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Untangling Webs

 

Amazing Spider-Man: Coming Home

J. Michael Straczynski, John Romita Jr. and Scott Hanna

Marvel, 2001

Rating: 4.0

   

Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 2: Learning Curve

Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley and Art Thibert

Marvel, 2001

Rating: 3.7

Posted: February 15, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Given that he's been slinging webs for close to four decades, often in multiple monthly titles, it's no surprise that Spider-Man has swung into his fair share of creative ruts over the years. It hasn't always been hard to smell the desperation as those charged with furthering one of Marvel's most popular franchises worked hard to extend the wall-crawler's sell-by date. The death (and subsequent, utterly preposterous return) of Aunt May, and the entirety of Peter Parker's marriage to supermodel/actress (!!) Mary Jane Watson, both spring to mind as turning points born of frustration. The whole alien symbiote costume story is another giveaway. Spider-Man becoming the cosmically-powered everyhero Captain Universe. Look close, and you'll find tons of doozies in his mythology.

It's easy to sympathize with Spidey's plight. How do you keep things fresh for a character with decades of accumulated backstory, while keeping things similar enough to placate obsessive readers and nervous advertisers?

Two recent paperback collections tackle this dilemma in different and refreshing ways. Learning Curve is the second volume to collect the ongoing monthly Ultimate Spider-Man series. The Ultimate line, you'll recall, is an attempt by the powers at Marvel to "reboot" the company's most popular franchises for new, young audiences. Coming Home, meanwhile, takes place firmly in the web-spinner's current, convoluted continuity, and marks the Spider-Man debut of J. Michael Straczynski, mastermind of the Babylon 5 television series and the similarly ambitious Rising Stars comic series for Top Cow.

Ultimate Spider-Man has, arguably, the easier task. After all, Brian Michael Bendis and company don't have to worry about conforming to years of backstory. They get to re-imagine the Spider-Man saga for an audience that spends more time on the Internet than in the comics shop. The series definitely had a bumpy ride early on, as key elements were either glossed over or ignored altogether. (Why does Peter get to keep the costume given to him by the wrestling promoter? Just how does he manage to be such good friends with a hot number like Mary Jane or a popular kid like Harry Osborn? Why aren't his tormentors more suspicious of his newfound basketball prowess?)

But by Learning Curve, Bendis and his artistic cohorts Mark Bagley and Art Thibert have settled into a comfortable groove. Peter's awkward relationship with his hard-nosed Aunt May is a vast improvement on the original, and Bendis' portrayal of Spider-Man as a naive, accident-prone hero-in-training is winningly detailed. Parker's part-time job as webmaster for the Daily Bugle is a bit suspect, as is the re-imagining of crusty reporter Ben Urich as a goateed hipster, but these are minor points.

Some of the most rewarding touches, however, point to Bendis' prowess as a crime writer. The way Spider-Man is skillfully manipulated by one of the Kingpin of Crime's henchmen is all too believable, as are his humiliation at Kingpin's hands early on, and the deepening mystery involving the death of henchman Mr. Big. Parker's deft investigation of the Kingpin's video-monitoring device is also deftly handled. But it's Bendis' flair for interpersonal relationships, whether between Peter and Mary-Jane, Peter and Aunt May, or Peter and his classmates, that leaves the most enduring impression. If Sam Raimi's upcoming Spider-Man film retells the essential story half as well as Bendis does in Learning Curve and the earlier volume, Power and Responsibility, it will be a masterpiece.

Straczynski's task is somewhat more difficult, faced as he is with so much daunting history. So it's to his particular credit that he introduces a fascinating wrinkle into Spider-Man's origin. Parker is confronted by Ezekiel, an older man who evidences powers very similar to his own. Ezekiel also comes with a warning that an all-but unstoppable being named Morlun is coming for Spider-Man, and the hero's only hope is to hide his power from the creature's perception.

Morlun, it turns out, feeds on the powers of humans with "totemistic" powers -- i.e., those with animal powers similar to Parker's. Many, though not all, such humans, it's implied, get their powers from the particular animal they end up representing. In Parker's case, Ezekiel poses a question that shakes his long-held understanding of his own abilities: "Did the radiation enable the spider to give you these powers? Or was the spider trying to give you those powers before the radiation killed it?" For those following along at home, that translates to: Are Spider-Man's powers the result of being bitten by a radioactive spider? Or are they a gift from the spider, who just happened to be dying of radiation poisoning? Is Spider-Man a freak occurrence, or is he a chosen avatar of the spider world?

Coming Home doesn't answer that question, but the mere posing of it breathes fresh new potential into the Spider-Man mythos. And it's for that reason that Coming Home edges out the Ultimate Spider-Man reboot as the better attempt at freshening up the franchise. It's all too easy to start again from scratch, even though there's the very real risk of mucking things up even worse (John Byrne, anyone?). Harder still to incorporate dynamic new elements into the existing mold, a la Alan Moore's "Anatomy Lesson." (Think about it -- if the whole "totem" concept were introduced as part of an Ultimate-style relaunch, there'd be howls of dissent from here to Katmandu.) It's all the more laudable that Straczynski does so while still grounding the series in familiar elements. Peter Parker becomes a high school science teacher, for example, giving him the opportunity to help a geeky teen much like he once was gain some self-confidence through his scientific knowledge in the middle of a Columbine-style shoot-up.

A couple of points are docked for the overly melodramatic nature of Spider-Man's battle with Morlun, whose unbeatable nature is a bit heavy-handed. (And really, couldn't he have a cooler name?) But Straczynski/Ezekiel's theory that Parker's animal-themed foes -- the Rhino, Doctor Octopus, the Vulture -- are totem wannabes acting out a grudge against the "real thing" restores those points easily. And the sturdy storytelling abilities of longtime Spider-Man artist John Romita Jr., as opposed to the more cartoony renderings of Ultimate's Mark Bagley, elevate Coming Home's status even higher.

By virtue of its ability to continually reinvent the character's rich and complex history in clever and innovative ways from the ground up, the Ultimate line holds a clear long-term advantage. But for now, Straczynski's novel approach swings a couple of webs ahead.

Related Links:

J. Michael Straczynski's Rising Stars: Power (Vol. 2)

The Amazing Spider-Man: Revelations

 
Criminally Good Stuff
Fans of hard-boiled crime fiction should check out Bendis' other comics work, most especially Jinx and the ongoing series Powers, about policemen in a world of superheroes.
Star Treatment
Fans of J. Michael Straczynski should also check out Rising Stars, which follows a group of super-powered beings in a world where such things aren't commonplace. The political machinations alone are fascinating, as are the methods with which a mysterious killer picks off super-powered victims.

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 Ratings Key:
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 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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