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A review of the Marvel Comics trade paperback, which reprints material originally published in issues 568 through to 573 of The Amazing Spiderman.
Following some major events in continuity, the creative team behind The Amazing Spiderman created a single event, called Brand New Day, which effectively re-wrote Spider-history. At the time, Peter's Aunt May was fatally injured and, desperate to save her life, both Peter and his wife Mary-Jane made a deal with the demon Mephisto, whereby May's life would be spared, but in return their marriage (and all events related to it) would never have existed. Out of love for May, the couple reluctantly agreed and their knowledge of each other ceased to be.
Outside of this story line, the move was something of a cleansing operation. The crossover event Civil War had resulted in Peter exposing his secret identity to the entire world, effectively changing the book's basis forever more. The very essence of Spiderman had always been that the character had struggled to maintain his secret identity and that this was a constant struggle, in and out of the costume. The changes brought about by Civil War changed this too radically and it was felt that a storyline needed to be introduced that would effectively put things back. Terminating the relationship between Peter and Mary Jane was a bold move. This romance was a key part of the three movie tie-ins, for example, but they had only been a serious item since the early 1990s, and it was felt that breaking this relationship would give the serious more scope.
After the Brand New Day storyline, the Amazing Spiderman series saw something of a back to basics approach, with a number of new villains and supporting characters introduced, plus new/evolving story arcs to maintain the series popularity. New Ways To Die occurred twenty or so issues after the Brand New Day storyline took place and is, for me, one of the best Spiderman story lines to have taken place for several years.
New York is in the midst of a mayoral election, including a candidate named Randall Crowne, a wealthy, but unscrupulous businessman. Crowne's desire to win knows no limits, leading to one of Spiderman's newest foes Menace attacking sites favoured by the other main candidate. When a scandal exposes Crowne's links to a city sweatshop, he becomes increasingly irritated and enlists the aid of fellow businessman and old friend, Norman Osborn - otherwise known as The Green Goblin. Osborn, now with a newfound level of respectability thanks to his role in the Civil War, commands the government super group known as The Thunderbolts and wastes no time in using his team to eradicate an important threat - Spiderman.
Meanwhile, Peter's Aunt has started working as a volunteer at the local homeless outreach centre, where it seems that miracles do happen. The centre's mysterious benefactor, known only as Mr Li, welcomes everyone into his care and seems to have an uncanny gift for healing. One of the centre's homeless users is a man named Eddie Brock, once the super-villain Venom, now powerless since the alien Venom symbiote abandoned him in favour of the super villain The Scorpion. Osborn's group uses Parker to try and find Spiderman, but the trail soon leads them to his aunt at the shelter, and Brock finds himself right in the way of the Thunderbolts who believe that May Parker can lead them to Spiderman. But when Brock comes back into contact with his former host symbiote, something happens, something very interesting and (for some) something very deadly indeed.....
Over the years, my favourite eras in Spiderman continuity have always been the most convoluted ones. I enjoyed the original saga of the Hobgoblin back in the 1980s/90s, the return of the Green Goblin a decade later and the mysterious arrival of Ezekiel during J Michael Straczysnki's tenure as writer. Following Brand New Day, the writing on the series was less appealing. Storylines were shorter, more self-contained and seemed to form less of a bigger picture. In those 'good eras' it was always clear that the writers were building up to something bigger, more mysterious and more exciting. It's on this basis that New Days To Die is such a triumph. It's stuffed full of all the ingredients that make a good Spiderman story arc. For starters, it's packed full of bad guys, some of which take a major part in the proceedings, some of which take a back set but all of which have a role to play in the story. It continues with hints and suggestions that have appeared earlier, building new ideas and spin-offs and indicating that there's much more to come. Supporting characters form a more substantial part of the storyline, rather than just leaving it to Peter/Spiderman to take up all the drama, and it's long enough (six episodes) to stretch its legs and really turn into 'something'.
Having the Green Goblin return from the dead years earlier was always a controversial move, but few could have predicted how Norman Osborn (the Goblin's alter ego) would/could become such a major figure in the Marvel Universe. Now a respected citizen and director of the Thunderbolts, Osborn is in a much more powerful position to make our hero's life hell, and New Ways To Die demonstrates exactly how he intends to go about this. Hiding behind the idea that the Thunderbolts exist to take heroes/villains into custody that do not comply with new legislation, Osborn continues to make the perfect villain. Whilst the Thunderbolts believe themselves to be acting for the good, a sly smile from Osborn indicates that he's fairly revelling in the notion that he can persecute Spiderman with a respectable edge. But New Ways To Die is much bigger than just a tale about Osborn versus Spiderman.
