Writer: J. Michael Straczynski & Fiona Avery (story); Fiona Avery (script),
Artist: John Romita Jr (p), Scott Hanna (i)
Marvel Previews had listed this as being "The return of the enigmatic Ezekiel": well, unless he has turned into a young black schoolkid, Ezekiel it ain't. Instead, Peter Parker busies himself in the absence of Mary Jane by dealing with the problem of a young man who has come into posession of a gun and is coping with peer pressure problems at school.
J. Michael Straczynski has shown himself to be a more than capable writer on this series: standout single-issue stories have included such modern classics as those in which Aunt May found out that Pete was Spider-Man, or the famous 9/11 issue (#36). This makes it all the more disappointing when the series goes off the boil as it has with this issue. Despite an inconsistent level of quality since the big anniversary issue #500 and a wobbling "magic" subplot (which was admittedly more satisfyingly integrated last issue) many have still held high hopes for a creator with such a notable pedigree. Whether it is the introduction of scripter Fiona Avery or simply a lack of ideas on JMS' part which is the cause for the recent drop-off in quality is open to debate.
Here, Mary Jane goes in search of an acting job in Los Angeles, leaving Spider-man with nothing better to do than look after an armed schoolkid who is stealing bikes. Such a simple storyline is enhanced by JR.Jr's exciting visuals, but the story is essentially too lightweight to support an issue. This difficulty is compounded by an overly simple presentation of Spidey's character. When JMS began his run, there was a real feeling that Peter Parker was inside of the Spider-Man costume at all times: now, it is as if Peter is a cutesy romatic-comedy twit whilst Spidey is a preaching, holier-than-thou agony aunt: since when did Spider-Man bark orders to the police to "Stay Back!", to not chase a criminal because they'll "only make it worse"?
The MJ storyline (reminiscent to some degree of Lost in Translation) is a disposable diversion which only seems to be there to remind us that she exists. Although an attempt is made to gain some character insight between her and Peter, the result feels slightly familiar and does little to advance the relationship.
A sensitive issue is also raised by a familiar depiction of Spider-Man's "adversary" in this issue: that of whether the book is reinforcing negative racial stereotypes. Without wanting to be overly analytical (and whilst bearing in mind that Spider-Man stories of late have generally served as very positive, moral cautionary tales) it does seem that a majority of the unlawful street children and armed gangs that Spider-man encounters is black. It's a thorny issue and not one which is perhaps suitable for extended discussion here, but it could perhaps give the artists or writers responsible pause for thought next time.
All things considered, the book gets a bullet for the sequences in which Spidey tells the time upside-down and makes fun of the cops on their lame stakeout - inspired moments which give a frustrating glimpse of greatness but are unfortunately all the more notable for being such lone highpoints. Another is due simply for JR.Jr's consistently excellent artwork: but with material like this, even the artwork can't save such an essentially dull and bland effort.
Instead of the promised return to the core of the Spider-Totem plot thread and the Ezekiel storyline, Amazing Spider-man offers up another mawkish, predictable tale in which Spidey tells us "don't be a fool, stay in school". With the news that JR.Jr. is relinquishing art duties on the title after issue #508, JMS is going to have to be dazzlingly impressive in the next few issues or many are going to drop this title: and it would be a shame for a creative team which showed so much initial promise to finish their run together with bland efforts of this calibre.
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