Wednesday, October 22, 2014

X-MEN FOREVER #12 - January 2010

 

Black Magik Part Two - Race the Wind!
Credits:  Chris Claremont (writer), Tom Grummett (pencils), Cory Hamscher (inks), Wilfredo Quintana (colors), Tom Orzechowski (letters)

Summary:  Colossus discovers that the Winter Guard troops sent to guard Illyana have been killed, allegedly by monsters.  In a nearby industrial complex, the Cossack explains to Illyana that he wants to revive her magical powers.  Black Widow receives word of where Illyana is being held, and soon she arrives with Colossus, Gambit, Shadowcat, and ‘Ro.  The team is ambushed by Illyana, who is now aged several years to become Black Magik.  At the mansion, Beast and Jean take a walk, Rogue berates herself for letting Sabretooth get to her, and Daisy Dugan spies on Sabretooth, who is spying on Xavier and Moira MacTaggert.

Continuity Notes:  
  • Bhodan Shkuro, the Cossack, is described as an ex-Spetsnatst agent, who is also a wealthy, powerful figure in Russia.  He tells Illyana that he’s had his own encounters with Belasco in the past.  
  • Sabretooth is now wearing his new costume.  It’s appeared on the covers before, but this is the first time he’s worn it in an actual story.
  • Moira MacTaggert tries to provide some explanation for why Wolverine and Sabretooth made it to old age, speculating that their healing factors fought off the effects of Burnout for years.

Review:  I’ll start with my standard gripes about this series.  Another pointless new costume; this time on Sabretooth, who decidedly did not need a makeover.  The color scheme just seems wrong (blue?), and for some reason, its design is oddly similar to Jean Grey’s new outfit.  Why exactly?  We also have more talk of Burnout, as Claremont tries to walk back his more hyperbolic statements in the earlier issues and address one of the readers’ complaints.  While Moira’s explanation for Wolverine and Sabretooth is somewhat plausible, it doesn’t explain the other mutants that have made it well past middle-age.  Also, even if their healing factors slowed down the effects of Burnout, why would the condition suddenly hit both Wolverine and Sabretooth simultaneously?  As the issue reminds us, Sabretooth is Wolverine’s father, so his body actually should’ve been breaking down years earlier than Wolverine’s.  Claremont’s willingness to disrupt the established romances of the canon is also a bit grating.  Instead of the relationships and flirtations we all remember, now it’s Beast and Jean, Gambit and Kitty, Colossus and Black Widow…this just feels wrong.  It’s certainly possible Claremont’s intentionally evoking that feeling, but I think it serves as yet another reminder that this is an alternate reality, which is really what the book should be avoiding at all costs.

The good still outweighs the bad, however.  The book continues to duplicate the feel of the initial Claremont run, with the cast split across the globe, numerous subplots running in the background, and a member of the team selected to have a long inner monologue that explains their current emotional arc or personal crisis.  Rogue’s two-page soliloquy offers more legitimate character development than any story from the post-Claremont era that I can recall.  There are some wonky plots running around, yes, but these are characters you actually like and want to root for.  Cossack doesn’t have to be the greatest threat the team’s ever faced, he isn’t, but if the story succeeds in making the heroes feel real, then the reader is going to come back for the next issue.  I should also mention that Claremont’s willingness to disrupt established status quos, while occasionally annoying, does help to add an element of danger to the series.  Ordinarily, a cliffhanger involving Illyana turning evil again wouldn’t carry too much weight, but there’s now a possibility that any character is in danger now.  (The problem is when Claremont goes too far in this direction, as we’ll see in a few issues.)

I’ll also mention again how much I love the art team of Tom Grummett and Cory Hamscher.  The characters look on-model, even in the wrong costumes, and this talky issue actually has a lot of energy.  Although the plot mainly consists of conversation scenes, the page layouts are never boring, and the McFarlane-esque inking does a lot to set the mood during the Cossack’s introduction.  When the regular creative team is reunited, this feels more like a “real” X-Men book and not just another alternate reality title Marvel’s pumping out in order to preserve the shelf space.

