Peter Parker's personal life has taken a series of bizarre turns of late. His ex-wife (sorry, ex-live-in-lover-and-long-term-partner-but-not-wife-no-siree) Mary Jane Watson has returned to New York, at the same time Peter has fallen into an accidental relationship with his room-mate Michelle Gonzales. A relationship that he is hastily trying to extricate himself from. With MJ on one side, Michelle on the other and Frontline reporter Norah Winters seemingly everywhere else, things can't get worse for our hero can they? Oh, and the wife of Kraven the Hunter seems to be collecting all of Spidey's old villains. That can't be good, either.
Our tale opens with a prologue. Madame Web is still the prisoner of Ana Kravinov and her mother - she was captured in Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #600 (Story 11) for those of you that missed the memo. The mother wants to question Madame Web again, to make use of her prognosticating powers for her own ends. Ana places a live spider into Madame Web's mouth that crawls down her throat. The creature apparently has powers to induce the seer to tell the truth. Where is "The Spider" now?
In New York, Peter is not having a good day. After their argument, Michelle is calmly feeding Peter's belongings (including his microscope) into the garbage disposal. Part of Peter likes Michelle, but he knows that the 'relationship' they have can't possibly continue. He determines to let her down gently and with tact, you can imagine Peter's track record with tact and decorum is hardly 100%, and it doesn't look as though he is about to break his losing streak.
Fortunately the scene is interrupted by the arrival of Norah Winters, who greets Peter with her typical inappropriate exuberance. She has reconsidered filing the story against Norman Osborn (from Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #599) and wants Peter's help. Norah's intimacy gets Michelle riled.
The two descend in to a verbal slapfest where the insults and the innuendos fly thick and fast. This argument is in turn interrupted by a knock at the door. An increasingly stressed Peter lashes out and tells the new comer to "Go away!" Of course, this new-comer happens to be Mary Jane Watson, who is both looking fabulous and carrying an ice-breaking breakfast pastry. She's not happy, either.
Long story short: everyone is upset and offended at Peter, there is much slamming of doors and our hero is left all alone with nothing to show for his morning's work except a smouldering microscope. By the evening, Peter (as Spider-Man) is unburdening his woes on a hapless mugger trailing behind the webbed-wonder as he swings from building to building. Fortunately, the mugger is too petrified to listen to what Spidey is saying. Then everything goes wrong. Again.
Spidey's webbing pulls a flagpole from a building, then part of a gargoyle, then both webshooters break down, leaving Spider-Man and his companion with no choice but to plummet earthward. The mugger lands in a handy swimming pool. Spidey crashes into the ground, right next to a rather provocatively dressed young lady reclining on a sun lounger: Felicia Hardy, the Black Cat. And she's got her bad luck powers back.
As Spidey struggles to regain his composure (and climb out of the pool he keeps falling into) the pair speak of their past. Spidey's a free agent for the first time in a long while, and the Black Cat has just ended her relationship with Thomas Fireheart. There's obviously still a spark between them; something Felicia takes easy advantage of to dumbfound Spidey and draw his attention away from what is really going on. What's really going on? Felicia is the process of burgling an apartment.
Even so, no amount of ample bosom or innuendo-laden double-talk distracts Spidey from that sort of thing for long. Spider-Man is confused. Hasn't Felicia gone straight? She's a detective now isn't she? But truth be told he hasn't been keeping tabs on Felicia's life for a while. Anything could have happened to her in that time.
After avoiding the high-tech laser security system, the Black Cat goes to work opening the wall safe, while Spidey attempts to come to terms with what is happening, and that he'll have to bring the Black Cat to justice. Then he realises that the safe is concealed behind a picture, and the picture is of Dexter Bennett. This is Bennett's apartment? What is the Cat doing here? And why is there an eviscerated dead man in Dexter Bennett's safe?
The Cat has no idea. Murder isn't her style and the presence of the corpse genuinely shocks her - not enough to stop her taking the documents she came for, but it shocks her none the less. What is more puzzling to Spidey is that the guts of this corpse have been transmuted to granite. He touches the corpse and then all hell breaks loose.
Small spherical "gut-balls" shoot from the corpse and ricochet around the room. Spidey manages to avoid them, but wherever the balls strike the walls massive Spider-slaying spikes appear. Spidey grabs the Cat and bundles her to the exit, just in time to bump into the villain of the piece: Diablo. The badly-dressed bad guy gestures and in the ensuing explosion blows Spidey out of the building. The Cat is on him moments later to extinguish the flames. Then with a quick goodbye she vaults from the building.
