Anyone who knows me well knows how much I love Spider-Man. He’s my favorite comic book superhero, forever and always. And for so long, I was positive Dan Slott was the only guy who could ever get AMAZING SPIDER-MAN right. Sure, he wasn’t perfect, but he was pretty damn close. I essentially considered Dan Slott the ultimate Spider-Man guru. That was until I recently finished writer J. Michael Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN.

I mean, god damn, talk about a reality check. For so long, I was adamant about not really delving into all this material. Now, I mentally smack myself every other day or so for ever committing to such a batshit crazy idea.

J. Michael Straczynski handled the writing duties on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN for just about six years during the early 2000s. In that time, Straczynski did everything in his power to tear the mythos, if you will, of Spider-Man down and build it all back up.

Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN nails just about every aspect of what makes a good Spider-Man story. The storytelling was creative, featuring a great deal of ingenuity and flair; every character was fleshed out, each one receiving individual and powerful story arcs, and Straczynski’s run shook up just about every aspect of Spider-Man’s world. Calling it insanely groundbreaking would be a tragic understatement.

Now, this isn’t to say Dan Slott got it wrong. He definitely didn’t. Not by a long shot. Straczynski just got it better, that’s all.

Mapping Out J. Michael Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

So, first, we have to map out and highlight Straczynski’s six-year-spanning story.

Straczynski's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
Cover to AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #30. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

You can essentially divvy up J. Michael Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN run into four or five essential parts. You’ve got the entire first half, which deals with all the totem stuff. That’s 38 issues of wacky, nonstop Spidey goodness, all drawn by artist John Romita Jr.

The second bit is what I classify as all the Mike Deodato Jr. drawn stuff, including “Sins Past,” “Skin Deep,” and “The Other.” A lot of this stuff was insanely creative and controversial, but mostly for the better. You might also classify “The Other” as its own chunk, as it was a twelve-part story that spanned the three Spidey books being published at the time.

Following all that came the CIVIL WAR era, as it were. Of course, this material all dealt with CIVIL WAR itself, and the fallout from that event. To this day, “Back in Black” remains one of my favorite Spidey arcs of all time. All of this stuff was illustrated by artist Ron Garney to great effect.

Finally, you’ve got “One More Day.” We’ll have lots to talk about with that one later on.

So, I’m basically going to do my best to write out a summary of Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. Then, we’ll dive deep into all the individual aspects that make this possibly the greatest run on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN.

We’ll also delve a little into where the series slipped up. Believe me, as stellar as this run may be, it’s far from perfect.

We’ve got lots to cover, so let’s get to it!

Totems, the Past, and the Other

J. Michael Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN all started with the introduction of Ezekiel. Ezekiel came into Peter Parker’s life very suddenly, preaching about how Peter Parker getting bit by that spider all those years ago may not have been just a chance encounter. From there, Peter deals with many new threats, including Morlun, a new Doctor Octopus, and a few foes of the magical or mystical variety. All this culminated in the “Book of Ezekiel” arc, where Ezekiel tried, and failed, to steal Pete’s powers.

Straczynski's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
From AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #33. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Following all of that craziness, Norman Osborn decided to rear his ugly face once again in the “Sins Past” arc, though this time in a uniquely nasty way. Turns out, way back when, he and Gwen Stacy had a brief (meaning one time only) affair. From that affair spawned two kids who really had it out for Peter Parker. After that controversial arc, Pete had to deal with an old high school friend turned bad guy and some New Avengers business involving Hydra.

Then came “The Other,” an arc that brought Morlun back and made Spider-Man more spidery. (Or would that be spiderier? No, I don’t think that’s a word.) Morlun pushed Spidey over the edge to a point where Pete embraced the spider half of himself and briefly became the spider-being known as the Other. He returned to normal shortly after with even more power than before; that’s how he got the natural web-shooters for a little while.

Civil War and the Decision That Changed Everything

Pete got dangerously tied up in the events of CIVIL WAR. Unmasking himself should probably go down in history as one of the dumbest decisions he’s ever made. This leads to a drastic internal conflict for Pete, as he questions his allegiances to Tony Stark and Captain America. CIVIL WAR, simply put, sent Pete’s life into a downward spiral.

Following CIVIL WAR, we were graced with the “Back in Black” arc, one of the darker stories in Spidey’s history. After Aunt May is shot by an assassin sent by the Kingpin, Pete goes on the offensive. He finds his old black suit (a cloth one, not the symbiote), a symbol for the dark path he promised to never travel down again, and almost kills the Kingpin. It’s an insanely aggressive storyline, and seeing Pete in this darker light is very satisfying.

Straczynski's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
From AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #542. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Everything culminated in the highly controversial “One More Day” arc, Straczynski’s final hurrah. With Aunt May’s life on the line, Peter has a brief, existential journey, coming to grips with the harsh reality of his situation, and wondering what kind of different lives he could have lived. Ultimately, he makes a deal with Mephisto to save Aunt May’s life, but at the cost of his marriage to Mary Jane.

What J. Michael Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN Gets Right

So, what is it exactly that Straczynski did so well? The answer: just about everything.

