Comics : Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #648

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This story is part of an Arc: "Big Time"
     Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4

This review was first published on: Nov 2010.

Background...

With the end of the “Brand New Day”, Amazing Spider-Man embarks on a new era, featuring a semi-monthly release schedule and a single writer – Dan Slott – holding the pen. We got a taste of the new status quo last issue: for one thing, Harry Osborn is out of the title, as he’s gone to an undisclosed location to raise his newborn son. For another, Peter and Carlie, for all of their misgivings about Peter’s fitness for a relationship, have committed to each other.

What else does this – er – brand new day have in store for Peter? Let’s find out!

In Detail...

"Big Time"
Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #648 (Story 1)
Jan 2011 : SM Title
Summary: Peter Parker hired by Horizon Labs
Arc: Part 1 of "Big Time"
Editor:  Stephen Wacker
Associate Editor:  Tom Brennan
Writer:  Dan Slott
Pencils:  Humberto Ramos
Inker:  Carlos Cuevas
Lettering:  Joe Caramagna
Colorist:  Edgar Delgardo
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Review
 Reprinted In: Marvel Sneak Peeks (November 2010)
Articles: Black Cat, Doctor Octopus (Otto Octavius), Green Goblin IV (Phil Urich)

It’s the first Sunday in November, and Dr. Octopus is menacing the city with a host of giant Octo-bots. Enter the Avengers, led by Spider-Man, who’s got the role of tactical officer due to his ample experience dealing with Doc Ock. Spidey makes a few quips, but he’s also got solid intel to give his comrades, such as the frequencies Ock uses to control his devices and the nature of the ‘bot operating systems. As the Avengers fan out across the city, Spider-Man is separated from the rest of the squad, which provides the opportunity for him to save a few civilians, visit the Fantastic Four, and take a meeting with his friendly neighbourhood Black Cat. Not friendly-with-benefits, though, as Spidey’s committed to Carlie in both of his identities.

While Spidey is taking care of business, we readers check in with J. Jonah Jameson, currently mayor of New York City. JJJ has problems: his relationship with his wife is strained, for one thing. For another, he's being stalked by a mysterious wall-crawler. Not our hero, though – some other wall-crawler, in blue metallic armour. Who is this guy? Not Mac ‘Venom’ Gargan, as Gargan is on this fellow’s list of possible allies. “Soon, Jameson,” blue-metal murmurs. “Very soon.” Which is code for “in a future issue.”

Dropping story seeds to set up future issues? With Slott on board, ASM is partying like it’s 1989!

JJJ’s son John is at Andru Air Force Base, preparing to take a fighter jet into the city to strafe the monsters. The folks at Andru are so mission-oriented, they fail to notice that the base has been infiltrated by the Chameleon and Electro! Although, to be fair, these two are pretty sneaky, with the former impersonating Steve Rogers and the latter just teleporting in through a light fixture. Using their respective skill sets, the two super-villains rendezvous deep inside the base, where Chameleon empties a bag full of black, hairy spheres onto the floor. What’s this all about? That’s not clear to us readers, yet, though the Chameleon does explain that he’s gotten Ock’s toys past the checkpoint. What is clear is that they’re here on Doc Ock’s orders, as members of his new Sinister Six (the other three being Mysterio, Rhino, and Sandman). Sandman is in a sour mood: “You launched a full-scale was on New York just to get through one door in New Jersey? That’s crazy. Even for you, Doc.”

Crazy like an octopus. The good doctor explains that the “macro-Octobot” invasion was more than merely a diversion; it also enabled the robots to compile data on their enemies and test their limits. And one more test awaits: in two and a half minutes, the macro-bots will detonate, destroying all of Manhattan! (“Macro”, eh? That implies Doc’s also got some micro-Octobots. I think I know what “toys” the Chameleon introduced into the air base...)

Back in Manhattan, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four are trying to figure out how to stop the macro-bots from exploding. Or rather, Mr. Fantastic and Iron Man are trying to figure that out, and everyone else is watching them do it. The Torch tells Spidey that, as a bona fide “big brain”, he should be helping solve the problem, or at least coming up with a fallback plan.