Monday, October 20, 2014

X-MEN FOREVER #11 - January 2010

 

Black Magik Part One - Snap Trap!
Credits:  Chris Claremont (writer), Tom Grummett (pencils), Cory Hamscher (inks), Wilfredo Quintana (colors), Tom Orzechowski (letters)

Summary:  Shadowcat, Gambit, and ‘Ro travel to Russia to visit Colossus.  He now serves in the Winter Guard with his girlfriend, Black Widow.  They help him defeat a mysterious group that’s stolen Cold War-era armor.  At the mansion, Rogue and Sabretooth bicker, Beast and Jean discuss Burnout, and Fury counsels Xavier on how to deal with his strained relationship with the X-Men.  Meanwhile in Russia, Illyana is lured into a stranger’s car near her home.

Continuity Notes:  
  • This is Colossus’ first real appearance in the series (it’s debatable if he was meant to be one of the background characters in X-Men Forever Alpha’s back-up story.)  The opening narration reveals he returned to Russia at the president’s request to serve his country.
  • Black Widow says that she and Colossus were on a mission when they heard of Wolverine’s death and couldn’t make the funeral.
  • Gambit is asked by Black Widow if he’s going by “Lebeau” or “Picard” this week.
  • Following the events of “Inferno,” Illyana is a normal little girl at this point in continuity.

Review:  The joke about Gambit’s last name leads me to believe that enough months have passed since Forever’s debut for the online commentary to actually impact the material.  I can’t read anyone’s mind, but I have a suspicion Claremont didn’t expect the audience to care so much about all of the fuzzy continuity surrounding the early issues.  He throws the readers a bone with the Black Widow/Gambit conversation, which is pretty funny, and then proceeds to address one of the more glaring absences in the book so far, Colossus.  

I was never thrilled with the idea of Colossus returning home and becoming a patriotic superhero; it’s not a horrible way to use the character, but it just seems like a strange creative choice, given that Colossus didn’t seem to think about Russia very often in the later years of Claremont’s run.  By the late ‘80s, Colossus is defined more as the sensitive artist than he is the ex-Commie.  Looking at Forever in context, Colossus has only recently had his memory restored after spending several months living a normal life as a painter in New York City.  It’s possible Claremont meant for this to be Colossus’ true happy ending -- Beast even commented in one Uncanny X-Men issue that Colossus deserved his retirement -- and that his return in the “Muir Island Saga” storyline was entirely editorially driven.  If that’s the case, I can almost see this as Claremont making the best of a bad situation.  He can’t have Colossus just forget, again, that he’s an X-Man, but if Claremont honestly views his time as an X-Man as over, Colossus shouldn’t be a series regular either.  Shipping him off to Russia and casting him as their Captain America is a dignified way to get rid of him at the very least.  I do question if Claremont’s insistence that the book not be set in 1991-1992 is cutting him off from some potentially interesting storylines, however.  I don’t recall a single story acknowledging Colossus’ response to the USSR’s collapse in 1991, which was a situation I can’t imagine Claremont ignoring had he stayed with the titles at that time.

Reintroducing Colossus is a natural way to segue into a Shadowcat or a Magik story, and Claremont uses this opportunity to address both characters.  Shadowcat doesn’t play a large part in this issue, but the discovery that Colossus has moved on with Black Widow is used as a means of alienating Kitty even further from her past.  As Gambit points out (setting up his own potential romance with Kitty), Kitty’s now lost virtually everyone she’s truly cared about, and when she needed Colossus, she finds him in the Black Widow’s arms.  (By the way, notice the age gap in Colossus’ girlfriends.  Kitty’s still a teenager while Black Widow was born before WWII.  That’s gross, man.)  Magik only makes a cameo at the end, but she’ll obviously become more important later.  A certain segment of fandom used to demand Claremont return to the character some day, and while I’m not sure how many of them were still around in 2010, they did eventually get their wish.  Ultimately, Magik serves as the impetuous for a rather lengthy action arc, then disappears from the book, which means she doesn’t make the truly epic return her fans probably wanted in the first place.  Still, it’s a nice nod to the target audience of this book, and it’s a better use of the character than using her as a sacrificial lamb for a non-starter like the Legacy Virus plot.

