Spider-Man 2002: Movin' on Up!

Well boys and girls, it's time once again for my annual ranting and raving about the year gone by in the world of Spider-Man, and I'm proud to say that I've neither gotten any smarter or any less biased than when I started this exercise back in 1999. After all, I've still deluded myself into believing that someone out there actually cares what I think - but since I gave up both cigarettes and alcohol during the course of the last few years and can't stand watching Major League Baseball anymore - I've got to have some addiction - and right now indulging in the self-importance of my opinions about Spider-Man will do just fine.

Naturally, we all have our differences of opinion on the quality and merit of individual writers and stories, but I believe that Spidey fans will be in universal agreement that 2002 was probably the best year overall relative to the quality of the Spider-Man comics issued during the year, post reboot. I'd give this year a solid "B" on the Goblin Grading Scale. Sure, there were some stinkers here and there, but I don't think the worst of this year is as bad as the worst of previous years, and unlike years past, I don't think we consistently had bad issue following bad issue. However, I'm not happy with the art trends. I do not care for the "manganization" of some of the spider titles. I'm admittedly an artistic dullard, but I want bread and butter superhero art where the people look like people, not Pokemon characters.

As far as what comics are covered during this review, most of the Spider-Man comics issued during 2002 were fair game. For the first time during the initial writing of a "Year in Review" column, I have included references to Ultimate Spider-Man and Spider-Girl. However, for sanity's sake, I have not referenced any of Spider-Man's guest appearances in other character's magazines, nor did I cover that manga Spider-Clan bastardization.

Aunt May Knows!
Without a doubt, this was the single most important spider-tale of 2002. In fact, it's probably one of the most important spider tales - what, ever-? In Amazing Spider-Man #38, dear old Aunty May drops the bomb on Peter that we have been expecting since she found him bloodied and bruised and his tattered costume on the floor at the end of issue #35. This is the only reason justifying May's return from the grave, where she was originally committed back in the classic Amazing Spider-Man #400. I'm still not convinced that bringing her back was a good idea, particularly since that issue was a genuine tear-jerker and put probably the best final punctuation mark on May and Peter's relationship - but give JMS credit - he clearly realized that if May was going to be a significant continuing character, there was going to have to be some meaningful evolution in her relationship with her favorite nephew - a relationship that seemed to have actually regressed when the Mackie/Byrne/Harras trio resurrected her (o.k. - I forgot, they did give her a new hair style. Wouldn't want to not give them credit for that.)

But then there's the little question of just why JMS tinkered with the details of the night that Uncle Ben died. In this version, in order to assuage Peter's guilt over the events of that night, May tells him that she was also at fault (??!!!?!?) because she jumped all over Ben's case that night over something stupid so much so that he took a walk outside to chill out - and she never saw him alive again. What does this mean - that he was the victim of a drive-by - or that he didn't come back into the house until May was asleep - and surprised the Burglar then? No less an authority than Amazing Spider-Man #200 (January 1979)which essentially re-told the Amazing Fantasy #15 scene, this time from May's perspective, clearly had Ben being shot dead there in the house, right in front of May, with Ben subsequently dying in her arms.


The point of mentioning this is not to trot the continuity police out against JMS on an event which has had various different spins put on it by different authors over the last 40 years - but in using ASM #200 as our reference - having Ben shot dead in front of May underscores just what a brutal act of violence this was, and how it traumatized May, and how Peter's guilt over the incident is magnified because of the horror that May experienced, not just that Ben died as a result of his inaction. To have Ben wander off and die like a old, sick dog undercuts this event, which is why I don't care for this interpretation. Also, how hard would it have been to have read that particular issue? Later, I'll hold JMS harmless on an event that occurred in a Marvel Team-Up annual, but ASM #200 - not only has every hundredth issue been designated as something of a landmark issue - it's also near the top of all-time Spider-Man stories (o.k., in my opinion) since this is where Spidey settles his oldest score. That glitch aside, though, kudos again to JMS for forcing Marvel to accept an event that is long overdue from a dramatic standpoint. It probably wouldn't have happened under the Bob Harras regime, nor would there have been very many writers with sufficient clout to convice Marvel that something of this magnitude needed to happen.

Paul Jenkins had his own spin on "May knows" in Peter Parker #50, which revolves around another meeting between Peter and May where the implications of her recent discovery are discussed. And to the sheer delight of older fans, May has to fess up to (1) trying to shoot Spider-Man in ASM #115, and (2) in one of the all-time spider clinkers, nearly marrying Doc Ock, in issues #130-131. Of course, May doesn't really explain her rationale for these examples of bizarre behavior - but there probably isn't any way to redeem them, no matter how talented the writer - so they are best left referenced, and then ignored.

