Alternate Spidey Part 4

This Issue - Spidey Dies!

One of the advantages of the "What If" or other alternative universe format is that a writer can take the stories in an entirely different direction than would be possible (or sometimes even desirable) in the regular series. It is also one of the weaknesses, because there are usually no guidelines on these types of stories as writers get to do things "cause that would be kewl!" rather than what would actually make a good story. Therefore, we tend to get stories where the icons of the Marvel Universe, both heroes and villains, come to all kinds of sad and tragic, often brutal and cruel, ends. For the record, I’m ignoring the Exiles-type of storytelling which is largely "Poof! The universe is now different! Everyone has three eyes!" with no logic or defining event to explain its existence. With one exception I'm focusing on those stories in which Spider-Man's death is a key element of the story - as opposed to those where he is only one of a number of superheroes to get waxed and his death is incidental (like those stories in which the Earth is destroyed or everyone turns into vampires, zombies, whatever). And yes, the title riffs a DC event of a few years ago called "This Issue - Batman Dies!"

Even for those of us who love these characters, there seems to be a perverse fascination with how and when they'll meet their demise. A recurring subject on the message boards is "How do you think Spider-Man's career would end?" I suppose that part of it is simply the fact that all stories end, and the perpetual existence of licensed characters denies us that sense of closure. Does our hero retire and live out the rest of his days surrounded by friends and family? Are his sacrifices finally appreciated and rewarded? Does he die a proud warrior's death - on the field of battle against his greatest enemy, defending loved ones and all of humanity from his foe's deadliest plan yet? Or does he face a lonely death - with the peace and happiness that continued to elude him in life being forever denied him even in the next realm?

This first batch of stories feature Spidey’s demise at the hands of Marvel's resident blood-smeared vigilante Frank Castle, a.k.a. "The Punisher," who needs little introduction. He debuted way back in Amazing Spider-Man #129 (February 1974), created by Gerry Conway, who left many legacies in the Marvel Universe. For the next few years, Frank popped up only in the Spider-Man titles, but soon began to make appearances elsewhere. Frank Miller, who reinvented Daredevil in the early 1980’s, used the Punisher in Hornhead’s title, showing us a character closer to the sociopath he really would be. In the 1990's Garth Ennis began his process of cranking out such definitive storylines that for all intents and purposes, the Punisher came to be seen by some as "his" character. In between these highpoints, however, during the late 1980's and early 1990's, the Punisher was one of the "hot" characters of the Marvel Universe, like Spidey and the X-Men, starring in multiple titles and making guest appearances wherever possible, if not necessarily practical. True to form, Marvel severely overexposed the Punisher, obviously not caring that a character with a zealous one-dimensional objective, who for all intents and purposes was a murderer in the eyes of the law, had to be handled a bit more judiciously that the typical spandex wearing icon. Hey wait a minute, that sounds a little bit like Venom, doesn't it? And it's no wonder that Marvel nearly imploded in the 90's.

But at one time he was my second favorite Marvel character, behind only Spidey. Really. I actually traded some other Spidey comics in order to obtain an original Amazing Spider-Man #129, and I also purchased the original five-part miniseries in 1985 that launched him into the stratosphere as far as popularity. I was always partial to the character because truth be told, my personal views on law and order have always been a hell of a lot closer to the Punisher's than Spider-Man's, but therein lies his weakness as a recurring character in the Marvel Universe. For example, why don't Spidey and the other superheroes put as much effort into bringing down the Punisher like they do the other violent vigilantes that cross their paths? Because those "Lethal Protectors" (wink, wink) don't make money for Marvel, that's why.

Nonetheless Ennis’ Punisher: The End from 2004 was a seriously badass one-shot that I highly recommend. It’s not the story you would expect.

What If the Punisher Killed Daredevil?
This story, written by famous comic scribe Kurt Busiek, is the premise behind What If? Volume II #26 (June 1991). Spun off from the events of Daredevil #183 (June 1982), Castle shoots DD with a tranquilizer dart to get him out of the way, but this time, Hornhead zigs instead of zags, and falls from a rooftop to his death. During the autopsy, he is revealed to be blind lawyer Matt Murdock (putting this in perspective, this occurred long before virtually everyone found out that Matt Murdock was Daredevil. Not even Foggy or Wilson Fisk knew at this time). The news reaches his old nemesis, the Kingpin, rather quickly, and the crafty crimelord sets a serious of events in motion to exploit this stunning turn...

Needless to say, for all of their differences and conflicts, one of the heroes most troubled at the news is Spider-Man (again, this is before Brian Michael Bendis made Murdock and Luke Cage bosom buddies, so "Power Man’s" absence from this story has to be put in its historical context - if it was written today, it's Cage going after Frank Castle's ass), who drops in on the law offices of Nelson and Murdock to confirm the news, and then swears to bring the Punisher to justice. Unfortunately, it turns out that Spidey won’t be able to count on any back up. After Daredevil’s demise, the Mayor of New York calls the representatives of the various established superteams on the carpet, waiving a letter from the President of the U.S. in their faces, ordering them to stand down and not take any action against the Punisher. As the Mayor puts it – this isn’t going to be like cops hunting down a cop-killer – he’s not going to let innocent people get in the way of any superhuman grudge matches. Inexplicably, the heroes agree (another event that seems ironic given Civil War).

In the meantime, Franklin Nelson decides to seek revenge for his partner’s death in his own way, not so much by taking action against the Punisher, but on the scum he preys upon that gives him his reason to exist. He provides Bugle reporter extraordinaire Ben Urich all of the firm's confidential files on organized crime, which identifies several members in New York City’s political establishment as in bed with the mobs. As crook after crook falls, one of the politicians with a reputation for incorruptibility begins his rise to prominence, which you would think would be a good thing – but hold on…

Unfortunately, one of the side effects of this turn of events is the unleashing of a brutal gang war, with the Punisher, clearly oblivious to the damage he is causing, having as much fun as a voyeur at a nudist colony. Spidey finally finds Castle, but the vigilante has studied Spider-Man's tactics very carefully, taking advantage of some sloppiness on the webhead's part to put a bullet through his shoulder. This is not enough to kill him - but does cause him to bleed profusely. The web slinger collapses on the street as he tries to seek medical attention, and his identity is exposed at the hospital.

