Nick Spencer's ASM in Review

 In: Rave > 2021
 Posted: Oct 2021
 Staff: Adam Winchell (E-Mail)
 Staff: Al Sjoerdsma (E-Mail)
 Staff: Cody Wilson (E-Mail)
 Staff: Keith Moore (E-Mail)
 Staff: Michael Miller (E-Mail)

Writer Nick Spencer wrapped up his three-year run on Amazing Spider-Man with issue #74/875, and we the staff here at had some opinions:

(Naturally, if you don't want to read SPOILERS for Spencer's run, turn back now..)

Michael Miller wrote:

"So after 74 issues (not counting the “dot” issues and Giant Sized), we’re finally at the end of Spencer’s run of ASM. After Slott’s run, it feels odd to have a writer off the main series so quickly. But, truth be told, I’m happy for a few reasons.

I occupy a weird spot in Spider-Fandom- I’m used to a slightly more confident, more capable version of the web slinger. A lot of people that know the movies/Ultimate version and even a lot of writers seem to prefer him as a bit of a “goober” and tend to make other characters and heroes treat him as an inconvenience. I feel Spencer really seemed to lean into the goofy comedy beats a lot during the first half or so of the run. I respect addressing old stories, especially from his previous series, but I grew a little tired of the “Boomerang” related stories. I’m not saying I need a super serious book, but there seemed to be a lot here that veered very comedic at times that just kind of felt like fluff.

Overall, I do feel like most of the stories just sort of fall flat during this time- Peter rejoining college again (mostly so that we can maybe STOP doing this story), the whole 2099 storyline, The Chameleon Conspiracy, him getting a new suit that was heavily hyped….they mostly seemed to go nowhere or serve no purpose (I honestly would need to re-read the 2099 one to tell you anything about that story). That being said, I did actually enjoy parts of “Hunted”, surprisingly, mostly the tie-ins. And I did appreciate the use of more obscure villains- if we can take an existing character and give them some new motivation or bring back someone who was around and then disappeared, I usually can get excited.

Of course, at this point, the entire run is defined by Kindred and the absolutely bonkers way it was handled, revealed, and then resolved. By the time we got to the reveal, the character had become frustrating because it was just the same lines of dialogue repeated over and over. And then the reveal came and I was very excited- tons of hints this was some sort of pre-OMD Harry (such as recreating the final pages of ASM 545 with a sinister slant, Kindred shouting that Peter did this to him, Peter forgetting something Mary Jane SEEMED to remember, but even that was never fully said) that I made much more frequent stops to my comic store. Except…then the same repeated beats of Kindred revealing nothing, but only continuing to mention Peter’s “sins”.

And then the reveal- I still don’t even fully comprehend. In issue 73 we learn that it was actually A.I. Harry (hAIrry?) and that he created the Stacy Twins that we all had moved on from forever ago. And that he could use them as a vessel? And then that it wasn’t actually ever Harry but really mostly them, I think?

And, I may be speaking too broadly here, but no long time Spider-Fan was clamoring for Mephisto to be even MORE involved in Spidey’s lore. Having him be responsible for Norman is unneeded. It basically added fuel AND then somehow more fire to a burning building. While I also appreciate them attempting to give a reason for Mephisto’s involvement with Spider-Man, there was no real reason or sense of satisfaction to having Mephisto and Dr. Strange there or talking about Peter’s damaged soul, which went nowhere and didn’t even factor into the story once “Sinister War” got started. At this point, fixing it now would feel weird because they already promised that and never delivered.

In all, I’m happy to see some new names on the title. Between the reliance on wacky kind of set-ups, the arcs that meandered out, and Kindred, Spencer’s run was never what motivated me to hit the comic store."

