The JMS Years – A Retrospective
For a lead picture, I was originally going to go with the cover to Amazing Spider-Man #471 (June 2001), which was J. Michael Straczynski’s inaugural issue. However, the relentless rudeness, pushiness and sheer chutzpah of the infamous “Bertone Beatle” at the 2010 San Diego Comic Con gave us this picture, which I could not help but use (I think the dude asked everyone with a pulse to hold the Crawlspace sign. The next round of pictures will include the hotel concierge and local vagrants saying they love the Crawlspace).
I’d like to thank everyone for the warm welcome back that I’ve received over the last week. Hearing from all of you, as well as just the improvement in my mood that writing about Spidey sometimes gives me was a welcome relief from reality.
I was informed more than once after the release of Spider-Man 2007: Part 1 that I somewhat misstated my case about the Negative Zone Gulag, that Spider-Man only left the Avengers and went on the run because he was concerned about the “mistreatment” of psychotics. It was pointed out to me that the Gulag (not what it was really called, but for some reason Kingdom Come has been on the brain) was also designed to house not just insane super-powered criminals as we typically use the term, but violators of the Superhuman Registration Act, without trial, when their only crime was not registering. In re-reading Amazing Spider-Man #535, yes, Tony Stark makes it quite clear when he says “They either sign up or they stay here until they do sign up!” So, yes, I was guilty of some oversimplification.
But, folks, although I was somewhat clumsy, the point I was making was that the writer, in this case, JMS, was so focused on this one aspect of the whole complex Civil War debate that, in my opinion, he weakened the effectiveness of the Spider-Man portion of the story and turned Spidey into a mouthpiece to rail against a specific political issue.
Out of sheer coincidence, I happened to stumble upon a review of a script that JMS himself wrote for a film adaptation of World War Z, the popular zombie “war documentary” written by Max Brooks (recently Brad Pitt was announced to star in this adaptation – but whether they are still using JMS’ script, I have no idea). The reviewer says something very interesting and relevant to the points I’m making. Overall, the reviewer loved the script, but:
The only problem I had with the script was how heavy-handed some of the dialog got at times. Sometimes it’s just a little too obvious that characters are vessels for the writers to spew their ideology. I pretty much agree with everything the screenplay is against, but speech after speech of the same sentiment starts to make the thing read more like a Michael Moore documentary after about 80 pages, and I worry it could kick viewers out of the film if it isn’t toned down.
Obviously, some of the commentary was probably lifted from the source material, but the quote is still valid to this topic.
Anyway, I do maintain what I said during my review of Civil War – that we were of course only shown the pathetic, harmless prisoners at the Zone. We didn’t get to see any cackling psychotics like Cletus Kassady, or like Bullseye in Thunderbolts, when his insane ramblings spooked even Norman Osborn. Also, Tony Stark tells Peter that “She (Jennifer Walters) can make all the motions she wants. This is outside the jurisdiction of local and federal courts. This is an act of Congress, signed by the President. Only the Supreme Court can intervene, and I happen to know they won’t. This place is not on American soil.” However, in the real life example of Gitmo and the suspected terrorists held there, the Supreme Court did indeed rule that detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, had a constitutional right to challenge their detentions in federal court invalidating portions of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which created military tribunals to hear the cases of those held at Gitmo. Now, again, there probably are some problems with my analysis in that Gitmo is technically on American soil, I believe, something negotiated as a result of the Spanish American War. And admittedly, the Supreme Court’s decision was in early 2008, well after this story was written, and unless he’s a psychic, JMS couldn’t have seen that the Court would actually rule in favor of the detainees, particularly since it was a narrow ruling anyway. But I thought I’d mention it.
