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Amazing Spider-Man #546

Posted: Tuesday, January 8, 2008
By: Paul Brian McCoy

Dan Slott
Steve McNiven (p), Dexter Vines (i), Morry Hollowell (c)
Marvel Comics
Paul Brian McCoy:
Keith Dallas:
Kelvin Green:
Dave Wallace:

“Brand New Day”

Waiting for Dave-o. With apologies to Samuel Beckett.

Act 1.

A country road. A tree.

Evening.

Paul, sitting on a low mound, is trying to make sense of
Amazing Spider-Man #546. He pulls at it with both hands, panting. He gives up, exhausted, rests, tries again. As before.

Keith enters.
]

Paul: [giving up again] Nothing to be done.

Keith: There’s no word from Dave [Wallace, SBC’s in-house Spider-Man expert]. He may have fled the country.

Paul: Lucky sod. I have to work in the morning.

Keith: [looking at his watch] But he should be here.

[Paul continues poking Amazing Spider-Man #546 with a stick as if he hasn’t heard.]

Keith: Well, let’s hear what you’ve got so far.

Paul: (irritably) Not now! Not now!

Keith: We’ll just have to see if Dave shows up later. In the meantime, we have a deadline.

Paul: I’m confused. Peter Parker is young again? Well, early twenties, but to a fogey like me that’s a fetus. And he’s out of work since the Civil War happened? Spidey’s not been seen for months? What’s going on? I’m very confused.

Keith: [He broods, musing on the struggle] First impressions. Go!

Paul: There are four different stories going on, but they’re really all part of the same story. Different creative teams for each section. Slott and McNiven on the main story; Guggenheim and Land follow Jackpot (who seems very familiar, if you know what I mean); The Astonishing Aunt May is by Gale and Winslade; and finally Wells and Deodato give us Harry Osborn. I think this is only for this issue, though. Next week it should just be one story?

Keith: Yeah, next week it’s just Slott and McNiven.
I’ll confess up front that I haven’t read any Spider-Man title since John Romita Jr. was first attached to Amazing way back in 1981. Therefore, I didn’t read “One More Day,” but when a friend related the story’s developments to me, I wasn’t impressed with how Marvel contrived to put the genie back in the bottle. Since I’m no life-long Spidey reader, the specific retconned changes (mechanical webshooters, bachelorhood, Harry Osborn, secret identity) don’t bother me, but even I can tell that “One More Day” wasn’t a well conceived Spidey story (e.g. what the hell is Mephisto doing in a Spider-Man comic book? That’s like having Galactus appear in The Punisher).

Paul: (cheerfully) Matt Fraction could make that work.

[There is a sudden shuffling in the underbrush. Paul rises painfully, goes limping to extreme left, halts, gazes into distance off with his hand screening his eyes, turns, goes to extreme right, gazes into distance. Keith watches him, then goes and picks up the book, peers into it, drops it hastily.]

Paul: (advancing with short stiff strides, legs wide apart) As for Spidey, I’ve never cared for the character, to be perfectly frank. I picked up JMS’s initial stories, but found them to be hit or miss. Literally. First a story I liked, followed almost immediately by one that was tedious and made me want to quit. Then a good one would come around again.

I finally kicked the habit until Civil War and liked what he did with Pete but hated what he did with Stark. So I quit again when that was over. I’ve missed all the special issues and new powers (not that they were ever used from what I read on the interwebs) and also heard dreadful things about “One More Day.”

Keith: Yeah, my friend was very upset about what “One More Day” wrought and declared that anyone who purchased “Brand New Day” was enabling Marvel’s corruption of its own flagship character.

Well, label me an enabler then because I’ve been eager to read “Brand New Day” since Marvel announced it and really for one reason: Steve McNiven. I’ve been waiting for McNiven’s next project since the conclusion of Civil War, and Amazing Spider-Man #546 doesn’t disappoint his fans. I found his facial expressions here to be less “plastic” and his story telling more clear than it was in Civil War. The latter might be due to Dan Slott’s scripting which calls for a lot of 7 panel pages in this issue (I’d have to go back and look, but I don’t remember many 7 panel pages in Civil War). And I LOVE McNiven’s presentation of J. Jonah Jameson.

The other artists do a good job with their sections, but the highlight of the issue for me was McNiven’s work.

