Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest - Amazing Spider-Man #509

Posted: Sunday, June 27, 2004
By: Craig Johnson

Overall Average Rating: 7.5/10

ďSins Past, Part OneĒ

Writer: J Michael Straczynski
Artists: Mike Deodato Jr (p), Joe Pimentel (i)

Publisher: Marvel

Iain Burnside -

Read this comic. Just read it. I am about to launch into a brief review of the intangibles contained within it but all you need to know is that you should read it. If you like superhero comics you have to read it. Itís that simple. Go out and buy the book itself. Wait for the trade or the hardcover collection. Hell, even just read it on Mile High. Whatever. Doesnít matter. Just read it because there is quite simply nothing wrong with it. Quesada has a tendency to get over-excited about forthcoming solicitations in a way that makes him equally endearing and irritating but in this instance he was correct. Read the book. Read it.

And damn you, Straczynski, for daring to write something so good! I was planning on starting to cut down on the increasingly generous scores I was giving comics of late, but there is no way I could give this anything less than full marks with a clear conscience. It sets out to do a specific set of tasks, nails them all perfectly and even throws in a couple of neat little bonuses along the way. Now Iím just going to have to get overly critical of another book to compensate. When the only thing I can complain about is that the book is too good in comparison to most of its peers then you know youíre getting value for money!

The book starts with Mary Jane auditioning for a role in the play Cats Always Lie directed by a man named Fettes Gray, who bears a striking resemblance to Robert DeNiro. Just as his doppelganger is well versed in the true spirit of method acting (go read about the making of Raging Bull if you want proof), Gray imparts some of his wisdom about finding the real magic in the art of acting to Mary Jane. In his own words, ĒStop trying to act. JustÖ tell the truth.Ē Et voila, MJís soap-opera digestible melodrama of an audition is magically transformed into a touching reflection of the love she has for her husband and she gets the part. In case you were wondering, Fettes Gray also just so happens to be a pseudonym for Straczynski. Itís as though the father figure of this series has finished exploring the roots of the mythology and letting foster parents take over for a brief sojourn and has returned to remind us all what these people are all about and that he knows how to present that to us better than 9 out of 10 writers on the planet could ever hope to achieve. To paraphrase Tobey Maguire from the movie, itís a story about a girl. About love. The love Peter has for MJ keeps him going through the darkest of times as his alter-ego, while here we see the flipside - just how powerful MJ becomes through her love for Peter.

Of course, I would keep an eye out for that director. He may very well be playing an important role as this arc progresses. The reason Straczynski chose Fettes Gray as a pseudonym was because Fettes and Gray were the names of the two grave robbers in The Bodysnatcher and, as Iím sure youíre all aware, this issue involves a rather prominent reflection of a deceased loved one of the Parkers. But weíll get to that in a minuteÖ

The issue continues as we get some more insight into the love between the greatest couple in comic book history, this time through the husbandís eyes. Again, it is surely no coincidence that the posters on the walls of the theatre as Peter waits to hear the outcome of MJís audition are all of plays about love triumphing in some very trying circumstances indeed. Kudos to Deodato for going above and beyond the call of duty. Peterís initial flippant yet healing words when he thinks MJ didnít get the part soon give way to an out-and-out celebration, as youíd expect, but on the inside his mind and heart race with the passionate emotions his nature simply cannot let him express verbally. Itís all going swimmingly as we cut to another full and heart breakfast with Aunt May, and then the good times are abruptly cut off at the knees due to a name written on an envelope.

An envelope! It sounds absurd to even think it but this is the beauty of such a long-running character being handled perfectly. It takes the greatest of effort to get the structure in place but once itís done the possibilities are to test that structure are endless. Going back to reference something from a couple of issues in 1973 and subsequently breathing new life into them in the manner done here threatens the very foundations themselves. In case youíre wondering, the issues in question are Amazing Spider-Man #119-120, which allows Deodato to give us a marvelous updated drawing of the fight with The Hulk that occurred back then, in addition to a heartfelt reminder of the Osborn/Stacy tragedies courtesy of Peter himself. Even better than that Ė Alonso and assistant editor Warren Simons provide us with an editorís note box noting the issues in question!