I just tend to have less tolerance than others, I suppose, of political allegories in my entertainment (regardless of orientation), largely because they are often so strident rather than subtle. I just don’t like to be preached at or clubbed with a blunt object. I recognize that entertainment of all kinds has always been used to make observations on current affairs(Gulliver’s Travels, for example, is one of the more famous cases of fiction rampant with allegories – and frankly, so is my true entertainment love, the original Star Trek, which had more than one episode with a Vietnam War inspired theme, for example). And sometimes, isn’t that often the whole purpose? But it also became wearingly apparent that a good section of comics writers absolutely loathed George W. Bush. Hey, I got a bunch of gripes against him too (that I won’t bore you with). I’ve already drop kicked Civil War, but in the past, for example, there was Amazing Spider-Man 2001 Annual where Aunt May says “(Anna Watson) thought she was voting for that nice Al Gore and wound up voting for that horrible fellow instead.” and in Amazing Spider-Man #595 when Wolverine (a Canadian citizen, of all things) says “it took eight years to get that last guy out of office and he didn’t have his own suit of armor” (a reference to Norman Osborn being the Iron Patriot – comparing Bush to a total psychotic like Osborn?)and then the two heroes do the Obama first bump – I mean – really. You want to hit me with that hammer just a little harder? I didn’t get the message the first dozen times you clubbed me with it. And at least JMS was trying to make a point. The latter two examples are just cheap shots that were beneath the respective writers (Howard Mackie and Joe Kelly respectively).
No, I can’t stand listening to Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, either, so don’t go there. And let’s get to the real reason we’re here.
We can’t discuss 2007 without looking back and reflecting on J. Michael Straczynski’s run on Amazing Spider-Man. It’s difficult to believe considering that Spider-Man’s publishing history is nearly 50 years old, JMS’ time on the title is the 3rd longest consecutive run, bested only by David Michelinie and Stan the Man himself. JMS’ tenure lasted from June 2001’s Amazing Spider-Man #471 (at that time volume 2 #30, but we don’t use that nomenclature anymore), to November 2007’s issue #545, with occasional stories written by his apprentice, Fiona Avery, sprinkled in during that period. It was a run longer than Gerry Conway’s, Len Wein’s, Marv Wolfman’s, and Roger Stern’s, all who had very notable and still popular turns at bat on Spidey. But history will probably show JMS’ to be perhaps the most paradoxical run in the history of Spider-Man. On the one hand, he wrote some of the most significant (Aunt May finally finds out!) and controversial (The “totem” story arc, and “Sins Past”) stories of Spider-Man’s career, as well as being at the helm during a series of controversial and turbulent events (Civil War, the unmasking, and although limited, “One More Day”). Looking back, it could be said that JMS was actually one of the boldest Spider-Man writers ever. Unfortunately, sometimes the moves didn’t pay off, and Marvel itself subtly disparages JMS’ run from time to time, taking backhanded slaps at him with some of their comments of the need to get Spidey “back to basics” or that the titles were “getting away from what made Spider-Man great.” These were all coded messages that were really saying “we liked JMS, but we really didn’t agree with the direction he was taking Spider-Man” (most notably in Tom Breevort’s Manifesto, which you can read in the Swing Shift one shot). Hello, McFly! Why did you hire the guy in the first place when you knew that someone of his stature was not going to be content scripting Spider-Man’s 835th tussle with Electro, the Vulture, and the like? And then where was the editorial control during his tenure there (although Marvel did pull the reigns in over the identity of the father of Gwen Stacy’s babies)? But what’s done is done.
For awhile, it looked like as a result of the “soft” reboot known as “One More Day,” as well as the apparent dislike by both fans and Marvel for some of the events in JMS’ stories, the entire run might be implicitly retconned away – but the inclusions of or references to Gabriel Stacy and Ezekiel in 2010 storylines, as well as a particularly eerie panel in Dark Avengers #11, have precluded that from happening.
Anyway, this is going to be a fairly brief (well, as brief as someone as long winded and wordy as I can make it) overview of JMS’ years. I’m not going to touch on every story arc, nor nitpick every little thing, but try to keep it at 30,000 feet, so to speak.
