Comics : Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #655

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This story is part of an Arc: "No One Dies"
     Part 1 / Part 2

This review was first published on: Aug 2011.

Background...

Last issue, in Amazing Spider-Man #654, Marla Jameson died at the hands of Alastair Smythe.

This issue, we see the consequences.

In Detail...

"Massacre"
Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #655
Apr 2011 : SM Title
Summary: Marla Jameson's funeral
Arc: Part 1 of "No One Dies"
Editor In Chief:  Joe Quesada
Senior Editor:  Stephen Wacker
Associate Editor:  Ellie Pyle
Writer:  Dan Slott
Artist:  Marcos Martin
Lettering:  Joe Caramagna
Colorist:  Muntsa Vicente
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Articles: Green Goblin I (Norman Osborn) (FB), Winters, Norah

This issue is a silent issue, for the first half, anyway. This means that recapping what happens is easy, but recapping what those events signify is difficult.

Here’s the easy part: Jonah, alone in bed, wakes up on the day of Marla’s funeral. He rises, showers, and shaves. Elsewhere, Peter shaves and dresses, deciding in the process not to wear his Spider-Man uniform under his mourning garb. At the Daily Bugle, Martha and Randy Robertson rendezvous with Robbie Robertson and together they depart for the funeral, held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Peter arrives at the church in company with Carlie, Jay Jameson, and Aunt May; we can see that other mourners include Glory Grant and Max Modell. Jonah arrives last and alone, and proceeds down the aisle, pausing briefly to hold his father’s hand. At the graveyard, Jonah stands over the open grave, staring down at the coffin; as Betty Brant, Joe, and Peter watch in distress, Jonah simply stands, his face impassive. As the mourners depart, Peter stands alone, watching Jonah; it may be the case he’s considering approaching his former employer, but Jonah’s bodyguards escort the Mayor away, leaving Peter alone in the graveyard. That night, Peter lies awake in bed, and doesn’t fall asleep until 2:00 AM.

The preceding synopsis captures the surface of the narrative so far, but none of its depth. Good silent issues include clues in the art that guide readers to the conclusion the writer wishes them to draw, and this one is no exception. I won’t draw them all out, but here are a few:

  • Jonah’s bedroom is filled with signs of Marla’s absence, including her glasses, the books she was reading, the dual sinks in the bathroom, and my favourite, the fact that the alarm clock is on the far side of the bed, and Jonah must rise and walk around the bed to silence it;
  • Peter’s shudder as he stares at his Spider-Man uniform, indicating the guilt he feels over failing to save Marla’s life;
  • Along these lines, the fact that when Jonah enters the church, all of the mourners’ eyes turn to him, except for Peter’s, which remained fixed on the coffin; and
  • The foregrounding of the autumn trees in the graveyard, almost denuded of leaves, a poignant reminder of human mortality.

Peter finally sleeps, and dreams. He dreams of the moment when he failed to stop the burglar running past him, way back in {{Amazing Fantasy #15}. This time, he’s determined to do the right thing, but even as he reaches out, Uncle Ben appears, his jovial demeanour belied by the bloodstain covering his shirt. Ben gently tells Peter to “let it go”.

(Let me add that this page boasts an unusual panel design that immediately distinguishes it from the story to this point; the dream opening uses a spiral, in sharp contrast to the array of boxes we’ve seen on earlier pages. It’s a striking image.)

Ben assures Peter that there’s no need to get excited over Ben’s death, as he’s in a better place now, namely the kitchen in Peter’s childhood home in Forest Hills. It’s a better place because he’s reunited with his family, his brother Richard and sister-in-law Mary. Peter rushes forward to embrace his parents, but now another note of horror intrudes: Richard and Mary are faceless. “You don’t remember us at all, do you?” they ask.

“You see me like it was yesterday...” says the Burglar, the one who shot Uncle Ben. Peter is horrified that that man is here, but Ben says that “dead is dead, Peter.” As the four dead people begin to board an airplane, Peter objects that “you don’t all go to the same place! That’s not fair!”, but Aunt May, who is approaching the plane to board it herself, points out that “we all have to go some time”.

