It was about a year ago that this series was being hyped as “The return of legendary artist Joe Madureira…and fan-favorite Spidey writer Zeb Wells.” That creative team lasted for three issues. Zeb soldiered on without Joe for two more issues until he, too, disappeared. Now Zeb is back but with a story that ignores the other promise of that original solicit to team “the wall-crawler up with some of the greatest heroes in the Marvel Universe.” Instead, the contents page informs us that, “Fifty years ago Stan Lee and Steve Ditko gave the world Spider-Man. We thank them and dedicate this issue to their legacy.” Sounds good to me.
Copperhead is stealing a satchel of money when Spider-Man quickly disposes of him. He tells the robbed employees to “Call the cops. I’m late,” then swings off. The employees are disappointed that Spidey didn’t utter a single “zing.” “Am I crazy or did he phone that one in?” asks one employee. “No, it was weird,” says the defeated Copperhead.
Soon after, May Parker meets Peter at the grave of Uncle Ben, on, apparently, the anniversary of Ben’s murder. Peter tells her that Ben’s death was his fault. May replies that he always says that and that the idea is “profoundly stupid.” A flashback takes us to the night of Ben’s murder when a dazed Peter tells May it was his fault. “I’ll hear none of that,” says May. In the present, Peter asks about May’s current husband Jay. She implies that they are very sexually active. Peter doesn’t want to hear about it and May comments on how Peter was “always such a sensitive boy.” This segues to a flashback of a stricken Peter asking May if the feeling of loss ever goes away.
The graveside conversation continues. Peter tells May that he is starting the “Benjamin Parker Science Grant.” May finds this funny, telling Peter that she was the one who pushed science and college and that Ben was more interested in following the Mets. The flashbacks continue with May speaking at Ben’s funeral and putting on a brave face only to collapse at home afterwards, feeling like she can’t go on without Ben. But Peter recalls that May was his rock, that she told him “You’re wounded, Peter. It’s a wound that stays with you…You’ll see the pain of this world more readily…You’ll see that life is temporary. Fragile… That every life is worth protecting…And you’ll feel weak where Ben’s strength used to prop you up. But you’ll honor him by standing on your own.” All this is illustrated with images of Gwen Stacy and the Green Goblin skewered by his own glider and the Punisher and Spidey emerging from the grave into which Kraven put him.
By Ben’s grave, Peter tells May “I want you to know…I do help people.” May’s reply that she knows seems to imply that she also knows he’s Spidey. (Well, she used to know before that Brand New Day business, so, why not?) Peter again insists that Ben’s death was his fault. “Why on earth do you think that would make one bit of difference?” May says, “You think he’d care?” Peter wishes Ben could see what has become of him. “He did, Peter,” says May, “He saw it a long time before you did.” Then they let Ben “get some rest” and depart with Peter’s hand resting on May’s shoulder.
The quiet, introspective, mostly talking heads comic story, once a radical departure from comic conventions, has become so commonplace as to become annoying. But when done correctly, they still work. And this one works. Zeb begins with a short action-comedy scene; Spidey quickly and easily defeating Copperhead because he has something more important to do. Through Spidey’s reaction, Zeb is telling us, “yeah, the action scenes are fun, Spidey’s quipping is fun, but we’ve got no time for that, we have more important things to deal with.” Notice that the one full-page illustration is of Peter at Ben’s grave, turning back to look at Aunt May and telling her “It was my fault, you know.” We’ve gotten the action out of the way. This, Peter’s guilt and his meeting with May, is what’s important this time.
And that meeting is presented in a sparse, minimalist fashion, with the characters “not saying” much more than they are saying. The flashbacks focus on their pain and how they cope with it. The present-day scenes make clear that the pain is still there, always will be there, but that “The world kept spinning.” May comforts and assures Peter just as she did years before. The final two panels are silent, showing the two of them walking away. Nice.
I’ve been a Steve Dillon fan since his 2000 AD days but I never pictured his style working on Spider-Man. May and Peter are presented in Dillon’s gaunt, wide-eyed, toothy character style and it serves to underline the intensity of the emotions, particularly in the flashbacks just following Ben’s murder. Dillon may not be the right choice for every Spider-Man story but he is the right choice for this one.
I only have one quibble. The scene in which May tells Peter that Ben was more interested in getting him involved in sports and that the push for science and college came from her seems to contradict what we know about Ben from past issues and feels jarring to me. It’s a nice bit for the story but sometimes a writer has to let go of a nice bit in the service of the whole. Especially in an issue that features two reprinted Ditko panels on its contents page and a dedication to the Spider-Man legacy.
Oh, wait, I have another quibble. No, not the non-team-up story in a team-up book. I’m okay with that. It’s the announcement on the letter page that this is Zeb’s last issue. Since the non-Zeb issues have not been very good, that doesn’t bode well for this series.
A nice farewell from Zeb, a nice tribute to Stan and Steve, but not perfect. Four webs.
I’m placing the “over-under” for this series’ longevity at 20 issues. Right now, my money is on “under.”