We interrupt our regularly scheduled entry today to do something I never thought I'd have occasion to do again: praise the daylights out of an issue of Spider-Man.
The issue in question was recently bought by Elmo: it's Part 1 of "Unscheduled Stop," written by Mark Waid and drawn by Marcos Martin, and it's as good an issue of Spider-Man (which is, mind-bogglingly, up to #578, even though it feels like five minutes ago it was hitting #100) as we've seen in probably a good ten years, maybe longer.
The story starts simply enough, even charmingly: a rain-soaked Spider-Man is perched on a rooftop, not very well sheltered by the impromptu webbing-umbrella he's made, eating some Chinese take-out and wishing he had carfare to get out of the weather and take the subway to meet his Aunt May in Brooklyn. When a subway card with fare still on it comes his way, he considers it his lucky day and (after switching to his Peter Parker clothes, naturally) sprints down to catch the next train.
As bad luck would have it, that train is attacked while it's traveling under the East River - by a super-powered hitman who's intent on killing the entire jury of an ongoing mob-trial. The jury is taking the train to view a crime scene, and when the subway car they're in is separated from the rest of the train by the attack, the jurors find themselves in the subterranean company - and of course under the well-meaning protection of - Spider-Man. Which is a good thing, since the villain who stopped the train is still in the tunnel, intent on finishing the job.
The whole thing is handled perfectly. Waid writes a quirky, believable, entirely urban Spider-Man, and his dialog for everybody else is just the combination of urgent and breezy that used to make the book such a joy way back when Stan Lee was writing it. His Spider-Man is level-headed and opinionated, very much a person and not a paragon, and all the other characters trapped in that subway tunnel are equally distinct, including one whose identity is only revealed on the issue's last page, and it's a revelation absolutely nobody - and I mean nobody - will see coming. Not in forty years of reading Spider-Man did I ever even think to question the significance of two little letters...
And what to say about Marcos Martin? If I've ever seen his artwork before, I ignored it (if that happened, it's almost certainly because it was poorly inked - you can tell at a glance that his penciling style is slangy and loose enough so that a lazy inker would make it look like crap despite its great structural strength), but boy, he's great in this issue. His street-scenes are detailed like Norman Rockwell, as is the wonderfully personalized panel where Peter Parker is hurrying to catch the train. And his action-sequences (including the moment where Spider-Man confronts the issue's villain, a tableau lifted with obvious affection from the great Steve Ditko, and a joy to all us long-time readers) are fantastic, which not every comic artist working on a flagship title today can say.
So what's the problem, you ask? I loved the issue, and yet you're sensing my reluctance, the grudging nature of all this praise?
I know it'll sound funny considering that this is a comic book we're talking about, but the problem with this issue is that it isn't real.
As comics fans will know, last year Peter Parker's dear old Aunt May was brutally gunned down in the aftermath of the whole 'Civil War' storyline (during which, to comply with the fascist Superhero Registration Act, Peter Parker unmasked on live TV). As she hovered on death's doorstep, Peter literally made a deal with the devil to save her life: in exchange for malevolent supernatural being Mephisto reviving Aunt May, Peter had to agree to give up Mary Jane, his wife - not her life, but their life, the whole reality of their love. Peter agreed, and Mephisto reworked reality - no shooting, no Mary Jane, no public unmasking, plus lots of other tweakings here and there. Suddenly, the 'reality' of all the Spider-Man books was re-set, like a clock at Daylight Spending Time.
It was very weak dealing, a silly, lazy hail-mary move on the part of Marvel Comics - they had a successful movie franchise boiling along, and they needed a comics version of their character who was more reader-friendly, less encumbered by 'Civil War' baggage - more like he was in the '60s. The ridiculous fiat of it made me so frustrated I was certain the issues that resulted would be garbage from wall to wall. And I was resigned to that, since I didn't like the premise underlying those issues at all.
I still hate that premise (it's so going to be overturned, vitiated, invalidated, the next time Spider-sales need a little goosing - and then where will all these issues be? Stuck in Spider-clone-land, I'm guessing), but regardless, it's long since time I admitted it's starting to produce some really good issues. I'll definitely be bugging Elmo for the second installment of "Unscheduled Stop," and that feeling - actually looking forward to an issue of Spider-Man - is so strange and comfortable to have back again that I can almost overlook the price that was paid to get us all here. Almost.