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Volume 2 Review: “Bright Lights, Bigger City”

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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 #11 (story by Howard Mackie/John Byrne; inks by Scott Hanna) and Peter Parker: Spider-Man vol. 2 #11 (story by Mackie; art by John Romita Jr. and Hanna)

ASM 11 01Despite the fact that a lot of my criticism of Amazing Spider-Man volume 2 centers around the Howard Mackie/John Byrne creative team, I think it’s important for a reader to consider the broader context of the state of Marvel and the comic book industry as a whole when reading and evaluating these stories in retrospect.

For example, the two-part “Bright Lights, Bigger City,” starts off as a fairly compelling story in ASM #11, as Mackie and Byrne finally start to play off the long-simmering “discontent” between Peter and Mary Jane. The comic ends on a heckuva cliffhanger with Peter (as Spidey) rescuing MJ during a modeling shoot despite the fact that he has still failed to own up to the fact that he’s out there risking his life as Spider-Man again. But when the storyline resumes in the other Spider-book, Peter Parker: Spider-Man #11, Mackie (paired off with artist John Romita Jr.) seemingly brushes the Peter/MJ story aside in favor of some wacky crossover dubbed “The Eighth Day” involving the Avengers and the X-Men.

It would be highly disingenuous to beat up Mackie for this sudden shift in tone and narrative focus because, sadly, the contents of PPSM #11 are more reflective of the cumulative ADD/desperation of late 90s Marvel than Mackie’s ability to tell a Spider-Man story. At this point in history, Marvel was still recovering from the bottom falling out of the comic book market (mostly fueled by comic book collector speculator bubble bursting from all of those foil and chromium variants, though also caused by some of the company’s disastrous financial/business decisions). 

ASM 11 03The X-Men seemed to be the only franchise fully immune to the decline in sales, though Spider-Man was still fairly successful, if not inconsistent. However, other comic book franchises, like the Avengers and the Fantastic Four were pretty hard hit, which led to ill-advised events like “Heroes Reborn” and “Heroes Return.” With that in mind, having the Spider-office shift gears after ending one of its issues on a cliffhanger in order to work Spider-Man into an Avengers crossover story like “The Eighth Day” smacks of Marvel trying to leech off of some of Spider-Man’s sales heat as a means to prop up Earth’s mightiest, yet financially struggling heroes. 

In terms of looking at what actually worked in this arc — more specifically, what about ASM #11 that makes it an enjoyable read — after months of teasing about there being some marital tension between Peter and MJ, Mackie and Byrne confidently pull the trigger on this story and take the couple to some new, uncomfortable places. Adding some fuel to the drama-fire is the fact that there’s an anonymous stalker tormenting MJ and threatening to kill her “husband” (which seemingly rules out an established villain a la Venom or Doc Ock from consideration), and yet Mary Jane is so frustrated by Peter’s disengagement from their lives, she would rather talk to her friend, Jill Stacy about her predicament that her life partner. 

To that last point, Mackie and Byrne are smart in showing that MJ’s own disengagement and frustrations are playing a role in the discord. It’s an important distinction to make because it’s not unusual to see the wife or primary female character be portrayed as an unsympathetic shrew in superhero comics and other parts of pop culture (television shows like “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” come to mind). Mackie/Byrne are adding some nuanced brushstrokes to both these characters, which helps make their struggling marriage come across as relateable. Neither one is clearly all in the wrong or the right.

ASM 11 02But let’s not pop the champagne and celebrate this story just yet. It’s also worth noting that the creative team doesn’t start pushing the envelope with Peter and MJ until nearly 10 months after first introducing the idea that the potential was there for some friction to develop. The slow burn approach is further exacerbated by the fact that Mackie/Byrne would sometimes go entire arcs without even addressing the state of the Parker union. 

That’s mainly why the bait and switch of this arc’s second part is so frustrating. After months of cautious tap dancing from Mackie/Byrne the reader finally gets something dramatic only for the subplot to continue for a few pages in PPSM #11 before an out-of-nowhere nonsensical crossover storyline takes over. Furthermore, Mackie/Byrne seemingly waste what should have been a critical reveal – Peter admits to Mary Jane that he’s Spider-Man again and she dismisses him by telling him she knew all along — since the comic’s narrative shifts so suddenly away from the story. Fast forward just a couple of years when Mackie/Byrne were off the book and Marvel had somewhat righted its ship and a creative team like J. Michael Straczynski and JRJR would have likely spent an entire issue or more focusing on the emotional fallout of Peter’s revelation and MJ’s response (in fact, JMS and Romita did a few issues of this nature).

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