Fallback plan? A light bulb goes off over Spidey’s head. He leaps over to the macrobot and synchs its countdown timer with the onboard operating system. Thanks to Daylight Savings Time (first Sunday in November, remember?) the timer gains an hour, giving the assembled heroes plenty of time to transport the robots to a safe distance offshore.

Just as Doc Ock planned, it seems. Hmm.

Anyway. Spider-Man is the hero of the night! In sharp contrast to Peter Parker, who remains a loser. He’s schlepping boxes and doing basic IT work at Front Line. The job sucks, but with his photojournalist rep in tatters, it’s the best he can get. He’s putting up with grief from Norah Winters and silently commiserating with Phil Urich when JJJ shows up. It seems that Marla Jameson had a moment of clarity during the Octobot attack, and is encouraging Hizzoner to mend his fences. So JJJ has bought back the Daily Bugle name from Dexter Bennett (or rather Bennett’s shareholders). Exit Front Line, enter the Bugle.

Ah, status quo, how I’ve missed you.

Speaking of which, we now dispose of Michele Gonzalez in three-and-a-half panels. Having resolved her brother’s case, she’s moving back to Chicago, and departs Peter’s life with as much class as she’s ever had, which is to say not much. Especially as this means Peter is homeless. Peter does a tour of the supporting cast – er, I mean, begins hitting up his friends and family for a place to stay – but comes up short:

  • The Avengers don’t all know Peter’s secret identity, so the Mansion isn’t a safe space for Peter Parker;
  • Randy Robertson’s sick of Peter being a sponge;
  • Carlie feels it’s too early in their relationship for them to move in together;
  • Mary Jane feels it’s too late in their relationship for them to move in together;
  • Flash Thompson needs his space so he can score with his hot girlfriend; and
  • Betty Brant is that hot girlfriend (yes, they're back together) so she can’t help either.

Whom does that leave? Aunt May. Peter is heartsick about this, as he sees this as definitive proof that he’s hit rock bottom.

Leaving nowhere to go but up! Marla Jameson comes through again. Determined to make amends for her husband’s shabby treatment of Peter, Marla (“I’m a scientist. Why does everyone keep forgetting that?”) has got Peter a job interview with Max Modell, a.k.a. the Johnny Depp of Einsteins, whatever that means.

Off Peter and Maria go to Modell’s science factory, Horizon Labs. In the background we see emergency personnel dealing with a collapsed Octo-Bot, which I appreciated as a nod to the lingering consequences of Ock’s attack, which we so rarely see in superhero comics. Then I remembered that all of the Octo-bots were supposed to have exploded? Huh. I guess this one didn’t for whatever reason. I hope those emerg guys are very, very careful.

Max Modell, brilliant scientist, looks like Steve Jobs crossed with Harry Knowles. Apparently he's one of those scientists we love in fiction but never meet in real life: an aging free-spirited hippie who’s also all about funding young hotshots to do blue-sky research. Think Sergey Brin, or, if you’re of a certain age, Val Kilmer’s character in Real Genius. He’s happy to see Marla, and intrigued by Peter. “Don’t tell me you’ve found another pilot for my shuttle?” he asks. Is he referring to John Jameson, who (we learned six pages earlier) was in space during the Aunt-May-Jay-Jameson wedding? Perhaps! But let's not get bogged down in details: Marla tells Modell that Peter is a fan of his work, so Modell gives Peter the grand tour.

It seems that Horizon Labs is a cross between “the Apple Store and Willy Wonka’s factory,” or perhaps “Pixar meets the Baxter Building.” Or, to pick a real-life analogue, some of the Google offices I’ve heard so much about. The concept is that everyone is young, smart, relaxed, dressed casually, and hard-working. The top players in the lab “come and go as they please,” because in Modell’s experience, “true genius doesn’t punch a clock. As long as my people produce the next big thing by the end of the quarter, that’s good enough for me.”

