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.
Probably the biggest criticism that’s been levied against the Howard Mackie/John Byrne run on Amazing Spider-Man vol. 2 is how totally forgettable these comics are. There are actually some decent stories to read over the course of the creative run, but even the good issues lack that defining series moment like a “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut” during the Roger Stern/John Romita Jr. run, or Superior Spider-Man on Dan Slott’s current stint.
And yet if there’s a single stand-out issue — for reasons good and bad — to be found during the Mackie/Byrne era it is Amazing Spider-Man #13. It resolves (sorta) one of the longer-standing subplots from the past year of stories and simultaneously features one of the most shocking endings to a Spider-Man comic in the character’s history.
This is, of course, the comic where we are to believe that Mary Jane — who has been fighting, off and on with Peter since volume 2 began — has died in a plane crash. Our final visual of MJ is of her begrudgingly getting on an airplane to go to a modeling gig rather than waiting to talk things over with Peter (who’s naturally late because of Spider-Man duties) and her being offered a lollipop by a friendly-looking stranger who presumably turns out to be the stalker that’s been threatening her over the course of the series. From there we see the plane explode coupled with a melancholic soliloquy from Mackie about life being filled with “a series of near misses … and missed opportunities.”
It’s a gut punch unlike anything we’ve seen in a Spider-Man comic since the very beginning when Peter arrived at his home in Queens, NY, only to discover that his Uncle Ben was killed by the same burglar he deliberately chose not to stop earlier in the comic. Or perhaps Stern’s epic reveal that Tim Harrison, the “Boy Who Collects Spider-Man,” had terminal cancer and just days to live.
But there’s also a hallow quality to how this gut-punch unfolds. While Mackie/Byrne do manage to tap in to some of the tragic pathos that is closely associated with the character — take note at how Peter attempts to get to the airport before MJ’s plane takes off but keeps stopping to deal with petty crimes and even stops a burglar at one point that reminds him of the man that murdered Uncle Ben — there’s also an emotionally manipulative quality to how this story unfolds. What makes the deaths of Uncle Ben and Tim Harrison so impactful is the utter randomness behind them both. In the case of Uncle Ben (as long as you discount the buried treasure retcon of Amazing Spider-Man #200), one seemingly innocuous decision from Peter led to the sudden death of his uncle. While with Timmy, what initially appeared to be a fanciful story between Spidey and child turned tragic due to the random deadliness of disease.
Such randomness doesn’t truly exist in the case of MJ’s death because when reading the entire run of issues in retrospect, it becomes apparent that Mackie and Byrne manufactured drama between Peter and Mary Jane which, in turn, magnified the tragedy of her apparent death (*spoiler alert* but MJ would obviously be upgraded to “alive” in a later story).
It also doesn’t help that the perpetrator behind the plane explosion turns out to be the stalker that has been hounding MJ over the past year (and who also looked like he died in an explosion in the previous issue of Peter Parker: Spider-Man). Clearly the stalker isn’t a recognizable or super-powered character on the level of Doctor Octopus or Electro, but the shock of the plane explosion is somewhat nullified by the fact that this creepy antagonist ultimately emerges victorious in his quest to destroy Peter and Mary Jane. Compare this outcome with just a story of Peter trying to get to the airport and stopping to fight crime (like he does here) and then watching Mary Jane’s plane take off and explode … without the unnecessary insertion of the stalker. Both scenarios offer the same general outcome — MJ’s presumed death — but having the stalker orchestrate the plane explosion in effect makes Peter’s inability to get to the airport on time irrelevant. This guy is gunning for MJ no matter what and even if Peter and MJ kiss and make up, Mackie and Byrne have built the character up so that he’ll just show up on another flight at a future time and strike. The scenario that excludes the stalker feels truer to Spider-Man’s core tenets of “power and responsibility.” In the latter scenario, Peter is basically choosing his responsibilities as Spider-Man over his responsibilities as MJ’s husband, which in turns makes his inability to reach Mary Jane on time the ultimate missed opportunity.
Perhaps this level of revisionist history is unfair, but it does explain why my visceral reaction to how ASM #13 ends is more of feeling cheated than feeling sadness. As I’ve referenced in some earlier installments of this feature, the resolution of this Mackie/Byrne subplot is actually quite similar to how “One More Day” and “One Moment in Time” shake out. In both instances, the premise that MJ can no longer cope with the idea of her husband risking her life as Spider-Man is inorganically thrust into the narrative (it’s inorganic because earlier writers like David Michelinie and J.M. DeMatteis have addressed the obvious complications of MJ being married to Spider-Man and yet they all utilized the fact that she was able to overcome these issues as a means to strengthen the character and make her far less trite), thereby forcing the creative team to separate the characters. Because comic book creators have some kind of aversion to divorce, we got a plane crash in the Mackie/Byrne run and a deal with Mephisto in “Brand New Day/One Moment in Time.” Neither is ideal nor feel earned. That’s why both are memorable stories, but neither is well-regarded or revered.