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 #14-15 and Peter Parker: Spider-Man #14-15:
As emotionally manipulative as “Time Enough …?” was with its shocking ending of Mary Jane presumably dying in a plane crash, in looking back at some of the storylines that dealt with the aftermath of this issue, MJ’s apparent demise seemingly inspired some of Howard Mackie’s best writing of the Volume 2 era — with one notable exception.
But first the good. Peter Parker: Spider-Man #14, dubbed “Denial,” is pretty much a snapshot of everything you’d want (and come to expect) in a comic book story that addresses any kind of tragedy in Peter’s life. A few years back, following the death of Marla Jameson, we got one of Dan Slott’s greatest stories ever with “No One Dies,” and “Denial” in its own unique way, is worthy of being compared to this recent classic. Mackie’s script doesn’t quite have the same fevered emotional pitch and sorrow that oozes from every page of “No One Dies,” but it’s really a wonderful look at Peter’s all-too human inability to accept the death of his wife (granted, Peter’s denial would eventually be proven prescient but that fact is really immaterial to the larger theme of this book).
The issue also marks a masterful use of a guest star — in this case, the big green Hulk who is rendered magnificently by John Romita Jr. Spidey and Hulk have never truly meshed well together in a comic in large part because it’s just so unbelievable that Spider-Man would be able to survive an attack from the “Jade Giant,” but in this instance, the Web Slinger is being fueled by his inconsolable grief and anger, which pairs well with a character that’s best known for being “angry.” Over the course of the issue, Spider-Man is coming on so strong against the Hulk, who he blames for MJ’s plane crash, that the big green guy is taken aback by his would-be adversary and seems uncertain in how to respond (making the fact that he doesn’t just squash Spidey like an ant a believable outcome).
Additionally, the comic does a great job providing meta-commentary on some then-recent events in Spider-Man history. As part of his inner-monologue, Peter takes for granted that MJ is still alive despite witnessing her plane exploding because other characters he saw die like Norman Osborn and Aunt May had come back from the dead. And while we can all pick nits over whether or not Marvel should have ever resurrected these characters (I’ve long been in the camp that Norman’s return has proven to be a good thing while Aunt May’s return, coupled with some retcons to her character, has been rather useless to the long-term outlook of the series), you can practically see the tongue firmly in Mackie’s cheek as his script discusses these surprising life/death reversals.
PPSM #14 then segues nicely to a two-parter involving a trip Peter takes to Latveria to try and rescue MJ. At the very end of PPSM #14, Peter gets a phone call that simply states that Mary Jane isn’t dead and is being held hostage inside Doctor Doom’s castle. Naturally, it’s a bait and switch and instead appears to be part of a larger scheme to kill off Spider-Man, but it does lead to a rather interesting subplot that questions whether or not Peter is just still stuck in the denial phase or if he’s possibly losing all of his marbles in the wake of MJ’s death. Again, the fact that Peter’s nutty actions are ultimately validated by Mary Jane being alive feels irrelevant in the moment of reading these stories fresh and taking them at face value. A series that shows Peter slowly descending into madness as he hunts down Mary Jane’s phantom kidnapper could have had a lot of potential, and when Paul Jenkins jumped on PPSM, he even addressed this idea a bit.
In the meantime, the Latveria two-parter also provides us with some fun action sequences involving Spider-Man fighting a Doombot and inadvertently saving a government resistance movement within the country from certain annihilation. The arc is not something that gets talked about a bunch as being representative of a good Spider-Man story, but it’s totally acceptable comic book storytelling all the same and provides some good examples of Spidey using his quips and jokes as a defense mechanism of sorts when fighting a physically superior opponent. Plus it also features a great sequence that captures Spider-Man’s often impulsive nature, leading to him to wax poetic about his regrets for not having a concrete plan in dealing with Doom.
The one black mark on this run of issues can be found in the immediate follow-up to MJ’s death issue, ASM #14, which functions more as a 24-page promotion for John Byrne’s new Spider-Woman series starring Mattie Franklin, aka the young woman who poses as Spider-Man at the very beginning of volume two.
The timing of this story couldn’t be worse as the reader is just coming off a very emotional storyline that shows the apparent death of a long-term character, the wife of the titular character. And while ASM #14 does address MJ’s death, it seems more fixated on Mattie, focusing on her and her actions for long stretches of the book. Plus it crosses over into Byrne’s Spider-Woman series to boot. Considering how reportedly unlikeable Byrne was during this time period, in retrospect it seems that Marvel likely caved in to the artist/writer’s demands in promoting one of his vanity projects.
On top of the issue’s poor timing, it’s also a lousy comic story-wise. At this point, Mattie is still a totally vanilla character that has no other distinguishing traits beyond receiving her powers from another lousy Byrne-led story, “The Gathering of Five,” and being J. Jonah Jameson’s niece. The fact that she throws herself at Peter at one point citing his freshly-dead wife as a reason for them to get together is both a slap in the face to long-term Spider-Man fans who were probably still in shock from MJ’s death, and a really silly way to characterize your new female heroine (as someone who instantly needs to be romantically entangled with the main male character).
There’s no reason “Denial” couldn’t have been plugged in as the story for ASM #14 while Mattie’s adventures could have been relegated to PPSM, the backup book. Of course Byrne was assigned to the “main” Spidey book, ASM, and Mattie was his character, so it looks like Byrne was once again the smartest man in the room at the expense of pretty much everyone else who was still reading the Spider-books at this point in history.