Spider-Man 2004: One for the Books

There's a Chinese curse that says "May you live in interesting times."

Whatever you thought of the storylines that wound their ways through the various spider-titles in 2004, whatever you think of the men who penned them, you have to acknowledge that 2004 was a hell of a year to be a Spider-Man fan - and you can interpret that either positively or negatively depending upon your perspective. In this fan's opinion, 2004 was the best year for the Spidey comics in at least a decade, maybe more. And that doesn't even consider that there was yet another smash hit motion picture which helped to further cement the wallcrawler as a major figure in American (and worldwide) popular culture. Yet for many others, 2004 was a year in which they found their trust betrayed and their loyalties strained, as several storylines brought fundamental changes to Spider-Man and his world, including:

Needless to say, there's a lot of stories to cover, a veritable potpourri of Spidey. Among the comics that will be covered are:

  • Amazing Spider-Man #503-514

  • Spectacular Spider-Man #11-22

  • Marvel Knights Spider-Man #1-12

  • Ultimate Spider-Man #54-69

  • Spider-Girl #67-81

  • The Pulse #1-5

  • Powerless #1-6

  • Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus: Year One #1-5

  • Marvel Team-Up 1-2; and

  • Various guest appearances and specials.

    There were several other Spider-Man related titles and appearances that I opted not to cover for various reasons. After just referencing for dramatic effect the subject of Spider-Man joining the Avengers, we will not discuss New Avengers until the 2005 Year in Review since the series just got underway at the end of 2004 (and was already running late). There is also a very interesting artistic endeavor called Secret War, in which Spidey is a major participant, written by current Supreme Architect of the Marvel Universe Brian Michael Bendis. It began in 2004, and was only supposed to be a five part quarterly mini, but due to lateness almost didn't finish up in 2005! Marvel Age and Spider-Man Unlimited are also not included. Marvel Age is a reformatting of the classic Lee/Ditko stories to reflect modern storytelling tastes, and is geared toward those rascally, and yet perpetually elusive younger readers. I lost interest in that one pretty quickly. As I've stated before, I really don't mind revisiting and updating the classic stories as much as I used to - BUT - I really think that such an updating should either be better than the original, or bring something to the characters and story that wasn't possible with the various cultural and other restrictions of the 1960's. If neither of these occur, then why do it? It's like listening to a remake of an Elvis song - since no one can do it better than the king, it more often than not just grates. Unlimited is no relation to the doublesized quarterly series that debuted with Maximum Carnage and died with the reboot in the 1990's. This version is a bi-monthly try-out series with two stories written by (usually) unknown writers. I bought three issues, and as to be expected, some stories are better than others. There was one where an old D-List villain called Slyde was on a crime spree as part of his middle age crisis, which was actually pretty clever. Buy, they ain't continuity, or even necessarily congruous with each other, and I quickly lost interest in those as well. I'll be picking them up when they hit the 25 cent box.

    For those who have been reading my Year in Review series - this one is the longest, most ambitious, and even stretches into other articles which shall be referenced. Part of it is my natural long windedness, but much of it is because it was just that kind of year. The first part of this epic review is going to be pretty simple, covering the year in Amazing Spider-Man EXCEPT for "Sins Past."

    As if the reasons why aren't already obvious.

    Amazing Spider-Man
    The year in Amazing started off with two rather unremarkable tales by JMS’ protégé Fiona Avery. The fact that occassionally JMS steps aside (although he probably helps plot the story) for Avery, and apparently "Samm Barnes" in Spectacular doesn't bother me. Frankly, I think his motives are laudable, although some folks who've been trying to break into the business for years probably, and understandably, resent the "it's who you know" factor. JMS has stated that when he was a young struggling writer that some old pros looked favorably on him and cut him some slack, and all they asked in return was that he do the same for others (although it's highly debatable whether he should have turned over the "Sins Past" follow-up to an amateur, but that's for 2005).

    Issues #503-504 brought us yet another magic tale, this time with Spidey teaming up with Thor’s evil (or is it "complicated"?) brother Loki. What appears to be an ordinary young woman is possessed with the spirit of the evil sorceress Morwen, who was brought here from the dimension where evil sorceresses tend to hang out as a result of the dimensional indigestion that Spidey caused when he tried to come to the aid of Dr. Strange against Dormammu in issue #499. Not being able to find Strange (he's too busy appearing in the JMS miniseries that was promoted for nearly two years in Amazing before it saw publication), Morwen sought out Spidey to "reward" him for freeing her, but the wall crawler is understandably suspicious of translucent women who appear out of nowhere - even moreso when the two choices she offers is (1) the world or (2) death. Needless to say, Morwen's interest in Spidey also draws Loki to him. Some hocus pocus and several bad jokes later, a "deal" is struck between the two. It turns out that Morwen has possessed the body of one of Loki's numerous children who walk the earth (which I suppose makes Loki the Asgardian equivalent of an NBA player), unaware of the nature of their true parentage. Spidey agrees to act as bait to draw Morwen out so that Loki can separate the sorceress from his half-human daughter, a partnership which is successful. Loki asks Spider-Man to occassionally check up on his daughter to ensure that Morwen does not attempt to repossess her, and tells him that he owes him a favor - which Spidey may collect "under the usual conditions." We are left to ponder whether or not this is a thread that will be revisited in a future story, or simply forgotten.

    There are some amusing moments in this story, such as Spidey's total lack of deference towards Loki, which the god is not used to, and the moment where the two are having a conversation over hot dogs. However, there's not enough here that I would try to convince you to shell out any money for it unless it was in the bargain bin.

    "Vibes," is a stand alone story that appeared in issue #505, and is simply a variation of a theme we've seen several times before. Spider-Man confronts a "life on the street" problem that can't be solved with superpowers - this time it's a 12 year old boy packing a gun because he's trying to prove to the other kids that he's tough. The "B" story is actually more interesting. Mary Jane flies out to California to accept a career-making movie role, only to find out that the producer who hired her has been fired and replaced by another one who has already recast the role and wants nothing to do with "some bimbo model with delusions of talent." Humiliated beyond measure, MJ later lies to Peter, telling him that she turned down the role because the pay wasn't good and the part wasn't right for her.

    Fans of Spidey's sense of humor will enjoy him bothering some cops on a stakeout because it's a quiet night, and there's a terrific page consisting of Spider-Man upside down on the face of a clock tower, fretting about the right time to check in on MJ in California, courtesy of John Romita, Jr. And although I do think that JMS and Avery do a good job of capturing both Spidey's and Peter Parker's wicked sense of humor, they have unfortunately saddled him with a tendency to be a very annoying motormouth, relentlessly chattering up a storm, usually about something that obliquely ties into the theme of the story. Sometimes the reader, let alone the other characters, wants to slug him to get him to shut up.

    Amazing Spider-Man and the End of Ezekial-Morlun-Totem-Shathra-Mystic Spider Crap
    Well, what can I say? This effort was three years in the making, beginning with Amazing Spider-Man #471 (aka volume II #30 - June 2001), and was JMS' attempt to leave a mark on the Spider-Man character in his very first story. Of course, it goes without saying that the tale was controversial because it asked fans to question whether or not Peter Parker's receipt of spider-powers was merely an accident, or the result of a direct intervention by, for lack of a better term, a "Spider-God," that chooses a hero for each generation. I've discussed various pieces of this story arc in Spider-Man 2001 and Spider-Man 2002 , so I want to pick up where these left off rather than revisit the whole thing from day one.

    In this three-part tale that runs from issues #506-508, "The Book of Ezekial," we finally get down to the brass tacks. Ezekial, the old guy that has the same powers as Peter Parker, tells him that one final big, bad dude is coming for him - the "Gatekeeper," who turns out to be the embodiment of millions of spiders that come together to create a semi-human form. Unfortunately, we've seen this before in Garth Ennis' unremarkable and weird take on Spider-Man "The Thousand," which appeared in Tangled Web #1-3 (June 2001), ironically debuting the exact same month as JMS' first appearance of Ezekial. In order to protect him, Ezekial offers to take Peter to South America to hide from the Gatekeeper, which Spidey obviously refuses.

    Well, the Gatekeeper does indeed find Spidey, but the story he tells him understandably differs from the spin Ezekial put on it. In a nutshell, as we all knew would happen - Ezekial has been lying to Peter the whole time about many things. It was true that the “Spider-God” selection of Peter was real, not just Ezekial’s lying or imagination – Peter was really the Chosen One and Ezekial was trying to usurp his position, but to do that had to kill him. I’m not the most well read person on the planet, so there probably is a mythological reference point or allusion somewhere that is lost on me. Familiar with the spider legends, Ezekial sought the power, and was able to barter for it with an Incan priest in exchange for Ezekial's influence in protecting the Spider-God temple from developers and the Peruvian government. Exactly how he got the power is still a bit ambiguous, but needless to say, it looks a lot worse than getting bitten by a radioactive spider, involving getting cut open and letting a giant spider feed on your blood as it oozes out of you.

    Think I'll take the radioactive spider bite.

    Naturally, there was a condition (there always is, it seems). As Ezekial was not the "Chosen One" of his generation, the "power" in his blood inevitably begins to kill him and drive him mad, staved off by the occassional bleeding at the hands of the Incan priest and his big knife. Also, the forces that Spidey has been fighting over the last year or so, such as Morlun and Shathra, have actually been drawn to Ezekial, to feed off him, and he has been using Peter to divert their attention away from him. If Peter, the Chosen One, dies, then Ezekial lives, the madness stops, and he in effect becomes the heir of the spider legacy - or at least that's the way I figured it out. Peter was chosen because of his repressed anger as a result of years of ridicule and humiliation as a child, which he then unleashed on the forces of evil once he obtained the power. Ezekial kidnaps Peter and takes him to South America, where he intends to feed him to the same giant spider that sucked his own blood years ago. Well, it becomes serious cliche time as the giant spider begins chowing down on Peter. A psychic link develops between Ezekial and Peter, where each gets into the mind and motives of the other. Ezekial then realizes that he has done nothing with his power except to use it for his own self-serving ends, and Peter is the true hero - therefore Ezekial attacks the giant spider at the cost of his own life, satisfying its hunger, and completing the cycle that began many years ago.

    And so it ends, with a whimper rather than a bang, as many of us feared it would. I tried to give this story the benefit of the doubt, but it got off on the wrong foot from the very start. The core idea was intriguing - is Peter Parker a hero of chance - or destiny? Is he part of something much larger than is beyond his comprehension? Unfortunately, beginning the storyline with an overlong six parter full of mumbo jumbo and double talk when spider fans had been treated to two and a half years of that kind of crap in the post reboot Mackie-Byrne era soured a lot of people on this story right away. And it didn't help that the villain of the piece, Morlun, was hyped as A VILLAIN MORE POWERFUL THAN SPIDER-MAN HAS EVER FACED BEFORE, and the first villain that really pissed Spidey off, which just ain't true. Some needless continuity glitches could easily have been fixed by an editor that cared about these things. The statement that Ezekial was the first person with powers similar to Spider-Man that the web slinger had ever fought beside, thus ignoring Ben Reilly, one of the most significant figures in spider-history regardless of how bad Marvel wants to forget him, made the story even more difficult to digest.