In one of those things that shows the strength of having two different writers handling a character at the same time, both Jenkins and JMS present diverse, yet compatible takes on May's discovery. JMS gives us May when she first finds out, and she is reeling not only from the knowledge itself, but the reality that she doesn’t know her nephew, the person she loves more than anything or anyone else, nearly as well as she thought she did. She also has to reconcile the fact that he has repeatedly lied to her and shut her out of an important part of his life for 15 years(thanks to Brian Bendis in a recent issue of Alias - the Marvel timeline has been given a recent, and realistic frame of reference).

Jenkins’ version has May no less concerned, but dealing with the revelation with a little more humor and spunk, as when she creates a diversion in a park so Peter can rescue a cat from a tree (much to his aggravation). Still, even then, May begins to understand the ramifications of just how much of her life is truly out of her control when Peter confesses to her that Norman Osborn is the Green Goblin, knows who he is, and that he is quite capable of using May to get to Peter. (There's some continuity glitches here, though, as Peter talks about Norman Osborn "giving" Harry the Goblin formula - which we know didn't quite happen that way - but this isn't the article to hash that out).

JMS Round 2
JMS definitely had a better second year than his first with the title. After the "Aunt May knows" story, unlike Howard Mackie, who gave Peter a high-tech sci-fi job with much fan fare, and then forgot about it, JMS remembered that Peter is now a teacher at his old high school, and wove that as the primary driver of a plot in which Spider-Man investigates the disappearance of homeless kids from the mean streets. While it brought Spidey into the world of magic, where he really doesn't belong, it wasn't too bad (as long as it's not a recurring theme) and introduced another potential supporting character in a Lt. Lamont, who isn't enamored of superheroes, but tolerates them. While I don't know how this is ultimately going to work out, dealing with the concerns faced by his students and interacting with a member of the police force does give Spidey an anchor in the "real world" in contrast to simply bashing colorful supervillains twice a month.

Doc Ock pulls double duty in 2002 (not counting his cameo at the beginning of the mini-series Quality of Life) in both Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker, as JMS has him pursuing a corporate yuppie who has stolen and modified his mechanical arms. This pursuit takes Ock to Hollywood, where suprise, surprise, Peter and May are visiting Mary Jane (as JMS begins to weave her back into the storyline - again more kudos to JMS - but since this doesn't pay off until the following calendar year - I won't touch on it now). His characterization of Doctor Octopus and Aunt May as people who know each other (without referencing all of the details) settled down some of us continuity folks who have rightly wondered if JMS has done his homework when it comes to Spidey's history.

Of course, the continuity police cited a violation when Dr. Strange stated that he didn't know Spider-Man's real name when fans of Marvel Team-Up Annual #5 remember Strange calling Spider-Man "Peter," and in another story (the issue number escapes me, but I believe it was a trade) Strange tells Spider-Man to "go home to his wife." I'll cut JMS some slack on this one - I do think he should have read ASM #200, but I hold him blameless for not reading Marvel Team-Up Annual #5. Hell, I didn't read MTU Annual #5 until years after its release when I began filling my back issue holes. Actually, I prefer to think that JMS' characterization of Strange was more on target than in MTU. Dr. Strange probably could know everything about everyone if he wanted to, just as Matt Murdock with his radar sense and Professor X with his mental powers could pierce through any secret identity. Strange has probably over time had to develop the means of being able to shut out information (much like as once referenced in a Classic Star Trek episode, a telepath has to learn not how to read minds - but how NOT to read them) not only to keep himself sane and from being completely overwhelmed with information, but also he likely desires to respect the privacy of his compatriats and therefore chooses not to know everything about them unless it is absolutely essential.

But, alas, it appears that the mystic spider crap is still alive and well, as we get Ezekial the mumbling, talking in circles, old wall-crawling dude showing up again after Spidey faces yet another creature from beyond that wants to eat him - this time the black as coal super wasp called Shathra. The Shathra story wasn't all that bad - one reason being that it was a more reasonable length than the similar Morlun story, which ran six months, including two issues (#33 and #34) which were virtually identical. Still, we essentially got a retread of the Morlun story - a seemingly unstoppable foe that's drawn to his spider-totem, spider-smell, or whatever.

And, of course, I couldn't forget to mention Mary Jane's return to the stories on a recurring basis. It was good to see her back, and her exchanges with Peter indicates that their eventual reconciliation (which didn't happen until 2003) is going to be a challenging one at best - hopefully which will put the lie to Marvel's persistent belief that there can't be dramatic tension in a married couple's relationship. But that's a subject for the 2003 annual rant.

Paul keeps plugging along
Almost as if in response to JMS' statement that he didn't want to use Spidey's rogues gallery (the Dock Ock story notwithstanding), Jenkins decided to give us BOTH of Spidey's greatest villains in back to back storylines (interrupted by Zeb Wells' MTV Beach Party story). The first up is Doctor Octopus (Peter Parker #39-41), who seems to be cowering in fear of Jenkins' own creation, Fusion II, making an early return. But the Doc is just biding his time, as he eventually exacts a vicious toll on whoever stands in the way of his ultimate objective. His treatment of Fusion is particularly ghastly as Jenkins reminds us of just how much of a psychopath the good doctor really is - although his motivations (diamond theft for profit) are a little, well, mundane in this story.