Taking a trip with Mr. Peabody and Sherman in the Wayback Machine to 2001 (has it really been almost 10 years? I was a young(er) man in my 30’s then) – without a doubt, at least within the sphere I associated with and the online chatter I saw, the announcement that JMS was going to take over Amazing Spider-Man was met with great enthusiasm. Of course, some of this was “ANYBODY but Howard Mackie/John Byrne” feelings, because after the titles had been rebooted two years earlier in 1999, followers of Spidey had endured two of the most wretched, agonizing years in the character’s history, and I am not exaggerating. But JMS had the “geek cred” of the type of writer I most wanted to see on Spider-Man, one who did have some experience dabbling in comics, but also one with experience and success in other mediums as well, particularly in science fiction, which is sort of a first cousin to superhero fiction. Although I was not a fan of “Babylon 5” (partly because as a result of being syndicated, it tended to be on either sporadically, or at weird hours in the particular market where I lived), but it had a strong following in the sci-fi community, and I figured that any writer who could write a coherent five year story arc for a television series would have no trouble with the tortured and convoluted continuity so treasured by some of us comic book nerds.
Some of us became a little disconcerted, of course, when we found out that Mary Jane was going to be taken out of the title for awhile, largely because JMS wanted her out of the way to “clear the deck” and focus on Peter Parker, not necessarily his marital relationship. After two years of the character either being “dead” or mishandled, it was a bit aggravating to see her shipped off again. But, that situation eventually remedied itself – at least for awhile.
The first major event, which was the whole “totem” aspect, I don’t have a problem with on principle, and don’t think I really every did although I do remember doing a lot of grousing and referring to it as, well, “Ezekiel-Morlun-Shathra-Totem-Mystic Spider Crap.” Yeah, that’s a bit wince-worthy at the moment. Interestingly, during that period of time, I had people telling me that I was both too hard and too easy on the whole thing. JMS wanted to address the oddness of so many of Spidey’s villains being based upon animals, plus the prevalence of Anansi and spider mythologies in so many cultures in the world. Plus, was Peter Spider-Man merely chance – or destiny? Did he truly receive his spider powers by accident? Or was he chosen by something, or someone in the context of a grander plan? And if he was “chosen” – was he properly fulfilling his destiny and using his gifts to their fullest extent, or was he squandering it with a short-sighted focus on the here and now and missing the whole big picture?
Of course, part of what us spider-fans enjoy about the character’s mythology is the randomness associated with the receipt of his powers with the accompanying disturbing fact that the course of our lives can be completely changed by something as simple as looking left rather than right. But, in long serial fiction, part of the hero’s tortured journey is to be confronted with seemingly indisputable information suggesting that his whole purpose for being is not what he thought it was! Ezekiel asked questions that Spidey should have been asking himself, but probably didn’t because he might not like the answers. And Spider-Man is nothing if not being tormented by self-doubt in one fashion or another. And to be honest, it now reads a little bit better looking back than in the midst of it.