    And there was much more than could have been done with it. Ezekial remained a woefully underdeveloped character since we never learned exactly why he craved the power of the spider so badly. The tragedy of his life was that he wanted the power in order to do good, but rather than simply going out and being a hero, he always had something else that he had to do - or the time wasn't right - he had to have money - or he had to have power in other forms before he really made it work. Seems like the story of many of us who worry about our lives so much and focus on accumulating things that in the long run will make our lives better - that we don't get around to doing that living and enjoying of life that we were supposedly working so hard for.

    And there was more that could have been done with the relationship between Peter and Ezekial, like we saw in “Unintended Consequences” from Spider-Man 2003 with Ezekial challenging Peter to do more with his powers than simply beating up criminals and throwing them in jail – to think bigger, to see himself in the context of a much larger dynamic. There was clearly a core of decency in Ezekial, and the potential for Peter to begin, although waringly, to think of him as a mentor. I think that was what JMS was working toward but it never really came off. Rather than simply having a few honest conversations between the two that might have strengthened the bond between the them and made Ezekial's ultimate betrayal and downfall even more tragic, there was always riddles and doubletalk, which did nothing to further the plot and just got damn old pretty quickly. We came close in issue #506 when Ezekial challenged Mary Jane to attend a theater audition and take a chance, and even with the quiet moment at dinner where there was almost a sense of family and ease in each other’s company. These were nice moments that could have been build upon further.

    Maybe if the story had been contained withing a year or 18 months, and had been more focused and building toward a climax, it might have worked better - but when the end did come, three years later, all that existed was a sense of relief that the story was over and we could go onto other things.

    But the story does end with an intriguing thought, as presented by the Incan priest's last comments to Peter:

    Does this mean that two such apparently incongruous concepts such as Faith and science can co-exist?

    Frankly, I'd like to think they can.

    I really thought that the death of Ezekial represented the end of this particular storyline - but as 2005 proved - I was dead wrong. And "dead" is a not so subtle hint about the subject matter.

    Issue #508 was also the last issue drawn by the great John Romita, Jr. Spider-Fandom was markedly apprehensive about the departure of the artist who has probably drawn Spidey more than any other artist, as well as being part of a bloodline that shall forever be associated with the wall-crawler. And who was this Mike Deodato person who was taking his place? An interloper, or a worthy successor?

    We soon found out.

    Because, as you know, there was yet another story that took place in Amazing Spider-Man in 2004. But to look at that, you'll have to go hang out in my Green Goblin section with Sins Past and the Cult of Gwen .

    Spectacular Spider-Man
    In an interview at the old Hero Realm, Paul Jenkins admitted to what most of us have long known, but which many writers continue to deny, that he was asked by Marvel editorial to come up with long story arcs of 3-5 issues, 5 preferably, for trade paperback purposes. However, "writing for the trade," did not play to his strengths as a writer. This, combined with the effects of his fifth knee surgery in two years, and it's clear Mr. Jenkins was not at the top of his game, which was unfortunate, considering that for most of his run on Peter Parker from 2000-2003, that title was clearly the superior one of the two monthlies. He was also the author of three "Stories of the Year" as rated by the MadGoblin (1999's Chameleon story, 2001's "Wait Till Next Year" with Peter remembering baseball games with Uncle Ben, and 2002's stunning "Death in the Family") in the last five years, which makes this section a bit more difficult to write than some others. But, with that said, the first year of Spectacular Spider-Man, as discussed in Spider-Man 2003 was rather lackluster, with two overlong and not very interesting 5 part story arcs featuring Venom and Doctor Octopus. That was only a prelude to a further decline in the quality of storytelling in 2004.

    A Lizard by any Other Name
    Curt Connors is a seriously troubled man. Losing one's wife to cancer is a tragedy. Turning into a reptile on a regular basis - now that's a real problem. Connors is pinning his last hope for beginning a new life on receipt of a grant to study a cure for cancer. However, a rival sabotages his candidacy, and the stress and anger do to Connors what it does to Bruce Banner, and Connors' rival is soon Lizard meat. However, after Spider-Man arrives on the scene, Connors pleads his case that he didn't commit the crime. Oh - and before I forget to mention it - Connors and Peter are discussing Peter's secret id as if Connors has known for years! Even the Lizard refers to Spider-Man as "Peter" during the course of this story. Anyway, Peter gives Connors a place to hide, but it isn't long before the web slinger comes to a horrible truth (and it is a horrible truth, but nonetheless, it is what it is), that Curt Connors has been controlling the Lizard since the very beginning - and the "submergence" of Connors' personality was all a ruse. The Lizard, rather than being the uncontrollable dark side of Connors, is simply his mechanism for releasing his anger and frustration. After Curt winds up imperiling his own child (the perpetually ten year old Billy Connors), Curt decides that he has to give himself up - and walks into a bank with a gun, pretending to rob it. The final scene has Peter visiting Curt in prison, and we know it is only a matter of time before the Lizard raises his ugly head (both literally and metaphorically) again.

    Oh god.

    This was a trainwreck of a story - the primary reason was that not once did I feel that I was reading about the same Curt Connors that existed for the 40 or so years prior to this story.

    Jenkins has always been loose with continuity, but has largely gotten a pass from spider-fandom because of the overall quality of the stories he has written, and because he seems to really understand the type of person that Peter Parker is. This time, however, he drops a real sulfur bomb that he can't walk away from.

    This is serious sloppiness that goes beyond the "revelation" that Connors knows Peter's secret identity, which is treated alarmingly matter of fact in this story, as if he has known for years. The genesis of this mistake appears to be the 2002 miniseries Quality of Life written by Greg Rucka. In part 4, Curt tells Peter Parker "I'm sorry - about earlier" an apparent reference to the Lizard attacking Spider-Man in Part 3 - because there was not a prior meeting between Peter and Curt in the mini! Even then, it was an oblique reference that could have easily been ignored. However, this huge gaffe almost completely overwhelms the rest of the story because it raises several questions along the lines of "when did Curt find out," and "Why does Peter seem so remarkably unconcerned that a man who changes into a giant lizard knows his secret identity?" which are never addressed.

    Another reason this doesn't seem like the same Curt Connors is that this Connors is portrayed as more of a peer of Peter's, both in age and experience. However, the Connors we have always known is clearly older, definitely NOT a "buddy" of Peter's, and for the most part, pretty level-headed considering all the bum steers life has directed his way (as far as the disparity in the ages - think of Spider-Man 2 and Dylan Baker and Tobey Maguire - that's how I've always seen the two in matters of age). Now, I realize that losing your wife and turning into a giant reptile repeatedly over the years is enough to make anyone a bit unstable, to say the least - but this Connors is a borderline lunatic who ultimately shows little remorse for the actions of the Lizard. So what - all that gibberish spouted by the Lizard in the past about helping the reptiles to re-claim the earth from the mammals, or the various attacks on members of his own family and other innocent people over the years - was simply Curt getting his jollies, and he was laughing under his scaly hide at how he was fooling everyone? Now, I'm willing to accept that after time, Connors was eventually able to control the Lizard persona. Or, perhaps more likely, since he was supposedly "cured" of being the Lizard after the events of the 2001 miniseries Lifeline, only to become the Lizard again in Quality of Life the following year, ostensibly because the same chemical contamination that caused his wife's terminal cancer also re-triggered his mutation, that the re-triggering of the process allowed him to remain in control of his mind, if not the transformation itself. But not that he's been in control of his alter ego from the very beginning.

    Maybe this is one of those stories that should simply be forgotten and never referenced again. It serves no purpose for Connors to know Spider-Man's secret identity. Admittedly, he should have figured out the connection between Peter Parker and Spider-Man years ago since he kept coming in contact with both of them - but then by that measure everyone at the Daily Bugle and all of Peter's high school and college friends should have figured it out as well. I suppose it would be easy for whoever ultimately brings back the Lizard to cause something to happen to scramble Curt's brains so that he would conveniently forget Peter's identity - but that still leaves us with the question of when and how Curt found out, and frankly, I'm not sure that those stories are worth telling. The entire first Marvel Knights Spider-Man story arc revolved another one of Spidey's rogues gallery discovering his secret identity, and frankly, we don't need anyone else finding out.

    Not Queen for a day, but for 6 Months
    Heavens - where do I start? The story was actually two separate tales that ran from issues #15-20 called "Royal Flush" and "Changes," but since it featured the same villain, the same guest stars, and the overriding theme of Spidey changing into a big hairy spider, I'm considering it one story.

    There's a new badass in town, except this one is shapely and slinky, and seems to have an unusual number of devout, glassy-eyed followers shadowing her every move. She is known as the Queen, another failed super-soldier experiment from World War II who has the ability to talk to insects and other creepy crawlies, as well as control people who have a latent "insect gene." Of course, Spider-Man has such a gene, and the Queen develops a serious case of the hots for him. As she is able to control him to some degree, she forces herself upon him (since this is a PG book - it's only swapping spit - but sexual violation is clearly implied), and it isn't long before that Peter finds himself literally transforming into a giant, hairy spider. Of course, the Queen has a lot more on her mind than finding the perfect mate - she has stolen a bomb which when detonated, will kill everyone within a six hundred mile radius except those with the insect gene - essentially leaving her with the entire Eastern Seaboard to herself and her mindless drones. Virtually the entire superhero community, led by Captain America (a prominent guest star in this story) and Nick Fury searches for the Queen and Spider-Man, who surprisingly emerges whole from what we thought was his spider carcass (the giant spider he transformed into supposedly died), and has two amazing new abilities (1) the ability to generate organic webbing (yes, like the movies) and (2) the power to hear and understand the communication of insects. Using the latter, he is able to learn enough information from the Queen's drones to defuse the bomb, which results in the immolation of the Queen, and we have a very contrived and confusing happy ending where Peter can't wait to get home to show MJ his ability to ooze grossly from the wrists.

    Folks, I'm not sure I can adequately describe just what an awful, awful story this was - made worse by the fact that it lasted six freakin' months, and was an excruciating one to muddle through. This was hold your nose bad - or sneaking it off the racks hoping that no one else noticed that you were buying it bad. For example:

    This story is the type of thing we used to vilify Howard Mackie and John Byrne mercilessly for not too many years ago, and we'd all get that smug sense of satisfaction in seeing how many different ways we could eviscerate their stories. However, I get no satisfaction from any of this - I just feel - sad - sad that no one at Marvel could see how bad these stories were and either put a quick end to them, or made changes, and even a bit angry that they would direct a writer to tell the kinds of stories that are clearly NOT stories he is very good at. This means there's no dealing how much garbage in the past was the result of stupid editorial mandates - but since the writer's name is the first one on the credits, he's the one who takes the shit - not the editors or publishers.

    The Quickies
    But not all was gloomy this year, since there were three one-issue tales which showcased Jenkins' talent, the best example being an untitled story in issue #14. It's told from the perspective of a young man (Joey) with cerebral palsy who spends many lonely evenings on the rooftops watching the city come to life around him, which includes a certain webslinger who passes by every now and then. On this particular night, however, there's someone else in the shadows - waiting for the right moment to strike - Morbius, the Living Vampire - who presumes that just because the young man is helpless, that he makes an easy victim. Of course, Morbius didn't count on Joey having a red and blue guardian angel that night.

    The story is told entirely from Joey's POV, so we get several pages of life from the perspective of someone with CP, who has a vital brain trapped forever inside a useless shell. We sense the helplessness and guilt that he feels over the fact that his father and sister have devoted their lives to taking care of him - and that he has no way of telling them how grateful he is for their sacrifices - or how much he loves them.