Friday, October 17, 2014

SPIDER-MAN: THE VENOM AGENDA #1 - January 1998


Bad Day at the Bugle
Credits:  Larry Hama (writer), Tom Lyle (penciler), Robert Jones (inks), Steve Oliff (colors), Janice Chiang (letters)

The Plot:  Venom receives orders from the federal Overreach Committee to silence Jonah Jameson after his public criticism of Operation: Zero Tolerance.  Venom ambushes Jameson at the Daily Bugle, just as Peter Parker arrives for a photo assignment.  While Jameson’s distracted, Peter changes into Spider-Man and faces Venom.  Spider-Man saves Jameson after he’s thrown out of a window and takes him to a nearby construction site.  MJ comes across the disturbance and follows Spider-Man to the site, along with federal agent Darryl Smith, who now realizes that Venom misinterpreted his orders.  Venom buries Spider-Man under a pile of debris and turns his attention back to Jameson.  When MJ enters, Venom decides he’ll kill Spider-Man’s wife as well.  Spider-Man finds the inner strength to free himself and, with the help of a nearby supply of dynamite, defeats Venom.  Later, Venom tells Smith that he knew something important about Spider-Man, but has now forgotten it.

The Subplots:  Peter has a cold throughout the story.  For unknown reasons, Jameson has called him to his office at the end of the Bugle’s workday.

Web of Continuity:  This story takes place during Venom’s stint as a secret agent, which was the character’s status quo during the final days of his regular series of miniseries.

I Love the ‘90s:  Peter remarks that he feels like Evander Holyfield’s right ear.  On the same page, he wishes that he could be a movie superhero and face villains like Uma Thurman and Michelle Pfeiffer.  

"Huh?" Moment:  Seriously, why does Jonah want to meet Peter late in the day as the Bugle closes?  There’s no obvious story reason (except to give Peter an empty office to change into costume in), yet the dialogue mentions several times how odd this is.

Production Note:  This is a forty-eight page one-shot, in the standard format with ads.  The cover price is $2.99.

Review:  We’ve now reached the end of the Venom era, as his ongoing non-series is cancelled and Marvel moves towards making him 100% villain again.  Venom never quite worked as an anti-hero protagonist, true, but the idea of Venom having his own moral code is one of the unique elements that I liked about him in his early appearances.  This was likely developed as a rationalization for why he didn’t just kill every member of the supporting cast after he learned Spider-Man’s secret ID, but I think David Michelinie did understand how to play Venom as a hero in his own mind, protecting the innocent from a “fraud” like Spider-Man.  Venom is so thoroughly nasty this issue he doesn’t quite feel like anti-hero Venom or Classic Venom, but perhaps this is a natural outgrowth of the stories Hama was already telling in the numerous Venom miniseries.

This one-shot seems unusually low-key considering it’s the long-awaited rematch between Spider-Man (not the Scarlet Spider) and Venom.  I don’t recall any promotion for it, and none of the titles at the time referenced this one-shot even though it was edited by line editor Ralph Macchio, whereas Venom was one of Tom Brevoort’s books at the time.  Spider-Man vs. Venom fights used to be an actual event, but I wonder now if Marvel’s relentless overexposure of Venom killed much of the interest in seeing another rematch.  Plus, it’s late 1997 at this point, so no one’s really nostalgic yet for those early Spider-Man/Venom fights, either.  It’s several years before Marvel gets around to even reprinting the full McFarlane Amazing Spider-Man run.

The opening pages don’t seem to rise to the level of the early Spider-Man/Venom confrontations, since Hama appears to be under the impression that Spider-Man and Venom are evenly matched, which is not how the early stories played out.  Ideally, Spider-Man should be terrified of facing Venom.  The second half of the story gives Venom a better showing, thankfully, and Hama is fairly successful in raising the stakes and making this seem like a hard-fought victory for Spider-Man by the end.  As a straightforward action comic, it’s pretty entertaining and some of the jokes are funny, although Venom’s convenient amnesia is a bit ridiculous.  I can understand why Marvel felt uncomfortable with Venom knowing Spider-Man’s secret identity, but surely there’s a better way to deal with the issue.  Also, did this quickie amnesia solution even last?  I seem to recall Venom targeting Peter Parker once again during his next appearances.

Finally, I have to address the story’s homage to the original “Final Chapter” in Amazing Spider-Man.  Spider-Man remarks that he has an “overwhelming sense of déjà-vu!” after he’s buried under a pile of debris, a cute reference to the classic scene from Amazing Spider-Man #33.  This scene has been homaged and parodied so many times over the years, there’s even an internal Marvel memo asking people to stop referencing it.  So, I have to ask…who was the first creator to recreate this scene?  I wasn’t even aware of this classic bit until Spider-Man Saga ran a few panels from it in 1992, and I didn’t see any tributes to it until the late ‘90s.  As far as I can tell, Hama might actually be the first writer to do the homage.  In 1998, after this era of Spider-Man closed out with a crossover entitled “The Final Chapter”, it seemed like every few months someone was riffing on this moment, even outside of the Spider-Man books.  I can understand why people like the scene, but the way creators just grew obsessed with this bit from a decades-old comic, seemingly out of nowhere, has always perplexed me.

