Best Shots Megareview: SPIDER-MAN: BRAND NEW DAY 101 Issues!

Op/Ed: Brand New Day - 7 Months Later, I

 

 

Amazing Spider-Man #546-647

Written by Dan Slott, Marc Guggenheim, Zeb Wells, Bob Gale, Joe Kelly, Mark Waid, Fred Van Lente, Greg Weisman, J.M. DeMatteis, Joe Quesada and Stan Lee

Art by Phil Jimenez, Barry Kitson, Mike McKone, Steve McNiven, Salvador LaRocca, Chris Bachalo, Marcos Martin, Lee Weeks, Max Fiumara, Eric Canete, John Romita, Jr., Robert Atkins, Marco Checchetto, Luke Ross, Paolo Rivera, Paul Azaceta, Javier Pulido, Michael Lark, Joe Quinones, Michael Gaydos, Stefano Gaudiano, and Matt Southworth

Published by Marvel Comics

Review by George Marston

OK, world, confession time. Time to bare my dark secret; the one I've been hiding from everyone. God, my mom, even my wife...

I admit it. I am Spider-Man.

Ok, maybe not really, but like many comic readers when they reach a certain age and sensibility, I see more of myself in Peter Parker than any other character or creation, and I don't just mean in comics. It's always been that way, too. Maybe it's that Peter's struggles are so basic, so human, that it's easy to relate when he gets fired from his job, messes up his chances with a girl, or just plain loses a friend, despite the fact that Peter's anything but a regular guy. Somewhere along the way, the storytellers of Spider-Man lost sight of that, bringing the character farther and farther away from his roots, and losing much of that relatability in the process.

It's hard to judge exactly where that happened. To me the problem was much deeper, much more intrinsic than swapping the perils of being single for the ups and downs of married life -- it was the reliance on elements that have never been much a part of Peter's life, or Spider-Man's adventures, such as magic and the occult, versus the science-based powers and villains that were long the hallmark of the various Spider-books. It's deeply ironic, then, that it should be one final mystical shrug that brought Spider-Man back to the core of his mythos. But in my mind, despite the controversy of One More Day, what's done is done -- to me, the nature of the act that brought about Brand New Day is far less important to the last two years of Amazing Spider-Man than what the stories told since the change have accomplished.

Op/Ed: Brand New Day, 7 Months Later, II
Op/Ed: Brand New Day, 7 Months Later, II
 

Getting back to basics was key to the effectiveness of Brand New Day, and going in, I was very wary as to whether the new creators would stray far enough from many of the changes and themes implemented by J. Michael Straczynski, a man many consider a visionary, and who certainly held popularity among a segment of Spidey's fanbase. To my pleasant surprise, I found that I was once again reading the adventures of the Spider-Man, to use a cliché, that I grew up with, the one I identified with so fully, and who never failed to teach me why, with great power, there must also come great responsibility.

In many respects, it's difficult to look at Brand New Day as a whole, even for this megareview experience. It wasn't really a story, as much as it was an ideology for the character of Spider-Man. It provided a direction for the series, and a roadmap for the repurposing of Peter Parker's life, friends, and even his enemies. With that in mind, the era began by boiling Peter back down to his essence, and throwing some new threats at his alter-ego, that, despite their callbacks to elements of Spidey's long history, didn't require an extensive knowledge of continuity to understand. They used this platform, with the premise of low-continuity stories to give readers, both old and new, an unwitting crash course in the world of Spider-Man.

Right from the start, with Dan Slott and Phil Jiminez's “Swing Shift,” it became pretty apparent that things were back to basics for the old Webhead. Spidey was pitted against Overdrive, a small time crook who uses robotic nanites to alter any machine he touches to suit his needs. Right away we're back to stories featuring quirky, distinctive villains with science-based (albeit comic book science) powers. Stopping to take down Overdrive makes Peter late to his Aunt May's birthday party, and puts a school bus full of kids in danger. Of course, everything works out relatively well in the end, but it's immediately clear that this is the Spider-Man we've known and loved for years.

Dan Slott was quickly joined by the rest of the “Spidey Brain-Trust,” Zeb Wells, Marc Guggenheim, and Bob Gale. The four each took turns telling simple but fun stories involving new enemies such as The Bookie, Screwball, Freak, and Paper Doll. While all of this was going on, the writers were laying the seeds for the long running plots and subplots that grew into the meat of the title.

