52 weeks. 52 different writers. 2 trade paperbacks or hardcovers a week. Each week I’ll take a look at a different writer and read two different collected editions from within that person’s repertoire to help in the examination of their work.
J. Michael Straczynski
In 2001, J. Michael Straczynski received a major break in the comic book world when he signed an exclusive contract with Marvel Comics. His first, and most well-known assignment, was taking over the Amazing Spider-Man which resulted in a six year run spanning from 2001-2007. Teaming with the son of the legendary Amazing Spider-Man artist, John Romita Sr., J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr. helped to redefine the title by shaking up the very core of the book; how Peter Parker got his powers. The pair would craft an important and critically acclaimed issue, Amazing Spider-Man #36, in response to the tragic events of 9/11, in which the team showcased superheroes and villains working side-by-side with the true heroes and civil servants that helped save lives on that day.
The Amazing Spider-Man Ultimate Collection By J. Michael Straczynski Volume 1
Peter Parker is the Amazing Spider-Man, struggling to balance the power and responsibility of being New York’s premier street level superhero. Life for Peter has been all about perspective as of late, re-assessing everything he thought he knew following an encounter with a mysterious and enigmatic older man named Ezekiel. While swinging through the city one night, Peter is surprised to have Ezekiel sneak up and cling to the wall next to him before going off and exhibiting many of the small unique powers Peter thought only he had. Ezekiel shocks Peter when he suggests that maybe the radioactive spider that bit Peter actually already had mystical powers inside of it instead of being given the powers from the radioactive ray it was blasted by. It’s a concept that Peter never even gave the time of day to, but following Ezekiel’s suggestion, Peter can’t help but feel that it could potentially be the truth. To complicate matters further, a strange new foe in the form of a man named Morlun appears on the scene, seeking to steal Peter’s very life force, drawn to him because of the spider powers he has. Peter discovers that Morlun is a rare monster of a man who absorbs the powers of animals, taking them from totemistic hosts like himself who embody the powers of animals. Morlun quickly proves himself to be one of the strongest adversaries that Peter has ever had to face, uncorking punches that feel stronger than even the Hulk. Fighting a powerful new foe, balancing a new job as a teacher at his former high school, dealing with a broken marriage with the love of his life, and many more conflicts ensure that Peter Parker has a busy life, whether it be in or out of his favourite costume.
J. Michael Straczynski aptly displays the firm understanding he has of the character of Peter Parker through this first collected edition of his lengthy Amazing Spider-Man tenure. With ease Straczynski displays an utter knack for not only the character of Peter Parker/Spider-Man but all the components that come with the storytelling you’d expect to see from the character, ranging from his deep and always expanding supporting cast to the all too familiar setting of Manhattan, New York. Top to bottom, JMS’ time with Spider-Man is definitely worth it for any fans of the well-loved wall crawler, even if it takes the character’s origin in a dramatically different direction than what we’ve seen before.
The first part you have to address when talking about JMS’ lovely Spidey run is how perfectly he balances out Peter Parker with Spider-Man along with how well he writes both sides of the character. For long time fans of Spidey, you’re certain to immediately recognize the multiple captions where Peter, as he swings around the city, talks to himself in the most distinctly Peter Parker way possible. JMS plays up how almost frantic of a mind Peter has, constantly juggling multiple problems at the same time whilst also causing himself to go off on random tangents in the midst of his train of thought. Peter will be dissecting a serious problem in his life, only to then get sidetracked by an unintentional pun he made to then circle back to the problem at hand. It essentially leaves a stamp of “certified crazy” right across Peter’s forehead to be that way but it is so ridiculously funny and true to the character that every time it happens you can’t help but feel more immersed in the character. It all harkens back to the core conflict of the character in that he’s a normal guy with extraordinary powers that result in the struggle to balance out both sides of his life. JMS gets that part of Peter down pat, as multiple times throughout the story we watch as he needs to make tough decisions like risking his life in favour of multiple lives (something that he does on the daily anyways), saving civilians or saving his broken marriage, doing what’s right for his job versus what’s right as a hero, and so much more. It’s the tragic flaw of the character that, for as happy as Peter Parker can be, he can never be truly happy and have all his affairs in order because he’s a human and as such can never have it all. It’s the relatable nature of this regular guy who is an amazing superhero that makes Peter Parker such a captivating character, elevating him to arguably be one of the greatest fictional characters AND superheroes of all time.
