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Top Spider-Man/Mutant Stories: #3

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Spider-Man’s not a mutant, but he has hung out with them enough times over the years to warrant another SuperiorSpiderTalk.com list! This countdown will take a look at some of the very best stories involving Spidey and a mutant — including team-ups, battles and everything in-between!

For entry No. 3 we look at Spider-Man Versus Wolverine by Jim Owsley (Christopher Priest) and Mark Bright

Spider-Man Wolverine 01There are strange Spider-Man stories and then there’s Spider-Man Versus Wolverine, arguably one of the strangest Spidey tales I’ve ever read. It was published during an absolutely bizarre period for the Spider-office: the book’s writer, Jim Owsley (now Christopher Priest), was the editor of all the Spider-books and was engaged in a not-so-secret war with head Amazing Spider-Man writer Tom DeFalco (and by proxy, ASM’s artist, Ron Frenz), which ended with DeFalco/Frenz being fired from the book before Priest himself was canned by soon-to-be-outgoing Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. 

Were you able to keep up or did you need an index to follow all of the in-fighting and back-stabbing going on in the Spider-office in the mid-to-late 1980s?

Still, despite the unnecessary drama, Spider-Man Versus Wolverine finds a way to be as engrossing as it is strange. Priest — who refuses to talk about his time writing/editing Spider-Man outside of one essay he penned a long time ago on his personal web site — was seemingly fixated on bringing darker shades to the character during this time period. That mantra was emblemized by some of the stories Priest championed as editor, like “The Death of Jean Dewolff,” but are taken a step further in this one-shot graphic novel which, continuity-wise, seemingly took place following the “Gang War” arc that ended in ASM #288

Spidey and Wolverine get equal-billing in this title, and for good reason. Priest writes an incredibly intelligent character study demonstrating how Spidey and Logan aren’t as far from each other on the superhero philosophy tree as I originally thought. And while on the surface that may sound like a major betrayal of who these characters are (how can a do-gooder like Spider-Man ever be compared to an anti-hero like Logan?) Priest drills deep to stick the landing. 

Spider-Man Wolverine 03A sequence that immediately struck me was Peter Parker’s opening monologue/narrative about his photography. Peter describes himself almost as if he’s a soulless mercenary — who financially benefits from taking photos of other people’s misery. I honestly never thought about Peter’s photography from that angle before, and while I’ll admit I was initially flummoxed when I read this passage, after taking some time to reflect on it, it makes total sense to me. Peter’s guilt about everything he does causing pain and misfortune on others has long been a common storytelling devices for Spider-Man writers, so of course he would think this way about his photography. By being so disconnected and unemotional about it, it keeps him from shaming himself and feeling disgusted. That kind of sounds like the personality of a certain adamantium-laced mutant, right?

The similarities between Spidey and Wolverine are further captured as the story transitions from the familiar and comfortable confines of New York City to the cold and disengaged world of Germany, where the Iron Curtain of Communism would remain fully erect for a few more years before that big old wall came tumbling down in 1990. At this point in time, Germany was a country divided, but this division was a manmade one that had been manufactured by larger political forces. At various points in this story, Wolverine tells Peter he’s “in over his head” and that he’s not cut out to try and report on the mystery of “Charlie,” with Ned. But these assumptions from Wolverine are based predominantly on his preconceptions as to who Spider-Man is. Wolverine’s enhanced senses are able to instantly connect Peter Parker’s presence in Germany with his secret identity as Spider-Man, but that doesn’t mean Wolverine really knows anything about Spider-Man/Peter’s character and what he’s capable of doing given certain circumstances.

This “fish out of water” theme is paid off in spectacular fashion in what may very well be the most outlandish storyline twist in Spider-book history — the death of Ned Leeds. For a solid year, DeFalco/Frenz had been teasing Ned as the Hobgoblin, though they only intended for him to be a red herring (with Richard Fisk, aka, Kingpin’s son being the heir apparent). As part of his ongoing conflict with DeFalco, Priest killed off Ned in Spider-Man Versus Wolverine because, as Peter David put it was going to “piss off Tom DeFalco.” When Marvel finally decided to end the Hobgoblin mystery, David was asked to write the issue based on who he believed was the villain based on the evidence that was previously published. Since so little content that would have indicated Fisk made it to print, Peter David was more or less forced to go with Ned, leading to the cockamamie reveal that Ned was killed in Germany BECAUSE he was the Hobgoblin. So, thanks Spider-Man Versus Wolverine for that.