 

The main storylines of the first year were Marc Guggenheim's ongoing mystery surrounding the identity of Menace, which tied into the New York City mayoral race taking place in the book, and Dan Slott's story involving Mr. Negative, which involved Aunt May's employer, the Maggia crime syndicate, and eventually, Norman Osborn and his Thunderbolts. I really enjoyed this arc -- Guggenheim's Menace plotline harkened back to the old Spider-Man trope of the “mystery villain,” a gimmick that was used for both the Green Goblin and Hobgoblin, the main predecessors of Menace as wielders of the Goblin gear.

Guggenheim did a fine job of capturing the essence of the classic stories, while giving Menace a quirky enough personality to set her apart from the previous Goblin villains. In retrospect, the bait-and-switch with Harry Osborn seems a little obvious, but when I first read the issues, the mystery felt well-developed. In retrospect, my distaste with the implication that Harry might have been Menace mostly stems from the strange -- and, admittedly somewhat underwhelming -- revelation of Menace's true identity. The parts that were probably meant to seem the most shocking about it didn't make as much of a splash as they would have had they not been done so many times in recent memory. Fortunately, the final story of Brand New Day, “Origin of the Species,” harkened back to Guggenheim’s story, really giving it some more weight in the long term. And even in the short-term, the results of Menace's election tampering certainly took the book in a new direction, making J. Jonah Jameson the mayor of New York, and Peter his staff photographer.

As much as I liked Menace while she was around, my enjoyment of the story was dampened by the involvement of Jackpot, another bait-and-switch secret identity character who never really developed for me. To me, there wasn't a good reveal in store for Jackpot; had she actually turned out to be Mary Jane, that would've made Brand New Day feel far more schlocky. However, the fact that she ended up being a no-name character designed solely to make the reader think that Peter's ex-girlfriend was now fighting crime made her feel more like Mary Sue than Mary Jane. So much was done in the first year to specifically distance MJ and Peter that it felt immediately regressive to imply that MJ was now secretly fighting crime alongside her ex-husband/boyfriend/whatever. 

 

In another move that echoed some key tropes from Spider-Man's early days, Dan Slott's story involving the conflict between the Maggia and the new crime boss Mr. Negative called back to the conflicts between Spider-Man's superpowered enemies and the more mundane crime bosses of the city, as well as to his conflicts with Silvermane involving the Tablet of Life. The arc, while more straightforward than the Menace story, had a much more satisfying conclusion. This story felt much more fully realized to me, without the caveats of the Menace saga. The initial story that introduced Mr. Negative was one of the first, and strongest told in the first year of Brand New Day; Spider-Man's willingness to trade his own safety for that of the lives and children of his enemies and Mr. Negative's chilling demeanor, made a powerful impact and set the stage for more stories to come, both from Dan Slott, and others such as Joe Kelly, who joined the “Brain Trust” later in the run. Mr. Negative's alter ego, the benevolent Martin Li, was also the man who healed Eddie Brock's cancer, turning him into the symbiote-destroying Anti-Venom, leading directly into Slott's major opus, “New Ways to Die.”

“New Ways to Die” was the first arc of Brand New Day to tie Amazing Spider-Man back into the Marvel Universe at large. Other characters, such as Wolverine, had appeared in earlier stories, but this was the first to take place with a backdrop that tied it into other titles, such as Thunderbolts. I loved “New Ways to Die.” When Norman Osborn and Mac Gargan/Venom joined the team, I knew it was only a matter of time before they intersected with Spider-Man, and it happened in a big way. Slott managed to get Mac Gargan back in his Scorpion get-up, a move which I fully support, and even managed to make Eddie Brock interesting again. That is no mean feat for this longtime Venom hater. That it marked John Romita Jr.'s return to Spider-Man was only icing on the cake, and Romita turned in his best work as a part of Brand New Day on this arc.

While he was steering a significant part of the overarching story, Slott also oversaw several major subplots, such as J. Jonah Jameson's heart attack (Steve McNiven's depiction of Peter giving Jonah mouth to mouth was priceless), and Dexter Bennett's transformation of the Daily Bugle into the DB!, a newspaper which was barely more than a tabloid. With the help of the stellar Marcos Martin, a rare artist who manages to feel classic and contemporary all at once, Slott also put poor Peter through the ringer as a paparazzo, forced to spy on and harass celebrities to earn his wages.

The other major subplot of the first year was the mystery of the Spider-Tracer killings, where people were found murdered around the city with Spider-Tracers planted on their bodies. This was a long-running subplot, and was a perfect example of one of the major strengths of the “Brain Trust;” the remarkable cohesion between the different writer's arcs. While not everyone was given as much rein as Slott and Guggenheim, even Bob Gale and Zeb Wells were able to write Peter with a certain charm that carried through all four main writer's stories. The Spider-Tracer mystery was a great subplot, and the ending was enough of a surprise that it actually had some impact on me. Once the ending was revealed, it was easy to see the points that lead to that conclusion, and it felt really natural.

