The Evolution Of The Spider-Mythos And Amazing Spider-Man #38
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artists: John Romita Jr (p), Scott Hanna (i)
Amazing Spider-Man #38 was outstanding and maybe 20 years overdue. Aunt May and Peter finally discuss the fact that he is Spider-Man.
What I most enjoyed about the issue is that it centers on the fact that Peter has been lying to one of the most important people in his life for years. "Oh, hi Aunt May. Yeah, the gang and I went to the Coffee Bean" which readers knew translated into, "Yeah, I jumped up and down on cars and buildings for 2 hours while I dodged a human freight train named the Rhino the whole time". I get in deep with my girlfriend if I don't accurately predict when I am leaving work. I think she would bust a gut if I forgot to mention the bullet dodging I had to do at lunchtime. My point is that as charming as certain superhero cliches are and have been, it is refreshing to see these old devices expertly retired.
The "expertly" part of the last sentence is what is most important. Too often I have seen "bold and exciting new directions" turn into a waste of everybody's time. I once heard Steve Gerber say that Superman is a myth that is more significant than his monthly comic. As an example, he asked, "Where does Clark Kent work?" to which everyone answers, "the Daily Planet". His response was that in the comic book Clark worked at WGBS. His point was that certain comic book stories last and become part of the myth and some don't. Clark Kent works at the Daily Planet regardless of the comic book's current storyline.
Likewise, certain "shocking" Spider-Man stories, despite what may, or may not, have been sincere efforts do not become part of the legend. The Scarlet Spider was not Peter Parker. Aunt May did not really die revealing on her deathbed that she had always known about Peter, which is a great example of something that conceptually might work, but the implementation was so weak, the story had to be ignored. The list of efforts that don't quite stick goes on and on.
This story however will become a part of the myth. It's that necessary and it is that good. Peter did not kill his Uncle Ben. A burglar with a gun did that. Peter can choose to be Spider-Man, but he should no longer be haunted by such horrible guilt, and it makes sense that he could and would share it with the person he loves so much.
This issue reframes the character of Peter Parker from someone exorcising his guilt to someone who just wants to do the right thing because he can make a positive difference in this world. Honestly, the former kind of hero is best left to Batman, and the latter kind of hero has not been seen since the loss of Barry Allen. It would be nice to have a hero that might just fight crime because it is a good thing to do. (It could be said that Superman is now such a hero, but I would say that is arguable and not something I'll examine now.)
Also, a hero that can trust those around him and even openly rely on them, because that is what they are doing whether they realize it or not, is refreshing because it is healthier. It is sad to read about heroes that cannot trust the ones they love, or worse yet, a hero that cannot allow themselves to love others. Not since the similar conversation between Peter and Mary Jane by Roger Stern, Ron Frenz and Joe Rubenstein have I read such a strong characterization of the Spider-Man cast. I have to joke that Marvel has introduced a new character named Aunt May who was formerly playing a piece of window dressing.
A few interesting specifics about this issue include Peter's imagined visage of Aunt May. His intuitive portrayal of her shows a strikingly diminuative and frail woman. When Aunt May arrives at his apartment, although she is clearly along in her years, she is not nearly as timid and delicate as he remembers. This contrast shows us that perhaps Peter's nobility regarding his aunt has consistently underestimated her; a point that she herself raises.
The art is outstanding. I start to feel a bit redundant extolling the quality of Romita Jr's subtle characterizations, paneling and storytelling. They are all great, again, and I am tired of saying it, but not tired of seeing it. This issue has no action sequences to visually stir the audience. It consists of two characters sitting in a room talking. As such, the artistic demands of subtler storytelling increase and Romita's art is beautifully consistent with characters that people have known for over 30 years.
There is one specific point about John Romita's Peter Parker that he consistently provides that I would like to mention. In general, one of Romita's many great strengths is his storytelling. For example, Scott McCloud, in his excellent work "Understanding Comics", raised the idea that artistic simplicity in character rendering allows the readers to more easily project themselves into the story. The idea is that the more general the characterizations the more the reader can "fill in the gaps" with their own imagination (and likely their own features) whether the reader is aware of it or not. The danger of this approach is that characterization becomes flat and lacking.
In Romita's case his Peter looks enough like Peter to be recognizable, generic enough for readers to more easily identify with and nuanced enough to project the appropriate emotion in any given panel. I especially like his use of body language. Peter's shoulders are more tense as he debates how much to tell May. After having resolved the conflict, his body language, especially his Spider-Man silouette, becomes quite relaxed.
Another simple but effective technique would be the framing of the characters in the paneling. In the opening sequences the characters are smaller in the frames and the environment takes prominence. In both cases, this framing demonstrates how isolated each character feels most especially May. With Peter, we see him framed by the brick wall of his apartment building. This visually cues the "walls" that Peter has built up between himself and everyone. As such, we turn to a shot of him in his empty apartment as if to suggest the consequence of his lack of trust.
As the characters start to trust each other more, they continue to fill more of the panel. The only major time this does not maintain itself is when May and Pete hold each other. By pulling the "camera" back, it creates the sense of a "shared isolation" or a private intimacy between the two. All in all, these devices are simple, but still rare enough in comics to be worth mentioning. Romita's level of storytelling helps the reader engage the tale while never demanding the reader to break from the story and pay special or excessive attention to the art.
Also, Scott Hanna's clean line work keeps the story uncluttered and centered on the two characters while still helping to provide the appropriate mood.
Lastly, the color is well done. I cannot say the color is magnificent, but it is professionally done. The textures found within any given color breaks up the broad tones, but the textures are not so pronounced so as to compete for the reader's attention. The correct tone is set, quietly.
I usually have at least one nit pick to make over Straczynski's writing, but I don't this issue. Often he is a bit heavy handed and pushes something just a bit too hard, but I say no evidence of over-the-top melodrama this issue. Again, the characters were the mature, noble and strong people that we have known and his writing always remained consistent with that expectation. Ray Tate raised the point that May did not need to believe that she too might have been complicit in Ben's death. I agree that this was not necessary, but I would argue that it was not necessarily egregious either. People often suffer from guilt after a tragedy and rack themselves over what more they could have done. Given that both Pete and May viewed the other as frail, it makes sense that neither would share the extra guilt and stress with the other. I understand Ray's point, and I must admit, I did consider the device a bit overt, but I decided to let it pass as a bit self serving, but plausible. If nothing else, it shows that Peter may have inherited some of his behavior from May's example.
In general, kudos to the whole team, including editor Axel Alonso, whose books I now consistently seek out and find to be worthwhile.
An excellent read that I highly recommend.
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