Amazing Spider-Man (1963–1998): The Massive Re-Read, Part Ten — The Michelinie/Bagley Era
And this is where I come in.
Amazing Spider-Man #385 wasn’t my first Spider-Man comic, but it was the very first Spider-Man comic that I picked up reasonably around its release date.
I remembered the joke in it about Batman Returns long before I re-read this issue. I remembered that cover clear as day — Spidey posing with The Jury — and wondering who those other guys were.
I remember that this was, give or take, the start of me regularly collecting comics.
Granted, I’d pick up issues sporadically between this and the hey day of the Clone Saga — mostly back issues from around this era (it was around this time that I picked up a copy of Spectacular Spider-Man #189) — but this was the drug that hooked me.
Mark Bagley is not my favourite Spider-Man artist. He’s a solid storyteller, with a deft eye for facial expressions and an understanding of Spidey action. As far as artists go, he’s what I would not derogatorily refer to as firmly reliable.
I always tell people this story about how my first ever comic experience was a European hardcover reprint of some of those classic Lee/Ditko era stuff (with that split-page pin-up of Peter in his room and Spidey swinging into action forever ingrained in my head as my first understanding of what superheroes were). I remember reading it (well, looking at the pictures) in my aunt’s house and I was enthralled.
But in a way, almost more than Ditko, Bagley feels like my real first Spidey artist. It was that cover of issue three-eighty-five. that turned me into the Spidey fan I eventually became. It was that issue that set me on the path that I’ve walked on for more than half of my life. I’m a writer today, indirectly, because of that issue. I create my own comics because of that issue.
Obviously, that issue doesn’t hold up today. If you asked me to objectively list my top five Spider-Man single issues, that one wouldn’t even crack the top twenty.
But, put together, a lot of the Michelinie and Bagley era actually holds up better after all these years than I thought it would, even if it doesn’t compare to other stories from those first thirty-five years of Spider-Man. And obviously, on a personal level, this era will always be special to me.
Bagley’s time on the book didn’t kick off with a particularly strong start though. A ho-hum two-parter, where Spidey teams up with Nova, was followed by the forgettable “Round Robin” six-parter, guest written by Al Milgrom, and a Cardiac story by Michelinie and guest art by Chris Marrinan. (The Fear Itself graphic novel by Gerry Conway, Stan Lee and Ross Andru that was part of the “Round Robin” collection wasn’t that great either, despite some nice storytelling bits by Andru.) And around the same time, there was also the Spider-Man annuals crossing over with the New Warriors, which much like “Round Robin” just felt kinda throwaway.
The first big splash for this era was arguably Carnage’s debut, which showed promise, but lacked the bonkersness that I’ve come to expect from anything with Carnage in it. I mean, my first exposure to the character was in “Maximum Carnage”, so when I think of him, I think big.
And hoo boy, “Maxiumum Carnage”. First off, I don’t remember heavy metal being that vilified by 1993, so Carnage and Shriek espousing the chaotic philosophy of the genre feels a little… laughable.
But not in a bad way. Whatever lofty goals the writers had for this story — to contrast Spidey’s purity with the horrors of Carnage and his family, to shine a light on why a straight-up hero like Spider-Man was still relevant in a time of increasingly grim superhero stories — you get the sense that those goals were sorta muddled by a lack of one coherent creative voice. (JM DeMatteis shines here though, not with his best issues, but certainly with the best issues of this crossover.) And I know that all of this sounds damning, but “Maximum Carnage” is still very fun to read. Yes, at times, it sounds like a teenager trying to sound philosophical. Unlike that teenager though, this story still has its charm. It’s big and it’s loud, it’s a mess — everything that usually attracts people to superhero comics in the first place.
(I also re-read Venom: Lethal Protector just to add some context to Peter’s truce with Venom and, later, the appearance of The Jury in Amazing. Beyond its connection to those issues though, this mini-series felt kind of an inconsequential.)