From this point we see the unfortunate consequences that come with the love Peter has; namely hate and fury when it is toyed with and unbelievable grief if this is not contained. If love is the greatest power of them all then it is also his greatest responsibility. This letter was not just a freak occurrence of the post office delivering a long-lost bit of mail from years ago; it was found and sent to Peter by someone in New York City on the 23rd June 2004. Someone has dared to bring back old memories that can still cause nightmares and threaten to let those nightmares consume him whole. Worse still, they upset Mary Jane as well by being the one thing capable of making her question how strong the bond she shares with Peter truly is. Coming after that excellent opening scene, this impacts the reader just as much as it does the characters and neatly encapsulates everything Jeph Loebís Spider-Man: Blue had to say in six sprawling, delayed issues in just a few choice scenes.

After this we head to Fettes & Grayís workplace of choice, the graveyard, as Peter pays a visit to the deceased person in question. Iím sure you all know who it is by now but Iíll play dumb for safetyís sake. This is where the fine artwork really begins to pay off in leaps and bounds. Deodatoís contemplative drawings of the pain on Peterís face are heartbreaking, while thereís an enjoyably nostalgic representation of Spider-Sense in there as well. However, it is Pimentelís fine shadowing that really makes the graveyard stand out from the crowd as a fine piece of gothic design. You half expect Brandon Lee to be brought to life by a bird as you turn the page. In addition, Millaís fine colouring provides a suitably subdued contrast to the darkness of this scene, as if Peter himself is still clinging onto the light before it is too late. Of course, heís going to face a far harder test than this bit of melancholy before this is all over. This starts here as he is attacked by a masked man and woman at the graveyard. However, as Peter pointed out himself earlier on, Ēthere are some things in my life you just donít touch if you want to walk away with your spine intact.Ē

This is where the mystery deepens. Peter, like us, has no idea who attacked him but the man seems convinced that he should know and is offended he doesnít. They unknown assailant also seems to think Peter has something to apologise for with regards to the deceased, yet apparently does not know that Peter is Spider-Man until Peter uses his powers to leap onto a passing truck and escape them. However, the assailant does seem to have exceptional strength and agility of his own and wants to kill Peter. What is even more confusing is that when we see the man taking off his mask he bears a striking resemblance to, well, Peter himself. A poor bit of art or a deliberate set-up? That remains to be seen. As for the woman, well, Quesada already teased us with one possible identity for her that raises some very interesting questions about this coupleís motivations for wishing harm on the Parkers. Screw Mark Millarís self-styled ďShushĒ storyline on the new Spider-Man title - this is where the real confusion lies! I look forward to getting some explanations in the upcoming months, and to the inevitable fanboy moaning that will ensue if they go the route I think they may takeÖ

Jason Cornwell -

I have to say this issue stands up as one of the most enjoyable issues that J. Michael Straczynski has offered up since his run began, and while part of this might be due to the simple fact that last issue wrapped up the whole spider-totem premise, I have to say the idea that he's playing with in this issue is far more intriguing, as he's essentially poking the sleeping beast with a pointy stick, and part of the fun is going to be watching what he's going to do when it creature opens his eyes. Now I'm going to bite my tongue when it comes to actually discussing the centrepiece of this arc, but I will say that it does look to be messing about with a fairly major element of Spider-Man's continuity, and it would appear that he's managed to find a bit of an opening for how he could cast a sense of doubt over one of the the relatively few rock solid truths in Spider-Man's long history.

Now I have to say I'm not entirely certain if I would want this character to resurface as there are a few too many pitfalls, and it also devalues one of the major turning points in Spider-Man's history. However, there is a certain excitement to watching how long J. Michael Straczynski is going to hold on to this burning match before it reaches his fingers, and this issue does a pretty solid job of bringing some interesting questions to the table. There's also a pretty solid secondary plot brought to the table in the opening pages, as Mary Jane has been a supporting character who really hasn't been given all that much to do in recent years, so it's nice to see her given something to do that actually held my attention. The issue also does a nice job of showing the strength of her relationship with Peter, after he receives his mystery letter.

I suspect I'd be grumbling more about the departure of John Romita, Jr. if his replacement wasn't Mike Deodato, Jr. as he's proven to be a very capable artist over in the pages of the "Incredible Hulk", and he's erased most of my initial concerns about his ability to handle a monthly title, as his run has been pretty steady. On this issue he gets an opportunity to show how well he can convey the emotions of the characters as I loved Mary Jane's face when she tells Peter she got the part, and there's a great panel where Aunt May reacts to a letter in the pile of mail. I also have to say Mike Deodato, Jr.'s version of Aunt May looks like a very convincing older woman.

