Harry Osborn died in the seminal Spectacular Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #200, poisoned by the goblin formula he had taken. Following #546 the timeline here in Amazing Spider-Man span on a few months. When the first Brand New Day arc began a number of things had changed for Peter Parker, many of which were neatly summarised in Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #546 (Story 2). Among the changes was the fact that Harry Osborn as back from the dead. No explanation was given for that resurrection, until now...
Spidey is swinging through the city when he picks up a signal from one of his spider tracers. The signal leads to a dead body, another victim of the spider- tracer killer. It's a set up. The police have already been tipped off (presumably by the real killer) and catch Spider-Man in the act of leaning over the body. Spidey escapes of course, but his reputation has taken another knock. Watching from his car is the Bookie who has followed the police to the scene.
Back at his apartment, Peter takes a phone call from Harry Osborn. Harry is to head out to Jersey the following day and meet his ex-wife Liz Allan. The next day they meet outside the Hollisters, and it's an instant reunion for Peter's new supporting cast. Lily Hollister (Harry's girlfriend who made a rather unsubtle pass on Peter) is here, as is Carlie Cooper (who is carrying a torch for Pete) and mayoral candidate Bill Hollister himself. Even Pete's room-mate, Vin Gonzales is here in his professional capacity as a policeman.
Lily suggests that the gang get together on Friday, but Peter is nervous about going anywhere with Lily. He tries to get out of it by asking Carlie out on a date for the same day. Carlie manages to both interpret and misinterpret Peter's proposal at the same time. Nice one, Pete.
Bill Hollister takes Harry to one side, and asks him to keep his distance from the Hollister family (including Lily) until after the end of the election. This is the first outright political move we've seen from Hollister who has thus far been painted in the sort of genial tones usually reserved for Robbie Robertson. A shape of things to come? In their conversation Harry intimates that he is going to propose to Lily. Something else to make Peter feel awkward.
Once they have left, Harry tells Peter that he has "business" with Liz. He wants to help her out. She's apparently been having some problems with her brother (Mark Raxton, but we know him as the Molten Man) of late.
Cut to Liz's house in the suburbs. Liz is on the firm to a private medical firm. The expert they sent to administer to her brother took one look at Mark and went running for the hills. Ignored by his mother little Normie sneaks off to play behind a high-tech looking door that is normally kept locked. Inside is Mark Raxton, in full molten-mode. He's strapped down to a table because he cannot control his powers. Liz hurries in and rescues Normie before he is badly burned. Raxton is contrite, but it is obvious that he is continuing to lose control.
At a gas station Peter is on the phone to Aunt May. She reminds him to be careful; Molten Men can be dangerous (just look at what Charlie Weidermann did). Peter is a little bothered by this whole turn of events, as well as Harry's reluctance to come clean on certain issues. He tells Peter that he and Liz need to sort out some paperwork - apparently his life insurance policy didn't over dying and then coming back from the dead.
So how did Harry come back from the dead? What? You don't know? Harry's never said? Sit back now and listen to the sorry tale. In Spectacular Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #200 Harry died in front of Spider-Man, poisoned by the goblin serum that he had taken. However, it turns out that Harry didn't die. Just like his father before him, he only appeared to be dead. By the time he was wheeled back to the morgue, he was already beginning to recover. So how did he disappear?
At the morgue waiting for Harry was Norman Osborn. Now at this time, Norman himself was believed to be dead; he was in fact in Europe building a new criminal empire - but you've all read the Clone Saga, so you know all about that, right? Norman wanted Harry to disappear just as Norman himself had disappeared after Gwen Stacy's death; and Norman employed Mysterio to make it happen. Old Fish Bowl agreed to use his skills to falsify autopsy reports and generally make it appear to the world that Harry Osborn was dead.
Harry didn't understand any of this at the time. He was whisked away to Europe, and spent his time in and out of drug rehabilitation clinics. Norman had his son convinced that his entire turn as the green goblin was nothing but a drug-fuelled hallucination. Harry only began to remember the truth when he recently saw his father in costume again. Even now he can't remember everything.
Harry says that since returning he has tried to live a better life, to help his friends any way that he can. Peter thanks him (presumably not for the first time) for rebuilding his family home in Queens after it had been destroyed by Charlie Weidermann. Harry dismisses his thanks. It was nothing compared to the favour he is about to do for Liz.
The pair arrive at Liz's house, and are met outside by Liz and Normie. Liz is happy to see Peter, but less pleased with Harry's appearance. Normie is also freaked out by seeing his father - after all, Normie did go to Harry's funeral. That's got to leave a mark on a young boy. Harry takes Normie inside to play, while Harry and Liz talk. Unfortunately, Normie's talk of Harry's return is overheard by Raxton. Raxton has something of a low opinion of Harry.