A backstory had been brewing for several issues whereby Peter's Aunt May was working in a homeless shelter for a mysterious and apparently benevolent man named Mr Li. In New Ways To Die, this becomes much more prominent and a chain of events in the shelter catalyses the creation of a brand new villain. Historically, the best and most enduring villains in the series are those that have a strong link to Spiderman, notably Venom (who started life as a black suit worn by Spiderman) and characters such as The Hobgoblin, the Demogoblin and Menace, all of whom were based around the concept of the Green Goblin. So the tale's new super villain (Anti-Venom) maintains this position by becoming a new version of Venom, intent on destroying the original one. On paper, it sounds vaguely ridiculous, but writer Dan Slott manages to create the sort of twisted, convoluted tale that means it's actually really rather good - and one thing leads to another, which leads to another, and so on.
Indeed, Slott's writing here is first class. This has all the hallmarks of a classic tale. Peter's private life is as complicated as ever and his friends have their own problems (Harry, for example, is being tormented ever more by his father, Norman Osborn, with the potential for devastating implications that we've all seen before.) The political machinations in the background help fuel the intrigue. It's not yet clear why the mayoral candidate is such a dodgy fellow, or why Osborn would be so interested in him, but it all simmers away in the background nicely, whilst Osborn's plans are gradually implemented. I like the fact that Slott plays down the humorous banter often exhibited in Spiderman stories. When the hero starts to take it all a bit more seriously, I think the effect rubs off on the reader, and that's certainly the case here and Slott has completely perfected an increase in pace and tension. As each chapter unfolds, with one breathtaking cliff-hanger after another, events seem to go from bad to worse and it's something of an achievement to crank things up, chapter by chapter, such that you really, really can't put this down until you've absorbed the final frame. New Ways To Die essentially replicates all the good things about the classic story arcs referenced earlier. The lingering presence of Menace provides a secret identity mystery. Insights into the dark world of Norman Osborn suggest terrible things to come. The ever-evolving character of Venom (now merged with The Scorpion) evolves even further, with a new nemesis in the shape of Anti-Venom, and there is a brief appearance from Freak, who is becoming more and more frightening every time he turns up.
If you were to criticise the story, then you might do so on the grounds that there is just TOO much going on here. Some elements of the story, some characters, some events are possibly rushed along and don't get enough page space. The appearance of Bullseye (now one of the Thunderbolts) has a lot of build-up, but never really takes off. He does eventually get to cut loose against Spiderman, but actually rather briefly and the anticipation brought about by the fact that he has to be restrained until he can be trusted makes the confrontation a little flat. Menace pops in and out, and has a brief scrap with Norman Osborn in chapter five, but we're increasingly led to develop a theory about who exactly Menace is (which means that's exactly who it WON'T be) and I wonder whether this would have been better off left waiting for a later, less dramatic story arc. Whilst it might also be a staple part of the series' history, the added element of having Aunt May in peril due to warring super villains is also now a rather tiresome, spider-cliché.
John Romita Jr remains one of my favourite comic book artists and has worked on the Amazing Spiderman series now for quite a few years. New Ways To Die really rather showcases why it is that he is so good. Whilst he may lack the precision and detail of some of his contemporaries, he has an effortlessly style that just brings his characters to life. The way in which, for example, he draws the bad guys is probably the best that any Spiderman artist has ever done. The way in which he makes the maniacs utterly maniacal, for example, with characters like Menace, Freak and Green Goblin all looking absolutely terrifying, thanks to the wide-staring eyes and grinning, cackling mouths. He also makes Norman Osborn particularly malevolent, his narrowing eyes and sly grin demonstrating exactly why it is that we should all be very afraid.
Romita is extremely good with physique. He can successfully portray the sheer bulk and overpowering dimension of a character like Venom with ease, refining his style for the more delicate, feminine curves of Songbird. He successfully demonstrates the rather viral constructs of characters like Venom and Anti-Venom, their bodies seeming to drip oozing features off their bodies. He doesn't over-do muscles either. Whereas artists are increasingly turning heroes into porn stars, Romita retains some subtlety and concentrates on the features that we expect to see. Spiderman, for example, is lean and reasonably well built here; not the thin, sinewy creature that other artists portray but not excessively bulky. He can occasionally be a little inconsistent. Norman Osborn's distinctive hair style seems to change quite radically from one frame to the next here, but this is a minor quibble in what is, otherwise, an enormously entertaining visual treat.
New Ways To Die is a great story for newcomers and old fans alike. This is classic Spiderman storytelling stuffed full of all the ingredients that work so well. It's exciting, the very definition of a page-turner, and although convoluted, can be picked up and understood by newcomers without a strong need to understand what has gone before (though, as with all comic books, that will certainly help). What makes New Ways To Die so engaging is that it is filled with the promise of things to come. What has Harry Osborn been up to? What is Norman Osborn's next move? What happened to Freak? Who is Menace? You know a good story when you find yourself longing for the next one just to sate some of that curiosity. On that reckoning, New Ways To Die is a VERY good story.