Parker Industries is now a worldwide success, thanks to its marketing of ‘webware’, a mobile Internet device with fantastic storage and data access. PI’s CEO, Peter Parker, is now a globetrotting mogul who still finds time to fight crime as Spider-Man. Taking a page from Tony Stark, Peter’s told the world that Spider-Man is his ‘bodyguard’; when the two need to be seen together, Peter’s old friend Hobie ‘The Prowler’ Brown wears the uniform.
The criminal organization Zodiac has been repeatedly targeting PI facilities for reasons we don’t yet know, but so far they’re not having much success: Leo, one of the Princes of the Zodiac, was thwarted in his attempt to steal PI data in Shanghai back in issue #1, and Pisces, Cancer, and Aquarius were forced to blow up their own hidden base when Spider-Man and the Prowler infiltrated it last issue. But the Zodiac is still committed to its strange vendetta against Parker Industries…
The caption box informs us the action is taking place in “Location Unknown”. Two masked women - Gemini, natch - are casting Scorpio’s horoscope. This should be lame, but it’s surprisingly creepy, and gives some hints into Zodiac’s nature - apparently looking into the future is dangerous, but Zodiac is willing to take the risk, because, as Scorpio puts it, “We are the future”.
I sense some time-travel shenanigans at play here, but let’s see how it shakes out.
The horoscope reveals that Scorpio must take bold action, or SHIELD will win. Accordingly, Scorpio, Aries, and Taurus mobilize, taking a squadron of troops with them - interestingly, not their best and brightest, but troops they themselves describe as cannon fodder. I suppose they’re expecting heavy casualties.
In New York, J. Jonah Jameson - former newspaper publisher, former mayor, current on-air personality for the Fact Channel - is getting a surprise interview with Peter Parker, whom he describes in glowing terms as his protege. “Why, it’s fair to say that I’ve taught him everything he knows.” But it’s not just the reflected glory that JJJ is basking it, it’s also the fact that Peter has made Spider-Man into an employee, or as Jonah puts it, “your personal pet! Your mascot! A lil’ dancing monkey for your amusement!”
Peter awkwardly segues into the reason he’s returned to New York: to open the east-coast branch of Parker Industries. “Ladies and gentlemen, the Baxter Building is under new management.”
Elsewhere in the city, Johnny ‘the Human Torch’ Storm sees the broadcast. Incensed at Peter’s audacity, he flames on and flies to the scene. By the time he arrives, Peter has (privately, one assumes) changed into his action togs, and takes great pleasure in capturing the Torch in a trap… a plexiglass cage. In fact, the same plexiglass cage long-time readers saw in ASM #1. It even made the cover!
This was a nice bit of fan-service that’s completely ruined by what follows. The Torch melts the cage and proceeds to have a serious brawl with him. Peter’s able to calm him down briefly, but he flies into another rage when he finds out that - seriously - Peter built a new Spider-Mobile and he, Johnny, wasn’t involved. It takes Clayton ‘Clash’ Cole, of all people, to shut them down with his sonic weaponry. That was a costly move on his part, because Spidey sneaks off, changes back into his civvies, and Peter Parker comes in to give Clayton a stern warning that he’s never to use his supervillain gear on pain of losing his job.
Johnny’s not pleased by the Spider-mobile, nor is he pleased that - in a twist - the man running this branch of Parker Industries is Harry Osborn! Hey, he knows business and he’s Peter Parker’s best friend; it’s a good pick. But Johnny finally gets over his snit when he sees that Peter had a life-size granite statue of the Fantastic Four installed in the lobby. “Commissioned it from Alicia Masters myself… [It’s a] way to let people know the Baxter Building will always be home to the Fantastic Four.” Peter outbid all competitors to get the lease, he says, “...so I could hold onto it until the day the FF are finally back. And that day will come, Johnny.”
I sense a meta-comment by writer Dan Slott on the current parlous state of the Fantastic Four franchise, which is on hold both at Marvel Entertainment (comics) and Fox Studios (films). I’m with Peter: one day the FF will be back, and they’ll be great. But it might take a while.
