The weakness and disorientation that Spider-Man has recently been feeling, is the onset of a fatal disease! In the last issue Spidey travelled from one end of the Marvel Universe to the other looking for someone who could help him, but not the science of Reed Richards, the wonders of Wakanda or the powers of Stephen Strange were up to the task. Spider-Man carries a terrible curse, and the cells in his body are degenerating. It is only a matter of time.
In Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #20 our hero decided to make the best of his last days, and do all the things he always wanted to. He used Doctor Doom's time machine to travel into the past and see his parents and uncle Ben. He used his spider sense to play the tables in Las Vegas and win. He even took MJ into outer space courtesy of a Stark space-pod. And all the while, Morlun continued to stalk him.
Then, in Amazing Spider-Man #526 Morlun finally caught up with his prey. Spider-Man fought the fight of his life and for a moment it looked as though he could triumph over this unbeatable foe. But there was no victory. Morlun took Peter's eye, then he took his life.
And now, The Other continues....
The action picks up where Amazing Spider-Man #526 left off. Morlun is a standing over the broken and defeated body of our hero. His mission completed, his prey destroyed it is now time for him to feed. However, before he can begin he is interrupted by the arrival of half a dozen police cars. The cops are no threat to Morlun; he kills several out of hand. But they are an inconvenience, and will interfere with the feeding process. Morlun leaves the scene. He can track Peter's body where-ever it may be. He can wait.
Police and paramedics move in around the body of Spider-Man. They remove the mask. The eyeless face is such a bloodied mess that no-one could recognise this as Peter Parker. Yet there is still life in the body. Spidey is rushed to hospital, but in the operating theatre it becomes apparent that anything the doctors do is simply delaying the inevitable. "The man is gone. Only the Spider remains."
Word of the fall of Spider-Man is all over the television news. Iron Man flies Captain America and Luke Cage to the scene. Jessica Drew drives a distraught Mary-Jane, while Aunt May remains behind to be comforted by Jarvis. They all converge on the hospital; as does a hungry and delighted Morlun.
The Avengers clash with the hospital staff. They cannot allow Spider-Man to be moved; it would be prematurely fatal. Jessica Drew kicks open a locked door to a stairwell, and tells MJ to head to Peter's room on the upper floor. She then withdraws to assist her comrades. But Morlun has already found Peter's room. He stands like a vampire over the bed. Mouths open on the palms of his hands and he lowers them to Peter's helpless body. In consuming Peter he will take all his strength and all his power, everything Peter is, has been or could become, will be Morlun.
But Peter is not without his protector. At the very last moment, Mary Jane bursts into the room and tackles Morlun. "Leave him alone!" she yells, gouging at his eyes with her fingernails.
Yet for all her valour, MJ is nothing to Morlun. He flicks her aside contemptuously. Her efforts to find a weapon or to stop him consuming her are futile. She can see nothing but her own impending death. But she and Morlun are not alone in the room; there is something stirring inside Peter Parker. The man may be gone, but the Spider remains and the Spider remembers. It remembers the unshakeable bond between Peter and MJ; it remembers his promise to always be there for her.
The Spider is not dead. The Spider is resting, it is conserving its strength for one final effort. The Spider has gifts and powers that Peter Parker never accepted and consequently never used. But now the Spider is cornered and it needs those powers. Now, is the moment to strike.
With an unearthly hiss, the creature that was once Peter Parker leaps from the bed and overpowers Morlun. It pins him to the ground. As Morlun struggles long stingers slide from the Spider's wrists. It plunges them into Morlun's arms and stings him repeatedly. The Spider rears up for the death strike, and MJ catches a glimpse of its face: a twisted inhuman face that carries a mouth of needle-sharp teeth and a single burning red eye. She screams as the Spider strikes and feeds.
Alarms go off all over the hospital. Iron Man grabs Cap and Cage and accelerates through the corridors. They won't arrive in time. In the hospital room Morlun's life is at an end. In a swirl of destructive energy he realises his plight and slowly disintegrates. In victory, the Spider's energy is spent. It convulses and falls to the floor, and it is Peter again. At least for a time.
MJ cradles the broken body of her husband. She begs him not to leave her, but Peter knows the truth: that there is no coming back. She can't bring herself to say goodbye, so Peter says it for her. And in her arms, Peter dies.
The Avengers take charge of the matter now. They remove Peter's body. They make sure that even in death Spider-Man cannot be identified. But none of it means anything to MJ. All she can hold onto is that Peter is dead, and she will never recover.
I read a great many comics each month: all of them are diverting, most are entertaining, some even make me smile; very few are genuinely moving. There are not many writers in any media that can bring a lump to your throat and a tear to your eye; that make you care as completely about the characters as JMS does in this issue.
This was an incredibly difficult story to write. Cynically, we know that Spider-Man isn't really dead. He is a multi-million dollar marketing asset for Marvel. He's in a dozen of comics every month. Movies are made about him. He can't be killed off, it would be commercial suicide. From a story point of view, we know that The Other is a tale of death and rebirth. We expect Spider-Man to come back to life; in fact, we're waiting for it.
JMS has to suspend our disbelief twice - once for the story itself and once for our meta-thinking. The fact that he pulls it off so well is a testament to how good a writer he is. Of course, he has done this sort of thing very well before. The death of Marcus Cole at the end of the fourth season of Babylon- 5, had a great emotional impact, although it was a little clumsy. The 9/11 tribute issue of Amazing Spider-Man was incredibly powerful, although a little sentimental. This is better than both of them.
When MJ is begging Peter not to leave her, I could feel my chest tightening. When he dies and MJ screams in despair, I shivered. I don't normally expect comics to have such a powerful affect on me, but I'm delighted that this one did.
Do not misunderstand me: this issue is not perfect. It moves at such a pace that JMS tries to smuggle inconsistencies under our radar. Jessica directs MJ to Peter's room on "one of the upper floors". Well, how does she know that? It's a narrative shortcut, but in a hospital of hundreds of rooms it is not a very convincing one. Morlun's character isn't consistent with his portrayal in previous issues. He's always been painted as a force of nature, a creature performing the purpose for which he was designed. He never bore Peter any malice. The glee with which he turned on Mary-Jane does not track with this at all.
And then there is The Other itself. This issue has to be placed in the context of the crossover as a whole, and I'm not sure I like where the crossover is going. The whole mystical spider-totem hoo-hah is not a welcome addition to the mythos, so building an elaborate story around it is almost doomed from the start. However, we have barely crossed the half-way point. I think I will wait until next month before making giving my full critique of The Other: Evolve or Die.
Even though I'm not behind the crossover as a whole, I cannot ignore the shear quality of this issue. JMS hands in a virtuoso performance that plays my heart- strings like a cheap guitar. In all good conscience, I can't give this less than five webs.