Paul: [grinning madly, Paul picks up the comic and begins flipping through it] Hmm. Yes. Art first. This looks very nice. Each art team does a good job keeping the art energetic and attractive. Each backup story has a distinct look, and none of them seem to be taking shortcuts since they’ve all got fewer pages than they would normally be assigned. And you’re right, McNiven seems to have lost the overworked plasticity that was part and parcel with Civil War. His work looks much more natural, while still being very detailed and way more distinctive than most other titles on the stands. Vines and Hollowell are a huge part of what makes the art so nice to look at.

I must admit that I was surprised to see Phil Winslade’s name on the Aunt May section. He’s an artist I associate with much stranger, edgier stories. Land also reigns in his use of porno stills as source materials to drop a few well paced pages of action and excitement. And Deodato continues to creep me out just like he does with every issue of Thunderbolts.

[A terrible cry, close at hand. Paul drops the comic. They remain motionless, then together make a sudden rush towards the wings. Keith stops halfway, runs back, picks up the comic, stuffs it in his pocket, runs to rejoin Paul who is waiting for him. Huddled together, shoulders hunched, cringing away from the menace, they wait.]

Paul: (nervously) What did you think of the story so far?

Keith: There are a couple of developments that really intrigue me.
Well, let me clarify that statement: there are a couple of developments in the main story that really intrigue me. Honestly, the backup stories involving Aunt May, Norman Osborn and Jackpot didn’t really grab me, but the main story’s cliffhanger was a beaut.

Paul: You mean when [CENSORED].

Keith: Paul, you can’t say that.

Paul: Say what?

Keith: About the end of the issue when [CENSORED]. This is a spoiler-free review. [Points to audience].

Paul: [Looks at audience.] Oh. Sorry.

Keith: Anyway, yes, the end of the issue hooked me. I didn’t see that coming. The beginning of the issue, on the other hand, bothered me a bit. I mean, with this issue Marvel wipes the Spider-Man slate clean; in a “Spider-Man: The New Status Quo” page we are literally told that “the past is the past” and then instructed to “don’t look back—look forward.”

Yet on the very first page of this issue Peter Parker is smooching with some girl we’ve never seen before, and it’s like Marvel is tweaking all the fans who are outraged that Peter and MJ’s marriage has been magically dissolved. It’s like Marvel announces, “Hey, now that Peter’s no longer married, he finally gets to do THIS with a woman other than MJ!”

Again, that bothered even me, someone who has no cares about Spider-Man continuity.

Paul: That’s understandable. I can’t help but think that there are going to be a lot of readers who just give up after “One More Day” without giving the title a chance to work with the changes.

I agree that the backups were pretty useless. Except they do seem to be laying groundwork for the upcoming story arcs (or at least for events within them). But they could have been cut and nothing would have been lost from the story at hand. I suppose they’re really just there to whet readers’ appetites for the creative teams.

[Keith turns toward the wings as if he hears something. Paul sneaks up and yanks the comic from Keith’s pocket and begins flipping through it as he continues pontificating.]

Paul: Storywise, Slott does a good overall job. He seems to have a good handle on the characters and their respective voices, although given that he’s working with a pretty clean slate, that couldn’t have been too difficult, really. I like the dynamic between Pete and Harry. The last time I remember Pete having a best friend, I was in grade school and even then I was reading reprints for that.

Money problems and keeping his identity secret are the central problems once again, and there are some interesting developments with the two separate villainous lines of action. The low-rent baddie was cleverly done (although there was quite a lot of @#*%ing swearing in this @#*%) and the high-rent villain was suitably mysterious and threatening. Maybe a little too threatening? Though we didn’t actually see the violence, there were some pretty bloody murders going on.

All in all, I think it’s a noble effort, but it’s a lot of stuff that we’ve seen before. Granted, it’s been twenty years or so since seeing it quite like this, but it’s not really all that interesting. Essentially, they’ve just retconned Spidey back into the same character I never cared about as a teen.

Egads! What’s that?

[A figure emerges from the wings wearing an oversized paper-mache head with a large note safety pinned to his jacket. He is barefoot and holding a hat.]

Paul: (frightened) Is that Dave?

Keith: (cautiously) It kind of looks like him. Maybe he’s been sick.

Paul: I’ve never actually seen Dave. It could be him.

[They approach the stranger cautiously. Paul taps on the fake head and flinches. Keith reads the note.]