 

While Bob Gale and Zeb Wells didn't get to handle as many of the big stories as Dan Slott and Marc Guggenheim, both managed to make their stories count in some way. To me, Gale felt the least at home on the title; he captured Peter's voice just fine, but too often his writing felt a little dated, or maybe too expected. His story involving the Freak, a street-dwelling drug addict who became an invincible monster was predicated on some good ideas, but it felt a little tedious in execution, and the slang and drug references felt very forced. His story involving the Bookie was pretty fun, however, and the fact the Mike McKone drew it certainly helped. But to me, Gale just never seemed to find his niche, and he subsequently wrote the fewest issues of the “Spidey Trust.”

Wells, on the other hand, was kind of a surprise. He wrote several stories in both the first and second year that really hit the mark. His tale of a Mayan death god and an impenetrable winter was one of the few supernatural Spider-Man stories that actually worked, and his take on the Lizard during “The Gauntlet” was both vicious and tragic, and brought the once great villain back to bear. Both stories paired him with Chris Bachalo, an artist who also worked with Joe Kelly on this title, and whose moody and garish pencils really suited the stories. With both tales, Wells managed to cultivate a slow burn of growing intensity that took time to give weight to their subjects while never losing its pace.

Midway through the first year, as Wells and Gale each wrapped up their brief runs, the “Spidey Brain Trust” found its first new recruits in Joe Kelly and Mark Waid, both of whom quickly became important contributors to the title. This made room for Gale and Wells to make their exit (a temporary one in Wells' case), and began to take the book back towards the classic Spider-Man villains.

Kelly picked up threads started by both Dan Slott and Marc Guggenheim, as he continued to build up Hammerhead, who had been recently given an upgrade and a new attitude by Slott, as well as later telling several key stories in the second year's overarching story “The Gauntlet.” Kelly’s sense of humor and use of Spider-Man's well-known banter were almost unmatched by anyone else on the team. Waid teamed with Marcos Martin to tell a quick Shocker story that introduced J. Jonah Jameson, Sr., who quickly became a key supporting player, and even married Peter's Aunt May. It was this kind of immediate impact on the direction of the title that made Waid stand out.

 

With the addition of Waid and Kelly, the “Spidey-Trust” began to change direction through “The Gauntlet,” a plot device aimed at reintroducing and repurposing the main villains of Spider-Man's rogues gallery. Whereas the first year of Brand New Day was primarily about introducing new threats and getting Peter's life back on track, the second year was about bringing back his old foes and establishing new methods of upsetting the status quo. Beginning in issue #600, with the return of Spidey's arch-nemesis Dr. Octopus, “The Gauntlet” involved the Kraven family recruiting Spider-Man's old villains and manipulating his life to get revenge for the death of Kraven, for which they blame Spider-Man.

While several old foes, such as Hammerhead and the aforementioned Kraven family, had undergone revision prior to “The Gauntlet,” the real push to redefine the villains began at #600. The Chameleon, the Rhino, Electro, Sandman, Mysterio, the Lizard, and the Vulture all received the treatment, and while some, such as the Vulture, didn't quite click, most of the villains really came back, if you'll pardon the pun, with a vengeance. Mark Waid's take on Electro as a sort of everyman anti-hero was great fun, and Paul Azaceta, new to Spider-Man with this arc, really hit the mark with his art. Azaceta's grasp of the architecture and personality of New York as visual element, and in some ways a supporting character of the series was a terrific callback to the early days of Marvel, and John Romita, Sr.'s definitive Spider-Man work.

Fred Van Lente and Javier Pulido, meanwhile, turned in a really fun Sandman story, finally bringing the character back to his villainous ways, and adding some real pathos to the mix. Joe Kelly turned in a haunting and tragic take on the Rhino, redeeming the old villain, and damning him once again in conflict with his would-be successor. It was a remarkable turn for Kelly, whose trademark sense of humor was largely absent, and Fiumara's expressive artwork conveyed a weighted pain in every scene, echoing the heavy footfalls of the Rhino himself. Dan Slott handled Mysterio's return, establishing his role as a “disappearing act for hire,” and calling back to his earlier work with Silvermane and the Maggia. Marcos Martin provided the art for the Mysterio arc, and he was honestly probably my favorite artist through all of Brand New Day, with simple, crisp lines, and an almost animated quality to his characters.