    The story has echoes of the classic "Boy who Collected Spider-Man" from Amazing Spider-Man #248, particularly when Spider-Man unmasks in front of Joey, but really shouldn't be compared with that story. Having no experience with anyone in Joey's condition, I couldn't honestly tell you whether or not it is a fair representation, but for me it was a moving story, because it makes clear that Spider-Man is not the only hero of this tale, but so are the father and sister who care for this young man. However, it did stir some controversy as certain advocates stated that Jenkins' story was an insult to those with CP, particularly since Spider-Man used the young man to draw Morbius out. Conversely, there was also a considerable amount of praise, including a noted internet comics reviewer, who stated that he had a twin sister with CP, and that Jenkins had done a beautiful job of capturing what it was like for the subject and their family. It was rather bizarre reading these completely divergent perspectives on the same story, as I, for one, was utterly confounded as to how anyone could interpret this as anything but a sensitive portrayal.

    Guest artist Paolo Rivera also makes this a very distinctive looking story with a different style than we are used to seeing in a superhero comic. It doesn't look like traditional pencils, but not really looking like painting, either. Though interesting, a negative was that since most of the story took place at night, the action was too murky for the comfort of my aging eyes. Also, Rivera chose to make Morbius resemble Max Shreck's bald and pasty Nosferatu more than the classic 70's long-haired look, but to have done otherwise probably would have rendered Morbius virtually invisible.

    Jenkins returned to more light-hearted fare with issue #21 "Read 'Em & Weep," which features Spidey's (and other superheroes') attendance at Ben Grimm's annual card game for charity. The story is a nod to the Texas Hold 'Em craze. What starts out as a typical game (well, typical considering that the participants include the Fantastic Four, Angel from the X-Men, a hilariously poor card player in Dr. Strange, and that Konniving Kitty the Black Cat) takes a weird turn when the Kingpin shows up with a briefcase full of money and a desire to beat the pants off a bunch of people that he totally despises. Several hands later it comes down to the Kingpin and Spider-Man - and well - I sure never knew that Spidey was such a good card player!

    The result is a harmless, inoffensive story that also subtly references the one I just discussed, as Spidey asks Mr. Fantastic to donate his winnings to the Cerebral Palsy Research Foundation.

    Issue #22, "Infernal Triangle," was Jenkins' next to last Spider-Man story (apparently he begged off doing the "Sins Remembered" fiasco - smart boy) and features one of Spidey's seldom seem Z-List villains - the Mindworm - who has powers similar to what you figure that someone called "Mindworm" would have. Spider-Man notices a section of town where everyone seems to be unusually agitated and angry at the same time, and once he zeroes in on the source, he finds the Mindworm, homeless and fallen on hard times, unknowingly projecting his misery onto everyone that comes within his zone. Jenkins' recollections of the Mindworm's place in Spidey's rogues gallery is rather flawed (not surprisingly given Jenkins' lack of interest in spider-minutiae), as he portrays him as a petty criminal, when really he was more like a psychic vampire, and his villainy was confined to draining energy from people, not robbery or material enrichment. Spider-Man is plagued by guilt (so what else is new?) over the Mindworm's fall from grace, as it's clear that he was more mentally ill than criminal. But before Spider-Man can come to a solution on how to help the Mindworm, the latter is attacked by various street punks, and the Mindworm defends himself by unleashing psychic assaults on them, forcing each of them to relive their own horrors and misery. Spidey drives them off, but not before in their haste, one of them slams the Mindworm against the wall, breaking his neck.

    It's a sad story that we've seen several variations of in the past, so it's not too particularly remarkable or memorable.

    Apparently Paul had one last Spider-Man story in him, but we won't be discussing that until next year.

    The Pulse
    Marvel Knights Spider-Man

    The stories told in these titles were of such magnitude, they needed their own articles. The Pulse told the story of the public exposure of Norman Osborn as the Green Goblin, whereas Marvel Knights Spier-Man was epic in scope. Check out The Fall of Norman Osborn which reviews The Pulse #1-5.

    And after that comes Spider-Man: Shush which looks at Mark Millar's Marvel Knights Spider-Man #1-12.

    Then come back here.

    It was actually pretty light on the miniseries front this year, and of the two that were issued, one is clearly not continuity, and in all likelihood, the other isn't either.

    Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus Year One
    This is all Frank Miller's fault. Ever since he did the classic Batman: Year One on the heels of his classic redefinition of the character in The Dark Knight Returns, there’s been an irresistible urge by companies to go to the "Year One" well. It even happened in Spider-Man, although that effort was known as Chapter One. Unfortunately, "Year One" efforts tend to try to re-define or redesign the character, whether or not that fits in with anything that has gone before. Although not called "Year One," the Kingpin miniseries from 2003 was an example of this – as is Zeb Wells’ Doc Ock entry.

    Not that it’s a bad story by any means – because it’s not. In fact, as an actual story, it is probably the best of the four Doc Ock minis and arcs (including Negative Exposure, Out of Reach and the story that ran in Spectacular Spider-Man #6-10 by Paul Jenkins) of the last two years (and which I discussed in the 2003 entry of this series). After his questionable "MTV Beach Party" Spider-Man story in 2002 – Wells has shown the chops to be a good Spider-Man writer, although all of his stories thus far had been largely humorous tales, and I was curious if he could handle a dark and serious tale. And clearly, he can. Unfortunately, his series was the last of the four to be released, was late at times, and occurred long after the public had been "Ocked out."

    It's clear that Wells was very familiar with what was probably the first true exploration of Doc Ock's origins and mindset, Spider-Man Unlimited #3 (November 1993), written by none other than Spider-Man's "Mr. Dependable" Tom DeFalco. In that story for the first time, Ock's past solidified around certain key factors (1) the brilliant, yet fat, unpopular, picked on child (2) the mean loud mouthed redneck construction worker father (3) the smothering mother and (4) the first true girlfriend, Mary Alice, whose relationship with Octavious was ended by his domineering mother and (5) the death of Octavious' mother after a violent shouting match with her son over the fact that she was seeing another man, yet objected to his having a relationship with a woman. Wells kept all of these aspects of Ock's story, yet delved even deeper into Octavious' troubled psyche, providing perhaps our best look into the mind of this "mad scientist." Every superhero has to have a mad scientist supervillain, and Doc Ock is definitely Spider-Man's. Seldom has Ock's arrogance and brilliance been captured so vividly and so disturbingly, as well as his connection to his tentacles, his fear of, and later his obsession with, radiation. Denied a normal relationship with women, largely due to his nutso mother, Octavious eerily fills this void with a "relationship" with radioactivity, which in a moment subject to interpretation, even seems to heal him of the severe radiation poisoning that he contracted in the initial explosion that created "Dr. Octopus" (in what is probably the only time I can recall it being brought up that Ock really should have died in the aftermath of that explosion - either from the radiation itself or any number of cancers, leukemia most notably). It is always good to see Ock portrayed as the brilliant and dangerous madman he is, and not a petty criminal or fat buffoon as too often bad writing makes him out to be. In another eerie twist that I really liked, Ock’s potential love interest, Mary Alice, seems almost as obsessed, repressed, and messed up as he is! The story certainly does not fit seamlessly with Spider-Man's first confrontation with Doc Ock in Amazing Spider-Man #3, but that didn't bother me too much, because it does fit rather well all things considered - and if I were to take the time I could probably connect a lot of the apparently disparate dots - except for one.

    And that's the major problem I had with this series, because it almost overcame whatever praise I have had for it - that for some reason Wells chose to make Octavious a character more comparable to Peter Parker in terms of age. In Part 1, Octavious mentions that he is 17 years old (by saying he endured 17 years with his father), and we saw him not too long before assisting a young Peter Parker who has misplaced his glasses due to the attention of classmate thugs. In fact, throughout the entire series the artist makes Ock look all of about 8 years old. I suppose that some of this is supposedly analogous of what Ock really is - a spoiled, tortured, repressed child - which explains much about Doc Ock's behavior over the years. Apparently at one time Sam Raimi actually considered casting a younger actor as Doc Ock in the second Spider-Man film (Edward Norton was mentioned, I believe) and playing up that "peer" dynamic and conflict, so Wells wouldn't be the first one with the idea. I suppose that I understand why. After all, in many ways, Doc Ock is the anti-Peter Parker. Both were gifted young men, scorned by their peers, who through accidents of science (or magic, if you believe in Ezekial-Morlun-Shathra-Totem-Mystic Spider Crap) receive powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men - and go in totally different directions with them.

    But it's still not Doc Ock - at least not the portly, middle-aged one, that every once in a while displays a residual trace of decency and humanity, that we have known for over 40 years. And unfortunately, that's probably why this series is destined to be forgotten, which is really a shame, because it had a lot going for it.

    So, for my money, your best bet is to invest in a copy of Spider-Man Unlimited #3 if you really want to understand Otto Octavious.

    Sometimes what appears to be an uninspired crass commercial cash-in is actually pretty good! I think I can say that Powerless was the best Spidey-related story many of you never read during 2004.

    Imagine the Marvel Universe where there are no super powers and everyone has gone on to relatively normal lives. Matt Murdock is just a blind lawyer. Peter Parker is a picked upon teenager with the additional disadvantage of a withered arm due to the effects of a poisonous spider bite. And Logan? No adamantium claws or marvelous healing factor – although he does still seem to be a man shrouded in mystery. Of course, considering the fact that these three characters just happened to be in motion pictures ranging from moderately to wildly successful during 2003-2004, added to the "just another cash in" theory of mine. It's good to be wrong every now and then.

    The story is primarily about these three characters, although there are brief guest appearances by a schizo Bruce Banner, a hospital doctor and wife team by the name of Reed and Susan Richards, and a street corner fortune telling hustler who goes by the name of "Dr. Strange." The connecting thread is a psychiatrist William Watts – who has just awaken from a brief coma induced by a fall. Still slightly disoriented, and troubled by visions of powerful, colorful, larger than life beings, Watts returns to his office to catch up on his appointments, including a preliminary session with a troubled young man by the name of Peter Parker, whom Watts feels that he has met before. Peter is an intern at Stark Technologies and has a promising future ahead of him, as well as a cute blond girlfriend by the name of Gwen Stacy. Still, he faces the trials, tribulations, and torments that high school nerds always do, and here, as in other universes, Flash Thompson is his primary nemesis. Peter is also troubled by his best friend Harry’s father, Norman Osborn, who is really giving him the creeps. Gwen thinks Peter is being foolish, since he has known Norman for years, but the elder Osborn is taking an unusual interest in Peter’s work at Stark, particularly the mysterious project that Stark seems to be working on that Osborn feels is his primary competition for a major military contract. It doesn’t take long for Norman to attempt to blackmail Peter into committing corporate espionage for him.

    In the other stories, Watts wonders why the usually punctual Charles Xavier has missed a scheduled appointment, and is later approached by lawyer Matt Murdock, who is defending a man by the name of Frank Castle, accused of killing low life punk Leland Owsley, who murdered Castle’s family. Castle claims that he did not do it, and Murdock believes him. Unfortunately, Owsley was a competitor of a crimelord by the name of Wilson Fisk – and anything less than a quick guilty verdict against Castle threatens to bring more attention to Fisk than he wants. Murdock wants Watts to assist him in Castle’s defense, to prove that Castle was psychologically unstable after such intense interrogation. The doctor refuses at first, but later interviews Castle and discovers that a goon on the payroll of the Kingpin impersonated a police officer and forced a confession from Frank.

