Ah, 1985 – gas was $1.09, you could go to the movies for less than $3, you couldn’t go ten minutes without hearing “We Are the World”, and Coca-Cola created the train wreck that was to be New Coke. It may best be known for being the year that Michael J. Fox began time hopping in a DeLorean, but what may come second is how great Spider-Man comics were during the time (and if it doesn’t, it should). There were three titles, all written by top notch people – Amazing was written by DeFalco, Web by Michelinie, and, my personal favorite, Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man by Peter David. And of course, you can’t mention Peter David’s run on Spider-Man without immediately thinking of the Sin Eater Saga. So plop down your $2.60 (what it would have cost you to pick up all four issues) and get ready to take a twirl through one of Spidey’s greatest stories of all time and see what was going on both in the story and behind the scenes.
Sure it’s an older story; however, it is one that is still relevant today. Carnage just got finished fighting a new version of Sin Eater and the Wraith is in the Spiral series out recently. But it is not the characters introduced that make this arc so interesting.
One of the things that needs to be considered before even looking at this story arc is what was going on at Marvel during the time. Jim Shooter is EIC and he recently put Jim Owsley (who now goes by the name Christopher Priest) up as the youngest Spider-Man editor ever at age 22. Owsley made some tough calls that worked out great for the Spider-Man stories, but in the end, made his life miserable and leaves him with such a bad taste in his mouth that titled one of the chapters of his online memoir, “Why I Never Discuss Spider-Man”.
One of those tough calls dealt with Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man. At the time, Al Milgrom was on the title. Owsley liked Milgrom and liked his style, but it did not fit in with his vision for the Spider-Man titles. The three titles had no real focus at the time. They were just three different ways Marvel could sell a Spider-Man title (fortunately for comic fans at the time, Marvel had not really learned how to milk the big events). Owsley’s vision was for ASM to keep going as the flagship title, Web to become the travel issue and keep Spidey out of New York, and for PPTSSM to become a darker and grittier version of Spider-Man. We really had not had much in the way of dark stories for Spider-Man (the occasional toss the girlfriend over a bridge and let the hero snap her neck trying to save her not withstanding). Milgrom was just too whimsical, so he was moved out (much to Milgrom’s dislike) to make way for a new comer. Not just a new comer, but some nobody from marketing of all places. Owsley said that he was questioned over this choice saying that someone asked if they were going to be hiring secretaries to write stories next (the 80s were a more sexist time). Peter David recounted in a comic book convention I attended in North Carolina in the late 80s that other writers didn’t like it because he didn’t earn the Spider-Man title. Everyone else worked their way up writing licensed properties like Transformers and My Pretty Pony. Being a newbie, David was willing to mold his writing to what was asked. You want a grittier Spider-Man, OK.
Now Owsley remembers that Shooter hated Peter David and that he always had to run interference between them to protect David’s job and Owsley feels he put David through hell with all of his edits. Shooter, for his part, remarked that he thought it was cute that Owsley thought that anyone would be able to run interference between Shooter and someone he disliked. Peter David doesn’t remember Owsley being too hard on him, just doing what editors are supposed to do. Whatever the case, we get a remarkable run out of PPTSSM while David is at the helm.
What makes Peter David such a great Spider-Man writer? Is it Owsley and/or Shooter’s direction? Is it is love of Spidey (“Who wouldn’t want to write Spider-Man? He’s Marvel’s flagship character, he’s the everyman of the superhero community, and he’s quite possibly the single best character to ever come from Stan Lee’s imagination.”), or is it the fact that he wanted to tell the story in as realistic a fashion as possible (considering you have a guy with spider powers as the protagonist)? Whatever the case, just a few issues into David’s run, he gets the order from Owsley to shake things up a bit by killing off Captain Jean DeWolff. Peter David has said before that he actually had plans to use DeWolff in later stories, but since this is what the boss wanted, that’s what he wrote.
I’ve read some reviews that say they feel PAD (as David often refers to himself) probably wrote Spidey so gritty because he didn’t really have a feel for the character, what with being so new. This couldn’t be further from the truth. PAD had already written a few light hearted stories already. His first PPTSSM issue was #103 where he nails the Torch and Spidey’s banter, he follows this up with ASM #266 with the fabulous Frog Man and ASM #267 “When Cometh the Commuter” which is regarded by many as the funniest Spider-Man story ever written. Clearly he has the gift of comedy. What made Owsley think that such a funny writer would be good at writing dark stories is beyond me, but then that is why I am a historian and not a comic book editor. Also, even though Spidey is acting more aggressively than he usually does, it is easy to see that, for the most part, he is still very much in character.
