Even a cursory glance at the cover of Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 4) #19 is enough to fill any Spider-Man reader with dread. Artist Alex Ross’s paints conjure a moody, twilight scene where Spider-Man stares down at tombstone, only briefly illuminated by a flash of lightning. Longtime readers of Amazing Spider-Man have rightfully developed a complicated relationship to covers featuring a tombstone, especially after the now-retconned death of Aunt May that transpired in issue #400. Writer Dan Slott has made it a semi-regular habit to kill off members of Spider-Man’s supporting cast in a fabulous fashion but also to bring them back at a later time, mostly recently with Marla Jameson. So while the Lazurus-like revelations of “Before Dead No More” might reduce the specialness of death in the pages of a Spider-Man comic, they do nothing to dull the emotional rollercoaster contained in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 4) #19.
The issue quickly and somewhat awkwardly lays out its central conflict, Jay Jameson is knocking on death’s door and a decision needs to be made quickly. J. Jonah Jameson is urging everyone to consider using New U’s organ cloning technology to avoid the risks inherent to a conventional organ transplant. Having gone through with the New U procedure for one of his own employees only to have his Spider-Sense go off whenever he gets nearby, Peter is rightfully dubious about New U but also aware of his outward appearance of hypocrisy. For some reason, May places her confidence and final decision regarding Jay in Peter hands who, along with Jay’s pleading, commands that the risky surgery be done according to the textbook.
There’s a lot of hemming and hawing and complicated logistics to Dan Slott’s script, all to set up a fairly simple moral tale, including several scenes with Jonah that imply actions that are never paid off. However, it is the moral choice that Peter is made to face when confronted with a loved one’s potential death that tests the hero in the most classic and deliciously dramatic of ways. Jay sends Peter off on a quest to retrieve a clock, mentioned for the first time here, so that he might gift it to his son before his still somewhat-random disease steals his last breath.
At the most critical moment for Jay, Peter is again confronted by his Aunt regarding the decision to avoid New U, all while juggling a collapsing crane and his rapidly dissolving webbing. Here Slott has crafted a wonderful visual metaphor for Peter’s reluctance to embrace the one thing that might save Jay, an action that he’s fearful to embrace due to his extra-curricular activates. Similarly, the webbing that pins the antique clock to his back is dissolving, as he remains caught up in saving the lives of construction workers who’ve found themselves in an all-too-frequent crumbling crane scenario. No words need be uttered after a breathless moment where the clock smashes against the concrete below. Penciller Giuseppe Camuncoli’s depiction of the tearful, haunted faces of Peter’s loved ones on the final page only seal the terrible deal.
Sure, the whole set-up isn’t as wonderfully simple and elegant as Spider-Man’s death-defying struggle to lift tons of steel in Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 1) #33, but the emotional stakes are just as real. Just like the best Spider-Man stories, Slott puts Peter in a situation that is compromised by both his Peter Parker and Spider-Man personas and in which there is no winning solution. One could certainly pick apart some of the conveniences in the storytelling, particularly the fetch-quest nature of the clock retrieval and the slippery nature of time in this book, but when something is working these details quick lose their importance.
A few years back I had the unique opportunity to talk Peter Parker: Spider-Man writer Paul Jenkin’s about his approach to writing a Spider-Man story (listen here). He told me that to him the best Spider-Man stories are the ones where, for example’s sake, Peter is tasked with brining home a blueberry pie for his Aunt May. Jenkins suggested that the conflict of that story would arise when Peter has to become Spider-Man to save the day from some masked villain, but also be sure to make it home on time without damaging the pie, lest Aunt May realize that he’s Spider-Man. It’s an incredibly simple and endlessly adaptable formula for a good Spider-Man story and one that could be applied to the events in Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 4) #19. However, this time that pie didn’t make it home.
When so many of Marvel’s recent slate of Spider-Man comics have either been a build-up to an event or an event itself, this comic included, this issue should be a reminder that often the best Spider-Man stories don’t see him taking on an army of villains but rather trying to deliver a clock to a dying friend.
In addition to the stellar tale told by Slott and Camuncoli is a back-up conclusion to the FCBD 2016: Captain America tale that teased at the events of “Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy” (I guess they’ve finally decided to go with both titles for this event). This story, by Slott and artist Javier Garron, is a short and brutal revelation of how the Kingpin got involved with the Jackal’s schemes. The Kingpin’s response to the Jackal’s attempts to manipulate him are both shocking and completely in-character for a crime boss who has been teased one time too many and sets up a rather intriguing subplot that will likely pan out in future issues.
Listen to our discussion of this issue on our podcast, the Amazing Spider-Talk.