Spider-Man isn't having that. He abandons Diablo and vaults after her. The cat manages to make a quick phone call to her employer before Spider-Man catches up. She tells her boss that Bennett was a "target not a player" and that she doesn't know what she has stumbled into.
Spidey arrives on the scene. He's incandescent with rage: not only that Felicia seems to have returned to a life of crime, but also that she's laying the failure of their relationship on him. He reminds her that she abandoned him, because she didn't like what she saw under the mask. Then Felicia wrong foots him again. Like the rest of the world she's forgotten who is under that mask, but seeing him again has brought all the old feelings rushing back. She pulls his mask back.
Peter knows what's coming next, and he knows that the wisest thing to do is to get out of there as quickly as possible. Sure it's a bad idea, but it's the Black Cat. Spidey might be a good guy, but he's still human. Unfortunately, their embrace is filmed by a local TV network and beamed all over the city. Everyone gets to see it on a nice big screen - even Mary Jane who is heading home with her groceries.
I'm torn by this issue. On the one hand it's the Black Cat at her sexy and manipulative best. On the other hand, it's the Black Cat at her sexy and manipulative best. Joe Kelly writes an excellent Felicia, capturing just the right balance between conniving seductress and confident heroine. She uses her sexuality to remain completely in control, ladling just the right amount of guilt onto Spidey to keep him wrong-footed and unsure of himself. Add to this the art of Mike McKone, and you have a strong argument for a five-web book.
Taken on face value, by a reader who's never encountered the Black Cat before, this reads like a great comic. But if you know anything at all about the history of Peter and Felicia you can't help but feel kicked in the gut, and then robbed, and then kicked again while you watch someone burn your house down.
Felicia Hardy is (or was) a character that did something that's usually completely alien to comics: she developed. She started off as a whack-job cat burglar and slowly turned to the light. She became a hero with Spider-Man's help, and she got her life together. She grew up and she moved on. She was more interesting because of where she'd come from. But that isn't good enough for the new ASM; Joe Kelly had to go and hit the reset button and return us to the 1980s. We even have her bad luck powers back for crying out loud.
I find this disappointing, annoying and really, really frustrating. They bring back the Black Cat for this? Now, I know I shouldn't let this get to me. I should be rational and think to myself that this is just part one of an ongoing story, and that it will probably be revealed that Felicia hasn't returned to her villainous ways. But it's the principle of the thing more than anything else. Coming on the back of the whole Brand New Day fiasco, the resurrection of Harry Osborn and numerous other sweeping changes, I was hoping that the Black Cat might escape the fallout.
The fact that Felicia knows that Peter is Spider-Man is an essential part of her character. Ever since she found out, that knowledge has informed so many of her choices. She started dating Flash Thompson out of spite, and then swallowed her pride to become of Peter's closest friends and advocates. That can't be the case anymore, and it cheapens the character.
There's not much to the rest of the issue. The art is uniformly excellent. Whether you like the rest depends on whether you find Joe Kelly funny or not. On the whole I do, although he can be a bit too puerile for my taste at times. The opening scenes in Pete's apartment did make me laugh. The comedy, the farce and the expression Peter's face when he sees MJ walk through the door were all priceless. I can't really figure out Norah Winters. Is she hitting on Peter all the time, or is she just winding him up. Isn't she supposed to be going on with Randy Robertson?
A well-written and funny comic, or an utter travesty that destroys the Black Cat's character? Part of me wants to give it five webs, part of me wants to give it one web. I'm going to bottle out and go for the average. Three webs.
Fans of Felicia Hardy, who are wondering why she should return to a life of crime, what happened to Fireheart and why she might have got her bad luck powers back, should refer to the recent Marvel Divas limited series. It's written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who wrote the stories in Sensational Spider-Man (Vol. 2) where Fireheart and Felicia got together. It's also a darn good read.
In brief (and those of you who want to read Marvel Divas should look away now) the limited series revealed that Felicia was trying to open her own detective agency, but couldn't raise the cash. Fireheart offered to fund her, but Felicia's pride got in the way. This eventually led to the end of their relationship.
Felicia eventually borrowed the money from Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of Crime. The Kingpin was the one responsible for the Cat getting her bad-luck powers in the first place, which is ominous to say the least.
So perhaps there is a good and rational explanation for the Black Cat's activities here. Maybe we should be giving this story the benefit of the doubt? I'll let you decide that.