So let’s get down to the issues. I won’t review them here, because that would take so long and I want to look at the behind the scenes. So if you have not read this series, then what are you waiting for? You won’t find it on Marvel Unlimited (at least not at time of posting), but you can of course pick them up in the back issue bin (according to Comics Price Guide) for only $3 each in mint condition or a whopping $6 for #110 or you could buy it in hardcover at Amazon for just under $17. For the better bang for your buck, as long as you don’t mind colorless comics, try Essential Spider-Man #5. Or just skip to Thwip Studios and watch them. Here is the first episode, you can find the rest from there:
Go ahead and read the story, because there will be spoilers in this post.
Right off the bat, readers can tell there is something different with this issue. This issue marks the new take on Spidey that Owsley wanted and the words “ALL NEW ALL DARING” are added above the already wordy title. On top of that, Spidey is swinging toward the reader looking as angry as a guy in a mostly featureless mask can look. On top of that, the cover also promises you that in this issue, “Spidey cuts loose!” As a first time reader, you would be all Wow! until you open it up and get a rather boring looking flashback scene of Jean DeWolff’s life. Boring that is, until you hit the fourth page of the issue and see this scene:
Then it was all WOW! again. PAD came under a lot of criticism for this scene. You didn’t have a lot of scenes this graphic ever since the Comics Code Authority was put in place so a woman sprawled out in a puddle of blood like this was a bit different – especially for a Spider-Man comic. However, it wasn’t the brutality of her death that drove the criticism, it was the timing. PAD says that an editor (he doesn’t say which one in his blog) in the industry pulled him aside and told him that he broke the rules of comics and that a character death must be the climax of the story – not the beginning. PAD also says that even though Owsley picked DeWolff because, although she was an important character, she was relatively minor and they were not getting letters from fans about her. It was someone they could easily lose, but still had enough connection to give Spidey that push that both he and PAD wanted. However, once she was dead, they got tons of letters saying two things – 1. DeWolff was their favorite character and 2. She wasn’t really dead.
PAD finds it incredible that so many people found it so hard to believe that the character was actually dead. “I couldn’t understand it. I had called the damned thing “The Death of Jean DeWolff.” I’d had her entire upper torso blown away at close range by a shotgun. I had her funeral and planted her in the next issue. What did I have to do? Decapitate her on panel? She was dead, cold, wormfood.”
In the next few pages, we see the beginnings of Spidey going darker. He tracks down some street criminals easily. One of them gives up and says, “I’m surrendering. You can’t hit me. You wouldn’t dare!” Upon which Spidey says, “I was hoping you’d say that,” and punches the guy’s lights out. This was just a measly little purse snatcher. It really helps set us up for what is going to happen in this arc and for issues to come. The police come and we get this interaction:
At that convention I heard PAD talk, he said that he got criticism for this too. He said that he wanted Spidey to act like normal people do when they hear that someone has died, which is why the “I just saw her yesterday” bit is in there. However, he said at the panel that apparently he should have had Spidey grab a lamp post, start swinging it around and shout, “No! I’ll avenge her death if it’s the last thing I do!” I remembered him saying that when I watched Revenge of the Sith and Darth Vader is yelling “No!” and force crushing all his medical equipment.
We are then introduced to the lead detective in the case – Stanley Carter. Hindsight tells us that this is the Sin Eater, but nobody knew it at the time (according to PAD who is judging by the letters coming in). He said he knew that even though he gave all the clues, nobody would get because of two reasons. The first is that he named him Stan, which most Marvel fans look upon with good vibes. The second reason is: “I made him Jewish. Isaac Asimov said if you want to have someone who evil intent must be hidden, make him Jewish and have him speak in semi-Yiddish inverted sentence order. You know. Like Yoda. (“So a murderer that makes me?”) Readers will mentally categorize this as someone who is friendly and even comic relief.” Maybe so, but I think it has to be because of the picture Carter has of Nick Fury. I just don’t see Fury as the guy who writes “Best wishes” on autographed photos of himself. Carter must really be a stand-up guy!
The sin eater is referred to by Stan as coming from Ozark mythology where people left fruits and other food on the deceased body. In actual mythology, sin eaters did/do exist in the Ozarks, but go back farther in Welsh and England mythology (I did find one source that said it went as far back as Greek and Egyptian times, although this seems unlikely) as a person who would willingly take on the sins of the dead so that the soul would be free to continue to the afterlife from consequences. This person would often be poor and low in the social order of society. They would have to be to take on this job. The family would put food, usually bread, either next to the body or on the chest of the body. Salt was often used on the plate, although I could find nothing to indicate why. The sins of the soul would be absorbed by the bread. Then, the sin eater would be given the bread to eat in exchange for money and a flagon of ale. After speaking an incantation over the body, the sin eater would consume the food and, along with it, the sins of the dead. As an added benefit, since the deceased was free from the guilt of the sins committed in life, there was no need for this person to ever become the undead and wander the earth as punishment for misdeeds. The sin eater’s soul would be so burdened with sins that he would certainly go straight to hell upon death. The church did not promote this practice and often tried to track down and eradicate these sin eaters.
