Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

23 August 2013

Spider-Man: The Next Chapter, v. 3

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man v. 2 #13-9, Peter Parker: Spider-Man v. 2 #13-9, Spider-Woman v. 3 #9, and Amazing Spider-Man Annual 2000 (2000)

Released: August 2012 (Marvel)

Format: 400 pages / color / $39.99 / ISBN: 9780785159773

What is this?: Spider-Man loses everything — everything — so he can return to the status quo.

The culprits: Writer Howard Mackie, writer / artist John Byrne, and artists John Romita Jr., Graham Nolan, and others

This is how bad the Clone Saga and its aftermath were: about two years after the Clone Saga ended, Marvel decided the solution to the relative disinterest in Spider-Man was to chop the number of Spider-titles in half, relaunch the survivors (Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker: Spider-Man, volumes two), and have Howard Mackie write both.

To the modern reader, safely more than a decade away from that decision, having Howard Mackie writing two Spider-Man books seems insane, as incomprehensible as AOL buying Time-Warner or the Internet bubble on Wall Street. Three years after the 1998 relaunch, Mackie was done with his Spider-Man run — and done at Marvel. His alternate-reality X-title, Mutant X, ended in June 2001, a month after Amazing #29, his final Spider-Man issue. (He was replaced on Peter Parker by Paul Jenkins with #20.) After that: nothing, unless you believe he was X, the anonymous writer of The Brotherhood, which ended in March 2002. The only work Mackie has done for Marvel in the last decade is Spider-Man: The Real Clone Saga, which retold the Clone Saga as Mackie and Tom DeFalco intended. Thank God; that was a story that was screaming to be told. Or maybe the screaming was coming from somewhere else. From me, maybe.

Spider-Man: The Next Chapter, v. 3 coverBut evidently we couldn’t see Mackie’s shortcomings back then: his shoddy characterizations, his inability to see a plot or subplot through, his frequently nonsensical plots. Mackie rose to prominence with the 1990s Ghost Rider relaunch, where the fresh take on Ghost Rider, Image-era art, and grim-and-gritty characters overrode those deficiencies. I can’t speak to the exact quality of his previous Spider-Man work, but his X-Factor run (#115-49) charged headlong into incomprehensibility before everyone agreed the best remaining idea for the title was to throw Havok, the X-Factor’s team leader, into an alternate reality and follow the alternate reality Mackie hadn’t yet messed up.

I chose to start with the third volume of The Next Chapter because I already had the single issues that made up v. 1 and 2. But the choice was serendipitous, as v. 3 begins Marvel’s second, slightly more successful attempt to roll back Spider-Man to his early ‘80s settings. The calamitous Clone Saga had taught Marvel, rightly or wrongly, that Peter could not be replaced, so Marvel tried writing Mary Jane out of the comics instead. In Amazing #13, the first issue of The Next Chapter, v. 3, the passenger jet Mary Jane is traveling on explodes in mid-air.

The decision to kill Spider-Man’s wife was both bold and crassly commercial, which is probably why it appealed to those who signed off on it. It is not so appealing in execution. However, Mackie and Amazing plotter / co-writer John Byrne choose to make Peter not believe Mary Jane is dead, and that’s more interesting than weeping and moaning. His friends see it as denial, but in Spider-Man’s world, the choice is backed by some logic. Aunt May returned from the dead, as did Norman Osborn; Gwen Stacy and the Jackal were cloned. Mary Jane’s survival was possible — and in fact, she was alive, reuniting with Peter in Amazing Spider-Man v. 2 #29, a few months after The Next Chapter, v. 3, ends.

The enjoyability of The Next Chapter, v. 3, is elevated above the material itself because it contains the entire storyline, from the violent act to Peter’s eventual acceptance. Rarely do readers get a complete story when Marvel reprints a consecutive, non-storyline based section of continuity. I doubt Marvel planned the reprints that way, but I’m glad it turned out that way — especially since everything else about the story is abysmal.

Peter claims to want Mary Jane back, but he is ineffectual in his attempts to find her. I know Spider-Man isn’t the world’s greatest detective, but he doesn’t investigate Mary Jane’s alleged death or find any clues. He doesn’t try to find any of her previous stalkers, such as Venom, who might have had a grudge. He doesn’t look into the explosion. His only real investigation into her death is following up on an anonymous tip that MJ was being held in Latveria, where her plane was bound. (Why would anyone have a modeling shoot in Latveria, of all places?) He doesn’t try to find who gave him the Latverian tip or MJ’s crooked manager, who embezzled money from his client and disappeared.

It’s almost as if the reader is supposed to think Peter knows how irrational he’s being but doesn’t want any evidence to prove it. Unfortunately, nothing in the text backs up that reading — except that when Spider-Man is haunted by the deceased Harry Osborn in Amazing Spider-Man Annual 2000, he finds Harry’s return patently ridiculous, despite Harry having been dosed with the same Goblin formula that returned Norman Osborn from the dead.

