Brand New Year: Amazing Spider-Man #549-551

ASM 551 cover

One of the things I keyed in on during my write-up of the first arc of “Brand New Day” was how the storyline was brimming with youthful energy. While the arc that led us to the doorstep of “Brand New Day” (“One More Day”) was extraordinarily controversial and ill-conceived/executed, you can’t tell me that upon reading those three comics (Amazing Spider-Man #546-548), there wasn’t a sense of something being creatively unshackled and allowed to breathe again.

Still, some of you pointed out in the comments section and on Twitter/Facebook that what I thought of as energetic and vibrant also marked a major regression for the Peter Parker character. All of the maturity and development that were trademarks of the J. Michael Strazcynski era on the book were wiped away in the same fashion as Peter’s marriage to Mary Jane, leaving behind the bumbling, stumbling character that still manages to rear his ugly head in ASM today.

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Ultimately, I think both arguments are correct regarding the state of Spider-Man during “Brand New Day.” But I think I realized something upon rereading the second arc (ASM #549-551) by Marc Guggenheim and Salvador Larroca, which introduced another new villain, a goblin dubbed “Menace,” while also somewhat exploring another new character, the mysterious female hero “Jackpot.” As paradoxical as it sounds, I realized that part of what makes “Brand New Day” feel so energized and exciting is the fact that the creative teams just cut away all of the complicated stuff that had been attached to the character since the late 1980s, and instead just focused on telling a straightforward superhero story with an interesting supporting cast. In other words, what propels this narrative forward is how it harkens back to a much simpler time with the character.

And maybe in the here and now that would be completely frustrating. But in reading these stories with the power of hindsight – i.e. treating them as if they’re as much a part of the character’s history as the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko run, or Gerry Conway’s run – I actually find “Brand New Day” to be a highly enjoyable self-contained read. They are almost like Untold Tales of Spider-Man, except these are obviously not flashback stories a la Kurt Busiek’s wonderful series from the 1990s.

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Seriously, when was the last time the Amazing Spider-Man series focused so much on street level superheroics as it does in this first Menace arc by Guggenheim and Larocca? This storyline is just Spider-Man encountering a new villain and trying to get one step ahead of him/her, all the while, trying to snap a photo for his new editor-in-chief at the DB (nee Daily Bugle) that will earn him some badly needed cash. For the human drama element, Spidey is also trying to get a read/understanding of this new Jackpot character (who, like everyone else reading the story, Peter thinks is actually Mary Jane in disguise), while trying to clear his name of a bunch of murders he was framed for (the “Spider Tracer Murders”).

But even with its tragic ending involving the death of a mayoral candidate at the hands of Menace, this is a fairly no fuss, no muss story that almost feels like it’s from an older time. And after the past few years of over-the-top theatrics from Dan Slott – that have involved earths ending, minds-swapping, origins changing and Multiverses colliding – I think I can honestly say that if Marvel went back to this “back to basics” well with ASM in the near future, it would feel equally fresh, and dare I say, reliving to just read about superheroes doing superhero stuff again.

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As potentially blasphemous as this sounds, this Menace arc reminds me of the awesome Roger Stern/John Romita Jr. days on ASM. Granted, Stern just had a knack for dialogue and storytelling that is without peer, but even the way Menace is introduced in this story is reminiscent of the “Original Hobgoblin Saga.” There’s an obvious air of mystery to Menace, but like what Stern did with Hobgoblin, Guggenheim throws a red herring out there right away when Peter wonders whether or not his back from the dead best buddy Harry Osborn might have fallen “off the wagon” in terms of his goblin-gliding.

Meanwhile, the storyline puts a special emphasis on the entire supporting cast that we just didn’t get once Peter got married and Mary Jane and his family were (rightly) his top priority. We get scenes of Peter interacting with his friends (who are making jokes about MJ hating him and not returning his calls), and his daily interactions with new DB editor Dexter Bennett. We have Spidey talking to cops and detectives and other up-and-coming heroes (though, more on Jackpot in a second). There just didn’t seem to be room for any of that kind of stuff towards the end of the JMS run, and for large portions of the late 1980s and 1990s (and certain not during the mid/late 90s when it was all about clones and Peter’s painful divorce from MJ).

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If this storyline does have a black mark on it, it’s the Jackpot subplot. I could just be projecting here, but introducing a costumed character that looks like Mary Jane and speaks like her in the immediate aftermath of a controversial storyline that essentially eliminated her from the Spider-Man status quo smacks of fan trolling at its finest. I appreciated the ultimate message that could be mined from Jackpot’s role in this arc – how her inexperience and inability to improvise like Spidey indirectly led to the death of the mayoral candidate – but this theme could have been touched upon utilizing any other character out there besides a red-headed mystery woman named after a certain ex-wife’s catchphrase. The only thing this subplot seemed to accomplish was to either give fans false hope regarding the Peter/MJ marriage annulment, or stoke the fires of fans who were still steaming over “One More Day.”

But the Jackpot stuff is not enough to spoil all of the fun these stories are having. It’s also worth noting that thus far, through two arcs, I didn’t really notice that much of a dip in terms of tone and pacing when compared to Slott’s first arc with Guggenheim’s second. I’m obviously coming at this with the advantage of being able to read all three issues in each storyline in one sitting, which makes things like tone and characterization smush together a little more when compared to having to wait a week or a month for a new issue to come out.

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