Kelvin Green -

I do hope that this isnít going to involve clones. Iím not sure Marvel could survive another Clone Saga. That said, if anyone could make a clone story work itíd be Straczynski. Weíll see where this one goes. Straczynski again delves into Spideyís past with this issue, and again latches onto one of the basic foundations of the Spidey mythos. Whether heís going to blow this apart and reassemble it as he did with Spideyís origin remains to be seen, although I wouldnít be surprised if the big shock of this issue doesnít turn out to be an elaborate MacGuffin, put in place to generate further mysteries. And mysteries there are aplenty. To go into detail would be to ruin the surprise, but itís fair to say that any Spider-Man fan is going to be excited by this issue. Granted, some may be a bit suspicious at what the issue implies is going to happen, while others may welcome the move, but either way, itís hard to resist the speculation and excitement. As a hook for a new storyline, this is wonderfully successful. I canít wait to see what happens next.

The art is not as successful. Deodatoís pencils vary from superb to clumsy, often on the same page, and the anaemic colouring doesnít help matters. Thereís also that static look which plagues many artists on the photo-realistic end of the scale, although the strange thing about Deodatoís work in this issue is that this problem is most evident in scenes of dialogue and is completely absent in the action scene at the end of the issue. To be fair, the art isnít too bad, and if colourist Matt Milla had used a more confident colouring style, similar to that he uses on John Romita Jrís art, I could have forgiven many of the flaws. But putting weak pastel shading and inconsistent pencilling together just doesnít work for me.
So Iím not a big fan of the art. Itís not terrible by any means, but Iím not liking it, and Iíd have been more than happy to see John Romita Jr continue as penciller. That said, Iím still going to give this comic a high score because it kickstarts, in an exciting fashion, what looks to be a very interesting and involving story arc.

Shawn Hill -

Whatís interesting:
Straczynski is pretty much the ideal scribe for the married Peter and Mary Jane. This is how you keep a couple interesting after getting them together. Not by making one of them cheat, not by breaking up and making up over and over, but by giving them both current goals and nagging problems, issues they can face individually and as a team. The love these characters feel for each other is palpable; but thatís no guarantee their road ahead wonít be just as rocky as the road behind.

Mary Janeís story is a believable one, as moving onto acting, from a successful modeling career (and with a personality as outgoing as hers has always been) is a very likely career move for a Manhattanite. Not being automatically great at it, though, and having to struggle with it is a very sound choice, as Mary Jane has also often been more about spontaneity than careful preparation.

Even better is Peterís complex sense of duty, loyalty and fear relating to his history and the life he leads. Heís a man whose always been supported by the women in his life, and whoís always tried to protect them in return, but not always successfully. His central dilemma is that heís his own father figure; amazing women surround him, but all the powerful men in his life are nightmares on one level or another. So Straczynski is onto something when he explores Peterís struggle for sanity.

Deodatoís art is as restrained as Iíve ever seen it. Pimentelís inks bring out a subtle, dramatically lit quality that allows an emotional poignancy to shine through. Thereís a Jiminez/Stokes level of detail. Without all the mystic trappings going on in Witches (knowing JMS, that wonít last long), heís able to tone down the melodrama for an issue of mourning and doubts that finds Peter out of costume throughout. Not so for the anatomy-defying cover, but it could be worse.

Whatís less interesting:
Well, what really happens this issue? Peter gets a jolt from the past (a worthy one, as Gwen is the third most significant of the women in his life, still and always), foolishly goes to her grave and is attacked by mysterious assailants who seem on the brink of learning his secret identity. This is very clearly a first issue, and while it does generate the requisite interest in the plot, it feels incomplete. All-teaser, less story.

Jim Kingman -

This being the eve of the opening of Spider-Man II, it is certainly appropriate to be reviewing the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man. Iíve got to admit up front, though, if it werenít for this Sunday Slugfest, I wouldnít be reading this comic. Iím not a follower of the friendly neighborhood web-slinger. Still, I do know enough of the character to be familiar with portions of his history.

The delivery of a letter from Gwen Stacy to Peter Parker is certainly unexpected. Gwen has been dead for years. And the June 23, 2004 postmark on Gwenís envelope adds a lot of intrigue and emotion to this story. Though the letter is not complete, Peter is convinced Gwen wrote it and that someone got his or her hands on it to mess with him.

While visiting Gwenís gravesite, Peter is attacked by two mysterious figures that give him quite a workout. Peter eventually escapes their relentless assault, doing so in a way that gives his attackers reason to believe that he is Spider-Man, even though it seems they had already gathered that information. How they fit into the Gwen mystery, if they fit into the Gwen mystery, and who they are, either plucked from the past or new to the Spidey mythos, remains to be seen.