SENSATIONAL SPIDER-MAN #23 - January 1998


The Spirit is Willing; the Flesh…
Credits:  Todd Dezago (plot/script), Mike Wieringo (plot/pencils), Richard Case (inks), Gregory Wright (colors), Richard Starkings & Comicraft (letters)


The Plot:  Dr. Strange defeats the gremlyns sent by Buel, then sends his Astral self back inside the Aleister Building to guide Spider-Man.  After traveling through various realities, they eventually locate the Sphere of Sara-Kath.  Dr. Strange physically enters the building and battles Buel, while Spider-Man fights his overwhelming attraction to a white light and carries the Sphere to the Babylon Portal.  When he throws the Sphere into the Portal, the rip in reality is healed and Buel disappears.  Before leaving, Dr. Strange lets Spider-Man visit the dimension he was drawn to earlier.  He senses a familiar presence; Spider-Man thanks Dr. Strange for the experience and they part.


The Subplots:  None.


Miscellaneous Notes:  The date listed in the indicia is January 1997, but it should be January 1998.  The Statement of Ownership lists the average number of copies sold in the past year to be 117,969, with the most recent issue selling 103,165 copies.


Review:  The previous chapters of this arc didn’t particularly feel like Spider-Man stories, but there is more of an effort this issue to connect the story with more familiar Spidey territory.  The first moment is when Dr. Strange dissuades Spider-Man from following the white light by reminding him of his responsibility to stop the reality rift and complete his mission.  That leads to a quickie flashback to his origin, which could’ve easily been a dull recap of something everyone knows, but there’s more of an impact this time.  Partially because Dezago keeps it brief and chooses his words carefully, but also because Wieringo’s art evokes an unexpected somber tone that sells the moment perfectly.  


The sudden remembrance of Uncle Ben is likely a setup for the issue’s schmaltzy ending, which has Peter touching the presence of a loved one in “an in-between place -- inhabited by thoughts and dreams and hopes…and the essences of ones that were…”  In a sane world, there shouldn’t be any doubt that Peter’s reconnecting with Uncle Ben for a final time.  Unfortunately, I think the standard belief amongst fandom turned into “Ben Reilly’s in that dimension!  He’s not really dead….that’s how he’s coming back!”  I can understand why Dezago left the identity vague, and I guess there’s nothing wrong with a hardcore Ben Reilly fan holding on to a naive hope, but geez…how could anyone think that scene works better with Ben Reilly instead of Uncle Ben?!


In retrospect, this really is the strongest chapter of the storyline.  Buel, whose personality is that of a snotty teenager, actually has some decent lines this issue; as opposed to just being obnoxious, he’s obnoxious but kind of funny this time.  Dr. Strange has a solid character moment, prompted by Spider-Man calling him out on his arrogance when he refuses to give him access to the strange white light.  Strange reconsiders, reflecting on the arrogance that destroyed his previous life, and gives Spider-Man his little happy ending.  And the art is fantastic, which isn’t much of a surprise.  There’s a two-page spread of Spider-Man and Strange traveling through various realities that is simply beautiful.


I haven’t gotten soft, though.  This overall arc is still too long, too unfocused, and just an odd way to spend three months of this title.  The first issue gives the Technomancers a grand introduction, only to have the characters almost entirely fall out of the story in place of Buel.  When the two Technomancers that received the most attention in the first chapter return this issue, they play a small part in helping Strange fight Buel, but their appearance feels rushed and unsatisfying.  The idea, apparently, is that they’ve learned a lesson about manipulating the mystic arts, redeeming themselves at the end somewhat, but it never comes across as a convincing character arc.  The Technomancers’ basic gimmick sounds fairly generic, and even if a writer found a way to make them work, it’s hard to imagine them becoming serious players in Spider-Man’s little corner of the world.  The subplots have also been pretty disappointing during these three issues, when they appeared at all.  The art arguably makes up for many of these flaws, and ‘Ringo does have some amazing moments, but it's hard to view this arc as one deserving of three issues.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

