Chapter One

1999 was a tough year to be a Spider-Man fan.

It wasn't quite the bottom of the trough - that was still a year away, but 1999 was the warm up before the big game.

I have never liked re-boots and re-numberings, I'll admit that upfront. I always thought they were cheap gimmicks to create a feeding frenzy over a new "No. 1" issue in which the comics companies would shamelessly call each first issue a "collectors item," even though they were produced in such massive quantities that they would have little true value. I myself looked forward to purchasing Amazing Spider-Man #500. Every 100 issues seemed like a natural point to reflect on the events of the previous several years, wrap up some long-standing subplots, and get a fresh start with no. 101, 201, etc.

Reboots also seemed to be a cheat to long-time readers who were basically told that whatever they read before "didn't count." Readers of DC Comics were essentially told that everything before the mid-1960's happened on "Earth Two." The second Robin, Jason Todd, after a long buildup to his new role, has his origin completely scrapped and revamped in what seemed like an unusually short period of time. Marvel itself tried this stunt with the Fantastic Four, Avengers, Iron Man and Captain America lines a few years ago, and even more disgustingly, a variation on the reboot theme when it "revealed" that the Peter Parker we had grew up with since Amazing #150 was really a clone (which was subsequently reversed to overwhelmingly negative public opinion).

So, when, I first heard of Chapter One (then called Twice Told Tales), which was going to revamp Spidey's origin and first year, and reboot the titles, I was aghast, fearing that Marvel was finally giving it to "DC-itis" scrapping the continuity of a classic character for the sake of a short-term boost in sales. As a frequent visitor to the Spider-Man Message Board, it seemed that a majority of posters were similarly unnerved, to the point of calling the series "Crapter One," and lamblasting everything about John Bryne with the possible exception of his mother. Sometimes this criticism became unreasonably shrill and hateful, forgetting that we were merely talking about a fictional character, albeit one that means a lot to many of us, but nonetheless, a fictional character. Of course, John Byrne could use a little polish in the public relations department.)

My attention perked up a little bit when the creators of Chapter One indicated that it would not be so much a revamping as a "re-ordering" and putting things in a proper perspective and timeline. This I thought could be interesting, since when a character's continuity is created month by month by different creative teams over the course of 35 years, it does tend to get a bit sloppy with a lot of conflicts and loose ends. I'm always a sucker for a creative way of reconnecting the lines (much the way Roger Stern did during his days on Spectacular Spider-Man, in which he actually gave characters like the Vulture and the Kingpin real names, gave the Vulture a background, and retconned the very goofy alien story from Amazing #2 into one that made sense and fleshed out some of Mysterio's background. So, I was willing to give Chapter One a chance.

I was horribly disappointed.

My opinion is that Chapter One was an utter, complete, failure. It may not have been a failure as far as actual sales were concerned (although I understand the sales were somewhat lower than Marvel expected), but from a dramatic standpoint it was a failure for the following reasons:

On a lesser note, I wonder where they got all of those pyschophants to write in such glowing letters about Chapter One. If you've read the letters page, you know what I'm talking about. You mean no one wrote in who didn't like the stories and thought they were a complete waste of time? Puh-leaze.

How should Chapter One have been done? Well, ostensibly, one of the reasons for Chapter One was to introduce newer readers to Spidey's backstory. I think rather than try to cram tons of issues into Spidey's so-called first year, Marvel should have taken the approach of retelling some of the key events throughout Spider-Man's career and putting some new spins on them knowing how things eventually turned out. We could have seen the accident that turned Norman Osborn into the Green Goblin, the events which resulted in Captain George Stacy learning that Peter Parker was Spider-Man, more of Mary Jane's perspective on Peter since she knew that he was Spider-Man all along, and much more. This would have enabled newer readers to get at least a glimmer of Spidey's full, rich history, and put some of the events of today into their proper historical context, with some tweaking here and there.

But that's a shame - since I think that truly would have been a classic.

Now as far as the differences between the Byrne, and the original Lee-Ditko stories, I did not catch every single difference, alteration of dialogue, nor did I try. Otherwise I'd probably be writing it for a week. Rather, I try to touch on the major differences, and whether or not they really added anything to the Spider-Man mythos, or they simply were annoying changes made for the sake of change, without much rhyme or reason.

