THIS REVIEW OF ‘THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN’ #1 IS SPOILER-FREE.
By Don Alsafi. Keeping a superhero exciting and relevant throughout the ages can be a challenging endeavor. On the one hand, creators like Stan Lee and Steve Ditko clearly came up with a format that resonated with readers, and turned characters like Spider-Man into globally-recognized properties capable of commanding sales for over fifty years. On the other hand, creators who stick too closely to that formula run the risk of readers getting bored, and concluding they’ve already seen every story worth telling.
As a result, every so often the publisher might present a twist so profound that the expected stories can’t be told—but such radical departures can also lead to concept drift. If the X-Men find themselves fighting aliens in space, or demons from a hell dimension, how much are they straying from their comic’s core theme of fighting for a better world that yet discriminates against them?
In recent times, readers could be forgiven for wondering if Spider-Man was suffering from that same risk of concept drift. Ten years ago, Marvel magically erased Peter Parker’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson, an essential component of Spidey’s status quo for the previous two decades. Six years ago, Peter seemingly died and his body was taken over by Doctor Octopus, leading to the replacement series Superior Spider-Man. Four years ago, Peter returned – but was now the billionaire CEO of a global tech firm. (Y’know, like Tony Stark.) Readers who grew up on the comics, films or cartoons asked: Where was the famously down-on-his-luck hero who always tried his best, but couldn’t catch a break? The one who might capture a supervillain one day, yet struggle to pay his rent the next?
Well, this week sees the newest relaunch of the flagship Spidey book, beginning with a story arc titled “Back to Basics”. Can this latest creative team bring back the iconic character known to readers and filmgoers alike? Or will this be just another step down a strange and winding path?
Written by Nick Spencer.
Pencils by Ryan Ottley.
Inks by Cliff Rathburn.
Colors by Laura Martin.
Letters by VC’s Joe Caramagna.
Backup story illustrated by Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazaba and Edgar Delgado.
Creators both invincible and superior. Writer Nick Spencer burst onto the comics scene in 2009 with a number of a creator-owned series from Image Comics, including the critically acclaimed Morning Glories. After a brief fling with DC, Marvel snapped him up with an exclusive contract, where he has since helmed such books as Secret Avengers, the sleeper hit Superior Foes of Spider-Man, and the crossover event Secret Empire.
Penciller Ryan Ottley was first tapped by Robert Kirkman to illustrate his superhero series Invincible starting with 2004’s issue #8. The Walking Dead creator must have liked what he saw, as Ottley would draw almost all of the series until its conclusion, incredibly missing less than a dozen issues during that fourteen-year span. It’s unheard of for a superhero artist to become such a fan-favorite without a career spanning various publishers and properties—but somehow that’s exactly what Ryan Ottley did.
The Spidey you know and love. As with most of Marvel’s recent launches The Amazing Spider-Man #1 is an over-sized debut with a main story clocking in at 30 pages (as opposed to the usual 20). Spencer and Ottley—joined by Cliff Rathburn, Ottley’s inker for much of Invincible—waste no time in re-introducing readers to Peter’s world, such as it is: He’s late for a press conference he’s covering in his role as the Daily Bugle‘s new Science Editor; his newest roommate turns out to be a well-known (if low-tier) supervillain; and he’s somehow drawn the attention of Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin—who also happens to be NYC’s current mayor. And all this is before his day starts to go unbelievably, catastrophically wrong.
Even with a double-sized first issue the creative team have a lot of ground to cover, but fortunately they put all the space available to ridiculously good use. Spencer takes great pains to make this first issue accessible to absolutely anyone, whether or not they’ve ever read a Spider-Man comic before. But he also manages the challenging feat of incorporating Spidey’s history and continuity into the narrative, referencing such touchstones as the Superior Spider-Man era, and his past relationship with MJ. The role of exposition in episodic storytelling (like comics or TV) is often seen as a necessary evil; it’s something that can be useful for catching up its audience or welcoming newcomers, but which more often than not comes across as artificial and clunky. And yet Spencer reminds us of what the best scriptwriters have always known, that such exposition should always be delivered with elegance and a light touch, possibly even piquing the interest of casual readers rather than confusing or alienating them.
A compelling view of the hero with heart. Historically, indie publishers have rarely tackled superheroes with any real success. Unless the superhero tale has a unique spin (like the “What if Superman went bad?” premise that underlay Mark Waid’s Irredeemable), there’s often the feeling that Marvel and DC have perfected the genre, and indie comics are better served putting their efforts elsewhere. Robert Kirkman’s long-running Invincible was thus a notable exception—and a large part of that success was due to Ryan Ottley.
Invincible was a comic starring a teenage superhero—and an eminently relatable one, at that. The dramatic scenes felt far more human drama than melodrama, and yet the comic also was frequently and legitimately funny, offering moments of comic relief to break up the otherwise serious narrative. In short, there may have been more than a little of Peter Parker’s DNA in Mark Grayson—which, in retrospect, makes the choice of Ottley as the next Spider-artist a thuddingly obvious one.
And make no mistake: The visuals in this comic shine just as much as the writing. Fairly early in the story, Ottley and inker Cliff Rathburn go for broke on a double-page splash portraying a whole host of Marvel heroes in the midst of an alien invasion, with colorist Laura Martin’s green hues giving the sky an eerily pallid feel. (By contrast, the flashback which opens the issue depicts the quintessential sunrise of days gone by, and the colors are appropriately gorgeous.)
What’s more, Ryan Ottley’s sense of character design has a pleasing “classic hero” feel to it that’s entirely appropriate for such an iconic and beloved character. But if Invincible was a superhero comic that foregrounded the human drama, then Ottley and Rathburn are artists who spent years perfecting the requisite human expressions and staging. The Amazing Spider-Man, of course, has always been a comic that lives or dies according to how much we, the readership, relate to this everyman. Fortunately, the power in these visuals comes from the fact that whether Peter is giddy or sad, hopeful or crushed… with one look at his face, the emotion comes through. And you can’t help but feel for him.
Web-slinging off into the future. Spider-Man, perhaps more than any other Marvel hero, was the single character most in need of a reset. In this the creative team have unarguably succeeded, and have done so while packing in a dizzying amount of plot, action, developments and twists. The lead story ends on a surprise that is no less effective for being an emotional beat than a plot-based one, and the 10-page backup story (by Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazaba and Edgar Delgado) portrays the villain-of-the-day’s eventual comeuppance in a way that is both legitimately shocking and somewhat horrifying. And then the regular creative team returns for a two-page epilogue that ends on yet another surprise…!
In 1962, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created the character of Spider-Man in a compact little 11-page story in the final issue of the anthology comic Amazing Fantasy. Six months later, the first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man hit the newsstands—and the “Legacy” numbering under the new #1 on this cover tells us that (renumbering aside) this would have been issue #802.
Two weeks ago Steve Ditko passed away, and comic book fans and professionals alike mourned the loss of one of our greats. But what he & Stan created all those years ago still lives on today.
And if ever you’ve delighted in the adventures of Spider-Man before, know that Peter Parker is once again in very good hands.
9 out of 10