Comics & Manga

What the heck is happening in Zeb Wells' THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN? Part 1

Major, major spoilers ahead.

You, dear reader, may have heard some buzz lately about how the current run of Amazing Spider-Man has been terrible. You may have seen Paul and Mary Jane, or heard about the insanely temporary even for comics death of Kamala Khan. Now, there’s a lot to say about the modern history of this comic book. I jumped on during the Nick Spencer period, so that’s where I’m coming from. I’ve been a reader for about 3 ½ , almost 4 years.

I’m going to do my best to be honest and dissect why Zeb Wells’ doesn’t seem to be landing with readers. I say seem because, for better or worse, sales of this run thus far have been relatively healthy. Amazing Spider-Man has had a regular spot on the monthly sales charts. It must be considered that I live in a bubble of complaints, quote-retweets, and comments sections that are perhaps overly critical. To address every criticism I’ve seen is a bit out of my scope right now, but let’s set the stage for the Wells’ run by very broadly recapping a few events and what I’ve felt out to be general fan expectations.

Before we get fully started though, I want to lay this down. I don't think Zeb Wells' is some terrible writer. I don't think editor Nick Lowe is evil, or that the Spider-Man editorial department is out to torture fans.

Previously, on The Amazing Spider-Man…

In a nefarious plot by the new villain Kindred, an old foe, Sin-Eater, was resurrected with new powers. Sin-Eater was on a crusade to collect sins (like XP in a video game), making him stronger. Norman Osborn made a tasty target, and ended up having his sins cleansed in this process. This has created what I call Good Norman, who, for all intents and purposes, is seriously a better person and is trying to turn his life around. Sin-Eater was defeated, and Norman’s Sins (proper noun, serious!) have turned into a kind of evil basketball that can be passed around from character to character. If you’re holding the basketball, you are going goblin mode.

Kindred’s ultimate plot, teased for a long time, was to punish Spider-Man, with many, many hints to readers that he would deliver some kind of retribution for having made a deal with Mephisto way way back in the infamous One More Day storyline, or some kind of previous sin. Many fans were hoping for some kind of reversal or remarrying of Peter and MJ. Again, both of these were very strongly hinted at, with Peter missing his few chances to propose in the run. This ended up not happening, and another major infamous story was walked back instead, Sins Past. All the same, Peter and MJ reaffirmed their love for each other at the end of the run. I mean, look at this cover!

I’ve omitted a lot of detail and story elements, but in general, those are the biggest things to be aware of from Spencer’s work going into Wells’. Many fans weren’t happy with how the Spencer run turned out. I thought this run, overall, was quite good. It kind of didn’t stick the landing, which was a bummer. Although, truthfully, the idea that Marvel Comics will undo One More Day feels ridiculous. Remarry, maybe, someday, but not fully undo a storyline which is rapidly approaching twenty years old. I think that’s just not in the cards.

Spencer had a strong connection to Spider-Man continuity, and, especially in the first half or so, had a serious talent for using old characters in unexpected and interesting ways. Boomerang, Taskmaster, Black Ant, Carlie Cooper, Randy Robertson and Janice Lincoln (who is the Beetle, and currently one of my very favorite characters in ASM!), Mysterio, Kraven, JJJ, and countless others had well done uses in many stories. Many complained “When is the Kindred arc? Is this the Kindred arc? Why is this dragging out so long? Just undo OMD already!”, which I feel is both unfair to Kindred and the run overall. Not every story in the run was a hit, and ended on a lot of confusing, bizarre ideas to close the spotlight on Kindred. Still, I would recommend it.

After Spencer’s departure. The Beyond era began. I’ll be honest, I did not personally read this one all the way through. The book moved to being published three times a month, and I was simply unwilling to pay 12 dollars a month just on Spider-Man.

To my knowledge, the two major events here are: The Evil Basketball gets passed around to Ashley Kafka at the Beyond Foundation, who becomes a supervillain Queen Goblin; and Ben Reilly has been transformed into a new marketable character, Chasm, by having his memories erased and being very upset about it. Beyond had multiple writers behind it, Wells’ included, and numerically is counted as part of the Spencer run before numbering restarts with Wells’ proper. So, count that however you want.

