Comics : Untold Tales of Spider-Man Anthology

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Book of the Month Club

This review was first published on: Jul 2011.

Background...

With co-writer Andrew Goletz, former Marvel editor Glenn Greenberg was behind the 35-part Life of Reilly, the comprehensive look at the overly-maligned Clone Saga. Glenn’s insights into the dealings that shaped the Saga are required reading for any Spider-fan. Does the “required reading” label extend to his fiction work?

In Detail...

"Poison in the Soul"
Untold Tales of Spider-Man Anthology (Story 11)
SMURF 182.600 : SMURF 185.525
Summary: Peter's classmate commits suicide; he's also the Shocker's kid brother.
Editor:  Kurt Busiek, Stan Lee
Writer:  Glenn Greenberg
Illustrator:  Joe St. Pierre
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Markie Macchio and Ralphie Bernardo have visions of moving to Mexico or the Caribbean to open a bar and captain a fishing boat respectively. They rob a jewelry store in service to their dreams, only to run into Spider-Man and find themselves webbed up, awaiting the police. A stolen ring, found by Spidey in Ralphie’s pocket, reminds him that he has just asked Mary Jane to marry him and has not yet gotten an answer.

The next day, Harry Osborn calls him to tell him about Marty Schultz, who was Pete’s lab partner in a couple of ESU Freshman classes. Pete recalls that Marty called him recently and they set up a lunch date but a need for Spidey prevented the meeting. Now, Harry tells Pete that Marty is dead… a suicide who left a note saying he couldn’t get rid of the poison in his soul. Hearing this, Peter berates himself for standing Marty up. “If I hadn’t been adventuring, I could’ve been there for Marty, I could have helped him through whatever was troubling him. He’d still be alive!” But he also realizes that, if he hadn’t been Spidey that day, all of the people he rescued from a burning building would be dead. “But what about Marty?” he thinks, “Couldn’t he have been there for Marty, as well?” Pete sighs heavily. There is no answer for this.

The next day, Peter goes to Brevoort Funeral Parlor but, riddled with guilt, can’t bring himself to go inside. He wanders to the Daily Bugle where J. Jonah Jameson tells him that the Shocker has broken jail. JJJ demands “photos I can use for my front page!” Spidey finds the Shocker fighting police in the intersection of Broadway and Nineteenth Street. After a short battle, the Shocker uses his vibro-blasts on a building, sending “large chunks of rubble and broken bricks” to the street. Spidey pushes the “dozens of people standing there” to safety allowing the Shocker to blast him from behind. The rubble buries the web-slinger and the Shocker escapes, though Spidey tags him with a spider-tracer. A cop who doesn’t buy into Jameson’s editorials (“That crank?” he says, “He’s just a loudmouthed blowhard looking for attention.”) pulls Spidey from the rubble. Wondering why the Shocker didn’t stick around to finish him off, Spidey follows, searching for his spider-tracer’s signal.

Spidey locates the signal at Forest Hills Cemetery, prompting recollections of Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy…and Marty Schultz. Remembering that Marty was going to be buried in this cemetery, Spidey locates the grave and pays his respects. The guilt strikes him again and he feels “as if it’s all seeped through me, right down to the core of my soul.” Spidey thinks he understands what Marty meant by poison in the soul…”I’m sure feeling that way now”… but he decides “you took the coward’s way out, Marty…Death is never a solution, no matter what problems have to be overcome.” Suddenly, the Shocker strikes, enraged that Spidey is standing over Marty’s grave. He reveals that Marty was his kid brother and that he escaped jail because the authorities wouldn’t let him attend Marty’s funeral. The Shocker’s own guilt over letting Marty down fills him with his own “poison in the soul.” Feeling sympathy for his opponent, Spidey polishes the Shocker off quickly, then lectures him on his squandered talent and potential. “You have the chance to embrace the future,” he says, “It’s a chance your brother threw away. What’s it going to be for you, Schultz, the future… or a dead end?”