I did like the story. Thereís Mary Jane Watson (or is that Mrs. Spider-Man now? Iím way behindÖ) working her way back into acting. Thereís Aunt May, looking none the worse for wear after all these years. Thereís Peter himself, older, wiser, and still conflicted about one thing or the other. (And thereís a Mighty Marvel footnote, for crying out loud! Are they making a comeback?) There is fine dialogue by the writer, and the artwork is quite good. Thereís a nostalgic feel to this story, even though I would have no reason to feel nostalgic about it. I guess itís because there are so many established Spidey elements sprinkled throughout the tale.

Iím hooked! And for a DC disciple, thatís saying something!

Judson Miers -

The Backstory:
Nearly 400 issues or so ago, ASM 119-121, Peterís girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, dies at the hands of both Spiderman and Green Goblin. After discovering Spidermanís alter ego is actually Peter Parker, Norman Osborne decides to cut deep into the heart of his enemy by kidnapping Gwen. During the battle on the George Washington Bridge, Normanís goblin glider knocks Gwen off the bridge. Spidey tries to save her by webbing her leg as she fell from the bridge, not knowing that the shock of falling off the bridge had already killed her.

The Present:
After coming to terms with his real identity within the mystical realms, Peter is back to ďlife as usual.Ē Mary Jane has always been there for him, when he needed her most, except for that whole ďdying-and-coming-back-from-the-dead-and-needing-some-time-to-figure-out-whatís-really-importantĒ time. A letter from Gwen Stacy is delivered as an apology from the past but dated and addressed from the present in New York.

Of course, Peter has to go through some soul-searching and the obligatory trip to the cemetery to confront Gwenís tombstone. But, lurking in the shadows, are not only one but two super-powered villains who really want to make him have a bad night. Obviously, these guys have some sort of ďbeefĒ against Peter or Spiderman or both and arenít too ready to give him all of the answers. Anyway, the battle becomes a little too much for Peter, so he has to start fighting like Spiderman or not survive. The stage is set for much intrigue, plot twists, and a jaunt through the past!

Straczynski is as masterful as Claremont for having wide-ranging plans and story arcs. I just hope that Marvel allows him the time to fully explore his storytelling! Until we find out that Peter is actually Ben Reilly again, make mine Marvel.

James Redington -

It's new artist time on Amazing Spider-Man, and we are treated to the lovely pencils of Mike Deodato. His artwork is very natural, it feels real which is a welcome change from some of the more recent cartoon and manga-influenced comics of late. There is only one shot of Spidey in the whole comic which is the only disappointment from the artwork side of the comic, and also...

The cover is awful, well that's a bit unfair cause the perspective of the cover is 'amazing' but Spidey himself looks out of shape and quite ugly - check out the horrible bumps on his back and arms, and how did those webs spin round his arm like that. The best thing about it is the colouring, Spidey's costume is very bold and the issue stood out on the shelf of the comic shop because of it.

The story itself is very good too, regardless of what is planned and we have heard through spoilers. The characters are all there, Peter is very much the focus but Straczynski doesn't forget Mary Jane and the role she plays in Peter's life (many other writers have put Mary Jane to the side in recent times). Here she is shown to be every bit important to the story, and as an equal to Peter. We relive the death of Gwen Stacy (again) and see that even now this still effects Peter as one of his darkest moments since becoming Spider-Man. One point to pick out though is I am certain (almost 95%) that Gwen Stacy was knocked out cold when The Green Goblin threw her off the bridge, I may be wrong but lets hope this is an oversight on the artistís part and not a new angle to this new storyline.

To Sum It Up:
I liked this issue, I just wish we could leave the past in the past - I guess the past always comes back to haunt you, it just seems a lot of that happens to our web slinger. I just don't think we are going to see anything new here, I will hopefully enjoy it more than the overdrawn 'Ezekiel' storyline and it's a solid start for the new artist, Deodato. It was nice to have a bit of Character stuff in there with Mary and Peter, something which has been absent for a while in all the Spider-Man titles.

Jason Sacks -

I have to admit right off the top that Iíd never read an issue of Spidey written by Straczynski before reading this issue. What I read in this issue wonít quite make me a fan of his writing, but does intrigue me enough to make me want to come back for more.