Keith Moore wrote:

"Norman sells Harry's soul to Mephisto for business success (all kinds of flaws with that plot point but let's just take it at face value). Around the time of Spec188, Harry finally takes the Goblin formula, and uploads his evil persona into a database (creating "AI Harry"). Harry dies a hero in Spec200, but his soul goes to hell/Mephisto per deal above. That 'heroic/good' soul remains in hell until the conclusion of ASM74. AI Harry employs Mysterio/Stromm to brainwash people/create cloning technology that will ultimately lead to the organic vessels (ie, Sarah and Gabriel) that will haunt Peter at several turns. This also leads to the Harry clone that arrives around the time of BND. The AI Harry's evil is indirectly a result of Mephisto's manipulation of events (including everything from the deal Norman had made to present). Kindred is AI Harry (with strings pulled by Mephisto), who uses chameleon tech/cloning tech to take on various forms all aimed at hurting Peter/MJ/Norman. The two most common forms/vessels of AI Harry are Gabriel and Sarah (ie, The Kindreds), who are essentially clones without free will. Peter and MJ teamed up to defeat Mephisto's champions (The Kindreds), thus freeing Heroic Harry's soul from eternal damnation.

Thats my best shot at explaining this mess.

My conclusion, and rave entry, would revolve around the notion that this story is CLEARLY the result of an editorial rewrite. Because the story makes no sense in regards to the build up that got us to this point. Forget about all the OMD/BND teasers throughout Spencers run (of which there were many) and just go to the Last Remains/Sins Rising. Kindred's attack on Peter was consistently around "a choice" that Peter had made, that somehow wronged Kindred. If you try to reconcile that in the context of Sins Past/ Stacy Twins, it makes no sense. Peter had no "choice" in any of that...he was a victim in that debacle. Bottom line, Spencer was headed toward rewriting Peter's choice of his Mephisto deal, editorial said no way and gave him the consolation prize of retconning Sins Past. It's a shame, this was the best chance Spiderfans had at seeing OMD put to bed. I dissect this much more in a rave, but thats the gist of it.

This was as convoluted and weird as Sins Past, which ironically was the story it attempted to retcon, which (double ironically) was also a story that suffered from a massive editorial change in the 11th hour.

On a related note, when you put this all together....this story is simply a Mephisto vs Peter story. Harry is just a pawn. Thats a shame, but the bigger issue is how can a 75 issue long Mephisto vs Peter story not address OMD?"

Adam Winchell wrote:

"The ending to Nick Spencer's nearly 75-issue run is a cold hamburger and a wet firecracker.

Spencer spent a lot of time correcting errors that were handed down to him, from Felicia learning Peter is Spider-Man again to the recent revelation that Harry and Mysterio implanted false memories of Norman hooking up with Gwen Stacy as seen in the reviled "Sins Past". That's all well and good, but to tease and then back off perhaps the biggest retcon fix a lot of us were hoping for, the resolution and discarding of the pact with Mephisto from One More Day, is a major letdown and black mark against this run.

Weirdly, the casino scenes with Dr Strange and Mephisto betting on a soul that turns out to be Harry's (and not Peter's) is a plot development that feels tampered with by either editorial or other writers. And what exactly was Kindred demanding that Peter "confess" for all of these issues leading up to now? What was Kindred's beef with Peter whatsoever? It led nowhere and was just more Osborn family drama, and it seems to have little to do with the title hero at all.

It's now a tradition that long-running story arcs in Spider-Man comics turn out to be letdowns or are resolved in unsatisfactory ways--the reveal of the Hobgoblin as Ned Leeds comes to mind. Spencer's run on the title overall has the feel of the post-Clone Saga era of the 90's, mostly inoffensive and simple stories. But just like that run, in the end it teased something to fans that never came to fruition and ended up being a dopey red herring (Peter setting out to one of Norman's upstate compounds to rescue what he and the readers were led to think was Baby May, who Mary Jane was thought to have miscarried---but it was actually Aunt May that Norman was holding captive). A large part of this end result must have come from Spencer deciding to leave Marvel in the middle of his run for Substack, and Marvel either scuttling what he had planned or having other writers reconfigure what he was going to do.

It's hard to imagine this was how Spencer planned to end his time on the title. To come this close to actually resolving OMD, even down to Mephisto appearing and all the hints that were dropped, and then not doing it, is a massive disappointment. This final issue is a dud and impacts Spencer's run overall, much of which I liked, but I couldn't grade it higher than a generous 'B' overall. Much wasted potential here. I also think it's time for Nick Lowe to move on as editor of the main Spider-Man title, a position he's held since 2013 at least."

