. After all, their very livelihoods are on the line. But it’s more than apparent than we cannot, and apparently are not likely to in the near future, agree on just what road to take.
Now, if you’re keeping a scorecard at home, this time warp trip will cover the following issues:
- Amazing Spider-Man #539-543
- Sensational Spider-Man #35-40; Annual #1
- Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #17-23; Annual #1
- New Avengers #27-37
- Spider-Man: Reign
- Amazing Spider-Girl #4-15;
- Ultimate Spider-Man #112-117;
- Fallen Son (Spider-Man);
- Spider-Man/Red Sonja
- Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four
So as we all know too well, 2007 began with Peter Parker in the midst of probably the greatest crisis of his entire life. At the request of Tony Stark, a man he considered a mentor, Spider-Man revealed his identity to the world, which cost him his job at the Daily Bugle, his peace of mind, and put a huge bulls-eye on the backs of his family, friends, and students (he was still a high school science teacher at this time). However, aghast at all of the debacles, dubious motivations and frightening implications of Stark’s master plan to implement the Superhuman Registration Act, he found that he could no longer support Tony, and thus left Avengers Tower, making himself Aunt May and Mary Jane fugitives. Pre-occupied with more than most men could endure, he was vulnerable to one last horrible stroke of vengeance that a previous acquaintance was orchestrating against him, which led directly into the events of “One More Day.” That debacle notwithstanding, it also gave us one of the highlights of the year.
Best Old Fashioned, Web Slinging Ass-Kicking of the Decade
“Back in Black,” was JMS’ last story in which he held solo credit (he shared “One More Day” with Quesada, and essentially, although not explicitly, disowned that story), so we’ll spend a little more time on it than I normally would on an individual story arc. It’s fitting that JMS’ final Spider-Man story was a microcosm of his storytelling during his entire run on Amazing Spider-Man: intriguing beginning, strong up the middle, and then a heartbreaking fumble at the five yard line. In this instance, we have a five part story that should have been a four part story, particularly since part four, the battle with the Kingpin, may very well have been JMS’ finest hour on Spider-Man. However, part five was just annoying filler, a prelude to the next story rather than a satisfactory conclusion to the one it was telling, and its wallowing in misery reinforced so much about what was wrong with the whole Civil War/Unmasking ordeal.
“Back in Black” does not feature Spider-Man as much as it does Peter Parker, who as a result of the sniper’s bullet meant for him that struck Aunt May, rendering her comatose, is pushed to his limits, dealing out some of the harshest justice of his career (with the possible exception of the beating of Stan Carter, the Sin-Eater, in “The Death of Jean DeWolffe”). While as I’ve aged (poorly I might add) , I’ve made a frighteningly appalling shift to the middle on virtually all political issues, I’m firmly right wing on law and order, so I ate this shit up.
After rushing May to the hospital (continuity glitch – Peter tells MJ to register May under her maiden name “May Fitzgerald.” Of course, if you have even the slightest knowledge of the Clone Saga, you know that her maiden name is Reilly, which was of course was the surname adopted by Ben the Spider-Clone. But, as far as misses go, it’s not a bad one as Fitzgerald was Peter’s mother’s maiden name), Peter hunts down the sniper who shot May, utilizing a combination of detective work, violence, and intimidation to claw his way up from the street level gun runners, to the “wholesaler” of that particular rifle on the street, to the ultimate consumer. Of course, he discovers that the man who gave the order was none other than his old long time enemy Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, who is determined to settle his score with Spider-Man before the events later described in Daredevil take him out of the country. Along the way, Peter retrieves a long hidden black costume from a special hiding place to symbolize his mission. Of course, you have to ignore the little fact that the costume has been webbed for years (according to the narrative), when we all know that his webbing usually dissolves within the hour. You also have to work your way through Marvel’s repeated denials that the black costume’s appearance was a complete coincidence, and in no way deliberately tied in to the third Spider-Man film, which as well all know, included the black costume as a key plot point (although why the need for the denials? It was totally logical from a marketing standpoint).
With May’s condition deteriorating and the law closing in, Spider-Man leaves a trail of bloodied and broken punks on his way to the prison where Wilson Fisk is being held. But just before he gets there, Peter decides to covertly give May a blood transfusion. Of course, all devout members of the Church of Spidey know that he did this once waaaaaaaaaaaay back in Amazing Spider-Man #10, and May’s reaction to the radioactive elements in Pete’s blood nearly killed her, precipitating the famous rising from the rubble moment in issue #36. When I first read this, I was certain that this was going to be JMS’ way of copping out of the road Peter was heading down. “Aw crap, the loss of blood is going to weaken Spidey, and he won’t be able to use his full strength on the Kingpin, and while I don’t believe for a moment that he’ll kill him, it won’t be because he chooses not to, it’ll because he can’t, blah blah blah.”
