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Peter Parker: Child of Radioactivity or Mysticism?

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The Marvel Universe is populated with heroes, big and small, just as the internet if populated with bloggers, big and small.  Each individual blogger tackles his/her own unique topic, just as each hero has his/her own rogues galleries.  Here at Superior Spider-Talk, we obviously are focused on Spider-Man and his own friends and enemies.  Yet, sometimes there is a monster/villain so terrifying… so undefeatable… that Spider-Man needs to call in The Avengers!  So in that fashion, a number of the internet’s best and brightest comic bloggers have banded together in a “Super-Blog Team-Up” of sorts to tackle one of the greatest villains of all… RETCONS!  Join Silver Age Sensations, Flodo’s Page, Longbox Graveyard, Between the Pages, Bronze Age Babies, Superior Spider-Talk, Superhero Satellite, Fantastiverse, and Chasing Amazing for the greatest team-up of all time!

We all know the timeless story of how Peter Parker became the legendary superhero we know as Spider-Man.  It is a story that has been told and retold in as many different forms of media as is possible, with slight variations on the key idea.  Most of those variations have revolved around the situation that Peter finds himself in when he gets bit by the spider.  In the first series of “Spider-Man” films the spider seemingly injects its DNA into Peter, thus transforming him into the friendly-neighborhood Spider-Man.  In Ultimate Spider-Man and the “Amazing Spider-Man” film, Peter is bitten by some experimental spiders whose genetics somehow alter his chemistry as well.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 10.39.38 PMHowever, in the core Amazing Spider-Man series of comics the delivery method for Peter’s powers has remained untouched.  Peter visits a science exhibit on “Experiments in Radio-Activity” and is quickly absorbed into the demonstration of how radioactive rays work.  Unbeknownst to him, a lone spider descends from the ceiling before being accidentally blasted with radioactivity.  In its final moments, the spider lands on the hand of Peter Parker and bites down hard.  In that bite Peter is given the “great power” that will follow him for the rest of his life, and that spider… well, he’s seen better days.

This was and is the story of how Peter Parker received his super powers and it has remained that way in the comics for quite some time with very little variation… except for one.  Sure there have been moments in Amazing Spider-Man over the past five decades that have toyed with Spider-Man’s origins, but none have gone so far as the work of J. Michael Straczynski.

Starting with his first issue on the title, Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 2) #30, Straczynski introduced elements that would question not how Peter got his powers but why he got his powers.  Was he always intended to get the powers from the spider or was it merely a radioactive accident?  This question would serve as the backbone for almost all of J. Michael Straczynski’s run on the title.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 11.02.06 PMIn Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 2 ) #30, Spider-Man is swinging around the city, apprehending bullies from Midtown High, when he encounters a man by the name of Ezekiel who exhibits similar spider-powers to his own.  He playfully challenges Peter to question whether or not he can actually prove that he has got his powers from a radioactive spider-bite.  He says:

“This is the five million dollar question.  I’m about to yank your chain like nobody else ever has before, and nobody else ever will again.  So listen carefully.

Did the radiation enable the spider to give you these powers?

Or was the spider trying to give you those powers before the radiation killed it?

Which came first?  The radiation?  Or the power?  The chicken or the egg or the power?”

This question would serve to divide the Spider-Man fanbase, with many outright rejecting the notion that the reasoning behind Peter’s powers could have come from anywhere other than the radiation that devastated that poor spider’s body.  Peter himself was dubious of the distinction, but as evidence began to pile up it became harder and harder to ignore.

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 6.12.34 AMIn Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 2) #32, Ezekiel also alerts Peter that his powers have also made him a representative of totemistic forces, a pure form of the spider.  This goes to illustrate why he has been beset upon by so many villains with an animalistic theme.  These people are what Ezekiel calls “totemistic pretenders,” people who for some reason or another are trying to adopt the totemic power of a creature and wield it as their own.  Yet, they cannot be successful when faced with a pure totemic power like Peter’s.

Ezekiel’s words are empowering but he also warns Peter that his powers have also attracted a powerful totem eater named Morlun who is in Manhattan to hunt down and drain the life out of Peter.  Ezekiel’s powers, gained through another unnatural process, haven’t attracted Morlun’s attention (he’s not nearly as flashy as Peter’s red and blues) and in order to keep it that way he offers to help Peter hide away from Morlun for several months.  Peter refuses and Ezekiel fades away into the background.

