Best Shots Megareview: SPIDER-MAN: BRAND NEW DAY 101 Issues!
Op/Ed: Brand New Day - 7 Months Later, I
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.