"The Long, Dark Pizza of the Soul"

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Dave Wallace

“Every comic is somebody’s first.”

That old publishing axiom might be becoming increasingly unlikely given the dwindling numbers of new readers that the comics industry is managing to attract these days. However, the principle that it embodies is still a solid one: if you can make every issue function as a gateway to a larger world, you’re far more likely to encourage casual readers to stick around and see what’s next; to try other books; and, maybe, to become a lifelong reader of and lover of comics.

Amazing Spider-Man (vol.2) #32 (August 2001) wasn’t the first comic that I ever read by a long shot. It wasn’t even the first Spider-Man comic I read. However, having spent the early years of my life reading UK comics and European graphic novels (punctuated by the occasional volume of American reprints -- often Spider-Man or other Marvel stories) only to abandon the hobby as a teenager, it was the first contemporary single issue of an American series that I put down money for (on a whim, after seeing it on display on the shelves of a newsagent).

By doing so, I took the first step into the world of Spider-Man, and by extension, the larger Marvel Universe and the world of American comics in general. But would the same thing had happened if it hadn’t been this particular issue that I picked up?

I have no idea whether J. Michael Straczynski was consciously aiming to attract new readers with this story, but from the first read, he had me hooked. Somehow, the writer managed to condense everything that a new reader would need to know about Spider-Man into a single issue, whilst also using it to move his own plotlines forwards in a compelling and intriguing manner, and at the same time providing a gateway to the wider world of American superhero comics.

Amazing Spider-Man #32 was only the third issue of JMS’s long run on the book. It was a middle chapter of an opening arc that questioned the origins of Spider-Man’s powers, gave us our first look at a new character with similar powers in the form of Ezekiel, and also introduced a brand new villain to Spider-Man’s world in the shape of Morlun: a vampiric entity who feeds on animal-themed superheroes.

Shortly after reading the book, I went back and picked up issues #30 and #31 for the first two chapters of the story -- and then I continued to buy the book every month for years (until the very end of JMS’s run, in fact). At the time, I didn’t see issue #32 as anything particularly special: after all, a lot of the setup of the story had already taken place in issues #30 and #31, and the big fight with Morlun didn’t come until issue #33. However, something about it must have caught my imagination -- and upon rereading the issue for the purposes of this column, I realised just how well the issue had been put together, both as a Spider-Man comic and as an introduction to the world of the Marvel Universe.

In a manner that’s symbolic of Straczynski’s approach to Amazing Spider-Man as a whole, the issue opens with a classic Spider-Man action sequence -- but with a twist: the action is seen from the point of view of a kidnapped hostage, rather than from Spider-Man’s own perspective. It’s a wonderful way of introducing the character, who flies in at the last minute to despatch the kidnapper and crack wise with his victim, giving the issue an energetic and entertaining opening that grabs the attention before giving way to a more subdued examination of Peter Parker.

This issue is the first time that we see Peter in his new role as a science teacher at his old high school. There’s a genuine sense of development of Peter Parker as a character, with his new role feeling logical and organic, and giving him the chance to expand the remit of his socially conscious superhero activities by allowing him to directly connect with the young people of New York. Of course, it also allows JMS to reconnect with the concerns of a younger audience that might not find the adult Spider-Man quite as sympathetic as the character was in his teenage years. Finally, it also gives the writer the opportunity to echo the old days of Amazing Spider-Man, in which much of the action took place in and around Peter’s high school and university campuses.

Soon after witnessing Peter’s attempts to inspire a new generation with his love of science, we get an appearance from the mysterious Ezekiel, who invites Peter out for a pizza -- over which they share a conversation that proved controversial with many longtime Spider-Man fans, but which felt inspired and innovative to a new reader like me. Yes, it’s this conversation that sees JMS outline his big addition to the Spider-Man mythos: the idea that Spider-Man, and many of his past villains, have been unconsciously acting out totemistic displays to animal-themed gods.

