Spider-Man: Life Story #1
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Mark Bagley, John Dell and Frank D’Armata
Lettering by Travis Lanham
Published by Marvel Comics
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
What is it they say about “hate the sin, love the sinner”?
It’s a sentiment that feels apropos to the Vietnam War, where soldiers were often caught between a rock and a hard place, either being shunned after accepting the draft or being fugitives for fleeing their mandated military service. But it’s also something that springs to mind for Spider-Man: Life Story #1, a well-crafted story by writer Chip Zdarsky and seminal Spidey artist Mark Bagley that nevertheless seems to lean more towards an uncanny cover of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, and John Romita, Sr.’s classic work rather than using that volatile time period to make any sort of bigger, bolder statement.
In a certain respect, Zdarsky and Bagley’s opening salvo feels like a time capsule in more ways than one, as Peter Parker juggles his life as Spider-Man and a college student, all while battling the Green Goblin and weighing his moral imperative as a superhero in the age of Vietnam. There’s a thoughtfulness to Zdarsky’s characterization that I think really works for this book, and yet also feels distinct from his previous work on the character in Spectacular Spider-Man — Peter is a character who is obsessed with doing the right thing, but with Vietnam snapping up half the people his age, the right choice isn’t as clear-cut as spandex-clad vigilantes might hope they’d be. In particular, some of the most unpredictable — and therefore exciting — bits of the story wind up being Peter Parker’s stance on Flash Thompson going to war, which really brings the conflicted spirit of the era together nicely with Spidey’s ongoing tug-of-war between responsibility and his own personal biases.
It’s smart and thoughtful writing, but it almost feels reductive when Zdarsky and Bagley wind up circling back to soap operatic staples like the threat of Norman Osborn and the romantic tension with Gwen Stacy — it feels like there’s bigger things out there, but this creative team never really gets there. Despite the cover of Spider-Man swinging along a military helicopter, our look at Vietnam is (at least for now) minimal at best, with some other Marvel diehards winding up getting a much more striking shakeup in a fraction of the page count. Some of that, of course, is just the bugs that come from this particular high concept — by aging Peter Parker in real time a la Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen’s Superman: Secret Identity, the effects on our main character are going to be cumulative with each new issue, so it makes sense that this debut might feel even overly familiar to what has come before. But at the same time, one can’t help but wonder what kind of momentum might have been built up if we saw the idea of power and responsibility being played out immediately across a theater of war. Spider-’Nam indeed.
But given his long history with the Web-Slinger, Mark Bagley’s work on this book is unimpeachable, as he effectively channels the classic work of Steve Ditko and John Romita, Sr. while never sacrificing his own expressive style. Given this book’s expanded page count, you’d be forgiven knowing that there’s only a small handful of action moments featuring Spider-Man himself in this book — but the way that Bagley wrings so much drama out of Peter’s personal struggles is exactly the sort of formula that Stan and the Marvel Bullpen perfected in those Swinging Sixties. Colorist Frank D’Armata deserves a ton of credit for conjuring up the mood in this series as well — even without the occasional dates inserted into the story to keep us up to speed, you immediately get the sense of days gone by, that classic energetic style slowly starting to fade with the increasing loss of innocence across the era.
Which is what makes the book’s final two pages — which I’m not going to spoil here — feel all that much more jarring. For now, Spider-Man: Life Story feels a lot like the story we’ve already read and known and loved before — if anything, it’s two other Marvel icons who wind up getting a much more exciting shakeup. That said, some books pay off their slow burn in time, a sort of calculated risk to get readers invested in the characters before the high concept — and there’s no denying that Zdarsky and Bagley know how to get readers invested in the Webhead’s adventures. Here’s hoping that this book continues to distinguish itself further with time.