    Watts soon finds out why Xavier stiffed him on his appointment – as Xavier is now a stiff himself – and a man armed with two metal apparatus that look like claws known only as "Logan," shows up on Watts' door asking for help. Logan is afraid that he killed Xavier, although he doesn’t remember anything but waking up standing over Xavier’s body. Although wary of Logan, Watts agrees to help him try to piece the mystery together. This leads Logan back to a bar and a mysterious woman known as "Mystique" (who’s strictly a Caucasian here rather than her normal bedazzling blue). Mystique attempts to trigger a hypnotic episode in Logan by showing him the image of a phoenix on a cigarette lighter, and orders him to kill Dr. Watts. Logan, however, breaks the spell, and kills Mystique. It turns out that a Senator Eric Magnus (that's Magneto to you and me) has been funding a secret organization of covert killers known as the Phoenix 12 (whose true purpose we never learn), and after a confrontation with this world's Sabertooth, Logan confronts Magnus - but although we can speculate what occurred, we again never truly learn - and our last image of Logan is of him hitchhiking to points unknown.

    Meanwhile, while Peter Parker is agonizing about how to respond to Norman Osborn’s blackmail, we discover that his project for Stark includes designing a fiber optic cable with the consistency of a spider’s web – and Stark shows him what it will be used for - Project Iron Man - the future of American military fighting forces. Peter decides that he has had enough of being picked on and harassed, and fights back against Osborn by hacking into the Oscorp computer system and destroying precious data. Unfortunately, Norman knows who it is – and decides to respond with even more drastic measures - he kidnaps Gwen (and you think you know where this is going, eh? Well, so did I). Peter agrees to steal the data that Osborn wants and arranges to meet Osborn at his offices (more specifically, the balcony of his corporate offices - again - you think you know what's coming). However, Peter decides to stand against Osborn, refusing to give him the data. He allows the Stark papers to drift away in the wind and Osborn, inexplicably, with Gwen still in hand, leaps over the balcony to try to retrieve them, and falls to the death he so richly deserves. Gwen, however, is saved by Peter with his gimpy arm, and the two live happily ever after.

    Matt Murdock's story, though, does not end well at all. Fisk attempts to intimidate Murdock, using such methods as kidnapping him and abandoning him in an empty field miles away from the city, murdering his girlfriend Karen Page and having his law partner, Foggy Nelson, beaten. But Murdock persists, and is able to get Castle exonerated. Infuriated, Fisk takes matters into his own hands and kills Murdock. He is arrested, but of course, because of his money and influence, is exonerated - except there's justice that Fisk cannot escape - justice at the hands of Frank Castle - who puts a bullet through Fisk's brain, and wonders who else in this world needs to be "punished"?

    And then there's Dr. Watts - whose story has been interwoven through all of these - who after years of simply listening to other people's problems - decides to take action to help do what is right in each of these men's lives. From the beginning, you suspect that there is more to Watts than meets the eye - and although I take pride in that I figured out who Watts really was in the first issue (though it wasn't really that hard, particularly with the introduction), the revelation at the end remains satisfying. "Watts" learns that even when you take action and try to do the right thing, rather than just "watching" (hint, hint), as events unfold, there are still no happy endings guaranteed. Sometimes we are heroes and sometimes...we are powerless.

    I have not done this story any justice in the time I've given it. It is loaded with subtleties and Easter eggs that Marvel fanboys will just eat up. It was a treat to see an alternative Peter Parker story have a happy ending, since it's simply too easy to kill him and everyone else off for the sake of "realism." It also gave us a modest insight into Norman Osborn. In part 3, Osborn is clearly struggling with the onset of his insanity - "I feel myself slipping away" he thinks to himself. A recent doctor's appointment confirmed the presence of schizophrenia, and Osborn was prescribed medication to control his rage. However, Osborn refuses to take his meds because his anger has become what sustains him. This sounds an awful lot like the Norman Osborn we've come to know as well - a man who allowed his demons to consume him because they fed his relentless drive and ambition - but which also destroyed him as well.

    With Logan’s destiny somewhat unresolved, and hints of other heroes, I can’t help but believe that there weren’t additional installments of this mini planned had this one sold well. But it didn't. Admittedly, we're not talking about "Dark Knight Returns," or "Superman: Red Son," here, but you could do a lot worse, budget permitting, than by picking up the trade of this story.

    Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil That Men do
    I don't know and I don't care. And frankly, neither should you.

    Other Appearances

    Spider-Man 2 Movie Adaptation
    I really don't know why I buy these. I guess it's the collectors' mentality that keeps me buying issues of a series when I still think the story sucks. It was a really good movie – and the comic is an inexpensive little momento of the moment. The problem is, for fanboys like me who saw the movie 4 times (and of course, others saw it more than me) and have the DVD - reading the comic after seeing the film is somewhat jarring. We've already memorized half of the dialogue and know all of the scenes by heart, so when we read the comic adaptation, it seems like a rush job, falling way short because not only are there whole scenes missing that disrupt the flow of the story as we remember it, but usually an earlier version of the script is used, which doesn't reflect any of the changes in dialogue made on the set. Plus, the characters just look weird! Call me peculiar.

    A larger trade included the famous Amazing Spider-Man #50 "Spider-Man no More!" story from which part of the film was derived (contrary to those knucklehead reviewers who think the plot was taken from Superman II – sorry folks, but Stan beat that one by at least a decade), which may have been a treat for people who enjoyed the film but weren’t intimately familiar with the comic mythology. But like its predecessor back in 2002 – this is for the die-hard completists only.

    The Return of Marvel Team-Up
    Let’s see. Title lasted a good 150 issues, then cancelled in 1984. Could be cute at times, but with title explosions and crossover mania, essentially ran its course. Check. Something actually called Spider-Man Team-Up ran on a quarterly basis beginning in 1995 but lasting only seven issues. Check. MTU is revived in 1997 and barely lasts a dozen issues before cancelled again (after being led at the end by that title-killing Namor, the SubStandard Mariner). Check. Title reviewed yet a third time in 2004. Hmm – let’s see, if the title has been cancelled twice, three times if you count Spider-Man Team-Up, then in order to really get people’s attention, really get them stoked, really get them wanting to check out the New Marvel Team-Up, we’re going to have to do something bold, something spectacular, something just absolutely so wild, incredible, different and daring that they’re going to HAVE to check it out. Something that no man has seen before!

    Spider-Man and Wolverine team-up.

    And on the heels of both characters joining the Avengers.

    What a concept!

    Apparently, Marvel actually once considered a regular Spider-Man/Wolverine title ala Superman/Batman, only without Jeph Loeb, obviously. Glad they passed on it.

    Look – no insult to the creative team involved, because one of my faithful readers assures me that Robert Kirkman is doing a good job. And considering Kirkman's growing reputation, with his creator-owned title The Walking Dead and the inexplicably popular Marvel Zombies, it's hard to take too many shots at it. The stories apparently now have more involved story arcs than the one issue meet-fight-team up of the old series (although, that’s exactly how this first story began!) And I liked how Kirkman took us back to Peter’s teaching career and the flirting blond bimbo who showed up in the 2003 miniseries Spider-Man vs. Wolverine. But still, this first story was another let’s-go-find-us-a-new- mutant-story, with Spidey along for the ride (the kid is from his school) because otherwise at least 10,000 issues of this title wouldn’t have sold if he wasn’t in it.

    My comics budget is pretty tight as it is – and it doesn’t have room for this. I'm always leery of the Spider-Man character being over-exposed, and these repeated team-ups with whatever hero happens to be walking (or flying) by don't help that problem.

    What If Aunt May Died Instead of Uncle Ben?
    What If? is one of those irresistible concepts with a limited shelf live. There are really only so many good ideas that can be exploited at any one time before the concept needs to go fallow for a few years and give folks some time to come up with new ideas. Rather than a true revival of What If?, Marvel selected to do just a minimal revival, a six-issue spin during the month of December, the better to collect in a trade for later publication (yeah, I know, what a surprise). With the other five stories, they chose to go with previously untried ideas (such as Thunderbolt Ross becoming the Hulk, and Victor von Doom becoming the Thing). For Spider-Man, unfortunately, they chose to go to the well with an idea that has not only been done before, but was done much better the first time around. As many good Spidey fans and readers of my site know, "What if Aunt May Died," was written by a Peter Gillis back in 1984 in What If volume I #46 and profiled by me in Alternate Spideys. It was a very good story, and one that fit in pretty seamlessly with the characters all behaving closely to their original counterparts. This one by Ed Brubaker, well, comes off pretty flat, perhaps because it has to deal with the bane of a lot of potentially good "what if" stories, the regular 22 page format which allows very little time to actually let a story unfold, forcing an omnipresent narrator to speed us through the story so it wraps up in time. In this universe, Ben happens to have made a run to the convenience store when the infamous Burglar broke into the Parker house, and thus May is killed. When Peter comes home, he reveals that he's Spider-Man to Ben and decides to go after the killer. Ben, fearful that Peter will do something he will later regret, follows him to the warehouse (it's a different warehouse than in the original tale, with a service tunnel so that Ben can make it there - a tweaking that doesn't bother me since the story acknowledges it). When he gets there, the story actually follows the movie in some regards, as Peter threatens to beat the crap out of the Burglar, who panics, trips, and falls out of the window to his death. Ben, fearful that Peter will take the rap, tells him to hide, and when the police storm the building, they find Ben, who admits to shoving the Burglar out the window. Ben goes to jail, although getting a relatively light sentence. Shit, he shouldn't have gone to jail at all. You couldn't find a jury of 12 in New York to prosecute Bernie Goetz 20 years ago for plugging a bunch of kids on a subway train, and I'll bet you couldn't find half that who would send an old man to jail for pushing the punk who killed his wife out a window. I suppose Ben could have taken a plea bargain, but any good lawyer would have told him he had a strong chance to beat the wrap with probation. Anyway, I've gotten off the subject.

    With Ben's imprisonment, Peter becomes a ward of the state. Angry at losing the only two people he has loved, Peter is a difficult young man who bounces from foster family to foster family and then to juvenile detention. Spider-Man is reduced to stealing to survive, and occasionally takes out a supervillain or two in order to collect an outstanding reward or bounty. However, Spider-Man loses control of himself during a fight with the Green Goblin as he is shocked by the Goblin's brutality and lack of regard for innocent human life, and nearly kills him. Naturally, the Goblin is outed as Norman Osborn, but whereas Osborn was a murderer, he was incarcerated at a medical facility, yet poor old Uncle Ben went to jail. Peter decides to break Ben out of jail, but Ben refuses to go, insisting on serving his time. He tells Peter that Anna Watson has offered to take him in, and so Peter decides to live with her (and her niece! I'd move in with an old lady for some of that action). He returns to school, starts dating Mary Jane, goes to college, and after Ben gets out of jail - the two form a team, with Uncle Ben driving around with a police scanner and a radio to Spider-Man, tipping Peter off to any action that needs a friendly neighborhood webslinger.

