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Spider-Man: No Laughing Matters

September 27th, 2006 by | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“I am not what I was before,” the silence says. “I am anger, I am madness, I am the spider. And God help you if you get in my way.”

This is gonna be a long one. Get a sandwich, come back, get reading.

Even moreso than the X-Men and Fantastic Four, Spidey is Marvel’s flagship character. He’s their everyman. Reed Richards is a super genius who has enough game to woo Susan Storm and convince her, her brother, and Ben Grimm that stealing a spaceship to go into outer space is a good idea. The X-Men are a bunch of freaks and outcasts with perfect bodies, and nobody likes the Avengers.

Don’t even get me started on those freaking Avengers, all right?

Spidey is the guy that every relates to and loves. He’s probably the most human out of Marvel’s big characters. He’s had girl trouble, family drama, tragedy, and upswings. He’s led a real life and ended up marrying a wonderful girl. He’s easy to relate to. He’s the guy that we’re supposed to identify with when tough choices come up. His role in Civil War, at least outside of the main (crappy) miniseries, shows this. He is us. His set of experiences are pretty much universal, except for that whole crime-fighting thing. Let’s look at that. The crime-fighting, I mean.

Spidey is a jokester. He’s constantly cracking wise. It’s been pretty well-established that jokes are his way of both coping with the incredible danger he finds himself in every day and throwing villains off balance. I mean, seriously, I can barely stay calm when some jerk is telling me unfunny jokes, imagine if some guy were telling jokes and punching you. Disorienting for sure. The joking is coping because it allows him to maintain control of a sick situation. It takes his mind off the fact that Carnage is about to murder a schoolbus full of children. It lets him focus.

Spidey also believes in the innate goodness of man. I’m reminded of the scene in “Return of the Green Goblin” where he sits down and just has a heart-to-heart with Norman Osborn about his life, their relationship, and Gwen Stacy. He remarks that Norman can never win because Gwen will always be greater than he is. Her smile and her spirit will always overpower Norman’s hate and crazy. Norman killed her, but her memory defeats him. In his heart, Peter believes that almost everyone can be rehabilitated. Evil exists, but it has nothing at all on good. Good will win out in the end, because that is the way it is. That is the way it has to be. Right?

What happens, though, when you push him to the edge? Not in a battle, I mean. When battles get serious, Peter gets desperate. What happens when you make Peter Parker genuinely angry? What happens when he gets close to that breaking point, or possibly just past it?

What happens when the jokes stop?

First, read these pages. They’ll provide some background that I’ll expound upon below.

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Norman Osborn was the first Green Goblin, but Harry was arguably the worst. He was Peter’s best friend and worst enemy, all in one. Eventually, Harry died saving Peter, even going so far as to acknowledge that he was his best friend. It was a rough end to be sure.

Later on, after a few months of Marvel time, Peter’s parents returned from the grave. Only… it wasn’t them. They were life model decoys. Harry, before his death, had hired the Chameleon to take one last shot at Peter. It was successful. Peter had finally gotten one of the things he’d always wanted, only to have it stripped away from him and turned into a lie at the last moment. It was a cruel trick, but an effective one.

Check out those pages above. The Peter Parker/Norman and Harry Osborn feud is quite possibly the greatest feud in comics. Lex Luthor never got Superman like this. He can’t. He isn’t part of Clark Kent’s circle. Norman and Harry, though, were a father figure and brother to Peter, respectively. Harry’s final betrayal cuts deep, even though they’d made their peace, and it’s finally unhinged Spidey. It was too much, too fast and Peter just couldn’t cope. He’s lost it.

asm-390-12.jpg The thing is, being Spider-Man is both a responsibility and an outlet. He gets to be a big man. He gets to be a hero. In a way, he’s a little boy playing pretend. Being Spider-Man is at least partly about escaping from being Peter Parker and his problems. Now, the two have intersected in the worst way. Once again proving that she’s the greatest wife in comics, Mary Jane understands this. She knows exactly what he’s doing. “[A]s long as you keep playing, you won’t have to feel. You won’t have to hurt.” She understands the escapism and the draw it has, because she understands Peter Parker. He takes everything onto his shoulders. Holding the weight of the world just isn’t enough.