Of course, that brings to mind the modest disparity in the way Ock is portrayed by JMS and Jenkins in their respective stories. JMS portrays him as a brilliant, yet twisted genuius who hates Spider-Man and most of humanity, but still has a shred of decency, as when he comes to May's rescue against "Carlyle Calimari" (as Spidey referred to the fake Ock), and helps innocent bystanders to flee a collapsing hotel. He also craves to have his work achieve legitimacy in the scientific and business community. The Jenkins Ock, on the other hand, seems to have no such decency and is purely twisted and mercenary. This really isn't surprising as Doctor Octopus has been written with little consistency since his arrival on the scene waaaay back in volume 1 of Amazing Spider-Man #3 and I really cannot find any fault with either of his portrayals in 2002.

After the Doc Ock story, Paul really clicks with the return of Norman Osborn in "Death in the Family." But I'm going to discuss that later.

The return of Fusion II brings to mind Jenkins' other major story of the year, in Peter Parker #48-49 which deals with the coverup of a biological experiment in India. It gives us our third original Jenkins villain in the Virus, which at this point seems to be little more than a Venom knock-off - same color, same ability to ooze in and out of places. At least he was no Typeface - but it makes me wonder if it is possible to create any new, strong villains that aren't either a knock off of an established concept or just plain lame.

Nuff Said Not Bad
Everyone who has read my articles knows how I thoroughly despise Marvel's gimmicks and crossovers, so when I heard of "Nuff Said" month, where the stories were going to be told strictly without dialogue, I was aghast. However, where Spider-Man was concerned, both JMS and Jenkins pulled it off, and pulled it off quite well. JMS was actually able to advance his storylines, such as Aunt May's newfound knowledge, and Peter and MJ's separation beginning to weigh heavily upon both of them, and Jenkins told a completely off-beat story which featured, quite appropriately, a group of evil mimes (with the visual treat of Spidey mooning the mimes, goading them to follow him into his trap).

Believe it or not, I actually enjoy eating crow every now and then, at least when it's because of a better than anticipated quality product, which benefits all spider fans.

Attack of the Zimmer-Man

Without a doubt, one of the most controversial and talked about elements in the spider-universe was Joe Quesada's bringing in former Howard Stern crony/writer and Hollywood denizen Ron Zimmerman into the fold. In one of those strange double standards, it seemed that Zimmerman was savagely attacked by fandom before he wrote one word because he didn't have a "comic" background - even though what Marvel has desperately needed for some time was an injection of new talent and perspective, rather than relying exclusively on the same old tired stable that had long ago run out of viable ideas. This won't win me any votes in the fan community, but I do believe that some of it, (not all, of course) was provoked by the jealousy of those who either want to become professional comic creators, or know those who are trying, and for whatever reason (cronyism unfortunately being one of those sad facts of life in corporate America) can't seem to get the break they deserve. And to these fans, the Zimmerman hiring seemed like just that. And, they may not have been that far off base.

Unfortunately, Zimmerman, who was used to bare knuckle brawling after having to deal with the Stern staff and in Hollywood (experiences that would jade anyone), came out swinging and made two very public and very unfortunate mistakes. First, he dissed the quality of writing of the spider titles (which was actually deserved where ASM was concerned at that time), but he captured writer Paul Jenkins in that tirade. It was bad enough that Jenkins was a fan favorite at the time, who had already ratcheted up the quality of Peter Parker, but what compounded the error was that Zimmerman was forced to admit that he had never even read any of Jenkins' writings. To Zimmerman's credit, he publicly fessed up to this mistake and apologized to Jenkins.

However, his profanity laced tirade on the Spider-Man Message Board probably permanently damaged his relationship with many spider-fans. In addition to the viciousness of his rant, he also asked the same question that inevitably almost any professional asks "well, how many of you are professional writers?" The SMB was the wrong place to ask that question at that time, as one of the moderators then, "Cap," otherwise known as John Vornholt, IS a prolific professional writer with several publishing credits in different fields, sci-fi and children's literature among two. Vornholt cut Zimmerman no slack and had him banned from the board.

Ooops.

But in looking at the stories themselves, distancing ourselves from all of the surrounding nonsense, they are a mixed bag.

Zimmerman's first effort, the Spidey-Jay Leno "team-up" which ran in three parts as a back-up story, is dumb, but harmless, and probably wasn't a bad idea at the time - trying to get Spidey some more mainstream exposure to coincide with the release of the first film. After all, no one, and I mean NO ONE, anticipated that the film would be such a huge juggernaut, even out of the starting gate. I enjoyed Leno’s rips on the X-Men, particularly why Wolverine scares people (it's not that he's a mutant, it's that he's got sharp claws and a bad attitude and likes to cut people up). The story is short and isn’t worth the venom some fans have hoisted on it.

