Amazing Spider-Man #500
by J. Michael Straczynski, John Romita Sr. and John
Romita Jr., December 2003
I really liked this
comic book. I think it had some nice moments. And I think it
accomplished exactly what it set out to do.
A lot of that has to do with me. In 2003, I was not a regular reader of Spider-Man. For that matter, I don’t know that I’ve ever been a regular reader of Spider-Man but I hadn’t even been an irregular reader of Spider-Man since I was a youth in the mid-‘80s. So I happily ignored the Clone Saga and John Byrne’s Chapter One and all of the bad stories that Spider-Man struggled through. And I blissfully ignored the early stories by Straczynski and Romita. However, I did notice that their run was causing a lot of discussion. Some Spider-Man fans seemed to hate it. They hated that there were new characters and supernatural guest-stars and a potentially new mystical origin for Spider-Man. From my perspective, it seemed that they hated that it was new. Meanwhile, other Spider-Man fans seemed to love it. They waxed eloquently about the dialogue and the characterization and the art. And the fans who seemed to love the new Straczynski Spider-Man were fans whose opinions I respected. My blissful ignorance was beginning to become slight curiosity.
And then Amazing Spider-Man #500 arrived on the stands. It was an anniversary issue with a lot of promotion behind it. There were a lot of issues lying around and it seemed like a good jumping-on point. Plus, there was the awesome J. Scott Campbell cover with Spider-Man and Mary Jane swinging over the heads of a whole host of villains. I’ve loved Campbell’s work before and his Joker cover had even enticed me into buying an issue of Batman’s No Man’s Land. That Campbell cover became the final enticement I was looking for. I bought Amazing Spider-Man, the first issue of Spider-Man that I had bought in over 15 years.
The issue opens with two scenes being told concurrently. The one scene is of Spider-Man standing off against a squad of police officers in full riot gear. The other scene is Peter Parker’s recollections of his start as Spider-Man. It’s a nice scene, re-telling Spider-Man’s origin while keeping some tension in the present. The scene then transitions into a battle between Spider-Man and the swat team. While Spider-Man’s body fights on, his mind is brought on a journey of discovery, remembering significant fights from the past. We’re treated to quick scenes in which Spider-Man squares off against the Sandman, the Vulture, the Lizard and Electro. Spider-Man relives other important moments in his life, such as the time that he was trapped under a great weight by Doctor Octopus and the death of his first love Gwen Stacy. The mental/mystical journey finally brings Spider-Man into a great battle with all of his former villains at once.
Now, remember, I’m not a life-long Spider-Man fan who’d been reading the title for decades. I have never read The Master Planner Saga or the Death of Gwen Stacy. I was aware of both of those stories thanks to fan discussions and “best of” lists, but that was about it. So those scenes didn’t appeal to me on a nostalgia level as they may have for some other readers. But I enjoyed them even without that. The scenes were constructed well enough, and tied together fluidly enough, that I didn’t need the nostalgia buzz in order to appreciate them. On the other hand, I wasn’t exactly a new reader to comics. I’d been reading comics for years and was well familiar with Spider-Man’s history and origin. So it wasn’t like I needed a primer on who he was or where he came from. Yet, even though I didn’t need a re-telling of Spider-Man’s origin, I enjoyed it as I read it. It wasn’t presented as something you needed to know. It was presented as something that Peter Parker was thinking about and reflecting on during an important time in his life. So I neither felt talked down to nor taken for granted. I found that to be a pretty compelling- and rare- balance.
And all of that led to four moments that were truly excellent. The first is the aforementioned battle against all of Spider-Man’s former villains at once. It’s simply a great double splash page, intentionally cluttered and rich with images to look at. I remember poring over it for a long time, trying to see how many of these villains I actually knew. That double-splash page was immediately followed by another great moment. Spider-Man has often been presented as a lone hero, who lacks the adulation of the public and the respect of his peers. That’s not the case here. Iron Man, Mr. Fantastic, the Thing and Thor show up to help put an end to things. And when they do, they listen to Spider-Man, take his lead, and treat him as an equal. It was an especially gratifying scene after the opening stand-off with the police.