So, I guess the first thing we should address is the nature of Spidey's origin, which was easily the most controversial part of Chapter One. Rather than simply being bitten by a spider irradiated by an open air radiation experiment, Peter is bitten by an irradiated spider AFTER a massive explosion during a demonstration put on by none other than Otto Octavious, and then spends several weeks in the hospital, after which he discovers his spider powers.

A lot of people have had a problem with changing Spidey's origin by having both him and Otto Octavious involved in the same radiation. Well, I do agree with Byrne in the fact that the idea of an open-air radiation experiment is outdated. In the old Marvel days, radiation was almost like taking a super power pill. The Fantastic Four, Hulk, and Spidey all received their super powers through massive doses of radiation, yet none developed such nasty side effects such as cancer, hair loss, leukemia, or anything like that. Plus, Byrne made the statement of wanting to reduce the number of nuclear accidents in the Marvel Universe. So, by having both Peter and Doc Ock altered by the same accident does serve that purpose.

Unfortunately, it creates more problems than it solves and is actually far more absurd than Spidey's 1960's origin. After all, we really have never seen what happens if someone is bitten by a radioactive spider (although it's probably obvious). However, we do know for sure what happens to people who are exposed to massive doses of radiation in an explosion. They die - and they don't die very pleasantly. We've seen the results. It's one thing to create a patently absurd fantasy (such as a man with "spider powers") through a patently absurd method (i.e. the bite of a radioactive spider). It's another thing to create said fantasy through a legitimate event.

Not only that, but how Spidey's identity stayed secret after this first story is beyond me. After all, consider this:

Remember, in the old origin, only #3 was a public event, whereas #1 was relatively obscure, and #2 never happened. Whereas anyone could be suspicious, but only circumstantially so, after #3, #1 and #2 should give it completely away.

Plus, the Burglar's belief that the reason Spider-Man came out of the Parker house was that he was a second story man (i.e. thief) who was using the celebrity gig as a cover is too stupid to even waste time refuting. Fifteen year old high school beauty queen Mary Jane Watson, who knows that Peter Parker is a geek, figures out the truth - but not the Burglar. Right.

Not only that, but by making Peter the survivor of such a horrible accident compromises his ordinariness, which was one of the hallmarks of Spidey's popularity, and one of the basics that the new creative team wanted to "return to." Although there is probably no depths to the mindless insensitivity teen-agers display to one another, I do doubt that Peter would have been treated with the exact same disdain he was prior to the accident. If anything, some people would have been kinder due to the trauma he suffered, and others would have wanted to stay way clear of him for the same reason. Remember the furor when AIDS victim Ryan White wanted to re-attend school because of people's fears? Do you think someone who had absorbed tremendous amounts of radiation would simply be allowed able to walk the halls of your local high school without a legal battle? And who would want to get near him? Dumb dumb dumb. It's one thing when you screw around with someone else's work if you make it better or more plausible- it's entirely another thing when you do it poorly and make an implausible situation worse - and then there's Byrne's arrogance in actually believing that he improved the original canon.

Fortunately, there are signs that this Spidey redux is being ignored by everyone outside of the regular Spider-Man creative team. For example, in Alex Ross's massively hyped "Earth X," his retelling of Spidey's origin is Stan Lee's version.

Another major change is that Uncle Ben now buys a computer for Peter rather than a microscope. I'm half and half on this. The microscope played a dramatic and touching part of Amazing Spider-Man 181, where Spidey relives his past at Ben's grave site and leaves the microscope as a token, where it is found by a graveyard attendant who takes it to his son, a young, shy boy with similarities to Peter Parker. So, it would be a shame to invalidate that story. However, it had already been contradicted by Amazing Spider-Man #290 in which Peter is looking for the microscope at Aunt May's house, only to find out it was accidentally given to a church bazaar for a fund raising auction, where Peter subsequently repurchases it. So, considering this bit of carelessness, it's hard to hold Byrne to a higher standard. Plus, computers are the in-things now - I still have a lot of fun with mine.