That Thing I Said Earlier About A Promising Start

Wells’ announcement as the next writer on Amazing was met with fanfare. After Spencer and Beyond ended with thuds (us Ben Reilly fans are a passionate bunch), finally, Wells’ was gonna get us back on track! Wells’ has a generally good track record, and has even worked on Amazing before, so things seemed safe here. This exact same scenario had occurred five years earlier, people were sick of Dan Slott and ready for Spencer to take over. To be fair, in that instance, Slott wrote Amazing for a really long time by modern standards. I assume the next time a new writer comes onto ASM, I will see this happen again…

Wells’ run begins with mystery. Peter is at the crater of some kind of explosion, and we cut to six months later. Peter and Mary Jane are broken up, and we meet Paul and what seem like their kids. Johnny Storm rips Peter a new one, complaining that he stole from the FF. Peter gets a sort of job offer from Tombstone, who wants to employ Spider-Man.

Just to get it out of the way, I thought the Tombstone arc story was good, with a relevant nitpick. A larger story with Tombstone continuing to unfold in the book as I write this, so we'll see where it goes. But the elephant in the room is Mary Jane, of course. She's the crux of everything. Peter and Mary Jane have split up.

Now, some of this is by design. It’s clearly intentional that this move is meant to be jarring and put curiosity in the reader. This whole scenario was marketed as “What Did Peter Do?” This is a dangerous tightrope to walk. Remember, if you had been reading Spider-Man recently, one of the last things you saw was that Peter and Mary Jane like this!

Many fans are already, and I'm not to trying demean us here, sensitive about anything Peter and MJ. Mary Jane was critical to the last run, and she was there in the Beyond story too while Peter was hospitalized. To see their relationship reaffirmed, and to have it be a big point of the story was a good note to close a run on. Sure, the logistics of Kindred and all that were weird (it honestly deserves its own article), and they didn’t remarry, a lot of the important stuff was there for fans.

I didn’t hate this plot turn myself, not initially. Was I annoyed? A little. Did I expect Peter and MJ to be completely okay and have a solid, positive relationship together? Not really. Is that asking for too much? Also not really! Spider-Man has had long periods where his Mary Jane relationship was pretty stable. It seemed like that would be a pretty reasonable spot to be in after 70 some-issues getting the two back on track in the Spencer run.

“What Did Peter Do?” Is just too big an ask on the reader, in my opinion. Splitting up Peter and MJ will always be a radioactive (hah) topic for a lot of people, breaking them up or putting them in trouble creates drama and can maintain longer term interest. We’ll want to see our hero succeed! It’s the classic soap opera style that has been so good for Spider-Man in the past. Supervillains and personal problems will get in the way, so we’ll be on Peter’s side and aligned with him when he becomes frustrated that great power and responsibility are tearing him away from life.

That concept is solid, baseline Spider-Man writing, this should be working. And, for some, maybe it is. Here I am writing about it, so I’m clearly invested. So, why isn’t it working? This was a shocking twist that needs to pay off in order to work. Why didn’t many readers have faith in this? Let’s hone in on that bolded phrase...

What Did PETER Do?

The hint is in the phrasing and teasing. Peter did something. It’s proposed within the story that whatever is happening right now is Peter’s fault. Now, a curious and faithful reader who likes Peter Parker may, with reason, assume that he must have had some kind of Spider related obligation, that this is some kind of misunderstanding, or something he had no choice in. I’m paraphrasing here, but Stan Lee once described the classic Spider-Man formula as such…

“Doc Ock is minutes away from destroying New York, and Aunt May is falling apart in the hospital. Spider-Man can only make one choice, deliver the life saving medicine to Aunt May or save the city!”

So, right, maybe it’d be something like that? A Spider-reader would certainly understand that making this kind of choice would be difficult, and often times it probably all work out in the end by the skin of our heroes’ teeth. If it doesn’t work out, we’re likely to empathize with Spider-Man on his decision, so he can still be our hero. The opening issues of the Wells’ run do not give us this opportunity, this sort of get-out. Peter Parker is a flawed character, yes, certainly. He has made mistakes, misjudgments, or given into anger and frustration. But we start off on the wrong foot here by writing Peter as this bad of a fumbler.

To translate our Lee formula into the Zeb Wells’ story, Spider-Man apparently dropped the life saving medicine on his way to go fight Doc Ock. Would the consequences of this create drama and tension? Certainly! But does this put us against Spider-Man?