asm-390-13.jpg asm-390-14.jpgBefore, it was okay. He did his hero thing, came back home, and they were happy. Now, after all this, he’s off. He’s using Spider-Man to escape from everything and it’s hurting her. That isn’t how it should be, and MJ has seen it happen before with her father. She refuses to associate with a man who is going to grow away from her. No way, not again. Instead of running away, her former excuse, she’s going to fix it. Her smoking was out of spite for how he’s been treating her. She realizes that that’s the wrong way to do things. You don’t play the passive-aggressive role and avoid problems. You fix them. She’s going to drag him kicking and screaming into happiness. He’s sick if he thinks this is the way to handle things.

asm-390-15.jpgYou can see it start here. Peter knows that something is wrong, but the only thing he can do is stare off into the darkness. MJ finally gets through to him, perhaps. I didn’t post it here, but the next page has captions reading “Please God… let that be enough.” MJ isn’t sure, and, well, she was right. A few pages later, she wakes up from a nightmare and Petey is gone. She wonders if he realizes how much he’s hurting her while he’s off playing pretend to get away from his problems. “Guess not,” she says. She tosses her cigarettes out of the window and renews her resolves to not allow Peter to turn into her father.

asm-390-22.jpgElsewhere, Peter’s having a monologue of his own. He knows good and well that he’s hurting her, and that she needs him, but he’s convinced himself that “Peter Parker isn’t a safe man to be around.” Considering that he’s seen his life fall apart like a house of cards lately, I can understand the sentiment. He is scared to death of losing the love of his life, and he thinks that avoiding her and his real life will spare her. He thinks.

He hopes.

He even thinks, “I’m so mixed up– so… crazy– that I can’t even trust my thoughts, my feelings!” He’s lost in a sea of paranoia, where everything he trusts betrays him in the end, including himself. He decides to go see Dr. Ashley Kafka, the chief of Ravencroft.

An aside: for some reason, Spidey ended up with his own Arkham Asylum. That was Ravencroft. Ashley Kafka worked there as a kind of Moira McTaggert for crazies, working to rehabilitate them and cure their sickness. John Jameson (yes, that John Jameson) worked as her chief of security. They were “involved,” as the hepcats say.

He dashes over to see her, only to find that she’d been horribly injured when Shriek, a leftover supervillain from Maximum Carnage, broke out. She’s a complete nutbar with sonic powers, and she’s got a level of control (or perhaps plot-deviceitis) that Banshee or Siryn don’t have. I am not sure if she has one eye or two. Doesn’t matter. She also grabbed Malcolm McBride, a.k.a. Carrion. He was mostly cured, though. Spidey was going to see someone he knew he could trust, someone he was certain would do right by him, only to see her laid low.

Betrayal.

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Spidey was already at the breaking point. He can’t be hurt again. He doesn’t think he could take it. “be the spider,” an inner voice whispers. He doesn’t think of the two women who love him and who will be there for him no matter what. He thinks of the evil that’s been unleashed on the town. He thinks of death, he thinks of being a hero, and he thinks of vengeance. “Be the spider, and bury the man.”

asm-391-15.jpg He takes the advice. There was a good bit during the JMS/JRjr run on Amazing Spidey where he gives in to being a hunter. I like to think that it sprang from this arc. Peter gives into his spider-nature and goes after Shriek. No quips. No banter. No jokes. That was Parker’s gimmick. The Spider does not feel, he simply acts. This is Peter’s “Bruce Wayne is only a mask” moment and it is terrifying. He’s out to put Shriek down. You treat madness the same way that you would treat a bug: you stamp on it until it’s a smear. You hit it until it’s done.

It’s worth noting that she doesn’t lay a hand on him on this page. He’s in the zone and his punches are sporting sound effects that are usually reserved for higher class villains than Shriek.

