A few weeks back I praised Amazing Spider-Man #16 for its return to normal and focus on the characters that make up Peter Parker’s life, even if most of the book was a recap. After struggling through the overblown “Spider-Verse” and reading dozens of stories where Peter was relegated to acting like an inexperienced and immature crime fighter as well as a background character in his own book, seeing him cavalierly tackle a D-list villain like Iguana was refreshing. That’s not to say that I want to read Spider-Man comics where Peter is always victorious with little challenge but to suggest that the best of serialized entertainment feature characters that learn and build off of previous victories and losses.
Which is why Amazing Spider-Man #17’s narrative focus on Anna Maria and Sajani comes as a disappointing return to writers Dan Slott and Christos Gage’s bad habits. I like the occasional Amazing Spider-Man issue that shifts its focus and narrative thrust to the story of a different character than the one in the title, such as the Jameson-centric “I Cover the Waterfront” story in Spectacular Spider-Man #80. Here, this book’s shift away from Peter seems less by design more than from poor character writing. Every conflict that arises in Amazing Spider-Man #17 leaves Peter baffled and struggling to make a decision that eventually gets made by either Anna Maria or Sajani. This choice removes agency from Peter and makes me care less about him as a character, as his decisions have little to do with the plot.
Since Anna Maria takes charge of the narrative of Amazing Spider-Man #17 I think I will take the time to address the elephant in the room: I just don’t think Anna Maria is a well-written character. I understand the appeal of the character and think that her first several appearances and importance in the Superior Spider-Man story were incredibly important. I loved that she was an unconventional love-interest for Peter/Otto and reflected their struggles, as brilliant outsiders, in a different way. The moment when she was belittled for being a little person and Otto took action against her tormenters was as perfect narrative device to illustrate the differences between Otto’s violent revenge and Peter’s measured responses as Spider-Man.
When Superior Spider-Man ended with Otto’s death revealed to Anna I thought her character’s role in the book would transform into something else, even if it was just mourning or revenge fueled villainy, but instead she’s still as loyal to Peter as ever. She cites a friendship between them but what is compelling her to spend time with the visual appearance of the man she once loved, even going to family dinners with him and the same Aunt May that was casually offensive to her during Superior Spider-Man?
Anna Maria still comes off the best in this book and proves that she’s a clearheaded individual who can analyze and execute straight-line solutions to problems. It is an interesting pairing with Peter, who despite his experience has always had trouble getting out of his own head (just compare how many thought boxes are used in a typical Spider-Man comic compared to the other heroes of Marvel). After awhile, her ability to solve all of Peter’s problems and peer through his neurosis becomes repetitive, particularly when the book goes out of its way to remind the reader of just how wonderful Anna Maria is. More baffling is the development that many of the problems solved by Anna Maria in this book, such as Parker Industries’ severed ties to Spider-Man, are just brushed aside as if they weren’t actual problems. While I thought these conflicts were never well developed, it is equally disconcerting that they are just discarded as if they were nothing. Why introduce these plot developments in the first place if the long-term plan was just to ignore them?
The opposite is true of Sajani, a character so unlikeable that the surprising predicament that she finds herself in at the end of Amazing Spider-Man #17 will likely engender zero sympathy from anyone. Since the relaunch of the title, Sajani has tried to undermine Peter’s efforts to create a supervillain rehabilitation center, for a variety of changing reasons, by offering to assist every single supervillain or competing interest to the company. She’s even gone so far as to start up a secret project with Anna Maria, the very woman who claims transparency as a virtue. With the successful rehabilitation of Clayton Cole staring her right in the face, it has become harder to generate any understanding for Sajani’s motivations or to even trust that she has a plan at all. The best villains have some kind of clear ideology or scheme and right now Sajani just seems like an angry person grasping at straws and hoping that someone will take her up on her offers.
With Peter, Anna Maria, and Sajani operating as the three key dramatic characters of this book and with none of them being written particularly well I’m not sure what we are left with beyond a book that is stalling for time between “Spider-Verse” and “Secret Wars” and has no idea what to do with its characters. Add in a D-list villain that we are meant to accept as a legitimate threat and Amazing Spider-Man offers little to change my opinion on this series.
Humberto Ramos’ art acts like the defibrillator to this series, viciously attempting to bring back a heartbeat to the story through his stylized and exaggerated art. I’m a fan of his dynamic layouts and dramatic action scenes but I think where Ramos has excelled the most recently is in his subtle conversation sequences. A dinner sequence with Aunt May showcases his ability to full communicate the varied emotional reactions that certain revelations trigger. Little touches like Peter adjusting his coat and Anna Maria her hair, after going web-slinging, do a lot to bring life to these characters. Where Ramos falters is in his vague and overcrowded action sequences featuring numerous robots of indiscernible design. This is complicated by a confusing color choice by Edgar Delgado that renders the robot’s virtual walls in red so that they resemble raging fires set against a similarly orange background.
(Side note: The paper quality of Amazing Spider-Man #17 is a significant step above previous issues. While still not on the level of production of DC or Image comics, I thought it as worth pointing out that it is a step in the right direction.)
I’d feel more alone in my discontent about the book if I hadn’t read through the letters pages to find a harshly worded letter about Slott’s tenure on the book. The problem with the printing of this letter is that it uses a hysterically negative opinion of the book as a stand in for all the readers who have had a problem with Slott’s run or have just grown tired of having a singular voice on the book. Nick Lowe makes a good point, Gerry Conway is writing his own great Amazing Spider-Man story and readers can always stop buying the book. As much as I think it is an honest response, everyone should stop buying things they no longer enjoy, pushing away negative feedback on your title and representing it with letters characterized by frenzied ramblings is a quick way to lose editorial control and objectivism about your work.
Slott and Gage have written some wonderful stories during their time on the book, lest we forget the beginning of Superior Spider-Man or much of the “Big Time” era, so I don’t want to go so far as to echo the sentiments printed in the back of this book. “Howard Mackie’s run is downright readable in comparison to most of Slott’s work. History won’t remember the BND/Big Time/Superior/Relaunch era fondly at all.” I’m still optimistic that Slott and Gage can tell us a good Spider-Man story, if they are to remain on the title, but we haven’t seen one in well over a year, especially when compared to Gerry Conway’s Amazing Spider-Man #16.1.