Spider-Man 2003:
Healing Old Wounds



When I first wrote this article - it was notoriously late. I forget just how late. I'm thinking it didn't even debut until 2005. All of the reasons why aren't relevant, but I thought my agonizing at the time was summed up pretty succinctly in this paragraph: I'm a notorious completist, one reason my articles are often so ungodly long. Therefore, the year 2003 presented a particular problem due to the proliferation of Spider-Man titles and miniseries during the year. There were no less than four unfinished story arcs by the time 12-31-2003 rolled around. I still could have worked around this (sometimes I just wait until the following year to include them), but in 2003, unlike the previous ones I had completed, I could not decide on the Best and Worst Stories. In previous years, I had little or no trouble at all picking the highs and lows in Spider-Man, often because from 1999-2001, bad stories far outweighed the good (therefore limiting the pool of good stories to draw the "Best" from), and the real stinkers made themselves painfully obvious. However, 2003 was notable in that the stories were of an amazingly consistent quality. 2003 lacked stories with the breathtaking impact of 2002's "A Death in the Family," Paul Jenkins' twisted look at the web slinger's relationship with his deadliest enemy, Norman Osborn, or 2001's powerfully touching "Wait Till Next Year," (also by Paul Jenkins). The latter saw Peter Parker marking the anniversary of Uncle Ben's death by attending a New York Mets game (a Parker tradition - and as someone who attended many minor league baseball games with his own departed father - this story just totally tore me up inside). However, it also lacked the total garbage such as 2000's story featuring the "revelation" of the identity of the fifth Green Goblin (a John Byrne-Howard Mackie co-production that I designated as the worst Spider-Man story of all time), or 1999's acid trip "Song of the Man Thing" by J.M. DeMatteis (a misfire by a pretty good writer). I finally had narrowed the "Best" candidates to two stories, but neither was going to be finished before March 2004 - and I didn't want to go out on a limb by picking a story that started out with a bang but would wind up fumbling the ball at the conclusion - which both my finalists ultimately did. As you'll see later - 2003's "Best" turned out to be a dark horse that wasn't even in the running until I re-read the stories from that year.

And now boys and girls, for 2003 we will cover a veritable cornucopia of spidery scribblings, including the following:

I've spent a lot of time over the years bashing Marvel for the things it has done wrong vis a vis Spider-Man, but I want to start off 2003 by noting two things that Marvel did very right. These went a long way towards finally healing some old wounds dating back to the very beginning of the reboot in 1999.

Mary Jane Returns!
Without a doubt, probably the most significant event in the spider titles during 2003 was the end of Peter and Mary Jane's separation. Now, I realize that not everyone is in favor of what has become known as the "spider-marriage," and its merit or lack thereof continues to be debated. I am not interested in reviving that argument and have pretty well said all I can say in my Why Did it Have to be You, Mary Jane? series.

However, what I think is beyond dispute is that the way this situation was handled by Marvel, on the orders of then Editor in Chief Bob Harras who apparently cared nothing about the creative integrity of the titles, but wanted to turn back the clock more than 30 years, was an utter disaster. Harras ordered Mary Jane killed off - over the objections of the creative team at the time Howard Mackie and John Byrne. The latter, whose opinions always make interesting reading regardless of whether or not you agree with them, was no fan of the marriage, but expressed his opinion that divorce or death made the situation even worse. The relationship was sabotaged by poor writing returning Mary Jane to her "supermodel" status just prior to the reboot (a move that made zero sense and seemed to be Marvel's feverish attempt at slight of hand to convince the readership that the marriage was a failure because readers "couldn't relate" by deliberately creating the "unrelatable" situation in the first place). The matter was intensified by writing the couple as whiny 15 year olds rather than a mature beyond their years (which they are) married couple in their mid-late 20's. MJ was "killed off" in a plane crash in Amazing Spider-Man volume 2 #13 (January 2000), an event which sent the spider-titles themselves crashing into an abyss of gloom and despair as they became literally unreadable. This resulted in what I have considered to be arguably the second worst period in the character's long 40+ year history (the brief reign of Denny O'Neil in the early 1980's was the worst, in my opinion). After another revolt by the fan base (the prior one being due to the events of the Clone Saga), Mary Jane was revealed to be very much alive in issue #28 (April 2001). However, another twist at the time was that incoming author J. Michael Straczynski wanted Peter to be unencumbered by Mary Jane's constant presence. So, she walked out of Peter's life in the 2001 annual - an event not entirely unreasonable given her recent trauma (kidnapped and held prisoner for several months) but offensively written (I considered it the worst story of the year for 2001). It featured Peter relentlessly hounding Mary Jane for sex and Aunt May doing her Michael Moore impersonation talking about that "nice Al Gore" in contrast to that "horrible fellow."

So, MJ was exiled to California for awhile, but both JMS and Peter periodically dropped in on her (along with Doc Ock). After a couple of painfully contrived soap opera "near misses," the stage was set for their reconciliation in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man volume 2 #50. Rather than a story, though, the issue is a collective exhale, a sigh of relief that the controversy over the "death" and subsequent separation is over. Spider fans and spider writers are free to move on to other stories and other conflicts - such as Gwen Stacy having Norman Osborn's children (oops - that's next year's controversy). To give JMS credit, rather than all of the tortured arguments and relentless agonizing of "we're young! too young!" that was all too prevalent right after the reboot - he sums up Mary Jane's plight and conflicted feelings in a very understandable way - that she considers herself an insignificant footnote in the life and legacy of a great man. After all, like every human being on the face of this planet, Mary Jane wants to matter to someone and wants her life to mean something. But how can that happen when you live in the shadow of Spider-Man? This situation is exacerbated by the fact that as Spider-Man, Peter can never acknowledge her, and almost has to deny her existence, let alone show her any affection. It is summed up rather humorously when she chides Peter for "never introducing me to any of your friends" as Captain America makes a convenient appearance at the airport as the undercover escort of Dr. Doom.

The story ends with Spider-Man rather awkwardly introducing MJ to Captain America, who seems to understand exactly what is going on. This is actually a pretty nice scene because there is so much that is not actually said aloud, but is said nonetheless.

A lot of fans were annoyed with this part of the story, primarily because it seems to represent a moment of carelessness on Peter's part about his secret identity. If Captain America is aware of what's going on in the world at all, he would recognize Mary Jane immediately, and it wouldn't take a rocket scientist or even a super soldier to connect the dots on who Spider-Man was. Then again, Captain America would probably be the one superhero who is the least impressed or knowledgeable about Hollywood and supermodels - and after all, how many people know whom current supermodels are married to unless it's to someone already famous in their own right, such as Rod Stewart or Rick Ocasik. And it does seem like too many people are finding out the connection between Peter and Spider-Man (with more to come as he becomes an Avenger in 2005). But those quibbles overshadow exactly what this scene represents - Peter trying to reconcile the two disparate parts of his life in order to save his marriage. He is attempting to convince his wife that she does mean something to Spider-Man as well as Peter Parker, because without her - being Spider-Man has much less meaning and importance to him. It was also nice to see Cap respond like a wiser older brother. Sure, Spidey probably does annoy the hell out of him like little brothers are prone to do, with his bad jokes and his seemingly frivolous nature. But there is still clearly respect and affection during this quiet moment.

This ironically could parlay into the events of 2005 with Spider-Man's membership in the Avengers, and MJ and Aunt May moving into Avengers headquarters with him. This time, Mary Jane will very much be an important part of Spider-Man's life, and Peter will not be in a position of having to ignore or deny her - so how will she take that?

Amazing Spider-Man Returns to Original Numbering
Another one of those ideas that seemed like a good one only to Marvel was rebooting the titles (then Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker: Spider-Man as Spectacular Spider-Man and Sensational Spider-Man were cancelled) at new number #1s. I never liked reboots, always considered them just gimmicks, but for Peter Parker, a title only about 8 years old that was at issue #98, it really wasn't that big of a deal. However, Amazing Spider-Man, the character's flagship title - hell, one of the flagship titles of the entire Marvel Universe - had been published in an unbroken string dating back to the first issue with a March 1963 cover date, and was within five years of that magical #500. Sales were down and steadily declining, so the answer, rather than getting a dynamic, well known and popular writer who would generate interest in the title, was simply to have a new #1. And the writing chores were handed to Howard Mackie, who had done a decent job on one of the titles before the reboot, but had also admitted in the past that he felt that he was tapped out creatively as far as Spider-Man was concerned. And the title languished out of the gate, marred by overlong, confusing storylines and lackluster "new" villains (contrast this with Marvel Knights Spider-Man #1 which kicked ass right from the start).

Fast forward another two and a half years, and new Editor in Chief Joe Quesada, who had apparently been listening to fan complaints, changed writers, bringing in Babylon 5 creator and scribe J. Michael Straczynski to helm Amazing Spider-Man. Years later, JMS' tenure on Amazing has been a turbulent one, and certainly not popular with everyone, but at the time, bringing in someone with his credentials was exactly what the spider-titles needed. Also, in the exact same issue that JMS debuted (June 2001), which was number 30 under volume II, Marvel began to subtly insert a secondary number on the cover that actually continued the old numbering convention had the title never been rebooted. This continued for over two years, and as with Fantastic Four previously, issue #500 became the point where the old numbering system permanently returned, which met with overwhelming approval. As I've stated in other articles, so I won't belabor it here, Amazing Spider-Man is one of the most significant comic book titles ever, up there with Action Comics and Detective Comics, other titles for which rebooting should never be considered. For me, it was actually the fulfillment of something I had simply wanted to see for a very long time. I remembered back in 1979 that annoying little brother of mine weaseled my mother into buying Action Comics #500, and I thought, "man, I want to be around to get Amazing Spider-Man #500 (he was on issue #197 at the time, heading for a milestone 200th issue). So yeah, it was kind of a personal thing with me to see Amazing hit issue #500.

Unfortunately - much like Action #500 almost 25 years earlier, Amazing #500 was subpar considering its significance. Issue #500 was the conclusion of a three issue tale that was sadly more of yet another overlong advertisement for the then yet to be seen Dr. Strange miniseries, also written by JMS. This was Strange's third appearance in the title in the last 18 months, and since he was never one of my favorite characters (I have no interest in magic or the occult in either my fiction or nonfiction), this compounded the problem. An army of Mindless Ones invade New York from another dimension, and Reed Richards whips up a really big gun to seal off their dimension. But, when he uses it, it accidentally reconstitutes Strange's old foe Dormammu, and in the brawl between the two magic men, Spidey gets caught in the middle and is cast adrift in the void outside of time and space. When I first read these issues, it appeared that this was a set up for what could prove to be a very significant story, as Spider-Man, trying to fight his way back to his own time and place, finds himself caught between two time periods - when he was bitten by the radioactive spider and first received his spider powers, and a grim, unspecified future in which an aging Spider-Man visits Aunt May's grave on the way to what will most certainly be his last stand.