    Feh. I've already talked about how the one-issue length of the tale results in a rushed and unsatisfying story, but it also stretches a few too many things so that it works within its context. For one, it's not that Ben would lie to keep Peter out of trouble that's a problem, but that Ben would have to really lie at all about the Burglar's death. The dumbass really did fall out of the window. No one touched him. Ben should have gotten off with a suspended sentence at the most. Even though Peter was angry as a result of his life falling apart, I have a hard time believing that he would be such a troublemaker that he couldn't survive within the foster family system, since he hadn't been a troubled kid all of his life. Yes, it is true that there are some bad foster families out there who don't care about kids and are just interested in bilking money out of the state. If Peter had been a troubled child his prior 15 years, then that would make sense - but he wasn't. After all, there was another "What If" story from several years ago where both Ben and May had died, and Peter was adopted by Jonah. Although Jonah was his usual pain in the ass self, Peter did respond to his general concern and care, and I find it unlikely that Peter would not have responded likewise in the care of a good foster family. But then that would be missing the point of the story wouldn't it?

    Go back and read the original "What If?" from more than 20 years ago.

    Fantastic Four
    O.K., so Spidey teaming up with the Human torch in a couple of issues of Fantastic Four isn’t exactly a novel concept, either. Still, at least it had been longer since the characters last met than Spidey and the old hairy sourpuss, and Mark Waid makes the most out of the idea (that is, until Dan Slott really turned on the gas in the Spider-Man/Human Torch miniseries – but that’s for 2005). As a result of the FF’s public relations disaster that occurred when the Fearless Family of Four took on the U.S.’ own military in Latveria – Johnny Storm finds himself in a predicament that he never would have imagined himself in – he is actually now less popular in New York than Spider-Man. Homeless people are wearing his shirts since they can be retrieved from the garbage for free. And good old Ben Grimm just can’t resist rubbing a little salt in the wound by slipping Franklin a few bucks to wear a Spider-Man ballcap.

    So – in his despair – he seeks out Spidey’s counsel on how one deals with being an unpopular loser.

    The webslinger is not exactly touched.

    What follows is a routine fight with Hydroman in a water park – but even though Johnny continues to stumble and bumble, his pal Spidey is able to salvage Johnny’s good name and turn him back into New York’s favorite son again.

    Of course, Spidey can’t resist one last joke at the Torch’s expense. And it involves boxers.

    Cute story. Not particularly memorable. Waid was originally slated to write Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man when it debuted in 2005, and while it might have been interesting to see what he would have done, his attitudes toward the marriage made me just as glad he dropped out. But with Peter David as the "consolation prize," you ain’t getting’ no complaints from this boy.

    Speaking of Dan Slott – didn’t he do a Spider-Man guest shot this year? I must have run out of time to discuss it.

    Ultimate Spider-Man

    Doc Ock
    Poor Doc Ock just can't seem to catch any rest. The guy has got to be worn out with all of his appearances in the Spider-Man titles over the last two years, and feeling schizophrenic as well, considering all of the varying and inconsistent portrayals of him. Gotta admit, I like this version, though, even if it is "Ultimate."

    As the story, "Hollywood," begins, the good doctor is in prison once again, separated from his arms as a result of the events of Ultimate Six, and for the moment is pretty harmless and stewing in self-pity. However, a prison guard, forgetting that one of the cardinal rules of superhero comics is that you don't tease the supervillains (wonder how many cops have died in comics over the years for that little thing - there ought to be a sign in front of the cells - "Please Don't Tease the Supervillains"), decides to rub Doc Ock's nose in the fact that there is going to be a Spider-Man movie, with him in it. And how can they do this - because Ock's ex-wife sold them the rights to his story (along with Norman Osborn's half-sister, Cher Osborn, as we find out in an amusing moment later on)! Naturally, this pisses off the Doc so much that he telepathically calls to his arms, which are being held at Ultimates headquarters, and they bust him loose.

    Shameless exploitation of the second Spider-Man film which was released around that time? Yes, without a doubt. But let's get past that - it's too easy.

    Doc's not the only one making a beeline to the movie set to extract a pound of flesh. The subject of the movie, Spider-Man himself, confronts Tobey Maguire, Avi Arad, and Sam Raimi, and discovers that since he is a public figure, they can make a movie about him without his permission. Of course, Arad is more than willing to sign a deal with him and pay him money - if he'll take off his mask.

    Soon Doc Ock crashes the set, and Spidey comes up the loser in their battle, waking up after getting his clock cleaned and finding himself on a plane to South America. Ock has kidnapped him and hijacked a plane in order to escape the authorities, taking Spidey with him in the event he needs him to deal with whatever is "out there." Once they get to South America, Spidey turns the tables and administers a whoopin' to Doc Ock. As he finds out though, beating Doc Ock is easy compared to trying to get a flight from South America back to New York without a ticket or a passport. But get home he does, only to find out that Gwen Stacy has discovered his spare Spider-Man costume and has a gun leveled at him as she accuses him of killing her father.

    "Hollywood" was probably the second best Doc Ock story of the last two years (behind the Zeb Wells mini), of which there were five (this one, three min-series, and an appearance in Spectacular Spider-Man), not counting his appearance in Ultimate Six. Although this seems to be yet another variation on Spidey's notorious eight-limbed menace - it's a pretty good one. Ultimate Doc Ock is one cold s.o.b. - not quite the spoiled child which the regular continuity acts like at times - but still completely self-absorbed. The scene where Doc yanks out one of Peter's teeth that he has loosened after slugging him with one of his mechanical arms, is a moment of classic villainy. You think that the good doctor is actually going to be a decent human being for a moment ("I didn't realize I hit you that hard - I'm a doctor, let me look at it") but then shows that he's just a bastard when he yanks it out. The conversation with Spider-Man on the plane (actually it's rather one-sided as Ock has webbed Spidey's mouth shut), where Ock tries to psychoanalyze why Peter Parker plays Spider-Man is rather revealing, because it tells us more about Octavious than Peter. Ock is a man who thinks he is control of every situation - no - he's desperate to be in control of every situation, and the lack of control drives him over the edge. His monologue shows how precipitously he is walking along the thin line of sanity. Every word is carefully chosen and methodically spoken, because without such effort he runs the risk of completely losing it - which he does every now and then. The reason he hates Peter Parker is for the same reasons he hates Norman Osborn, Justin Hammer, his ex-wife, and so many others. It isn't that he has ambitions of being a crime lord, or conquering the world, or blowing up New York City and these people are standing in his way - it's his perception that they have taken control of his life out of his hands. In this manner, Doc Ock is like a lot of us - he just wants life to stop for a moment and let him catch up - but it doesn't - not for any of us, even meglomaniacal supervillains. And this, as much as the explosion at Oscorp at the very beginning of the series, has driven him insane.

    There was also a number of humorous moments, such as when a frustrated Spider-Man verbally abuses the cast and crew of the film with a round of "you suck(s)," only to acknowledge that "o.k. Evil Dead 2 was cool," before engaging in a few more "you suck(s)." Avi Arad must have a pretty good sense of humor, since in this story he comes off as an opportunistic, unprincipled character - almost as bad as Doc Ock! And then there's the humiliation of having to steal people's clothing in the cargo holds of the airplanes he stows away in on the way to New York in order to keep from freezing to death - clothes that don't always fit or make good fashion matches with red and blue tights.

    Although it takes a little too long to get there, it was nice to see Spidey flat out kick Doc Ock's ass. All too often Ultimate Spider-Man seems to be a victim of the schemes of others or a spectator to events, such as he was in Ultimate Six. But the best moment of the story belongs to Ultimate Nick Samuel L. Jackson Fury, who has Doc Ock's arms melted down right in front of him. It's admittedly rather sadistic of Fury, particularly since Octavious has a symbiotic relationship with the arms - but since Fury can't just put a bullet into the back of his skull (although it seems that he could do it and easily get away with it) - this will have to do. None of this "oh let's study the arms and see what makes them tick." That may have happened before, but Fury has clearly been burned and is not about to make the same mistake twice - so he does what could have and should have been done at the beginning of Octavious' first incarceration.

    Fans had been bothering Bendis since the Ultimate titles started for Ultimate Venom and Carnage, neither of whom Bendis particularly likes in their classic incarnations from what I can gather (cconsidering how he easily dispatched Carnage in New Avengers #2. A couple of years ago, Bendis gave in on Venom with a decidedly different take - rather than being an alien life form, it was a bio-organism created by Peter's father and his partner, Eddie Brock, whose son became the wearer of the costume. But with Carnage, Bendis outdid himself in making this one as dissimilar to its classic counterpart as possible. And in doing so, set off another storm of controversy by killing off Skanky Gwen Stacy. But we'll get to that later.

    After a nasty scrape (literally) with Ultimate Gladiator, Peter drops in on the one person he knows can sew him up without ratting him out - Dr. Curt Connors, also known as the Lizard in both the current and Ultimate continuities - although the Lizard hasn't made an appearance since Ultimate Team-Up #10 (June 2002). Post patching Peter Parker's puckered parts, Connors studies the blood samples left behind and begins to think...and you know it's bad news in a comic book when a scientist with a dubious track record starts thinking.

    Before long, New York is under attack by an unknown entity that is literally sucking the life out of people - leaving them as dried out husks. As Peter finds out to his horror, Connors mixed some of his spider-enhanced DNA, Connors' own reptilian mutated DNA, following some of the late Richard "Ray" Parker's notes, and came up with the familiar looking slimy red living nightmare. This Carnage, however (although the creature is never specifically referred to as that), seems to assume more of a human shape after each kill - and near the end Peter believes that it has taken the appearance of not himself, but his father. Eventually, Peter is able to lure the creature into an industrial smokestack and destroy it (? - hey this is a comic book - dead is never dead), but not before it takes the life of Skanky Gwen Stacy when it showed up at the Parker house looking for Peter.

    As far as the death of Gwen, look, you knew that eventually she was going to die. That's what Gwen Stacy does in Spider-Man, she dies. The minute Gwen showed up, the first question that 99.99% of us fanboys were asking was "hmm - wonder how and when she's going to die?" Although I will confess, it happened sooner and in a far, far weaker dramatic moment than the death of her classic counterpart.

    I suspect that the answer of exactly why Gwen perishes at the time she does lies in the conversation that occurred between Gwen and Mary Jane in this story, where Gwen states that she likes Peter as a little brother, not a boyfriend, thus ostensibly removing herself as a potential competitor with MJ. In the original continuity, Gwen and MJ were Betty and Veronica, in competition for Peter's affections, a contest that Gwen temporarily won until her death. Here it seemed that Bendis was going to go in a 180-degree circle - Gwen was going to be the "bad girl" and MJ was the "good girl." Apparently, he changed his mind. Maybe he felt that stronger romantic tension could be created by coming up with some competition for MJ on the Spider-Man side of Peter's personality (like Kitty Pryde). Or maybe after 50 or so issues, Gwen had been written in such a way that there just was simply no romantic spark between her and Peter. It seemed that way to me. They did not seem at all like two people who could potentially fall in love with each other. And if Gwen wasn't going to be used for romantic tension - then what good was she? Just to hang around the house? Although frankly, it could have been done a hell of a lot better. In the original continuity, the significance of her death goes without saying. Here - there seems to be no real point to it - it's almost a throwaway death to get rid of a character that had exhausted its purpose. Of course, the emotional impact of Amazing Spider-Man #121-122 could probably never be duplicated, and it probably would have been foolhardy to try. Still, something just seems wrong about it. I thought a better solution would simply to have sent her packing by either her running away, or her mother having a change of heart and coming back for her, or if she had to be killed by a Spider-Man villain - it would have been Eddie Brock Jr. He had tried to make some moves on Gwen before and was rebuffed and was clearly unstable enough to not be able to simply shrug it off. An outcome such as this would have strengthened the conflict between the Ultimate Spider-Man and Venom and made their enmity far more personal than even that in the classic continuity. And at least Norman Osborn wouldn't have been behind it.