A big part of the storyline’s failure is that the plot requires us to accept whatever Mackie and Byrne dish out to keep things moving or to stop them from moving. Peter’s costume and spider-shooters are stolen after he is kicked out of a flophouse, but why doesn’t Peter take better care of his Spider-equipment? Is he an idiot? (Probably, since he could have stayed with May or one of his friends, and he has no problem accepting money from her or Robbie Robertson.) Why doesn’t he work harder to find the manager who ruined his life? Why did someone want Peter to investigate in Latveria? Why re-introduce the mystery of the fifth Green Goblin, then pointedly not resolve it? In Annual 2000, why do Scrier Jr.’s gauntlets explode when they touch? What is the point of the gratuitous Marvel: The Lost Generation crossover in Amazing #16, other than to boost one of Byrne’s more forgettable ideas? Why does Venom’s bite have such an effect on Sandman, when Sandman loses mass all the time without any consequences and Venom’s bite never was so toxic before? What could possibly be in the box the airline returns to Peter and May, which convinces them of Mary Jane’s death? The answer to all these questions is You shut up.

Even when Mackie and Byrne have good ideas, their inability to commit to the idea undermines their accomplishments. In Peter Parker #16, Spider-Man runs across a half-dozen new, off-brand villains. The interaction between the villains and Spider-Man promises some laughs, with a subplot thrown into the mix; unfortunately, in less than three pages, they are gone, and Spider-Man thinks, “I feel like I’ve stepped into a Reader’s Digest version of a bad day in the life of Spider-Man.” (In contrast, a new Rocket Racer is given a big build-up, making his ignominious and off-hand defeat worth the time spent on him.) Having someone hunt down the Sinister Six, member by member, is an interesting idea, but we never get a good reason why the culprit decides to do so, or why he interrupts his vendetta halfway through to try to court his ex-wife. The ex-wife’s despair is convincing, but not enough time is invested in her thoughts to make her final fate seem believable. Sandman’s disintegration fuels some interesting stories down the line, but Mackie and Byrne are more interested in teasing a Silver-Age villain’s death than in following up on the implications.

Strangely, part of Mackie’s problem is that he can’t let go of the past. Part of the relaunch’s remit was to quietly forget the stories leading up to it. Mackie couldn’t, of course. In v. 3, he’s still dredging up stories from v. 1 of both titles. The awful crossover with Spider-Woman is saturated by references to the Gathering of Five crossover, which immediately preceded the relaunch. (To be fair, the new Spider-Woman was empowered by the crossover, but the stupid solution to defeating the villain revolves around the Gathering of the Five.) More damning, though, is his inclusion of the fifth Green Goblin, who impersonated the villain after the Clone Saga to clear Norman Osborn’s name. That Green Goblin could have been easily forgotten, but Mackie brings him up without resolving his identity, then offs the poor sap. Peter shakes his head and goes on with his life, rather than caring. In the Annual, Mackie brings up Scrier, a Clone Saga hanger-on, and the deceased Harry Osborn.

The reason why these thoughts and stories are half-formed is to give Mackie and Byrne room to tear Peter Parker’s life down. Mary Jane and her earning power are blown up, putting Spider-Man in the poorhouse. He’s single again, earning basically nothing as a dishwasher, and he has to move in with Randy Robertson to make ends meet. Strangely, the writers and Peter refuse to wallow in the protagonist’s misery. Peter is … not cheerful, but he’s not downbeat either. Partially, that is because he refuses to believe in his wife’s death; part of it is because the stories don’t spend much time on the misery of minimum-wage labor and homelessness.

Not everything is bad. Mackie and Byrne use the supporting cast; even when the supporting characters are at their most cardboard, the writers acknowledge the amount of people who care about Peter and May, which is something other writers have trouble with. Cletus Kasady’s escape from the insane asylum without his symbiote underscores that even without Carnage, Kasady is dangerous. J. Jonah Jameson getting his hands on Peter’s Spider-equipment and stopping the Bugle’s Spider-Man vendetta is interesting, although the former isn’t original. Flash’s gloriously self-aggrandizing pep talk to Peter in Peter Parker #18 is wonderful.

Cadaverous Aunt MayMore importantly, the art is very good. John Byrne, who penciled Amazing #13-8, is not at his peak, but he is more than solid throughout. John Romita Jr.’s work on Peter Parker #14-7 and 19 is very good — and considering that I generally don’t like Romita Jr.’s work, that’s saying something. His Hulk in #14 is hulking and brutish without devolving into cartoonishness, which would have been all wrong for a serious issue about Peter dealing with Mary Jane’s absence. Klaus Janson (Annual) and Lee Weeks (PP #13) are excellent on their single issues as well, with Weeks’s realistic style being an excellent choice for an issue focusing on the depowered Carnage and Janson’s slightly dated look complementing a script that concentrates on characters from Spider-Man’s recent past. On the down side, Erik Larsen’s pencils in Amazing #19 look rushed, with May’s face looking less “old” and more “cadaverous.”

This is the end of Mackie’s stranglehold on Spider-Man. Byrne bowed out with Amazing #18, and Mackie was replaced on Peter Parker after these issues. A new era was coming, and few readers looked back on Next Chapter’s false starts with any fondness. To be fair, in v. 3, the stories (and writers) did exactly what Marvel wanted them to: reboot Peter Parker to his good old days. I don’t think anyone wanted to see it done this badly, though.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Half Spider-Man symbol (1.5 of 5)

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Blogger Kris Shaw said...

I have this but haven't read it yet. REALLY looking forward to it now. ;)

6:37 PM  

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