And frankly, I thought Tangled Web #13 was terrific - it made me lift my self-imposed ban on reading that title. A mysterious villain (ultimately revealed to be Norman Osborn - now you know why I picked up the book) strolls into the Bar with no Name and engages in conversations with "Al" Kraven and the Vulture about everything from Spider-Man to women. Although the character soon grated big time later - I even liked the portrayal of “Al” Kraven here. Look, there was the original Kraven (never a fave of mine), and we all know what he was, a Most Dangerous Game knock-off. You know, I am the hunter and you are the prey and I can smell you a mile away, blah blah blah. After he blew his brains out at the end of Kraven's Last Hunt we got Vladimir, the first son of Kraven, a Clone Saga era misstep who was another one of those “hunt the Spider” bores. Then we got a second son of Kraven in Aloysha (yes, that's "Al") and while JM DeMatteis gave him a different take, he was still a jungle man. When Howard Mackie brought back the Sinister Six in a 1999 fiasco, he simply made "Al" a Kraven I clone. But Zimmerman takes the character in a unique direction, making him the arrogant, spoiled, yet still somewhat principled, scion of a wealthy man who has to reconcile two major conflicting emotions about his father - a love for the man who bequeathed him his wealth, his physical prowess, and his respect for nature, and a loathing for the man who was also a self-indulgent criminal who often didn't practice what he preached.

The story has a lot of flaws – for example, I can’t believe for one minute that Norman Osborn would telegraph that he was the Green Goblin to anyone – let alone a bunch of costumed losers in a bar (this was a couple of years before his outing in The Pulse in 2004). And how did the Vulture know that Osborn was the Green Goblin prior to the beginning of the tale? Hadn't Norman been able to successfully break the public speculation that he had been the original Goblin? But, these glitches aside, I was highly entertained. The stunned expressions on all of the villains’ faces when Osborn reveals himself in the midst of telling the story to end all stories on what he did to Spider-Man (killing his girlfriend in front of him), and leaves behind a pumpkin bomb, was worth the price.

And if I was entertained, that covers a multitude of sins.

“You can call me Al,” another backup tale, on the other hand, was awful, a case of telling a bad story in addition to not doing your homework. As far as just how bad it was - well, that comes later.

Sweet Charity on the other hand, represented both the best and worst of Zimmerman. I could present a long list of things I really liked about this story. And I could also present a long list of things I really didn't like. For one, the thing is twice as long as it needed to be, and seems to have been presented to "showcase" Zimmerman. Rather than an expensive stand-alone, if it had been a one issue guest shot during one of the regular title runs, it would have worked much better. I do feel that Zimmerman actually did a good job with the relationship between Jonah and Spidey. Although he really didn’t introduce anything new to it – he humorously presented a relationship between two people who deep, deep, deep, deep down have a certain amount of mutual respect, but whose public differences and previous conflicts have created such hard feelings that they are simply unable to communicate with each other unless they are shouting at or pranking each other. Spidey’s ultimate prank on Jonah which concludes the story is a genuine hoot. But the Hollywood name-dropping, with the exception of Al Pacino's misery at having to spend a depressing day with Wolverine and Rogue ("after awhile you just want to say "touch me, Rogue"") is at an irritating high here. And some of the humor eventually goes go way over the top, such as the Scorpion muttering in his sleep, and Spidey getting a case of the runs when he eats some wild berries.

And then of course, there's Get Kraven, which I must say - I DID NOT READ. Why? Because for the most part, it wasn't about Spider-Man, it was about "Al" Kraven in Hollywood, which I had no interest in reading. Spidey does make appearances on the front and back end of the story, and inexplicably the Vulture becomes a quasi good guy at the end (don't worry spider fans - that didn't take), but it's not fair to trash a story I never bothered to read. I'll let the reviews that were performed speak for themselves - as well as the fact that the story was shortened from seven parts to six.


Mini-Series Mediocrity
Marvel clearly wasn't going to let the release of the Spider-Man movie go by without generating a lot of additional product to take full advantage of it - hence not one, not two, but three miniseries concurrently released in order to give a spider hungry public the superhero action Marvel was counting on them craving. What we got was some slick looking, but ultimately less than fully satisfying stuff - that is, whenever we actually got it - as only one of the minis stayed on its original release schedule.

Spider-Man:Blue
Boy did I want to like this series. After all, it was the team of Loeb and Sale, who brought us the acclaimed Daredevil: Yellow. And everyone in fandom was saying what a wonderful series this was, beautifully written and drawn - and, and...I didn't like it. On another matter, I try not to bring out the badge of the continuity police if I'm entertained, but Spider-Man:Blue wasn't good enough for me not to notice the problems. Still, it had some terrific covers, most notably issue #3 (pictured above). Yowza.

