As part of Chasing Amazing’s X-Men/Avengers 50th anniversary celebration in September, the site is reposting older posts that relate to these great franchises. This post is originally from July 21, 2011.
In the perpetual battle of superheroes versus supervillains, priority number one for the creative team is to build drama. The reader has to become engaged in a number of dramatic concepts: How determined is the hero? How determined is the villain? How dire are the consequences if the hero loses? How insurmountable are the hero’s odds?
Last week, I grumbled a bit when I was analyzing the outcome of Amazing Spider-Man #662, because I felt like the creative team didn’t do a good enough job building the drama in the story. Sure, there were consequences – if Spider-Man failed in his battle against Psycho Man, the young Avengers Academy kids could have hurt themselves or an innocent bystander, which would have ultimately scarred Spidey psychologically. But for whatever reason, I just wasn’t sold. And there have been plenty of other instances where the creative team did a much better job building the drama to a fever pitch. Today, I want to look at one of the most famous Spider-Man confrontations, his two-issue arc against classic X-Men villain Juggernaut in ASM #229-230, written by Roger Stern and illustrated by John Romita Jr.
The panel I picked here, from ASM #230, is the culmination of nearly two full comic books worth of frustration and failure for Spider-Man. It really sums up both the high stakes game he’s been playing against the Juggernaut during the arc, and Spider-Man’s relentless perseverance and ability to snatch victory from the jaws from defeat. Here, Spider-Man is putting his body through incredible pain and exertion, and still needs to use his intellect to outsmart his dimmer opponent. But the payoff isn’t as sweet without the build to this point, which Stern and JRJR do masterfully.
From a storytelling perspective, ASM #229-230 demonstrates exactly how to pull off a comic book crossover. Juggernaut is a villain who’s almost exclusively associated with the X-Men. While he’s never really succeeded in his battles against them, he’s still a threat in the ASM universe because Spider-Man has to figure out a way to beat him by himself, without the aid of other mutant-powered partners.
Juggernaut’s primary super power is also an excellent contrast for Spidey. The Juggernaut is driven by nearly endless momentum, so when he says “nothing can stop the Juggernaut,” that’s not just a platitude. Nothing can stop him, because by definition, his momentum continues to drive him, regardless of what gets in his way.
Meanwhile, Spider-Man has superhuman speed, strength and reflexes, but what’s continually made him a transcendent character is his “must succeed at all costs” attitude. This character trait is born from the earliest appearances of Spider-Man, when he dedicates his life to righting the wrong he caused when he ignored his Uncle’s sage advice, “with great power comes great responsibility,” which led to the death of his Uncle. So while Spider-Man can physically be stopped by a brick wall or a body of water, his refusal to quit drives him to overcome the odds. So in the case of Juggernaut versus Spider-Man you have the unstoppable object versus the unstoppable spirit.
Turning the dramatic screws even more is the fact that the Juggernaut attempted to kidnap the psychic-powered (and Spider-Man ally) Madame Web, and then callously left her to die when he discovers that Web is powerless when she’s removed from her chair. Spider-Man takes the attack as a personal affront, and as a general defender of innocents, he sets out to defeat the Juggernaut, even though he doesn’t know how.
The two-issue battle is both epic and comedic. With Spider-Man literally throwing everything but the kitchen sink at Juggernaut to subdue him – all unsuccessful, Juggernaut is able to plow through every obstacle set up for him. He’s even able to shake off a head-on collision with a tanker truck (complete with Spider-Man tooting the horn first – nice touch), which resulted in a fiery explosion. Because Spidey is not one to resort to killing his opponent to win, he’s at first horrified that he stooped so low to stop the Juggernaut. Then when he sees that Juggernaut survived the crash and is still trucking along, he’s unsure if there’s any way to bring this villain to justice.
But he has one more trick up his sleeve. Noticing that the only part of the Juggernaut that is not protected by armor is his eye holes, Spidey jumps on his back and grabs at his eyes to blind him. Juggernaut stumbles around, pounding Spider-Man the whole time, but the hero hangs on. Juggernaut eventually falls into a pit of wet cement that’s to be used for a building foundation. Spider-Man leaps to safety. Juggernaut laughs that the pit won’t hold him, but the combination of the deep foundation and the hardening cement finally overcome him and Spidey succeeds.
Now, how was did this confrontation create a more stirring drama than Spidey’s most recent encounter in ASM #662? You have a spiritually determined hero versus a physically determined villain. The battle becomes personal after Juggernaut nearly kills Spidey’s friend Madame Web. Spidey tries multiple ways to stop Juggernaut and fails. Spidey even resorts to nearly killing Juggernaut with a tanker truck in a total out-of-character move. Despite the physical pain he’s gone through, Spidey finds a way to succeed using a combination of his strength and his intellect. Spidey accomplishes all this on his own, without the help of any other super-powered friends. In ASM #662, you have a villain lower in the pecking order in Pyscho Man. You have a group in the Avengers Academy who Spidey is trying to protect, but doesn’t necessarily have a strong emotional connection to like he does with Madame Web. Both are two-issue arcs, but the bulk of the confrontation in ASM #662 is Spidey working with the Avengers Academy kids to help them overcome the shadow of doubt being cast on them by Pyscho Man. The stakes for Spider-Man here are also a lot lower – neither Pyscho Man or the Avenger Academy kids under mind-control are considered as physically imposing as Juggernaut.
Of course, I don’t honestly believe that every battle Spider-Man has going forward has to be as memorable as his two-issue arc against the Juggernaut, which is widely considered one of the best Spidey stories in the comic book’s history. However, I think it’s important for Marvel to consider the existence of these stories before they oversell the “epic-nature” of Spidey’s latest encounter. It seems like ever since the death of Marla Jameson issue issue (ASM #654-655), the creative team has been overselling Spidey’s emotional stake in this mantra of “no one dies.” I understand that there’s an element of this mantra in the very core of this character, but at the same time, in some of these issues Spidey is coming across like a Holden Caufield-type, endlessly worrying about innocent people stepping over the cliff because they can’t see its edge from the field of rye they’re walking in. Spider-Man can’t be expected to save the world from itself, nor can the reader be expected to always view the stakes to be so incredibly high in this universe. Spider-Man’s greatest battles are typically those that build with a slow burn. More importantly, the most entertaining stories are those where Spider-Man must dig deeper within himself to find a solution, rather than try to manage multiple personalities in a “world’s gone to pot” scenario, as was the case in ASM #662 and the Fear Itself miniseries.
All images from Amazing Spider-Man #229-230: Roger Stern, John Romita Jr. & Jim Mooney