Amazing Spider-Man 400 – Nice timing guys, very sensitive.

The Gift: 

Credits: Written by J M DeMatteis, pencils by Mark Bagley with inks by Larry Mahlstedt

The Whole issue edited by Danny Fingeroth.

Cast: Peter ‘Spider-Man’ Parker, Ben ‘Scarlet Spider’ Reilly, Mary Jane Watson-Parker, May Parker, Dr Caputo, Dr Miles ‘The Jackal’ Warren, Mr Nacht, Medea, Judas Traveller, Det Trevane, Lt Raven and 3Pete

Plot: Aunt May is awake and eager to go home. As happy as Peter is, he can see Ben outside the window in his Scarlet Spider outfit and is furious. Seeing Peter’s face, Ben realises his mistake and leaves. He recognises that it is past time he left the city as well, just before he heads home, he sees Kaine in the distance.

Raven croft Institute and The Jackal is howling in his cell. When a guard checks on him, he stops, has a brief chat about how his madness is really an act and he’s exactly where he wants to be. Then he starts wailing and moaning again.

The morning and May is home. She works out that Mary Jane is pregnant and is static. Peter is happy, or at least recognises that he should be happy. Ben shows up and in costume the both of them chat in the backyard. Ben is leaving, happy for Peter to have the chance at happiness that he deserves. He then departs.

Mary Jane puts a tired May to be and then she and Peter talk old times and Peter’s identity crisis over Ben’s existence. All are unaware that outside, Judas Traveller’s colleague Mr Nacht is taking notes. At an undisclosed location, Traveller talks with Mr Nacht and Medea and it’s clear that he is planning his next move.

Ben is packing, but struggling with having to leave again. Nearby a homeless and amnesiac 3Pete is bothered by a police officer and his reaction is to jump 20 feet straight up and stick to a wall. He still doesn’t know who he is and perhaps he doesn’t want to.

A week passes and Peter takes May to the top of the Empire State Building. They talk about Uncle Ben. May confesses that she knows he is Spider-Man and has done for many years. She tells him that Ben would be so proud of him. She then shows signs of fatigue and they quickly leave to go home.

May goes to bed, banishing talks of hospitals and doctors. It’s her time, she knows this and is perfectly fine with that. She got an extra week to spend with her loved ones and is able to see her goodbyes, surrounded by love in her own home. She gently passes away in her beloved nephew’s arms.

Peter and Ben grieve separately. There is a funeral, then Ben visits the grave separately as the other mourners go to May’s wake. At that wake the detectives Trevane and Raven arrive and arrest Peter for murder. Mary Jane is left alone to panic and make calls when she is confronted by the Scarlet Spider, Ben thinks it’s time they met, face to face.

Notes: It is a habit of mine to look for additional themes and meanings in this stories that are essentially the junk food of culture. It can be done too, X-Men is about prejudice and found family. Superman is about immigration and assimilation whilst holding on to what makes you and your culture unique. Green Arrow is about trying to rebel against the man, when you are just the same as the man. And so on. Spider-Man is often seen as a story about responsibility and the power of perseverance. It is, don’t get me wrong it has those themes wrapped in an urban-noir setting. But really this issue highlights what Spider-Man has always kind of been about. Loss.

Before the strip began, Peter had lost his parents. Before he had a chance to know them, they were gone. By the end of his first appearance he had lost the only person who he saw as a father, his Uncle Ben and worse, it was indirectly his fault. Then there was Bennet Brandt, his girlfriend’s brother. Frederick Foswell, George Stacy, Ned Leeds, Jeanne DeWolfe, Harry Osborn, Norman Osborn, Kraven and the loss that seemed to eclipse the rest, Gwen Stacy. How many people can you lost in life and still keep going? Well now, 400 issues have passed, not counting annuals and other series and finally after years of being at death’s door, Aunt May is gone too.

May has been many things in this story, she was the reason Peter maintained his secret identity more than anyone else. She’s been his sense of responsibility and the reasons for many of his actions. She’s also been the only mother he knew and after Ben was killed, the only family he knows. To call her important to the story of Spider-Man is an understatement of the highest order. She isn’t killed by some villain, it’s not Spider-Man’s fault and there’s little Peter can do to help, she died like many do, it’s just her time. She has lived a long life, she has loved and been loved and has for 400 issues been the beating heart of this title’s protagonist. The Spider-bite made him Spider-Man, but Ben and May, they made him a hero.

It’s a fitting goodbye, it’s grief and mourning and it’s real drama and the few pages after May passes is really beautifully done. But this is a 90’s comic in the midst of a saga, so that doesn’t last and Trevane and Raven finally get their warrant and at the wake of the only family Peter has left, arrest him for a crime that not only did he not commit, but he has actually no concept of. By the way guys, that couldn’t have waiting till tomorrow? It has to be the day of the funeral? Classy choice. 

But this does something, at the end of the issue the Scarlet Spider arrives to speak with Peter’s wife. It’s a moment that makes sense, since when Ben left New York, he was in love with Mary Jane, or at least remembers being in love with Mary Jane. He’s tried to get on with his life and if you think about it, has avoided being anywhere near her, but the saga is kicking into high gear now and a high dramatic point was needed for this issue.

Verdict

Writing: 4 out of 5 – This is a really good story, if you consider that almost nothing happens in it. It’s a lot of character pieces and heartfelt conversations as we get ready to say goodbye to one of the comics longest standing supporting cast. The words are beautiful and touching and the reveal that May’s known Peter’s secret for years is well handled. It’s proof that you can do a bit anniversary issue without a big action set piece. I don’t know another writer who could have done this so well at this time.