    "Carnage" is probably the best example of why Ultimate Spider-Man is best read in the trade paperback form than single issues. Yeah, I know, that inspires a collective "duh" from the reading audience as if this is just some amazing revelation that I only recently became privy to. As I read each part as it came out monthly, I found the story to be an unsatisfying and unrewarding experience - particularly in those issues in which neither Peter Parker and/or Spider-Man appeared. It reads much better in one sitting rather than over six months.

    But you know what? I guess I'm a relic. I like my monthly comics fix. I like being left hanging one month and desperately wanting more, not being left with a yawn and not caring what really happens, only hanging on because I'm trying to get a complete run of a title. And for that reason more than any other, "Carnage" just didn't do it for me.

    Bendis put in a nod and a jab to fanboys by introducing "Ultimate Ben Reilly," as Curt Connors lab assistant. Except he's no clone of Peter Parker - that's for sure. I think Bendis meant this as a resounding "no - I am NOT going to do an Ultimate Clone Saga!" But that probably won't stop goofballs for asking if there's going to be one.

    And apparently there is. But since I have since dropped Ultimate Spider-Man - I won't be reading it.

    On a Lighter Note
    Issues #66-67 took a well-timed turn to the theater of the absurd with a "Freaky Friday" story in which Peter Parker and Wolverine wake up one morning in each other's bodies. A lot of people had a problem with the "Freaky Friday" story because it was well, pretty derivative (but then again - aren't most ideas derivative of ones that have gone before - the key is making your particular derivative entertaining), but I saw it as a necessary string of laughs after the grim storyline that preceded it.

    This story was funny throughout - from the intros with Bendis showing the ability to indulge in a little self-deprecation ("not even I could stretch this story out any longer!") - to Peter going completely frantic inside Logan's body, particularly finding the hair and the stench more than he can take. Not to mention the fact that he keeps stabbing himself and slicing off digits with the claws. Although less spastic, Logan is no less happy in Peter's body, finding out that being a 16 year old superhero means living with a few rules and regulations, like obeying your aunt and going to school (although there is the side benefit of having a cute red-haired girlfriend).

    The only gripe that I really had with the story was that Jean Gray, who was responsible for the switch in order to get Logan to stop hitting on her, seemed to be a little bit too careless and cavalier about using an innocent person in her revenge scheme. Admittedly, she didn't choose Spider-Man - Logan actually did in his subconscience as Spidey was the person he least wanted to be. Still, giving Logan's body to someone, anyone, who didn't know how to control its unique physiology could have been tragic.

    But I have a question - considering how Bendis is drawn in his appearances - could he have been Mark Bagley's model for Kong? Or is that just a coincidence?

    By the way, Bendis also made a cameo appearance in Powerless, the miniseries I discussed last week. There, he was a frustrated patient of the psychiatrist who was the main protagonist of the story.

    Issues #68-69 represent Ultimate Spider-Man's supposed first meeting with the Human Torch, which means that Ultimate Team-up #9 (December 2001) and Ultimate Spider-Man Super Special #1 (July 2002) never happened. Geez, how old is the Ultimate Universe and already stuff is being retconned or just flat-out ignored? And I thought this universe was supposed to be a less complicated one than classic Marvel.

    Aw, never mind.

    The aforementioned stories took place before Ultimate Fantastic Four was launched with its own take on the FF. In this universe, the FF have not "gone public" so to speak, and their existence is still a secret - supposedly. At the prodding of their father, Sue Storm tells Johnny that he needs to go back and get his high school diploma. After much protest, Torchy caves in, and the high school that he selects? Midtown High in Queens - which of course just happens to be where a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is enrolled.

    Johnny immediately catches the eye of Liz Allen, who hits up Mary Jane to ask him out for her. All goes well for awhile, as Johnny gets to like Liz and to enjoy interacting with people his own age. But he gets a little too close to a campfire during an outing on the beach and spontaneously combusts. So not only is his enrollment at Midtown at an end - but Liz - who has a serious phobia against super powered people - will have nothing to do with him anymore. Spider-Man reaches out to the Torch, and tries to help him understand that who they are and what they do with their powers really is worth something in a world that needs heroes. But unfortunately, there is a price to be paid.

    O.K. - I admit I prefer the classic version where Spidey and the Torch are a couple of immature knuckleheads who get on each other's nerves and play one-upmanship. Here, the Torch is actually a fan of Spidey's, and the two seem to bond a lot quicker than they did in the classic universe. But, that's understandable considering that the Ultimate universe is a lot less friendly to super heroes than the classic version, and two teenage superheroes, rather than competing with each other for the public's affection, would probably be drawn to each other for mutual support and understanding. You actually almost feel a little sorry for the Torch - as behind his obnoxious facade is a very lonely teenage boy.

    Although her father has several more titles and guest appearances each month than his daughter, our girl May "Mayday" Parker certainly seemed to have many more actual adventures during 2004 than her old man. She faced not one, not two, but three gender bending female variations of her father's classic villains, the son of another of the original Spidey's bad guys, met two members of his rogues gallery, and most terrifying of all - three generations of the Jameson family in one room! Norman Osborn's evil still continues to reach beyond the grave (and yes, he really is dead this time), May gets a dashing new costume, makes a bargain with a cunning master criminal she soon lives to regret, leads her own swat team, and gets the one and only Elektra as her own personal trainer!

    Gotta pause just to come up for air.

    Freed from the impending doom that had hung over the title since issue #38, which prompted the use of two rather overlong six part storylines during 2003 in the event the title would be cancelled at the end of either one (although one was my story of the year), Tom DeFalco was free to return to the short and snappy story arcs that May works best in. While there was still one overlong arc that featured a none too interesting villain, enough subplots and shorter stories weaved throughout made it more palatable. But what is even more remarkable than any of this is that while DeFalco was spinning more fun and exciting adventures for May, he was enduring a sad and terrible personal tragedy, as his beloved wife grew progressively ill from the cancer that ultimately claimed her life during 2004. Anything more that I would try to say relative to that would be woefully inadequate.

    We begin our review with a look at issue #67, a modest single issue story that follows up on the Lucy, er, Nancy Lu storyline. Nancy is a teenager at Midtown High who accidentally revealed her telekinetic powers, and has been the target of harassment, especially since it was widely believed that she was unfairly using her mutant powers to assist her in athletics. Lucy, oops again, Nancy is stalked by a gang of hooded punks, which includes one of May's old crushes, Brad Miller. Spider-Girl and the Buzz (a Fly-type superhero who happens to be Jack Jameson, JJJ's grandson and John's son with Ashley Kafka) save Nancy, who at the end of the story agrees to join the "X-People" (as they're referred to) to learn how to control her powers.

    Not a bad story, but frankly, the "mutie" stuff and the anti-mutant hysteria got old a long time ago for me and I never thought that it made a rat's ass worth of sense in the overall context of the Marvel Universe. To the public at large, people who display super powers, but got them by accident are o.k. and typically embraced (although there are exceptions - our favorite wall crawler being one of them thanks to JJJ). After all, consider how beloved Ben Grimm, the ever lovin' blue-eyed thing, is in the Marvel Universe (except for those darn Yancy Streeters at times - though I suspect they love him too, in their own way), and the high esteem that the Avengers (at least in their pre-Bendisized version), particularly Captain America, were held in. But yet, those who are born with super powers are dirty, stinking, gawdawful mutants to be hated and feared. Which is funny, because May herself is a mutant by the Marvel Universe definition since she was born with her powers, although they didn't manifest themselves until puberty. I'm sure that someone somewhere has come up with some semi-plausible explanation why May is not a mutant in the same way that the X-Men are (probably by the fact that she only has superpowers because of her father's genes, while mutants' parents typically do not manifest any such powers), but the fact that people in the Marvel Universe can actually make distinctions between the two is silly. Anyway, getting back to story, the best part is the final page, which occurs after May receives a makeover, and pays an homage to her mother's original appearance way back in the original Amazing Spider-Man #42. Would have been neat if John Romita, Sr. had drawn that last page.

    Issue #68 is the beginning of a storyline that actually lasts through most of the year, although there are numerous smaller arcs that run through it. Dr. Sonya Jade, who created the Buzz' battlesuit (as seen in that limited series from several years ago) is once again trying to get it back at the behest of a villain who appears to be Doctor Octopus. Well, it is Doc Ock, but not the classic version. This time, it's Carolyn Trainer, the second tentacled terror who made her debut during the Clone Saga and was intended as the permanent replacement for the real Doc Ock when Killer Klone Kaine killed him off. However, it didn't take too long for Marvel to realize that killing off Doc Ock was an abominably stupid idea, and DeFalco himself wrote the story that revived him (o.k. - it involved mystical ninjas, but at least he was back). But once Otto was revived, Carolyn disappeared into comic book limbo, although she was recently revived for a brief appearance as part of the techno-heavy supervillain army that showed up in Brian Michael Bendis' Secret War. In addition to the battlesuit, Jade and Trainer also have plans for the Buzz' father, John, who has spent the last several years with his wife (shrink Ashley Kafka, a favorite character of JM DeMatteis' who hasn't reappeared since The Reboot of 1999), travelling the world trying to reverse the work of an evil geneticist who was transforming men into monsters. Their equipment has been stolen and John kidnapped so that the equipment can be used to create "monsters for mobsters," (a quote by Lady Ock) and they experiment by bringing the latent Man Wolf out of John Jameson. If that isn't enough, the new Black Tarantula, the South American crime lord, has re-entered Spider-Girl's life. Through his midget crony Chesbro (whom we saw serve the Tarantula's father during DeFalco's second run on Amazing Spider-Man pre-reboot), the Tarantula offers his resources to help May find John Jameson. She reluctantly accepts his help, feeling that she's making a deal with the devil. At the end, Jade is captured, John Jameson is rescued and returns to human form, and Spider-Girl begins to realize that the Tarantula has more than a business interest in her.

    The use of an older Carolyn Trainer as Doc Ock was a great idea. Although it's all too predictable, I know, to come up with female equivalents of bad guys when you already have a female equivalent of a good guy as the series lead, but it just seems right to have a female Doc Ock, especially since there already was one to begin with and she just had to be drug out of mothballs. The Doc Ock concept was probably just too good to leave alone, but it would have been a mistake to reuse all of Spider-Man's old villains (The real Ock did make an earlier appearance in Spider-Girl, but he was dying of cancer at the time - to which he apparently has succumbed) and Trainer makes a neat compromise, a new "old" villain, with which to create a new, yet somewhat familiar, relationship.

    We even see older J. Jonah Jameson briefly, as Jack has been living with him and Marla Madison (who makes a cameo appearance) while John and Ashley have been on their crusade. I had mixed feelings about JJJ surviving to May's time, since I was afraid that Jonah's use (after some uncertainty about whether he was alive or not) would encourage too much retreading of the original spider stories and concepts. But, JJJ has actually come out in support of Spider-Girl, and has made only minor sporadic appearances. Now that I think about it - it actually makes sense that Jonah would still be alive, and perhaps even survive everyone else in the cast. The man is probably too stubborn to die - and I doubt that either St. Peter or Satan are in any hurry to welcome him to the afterlife.