Unfortunately, the “totem story,” for lack of a better term, was poorly timed and awkwardly executed (although JMS has stated that he told Marvel coming in that some of his ideas would work, and others probably wouldn’t). I can’t speak for the rest of Spider Fandom, but when I first saw and heard Ezekiel in issue #30 (or #471), I groaned out loud because as Spider-Man fans we had literally endured years, and that’s no exaggeration, of overlong, drawn out stories with little, no, or poor resolution, from the Clone Saga, to all of the subsequently ongoing storylines, some of them very intriguing, being brought to a sudden and unceremonious halt in order for Marvel to reboot the Spider-Man titles with brand new #1’s, to the excruciatingly painful 2 post-reboot years with more setups that went nowhere and myriad unanswered questions. And here we go, at the beginning of a highly anticipated new writer’s tenure, starting the whole mess all over again with characters speaking in riddles and storylines where we KNEW the payoffs were going to be YEARS in the making (as it is, the totem thing lasted three years, four and a half if you throw in “The Other”). Personally, I would have preferred some simple stories before launching into a major story arc. Plus, the exaggeration of and hyperbole surrounding Morlun’s importance (“I’ve never been hit that hard before,” “you’re the first guy who’s really pissed me off”) landed with a thud. And that ultimately fed into “The Other,” which was a highly hyped misfire, but one that for the most part seems to have been widely acknowledged as such by those involved (largely due to Marvel’s admitted poor management of the process, having multiple writers tell one story without making sure they were all in accordance with what was the story and its objectives). Plus, the issues “The Other” raised, of death and rebirth, and the consequences surrounding same, were bungled or ignored (“Spidey rose from the dead? Wow. So, what’s for dinner, Jarvis?”) The mysteries surrounding Morlun, such as exactly what he was, how many of them there were (was it the same Morlun we saw in the first story arc who killed Spider-Man during “The Other,” or was he just another in a long line of such beings?) were never satisfactorily explained, and the resolution of the Ezekiel character, a potentially fascinating combination of both mentor and monster, was ultimately unfulfilling as well since it was predictable he was going to have a character moment where he realized that Peter was the true hero and saved his life at the cost of his own. I must confess, though, I did like the final conversation between Peter and the Incan priest which poses the ever present question of whether or not Faith and Science can co-exist.
Complicating JMS’ inaugural efforts was the fact that he fell behind schedule as a result of his responsibilities producing the “Jeremiah” series on HBO. If you were around in the old “Hero Realm” website days, you would have been treated to JMS actually coming onto the boards, and a wager between Hero Realm co-founder and current Crawlspace favorite George Berryman concerning whether or not JMS could generate a specific number of issues of Amazing Spider-Man on time – much to the absolute horror of the other co-founder of the Realm, Alex Hamby. I never knew how that ended.
But within that first story arc, in issue #472 (July 2001), was the beginning of what I thought was a terrific running subplot, that of Peter Parker becoming a teacher at his old high school. Now, I’ve got to run a few things by those of you who thought becoming a teacher “aged” Peter Parker. My teenage daughter’s show choir instructor is 25 years old, which is actually younger than many of us perceive Peter to be (although Marvel seems to have set him up perpetually as being 25). And additionally, one of her earlier teachers was only 23 (and that was a shock, to walk into a student/teacher meeting and realize that you were starting college well before the teacher was out of diapers)! If any of you have paid attention to many of the substitute teachers or teachers assistants’ these days, many of them are young people still in college or fresh out of college trying to work their way into permanent teachers’ slots. So as far as complaining about his teaching position “aging” him – to quote Walter Matthau in Oliver Stone’s convoluted and paranoid (and totally compelling in the first half before it loses its way) JFK – “That dog don’t hunt.”
I suppose though, the counter argument would be that although early to mid twenties isn’t old, someone 10-15 years old would perceive it to be “old,” and that’s the perspective Marvel wants to tap and cater to.
Anyway, I saw this as actually returning Peter to his roots, this time from a different perspective, and actually allowed him to be surrounded by young people and young people’s problems, injecting the element of youth that Marvel so desperately seemed to want. Many of the problems in our schools in the 2000’s are probably much different, with some of the existing ones more pronounced, than they were during Peter’s high school days in the 1960’s, when the 800 pound gorilla in every young man’s room was the threat of being drafted for the Vietnam War. Issues such as chronic underfunding, drug use, busted families, entrenched and corrupt bureaucracies – all of these were there for the exploring. And Peter David took it a step further by bringing back Flash Thompson as a coach and gym teacher, using the horrific accident during the “Death in Family” storyline to give him amnesia so that he didn’t remember that he had mellowed out over the years and he and Peter had become close friends, re-igniting that rivalry and conflict. It seemed to me that a lot of good stories were simply left on the table in the mad rush to – well – you know.
