With Superior Foes of Spider-Man ending later this month, I thought I would write a couple of posts about storylines that prominently feature some members of the “Fantastic Five” (Boomerang, Shocker, Speed Demon, Beetle and Overdrive). I know that may not make a whole lot of sense since “Spider-Verse” is now officially in full throttle and there are still a ton of alternative timeline Spideys for me to write about as part of the “Across the Spider-Verse” series I’ve posting since September. But I think we can afford some time away from parallel worlds to instead focus on the 616 Universe for a bit.
Besides, going this route allows me to write about one of the better Spider-Man stories from the past decade (and arguably the crown jewel of the “Brand New Day” run of issues from the late 2000s) in Amazing Spider-Man #578-579’s “Unscheduled Stop,” which was also (if memory serves), the last truly significant Spider-Man/Shocker story (unless you count his cameo in “Spider Island”).
Anyway, I definitely wanted to revisit this story by Mark Waid and Marcos Martin because I recall having a conversation with my Amazing Spider-Talk co-host Dan Gvozden about the portrayal of Shocker as a coward in Superior Foes. We both agreed that his lack of bravery and buffoonery was definitely being embellished a bit by the Superior Foes creative team, but I also couldn’t recall a storyline since the Silver Age where he was depicted as some kind of ruthless supervillain. Dan cited “Unscheduled Stop,” and since my old age prevented me from remembering the finer details of a story that only came out 7 years ago, I thought a re-read was in order for a new Chasing Amazing post.
Of course Shocker and his characterization is not the reason anybody is going to check out this storyline, either as part of a trade paperback collection, or even on Marvel Unlimited. This is a wonderful character-driven Spider-Man story that echoes some of Spidey’s greater moments of overcoming insurmountable odds, such as fighting the Juggernaut and lifting tons of steel over his head to grab a serum to save his Aunt May. Yes, Shocker is a central figure in this story in that his attempts to kill a subway car filled with jurors (on behalf of the mob) is what put Spider-Man in such a tough predicament (stuck in a subway tunnel with no easy way out), but even after refreshing myself with “Unscheduled Stop” it’s hard to think of it firstly as a “Shocker story.”
Still, there’s a ruthlessness and villainy to the character that has been noticeably absent in Superior Foes for the duration of its run (his most recent turn not withstanding), which makes him a far more compelling adversary (if not much less funny or entertaining – then again, “Unscheduled Stop” is one of those stories where too much jokey-ness would feel horribly out of place). But Shocker is also ultimately cast as just another mercenary, a role that could have been filled by any other Spidey “B” list villain (like Boomerang for example), so it makes it hard for me to look back at this story and become too incredulous over the direction Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber took the character in Superior Foes.
Now that I’ve gotten all that noise out of the way, let me just say without interruption, this is a really good modern era Spider-Man story.
It doesn’t quite tap into that joyful, “this is why I read comic books” emotional center that Dan Slott’s “Spider Island” did back in 2011, but in terms of modern day comic books (past 20 years for argument’s sake) that I would lend to somebody who was curious about why so many millions of people thought Spider-Man was the bestest, “Unscheduled Stop” would be on my short list.
A lot of the success and wonder of this story is driven by Martin’s art. I’ve been on the record in the past of loving Marcos Martin, but I cannot remember an instance where I felt the art of Spider-Man comic book made the story read more impressively than the actual script. As I’ve also said in the past, I read comic books for the stories first, not the artwork. That’s just the writer in me. And while there are a number of artists who have elevated a comic through their pencils and inks, it’s hard for even the best artist to take an otherwise humdrum story and transform it into something special.
That’s not a slam of Waid’s script, but when you strip “Unscheduled Stop” down to its core, this is a story that we’ve seen many times before, and quite frankly in more memorable fashion. Spider-Man’s battle against the Juggernaut will go down as one of my all-time favorite stories in large part because of how Roger Stern developed his script. Spider-Man lifting the steel above him goes down as one of the most iconic moments in Marvel Comics history (which, not for nothing, is primarily driven by how creatively Steve Ditko plotted ASM #33).
It’s only as I’m writing this post that I’ve realized what it is about “Unscheduled Stop” that makes this story so uniquely connect to me: it’s a rare blend of a high action-driven drama (what’s more thrilling then being stuck in a subway tunnel with only the guy who tried to kill you leading your way to safety) and high-character driven drama. And Martin’s art helps it achieve that.
Very similar to Ditko, Martin has a way of creating visuals that are simple in terms of level of physical detail (i.e. not a lot of background buildings or people) but are also emotionally complex, especially when it comes to the story’s central characters. This is best on display in how the first part of this story ends, with Spider-Man talking to one of the jurors before discovering that he’s J. Jonah Jameson’s father.
Waid scripts a brilliant line earlier where, when faced with death, Jameson can only think of apologizing to Spider-Man. But then Martin elevates the emotional timbre of the scene by creating this stark, all-black landscape where it looks like Spidey and Jameson are the only two characters still stuck in the sewer. Because, in essence, they were. At that exact moment, nobody else is involved with this story, not Shocker, not the other jurors, mattered one iota. The power and drama was all based around this revelation and its implications for Spider-Man’s world.
Lost in the shuffle in all of the build and potential hand-wringing by fans regarding “Spider-Verse” is the fact that Olivier Coipel will be providing pencils for the bulk of the ASM issues in this series. While Coipel’s style is distinctively different from Martin’s, his involvement gives me hope on the creative side as I cannot remember the last time a Spider-Man book had a bonafide superstar artist leading the way (no disrespect to Humberto Ramos or Giuseppe Camuncoli, who I think are both great Spider-Man artists), but Coipel’s talents are such that he has the ability to elevate a story through his visuals. The success of “Spider-Verse” still requires a worthwhile script from Slott, but as was the case with Waid in “Unscheduled Stop,” a brilliant artist can help a writer tell an even better story if there’s a magical bit of synergy between the creators.