    Issue #71 provides a brief interlude as May teams up with J2 (son of the original Juggernaut) from the Avengers, and Doc Magus (sort of a Doctor Strange, Jr., I suppose - no blood relation, but younger and with a lot of mouth) to ward off an interdimensional demon invasion. Lady Octopus returns in issue #72 as the longer story arc really kicks off. In the next several issues, Trainer busts crime lord Canis (who was responsible for the assassination of the Kingpin last year) from prison, under the auspices of helping him reclaim his position as the "new" Kingpin of crime. On the personal front, much to May's chagrin, Brenda Drago, a.k.a. Raptor, (and also the daughter of Blackie Drago, Vulture #2 from the old days of Amazing Spider-Man) confides to Spider-Girl that she wants to press forward on her relationship with Normie Osborn. Of course, Brenda doesn't know that Spider-Girl is May Parker, nor that May made some embarrassing moves on Normie herself earlier. Except in the best soap opera tradition - we find out already that Normie has a wife! Not only that, but Chesbro warns Spider-Girl that a certain European crime cartel has a rather unsavory interest in Mr. Osborn, and in addition "the threat to young Osborn comes from someone whose reach has often extended beyond the grave."

    Now I wonder who that could be? Heh heh.

    As far as Normie's "wife," she's a rather strange little European blond number by the name of Elan DeJunae (good thing I can write it, because I probably couldn't pronounce it), whose father and lovable old Norman Osborn himself (see - even though Norman really is dead here - he's still making trouble!) arranged her marriage with Normie when both were children. Of course, such an arrangement is not legal in the US - not that it matters - because it's pretty obvious that Elan is a whole lotta bad news in a small package - and not only that - but later on we see that she is reporting in to Chesbro - yet another pawn in the Tarantula's game.

    After a couple of more encounters with Ms. Octopus, May gets soundly thrashed, but interestingly enough, although Trainer has Spider-Girl at her mercy, she does not kill her (is this more comic book cliche? Well, hold on...). After rejecting several offers for the assistance of the Tarantula's resources against Octopus and Canis, May reluctantly accepts the help, fully intending to betray the Tarantula to the authorities afterwards. Still, the idea of entering into a deal with a man she knows to be a criminal bothers her - do the ends justify the means? Is it o.k. to cooperate with evil in order to bring down a greater evil? These are the questions that May must grapple with as her crime-fighting career continues to get even more complicated.

    And when the Tarantula offers his help - he doesn't do it half-heartedly. He provides May with a closet full of costumes, both the traditional and the spanking bad-ass black look, as well as her own strike force ("Team Spider"), and a personal trainer in none other than Elektra. In an interesting moment, Elektra notices right away that May is the daughter of the original Spider-Man, much to Spider-Girl's surprise. How does she know this? Because "you move like him, stand like him, sound like him, fight like him." Just what every kid who wants to put distance between themselves and their parents' reputations wants to hear - a reminder that no matter how hard they try to fight it - they are still their parents' children. As time passes, May continues to find herself drawn further into the Tarantula's web through a particular insidious means - she is bonding with the young female leaders of her strike force (April and June. Cute, eh? Is this a coincidence I wonder - or was the Tarantula sending May a subtle clue that he knows who she is?) and Elektra. As the story unwinds, the full scope of the Tarantula's plot becomes clear - Lady Octopus was actually working for him, breaking Canis out of jail as part of an elaborate plan to eliminate him (as he is the Tarantula's primary competition for control of the crime scene in New York). As for Spider-Girl? Well, the Tarantula sees her as a woman worthy of bearing his heirs! Yikes! Which explains why Madam Octopus never killed May when she had the chance - she was under orders from the Tarantula not to harm her. The climactic moment in issue #78 finds May confronting the Tarantula, determined to take him down. She really doesn't stand a chance against him (his old man beat her old man silly, and more than once) - nor does he want to harm her. So he does the only thing he can do - he surrenders to her. Of course, being the charming, yet cunning supervillain he is - he doesn't stay in jail long. As he leaves the country he places one last call to Spider-Girl "We shall meet again, my angel. Such is our destiny."

    As mentioned before, this storyline dragged on a bit too long, and DeFalco seems to really like this Canis character a lot more than I do, simply because he has invested so much ink in him during his run on the title. Although there were no real surprises in how the Tarantula's plans ultimately unfolded (i.e. Doc Ock working for him all of the time), it was still interesting to see how, despite her resistance, May continued to be drawn further and further into his schemes, even though the entire time she tried to convince herself that she had nothing but the best of intentions. A boatload of guest stars and subplots kept everything moving right along even when the main story began to drag a bit. It was even good to see Felicity Thompson, the daughter of Flash Thompson and Felicia Hardy, make a long overdue re-appearance, although she really didn't add much to the story.

    Of course, why should May's old man have all of the Goblin fun in 2004? Just when you wondered what Elan was really up to, along comes issue #79 and we discover that Elan's father was part of Norman Osborn's Order of the Goblin (which we haven't seen since the Roger Stern miniseries Revenge of the Green Goblin back in 2000). Admittedly, leading a bunch of pudgy middle aged guys in Halloween masks wasn't exactly Norman's greatest moment, but it's kind of cool to see this plot thread from the original continuity picked up again - especially as it expands on some of Norman's grand schemes. As detailed by Elan, Norman was a visionary who had a design for social revolution, one in which society would be ruled by a league of benevolent businessmen outside of "inefficient governments." Lawyers and politicians would be eliminated and this would result in a world without poverty, war, or taxes.

    Right. Well, Norman was a nut, you realize.

    But to kick off the next phase of this scheme, the Goblin cult wanted Normie to be exposed to the chemicals that transformed his father - so that he would lead them in his grandfather's absence - and Elan, who had already bathed in the chemicals, was to be the instrument to make it happen. As all Goblin nuts know, this harkens back to Kurt Busiek's one-shot Legacy of Evil back in 1996, when it was a posthumous scheme of Harry's to expose young Norman to the Goblin formula. And we can even see pieces of this plot in 2004's Marvel Knights Spider-Man which postulated the secret cabal of businessmen creating supervillains, as well as the alternate universe series Earth X, in which Norman Osborn had installed himself as President of the United States.

    Although Spider-Girl is able to defeat Goblin Girl (o.k. - as we find out later, Elan goes by Fury, but I just like Goblin Girl better, misogynist as it seems), she is unable to prevent Normie from enduring a brief exposure to the Goblin formula. What does this mean for young Mr. Osborn going forward? I guess we'll have to wait until 2005 to find out.

    Fun story, and it's good to see a female Green Goblin take on Peter's little girl - one who wasn't Sarah Stacy, that is. The story also adds a little more depth to Norman Osborn's delusions, showing that he isn't (or wasn't) just a nutcase with an obsession with Spider-Man, that he does (or did) have a much larger agenda on the table. Wish we would see some of that in the regular continuity. Of course, you have to get past the pesky notion that the Order of the Goblin felt that they needed a screwed up 20 year old kid as their leader in order to fulfill his grandfather's master plan, since none of Norman's progeny has been in his league as a leader and an intellect. The best I can guess is that he would make a convenient figurehead.

    But DeFalco saves the best for last in 2004. After a single-issue tale which returns one of Spider-Girl's lesser members of her rogues gallery, the Dragon King (a school janitor transformed into a big dragon), Spider-Girl #81 brings back yet another female knock off - Aftershock, who first made her debut in issue #51 (November 2002) - and reveals that she is indeed the daughter of Electro. Max Dillon, inexplicably reformed and out of jail, has come to the Avengers hoping that they can find his old sparring partner Spider-Man. The Avengers contact Spider-Girl, who after speaking with Electro, notifies her father. After a costume change, Spider-Man limps (he has an artificial leg, remember) into Avengers headquarters to meet Electro. Why has his old nemesis sought him out? Electro is worried that his little girl is making his old mistakes. He never married the girl's mother, and was separated from her due to his frequent incarcerations and the fact that mom wanted him to stay the hell away. The mother later died, and Allison Dillon moves from foster home to foster home. To complicate matters, Max and his daughter cannot touch each other due to their bioelectric energies being on different frequencies. To do so causes each other intense physical pain. He figures that if anyone can come up with a solution to these problems, it's Spider-Man.

    Implementing her father's plan, Spider-Girl draws Aftershock's attention and lures her to the Avengers, who surround her, as Spider-Man prompts her father to go to her and embrace her. Although not specifically stated, it appears that while the contact initiates tremendous pain initially, the prolonged exposure causes the disparate energy patterns to adapt to each other, and a tearful father and daughter are able to hold onto each other for the first time. Aftershock turns herself in - but the event brings more than one father and daughter closer together.

    The story requires a lot of suspension of disbelief to imagine that after all of these years Electro has reformed and is walking around free. I'm thinking that as this is the guy who started the jailbreak that re-formed the Avengers and resulted in several deaths, on top of all of his other crimes over the years, he would NEVER be allowed out of prison. But then again, the story wouldn't have worked as well were it not a character that we were well familiar with at the heart of the story. We just may have to accept that Electro did something extraordinary in the meantime to earn himself a pardon - although likely dependent on his continued good behavior.

    Although May has known that her father was Spider-Man since the hugely popular What If Volume II #105 (February 1998) that kicked off her career, she has never quite realized just what that meant, as many of his contemporaries have either died or retired and she has no real frame of reference for what he really was like in his heyday. But in this story, when she sees Peter in costume, besieged by young Avengers, her generation of heroes, who are eager to meet a man whom they consider a legend, she gains an entirely new perspective. Sure, he's still the guy who gets on her case every now and then, who has a hard time changing her brother's diapers, along with his numerous other faults - but now she sees that he's something just a bit more. The story ends with May and Peter asleep on the couch, with Peter cuddling his daughter. There will be other fights and disagreements, but for tonight, there is just daddy and his precious little girl.

    Lots of good lines in this story:

    It could simply be that because I'm an old fogey with children myself, I could relate. Or that I'm a sentimental old fool. Or both.

    Once again, Tom DeFalco makes Spider-Girl the most consistently enjoyable of all of the spider-titles. And at 80 issues and counting (oddly enough - the only Spider-Girl tale he didn't write was Aftershock's first appearance!), that's a heckuva run.

    The Best, Worst, and Most Fun of 2004
    Well, this is finally it - after all of this rambling and side-tracking to other articles, we're finally done with the year 2004. And yes, I think this article got out of hand realtive to its length. However, the events of 2004 began to speak for themselves, and when you have a year that includes Sins Past, the fall of Norman Osborn, and the epic first twelve issues of Marvel Knights Spider-Man, just for starters - there's a lot to discuss. But now we finally get to end - what were the best and worst stories of the year? The worst was pretty easy - but what about the best? Unlike 2003, where I really had to scrape to come up with a story in a year full of satisfactory, but not superlative stories, I actually had a choice in 2004.

    Best Story of the Year
    The four finalists (and there was no particular reason for there being four, other than these were the stories that I will remember most from 2004 from a quality perspective):

    • Marvel Knights Spider-Man #1-12 - Mark Millar's epic that had the whole spider-verse abuzz.

    • Spider-Girl #81 - A touching, but admittedly sentimental story about fathers and daughters and the difficult path that each faces.

    • Powerless #1-6 - In a world without superpowers - do we still have heroes?

    • She-Hulk #4 - After all of these years, Spidey finally has his day in court against J. Jonah Jameson - only to watch it go awry as his own blunders come back to haunt him.