But my favourite story of this era has been the return of Peter’s parents. I think credit for this belongs as much to JM DeMatteis as it does to Michelinie, since by the time the big reveal came about that Harry was the actual mastermind behind the plot, DeMatteis had taken over as Amazing’s regular writer. The dramatic effect of retroactively revealing that it was a plan of Harry’s from beyond the grave certainly added a lot to it, making it a one-two personal punch for Peter.
Issue three-sixty-five and the Red Skull story that started it all were all right, but Peter eventually learning to trust his parents during the “Invasion of the Spider Slayers” story was quite sweet (though more bittersweet in retrospect). With that at the core of this blockbuster story, I gotta say that I was surprised that I actually really enjoyed “Invasion of the Spider Slayers” this time round. The Slayers and the Smythe clan have been my least favourite Spidey villains, but I think it helps that Alistair Smythe and his robots were nothing more than window dressing for the heart of the story. (Shame the trade that collected this story didn’t also collect the back-ups. The one about Aunt May’s past by DeMatteis and Aaron Lopresti was beautiful, and the one by Milgrom and Lopresti about Mary Jane’s doubts was heartbreaking.)
I think the post-”Maximum Carnage” issues (including that fateful issue three-sixty-five) all the way till “Lifetheft” and “Pursuit” were my favourite parts of this story though (and possibly this whole era), with the mystery ramping up to that gut-punch of a conclusion.
Like the Spider Slayers story, the main stories of those issues that lead up to that conclusion weren’t particularly interesting, but the bits that teased the mystery made them really enjoyable. Michelinie got some nice character moments in there too, particularly with May’s worry and need to protect Peter from the truth, and Mary Jane’s struggle to deal with Peter’s double-life in the form of her smoking (and, yes, the resolution for this was heavy-handed, but these were technically kids comics in the nineties, so heavy-handed probably seemed like the best approach). And I think it’s during this period that Bagley really began to come into his own as an artist too, finally showing the kinda fluidity in his action that would be one of his greatest strengths.
The cliffhanger in the second part of “Lifetheft” where we discover Richard and Mary’s true intentions (if not their true selves) is genuinely chilling, which only made the third part that much more heartbreaking, when Mary’s emotions override her programming, and she decides to help Peter. And while the build-up during Pursuit felt a little weak, the reveal of Harry’s involvement at the end was well worth it.
“Shrieking”, however, took the darkness too far for me. And I’m someone who likes his dark Spider-Man stories, mind you.
It was a good story — not DeMatteis’ best by a long shot, though certainly pushing Bagley forward as a storyteller — but, more than even something like “Maximum Carnage”, it felt like darkness for darkness’ sake. And don’t get me wrong. I get it. Between Harry’s death and the revelation of his parents, Peter had just about had it and a breakdown makes complete sense.
But it felt like this story was designed to tear him down to his lowest — and went a notch lower than that. It felt less like killing your darlings, and more like torturing them. It felt cruel. Peter didn’t feel like he had hit rock bottom. He felt like he was a husk of who he was. Ironically enough, it was DeMatteis who had shown before that the man was stronger than the spider, yet here, it felt like the spider was just there to prop up the man.
Nevertheless, I really hope that Marvel eventually collects this entire story, from the end of “Maximum Carnage” right up to the end of “Shrieking”. My issues with some of it aside, overall, it was a damn interesting arc. (I also hope this hypothetical collection includes the related What If issue about Peter’s parents that, sadly, I didn’t have on hand for this re-read, but remember thoroughly enjoying.)
So, here we are. On the cusp of the end of my re-read, at the point where I find myself more emotionally invested on a personal level than just an enjoyment and appreciation of solid stories. I started this post out waxing nostalgic for my childhood, talking almost wistfully about reading Spidey comics more than just occasionally. But I’m honestly surprised to see that, after all these years, this era still mostly holds a sturdy spot in my heart, and not entirely because of that nostalgia.
(Shout-out, by the way, to the Popular Bookstore at the old Oriental Mall that eventually became Heartland Mall at Kovan. Its magazine section was where I started buying comics somewhat regularly.)
(Originally published on 18 May 2018.)