Keith: A-ha!

Paul: (hopeful) It’s Dave?

Keith: No! It’s Kelvin Green.

Paul: Why does he look like that? Is it because he’s English?

Keith: It says here that he wanted to be loved and admired like Dave. I guess that’s supposed to look like him, without the rugged good looks. It also says he can’t think without his hat.

Paul: His hat?

Keith: Hmm. Give him his hat.

Paul: He’s holding it already.

Keith: It’s better to put it on his head.

Paul: (taking the hat from Kelvin’s hand) His real head or his fake head?

Keith: The note doesn’t say.

[Paul goes around behind Kelvin, approaches him cautiously, puts the hat on his head and recoils smartly. For a moment Kelvin doesn’t move. Paul and Keith step closer. Suddenly he begins.]

Kelvin: Right then! “One More Day” was an abomination, but even I have to admit that what Marvel had lined up to follow showed promise. So what is it actually like? Well, Steve McNiven’s still doing his overly-posed, plasticky figures, and he’s still using that slightly-from-below-and-at-an-angle close-up again. And again. And again. I’m really not sure why he finds so much drama in looking up people’s noses. To give McNiven his due though, he does draw a great J. Jonah Jameson, filling the character with the energy that he just can’t bring to any of the other cast members. The best art in the book is in the little “catch-up” section at the back (“the past is past, so don’t look back—look forward”... ahahahahahaha!), which sees the return of JRJR to Spider-Man, and not before time. There’s not much even Romita can do with the revival of the 60’s visual for Aunt May, however. If they couldn’t let the character die, couldn’t they at least have let that horribly dated design go into the light? Dan Slott has been on many a Spider-Man readers’ wishlist for a while, and... there’s absolutely nothing distinctive about his writing here. The script is passably witty at times, and the plot rumbles along efficiently enough. There are subplots aplenty, and a couple of mysteries too, but nothing really sticks out, apart from the rather heavy-handed stuff about a mayoral election (gee, do you think it will be the big arc of the first year?). Also, the thought bubbles are a bit much. I’m very pleased to see that the cretinous editorial moratorium on the mechanic has passed, and Slott’s use of them is far less grating than Bendis’, but nonetheless there’s something clumsy about their use here. Slott falls far too often into the basic trap of explaining what’s clearly going on in the art, which is surprising, as Slott is too seasoned a writer for it to be a mistake. Perhaps it’s part of a bizarre, and frankly doomed, attempt to appeal to young readers? Aside from the main story, we’re also treated to some short back-up pieces. Most of them are rather forgettable, but the Jackpot (urgh) story is memorable for Greg Land’s inept traced-from-porno “art,” and the (probably unintentional) absurdity of [CENSORED] fighting crime in spangly flares while delivering a Frank Miller narration. Aside from all that, this story, and the other back-ups, have one main weakness, and that’s that they’re not stories at all; they’re merely short, meandering sequences of events. There are ways to pace five pages so that you end up with a satisfying story, or part thereof, but these writers and artists just haven’t managed it. The general lack of anthology comics in the U.S. industry means that there’s nowhere for writers to train in the art of the short story, and that absence sticks out like a sore thumb when they try stuff like this. While I appreciate the effort, the back-ups are, frankly, a waste of space. This comic could be worse (it could be “One More Day”), but this first issue really hasn’t delivered on the hype. Okay, I like Steve McNiven’s style less than most, but I was hoping for something more impressive from Dan Slott at least. What we’ve got is a competent but unimpressive Spider-Man comic with not a hint of the innovative about it; (mêlée, final vociferations) there’s really … nothing … “Brand New” … about…

Keith: His hat!

[Paul seizes Kelvin’s hat. Silence of Kelvin. He falls. Silence. Panting of the victors.]

Paul: Well that was Lucky. (he winks at the audience – the audience groans) What do we do now?

Keith: I don’t know, but I’m in hot water with Marvel now. I promised them that I wouldn’t let Kelvin anywhere near this review.

Paul: Okay, let’s go then.

Keith: We can’t.

Paul: Why not?

Keith: We’re waiting for Dave. (a pause) O. (he winks at the audience – the audience groans)

[Without warning Dave appears, lowered in from the rafters wearing angel’s wings and a pure white robe. Paul and Keith are stunned into silence. Dave floats above centerstage and begins to speak in a voice like honey and sunbeams. He is truly magnificent to behold.]

