Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Amazing Spider-Man: Coming Home

cover2002 - available in soft cover

Written by J. Michael Straczynski. Pencils by John Romita, Jr. Inks by Scott Hanna.
Colours: Dan Kemp, Avalon Studios. Letters: Comicraft. Editor: Axel Alonso, John Miesegaes.

Reprinting: Amazing Spider-Man (2nd series) #30-35 (2001)

152 pages

Published by Marvel Comics

Cover price: $13.95 USA.

Normally at Pulp and Dagger we like to review 'em hot off the press. But then we thought of that old adage: any book you haven't read is a new book. And if it's still readily available in a lot of stores, and off the internet...well, why not? So, in honour of Spider-Man's up-coming movie, here's a look at just one of many of the Spider-Man related TPBs out there.

For all that there is the perception that comics are driven by the "kewl" pictures, writers enjoy a greater position of respect than they do in, say, movies. More recently, comics have seen an influx of writers from other disciplines eager to work in the four-colour field. Indie filmmakers, hot TV writers, and best-selling novelists have all been embraced as figures adding legitimacy to the comics field.

Whether they really do write better stories than the average comics pro is a debate for another day.

Best known for science fiction TV series like Babylon 5 and Jeremiah, J. Michael Straczynski has created his own projects for comics, but is also writing one of the monthly Spider-Man comics for Marvel Comics (specifically Amazing Spider-Man). Coming Home collects his first story arc (hence why it's labelled volume one) as he tackles one of the most recognizable figures in comics, and star of one of the highest grossing films of all time, with a new film out later this month.

Like a lot of writers, Straczynski goes into this wanting to make his mark -- not content to just be one in a string of writers, he quickly tries to say: "now everything changes." In fact, there can be something a little distractingly self-conscious when in the first chapter Spider-Man meets a character named Ezekiel who boldly states "I'm about to yank your chain like nobody else." And then he -- and Straczynski -- proceeds to add a whole new twist to Spider-Man's traditional origin. No longer is he just the high school nerd, Peter Parker, who was accidentally bitten by a radioactive spider. No. Ezekiel speaks of totemism, and suggests there are ancient forces at work that wanted Peter to acquire his spider powers.

I have mixed reactions to such revisionist interpretations (more than a few comic writers have gone into a series determined to say, everything you thought you knew about this character was wrong!). Though Straczynski gets points for suggesting a significance to the propensity of Spidey's foes to likewise adopt totemic identities (Doctor Octopus, the Vulture, etc.).

Straczynski's other "shake up" is more true to the character's roots, given that the original vision of Spider-Man was that of a "real" person, living in a "real" world. Peter Parker, seeing the state into which his old high school has fallen, takes a job as a part time science teacher. It audaciously demonstrates how much the character has grown over the years...the one time high school student now a teacher. "Welcome Back, Parker".

Back to Ezekiel, who warns of an unstoppable villain, an immortal being who feeds off people with totemic abilities, and who's looking to get Spidey. The villain, Morlun, is a cross between Dracula (complete with Victorian-style clothes and a human servant) and The Terminator.

Coming Home follows the formula of a lot of comic book sagas of threading its plot through the first few issues as largely a sub-plot until it explodes into the main event. Ezekiel warns Spidey about Morlun, and we cut away to Morlun beginning his hunt for Spidey. But front and centre are the more "kitchen sink" aspects of Peter Parker deciding to work at his old school, and becoming involved in a school shooting wrenched from the headlines. Straczynski's tackling of inner city schools, teen violence, and bullyism, is well-intentioned if, perhaps, a tad simplistic, but re-roots the character in the reality of today. Granted, one might wonder if there's an unfortunate subtext to the fact that most of the bullies and obnoxious teachers are black, and the victims poor misunderstood white kids. Though whether that was the writer's choice, or the artist's, is its own question. Straczynski does a good job of keeping the pace up, the interest level at a reasonable level, despite the action being kind of minimal -- throwing in the occasional mugging or car jacking. Even the school shooting functions more on a dramatic level than an action-adventure level.