Sadly, the story did not fulfill its promise. The intriguing "future story" was over within seven pages of this double size issue, failing to answer ANY of the interesting questions that it raised. These included why Detective Lamont was trying to convince him to turn himself in on a manslaughter rap, what Peter meant when he said "what was done had to be done," that Mary Jane still loved him even "after it all went bad," and a reference to their son, Ben). Nothing of significance was done in the origin period either, as Spider-Man contemplates altering history by deflecting the spider heading towards his younger self, but doesn't follow through. Most of the remainder of the story follows Spider-Man as he makes his way through his own history, re-visiting his first battles with several old foes and rehashing of two classic, but now tiring overdone scenes. These include the Spidey under tons of rubble from the Master Planner storyline in Amazing Spider-Man #33 (of which there had been yet another homage barely a year ago in another Doc Ock story), and the death of Gwen Stacy at the hands of the Green Goblin in Amazing Spider-Man #121. No one has more respect and appreciation for Spidey's long history, but even I am getting tired of revisiting that bridge. Even the final scene, where Peter is given a gift of five minutes with his late Uncle Ben, comes across as less than it should have been (particularly when contrasted to the Paul Jenkins story that was referenced at the beginning of this article). Still, it was good to see the art of John Romita, Sr. again, as he pencilled the final four pages of the story. But then again, looking back, when I first read issue #300, for example, I couldn't believe that the anniversary issue had been wasted on a battle with a brand new unknown villain. Of course, issue #300 featured the first full appearance of - Venom. With JMS continuing on the title for the forseeable future, perhaps he will revisit those loose threads from issue #500 and weave them into a terrific story - since, after all, one is clearly waiting to be told.

Well, those were the most significant events of 2003 - but what about the rest of the stories that year?

JMS Cranks ‘Em Out
2003 was a change of pace for JMS in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. There were no delays due to his Showtime series "Jeremiah." The elephant in the corner "when is MJ going to return" was resolved early in the year, and after the Shathra story ended early in 2003, there was no progress and little reference to the arc that I’ve affectionately referred to as Ezekial-Morlun-Shathra-Totem-Mystic Spider Crap, which actually was a good thing. I maintain to this day that the problem with this story arc was not that it challenged us to take a different look at Spider-Man’s origin, but that it was simply overlong and not very interesting. That left JMS to tell four brand new stories in 2003, which included two very welcome one-part self-contained stories, and a two-part tale, far too rare occurrences in these days of stories padded beyond reason for trade paperback purposes.

I will confess that my expectations weren’t all that high for Amazing. So, I was pleasantly (but not overwhelmingly) surprised to see that I liked all of these stories to varying degrees, although the "Digger" story (#492-#495) was the weakest and had the most problems. The plot revolved around a group of mobsters gunned down in the 1950’s on orders of a mob boss, and their bodies buried in what eventually was a gamma bomb test site. Through the miracle of comic book science, the mobsters were revived in the form of an ugly Hulk-like creature (hmm – is there such a thing as an attractive Hulk like creature – oh yeah – Jennifer) called Digger who came after the now aging mob boss for revenge. The boss is able to convince Spider-Man to protect him and his daughter in exchange for payment of $10,000 (later $12,000) a day. After all, as the boss reasoned to Spidey, and as Peter later rationalized (rather unconvincingly I thought) to MJ, he’d do his best to ensure that Digger didn’t hurt anyone anyway, so why not get paid for it? While Digger seems unstoppable for the first few parts, Spider-Man eventually deduces that he can defeat the monster simply by forcing him to exhaust his supply of energy. Unlike the Hulk, which can change back into Bruce Banner to "recharge," Digger has no other form to take to allow him to do so. Now – I have absolutely no idea if this is even remotely consistent with anything that has been established about the Hulk before – I’m just reporting how the story unfolded. Spider-Man later fools the mob boss into confessing to ordering the execution of the aforementioned mobsters that comprised Digger, and uses the monies paid for his services for a very special purpose.

Now – about the money. When I first read the story, I had a hard time believing that Spider-Man would ever take money from a criminal under ANY circumstances – even though he ultimately didn’t keep the money for himself and instead used it to create a "Gwen Stacy Memorial Library," as we see on the very last page of issue #495. And frankly, even upon re-reading the story, I didn’t get any more comfortable with the idea. After all, people will talk. It would certainly get around that Spider-Man took money from the mob boss – and don’t you think that good old JJJ would have a field day with something like that? No one other than Mary Jane knew that Spider-Man donated that money to a construct a library. It would go a long way towards damaging his already fragile reputation, and provide ammunition to those who already think he’s crooked. Other problems with the story included a drunken, mouthy Peter Parker at a restaurant, when it has been specifically established in the past that the character does not drink. I suppose it could be suggested that he was simply being very giddy, but I wouldn’t buy it. I don’t like to be one of these people who goes around saying "Spidey would never do this, Spidey would never do that…" but on these two points – well, I don’t think Spidey would do that.

Plus, what appeared to be a consistent thread throughout the year was an undue amount of attention being paid to Peter and Mary Jane’s sex life in Amazing. There were a number of times this year when it was strongly implied or explicitly shown (I know, without really being shown) that Peter and MJ had either had sex, were on the way to having sex, or were talking about having sex. Not only that, but there was another implication that Peter not only enjoys sex, but he also enjoys kinky sex. What could MJ be talking about when she expressed surprise that Peter said no "to me - to THAT?" That takes us back to 2002 and why MJ got so upset with Peter when Shathra made public statements about having an affair with Spider-Man. Hell, he’s a public figure – lots of women probably claim to not only sleeping with Spider-Man, but to having his baby as well. This has no doubt been the subject of more than one issue of the National Enquirer and related rags. MJ would have been used to that. But Shathra specifically stated that Spider-Man had a wife, and a voracious, kinky sexual appetite – things that only someone who had been intimate with him would know. Apparently those items were true or MJ wouldn’t have given them even the slightest amount of credibility.

Now, I’m no Kinsey or Dr. Ruth, but I’ll admit that Rodney Dangerfield was right when he said "the best thing about having kids is making them!" And I do think it’s good that in a comics universe of full of philandering characters, we have an example of a loving, committed couple who enjoy each other’s company, so to speak. I just thought there was a bit too much of it.

Conversely, I do think that JMS has a pretty good handle on Spider-Man’s sense of humor, although he does come across as a motormouth at times (maybe that’s a New York thing). I liked the interplay between Spider-Man and Detective Lamont, and thought the characterization of both Digger and mob boss Forelli was well done. Both of these characters were monsters, literally and metaphorically, but each still had residual traces of humanity, especially Forelli as he realizes that his day of reckoning for his sins is coming, and his fear that he may not be the only one who pays the price.

"Unintended Consequences" (issues #496-#497) was similar to the prior year’s "Shade" storyline in that Peter is drawn into the lives of one of his students and ultimately Spider-Man comes to the rescue. Spidey nails a kid for car jacking several months ago, and lo and behold, his sister becomes one of Peter’s students. Peter discovers that his dime a dozen punk is someone else’s beloved family member whom they were relying on. Of course, if Spider-Man keeps showing up around Midtown High helping out students of Peter Parker, people might start adding up the score. The story was o.k. – although Pete seems to have lot more patience with mouthy little girls than I would. There are a couple of interesting moments in this story, such as when the mother of the student is subtly, but clearly disappointed to find out that Peter is married, and while I never was a fan of Ezekial, I did like how JMS used him in this story. The older wall crawler issues a challenge to Spider-Man, telling him that he has a long way to go before he can truly be considered to a guardian and protector of the people. It isn’t simply enough to react to events around him, beat people up and take them to jail. A true protector is able to take a longer-term time horizon and do things to make the world a better place up front, rather than be solely focused on "taking out the trash" after they go bad. If Ezekial had been used more in this manner, I might have developed a little more interest in the character. As it was, after the conclusion of the Shathra story, it became pretty obvious how the Ezekial-Morlun-Shathra-Totem-Mystic Spider Crap arc was going to end, but that’s a tale for the 2004 Year in Review.

Issue #501 centered around Aunt May’s continued efforts to reconcile herself to the knowledge that Peter is Spider-Man, and featured an all-too familiar villain in the "Shaker" who seemed to be little more than a knock off of the Shocker, but without that distinctive looking yellow quilt for a costume. The positive aspect of this story, which also occurred in the Digger story, was getting to see Spider-Man use his brain and methodically deduce the correct approach to defeating the villain, rather than just beating him senseless.

Issue #502 was another single-issue story, this time focusing on the tailor to the spandex set, a little old Jewish guy who has more than a few opinions about the practicality of Spider-Man’s current wardrobe. An amusing story, no harm, no foul, but for some reason I suspect that this story has actually been told in some form or fashion by other writers in other superhero titles. After all, surely someone else has figured out that most superheroes and supervillains don't seem to be needlepoint type people.

Paul's New Pad
After Peter Parker #50, wrapping up a largely successful two and a half year run, Paul Jenkins took a few months break, and then returned to Spider-Man in a brand spankin' new (or brand spankin' old, depending upon how you look at it) title called Spectacular Spider-Man. Of course, this was actually the third coming of Spectacular, having been the title of an ill-fated magazine that lasted all of two issues in 1968, and the second longest running Spider-Man title ever, after Amazing, beginning with issue #1 (December 1976) and ending at #263 (November 1998). It was cancelled at the reboot because it came in third in terms of sales behind the surviving magazines Amazing and Peter Parker.

Having just tackled the Green Goblin in one of the best tales told about that particular villain, Jenkins turned his attention to Spider-Man's two other A-List villains, Venom and Doctor Octopus, in that order, in what were both very highly anticipated story arcs.

Well, Paul gets the "Herculean Effort of the Year," award, in trying to concoct a story that attempted to get to the heart of Venom’s Achilles heel (making him an easy mark for those of us who never really cared for the villain), his relatively lame motivations for hating Spider-Man. While the symbiote’s feelings of rejection are understandable, Eddie Brock’s "I wrote a bogus story about a bogus killer and then Spider-Man had to **** it all up by catching the real killer" never made much sense.

In this story (which ran through the first five issues), the symbiote has abandoned Brock and is stalking the streets of New York, seemingly attacking victims at random and leaving two mysterious puncture marks on their lower back. After some investigation, Spider-Man and Jenkins' version of JMS' Detective Lamont, Detective Garrett, discover that all of the victims were being treated for cancer. Spidey confronts Brock and discovers that he is dying from cancer. In fact, he was dying years ago, but his bonding with the symbiote halted the spread of the disease. Apparently, the real reason that the symbiote was drawn to Brock was that it feeds off human adrenaline, and Brock’s particular cancer generated higher levels of adrenaline that fed the creature well. This is also why the alien was attacking cancer victims, hoping to find a partner as suitable as Brock had been. But the symbiote no longer wants to live with Brock's cancer and is in a desperate search for a new host, or it will die as well (apparently it was just "snacking" on the people it was attacking - that rhymes - and not seeing any of them as a permanent host). This made Brock’s motivations for hating Spider-Man rather similar to the symbiote, which loathed Spidey as it would a rejected lover. Brock spent years giving the symbiote everything he could, "loving" the symbiote, but it was always apparent that he was only second best to whom the alien truly wanted - Spider-Man. And as long as Spider-Man was alive, there was always a chance in Brock's mind that he would accept the symbiote back, thus condemning Brock to death. O.K., not perfect, but a bit better than the original motivation.

But then the story really stumbled in its conclusion. Both Brock and the symbiote are near death, but neither wants to live with eternal pain any longer. So does Spider-Man allow them both to die rather than continue to suffer, and thus perhaps save uncounted numbers of people who will no longer be the potential victims of these two sociopaths - one human and one alien? No - he saves them by forcing them to rejoin, which neither wants! The newly reconstituted Venom tells Spider-Man that it is pregnant and runs off into the night, threatening to avenge itself upon our hero in the future for condemning it to an eternity in pain and fear. I'm not so sure that I blame him!