Spider-Man Wolverine 02Still, there were more surprises to come. After Ned’s demise, Peter decides it’s time to move off his assignment for the Daily Bugle and embrace his superhero identity as Spider-Man. Of course, he doesn’t have a costume with him, and in a moment of phenomenal comedy, he has to buy a red and blue costume from the shopkeeper, complete with “Spider-Man” written in German on the back.  So even when he’s ready to become Spider-Man, Peter is really just a cheap imitation of the character in Germany. 

In terms of aptly juxtaposing Spider-Man and Wolverine, the scene with Logan and Charlie in the restaurant is a great sequence. For one, the reader gets a dose of Wolverine — usually unpredictable — enjoying a moment of serene normalcy despite the imminent danger that surrounds him and his girlfriend. As Logan and Charlie sit at their table, they both calmly acknowledge that the food is poisoned and armed KGB agents have them surrounded from every angle, but they’re still insistent on having a night-out like two average, happy people. The peacefulness of the moment is disrupted by Spider-Man, who barges through the dining room and announces to Wolverine that the food is poisoned and he’s in danger. This of course brings on the expected attack from the KGB.

The graphic novel’s final chapter is where the gloves come off and the inherent similarities in Spider-Man and Wolverine are exposed. Charlie has successfully iced all of the KGB agents leaving a trail of bodies and bloodshed as Spider-Man and Wolverine pursue her. Wolverine blames Spider-Man for the deaths, saying if he had just butted out of his business, he would have been able to keep Charlie under control and talked her out of her murder spree. Wolverine eventually catches up with Charlie and she asks him to kill her or risk being captured by the KGB and tortured. But Wolverine, a guy who has always been portrayed as someone unafraid to make the tough decisions, “flinches” and is unable to finish her off in one “snikt” of his claws. This hesitation gives Spider-Man one last opportunity to chastise Logan about his immorality and overall jerkiness, while Wolverine is able to point out what an absolute hypocrite Spider-Man can be when he gets on one of his self-righteous rolls.

Spider-Man Wolverine 04The two fight and Spider-Man admits in the narrative that he’s throwing everything he has at Wolverine, even violently smashing his head against a cemetery headstone. During the slugfest, Wolverine eventually ends up on top of Spider-Man, pinning him to the ground. Wolverine goads Spider-Man, telling him if he’s so righteous, he can just end Logan’s life right there with a quick snap of his neck. Wolverine bets Spidey “doesn’t have the guts” for that and mentions he could have just ended his life with a quick “snikt” to the neck. He then chastises Spider-Man for judging him about “right or wrong” in a world where such black and white declarations don’t exist.

If the story ends there, Spider-Man Versus Wolverine still would have been a very satisfying comic, filled with life-altering events that would go on to define Spidey for years. But there’s one more huge “moment” that also brings the story full-circle in terms of showing what seeing the world through Wolverine’s eyes has done to Spider-Man. Charlie sneaks up on Spider-Man and thinking it’s Wolverine trying to get in a few more cheap shots, Spider-Man throws a punch with all his might at the woman, and kills her.

The incident haunts Spider-Man. He clearly didn’t mean to murder Charlie — his rage was directed at Wolverine. But he still let his extreme anger get the better of him and he “crossed the line,” a dark line he swore never to cross after the death of his Uncle Ben in Amazing Fantasy #15. And Priest leads us to believe the reason why Spider-Man was so angry was because of the way Wolverine challenged him. Spider-Man was so caught up in proving his way of dealing with conflict was the “right” way, the “just” way, that he instead did something he would never swear to do – something Wolverine has always been okay with doing (except in this moment where he “flinches” instead of finishing off Charlie quickly).

Allegedly, Priest had always meant for Wolverine to get the best of Spider-Man in this story — that the unfamiliar terrain and tragedy upon tragedy would muddy Spider-Man’s senses so much he would allow himself to be soundly defeated by the mutant. However, in a twist of irony to anyone “in the know” at Marvel at the time, Priest’s wishes were vetoed by his editors (and DeFalco). 

Spider-Man Versus Wolverine is one of those unique cases where the drama and behind-the-scenes silliness actually adds to the book’s intrigue and legacy. Given my affection for DeFalco/Frenz’s run and how Priest has more or less deflected blame from his role in messing with the writer/artist (and the fact that he refuses to talk about it anymore), a part of me wishes I didn’t like this story as much as I do. But it’s gravitational pull is undeniable, making it one of the truly great Spidey stories.

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