My first problem with Spider-Man:Blue was the price. I'm sorry, but $3.50 is a bit much to pay for a 22-23 page comic. And after the first couple of parts, it seemed like it was being "Bendised," you know, that term for using a talented artist to tell a story with minimal dialogue and stretching it out at least twice as long as it has to be.

What Loeb and Sale did do, however, was re-introduce "slinky Gwen," whom we actually hadn't seen since - well - the exact same period of time during the Amazing run that Blue was revisiting, before she was turned into a crying Daddy's Girl and wholesome "girl next door" type. However, with both Gwen and MJ as mouth-watering sultry types, Blue unwittingly illustrated the quandry that Stan Lee and John Romita were in when they were writing the Spider-Man mythos for the first time - you can't have two virtually identical girls in any series for any length of time. Either one will have to go or have her personality changed. In the original run, Stan and John chose to de-sex Gwen.

I really did like the first part, and not just because it started with a big full color picture of the Green Goblin's grinning puss. There was actually some movement in the story as we were introduced to all of the characters, and Gwen and Peter started exchanging "come hither" looks. In part two, a comment by Gwen leads Peter to discover a method to defeat the Rhino, which reminds us that Stan had originally created Gwen as an intelligent, scientifically-inclined young woman - perhaps the equal of Peter Parker.

But then, nothing much happens. We get a lot of large, pretty, colorful panels with minimal dialogue, but we really learn nothing more about Gwen than we already knew or why Peter is attracted to her other than she gives him a hard on. It appears in part 6 that she admires Peter because when everyone else runs from danger, he runs into it - but doesn't this contradict the Gwen in the original Stan Lee/John Romita run who was worried that Peter was a craven coward, even to the point of privately sequestering Flash Thompson back in issue #78 of Amazing Spider-Man to find out what Peter's deal was - or the Gwen in issue #108 who was crying that "whenever there was danger...you always leave and run off...Flash and the others called you a coward!" Oh yeah, we don't care about continuity, only consistency. Speaking of which, Blue twists around the order of several events to fit into the context of this particular tale - but in doing so, it doesn't improve upon the original re-telling, which is the only reason to take such liberties. In this version, much of the supervillain action at the time was all at the behest of ho-hum villain Kraven, whom Spidey flattens with little effort in Part 6, after a relentless build-up.

A much sweeter, much sadder, much cheaper, and much more effective version of what was trying to be accomplished was in JM DeMatteis' backup story in Webspinners #1 entitled "The Kiss," where Peter ruminates on his last night with Gwen before her eventual murder by the Green Goblin.

It's obvious that the memory of Gwen Stacy fascinates writers just as it haunts Peter Parker. But it's also just as obvious that no one has quite successfully figured her out yet. When they do, that should be a good story.

And you noticed that I avoided all references to "Sins Past." I didn't want to obscure my observations from years ago with the revelations from that storyline.

Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil That Men Do
I was actually liking this miniseries - when it was coming out. I have always liked Felicia, and think that she makes a good foil for Spider-Man. Essentially, she makes a good "bad girl," and I would certainly not object to Felicia’s continuing presence in the core titles to add a little bit of sexual tension to Peter’s life, now that Mary Jane, formerly the “bad girl” has now settled into being the wife and the “good girl.” Some of Smith’s blatant sexual overtones turned off some people (such as Felicia’s reference to her and Peter doing “the nasty,”), but as long it is confined to this one miniseries and doesn’t become a fixture in the other spider titles, I can handle a slightly more mature tone – although I wonder how this accomplishes the oft-stated goal of getting “the kids” back into comics. And if Spider-Man is going to be on the cover - then both parents and kids are going to think it's appropriate for the younger set - that's the result of Spidey being a pop culture icon. Still, it was usually either Felicia or guest villainness Scorpia who were making the double entendre references, and NOT Peter or Spidey, so that made it more tolerable. However, I still can't believe that Kevin Smith actually had Felicia get the drop on Spidey and punch him silly and web him down to a roof so she could go after the bad guy alone. I mean, really.....

Unfortunately, after part 3 of what is supposed to be either a 4 or 5 part series (I’d heard both - and then it ultimately became a 6-part series) was issued – for all intents and purposes Kevin Smith’s comic work fell off the face of the earth, and THAT became the issue, rather than the quality of the story.

Of course, I survived without ever seeing "The Night They Tore old New York Down," that "way out thriller" that was supposed to be in issue # 2 of Giant Size Super Heroes Featuring Spider-Man way back in 1974, and "The TV Terror," which was supposed to be the subject of issue #3 of the first Spectacular Spider-Man, the magazine that was briefly published back in the 1960's. Of course, there never was an issue #2 or #3 of these titles, respectively, but I survived, and life went on for both me and Spider-Man. I suspect that the same will occur if we never see another issue of The Evil That Men Do.

Again, with a nod to more current times, this story was finally completed, and is reviewed in its entirety in the 2005 Year in Review.