Dave: Yeah, you guys pretty much nailed it.

[Kelvin sits up..]

Kelvin: Good Holiday, Dave?

Dave: Yeah, good thanks. Portugal. Nice.

Paul: Oy! Is that it?

Keith: Someone get me to the Mountain Dew Detox Center—STAT!!

[Keith, Paul, and Kelvin all exit, muttering to themselves. Dave continues to hang from his angel harness. The lights go out.]

Dave: Guys? Guys! All right! I’ll do it! Just let me down! Guys?

[Dave turns slowly in the darkness, ropes creak, his words echo.]

Dave: @#*% Okay, here’s my full response to the first issue of “Brand New Day.”

Despite the failure of “One More Day” to provide a half-decent story to go along with its reset of Spider-Man continuity, I’ve found Marvel’s comments about their plans for the new, thrice-monthly Amazing Spider-Man to be very promising. Joe Quesada has held his hands up and admitted that the character has been treated shabbily by Marvel editorial for the last few years, that they’ve lost sight of what makes Spidey such an accessible and enjoyable character to read about, and that their objective is to reinvigorate the character with a return to his roots. I’m happy to report that this first issue of “Brand New Day” accomplishes its primary goal, outlining Peter Parker’s new status quo quickly and concisely, and showcasing the characters and storylines that we can expect to feature in Amazing Spider-Man in the coming months. What it doesn’t do is provide a particularly strong story - but there’s time for that yet.

[Keith quietly steps back onstage. Dave doesn’t notice.]

Dave: What immediately strikes me about the issue is the difference in tone between this issue and the last few years of Spidey comics. After the depressing, melodramatic and sometimes violent story arcs of “The Other,” “Civil War,” “Back in Black,” and “One More Day,” the bright and breezy lightness of Dan Slott’s writing feels like a breath of fresh air for the character. Pete is still the likeable, down-on-his-luck twentysomething that we know and love (with the traditional money worries, job trouble, and complex love life that the character demands) but without the complications of the big crossover events and other foreign intrusions that have drawn the character so far away from the core of his appeal in recent years. In their place, Slott re-establishes the supporting cast which was once celebrated as one of the best in superhero comics: immediately, we see appearances from J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Aunt May (whose relationship with Peter has sadly been set back to the pre-JMS days), Mary Jane - and yes, even a resurrected Harry Osborn. Their characterisations under Slott aren’t particularly original or insightful, but it’s nice to see them back as a part of Peter’s day-to-day life.

Luckily, the one character that Slott obviously does have a real handle on is Peter Parker himself, and his happy-go-lucky hard-luck-hero carries the issue despite the relative blandness of many of the other characters. Slott also sets up a new villain in these pages (and one who, without wanting to give anything away, may have a close connection to one of Spidey’s supporting cast, hinting at the possibility of a more personal relationship to go along with the costumed battles - which always makes for a more compelling bad guy). The writer also provides a decent cliffhanger for this issue, and I’m hoping that the increased frequency of the title will encourage all of its writers to strive for a compelling final page for each issue, in order to lead readers into the next week’s story.

[Paul leans out from the wings, munches on a carrot, sees Keith and tiptoes next to him.]

Dave: On the basis of this issue, I’d say that Marvel have been looking to the 1960s Stan Lee/Steve Ditko/John Romita era and the 1980s work of Roger Stern for inspiration - and whilst this issue might not be quite at that level, Slott’s ability to juggle a large cast of characters and his gift for writing Peter Parker means that it really does evoke the classic Spider-Man stories of old. Whilst I’m not convinced that such a drastic overhaul was necessary in order for Amazing Spider-Man to recapture this spirit, I’m pleased that it’s happened either way. Even if it’s not for the reasons that Marvel might like, “Brand New Day” definitely feels like a refreshing new start for Spider-Man after the dour misery and fumbled execution of “One More Day.”