The way I see it, this can only cast our hero, Peter Parker, in a negative light. This is not some dramatic twist of fate, or the doing of an evil supervillain (well, it is, but not in a satisfying way, and nobody knew that for half a year, more on that soon), Peter screwed something up and now we have to wonder how he’ll unscrew it. We are forced to imagine how he failed at something he was very recently really good at for the sake of drama in the story. This is not rocking the boat, this is hitting the iceberg head on! The plot has immediately put us against our own hero. We are out of alignment with Peter Parker himself (with SOME exception, that I will highlight as positives!) and are now placed in the meta narrative of wondering how the story is trying to manipulate us and why this is even the story to begin with.

I often see complaints that Spider-Man isn’t winning fights lately, but this is a symptom and not the illness. While being a comic book superhero sort of inherently traps Spider-Man in a repetitive cycle of getting beat down and overcoming something he probably has before, within a story he should have some kind of triumph or victory, even if eventually. The Peter Parker in Zeb Wells’ work, currently, is not terribly heroic, and is difficult to support. He is a passive character who doesn't impact the world around him, and we are observing the story conspire against him. Within reason, he should not be seen as powerless to do anything about his own life circumstances. We should not feel that he is some slave to circumstance and fate alone. He’s Spider-Man.

Early on, we know that he lost the relationship with Mary Jane, and got on the bad side of the Fantastic Four. Paul appears to have Mary Jane be a mother figure to some children, meanwhile Spider-Man “defeats” Tombstone in a weird half-truce. He will be defeated by The Vulture and be saved by Norman Osborn (more on him soon, but I like him, and it's good that The Vulture is a threat), he will fail to save or redeem Ben Reilly, and he’s not really responsible for stopping the villain who is behind all this. His relationship with Black Cat in the interim is a total wet fart of a story. Is he a superhero still? What does he want? This is too much into ‘bad Parker luck’, this is too much into the tragic aspects of this character.

Some of Spider-Man’s best stories can involve loss or failure, or even hollow victories. Spider-Man bested the Green Goblin after Gwen’s death, having previously failed to protect George Stacy, and it didn’t bring her back. In some of my favorite Roger Stern stories, Black Cat was lost and presumed dead, in another story a mutated Tarantula jumped from a building to end his life before Spidey could intervene.

This kind of thing isn’t unheard of for the character. But there are various differences. Gwen’s death was at the hands of his greatest enemy, and he failed to save her. Norman died in the ensuing battle after Spider-Man chased him down to his hideout. He was angry, upset, and had lost someone important, but he was an active participant in the events. Black Cat was a newer, not as used character, so this kind of shake up is not a difficult pill to swallow. Tarantula was an active and immediate threat to the city, so, villain defeated in a sad twist.

I’m not suggesting that he should force Mary Jane to be in a relationship with him, or marry him, or that he should immediately kill Paul. I’m saying this probably shouldn’t be the core hook and a mystery of the book to begin with because we’re in a corner!
Imagine if the death of Gwen Stacy was presented like this. We see distressed Peter, and cut to six months later with Gwen out of the picture, when the last major story (that we’re making up for this example) showed definitively that Peter and Gwen have an unbreakable bond. We ultimately learn it was a battle with the Green Goblin. Is this impossible to make work? I don’t think so. Is it contradictory to what we just read, and seems contrived? I’d say yes.

The core of the Spencer series also had mystery. What did Kindred want and what exactly did he want with Spider-Man’s sins? How was tormenting him part of the plan? When would he strike, and how? Who the hell was he? What’s with the centipedes? This is a good core that hones in on a negative aspect of Peter Parker, but it doesn’t make us root against him or hate him. And that was largely in reference to him making a deal with Mephisto in the most infamous story thus far.

The set up is a really big part of the problem here. If it really is Peter’s fault, well, that sucks and he sucks, and that wouldn’t be much fun to read. If it’s not...well... Enough theory for right now. If you’ve read the run thus far (and enjoyed it), you may be thinking; “James, everything was Rabin’s fault! And Peter had no control over the difference in time between the dimensions! These things fit the criteria you lay out!” to an extent this is true. And there do exist examples in the run of this concept actually working out and being fulfilling. This major one still falls very flat.

If you haven’t read the run, you would rightfully ask me: “Who the hell is Rabin?”

Part 2: The Scribble Man