Quality of Life
Quality of Life is a gimmick, but it's a good gimmick as it gives us a visual style that we have never seen before in Spider-Man - a completely computer generated comic. It also had promise because the writer was Greg Rucka, whose work on Detective Comics I liked, and I was also fond of his series for Oni Press Queen and Country. However, it featured the Lizard – and wasn’t Curt Connors cured of being the Lizard by a souped up Hammerhead in last year's Lifeline miniseries (however, there is an implication that the chemicals introduced in the area where the Connors were living re-triggered the transformation - remember, it's not continuity - it's consistency)? The story involved Curt Connors suing a corporation because its products caused his wife Martha, to develop cancer, which, in a major character development, kills her by story end. The firm hires a half woman half snake assassin known only as “Yith,” to take out Connors – but in the end, she almost turns into the half woman half snake assassin with a heart of gold, feeling sorry for Connors for his loss, and turning on her employer after asking him “have you ever been in love?” Awww.

The Lizard has never been one of my favorites because he has largely been a one-note character with an utterly dumb motivation - that of trying to promote the ascendancy of reptiles over mammals - and I never really liked the idea that he often had no vestigal memories of being Curt Connors (and yes, I remember that a couple of years later, Paul Jenkins turned this on its ear with the "revelation" that Connors had always been in control of the Lizard - why I don't buy). This time, however, it seems that he does, as the Lizard turns out to be the expression of Connors' grief and rage over the illness and ultimate loss of his wife. Even with that improvement in the character's interpretation, all in all this is an unmemorable effort.

The Daredevil/Spider-Man one shot was just a marketing ploy to take advantage of the fact that at the time it was issued, the Spider-Man movie had been a huge success, and the Daredevil movie was upcoming for release. And the story reflected that it was all a ploy as our two heroes didn’t even meet or talk or otherwise interact with each other than a nod from a distance. So why bother?

Ultimate Spider-Man
2002 found Ultimate Spider-Man square in the middle of what was a painfully long Doctor Octopus story. The story began in issue #14 and lasted until issue #21, and included several diversions to the main conflict. Rather than focusing on Spidey vs. Doc Ock, we also had Doc Ock vs. Justin Hammer, and Spidey vs. Ultimate Kraven, which was the real waste. Ultimate Kraven starts out as a take off of famed Aussie Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin (this Kraven is also an Aussie, rather than a Slav, as in the original continuity), who comes to America to hunt Spider-Man, sack Ultimate Betty Brant (so much for her journalistic integrity) and then after incredible fanfare gets dropped by Spidey with one punch. However, it did provide the singularly most interesting panel of 2002. That Doc Ock, such a ladies man. Remember, this book is "for the kids."

The return of the Ultimate Green Goblin, or should I say, the Hulk-Goblin was a marked improvement from the Doc Ock storyline and the first Hulk-Goblin story, in which Norman was simply an inarticulate monster. This time, Norman has regained his humanity and is able to transform himself back and forth from the Hulk-Goblin through injections of the Oz drug, which we now know was a failed super soldier formula that he was working on for SHIELD and Ultimate Nick Fury, or Ultimate Samuel L. Jackson, which he looks like. We get a better feel for the "big picture" of the Ultimate universe through the presence of Fury as well. Also, Bendis gives us the maniacal, manipulative Norman Osborn that we know and love, and even re-creates the ASM 121-122 confrontation with the Green Goblin, with Ultimate Mary Jane as the damsel in distress rather than "Skanky" Gwen Stacy (don't get riled - that's a takeoff of Kong calling her a "skank" as she's definitely not the All-American Girl here). This time, Peter rescues MJ and therefore BOTH Ultimate MJ and Skanky Gwen are alive now, so Bendis used something familiar to send us into a different and unknown direction. Still, the Hulk-Goblin is the Hulk-Goblin, and a junkie Hulk-Goblin at that, driven mad by repeated use of the Oz drug. I just can't see the villain as being as effective in the Ultimate continuity as he is in the "real" continuity.

After Ultimate Hulk-Goblin, we got an unremarkable short story arc (only three issues which is really short in Bendis-Bagley terms) involving a phoney Spider-Man, who is apparently not Ultimate Chameleon. What is significant in this story is that Bendis actually goes back to classic continuity and kills off Skanky Gwen's father, Captain George Stacy before he even has a chance to get interested in Spider-Man and Peter Parker's connection to him. So now, Skanky Gwen is actually living with Aunt May and Peter, another brand new twist on an old topic. It seemed to me that Aunt May was getting a bit younger and more attractive as the series progressed, and I was positive that it was happening so that she and Ultimate Captain Stacy, whose wife happened to leave both him and Skanky Gwen, could start becoming, uh, more familiar with each other. HOWEVER, I was wrong. Yep. Totally. No problem. I like being surprised.

And after repeated fan inquiries, Bendis finally broke down and created Ultimate Venom, the story which was still in process at the end of the year. Mercifully Bendis jettisoned the space alien aspect of the costume, and gave us an origin of the suit and a motivation for Eddie Brock (or should I say, Eddie Brock, Jr.) that each made much more sense than in the original continuity, and gives us some insight into Peter Parker's father. This story is reviewed in the 2003 Year in Review.