Whilst many readers reacted negatively to what they perceived as an unnecessary muddying of the classic “bitten by a radioactive spider” origin, I couldn’t help but feel that JMS’s approach to Spider-Man continuity was a perfect one. Just like Alan Moore’s “The Anatomy Lesson” from Swamp Thing #21, his additions to the mythos suggested a new interpretation of the legend that called many of the audience’s assumptions about the character into question, without actually violating any of those old stories.

In fact, JMS’s idea actually enriches those earlier stories, suggesting a primal, subconscious reason for all of those old animal-themed villains without contradicting the conscious motivations that were provided for the characters by previous writers. I can’t help but wonder whether the writer was aware of this fact, with the religious allusions of the name “Ezekiel” (which means “God strengthens” or “may God strengthen”) suggesting that he always intended to use his totemistic ideas to simply bolster the original Spider-Man origin story, not to supplant it.

It doesn’t hurt that JMS is accompanied by artist John Romita Jr., one of the most defining Spider-Man artists in the character’s history, who provides a couple of splashpages that convey his writer’s ideas perfectly. In particular, the montage that illustrates the principle that you can get to know a man by his enemies is wonderfully composed, expanding the idea to the wider Marvel Universe with a quick glimpse of other heroes and their villains, without losing the core focus on Spider-Man’s rogues’ gallery.

After a brief flashback that hints at Ezekiel’s mysterious origins, JMS takes us on a tour of the character’s operations at the headquarters of his successful business empire. This idea again helps to reinforce the idea that Ezekiel is a dark mirror of Peter: a character who channelled his spider-powers into commercial avenues (just as Peter did in Amazing Fantasy #15) rather than using them for altruistic purposes.

This conscious juxtaposition of the two character even allows JMS and Romita a quick, condensed three-panel recap of Spider-Man’s origin story, and an opportunity to reiterate the “with great power comes great responsibility” slogan, giving new readers everything they need to know about the character without it feeling forced or clunky.

However, JMS even manages to re-examine this old adage from a fresh point of view, as Ezekiel asks Peter, "So what comes with great responsibility? What's the other half of the equation? Power? Freedom? Guilt?". It’s a great, insightful scene that sees Peter resist Ezekiel’s offer of sanctuary from Morlun, claiming that his many responsibilities (to the school, to his family, and to the city) outweigh his concerns for his own personal safety, subtly suggesting that many of Peter’s woes are self-inflicted.

Finally, we’re treated to a dramatic cliffhanger with the climactic appearance of Morlun, who had cannily been kept off-panel for most of the issue in order to increase the impact of the final pages (which guaranteed that there was no way that I was going to miss issue #33). It’s a brief action sequence that acts as a bookend with the opening scene, reminding readers that most of the intrigue and excitement of the issue has actually come from a succession of talking-heads sequences -- and it’s surely testament to Romita’s skills as an artist that he’s managed to make these static scene so compelling.

Regardless of the inferior stories that were to follow later in JMS’s run (Sins Past, The Other, Back in Black and One More Day are all probably best forgotten), the writer’s original run of issues with John Romita Jr. (including the 9/11 issue, Amazing Spider-Man (vol.2) #36) still stands as a classic, and one that’s perhaps only second to the original Lee/Ditko/Romita run of issues.

Personally, their collaboration proved to be the spark that I needed to reawaken my interest in comics. In addition to reintroducing me to American books in general (and Spider-Man in particular), this issue was an excellent way to begin my gradual immersion into the shared continuity of the Marvel Universe. From here, I began to consider other, similar titles -- which led to me sampling Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s Daredevil, which quickly developed into a regular habit for another classic extended run on a Marvel superhero book. This in turn led me to pick up Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Daredevil: Yellow, which in turn led to me checking out their DC work on Batman… and by that point, the floodgates had been well and truly opened.

(That said, it took a while for me to get used to the American publishing model. Having been accustomed to having volumes and volumes of Asterix and Tintin books on tap at my local library to plough through at my leisure, the idea that I had to wait a whole month for just another 22 pages of story was a mild shock for me.)

I might have read Spider-Man stories that are better loved and more fondly remembered by fans of the character over the last eight years, and I’ve certainly read better comics than this in my time -- but I wonder whether any of them played as significant a role in getting me interested in the medium as this single issue of Amazing Spider-Man.

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