    And the winner is:

    I really had to think long and hard (get your minds out of the gutter) about this one. All too often when someone puts together a top 10, 100, whatever, list, they tend to make some off the wall selections in there because they are really saying "oh look how much smarter and more clever I am than you because I picked something that you would never have thought to pick." Or, they say they want to "stimulate debate," as if God personally picked them to arouse the masses from their lethargy and ignite free for all discussions across the fruited plane. But for me, it really came down to the "huh" factor. You know, whenever you close a book you've just read, look out the window and emit a little "huh," as you digest what you've just read. For me, Powerless was that story.

    MK Spidey was the runner-up. It's a hell of a lot of fun to read, full of action, excitement, adventure, plenty of great Spidey moments - but at the end, there were too many suspensions of disbelief required for me to designate it as the best story, with the resolution of the "Who is Spider-Man" bounty run by the Bugle a particularly grating and unbelievable one. Also, the ending was not quite up to the set-up, and the opportunity created by putting Spidey's two greatest villains head to head was squandered.

    "Girl Fight" in Spider-Girl #81 was special to me since I am the father of a daughter myself, and because so much of that story rings true. However, I suspect that my own sentimentality was carrying the day for the story rather than the quality itself.

    And we're not done with She-Hulk #4.

    But back to Powerless. I don't want to overrate this series or create unrealistic expectations. I just happened to like this story as a story better than any others told this year. In an era of decompressed storylines that often lead nowhere, we have three separate stories featuring three beloved Marvel Universe characters that are devoid of their super powers, all told entirely with six issues. And they all end differently. One character has a happier ending than he is allowed to have in his regular continuity. Another has an ambiguous fate, one that may or may not prove to be better. The third primary character unfortunately meets a sad and violent end. And a fourth who was a supporting character in one of the stories faces the exact same destiny that awaits him in other universes. Over all of this is the story of a godlike being who has apparently created this universe (but this is only speculation on my part - we never really find out exactly how this place exists - or whether it is merely a self-induced hallucination) in order to not only discover what it is like to be human, but also to determine whether or not he can truly make a difference in people's lives. Or perhaps more importantly, whether or not he really should. Would their lives be better if he took direct action? Would his own existence be more fulfilling if he became an active participant instead of just a "watcher" from afar? Or would he find out, as most human beings do, that life is an uneven, unpredictable game of chance. Sometimes you win and make things better, sometimes you make no difference, and other times you f**k it up completely. Admittedly, not an original concept, but it's mostly in the execution anyway.

    For Spider-Man fans, particularly those who like Gwen Stacy, we get the ending never to be in the original continuity, as this time Peter Parker, even without super powers and with a withered arm, is able to save Gwen from the clutches of Norman Osborn, who gets what he deserves. And this Peter Parker, after the usual angst and hand wringing that is almost a trademark of the character, proves himself to be a hero regardless of whether or not he can crawl on walls. Although the odds are stacked against him, he decides to stand up, take his destiny in his own hands, and deal with the consequences as they come. And all of the main characters are pretty close to their classic counterparts. In an odd corollary to the weird letter that Norman Osborn sent Peter at the end of MK Spidey, we realize that deep down, Norman really does have a genuine affection and respect for Peter Parker. However, it, like the rest of whatever is left of Norman's humanity, is almost totally submerged deep inside his tortured psyche. There's also a little additional insight into Ms. Gwen Stacy in a scene where Peter is talking to her on the phone. After apologizing for his behavior earlier, he says "I have no idea why you even bother with me," to which Gwen responds that he while he is indeed a mess right now, "I see potential in you Peter Parker - and I'm the kind of girl who likes to invest for the long term."

    For you see, I've always been confounded by the mystery of Gwen Stacy. Oh, I know it's not a mystery to most of you Gwen supporters out there, but it always has been to me - exactly what Gwen ever saw in Peter Parker and continued to see in him although he repeatedly lied to her, mislead her, and did any number of things that should have prompted her to flat out dump his ass. Although his actions may have made sense in the times in which they were written, shutting her (and even Aunt May) out of the superhero part of his life now seem like the acts of an irresponsible and immature young man (which hell, he was what, 19-20 years old when Gwen died? I suppose he was entitled). We seldom ever got a look into Gwen's thoughts, her hopes, and her dreams. But here, there's a little clue. She could see something in Peter that probably few others could see. What the "potential" is is clearly open to interpretation. Is it his brilliance - and she is drawn to highly intelligent young men. Or the fact that he has a bright future ahead of him with the possibility of fame and fortune? Or perhaps something a little more mundane. Does she sees a man, intellectually powerful but emotionally distant, whom she can help shape, whose life and destiny she can be a strong influence in and an important part of? In other words - does she see a man who will always love her and need her no matter what life holds in store for him? Or maybe all of the above?

    But the real reason you have to buy this series is the image of Norman in some gay-looking pinkish, purplish suit with a phony, creepy smile. If that doesn't give you the chills, nothing will.

    Worst Story of the Year

    There was really no competition for this one - it was issues #15-20 of Spectacular Spider-Man, the "Changes" story, where Spidey changes into a giant spider and grows organic webshooters. I discussed this story at length previously so I'm not going to go into a play-by-play dissection of it here. "Sins Past," is going to be on a lot of peoples' lists because they didn't care for the revelations about Gwen and Norman. It wasn't the revelations that bothered me, but the fact that we were asked to accept something so boldly controversial without any effort on the writer's part to actually make it seem feasible, and the fact that the final third of the story totally tanked. "The Book of Ezekiel" took a potentially challenging premise, stretched it out beyond all reasonable tolerances, and then limped to the finish line. But, we knew that was going to happen. With those stories, their primary sin (no pun intended) was failing to ultimately deliver on the questions they raised. "The Lizard's Tale" had a chance with a Bizarro Universe Curt Connors/Lizard who bore no resemblance to the character we're read about for 40 years, but even it was a pretender to the Throne of Awful once "Changes" got underway. First of all, "Changes" was a hideous thing to even look at with those ghastly last four covers and equally ugly artwork inside. There were continuity problems, a grossly out of character portrayal of Mary Jane, other characters not written quite right, completely misleading promotions of the story's significance, sloppy storytelling, and concepts that are so apparently anathema to other writers that they will likely never be revisited. And all from Paul Jenkins, who for years had actually been doing some of the best Spider-Man stories of the decade. Clearly, the man had a bad year, and not just from a creative perspective (i.e. health problems). And I don't think he'd deny it. If you need to know more, then you could see what I wrote about it earlier, because there's no point in continuing to flail a dead horse.

    Most Fun of 2004
    Dan Slott's She-Hulk #4. I usually create an "extra" category each year for a story that I believe merits particular attention, either for good or for ill. For the last couple of years I selected the "weirdest" story of the year - one which was actually amusing and entertaining in its weirdness and the other which was ideological nonsense substituting for a story. This year however, it's nice to acknowledge a tale that not only is just plain fun to read, but punches all of the right buttons to create a memorable piece of fanboy delight. The only real problem was that it didn't even occur in one of Spidey's own magazines!

    Jennifer Walters, whom we all know as She-Hulk, is a lawyer by trade, and is currently working for a firm focusing on "superhuman law." One of her co-workers was saved by Spider-Man once, and is sick of the raw deal he's been receiving in the media, particularly at the hands of J. Jonah Jameson. Therefore, he offers the wall crawler the opportunity to sue Jameson in court for defamation and he doesn't even have to reveal his secret identity. This is all due to the use of a device from the Avengers that is able to confirm the identities of all current, former, and reserve members. Of course, the existence of such a device makes perfect sense, so much sense that it renders the Spider-Man/Avengers confrontation that occurred in Marvel Knights Spider-Man #2 highly implausible.

    JJJ's credibility is trashed almost from the beginning, as his own son John recalls how Spider-Man actually saved his life waaaaay back in Amazing Spider-Man #1 and was unfairly blamed for the space capsule malfunction that put him in danger in the first place. After that, each of Jonah's notorious funding of supervillains such as the Scorpion, the Fly, and the Spider-Slayers is aired out in court, as well as the fact that among his own staff he has hired reporters who later turned out to be supervillains! I always wondered if someone was going to do something with that - which is once reason I'm glad that Ned Leeds ultimately turned out to not be the HobGoblin because that would really have been going to the well. And then Betty Brant and Joe Robertson are forced to testify under oath about Jonah's anti-Spider-Man bias and libel. Of course, JJJ proves to be his own worst enemy and a nightmare of a client because he can't keep his big mouth shut. And then there's Spidey's zinger that he finally figured out that Jonah hates him - because he's black.

    But even as Spidey is about to taste the sweet fruits of victory, they turn sour when Peter Parker is called to testify and is forced to admit that he has faked photos of Spider-Man in the past, including the infamous one from way back in Amazing Spider-Man #9 when he sold Jonah pics that "proved" that Spidey and Electro were one and the same. If that wasn't bad enough, Peter is then made a co-defendant in the charges against Jameson! Holy ironies Batman!

    Now being in the position of suing himself, Spidey asks for a settlement, forgoing monetary damages and future claims against Jameson under one condition - that Jameson and Parker hand out public apologies for one business day - dressed in chicken suits.

    O.K., funny as it is, the ending is a bit hard to take. For one, someone should have gotten rather suspicious when Spider-Man decides to throw in the towel right after Peter Parker gets grilled on the stand and is also sued. Although it would be right on the money for Spidey to be more interested in humiliating Jonah than getting any money from him, it also didn't seem quite right that he didn't squeeze a few bucks from the tight old geezer that could be donated to charity or something. Again, because for all of the years of abuse he's taken from Jonah, he seems to be letting him off waaaaaay too easily, and if I were his lawyer, I'd begin to become very curious about some things.

    But that's relatively minor compared to how much fun this story is. Slott shows that there really is a lot of gold to be mined from Spidey's wonderful, convoluted continuity as numerous events from the past are dredged up, both humorous and sad, as Jonah's lawyer reminds Spider-Man of his suspected involvement in the deaths of George and Gwen Stacy, and the fact that it was he who brought the Venom symbiote to earth. Plus, Spidey is at his stand-up comedian best with a host of one-liners and other obnoxious comments. My favorite was when Jennifer Walters changed into She-Hulk while Spidey was swinging her across the city to confront the Scorpion - "next time tell me when you're going to put on 500 pounds." Just what a woman, even a large green one, wants to hear. Good thing she didn't have any leverage to pop him one. Speaking of the Scorpion, he makes another one of his tired appearances here where he again wants revenge on Jonah and Spider-Man for the fact that he's stuck in the suit blah blah blah, and where once again he's easily defeated like the B-list villain he had become. This is exactly why Gargan needed an upgrade and why I think him becoming the new Venom was a good idea - to give not one, but two villains a fresh new start and make them dangerous and unpredictable once again.

    And THAT boys and girls, is the END of the Year in Review, at least until next year. 2004 was quite a year for Spider-Man, even if you didn't like all of the stories. It probably was the best of the post-reboot era, and maybe even since the 1980's. But, if I ever do one of these things again, I'm definitely going to try to be less ambitious in covering it.

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    Copyright © 1998-2006 by J.R. Fettinger. All rights reserved. All original content is the exclusive property of J.R. Fettinger. Spider-Man, the Green Goblin, and everyone else who appears in the Spider-Man comics is the property of Marvel Entertainment, and are used in these articles for the purpose of analysis and commentary.