What makes Straczynskiís Spidey intriguing in part is his characterization. I really enjoyed the way he wrote Peter and Mary Jane Parker Ė they both seem like nice, interesting people, the kind you might enjoy having over for dinner. Peter adores Mary Jane, and MJ is very supportive of Peter. If Peterís adoration of MJ is a little over the top, perhaps revealing some deep-seeded insecurities, at least he seems to be very happily in the middle of a nice marriage with a pretty, successful wife. But is it all too good to be true? Is a passion from the past about to rip Peterís happy little life apart?

The question has me hooked. I definitely want to know about the two mysterious strangers who attack Peter in a graveyard, one of whom looks suspiciously familiar. This could become a rerun of a much-hated story from Spider-Manís past, or it could become something really special

Mike Deodato does a terrific job with the art in this issue. He has a wonderful eye for details and backgrounds, and does a great job with subtle pieces like faces and body language. I would say he did a nearly perfect job on the art except for one small error that I found really jarring. Thereís a major element of the plot that turns around a letter and when it was mailed to Peter. When the letter is first shown, the envelope has a 23c stamp on it, and the postmark date is shown as ď998Ē, implying it was mailed in 1998. However, a mere five pages later, the letter is shown as postmarked 2004. It was surprising to find this mistake when Deodato shows so much attention to detail.

Still, this is a minor complaint. Itís an intriguing issue and Iím looking forward to reading more by JMS.

Dave Wallace -

This comic could be subtitled ďNo-One Ever Dies In ComicsĒ.

Letís be honest for a moment: When much-lauded Babylon 5 writer J. Michael Straczynski signed as the Amazing Spider-Man writer around three years ago, the Marvel hype machine went into overdrive. Epic story arcs were predicted with great back-to-basics character work and thrillingly well-plotted and satisfying conclusions. Well, two out of three ainít bad: whilst JMS split readers with his mammoth Spider-Totem thread which began with the introduction of ďThe Mysterious EzekielĒ ô, I for one enjoyed his pared-down, streamlined approach to Peter Parkerís life, and was happy to read a take on Spider-Manís origins that actually showed some original thinking. Unfortunately, the last few issueís rushed concluding arc was not a befitting finale for such a built-up storyline, benefiting only from the goodwill that accompanied John Romita Jrís departure from the title. Now, JMS begins his second major season on the title, and he does so by yet again risking fanboy wrath with the exhumation of a (if not THE) key character in Spider-Manís romantic history. If you didnít know that Gwen Stacy was coming back to these pages by now, then you wouldnít be here.

Itís not yet clear exactly how Gwen fits into this picture Ė all we get is a mysterious letter that could be from anyone at any time, purporting to be from the murdered lass. Whilst Pete is sure it contains her handwriting and sentence structure (or whatever), she sure as heck wouldnít send a single page which alluded only to some dark secret without ever letting Pete know what it was. The plot thickens, as they say, and comics readers around the globe are holding their breath and hoping that JMS isnít going to send in the clones. Further complications are added by the appearance of two mysterious assassins towards the issues end that are so alike that Spidey senses them Ė what is he, Daredevil all of a sudden? - as the same person in two different places, adding further weight to the clone conspiracy theory. Whilst Iím sure that JMS has cleverer things up his sleeve than to bring up the 90s saga that almost sunk Spider-Man, heís certainly having a bit of fun teasing the fans whilst heís at it.

Mike Deodato Jrís work was always going to suffer in comparison to the master that preceded him: whilst he accomplishes some truly beautiful character work (MJís performance at her audition; Peteís reaction to ďThe LetterĒ; and his subsequent monologue about his feelings for his wife as he cradles her sleeping form) as well as all out super-hero moments (such as the explosive flashback to a famous smackdown with the Hulk or the cool silhouetted sequentials towards the issueís end), there is still lacking a sense of the sheer fun and exuberance that has always been a part of the Web-slinger. Maybe itís the restrained colours of Matt Milla which lend a sepia tone to the proceedings, infusing the issue with a sense of nostalgia at the expense of any real immediacy, or maybe itís simply the heavy material that JMS has decided to introduce, but anyone looking for wisecracks and care-free superheroic web-slinging would be better advised to check out a different book this month.

All in all, this more mature arc shows promise and should not be written off simply because it may bring yet another comics character ďback from the deadĒ. With a new artist capable of a deeper exploration of the title characterís feelings, it looks like JMS is intent on crafting a mystery which revisits old Spidey history and goes for emotional rather than visual hits. But time will tell whether itís wise to give him this benefit of the doubt.

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