Both of those scenes were about Spider-Man- his relationship with villains and with other heroes. But the true star of Spider-Man is not the guy in the mask. It’s Peter Parker. The closing two moments were about Peter and they were even better than the ones about Spidey. The third excellent moment was a gift from Dr. Strange in which the master of mystical arts gave Peter the opportunity to spend five minutes with his deceased uncle Ben. It was a truly touching scene in which they talked about guilt, forgiveness and responsibility. And it’s a scene that has always defined Spider-Man for me. I’ve heard writers and editors explain that Spider-Man is motivated by guilt over the death of his uncle. But I agree with Straczynski: Uncle Ben isn’t a source of shame for Spider-Man he’s a source of inspiration. Spider-Man isn’t being driven by guilt into doing the right thing, he’s inspired to use his power responsibly because that’s the kind of person his uncle raised him to be. Finally, having said good-bye to his uncle, Peter Parker returns to his apartment and says good-night to his wife. Straczynski and Romita Sr. give us a short scene, only two panels long, which sums up their relationship and their love. It’s a great moment to end on as Peter professes his love for Mary Jane and she professes her love for him. Gwen Stacy may have been his first love, as we were reminded in montage of past moments, but MJ is his true love, his wife and his best friend.
This was a great issue.
I liked it at the time and I think it’s even better flipping
through it now, years after the fact. Plus, it did what it set out
to do. It convinced me, somebody who didn’t read Spider-Man on
a regular basis, to start. I bought the following issues and soon
went back and bought trade collections of earlier issues.
For Fantastic Four, Waid and Wieringo took a different approach than that of JMS and JRJR on Amazing Spider-Man. The 500th issue is the culmination of “Unthinkable.” Rather than trying to create an intentional jumping-on point for new readers, Waid and Wieringo aimed for crafting a classic conclusion to an epic story. New readers and returning readers, who tend to pick up anniversary issues like this, are entering in the middle of the story. But they’re entering into the middle of a story that is epic, tragic and dynamic. And that may be a better way of presenting a series that slowing down to get new readers up to speed.
“Unthinkable” is the story of Doctor Doom. Long the chief foe of the Fantastic Four, Doctor Doom “has recently abandoned his technological prowess for the study and mastery of witchcraft.” Or, so says the summary at the beginning of the issue. Doom, driven by his rivalry with Reed Richards as well as his own pride and jealousy, has finally admitted that he can’t beat Reed’s technological know-how and scientific savvy with his own. So Doom has traded it all in that he might beat Reed in other arena, one in which Reed has no expertise: magic. What the summary didn’t mention is that in order to initiate this change, Doom had to sacrifice the one woman he had ever loved. The story started several issues ago with Doom murdering his former love in exchange for sorcerous powers. Doom’s thirst for vengeance has now reached the point at which he is willing to sacrifice everything he is and everything he’s ever cared about in order to beat Reed. It was a jaw-dropping moment that kicked off one of the best Fantastic Four stories ever.
But that was just the start of the story. In part three, Doom won his victory over Reed Richards. He imprisoned Reed in an arcane library and banished Reed and Sue’s son Franklin to Hell. Literally, Hell. The two cliffhangers at the end of issue 499 were so incredible that, even though I was on a family vacation and well away from my usual comic book store, I had to go out and buy a copy of issue 500. I simply couldn’t wait to find out what happened until I got back home. “Unthinkable” was a better blockbuster than any summer movie I saw that year. And I read the final part in issue 500 in my hotel room. And then I read it again.
Now that I’ve told you how much I loved it, and how good it is, I should probably tell you a little bit about it. The issue opens with a scene in which Dr. Strange attempts to free Reed Richards from his prison but fails. Reed quickly realizes that Strange can reach him but not free him and comes to the solution for his situation. He asks Dr. Strange to teach him to be a sorcerer. It’s a quick and powerful scene, showing two reasons why Reed is better than Doom. He actually has friends and loved ones who care about him and are willing to risk their own lives to free him. And he’s willing to admit that there’s something that he doesn’t know. He’s willing to learn. That’s why Reed has always been the better scientist than Doom. His pride doesn’t prevent him from assuming his own brilliance. It doesn’t stand in the way of him exploring the unknown. Writer Mark Waid has understood Reed Richards better than any other writer, including his own creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and that deep understanding is on display here.
Next up, Waid and Wieringo showcase the villain. Doom has defeated the other members of the Fantastic Four. He’s busy torturing them, while also holding Reed and Sue’s youngest daughter Valeria as a hostage. Then, we return to Reed Richards in action. He learns what he needs to, and as much as he distastes magic, Mr. Fantastic manages to free himself. He then begins a quest to find out what Doom has done to the rest of his team and his family, which are one and the same. There are two kinds of action: twisting and driving. Twisting action involves unexpected changes to the story, things you didn’t see coming. Twisting action can be thrilling. But there’s also driving action. Driving action is heading towards an ending that you can see coming, and it is the anticipation of that event that carries tension and emotional resonance. In the previous issues, Mark Waid gave us plenty of twisting action, particularly with the human sacrifice that started the story and the banishment of Franklin Richards to Hell. This issue is all about driving action. From the moment that Reed asks Dr. Strange to teach him sorcery, we know that we’re heading towards a confrontation between Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom. Every scene with one or the other increases our tension and anticipation. It’s like sitting on a hill watching two trains approach each other head on while on the same track. You see it coming. You know what’s going to happen. That’s what makes it incredible. And that’s Fantastic Four #500.
