“The Book of Ezekiel: Chapter Two”
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artists: John Romita Jr (p), Scott Hanna (i)
Peter Parker awakens to a plague of biblical proportions in New York: Spiders are crawling out of every nook and cranny, signifying the arrival of the mysterious Gatekeeper, apparently intent on collecting an unpaid debt by Spidey after decades of unfettered use of his mystical powers. But things are not as straightforward as we have been led to believe, as Spider-Man discovers after a conversation with his brethren...
Following directly on from last issue's exploration of the mystical angle of Spidey's powers, this issue serves up a logical continuation of that story thread as a physical embodiment of the Spider-spirit turns up in New York demanding repayment for his totemistic gift. From this point onwards, Straczynski dives into a sequence which explains his intentions and sums up much of the work he has done on the character over the past few years. He show us how Spider-Man balances his work and home life, struggling to keep a grip on a truly loving affection between himself and Mary Jane; he gives us further insight into how he views the Spider element of Peter's psychological makeup; and he justifies perfectly why Peter, above all others, was chosen to carry the weight of his powers, through a monologue which functions not only as a concession to the Spider-Totem element that he has retconned into Spider-Man's origins but also as a commentary on exactly why Stan Lee constructed the character of Peter Parker as he did. The sequence reinforces the reader's concern for the hero, giving us this writer's own personal take on things whilst paying homage to the success and perfection of this 40-year-old character.
Now, whether you've been a fan of the mystical element of JMS' plotting or not, it cannot be denied that it has provided the opportunity for John Romita Jr. to serve up some amazing art. Here, he swings from the grotesque (the opening two pages have been turning my stomach ever since the preview came out last week) to slick super-heroic web-slinging (with a fluidity which is consistently reinforced by Matt Milla's powerful, majestic colours) to the large-scale and epic plague of spiders, with the welcome surprise that the "Gatekeeper" has substantially upgraded his odd look since last issue - throwing an intimidating shadow over our hero as he tries, fruitlessly, to injure or affect him. Further standout moments include a claustrophobia-inducing image of Peter suffocating under a deluge of spiders and a tender rooftop tryst between Mary Jane and her long-suffering husband. It cannot be overstated how at home John Romita is here: his action sequences ooze confidence, the subtleties of his characters' facial movements speaks volumes, and his eight-page hallucination sequence mixes incredibly moody renderings with hazy flashbacks that demonstrate that a deep understanding of character is equally beneficial to the artist as to the writer. His absence will be missed after next issue.
There are so many elements crammed in here that it is easy to miss some of them: the development of Mary Jane's acting career, a slightly compassionate edge given to J. Jonah Jameson, and even a couple of tributes to Spidey's love of New York. At the same time, it manages to go out on an intriguing if overly wordy cliffhanger (which, like last issue, provides one of JR Jr.'s few bum notes - but to describe who was so poorly rendered may give away some of the surprise). Suffice it to say, anybody who has been following the book since JMS' early issues will smile as they recall, as early as issue #32, Ezekiel's explanation of totemistic pretenders and Spidey's status as "the real deal...". The signs may have been there, and it is not the most unpredictable finale to the Spider-Totem storyline, but if anyone can serve up a satisfying swansong next issue, it's this creative team.
Wow. Years of setup are paying off in a conclusive and exciting arc that ties together a lot of the threads that JMS and JR Jr. have woven into their stories, whilst simultaneously being accessible and thrilling for new readers. After a quality drought around the #490-#500 mark, this title is back on top - indeed, it may not have been this good since the very start of Straczynski's run. Having said that, Amazing Spider-Man readers may start to feel that, with a new arc and art team starting in two issue's time, this finale to the Ezekiel storyline may prove as good a jumping-off point as any, leaving JMS' run on a high. But let's see what happens next issue.
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