Volume 2 Review is a regular feature that looks back to the late 1990s when Marvel rebooted its Spider-Man series for the very first time. Each installment will discuss a different arc and whether or not it achieves its goals of presenting something new and/or gripping about the Spider-Man character and mythos.
In this installment, we’re discussing Amazing Spider-Man vol. 2 #1-3 (story by Howard Mackie/John Byrne; inks by Scott Hanna) and Peter Parker: Spider-Man vol. 2 #1, 3 (story by Mackie; pencils by John Romita Jr.; inks by Hanna)
For someone that has long been Marvel’s flagship character, Spider-Man has certainly endured some rather “interesting” and (kindly put) forgettable times — especially in the mid-to-late 1990s. Of course, you have to consider that the 90s were an “interesting” time for nearly every Marvel property. In the aftermath of the comic book speculator bubble bursting, the publisher nearly went belly-up, which led to a number of questionable-at-best editorial decisions. The most notable was the “Heroes Reborn” initiative, where Marvel killed off the Avengers and Fantastic Four and rebooted their books with brand new origins, outsourcing the creative work to some of the same names who ditched the company for Image Comics in 1992 (like Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld).
Spider-Man was miraculously spared from this status quo shift, but that’s only if you think having a Spidey’s clone taking the place of Peter Parker in all of the main Spider-books was business as usual. The Spider-Ben saga eventually ended with the inglorious return of Norman Osborn as the “mastermind” behind the entire “Clone Saga,” which in turn led to a period of all of the different Spider-books jogging in place for a couple of years (though to be fair, there are a number of fans who absolutely LOVE the post-“Clone Saga,” pre-“reboot” years for the Spider-books).
Still, a reboot for the Spider-books was seemingly inevitable. “Heroes Reborn” was a total bust from both a financial and creative standpoint. But even when books like The Avengers and Fantastic Four returned to regular continuity (rather than the “bubble universe” that “Heroes Reborn” was said to have taken place in), the comics were rebooted back to #1 and a third volume for these series was introduced. And thus the era of constantly rebooting comic book series as if they were limited series on television was born.
In late 1998, Amazing Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man, Sensational Spider-Man and Peter Parker: Spider-Man all ran final issues (in the fittingly titled “Final Chapter” arc, aka, “The Gathering of Five”) to make way for newly rebooted volumes of ASM and PPSM. As a preface to this status quo shift, Marvel’s curmudgeonly prodigal son, John Byrne, who was part of some historic runs with the X-Men and Fantastic Four among others, wrote and penciled a brand new take on Spider-Man’s origin titled, Spider-Man: Chapter One.
The book looked great, because despite what you might think of Byrne as a person, his talent as an artist could never be denied. But Chapter One came across as a glorified rehash of a story that was much better when it was done 40-plus years earlier by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. I talked about Chapter One a great deal in this post for Chasing Amazing, so if you want to know what I really thought about it, I would just recommend checking in out rather than having me retro-review it for this site – especially since I think it warrants consideration for the pantheon of “worst Spider-Man stories ever”).
But it’s important to have this context as it pertains to Byrne’s role in the volume 2 reboots of ASM and PPSM: he seemed far too reverential, and dare I say, afraid, to actually change or update anything of actual merit about the character, giving a “so what” quality to pretty much everything he touched on Spider-Man during this time period (that might also explain Byrne’s recent tiff with current writer Dan Slott over the new, far more radical status quo being introduced in Amazing Spider-Man). Meanwhile, scripter Howard Mackie, who worked alongside Byrne for the volume 2 reboot, had worked with the character on a number of “B” titles throughout the 90s, but had most certainly never crafted a “definitive” Spider-Man story like some of his contemporaries (i.e., Tom DeFalco or J.M. DeMatteis), which made his key role in launching a brand new iteration of Spider-Man always come across as a questionable editorial decision.
What that leaves readers with is a “brand new direction” for Spider-Man in 1999 that seemingly lacked any real direction. In these opening few issues of ASM and PPSM, there are nuggets of things the could be worth exploring if done right. But they are almost all immediately wallpapered over in favor of tired old status quos and characters.
