Comics : Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #665

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This review was first published on: Sep 2011.

Background...

Peter "Spider-Man" Parker is pretty busy these days. He’s got a full-time job as a research-scientist-cum-engineer at Horizon Labs, plus a steady girlfriend in Carlie Cooper. Work and family are enough to fill most men’s time, but ever since the events of Amazing Spider-Man #655, Spider-Man is also on a one-man crusade to keep New Yorkers safe. And when he’s not doing that, he’s a card-carrying member of the Future Foundation, the Avengers, and the New Avengers.

With all of this going on, doesn’t it seem likely that, eventually, he’s going to let something slide? Let’s find out.

In Detail...

"Crossroads"
Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #665 (Story 1)
Sep 2011 : SM Title
Summary: Betty Brant assaulted
Story:  Dan Slott
Artist:  Ryan Stegman
Inker:  Michael Babinski
Lettering:  VC's Joe Caramagna
Colorist:  John Rauch
Executive Producer:  Alan Fine
Publisher:  Dan Buckley
Chief Creative Officer:  Joe Quesada
Editor In Chief:  Axel Alonso
Senior Editor:  Stephen Wacker
Assistant Editor:  Ellie Pyle
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 Reprinted In: Amazing Spider-Man: Infested #1
Articles: Hammerhead

In voiceover, Peter tells us that while Betty Brant was his first crush, these days she’s merely a good friend. So good, in fact, that the first Friday of every month, they have a standing date to watch a movie together. In the past, Peter’s swing-time as Spider-Man has occasionally interfered. These days, though, Peter is so busy with his personal, professional, and extra-curricular activities, he hasn’t had as much time for Betty. In fact, he’s stood her up for several months in a row.

Betty’s disappointed in Peter, but not broken up about it. After all, he’s so busy because he’s finally living up to his potential, right? And it’s okay that her boyfriend, Flash Thompson, can’t accompany her to the movies either, because he’s keeping busy with the Department of Veterans Affairs. (Not really; he’s actually going out on secret missions as Venom, in his own title.) Betty is a tough-as-nails crime reporter, she can go to see a movie alone, even if the only cinema playing the film is in a rough neighbourhood.

Or maybe she can’t. On her way home after the screening, Betty is pulled into a dark alley and assaulted.

Not sexually assaulted, at least. But she does take a severe beating, resulting in “head trauma. There’s swelling on her brain, along with a cracked rib and some bruising.”

This is bad news, and it prompts the supporting cast - Betty’s extended family, as Joe Robertson puts it - to gather at the hospital. This includes Glory Grant; Mary Jane Watson; Carlie Cooper; Norah Winters; Joe Robertson; and even JJJ, who, for all he yelled at Betty when she was his personal assistant, feels that she’s like a daughter to him. He’s his typical self, bringing in specialists, abusing everyone in sight, and promising that he’s going to come down on New York’s criminal population hard.

So, who’s missing in our roll call? Flash is on his way back from out of town, and Aunt May and Jay Jameson Sr. are going to pick him up at the airport. That leaves Peter. Where’s he?

Out kicking ass, of course. Once again he put his own work ahead of his loved ones, and his loved ones have paid the price. He’s furious with himself, and he’s taking it out on the underworld. With a little two-fisted detective work, he finds out the name of Betty's mugger: Harlan Finch. Now New York’s petty underworld is feeling the pain, as Peter rousts every stoolie, pusher, and thief to find that man.

And he does. From a rooftop, he looks down at Finch, and prepares to strike. But wait! Aunt May is trying to call him! He routs the call to his in-mask headset and tries to brush her off, but she’s not having it. She’s arrived at the hospital, having delivered Flash to the scene, and is horrified to find that her nephew is the only one who should be there but isn’t. Sternly, she tells him that he is reneging on his responsibility to be a good friend and loved one; just as he did the night Uncle Ben died, by leaving Aunt May alone all evening.

Of course, then, as now, he wasn’t off amusing himself. He was seeking justice as Spider-Man. But he can’t tell her that.

And maybe his priorities were misplaced, then and now? Maybe comforting the afflicted is more important than seeking justice?

Maybe it is. Peter swings away, leaving his quarry at large.

Next thing we see is Betty, finally regaining consciousness in the hospital. And Peter’s there, at her bedside. He admits that it’s just dumb luck that he happened to be there, as all her friends and family have been sitting in shifts. Still, it does afford him the opportunity to return her mother’s locket to her; this item, stolen in the mugging, was sold to a pawnbroker, and we readers saw Peter retrieve it at the beginning of his ‘investigation’. The story implies, but doesn’t show, that Peter explained his late arrival with a cover story that he’d first gone to get Betty’s locket back, which seems to have mollified the supporting cast.

And the story ends with Peter and Betty getting their movie night, watching a film from her hospital bed, while the rest of the extended family departs, amused and tolerant of Peter and Betty’s eccentric ritual.