That said, it isn’t a perfect relaunch. Kicking off a new era of Amazing Spider-Man with an issue which exists more to explore the new status quo than to tell a decent story is probably a necessary evil - and it’s certainly a very different thing to making an editorially-mandated continuity-reset the climax of an entire story - so I won’t berate “Brand New Day” too much for immediately setting out its stall in this manner. However, I do wish that the book didn’t beat us over the head with the changes to Spidey’s status quo quite so much. Whereas most people would have probably preferred to draw a line under “One More Day,” this story seems intent on constantly reminding us of it, whether it's Peter’s assertion that he’s far too young to be married (ho ho!), the references to Pete and MJ’s break-up, an ominous “Speak of the devil” throwaway remark, Peter kissing a girl (who isn’t MJ) on the very first page, or the explicit reference to Peter’s once more mechanical webshooters. These elements aren’t really significant to the story at hand, their inclusion is handled clunkily, and they will only serve to dredge up the same questions that have been plaguing readers since the muddy retcon that was provided by the conclusion of “One More Day” (people still remember that Spidey unmasked during Civil War, but no-one remembers who he is? In the new continuity, MJ had the same relationship with Peter as she did in the original issues, but they were never married and she never found out his secret identity? And Harry is alive... how? My head hurts).

[Kelvin, sans paper mache head, but now on roller skates and carrying a bottle of red wine, glasses, and a variety of cheeses, noiselessly rolls over to Keith and Paul. Together, they all sit on the low mound beneath the tree. Paul pours the wine and they all partake of the delicious treats. Dave still hasn’t noticed them.]

Dave: These kinds of questions are far better handled by the two-page spread which follows the main story, which sets out exactly what has changed after “One More Day” with a minimum of fuss, acting as a perfect guide for newcomers and established readers alike, and marking the welcome return of artist John Romita Jr. to the character he was born to draw. We’re also treated to a few short backup stories which put a spotlight on three members of Spidey’s supporting cast: Aunt May, Harry Osborn, and the mysterious red-headed superheroine “Jackpot.” As Kelvin says, they’re less stories in their own right than they are brief character introductions, and they don’t really add anything to the book other than giving us a preview of the art styles that we can expect in the next few months.

So, the story of the issue isn’t particularly inspiring, the spectre of “One More Day” still lingers, and Slott’s writing feels preoccupied with introducing a new continuity, leaving little room for interesting subplots or compelling characterisation. However, the factor that elevates this issue to above-average territory is the artwork of Steve McNiven. From his work on the Marvel Knights Fantastic Four title, all the way through New Avengers and Civil War, I’ve been a fan of McNiven’s work. The artist has a well-defined, detailed and consistent style that has been occasionally undermined in the past by the shiny colouring of longtime collaborator Morry Hollowell, whose approach sometimes gives McNiven’s bold figures a plasticky look. Happily, that isn’t the case here, and Hollowell makes good use of a bright and bold palette which suits the optimistic tone of the issue well. McNiven’s take on Peter Parker is a great interpretation, striking just the right balance between youth and maturity, and between goofiness and staunch heroism. And my erstwhile editor Keith is absolutely right: McNiven draws one of the best incarnations of J. Jonah Jameson that I’ve ever seen. He also copes well with the action scenes, bringing the same knack for action choreography that we saw in Civil War to the more street-level altercations of Spider-Man’s world.

[As he continues to slowly turn in his harness, Dave finally sees the others and directs his final paragraph to them, utilizing all of his glorious oratory skills and seductive tones in an attempt to bend them to his will.]

Dave: This issue of Amazing Spider-Man, then, fulfills its editorial function admirably, setting the stage for a reinvigoration of the Spider-Man mythos and a return to the classic roots of the character. As a story, however, it’s slightly less successful, as despite kicking off some potentially interesting plot threads, this issue doesn’t really get going with any of them. I certainly won’t write off the “Brand New Day” relaunch based on this issue, as there’s nothing particularly wrong with the mechanics of the book - particularly when it comes to the artwork - and it seems as though Slott and McNiven’s opening arc will likely provide a strong foundation for this new era of Spider-Man comics. However, I can’t outright recommend it yet either, as it seems as though it may take a few issues before we really get a sense of what we can expect from the post-“One More Day” Spidey.

(righteous wrath) Now get me down, @#*%ers!

[Paul, Keith, and Kelvin, having finished the wine and cheese in record time, leap to their feet, applauding and whistling with abandon. Their job complete, they release Dave from his bondage, hoist him onto their shoulders and march offstage in search of a still-open pub. Their singing can be heard echoing through the empty streets outside.

Elsewhere, Samuel Beckett slowly spins in his grave.

Fin.
]



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