The most obvious example of this phenomena is the fact that ASM #1 opens with Peter having quit being Spider-Man (we see him in the last installment of the “Final Chapter” capturing the Green Goblin and then walking away from it all). Now, Peter has obviously quit being Spidey numerous times in his history — one of the greatest Spider-Man stories of all time has an iconic cover dedicated to Peter quitting. And only a few years prior, Peter quit to walk off into the sunset with Mary Jane and start a family. But the added wrinkle this time around was about halfway through the story, a brand new unexpectedly Spider-Man shows up (PPSM #1 even makes the obvious joke, is it a clone?). Peter is naturally stunned by this development since he gave up the webs and Ben Reilly, his previous replacement, had been reduced to a puddle of genetic soup. We even get a pretty interesting sequence in PPSM #1 where Peter witnesses the new hero flying off the handle and going a bit too far (a la Otto Octavius as the Superior Spider-Man) in beating down a villain.
The net result is a legitimate mystery and catalyst for intrigue in a story that’s otherwise trite and clichéd. For example, Aunt May is back from being kidnapped and having her death faked, but Mackie/Byrne must still think it’s 1966, so she’s back to being an old “fuddy duddy” and talking to her best girlfriend Anna Watson on the telephone. If you’re looking for any kind of change or update with that character, you can cite the pager Mackie/Byrne give her – seriously, that’s the most dramatic they get with a character that was needlessly resurrected in order to advance a story that nobody was asking for… a pager.
J. Jonah Jameson is another character who’s stuck in the way way back past, as apparently all of the character’s growth between 1962-1999 has been negated in favor of making one of Spidey’s richest and most unique antagonists into a mouth-breathing, tunnel-visioned fool who insists on rewriting (ace Daily Bugle reporter) Betty Brant’s copy so that it fictitiously reads that Spider-Man is a felonious menace.
Lastly, there’s Mary Jane, who barely has a presence in this book, and when she does, it’s only to “nag” Peter about the fact that he’s no longer Spider-Man, and why is there a new Spider-Man out there if you’re not longer being Spider-Man Peter? Remember the promise you made to me Peter?
So with little to grab onto with these three pivotal characters, and only the mystery behind the new Spider-Man as something remotely different and interesting about this reboot, Mackie/Byrne abandon the storyline in record time and reveal the new Spider-Man as a 15-year-old girl who earned her powers during the “Gathering of Five” fiasco in volume one. Point to Mackie/Byrne for trying to establish long-term consequences from the end of volume one, but demerits for making readers revisit the dreadful “Gathering of Five.” Beyond that, the big reveal only serves to put Peter back in the Spider-Man suit (as “luck” would have it, the girl is even wearing a suit that’s big enough to fit him) in order to fight a brand new villain, Shadrac.
Like the Spider-Man mystery, there’s initially some intrigue in how Shadrac is presented, primarily in that this character conjures up some sympathy as someone who unwillingly received powers (in this case, being engulfed in flames) and cannot control them. But the actual execution of Shadrac’s story is botched with a very questionable narrative technique – namely PPSM #3 shifts the focus of the story to a mysterious stranger (who is naturally Shadrac) who after-the-fact tells Jameson about a fight involving Spider-Man, Iceman and Shadrac. I’ve long found the “starting at the end” technique to be a non-starter in superhero comics, since it tends to eliminate any real drama or stakes from the story.
In terms of any other major “changes” for the series or Spider-Man, Mackie/Byrne do give Peter a job at a laboratory — a clear-cut predecessor to Peter’s more recent gig at Horizon Labs. But again, this new wrinkle is only used to develop clichéd creative ideas. Peter immediately clashes with one of the scientists at the lab who finds his work to be overrated. If this sounds eerily familiar to all of those stories starring Peter in graduate school, bickering with some of his peers, it should.
While it’s difficult to make any judgements until reading the issue, I can at least understand some of the criticism with the concept behind Spider-Man’s new status quo launching this week, as Peter Parker “playboy” does seem to fly in the face of what we know about the character. All the same, the opening few issues of the Mackie/Byrne (and Romita Jr.) reboot are unquestionably ineffective for the opposite reason. There has to be a way to balance new and exciting with the familiar. Superhero comic books are a serial medium that often do not possess an end point. So the story needs to continue to unfurl almost infinitely. As a consumer, there’s no reason for me to buy stories that are pale imitators of better comics released decades earlier.