It’s no secret that Spider-Man is my favorite comic book hero. Much of this appeal comes from the relatable nature of the character. Peter Parker is just an ordinary kid who happens to attain these amazing powers, demonstrating how Spider-Man could really be anyone. As far as heroes go, Spider-Man is the perpetual underdog: he’s strong, but not the strongest, he’s smart, but not the smartest, and ultimately makes do with what he’s given. The most important, and most heroic thing about Spider-Man, is that he refuses to give up. He’ll keep trying to save everyone, even if it kills him. Even in the face of overwhelming odds, Spider-Man also manages to maintain a happy face. Peter Parker remains optimistic, funny, and able to come up with creative solutions in a crisis.
One story that appeals to these qualities of Spider-Man is the six-issue storyline entitled “Coming Home”, by J. Michael Straczynski. I recommend this storyline for several reasons. The first is that it works as a great jumping-on point for new readers, beginning the highly acclaimed tenure of Straczynski on the Amazing Spider-Man as a comic. “Coming Home” is also a great modern take on Spider-Man, depicting an adult Peter Parker who is more experienced and mature. In maturing the character, Straczynski allows for further development of the Spider-Man lore. Instead of treading familiar ground with villains such as Doc Ock or the Green Goblin, Straczynski brings in fresh new ideas. Not only does this make the story accessible to new readers, but a welcome change of pace for those already familiar with the character of Spider-Man.
The basic idea of this story is that Spider-Man is being hunted by an energy vampire known only as Morlun, who feeds off of the life energy of those who represent mystical totems. The assumption here is that Spider-Man, in being bitten by a radioactive spider, was chosen to represent the spider totem. This idea calls the entire origin of Spider-Man into question. Was it a science experiment gone wrong that gave Peter his powers, or was he chosen by some mystical being? This question highlights an overarching theme of religion vs science, which continues throughout Straczynski’s run on the character. More importantly, in questioning Spider-Man’s origin, Straczynski forces the character of Spider-Man to reevaluate fundamental aspects of who he is. This reevaluation coincides with Peter returning to his old neighborhood in Queens, emphasizing the important role of homecoming to the character. In returning home, Peter recognizes not only how far he has come, but how far he has yet to go in growing up.
Throughout this ordeal, Straczynski manages to perfectly capture the character of Spider-Man. Peter is written as a genuinely relatable, down-on-his-luck character, who has to come to terms with where he is in life. The story finds Peter quite lost in the beginning, returning home in an attempt to truly find himself once again. Despite these hardships, Peter is never written without some great humor to go along with his angst. Straczynski keeps the character witty and charming, both in and out of costume. The internal monologues capture Peter’s thought process so well, including some genuinely funny thoughts. Most importantly, Straczynski maintains what makes Spider-Man great. No matter how hopeless the odds, Spider-Man keeps on fighting against guys like Morlun. Not just for himself, but for everyone the villain has killed or threatened. Spider-Man stands up for the little guy, saving civilians from the rampaging Morlun, and even stopping a school shooter at one point in the story.
Peter Parker’s life outside of Spider-Man is not ignored either. The true loneliness of being Spider-Man is perfectly captured, as Mary Jane has left him, and Peter spends most of the story alone. The isolation is felt in an early scene where Spider-Man angrily demolishes an abandoned building. Despite Peter’s loneliness, however, Straczynski shows the character move forward. Continuing the themes of growing up and homecoming, Peter becomes a science teacher at his old high school. This move perfectly parallels Peter’s life as Spider-Man, as now Peter stands up for the little guy in and out of costume. The young teenagers who Peter used to resemble are now under his guidance.
The supporting characters add much to this story as well. Ezekiel, an older man with powers just like Spider-Man’s, serves as a sort of flawed mentor who guides Peter through this storyline. More importantly, Ezekiel is representative of a different path which Peter might have taken. Ezekiel has used his genius to become a billionaire with his own company, just as Peter might have used his own scientific genius for profitable purposes. Ezekiel also represents someone who has fully committed to the idea of totemism, choosing to believe in the mystical spider totem. Still, Ezekiel remains fairly flawed, choosing to hide rather than face the demonic Morlun. This flaw illustrates how, despite choosing a different path than Peter, this does not necessarily mean Ezekiel chose a better one.
As far as villains go, Morlun is absolutely terrifying. The villain is depicted as the perfect unstoppable, inevitable force. This makes for a perfect foil to Peter’s determination and defiance in the face of unbeatable odds. If Spider-Man is the nerdy kid in high school, then Morlun is the school bully. Straczynski shows just how relentless Morlun is, asthe villain tirelessly chases Spider-Man through the streets of New York. If Spider-Man flees, Morlun will endanger civilians to lure him back out. With his back against the wall, Spider-Man has no choice but to stand up to the bully.
Of course, this story cannot be discussed without praising John Romita Jr.’s artwork. Romita and his father, John Romita Sr. (who first drew Spider-Man back in the ’60s!) have both illustrated iconic versions of the wallcrawler. Spider-Man is both heroic and strange in his appearance and movement, crouching and contorting in ways only a spider could. The art style is very sleek and smooth, perfectly capturing facial expressions and character builds. Most importantly, Romita perfectly depicts the brutality of the fights in this storyline. The artwork truly demonstrates a Spider-Man who is in the fight of his life, but who refuses to back down. The battle damage of Spider-Man’s suit and the bloodied bodies of all involved make the reader almost feel the pain.
Overall, this story is a perfect jumping-on point for Spider-Man. The new characters, the perfect characterization, and the beautiful artwork make this quite accessible for new readers, as well as old readers who want to dive back in. This is just the beginning for the Straczynski run on Spider-Man, which I would recommend continuing if you enjoy this story. There are many great stories that follow this one, and developments involving key supporting characters such as Aunt May and Mary Jane. Most importantly, Straczynski continues to raise new questions and ideas which challenge the fundamentals of the character. In doing so, Straczynski allows Spider-Man to grow up, while remaining true to the spirit of what makes Spider-Man great.
Of course, since Spider-Man is my favorite hero, there are many more stories that I will recommend over the course of this blog. Until then, however, there are a few off of the top of my head:
- the Amazing Spider-Man by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, & John Romita Sr.
- Spider-Man: Blue
- Marvel Knights: Spider-Man by Mark Millar
- The Superior Spider-Man
- the Amazing Spider-Man: Big Time
- Ultimate Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis
That’s all for this week’s review. Be sure to come back next week for another weekly recommendation from the Comic Book Column! If you liked this post, feel free to follow the blog for more and share with your friends!