Art: 4 out of 5 – Bagley and Mahlstedt continue to kill it as the art team. Bagley’s May is old and shaky, but full of the strength that was always an undercurrent to the character even during the Lee/Ditko run. The art team handles the intimate moments really well and the issue is well paced throughout. The images of Peter and Ben separately mourning the woman both men remember as their primary parent is touching and well done. There’s little else to be said as it continues to be excellent art in a excellently written book.

Overall: 8 out of 10 – 100 summed up the character, 200 brought back the burglar, 300 introduced Venom and 400 took May, this is another powerful story and at the time, this felt like the biggest turning point yet. It’s almost a shame that this came during the clone saga, because this was big enough a moment all on it’s own.

A Shock to the System

Credits: Written by J M DeMatteis, pencils by John Romita Jnr and inks by John Romita Snr.

Cast: Ben Reilly (although yet to go by that name)

Plot: The clone of Spider-Man crouches in the rain. He has just learned that he is in fact not the real Peter Parker. Off the roof and walking down the road, he is almost run over by a truck. He smashes the front of the truck and nearly kills the driver for not actually killing him before walking away.

Above the streets again, he sits drowning in his own self loathing. He hates that he has so much of Peter in him and yet he is not himself. Sleep comes above the city and the next morning brings with it the decision to try and live. He breaks into the apartment that he remembers as being his just yesterday and takes some soon to be donated clothes. He also takes some cash, feeling shame in this theft. He also takes the Spider-Man mask and gloves and leaves, walking into an uncertain future.

Notes: This is the inevitable secret origin of Ben Reily. At the start of the clone saga, we got the clone’s origin and that ended with his realisation that he wasn’t Peter, just a copy. This is what happened next.  How do you deal with the fact that you are not you. The person you are in your head is already at home with his girlfriend and you are just some stranger standing outside in the rain. The clone spirals, suicidal thoughts, self loathing and even hatred towards the ‘real’ you. But this fades. The clone decides to live, just not where he remembers he lives. The taking of the soon to be donated clothes makes sense. He takes things that he remembers wanting to be rid of, so nothing is missed. It also reinforces that idea of being lesser than and only deserving hand-me-downs and cast-offs. The money is different and it’s shown as different. Peter has always struggled with money, so that cash of rainy day money is important, but the clone needs it more. He feels guilty for exactly the reason that Peter would feel guilty, but he needs to go and for that you need money. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but he has to go.

Verdict

Writing: 4 out of 5 – This kind of mind-f**k of a story is perfect for DeMatteis. He plays with themes of identity and loss so well. In a short number of pages he makes you feel for this guy, creating a protagonist out of a throw away idea from years earlier. You feel his sadness and grief and understand his guilt and just for a minute or two, you want him to succeed. This isn’t 5 out of 5, because it’s a story that doesn’t feel particularly necessary. It’s there to take beef up the page count.

Art: 3 out of 5 – This is the start of the good era of John Romita Jnr art, I wasn’t particularly a fan of his earlier work and his more recent stuff has actually made me stop reading titles, but for a while in the 90s to the 00’s he did some really good work and this is some of it. His Spidey is a little bulkier perhaps, but his story-telling is as good as Romita Snr’s was and he has his own style. He manages to evoke emotion through the mask without messing with the eye size by using body language and it is really good.

Overall: 7 out of 10 – Again, this is a less than essential story and yet it does a good job of fleshing out the character’s early days and if you wanted to tell this story, this is how you tell it.

The Morning After

Credits: Plot by J M DeMatteis, script by Stan Lee, pencils by Tom Grummett and inks by Al Milgrom

Cast: Peter Parker, May Parker

Plot: Spider-Man caught the burglar who killed Ben Parker. He has returned home and gone to bed. This is the next morning where he has to live with what happened. Not that Ben died at the hands of a criminal that only escaped because of him, he’s already facing that and will do so for the rest of his life. No, this is the fact that his actions took Ben from May. He does everything he can, but what can be said? He points out that Spider-Man caught the guy, but May is angry at Spider-Man, who can’t care about who Ben was. Right there and then Peter decides he can never tell May who Spider-Man is and has to spend his life trying to make up for what he did and what it has cost his family.

 Notes: There was a title in the 1990’s called Untold tales of Spider-Man, which tried to fill in the gaps in Steve Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man run between 1962 and 1966 or so. This feels like that. It’s the missing story of Peter’s first day after learning who the burglar who killed Uncle Ben was. That misplaced anger, guilt and ultimately resolve is an interesting note to have and beyond its connection to this issue’s main story, feels completely superfluous. There was no need to tell this story, beyond having Spider-Man’s first writer and creator (or co-creator if you are of a mind) involved in this 400th issue.

Verdict

Writing: 3 out of 5 – To be fair this story is paper thin and really doesn’t have a lot to say. But it does feel like early 60’s Spider-Man in both tone and words. It plays on Peter’s internal monologue and melodrama and that was one of the things that made the strip work back in issue 4, let alone 400.

Art: 4 out of 5 – I like Tom Grummett, he hasn’t done enough Marvel work for me and when he does it’s a treat. This feels similar to Pat Oliffe’s pencils in the aforementioned Untold Tales title and the lighter inks of Al Milgrom seem to work very well with that. The facial features work with the emotions they are telling and that expressiveness makes the story work, when really it doesn’t really need to.

Overall: 7 out of 10 – It feels like getting an Oscar winning director and a couple of Emmy winning actors to make an advert for washing up liquid. They did the job, they brought it, but it was just a bit unnecessary.

Next Time: Travelling the high seas in the Age of Apocalypse

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