This made no sense whatsoever. I'm not so sure that Spidey is so sadistic that when two of his deadliest foes are dying by natural causes - he swoops to the rescue rather than let events run their course? When the Vulture was dying from cancer back before the Clone Saga and the reboot, did Spider-Man frantically run around trying to find a cure for him? As this particularly story was unfolding, it really did seem to be the logical end to Eddie Brock's story. He could no longer run from the fate that merging with the symbiote merely postponed, and the symbiote could find a brand new host and re-invigorate the character, which had suffered from overexposure and just plain reckless writing (including a period as a vigilante who protected the innocent). In fact, that seems to be exactly what has happened a year later in Marvel Knights Spider-Man! Now, I don't believe that Brock is really dead as MK Spidey left some ambiguity about his final fate, but I tend to think that Venom’s fans would have felt the character would be better served by letting the cancer kill Brock and give him a final moment with Spider-Man, than him ostensibly taking his own life, alone and worse off-panel!

And as far as I'm concerned, that Venom series that debuted later never existed - and I don't care what happened in it. As far as I'm concerned, Venom doesn't show up again until MK Spidey.

I had higher hopes for the Doc Ock story which followed in issues #6-10, but what we got was yet another intriguing idea that suffered from poor execution at the end, ultimately giving us yet another uneven representation of Ock. The sinister Doctor captures the new Palestinian ambassador and threatens to kill him (which will ignite war in the Middle East) unless Spider-Man unmasks himself in front of the media in the middle of Times Square, thus essentially ending his career and his life as he knows it. That's such a good idea you wonder why the hell none of Spidey's other villains have tried the same thing! Unfortunately, this story lasts too long, and the final confrontation between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus is completely unworthy of such a great villain. Spidey bonks him twice in the face, and after slapping him around a little, gets Doc to beg Spider-Man not to kill him.

WTF?

Come on - if Doctor Octopus knows anything about Spider-Man after fighting (and losing) to him for nearly 15 years Marvel time is that Spider-Man will under no circumstances deliberately kill. He knows that about his greatest foe. And he is too proud to beg for his life from anyone, particularly the man he hates the most in the world. I do think that one thing Jenkins nailed is the "spoiled child" aspect of Ock, that the only needs that matters are his own - that no one else even exists. But, if you really want what is still probably the best look at Doc Ock’s background, then read Spider-Man Unlimited #3 (November 1993) by Tom DeFalco. Jenkins tries to give us another reason why Ock is so warped. He introduces the idea that the night Ock's father died at home, the young Otto Octavious, fearful that the slightest noise would arouse his hated and feared father from the dead, spent the entire night in the same room as the body. Frankly, this added a taste of morbidity to Doc Ock's origin, and nothing else.

And look - I prefer my Doc Ock to be solidly middle-aged, with a really bad bowl haircut, coke bottom glasses, and a dreadful sense of color and fashion, ala baggy green britches. The long greasy hair, hip sunglasses, shiny black leather – geez louise who the hell is this - Ozzy Osbourne? Even ladies man coat and tie Ock is closer to my idea of the character than this crap. And I didn’t like the suckers on the tentacles. First of all, being a scientist, I just don’t see Doc wasting the time and effort on something that is primarily decorative. If they served a particular function, then yes, I can see Doc doing it, but not saying "oh man, suckers would be real cooooool looking."

And I was hanging onto the hope that this could have been the story of the year. It was one of the finalists until the last part.

All in all, a noble, but sad misfire. What’s even sadder was that although it wasn’t apparent at the time, these stories signaled the beginning of the decline of Paul Jenkins’ tour of duty on Spider-Man.

And let me carryover a gripe from last year – the art of Humberto Ramos. Last year’s Green Goblin story was powerful enough to overcome an artistic style completely inappropriate for Spider-Man. However, with weaker stories such as the Venom and Doc Ock arcs, the art looked even more grotesque than usual. I mean, come on, these people don’t even look remotely human. Aunt May looks like the friggin' Cryptkeeper - and that's an insult to the Cryptkeeper. As I mentioned before, it wasn't Doctor Octopus as much as it was Doctor Osbourne. And I would swear that Ramos was inserting a subtle political statement by drawing the Palestinian ambassador as the spitting image of a monkey from Planet of the Apes. I mean look at the picture - he looks like a damned ape. I can't believe in today's volatile political climate that the editor let that one slip through.

Zeb Fills in
Zeb Wells had a rather inauspicious beginning as a Spider-Man scribe back in 2002 when he penned the runner up to 2002's "Worst Story of the Year" which ran in Peter Parker v. 2 #42-43 (June 2002). It was the Spider-Man MTV Beach Party story, funny, but when combined with the art of Jim Mahfood, was so totally off-kilter that it didn't seem like it even belonged in a regular continuity Spider-Man tale. However, proving that it does pay to forgive every once it a while, Wells bounced back and redeemed himself with Tangled Web #20 (January 2003), which featured a humorous, revealing, and even touching look at Spidey's No. 1 pain in the ass, J. Jonah Jameson. With Paul Jenkins wrapping up his run on Peter Parker after issue #50 and taking a sabbatical before penning future wall crawling adventures in the relaunched Spectacular Spider-Man, Wells filled in for the final seven issues of Peter Parker with three story arcs. All three were thoroughly enjoyable, including one moment in which he poked fun at his own misfire from the previous year and returned one of Spider-Man's long time classic baddies back to the ranks of the super villains.

The first was "Just Another Manic Monday," which featured Hydroman and "THE" Shocker (you'll have to read the story to get the joke) trying to bounce back from the closing of Hammer Industries local super villain branch office. Seems the economy sucks for everyone, even super villains - whom the company was testing and upgrading to conduct certain illicit company operations. Of course, the pairing of two of Spidey's B-List villains, particularly two whose powers mix like oil and water (well, close enough), just had to go bad. One of the more notable little background moments that Wells plugs into his stories was the radio broadcast of the latest from the "Super Villain Tracking Service" which warns the public of various super villains that are still on the loose or who have been seen in the city lately. Just another service along with traffic and weather for your morning commute.

The second story "Rules of the Game" actually had an intriguing premise, that of wealthy businessmen running various betting parlors where bets are taken on the latest superhero/supervillain clashes, ala off-track betting on horse races. The businessmen each bring in a supervillain to stage a fight with Spider-Man, which ends when Spidey gets wind of the scam, and throws a fight to the Rocket Racer - which completely destroys the operation since all of the patrons now believe the fights are fixed. All that was missing was Don King and an ear-biting moment.

The only real negative about the story was how the Scorpion, which was supposed to be one of Spidey's deadliest enemies once upon a time, continues to be treated as a joke. This time, he's trading punchlines with a rather talkative and sensitive robot (who later falls in love with Reed Richards, but you'd have to read the story, because I don't think I could do it justice). This is on the heels of the Ron Zimmerman story Sweet Charity from 2002, which portrayed old Scorpy as a dim witted rock eating buffoon, and was actually followed up in 2004 by another unflattering Scorpion appearance in She-Hulk #4. This is one reason why I enjoyed Mark Millar's epic Marvel Knights Spider-Man arc in 2004. He took two villains in desperate need of an overhaul - Scorpion and Venom - and by making Mac Gargan the new Venom has revitalized both - but again, that's for another article.

The final story was the best of the three, "Reborn." The Sandman, who has had some serious trouble keeping himself together (both literally and metaphorically) since Venom took a bite out of him in Peter Parker v.2 #16 (April 2000), begins the process of putting all of the pieces back together. But to do so, he has to split into four parts first, his inner child, his decent side, his evil side, and unfortunately for his pride, his feminine side. Then he must reconstitute himself from these disparate parts, which essentially is a metaphor for what all of us have to do everyday metaphorically. As I mentioned earlier, Wells even pokes fun at his own fiasco, as when Spider-Man tells Sandy how they were on TV, and how "everyone hated it." Continuity fanboy whores like myself appreciated the reference to the Sandman feeling confused ever since he combined with Hydroman (which happened waaay back in Amazing Spider-Man #218. (July 1981), and Wells leaves little doubt at the conclusion what side of the angels Sandman comes down on.

Now, I wouldn't really want Wells as a regular writer of Spider-Man, at least not if every story was going to be like the ones mentioned above. He's terrific at exploiting the absurdities of the whole superhero genre, and bringing out the humor in the Spider-Man character, which makes for fun diversions once in a while. But considering how over the top it is at times (as witness Reed Richard's "flirting" with the robot from "Rules of the Game"), it wouldn't be in the best long-term interest of the title or characters. But didn't he shift gears a bit in 2004 with a Doc Ock mini? Hmmm.

But, oh man, the art. Francisco Herrera (not that dude from Spiderfan.org who lets everyone know that he's not Francisco Herrera) obviously went to the Humberto Ramos School of Pokeman Art (nuff said). Issues #51-55 gave us more insanely exaggerated human body parts - but at least the characters didn't look like a bunch of damn monkeys. Sam Keith, the man behind The Maxx, rendered issues #56-57, and he would take some getting used to, especially if he continued to draw Peter Parker to look like the Pillsbury Doughboy.

Spider-Man/Wolverine
This mini was presented by Brent Matthews and Vatche Mavlian, the same duo that gave us the unremarkable and wasteful Spider-Man/Daredevil "team-up" (where the two didn’t meet during the entire story) in 2002. We first see Peter Parker telling the story of this adventure to an unknown party, whom he seems to be quite open with concerning his secret identity. Not only that, but in Part 2, Wolverine himself also begins talking to this mysterious party. The actual adventure begins when Pete gets a surprise visit from none other than Nick Fury, who tells Peter he knows he’s Spider-Man and wants him for a mission to rescue an American agent overseas. Although it seems there’s been a rush of folks finding out who Spidey is – it figures the master spy who knows where all the bodies are buried in the Marvel Universe would know – so I’m not sweating that. Spidey gets dropped on an island near Japan, where he discovers that none other than Wolverine is the missing agent, currently being tortured by a scumbag Japanese warlord who bears the shaggy one a personal grudge. Through a convoluted series of events that move across Europe (all the better to drag the miniseries out an extra couple of parts), we wind up in Switzerland, where Fury shows up once again. The story he tells is about a group of SHIELD agents who, having been part of "legitimate" SHIELD operations to study the superheroes and collect genetic information from them (all the better to identify them and – take them out if necessary), have gone rogue. They have replicated Wolverine’s magnificent healing ability – and plan to sell this secret at a high price. Needless to say, our heroes save the day – and it turns out that the interrogator of the two is none other than – Aunt May, who invites Logan to stay and enjoy meatloaf and pie.

O.K. – I’m something of an easily manipulated sap – but I thought the ending was rather cute – and it is perfectly in character for Aunt May. In fact, now that she knows that Peter is Spider-Man and begins to meet some of his compatriots, I wouldn’t mind seeing her shower a little of that maternal instinct on a few of them. However, the story that took four parts to tell to get to this moment was anything but cute. The book does nothing to explore the relationship between what are ostensibly Marvel’s top two characters. Nothing. In fact, the two of them act like they’ve never spent much time around each other – and Spider-Man tells Logan his name as if Wolverine never knew who he was – which he has for years. He's known since the famous Christopher Priest/Jim Owsley one-shot Spider-Man/Wolverine in 1987, the story in which Ned Leeds was murdered and screwed up the mystery of the HobGoblin’s secret identity for nearly a decade.