SENSATIONAL SPIDER-MAN #22 - December 1997

The Politics of Magic
Credits:  Todd Dezago (plot/script), Mike Wieringo (plot/pencils), Rich Case & Scott Hanna (inks), Gregory Wright (colors), Comicraft’s Kiff Scholl (letters)


The Plot:  Dr. Strange senses the dimensional chaos inside the Aleister Building, and soon arrives with Spider-Man.  Strange casts a spell that freezes the flux temporarily, allowing Spider-Man to enter the building and find the Sphere of Sara-Kath, which is amplifying the Technomancers’ Babylon Portal.  Strange’s physical body must remain outside to maintain the spell, but his Astral presence follows Spider-Man inside.  Spider-Man eventually loses Strange’s guidance when Strange is attacked outside, leaving him alone with Lord Buel.


The Subplots:  Jonah Jameson visits Billy Walters in his apartment.  He gives Billy a secret assignment to investigate Norman Osborn’s takeover of the Daily Bugle.  Meanwhile, Anna Watson babysits Hope.  


Web of Continuity:  
  • The issue opens with an explanation of how Dr. Strange has regained his mystic powers.  This is Spider-Man’s third team-up with Dr. Strange since the post-Clone Saga era began, but it’s the first time a story has gone out of its way to explain Strange’s recent continuity.
  • Lord Buel reveals that he was a noble in another dimension who studied the mystic arts out of boredom.  He was sentenced to another realm for evoking dark spirits, and now seeks the Sphere of Sara-Kath to gain vengeance.  Aside from being surrounded by his pet Gremlyns, Buel has the power to reshape flesh.
  • According to Strange, the Sphere of Sara-Kath is a mysterious object that can “augment by a hundredfold the magikal abilities of any who possess it!”
  • Strange is distracted at the end of the story when he senses Franklin Richards and his “blue…ball!”  This is a reference to the ending of the “Heroes Reborn” event, as seen in Heroes Reborn: The Return.


I Love the ‘90s:  Billy Walters is watching X-Files, and telling Scully not to enter a room, when Jameson knocks on his door.


Review:  Hypothetically, the Technomancers material could’ve worked if it were used as an excuse for ‘Ringo to just draw something cool for an issue or two.  That’s the bulk of this issue, which is far more exciting than the last chapter, as Wieringo is given page after page of monsters, demons, and dragons to play around with.  That’s fine, but every page with Lord Buel just drags.  It’s hard to justify why exactly this character is a Spider-Man villain, and to be honest, his design isn’t up to Wieringo’s usual standards.  His face is a human/bat hybrid with some cyborg crap thrown in, and he dresses like every post-Tolkien evil wizard ever to appear in an AD&D source book.  I wouldn’t mind him so much as a one-issue, throwaway villain, or in a peripheral team-up book, but his presence in a monthly title is simply annoying.  Three issues of this?  No thanks.  Scheduling this arc while “important” events are occurring in the other titles just emphasizes how much it feels like filler.  There are some great Spider-Man shots this issue, however.  The story’s set at night, which works to Wieringo’s advantage, since he was always one of the artists who understood how to incorporate black into the costume.  I’m surprised some of these panels haven’t shown up on any Spidey merchandise over the years.  Spider-Man looks fantastic this issue, he’s just stuck in a bland story.



Wednesday, October 15, 2014

SENSATIONAL SPIDER-MAN #21 - November 1997

 

Opening Doors
Credits:  Todd Dezago (writer), Mike Wieringo (penciler), Rob Stull (inks), Gregory Wright & Mark Bernardo (colors), Comicraft’s Kiff Scholl (letters)

The Plot:  At the Aleister Building, home of the Technomancer Corporation, the Neomancers arrive with the Sphere of Sara-Kath.  While Maegis Senreich is distracted by its arrival, the Babylon Portal unleashes demons from another dimension.  The Neomancers are attacked by the demons, as the Gremlyn Lord Buel emerges from the portal.  Meanwhile, Spider-Man feels a strange attraction to the Aleister Building.

The Subplots:  Jill takes Peter and MJ to her new favorite coffee place, the Daily Grind.  Billy Walters tries to become friends with Peter, but Peter is too busy to humor him.  Aunt Anna meets the Parkers’ new neighbors, Ellen Hibbert and her daughter Hope.  Hope later spots Spider-Man exiting Peter’s bedroom window when he leaves for the Aleister Building.