What follows is one of Spider-Man’s greatest fights of all time.  Morlun comes to feed and seems undeafeatable.  Peter is beaten mercilessly and Morlun seeks to exploit his better natures at all times, often damaging public spaces with no care for the casualties left in his wake.  With a slight assist from Ezekiel, who turns up after a change of heart and is seemingly killed, Peter is able to gain a blood sample from Morlun.  His tests reveal Morlun’s weakness to the radioactivity in Peter’s blood.  Peter goes to the most radioactive place he can think of, a nearby nuclear facility, and pumps his body full of radioactivity in an amount that could have been lethal.

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 6.24.26 AMPeter survives because of his radiated blood and pummels Morlun to a point near death.  Peter asserts that no matter what the nature of his powers are, the radiation is a key element that makes him “not pure.”  Morlun is defeated and the legacy of the spider’s radioactive powers is returned!

Following Morlun’s defeat, Peter is continually attacked by creatures that seem to be related to his totemic powers.  In Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 2) #40, Peter’s new job as a science teacher at Midtown High introduces him to a homeless student named Jenny.  Jenny tells him that many of the other homeless kids that she lives with are slowly disappearing into the night.  Peter decides to investigate as Spider-Man and finds a man known only as Shade attempting to kidnap a few of the other kids.

Spider-Man lashes out, but Shade has the power of intangibility.  Shade phases away into the Astral Plane and outside of Spider-Man’s reach.  Yet, Spidey has a card up his sleeve when dealing with the Astral Plane… Doctor Strange.  With the Doc’s help, Spider-Man travels to the Astral Plane to rescue Jenny and the other kids from Shade.  Spider-Man is successful after he delivers several well-deserved punches upside Shade’s head.  Shade is flung towards a sort of mystical cocoon and promptly explodes into magical fairy-dust.

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 6.34.44 AMPeter turns to leave the Astral Plane with the kids but is drawn deeper into the realm by a feeling and a voice that seems to be calling him.  As he wanders deeper he finds what appears to be a giant mystical spider of some sorts that tells him “You who are of us… and not of us… your time is not yet.  Leave.”  Peter is promptly, and violently, expelled from the Astral Plane.

In Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 2) #46 it is revealed that Peter’s jaunt away from the path, deeper into the Astral Plane, made the Astral enemy of the spider aware of his existence.  A mystical spider-wasp known as Shathra sensed his presence and followed him back to Earth.  She opines that Peter would make a great meal for her offspring.

Peter manages to defeat Shathra, after a prolonged battle where she assumes human form and manages to convince the world that she and Spider-Man were lovers (on live TV) much to the dislike of Mary Jane and glee of J. Jonah Jameson.  All this public attention draws the very much not dead Ezekiel out of hiding to nurse Peter back to health.

He tells Peter the story of Kwaku Anansi, of popular folk legend, and how he was the very first Spider-Man.  Turns out Anansi would swing around on webs across Africa so that he might see all that there was to see.  However, he eventually tired of this world and sought out greater enlightenment.  He constructed a web into the sky so that he might communicate with the sky god Nyame, keeper of all the stories of the world, past, present, and future.

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 7.00.53 AMNyame strikes a deal with Anansi.  In return for all his wisdom and knowledge, Anansi will serve Nyame for all time.  Anansi’s spirit is transformed and spread into spider’s everywhere.  His knowledge is passed on from him to all spiders, who spin his story into their webs.

In Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 2) #48, Ezekiel asserts that, “For while the spider’s gifts can be stolen, borrowed, or impersonated — only once were they given freely.  In the intersection between science and the spider.  Science allowed it to happen.  But science is new, and the spider is old.  The science was random.  The placement in a room filled with possibilities, deliberate.”

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 7.01.37 AMHe asserts to Peter that, “There is no contradiction.  You are a child of the spider and a child of science.  You are the product of neutrons and photons, of the dance of DNA and radiation, intertwining and exchanging information and intentions.  But your voice is the voice of the spider, a voice that is older than humankind itself — and to acknowledge the one is to acknowledge the other.”

Peter awakens from his paralysis at the hands of Shathra to find himself in Ghana with Ezekiel.  He is introduced to the members of the Ashanti tribe, who first told the story of Anansi and who are eternally loyal to that history.  They are protecting a temple that houses a gigantic spider shrine that Peter will use to tap into his totemic spider powers to finally send Shathra back to the Astral Plane.  After a long fight, Peter traps Shathra in his web and sends her down a hole at the center of the temple.  When Peter inquires what is down there, Ezekiel asserts that “the food chain goes both way, you know.”