While Peter tries to console Normie (and discovers a box full of severed Spider-Man heads) Harry tries to tell Liz that he can fix things. Liz doesn't see how that can happen. Harry's life insurance paid for the house, her brother's treatments and her new life. His coming back from the dead is more than a little inconvenient. However, not as inconvenient as a mentally unstable Molten Man breaking out of his confinement with murder on his mind. You all guessed that was going to happen, right?
Peter's spider-sense goes wild as Raxton tries to reach Harry. The Molten Man burns through several load bearing walls and the entire house begins to give way. Fortunately, Peter is agile enough to get Normie to safety. Unfortunately, Harry is far from safe. Raxton has arrived, and he wants Harry dead.
Well, the Spidey Brain Trust promised answers, and this issue certainly delivers them. We now know how and why Harry came back from the dead, and also how the old Parker home was rebuilt. The explanations are perfectly acceptable in the context of the Marvel Universe, and certainly a lot less outlandish than they could have been. This no bad thing, in fact the most interesting thing about this explanation is what it doesn't do, and who it doesn't involve.
Where's Mephisto in this complicated scheme? He was the one who rewrote Peter's life, he was the one who sundered his marriage with MJ, who made Peter's secret identity secret again. Wasn't he?
What this issue reveals, and what we probably should have realised before now, is that the creative teams are presenting us with a very complicated tale. There are mysteries within mysteries, and stories within stories. One of the justified criticisms of One More Day was that it shredded thirty years of continuity. But did it really do that, or are we simply suffering from "six- month-gap-syndrome" between issues #545 and #546?
Let's look at the facts. Back in One More Day Mephisto offered to save Aunt May's life in return for the Parker's marriage. That was the deal. That was what Peter and MJ agreed to. Mary-Jane asked that Mephisto (as part of the deal) also saw to it that Peter's identity was made secret again. She also asked him something else - we don't know what that was; it's a plot point that I'm sure the writers will get to it in time.
Since then the narrative has moved on six months. In that six months, many things happened: notably Harry returned from the dead, Peter went back to working for the Daily Bugle and the world forgot that Peter was Spider- Man. Now, we've assumed that knowledge of Peter's identity was wiped in the same wave of Mephisto's hand that erased the marriage, but what if it didn't?
How much of hand did Mephisto have in Spidey's secret identity being made secret again? Did he do it, or did he just provide the means for Peter to do it? And if he just provided the means, then presumably it's something that Peter could have done without him. This is a story that hasn't been told yet; Peter certainly remembers that his identity used to be public and was somehow made secret. I'm interested to find out how this happened.
This issue reveals that Harry's return from the dead was also completed unconnected with Mephisto. Arguably, Harry would have returned from Europe even if the events of the Civil War and One More Day had never happened. It does make you think how much of Spidey's current status quo is really dependent on the deal with Mephisto, and how much is just events that would have happened regardless.
In light of this, it is much easier to see Mephisto as just one plot: he saved Aunt May and nullified the Parker marriage. That's an ongoing storyline, and there's no reason to believe that the storyline won't get a resolution. Maybe it'll be in #600 or maybe it'll be later, but I believe a resolution is coming. This is a finite story. I doubt very much that it will end with the marriage being reinstated and the pre Civil War status quo restored, but we'll be in a better and least frustrating place than we are now.
I apologise to any readers who had this epiphany months ago, but the penny has just dropped for me. I now see the deal with Mephisto as a hideously misguided deus ex machina designed to end the marriage, but not as the world's greatest retcon that will doom the Spider-Franchise for all time. Of course, I'm fickle and could change my mind next month.
Which all, on the whole, has nothing to do with issue #581. I feel that I should say that this is a very good comic - possibly the best one that Slott has written since he started working on this title. The plotting is tight, with the flashbacks and exposition an organic extension of the narrative. The art is also spot on. McKone is an excellent story-teller, and I particularly liked his deformed and manic Molten Man.
Plus it's great to finally get some answers to the smaller questions, such as what happened to Liz and Normie in the post-One More Day world. Add to this a little reminder of the spider-tracer killer storyline (which is coming to a head very soon) and you have quite a powerful package. It's not quite perfect of course. There's no hint of why Norman Osborn would want to sequester Harry in Europe for years, or why he bothered to involved Mysterio. I also cringed when Peter found the severed Spidey heads in Normie's room. Normie hates Spider-Man again? I thought we were past that. Let the kid have some growth, please!
Answers a-plenty and a good story to boot; but the best thing about this issue for me is the hint that Brand New Day may not be quite the hellish mess it appears. Four and a half webs.
As a counterpoint to this issue, Spectacular Spider-Man #200, has been reprinted in Amazing Spider-Man Family #3.