The Shocker decides to go straight after serving his sentence. Spidey lets him pay his last respects to Marty before taking him away. “I still don’t know what the poison in your soul was, Marty,” thinks Spidey, “Probably no one knows, or ever will. But what I do know is that the guilt and anguish that I felt over your death-the poison in my own soul-is gone now. I’m not sure if your brother will really be able to reform. That’s for the future to decide. But right now, at this very moment, all is right with the world, and the future looks bright. And moments like this are so rare, so few and far between, that I can’t help but cherish it.”

Several days later, Spidey stands on top of the Brooklyn Bridge. He’s been thinking about Gwen Stacy lately, particularly since MJ has turned down his marriage proposal. Part of him wishes he could live in the past and avoid the hurts like Mary Jane’s refusal but he knows he must choose the future over the past. “I’ll always love you, Gwen, and I’ll always remember you. But the future is calling, and I have to go meet it head-on. I think that’s what you would have wanted me to do.” Spidey web-slings through the city knowing, “with tomorrow, there was a chance for hope, for opportunity, and maybe, just maybe, for happiness.”

In General...

Say what you want about this story. At least it has a point, which is more than you can say about a lot of others. In spite of any “poison in his soul,” Spidey comes to realize that the future, no matter how bleak, uncertain, or scary it appears offers at least some chance for happiness. In committing suicide, Marty has no tomorrow and therefore no chance for happiness. Even the Shocker has a chance at a positive future. It doesn’t matter that he’s been used repeatedly as a villain since. In trying to reform the Shocker, Spidey takes a chance on a future that he knows isn’t likely. It doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. Mary Jane’s refusal of his marriage proposal, seen in this light, is also positive. At least, it is a step into the future, moving away from the looking-over-his-shoulder obsession with Gwen. And Glenn, when writing this, knew full well that MJ accepts Peter’s second proposal, making the first one a necessary step to the second.

That’s all to the good. But even so, the story doesn’t have much of an impact mostly because it squanders pages and skimps on characters. What’s with the opening 3 pages featuring thieves Markie Macchio and Ralphie Bernardo, besides an elaborate homage to Marvel editors Mark Bernardo and Ralph Macchio? Yes, Spidey gets the ring from Ralphie that reminds him of his proposal to MJ but do we really need 3 pages to set that up? Another page is reserved for Pete’s thoughts concerning that marriage proposal and two more pages are taken up with recollections of the deaths of Uncle Ben and Gwen. As elements of Peter’s own poison and his tendency to dwell in the past, these moments are important but not so that they take up a fourth of the story. All they do is dilute any impact, drowning it in insignificant robbery details and recollections with which most readers are familiar.

The characters pose their own problems. Of course Pete doesn’t know the poison in Marty’s soul because Marty isn’t a character, but a device. He just happens to be both Pete’s former lab partner and the Shocker’s kid brother, a pat coincidence that connects Spidey and Shocker in their grief. The problem is the Shocker’s character is pretty much confined to that grief. We see him reacting to the death of his brother. (A brother who, let’s face it, never existed before this story… and it feels that way, too.) But little else. Peter is much better represented and it is his feelings that drive this story, after all, his psychology that is under the microsope. But he feels like a Sphere in Flatland. And since we, as readers, are stuck in the two-dimensionality of the Flatland milieu, it’s hard to grasp the three-dimensionality of Peter’s character.

Overall Rating...

I really enjoy the point of this story and the way it shows us the thought processes that allow Peter to turn away from the Gwen-past and squarely face the MJ-future but I don’t care a bit for the devices and the slight characterization. I guess I’ll have to split it down the middle and give it two and a half webs. But, even if you don’t read this story by Glenn, don’t forget that the Life of Reilly is still available at lifeofreillyarchives.blogspot.com

Footnote...

Next: Electro. And Marcy Kane!