In order to up the
stakes, half-way through the issue Waid has Dr. Doom defeat Dr.
Strange and remove Reed Richards’ only ally. Now, it really is
going to be a confrontation between the two of them alone. As we get
closer to that confrontation, artist Mike Wieringo starts to draw the
story bigger. He uses bigger panels, seemingly spilling over the side
of the pages. He draws closer close-ups, so that we can see the
resolve on Reed’s face and the anger in Doom’s eyes. The
colors get bolder, as well with bright pinks and reds and vibrant
greens. And then, Waid gives us the twist. Reed doesn’t use
his new-found sorcerous powers to attack Doom. He uses them to free
his family, once again reminding us of why Reed and Doom are
different and why Reed will always be better than Doom.
The Fantastic Four fight Doom together. It’s a great battle, with some huge splash pages by Mike Wieringo and some great lines by Mark Waid, including Sue Storm-Richards’ adamant declaration, “GIVE ME MY SON!” We see the F.F. work together as a team, as a family. When one falls, another is immediately there to defend them or take their turn on the offensive. And finally, when it seems like Doom might still win after all, Reed Richards is able to free himself and deliver the finishing blow. It’s the moment we’ve been waiting to see all issue. For that matter, we’ve been waiting to see it since the start of the story. Let’s be honest, some fans have been waiting for that moment since the early ‘60s.
With Dr. Doom defeated,
Reed and the rest of the Fantastic Four move on to the more pressing
issue of freeing Franklin from Hell. Yet such an accomplishment
doesn’t come without a price. The denizens of Hell won’t
give Franklin up so easily, putting Reed in the position in which he
must allow the demons to take Doom in Franklin’s stead. It’s
a weighty decision, yet one that Reed makes justly. And this is the
moment at which epic becomes tragic. Doom stretches out from Hell
while Reed watches, touches him and uses his sorcery to disfigure Mr.
Fantastic. The Fantastic Four emerge victorious, but not unscathed.
And, we’ll learn in future issues, that Mr. Fantastic’s
physical disfigurement are nothing compared to Franklin’s
emotional scars after spending so much time in Hell.
Fantastic Four is truly
a fantastic issue. Everything a great conclusion should be: epic,
dynamic, tragic and not easily forgotten.
About a year after the
success of Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man #500, Marvel Comics
had the opportunity to celebrate another 500th issue: The
Avengers. While Fantastic Four #500 was the finale in a four-part
epic, Avengers #500 would be the first-part in a new four-issue tale
called alternately “Disassembled” or “Chaos.”
The issue would also feature the debut of a new creative team, Brian
Michael Bendis and David Finch. And, unknown to most readers at the
time, Bendis and Finch’s duty would be to take apart the
current Avengers team in order to make room for a re-launch of the
title as New Avengers.
The issue opens with a
quiet scene as the Avengers enjoy a meal together. They banter over
their food, displaying the quick dialogue that Brian Michael Bendis
is famous for. They tell stories about former foes, interjecting
into each other’s speeches and finishing each other’s
lines. The quiet scene doesn’t last long. By the bottom of
the second page, the red lights come on and the mansion’s
automatic defenses alert the
team to a security breach. The breach
is quickly identified: former Avenger Jack of Hearts, thought to be
dead has returned. Current Avenger Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man goes out
to investigate. Jack of Hearts has survived. But he’s been
badly injured. And apparently, he’s no longer able to contain
his explosive powers. The quiet scene is now most definitely over.
Jack of Hearts explodes. The mansion is destroyed. The grounds are
on fire. The Avengers pick themselves up out of the rubble. They
quickly discover that Jack’s explosion has killed Ant-Man as
From that opening
tragedy, the story then shifts to other Avengers who weren’t at
the mansion at the time. First, there’s Tony Stark, aka Iron
Man, who suddenly finds himself drunk while addressing the United
Nations despite not having had a drink in years. The Black Panther
and Yellowjacket are both witnesses and targets of his rage before
the Scarlet Witch steps in. The confrontation is set aside when they
both receive the Avengers alarm.