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Shriek only manages to get him to stop by faking being, uh, crazier. Spidey pauses. “How could he not?” asks the captions. He didn’t do such a good job of burying Parker after all. He’s still there, lurking just under the surface. His compassion, his love, his fear, his feelings. Spider-Man pays the price for that momentary weakness and gets knocked out, leaving Shriek and Carrion to escape, but not before Carrion tries to burn him up, only to be stopped by Shriek.

While he was out, his aunt fell ill. We know now that it was an actress or something planted by old Norman Osborn, but back in the day? It was a real “Oh snap!” moment. Mary Jane managed to get her to the hospital and left Peter a note explaining what happened. He comes home from the fight with Shriek and Carrion and passes out on the bed. The stress of dealing with his parents, Harry, the Chameleon, and now all this crap puts him out like a light, so he doesn’t see the note until he wakes up… and that pulls the rug out from under him again.

The following scene is one of the reasons why I have such fond memories of this story so long after I first read it. It scared me as a kid because, man, Spidey was my entry drug. He was the hero who I wanted to be, who I identified with the most, blah blah blah. If he could crack under the pressure, man, anyone could. I’ll let the images do the talking, though.

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One thing I love about this scene is that it skips the usual comics exposition here. It just lets Bagley work. He doesn’t have to say, “It’s not fair that I put my life on the line, I do all these selfless things and things still don’t go right. It’s not fair that after all I’ve done, this can still happen.” It’s something that you just know and understand. It’s grief. MJ is there to comfort him, but he’s not at that point yet. He’s had all this built-up resentment and anger stewing inside him, deluding himself into becoming The Spider to escape it, and now it’s gotta come out. At the end, though, after the violence, all he can do is cry. He’s powerless in this situation. What can Spider-Man do? Nothing.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that proving someone to be powerless is a hugely damaging. It’s especially damaging to someone who is already on the edge.

Now, this next bit, I’m not so fond of. It’s a little excessive and the only thing it proves is that Spidey has gone certifiably crazy. It’s doofy, but the payoff is worth it.

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Kind of dumb, right? Spiders wrap their prey up in cocoons, they don’t wrap themselves up in it. The captions are great, but man, that cocoon!

Peter is officially crazy-go-nuts. He’s buried Peter Parker. Parker brings too much pain, so the only way to escape that pain is to ignore those things that can possibly result in pain. He’s The Spider, and that leads to this super-sweet image:

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“I am not what I was before,” the silence says. “I am anger, I am madness, I am the spider. And God help you if you get in my way.”

This is what happens when the laughing stops. When Peter Parker, general optimist and good guy, gets pushed too far, he reacts with violence, with madness. This, to me, shows the biggest difference between stereotypical Marvel storytelling and stereotypical DC storytelling. DC’s heroes get put through their paces, yes, but how often do they respond by breaking under the strain? The Marvel U is filled with people who are a touch away from insanity anyway, and that makes it even worse when you people who you thought would be cool and sane forever end up on the wrong side of the sanitometer.

Peter Parker was one of those guys for me. When fights go wrong, or people get in trouble, he just gets desperate. Where Superman would go “This ends now!” Peter focuses and just fights all out to win. “I gotta put this guy down or else it’s over.” He’s willing to die fighting if it means that he does his job.

Here, after all he’s been through, he’s willing to kill himself fighting. There is a difference.

The more I think about this story, the more I like it. It’s just a great idea. Take your hero to the edge, just like in a lot of other comics stories, then tip him that much farther. What I particularly like is that it shows that this behavior is unhealthy. It’s an aberration. MJ is constantly trying to bring him out of it, but he’s so lost in both grief, anger, and probably not a little self-pity that he’s stuck in a rut. You can only solve a problem if you want to, and Spidey stopped wanting to solve his problems here. He wanted to avoid them, and that’s no way out. He knew full well that he was doing wrong to himself and the love of his life.

asm-392-01.jpg Mary Jane thinks of him as a child playing pretend more than once. She’s absolutely right. He’s using Spider-Man as an escape from his problems, but it isn’t working. He mentions in one scene that maybe Aunt May and Uncle Ben did too good of a job raising him. He can’t shut out Peter Parker like he wants. Peter is too insistent, too honorable. At one point, he’s beating the religion out of Carrion. Carrion’s mother, who was going to be killed if he failed, pleads with him to stop. “Don’t do this to Malcolm! Or to yourself!” She knows that he isn’t like this. He’s a hero.