The “9/11” issue (Amazing Spider-Man #477 (December 2001)) was probably the next hot point during JMS’ tenure. I wonder how much of it was the story, and how much was really just the emotional nature of the event itself and how it impacted each of us individually. After all, 9/11 may have been the most notable “remember where you were moment” in American history since the Kennedy Assassination in 1963. It’s hard for me to forget. It was less than five months after my father died, and it was literally the day after my then month-old son came home from the hospital after surgery (that was a very long weekend). I was working in downtown Cleveland when the towers came down, and I vividly remember entire offices of people huddled around the radio listening to Howard Stern (who believe it or not folks, had some of the BEST coverage of that event as it was happening due to his proximity to it – he was carried by his network and the affiliates far past his show’s designated running time) before the Mayor of Cleveland ordered the evacuation of the city. While driving home, I remember the apprehension of not knowing whether the attacks were limited in scope to the planes that had already crashed, or if this was the just the beginning of something larger.
In retrospect, I think many of us fanboys, myself definitely included, allowed ourselves to get too overwrought about certain aspects of the story, about things such as Dr. Doom crying, the supervillains in humble reverence at the site, the incongruities with established Marvel continuity, such as “how it all fit” in with a comic book universe where even larger scale destruction happens with frightening regularity. And, as we later learned, some of the touches in the story were not JMS’, but were added by the artist, John Romita, Jr., who had observations that he wanted to make. I personally got hung up on what I perceived as JMS’ left wing bias hijacking Spider-Man’s voice. Maybe I was correct about the bias (“their burdens will become our tragedies” in reference to the inhabitants of the ever turbulent Middle East still bugs me to this day. I’m sorry, but it is no one in America’s fault that a certain percentage of the world wants to party like it’s 699 and is willing to kill whoever likes central air conditioning, rock music, women in short skirts, and McDonald’s hamburgers). Yes, I know it’s more complicated than that, but allow me at least one oversimplication per article, OK? But that story as written was never really meant to be about Spider-Man, or a “superhero” story in the first place. Addressing the event itself was no sillier than the Marvel and DC Universes acknowledging World War II or Vietnam, even though a being such as Superman could single-handedly end all such conflicts (ala Dr. Manhattan in Watchmen). When some THAT significant happens in our world, it has to be addressed, it’s irresponsible if it’s not, even if it doesn’t make a lick of sense in the context of the world you’re telling stories about. Sometimes it’s a matter of tangibly dealing with and addressing a traumatic event before able to move on with our regular silliness. Boy, I hope that’s not contradictory to what I spewed out earlier about allegories. Anyway, JMS didn’t help matters with comments such as “move out of your parents’ basement” and “for heaven’s sake stop breeding,” which later he stated was directed at one particular person, and not all critics of the story.
Later, as well all know, Mary Jane didcome back to New York (after a few guest appearances) in issue #491 (April 2003) in what was a nice little story where she pours out her angst and her conflicted feelings about being married to Spider-Man without any of that “we’re too young” crap that permeated the tile post reboot.
JMS was also the author of the long awaited Amazing Spider-Man #500 (December 2003) – which unfortunately, turned out to be a disappointment when I first read it, but taking another look at it after the passage of time, reads much better. The germ of the story, which began in issue #498, was a very good one. At the end of issue #499, Spider-Man is trapped in time due to getting caught between Dr. Strange and Dormammu after the latter’s Mindless Ones minions invade Times Square and Reed Richards tries to zap them back to where they belong – eh, it’s a long story – read the issue. Anyway, Spidey is literally standing at the fork in the road of multiple destinies, confronted with the chance to stop the spider from every biting him as he is also faced with a horrifying future and a violent end as his life as Spider-Man unfolds to what might be its sad and brutal, but logical conclusion. Peter makes the right choice, but then is faced with a REAL gauntlet (yeah, that’s a little slam) of his most violent foes and most bitter memories which he must struggle with before he can return to the moment he left. I guess my disappointment at the time was that some of the issues raised were never revisited (although readers of 2010’s Grim Hunt will see a pretty strong nod to them), particularly the circumstances that brought about the end of an aging, future Spider-Man in a hail of bullets, which begged for more story time, or what would have happened had a certain radioactive spider been deflected from its destined path. Now admittedly, variations of that story have been done before, but for a 500th issue would still have been an appropriate place for it if done well, and I would have liked JMS to take a crack at that. Also, we revisited a couple of moments of Spider history that have been DONE TO DEATH, with nothing new to really say about them (but conversely, we also revisited Betty Brant’s brother’s shooting death, which happened back in issue #11, and which she blamed on Spider-Man ). And by this time, Dr. Strange had appeared 3 times in the last 18 months, and his appearances were being used to promote a miniseries, which – was it ever published? I honestly don’t remember, but his multiple appearances were tiresome at that time (but I don’t think he reappeared again until “One More Day”).