One of the best parts of the second year was the focus on introducing new artistic talent, and cultivating talent that may have been previously underused. While some superstar artists such as Barry Kitson, Lee Weeks, and Mike McKone, whose almost minimalist take on Spider-Man's look was a breath of fresh air, and a stark contrast to the detailed and vibrant world he inhabited, continued to work on some arcs, artists such as Max Fiumara, Marcos Martin, Javier Pulido, and Paul Azaceta brought an up-to-date feel to the title that made it one of the books to compete with artistically.

OLIVIER COIPEL SPIDEY, X-MEN Variants
OLIVIER COIPEL SPIDEY, X-MEN Variants
 

Despite a strong build-up, however, I felt “The Gauntlet” ended with a whimper rather than a bang with the story “Grim Hunt,” an arc that involved the Kraven family resurrecting their fallen patriarch, while simultaneously picking off members of Spider-Man's extended heroic family. It was a great concept, with suitably moody art by Michael Lark, and Joe Kelly's take on Kraven the Hunter, upset at his own resurrection years after his suicide was fresh and sort of darkly comedic. Unfortunately, the arc fell short in the end, as the final issue was almost schizophrenic in its pacing. Kraven quickly embraced his resurrection, culminating in sort of a non-twist, with the remaining scraps of the Kraven family retreating into the Savage Land, and Spider-Man almost abruptly becoming a dark and tortured hero of violence. There was no real build-up for Spider-Man's rage, and Kraven's quick turn from being almost depressed to be alive to complete acceptance felt entirely inauthentic.

Immediately following “Grim Hunt” came “One Moment In Time,” a story that aimed to finally address the changes made by “One More Day,” and dealt primarily with the now-defunct marriage of Peter and Mary Jane. The changes it imposed were presented in a fun way, with pages from the original wedding issue interspersed with new material by the super-talented Paolo Rivera, and never once was Mephisto even mentioned. But it kind of felt too little, too late by the time it came around. I think so many people were expecting that this topic would be addressed in the same way that it was created that “OMIT” felt almost mundane, to the point where it almost dismissed the plot device that predicated it too much. It felt like revising the revisions, when perhaps a story with this type of outlook should have just been told at the outset.

 

After yawning its way through all the questions still left to a taxed fanbase, Brand New Day ended on a high note with Mark Waid and Paul Azaceta's “Origin of the Species,” a story in which Dr. Octopus, hoping to save his ravaged body, called together all of the villains that had appeared over the previous two years of stories to capture the baby of Norman Osborn and Lily Hollister, AKA Menace. Presuming that the baby would hold in its DNA some kind of elevated Goblin serum capable of repairing his decaying form, he issued a bounty to whoever brought the child to him. What transpired was probably one of my favorite stories of the entire run. Waid's encyclopedic knowledge of Spider-Man's enemies, and Azaceta's grasp of New York City took the man-on-the-run story to another level.

Honestly, this is the story that should've ended “The Gauntlet,” as it involved all of the assembled villains, who barely registered during “Grim Hunt,” and connected the first year's long running Menace arc to the second year of the run. The catharsis it gave Peter, as he ran through the city rounding up every last villain with extreme prejudice, and the relief he felt as he realized that, for once, he'd actually won, were palpable, and hit exactly the right note on which to wrap things up. With last week's issue #647 giving creators who had worked on the series a chance to tell their final stories, tie up loose ends, and provide a little meat for the coming “Big Time” story, Brand New Day finally, officially ended.

All in all, Dan Slott's work on the title was definitely the most consistent; he was the author who most often struck the proper balance of that old-school Spidey style combined with contemporary storytelling mechanics. Given that Mark Waid and Marc Guggenheim, the other writers whose work most often hit home, each have commitments to other publishing houses, it's no wonder he was given the sole reins of the title moving forward. I wish that artists such as Mike McKone and Paul Azaceta were slated to be involved in “Big Time,” but the talent lined up, Humberto Ramos, Marcos Martin, and Stefano Caselli, still offers a lot of promise.

In the end, Brand New Day wasn't perfect; it had the same ups and downs of any 100+ issues of almost any given comic. Some stories didn't work, but really, several of the tales presented can be counted among the best of the last 20 years. Though I assumed, going in, that the distaste that many had for “One More Day,” and the comics that preceded it would make it difficult to enjoy Brand New Day, the arc truly lived up to its name, bringing Spider-Man into the 21st century in a way that felt right, stayed exciting, and brought the character back to his roots, a place he hadn't been in some time. While it's doubtful that the entirety of the last two years will be looked upon in future as the pinnacle of Spider-Man's adventures, many of the stories told during Brand New Day will stand the test of time, and the run, as a whole, will almost certainly be looked on as the catalyst for stories that may reach that lofty goal. With that in mind, I'd call Brand New Day a true success.

What did you think of the Brand New Day era of Amazing Spider-Man?

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