Spidey and Wolverine are probably Marvel’s two most popular heroes – and as long as marketing has a role in the publication and sale of comic books, it’s almost destiny that they wind up pairing off time and time again (or being on the same team – ala New Avengers). So, is it too much to ask that a miniseries featuring the two, which we’re being gouged four times over at the inflated price of $2.99 (when other titles were going for $2.25 - before recent price increases), actually do something with their relationship? How about exploring the fact that Logan actually met Peter’s folks on a spy mission (Untold Tales of Spider-Man –1). How about exploring their different perspectives on life, love, and crime and punishment rather than Spidey simply saying "don’t kill" and Wolverine telling him he’s a limp-wristed pussy?

Nope- obviously too much for the reading public to ask for. Oh, there was another fun moment, as when Peter and Logan switch costumes to fool the bad guy, and Peter does a rather poor imitation of Logan ("get over here so I can eat you – bub!"), but I couldn’t recommend this series.

You know, Wolverine was never Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome, but damn, he really looked ugly on these covers.

OckFest 2003
I was trying to think of a number of catch phrases to use to illustrate just how overused and overexposed Doctor Octopus was in 2003-2004.. I passed on such goodies as "Ocktoberfest," "Ocknoxious," "Ock Overload," "Ock Overdose," and others that were much worse, before going with the simple and boring title you see above.

The overexposure was understandable. Whether this is 100% true, or apocryphal, it has long been accepted that one of the reasons that Bob Harras was canned as Editor in Chief of Marvel a few years ago was that the first X-Men movie, released in 2000, proved to be far more popular than anticipated. Its domestic gross more than doubled what had been Marvel's previous most successful film to date (Blade), and it racked up nearly $300 million worldwide, probably at least a full third more than even optimistic fans believed it would pull. However, Marvel, under Harras had done NOTHING to assist whatever crossover traffic there might have been, other than toss out a comic adaptation of the film. The sheer volume of X-titles, X-teams, X-universes, and zillions of mutants running around everywhere combined with various convoluted and complex storylines, ensured that someone picking up an X-Men comic after watching the film would unlikely be able to connect the dots and see anything remotely recognizable. Thus, the comics saw no bounce at all from the film. As I mentioned earlier, I'm not entirely sure that's true, because Marvel under Harras had a whole lot of other problems, including the sad state of the Spider-Man titles at the time, but it certainly makes for an interesting story.

Fast forward a couple of years, and the first Spider-Man film, and Marvel ensures that the Green Goblin is the primary villain in at least two storylines going on at the same time (in Peter Parker and Ultimate Spider-Man). Fast forward another couple of years. Sure enough, a certain eight limbed villain pops up ahead of the 2004 film, ensuring that there will be at least three brand new trade paperbacks collecting recently completed storylines available for the comic buying public by movie time. This is in addition to an additional miniseries and another storyline to run concurrently with the film that year (which I'll discuss when it's time for the 2004 Year in Review). That's a whole lotta Doc Ock, maybe even more than the most loyal OckFan or OckPhile can digest.

We've already discussed Paul Jenkins' story arc in Spectacular which was called "Countdown." The two stand alone minis were Negative Exposure by Runaways and Y: The Last Man scribe Brian Vaughn, art by Staz Johnson, and Out of Reach, story by Colin Mitchell, art by Derec Aucoin. The best of the three was clearly Vaughn’s series although Out of Reach actually had more potential.

Negative Exposure had what I consider to be the correct approach to a miniseries - a story that normally could not nor would not likely be told in the regular titles, i.e. (1) an "untold story" from the past and/or (2) a story told from the perspective of a non-recurring character. Exposure satisfies both requirements, as it takes place in an undefined period of time in Spider-Man’s career sometime between the introduction of Mary Jane in Amazing Spider-Man #42 and issues #55-60, when Peter had finally settled on Gwen Stacy. I base this on the fact that Peter is with MJ at the beginning of the story, but there is a reference to him being seen with a blond later on – of course, this runs into the "Spidey Loses his Memory" story arc that originally ran in Amazing, and also featured Doc Ock, but that’s another matter. The story is from the perspective of Daily Bugle photographer Jeffrey Haight, who is going crazy wondering how Peter Parker keeps scooping him for great shots that wind up on page 1 of the Bugle. This leads Haight to enter into a desperate and unwise collaboration with Doc Ock, whom the photographer helps spring from jail with the unwitting aid of the photographer’s police officer girlfriend, so that Ock will stage a battle with Spider-Man to which Haight will have a front seat for the photos of a lifetime.

It would have been better in three parts as opposed to five, but overall it was a good series. As I mentioned last week, I don’t care for the long-haired, stylish shades Doc Ock (who looks like magician/comedian Penn Jillette in this story) that seems to be popular now (and which also pops up in Out of Reach, so I won’t mention it again in this article). Still, the portrayal of Ock is more consistent with the brilliant, yet somewhat immature and deeply troubled super villain that I know and love. This Ock is a powerful intellect, not only scientific, but also a formidable cultural intellect, as his fascination with the Da Vinci that he tried to steal early in the story demonstrates. He is also coldly and expertly manipulative, as he exploits Haight’s vanity to bend him to do Ock’s will. You can see why he considers himself to be Spider-Man’s (as well everyone else’s) superior, and why each defeat at the web slinger’s hands makes him increasingly angry and bitter.

Out of Reach, which took place in the current continuity, had a solid and intriguing core idea. Doc Ock, a tortured and troubled child while growing up who later becomes the recipient of inexplicable power that ensured his permanent corruption, finds a kindred spirit in a brilliant young man by the name of Brigham Fontaine, who brilliance (as well as his whiny, lousy personality) ensures his ostracism from his peers. Fontaine creates an electromagnetic bank vault that resists an attempted robbery by Ock, prompting the eight-limbed terror to seek the young man out and learn the secret of the vault. Turns out that each represents what the other needs – Ock represents a father figure to Fontaine, who likewise becomes almost a son to Ock. The two then begin a rampage across the city looking for increasingly more powerful energy sources to fuel Brigham’s latest experiments, which will use the natural energy of the human body to transform the subject into a being of unstoppable power (frankly, it just sounds like becoming a super duper version of Electro, but I digress). But when it looks like the experiment may kill the young man, has Ock grown to care enough about his protégé as human being to save his life, or has he merely been using him all along?

Or that was the idea.

Unfortunately, Brigham wears out his welcome very quickly and is not a particularly sympathetic or likable character, which he needs to be for this story to work. The action becomes quickly repetitive as Spider-Man follows the two to each location – gets the crap beat out of him, regroups, goes to the next location, gets the crap beat out of him, etc. Ock’s and Brigham’s relationship never quite rings true. The dialogue is flat, and the "resolution" where Ock actually saves Brigham, who then turns on his mentor by stating that Spider-Man was the "real" hero comes out of left field and is completely unconvincing considering all that has gone on before (inexplicably stretched over five issues). Mary Jane is only in the story for Peter to repeatedly run out on as he goes to play superhero. This goes to a problem I’ve had with how MJ has been used over the years. She’s not written out of character– but why is she even in the story at all? If the only reason she’s there is for Peter to kiss and leave, or to get upset with him as he goes – then it’s best that she simply not be used at all.

If Marvel had simply wanted another trade paperback featuring Doc Ock, there were plenty of old classic stories they could have chosen to reprint which would have made much better choices.

And frankly, everyone knows that Doc Ock's real kindred spirit is none other than - Peter Parker - but that story has yet to be told.

Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil That Men Do
I don’t know. And I don’t care. And frankly, you shouldn’t either.

Ultimate Spider-Man
Anyone who has read my columns for any length of time knows my ambivalent feelings about the supervillain called Venom. There are four things I have against the character:

Naturally, this didn’t stop people from relentlessly clamoring for an appearance by an ultimatized Venom after the very first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man debuted in 2000. Bendis, no fan of the character himself, resisted for as long as he could, but eventually caved once he figured out an idea of how to do it. I'll give him this - while giving Venom the "Ultimate" treatment, he found a way to take care of 3 of my 4 objections to the character (the other one, the overexposure of the mid-late 1990's, is beyond anyone's ability to change).

Bendis' Venom story, which ran a bloated seven issues from #33-39, begins with Peter discovering boxes of his late father's possessions. These include many of his scientific notes, and several videos, including one of a picnic from several years ago attended by Peter, his parents, Aunt May and Uncle Ben, and the Brock family, including Eddie Brock, Richard Parker's lab partner, his wife, and young son, aptly named Eddie Brock, Jr. Turns out that the elder Brocks died in the same plane crash that killed Peter's folks. There remains a certain amount of ambiguity about whether or not this was just an accident. May says the plane went down in a storm - but I've been reading comics for too long to dismiss this from being a potential plot device at a later time.

Now here's something that hasn't been talked about much, which would certainly represent a marked change in how continuity has unfolded in classic Spider-Man. According to May, one of the participants in this picnic was her sister. Although not explicitly stated, it's certainly implied that Peter's mother was May's sister. I'm not sure why this change has been made, unless Bendis wanted to strengthen May's genetic ties to Peter. I suppose in the grand scheme of things it's irrelevant - but when such tinkering is done, I hope that it ultimately (no pun intended) leads somewhere.

Peter hunts down young Brock, now in college at ESU, to give him a copy of the video and the two begin to bond as they discover that that they have a lot in common, including a love of science and a desire to follow in their late fathers' respective footsteps. Eddie, Jr. decides to show Peter what their fathers were working on - an organic body suit that would bond with the wearer's DNA and use the body's own natural abilities to heal it of disease, including cancer. There is a small sample of gloop (my term) that apparently survived and is stored at the lab at ESU. Eddie has been working on it with his professor, Dr. Curt Connors (yep - same one), who doesn't feel that the remaining sample is useful for its original purpose, but might still yield some scientific value.

However, after watching several videos of his father's narration of the project's downfall, including its theft by a corporation Parker and Brock began to work for in order to get funding, Peter becomes indignant and is determined to preserve his father's legacy. He sneaks into the lab in order to take a small sample to perform some experiments of his own and drops some on his skin. You know what happens next...

Next issue a black-clad Spider-Man with what appears to be organic webbing and near invulnerability comes to the rescue of a kidnapped rock star. Eddie Brock, Jr. watches the resulting TV coverage and puts 2 and 2 together pretty fast, and feels betrayed by Peter. The latter finds out pretty fast, though, that the suit is dangerous, as it feeds off his negative emotions and magnifies them, making him more violent and sadistic, to the point that he nearly kills a criminal (and the infamous long jawed tongue wagging Venom makes his Ultimate debut). After an electrical accident destroys the suit, Peter goes back to the lab to retrieve and destroy the remaining sample, but is met by young Brock. Peter appears to convince Eddie that the suit is dangerous and must be destroyed, and leaves with the sample (later throwing it down an active smokestack, which in a few years will be revealed to be housing a skeleton wearing a Spider-Man costume…nope wrong smokestack, wrong continuity). However, we find out that Eddie has another sample stashed away, and feeling bitter and resentful, dips his fingers into the goop…

To back track a moment, we earlier on get the idea that Eddie Jr. is not the most stable and endearing of young men. Clearly smitten with Gwen Stacy (whom he meets when he picks up Peter at school to go hang out), he misinterprets her going to his dorm room with him as an invitation to sex. When Gwen puts a stop to his advances, he reacts a bit more angrily than your normal 18-year-old boy in a similar situation might be. And I'm not even going to comment on Gwen's lack of judgment in this matter because that's getting into dangerous waters.