Characters Done Right

For starters, J. Michael Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN features some of the best character work in Spidey’s immeasurable history. This is the definitive version of Peter Parker, hands down. Straczynski’s Peter Parker is witty, crafty, loyal, humble, and deeply and realistically flawed. This was a reevaluation and reconstructing of Peter Parker and Spider-Man that we needed.

We follow Peter through every little aspect of his life. Some of my favorite material comes from Pete just being himself, not Spider-Man. I love him mentoring different students at his old high school; it’s a very natural and endearing role for him to have. Of course, all of those little stories found ways to bleed into his Spider-Man life, but none of that ever felt forced.

For example, one of his students’ brother gets mixed up with some hobo with magical powers. So, appropriately, Spider-Man looks into it, eventually saving the brother and trapping the baddie in this alternate dimension he’d been kidnapping people to. Many of the early, crazy, totem-related stories pan out like this one, and each one feels original and flows well between the Peter Parker and Spider-Man halves.

Straczynski's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
From AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #38. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Spidey’s relationship with Aunt May was also incredibly well-written. After Spidey’s fight with Morlun, Aunt May learns that Peter is Spider-Man. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #38 is completely dedicated to Pete and May talking out the situation, and it’s probably one of the best single issues of Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. Because of this, Peter and Aunt May felt, appropriately, more connected than they ever had before.

Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson’s Relationship

The first few issues of Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN feature Peter and Mary Jane worlds away from each other. Eventually, when they get back together, their reunion feels so well-deserved; it’s a truly enamoring experience seeing them get back together. From there, things only go up for these two.

Pete and MJ’s relationship is practically the lifeblood of this series. This is the kind of material that has helped cement Pete and MJ as a consistent, fan-favorite comic book couple. These two always have each other’s backs; they’re constantly supporting each other in their endeavors. Pete lets MJ into his life in ways he’d never done before, like introducing her to Captain America and the Avengers, which goes a long way to making them feel more connected.

Another huge part of why these two work together is because MJ isn’t an object of desire in Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, she’s a real person. She’s a believable character, with her own stories to tell and problems to deal with. MJ’s progression through this entire run is just as fluid and enjoyable, if not more so, than Pete’s. Seeing her grow from a popular, yet lonely model to a not-so-prosperous, but considerably happier actress is such a great arc to read.

Even with their separation looming in “One More Day,” they’re perfect together. Their final moments together during “One More Day” is some of the most powerfully emotional writing I’ve ever read. Despite “One More Day” being a less-than-gratifying story, the ending is truly gut-wrenching. When I think of a couple about to be split apart for what may seem like forever, I think of Pete and MJ’s final interactions here.

Spidey and the Larger Marvel Universe

Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN also succeeds in how it ties Spidey into the larger Marvel Universe. A good story of Spidey beating up bad guys with the Avengers every once in a while can go a long way to building his character. Straczynski dominated this aspect of his storytelling.

Straczynski's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
From AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #519. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Spidey’s interactions with the New Avengers are undeniably enjoyable to read. It is especially fun seeing Pete, MJ, and Aunt May move into the Avengers Tower when May’s house is destroyed. It is an organic way to give Pete and his family a leg up in some regards. At the same time, though the Avengers became a more prominent fixture in Pete’s life, the story still never feels too grandiose. Sure, Pete’s an Avenger, but he’s still off dealing with street-level nonsense or his own personal problems.

The “Civil War” material is a perfect example of blending Peter Parker’s world with the rest of the Marvel Universe. Though Pete is so drastically wrapped up in all the drama, we get to see how it spills into his personal life. Half of the “Back in Black” arc features Pete and MJ moving from one hospital to another, dealing with doctors, trying to save Aunt May’s life. All of this tense drama is thanks to the conditions thrust upon Pete from the events of CIVIL WAR.

Though all the “Civil War” stuff is where the overall quality started to dip, Straczynski still nails the storytelling, even this far into the game.

Damn Good Art All Around

I’ll openly admit that I wasn’t always a huge fan of John Romita Jr.’s art. His work on much of Marvel’s “Heroic Age” turned me off almost every time I saw it. But his art in the pages of J. Michael Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN just feels right. It is more fluid and natural than his more recent work. I was actually sad to see him leave the series after AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #508.

Straczynski's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
From AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #500. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

I’ve always enjoyed Mike Deodato Jr.’s art. His pages can sometimes be overbearing or bulky, but for the most part, his attention to realism is unmatched. I’m almost never disappointed with his work. Deodato’s style is perfect for the arcs he depicts here, especially “Sins Past.” It’s a shame he didn’t illustrate all of “The Other.” It would’ve made the arc so much better.

Ron Garney’s work on the “Civil War” and “Back in Black” arcs is outstanding. There’s very little to not enjoy about his pages. Much like Deodato’s style, Garney’s style is perfectly suited to the stories he’s telling with Straczynski. One of the reasons I love “Back in Black” so much is because of Garney’s art. You can never forget how brutal the Spidey/Kingpin fight is.