Meanwhile, the Zodiac is attacking the SHIELD helicarrier where Nick Fury and Mockingbird are putting together the global assault on Zodiac they discussed last issue. They are interrupted by a pre-emptive strike by Scorpio and his team, as we readers saw discussed in the prologue. Zodiac is able to shut down SHIELD’s tech, an edge they’re able to exploit to quickly defeat (but not kill) Nick, Mockingbird, and the SHIELD defenders. With no remaining opposition, Scorpio moves quickly to the cellblock, where he finds the imprisoned Taurus and kills him. “It doesn’t matter that you never talked,” he says to the smoking pile of ash that remains. “You failed your mission. You failed to take your own life” (a reference to the suicide pill that Taurus took, but Spidey neutralized, back in Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 4) #1). “No trace of you can be left behind. Not one skin cell. Not one drop of blood. We are Zodiac. We are the future.”
Hmm. Determined not to let any DNA evidence remain, hmm? Here’s my prediction: the Lords of the Zodiac, some of them at least, are people we already know, who’ve traveled back to the present from the future.
After Zodiac escapes, Mockingbird contacts Peter to let him know SHIELD is going after Zodiac in a few hours. Peter tells them he’ll join the assault and he’ll bring the Human Torch as backup.
I guess that’s issue #4 set up, but maybe not: in our final page, we cut to the made-up African nation of Nadua, where the military dictator is fuming over Parker Industries’ intentions to provide free electrical power to his citizens, a move that will reduce his grip on the populace. He wants to force a showdown, but how can he do that, when PI will be better armed - they make weapons for SHIELD, as is well known, it seems. The answer is, find an arms dealer who’s just as talented. “It will be a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Osborn.”
Wait, Norman Osborn? Maybe, he’s wearing bandages all over his face, like Hush or the Invisible Man. Not that what he looks like is definitive evidence, given the events of Superior Spider-Man #31, where it was revealed Norman is into facial-reconstruction surgery now. But this guy is wearing green camo with a purple vest. That’s pretty good supporting evidence.
The tonal shifts in this book are giving me whiplash. The first issue was straight-up super spy action! The second issue was goofy super-spy parody action! This issue is neither of those things. It’s a combination of Silver Age nostalgia, maudlin paeans to family, and creepy Zodiac foreshadowing. And it all fails to gel, or so I think.
The Silver Age stuff is the worst part. The return of the plexiglass tube is a nice bit of fan service that doesn’t outstay its welcome. But the Human Torch and Spider-Man brawling like emotionally-incontinent teenagers? That stuff was old when Smilin’ Stan Lee was still scripting this book. Lest we forget, these two aren’t adolescents anymore: they’ve both grown up, had serious adult relationships, had their lovers die, and even died and come back from the grave themselves. Having them mix it up in a bout of sibling rivalry with superpowers does a disservice to these characters.
Speaking of inconsistent characterization, the Zodiac, who as recently as last issue were portrayed as slapstick comic foils, in this issue are intoning dark prophecies, taking out trained SHIELD troops, and murdering their own people in cold blood. I’m happy with either take on the organization, but let’s pick one and stick with it, shall we?
It’s nice to see Harry back, though I remember him having more edge than he shows here, where he comes off as a gee-whiz suburbanite who’s trying his best, gosh darn it. And Norman is always welcome, though I’d appreciate some clarity on what his deal is now. Is he still insane with Goblin Formula, or did Otto’s cure take? Does he have the superpowers he had when Bendis was writing him in New Avengers? Does he have his old Goblin super-strength? Or is he completely human and lucid again, as SSM #31 suggested? I hope we get this straightened out soon.
The see-sawing shifts in tone and characterization make this one below average, though I’m raising the rating by a half-web because the return of the plexiglass tube made me smile.
In three issues we’ve had a number of plot threads emerge. Aside from the main plot of Spidey vs. Zodiac, there’s also Sajani’s machinations within Parker Industries, the return of Doc Ock via the Living Brain, Norman Osborn’s machinations within Nadua, and the simmering pot that is Clayton ‘Clash’ Cole. Plus I figure we wouldn’t have met the staff of PI Shanghai if they weren’t going to play a role at some point. I’m glad to see Dan Slott has several stories lined up for us.