Naturally, Eddie becomes Venom (from the "Venom Project" which is what Richard Parker named it. Why he named an organic body suit the "Venom Project," is never explained, but that’s not particularly relevant). During the resulting battle, we find out that since the suit was originally created with Richard Parker's DNA as the prototype, it needs to combine with Peter in order to continue to survive, and can't make it with just Eddie as the human host. Unfortunately, the battle ends rather anti-climatically as Eddie/Venom steps on a live electrical line in the middle of a rainstorm and appears to be destroyed.

In the epilogue, Peter hunts down Ultimate Samuel L. Jackson, the leader of the Ultimates, and demands that Jackson do something to take away his powers, that he's seen too much horrible shit and evil people and doesn't want to be Spider-Man anymore. Naturally, because Jackson has clearly seen the sales figures of the title, he refuses, and tells Peter to chill out for awhile. Peter later finds out when he goes to Eddie’s dorm room that the younger Brock had been there just before him to claim some things before disappearing to parts unknown. Returning to the lab to try to retrieve whatever notes and research Eddie has on the subject, he finds Dr. Connors, who was coming to check on the status of Brock's research himself. Naturally, he also puts 2 and 2 together since he saw the black costumed Spider-Man on TV as well. I wonder if this, in addition to an inference in the miniseries Quality of Life was why Paul Jenkins mistakenly assumed the same was true in the regular continuity in 2004’s "The Lizard’s Tale," which turned out to be his worst blunder on the Spider-Man titles. But since Spider-Man knows about Dr. Connors’ scaly alter ego (which appeared in the late Ultimate Team-Up), Connors, who also knew Peter’s father, pledges to keep the secret.

As you've no doubt surmised, this take on the Venom character makes more sense than the one in the regular spider-verse, and the story was pretty interesting until the final "battle." The motivations, the personal connections, many of the things missing in the original concept were present here. And naturally, I thought I knew where things were going later in the series. I thought for sure that in a few years, Eddie Brock, Jr. would be the one to actually murder Ultimate Gwen Stacy. Look, when Gwen shows up, you know she's gonna die sometime. We knew it wasn’t going to be at the hands of the Green Goblin, since a similar variation of the famous bridge story appeared already, with Mary Jane as the victim, who survived this potential tragedy. Brock, clearly an already disturbed young man with a resentment of women due to repeated rejections, would see such an opportunity to settle more than one old score.

But as we'll find out in the 2004 Year in Review - that didn't happen.

Having acceded to fan’s demands that he bring in Venom, Bendis turned his attention to another frequent fan request, an original Ultimate villain. This villain was universally considered to be a dud, and a source of mutual irritation between Bendis and Marvel EIC Joe Quesada - that is, if you choose to believe any of their vaudeville routine they do for the fanboys, much of which I am skeptical. For one, it’s hard to imagine that Bendis really meant for this "Geldoff" to be a serious bad guy. (I know, I keep thinking that’s the guy who organized that "Band-Aid" thing in Britain during the 1980’s – either that or he was the wizard from "Lord of the Rings." While Geldoff does indeed possess dangerous powers of telekinesis, he ultimately (pun intended) is just a confused, lonely teenage orphan from Latveria (yep – that place – no idea if he has any ties to Ultimate Doc Doom) who is using his super powers like many confused, lonely teenage boys would, to get the attention, affection, and approval of his peers.

Spidey tries to reason with Geldoff about the proper and responsible use of his powers, but the latter is simply too immature and too full of teenage angst to get the message. Even when he tries to assist Spider-Man during an attempted robbery, his careless use of his powers, matched with simply enjoying the mayhem he created a little too much, characterize him as really bad news.

In another manipulative cross sell opportunity the X-Chicks (Storm, Jean Gray, and Kitty Pryde) show up, having tracked down Geldoff as a potential mutant. Various hi-jinks and shenanigans ensue, including Spidey falling out of the X-Stealth, X-Rocket, or whatever (hey - how about Rocketship X-M? Nah - I think that's been taken) and having to be rescued, only to lose consciousness and wake up unmasked in the midst of Charles Xavier and the entire band of merry mutants (and he blows his own secret identity by blurting out his full name only to realize that none of them – except Xavier obviously – knew it). Xavier learns that Geldoff is indeed a mutant, but rather than simply being born a mutant, his genetic structure was tampered with while he was still in his mother’s womb. Xavier pledges to find out who is responsible, but of course, as is often the case in the Ultimate Universe, several loose ends are left unceremoniously and infuriatingly dangling. Another significant development in the story was that Peter and Mary Jane, earlier on the outs, get back together in a very big way and very suggestive way. Could they have actually - ? Surely not.

Incidentally, though, because Bendis is very good with capturing the humor and absurdity of the moment, this story actually had two of my favorite moments in the Spider-verse in 2003. A running joke during this story arc was that Peter, having either previously having lost or destroyed his old costumes, and broken up with Mary Jane, who made his extra costumes and repaired them, no longer has a spider-suit with which to fight crime in! Unlike his classic counterpart and more realistically, this Peter Parker, like most 16-year-old boys - doesn't know how to sew! And he also learns that it's not easy to find a Spider-Man like set of tights unless, he wants to actually go buy a set of dance tights - a fact which does not appeal to him at all.

Naturally, he is pressed into service wearing only his mask along with his street clothes when he falls upon a bunch of punks attacking a young girl - and finding that a sweats clad superhero doesn't inspire fear in the hearts of New York's Lowest. When asked by one of these dastardlies where his costume is - "You mom’s washing it for me" is the laugh out loud answer, one of the few times that Ultimate Peter has even approached the wry sense of humor of his classic counterpart.

The next moment was after the X-Chicks show up, psychic Jean Gray expresses her appreciation to Spider-Man for being the first male she's met in six months not to immediately imagine her imagine her naked. Oops – talk about the wrong image to put into the head of a 16-year-old boy. Normally I’m not a big fan of panels upon panels of wordless or minimal dialogue, but it was really funny this time as Spidey tries more than once to rid himself of that mental image, creating several moments of profound embarrassment for him.

Issue #45 featured something that was considered as extinct as the coelacanth once was - particularly in the pages of Ultimate - a one-part story, which I've called "Aunt May on the Couch." Basically, the entire issue is Aunt May talking to a shrink.

And thus I think I have finally figured things out - you know - why the Ultimate line was really created. Marvel decided that "young, new" readers could not relate to a married superhero, or a superhero that was not a teenager. And Spider-Man's long continuity made him totally inaccessible to those "young, new" readers. Therefore, Marvel in it's infinite wisdom realized that what "young, new" readers really wanted was stories about middle aged women talking to psychiatrists. And, after all, if one of those "young, new" readers just randomly picked up an issue of the regular continuity Spider-Man, we wouldn't want them to be confused if they stumbled into the middle of a story where Spider-Man was fighting the Green Goblin or Doctor Octopus and during the battle they referenced events of long ago that fed into their respective simmering blood feuds. No, they really needed simple stories of middle aged women talking to psychiatrists where Peter Parker and Spider-Man make only token, flashback appearances.

Yes, I'm being a snide little smart-ass. Actually, I'm not bothered by this story at all. It’s a rather uncomfortable story to read, but interesting. We spend most of the time in this title dealing with Peter's anguish, Peter's guilt, Peter's volatile emotions, because, after all, he is the star of the book. It's interesting to turn the tables at times, and realize that he is not the only person whose life has been impacted by these horrible things, by the deaths of his parents, Uncle Ben, and Captain George Stacy (the event that ultimately drove May to see the shrink). Peter is probably pretty clueless that May is suffering just as much or more than he is - and in fact - Peter himself is playing a major part in contributing to May's burdens and pain - and he's so self-indulgent he doesn't even realize it. But it's just the type of thing though, like Ultimate X-Men turning into a comic dealing with mature subject matters, that seems to make the entire stated purpose of the Ultimate line as was so brashly and boldly pronounced in 2000, an outright lie. I can't see the supposed "target audience" of this book understanding this particular story at all.

What happens to a person who loses almost everyone she loves? Remember the videotape of the picnic with the Parkers and Brocks that Peter came across and showed to May? All of the other adults in that tape are dead. Her family has been destroyed. This explains why she took in an apparently troubled girl like Gwen Stacy awfully quickly after her father died. May needed Gwen, perhaps even more than Gwen needed her. Someone to be in the house all the time, to fill it with noise and chaos - because the quiet would be even more unbearable. Bendis also tries to flesh out May's dislike of Spider-Man a bit better than it was done originally in the classic stories. Ultimate Spider-Man has become May's bogeyman, partly because he represents the lack of control she feels in her life, as he seems to show up whenever and where ever he wants to, and no one appears able to stop him. Of course, why she still hasn't figured it out like so many others seem to have...

Turns out May did have the hots for the late Captain Stacy, as her shrink clearly figured out. I suspected as much when they interacted in the titles last year. I still wonder whether or not Bendis pondered getting them romantically involved before he had the captain unceremoniously bumped off by the fake Spider-Man.

It’s clear, though by reading this story, and next week when we discuss Ultimate Six that Peter is doing a terrible thing to May by keeping her in the dark about his secret identity. He tells his girl, but not his "mother"? Considering that he places her life in danger he owes it to her to at least let her know why her life is spinning even more out of her control than she can imagine. Well – that’s a 16-year-old kid for you. At 41 it’s hard to fathom, but if I were 16, I probably wouldn’t have told my mother, either. And I sure as HELL wouldn’t have told my father. He'd still have kicked my ass - super powers from a genetically enhanced spider or not.

The sole purpose of the following issue, #46, was to introduce the Sandman in time for him to show up as a player in Ultimate Six. However, this results in an eminently forgettable story. Using a little retroactive continuity from issue #21, turns out that after Spidey beat Doc Ock and knocked out Kraven, he ran into Sandman as well. This is the second successive issue where Spidey is essentially a non-entity or guest star in his own magazine, as the unpleasant and unlikable Agent Sharon Carter (Spidey saves her from Sandman, but she proceeds to be a frigid ungrateful bitch) narrates the story.

The next story, issues #47-49 finally features J. Jonah Jameson prominently, a long overdue development in the Ultimate universe. This time, it's in an homage to the Sam Bullit story from the original Amazing Spider-Man #91-92, which began with the December 1970 issue. Jonah and the Bugle are endorsing the dubiously ethical Mr. Bullit, who is running on an anti-Spider-Man campaign for District Attorney. Additionally, Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin, who fled the country after issue #12 when Spider-Man mailed surveillance camera video of Fisk murdering the Big Man, a underling gangster, to reporter Ben Urich, is able to return to the country after spreading enough money around to dupe the legal system into believing that the "evidence" was fraudulent. Peter, with the naiveté perfect for a 16 year old boy, cannot understand for the life of him how a murdering scumbag like Wilson Fisk, who was literally caught in the act can run around free and unencumbered. What's worse is that everyone seems to accept this course of events as just one of those facts of an often unfair life and move on. But people like Jonah, instead of worrying about Fisk, invests a considerable amount of time and ink berating a goofy superhero in his pajamas who’s actually trying to do some good. Calling Jameson on this double standard gets Peter fired from his webmaster job, just like arguing with his teacher about the same point gets him suspended from school. Fortunately, good old Robbie Robertson, the one person who can tell JJJ off and live another day, blasts his employer for being a prick. Even Aunt May gets in some licks when she finds out that Peter was fired, and calls up Jonah to chew his ass out, signing off with the real corker "Hitler wants his look back."