A bewildered J. Jonah Jameson is forced to run a story on the front page of the Bugle in which Spider-Man has been revealed to be Peter Parker, currently under heavy sedation at the hospital. The next morning, Aunt May walks onto her front porch and seeing the headline utters a subdued "oh my" before an over the shoulder rocket launcher fires a exploding projectile into the Parker home, courtesy of the Silvermane family. The bloodshed doesn't stop there. Both Ben Urich and Franklin Nelson are gunned down, and New York seems to be up for grabs. The Mayor resigns, succeeded by the reform politician who pledges to clean up the city. And of course, the rest of the superheroes are sitting on the sidelines letting this happen because of that letter the Mayor flashed in front of them. No, I don't think so, either, but that's how it was written.

The Punisher finally begins to get wise to the scam when he storms Maggia headquarters, only to find out that what's left of the crime organization is moving out of New York! Legal mouthpiece Caesar Cicero (Spidey fans know him from the ancient tablet saga during the Lee/Romita years) tells the Punisher that the crooked politicians that Nelson & Murdock's files outed were all theirs and most of their other wiseguys have been exposed, and many of them slaughtered. Then the truth of who has truly benefited from this entire affair dawns on Castle...

The Punisher begins preparations for a final lethal assault during the new Mayor's (the aforementioned incorruptible politician) coronation at the Plaza Hotel, but is interrupted by a deranged Peter Parker, still in his hospital jammies, high on the drugs used to awaken him from his near-coma induced sedation and blaming the Punisher for Aunt May's death. It doesn't take long before the Punisher realizes that Spider-Man was holding back during all of their previous confrontations, as a nearly insane Parker beats the vigilante badly and is about to throw him off a roof. Then, Peter is momentarily distracted, either by the Punisher's frantic shouts or his own sanity beginning to return, but this proves fatal, as it allows Castle to pump a full round into Peter's chest.

The Punisher staggers into the Plaza Hotel suite where the new Mayor, not so virtuous after all, is met by his true benefactor - the Kingpin. Weakened by his battle with Peter, the Punisher is no match for Wilson Fisk, who crushes the Punisher's throat while telling him how he has orchestrated the whole series of events that occurred in light of Daredevil's death. This included the exposure of the Maggia politicians by Franklin Nelson, the Mayor's pressure on the other superheroes to keep out of things, and even getting Peter released from the hospital and giving him the Punisher's location.

As the Punisher lays dying, he prays to stay alive long enough to see his last backup plan reach fruition - as the Kingpin discovers a bomb that was planted earlier that day and the note "If you're reading this - I didn't get back in time to disarm it. Good Luck."


O.K. Now that was cool.

Not a bad story as Kurt Busiek usually gives the reader his money's worth, but it still has a number of lapses. Frankly, I don't find it plausible at all that the superheroes would have sat the on the sidelines while the city exploded in violence, particularly after Spider-Man, the second superhero, was shot by the Punisher. I think that orders be damned, Johnny Storm at the very least would have broken ranks and gone after Castle. I also find it utterly inconceivable that once the news of Spidey's exposure reached the Bugle, that someone there, most likely Joe Robertson, or even Jonah himself, would have simply sat on their asses and left May Parker out to dry. I don't think they would have let May read about it in the paper. Nor do I think that they, or even the police, would have simply let her become a target for any number of enemies wanting revenge on Spider-Man. This was "easy out" writing for shock value in order to make the final confrontation between Peter and the Punisher happen. Also, while hunting down the Punisher, Spider-Man is regretting that he didn't take him down in the past and that "deep down I thought he was necessary." This is out of character for Spider-Man as in all of these years, he has never even remotely given any indication that he tolerated vigilante violence or was willing to stand by and let it occur under his nose. The one exception is that he was willing to let a lynch mob kill Jean DeWolff's murderer in Spectacular Spider-Man #110 (January 1986), before Daredevil shook some sense into him.

The story is effective, however in showing that in any world actually populated by super beings, that there would be blood shed and high body counts on both sides of the ledger.

Busiek wrote a masterpiece compared to our next story, however…

What If the Punisher Killed Spider-Man?
This alternative tale, from What If volume II #58 (February 1994), written by Chuck Dixon, takes off directly from the events of the aforementioned Amazing Spider-Man #129. The Jackal, a.k.a. Professor Miles Warren, hires the Punisher to kill Spider-Man, claiming that he's a murderer who deserves it. In the original story, the Jackal specifically mentions the "murder" of Norman Osborn, but in this story, there is a huge faux pas as the Punisher states "and I'm not convinced that killing the Green Goblin was such a bad idea." As everyone knows, Norman Osborn had not been outed as the Green Goblin at this time. No one knew that the Green Goblin was even dead, as Harry Osborn had removed all traces of Norman's dual identity. Anyway, the more the Punisher studies the activities of Spider-Man, who seems to be involved in every gangland confrontation, the more that he becomes convinced that he is a "player," and must be brought down. Castle wires a Doc Ock dummy with explosives so as Spidey moves in, he thinks it's Ock that his spider-sense is reacting to, and is unable to get away quickly enough when he realizes he has been had and the bomb is detonated.

The Punisher, however, finds out pretty quickly that he has killed an innocent man. Spider-Man is revealed to be college kid Peter Parker, with no mob connections, and no criminal record. He then finds himself pursued by virtually every superhero in New York, each of whom reminds him just how wrong he was about Spider-Man. And if that didn't fill him in on the truth, as the Punisher relates, "the quality of his enemies taught me even more." He is invited to a supervillain toast in his honor - held by all of Spidey's foes who are praising the Punisher for taking the wall crawler down. In perhaps the only positive thing to come out of Spider-Man's death, the Punisher takes out the whole lot of them.

Castle grows more haggard and tired, his enthusiasm for his war on crime gone, and finds himself in the lobby of a fleabag hotel watching the latest in a series of profiles on Spider-Man, including interviews with everyone who knew him in his Peter Parker identity. Spidey has become almost a cult figure by this time - with even the Daily Bugle jumping on the bandwagon. However, when the media begins to interview Peter's old professors at ESU, Castle recognizes a voice.

