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Amazing Spider-Man: Coming Home
J. Michael Straczynski, John Romita Jr. and Scott
Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 2: Learning Curve
Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Bagley and Art Thibert
February 15, 2002
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
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
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
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
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.
Straczynski's Rising Stars: Power (Vol. 2)
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.
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
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