Introduction for the Series of Essays
In terms of Amazing Spider-Man runs in recent history, there are few that are more iconic than J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr.’s work in the early 2000s. Their run is defined by both a fresh exploration into the origin of Spider-Man’s powers and more importantly, a return to basics for the character after a decade of overly sensational storylines. So, to appreciate the successes and shortcomings of this run, we will be delving into each issue and reflecting on how they impact both the world in which they exist and us, the readers.
Amazing Spider-Man, Volume #2, Issue #31: Assessing the Value of Peter Parker
While the previous issue centered on laying the foundation for change in Peter Parker’s life, the next part of the story involves the assessment of his value across multiple fronts. Following up the revelations presented at the beginning of the arc, he’s evaluated here as a hero, as an ally, and as a source of power and sustenance. What his net worth means depends on the evaluator, and as we will see, their valuations, while generally positive, aren’t always in the best interest for our wallcrawler.
The issue begins with Peter having breakfast with Aunt May. Still reeling from his encounter with Ezekiel the night before, he keeps zoning out and has a hard time maintaining a conversation with her, a tendency she’s more than familiar with. It’s interesting to note that while this story arc revolves heavily around change, Aunt May is shown as the one constant in Peter’s life. Her compassion is reliable while the rest of his life is in flux. So, despite his difficulty at staying in the moment, she’s able to persuade him into considering work as a substitute teacher at his old high school.
The first valuation of Peter’s worth occurs as he webslings across the city towards Queens to inquire about teaching. The scene opens from Ezekiel’s perspective as he hosts a board meeting for his company. In fact, the scene revolves around the literal accounting of the company’s worth (Side note: the accountant is flustered by Ezekiel’s request for a “coffee table figure”, but really all that’s being asked for is the company’s total value in equity and liabilities, a calculation that would be clearly noted on the balance sheet.). The meeting is then interrupted by a commuting Spider-Man, whose innocuous passing is distracting enough for Ezekiel to end the meeting early. It’s then subtly introduced that every board member has an occult connection similar to the supernatural origin for Peter’s power that Ezekiel suggested last issue. One of the members approaches Ezekiel and they discuss the value of Spider-Man in terms of whether he’s worth saving. They’re aware of the vampiric villain introduced in the previous issue and so, with our hero being the brilliant red-and-blue beacon that he is, he’s initially valued as a distraction. He’s the sacrifice that keeps the rest of them safe. However, Ezekiel’s evaluation begins to differ. He undoubtedly agrees that Spider-Man would work as a sacrifice, but after meeting him, he realizes that he’s not necessarily disposable. That he may have value as an ally.
The next valuation of Peter’s worth also occurs during his webslinging commute and this is performed by the villain himself, Morlun. While enjoying breakfast with his vassal, Dex, he starts to wax poetic about the similarities between the culinary creations crafted by humans and the prey he’s preparing to chase and dine on. He indirectly compares Spider-Man to pastry, going into detail about their fragile beauty as works of art that are momentarily appreciated before being swiftly devoured. His valuation centers on how fine a delicacy Spider-Man is as sustenance and he confirms that assessment when the wallcrawler swings by. He emits a burst of his predatory hunger and Spider-Man’s spider-sense instantly reacts, sending him cowering under a ledge. Morlun delights in his reaction, reveling in the proof positive of his valuation.
The final valuation of Peter’s worth is performed by himself and it’s an assessment of his heroic purpose, both in and out of costume. It’s only fair to acknowledge that Aunt May was a part of this valuation since she helped to seed his interest in the substitute teaching position. But the real accounting is performed when he finally arrives at the school. While waiting to interview for the position, an active shooter enters the building and begins firing an assault rifle. During the intense situation, Peter realizes that he for one, doesn’t care about his secret identity as he ushers students to safety, and two, that through empowering one of the students, he’ll have the means to disarm the shooter without anyone being injured. His plan is a success, but when he apprehends the shooter, he learns that he’s a student who acted out because of anger over being bullied. It’s at this point that he discovers his value as a potential mentor. That perhaps through teaching, he’ll be able to offer guidance and protection to under-served youth, who might otherwise resort to violence as a means of being heard. Because Spider-Man might have saved the day, but Peter Parker could have saved this kid’s future, perhaps in the same way that Uncle Ben saved his.
Depending on the perspective, Peter’s valuation ranges between disposable, delectable, and finally essential to the lives of those lacking in guidance and support. That he’s ignorant of some of these evaluations drives the tension in the story as we wonder what will become of our hero, especially when he’s found a purpose where the good he does will have ripple effects in the lives of young people who remind him of who he used to be.
Storyline Choices in Modern Day Contexts
I couldn’t read this issue without thinking about how our perspectives regarding school shootings, and mass shootings in general, have changed over the last two decades. At the time of publication, the most noteworthy shooting was Columbine and I can see how it was present in the public consciousness. And the reason why the school shooting happened in this story maps onto the reasons why the two students from that high school engaged in violence. The sentiment at the time was that such violence could happen anywhere, but these days it’s more fact than hypothetical.
The context is different now, too. There have been many “Columbines” since the publication of this story and the reasons for the violence have expanded as well. What probably dates this story the most is that it was written prior to Sandy Hook, where mental health and gun control became big factors in discussing why mass shootings occur. This story is also pre-9/11, the 24-hour new cycle, and the advent of social media which all play roles in how polarizing the subject is now.
Perhaps the most striking part of this storyline is when Peter admits to himself that if he as a teenager were under the same circumstances as the shooter, then he might have chosen to do the same thing. It was a bold writing choice at the time and put a spotlight on bullying, but I can’t say that it would be the kind of thing that the character would consider today. In the same way that the teacher’s callousness and cowardice wouldn’t be portrayed in the same way or Peter interviewing for the job immediately afterward. Ultimately, the trauma here is centered on the shooter, but in real life as we’ve discovered, it’s the victims and community that suffer the most, whether they’ve been hurt or not.