Confronting Miles Warren at ESU, Warren proceeds to ramble like the deranged lunatic that he has become. He states that he was only seeking revenge for Gwen Stacy's death, and didn't know that Peter was Spider-Man (which he didn't- in the real continuity he didn't find out until at least after Amazing Spider-Man #140). However, curiously, the Punisher is waiting for the police to arrive before he kills Warren, which they do, led by someone who looks suspiciously like actor Dennis Franz. With his gun leveled at Warren's head, and the police pointing theirs at his, "Franz" tells the Punisher that if he kills Warren, he'll be the next to drop.

With a smile, the Punisher tells Warren that he'll see him on the other side.

This story is sloppy on a number of points. I've already mentioned the glitch vis a vis Norman Osborn & the Green Goblin. Also, Spidey dies just a little too easily. For one, the Doc Ock dummy is attached to the wall and not even moving, so that should have given him a clue. Plus, I'm sure this gimmick of confusing his spider sense has been tried before. Aunt May is completely absent from the story - as are Peter's other friends to add additional perspective on his death. Also, and this may be a problem that dates back to the source material and not entirely Dixon's fault, but the Punisher seems way too slow in realizing that the Jackal has ulterior motives and is up to no good himself.

I don't recommend this one for anyone except the completists.

The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe
Well, if your appetite for death hasn't been completely satiated, then allow yourself to gorge on 1995's Garth Ennis one-shot The Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe (the cover displayed here is actually from the 2000 re-printing). Whatever substance that Ennis was ingesting when he came up with this monstrosity, I want it now and I want it in large quantities.

The premise of this story is that rather than being killed due to accidentally witnessing a gangland execution, Frank Castle's family dies while being smack dab in the middle of a battle between the Avengers, X-Men, and a horde of rogue Skulls (now that's an intergalactic kegger, Zed). Castle, a NYC cop in this story, races to the scene, finding Daredevil berating Cyclops and Captain America for their carelessness. Again, readers will find this ironic in the Civil War era. Surprisingly, rather than express any real remorse, the two simply make excuses (only one of the notorious leaps in logic you have to endure before making it to the end of this thing). After seeing his family's bodies and getting a rather mealy mouthed apology from Cyclops, Castle turns his gun on the assorted heroes. Matt Murdock, who witnessed the slaughter as Daredevil (and as the beginning of this story indicates, also met Castle when both were children, Frank coming to the rescue when young Murdock was being bullied), serves as his lawyer. Fans of the X-Men and their persecution complex will enjoy the judge's comments as he sentences Castle to life in prison "for the murder of several of this nation's greatest heroes - and the X-Men Cyclops and Jubilee" as if the latter didn't qualify as heroes.

The Punisher spends less time in jail than Martha Stewart, however, as he discovers that he has rich friends in high places - literally. Whisked to a cabin in the Adirondacks, Frank meets his benefactor, a horribly disfigured man by the name of Kesselring, who spread around enough money to get Castle sprung. Turns out Mr. Kesselring and his friends are all victims themselves, innocent bystanders who were crippled and maimed for the unfortunate reasons of being in the vicinity of a superhero battle. Kesselring offers Castle unlimited resources if he will "punish" ALL superhumans, heroes and villains, mutants and monsters, the whole lot of them. Obviously, considering the title of the story, Frank agrees.

And guess who his first victim is?

If you've read this story and were paying attention at all, you noticed that Ennis didn't give a rat's ass about following the course of events as they unfolded in the regular Marvel Universe, and Spider-Man's death scene is an obvious indication. First of all, Spidey is fighting Venom when the Punisher comes for him. Considering that Frank first appeared way back in Amazing Spider-Man #129 in 1974 and Venom didn't show up until issue #300 in 1988, Ennis is either implying Castle's family dies years later than they died in the original Marvel Universe, or else he didn't do his research, or more likely, he just didn't care. Anyway, using barbed tasers, the Punisher first fries Spidey's and Venom's asses, and then as a wounded Spider-Man asks him "why," the Punisher's response, after putting a bullet in the web slinger's brain, is a simple "because somebody had to be first."

The Punisher's wave of violence continues, first with a Bruce Banner in between Hulk-outs, then the Kingpin, and most notably, Doctor Doom, whose stronghold Castle invades in order to obtain access to his vast armory including a nuclear weapon. The Punisher uses the nuke to blow up the X-Men and Brotherhood of Evil Mutants after luring both groups to the moon under the false pretenses. The Avengers are smoked in a teleportation accident, Mr. Fantastic is found in a dumpster, and Wolverine is cooked down to his adamantium skeleton after being electrocuted. Castle gets caught by the authorities more than once, but continues to escape courtesy of Kesselring's money. Eventually, only Daredevil is left, but before going after him, the Punisher kills his benefactor as he discovers that Kesselring and his cronies have no intention of letting him walk away after killing the last superhero, telling him that they'll need him again when the next generation of superhumans is born. After killing Daredevil, the Punisher turns his gun on himself. The End.

Ennis does make the point that if the world were really populated by contentious superhuman beings, the impact upon ordinary people who had the misfortune of being in the way of these behemoths as they settled their various personal vendettas would truly be disastrous. Still, unlimited resources or not, no way the Punisher gets away with all of this. All of the heroes go down waaaaaay too easily, especially Doctor Doom and Captain America, who you'd think have been around the block long enough not to be taken out like a bunch of amateurs. Also, it's inconceivable, considering that it takes the Punisher five years to kill everyone, that the surviving heroes and villains wouldn't have combed the city for him and taken him out long before he made it too far in his crusade. But then, it seems that "Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe" was never really meant to be taken seriously. After all, there really is no story, it's just a gorefest with a high body count that panders to the lowest common denominator that wants to see everybody get killed. But, then again it doesn't appear to have been meant as anything else - so why criticize it when it was exactly what it was intended to be? It's also entirely possible that it was intended as a parody of the events of the times. In the mid-90's, the comics industry was killing every increasing amounts of trees in order to bring the audience more and more loud, senseless battles, violent vigilantes, and increasingly darker "heroes," and neglecting the essentials of storytelling.

