Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #603

Background

J. Jonah Jameson is faced with a threat that strikes terror into any politician: a fall in his approval ratings. Seeking to appear hard on crime and terrorism, Jonah decides to organise a photo opportunity inside his new "Shadow Command Centre"; and just for old time's sake he's agreed to let Peter Parker snap the pictures. The only trouble is that the Chameleon wants to get into this command centre too, and so he's kidnapped Peter, dissolved him in acid and assumed his identity. What's Peter's dead? Yeah, looks like. Moving on, there may be one thing that the even the Chameleon has not counted on: Peter Parker's social life. How will he cope with a needy friend, awkward ex and homicidal room-mate? Answer: probably better than Peter would.

Story 'Deconstructing Peter'

Our synopsis of this issue actually begins on the recap page. The usual "Peter Parker's POV" has been replaced with the ruminations of the Chameleon. It seems the Chameleon is getting to know Peter pretty well from his "journals"; and in getting to know Peter, he's getting to know his friends Mary Jane and Harry as well.

The issue opens in the apartment Peter shares with Michelle Gonzales. The Chameleon is taking a phone call from Glory Grant, who tells him that he passed his background check and can now come into the command centre for the photo op. She says that Peter's old friend, and Gulf War veteran, Flash Thompson will also be in attendance. The Chameleon flicks through Peter's high school yearbook, and reads Flash's insults. It seems that this Peter Parker is a man of incongruities.

Michelle already threw most of Peter's things away, making the room an anonymous place. Although even without belongings, the Chameleon can see that the bed is hardly slept in. He finds a professional chemistry and a certificate to teach in a high school - which doesn't square against Peter's life as a low-paid photographer. Speaking of photographs, the Chameleon picks up one of Peter and Gwen Stacy. He assumes that she is the "MJ" he was on the phone with earlier. Then the door opens, and Michelle calls him out to "talk".

The Chameleon sits and he listens to her tirade. Michelle wants him out. After what happened at the reception, it's too awkward for him to stay. She wants him gone in two weeks. The Chameleon knows nothing of Michelle or the relationship she has with Peter. But he does know people, and he does know when to act. He kisses Michelle, and seduces her into submission.

Just after twelve, the Chameleon has an appointment to meet MJ in a diner. She turns up a little late, startled to see that 'Peter' is on time. What follows is a delightfully subversive scene in which an increasingly confused Mary Jane tries to get Peter to help the homeless Harry Osborn, while the Chameleon plays with her, making educated deductions and conclusions about Peter's life. Showing MJ a picture of Gwen, and then wistfully implying that MJ never measured up to her, reveals the Chameleon's vindictive nature. It's a masterstroke from Van Lente, that is enhanced by its juxtaposition to the next scene.

One of MJ's many stalkers appears, banging on the window, begging her to read a script he has written. What now? Ignore him? Slip out of the back door? No. The Chameleon will handle this. Excusing himself from the table, 'Peter' takes a walk outside. He grabs the stalker, forces him into an alley, puts a gun in his mouth and pistol-whips him into unconsciousness. "Not a bad guy really," he tells MJ moments later. "I think he'll listen to reason." He then promises MJ that he will take care of Harry. There's something oddly sinister about that choice of words.

By early afternoon, the Chameleon is in the back of a secure truck with Flash Thompson and Glory Grant; riding to JJJ's shadow command centre. He quietly taunts the paraplegic Flash, and flirts with the female driver of the vehicle. Neither actions are very Parker-like, but the Chameleon is the one wearing the face, so he's calling the shots. During the photo-shoot JJJ behaves like the master ham we know him to be, and the mayor is particularly full of himself by the time he returns to Gracie Mansion. His good mood is improved even further by the delivery of a special package that he was waiting for: the original spider slayer, delivered from storage, upstate. An upgrade for his Anti-Spider Squad.

Meanwhile the Chameleon has been far from idle. After dropping a tracking device in the toilets at Jameson's "Shadow Command Centre", he has been able to retrace his steps and pinpoint the location of the base. Satisfied, the Chameleon grabs a phone and contacts his employer… Colonel Kasab, leader a bunch of pro-Taliban renegades, located in Quetta, in Pakistan The pair verbally joust about payment and the nature of their 'deal'. The colonel makes the mistake of thinking he has the upper hand, that the Chameleon doesn't know who he is or where he is. Of course, not only does the Chameleon know all these things, he's been to the colonel's home, made a latex mask of his face and hidden it behind a picture hanging on the wall. That's the sort of thing that really helps to get your point across.

The Chameleon heads off to his safe storage to collect the bomb he intends to plant in the command centre, on behalf of the colonel. He can only guess at the colonel's motives for wanting this bomb planted, but he really doesn't care. It's just a job, and as he is coming to the end of it the Peter Parker identity is now no longer useful to him. However, the Chameleon is not completely without feelings. Peter (though deceased) has been a "good face" to the Chameleon. It's time for him to do what he does for all his good faces, and give something back in return.

