Comics : Amazing Spider-Man: Family Business
This review was first published on: Apr 2014.
There hasn’t been an original Spider-Man graphic novel in some time. It’s been even longer for an original hardcover Spidey graphic novel. So, this book brings with it some great expectations. In his Introduction, Dan Slott says this is, “Not just a good Spidey story, but a great one!” To paraphrase Sam Kinison in Back to School, “Is he right?”
Amazing Spider-Man: Family Business
Apr 2014 : SM Title
Find ISBN 9780785184409
The Kingpin comes to get Mentallo out of a Tunisian prison. He reveals that he was previously in the prison himself but used his power to put the chief surgeon, a drug addict, in his back pocket. The surgeon was only too willing to place Mentallo “in an atmosphere that would nullify [his] powers until [Kingpin] could put them to use.” Kingpin dismisses Mentallo’s cries of outrage and hands the telepath a small metal device.
In New York, Peter Parker is out in the rain, trying to pay his electricity bill at a neighborhood market. His spider-sense alerts him to a robbery. Changing into his costume, he stops the crooks but the city block becomes a crime scene as a result and the market is closed off with Caution tape. He returns to a dark apartment, wet and frustrated. Suddenly, three soldiers crash in through his windows. Since the soldiers don’t know he’s Spidey, Peter decides to play along. They put a bag over his head, attach a towrope to his hands, and drag him into the air using a helicopter. Pete employs his spider-strength to break the rope and then web-slings away. He lands on the roof of a car that has driven up to meet him. When he gets inside, the woman driving the car introduces herself. “My name is Teresa Parker,” she says, “I’m your sister.”
With the helicopter in pursuit, Teresa tells Peter to jump and they both bail out of the car before it collides with a fence in a giant explosion. (Only Peter should have survived this and only because he is Spider-Man but since Teresa doesn’t know he’s Spider-Man she shouldn’t have asked him to jump. Oh, and, with the huge resulting explosion, the car must have had a trunkful of dynamite.) They quickly hail a cab that just happens to be on a lonely street and that doesn’t have a passenger and that doesn’t care that a huge explosion just took place or that the two people hailing him are running from a spot where there is smoke and bright light from the flames. Teresa and Peter jump into the cab and Teresa tells the cabbie to take them to JFK Airport. Peter, who is immediately convinced that his only two options are to either take a plane with a stranger or go back to his violated apartment, quickly agrees to go. “No choice, really,” he says, which sounds like the writers trying to convince us by telling us it’s so. In the cab, Teresa tells Peter that she knew she was adopted but that she just learned “last week” that Mary and Richard Parker were her birth parents. As proof, she shows him a picture of the Parkers with a new baby. Peter is stunned by the photo. “I know photography,” he tells us, “This isn’t doctored or faked.” Which, again, sounds like the writers trying to convince us of something. At the airport, Teresa tells Peter they are going to Monaco and that she had a duplicate passport made for him because she, like their parents before her, is in the CIA. “All you need to know this second is that you are my responsibility and protecting you is within my power,” she says, pulling a twist on the old “power-responsibility” bit that Pete is so fond of.
They take a private jet to Monte Carlo and a limo to Hotel Metropole. A tailor waits in his room for a tuxedo fitting and Pete must first go to the bathroom to ditch his Spidey suit. During the fitting, he calls Aunt May and asks if his parents ever talked about having a second child. “As a matter of fact, Richard and Mary both wanted two children, one of each,” May says. Teresa takes Peter to the Monte Carlo Casino and tells him to “blend in” while she finds her contact. Someone pokes a gun in Peter’s back and he loses patience. Recklessly using his spider-powers, he overturns a gambling table, heads to the bathroom and changes to Spider-Man. (I guess he put his costume back on after the tuxedo fitting.) But then Cyclone appears, sending people and objects flying with his high-force winds. Spidey spots Teresa looking for Peter and figures he’d better wrap this up quickly. He webs up the cooling units on Cyclone’s costume, causing an overload and knocking the villain out. When Teresa wonders what Spider-Man is doing there, the web-slinger tries to sell her on the idea that there are Spideys all over the world and he is the French Spider-Man (a little tip of the cap to Batman International, I suspect, some of which was written by Mark Waid).
Back in civvies, Peter rejoins Teresa. She tells him she got what she wanted from her contact; “a very private address” which is the home of Emile Chigaru who was “for many years…your parents’ mission controller.” Emile tells them that, years ago, “your parents defeated a fascist horde determined to get Nazi gold…guarded by a Sleeper [robot] buried underground in the sands outside of Cairo” and that “in sealing the Sleeper so it couldn’t arise and hurt anyone, your father did it in such a way that only his DNA could open the tomb if it was uncovered in the future.” He elaborates that “voice recognition, facial recognition and more,” are also involved. In short, anyone who wants to get to that gold without disturbing the Sleeper needs Peter Parker to pose as his father.
