Over the next month Mark is going to share his thoughts on what he considers to be some of the “Lost Gems” of the Spider-Man comic book universe. These are some of Mark’s favorite stories that aren’t likely to appear on any “best of” lists.
This entry looks at The Pulse #1-5, aka “Thin Air,” by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley.
Thanks to Marvel’s cross-media promotional push for its recently released Jessica Jones series on Netflix, The Pulse, a comic book that enjoyed a rather short run in 2004-05 and was scripted by Brian Michael Bendis, was put back on my radar. Despite the fact that the series is heavily focused on the exploits of the Daily Bugle (and thus its publisher, J. Jonah Jameson), it’s probably a stretch to call The Pulse a Spider-Man series proper as Jones serves as its protagonist and central narrative voice.
However, in the spirit of “Lost Gems,” I wanted to shine a spotlight on The Pulse’s very first arc, which does indeed involve Spider-Man and serves as a prologue/prequel to a Spidey story that gets a ton of notoriety/fan-love, Mark Millar and Terry Dodson’s Marvel Knights: Spider-Man. And if I’m being honest here — and why wouldn’t I be this time of year? — I have to say I prefer the narrative flow of The Pulse far more than the more popular MK: Spider-Man.
I realize that’s a blasphemous thought for a lot of Spider-Man fans, but I’ve just never been able to fully embrace MK: Spider-Man despite the fact that there are a number of people who consider it one of the greatest Spidey stories of all time. It’s okay-enough and I would certainly never say it’s a bad book, but Millar and Dodson are afforded nearly every A-list character and gimmick at their disposal and all they manage to produce is another cat and mouse game between Spider-Man and Norman Osborn that reads like a Xerox of all of the other Norman/Spidey stories that preceded it.
The Pulse #1-5, also known as “Thin Air,” tells the story of how Osborn finds himself in jail (an integral plot component in MK: Spider-Man). But rather than rehash every Spider-Man/Green Goblin confrontation from the preceding 40 years, Bendis and artist Mark Bagley take a very different approach and tell the story from the perspective of a group of reporters and editors who find themselves personally invested in nailing Osborn once and for all when it becomes patently obvious that he murdered one of their own in cold blood.
It’s a really compelling story that actually builds upon a number of other forgotten Spidey stories — primarily those that were published in the mid/late 90s when Osborn was resurrected as the antagonist for the overly long “Clone Saga.”
The drama for “Thin Air” can be broken into multiple compartments: Terri Lass unwittingly marching to her death all in the name of desperately trying to break a story for the Bugle; Osborn in all of his asocial glory, being utilized on a broader scale by Bendis for the very first time (which BMB would later do with astronomical success during his run on New Avengers); the terrified Daily Bugle staff having an opportunity to take down Osborn once and for all (ha!); and of course, the usual tension between Spider-Man and Norman. All of these little subplots marinate together and create a perfectly composed superhero story.
“Thin Air” also gets to show familiar characters in new or, at least, atypical light — primarily J. Jonah Jameson, who’s still every bit of a blowhard, but also a complicated, nuanced blowhard. Jameson recalls the last time the Bugle thought it had Osborn dead to rights, when superstar reporter Ben Urich exposed the sociopath as the Green Goblin (this can be found in the Legacy of Evil one-shot from the 90s). Except Osborn used the power of green (aka, money) to lawyer himself to victory, nearly shutting the Bugle down in the process.
In The Pulse, Jameson wants vengeance for Terri’s brutal death as much as anyone, and he trusts Urich implicitly (despite the fact that he continually needles Ben about not revealing Daredevil’s secret identity), but he also fears the potential consequences of going so heavily after Osborn. Jameson tells Urich that the Bugle is his life, and he can’t lose it again (that wouldn’t happen until “Brand New Day”). Still, Jameson listens to his heart and green lights the media assault on Norman. It’s just always refreshing when we get these infrequent stories that illuminate why Jonah is such a hard-nosed news-man, and how beneath all of the “Spider-Man is a Menace” editorials, he actually has journalistic integrity.
But even with all of these great character moments starring a cast of individuals who don’t have powers, Bendis and Bagley bring the big ticket, blockbuster goodies in “Thin Air’s” final two installments. Osborn, with his back against the wall, goes into full-out crazy Green Goblin mode, causing mayhem in Manhattan like it’s a Macy Gray concert. Spider-Man, of course, is part of the crew of heroes on hand to save the city, but this being Bendis’s pet book for Jones, she and her boyfriend, Luke Cage, are there to actually deliver the decisive blow to the villain. That’s probably another factor that keeps people from fully accepting “Thin Air” as a Spider-Man story, but it feels so at home in Spidey’s universe, plus Bendis has such a strong grasp on his supporting cast, I think complaints like that are only for those who like to pick nits.
Readers who enjoyed Jessica Jones on Netflix should definitely check out The Pulse as it provides a little bit of insight as to where Marvel may go next with the character in television form. And while you’re doing that you’ll get to check out an otherwise forgotten Spider-Man story.