“Sins Past” and the existence of the Stacy/Osborn twins may turn out to be JMS’ legacy on the Spider-Man titles due to the sheer controversy that it caused. Interestingly, the controversy, at least its magnitude, probably cannot be blamed on him, since in his original story the twins were going to be Peter’s and not Norman Osborn’s. I believe that he has also been quoted as saying that he wouldn’t have created the twins if he wasn’t going to be able to retcon them away. Of course this would require that the events of One More Day were planned out even farther in advance than is generally known. Frankly, as I stated in a previous essay, I had to fall on Joe Quesada’s side on this one, although not because it would “age” Peter. It’s like the son in Superman Returns. If the kids are Peter’s (or Superman’s), then just what the hell do you do with them once you’ve introduced them? They have great shock value and may have great dramatic value in the story in which they are introduced, but in an endless serial format, they are huge albatrosses, not to mention more than a bit creepy and gross. But that’s where the retcon comes in, I suppose. And to me, frankly, that’s a dramatic cheat. Introducing consequences of a previous relationship (i.e. children) and putting your characters through all of the upheaval it represents (not just Peter would be affected, but how would May and Mary Jane, and all of Peter’s acquaintances react to the fact that he had previously unknown children with Gwen Stacy?), and then waiving the proverbial magic wand and saying “it never happened”?
But when the twins turned out to be the spawn of Gwen and Norman, I actually thought it was an interesting idea and resulted in one of the better renderings of Gwen Stacy. Spider-Man’s Virgin Princess had a nasty secret. Peter didn’t know as much about her as he thought he did. She kept perhaps her greatest secret from him just like he had been keeping his greatest secret from her. Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it Pete? And for the first time, I think I finally “got” the character of Gwen. But holy cow – the shitstorm it caused – the absolute anguish that greeted the idea that a college girl like Gwen Stacy just may have been seduced by a rich, powerful, charismatic, yet at that time emotionally vulnerable man in a regrettable one-night stand – particularly since while she was infatuated with, she was NOT in a committed relationship (egad, there’s that term again) with Peter Parker at the time. You might as well put her on the dashboard and pray to her if you feel that strongly about her supposed purity.
Over the years, obviously, I’ve gotten a lot of mail disagreeing with my opinions. I expect that. I have no business writing any of this stuff if I can’t handle it. But my purpose has always been entertainment, not proselytizing. DeFlowering Gwen is the only essay I have written in more than 10 years that had people ascribing particular motivations to me, questioning my life experiences (which I often draw from to some people’s irritation to write my articles), my educational background and saying things that frankly, weren’t true at all, and I got more than one retraction when I (politely) responded, which I seldom every do because I prefer that the essays speak for themselves.