Straczynski does a good job with Spidey/Peter himself, capturing the brooding angst, mixed with the flippant quips and wisecracks. One of my nephews once asked me who was my favourite super-hero. And on a certain level, I had to think it might be Spider-Man, at least when handled right, simply for his humanity -- and Straczynski does a fair job of capturing that. (And forty years after his creation, Spidey's powers and costume remain among the most idiosyncratic).

I had read some of these issues before, and had mixed feeling towards them, feeling Straczynski was maybe trying too hard. Tackling his big themes (school violence, human nobility, etc.) while not entirely couching it in the human drama I liked about earlier Spider-Man comics (a supporting cast of friends and colleagues, save his ubiquitous Aunt May, is not readily apparent). But I enjoyed it a lot more this time through, enjoying it for what it was...and as a build up to the Morlun conflict.

Morlun is meant to be the Big Bad Villain, hard to do when Spidey's been fighting super foes for decades. But Morlun is truly unstoppable and implaccable. When he shows up, the action begins big time as their dust up tears apart city streets and leaves Spidey battered, broken, and bloody. For a while, it works pretty effectively, the energy high, and the tension reasonably well conveyed. Straczynski wisely realizes an extended fight alone isn't enough, so he filters it through the character, playing the conflict against Spidey's compassion, by having Spidey caught between fighting Morlun, and saving innocent bystanders who Morlun is only too happy to exploit.

But, as too often happens, it maybe starts sooner than it should (in the fourth chapter)...and goes on longer than it warrants. It's not boring...but it's not quite consistently riveting, either. Even when things promise to get interesting, as Spidey decides to start using his brains, his final stratagem against Morlun is both a touch dodgy, plausibility-wise...and seems like something he could've thought of earlier.

Straczynski even backs off his own revelation about Spidey's origin a bit. You spend the story wondering: is this really going to be the "new" take on Spider-Man's origins...or will we learn Ezekiel was lying? In the end, neither happens, and Spidey dismissively muses that "Maybe it's true. Maybe it isn't." And that's about it.

This TPB ends with a final scene meant to push you into the next story arc -- another "nothing will ever be the same" sort of thing. But it's not relevant to this saga (and it's not a death defying cliff hanger or anything) so it shouldn't hurt the ability to enjoy this on its own.

The art is by John Romita Jr, whose association with the character goes back years. He drew the character back in the 1980s...and his dad, John Romita Sr., is regarded as one of the premier Spidey artists from the 1960s. Junior's style has changed markedly over the years, from an early, non-descript, style, to a penchant for blocky figures in the mid-1980s (such as in Daredevil: Typhoid Mary). Now his style is more caricaturish, with knobby limbs and cartoony faces, inspired a bit, presumably, by Frank Miller (before Miller's style was consumed by its own excesses). It works surprisingly well. There is an inner consistency to the work, and a dynamism to the figures, and the composition, not just in the action scenes, but even when characters are standing around, talking. I've had mixed feelings for Romita Jr.'s style, but I rather liked it here, benefitting from Scott Hanna's restraining inks and some bold colours.

Ultimately, for all the brooding angst, for all the novel "revelations" that may or may not be true, for all the ancient evil, Coming Home falls into the rut of a pretty traditional superhero story: villain shows up whose sole motivation is to fight the hero. In that sense, it fails to rise to any particular heights, and the action-fighting is kind of protracted. Yet, it's an enjoyable enough read. The energy level is high, and Straczynski has a feel for the core of the character. He straddles the needs of the serious and the fun, the character-driven and the adventure-driven, the thoughtful and the popcorn. It's not the classic Straczynski was, presumably, hoping for, but it gets you turning the pages.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

Got a response?  Email us at lattabros@yahoo.com

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