Thanks JMS – because believe it or not, there are times that I love it when I am flat out wrong about where a story is going.
Once you get past the continuity glitches (which are really no big deal), there’s a lot of good stuff in this story. Now, for one minute did I really believe that Spider-Man would kill anyone? Of course not, even when he boldly states at the end of Part 1 that “when I find them (May’s assassins) I’m going to kill them.” However, for me the storytelling was so compelling that I was genuinely caught up in Peter’s rage, frustration, and thirst for vengeance, and the part of me that controls my suspension of disbelief was more than willing to ask “Could this time be different? Really? Could he really kill the sniper or the Kingpin?” and I eagerly awaited the succeeding parts.
Some of the highlights include:
- In Part 1, an enraged Peter almost takes out the sniper early on by literally hurling a jeep several stories up into the sniper’s perch. Finally! We get to see a genuine display of the raw and awesome physical power that Spider-Man possesses. And don’t make him angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry…
- Peter effortlessly thrashes a room full of gun dealers, and in his interrogation of the last one standing, the narration goes “I break his hand. It snaps like dry wood.” This is Goose Bump City because Peter Parker is a notoriously passionate and emotional person – but even as he administers savage beatings – his thoughts are focused, clinical, and dispassionate – and none of this “I am the Spider” psychobabble.
- Peter tells Mary Jane, who is at May’s side at the hospital “You’re going to see a lot more people taken to the hospital before this day is out.”
- I liked the nice little touch that JMS added to the relationship between the Kingpin, and the corrupt, and less than swift, prison guard charged with supervising him. The guard, Charlie, is the channel by which the Kingpin sends and receives messages from the outside. Of course, as the messages are somewhat cryptic (i.e., “First gift basket not delivered” meant that the hit on the Parkers took place, but the primary target, Spider-Man himself, was not taken out. “But one of the other two baskets was delivered,” would mean to Fisk that either May or Mary Jane was shot). Charlie is not the sharpest tool in the shed, and he’s clueless as to what they mean, but he’s cool with that. Additionally, even when Fisk actually explains their meaning utilizing literary and historical analogies (this time referencing the Greek playwright Euripedes who said “Whom the gods destroy – they first drive mad”), Charlie doesn’t get any of those, either, nor does he really seem to care, leading Fisk to say “Just as well; best to the wife, Charlie.” A sign of a good writer, in my opinion, is when he/she can even make even minor and obscure characters an interesting part of the story rather than just ciphers to advance the plot.
- Another goose bump inducing moment is when Peter finally confronts the sniper face to face, accompanied by the narration ”He drops his gun as I break his arm.”
- I really liked Ron Garney’s art – which I thought was somewhat Romita, Jr.-esque, but still distinctive. Where the heck was this guy when the Brand New Day art assignments were being handed out?
In part 4, issue #542, we get the moment we’ve been waiting for for the last three months as Peter Parker – unmasked and shirtless, faces the Kingpin in battle in full view of a captive and enthralled audience of the “wretched hive of scum and villainy”) in the prison. And we absolutely get our money’s worth. As if the two are gladiators in the Roman Coliseum, the Kingpin faces Peter and opens the festivities by delivering a grand oratory belittling Peter for the position he finds himself in, and how his misplaced trust in Tony Stark (well, really, misguided writing, but that’s not the point here) has led him to this moment, concluding with the kicker “you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few old ladies.” Now, this would have been a hell of a movie scene. For the most part, Spider-Man is silent, and speaks at length only when he unmasks, telling the Kingpin that Spider-Man is not here to kill him, but Peter Parker is.
What follows is a great moment in Spider-Man history as he beats the Kingpin to within an inch of his life, administering the beat down that most people should get when they go up against a super-powered being such as Peter Parker. All too often writers portray him as a chump who can’t hold his own against a succession of lame thugs or lesser superheroes who a particular writer may be trying to make look good – but not this time. Spider-Man is not the strongest hero in the Marvel Universe, nor is he the smartest, the fastest, the most agile, the most passionate or most resourceful – but the combination of all of these traits, which he possesses in the upper percentile of Marvel heroes, should consistently make him one of the most formidable (I tend to think Reed Richards is probably the most powerful of all. That’s a guy who could probably take down entire civilizations and planets should he go mad). As I’ve mentioned Alternate Spideys before, I loved the old Guardians of the Galaxy story where the 31st Century Guardians landed on the long abandoned base of operations on Mars from which the “Martians” conquered Earth a millennium before. In the midst of the museum celebrating the Martians’ slaughter of the old Marvel superheroes (complete with relics such as costumes and Captain America’s shield) they discover an entire wing dedicated to the superhero who had earned the greatest measure of the “Martians’” respect, known as “The Last to Fall” – three guesses who.