In an effort to explain why the Burglar shows up at both a television studio in the middle of Manhattan to the Parker residence in Queens within a very short period of time, Byrne invents the reason that the Burglar was already familiar with the Parker house because he cased it after following Ben from the computer store, and then came back looking for Spider-Man, whom he had seen coming out of the house at an earlier date. This twisted rationale is completely unnecessary because that loophole was already closed by Amazing Spider-Man #200 in which it was stated that the Burglar was looking for the loot supposedly left behind by a mobster who had previously owned the house.

So, in my opinion, it's apparent that Byrne's tinkering with Spidey's origin caused more problems than it supposedly corrected.

However, Byrne's re-telling of Amazing Spider-Man #1 actually does improve on the source material. Stan's old version was dated (the Chameleon as Iron Curtain spy - no such thing anymore) and riddled with silly flaws and suppositions, such as a large rocket taking off for space in the middle of New York, and Spider-Man being the "only" one who could save Colonel John Jameson and his space capsule. In this instance, Byrne wrapped two separate stories into one and made it more plausible. Chameleon is now working for Dr. Doom, rather than stealing military secrets for the communists, and Doom wants Jameson's mission sabotaged because it photographed some of his secret installations. Since it was later revealed that the Chameleon is of Russian origin anyway, it is entirely plausible that he could have crossed the path of Eastern European Victor Von Doom.

Bryne also adds a dose of reality to Spidey's previous problems of being unable to open a bank account in the name of Spider-Man. In this version, Spidey does the natural thing and proves he's legit by crawling on the walls, shooting webs, etc., and thus is able to open an account. Chameleon, however, impersonates Spidey and steals his money, setting up their eventual meeting and making their confrontation more personal.

The attempt to tie up more loose ends by intertwining the two separate stories in Amazing Spider-Man #2 is a disaster, however. The original story had the Terrible Tinkerer working in concert with aliens in planting transmitters in sensitive locations to steal military secrets (again with the military secrets! You can easily tell that Spidey's roots were in the middle of a very warm Cold War). The second story was far more mundane and involved the Vulture stealing jewels.

Several years ago, in Spectacular Spider-Man #51 Roger Stern resolved the apparent absurdities of the alien invasion by having the aliens really be humans in disguise (including Mysterio) who were trying to steal military secrets. O.K., not the best improvement, but certainly better than the alien idea. However, Bryne takes an already bizarre storyline and makes it weirder, now having the Tinkerer working for the Vulture and using the "aliens" to plant transmitters on diamond shipments so that the Vulture can more readily steal them. It's possible that the alien cover was for the military secrets and that the Tinkerer's men did not dress up like aliens for other jobs like the Vulture's (it's probably safe to assume the Tinkerer had more than one client), but this was really a case of messing with a story that should simply have been referred to in a flashback and otherwise avoided.

The next major variation is Byrne's redesign of Doctor Octopus into some kind of hideous bionic, pantless (really, he wears no pants)...something. In this case, I will confess to not liking the redesign simply because it's different than what I'm used to. In all reality, it would be likely that Doc Ock would endure some physical disfigurement due to his proximity to the explosion. After all, if it was enough to fuse his mechanical arms to his body and make them work in tune to his will, it would be enough to ravage most of the rest of his body. Part of the problem has been the inconsistent potrayal of Doc Ock throughout the years by the spider-writers. He has been shown as little more than a fat, ugly troll of a man who wears oversized green garments, and at other times as an urbane, sophisticated gentlemen who dresses in snappy business suits. While Byrne is not wrong to try to reinterpret Octopus, so far his redesign adds nothing to this long-time foe of Spider-Man and simply makes him look more garish than usual.

Nothing really remarkable happens in issue no. 5 other than a rehash of the battles with Doctor Doom and the Lizard that originally took place in Amazing Spider-Man #5 & 6. However, the original confrontation with the Sandman in Amazing Spider-Man #4 now never occurs. The Sandman does not come onto the scene until later at the behest of, well, I'll tell you later. Not only that, but it also becomes apparent that the original Amazing Spider-Man # 7 & 8 never take place since we then are introduced to Electro, who did not originally appear until Amazing Spider-Man #9. The original #7 was an unremarkable second appearance by the Vulture, but with #8 never happening, Spidey never faces the Living Brain (sniff!). O.K., so I won't shed too many tears over the absence of the Living Brain, but excluding #8 also excludes a very enjoyable back-up story of Spidey crashing a party thrown by the Human Torch. Our hero, jealous of the Torch's popularity, fancy cars, and loads of adoring females, picks a fight with the Torch and nearly gets his butt toasted. Ignoring this story is a prime example of how the humor of Stan Lee's original version was scuttled in Byrne's revamp.

