Sunday, October 7, 2012


In May of 2006, publishing titan DC took a major gamble. They began a year-long weekly series called 52 that required the combined drive of its best talents (Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Keith Giffen and Joe Bennett among them), and did not include Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman. The series instead featured a hundred-strong cast, with characters rotating in and out of the spotlight as various plots rose, fell and converged. Thrillingly, each week became a different kind of payoff, and my friends and I peppered each other with, "THIS is how I want to read all my comics."

One week passed, and you got a fresh dose. And not just an imbalanced sliver that was either all talk or all action- every issue of 52 had juice, cleverness and momentum. It was the experimental opposite of how best-selling comics had been produced for most of the decade. Taste-makers like Brian Bendis wrote for the eventual trade paperback collection, decompressing many stories to death and subverting basic conventions such as talking while fighting.

Well, my circle of readers wasn't unique. Fan response turned 52 into a cash cow to be milked, cloned, and eventually stolen by those rapscallions at Marvel. In 2007, Amazing Spider-Man became a thrice-monthly showcase of sparkling renovation. Gone was the malicious darkness of the super-human civil war, pitting every hero with a brain against the fascist Iron Man. Peter Parker, wall-crawler extraordinaire, had woken to a Brand New Day.

ASM 546-548 is the first (and possibly best) jolt, delivered by writer Dan Slott and artist Steve McNiven. The freewheeling tone they establish tightly updates the Stan Lee approach of using the entire stove-top to simmer three subplots while a main story cooks (which Slott mastered during his heartfelt run on She-Hulk). But "Brand New Day" opens by reaffirming that Parker is as Parker does; he's a barely employed nerd, unmarried and under Aunt May's roof, with a jolly complaint on every breath. As McNiven's air-brushed art shows Peter kissing a club-rat on the first page, our hero says, "I mean, you start the story here and it totally gives you the wrong impression. This is not my life. I mean, it is, but..."

What Slott does best is think through to the end of every idea, with the flair of a novelist, and someone who loves the character they're writing. As Peter searches for a steady job, we get humor from one interview with, "It's like you left your camera on a ledge and walked away or something." Then we get the daring exactitude of a creator hellbent on challenging himself and his readers; someone says: "I remember you. Peter Parker, the child prodigy from Midtown High. First place in the regional science fair four years running... And then what? Not a single paper published. No real work in the field. So Peter, I have to ask. What have you been doing all this time?

Cue splash page of Spider-Man's rogues gallery, heavy on the animal totems and green jumpsuits. At the time, it seemed no more than a clever way to mention Spidey's wacky life. As of today's continuity however, Slott has Peter inventing gadgets full-time at Horizon Labs, which could have been the case years ago had any editor or writer bothered to conceive such a thing.

Back to five and a half years ago. Many more instances of, "Yes, this is actually happening in a Spider-Man comic," occur, until you realize Slott probably has a list of them. A two-bit hood robs people wearing a Spider-Man mask, including Peter and his new {ahem} friend Carlie Cooper. Peter loses his wallet and a web-shooter to the guy, but his day is nothing compared to Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson's. A forceful buyout of the newspaper is underway, and when Peter confronts the old skinflint about a paycheck, he says, "Here I am! Wolves at the door! And this good-for-nothing vulture comes to pick at me... You're an ungrateful little shit!"

Peter's response that his Spider-Man photos made the Bugle more than just urban tumbleweeds cuts Jameson's last nerve. The stogie-chomper has a heart attack screaming our hero's name. While he recovers in the hospital, his wife Marla sells their shares of the paper, allowing the dweeby Dexter Bennett to step in as owner. Spider-Man, meanwhile, deals with a sharp new villain named Mr. Negative (who's also Martin Li, owner of the homeless shelter where Aunt May volunteers, and McNiven draws as actor Chow Yun Fat).

Slott's deftness in cushioning Peter's world with a huge supporting cast so quickly is remarkable. Harry Osborn, son of industrialist Norman (The Green Goblin), is here, with his new Beyonce-esque girlfriend Lily. Carlie Cooper seems to be Peter's dream girl, except that she's a forensic cop. Betty Brant and Joe Robertson also appear, and the latter has this incredible line, after Dexter Bennett rattles off a sandwich order, shoving the cash into the man's pocket: "I am the editor-in-chief here [at the Bugle], and for your own personal well being, I'm going to pretend these last two minutes didn't happen."

Everything about this initial jump into Spidey's "Brand New Day" dazzles. The ticklish downside is that to clean the slate and make it happen, Marvel used the character Mephisto to magically annul Peter's decades-long marriage to college sweetheart Mary Jane. That intensely controversial story is its own post, but I agree with the logic behind it. Peter is less fun as a married man who must first think of his wife in every situation. The 90s saw every bedraggled permutation of that arrangement, which culminated in the epically tedious "Clone Saga", full of secret babies and undead exes.

Also, Slott is a tough bastard to follow. Like 52, ASM was more of a grand communal effort than any one comic. Multiple creative teams rotated in, bringing their own subplots, dream girls and minty-fresh villains. This made it, for two years, incredibly addictive but seriously uneven. Slott can write moon-sized circles around the likes of Zeb Wells and Marc Guggenheim, and their efforts, stood next to his, are frustratingly dull. All things that rise, however, converge. Big Time. Slott's Amazing Spider-Man, for several years now under just his guidance, has been miraculous. It comes out two or three times a month, and every time it bites, I feel like a winner.

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