There's a little civil war going on in the Marvel Universe. Spidey revealed his secret identity to the world to cement his alliance with the pro- registration forces of Tony Stark, only to change his mind and join Captain America's secret Avengers. Unable to retain his job as a teacher at Mid-town High, Peter quit and then (disguised with a Shi'ar image inducer he borrowed from the X-Men) got rehired under the unlikely alias of Ben Reilly. Only now he's not the science teacher: he's Flash Thompson's flunky. Meanwhile, one of Peter's ex-girlfriends has written a kiss-and-tell novel about him that is a big, big hit. She's signing copies at a New York book store so Spidey decides to swing over there; so does the Vulture who has been hired by a shadowy government cabal to take down Spider-Man. Oh, and Spidey noticed the cocoon containing The Other has broken open. That's a lot of exposition; let's get on with this:
The scene is a busy waterfront on a warm summer evening, the clothes mark the period as several decades before our own. A young boy called Adrian is pushing his wheelchair-bound brother, Marcus. Marcus is paralysed form the neck down and is extremely bitter about it. He demands that Adrian kills him. Of course, Adrian refuses - Marcus is all the family he's got left. He loves his brother. But Marcus feels weak and useless. His condition is unnatural, if he was an animal he would have been left to die with dignity rather than live like this. He is ashamed that Adrian won't help him; ashamed of Adrian's weakness. Why can't Adrian Toomes grow some backbone and be an animal?
Adrian Toomes (aka the Vulture) is on a high perch, peering down at the book store where Deb Whitman is signing her novel. Despite the urgings of his shadowy masters (who can communicate with him via radio) Toomes is canny enough to fly away before Spidey arrives and not top his hand.
At the book store Deb Whitman is confronted by Betty Brant, who has used the fact that the Daily Bugle owns Deb's publishers (which makes every kind of sense) to wangle a pre-signing interview. Betty is steamed. Jameson didn't send her, she just wants to confront Deb and find out why she would betray Peter. Deb is a little surprised: didn't Peter spend years pulling the wool over Betty's eyes as well? Betty doesn't see it that way - in fact things are making sense to her for the first time in years. Peter may have deceived and hurt people, but he did it for good reasons - to save lives. What's Deb's excuse?
At Mid-Town high, Flash is still trying to get the mysterious Ms Arrow out on a date with him. He picks up a copy of The Bugle and notices Deb Whitman's book signing. Arrow warns him not to cause any trouble, but Flash is not the sort of person who listens to advice. After Flash leaves, Arrow plucks a spider from a dangling thread and eats it. Odd behaviour in a school nurse.
And now it is time for the book signing. Peter is there (disguised as Ben Reilly), and bumps into a chap who looks remarkably like Stephen Colbert. Flash arrives and barges his way to Deb, to call her to task for her actions. In doing so he bumps into Betty, who hasn't seen him since he came out of his coma. She is delighted - they did used to date after all. Flash takes a moment to remember Betty, not because of his amnesia, but simply because he's Flash.
The moment is broken by the arrival of the Vulture, he bursts through a sky light and trashes the place while demanding that Spider-Man show himself. Betty quickly pulls a gun and shoots Toomes in the back, but the Vulture's new outfit is bullet proof. Fortunately, Betty has bought Peter the time he needed to change into his long underwear and Spidey leaps into action.
The fight is brutal, and quickly moves from the book store to the nearby roof- tops. The Vulture is out to prove something: he is strong, Spider-Man is weak. He manages to cut Spidey in the leg and inject a powerful hallucinogen into his body. Peter plummets helplessly to the ground. He is followed moments later by the Vulture, who appears to have had a heart attack.
Deb Whitman. Betty Brant. Flash Thompson. No Spider-scribe has lavished this much attention on the traditional supporting cast since Paul Jenkins's run on Peter Parker: Spider-Man, and that was nearly five years ago. You can say what you like about the drama of the Civil War, or the 'new and exciting' stories that can be told in the Brave New Marvel Universe to come, but Spidey works best in stories like this one.
The presence of all these old faces, gives a pleasing familiarity to the story. It's comfortable reading; but not too comfortable as Peter David injects life into the cast as only he can. We have some genuine insight into Betty's character, Flash acts just as you would imagine he should, and PAD even finds something new to say about the Vulture. All in all, this is top notch entertainment.
This story was written in response to events in other titles. Peter revealing his identity in Civil War #5 is a big deal, and the monthly titles have to reflect that. Where Straczynski's Amazing is telling the parallel story, and Aguirre-Sacasa's Sensational is looking at it from the perspectives of the villains and those closest to Spider-Man, Peter David wisely broadens the perspective.
Using Deb Whitman as a catalyst for bringing Betty back into the limelight is a very welcome move. It's been a while since we've seen Betty. The last time (I think) was when Aunt May organised an 'intervention' by all of Peter's friends to convince him MJ was dead (don't you just love the convoluted history of the Marvel Universe?). If the letters page is to be believed we'll be seeing much more of Betty over the next year. More reasons to keep reading this title.
Of course, this is an example of Peter David's enviable talent for seizing editorial mandates and turning them into readable stories. It's just a shame that he's had to do so much of it in this book. Consider the stories that have been told so far:
Issues #1-4 were the titles' contribution to The Other crossover. Issue #5 was a filler issue while PAD was waiting for Spidey's red and gold suit to be introduced over in Amazing. Issues #6-7 saw PAD "fixing" the whole Jonah-thinks-his-son-is-Spidey subplot created by Mark Millar. Issues #8-10 was the Jumping the Tracks arc which, in hindsight, looks as though it was put there to tread water until the revelation about Peter's identity could be made. The stories Peter David probably wanted to tell didn't start until issue #11.
Poor Peter David. All he wanted to do was tell Spider-Man stories set in the high school, with Peter as a teacher and Flash as a coach. Although I'm sure the alternate Uncle Ben, Ms Arrow and Mysterio were all originally on the cards - look how far the book has had to wander from the original pitch. He's had to employ Shi'ar technology to get Peter back into the High School for crying out loud.
And the problem is that it looks as though editorial mandates are continuing to drive all the Spider-books for the next year. Something happens in Civil War that causes Spidey to return to his black costume for a whole "Back in Black" arc that runs through all of the Spider-titles. After that we are apparently building to a major event later in 2007. All these stories might be very good, but they aren't helping Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man find its feet and let Peter David tell the stories he wants to tell.
Parallels to the mid-1990s are sited all too often at the moment, but having books lurch from one big event to another is the most worrying sign yet. I just hope that after this year, after the Spider-Man story and World War Hulk and Endangered Species over in the X-Titles, Marvel has the sense to stop. Sit back and give the readers and the characters a breather. Let's get back to telling some smaller stories: they're usually far better than the blockbusters.
A very entertaining and funny issue. Friendly is now consistently good, which given the current climate says a great deal about Peter David's skill. And Scott Eaton's pencils are none too shabby either. Four webs.
For the benefit of puzzled non-Americans (such as myself), I should point out the cameo on p11 of the story is a chap called Stephen Colbert. He's the host of a largely unquantifiable US TV satire called The Colbert Report. He interviewed Joe Quesada quite recently, and is apparently a comics fan.