So who are these geniuses? Grady Scraps - a fat guy (in a Hawaiian shirt, natch) - has figured out a way to extract light from reflective surfaces. This means he can make mirrors show what they reflected yesterday, rather like security cameras. Sajani Jaffrey (South Asian woman in a Zatanna-style top hat) is attempting to make an artificial substitute for vibranium, which she calls “reverbium”. That would be useful to have. Earlier in the issue Mr. Fantastic mentioned that he could have shut down the Octo-bots immediately if he’d only have a bit of vibranium. Nice bit of subtle foreshadowing, that.

Sanjani shows off her progress by testing her reverbium. Peter’s spider-sense warns him, too late, that something bad is about to happen. The reverbium, rather than absorbing the incoming vibrations, begins reflecting and amplifying them. The whole lab will be shaken apart, and the people in it, too!

Peter springs into action. He reaches the control panel by ‘wall-crawling’ across the floor, even as the vibrations push back at him. He’s only got one shot, but the Parker scientific genius is equal to the task: he enters some “Wakandan calculus” into the computer and shuts everything down. The assembled nerds are in awe, because Peter was able to use this funky math to express the imperfection of the vibranium... on the fly... on his first try. Excited, they throw all sorts of crazy weird-science questions at him, but thanks to his years of fighting weird-science super-villains, he knows all the answers. Modell is so impressed he brings Peter into his charmed circle: Pete is now one of the top seven scientists in the Horizon Labs think-tank! Sure, he’ll have to do a lot of reading to get up to speed, but Modell is paying him for it. Judging by Peter’s reaction, he’s paying a lot.

Peter’s life is finally going well! Sure, he’s got no place to stay for the night, but he’s flush with cash and he’s got a big mess o’ science to read. Tomorrow he’ll rent a place to live, and all will be right with the world.

Or maybe not. In Fisk Towers, Montana of the Enforcers reports to a black-garbed Kingpin that “according to our man inside Horizon,” the reverbium isn’t performing properly. That’s okay, says Kingpin, it will be a perfect weapon as it is. Accordingly, he’s hired the perfect man to acquire it: Roderick “Hobgoblin” Kingsley!

In General...

It’s a reboot issue. And a great one! Check out all of the great things it does:

  • It re-introduces us to the entire supporting cast. Big Time? More like Face Time: I counted thirteen important people whom Peter knows in his civilian life whom readers get to meet in this issue. That’s including some people we haven’t seen in a while, like Randy Robertson and Phil Urich. But that’s not including all of Spider-Man’s comrades, whom we also get to meet, including the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the Black Cat.
  • It introduces three new members of the supporting cast, namely Max Modell, Grady Scraps, and Sajani Jaffrey. None of these have any depth yet, but they’re all clearly established as types with their own distinctive voices.
  • And it introduces us to all of these characters organically. The tour of the supporting cast never feels forced or by-the-numbers.
  • It opens with an extended bit of super-heroic action and finds room for more near the end. These episodes don’t feel forced either, there’s no sense that they’ve been shoehorned in just to establish some excitement.
  • It lays down story seeds for future issues. Aside from the Hobgoblin, Fisk, and the Horizon mole trying to steal the reverbium, I see references to a super-powered stalker of JJJ; the Sinister Six’s plot regarding the air base; Norah tracking down the Green Goblin gang (with Phil Urich’s help?); and something to do with John Jameson in space (linking up Max Modell with the Vertex Shuttle, also parked at the air base).
  • It smoothly establishes which elements of the Brand New Day continuity that it is retaining and which one’s it’s pitching. On the one hand, Peter is still friendly with MJ. He’s dating Carlie Cooper. Flash has no legs. JJJ is mayor. Conversely, some elements are quietly disposed of: no sign of Harry Osborn (fine by me) and Michele Gonzalez is out (good riddance). Flash and Betty are dating again. Robbie and Norah are still doing newspaper / new media work, but they’re back to doing it under the Daily Bugle name. Dexter Bennett is gone (too bad, he had untapped potential).

