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 #34:
Asking for Just a Chance, the Ballad of the Under-Spider
The fate of the underdog hero is by its definition fraught with challenges. It’s a principle part of their appeal. The way the unlikely contender, brimming with determination, glares up at the sneering god and says, “No, not today.” In this case, we have Peter Parker, still reeling from his first bout against Morlun, a veritable god, and there are two factors that keep him in the arena, ones that apply to nearly all underdog stories, and they are: one’s principles over one’s life and the latitude to be given just one chance.
When we last left off with Peter, he had limped his way to Ezekiel high on the penthouse floor of his tower, desperate for help. The hubris he felt prior to his encounter with Morlun is gone, replaced by fear, not just for himself but for the city, as pockets of it are burning from the conflict. But Ezekiel doesn’t have any good news for him, because now that Morlun has touched Peter, he can always find him. There is no place in the world he would be safe now. Not even in an adamantium-armored vault.
It’s at this point that we are shown a distinction between Peter and Ezekiel and the true traits of an underdog. Ezekiel has never been the underdog in a fight. It’s clear from his personal and entrepreneurial successes that he always enjoys a sure win. His vault is an excellent example of this. Every feature is designed to conceal and protect its occupant. No risks are taken. But when a battered Peter asks to use it, Ezekiel denies him because he can no longer be sure of its success. Peter has been touched by Morlun. The chance of the monster sensing him through the vault’s protection is too high. And so, it’s no surprise that Ezekiel now wants no part in helping Peter take on Morlun as a team effort. He can’t see a way to stack the odds. You don’t fight the storm. You take cover and wait for it to pass.
Peter, however, doesn’t care about odds. His heroic origin is founded on principles. That above his own life and limb, he must stand by those principles or experience the kinds of tragedy that he cannot bear. It’s a hard line to tow. One that he questions as he leaves Ezekiel’s tower and heads back to the eye of the storm. He considers running away, but Morlun knows his prey and tears up the city, luring him out, so that when Peter sees the senseless violence, he becomes enraged. What doubts Peter may have harbored about his need to be in this fight evaporates. The principle of stopping this monster from torturing people and consuming others overrides any self-preservation Peter feels for himself. It doesn’t matter how powerful Morlun is or what disadvantage Peter is at, the fight is on.
But, as Morlun again pummels Peter into the ground, it becomes clear that this isn’t an underdog story. It’s just a massacre, because for it to be the former, our hero must have a chance. Every punch he gives goes unfelt. Layers of steel-like webbing are torn away like tissue paper. And Peter is only getting slow and tired. When it becomes clear that this battle of attrition is only breaking one way, he scrounges up enough change to call the people who matter to him. The school, to let them know he won’t make it in. Mary Jane and her answering machine. And lastly, Aunt May, who he gives his love. He’s committed to the battle, certain that it will end in his death and hoping that through sheer determination, he’ll at least take Morlun with him. It’s a vow he can’t keep as Morlun beats him down along the docks.
Well, a vow he can’t keep it alone.
Inspired by Peter’s bravery, Ezekiel shows up to the fight, punching Morlun from behind, giving the underdog his chance. Between the two of them, they keep the monster off balance, affording one of them a good hit to Morlun’s face. Ezekiel tags him in the nose, making him bleed, before he himself becomes a victim and falls into the ocean. Satisfied with a snack, Morlun bows out for the moment, thrilled with the high drama, and leaves Peter alone with yet another chance, his blood and a little bit of time. It’s with these gifts that Peter devises a plan, one that will take advantage of the one factor that makes him different from all his fellow totemistic vessels. One that begins with a nuclear power plant.
So, through the principles that force him into the arena and the chance at overcoming his opponent, we have the makings of an underdog story. Or in this case, an under-spider story. It’s the unlikely hero we love the most. The one with integrity. The one who doesn’t weigh the odds. The one who only asks for a chance to win. For the honor of stepping onto the field and facing the storm.
The Price of a Secret Identity
There’s a certain amount of pride in self-sufficiency. I, like most I know, do what I can in my daily life to take care of what I need. But with the trials of the past year, we’ve all experienced a reminder of how much we rely on others to help us. During our most difficult times, we lean on our family and friends to be the support we need.
And in most daily situations, Peter Parker has benefited from that care. But, Spider-Man, on the other hand, is another matter. In order to maintain his secret identity, Peter has sacrificed that support and it’s rarely more evident than when he gains enough of a reprieve to make a few phone calls, except he doesn’t have any heroes to call. And more than that, who he can call are not people he can rely on. With so little time and money, he doesn’t even risk calling the Fantastic Four for fear it would be a waste of his resources. He’s utterly alone and instead spends what he has on goodbye calls to his family.
It’s a sad time in Spider-Man lore, one that seems now to be from a bygone era, replaced by his Avengers membership and strengthening ties to other teams. Will I miss the hero who gets by on the strength of his own abilities and resolve? Sure, and those moments will still exist, but I’m much more heartened to know if Peter really needs back-up, he has an army of friends to call on these days.