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Lost Gems: “The Best Medicine”

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Over the next month Mark is going to share his thoughts on what he considers to be some of the “Lost Gems” of the Spider-Man comic book universe. These are some of Mark’s favorite stories that aren’t likely to appear on any “best of” lists.

This entry looks at Peter Parker: Spider-Man (vol. 2) #20, aka “The Best Medicine” by Paul Jenkins and Mark Buckingham.

PPSM 20 01Paul Jenkins’s entire run scripting Peter Parker: Spider-Man in the early 2000s could qualify as a “lost gem” since it is filled with high-quality, character-centric stories that time has seemingly forgotten about. However, for the purposes of this post, I settled on PPSM #20, though it was really, really hard to pick just one Jenkins comic. 

It’s funny, after spending nearly two months on this site dissecting the Howard Mackie/John Byrne run on the Spider-Books, hopelessly trying to justify why these stories shouldn’t be permanently relegated to the “best forgotten” cabinet in our brains, I picked up PPSM #20 – aka, “The Best Medicine,” the first issue Jenkins scripted after Mackie left the series – and instantly recognized what it looks like for a comic to get its mojo back. 

Mackie’s writing would have probably fit right in during the Bronze Age era of Spider-Man, preferably on a book like Marvel Team-Up or the fledgling Spectacular. But by 1999-2000, it felt incredibly stale and tired, especially when Marvel was trending towards some more edgier content like the Marvel Knights imprint. 

Jenkins’s arrival on PSSM was a landmark moment for the series and the character because, while he didn’t script anything that was terribly flashy or boundary-pushing, his focus on characterization and psychology could only be matched by some of the work put forward by J.M. DeMatteis in the 1990s. By choosing to shine the spotlight on Peter Parker rather than Spider-Man, Jenkins paved the way for the more popular J. Michael Straczynski/John Romita Jr. run on Amazing Spider-Man that kicked off less than a year later. When you consider that Jenkins was seconded by Mark Buckingham — an all-star artist — you can understand why this was truly was a glorious time to be a Spider-Man fan. 

PPSM 20 02The only shots of Spider-Man the reader gets in “The Best Medicine,” take place via flashback. There’s barely any supervillains or superhero situations to be found in this comic. And none of it matters because Jenkins and Buckingham hold the reader’s attention by so heavily investing in Peter’s character — specifically, his struggle to come to grips with Mary Jane’s apparent death during the Mackie/Byrne run on ASM.

Of course, it’s easy for me to make this argument now since these stories are so fresh in my head, but why wasn’t this story used as the immediate follow-up to MJ’s plane crash in ASM #13I did heap some praise on a surprisingly meditative PPSM #14, but my overall opinion on that comic was probably enhanced by the terribly cynical Spider-Woman crossover that appeared in ASM during the same month (because who cares about proper character development when Byrne needs to push one of his other characters/series, amIrite?). “The Best Medicine” captures exactly how I’d expect Peter to be reacting following the aftermath of the tragic death of his wife — a death he could have possibly prevented if he had only gotten to the airport in time for the two of them to have a much-needed talk about their marriage. 

Jenkins and Buckingham go to the commonly used emotional well that is Uncle Ben’s death and the hands of the random burglar, but also provide a twist on things by depicting some flashback scenes that serve as an origin of sorts for Peter’s wit and sense of humor. And the creators do it in then-unconventional fashion — by making Uncle Ben a living, breathing character instead of the patron saint of Spider-Man comic-don that he had long been cast as since his death in Amazing Fantasy #15

PPSM 20 03“The Best Medicine” provides the reader with a real sense of who Uncle Ben is as a human being and why he is so revered by his nephew (beyond the fact that he feels responsible for his death). Keep in mind this issue was published a few months before Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley decided to reimagine Spider-Man’s origin story (by decompressing the dramatic opening act and giving Ben and Aunt May some real emotional layers) in Ultimate Spider-Man, so having Ben play such a vital role in a “new” story comes across as very fresh for its time. 

All the same, Jenkins keeps his script simple in trying to capture some of the smaller moments between a shy young boy and his paternal father figure. There’s a very real moment that Buckingham’s art so expertly captures where Ben scares the young Peter by making a funny face with an orange peel in his mouth (Don Corleone style — perhaps a foreshadowing to his death?), which causes the boy to hide behind his Aunt May before declaring that he wasn’t “really” scared. The reader also gets moments of absolute joyous levity, like May sitting on a whoopee cushion. Is there anything better than the prim and proper May sitting on a whoopee cushion? 

The story does take a serious turn when Peter uses the premise of the story — how he developed his sense of humor — to question whether or not he can still see the bright side of life now that MJ is gone. He even questions whether or not he should just let a criminal or one of his villains end it all for him. When have we ever had a Spider-Man comics that so directly addresses the idea of Peter committing suicide? And it doesn’t come across as being out-of-character or melodramatic because Jenkins and Buckingham have pieced together such an emotionally rich one-and-done that captures Peter’s evolution as an individual. It also helps that the creators deliver one last well-time laugh that serves to depict Ben, once again, saving Peter from perhaps his greatest enemy – himself. 

I’ll readily admit I’m a sucker for these character-heavy pieces, but in terms of the past 20 years of Spider-Man comics, it’s hard to find better work than Jenkins on PPSM. How his run doesn’t get more attention — even with a superstar like JMS writing the “main” title concurrently — astounds me. So if you haven’t yet, the best place to start with Jenkins work is his very first issue on the book.

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