Casual Encounters: Spider-Men #4 Reviewon August 10, 2012 at 7:43 am
You ever run into an old high school or college girlfriend that you broke up with? I have, and man, it sucks. There’s that whole moment of cognitive dissonance where your brain tries to match the person you knew years before with the older face and new haircut you’re seeing right now, and then you plaster on the fake smile and exchange overly loud and jocular greetings and exclamations of surprise at how long it’s been, and then you exchange stories of who you are now and the things you’re doing, and you promise to keep in touch while maybe exchanging email addresses that you know full well will never be typed into any browser, all the while dealing with the guilty knowledge that the reason it’s been so long is because you told her that you needed space… space to try to chuck the meat to that skank from UMass with the big knockers and the full liquor cabinet in her dorm room. And then you wander away feeling like you’ve had low-voltage elecro-convulsive therapy, and you spend the next day or so kinda moody and fucked-up, trying to get yourself back to normal equilibrium where you don’t feel like a long-term asshole. It’s a terrible experience; it’s one of the primary reasons you will catch me dead before you catch me on Facebook.
I know what you’re thinking: “Rob,” you’re thinking, “What in the ripe fuck does any of this have to do with comic books?” Well, all this emotion I’m describing comes from seeing someone you merely hurt by breaking up with them. Peter Parker, however, in The Amazing Spider-Man # 121, at best failed to rescue Gwen Stacy, if he didn’t accidentally kill her himself in a botched rescue attempt. So when Peter meets and interacts with the still-living Ultimate Universe version of Gwen in Spider-Men #4? I simply didn’t buy it. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
There is no action whatsoever in this issue of Spider-Men, with writer Brian Michael Bendis taking almost the full 20 pages to explore the 616 Peter Parker’s interactions with the Ultimate Gwen Stacy and Aunt May. This is an intimate issue, taking place almost exclusively in May’s Queens home, with people basically talking around a table, which a cynical man might say means that Bendis is playing on his most familiar and well-trod turf.
Now, on paper, there is the potential for serious emotional dynamite in about three different directions here. First, you have May, Gwen and Mary Jane able to come face-to-face with Peter, the Ultimate Universe version of whom died with a lot left unsaid. On the other side, you have Peter able to talk to Gwen Stacy, who at best died terrified at the hands of the Green Goblin and at worst died by Peter’s own hand in the normal Marvel Universe. But almost none of it feels like is has the weight that such interactions would if they could actually happen.
Sure, we see May pass out when she sees Peter, and we see her disbelieving that Peter’s actually Peter, but the height of the direct emotional contact between the two is when May says, “We lost you and we didn’t get to say goodbye,” before the conversation turns to the fact that Ultimate Peter was dating Kitty Pryde, and Peter’s reaction to that. And we see Peter dancing around in conversation with Gwen that she is dead in the 616, but then the conversation turns to that fact that Mary Jane is a supermodel in the regular Marvel Universe. The most realistic reaction we see to someone encountering someone who they have accepted as dead is when Mary Jane simply runs when she sees Peter, unwilling to face the situation, which is the reaction I need to fight when I run into old flames, and which is why I wear a hoodie and wraparound shades whenever I’m forced to go to my childhood hometown mall. But this isn’t about me, It’s about Spider-Man.
On one hand, I want to treat these interactions as believable, since as I stated before, I think we can all identify with running into someone who we hurt, and having the conversation dance around that fact and staying rooted in non-emotionally charged ephemera. The difference here is that we are not talking about characters who were hurt by someone else’s wandering penis, we are talking about characters who were fucking dead. And when presented with the chance to have one final conversation with people who are fucking dead, I don’t believe that anyone would use that opportunity to yammer about that time you hung out with Wolverine.
The interactions between Gwen and Peter particularly rang false to me, because there is a backstory there that should be utterly hamstringing Peter; again, there is the very real possibility that, in the 616 Universe, Peter killed Gwen. Gwen’s death is, next to the death of Uncle Ben, Peter’s greatest failure. Throw on top of that that back in the 2004 Sins Past arc of The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter found out that Gwen cheated on him with Norman Osborn – Peter’s greatest fucking enemy – and bore Osborne’s Goddamned twin children, and what you should have is a crippling emotional minefield here.
So imagine all that pain and awkwardness that comes from unexpectedly running into someone who you know betrayed you in the past, in arguably the worst possible way humanly possible. Then throw in that that person very possibly died by your hand, and symbolizes perhaps your greatest failure. Would you really be able to sit around a coffee table and yammer about that time you hung out with the X-Men? Particularly when there’s a 13-year-old boy sitting there, trying to take up the mantle of Spider-Man, and you, Peter Parker, who has been a teacher of children, have the opportunity to impart the hard-earned wisdom that being Spider-Man sometimes has deadly fucking serious consequences?
Sara Pichelli’s art really excels in this issue, despite it being a talking heads episode. What got me, and sold me throughout the issue, are her facial expressions, which needed to be dead on to sell what emotional impact there is here, and she simply nails it. From May’s anger and shock at seeing Peter alive, to Peter’s misery at causing any pain to these versions of people he loves, to (and most exceptionally to) Gwen’s overly sarcastic eye-rolling and reactions to hearing about Mary Jane’s chosen 616 career, Pichelli sells all of it, and does it damn effectively. The one place where I have a problem with Pichelli’s style is in her layouts, which continue to have double-page spreads where they simply are not necessary. There are two of them in this issue, and while they avoid the rotten panel placement that have made reading them so confusing in Pichelli’s early issues of Ultimate Spider-Man, they are not used to show expansive, widescreen action; they are used to show a few people shooting the shit. And while an argument could be made that the two-page expanse forces a slowing of pacing for the reader, I still maintain that all it does is force the reader to violently change gears and re-figure out how to read the comic on the fly, which is more distracting than any pacing intentions are worth. It’s better than it used to be, but I believe it’s really unnecessary.
All in all, Spider-Men #4 feels like a big whiff to me. This issue was an opportunity to explore long-running emotional themes from characters from two different universes, and it feels seriously glossed over. Peter Parker here has to face a woman he let die, and a woman whose husband he allowed to die in two different universes, and Bendis gives us as much, if not more, breezy yammering about inconsequentials as he does emotional impact. It’s not terrible, but it feels like a wasted opportunity. After all, this is a Marvel Comics where they spent four issues a few years ago showing Peter willing to make a deal with the devil to see his Aunt May one more time… and here, faced with a woman his failure killed, he spends a page telling her she grew up cool, and then he goes home…
Which sadly means it’s probably more realistic than I’m giving it credit for. Given his past, I’ll bet Peter Parker’s not on Facebook, either.