Bonus Story: What if Venom Possessed the Punisher?
O.K., so Spidey doesn't get killed in this one - in fact, no superhero gets killed - but since we've just spent most of the first part of this article talking about the Punisher, and as Venom will be featured in a "What If?" story next, might as well toss in one featuring all three of these characters. In fact, this is actually one of those rare "What If?" tales that almost makes as much or more sense as the regular continuity - or at the very least a concept you'd like to see a little more done with.

What If volume II #44 (December 1992), another story written by Kurt Busiek, opens with the Punisher at the infamous Our Lady of Saints Church lighting some candles for his dead wife and children, whose murders sparked his war on crime. Now, he just happens to get there before Eddie Brock shows up - which makes him the unwelcome recipient of the Venom symbiote (in fact, that looks like Brock that the Punisher bumps into on his way out of the church - talking about your timing issues).

The Punisher takes a real liking to the symbiote as he discovers its numerous practical applications in his vendetta, such as its ability to mimic any kind of clothing and provide him with impenetrable disguises, which he demonstrates by walking up to a white collar criminal in broad daylight and subsequently gutting him. Also, just as easily as it fires webbing (which he doesn't care for because it immobilizes without causing damage), it can also do bullets - much to his glee. With the symbiote at his disposal, the Punisher escalates the war into a campaign much more brutal and murderous than before - but is it all the Punisher's doing - or is he being influenced? Like Spider-Man before him, the Punisher fails to realize that his new "weapon" is a living organism that is feeding off him.

Readers of the regular Spider-Man titles remember that when Spidey simply thought the symbiote was a jazzy costume, he continually felt inexplicably fatigued, later to find out that the symbiote was taking him for joyrides across the city in his sleep. Frank Castle is beginning to experience the same thing, violently assaulting his crony at the time, MicroChip, and then attacking Spider-Man himself as the symbiote seeks to settle an old score. After a protracted and brutal battle which ends just as the Venom/Punisher is about to administer a death blow, Frank Castle's mind kicks in and prevents the killing, reminding himself that while Spidey is a nuisance to him, he is not a criminal, and not a target.

Speaking of targets, the Punisher decides to go after a couple of really big ones, first by killing Tombstone, recently hired by the Kingpin as an enforcer, and then after the fat man himself. Even though Daredevil and Typhoid Mary are there to try to stop him, he is able to use Venom's tendrils to slither along the floor, and then attack and strangle the Kingpin while still battling the other two.

Eventually, Moon Knight, DD, and Spidey confront the increasingly crazed Venom/Punisher and try to convince Castle to reject the symbiote before it completely overcomes him. Even a full blast from a sonic disruptor borrowed from the Fantastic Four is unable to separate the two, as the symbiote has now bonded permanently to Castle. However, the blast is enough for Castle's personality to reassert itself, and as his body slips into an apparent trance, mentally he and the symbiote fight a battle for the control of Castle's mind and body. The Punisher realizes that the symbiote craves adventure and the thrill of the hunt and makes it an offer - it must submit itself to Castle's total control, or else he will kill himself and take the symbiote with him. The alien agrees to this bargain, and the "new, improved" Punisher takes off into the night to continue his war. As Spider-Man is about to pursue him, Daredevil tells him that they don't have the luxury of going after the Punisher, as the death of the Kingpin is already turning the streets of New York into a killing ground with innocents in the way of the various warring factions fighting to take over, making that their priority.

As the story closes, the Watcher notes with considerable irony that it took the Punisher, of all people, to actually tame Venom, and turn it into an instrument of vengeance.

In many ways, this is actually a very logical pairing. The Venom symbiote makes the Punisher virtually unstoppable, and the Punisher gives the symbiote all of the action and vicarious thrills that it needs. You know, rather than invest so much wasted energy in seeking revenge or a re-union with Spider-Man, why didn't the Venom symbiote just seek a more appropriate partner who would give it exactly what it needed - someone like Frank Castle? Unfortunately, I wonder if this story gave Marvel the moronic idea of turning Venom into the Lethal Protector. It was just a few months after this issue appeared that the first Venom miniseries hit the stands, and the ultimate ruination of one of Spidey's most powerful and dangerous villains was assured. Or perhaps the Lethal Protector idea was already the works and this story was a subtle preview. Or - could it have been just a complete coincidence?

As an aside, the cover of the Punisher/Venom What If story is the most frequently "lifted" image by others from my site. Apparently, it's a popular concept.

Speaking of Venom:

What If the Alien Costume had Possessed Spider-Man?
What If Volume II #4 (October 1989) featured former Spider-Man editor Danny Fingeroth penning a tale of an alternate universe where the Venom symbiote permanently bonded with Peter Parker, with tragic consequences. In the reality we're all familiar with, after Spider-Man brought the alien costume back from the Beyonder's planet with him, he had it checked out by Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four in Amazing Spider-Man #258 (November 1984), who dropped the bombshell on Spidey that his suit was alive. As Spider-Man tried to force the suit off, the symbiote attempted a permanent bond with him, but was driven off by Richards' sonic blaster and incapacitated, until it escaped several months later and bonded with Eddie Brock, who with the symbiote became Venom. However, in this universe, Spider-Man does not find Richards available, and thus seeks answers from Dr. Curt Connors, who was also on the Beyonder's world in his scaly guise of the Lizard. Connors puts the suit through a battery of tests, including a cat scan, but finds no answers to the suit's composition, nor why Spider-Man is continually feeling fatigued (remember, the suit was taking him out for nocturnal joy rides in costume while Peter still slept). Days later, Spidey seeks out Richards again, and events begin to unfold as they did in the regular universe, except this time, whether a result of the prolonged delay, or the effects of the earlier cat scan, the symbiote does not leave Peter Parker's body, even after being blasted by sonics. But not only does the symbiote not leave Peter's body, it is also now controlling his mind. A super sonic blast is able to weaken both Peter and the alien to the point they fall unconscience, and Richards imprisons Spider-Man while he studies for a way to disrupt the bonding. However, neither Richards' science, nor the magic of Doctor Strange, is able to wrest the symbiote from Spider-Man's body.