A short time later, Ezekiel is seen at the shrine with a shaman named Miguel who warns of a coming danger.  Miguel slices into Ezekiel’s chest to release his blood, in some sort of sacrifice, and summon what they are calling The Gatekeeper.  Ezekiel returns to New York City to warn Peter that since he received his powers by accident that the mystical spider-god, The Gatekeeper, sees him as unworthy to be in their possession.  Obviously, his agenda is to retrieve the powers from Peter by the force of death.  Ezekiel tells Peter that he must return to Ghana but Peter refuses.

Perhaps Peter should have listened to Ezekiel because shortly thereafter a swarm of spiders infests Manhattan and begins attacking the civilians.  In Amazing Spider-Man #507, the spiders gather to form into the shape of a giant creature that begins to do battle with Spider-Man.  Clearly, this is The Gatekeeper and Spidey has to get out of New York as quick as he can.  Yet, before he can do so The Gatekeeper’s spiders cover every inch of Peter’s body and trap him there.  It is then that The Gatekeeper reaches out to Peter and explains why he was chosen to receive his spider-powers.

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 9.25.36 AMAs it turns out, Peter was chosen from those students present that day during the science exhibit (which is a retcon itself, as it shows Flash, Gwen, and Harry in attendance).  Peter was chosen for his rage.  For every cruelty he suffered he grew in strength and resolve.  “Who could be a better hunter than one who had been prey?”  Readers have seen this repeated time and time again as Peter never gives up in the face of overwhelming odds.

When Peter awakes, it is to a new set of overwhelming odds.  He’s back in Ghana and Ezekiel stands over him, ready for the kill.  It seems that Ezekiel sought out great power for himself and in order to do so he cheated the spider-gods and performed a ritualistic sacrifice on himself.  As a result he was gifted with the same power-set as Peter.  However, there cannot be two and the gods are returning in the form of The Gatekeeper to make two into one.  Ezekiel or Peter, only one can survive.

This was Ezekiel’s plan the whole time, as he planned on helping Peter survive the Morlun incident only to utilize him to defeat the following creatures (like Shathra) that would seek him out before The Gatekeeper returned.  Peter and Ezekiel do battle and Ezekiel manages to drug Peter and tie him up to the sacrificial pillar that he used on himself in the past.  When The Gatekeeper comes to collect, in the same form of a giant spider as the one that killed Shathra, Ezekiel has a change of heart.  He realizes that he’s done nothing with his “great power” and that he doesn’t deserve to live.  He sacrifices himself and saves Peter from death.

Miguel returns to collect Peter from the tomb.  Peter asks him, “I still don’t know the truth.  I mean, all this… the spider the way I saw it in there, the spider the way I… the way it happened to me– What’s the truth?  The magic, or the science?”

Screen Shot 2014-02-19 at 9.42.12 AMMiguel tells him that there is no contradiction between science and magic, it is all a matter of perspective.

Very little of the spider-totem storyline has ever been referenced in future Spider-Man comics.  Shathra and Morlun have both shown up in small roles outside of Spider-Man’s tale and never in reference to any of Spider-Man’s totemic origins.  It seems J. Michael Straczynski’s intentions were to explore the potential discrepancies surrounding the spider’s bite and to never give a clear answer.  The actions in this storyline seem to present a plethora of evidence that Spider-Man’s origins could be magical, but also that the scientific element was essential.  It seems to me that this is the best kind of retcon, one that introduces a new idea but leaves it up to the reader to decide how they interpret it.

So did this change Peter’s origin story?  Perhaps, or perhaps not.  It seems to me that it is merely just a matter of perspective.  Either way, it remains one of my favorite Spider-Man stories in the series’ fifty year run.

Be sure to check out all the other amazing coverage of comic book retcons as part of the SUPER-BLOG TEAM-UP!

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Chasing Amazing: Brand New Day and the Retcon of Harry Osborn
Fantastiverse: Age of Retcon: Bucky 4.0: The Winter Solder
The Superhero Satellite: RETCON: Crisis on Continuity Earths
Bronze Age Babies: Was the Vision Really Carrying a Torch?
Between the Pages: Good Cowboys Always Shoot First
Longbox Graveyard: Roy Thomas and Earth-2
Flodo’s Page: Green Lantern: Secret Origins – Revision or Retcon?
Silver Age Sensations: Retcons & The Red, White, and Blue Silver Age Avenger!

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