In a final twist, after a “The End” caption and the letters column, readers turn the page to find an unexpected epilogue: the next night, as Harlan Finch walks down the street, a spider-signal shines down on him. Cut to the NYPD finding him webbed up to a lamppost, with an accompanying note.

In General...

I hate to say it, but this issue is a misfire.

The central idea of the story is a good one. What’s more, it’s one we rarely see in comic books, and in Amazing Spider-Man it’s practically never seen at all: that it’s more important to spend time with our families than to battle on their behalf. Comics typically take the stance that vigilantes have to put their work first, because they have a responsibility to the community that trumps their personal desires. Bruce Wayne is always leaving parties or business meetings to fight crime as Batman, and the book always take his side when he does so. Of course, part of this is structural: we buy the comics to see Batman throwing batarangs, not Bruce Wayne executing a tricky business deal. But another part of this is playing to an audience - typically male - that prefers to identify with the Lone Badass Who Gets the Job Done rather than the Family Member Who Puts Loved Ones First.

This issue goes the other way, firmly taking a stand on the ‘life’ side of the work-life balance equation. Sure, Peter’s work is more romantic than most people’s, but the point is well taken that we’d all be better off if we spent less time at the office and more time with our family and friends. “Crossroads” is an interesting take on this point, which is not one that comics often try to make.

Unfortunately, it’s not a successful take, for three reasons.

Firstly, the situation as presented doesn’t make sense internally. Peter has spent all night tracking Harlan Finch, and is poised to swing down and nail the sucker. But then May poses a choice to him: does he pursue his solitary mission of vengeance, or go comfort his friend? The problem is, at this point in the action, it’s not a binary choice. Peter’s already done the difficult, time-consuming work of tracking Finch down. Capturing him is the easy, quick part. We all know what Peter is capable of: he could leap off the building, swing down to street level, grab Finch and web him to a lamppost, and be gone in under a minute. Taking more time to capture Finch would delay his arrival at the hospital by only moments, and would vindicate the work he’s already put in. As a result, it’s hard to see Peter’s decision as a tough call between competing priorities; it looks more like a pointless and wasteful sacrifice of Peter’s work to this point, combined with a willingness to let a dangerous felon continue to menace civilians.

Speaking of menacing civilians, Peter does an awful lot of that this issue. As I observed back in my review of ASM #655, Peter isn’t a grim-n’-gritty brute, and Slott’s stories up to this point have acknowledged that fact. Indeed, as we saw in ASM #656, Peter’s fundamental decency contrasts with that of Mayor Jameson, who sees extremism in the pursuit of law and order as no vice. In the issue at hand, though, JJJ and Spider-Man are on the same page. Just because it’s Betty and not some random passerby that gets mugged, Peter is willing to invade people’s homes, beat them until they talk, and if they don’t know anything Peter wants to hear, well, that’s too bad. In short, here we have Spider-Man behaving like a jackbooted thug.

I could overlook all of this if we were doing a cartoon-style issue, where violence is treated as simply a form of consequence-free dramatic conflict, but I can’t do that here, not after we get a rundown of Betty’s injuries. If we’re going to take violence seriously, we have to do so consistently. If Betty Brant is a real person who shouldn’t be beaten up because someone else wants something she has, well, Spider-Man shouldn’t beat people up because he wants something they have. Or, if he does, the story should acknowledge the double standard. This story doesn’t, and that’s the second problem I have with the issue.

The third one may seem minor compared to the preceding ones, but it’s the one that irritated me the most, because it’s the sort of thing I don’t expect Slott to do: it’s the handwaving. The whole story - notably including the logic of the first act and the emotional effect of the denouement - depends on the fact that Peter and Betty have a standing date for movie night. And if they did, the story would work. But the fact is that they don’t; to the best of my knowledge, we’ve never, ever seen them do this before. The idea that they have a standing date was invented out of whole cloth in this story. As such, the dramatic impact of the story falls flat. Could I believe that Peter and Betty would lock all of her friends out of the hospital so that the two of them could watch a movie together? I could, if I’d ever seen any evidence that this ritual or relationship was that important to them. But I never have. As a result, the whole thing is forced, even creepy. Seriously, why is Flash so happy at the end of this story? If my girlfriend shut me out at a time like that, just to spend quality time with an old boyfriend, I promise you I wouldn’t react the way Flash does. As I said, this sort of thing is not what Slott usually does: his normal method is to set this sort of thing up way in advance; or better yet, seize on some in-continuity element that everyone else has forgotten and bring it to the fore. Dan Slott is the last person I would expect this sort of lazy writing from, and I suppose I’m more irked than I otherwise would be to see him hand-wave like this.

Overall Rating...

The story is in service of an interesting idea, and I like the way it continues the motif of juxtaposing Peter and JJJ’s attitudes towards crimefighting. And the art and dialogue continue to impress. But balanced against all that are some serious flaws in the plot. Let’s call it three webs.

Footnote...

I assume the cover is a jab at Turn Off the Dark, as it doesn't refer to anything in the issue itself.