When it comes to the plot, there is plenty here that will either captivate you or alienate you, with JMS’ time with Spidey being the style of comic book that you need to come into with an open mind. The new spin on Spider-Man’s origin is something that fans could see as ridiculous and stupid after being fed the same song and dance for decades, which is why (to me) the update to the origin has always been refreshing. As I’ve said before during these examinations of stories, some of your best superhero stories are ones that take established history and add new wrinkles in between the lines while still keeping the original work largely unchanged. JMS brings a question to the table, one that doesn’t immediately change how Peter got his powers but instead raises questions of intent. He essential asks Peter, and in a larger scope the reader, if the accident that granted Peter his powers was really an accident? What if Peter was chosen to have these powers for some reason and what if the spider that bite him already had the powers inside of it, instead of being filled with these powers following a blast from radiation? It’s a great hypothetical question, one that largely goes unanswered throughout this first volume of JMS’ Spidey work but a question you should keep in mind while you read it as it changes everything, right down to even the villains Spidey has always faced off against.
The majority of the plot finds this question as the backbone for what it builds, with Peter’s first major adversary following this revelation being tightly tied to the entire idea (but more on that big bad in a second). We get to see a plethora of different stories across the fifteen issues in this collected edition, with Peter taking on conflicts of the spiritual and supernatural nature as well as the standard street level stuff he typically deals with. One of the most dramatic gut punches of storytelling actually comes from a one-and-done tale though, that chronicles the fallout of the terrorist attacks associated with 9/11. Told almost entirely through captions, JMS crafts a story that shows heroes and villains working side-by-side in wake of the historic tragedy, putting aside their differences for the betterment of mankind. It’s a dark, harrowing tale that does so much with so little and is sure to leave you deeply moved following your completion of it. The events that unfold in the comic are real life moments that happened to people on that day which make the reading of the comic all the more chilling. It’s easily one of my all-time favourite issues of the Amazing Spider-Man simply for its message and what it means for American culture. Even if you don’t read this collected edition, at least read that one issue.
In the way of villains, which are typically some of the best parts of any great Spider-Man story, JMS introduces a new big bad for Spidey and the Marvel Universe in the way of Morlun, an ancient being who consumes the essence of “animal totems”, the spiritual presence of an animal. Ezekiel, a newly introduced supporting character whose powers are similar to those of Peter’s, explains to Peter that he is a “Spider Totem”, carrying the essence of the spider through him because of the spider bite that gave him his powers. This sets him in Morlun’s crosshairs when he arrives in town looking to consume Peter and take his essence. Not much is learned about Morlun beyond the incredible level of strength he has but based off the way JMS writes him, he definitely comes off as a mildly charismatic character who feels somewhat bad for having to try to kill Peter but still knows that it’s necessary for his own survival. JMS does an excellent job of drawing the reader in around this grandiose villain, who has this foreboding and daunting nature to him. He’s a true threat to Peter’s life and sends him through the ringer time and time again, leaving you to wonder if Peter actually has a chance of surviving this one. Beyond Morlun, JMS almost casts some other entertaining villains for Peter to battle like a newbie called The Shade and the old classic Spidey villain, Doctor Octopus. Even though the villains are all rich, it’s the character drama that propels these stories forward. There is so much that changes in Peter’s life through these fifteen issues that it would be unfair of me to spoil it all for you if you haven’t read it already. Trust me when I say, JMS’ Spider-Man stories are worth your time.
Best Character: Peter Parker
Best Line Of Dialogue/Caption: ” ‘course if I had pockets, stuff would fall out of them every time I did this. Okay, so maybe I could have pockets with zippers, maybe velcro. Yeah, that’d work…I’d be creeping up behind somebody, and have to get something out…zzzzzzzzzzzip!” – Peter Parker
Best Scene/Moment: Peter and May reveal the truth to each other – Amazing Spider-Man #38
Best Issue: Issue #36. I already dedicated a paragraph to the issue but it deserves as many words as I can muster. Even then that might not do it justice. It’s powerful, heartfelt, meaningful, and so many other words to describe how beautiful as well as tragic the issue truly is. If you find it as a back issue I’d snag it immediately just so you can see the message JMS and JRJr instilled into a comic book.
Why You Should Read It: Through fifteen issues, you’ll be hard sought to find another character who goes through as many changes as Peter does here in this volume. His life is changed in major, exciting ways for new or longtime readers and JMS just gets the voice of Peter/Spidey down easily. It’s a rich, exciting read with some slightly different spins that you typically wouldn’t see in an average superhero comic. To me, these early parts of JMS’ Spider-Man run, and most of the run for that matter, are a must read for any Spider-Man fan or anyone even mildly interested in the character. You’ll come for the comedy but stay for the surprising amount of heart.