Spidey stops. He begins to apologize. Peter comes back up, once again. He can’t stay away, because he is the reason why “The Spider” even exists in the first place. He’s the core.

This is way, way better than Batman’s “Bruce Wayne is a mask” crap. That was Batman being a jerk. This is Peter Parker being human. Everyone wishes that they could just lock away the pain and hurt. Peter has a unique way to get away from it, but no less unhealthy than our normal ways. At the end of all this, he’s going to sit down, reassess, and stay human. He’s going to stay Parker.

Even if this story was part of the lead-up to the Clone Saga, I still love it. It was great stuff. I wouldn’t mind if this was the only story that they did with Nuts Spidey. it’s a well you can’t really keep dipping into before the character is tainted. In this instance, I loved it. I just wish it was printed in a trade.

Well, hey! You made it all the way through. Congrats. Shorter post next time, I promise.

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8 comments to “Spider-Man: No Laughing Matters”

  1. Yeah, that’s what I remember drew me to Spider-Man when I was a kid. Peter and the Marvel universe were more relatable, and that aspect of fallible people who could snap under the pressure and do bad things just felt more meaningful and interesting. They always say it’s good writing to have your character not be perfect and do dumb or bad stuff, for a fully-rounded character. Some people may like all that epic, impersonal stuff, but I think a character-oriented industry like comics does better when characterization is key, which may be why Marvel has usually had a lead over DC. As awful as Civil War is getting, I kinda feel like giving Marvel a little credit for having the guts to show their big, marque characters doing something awful and reprehensible and going off the deep end.


  2. Ah, so this was the storyline that kicked that off. thanks for the info. I only read “Back from the Edge” during the Spider-clone saga, so I was wondering what the “edge” meant for Peter. I didn’t know he went this crazy.

    Actually, when DC tried experimenting with a hero who eventually snapped under the pressure of heroism… the fans clamored for him to go back and it was eventually revealed that he was taken over by a yellow parasite.

    Yes, Hal Jordan, I’m looking at you.


  3. Well done look at the good that came before the Clone Saga. Liked how you put this forth. Sad that this is something forgotten in the current age of storytelling from Marvel.


  4. Thanks Palladin!

    This really was a great story. I kind of gave Mary Jane and Aunt May short shrift to focus on Peter, but MJ and May have another scene that has to do with coping when things go wrong. If I had to pick one story out of the ’90s to be reprinted, I’d choose this one. It’s almost a companion piece to Kraven’s Last Hunt, but from the opposite perspective.


  5. […] I like that. I’m not exactly in the “Heroes have to be DARK and depressing and RARRRR” camp, but I do think that when you have a great character it isn’t a bad idea to drop them into the gutter every once and a while. The contrast between how the character should be and how he is can sometimes be a powerful one. […]


  6. […] Spider-Man: No Laughing Matters is a post I wrote last September about a pre-Clone Saga arc I liked a lot. In it, Spider-Man gets really angry, starts beating people up like crazy, and has an aunt on her death bed. Things between him and Mary Jane are really tense and he can’t quite manage to open up. It’s a story that has Spider-Man ready to kill… but he pulls back at the last second and remembers who he is. […]


  7. […] big on family in comics. This should be old hat by this point, honestly. I love seeing it done well and have an irrational hatred […]


  8. […] be DARK and depressing and RARRRR” camp, but I do think that when you have a great character it isn’t a bad idea to drop them into the gutter every once and a while. The contrast between how the character should be and how he is can sometimes be a powerful […]