Fisk doesn’t even get in a good lick as Peter, thoroughly destroys him (and gives him the ultimate titty twister). Peter doesn’t deliver the death blow, however, as Fisk,’s humiliation at this beating will ultimately prove more painful, more torturous, than killing him. And we are thankfully spared any self-righteous statements about being “the better man.” While it is certainly implied in Peter’s monologue near the end of the fight, it isn’t overemphasized. However, he warns Fisk that when Aunt May dies, he will come back and finish the job, and as he’s already proven, no one can stop him.
Peter then issues a warning to the rest of the scum in prison – that if anyone ever gets near him or his family, or anyone else who matters to him – they will die. The issue ends perfectly, with the Kingpin limping away and collapsing on his prison bed, exhausted, bloodied, and broken.
DAMN! I loved this!
Did I say that this was JMS’ finest hour on Spider-Man? I wasn’t entirely correct. It’s one of the finest moments in Spider-Man history – period.
Unfortunately, the story then meanders. Peter’s moment of victory is short lived as May’s desperate situation becomes more apparent. She isn’t going to come out of her coma and a priest asks Mary Jane about last rites. A NYC detective comes to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding just why May’s gunshot wound wasn’t reported to the police, and why the young woman with her is paying all of the bills in cash. We then get three full pages devoted to a nurse speculating to the visiting detective how she perceives the events surrounding May’s shooting unfolded, which of course, is 180 degrees from the truth. As the detective moves in to arrest Mary Jane, Peter knocks him out cold, and is now faced with the realization that he has assaulted a police officer. After that, five pages are given over to detailing how Peter and Mary Jane sneak May out of the hospital and into another one. But even given that superfluous padding, the issue ends with a hauntingly effective full page final panel. Peter estimates that he has racked up no less than nine felony counts, and as he stands outside the hospital reliving recent events, he begs God for guidance, as he is at the lowest point ever in his life, his identity exposed, on the run, guilty of real crimes, and being forced to watch Aunt May die.
And from here on, the focus of the Spider-Man titles should have been on the long climb back up from the bottom, as Spidey struggles to redeem himself and his reputation, all the while evading the forces that have marshaled against him. There could have been some great stories as Spider-Man clawed his way back from the darkness, and we would have really gotten a measure of the hero this man is.
But it was all tossed away with a horribly conceived and executed deus ex machina.
One thing that nagged me about this story, though, other than the totally limp way it ended, is the set-up in the first place. I’m not an expert on the Kingpin by any means, since probably most of his best moments are in Daredevil, a title that I only read briefly during Brian Michael Bendis’ run. But I know that Fisk is not a dumb or stupid character by any means, and his actions here appear to be a bit dubious. For one, as well as Fisk knows Spider-Man, he should have known that there is no way a shooter can get the drop on Spider-Man without first taking out his spider sense. And even then, Spidey’s speed and agility make it pretty hard (although not impossible, obviously) for anyone to just shoot him, or he’d have been taken out that way years ago. I suppose he could have assumed that Peter would distracted enough by the crisis of current events that he might not pay attention to his spider sense or react quickly enough. But even Norman Osborn, damn crazy fool that he is, knows that you can’t just kill May or Mary Jane for shits and giggles (unless he believed that Spider-Man was going to be dead around the same time). To do so would put Peter into a position where he feels he has nothing left to lose, and THAT would really make him dangerous. The flip side to this, I suppose, is that Norman knows that Spidey is capable of some pretty savage behavior, since he’s been on the receiving end of more than one vicious clobbering. Fisk, on the other hand, has only received the equivalent of love taps, and I suppose could be excused for underestimating the power that is the full fury of Spider-Man unleashed.
But the final knock on the story is just the overwhelming pall that hung over it and the utter unbelievability of the situation. I’ve moaned about this at length, but I’ll say it again – no responsible adult puts his family in harms way because his conscience bothers him over the perceived “mistreatment” of poor little psychotics in prison. There may be principles I myself might consider dying for – but no principal is worth the lives of my family. And I think Peter would have come to the same conclusion, and sought to bring about change from the inside, by trying to reason with Tony Stark and Reed Richards about his concerns.
But what’s done is done.
NEXT WEEK: A JMS Retrospective. ‘Nuff said.
Back to The Table of Contents for more Spider-Man articles.
Write me at MadGoblin
Copyright © 1998-2010 by J.R. Fettinger. All rights reserved. All original content is the exclusive property of J.R. Fettinger. Spider-Man, the Green Goblin, and everyone else who appears in the Spider-Man comics is the property of Marvel (or Disney, or whatever), and are used in these articles for the purpose of analysis and commentary.