In this version, Electro gets a new costume, this time a blue and white one rather than green and yellow. Well, yeah, it's kind of hard to argue with the fact that Electro's original lightning bolt costume looked pretty tacky, especially the mask. And, lightning really is more blue in color than yellow, so the costume is more visually accurate. But - well, the old tacky costume did immediately suggest electricity. I mean, one look at the old Electro and you know exactly what his shtick is. The new Electro looks very ordinary. A new twist to this tale is that the Human Torch makes an appearance, having fallen for Jameson's drivel that Spider-Man and Electro were one and the same. Yawn.

And in a major re-working, Electro gets his new costume and initial support from none other than Norman Osborn, who wants Electro to test Spider-Man. A lot of the commenters on the Spider-Man Message Board had a lot of problems with Electro, Mysterio, and the Sandman having ties to Osborn. I have mixed emotions because as other parts of this web site demonstrate, Osborn is my favorite villain, and I enjoyed seeing him. Plus, in the original canon Max Dillion, a utility line worker, makes his own costume and sets up his own lab. It seems like in the old days everyone had the materials and the know-how to make their own costume and gadgetry. If I suddenly received superpowers, I'd probably be The Unknown Superhero with a paper bag over my head, because I sure wouldn't be able to stitch up (or silkscreen) my own. So, I don't have a real big problem with Osborn supplying Electro with the goods, except it seems forced into the plot. This is the first time we really meet Osborn in Chapter One, and he's already got his mad-on for Spider-Man. If we had met Osborn earlier on in Chapter One and learned more about him and his motivations, his meddlings throughout Spidey's early history would have made more sense. But, it seems like shoehorned continuity.

After that, we skip right past Amazing #10-12 and go directly to #13, Spidey's first confrontation with Mysterio. No Big Man, no Enforcers, no second confrontation with Doc Ock. Also, no death of Betty Brant's brother, which was probably the key event in splitting Betty and Peter up, since that was the beginning of Betty's long-standing (since resolved) hatred of Spider-Man. Again, it's not too hard to understand what that particular plot element was excised. An old, tired cliche in superherodom is that everyone said superhero meets in his personal life has either a direct or indirect tie-in with crime or a supervillain, i.e. Betty's brother is involved with mobster Blackie Gaxton and Dr. Octopus;Liz Allen's step-brother is the Molten Man;Harry Osborn's father is the Green Goblin, you see the pattern. But, since that one event rippled throughout Peter's and Betty's relationship for years, it seems like it should have stayed.

But skipping over these 3 issues of the original series also neatly excises JJJ's three panel explanation of why he hates Spider-Man. Although somewhat trite, it gives Jonah a little extra dimension as we learn that he is secretly jealous of Spidey. Byrne's JJJ has none of the depth of character that Stan gave him and is little more than a raving lunatic.

Now it is established that Quentin Beck, aka Mysterio, worked for Osborn Studios, and therefore Norman Osborn (although apparently there was no direct link between Osborn's employment of Beck and Beck's assuming the role of Mysterio - yet. Something funky is going on with Mysterio in the current continuity). This is the first time we've ever heard about Norman owning a movie studio, but this actually makes sense. For one, it takes what originally was a pretty dumb pretense of the first meeting between Spidey and the Green Goblin in Amazing Spider-Man #14 (Goblin cons movie studio head into making movie about Spidey and Goblin fighting - all a set up to beat up Spidey in the desert - definitely not Osborn's style, but no one knew the Goblin was Osborn back then), and gives it about as much logic as it can. It also in with Osborn's speech to Peter during "The Gathering of Five" storyline, in which Osborn mentions that he once once wanted to be a writer, and he grew up with an interest in comic books and Jules Verne. A lot of rich people in real life indulge old fantasies by owning sports teams, or other aspects of the entertainment industry, so owning a movie studio is not beyond Osborn's scope.

