Marvel has always sought to have their stories reflect the world that we live in, in all of its facets and complications. In many ways they’ve been successful: their stories often take place in real cities, feature real people, and reflect real world events. This is complicated by how the heroes and villains interact with the world, invent new devices, destroy cities, create new cities, etc. The whole thing requires a healthy dose of skepticism, a grain of salt, and a creative imagination that allows the reader to look the other way and just accept that the Marvel universe is the way it is, just because.
There’s no element of the Marvel universe more confusing than how religion is presented. It seems, outside of the heroes and villains, that most of the Marvel universe’s citizens are religiously affiliated much in the same way that most of the people of our own universe are. And yet, most of these people have witnessed gods firsthand, be they the various Nordish gods from Thor to Loki, demons like Mephisto, or even the literal representations of Death and Eternity. So when a storyline like Jose Molina’s “Amazing Grace” attempts to tackle religion and how it pertains to Spider-Man it invariably will butt up against these confusing notions of how religion works in the Marvel universe.
This is especially true for a character like Spider-Man, who has never been portrayed with a particular affinity for any religion, though evidence of his history as a Protestant appears every now and then. However, for most of the time, Peter has operated like a lapsed Christian, one who observes holidays for the social/cultural aspect but never for any spiritual reason. Of particular note is a moment from Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #14 wherein Peter is pulled into a closet at the Daily Bugle to say a prayer, by his Superman-esque coworker, and reluctantly participates, as if prayer is something that makes him deeply uncomfortable. And why not? Peter Parker is a man who has fought alongside gods, made a deal with the devil, and even merged with the Power Cosmic, the idea of organized religion should probably sit uncomfortably with him.
So, a story like “Amazing Grace” and its investigation of Peter’s relationship with religion is rife with potential and when it is operating at its best, it comes close to challenging Peter on that front. However, the presentation of this narrative is handled in such a clunky, confusing, and ultimately on-the-nose way that it is never able to present these ideas with any of the grace, subtlety, or history that they deserve.
It’s hard to parse where the problems with Amazing Spider-Man #1.3 begin but it has become quite clear that the artwork, storytelling, and dialogue just are not working together to tell a competent tale. So much of the content of this book is difficult to impossible to parse, for any number of reasons. Though the prominent problem with this story is just that the narrative it is trying to tell is so scattered, with so many elements whose purposes are unclear, that it’s nearly impossible to emotionally track.
In this particular issue, Spider-Man is left reeling after the sudden discovery of his Uncle Ben (?) while the Santerians are on a mission of their own, kidnapping Julio so that they can perform some sort of tests on him. What one thing has to do with the other isn’t made clear, and perhaps it will be in time, but what it is lacking is some sort of hook or emotional stake. The return of Julio is hardly compelling, he just seems like any other guy in New York City and his family seems to be treating him as such. Spider-Man makes a brief reference to his desire to find out who this new, powerful figure in New York City is that is bringing people back to life, but other than one off-panel resurrection there has still been little to no evidence that this person even exists.
Spider-Man’s trip to Cuba seems to have yielded similar intangible results as well, with no qualitative evidence or leads to have made the trip one worth taking. Suddenly Peter is back in New York City talking to the Santerians as if his journey never even happened. The time spent in Cuba in this issue is spent with what seems to be an imaginary Uncle Ben, an Uncle Ben who is written so out-of-character that it’s hard to even criticize due to the fact that it probably isn’t him. If that doesn’t end up being the case, and this is a legitimate visitation by Uncle Ben to Peter Parker, his rewriting of “with great power must also come great responsibility” to a credo that involves Peter thinking of himself first before others, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the character and a lesson written by an author who is making a statement first and thinking about the character a distant second. (I’m not going to go on a diatribe again about how much I hate the reoccurrence of Peter telling jokes about female pop-stars).
And that’s just it, so much of this series reads like a political or philosophical statement that Molina feels compelled to insert into his superheroics tale. Typically I love it when costumed heroes can discuss something greater than what antidote to use on ______ person or how hard they should punch _______ in the face. However, so much time is spent on it here that it disrupts the flow of the book and comes across as an essay on whatever topic is being discussed. This took the form of a political and cultural lesson about Cuba in the previous issue and here it’s a conversation between Hank McCoy (the Beast) and Peter Parker (the Spider-Man) regarding the cultural belief in gods. The conversation itself is interesting, in that Hank takes a very counter position to the one I was expecting, but also tremendously on-the-nose and a hard left turn for the issue as it is wrapping up.
Compounding on the narrative confusion is what I consider to be a series of truly baffling artistic decisions that start from the very first pages of the book. Readers are treated (?) to a double-page layout of desaturated art featuring what seems to be the history of man, religion, and technology, maybe. The sequence is completely without context, contains no recognizable figures, and is never referenced again. The desaturated colors may signify that this is a flashback or some sort of historical triptych, but mainly they make the panels uninteresting to look at and even more difficult to discern, as details fade into the muddy and uniform grays.
The same goes with the rest of the coloring in this book. Simon Bianchi’s pencils and ink washes are incredibly detailed, and sometimes uneven in their polish, but the whole thing is undermined by a color palette that exclusively operates in a range of muddy browns and moonlit blues, except for Spider-Man whose costume is a blinding red. For a book with such detailed line-work and compressed inks, the limited coloring renders many of the details indistinguishable, allowing only Spider-Man to pop off the page and eliminating much of the verisimilitude that made some of the Cuba sequences from Amazing Spider-Man #1.2 delicious to look at.
Additionally, many of the primary actions of this comic happen off-panel and without acknowledgement. It requires the reader to fill in the blanks based on presumed knowledge they may or may not have. This is particularly disastrous with the F-list Santerians who are treated like A-listers in this book, as if we are expected to know who each of them are whenever they show up on a page. “Amazing Grace” has been a complicated story full of characters, but when pages don’t tell readers where they are, what is happening, and who the characters are, it becomes all the more confusing.
Additionally, for one, random sequence in this book the artwork changes to a completely different style, that of Raymund Bermudez. It is startling, to be sure, but editorially it presents a huge mistake, as Bermudez is listed on the cover but never given a proper credit inside of the book, listing Bianchi as the lone artist. After the mix-up last issue with the Cuban/Puerto Rican flag, one has to wonder just how loosely this book is being edited.
Overall, Amazing Spider-Man #1.3 is a confusing mess of a book with no clear or compelling story being told. There are isolated elements to champion, that hint at what the book is trying to do, but more often than not these elements come together in a discordant tone that has become confusing and grating.