Peter reaches out to stop her, but oops, it’s not Aunt May, it’s Marla. “I guess if I were Aunt May, you would have found a way to save me.”

Marla climbs the stairs, except now they’re stone steps leading out of a dungeon. As she rises, spiders begin to climb all over her, and she points out that she’ll be back. “I used to build Spider-Slayers. That makes me a super villain. And super villains always come back.”

Peter objects. “You’re not... you’re a good person.”

“Oh, well then, never mind. Guess I’m really dead,” she says, as she vanishes through the door at the top of the stairs.

Peter pursues Marla into an impossible landscape reminiscent of M.C. Escher. As he travels, he’s accosted by dead people from his past. Identifying them all is a task worthy of a true Spider-Fan, but they include:

  • Sally Avril;
  • Nick Katzenberg;
  • Nathan Lubensky;
  • [a girl serving drinks];
  • Captain Stacy;
  • [little blond boy and blonde mother - the Connors family?];
  • Alana ‘Jackpot’ Jobson;
  • Councilwoman Palfrey?;
  • [A brunet wearing a purple shirt];
  • Ben ‘the Scarlet Spider’ Reilly;
  • Kaine;
  • Ned Leeds?;
  • Tim ‘the Kid Who Collects Spider-Man’ Harrison;
  • Mattie ‘Spider-Girl’ Franklin;
  • Frederick Foswell?;
  • Lance Bannon;
  • Johnny ‘The Bookie’ Ladue;
  • Jeanne DeWolff;
  • Oksana Sytsevich;
  • Ezekiel Sims; and
  • Bennett Brant?.

Nor are these the only people he sees. While searching for Marla, he sees Gwen Stacy at a distance, and tries to catch up with her, but the crowds of the dead hinder his search. Ultimately, he’s stopped in his tracks by Charlie, the woman he killed in Spider-Man vs. Wolverine #1. “You’re the one,” he says. “The only life I’ve ever taken.” (Sounds like Peter should read Spider-Fan’s F.A.Q. : Has Spider-Man Killed? section.) Peter goes on to say that “I never meant to -- never wanted to kill anyone. That’s not who I am.”

The Green Goblin begs to differ. Now Spider-Man relives the events of Amazing Spider-Man #121, as the Goblin throws Gwen off of the George Washington Bridge, and Peter is too slow to save her. As the scene unfolds, the Goblin and Gwen - her neck already snapped, her head already hanging at a sixty-five-degree angle - berate Peter both over his desire to kill the Goblin to avenge Gwen, and his inability to follow through. Poor Peter: he won’t permit logical consistency to interfere with his desire to punish himself.

Now, in a graveyard, Spider-Man watches Kraven, Mysterio, and the Jackal crawl out of a grave. As the bad guys, they get to cheat: the good folks stay dead, but the bad ones come back, thanks to “tricks and magic,” says Mysterio. “And clones. Don’t forget the clones,” the Jackal adds. That’s why Peter will some day die in battle, because his enemies always come back.

Or will they? Enter the Scourge, who, in a replay of his supervillain massacre from Captain America #319 , shoots the supervillains dead. Meanwhile, the Punisher and Wolverine kill yet more supervillains, including Stilt-Man (a reference to Punisher War Journal #1) and the Hornet (Wolverine #23). Spidey points out that the Hornet is in fact a superhero, but Wolverine is indifferent: “Whatever. Gonna break an omelet, you gotta make some eggs.” The inversion of words here is a direct quote, and definitely intentional on Slott’s part. Captain America chimes in to note that he sure killed lots of Nazis “back in the day.” Finally, in a replay of New Avengers #2, we see the Sentry ripping Carnage in half, all the while berating Spider-Man for not doing this earlier: that is, by not killing Carnage at their first meeting, Peter is responsible for all of the murders Carnage would subsequently commit, or so says the Sentry, i.e., Peter’s own subconscious.

