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Lost Gems: “Platonic”

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We’re back, with another December of Mark’s “Lost Gems” — stories he considers among the very best Spidey tales, that are also unlikely to appear on any “best of” lists. For this year’s entry, Mark is going to pick one Spider-Man story per decade (60s, 70s, 80s, etc.). Hope you all enjoy and happy holidays!

This entry looks at Amazing Spider-Man #587 by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson:

It’s probably laughable to lump one of the best-selling individual comic books of the past 20 years as a “Lost Gem,” but, you, me and everyone else knows when you talk about the pop culture phenomenon called Amazing Spider-Man #587, you’re referring to what has been branded “the Obama issue.” Yes, shortly after Barack Obama was historically elected President of the United States in 2008, Marvel, capitalizing on the nation’s Obama-mania, quickly assembled a short backup story in ASM #587 featuring a team-up between the newly-minted POTUS and Spider-Man (it didn’t hurt that Obama was a legitimate nerd who had talked on the campaign trail about being a fan of such comics as Conan the Barbarian, and yes, Spider-Man). Marvel further added to its sales bonanza by slapping together an Obama “variant” cover, which went on to sell close to 600,000 copies. Not exactly a “lost gem” if we’re even being loose with the term.

But I’m not here to talk about the “Obama issue.” I’m here to praise the 24-pages of story that preceded the Obama backup, ASM #587’s lead tale by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson called “Platonic.” The story is yet another example of why I think the “Brand New Day”-era of ASM was one of the title’s most successful creatively, even if it was born out of the editorially-driven disaster that is “One More Day.” BND”s rotating creative teams and tri-monthly schedule kept the larger narrative moving at an uptempo pace, while also spending ample time developing subplots and secondary/tertiary characters that were/are an essential part of Spider-Man’s universe. Additionally, while all of the issues from this era had a main narrative throughline, BND also fostered a number of short two-to-three issue mini-arcs, or in some cases, standalone stories like “Platonic” that are tailormade for casual and lapsed fans to pick up on a whim and dive right in.

Apparently, one of the many “mandates” in the oft-discussed “Spider-Man Manifesto,” which preceded the  BND-era was that Betty Brant, first introduced by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko in ASM #4 in 1963, needed to play a more prominent role in Peter Parker’s life again since the supporting cast was going to be such a point of emphasis for the book’s cadre of creators. Betty’s time in the foreground in Spider-Man comics had come in fits and starts. Once Ditko left the book and made way for John Romita Sr. and his “Romita Girls” like Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson, Brant was easily forgettable and even when she’d be brought back from time-to-time, there would always seem to be some unnecessary and uncomfortable drama surrounding her and her then-husband (now deceased thanks to Hobgoblin hijinks) Ned Leeds (who can forget — or wants to remember — the late-70s issue where it’s sorta implied that Peter slept with a newly “separated” but not formally divorced Betty). Once Ned was killed off, Betty seemingly went from one questionable relationship to the arms of Eugene “Flash” Thompson, again, a man who was believed to have had an affair with Betty while she was still technically with Ned. So while it certainly sounds good on paper to say, “yeah Peter and Betty need to hang out more in the comics again,” it’s worth keeping in mind that this character was carrying around a ton of baggage that made making her sympathetic or even likeable, a tad challenging.

“Platonic” tackles many of Betty’s character quirks head on and quite successfully. Rather than ignore who she is, Waid builds on her biography and lets the reader see her in a different light for this one issue.

The general premise of the comic is Betty is busy trying to play matchmaker for Peter, getting him back in the dating game (because remember kids, Peter was no longer married to Mary Jane thanks to his marriage being annulled by the devil). However, as Betty is seemingly doing this selfless act for Peter, she is inner-monologuing the whole time about what an unreliable twit her former flame was. She is also looking ahead to the end of the week, her birthday, where she fully expects Peter to throw together a birthday party of epic proportions. Predictably, said birthday party does not materialize … but not for the obvious reasons. And that leads to a great twist that both elevates this story to something above and beyond a forgettable “fill-in” story (not to mention give it substance so it’s more than just a cheap appetizer for the more famous Obama story), while also giving readers a warm and fuzzy ending that is a rarity for Spider-Man and his universe.

The story in a very straightforward way, acknowledges how Betty had ticked off her own fair share of people, and while Peter might be wholly unreliable (what, with the running off to secretly be a superhero thing all the time), he has always been steadfastly loyal to who is unequivocally, his longest-tenured friend in the comics. So much so that Betty refers to Peter being her “best friend” at the end of ASM #587; and if you think long and hard about it, who can argue with her?

“Platonic” definitely waxes nostalgic about a simpler time of Spider-Man comics (Romita even provides artwork for the non-Obama cover) and inspires me to want to dive into the Lee/Ditko archives to relive some of the best Betty/Peter moments from the Silver Age (or, if you’re lucky enough to have access to the full run of Kurt Busiek/Pat Olliffe’s Untold Tales of Spider-Man, you can get some great Betty/Peter stories there too). And if you end up checking out this comic on Marvel Unlimited, I won’t even stop you from reading the “Obama Issue” while you’re at it.

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