When Teresa asks why she was put up for adoption, Emile tells her that he didn’t know she existed until last week. He reveals that the Parkers had a safe house where they may find more answers. It is still “intact and sealed.” He gives them the address. After they leave, he takes Teresa’s teacup and bags it.
The safe house is in Switzerland, up in the mountains. Peter uses the access key card (which he got where?) and he and Teresa enter. They find pictures of the Parkers with baby Peter but none of Teresa. Nevertheless, for the first time, Peter calls her “sis.” Then they stumble on a holographic display that powers up because it thinks Peter is his father. It reveals the location of the Sleeper and the gold. Peter’s spider-sense goes haywire, warning him of an approaching helicopter that fires a missile. He grabs Teresa and leaps out of the house before it is destroyed. Hanging in a crevasse, he holds Teresa. His torn clothes reveal his Spidey suit underneath. “I knew it,” says Teresa.
The duo moves on to Cairo. Teresa provides a new Spidey costume to replace the one that got burned and torn up. “I had my people whip up a little something,” she says, “They didn’t ask why or for who and I didn’t say.” (But shouldn’t they know with whom she’s traveling?) It is a black costume. “You’re back in black,” she says. “Cool,” says Peter.
So, Teresa and Spidey go out to the “spot on the map” in the Egyptian desert. They lower themselves into a tomb where they find hieroglyphics mixed with Nazi symbols. This must be the place. For some reason, Peter removes his mask. (Well, the real reason is so Kingpin can see who he is but we’re not supposed to think like that.) Kingpin and his men surprise them. “How could I have been blind all these years when it was staring me in the face? Spider-Man and Peter Parker - - one and the same!” The Kingpin orders Peter to open the vault “or we kill your sister.” “But she’s not my sister, Kingpin,” says Peter, “is she?” (I’m not sure why he’s suddenly so sure of this when he just started calling her, “sis.”) Kingpin admits that she is not his sister but that, thanks to Mentallo’s powers, she thinks she is. The knowledge of the Parkers, the photo of her as a baby are mental implants from Mentallo, who is suffering badly from the strain up keeping it up. Faced with Kingpin threatening Teresa’s life, Peter opens the vault and the Sleeper emerges.
Now I thought, as Emile put it, that “only Peter can unlock it (the vault’s biometric lock) without triggering a five-megaton booby trap (meaning the Sleeper?)” but this turns out to not be the case. As Spidey battles the Sleeper (which flies off toward Cairo), Teresa fights the Kingpin’s men. He tries to get her to surrender by telling her he will let the underworld know that she knows Spidey’s identity and that only he can “protect you from being hunted, captured and tortured by every criminal on Earth.” (A pretty hollow threat, it seems to me. Why should any criminal believe that Teresa knows Spidey’s identity? And wouldn’t one of these henchmen already reveal it?) In the midst of the fight, Teresa realizes that Mentallo is messing with her head. She picks up a rock and brains him with it. (Maybe he shouldn’t have been standing right next to her.) Spidey gums up the Sleeper’s works enough so that it returns to the tomb site and crashes, burying the gold even deeper. The Kingpin attacks Spidey as he emerges from the wreckage. Spidey knocks Kingpin flat but doesn’t web him up for some reason. (Well, the reason is so Kingpin can grab a gun.) Before Kingpin can use the gun to kill Spidey, Teresa points a gun at Kingpin’s head. Peter talks her into sparing Kingpin’s life, which only succeeds in allowing the Kingpin to grab Teresa by the throat. (This “mercy” business is not working well for Peter.) But then Mentallo gains his revenge on Kingpin by lashing out with all of his powers. In the aftermath, Mentallo is “a drooling vegetable” and everyone else can barely remember their own names, much less Spidey’s real identity. This includes Teresa. (But why wasn’t Spidey affected by Mentallo’s blast?) Kingpin is nowhere to be found, presumed dead. Except he’s actually wandering the desert, his mind shattered into thinking he hasn’t yet introduced himself to Mentallo and begun his plan.
In the Epilog, a flashback implies that Mary Parker was indeed pregnant with a second child. In the present, Emile does a DNA analysis of Teresa’s teacup. He looks at the results. “Huh,” he says, “And what do we make of that?”
