Comfort Food Comics Potluck: Paul Jenkins’ Peter Parker: Spider-Man by Bobby Varghese Vinu

Spider-Man And Chocolate: Memories

When I was a kid, I used to eat a lot of Dairy Milk chocolates. Whenever my mother or my grandmother and I would go to a shop, I would beg for them to buy me some. They were everywhere from the local kiosks to the department stores. I still have a fondness for those chocolates and when I sometimes get candy for myself, I always try to get a Dairy Milk chocolate. 

Not sure if this was how they looked as a kid, but good lord is my mouth watering right now

 Eating those chocolates always made me think about how good life was. Of course, I was a child and I wasn’t aware of the realities that would come with growing up. And my life wasn’t perfect. But in that one moment, life was good. It was an escape for me. And now when I eat a Dairy Milk chocolate, I think about all of the memories that come with it. I think about that constant feeling of comfort from those memories and then I think about the other aspects of my childhood. On one such occasion, I thought about some of the comics that defined my childhood, such as Paul Jenkins’ run on Peter Parker: Spider-Man.

Spider-Man had always been one of my favourite characters as a kid. My first comic was Ultimate Spider-Man #10 by Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley. It was in the middle of a storyline that introduced the Ultimate universe version of the Kingpin but it was still a good issue! It did make me curious about the characters I was reading, and that’s a good sign of when a comic has done its job as I couldn’t wait for the next issue. J. Michael Straczynski’s first issue of The Amazing Spider-Man also really made me a fan of the character as I kept reading. But I will always remember Paul Jenkins as the writer that would really hit that sweet spot of comfort for me. 

Peter Parker: Spider-Man wasn’t Jenkins’ first time writing the character. That honour goes to the story arc in Webspinners: Tales of Spider-Man #10-12. It featured the Chameleon, who tries to reach out to Peter because of his own personal mess. While it does admittedly falter a little bit by the third part of the story, it’s a true hidden gem. It functions as an interesting examination of Peter’s guilt, and about how owning up to one’s actions is a bitter, yet correct solution because one must face reality rather than falling into the trappings of escapism. It’s also got some incredible art by Sean Phillips and JG Jones, who lend a haunting atmosphere to the story.

When Jenkins came into the franchise, Spider-Man was in a bad place. I know that the 90’s are considered to be the worst decade to be a fan of the character because of stories like The Clone Saga, but I’m talking about something else. There was the dreaded relaunch in 1999, which was an attempt to take the character “back to basics,” a phrase I detest for its regressive implications. The “back to basics” approach coupled with the manufactured drama felt forced. Peter quit being Spider-Man since he stopped Norman Osborn yet he decides to immediately go back to being a superhero. What’s worse is that instead of having an honest conversation with his wife, Mary Jane, about going back to the threads (which would have made for an interesting story about keeping your promises and the relationship honesty has with superheroics), he does this behind her back. 

 I could ramble on about how much I hated the relaunch, but my point is that the stories just weren’t good. Eventually, MJ does find out that Peter’s been lying behind her back and she leaves him, only for her to die in a plane crash (don’t worry; she was later revealed to be alive). While Peter’s life has never been perfect and we’ve seen him down in the gutter countless times, there was nothing redeeming about this direction. It was just too depressing to read and it was a forced attempt to inject angst into the character. The well of creativity ran dry and everyone at Marvel was just seeing whatever would stick to see if it worked. 

I guess that’s why when Paul Jenkins became the writer of Peter Parker: Spider-Man, it was a breath of fresh air. Sure, this was just a satellite title, as The Amazing Spider-Man never experienced a change in the creative team until JMS came on, but it was still so nice. Jenkins’ writing resuscitated the character and even if it was just a satellite title, it was fully character-centric. Peter Parker: Spider-Man #20, the first issue of his run, is an example of that.

I find Mark Buckingham’s cover for this issue to be representative of the state of Spider-Man comics. He’s wrapped himself in some webs, and he’s afraid to leave. For me, it’s a reminder of how the regressive nature of the 1999 relaunch meant that nothing interesting could be done with the character. It felt like the editors and writers working on Spider-Man were afraid to try something new. There was a fear of exploration but Jenkins was a writer willing to put that fear aside by deciding to explore the character fully. 

In Peter Parker: Spider-Man #20, Peter visits his Uncle Ben’s grave and talks about how he inherited his trademark sense of humour from Uncle Ben and feels like he has since lost that ever since he heard the news about MJ. It’s heartwarming to see how much Uncle Ben meant as a father figure to him. His impact on Peter can be seen, with him noting how Ben’s unique humour greatly helped him deal with things in life, as he states in the panel below:

It’s interesting how Jenkins uses the loss of two different characters to explore the loss of Peter’s sense of humour. When Uncle Ben died, he became Spider-Man as a way to honour him. His use of humour is in loving memory of the man who was his father for all intents and purposes. Uncle Ben taught him the importance of laughter as a medicine for pain and he used that to deal with his problems, whether that be facing a scary villain or navigating through his relationships. And now he’s lost MJ, the one person who loved him even after she found out about his greatest secret. So what’s the point in being Spider-Man anymore? 

The whole issue felt like a metafictional commentary on the state of Spider-Man comics and how for a time, it felt like nobody at Marvel had the will to tell interesting stories with the character. But even if my interpretation doesn’t hold up, it’s still a fine story. Taking aside the flashbacks, Peter is the only character in the present. By stripping the supporting cast and focusing solely on him, we see the character in his bare essence. We see him for who he is; a hero who’s just as human as us. Someone who experiences loss like everyone else and is crushed by it, yet somehow finds the will to go on.