During a pointed interview with Bugle reporter Ben Urich, however, Bullit melts down when Urich prods him about his and his legal partner Mr. Dini’s ties to organized crime, and specifically, Fisk. Jonah prints the story and retracts the Bugle's support of Bullit. Spider-Man has followed Jonah to give him a piece of his mind about his misrepresentation, but is forced to come to JJJ’s rescue when the Ultimate Enforcers, at the behest of the Kingpin, attempt to lean on him a little to get him to back off from the story. After Spidey changes back to Peter and goes home, he sees none other than J. Jonah Jameson sitting on his doorstep. Humbled by this evening's events, Jonah offers Peter an apology and his job as Bugle webmaster back. He tells Peter that his son, an astronaut, died on a space shuttle that burned up in orbit a year ago. Trying to find out exactly what happened, NASA told Jonah the information was classified - and that was it. His son dies - and no one owes him an explanation - and he doesn't even have a body to bury. As the enclosed panel shows, JJJ's problems with Spider-Man aren't entirely dissimilar here as in the regular continuity. But not only does Jonah give Peter his job back, he also extends an invitation to for him to tag along with reporter Ben Urich to learn the ropes of the newspaper reporting business - just like his own editor did for him many years ago.

The regular continuity JJJ is a cartoon character, glaringly so, whereas his Ultimate counterpart is probably a more realistic portrayal (moustache and all). But, as I mentioned when I reviewed the first year of Ultimate Spider-Man, Jonah’s relative insignificance, and the absence of the humor he provides, is one of the most glaring weaknesses of the Ultimate Universe.

Issue #49 ends with Spider-Man confronting the Kingpin with the latest Bugle story, taken from a recording Jonah made when the Enforcers threatened him. After some juvenile taunting, Spidey leaves, with the Kingpin promising that he's going to discover whom he is one of these days...

When I first wrote this column for Hero Realm in weekly segments, I received several e-mails concerning my disparaging of the Venom character as portrayed in the regular continuity. This was my response:

You people love your Venom.

At least that's my assumption from the mail I received after last week's column, in which before I discussed the "Venom" story arc and re-imagining by Brian Michael Bendis in Ultimate Spider-Man. I gave my reasons why I never particularly cared for the infamous brain eater, particularly his human alter ago, Eddie Brock. The primary reason I gave was that I simply felt his motivation for hating Spider-Man all of these years, which sprang from the fact that he concocted a phony newspaper story, got busted, got fired, and then chose to blame Spider-Man, when there were any number of people he could have blamed - such as his editor, Daredevil, the real Sin-Eater, the fake Sin-Eater - or his own lazy self - was simply lame.

I suppose I should have been clearer on my rationale, since the way I originally stated it was overly simplistic. A few of you are going to recognize this reasoning on my part because that's how I responded to you when you wrote to me, so you can skip the next few paragraphs and get into the substance of this week's column if you prefer.

First of all, those of you who chose to point out that people, particularly psychotic people, can hate for no reason whatsoever, are absolutely correct. Eddie obviously had issues to begin with (and if he was dying of cancer as well, as Paul Jenkins indicated, then his logic centers were really jumbled, understandably so). The symbiote's feelings of hatred for Spider-Man due to his rejection of it probably intensified whatever bitterness Brock felt (and likely made him crazier. Bonding with an alien symbiote can't be good for the human mind). That said, as a frequently recurring dramatic character, Eddie Brock simply left a lot to be desired. If Venom had been a modestly recurring B-list villain, for example, then I wouldn't have had that much of a problem. After all, chumps like Electro and Mysterio are pissed at Spidey because he keeps busting up their crime gigs, which is pretty stupid when you think about it - because if they weren't committing crimes - Spidey wouldn't be putting them in jail! But that's o.k. because they're straw men, B-list supervillains whose only reason for existence is to show up every now and then so Spidey can kick the crap out of them.

But Brock isn't considered a B-lister, he's considered an A-list supervillain, and he certainly has shown up often enough over the years. But he just isn't in the same league as Norman Osborn and Doc Ock - not even close. With Osborn, there's so much that has gone under the bridge personally between him and Spidey their mutual hatred could burn unabated forever. Osborn was the first villain to learn Spidey's true i.d., he was the father of his best friend, a long-time supporting character whose death Osborn blames Peter for - and I won't even get into the Gwen Stacy thing. Osborn even has a reason for hating Mary Jane as well because she also "betrayed" Harry. Doc Ock is in many ways the anti-Peter Parker, a brilliant scientific mind in a weak, flawed body who was ostracized by his peers, and for whom the receipt of power turned him to the dark side of evil and psychosis. That's the kind of stuff that makes an A-List supervillain. Brock's motivations were simply too weak for the sheer volume of times he showed up. And then there was that whole Lethal Protector nonsense. Frankly, it surprises me that NONE of the writers who toyed with Venom/Brock noticed this Achilles heel of his and tried to supplement it in some fashion - until Paul Jenkins' valiant, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort a whole 15 years later.

David Michelinie's original concept for Venom was a woman who lost her husband and unborn child in an accident created by some Spider-Man inspired mayhem, which makes more sense than the phony Sin Eater story. Marvel didn't think people would believe a symbiote-enhanced woman could take on Spidey (another example of Marvel thinking all comic fans are utter morons). So, he came up with Eddie Brock, but planned to kill him after awhile and have the symbiote move from host to host. However, Venom's popularity exploded, and Marvel didn't want to change the status quo. So, you essentially have a character that was never meant for A-List status suddenly being thrown into it. And then they compounded it by running him into the ground, essentially destroying the character. But I do have hopes for the Gargan/Venom combination.

At least that's where I'm coming from on the matter...

Ultimate Black Cat
That we would see an Ultimate version of the Black Cat was inevitable. Uncomfortable echoes of the Catwoman aside (which is why I don’t think she would be a viable character in any of the Spider-Man films. While us hard core comic fans know better, to the public at large that have poned up $1.6 billion worldwide to see the last two films – she’d be seen as little more than a rip-off), she’s the Bad Girl of the Spider-Man Universe. The twist that Brian Bendis wanted to bring to the relationship was that Spidey and the Cat would be fascinated by each other, but what if one of the parties didn’t realize the other was only 16 years old?

There is a brief nod to the Ancient Tablet saga that ran from issues #68-75 in classic Amazing Spider-Man in 1969, which I'll get to later. One of the Kingpin's associates has managed to get his hands on the tablet and is holding it for the fat man, but the Cat swoops in and steals it in what is one of the longest, laborious, and most wasteful uses of ink and paper in recent comic book memory. Spidey comes across the Cat at the conclusion of her theft, and although she's clearly a bad girl, like his classic counterpart, he finds out he really digs ethically challenged platinum blondes in black leather. Can't say I blame the boy that much. Apparently, the Cat is just as fascinated with him - obviously not knowing she'd be bumping and grinding with Mary Kay Letourneau in a womens' prison if she carried through. So, she puts an ad in the paper offering to meet our hero somewhere (which is pretty dumb), and he actually shows up, with is also pretty dumb. Needless to say, supersized crimelords really don't like having things stolen from them (as the Cat was caught leaving the scene by TV cameras, Kingpin didn't have to think too hard to figure this out), so he hires the Bendisized Ultimate Elektra to take out Ultimate Black Cat. Lots of girl on girl action ensues, although ending indecisively.

The Cat's gig comes to a swift end, however, since before long, both the Kingpin and Spidey figure out who she is (I'll discuss this later), and it turns out that Felicia Hardy actually works in the accounting department for Fisk Enterprises. Her father was a cat burglar who once worked for the Kingpin, but who was later abandoned by his employer and left to die in prison. Stealing the tablet was to be Felicia's revenge, but obviously the Kingpin has other ideas. Spidey breaks into Felicia's apartment just as Fisk and Elektra are about to turn her into a Cat-ka-bob. The story ends with Felicia tossing the tablet into the river right before Fisk's horrified eyes, and then taking one of Elektra's funky swords in the gut. However, like her previous incarnation, the Black Cat clearly has more than one life to spare because true to comic book convention - there's no body to by found.

We later find discover that the Kingpin wanted the tablet for his comatose wife Vanessa (who certainly had more than her share of physical and mental problems in the regular Marvel universe). She apparently believed that the tablet has magical healing powers, and communicated this belief to Fisk before she went under. Although an unbeliever, he secured the table for her sake - but now - all is apparently lost - and the story ends with a tearful Fisk at her hospital bed begging her to wake up from her perpetual slumber...

As Spider-Fans know, the original Ancient Tablet was the secret of the Fountain of Youth, and reverted aging crime lord Silvermane to a pre-embryonic state in Amazing Spider-Man #75. Writer Fabian Nicieza revived the Ancient Tablet plot in all new story in a 2001 miniseries entitled Spider-Man: Lifeline, which brought back some older characters from the original story. This time it was discovered there were additional pieces, and another crime lord, Hammerhead (which we apparently are going to see in Ultimate Spidey before too long), sought the tablet in order to heal his terminally ill sister.

This story was o.k. - perhaps comparisons to the original Black Cat story in Amazing Spider-Man #194-195 (1979) by Marv Wolfman aren't entirely valid. Clearly, that story had a lot more sizzle because Spidey and the Cat were actually able to have a few smoldering moments together and some conversation. Of course, Spidey was older in that story as well - and Bendis was probably wise not only to avoid pushing the envelope that much, but also in avoiding making the Cat as young as Spidey. It's funny how us comic book fans' minds work. We're more willing to suspend belief that a teenage boy can become a superhero by getting bitten by a genetically enhanced spider than by believing that a teenage girl could turn herself into a master burglar. Well, we are.

Long time classic Spidey fans will enjoy seeing the long list of "cat burglar" names that Peter Parker comes upon when he looks for clues to the Cat's identity. Unfortunately, not even I recognized all of them, but it was clever to see the civilian names of such villains in the regular universe as the Beetle, Chameleon, Puma, Prowler, Carnage, Gibbon, and even the mysterious "Carradine" which of course, may or may not be the last name of THE Burglar, the one who murdered Uncle Ben in classic Spider-Man.

In the Ultimate Six discussion later, I'm going to express unhappiness with the fact that Spidey just stood around like a mope while the big battle went on. However, in this story, he does exactly the same thing while Elektra and the Black Cat go at it. But I think this time it actually makes sense. For one, he doesn't have a clue who is on the side of right in this fight - and second - well, Spidey's thoughts of "Oh hey. Catfight." says it all.

It's pretty obvious reading this story that of all of Spidey's villains, Bendis clearly likes and feels the most comfortable with the Kingpin, which he has also used in the regular Marvel Universe. Ultimate Kingpin is virtually identical to his classic counterpart, he doesn't transform into the Hulk-Kingpin, he wasn't a bowler who turned to crime after losing a 300 game at the last frame, or any of that stuff. And in a moment that distinguishes A list from B list villains, he gives Ultimate Kingpin the additional dimension that Classic Kingpin also has, total devotion to the woman he loves. In both universes, Wilson Fisk is a man who would give up everything for the love of his wife.

Of course, the real horror of this story is finding out that Ultimate Felicia is not a real platinum blonde, but a shorthaired brunette.

Aw, man...

I’m not done with this story yet – but that’s for later.

Ultimate Six
This 7 part miniseries was almost my Best Story of the Year for 2003.

Almost. And then it fumbled at the goal line. Damn. 'Cause it was really cool for awhile.