All of these things are good, but to my mind the most important thing that “Big Time” does is to adjust one of the Spider-Man character sliders. Character sliders, you ask? As Scipio of Absorbascon fame has noted, superhero icons have a certain amount of flexibility built into their characters, which allows them to behave in different ways from year to year and still be ‘in character’. The existence of this flexibility, that is, the range of behaviour that is nonetheless recognizably authentic to the persona, allows characters to change over time while remaining recognizable to long-time readers. For example, in some years Batman is a grouchy loner, while in other years he’s the friendly paterfamilias of an extended vigilante crew. (Google "absorbascon bat-cycles" for more on this. And if you haven't visited the Absorbascon blog before, poke around the archives too. You can thank me later.) For another example, in some years writers emphasize Superman’s alien nature and how he’s a strange visitor to Earth, while in others, the writers emphasize his human nature, or even his American nature, with his deep Kansas roots. Such a change in emphasis is particularly evident in recent issues of the Superman titles.

Similarly, Spider-Man has his own set of character tensions, and his character can be founded on any combination of them. One might imagine that, in any particular era of the character’s history, these tensions have been set in a particular alignment, much like sliders on an audio mixing board. Some of these sliders might be:

  • Spider-Man is respected by New Yorkers, or feared by them.
  • He’s respected by his superhero colleagues, or derided by them.
  • He’s the happy-go-lucky 'friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man', or the grim n’ gritty 'Spyder'.
  • He principally goes after muggers, mobsters, criminals, and costumed versions of same, or principally goes after aliens, vampires, crazed scientists, world conquerors, and other pulp villains.
  • Spider-Man’s world is mostly restricted to that of his supporting cast, or Spider-Man’s world is firmly established as that of the Marvel Universe as a whole. For example, if he needs scientific assistance, whom does he ask for help: Doc Connors or Mr. Fantastic?
  • Our hero is best described as Peter Parker, who occasionally dons a costume to fight crime, or is best described as Spider-Man, who occasionally must set aside his adventuring career to deal with the concerns of his civilian alter ego.

Long-time Spider-fans can surely think of more examples like the ones above.

There’s one slider that this issue is concerned with above all the rest: either Peter Parker is fundamentally a successful guy who faces occasional setbacks in both his super-heroic and civilian lives, or Peter Parker is fundamentally a loser, whose sense of responsibility requires him to be Spider-Man even as that career lays waste to his civilian relationships and prospects. In short, the Lee-Ditko Spider-Man versus the Lee-Romita Spider-Man. “Big Time” moves this slider from the Ditko end firmly to the Romita end.

Your mileage may vary, but I am enthusiastic about this change. It seems to me that during the Brand New Day era, you’d have to be a masochist to root for Peter Parker. Losing his wife (er, I mean, live-in girlfriend); being fired by the DB! and then the Mayor’s office; losing his reputation as a photojournalist; being forced to live with an emasculating creep; always being poor and struggling to meet his expenses; constantly disappointing the women in his life; and more! This isn’t The Hero Who Could Be You, this is The Hero You’re Glad You’re Not.

Whereas in the Big Time era, it’s implied we’ll now have a Peter who is competent at his work; is well-compensated for it; is respected, or at least tolerated, by his colleagues and boss; has a steady girlfriend; and has the freedom to pursue his Spider-Man career without disrupting his day job. At least this is what I take Modell’s emphasis on the fact that he cares about results, not clock-punching, to mean. I’m much more interested in reading about this Peter Parker than the sad sack of the BND era.

All of this, and some great art by Humberto Ramos, too! I gather that while the writing duties are now firmly in one man’s hands, the art duties will continue to be spread around, in order to maintain the bi-weekly schedule. We’ll see how that works out. Personally, I prefer the stability of a single creative team, like the Bendis-Bagley team on Ultimate Spider-Man, but if all the art is up to the standard Ramos produces here, I’ll be more than satisfied.

Overall Rating...

I think this would be a great issue by the standards of any era in Spider-Man’s history. Certainly it is, to my mind, a lot more fun and satisfying than anything in the Brand New Day era. Five webs it is.

Footnote...

Wow, Marvel NYC's justice system sucks. By the end of "Origin of the Species", Spidey had apprehended Sandman, Electro, Mysterio, Chameleon, and Montana too. And yet, three issues later, all five are back on the streets and committing crimes. Okay, mandatory-sentencing rules are poor public policy, but come on, let's have a little discipline from the bench!