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 #5-6 (story by Howard Mackie/John Byrne; inks by Scott Hanna) and Peter Parker: Spider-Man vol. 2 #5 (story by Mackie; art by Bart Sears and Hanna)
When it comes to any kind of art form, whether it be movies, television or comics, is it better to be bad or boring?
As smug and snide as this may sound, it’s a legitimate question that keeps entering my head as I dive further and further into the Howard Mackie/John Byrne reboot of the Spider-Man franchise.
There’s nothing about any of these Mackie/Byrne stories that’s rage-inducing a la a “Clone Saga,” “Sins Past” or “One More Day.” And yet as bad as some of those stories were, I can pretty much guarantee that most comic book fans remember them in lurid detail. Whereas if I brought up 1999’s “Origin of Spider-Woman Number Four … or Five” these same folks would probably scratch their heads for 30 seconds before going back to mentioning Norman Osborn’s “O” face in that one, awful, skin-crawling panel from “Sins Past.”
Perhaps the most daring thing Mackie/Byrne have inserted into their Spider-Man story is the hint of some possible marital discord between Peter and Mary Jane (which would inevitably be paid off about a year later in rather shocking fashion). Even then, such a juicy topic as the potential divorce of one of Marvel’s most famous couples is approached with oatmeal-like blandness. MJ is shown rushing around the world, making a living as a supermodel, while Peter pouts at home and eats Aunt May’s wheatcakes. On the flipside, Peter disappears for hours on end without an explanation or an alibi but still manages to convince his disapproving wife that he has absolutely, 100 percent, not returned to being Spider-Man.
So the status quo continues with drama coming in the form of played-out sitcom gags, like Peter bum-rushing MJ before she grabs his duffel bag (which secretly contains his Spider-Man costume) under the guise of wanting her to “look her best” before jet-setting somewhere else for a modeling gig.
Oh, and after complaining last time that the creators resurrected Aunt May back only to set her back in 1964 again, my criticism has been addressed via a brand new haircut for that sweet old fuddy duddy.
But Peter’s home-life is not the actual focus of this three-part arc. Instead, Mackie/Byrne introduce another new character, who, like Sardac a few months earlier, doesn’t exactly set the world on fire due to poor execution and development.
A new, EVIL Spider-Woman attacks other characters who have at one time or another, shared that identity, including Jessica Drew and Julia Carpenter, before setting her sights on Mattie Franklin, the plucky 15-year-old who wore Peter’s old duds for a hot minute before conceding that she was a poor replacement for the original Spider-Man.
One of my chief concerns with the arc comes down to the fact that the reader is supposed to care about a character in Mattie who has been presented inconsistently by Mackie/Byrne dating since her appearance in ASM (vol. 2) #1. She’s been characterized as a clumsy-yet-possible replacement for Spider-Man; a loose cannon capable of seriously hurting an adversary due to being undisciplined; and somebody who is completely out-of-her-league as a costumed hero despite inheriting some sort of great, mystical power during the “Gathering of Five” ceremony.
So is Mattie some sort of defenseless damsel-in-distress, a jerk who deserves what she’s got coming to her in the form of a very agitated Spider-Woman, or somewhere in-between? I don’t know and it’s not entirely clear that Mackie and Byrne know. And yet we have an entire three-part story that’s based around the premise of Spider-Man needing to protect Mattie from this brand new villainess.
Mattie does end up getting injured and finds herself in the hospital where Mackie and Byrne turn the screw a bit and unveil that she’s the niece of J. Jonah and Marla Jameson. It’s a plot point that could lead to some fun if executed right, but given how overly cautious and reverential this run is so far, my guess is it’s just another example of crazy Jonah being played as a fool by something happening right under his nose. You can also reference the misadventures of his astronaut-by-day, werewolf-by-night (but not THE werewolf-by-night) son, John Jameson.
The new Spider-Woman’s reveal is also a huge disappointment. After setting the character up as a potential threat (who even was able to mess around with Peter’s Spider-sense), Mackie/Byrne diminish the character’s intrigue significantly when we learn she’s just a pawn in a larger plan of a far more famous rogue, Doctor Octopus. So instead of having to stop a brand new villain, Spider-Man goes back to doing something we’ve seen him do dozens of times before — thwipping Doc Ock’s eyes with his webbing and battling Otto.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate a Spider-Man/Doc Ock battle, but it’s just another example of Mackie/Byrne shying away from doing something new and unexpected with the reboot. The most daring change is Otto’s new costume, which unfortunately looks clunky and dated with the goofy goggles, and the over-reliance on coating every inch with his body with armor as if Otto had started taking fashion advice from the king of Latveria. See, even in doing something different, the best Byrne can do with his design is ape some of his older (and better) work on Fantastic Four in the 1980s.