The story returns to
the mansion where Captain America has arrived to help coordinate the
relief effort. Unfortunately, he can only watch as a quinjet
approaches and is crashed into the already burning mansion by the
Vision. At the time, the scene seemed fairly well-constructed with
alternating panels between the quickly-approaching quinjet and
close-ups of Captain America as he watches it come down before
treating us to a big explosion on a two-page spread. Unfortunately,
as beautiful as the scene may be to look at, it also exposes a flaw
in the story that will become more and more evident as the story
progresses: these Avengers don’t know how
to respond to a
disaster. We had already caught a brief glimpse of this flaw earlier
as the Avengers who had been present at the mansion pulled themselves
out of the rubble. The Wasp tried to give them instructions, but the
others were sarcastic or slow to respond. It seemed forgivable, in
light of the very recent explosion. But in this scene, Captain
America seems to be paralyzed in the face of a threat. When he
notices the crashing quinjet, he even begins to give an instruction
before trailing off. He doesn’t bark out, “Everyone get
down!” as someone with his leadership and experience would be
likely to do. He simply stares, and does nothing. Even after the
crash when other Avengers ask him for direction, Captain America says
and does nothing. It’s always dangerous to tell an author how
a story should have been written. Yet these are the Avengers,
veterans of 500 issues, and they’ve faced disaster a time or
two before. They’ve lost headquarters before, such as the
barge that they lived on for a time. They’ve responded to
disasters before. They’ve been attacked before. Though they
may be dazed at first, they should know how to respond. They’re
professionals. They’re the best. Yet, in this story, the
Avengers are incompetent. Instead of a disaster forcing them to draw
together, it causes them to squabble. Instead of responding quickly
and decisively, they pause, they hem and haw. This level of
incompetence will become ridiculous before the story is out. Here in
issue #500, it’s already noticeable and a reason for concern.
Back to the story: The
Vision steps out of the burning wreck of the quinjet. He gives a
short speech- while the Avengers wait him out, of course- and then
falls apart. Five Ultrons emerge from his collapsing body, and
finally the Avengers attack. It’s actually a decent scene as
the Avengers discuss strategy and wonder whether or not these
disparate events- the Jack of Hearts explosion and the Ultron
invasion- might somehow be connected. The scene takes an interesting
turn, however, when She-Hulk begins to lose control of her powers and
her faculties. She begins to “hulk out” as her cousin
the Incredible Hulk used to do and in her rage, she pulls the Vision
apart, destroying him. The other Avengers are in shock, allowing the
She-Hulk to quickly defeat them. And the story ends as it began,
with the death of an Avenger.
There is one last
scene, however. A quick coda in which apparently two people are
talking to each other about whether or not they should simply kill
the Avengers or continue to toy with them as they’ve been
not as bad an issue as I remember. There are the bookends of death
which, although I may not like that favorite characters are being
killed off, is an effective story-telling device. Furthermore,
though the transformations of Iron Man and She-Hulk are unexplained,
that’s intentional at this point. That’s the mystery,
the hook to get the reader to want to buy the issue. There are
enough hints that there’s a reason for these transformations-
becoming drunk without drinking, and becoming a raging She-Hulk- that
at this point, most readers would be content to let the mystery play
out. Plus, the art is pretty good. David Finch provides us with
several big explosions. He handles large settings like the interior
of the U.N. He does a good job of varying the angle of view during
the Ultron fight so that it seems frenetic as a fight should. And
quite a few of his panels do a good job of capturing emotion,
including one of Tony’s rage and another of a soldier’s
shock at the death of the vision.
There’s a reason
why I was excited to read issue 501, despite the few flaws in issue
#500. The real problem with “Disassembled” is not the
opening issue. Rather, the problem is that the flaws in the opening
issue, which are minor at first, become more and more significant as
the story goes along. We could forgive a temporarily stunned Captain
America if he was competent from here on out. But, instead of
overcoming this obstacle, Captain America becomes less competent as
the story continues. The mystery behind the transformations is never
explained satisfactorily. And the connection behind all of these
events- a possibility that is suggested in this issue- is
unsatisfactory as well. “Disassembled” is a bad story.
But issue #500 is not a bad opening act.
And that’s it for the five hundreds. There was a Thor #500 as well, though the current Marvel regime doesn’t count it- probably because it happened before their watch, but possibly because Thor inherited it’s numbering from Journey into Mystery so there haven’t actually been 500 issues of Thor. I didn’t include it simply because I haven’t read it. But I did include the ones I have read: one great, one very good, and one better than I remembered.