Keep in mind, though, that this is more of an "Ultimates" story than a Spider-Man story, considering that Peter Parker only first appears in issue #3 and never even wears his Spider-Man mask during the whole story! He is also inexplicably a nonfactor in the final battle that occurs in issues #6 & 7. Really, the only thing that peripherally makes this a Spider-Man story under my inconsistent and arbitrary eligibility for inclusion in "Year in Review" is that his villains are the villains of the story.

Speaking of Spidey's villains, we all know about the Sinister Six - that seriously snide and sneaky sextet of supervillains who ganged up on poor old Spidey in the very first Amazing Spider-Man Annual back in 1964 . The roster was comprised of some of Spidey's deadliest foes at the time, Sandman, Electro, Mysterio, Kraven the Hunter, and the Vulture - led by Doctor Octopus (this story is also significant because it's the first time that those two unlikely love birds, Doc Ock and Aunt May, met).

Fast forward to another century - and the idea of teaming up Spidey's villains in an Ultimatized slugfest was just too cool to avoid. The primary conflictis initiated when Electro, Sandman, and Kraven the Hunter (who had received a genetic power-up after getting bopped like a girly-man by Spidey on TV and now acts like Wolverine's second cousin on his mama's side), led by Norman Osborn and Doc Ock (hey wait, that's only five - who's the 6th?) break out of a SHIELD holding facility. They massacre virtually the entire staff and leave total destruction and chaos in their wake. Fury quickly figures out that the one thing these diverse desperadoes have in common is a mutual loathing for everyone's friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, so he has both Peter and Aunt May (at separate times - and they don't see each other until the end) brought to Ultimate headquarters for their protection. It doesn't work, however, as the supervillains crash Ultimate headquarters and kidnap Peter. This is part of Osborn's plans to (1) corrupt Peter and bring him to the "dark side" (and here, the Ultimate Universe falls into lockstep with what first cropped up in the regular Spider-Man Universe with 2000's Revenge of the Green Goblin mini, then was a feature point of the first movie, that Osborn sees Peter as the son he really always wanted), and (2) exact revenge upon Fury for imprisoning him. It turns out that for all of the speculation of who the 6th member would be, such as the already seen Ultimate Venom, or perhaps an Ultimate version of Scorpion, Vulture, or Mysterio, it turned out that it was Spider-Man himself, which for what should have actually been a cool idea turned out rather feh. Norman threatens Peter with Aunt May's life if he doesn't do as Osborn tells him.

Osborn's plans against Fury move forward when he calls an old buddy of his, who happens to be the White House Chief of Staff, and informs him of the secret super powered gulag that Fury had created, completely unknown to the President and Congress, which held Osborn and his compatriots. Whoops - not a really smart thing to do, as the President reminds Fury, to burn the hand that's been keeping your political enemies off your back - particularly since one of those super villains locked in the gulag happened to be a wealthy man with considerable financial, legal, and political connections.

The Six march towards the White House with the implied purpose of massacring the President and staff, which supposedly will make Nick Fury look really bad in the public eye so that the government will call for his head and throw him in the slammer. Hmm - Norman's a great master planner, but this seems to be stretching some things. The Six are met at the goal line of the White House by the Ultimates. Part 5 ends with the "so cool its gives you shivers" final full page of Captain America and his nearly 3-D Finger pointing at the Six and announcing "Osborn - you're trespassing."

Of course, as you know, this means war.

The resulting bloody superhero-supervillain knucklebusting that results ends with Osborn as the last villain standing when Nick Fury brings in his trump card - Harry Osborn - to talk some sense into Norman. This seems to begin to work as Osborn powers down from his Giant Green Wart Monster figure. But before he fully transforms back to his human self, he is shot in the back by Iron Man, and the resulting thrashing ends with Osborn unconscience, half man and half monster, and a despondent Harry leaving the scene threatening to kill them all someday, no doubt a precursor to Ultimate HobGoblin.

There were a lot of cool moments in the first five parts that left me with fanboy giddiness - but unfortunately, few of those moments really featured Spidey - such as:

So, damn, if it had so many cool moments - how did it go wrong?

  • Probably the main reason is that during the final battle, Peter does little more than stand around like a fear-immobilized wussy. He gets in one lick on Osborn and for the most part he's useless. I know he's afraid that Osborn will get away and kill Aunt May - but these are his villains. He should be there kicking their asses alongside the Ultimates. And no, this is not the same as Marvel Knights Spider-Man #11 where he lets the Avengers and FF beat up his old villains - he does that so he can rescue Mary Jane and personally administer a beat down to the Green Goblin. Perhaps the primary reason I have always preferred Classic to Ultimate Spider-Man is that classic Spider-Man usually winds up taking his destiny into his own hands and never lets himself be a victim. He's one of the premiere heroes of that universe. In the Ultimate Universe, it seems like he's a second class citizen in contrast to the Ultimates, and he too often seems to be a victim of events or in way over his head. Maybe that's more realistic, considering how young the Ultimate version is, but I just don't like it.

  • How Fury figured out Norman Osborn's gameplan to attack the White House just by looking at Peter Parker's abandoned backpack at Ultimate headquarters is beyond me.

  • The final battle turns out to be a bit anti-climatic. Probably the coolest, deadliest battle, the one between Thor and Electro, was the one we didn't see! And Thor looks like he took some serious licks. As the Klingon Kor once said "It would have been glorious!"

  • Rather than going down fighting and trying to take as many down with him as he can - Osborn is dispatched by a shot in the back from Iron Man, does a little thrashing in a hail of bullets, and goes down. Bleh.

  • The story was clearly stretched out to last one more issue (since it was originally advertised as a 6-issue story) and not only did that issue wind up merely being a bunch of anti-climatic jabber, but the friggin' thing was late shipping with no reason given - which made the subdued ending a lot less digestible because it took so long to arrive.

And frankly, it's time that Peter comes clean with Ultimate Aunt May. He lets her go through all kinds of emotional anguish while she's being held at headquarters since she's not allowed to see him (which admittedly would be difficult if you've been kidnapped by supervillains on a mad rampage to destroy the White House) and then simply responds by giving her a very unconvincing lie - that he's just been sitting on his ass for hours. It seems to me that this Peter Parker, rather than just trying to protect May, is almost playing Russian Roulette with her life by not giving her the knowledge she needs to negotiate her way around this brave new world that, whether she knows it or not, she is a part of.

Spider-Girl
The fans of May "Mayday" Parker are indeed a loyal and hearty bunch. I've lost count of the times that the title has been threatened with and then been saved from cancellation - at least three that I can remember off-hand. The first one was after issue #38, then issue #50, and then Mayday seemed to be in peril at regular six-month intervals. I think this is significant because in 2003, there were essentially only two Spider-Girl stories, each a 6-part tale (although one apparent stand-alone story could have been said to be an epilogue to one of them). Although both were good, they each were so long they began to wear a little. My guess is that the author, long-time Marvel and two time Spider-Man scribe Tom DeFalco, was plotting out six-part stories whose end would coincide with what he thought might be the end of the entire series. Issue #60 was a special issue, as it marked May's special achievement as the star of the longest running solo female superhero title in Marvel history.

"Marked for Death" (issues #61-66) is one of those tales where DeFalco, apparently bummed that a lot of his old characters and plotlines from his last spin on Amazing Spider-Man in the 1990's got scrapped in favor of that colossal failure known as the Reboot, subtly resurrects them. In fact, the whole series is the logical extension of where he seemed to be going in the Spider-Man titles before the plug was pulled on him. This time, it's the Black Tarantula, or more accurately, the son of the Black Tarantula. The original was a massive (both literally and metaphorically) South American crime lord who beat the living piss out of Spidey more than once in the 1990's as he tried to establish a foothold in New York. But more importantly, he tried to re-claim his son from his ex-wife so that the boy could inherit the legacy (kind of like a South American Green Goblin thing). He may have lost the battle in the '90's, but considering that the boy is now in charge of the empire (the old man's fate has not yet been revealed), he won the war.

In this story, someone is whacking the crime lords of New York in an attempt to become the Big Kahuna, and none other than Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin himself, who has been running his empire from jail these days, falls victim (I'll comment on this later). May attempts to get to the bottom of this mystery, adopting a philosophy of her father's "No one dies on my watch," (which if you remember, Spidey used during the "Digger" storyline this year). She is repeatedly confounded by the fact that none of the players, Cannis the wolf-like crimelord, Kaine the killer klone (from the Clone Saga days who is actually a clone of Peter Parker, but May doesn't know that), Mr. Nobody the teleporting assassin, and Raptor, former villain turned hero, who is the daughter of the second Vulture and May's competition for the affections of Normie Osborn, have a whole lot of credibility!

Eventually, May learns that Cannis is behind the entire plot (no real surprise) and the Black Tarantula, who comes to America to pay his respects to the Kingpin, starts to become quite interested in the young lady in the red and blue tights. Kaine and Raptor are actually part of a government-funded group of supervillains trying to make good. In the most interesting part of this story, issue #63, Normie recovers after a near death experience filled with Goblin Goodies, including confrontations with the dearly departed Norman, Harry, and Liz Osborn, the latter who banishes Norman back to the darkness where he belongs, and convinces her son to continue with his life, not shackled by the demons and mistakes of his past. The Kingpin also has a near death experience, but one from which he does not return. Encountering visions of his late son, Richard, and wife Vanessa, he is given a choice of returning to the land of the living, and his life of crime, and thus ultimately facing eternity forever separated from Vanessa. Or, he can renounce it all and find salvation at last. But the only way he can truly repudiate his evil ways (since he knows that if he returns, he will continue as he lived), is to totally surrender his life.

I was surprised that DeFalco actually offed Wilson Fisk in this story, particularly since it's a rather inglorious end, and hard to believe considering how many other assassination attempts he has survived. Although I suppose it could be interpreted that the Kingpin actually chose to end his life himself, by not fighting his way back. Unfortunately we get very little reaction from Peter, considering how many times he fought His Rotundity and the latter's responsibility for the death of Daredevil. However, it's probably for the best that the Kingpin is out of the way, since I believe that Spider-Girl should be about May's villains, not her father's. This is why I'm glad that both Norman Osborn and Doctor Octopus are clearly dead in this timeline (Ock showed up early on, but was dying of a cancer which apparently claimed him - and Norman actually died during the Gathering of Five ceremony in the Spider-Girl universe). Venom has returned, but that's the one old villain whose return actually makes sense, particularly as it is free of Eddie Brock, and since the symbiote should have a much longer life expectancy than human villains.

Although this story was a bit long, it's another example of DeFalco's ability to effortlessly weave numerous plot elements and characters into the mix, and he seems to understand better than most of the current spider-writers of the importance of a strong supporting cast.

But wait a minute - why did I skip issues #54-60? Well because that story was my...

Best Story of 2003
Like I said in the very first part - it surprised me too. It's like the time I joined in an office NCAA basketball pool, not knowing much about college basketball, and correctly picked the Indiana Hoosiers as National Champions (this was back in 1987 - yes I know, I'm an old man). I didn't go into the pool picking the Hoosiers, and hometown bias didn't even enter into it. It was just the simple act of picking winners game by game, bracket by bracket, and the Hoosiers just happened to be the last team standing.

"Season of the Serpent" was very much like that. I kept thinking that another Paul Jenkins story would be the winner, since he'd come up with three of the previous four, or it was going to be something so blatantly kick-ass as Ultimate Six. But, inevitably, they all disappointed, and this one just snuck in at the finish line.

