For any character existing in pop-culture long enough, there will be plenty of different interpretations of them. Superman has existed for over 75 years and we’ve seen a multitude of live-action movies, cartoons, and of course comics. Every audience member has a certain interpretation that imprints upon them. There own definitive version of the character. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, Mark Hammil’s animated Joker, Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four and Matt Fraction & David Aja’s Hawkeye.
Thanks to the excellent Spider-Man: Homecoming hitting theaters, I’d like to share the version of Peter Parker that imprinted on me. J. Michael Straczynski & John Romita Jr.’s Amazing Spider-Man (2001-2007).
This was slightly before every change in creative staff led to an aggressive renumbering of a comic book series, which is why Straczynski’s run began with issue 30 in June, 2001. It found adult Peter Parker checking in on his old high school in Queens. He takes up an offer to teach at the school part time, providing its own kind of homecoming for the title character.
But it’s later when things get weird. Peter meets a guy named Ezekiel.
Ezekiel has the same powers as Peter, knows who Peter is, and has his own personal beliefs on where their powers come from.
He brings up this idea that Peter’s spider powers might actually be mystical in origin, making Peter a kind of spider totem warrior. The text never answers this one way or the other; it’s up to the reader to decide how much they buy in. But one character certainly does, a new baddie named Morlun who nearly kills Peter. Morlun consumes the spirit of totem warriors and wants to chow down on Peter. Morlun is especially notable for two reasons. One of which is that he would be retconned into a member of a multiversal Spider-Man hunting family to be the big bad of Spider-Verse.
The other reason is Peter walks away from Morlun so beaten and exhausted he passes out on his bed. And then Aunt May comes in.
But the story took a break after that issue because by then it was December, 2001, and a certain event had changed the world irrevocably in the months prior.
Issue 36 is set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In it, Spider-Man and many other heroes arrive on the scene too late to stop the tragedy, but nevertheless join in the clean-up efforts. Now, I was 8 years old at this time and did not have the mental fortitude to comprehend what had truly occurred. But I can tell you, seeing images like these helped:
Earth’s mightiest heroes stood side-by-side with the firemen, first-aid workers, and military members who existed in the real world to protect us, and it made them stand out as one and the same in my mind. I’ll never forget this comic. Not even that time Doctor Doom cries due to the senselessness of it all.
Spider-Man is THE quintessential New York superhero. To have him ignore such a substantial and transformative event in his city would be like the friends from Friends never once bringing it up in their series.
What’s that? They don’t? Huh.
Either way, Straczynski chose to confront these dark times, but also knew not to dwell on them. Which is why the series comes back to Aunt May in the following arc.
***End Trigger Warning***
May accepts and learns to support Peter as Spider-Man. Peter makes up with Mary Jane (who he had been estranged with) and takes on an upstart new Doc Ock with the help of the original. Peter takes on more and more totem warrior themed bad guys. Peter hangs out with Doctor Strange a bit. And then…
In comic books they like to renumber because a fresh reader is more likely to jump into issue 1 than issue 324. But they always know what the real score is. Which is why they bring the real numbering in when an important milestone is reached, and this particular run hit issue 500 of the Amazing Spider-Man.
Here’s the skinny. Peter breaks time. He sees both an older version of himself and his own origin story. He can interfere with either one. Save himself from his future death or prevent himself from ever becoming a hero. Ultimately he lets both events play out. From there he has to fight all the way from his origin to the present to save the world. Reality? The stakes are high.
He winds up beneath piles of rubble. An underwater base falling apart around him. In front of him the cure to an illness Aunt May had at the time. This event was in Amazing Spider-Man 33. The first Amazing Spider-Man 33. In that moment it’s real. If Peter fails again, then Aunt May dies this time. Only Peter’s even more tired than before, and he’s lifting an underwater base plus the water pressure atop it. And god dammit he does it.
Peter saves the day, the world, everything. And nobody knows what it took. Except Doctor Strange, who gives Peter the gift of one more conversation with Uncle Ben. As drawn by John Romita Sr!
Peter fights Loki, has one final closing chapter with Ezekiel, there’s a not-so-great arc that implies Gwen Stacy actually slept with Norman Osborn before he killed her. Seriously.
The series continues on until Civil War, where Peter reveals his secret identity to the world.
Civil War itself doesn’t explore the ramifications of this, but Amazing Spider-Man does. It shows how the world en masse reacts, it shows how J. Jonah Jameson reacts, and it shows how people like the Kingpin react. Which, unfortunately, leads to the end of my Spider-Man.
Kingpin has Aunt May shot. Peter makes a deal with Mephisto, who’s essentially the devil, to trade his marriage with Mary Jane for Aunt May’s life. Time is rewritten so he and MJ never got married, Aunt May is saved, Peter’s secret identity is hidden again, and I stopped reading Spider-Man. That is until Miles Morales came along.
What makes this series great isn’t necessarily all the bad guys Peter fights, or even the widening mythology Ezekiel attempts to bring in, it’s a laser focused understanding of Peter and his surrounding supporting cast. Also, he gets that Spider-Man is just a guy in a suit who messes up all the time.
Plus it’s funny!
It does my favorite Spider-Man bit which is when he rolls his mask up part way to eat.
It does my other favorite Spider-Man bit, which is when he just hangs out and talks to new yorkers.
For all its ups and downs and an ending that forever disconnected me from the character, this particular run on Spider-Man imprinted itself on me. For some it might have been the Ultimate Spider-Man comic by Brian Michael Bendis & Mark Bagley. For others it was probably Toby Maguire on screen in 2002. For me it started right here, and that’s why this was MY Spider-Man.
PS, read this post after watching Spider-Man: Homecoming. You’ll understand exactly why that particular movie is resonating with me so well.