Al Sjoerdsma wrote:

"I generally liked Spencer's run on the title although I felt like the endings of his arcs were disappointing. That's putting it mildly with this one but I completely agree with you guys that editorial stepped in and prevented him from eliminating OMD. This issue went off the rails right at the start for me, on the text page. "The mysterious villain Kindred turned out to be the mysterious villains Kindred as they revealed themselves to be Sarah & Gabriel Stacy..." Wait, what? They did? When? I went back and looked at ASM #73 and, yes, there's all that stuff with Sarah and MJ but I never got the sense that Sarah and Gabriel were actually Kindred. This story is 60 pages, some of which are taken up by fight scenes that could easily have been cut and they couldn't fit this huge revelation into the story itself? That reeks of last second story manipulation. Add to that, as you guys have already said, why bring Mephisto in if you're not going to reverse OMD? Why make the explanation of how Harry is still alive more difficult than that Mephisto manipulated some things when he nullified Peter and MJ's marriage? And why, after all of this, bother to kill Harry again? To save his soul? This was all about saving Harry's soul? I don't buy it. And I don't understand how it was accomplished. How did Dr. Strange win? By having MJ as his second? She lifts Spidey from despair and the two Kindreds die? After all these issues with Kindred being an unbeatable foe and it's just that easy?

With an arc this big, there are only two changes that I can think of that could be made that would warrant it. One is bringing back Gwen Stacy (yeah, it's been almost 50 years... I guess I'll never get over it) and the other is reversing OMD. There was talk at the time of OMD that someone (help me out here, guys...was it Slott?) wanted to bring Gwen back instead of Harry but editorial shot him down. Now? Take a look at those last three pages. Peter and MJ together. First, are they on a plane? Flying where? Where were they? Was it established earlier that they were far away and I forgot? Back at...Peter's(?), they even share the same bed. Yeah, you don't have to be married to share a bed but this is comics. They sure look like they're married again to me. In fact, I thought, at first, that that's what all that pointless babble between Mephisto and Strange meant. They reversed OMD....didn't they? No, I guess not. But those last few pages mean nothing if it isn't reversed.

So, if Spencer is saying that this is the story he wanted to tell, I don't buy it. The credit reads, "Nick Spencer with Christos Gage, Writers." Does this mean Gage had to step in because Spencer didn't have time to dialogue the whole thing? Or does this mean Gage stepped in to fix what editorial wanted fixed? Whatever. How many issues ago did Kindred first appear? And all we got from all this was the end of Sarah and Gabriel, two characters we'd all forgotten about anyway, plus putting Harry back in the grave? What? No revealing FACADE's identity?? Blah."

Cody Wilson wrote:

"There are undoubtedly strong points in Spencer's run. Between big events, his quieter arcs involving Jonah, Boomerang, and Gog feature solid character work. I appreciate some of his subplots for the supporting cast and enjoyed much of the arc in which Robbie Robertson and Tombstone's kids are dating. The Sinister Syndicate proves to be a fun team of villains. The first third of this run feels tonally fresh with plenty of decent jokes. Visually, Ryan Ottley cements himself as among the best modern Spider-Man artists with his dynamic, expressive work on the title. It’s a shame the breakneck speed of the publishing schedule prevented him from drawing every issue. Patrick Gleason puts his best foot forward even as the narrative takes a turn for the worse, and Mark Bagley’s contributions demonstrate how his style has matured since he illustrated this title in the 90s. Federico Vicentini also establishes himself as an artist to watch with his excellent sense of composition and innovative use of digital techniques.

However, persistent problems eclipse the virtues of this run’s early issues. Following Slott’s precedent of nearly annual major Spider-Man events, Spencer encounters difficulty balancing blockbuster stories with intimate character moments. Lackluster, bloated events overshadow the supporting cast. Despite reviving their relationship, Spencer keeps substantial interactions between Mary Jane and Peter surprisingly marginal. Humor also takes a backseat as the narrative attempts to establish a grim, serious tone for Hunted and everything involving Kindred. This tonal transition reveals the stylistic blandness of Spencer’s writing. His “serious” captioning (often provided by Kindred monologues) becomes overly vague and trite. The scripting, which proves tight and perhaps overly verbose at first, becomes looser and less inspired as the publishing schedule ramps up. By the time the title is nearly weekly, it feels more and more like everyone involved is just trying to keep up (and a flurry of co-writers do not help with stylistic shortcomings in the writing).