Straczynski's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
From AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #542. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Finally, Joe Quesada, Marvel’s editor-in-chief at the time, lent his artistic hand for the “One More Day” arc. Quesada’s style is gritty and imperfect, which is good, especially for the arc he depicts. Again, it’s a fitting style for the story it tells.

The Pitfalls

Of course, J. Michael Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is not without its faults. There are the typical artist hiccups here and there, and some minor missed opportunities, but all of that stuff can be easily forgiven. There are three big flukes in Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN.

Let’s first address the most prominent elephant in the room: “One More Day.” This arc effectively sent the entire Spider-Man fanbase into a fiery tantrum. Like, holy hell, you’d never seen fans get so heated over a comic book arc.

“One More Day” still stands as one of the most controversial comic book arcs ever created. It’s not really because it’s a bad story. Frankly, it’s not. The story is very deep and dramatic; it is an interesting departure from what Straczynski had been previously delivering. The problem is that this story essentially didn’t need to happen, and it did happen for some really stupid reasons. Plus, of course, it retconned a lot of important things.

Straczynski's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
From AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #545. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

The chief reason “One More Day” happened in the first place was because Joe Quesada had one of those “Let’s shake things up at Marvel” kind of epiphanies. That’s putting it jocularly, but that’s the basic idea behind Quesada’s motivation. He thought things were growing stagnant, so he wanted to make some changes; that’s why events like HOUSE OF M and CIVIL WAR happened. It’s also why he figured erasing Peter and MJ’s marriage would be a good idea.

Newsflash: it wasn’t.

Insulting the Past

“One More Day” was widely received as a huge slap in the face by many Spider-Man fans, new and old. It cheaply retconned one of the longest running comic book marriages of all time. Not only that, but it also did away with huge chunks of Spidey’s continuity. For example, they brought Harry Osborn back to life, just like that.

This story is fundamentally flawed. Not because it was poorly written, but because it flew in the face of what fans had come to expect from Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, and was seriously uncalled for.

“One More Day” wasn’t the only story to tamper with Spidey’s past. “Sins Past” was another big offender in the eyes of many Spidey fans.

Straczynski's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN
From AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #514. Courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Again, this wasn’t technically a bad story; it features some tense drama and more than a few well-placed twists and turns. It is just disgustingly hard to stomach. People couldn’t believe Gwen Stacy had an affair with Norman Osborn, secretly had two kids (who, as part of this arc, found and tried to kill Peter), and convinced MJ to not tell Peter basically forever. It was a lot to take in so suddenly.

So, glamorous as Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN initially appears, when you really crack this run open, there are a few ugly scars to be found. They don’t sorely detract from the overall quality of Straczynski’s run, but they’re there. Again, the stories themselves aren’t god-awful. They’re just kind of off-putting and upsetting when you give them a lot of thought. Best not to dwell on these too much and just move along should you ever find yourself reading Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN.

Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN Paved the Way for the Future

The effects of Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN can still be felt today. Writer Nick Spencer recently took up the writing responsibilities for AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. His run has been fantastic thus far; his work is very much akin to Straczynski’s. The stories Spencer has told thus far have been uniquely peculiar, much like the ones Straczynski told.

Not to mention, Nick Spencer got Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson back together, at long last. That’s been going splendidly, and it’s surprisingly been a breath of fresh air. Spencer also looks to be working in the same vein as Straczynski in terms of fleshing them and their relationship out.

I imagine Spencer has taken a lot of influence from Straczynski, in terms of how he’s writing his AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. I hope so. Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is a damn good example to model one’s work after.

So, when we boil everything down, faults and all, J. Michael Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN still stands as the pinnacle of Spider-Man storytelling. It got nearly everything right; every character got their due, the stories were clever and refreshing, the art was fan-freaking-tastic, and with every issue came something new that shook up Peter Parker’s world.

Of course, like any good piece of literature, the story is not without its flaws. Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN has a few controversial bits attached to it. But, in the grand scheme of things, they’re really not so terrible. If anything, just do your best to ignore them. It’s not that hard.

J. Michael Straczynski’s AMAZING SPIDER-MAN was a character-defining series. I’m glad to have read it, even if I was little late to the party, and I patiently await the next run like it. Fingers crossed that it’s Nick Spencer’s.

3 Comments

  1. Jim MacLeod

    December 22, 2018 at 12:24 pm

    It seems like this story should reference the fact that JMS’ original OMD story had to be rewritten at the end because it didn’t follow editorial’s outline. Same with a key part of the Sins Past story: http://atlantisonline.smfforfree2.com/index.php?topic=18701.0;wap2

    Reply

  2. […] And, as I’ve said in previous reviews, the way Ottley draws Spider-Man is downright awesome. Ottley always finds a nice balance between angular and smooth designs. This is especially true for Spider-Man. Spidey’s build feels natural, and his mask looks so goddamn cool! And Ottley’s design for Peter is also really good. Looking at this Peter Parker, I’m reminded of the character as part of the J. Michael Straczynski era. […]

    Reply

  3. Barry Hollifield

    Barry Hollifield

    December 11, 2018 at 6:06 am

    Still the best!

    Reply

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