Do I like the Ultimate series better than the original continuity? Of course not. Does it seem to be fulfilling a genuine purpose - of presenting another look at Spider-Man, rather than as a replacement for the original, as was once feared? Yeah, I guess. Is it interesting and well-done? Yes. Therefore, for all of its faults, Hulk-Goblin being a big one, I’ve made peace with Ultimate Spider-Man. I wrote that a long time ago. If you've read the 2005 Year in Review, I no longer feel that way.)

Spider-Girl
As if almost in his own little corner of the Marvel Universe, Tom DeFalco consistently continues to spin highly satisfying tales of the adventures of Peter Parker's teen-age daughter May as she learns the ropes of the crime fighting business as Spider-Girl. By and large he has successfully integrated elements of the Clone Saga into his stories, bringing them to their logical resolution rather than what Marvel has done in the current continuity, which consists of ignoring it and hoping people will forget - fat chance. In 2002, we finally discover the exact moment where the regular continuity and Spider-Girl continuity diverge – and it’s (1) Kaine recovering Baby May from the Scriers and (2) Spidey confronting Norman Osborn at the Gathering of Five ceremony, a confrontation which results in Osborn's final death and Spidey's crippling accident. We also are introduced to Felicia Hardy’s and Flash Thompson’s daughter Felicity, who wants to hang around May as the new Scarlet Spider. Unlike regular continuity, where once the reboot occurred, Ben Reilly was largely forgotten – in the Spider-Girl Universe, the memory of Ben Reilly is very much present – which makes sense – one does not lose a brother and forget him.

DeFalco is also able to plug in references to his old Green Goblin series, as the older Phil Urich finally returns to the role, and he and May have to face one of his old villains, the psychotic Angel Face, this time accompanied by her children - the death of one which precipitates the blood feud between Angel Face and Spider-Girl.

One of the major plusses of this series is the routine interaction between an older Peter Parker and Johnny Storm, who still like to kid each other, but on the whole, their relationship seems to have truly evolved into a mature friendship. A few issues need to be resolved, like the fact that Darkdevil is really Reilly Tyne, the son of Ben Reilly, and yet no one is clued into that, not even Normie Osborn, who has seen Tyne, and yet doesn't seem to notice how much he looks like a Parker. This is getting a little old. Another negative is that while Peter Parker’s high school life was a vital part of his original series, May’s high school interactions have for the most part been pretty dull – perhaps because she has another, more interesting social circle which revolves around Normie Osborn and the "New" New Warriors.

Of course, we know that Spider-Girl has been axed and saved at least once every three years. It has a relatively small, but loyal and vocal following, particularly in the internet community. I'm glad that for whatever reasons, Marvel has seen fit to allow this series to survive. It seems to be one of the few truly family friendly series out there - and one of the few to feature a female lead who keeps her clothes on and isn't featured simply to titillate young male readers. It's a series I felt perfectly comfortable allowing my 8 year old daughter (at the time this was originally written) to read and frankly, I think it's a good feeding ground for interest in the original web slinger. One morning while watching one of the Spider-Man cartoons, my daughter asked "is there a Spider-Girl?" to which I was able to happily reply "yes." If she's interested in the adventures of the daughter at a young age, perhaps she'll be interested in the original character where it all began as she gets older.

Other Stuff
Without a doubt, the weirdest Spidey story of the year happened to be the one shot satire by Peter Bagge called The Meglomaniacal Spider-Man. This was certainly not up everyone's alley, and I sure hope that no one used this as an introduction into the world of Spider-Man, but all in all, this was a fun diversion for those who don't take their Spidey too seriously. This time, in a bizarre alternate universe, Peter finds out that Uncle Ben was really a gambler and an overall scumbag, and that he was murdered because he first drew a gun on the infamous Burglar, who was actually there at the Parker house to collect a substantial gambling debt. As a result of learning this, the whole purpose of Spider-Man's life is thrown into chaos. During a pitched battle with Doctor Octopus, he walks away from crime-fighting and Peter Parker becomes a greedy, self-absorbed corporate magnate and raider who treats everyone like crap, particularly J. Jonah Jameson, who now works for him since "Spider-Man, Inc." purchased the Daily Bugle.

There's a lot of funny stuff in this, particularly when a sobbing Doc Ock begs Spider-Man to come back and fight him because he doesn't know what else to do - other than plot evil deeds and fight Spider-Man, and when CEO Peter Parker plays mind games with employee JJJ, who is hating every minute of having to kow tow to him. And I liked one fan’s characterization of the story as “What if Peter Parker had become Steve Ditko” since Peter discovers the work of Ayn Rand, much like Ditko did. But, as I said before, it isn't for everyone, so caveat emptor.