For me, "Season of the Serpent," was very much Spider-Girl's "Nothing can Stop the Juggernaut," that famous story by Roger Stern in Amazing Spider-Man #229-230 in 1982, with a little "Master Planner" from Amazing Spider-Man #33 tossed in. What seems to be just a case of those nutbags the Sons of the Serpent (back in the 70's I remember that they were essentially Marvel's KKK - I'm not sure what they've morphed into these days or if they're still on the same racist kick) on another terrorist gig results in a confrontation with Seth - the Serpent God of Death who is merely using the Sons to spread some mayhem, death, and anarchy, all the kinds of things a God of Death craves. Seth is a serious heavy hitter who has tangled with the Mighty Thor, so it becomes pretty apparent that May is way out of her league in trading punches with him - but she never gives up.

After promising Mary Jane not to tackle with Seth again after a major thumping, May decides to satiate her need for action by accompanying American Dream (a female Captain America) into a parallel universe where the Avengers overthrew a tyrant whose troops were comprised of evil versions of Marvel Universe superheroes. The very thin connection to the Seth story is that Seth killed the original Thunderstrike, father to the current Thunderstrike, who stayed behind in the parallel dimension. May gets to fight and defeat an evil version of her own father (here called "Arachnus") before helping to rescue the "original" Captain America, who has been held in stasis in the headquarters of the evil Fantastic Five.

Returning to her own world, May is greeted by the assembled forces of the Avengers, Fantastic Five, X-Men and other assorted heroes who have gathered together at Avengers Mansion to take on Seth. May is called home by Peter, who tells her that she's too young and inexperienced to take on Seth and would only get in the other heroes' way. Furious, May leaves the mansion, but after getting a major buzz from her spider sense returns to see that the mansion is encased in an entropy field, courtesy of Seth's magic, that is closing in on the rest of the heroes. Once again, May is forced to go it alone against Seth, and after taking a tremendous beating, is able to distract him enough to weaken the entropy field, which allows the other heroes to escape and defeat him just as May collapses from exhaustion.

The story ends very much like the series conclusion it could have been. May's baby brother Ben is born - a reaffirmation of life in the midst of chaos and death - and after all of this time quarrelling with her parents, they provide her with a brand new costume, a symbol of their pride in her, and their acceptance of her lifestyle choice. The other heroes in this universe also now accept her, and she has the confidence to realize that she is making a difference in the world, no matter how hard it can be sometimes. Whether or not the title survives, Spider-Girl is here to stay.

Amidst all of the action, there's also some interesting stories on the personal front, as May decides that she's really in love with Normie Osborn, the grandson of her father's greatest enemy (yikes! Talk about your ironies!) and plants a major kiss on him, but then much to her embarrassment she discovers that Mr. Osborn's feelings for her are not quite on the same level.

Or are they? I suspect this is a supporting plot that will last the life of the series - to be finally resolved whenever the "final" issue of Spider-Girl sees print.

I'm also a little partial to this story because it climaxes with the birth of May's little brother, Benjamin Richard Parker, a happy moment at the end of a long and very difficult pregnancy for Mary Jane, who was wheelchair bound during most of her nine months thanks to complications from Peter's irradiated blood (as well as the fact that MJ is probably in her early 40's at this time, a trying period for a woman to have a child even in today's artificial insemination age when women in their 50's and 60's are now having children). This story was written not long after my own son was born, and there were several years (7, not 15, but still...) between him and my own daughter. When May comes upon Peter in issue #59, and sees him with tears streaming down his cheeks, she fears the worst, but it is simply Peter's emotional outlet for the stress he's recently endured - baby and mother are both fine. Reminded me of when my daughter was born after a long and painful labor endured by my wife - and then before I even got to hold my child for the first time she was whisked to pediatric ICU because she was having some trouble breathing. Everything turned out O.K., but as she was wheeled out of my sight, I hugged my father and sobbed like a sissy little schoolgirl. That doesn't leave the room.

But just because it was my favorite story didn't mean it didn't have problems. The alternate world story in the middle is fluff and essentially useless - a way to extend the story to six issues. It probably would have been better as a stand-alone tale. The return of the "real" Captain America seems to go completely unnoticed to the world at large, considering that his "death" apparently prompted the end of the original Avengers in this particular timeline. Seth's defeat and capture takes place off-panel, just like the defeat of the rest of the "evil" Fantastic Five, something I've readily criticized other stories for. There is zero rationale given why Peter Parker and the Fantastic Five are evil in this universe. They just are. Frankly, I didn't read the A-Next series and have no idea whether some of the answers were in that late title. I shouldn't have had to. And Seth falls victim to the supervillain cliche of not killing May when he has several easy opportunities, first by saying she's "unworthy," later because he wants her to be afraid before he kills her, and also by doing one of those silly elaborate death trap things when he could just stomp on her head and be done with her. But then the death trap provides May with her "Master Planner" moment.

This tale was probably Spider-Girl's finest moment to date. And fortunately, her story's not over yet.

Worst Story of 2003
It wasn't really the story, but it was this particular issue.

Really, issue #50 of Ultimate Spider-Man should have been a milestone. Even folks who liked the concept from the start (of which I was not one I will readily admit) had to wonder whether or not the title would survive 50 issues, or whether the novelty of a re-imagined Spider-Man would soon wear off and sales were crash through the floor, or the title would go away like all of Marvel's other efforts at "new universes," such as 2099, MC2, and "New Universe."

But it proved all of its critics wrong, and continues to be a consistent top 10 title for Marvel (at the time this article was written) But rather than serving as something of a celebration, issue #50 became THE example of the weaknesses of Ultimate Spider-Man, and seemed like a thumbing of the nose at people who complain about decompressed stories.

The first five pages of this extra length issue have no dialogue as the Black Cat is seen approaching a building. We get several panels of close-ups of office furniture and the Cat's lips - not in the same panel, though. After the cat sneaks through security, which takes three pages and has some dialogue, we embark on another 7 pages of dialogue-free stalking and stealthing and stealing. This doesn't even count the page which is comprised of four panels - 2 of Peter and MJ kissing, and then one panel each of Peter and MJ smiling at each other. And then one page of four panels that consist of nothing but Spider-Man staring into space wondering where the Black Cat went after their first confrontation. This out of 37 pages of "story."

I felt blatantly ripped off by this comic. Look, I've thoroughly enjoyed Bendis' run on Daredevil and have liked New Avengers thus far. Unlike a lot of his critics, I'm pretty sure he "gets" Spider-Man. Frankly, I wouldn't care if he wound up writing one of the core titles some day. But not if it turns into crap like this.

I had actually made peace with Ultimate Spider-Man after 2002. Although it wasn't the "real" Spider-Man, it was a legitimate take on the character. But for me, issue #50 is where the title "jumped the shark." It was at this point that the padding became intolerable, so much so that I'm not sure I can stand the title long enough to hang in there until issue #100 - as was my goal.

Weirdest Story of 2003
I'm really stepping into a deep pile of shit here, but so be it.

I don't always have this topic - just whenever there's a story to fit it. It was only coincidence, for example, that there was also a "weirdest" story in my Spider-Man 2002 review, which was Peter Bagge's odd little Meglomaniacal Spider-Man. I'm pretty sure that there will be no such story for 2004.

I'm not a regular reader of Exiles, which from what I understand is the Marvel Universe version of that old TV show Sliders, in which a band of intrepid adventurers bounced from parallel universe to parallel universe. This time it's yet another, probably about the 865th, team of mutants, this one travelling from one alternative Marvel universe to another. I happened to read that one of the stories was going to feature a universe in which none other than Mary Jane Watson became Spider-Woman. That was certainly worth a read.

Suckered again.

This issue actually follows up on a story that appeared in Exiles the previous year, in which a disease called the Legacy Virus got out of control and turned 3/4 of the world's population, including its superhero population, into a bunch of weird golden Borg-like monsters. In the "real" Marvel Universe, of course, the disease was controlled. The Exiles bumped into the last few superheroes, including Mary Jane Watson's Spider-Woman (we see Spider-Man later in the story as one of the monsters, but his ultimate fate is never revealed), who happens to have one of those clearly butchy female Susan Powter Stop the Insanity haircuts. They eventually developed a serum that cured the virus, and "slid" into another dimension.

In this follow-up, two of the Exiles, Sunfire and Nocturne, are dropped back into this universe, where they are found by the band of superheroes we met last time, led by Henry Pym. Sunfire is recovering from her adventure at the previous pitstop and is visited by Spider-Woman. It was previously established that Sunfire is a lesbian, and pretty clearly, Mary Jane is as well. The story that follows is essentially one of a doomed love affair, because Sunfire and Nocturne will eventually be yanked back along the dimension hopping trail by forces unknown - perhaps never to return. The longer it takes, the harder it will be on the lovers, but they decide to make the best of the time they have before the inevitable happens - which it does.

Now let's clear the air here. I don't give a rat's ass that it's a lesbian story. If I had qualms about lesbian or sexual undertones, then I wouldn't have every single issue of Strangers in Paradise, which is my guilty pleasure.

But you don't make such a fundamental change in one of the oldest and most popular supporting characters in the Marvel Universe without any explanations. First of all, how did Mary Jane become Spider-Woman? And where is Peter Parker in all of this? Seems to me like that's a "what if" story worth telling. And why is Mary Jane gay? Shock value? Couldn't he have just made up a gay character and had her be the Spider-Woman of the story if he wanted to tell a lesbian story? And here's the thing, is the writer, Judd Winnick, saying that environment makes a person gay - that it isn't biological? After all, if MJ is gay in one universe and not in another, then obviously environment must be the deciding factor, which to express is enough to get knee-capped by gay rights activists. He's obviously saying that something different happened in this universe that made Mary Jane gay.

I guess the thing is, this doesn't read like a story as much as it does someone pushing his or her political beliefs and I hate that in my entertainment. It's why I disliked JMS' 9-11 Spider-Man issue, and why even though I always thought JM DeMatteis was one of the better writers ever to do Spider-Man, I always hated when he'd go off the deep end and do one of his psychobabble laden stories.

After this article originally debuted, I was informed by several readers that Exiles was not set up as "what if," where the universe and characters are necessarily different due to a certain turn of events. Characters change gender and ethnicity for no particular reason. Therefore, I shouldn't be looking for any reason why Mary Jane is gay in this universe. Or for the answers to any questions I might have, such as how she became Spider-Woman and her relationship to Spider-Man. Just accept that "poof" it's a different universe.

Bullshit by any other name still stinks. Pass.

2003 in Conclusion
My grumpiness at the end notwithstanding, I was actually pleased with the Spider-Man titles overall in 2003. It lacked some of the strong stories of seasons past, but although it had several weak moments, there weren't any sickening stinkers like there had been in prior years. I'm not sure that it surpassed 2002, but it was probably one of the more consistent years in terms of quality for a very long time, which explains why a dark horse story like the Spider-Girl story, which still had numerous faults, could slip in as the Story of the Year.

It's interesting, because for the most part as I look back, there really was no controversy. The stories were straightforward - you either liked them or not based on their relative merits. There were some continuity glitches and questions about whether or not certain things were "in character," but that's always going to happen. We really weren't presented with any challenges, either. Mary Jane finally returns to almost everyone's relief. No Aunt May finding out the big secret. Not much in the way of magical spiders bestowing superpowers. No deaths or re-inventions or ret-conning of previous events.

Just a nice, quiet year.

Of course, we all know that such could not be said for 2004.