As I’ve discussed countless times in the past, different comics have varying levels of significance to different people. For some, the 1994-95 arc “Back from the Edge,” which was published in Amazing and Spectacular Spider-Man, was just another mid-90s story that in all likelihood, got lost in the shuffle since it was published between two very controversial storylines in the “Return of Peter Parker’s Parents,” and the “Clone Saga.”
But for me, this storyline was published at, what turned out to b,e a critical juncture in my Spider-Man fandom. In the mid-90s, I was an on-again, off-again comic book reader, and I still wasn’t at a point where I wanted to dedicate my time and financial resources to a single character or series. In the basement of my parent’s house there’s a box of comics from my childhood that contains an assortment of characters and series – everything from other Marvel and DC heroes, to Valiant comics starring Nintendo characters. I even found an Amy Fisher/Joey Buttafuoco “he said/she said” flip book from that whole mess of a news story (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, just Google it).
I remember visiting my local comic book/baseball card shop around the time Amazing Spider-Man #396 came out and was immediately struck by the Spider-Man/Daredevil team-up cover. Specifically, I was pulled in by the new costume Daredevil was wearing (which makes kids like me part of the problem because our purchases validated the stupid “dramatic” changes Marvel and DC hammered into all of their core titles during the 90s). I picked up the comic and found myself in the middle of a storyline that showed Spider-Man trying to “bury” his Peter Parker alias only to be infected by some kind of virus that was going to kill him. I HAD to keep reading this story to find out what happened next, so I picked up the first two installments of “Back from the Edge” and then Spectacular #219 to close out the arc.
I would continue to do that with Spider-Man comics for at least another year, and never looked back until I got fed up with the twists and turns (and saturation of the “Clone Saga”). That break from the medium would last a few years, but my collection now had a very solid foundation thanks to this period where I was just captivated and intrigued by everything related to Spider-Man comics. As such, I owe a lot thanks to ASM #396 (and Daredevil’s gray suit) for spurring an incredible chase that is now oh so close to being completed.
Rereading the story years later, I’m not sure if “Back from the Edge” is the greatest representation of J.M. DeMatteis’s work on Spider-Man, but I appreciate how he’s trying to be provocative with the character. Unfortunately, the storyline suffers from being published in a period where everything in comics just had to be gritty and dark. Granted, the same could be said for comics today, but the 90s were truly an “extreme” time for the medium, where creators who were more style over substance, like Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, and even my precious Todd McFarlane, ruled the roost. Today, that tone has been softened somewhat because publishers are also trying to capitalize on casual readers who are checking things out because they just saw a movie about The Avengers, or Superman, or whoever.
The idea that Spider-Man is trying to divorce himself from Peter feels very incongruous to what the character has been all about for the bulk of his existence. This is a person who became Spider-Man because of the death of a loved one, using the mantra, “with great power must also come, great responsibility.” Turning his back on Aunt May, who is sick and in the hospital, and Mary Jane, who’s dealing with some personal family stuff of her own in this storyline, comes across as being out of character, regardless of the fact that JMD is such an awesome writer, he almost pulls it off.
The added drama of Spider-Man “dying” is just another example of 90s excess. Keep in mind that Spider-Man was going to die on the heels of his parents being revealed as androids, and as a precursor to being told he was actually a clone. In the midst of all this, Mary Jane tells Peter she’s pregnant and Aunt May dies. Granted, you don’t actually want dull moments in comic books, but at the same time constantly raising the stakes in every storyline only serves to numb readers, making it harder to differentiate the wheat from the chafe.
Meanwhile Daredevil is absolutely no fun to read in this arc. Like Spider-Man, Matt Murdock was coming off a personal crisis of his own in which he faked his death and denied his connection to Daredevil, so in addition to Peter’s brooding, we have sour puss “Man Without Fear.” It’s frustrating, as a reader to watch Daredevil react indifferently when his long-time ally/friend Peter comes to him needing help defeating the Vulture and Owl. His snide remarks about to Peter about not hiding his secret identity well, as Spidey studies this virus he just contracted, suck all the joy out of this traditionally fun character dynamic. But again, that’s where these characters were at in the 90s. That mistake is more with Marvel, then the actual creators of this storyline.
The arc’s final bait and switch that the “cure” for the virus is actually just a vial of water, feels like a major cheat, and was obviously deployed by Tom DeFalco (writing Spectacular) as a set-up for the “Web of Death” arc – another “major” storyline where “big things happened” (that were later undone of course).
Still, I don’t recall thinking any of this at the time when I first read “Back from the Edge.” The storyline clearly managed to make an impression on me, or else I wouldn’t be here nearly 20 years later chronicling my life’s history as it related to the world of Spider-Man comics. As part of an upcoming recording of the Spider-Talk podcast, a creator talked about how we all tend to identify with our “first” comics. Considering ASM #396 was the first comic where I started to strongly consider collecting ONLY Spider-Man comics, I’m not sure what that ultimately says about my identity as a reader and fan, but it’s always fun to look back in the corners of my mind and try and figure it out.