Web of Continuity:  
  • The Technomancers are an ancient group that merges sorcery with modern technology.  The corporation is a front for their true activities.
  • Billy tells Peter that an attractive blonde woman with blue eyes was looking for him earlier at the Daily Bugle.
  • Robbie Robertson makes a reference to Jonah Jameson being in the hospital, making this issue hard to place in regards to Spectacular Spider-Man continuity.  This is one of the (many) issues the Chronology Project says takes place “in-between the pages” of Spectacular Spider-Man #250.
  • Ellen Hibbert is a uniformed police officer.  Her daughter Hope is deaf.  Peter doesn’t know this and just assumes she’s a strange kid.  The Hibberts are living next door in Aunt Anna’s old house.

*See _________ For Details:  Peter reflects on the last time he was in the attic with Ben Reilly, in Spectacular Spider-Man #240.  Later, Shirley at the Daily Grind comments on “everything that happened” during “Revelations,” circa Amazing Spider-Man #418.

I Love the ‘90s:  Billy Waters is wearing a “Massimo” shirt, which is a play on the popular Mossimo t-shirts of the ‘90s.  He also has a flannel jacket tied around his waist, which is an odd fashion choice for a comic published in late 1997.

Miscellaneous Note:  I’m assuming the Aleister Building was named after English magician Aleister Crowley.

Review:  Aw, no….the Technomancers.  These are instantly forgettable villains that eat up a few issues of Sensational while most of the other titles deal with the returns of Norman Osborn and Doc Ock.  Despite some nice design work by Mike Wieringo, there isn’t much to these guys.  Unfortunately, Todd Dezago seems rather enamored with the concept, because he spends around half of the issue establishing the Technomancers’ headquarters and giving the reader a glimpse into the organization’s hierarchy.  Really, they spend the bulk of their scenes talking about mystic plot devices and cackling over their vaguely defined future plans.  It’s not that enthralling.  The storytelling’s also a little muddy during the introduction of new villain Gremlyn Lord Buel.  The scene reads as if one of the lower Technomancers has been transformed into Buel after being attacked by one of the demons (or “Gremlyns”).  Instead, the next issue makes it clear that Buel is a new character that’s entered through the portal.

The rest of the issue touches on numerous subplots, and as much as I like subplots in my Spidey comics, these are mostly duds.  I skipped the majority of the Clone Saga during its release, so the return of the Daily Grind doesn’t evoke any fond memories for me.  And the story’s staged to make the Daily Grind’s return into a momentous occasion, when in fact the location soon returns to obscurity.  Jill Stacy almost displays a hint of a personality in this scene, though, as she’s apparently now a snobbish hipster who’s annoyed that Peter and MJ have already discovered her cool new spot.  I would argue that this contradicts her established personality, but we all know she has none.  The Hibberts had potential as new supporting cast members, but after Dezago goes through a Rear Window riff with Hope, they’re quickly forgotten.  Billy Walters’ brief scene is probably the best of the subplots, if only because Peter realizes he’s been brushing Billy off and begins to worry that he’s hurt the guy’s feelings.  That’s classic Peter Parker, and the books don’t have enough of those moments at this time.  Billy’s scene also hints at the return of Gwen Stacy, or more likely her clone, which adds some intrigue to a fairly dull issue.  It’s a feint, of course, but it works as an attention-grabber, and Billy’s a smart choice to use as the messenger since he’s a character that wouldn’t recognize Gwen.  These are the little moments that Dezago’s really good at sneaking in; I just wish his main stories were this interesting.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

PETER PARKER, SPIDER-MAN #85 - November 1997

 

Little Lies
Credits:  Howard Mackie (writer), Andy Smith (penciler), Art Thibert (inks), Mark Bernardo (colors), Comicraft’s Kiff Scholl (letters)

The Plot:  MJ convinces Peter to join her and Jill on a night out.  To Peter’s surprise, Paul Stacy is also at the nightclub.  MJ tries to force the two to talk, but an irritated Paul walks away.  Peter follows him, and soon discovers that the Friends of Humanity have hired the Shocker to kill Paul for leaving the group.  As Spider-Man, Peter saves a crowd from debris created by the Shocker, but can’t find the villain after he disappears.  Spider-Man searches for Paul, and finds him on the Brooklyn Bridge contemplating suicide.