The Chameleon, still disguised as Peter, heads to Aunt May's house in Queens to find it bursting with May's Bostonian relations. "Good lord. Does Parker know anyone who isn't a stunning beautiful woman?" After looking around he heads over to the nearby cemetery. There he stands at the graves of Richard, Mary and Ben Parker. He read about Ben's death in old copies of the Bugle, and he recalls what MJ said earlier in this issue: about the living friends of Peter having to compete with the dead. He has made up his mind.

The Chameleon points out that a person's life is defined by the impact he has on others. When he takes over someone else, he can afford to brave, to take all the difficult decisions that they will not. After all, he'll just be someone else tomorrow. His baiting has left Flash depressed and drinking again; his words and his actions have reminded MJ what she saw in Peter in the first place; and he has convinced Michelle that she and Peter have a future together. The only piece missing from the puzzle is Harry Osborn. What can the Chameleon do for him?

The Chameleon only knows the superficial Peter. The Peter who rejects commitment at every turn, and pushes away those closest to him. The Peter who, the Chameleon believes, would continue to hold a grudge against Flash years after High School, and who would have resented living in the shadow of Harry Osborn. What can the Chameleon do to rectify this situation? He heads to the Coffee Bean out of hours, to 'put right' the relationship between Harry and Peter. He has his hand on a gun, when takes young Mister Osborn by surprise.

Bang.

No, not a gunshot - or at least not only a gunshot. The banging is coming from beneath the Chameleon's lair. Someone is punching his way out from underneath the chair that unceremoniously dumped him into acid more than an issue ago. Battered, burned by acid and his clothes in tatters, Peter Parker - the real Peter Parker - collapses to the floor. Well, it seems he wasn't dead after all. But is he in a state to take back his life? And is he in time for Harry?

General Comments

All the promise of the previous issue is realised in this tour-de-force by Van Lente and Kitson. I love this twisted take on the Chameleon: a master manipulator who is always in control and treats everyone with contempt, but has the audacity to believe he is actually doing his victims a favour by taking over their lives. Perverse altruism, from overwhelming arrogance. Perfect.

In fact everything here was perfect. From the way the Chameleon handled Michelle, to the way he completely blindsided MJ with the picture of Gwen, to the vicious attack on the stalker... Van Lente has given us a deliciously dark and amoral Chameleon, unafraid to do anything, or destroy anyone, for his inscrutable purposes.

Taking the real Peter out of the equation, and having the Chameleon try to figure out his life was a refreshing change of pace, and so well written that by the end we're almost on the Chameleon's side. But it isn't just the characterisation that makes this issue so good; let's take a moment to analyse it's structure. This is part two of a three part story. The middle act in most comic book arcs tends to be the weakest instalment. The writer has introduced the threat, isn't ready for the denouement, and so the plot meanders for twenty-two pages while it shuffles all the characters into the right place. Not so here.

This issue does what every comic should do, and so few achieve: it is a story in its own right. In addition to being part of a greater whole, it also has its own coherent plot line. The Chameleon's narration links the issue together. "How much can you learn about a man in one day?" asks the Chameleon on page one, panel one. The entire issue then builds up to the answer to that question. It shows us the masterful Chameleon smugly inserting himself into Peter's life, always deducing the right thing to say, and the right thing to do until we are expected to reach the inescapable conclusion that the Chameleon can learn everything there is to know about a person in one day. Except we don't reach that conclusion. Because we know that, despite all his cleverness and conceit, the Chameleon is wrong at every step of the way. He doesn't know Peter. He doesn't know Peter at all.

I could open this comic at any page, and find something to sing the praises of. I will draw particular attention to the scene in diner between Peter and MJ which stood out to me as the best written scene in the book. And it was up against some pretty stiff competition. I like the way that MJ was handled here, and it bodes well for her continued presence in the book. The way she is so quick to notice the lipstick on Peter's collar may give some readers hope that there is still hope for them.

Overall Rating

The more I read the issue, the more I like it. It works so well, on so many different levels, that I can't give this any less than a maximum score. Five webs. The best issue of Amazing Spider-Man in at least five years. If Fred Van Lente isn't part of the regular writing team after this, I want to know why.

Footnote

We know from the Face Front arc that there is some psychic mojo preventing anyone from deducing Spidey's secret identity from even the most blatant evidence. That's just as well, as otherwise the scenes with the Chameleon rooting through Peter's bedroom would be a little too much to swallow. There's no way he wouldn't have found a spare Spider-Man costume, or a batch of webbing on the boil. If you've read the other Brand New Day stories then you know that Van Lente has already covered himself against this criticism, but if you haven't and you're just reading this story - perhaps because this is the best story since the reboot - then it might strike you as rather odd.