Slow pacing remains Spencer's biggest problem, which others have discussed extensively (especially the poor souls who reviewed this book on an issue-by-issue basis). I also find many of his major story ideas to be weak, uninteresting, or seriously flawed. Besides the relationship with Boomerang, the only element I would recognize as distinct to this run is Kindred. The character’s (or characters’) ludicrous identity reveal bogs them down in a needlessly convoluted plot involving three truly awful past stories (Lifetheft, OMD, and Sins Past) and renders him/her essentially unusable in future comics (let alone in other mediums). The mystery of Kindred circulates starting with Spencer’s first issue and almost wholly overtakes the narrative thrust by the run’s second half. Considering Kindred’s fundamental importance (and endless, bland monologuing), I can’t imagine myself enjoying a reread of this run knowing its ultimately disappointing conclusion. Spider-Man history is littered with build-up that writers could not pay off themselves (most blatantly the Hobgoblin saga) and I honestly expected Kindred to end up that way. This mystery may have benefitted if Spencer departed before revealing their identity, leaving fans to imagine alternatives that would undoubtedly be better than the final product.

The mishandling of Kindred isn’t my only problem with creative ideas in this run. Here’s a list of developments that irked me:

I don't care for Spencer's heavy use of Peter's “sister,” which also annoys me in Chip Zdarsky's Spectacular run. I've never liked the idea of Peter's parents being secret agents; this detracts from his everyman quality. “Of course he’s a superhero! His parents are secret agents!” Teresa only serves as a reminder of this plot point that I detest. Further, I dislike the way her true identity remains up in the air after all of the hand-wringing about whether she’s truly Peter’s biological sister or not.

I wish Sin-Eater had stayed dead, especially considering the embarrassing monster he becomes in ASM #49. It’s something of a running joke that every superhero villain must return from the dead at some point but … Sin-Eater? The guy with the gun? Why not use another character inspired by the original Sin-Eater (which has worked in the past)? With everything said and done, Spencer doesn’t have enough to say about the character to make his revival worthwhile.

On a related note, was anyone clamoring for Ned Leeds to return from the dead? Especially after a cloned version of him appeared so recently to scratch the itch for the few Ned Leeds die-hards out there? Well, now he’s a secret agent type after ingesting the Goblin Serum. After all, every Spider-Man supporting character must get in on the action at some point.

I don’t care for Norman Osborn the Good Guy™. He falls into yet another trope of this genre that every villain must undergo a redemption arc at some point. Pretty soon, Spider-Man and his former rogue’s gallery will have nothing to do but sit in a circle and sing Kumbaya.

As a fan of the original line of 2099 books, I felt the 2099 arc fell very flat as an attempted reboot. Marvel should have learned their lesson with Timestorm 2009-2099. The Clairvoyant in that story is a wholly uninteresting MacGuffin that strikes me as too similar to the future-predicting character in Civil War II. (Speaking of commonalities with underwhelming comic events, the plot device of Sin-Eater “turning bad guys good” felt overly similar to the thrust of AXIS.)

The team of Spider-People that assemble in Last Remains is an ill-conceived, shameless attempt to get a Spider-Team book going that falls as flat as the 2099 reboot.

If posterity remembers this run for anything positive, it’ll be Spencer's “fixing” of past blunders in a gesture of fan service. He quickly reverses the Black Cat “crime queen” status quo that I know upset some fans. (Slott recently shared he planned on doing the same but other writers, probably Robbie Thompson on Silk, still wanted to use crime lord Felicia.) Sins Past has been retconned. Peter and MJ are back together (despite not spending a whole lot of time together). Other writers can now use Kraven unapologetically knowing the current character is a clone instead of the Kraven who should have remained dead after Fearful Symmetry. While the execution of these “fixes” may not be particularly interesting, that these “fixes” are done at all is enough for some fans.

After finishing Spencer’s run, I find myself wondering what Marvel editorial expects from this title. I've listened to a few recent interviews with executive editor Tom Brevoort, who doesn’t edit Amazing but nevertheless serves as a prominent voice in the decision-making process of Marvel’s overall thrust. He has outlined his viewpoint (on a podcast I can’t exactly recall but which was likely Word Balloon) that he cares less about who buys the comics as long as they sell the amount Marvel deems sufficient. In other words, he sees nothing necessarily wrong with catering to hardcore, older fans even, I would argue, at the expense of a newer audience.