The Subplots:  Aunt Anna almost discovers Peter’s Spider-Man costume in the laundry.

Web of Continuity:  
  • Paul Stacy’s hair has gone from blond, to an odd shade of green, to now red over the course of his appearances in these titles.  He’s not established as a member of a Green Day cover band or anything, so I’m left to believe that no one can decide what color hair he’s supposed to have.
  • Billy Walters makes a brief cameo, in perhaps his first appearance outside of Sensational Spider-Man.
  • The Shocker is explicitly hired as a hitman this issue, although I can’t think of any other time he’s performed murder for hire.  I could be wrong, but isn’t Shocker normally more of a bank robber/jewel thief?

Production Note:  The cover lists Art Thibert as the inker, while the credits list Scott Hanna.  A future issue confirms Art Thibert is the inker.

Review:  My impression that this era of Spider-comics had horrible fill-in art probably originates with this issue.  I wasn’t buying any of the books by late 1997, but I did somehow end up with a copy of this issue.  And after looking through the first few pages, I was pretty appalled.  Peter has a manga face, his muscles are so jacked that his t-shirt is glued to his bulging abs, MJ is anorexic, and Aunt Anna has suddenly dropped a hundred pounds and morphed into the ‘90s cartoon’s model of the character.  Looking at the issue today, I can see I was a little hard on Andy Smith.  There are certainly problems with the art, but I can now see it’s more “inconsistent” than “eye-searingly terrible.”  There are moments when Smith draws the civilian cast quite well, although oddly it seems that Paul Stacy, Arthur Stacy, and FoH leader Donovan Zane look more polished than Peter Parker.  MJ, at least, grows more on-model as the issue progresses.  Smith’s Spider-Man also looks fine, and he does a decent job on the (very) brief fight between Spider-Man and Shocker.

What really turned me away from pursuing the titles during this period was the issue’s story.  The issue does open with a nice scene, featuring Aunt Anna almost stumbling upon Peter’s secret ID while trying to help with the laundry.  I realize that this is the most obvious bit you can do with Anna, or anyone else living in the Parkers’ home, but I’m glad it’s here.  It’s classic Spidey, and it’s the first time we’ve seen Aunt Anna do much of anything since permanently joining the supporting cast.  The basic conflict of Peter and MJ needing their own place but not being able to afford it is, again, classic Spidey and it’s the type of drama we don’t see enough of during this era.

Unfortunately, we are getting plenty of the drama the books don’t need this issue.  Notably, the Stacy family.  Jill’s annoying simply because she’s so bland, but at least she isn’t as insufferable as Paul Stacy.  No part of Paul’s characterization makes any sense.  He’s a bitter loner, fine, but the idea that he’s so obnoxious because his cousin and uncle died over five years ago is insane.  (And that’s generously applying Marvel Time to the deaths of George and Gwen.  In real life, Paul’s angsting over something that happened in the early ‘70s!)  If we’re to believe the exposition we’re told this issue, Paul was happy, outgoing, and close to his father and sister until the deaths of George and Gwen.  He’s been a brat ever since; and yet, if he hates his immediate family so much, why did he recently move across the ocean with them?  And how was he so close to these family members that lived in another country in the first place?  When was this bond formed?  How close Paul was to George and Gwen doesn’t even appear to be consistent within this issue.  One reason Paul gives for hating Peter was that he was able to grow close to George and Gwen, while Paul lived far away.  So…they weren’t close?  Which undermines his entire motive, of course.  

It’s just such a simplistic view of a character -- he hates the world because two supporting cast members in the franchise died back in the ‘70s.  Nothing else defines him at all, except his inconsistent hair color and facial hair, I suppose.  I’m sure part of the problem is that Paul's development has been assigned to Howard Mackie, whose characterization skills are usually lacking on his best day, but it’s hard to imagine the character ever really working in the books.  He’s defined solely by his relationship with two long-dead characters, and it’s a retconned relationship the audience never got to see in the first place.  Honestly, who cares?  As if all of this wasn’t tedious enough, the issue ends with yet another callback to the Brooklyn Bridge.  Of course if Paul is abruptly going to contemplate suicide, a characterization swerve that essentially comes out of nowhere, he’s going to do it on that stupid bridge.