In the last issue, Aunt May went on her first date with Edwin Jarvis, the redoubtable butler to the Avengers. After a very pleasant meal May was rather surprised to see her long dead husband, Benjamin Parker, staring at her through the window. Has Marvel actually resurrected the one character in all of comicdom who must stay dead? Read on a find out.
A bespectacled Peter Parker, clad in neat tie and tank-top, is strolling back to his Aunt and Uncle's house. He is mulling over secret identity as Spider- Man: the wrestling sensation that's sweeping the nation. His inner monologue reveals that this is the self-centred, arrogant Peter from a time before he learned that power and responsibility go hand in hand. But Peter's world is about to change forever. He discovers his home surrounded by police cars. Something has happened. There has been a fatality. Peter bursts through the cordon and falls into the welcoming arms of his loving... Uncle Ben?
Yes, true believers, this is not a simple flashback, it is an alternative reality. In this world it was Aunt May that died and not Uncle Ben. Ben was left a widower, and had to bring Peter up on his own.
Events quickly diverge between this world and the mainstream Marvel Universe. May's death was an accident, and Peter never learns the moral lesson that shapes his life as a superhero. Ben is not frail as May was, so Peter feels as though he can trust him with his great secret. Soon after, Peter and Ben go into business together. Peter as the celebrity Spider-Man and Ben as his agent (and the man who cashes his cheques).
However, as time passes Peter becomes more and more distanced from his uncle. Celebrity has turned Peter's head: he doesn't care about his fan mail, he doesn't care about his roots... in short he has turned into the obnoxious jerk that JJJ also said he was. Uncle Ben disapproves of Peter's life. He can't help thinking that Peter should be doing some more worthwhile with his powers. He should use them to help people.
Peter has had enough. He is tired of living in his uncle's old house, he is tired of the lectures. He has been courted by a proper talent agency and he is off. He promises to continue sending Ben his percentage, promises to see him again soon, but they are hollow words and Ben knows it. Peter doesn't return any of Ben's calls, and as the weeks turn into months the nearest Ben gets to his nephew is sitting in the audience at one of Peter's movies.
While walking home from a screening of Spider-Man 4 Ben makes a terrible discovery. His house has been gutted by fire and is nothing more than an empty shell. A passing patrol car tells him that it was burned down months ago. The helpful officer also tells him that "Ben Parker" has been dead for years. Confused, Ben heads to the cemetery. He doesn't find the grave of May Parker as he expects. He finds his own grave. "Where's my life?" he asks himself. And where is Peter?
Suddenly, a figure on a bat-wing glider descends through the rain. Its features are indistinct, but its eyes are alight with a menacing red glow. It claims to be the "ghost of Spider-Man's past, present and future". Taking Ben by the hand the self-professed demon flies off to find Peter.
Time passes. Spider-Man (the Spidey we know and love, clad in his new red and gold duds) is perched on a high wall, on the phone to Jarvis. Jarvis is telling Spidey of May's vision of Ben Parker. The pair are still at the restaurant, May is in shock and determined to go out into the rain and find Ben.
Spider-Man arrives outside the restaurant and quickly finds Ben Parker. It has been some time since the graveyard and Ben is now unkempt and dishevelled. Spidey is taken aback. This "impostor" is a perfect copy of his Uncle Ben. Spidey challenges Ben, but when he calls Peter by name Spidey quickly realises that something very odd is afoot.
Warned by his spider-sense, Spidey snatches Ben and propels him forward out of the explosive blast of a pumpkin bomb. The thrower is the same 'demon' that Ben met in the graveyard. The demon that now reveals itself as a hunter of Spider-Men who has faced many across the years. This is the Hobgoblin of 2211!
I liked this one. In the 40+ years Spider-Man has been about we've seen umpteen alternative universe tales and retellings of Spidey's origin, but few of them ring truer to me than this one. This was the road that Peter was going down before Uncle Ben was murdered. Without that shock, Peter learns no lesson about power and responsibility and remains the same selfish showboater he was when he first got the powers.
The scenes showing the deterioration and break-down of Ben and Peter's relationship are extremely well done. The wistful Ben watching Peter leave the family home, wishing that he could be proud of his nephew, is particularly poignant. Peter David's extrapolation of Peter and Ben's actions based on one simple change to the Spidey mythos proves how well he understands the characters. And Mike Wieringo delivers fantastic art to accompany this story. The man has a real gift for facial expressions; take away all the word balloons and you could still follow the story perfectly.
The recent Spider-Man: House of M mini-series had the same basic premise, but went in a completely different direction. Peter David's interpretation achieves more in ten pages than Mark Waid did in five issues. Don't get me wrong, the mini-series is well worth reading, but this issue of Friendly trumps it.
Bringing an alternative Ben Parker into the mainstream Marvel universe is a move that worries me. It can only work if it is a temporary measure. Having Uncle Ben kicking around New York, even if he isn't the real Uncle Ben, would undermine the foundations of Spider-Man's tragic character. However, Ben's presence is tied up in the plans of this new hobgoblin, so I imagine my fears are groundless.
The new hobgoblin is a different matter. As well written and drawn as the issue is, and as interested as I am in finding out what happens next, part of me still wishes Peter David was writing a different sort of Spider-Man story. In the past few years in the spider titles we've had numerous team-ups with Doctor Strange, we've had the whole totem-animal plot, we've had The Other and Spider-Man's shenanigans with the Avengers. Now we have time travel and alternative realities. I miss Spidey taking on a roomful of mob flunkies, or dealing with street-level villains.
I'm also not sure what Peter David is hoping to achieve by using this alternative Uncle Ben. For a dead guy, Ben Parker has had quite a lot of exposure recently. Doctor Strange granted Peter a conversation with his dead uncle back in Amazing Spider-Man #500. Peter remembers everything that happened during House of M where Ben never died, and Peter was enjoying a successful life. It's too soon to judge what Peter David has in mind, but I have a worry that he's going to be making a point that has already been made (twice) in the last two years.
And this issue gets us no closer to resolving the matter of Flash Thompson - which is becoming something of a flea in my ear. Unless of course the Flash at Peter's school isn't the real Flash Thompson, but one from an alternative reality. He could have been put there by the Hobgoblin of 2211 as part of some fiendish scheme! Actually, this is not sounding too far fetched a theory...
Excellent art and impressive characterisation makes this an enjoyable issue all round. I'm not sure when Peter David is going with this, but I want to find out. Four webs.