The test for any hero is how he handles the emotional fallout from a sudden death. The test for any comic storyteller is how they follow-up after killing off a character. Where does the story go? Does the hero wallow in self-pity? Does he thirst for revenge? Is there a behavioral change, expected or unexpected, that drives the narrative style and plot developments?
The Amazing Spider-Man has taken a dramatic turn. Like so many of the stories about Peter Parker, he cannot be happy for too long. The melodramatic elements of the title are what set it apart from comics in the 1960s and still separates it from contemporaries now. Death often hits The Amazing Spider-Man hard. See Uncle Ben, Captain Stacey, Gwen Stacy, Harry Osborn (unless he’s “in Europe”) and so many more. The latest victim is J. Johan Jameson’s wife Marla, someone who actually believed in Peter and gave him an opportunity and job so that he can pull his crumbling life together. Her death gives writer Dan Slott the opportunity to explore the emotional weight of being Spider-Man even further than he has previously.
With the “rebirth” of Spider-Man after the “Brand New Day” reboot, Slott has refocused the title on the melodramatic essentials that made The Amazing Spider-Man a fan favorite in the crowded superhero market. The editorial decision did not pass without controversy and fan criticism, but for the most part the title has revived, no longer sagging under the weight of terrible creative directions from the decade prior.
Proof of the resurgence, and of Slott’s development as a writer, lies in the opening silent 10 pages of The Amazing Spider-Man #655. The absence of dialogue epitomizes the barren and profound nature of loss. The impact is strengthened by the pencil work of Marcos Martin and the color work of Muntsa Vicente. This is really a comic in three parts, unified by the retro-style lines of Martin. The effect harkens us back to the origins of Spider-Man, paying tribute to its history while ruminating on the lives that have influenced Peter Parker the most. The panels are understated, minimal yet detailed. It’s a strong balance maintained even as the comic turns from bleakly mournful to darkly reflective to threateningly resolute.
If part one is the funeral, then part two is the emotional fallout that follows. Peter holds himself responsible for Marla’s death. This guilt leads to a nightmare that revisits the many deaths that have been a part of Peter’s life as Spider-Man. Wonderfully and terrifyingly presented as a confused walk through a M. C. Esher like New York, Peter comes face to face with his perceived failings as a superhero. This is fertile ground for any Spider-Man writer, but Slott shows a level restraint by not overdoing the morbid stroll down memory lane. He creates the heart wrenching and soul searching scenes to push Peter forward not strand him in an overwrought stupor. Often times less is more.
The third part is complete set-up for the next issue, presenting a difficult challenge for Peter. His vow to not let anyone else die must be tested, and tested thoroughly. So the potential for a “massacre” is only proper. Here again, Slott and Martin demonstrate the subtly they’ve showcased in the 20 pages prior. No strained villain chitchat. No ham-fisted panels. Just a straight cliff hanger tease of what’s to come.
We often take deaths in comics for granted. Faked deaths, resurrections and ret-con punches have littered the medium and specifically the superhero genre for far too long. Surprisingly, Slott addresses this directly. It’s a significant exchange that sheds light on the editorial justification for the reappearance of certain characters over others. It’s not completely valid, but it allows Slott the opportunity to give readers a wink and a smile.
This is not to say this story is unique among Spider-Man comics. “With great power comes great responsibility.” The phrase entered our cultural lexicon decades ago and is still the driving force behind any Spider-Man comic. It’s at the center of this issue too. But what makes this particular issue so compelling is the execution by Slott and Martin. They create a balance of art and story that builds upon each other without overshadowing either.
Significant deaths in comics should have significant impacts. The Amazing Spider-Man #655 does just that. Peter sacrificed part of himself to save the day and only partly succeeded. He doesn’t see it that way. He sees his failure and it will haunt him, much as the pages from this issue will stay with us. The good days are over again, but that’s the story of Spider-Man. No matter how good it gets, it will never last. The question always remains, where does he go from here?