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Volume 2 Review: “Another Return of the Sinister Six”

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Volume 2 Review is a regular feature that looks back to the late 1990s when Marvel rebooted its Spider-Man series for the very first time. Each installment will discuss a different arc and whether or not it achieves its goals of presenting something new and/or gripping about the Spider-Man character and mythos.

In this installment, we’re discussing Amazing Spider-Man vol. 2 #12 (story by Howard Mackie/John Byrne; inks by Scott Hanna) and Peter Parker: Spider-Man vol. 2 #12 (story by Mackie; art by John Romita Jr. and Hanna)

Sinister Six 03Over the course of Spider-Man comics history, an appearance by the famed villainous supergroup, the Sinister Six always had an event-like feel to it — such as the team’s debut in the very first Amazing Spider-Man Annual issue and that story’s sequel, “The Return of the Sinister Six,” which ran across six issues of Amazing Spider-Man in the early 90s during the David Michelinie/Erik Larsen years. 

However, as I’ve noted in nearly every installment of this ASM volume 2 retrospective, the Howard Mackie/John Byrne run was, for better or worse, quite unique. So it shouldn’t shock anyone to hear that their treatment of the Sinister Six was also atypical. 

Just the title of the storyline says a lot: “Another Return of the Sinister Six.” It practically begs a sentiment of reluctance and weariness from the creators that is ultimately reflected in how the team is portrayed in the arc — which is to say, very apathetically.

That’s actually not an indictment of the story itself. “Another Return of the Sinister Six,” is perfectly acceptable comic book storytelling, and unlike the last arc, which was composed of one very compelling comic and one installment of unnecessary gobbledygook, this one manages to maintain its pacing across both issues. But it also reads like a poor use of one of Marvel’s marquee assemblages of villains, since the Sinister Six are barely around long enough to make an impact and when they are on the page they lack any sizzle or steak.

Sinister Six 01Instead, the priority for the creative team seems to be in pushing forward some of the lingering subplots that — in retrospect — were the backbone of the Mackie/Byrne run. In addition to the mounting tension in Peter and MJ’s marriage and Mary Jane’s stalker (which were the focal points of the last arc), Mackie also pays off a storyline involving a cryptically crooked senator and Arthur Stacy (Gwen’s uncle). Mackie, who has plenty of experience playing in the world of the supernatural with long-standing runs on books like Ghost Rider, resolves the Stacy/senator story with a surprisingly (for Spider-Man) macabre twist. 

Meanwhile, things continue to go from bad to apocalyptically worse between Peter and Mary Jane. After months of teases involving MJ’s stalker closing in on his prey, the psychopath finally reveals himself to Mary Jane, leading to an incredibly tense moment in Peter Parker: Spider-Man #12. Rather than have MJ’s husband serve as her knight in shining armor, Mackie/Byrne weave in another surprise twist when Mary Jane is able to save herself from her stalker and Spidey is about two minutes too late to the scene of the crime. At this point, Peter’s tardiness has rendered him totally ineffective from MJ’s perspective, thereby putting their marital union in dire straits. 

For all of the hand-wringing that accompanied Joe Quesada’s “One More Day” editorial edict in the late 2000s, storylines like “Another Return of the Sinister Six” demonstrate how the Peter/MJ marriage had a target on its back years earlier. Granted, the ultimate resolution to the couple’s marital discord did not involve a deal with Mephisto and a cosmic annulment, but Mackie/Byrne are clearly making a concerted effort in this storyline to muddy the waters and make some kind of physical separation palatable. 

Sinister Six 04If anything, the Peter/MJ relationship dynamic here shares a lot of similarities to what was depicted in “One Moment in Time” — the story that essentially justified Quesada’s mandate a few years after “One More Day.” Under Mackie/Byrne, Peter is as emotionally tone deaf towards MJ as he’s ever been, while Mary Jane has seemingly forgotten the constraints on her marriage caused by her husband’s double life that have existed since the day the two got together. With both characters behaving badly in this story, the marriage is almost begging for a mercy killing rather than a beautiful reunion. 

It’s interesting that when looking back at Marvel’s depiction of the marriage over the years, this storyline is rarely mentioned with the same venom as “One More Day,” in large part because people just didn’t care enough about Spider-Man in the late 1990s. Plus, Mackie had far less success writing the couple than J. Michael Strazcynzki did a few years later, which helped to make “One More Day” an even bigger betrayal to those who supported the couple. 

As for the portrayal of the Sinister Six in this arc, the biggest concern is how inefficient and inept the team comes across in both issues. The Sinister Six are missing some key members (the original Kraven is dead, as is his first replacement, Jason Macendale/Hobgoblin, while Mysterio’s status was very unclear thanks to him being killed off in Kevin Smith/Quesada’s Daredevil run only to reappear in the Spider-Man universe) and even the group’s recognized leader, Doctor Octopus is depicted as being uninterested in getting the band back together. 

Sinister Six 02That leaves a team consisting of Vulture, Sandman (who was still towing the line between good guy and anti-hero at this point in history), Mysterio II, Electro (wearing his poorly-designed new costume which debuted in Byrne’s Chapter One ministeries) and Kraven’s son, Aloysha (aka, not the “Grim Hunter” son who is killed off by Kaine during the “Clone Saga”). If this assemblage of villains fails to titillate – don’t worry, it’s not you.

Just to add to the group’s ineffectiveness is the presence of Venom, who shows up because the calendar reads “1999” and someone in the Spider-office must have realized it had been a whole three months since the one-time sales monster had appeared in a Spidey book. Venom, per his contract, makes a crack about eating brains — this time referring to Sandman’s sand brains which makes for a “unique” spin if there ever was one. However, he’s not long for the group as his teammates turn on him even faster than most readers did once David Michelinie wasn’t around anymore to make the character remotely interesting. 

It all adds up to a rather disappointing Sinister Six appearance. And yet Mackie/Byrne’s treatment of all of the other subplots — especially Peter/MJ — is at least enough to keep the reader going to see where things are headed in future issues.

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