Of course, the release of the Spider-Man movie coincided with the release of the Spider-Man movie adaption – written by the one and only Stan Lee. Frankly, the end product is something for completists only - in no small part due to the constraints of chronicling a two hour film and 100+ pages of script into only 50 pages of a comic book. And, it's just too jarring seeing the movie versions of the characters depicted in a comic book. I might have been more interested in seeing the original comic versions of the characters act out the movie storyline. Norman Osborn is just not Norman Osborn in the comics without that funky red hair.

Best Story of the Year
Hands down, no other story was even close to “A Death in the Family,” Paul Jenkins’s four-part take on the relationship between Norman Osborn and Peter Parker in Peter Parker #44-47. This is a rich and complex tale in which Jenkins has Osborn whip both Peter AND the readers into an absolute frenzy, leaving a doozy of a cliff-hanger at the end of the third part, and then pulling a surprise resolution that at first seems weird and awkward, but then makes sense upon further review. The resolution was somewhat controversial, and it was apparent that not all of the readers got it - or if they did get it, they disagreed that this is how Norman would behave or Peter would deal with the situation. But whether you liked it or not - give Jenkins credit for trying something different than simply having the two battle to the death - again - and either Norman appears to die, simply walks away, or loses his memory, all of which have been done before. This time, Norman is decisively beaten in a way he has never been beaten before.

Unfortunately the darkness of this story was completely undercut by the cartoony manga-influenced art of Humberto Ramos. It was completely inappropriate for this story. He's fine for something like Out There, which is where I first saw his art, but not Spidey.

Worst Story of the Year
And no, it isn't Ron Zimmerman's Get Kraven. As Nelson on The Simpsons would go "ha ha!" But it is Zimmerman’s “You can Call me Al” the backup story that was presented in its entirety in the first issue of Get Kraven. The biggest offense is “Al” confronting Spidey with knowledge of his secret identity and achieving a familiarity with Spidey that he doesn't merit, particularly at the end when the two of them are starting to act like best buds. Barf. There are already too many people who know that Peter Parker is Spider-Man, and the discovery of said i.d. should be an important event within the story itself - and not some throwaway item geared solely to make us accept a particular character more than we otherwise might have. Oh, "Al" knows who Spidey is but doesn't want to kill him or go after Aunt May - guess that makes him an o.k. guy. And then Zimmerman revives the Chameleon who as we all know, appeared to fall to a spectacular death at the end of Webspinners #11. Again, not that supervillains returning from the dead is that much of a novelty – but the nature of the Chameleon’s demise, particularly in view of his relationship with both Spider-Man and Peter Parker, which had been changing and growing more intense since the days just before the Clone Saga, should have been integrated into this story if he was going to return. The Chameleon that appeared to throw himself off the bridge at the end of the aforementioned Webspinners was a complex, seriously troubled, villain, not the cliched cackling madman in "You can Call me Al." Another glaring ommission is that not even Spidey seems to remember the significance of their previous encounter. One of the reasons some of us are such continuity mavens is not because we like to obsess over every little detail (o.k., there is that..), but because a tightly adhered to continuity makes every story important in one way or another. Beyond the fact that this was simply not a very good story, it was clearly constructed with very little regard for what had been established before. And therefore, it's a foregone conclusion that it, like Chapter One and "Captain Power," will be completely ignored by any and all future writers, thus making it a complete waste of time.

The runner-up for the worst story category was Zeb Wells’ MTV Beach Party story that ran in Peter Parker #42-43. Both Spidey and the Sandman appear off-kilter, as if we are reading about parallel universe versions of the two. Some character integrity seems to have been sacrificed for the humor in the story, which admittedly, is quite funny at times – but these issues seem to have a primary purpose of satirizing this kind of television, and the fact that Spider-Man is in it is irrelevant. In that case, it should have been presented as a stand-alone, as was Peter Bagge’s weird story. And the art, by Jim Mahfood, was just awful and completely inappropriate for Spider-Man. If you were a new reader and this is what you thought was representative of Spider-Man, then you were done a disservice.

The irony is, that after this, Wells completely redeemed himself with the excellent Tangled Web story “Behind the Moustache” (issue #20) featuring a look at JJJ like we had never seen before, including how Jonah falls in love with his first wife and his problematic relationship with his father that made Jonah the man he is today. The only lapse is the slightly weird father-figure spin that Wells tries to put on Jonah’s relationship with Spider-Man, but even experienced spider-writers often seem to have difficulty with the details of this very complex and thorny relationship. From that, Wells went on to a very acceptable run on Peter Parker, which really figures more in 2003’s year in review.

So, will 2003 represent another year of improvement in the spider titles - or has our favorite web head already peaked? Will the Ezekial-Morlun-Shathra-totem-mystical spider crap be brought to its conclusion? Will Mary Jane stay or will she leave again? What classic villain will next receive the "Ultimate" makeover? Will Spider-Girl be cancelled again?

Well...you could read my 2003 Year in Review..


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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.