Well, what do we make of that? Not much, really. Let’s face it. In spite of what Dan Slott says about Teresa in his Introduction (“a mysterious new character who changes everything”), anyone who has read Spidey for any length of time knows there’s no way Teresa is going to really be Peter’s sister. (Anyone who hasn’t read for long won’t think it’s a big deal that Peter has a sister, I suspect.) After all, we went for almost two years in ASM (Amazing Spider-Man #365, August 1992 to Amazing Spider-Man #388, April 1994) with the return of Peter’s parents, only to have them turn out to be robots. We weren’t going to get a new Parker family member in one single graphic novel. And once that becomes plain, then the whole thing starts to collapse. If Teresa is a fake, then Kingpin (who has been introduced as the story’s villain) must be behind it. And Mentallo is clearly enforcing it. Whether Teresa is innocent or guilty of working with the Kingpin hardly matters. The suspense fades away. (The Epilogue just becomes a cheat, a way to deflect the obvious. Granted, the Epilogue implies that Teresa actually is Pete’s sister, it still doesn’t confirm it. And I doubt that any future scripter will pick up this ball and run with it.)
That’s not the only plot element that masquerades as “suspense.” The reveal of Peter’s identity is another. Are the writers going to allow Kingpin to retain the memory of Spidey’s true identity particularly after what he did when he learned Daredevil’s identity? Again, maybe if this was a story in the main title but not in a freestanding graphic novel. And is Mentallo going to remember? And Teresa? And all the rest? Of course not. So, the only suspense here is in wondering how the writers will get out of it.
These big cracks help to hide some of the smaller ones that run through this plot. It’s one thing to have Spidey remove his mask in the tomb for no reason. It’s another thing to even give him a new costume at all. It’s supposed to be Peter opening the vault, not Spidey. Peter and Teresa think they are alone. Why dress as Spidey? There’s only one reason. So Waid and Robinson can implant the false suspense of the identity reveal. And, I suppose, so Spidey, not Peter, can fight the Sleeper over Cairo. But why is the Sleeper flying to Cairo? Isn’t it supposed to protect the gold? And why is it waking at all when it was Parker DNA that opened the lock? For that matter, if the Sleeper was going to fly to Cairo when the lock was opened, why did the Kingpin need Peter? Just bust the lock and let the Sleeper fly off to attack Cairo, then gather up the gold and run for it. And let’s not forget little annoyances like the cabbie who picks up two people running from an explosion and takes them to JFK Airport without notifying the police. And if the whole idea was to send agents to get Peter and Teresa to hurry to Cairo, then why send guys who shackled Pete and hoisted him up to a helicopter? They couldn’t have known that he could possibly escape.
So, the plot kind of sags all over the place. Which is too bad because there are some fun things here. Waid and Robinson are two of the best comic writers out there and they have fun with Spidey’s quips (“Hi! Do you know my toaster?” Spidey asks the Sleeper), the developing “sibling” relationship between Peter and Teresa, and the story’s globe-trotting. (How many super-hero tales go from New York to Monte Carlo to Switzerland to Egypt?) I love little touches like Emile telling Peter that his father would “make jokes and wisecracks” as he fought and Spidey’s bad French accent as he tries to convince Teresa that he’s not the American web-slinger. But the whole foundation is built on sand as shifting as the Egyptian desert and it will not hold.
I’ve said nothing about the artwork yet and that isn’t fair to the book because the artwork is its greatest strength. There’s an interesting little feature in the back showing how Werther Dell’Edera took the script and created the pencils and how Gabriele Dell’Otto took the pencils and created the paintings. In it, we see that Dell’Otto not only manages to retain the details of the pencils but adds to them. (See page 103 for the comparison of pencils and painted art for page 31, with all the bystanders and details Dell’Otto adds to the background.) Other stunning details include the flies in the prison, on Kingpin’s hand, on Mentallo’s face (on pages 2 and 4), the stunned eyes of the crooks as reflected in their car’s rearview mirror as Spidey lands on their hood (on page 7), Peter’s reflection in a building’s window as he web-slings away from the helicopter (on page 15), the ice cubes caught up in Cyclone’s winds (on pages 32-33), the clouds and blue sky behind the Sleeper as he rises into the air (on page 67), and Kingpin’s enraged, red-eyed, Tor-Johnson-from-Plan-Nine-From-Outer-Space look (on page 70). There are other great facial expression here: Teresa’s shock that her photo is not real, Mentallo’s agony, Kingpin’s blurriness in the desert after the battle, all the little cuts that the characters receive. And all painted in a near-realistic style that pencils don’t normally achieve.
So, where does that leave us? I recommend reading the book for the artwork but I can’t endorse the story. It’s too forced, too artificial. In his Introduction, Dan Slott says, “This is more than a comic you’ll read – it’s one you’ll re-read.” And I did but, in the re-reading, I found more flaws than I originally noted. If I’d reviewed this after one reading, I’d have given it three webs but now that I’ve re-read it, I’m forced to give it two.