The Many Faces of Spider-Man is a feature, posted the second Monday of every month, that explores the Marvel Multiverse and the many Spider-Men or Peter Parkers who dwell within.
New York, 1933: A city that has lost its faith in the future, the opulence of the roaring twenties are a distant memory, erased by four years of a great depression that will smolder on for another decade. Politicians are corrupt, the police are on the take, and the only thing more organized than the unions are the criminals. It is in this world that we find this installment’s Spider-Man, the Spider-Man of Earth-90214: Spider-Man Noir (created in 2008, written by David Hine and Fabrice Sapolsky, with art by Carmine Di Giandomenico).
Like any good noir story it’s set in a world of darkness and hopelessness. While Spider-Man is typically bright and playful, Spider-Man Noir‘s setting allows for a very interesting take on the character. In this world, Peter’s parents died off-page when he was very young and he was, as usual, raised by his Aunt May and Uncle Ben Parker. But these are not the elderly, doddering aunt and uncle of 616. This Aunt May is a firebrand, a socialist radical calling for the overthrow of the capitalist system and criticizing Roosevelt for being too conservative. Uncle Ben was a pilot and war hero during the Great War and grew disillusioned with millions of people being sent to die for “old colonial empires carving up the world.”
This Peter Parker wasn’t raised with the proverb “with great power comes great responsibility;” this one was raised on a sense of justice, whether it be social, political, economic, or legal, and it is that longing for justice in an unjust world that drives him. When his uncle is murdered at the hands of the crime lord known as the Goblin and his enforcers, it is this sense of justice that sparks Peter’s crusade against the wrongness in the world.
Enter Ben Urich. Ben is a journalist and friend of the family who takes Peter under his wing, hoping to protect the boy from his own reckless impulses and the wrath of the Goblin, Norman Osborn. As it turns out it’s a wrath he knows only too well. Urich, in true noir fashion, is on the take, being paid by the Goblin to keep his involvement in criminal deeds (including his involvement in Ben Parker’s death) out of the papers and is using the money to support a heroin habit. The habit only grows as he is confronted again and again by Peter’s idealism and his own guilt in his involvement in the death of the boy’s uncle.
Peter, for his part, jumps into his work assisting Urich and after receiving a tip that the Goblin’s enforcers are moving stolen African artifacts from a warehouse, he goes out to capture the story solo. The artifacts, it turns out, are cursed. When one is carelessly broken, thousands of spiders pour out and kill Fancy Dan and bite Peter. Peter gets off better than the luckless enforcer, being cursed by the pagan spider-god within with the great powers we have come to know and love. He immediately attacks Norman’s hideout where he finds Urich attempting to sell incriminating photographs to the mob boss.
Urich, recognizing Peter, can no longer deal with the guilt and tells his publisher, J. Jonah Jameson that he has all the evidence needed to put Osborn away for life. This move proves fatal for him as Osborn had replaced Jameson with the face-changing Chameleon who kills the reporter but fails to find the years of evidence he had amassed. Urich had given it all to his ex-girlfriend Felicia Hardy, owner of the hottest speakeasy in town: the Black Cat. Though she blames Peter for Ben’s death, she turns over the evidence to him because Urich said Peter would know how to use the evidence.
And use it he does. Armed with his powers and his uncle’s service revolver, the Spider-Man wages a one man war on the Goblin, dismantling every criminal operation Urich had known about. This ultimately culminates in a battle in Osborn’s lair where he kills Norman and the remaining enforcers.
Spider-Man Noir appears again several months later in Spider-Man Noir: Eyes Without A Face. Once again New York is in the hands of a criminal kingpin, this time the diabolical Crime Master. But as Peter investigates, he quickly finds the Crime Master is a player in a far more nefarious plan. He is a part of The Friends of Germany, a Nazi-sponsored political party that is using the criminal organization to kidnap blacks and send them to be used in inhuman experiments at the hands of doctors Curt Connors and Otto Octavius.
Octavius, a South African Boer who was born disfigured and paraplegic has been performing lobotomies on these captured people in an effort to create slaves who can do nothing but obey commands. Peter eventually uncovers the conspiracy after Robbie Robertson, a close friend and reporter for The Negro World goes missing. Peter rushes to Octavius’ laboratory on Ellis Island to rescue Robbie and the rest of the prisoners, but arrives too late and finds Robertson has already gone through the sickening procedure and is completely unresponsive.
Peter flies into a rage and nearly kills the doctor, but is stopped by federal agents, led by a (male) Jean DeWolfe who promises Octavius will be brought to justice. In a case of bitter irony Octavius escapes prison when the government, embarrassed over their support for him, instead deports him, in order to avoid a public scandal. Peter falls into a deep depression after this, feeling like he is alone in his quest for justice and betrayed by his government. Otto too soon feels betrayed once landing in Germany and being told “the National Socialist vision of the future holds no place for deviants and cripples,” and realizes he is as disposable to them as his victims were to him.
Spider-Man Noir wasn’t heard from again until this year when he became a part of the currently ongoing “Spider-Verse” story arc, getting his own issue of Edge of Spider-Verse where he rescued Felicia Hardy from the clutches of Mysterio, the mad magician. While this storyline is currently ongoing, we do know this about his part in it: It’s going to be dark.