I’m not going to do is to lay “One More Day,” as it unfolded, at JMS’ door, particularly since he almost publicly disowned it, stopped only by the fact that he probably didn’t want to burn his bridges at Marvel. For one, the story itself was an editorial dictate, and he did publicly denounce the story’s horrible execution (particularly Joe Quesada’s “We don’t have to explain it – it’s magic” which Quesada is now saying he never said quite so explicitly). Supposedly, JMS wanted to retcon Spidey’s history back to the time between Amazing Spider-Man 90-100, effectively doing away with the twins, the marriage, god knows what else AND bringing back Gwen along with Harry. If you think we’ve been belaboring “One More Day” now, holy crap…..
One thing I thought was unfortunately consistent throughout JMS’ run was the story with the great setup, middle, and then disheartening fumble at the five yard line (in the annals of spider history, this is not exclusive to him. Paul Jenkins, an almost undisputed master of the touching and pithy one part tale, often limped to the finish line in multi-part story arcs). For example, I would have to say that JMS had at least four compelling stories (“Sins Past,” “New Avengers,” “The War at Home,” and “Back in Black”) that were keeping me on the edge of my seat and I couldn’t wait to see how they unfolded. I literally raced to my comic shop on Wednesdays, not willing to wait just one more day (no pun intended) to see how the next part unfolded. And to be honest, I don’t remember feeling that way during any author’s particular run since the days of Marv Wolfman and Roger Stern, unless you count Mark Millar’s 12 issue Marvel Knights epic, but that’s somewhat different. However, each story in its own way collapsed at the very end. “Sins Past,” faltered when we went to “The Bridge” again with Sarah Stacy subbing for her mother, and “The Gray Goblin” made his inauspicious and unwelcome debut. “New Avengers” was absolutely my favorite story of all of the Spidey/New Avengers stories told to this day, because JMS was actually doing something with the concept that Brian Michael Bendis talked about doing, but never really did – showing our heroes interacting without their masks doing various mundane human things. There were also great villains (the ever present hordes of Hydra) and their terribly fiendish and diabolical plot (nothing less than the collapse of the United States due to the contamination of the water supply and destruction of its mid-western bread basket). And of course, there was Aunt May doting over all of our heroes (and laying down the law to Wolverine in a great Aunt May moment). But the final part became an overlong ad for “The Other,” which I’ve already dinged. The final two stories suffer from being one or two parts too long (the “War at Home” inexplicably giving us two full pages of the sniper falling asleep) and like “New Avengers” having endings that are mere lead-ins for the subsequent story instead of providing satisfactory conclusions on their own.
Something that was disappointing was that JMS didn’t create any new supervillains that had any traction beyond the initial stories in which they appeared, at least not yet. I would almost bet that Morlun, Shathra, Shade, Digger, Killshot, Shaker, and the Charlie Weiderman Molten Man knockoff will not been seen again. I could be wrong. However, I was really surprised that Joe Kelly in 2010’s “Grim Hunt” actually seemed to revisit some of the “Spider totem” ideas, which pulled in Killer Klone Kaine from the Clone Saga, and even more surprised when Gabriel Stacy became the central figure of his own miniseries in the same year. Still, one of the toughest things in comics has to be creating a villain who isn’t a derivation of one we’ve already seen before, so I’m not really making an issue of that.
And JMS did some great things. Allowing Aunt May to discover that Peter was Spider-Man in issue #476 (November 2001) was LONG overdue, was handled well, and opened the door for probably some of the best characterizations of May, ever, by both JMS and other writers, including 2006’s “Story of the Year” by Roberto Aguirre Sacasa. Think about it, May Parker is probably THE most important and influential mother (or mother figure) in the history of American superhero comics (with the possible exceptions of the two Marthas, Kent and Wayne, although the latter’s influence is based not on her actions or nurturing, but by her murder), and JMS’ ambitious use of her was fitting for a character of this importance, unlike the troublesome, childish, doddering senile old fool too many writers lazily projected her as. The only glitch in the story was the rewrite of the circumstances of Ben’s death – where to hear May tell it, he just wondered off after the two had a fight and was shot dead, apparently in the street. The whole horror of the home invasion and the murder of Ben in front of May, graphically depicted in Amazing Spider-Man #200, was ignored. The romance between her and Jarvis (well, I suppose that it was all with a Skrull – eeeewwww) when the Parkers lived in Avengers Tower was a nice, genuine relationship. It was one of those you slap your hand on your forehead and go “Duh!” because it’s a natural – two people whose lives are devoted to taking care of others finding a special someone to take care of them. This relationship was an unfortunate casualty of “One More Day,” and ultimately Secret Invasion. So – May forgets Peter’s identity – does she also forget her relationship with Jarvis, since she would have to forget about living in Avengers Tower because then she would wonder “Hmmm, why did I live in Avengers Tower?” Damn, that mind wipe is sure selective, isn’t it?