Peter doesn’t point out that this is a pretty tendentious line of moral argument. Instead, he points out that it was this sort of thinking that turned the Sentry into the Void. I’m not sure that’s true either, but never mind: Spider-Man now returns to the beginning, watching the Burglar run past him the first time, before Uncle Ben was shot. Now Peter is going to change things: he grabs the Burglar and beats him mercilessly, blood and teeth flying everywhere. “To see that no one has to suffer what I’ve lived through! That no one has to lose... what I’ve lost?”

What has he lost? He looks down. It’s not the Burglar he’s just beaten to death. It’s Uncle Ben.

Ben, still capable of speaking, says that killing people would also kill the love and pride that Ben had for him. Now Marla appears, surrounded by the legions of the dead he saw earlier. She asks Peter what he will do now, and Peter, horrified, finally wakes.

Later, as dawn spreads across the city, Peter web-swings to the heights and stares out over the city. “I’m done,” he says. “Done accepting things the way they are. I swear to you, from now on, whenever I’m around, wherever I am... no one dies!”

That’s quite a vow, and it will be put to the test immediately. Elsewhere in the city, a man with gun executes a hostage. He used a gun, but we readers can see he also has dynamite and other, more potent explosives. Outside, Captain Watanabe, horrified, holds a microphone to her lips and asks why. “We just started negotiating! You didn’t even give us any demands!”

The man, inside the building, answers back: “The person you’re dealing with has absolutely no regard for human life. And if you don’t do everything he says, you’re going to have a real massacre on your hands.”

In General...

The comics frequently treat death in a pretty cavalier fashion. It’s a cliche that death is only temporary: just ask Captain America, or Bucky, or Colossus, to name only three. And that’s just from Marvel; at DC each and every core member of the Justice League has died and come back. One result of this is that when characters die, the aftermath is often not treated with the gravitas it deserves.

That has certainly been the case in Amazing Spider-Man in recent years. Take, for example, Mattie “Spider-Girl” Franklin, killed in Amazing Spider-Man #634, and who has never received a grave, a funeral, or indeed any acknowledgment that she was gone. No one mourned for Mattie; her existence hasn’t been acknowledged since the end of the Grim Hunt. Mattie didn’t die so much as she was erased.

This issue is a welcome corrective to that sort of shabby editorial treatment: where Mattie’s death was left unacknowledged, Dan Slott has spent an entire issue exploring the consequences of Marla Jameson’s death, on the people that loved her, and on Spider-Man, the person whose fate we readers care the most about. It’s a brave move by Slott, but it pays off handsomely.

The first half of this issue, the silent half, is beautifully done. As I alluded to in my recap, a silent issue is difficult to pull off, because without words the page loses its chief tool for providing guidance to the reader about how to interpret that page. To provide second-order information (i.e., not what is happening, but the meaning of what is happening) without words, using only images - which are inherently ambiguous - is difficult, and requires a strong storyteller. Slott and artist Marcos Martin prove they’ve got what it takes in this sequence.

The dream sequence, with its unorthodox panel layouts, shifting characters and settings, and unsettling juxtapositions of images, beautifully conveys the unsettling nature of a bad dream (as opposed to the horror of a nightmare). I especially like how Peter’s guilt pulls him in different directions in this dream, as one might expect: we can see Peter considering, but ultimately rejecting, the idea of becoming a Wolverine-style vigilante. The fact that Peter considers, but refuses to embrace, deadly force reminds us that he’s fundamentally a decent person, the sort of person I like to read about: he’s not the 90s-style “Spyder” or “the Spider” or “Back in Black” badass that’s been foisted on us weary readers so many times. On the other hand, the fact that the issue ends with his solemn vow that so long as he’s around, no one will die, provides us with a conclusion that’s bittersweet rather than sappy: it’s immediately obvious to us readers that Peter has bitten off more than he can chew. This will end in tears.

So, a book with a subtle beginning, a well-crafted middle, and a subtle ending. Comics as great as this don’t come along very often. Are we living in a golden age of Amazing Spider-Man? I vote ‘yes’.

Overall Rating...

Slott, you magnificent bastard, you’ve done it again. Five webs.

Footnote...

So can we infer that Marla was Catholic, given her funeral was at St. Patrick’s Cathedral? Or can we only assume that if the Mayor wants his wife’s funeral to be held there, he’ll get his way?