After relentless pressure on the barrier surrounding him, Spider-Man is able to escape, and under the symbiote's control, literally begins a rampage across the entire country as the symbiote revels in its newfound power and control. Now, Hulk fans will remember that around this very same time, the jolly green giant was in a devastating battle for control of his own mind, which he was losing due to the interventions of Dr. Strange's old foe, Nightmare. During a battle with the Avengers, Strange is about to banish the Hulk to a crossroads dimension where he can do no harm until a resolution can be found for his condition, but the symbiote strikes just as the Hulk is about the cross the threshold. Seeing far more powerful and richer territory, the symbiote abandons Peter for the Hulk - but by this time, Peter is an old man who is biologically in his mid-80's. The new Venom/Hulk, truly a frighteningly powerful creature, defeats the Avengers and escapes. Taken to Avengers Mansion, Peter tells how the alien thrives on adrenaline, especially that of super powered beings - and that in its cross country spree it continually fed off Peter until it literally used him up and discarded him. The Black Cat, whom Peter had called for help just before the symbiote assumed total control of his mind, states in no uncertain terms that the creature has to be hunted down and killed, even at the cost of Bruce Banner's life, such is her rage and anger over what it has done to Peter. Knowing that he has little time left, the aged Peter visits Aunt May, posing as another Daily Bugle employee, in order to tell May that "he" knew that Peter loved her very much, and that she should know that. Mary Jane also happens to be visiting May at that time, and as she sees the withered old man walk away, a chill runs down her spine...

Peter dies that night, and a gravesite service is conducted on land owned by Tony Stark, attended by the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, and the Black Cat, with Johnny Storm providing the eulogy. The caption describes the scene perfectly "Earth's Mightiest Heroes pay last respects to a young man whom they perhaps did not fully understand, but nonetheless deeply respected." After the heroes depart, and Felicia remains alone in her grief, another very familiar figure arrives at the grave to pay his respects. Informed by Felicia of Spider-Man's passing, the Kingpin thanks her for the chance to pay his last respects to a worthy - if hopelessly naive - foe.

Combining his own and Peter's research on the alien symbiote (and marveling at what a gifted scientist Peter was) and using blood samples taken from both Peter and Bruce Banner, Reed Richards has been able to construct not only a device which can track down the symbiote, but a weapon called the Omni-Blaster which can kill it if necessary.

The combined force of the Avengers, Mr. Fantastic, the Human Torch, and Dr. Strange track Venom/Hulk to Mt. Rushmore, where they will first try to stun it long enough for Strange to be able to banish it to the crossroads dimension, but if unable to do that...

It is Thor who confronts the creature first, and pays for it dearly as the symbiote, having used up the power of the Hulk, discards Bruce Banner (who was spared being completely emaciated as Peter Parker had been) and attempts to bond with Thor, disappearing under the mountain to complete the bonding. The symbiote has become so powerful at this time than even though the bonding is incomplete, sonics cannot separate it from Thor. Facing the demands of the other heroes to kill the creature once and for all, regardless of the effect on Thor, Richards plays one last hand, summoning Black Bolt, leader of the Inhumans, from the Moon.

With a scream, Black Bolt destroys Mt. Rushmore, and successfully separates the symbiote from Thor, with both still alive, and the symbiote rendered harmless. Dr. Strange is about to cast it into the crossroads dimension where it can do no harm, nor any harm come to it, when a blast from a second Omni-Blaster incinerates the symbiote, killing it. The surprised heroes turn around to face the direction from which the shot originated, only to find the Black Cat equipped with a weapon similar to Reed's. She had been in Peter's room the night he died, and had copied his notes and Richards', taking them to the Kingpin, whose own scientists were able to create the tracker and the weapon. The Kingpin's private jet flew her to South Dakota where she was able to destroy the creature. She chastises the other heroes for worrying so much about the alien's right to survive, and calling them gutless for being unable to take final, deadly action. Discarding the gun, she walks away, as she returns to her new job, the last one she will ever have...that of a criminal in the service of the Kingpin...for the rest of her life. A steep price for vengeance indeed.

While the story itself is serviceable and will not win any awards, Fingeroth does justice to all of the characters, something never to be taken for granted in these alternative universe stories where writers often ride roughshod over the characters to get to the denouement. Felicia Hardy's character has been handled rather erratically over the years, and you can have an active debate over which one is the "real" Felicia (I've noted that there are at least three, maybe four Felicias) but this one gets pretty close to what I feel is the character's essence. She's still a little bit loopy in this story (which I do think is an honest part of the character), but her grief and rage at the loss of Spider-Man are honest. It is dead on for Felicia to want to kill the symbiote rather than simply render it harmless. While lifetime service to the Kingpin seems a little steep, my guess is that with Peter's death, Felicia found herself without a purpose in life. After all, she was desperately trying to turn over a new leaf while in Spider-Man's company, not entirely sure it was the right thing for her, but willing to do it for the man she loved. Without Peter's influence in her life, she probably felt no reason to continue the struggle, and working for the Kingpin, in addition to providing her with unlimited resources and the lifestyle that she craved (which Peter would never be able to give her), would also allow her to continue to spit in the face of the superhero community that she believed failed one of their own.

This is also an interesting take on the Kingpin as well, who appears sincerely grateful to Felicia for informing him of Spider-Man's memorial service and sincere in his desire to pay his respects. As corrupt and evil as he is, and as much as he would like to destroy Spider-Man with his own hands, the Kingpin does have a sense of honor and fairness (the excellent Tangled Web #4 - Severance Package (September 2001) by Greg Rucka, may be one of the best characterizations of the crimelord). It would be interesting to actually delve into this a little further. I'm not an expert on Wilson Fisk, since over the last two decades he has matched wits with Daredevil far more than Spidey - but I suspect the Kingpin would respect, although not entirely understand, that Spider-Man's opposition to him was based on personal belief and conviction, and not motivated by profit or power, like so many of his other enemies. Most of Spider-Man's foes, with the exception of a couple, upon hearing of his death, would probably take the opportunity to piss on his grave (which would explain why he would be buried on private property rather than in a public cemetery), and just be glad that he was dead, regardless of how it happened. I do remain curious, however, as to how and why Felicia mentioned Spider-Man's memorial service to him. She apparently was surprised to see him actually show up, and her initial reaction to his offer to take her back to the city in his limo indicates she had no use for him. I'll have to ponder this awhile...