So what about this story arc really makes it so great? It is the realism that Peter David is known for bringing to his stories. He has a way of looking past traditional comic book takes on a subject and putting it as it would fall out if it could be real. Case in point is the podcast interview (was it 162?) where he talks about sitting in on a panel of mutant book writers and listening to them get all excited about a big match-up between Wolverine and Magneto. He felt it was stupid despite that they were all geeking out over the two top mutants squaring off. PAD’s opinion? Wolverine as a skeleton of metal. Magneto controls metal. He would just rip the metal out of the Wolvie’s body. End of story. It is that straight-forward approach again and again that makes it so great.
In this arc we have a realistic villain. Carter has a shotgun. That’s it. No laser cane. No rocket skateboard. There is no hypnotic disco music or even the most minor of goblin gliders to be seen. A shotgun. Yet, with this, Sin Eater is able to really get one over on both Spider-Man and Daredevil. When confronted by Spider-Man, he shoots. Spidey easily dodges, but forgets that there are people in the crowd behind him. One old man takes the shot meant for Spider-Man. Spidey, unnerved by this (who wouldn’t be), hesitates long enough for Sin Eater to get away.
Then, in the scene that really stuck in my mind after all these years, is the moment that Daredevil hesitates in order to figure out how to keep his secret identity secret. I know that it is a part of the superhero genre for the superhero to make excuses to sneak out and return as their alter ego, but I’ve always found it irritating that this delay to suit up never has disastrous consequences. Well, it does here.
Judge Horace Rosenthal seems only to exist here to be blown away. The historian in me is a little sad that the judge doesn’t appear to be an existing Daredevil character (if anyone knows different, please enlighten me in the comments section, but I cannot find any other reference to the dearly departed judge other than for this story).
Then there is the brutality of the arc. At the end of the third issue, we get a cliffhanger of Betty Brant getting blown away.
It was, as Owsley put it “a cliffhanger so intense, in fact, that we briefly considered pulling it. It scared the crap out of me, and I was 23. I was imagining soccer moms buying SPECTACULAR for their kids by rote, not realizing Sin-Eater was blowing away Betty Brant Leeds inside.” After killing Jean DeWolffe so early, who knows what this crazy writer will do! Was Jean just a warm up for more mass death? Fortunately (or not, depending on your take on Betty) she was able to duck out in time.
On top of that, the brutality really goes beyond normal Spidey stories when he finally catches Carter and beats him relentlessly. Betty’s face reflects how over the edge Spider-Man has gone.
And then there is the ass-kickery. On one of the recent podcasts, the gang mentioned how the Renew Your Vows Spidey is more like the ass-kicking Spidey of the 80s. Well, folks, this is what they are referring to. Spidey doesn’t need other heroes to rescue him. In fact, when Daredevil comes in to help him out, Spidey continues the beat down on him
O.K., he attempts to beat him down. I believe I remember J.R. saying this was what brings the arc down for him. Daredevil is able to win the fight because Spidey is off balance with anger. Even so, it is clearly acknowledged in the comic that 999 times out of 1,000 Daredevil gets his butt handed to him, this is just the 1 time out of 1,000 that the outcome differs. In fact, Spider-Man is so pissed at Daredevil, when Daredevil is in need after trying to stop a lynch mob from, well, lynching Sin Eater, he turns around and starts to walk away. It takes Murdock yelling out “Peter!” to bring him to his senses. If you want to say anything about Peter being written out of character, it would be here. However, I think that this is the whole point. PAD said he wanted to write a story where Peter was pushed over the edge, which would mean that he would react in ways that normally he doesn’t.
The issues end with the credits in the last panel set in white words with a black background. Peter David has said numerous times that this was to evoke a Hill Street Blues feel. For those of you not alive in the 80s, it was a very popular cop show that had a more realistic and sad feel to it (especially compared to other 80s shows).
There is so much else in this arc that is worth reading and a lot more that I would love to talk about here. Popchik’s vigilante story arc, the Charles Bronson cameo, the basis for a great Santa Claus vs. Spidey story (which we’ll look at closer to Christmas), the foundation for Venom’s origin, and Daredevil looking foolish by not recognizing a man dressed as Sin Eater sitting in the room with him (DD: Where is he? OFFICER: Sitting right in front of you. Are you blind?”). However, this post is long enough as is.
PAD set out to show what would happen if you pushed Spider-Man too far. Thirty issues later, he will show us the effects of his actions (we’ll look at that in two weeks). So, what is your take on the arc? One of the greatest Spidey stories ever or over rated?
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PPTSSM 107 Cover
Comics Code Authority stamp
Spidey learns of the death
Sin Eater shoots into crowd
Daredevil vs Spider-Man