As far as I can tell, that perspective informs Spencer's run. I have a friend who got into Spider-Man because he enjoyed the early issues with Ottley. He was once enthusiastic about the book while I remained lukewarm or unkind. Somewhere around Sins Rising, the Kindred stuff bored him and he stopped reading the title. He recently caught up when I informed him of Spencer’s eminent departure and his views about the Sinister War and its aftermath have echoed mine. He was utterly confused about the Kindred reveal and asked me a series of questions not even I (having read every issue of Amazing Spider-Man) could answer. It seems Spencer excited new fans in his first twenty-five issues or so but slowly lost the faith of many. I certainly watched this happen with those on the r/comicbooks subreddit, most of whom were initially positive but are now near-universally critical towards the book.

This title leaves me personally at a crossroads with the superhero genre. A major theme throughout this run is the cyclicality of superhero comics and Peter Parker’s inability to progress as a character. This has proven to be a common interest for certain ambitious writers who believe they’ll be the ones who can actually make meaningful, lasting change for decades-old characters. However, much like Tom King fails to marry Bruce Wayne in his abruptly truncated run on the main Batman title, Spencer fails to undo One More Day despite all of the gesturing that he will. I never took his nods to OMD seriously (too many editors involved with that story are still prominent at Marvel) but the fact that he wastes so much time teasing this possibility frustrates me. How can readers unfamiliar with the intricacies of Spider-Man continuity (and not obsessively fuming about years-old mistakes) enjoy anything in this title over the past year? I assume only hardcore fans (myself included) would be foolish enough to waste three years and $407 without tax (my calculated price for 74 issues and various add-ons written by Spencer) on a self-indulgent story about how Peter Parker doesn’t change that ends with him essentially unchanged. To be clear, I’m not necessarily upset Peter doesn’t evolve in this run because I’ve come to terms with the realities of serialization. It would be ridiculous to rage that Homer is still an idiot by the end of every Simpsons episode. Rather, my frustration comes from the bland direction and obsessive focus on uninteresting build-up of the past three years.

Since the Chameleon Conspiracy (and probably even earlier), this title has felt like a commodity cranked out with little consideration or real inspiration. The status quo of three or more pencillers with disparate styles and skill levels (assisted by a few different inkers and colorists to spare) drawing each issue has made the book visually incohesive and frankly ugly. Amazing Spider-Man has become a title too comfortable with the fact that fans will buy each issue no matter the quality out of nostalgia or a collector-driven sense of completionism. Lately, my tastes have shifted to independent books with stable creative teams and clear storytelling plans. My current favorites are Firepower by Robert Kirkman and Chris Samnee, Decorum by Jonathan Hickman and Mike Huddleston, and We Only Find Them When They’re Dead by Al Ewing and Simone De Mio. (Ram V and Filipe Andrade’s recent miniseries The Many Deaths of Laila Starr is also breath-taking.) Unlike Spider-Man, these creative teams must make an argument for readers to buy their series. I’m complicit in allowing flagship superhero titles to limp along with mediocre to poor storytelling. I should have spent those $407 on books that have a reason to exist besides the fact that they have been around for decades and arrogantly expect to be around for many more. Maybe it’s finally time for me to move on since this genre won’t adapt to survive unless I do. I’m getting tired of being milked for all I’m worth just for the sake of unconditional fandom.

At the end of the day, are there any arcs by Spencer that would qualify for a “Best of” Spider-Man list? I can’t think of any. However, I would say this Kindred mess qualifies as among the worst Spider-Man stories I’ve read. We’ll see if time softens my criticism. I want to recommend Amazing Spider-Man to new readers (I’ve been working with kids recently) but the current title has been an intractable embarrassment."

 In: Rave > 2021
 Posted: Oct 2021
 Staff: Adam Winchell (E-Mail)
 Staff: Al Sjoerdsma (E-Mail)
 Staff: Cody Wilson (E-Mail)
 Staff: Keith Moore (E-Mail)
 Staff: Michael Miller (E-Mail)