A glaring problem is the absence of either Mary Jane or Aunt May at the memorial service. Once Peter had died, since the Avengers and FF now knew his identity, you would have thought that one of them would have contacted whatever family Peter had left (Peter and MJ were not married at the time, or even really dating, but she is in the story), and give them closure, rather than allow them to be tortured by his continued unexplained absence. An explanation could have been that Felicia, a constant presence at Peter's side in his final days, forbade it. She obviously would have felt no need to notify Mary Jane, a potential rival. Plus, Felicia did feel during this point in time that his "Peter Parker" identity was beneath him, that he deserved much better from the people around him and was woefully unappreciated by those he loved and protected. Spectacular Spider-Man #90 (May 1984) probably best illustrates this, as Felicia, in searching for Spider-Man, who has disappeared along with several other heroes as a result of the events of Secret Wars, meets Mrs. Muggins the landlady, Aunt May, and the ever irrepressible J. Jonah Jameson during her search.

While it is not likely that the symbiote would have the debilitating impact these days that it had on Peter Parker (after all, Eddie Brock seemed to survive just fine with it for years), these were in the early days of Venom's existence, perhaps even when David Michelinie considered having the symbiote move from host to host, so it may not have been too far from how the symbiote was going to be portrayed at that time. Ironically, What If volume II #114 (November 1998) postulated that the heroes and villains participating in the Secret Wars were not able to leave the Beyonder's planet, and a result, some died, and others intermarried. Twenty-five years later, as a result to the bonding from the symbiote, Peter Parker is no more, just a mere skeleton, with the symbiote as a skin, having totally absorbed him (Spidey was not a focus of that story, which is why I do not feature it at any length in this article).

There is also something else about What If Volume II #4 which should interest fans of Spider-Man history. It features a very early pencilling job by none other than Ultimate Spider-Man artist extraordinaire Mark Bagley.

As I mentioned before, this story was o.k., not a classic, but it certainly looked like one compared to the next two shit-fests.

What If Kraven the Hunter Killed Spider-Man?
This first of the next two utterly craptastic tales was written by Richard Howell for What If? Volume II #17 (September 1990), and is a take-off on what many consider a classic story "Kraven's Last Hunt," written by JM DeMatteis, which began in Web of Spider-Man #31 (October 1987) and ran six parts through all three of the monthly Spider-Mags at the time. DeMatteis gave one of Spidey's oldest B-List villains an A-List sendoff. Kraven drugs Spider-Man, which leaves him comatose for two weeks, buries him alive, puts on his costume and takes his place, beating the pulp out of punks, even killing one, then defeats Vermin the Man-Eating Rat Man, whom Spider-Man couldn't beat alone - then declares that he has finally beaten Spider-Man. Even when Spidey claws his way out of the grave and confronts Kraven, the Hunter refuses to fight, stating that since he has beaten Spider-Man, he has nothing left to prove, and tells Spider-Man that he will never hunt again. Spidey goes after the Man Eating Rat Man, and Kraven sticks a rifle in his mouth and blows his brains out.

All the makings of a classic to me.

I admit it - I've never liked this story. It's too long and too full of rambling half-baked psychology, which unfortunately represents other DeMatteis efforts like "The Child Within" and "Shrieking." Still, when he wasn't doing hand wringing pity-the-poor-criminal stories, he was a damn good writer. But, like the only guy in the room who doesn't get the joke, I'm clearly in the minority on my feelings about "Last Hunt."

This alternative universe story turns on Kraven doing what realistically any super-villain would and should do in a situation where the hero is helpless and at his mercy. Rather than shooting Spidey with a tranquilizer dart, he simply blasts a hole in him. Then, Kraven proceeds to mimic Spider-Man, dressing up in his costume and beating up bad guys - but feeling that he must completely "merge" with him and be one with him - he starts eating spiders and as we'll see later...other things.

Obviously, newly wed Mary Jane ("Kraven's Last Hunt" was the first story after the Parkers were married) begins to get seriously worried. In the original continuity, she only sought out Joe Robertson, and then privately, but in this story, she turns to Flash Thompson, and then when she figures she needs some high powered help to find Peter, she and Flash drop in on the Human Torch, spinning the story of Peter's "arrangement" with Spider-Man, that the wall crawler let Peter take photos of him for the Bugle (the story that Peter used for years to explain why he always seemed to get those exclusive pics). Peter has disappeared, and the current, brutal vigilante in Spider-Man's costume just can't be the real Spider-Man. Johnny asks MJ how she can be sure that this isn't the real Spider-Man, but she refuses to discuss it further. The Torch decides to call for back up, contacting Captain America and Daredevil, and the three split up to search for Spidey.

In the meantime, Kraven's brutal campaign continues, racking up six murders, and inciting a new wave of J. Jonah Jameson's yellow journalism not only against Spidey, but also against all superheroes.

During their searches, the Torch, Cap, and DD individually run across "Spider-Man," and each comes to the conclusion that this Spidey is a phony. Regrouping at Four Freedoms Plaza, the heroes call MJ in, tell her that her suspicions are correct, but they have no clues about Peter's disappearance. In order to proceed further, they need to know everything that Mary Jane knows. Reluctantly, she tells them the truth - that she knew it wasn't the real Spider-Man out there, because her husband, Peter Parker is Spider-Man. This moment is a bit ironic, because clearly, at the time frame this story deviates from in the regular continuity, none of these superheroes knew that Peter was Spider-Man. In the intervening years, that has changed. Daredevil found out during the "Death of Jean DeWolff" story when he met Peter Parker and recognized the heartbeat. Captain America admitted knowing to Peter after the prison breakout during the first New Avengers story arc - although it's likely he knew long before then anyway because of the SHIELD file Nick Fury kept on Spider-Man. And Johnny found out during the final issue of Dan Slott's Spider-Man/Human Torch miniseries. Of course, EVERYONE knows now.

Anyway, the three amigos go looking for the Pseudo Spidey again, and run across him as he's beating Vermin the Man Eating Rat Man to a pulp. Unfortunately, Jonah just happened to have been attacked by the Man Eating Rat Man moments before, and is injured. He watches Kraven nearly beat Man Eating Rat Man to death and is in middle of the subsequent confrontation between the three heroes and Kraven. He begins to seriously freak out before DD takes him to the hospital, and Cap and the Torch follow Kraven.