He also seemed to “get” some of the other characters in the Spider-Man mythology as well. His characterization of Doctor Octopus, wildly inconsistent depending on who writes him, was on the mark, as an arrogant, relentless, ego-maniacal foe but also one not immune to occasional bouts of compassion and humanity. JMS’ use of Mary Jane, although plagued at first by his dubious reasoning that she needed to be out of the way at first, was also notable. MJ’s and Peter’s tortured reconciliation in issue #491 highlighted the anxieties created by her perception of her lack of power and relevance in the relationship. She feels that she is inconsequential in contrast to the achievements of the super-powered being that she has married, failing to realize that she actually wields considerable power and influence of her own, rooted in his desperate need for her to be, among other things, his anchor to humanity, a sentiment which he is too clumsy and awkward to adequately express.
As mentioned earlier, making Peter a school teacher and getting him away from the totally worn out cliché of taking pictures of himself, selling them to the Bugle, having a laugh at Jonah’s expense, and no one being the wiser, was also a great idea, and opened the door for the introduction of new supporting characters (and improved use of old ones, like Flash Thompson), which the titles clearly needed (the only disadvantage was that it pretty well did remove the Daily Bugle and its cast from a significant impact on the titles). And JMS often gave us a thinking Peter Parker, one who performed research, and used history and science in fighting the bad guys, educating the reader along with way (hey, I had never heard of the Ogallala Aquifer before). Overall, Peter just seemed smarter during JMS’ watch. All too often, in trying to emphasize Peter’s awkwardness and cluelessness, writers seem to make him an outright moron.
Frankly, I doubt that any future writer will be able to pull such bold moves with Spidey and his supporting cast in the future as the character settles into his Bland New Day existence of no growth.
I’ve found that both creators and fans are very much like people who complain that they didn’t have a nice, quiet meal when they went to Chuck E. Cheese’s. Fans of 50 year old characters have to be a little less surprised and intolerant when writers try to do something different with those characters every once in awhile and give readers something they haven’t seen before, and writers (and editors) have to be a little less shocked and dismayed when their readership base, which they KNOW is comprised of anal-retentive, detail oriented, continuity obsessed people who want Point A to connect to Point B (as I’ve said before, I include myself in that category with no reservations), react to certain stories like, well, anal-retentive, detail oriented, continuity obsessed people who want Point A to connect to Point B. “We don’t have to explain it – it’s magic” is simply an insult no matter which way you look at it.
So, what can we say about the run of J. Michael Straczynski on Amazing Spider-Man? It could have been great. It should have been great. But, it wasn’t. Was it too ambitious, and therefore its failures that much more glaringly obvious than the actually more offensive, but less noticeable, mediocre efforts which yield mediocre results? Was it a bit too presumptuous with the writer thinking he needed to make loud, bold strokes when all that was needed was some fine tuning? Or was Marvel simply too afraid to move forward with some of his better ideas, preferring to hunker down in the past, where it’s nice and dark, and safe?
I’m just not smart enough to pin down exactly why.
NEXT WEEK: Two talented authors and their potentially memorable runs are prematurely and short- sightedly brought to hasty conclusions.
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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, Disney, whatever, and are used in these articles for the purpose of analysis and commentary.