What is a bit strange is that all of a sudden, Betty and Peter are an item - with no build up, no foreshadowing, nothing. Additionally, we later learn that Betty is older than Peter, probably in her 20's at this time, since he refers to dating an "immature teenager" in a later issue. So, what attracted Betty to Peter in the first place? It made more sense when they were the same age in the original stories. Again, executive secretaries of major media moguls are typically NOT 16 or 17 year old girls. If they were in this day and age, that would look pretty bad. Probably wouldn't have looked too good back in the 1960's either. However, this improbability was resolved with somewhat modest success (it's all fantasy we're dealing with here anyway, folks) by Kurt Busiek in Untold Tales of Spider-Man. In one issue of that short-lived series, Busiek explained that it was Betty's mother who was originally Jonah's secretary, but that she was critically injured when some of Bennett Brant's gambling debts came due, and Betty stepped into her mother's job to support the family. Not a perfect solution, but an acceptable one.

Next up is the first battle between Spidey and the Green Goblin. Some of the differences between this version and the original storyline have already been explained. Naturally, with no Enforcers, the Goblin is alone in fighting Spider-Man in the desert. The Hulk does repeat his appearance, however. And rather than the absurd B.J. Cosmos of Cosmos Productions scamming Spidey out of the money he was going to get for the movie that never happened, it's Osborn himself. The only negative I have here is that while Bryne doesn't tinker with the Goblin's costume too much, he does make the Goblin more of a lanky, spindley character, while Osborn is a thicker figure of a more imposing nature. That doesn't reconcile.

The events of Amazing Spider-Man #15 & 16 are reversed for Chapter One's purpose, as we start out with Spidey's first meeting with Daredevil against the Ringmaster (who in my opinion belongs in the Living Brain category. He could have been skipped and I wouldn't have cared). After the day is saved, in one of those absurdly coincidental moments designed to pack as much story into these issues as possible, Kraven swoops down and proclaims his desire to fight Spider-Man. When it rains it pours. The Chameleon is behind Kraven's arrival in the U.S. as with the original version, but another opportunity is wasted as the complex relationship that was later established between Kraven and the Chameleon is not even hinted at here.

This issue largely follows the events of Amazing Spider-Man #17. Spidey battles the Green Goblin again, the Torch shows up, Aunt May gets sick, Peter bails out, the works. No harm, no foul on this one.

Byrne takes a detour here and retells the events of the first Spider-Man annual, in which Spidey teams up with Giant Man and the Wasp to fight the villainous Egghead (no relation to the Vincent Price character in the old Batman TV series from the 1960's). I'm out of my element here as I no longer have a copy of the original to compare Chapter One with, so I can't do a satisfactory critical analysis. I lost a lot of good stuff when I moved from one house to another back in 1973. I would gladly have seen this story scuttled to provide some extra story time for retelling the original Amazing Spider-Mans. Maybe some of it would have seemed so crammed together if there had been an extra issue to play with.

All in all, a sorry story comes to a sorry end with this issue. Very similar in tone to Amazing Spider-Man #18 in which Peter decides to give up being Spider-Man (for the first of many times, unfortunately, the last time not too long ago) and take care of Aunt May. In the original version, the story simply ends with Peter deciding to take up the hero role again, and in the following issue, he takes on the Sandman and the Enforcers. In this version, Spidey goes looking for the Sandman to avenge his earlier embarrassment, and sucks up Sandy in an industrial strength vaccuum cleaner, much like he did in the original issue #4.

About midway through the run of Chapter One, we got one of the abominable #0 issues (identified as, sure enough, a "collector's item"). It includes the origins of three supervillains: the Lizard, Sandman, and Vulture. Only the Sandman's has some additional twists from what had been established earlier, the most notable that the Sandman and Norman Osborn are revealed to be cousins. Not such a bad idea considering how much they look alike, particularly that bizarre hair style. One of Bryne's actually laudable efforts was to reduce the level of coincidence in the Marvel Universe. But, it really hasn't paid off yet.

So, that's it. In a way, I was surprised at the number of positive contributions made by John Byrne that I did. Unfortunately, writing this article also confirmed the opinion of many Spidey fans, that this series was little more than a retelling of the original run with a few twists added, but did very little to truly add to the Spider-Man mythos, or make him accessible to a new generation.

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Copyright 1998-2006 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.