What they find after they track Kraven to a graveyard is one of the grisliest sights they've ever encountered. Hearing Kraven babble about needing to consume the spider in order to acquire more power to fight his enemies leads them to discover that Kraven is eating Spider-Man's corpse. And he's not even a Marvel Zombie.

Excuse me a moment while I go vomit. I first read this story 15 years ago, and my contempt for it has never diminished - and before you think I'm going all wussy on you - this is the guy who considers "Dawn of the Dead" to be one of the best horror films ever made.

The three heroes visit Mary Jane, and it is the Torch that finally delivers the bad news. In an effective three panel segment, we see MJ try to contain her emotions, knowing that this day would eventually come, slowly begin to cry, and then lose it completely, sobbing on the Torch's shoulder as she comes apart.

The next moment is even harder for MJ, as she must tell May that not only is Peter dead, but that Peter was Spider-Man. May immediately goes into denial, becoming very angry with Mary Jane, and throwing her out of the house. May cannot believe that her kind, gentle, and quiet Peter was that awful Spider-Man - which she claims was worse that finding out that Peter was dead, because this meant that Peter deliberately lied to her all of these years about his double life (which leads me to believe that May suspected - but couldn't cope with it). This is not too far from May's reaction to really finding out that Peter was Spider-Man, and confronting him with that knowledge in Amazing Spider-Man #479 (February 2002). In that story, May is angry at Peter, not for being Spider-Man, but for shutting her out of one of the most important parts of his life for the last 15 years spider-time.

In contrast to the hero laden service for Spider-Man in our previous story, the service for Peter Parker is a much more subdued, spartanly attended function, attended by MJ and Flash, May and Nathan Lubensky, Johnny Storm, and three unidentified people. Who the other people are has no significance to the story - but you have to wonder who they would be, and why other Parker friends and stalwarts, or even some of MJ's own friends, did not attend. I speculate that due to MJ's desire to protect Peter's identity at the time, and also considering the gruesome nature of his death, she considered it for the best to have the service under the public radar.

She soon decides, however, that the truth must come out, because unlike in the regular continuity, where Kraven himself actually cleared Spider-Man of wrongdoing by leaving a trail of evidence and a confession to be found after his suicide, there is no such evidence or confession, and the public at large, inflamed by Jonah, believes that Spider-Man himself was responsible for Kraven's murderous rampage. At a press conference called by the Torch, Cap, and DD, Johnny tells the public that Spider-Man was murdered by Kraven, who then impersonated him, and it was Kraven who was responsible for the resulting wave of violence. When a skeptical media continues to question the veracity of this claim, Johnny brings out Mary Jane, who tells the story of Peter's dual identity and asks that Spider-Man be cleared of the crimes Kraven committed in his name.

The conference falls apart due to an unexpected visit from Jonah, who is milking his modest injuries for all they are worth, declaring that the superheroes are staging a cover-up in order to protect their own hides now that one of them got caught. The Torch tries to calm down the maniacal Jameson, but his efforts come across as actually attacking Jameson, which of course is played to the hilt by JJJ himself and the rest of the media.

Jameson's crusade against superheroes kicks into high gear, and eventually the President approves an injunction barring any activities by any superhero, pending an investigation. The Avengers disband, and Reed Richards counsels going down meekly rather than fighting the injunction (frankly, I find that hard to believe, but nonetheless..). The story ends with Mary Jane at Peter's grave, lamenting that her actions to clear his name have indirectly resulted in a vicious backlash against the superhero community. She then vows that she will fight Jameson's crusade against superheroes, an action that the Watcher tells us in the epilogue will propel her to international stature. However, the ultimate success, or failure, of her campaign, remains unknown.

Frankly, it seems that this entire story was just an excuse to give us the shock value scene of Kraven eating Spider-Man's body, and therefore I have no use for it. Also, I simply have a hard time believing that Jameson would get away with this public crucifixion of superheroes. It is somewhat extreme behavior for him, but isn't entirely inconsistent, particularly since he is a character whose emotions tend to overrule his reason. But he's clearly acting like a borderline psychopath, and I can't believe that a couple of pointed interviews, say with Mike Wallace, for example, wouldn't ultimately expose him for the raving lunatic he had become. I also have a very hard time believing that all of the superheroes, particularly Reed Richards and Captain America, would just walk away with their tales tucked between their legs, since as Joe Robertson says while castigating Jonah for his ill-advised crusade "Let's hope Doctor Doom doesn't find out," meaning that the world at large just became more vulnerable to the sociopaths with super powers.

However, if this were real life, if there were a community of super powered people running around, Congress and the President would become very interested in it and try to find a way to either control these people or exploit them, rather than simply let them carry on their merry criminal or crime busting activities. Sound familiar?

Perhaps I'm letting my disgust at one moment in this story get the best of me, but I do think it was only done for shock value and had no artistic merit. Probably those who think I was overboard on dissing Judd Winnick's sloppy "Let' s make Mary Jane a Lesbian," story, which I profiled in Spider-Man 2003: Healing Old Wounds will think similar of my opinions here.

What if the Scarlet Spider Killed Spider-Man?
What If? Volume II #86 (June 1996) was laughingly billed as the "ultimate Clone Saga climax." I suppose I would expect nothing less than a crap outing, particularly since it was written by the man who came up with the idea for the Clone Saga in the first place, the same writer who jerked us around with the unsolved "Who is F.A.C.A.D.E." debacle - Terry Kavanaugh.

The story begins with the moment we never saw in the regular continuity, Mary Jane giving birth to Baby May Parker. This time, Peter is there to witness the birth, which should seem like a happy occasion, but Peter seems to bear a heavier than usual burden at this moment. That's because he really isn't Peter Parker at all, but Ben Reilly, the clone who we were led to believe was the real Peter for awhile, and then became the clone again when the collective Spider-Fandom erupted in rage.

We then go to flashback, following the events that unfolded in the regular continuity in "Timebomb," another awful Clone Saga story told in Web of Spider-Man #129 and Spectacular Spider-Man #228 (September 1995) in which we learn that when he thought Peter was the clone, the Jackal planted a post hypnotic command in Peter's brain to kill the person he loved the most, triggered upon the Jackal's death. In that story, Mary Jane was able to confront Peter and use his force of will to help him to override the Jackal's mind control. In this story, there is no such confrontation. Both the Scarlet Spider and the New Warriors (who were in the original story since Marvel couldn't resist cross plugging another damn book, even during some of the most intensely personal stories of Spidey's career) go after Spider-Man, following him to the Edison Power Plant (which never occurred in the regular continuity). Scarlet blocks the New Warriors from entering with his impact webbing, and convinced that Peter will never shake the Jackal's programming, brings down the dynamos and generators surrounding Peter, killing him (which Peter was actually pleading for him to do).

After the power plant explodes, Ben Reilly's unconscience form washes upon shore, where his Scarlet Spider costume is in such tatters that none of the paramedics realizes who it is they're rescuing. A seriously burned and bruised Reilly later wakes up in a hospital bed, surrounded by Mary Jane and Peter's other friends and acquaintances, who all believe that he is really Peter Parker. Reilly intends to tell Mary Jane the truth, but her apparent desperation, and fear of being left to raise her child alone, as well as his own desire to make things right by Peter, touch something in Reilly, and he decides to perpetuate the lie. However, the Parkers soon learn that May has an inexplicable form of blood poisoning, which we know was caused by the so-called "genetic drift" in the fetus, the result of one of the parents of the child being a clone(as was noted by Reilly's buddy Seward Trainer, back when it was determined that Peter would be the clone - speaking of Seward - just where is he?).

In the intervening three years, Spider-Man has been for all intents and purposes retired, brought out of mothballs only in the most desperate of circumstances - and wearing the revised Spider-Man costume that became associated with the Ben Reilly Spider-Man, or "Spider-Ben" (you know, since he didn't want to arouse any suspicions that he wasn't the real Spider-Man, he went ahead and altered the costume. Makes no sense to me, either). However, Ben continues to have nightmares associated with his fear of being found to be a fraud - with one important difference - in this story, as opposed to how the original continuity unfolded, the discovery had not yet been made that Ben was the "true" Spider-Man and Peter was the clone! So therefore, Ben still believed himself to be the clone. One night, he discovers that May has been kidnapped - and that the kidnapper is none other than - the Green Goblin?

However, there's something rather strange about this Goblin (well, strange in a way other than it's a grown man flying around in green and purple tights carrying a purse), as he is babbling about having a condition that he needs May's blood for in order to cure him - and he just conveniently happens to be packing around a vial that includes the green goo he plans to inject May's blood into. This Goblin also seems to know that he's dealing with Ben Reilly rather than Peter Parker, and also exhibits some of the same wall crawling ability possessed by our friendly neighborhood Spider-Men. Additionally, the Goblin babbles about Peter Parker stealing his very life, and when Reilly calls him a monster, the Goblin replies "no more than the Jackal made of you, no more than you made of me."

During the battle, both Spider-Ben and the Goblin crash into the water, and Reilly, with Goblin mask and serum in hand, is the only one to resurface. He tells us that he has two theories on who this Goblin was, but ignores the "painfully obvious one" in favor of believing that this was a clone of Norman or Harry Osborn. He doesn't know why an Osborn clone, suffering from clone degeneration, would need May's blood, however - since her father, Peter Parker was the real thing and not a clone - wasn't he?

Ben presents the Green Goblin's Goo to Mary Jane, stating that if May's blood was good for the Goblin, then maybe the Goblin's serum will be good for May (sheesh - no leaps taken there). MJ gratefully accepts the serum, and reveals that she knows that he is not the man she married. She states that Spider-Man using the Scarlet Spider's impact webbing (she had observed the aforementioned battle) sealed it for her, but that she suspected all along (which I'm sure she would have after the first night in bed!), yet was a willing participant in the lie because she and May needed him. However, they can no longer live like this, and while she wants to learn from Ben later about how Peter died, at the moment it is best that they separate, and that Ben Reilly spend some time to discover his own identity, rather than live another man's life.

This story just doesn't make a lick of sense. The complete absence of geneticist Seward Trainer is inexplicable. Trainer was a major character during the Clone Saga, and was the one who originally made the diagnosis that there was "genetic drift" in the womb, typical of a child that would be fathered by a clone, which subsequently led to his determination (since undone, obviously, but that's beyond this story) that Ben was the "real" Spider-Man. If Trainer had been around, he would clearly have tried to do something to help little May. However, this story is told as if Trainer never existed, or that he and Reilly never crossed paths, which shows that no one cared that the story made no sense.

Also, when the plant blew up - was Ben trying to commit suicide - or was that a result of bringing part of it down to kill Peter? After all, he washed up on shore, seriously banged up - you mean he did that to himself on purpose? But what happened to Peter's body if Ben was certainly in no condition to do anything about it himself? Ben is supposedly so concerned that he be seen as Peter Parker - but he adopts a new costume and the impact webbing of the Scarlet Spider! It's clear that the Green Goblin is another clone of Peter Parker as a result of being able to walk along the bridge cables - but where did this clone come from? Was it Kaine, the evil Peter Parker clone? You might come to that conclusion since during the fight with the Goblin, the jade one claims that Reilly made him what he is - perhaps a reference to Kaine's vendetta against Ben Reilly. But could it have also have been the other evil clone that became Spidercide? This would be subtly ironic, since before the Phil Urich Green Goblin debuted during the Clone Saga, some readers wondered whether the new Goblin was the recently revealed new Parker clone (at this time in the regular continuity, there were three Peter Parkers - another sign the whole story was getting out of hand). But we really don't know - although Kavanaugh is clearly saying that Ben is the original and Peter the clone, since May suffers from the effects of clone degeneration - and this is the "revelation" that Ben is so clearly avoiding.

No matter, this story, as well as the whole Clone Saga itself, has now been swept under the rug, with Marvel in denial about it ever occurring, with just us bitter fanboys continuing to dig up its corpse and bludgeon it occasionally for old times sake.

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Copyright © 1998-2008 by J.R. Fettinger. All rights reserved. All original content is the exclusive property of J.R. Fettinger. Spider-Man, the Green Goblin, and everyone else who appears in the Spider-Man comics is the property of Marvel Entertainment, and are used in these articles for the purpose of analysis and commentary.