And indeed, that is what makes the rest of the run remarkable. Jenkins didn’t just use his penchant for characterization to explore Peter. He explored the other characters in Spidey’s web (pun intended) and their relationships with the wall crawler. One such case would be from Peter Parker: Spider-Man #22, which is a Sandman story. He’s dying and in his last tussle with the wall crawler, we get this scene.

If only he knew

                                                          

Sometimes, Spider-Man villains are similar to the character in that they’re also human and relatable. Sandman thinks that because he’s a hero, Spidey is probably someone who has it all, but this is far from the truth. It’s just a way of showing how despite their conflicts, Peter’s not so different from the rest of them in that they’re all fighting their own battles. He tried to be good, but it was too hard for him, and he crumbled, both literally and metaphorically. 

Peter’s relationship with Sandman in this issue can be compared to his relationship with his other supervillains, and indeed Jenkins provides an interesting comparison when he writes “A Death In The Family,” which I assume was named after the Batman story of the same name because Jenkins writes about the relationship between Peter and Norman Osborn. There are these two moments from Peter Parker: Spider-Man #47 that I really love. 

I know that “A Death In The Family” is controversial for some Spider-Man fans because of the Mister Coffee joke and that the relationship between Norman and Peter is shown to be akin to that of Batman and the Joker but I think it works here. It’s indicative of the longtime relationship they have. Unlike Peter’s relationship with the other rogues such as the aforementioned Sandman, there is a personal enmity between the two. And yet, their relationship is so twisted that they know each other well enough for an honest conversation. 

But I think the best relationship moment between two characters in this run is probably the one between Peter and Aunt May in Peter Parker: Spider-Man #50. Taking place after Straczynski’s “The Conversation” story in The Amazing Spider-Man where May learns Peter is Spider-Man, Peter tells Aunt May about the dangers that being a superhero could pose to her, as he brings up how villains like Norman Osborn know his secret identity and we get this emotional moment:

Seeing Peter as someone who’s moved on, yet someone who will never forgive himself for what happened to his loved ones like Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy is heartbreaking. Sure, he tries to honour the memories of his loved ones who’ve been caught in the crossfire, but at the same time, for all about how Peter thinks he’s making up for what he considers his mistakes, May’s statement is a sobering reminder that no matter what he does, his loved ones will stay dead and that will never change.

I mentioned earlier that whenever I ate chocolate, I would just think about how life was good. For me, Jenkins provided that escape. It was just nice to read good stories about my favourite character in comics. The stories were so relatable but at the same time, they were emotional. I felt that there was something surreal about reading the stories about a character who has his own set of regular problems as an escape. I guess it was an escape in the sense that I was able to feel with Peter and it felt like I wasn’t alone because of his relatability. 

But as emotional as the stories could be, I also want to talk about Jenkins’ penchant for comedy. It’s just so funny. There’s the earlier Mister Coffee joke that I love. Imagine if Norman took that name and rolled with it. But those aren’t the only jokes. From the aforementioned Sandman story in Peter Parker: Spider-Man #22, there’s this bit. 

I am pretty sure I’d be considered a bad guy by how I eat my Reese’s peanut butter cups. I love eating them in that manner as it allows me to relish the taste, something I learned from my days of eating Dairy Milk as a kid. But there’s more! There’s this sweet yet funny bit from Peter Parker: Spider-Man #21. 

I always liked the time when Peter and Randy Robertson were roommates. I do wish we got to see moments like this in the current ongoing series of The Amazing Spider-Man, because this was some fine character writing. They were a relatable duo and this was a scene that endeared me to them. Which was why I didn’t like what I felt was a mean-spirited jab from Dan Slott at that era in The Amazing Spider-Man #648, where Peter is looking for a place to crash and Randy refuses, mentioning how he was an awful roommate. Sure, he may not have the level of closeness that someone like Harry Osborn or Flash Thompson had, and Peter may not be the perfect roommate, but Randy was a reliable friend and he was sympathetic to Peter’s plight. He tried to help Peter out. 

This issue had more golden moments, like when Peter had to stop a bunch of criminals who were mimes. 

Peter makes a lot of snarky remarks and they’re biting, but they’re also hilarious. And there’s a sequel of sorts to this in Peter Parker: Spider-Man #38, which was a silent issue about the same gang of criminal mimes planning their revenge on Peter. I find that with such issues, a silent issue can be an obstacle to overcome, but Jenkins decides to utilize the best aspects of the medium to tell an Amazing (pun intended) story. It’s filled with brilliant gags and it’s probably not just one of my favourite Spider-Man stories, but it’s probably one of my favourite single issues in all of comics. 

Speaking of utilizing the medium, I think a lot of Jenkins’ run worked because of his collaborators. Most of the run was drawn by Mark Buckingham, who reminds me of Alan Davis in a lot of ways yet is visually distinct enough to have his own style. There’s a warmth to his art that allows for Jenkins’ emotional and witty dialogue to flow through it. It’s just pleasing to see and he adapted so well to the various colorists of the run. Humberto Ramos drew the aforementioned “A Death In The Family” story and while his art can be hit or miss, it proves to be a good fit for the dramatic aspects of the story. Wayne Faucher’s inks adapts the art so well and Richard Starkings’ lettering gives me a strong nostalgia for those moments from my childhood.

So is it perfect? Not necessarily. There is a story in Peter Parker: Spider-Man #48 and #49 that was incomprehensible for me. It was a weird tale and not in a good way. And of course, there may be stories that may be more hard hitting with readers over others, whether that be with the comedy or emotional heft. But it’s still a killer run that holds up well and a run that I am tempted to consider a hidden gem as I feel it isn’t discussed as much. 

So where does one start if you want to read this run? Jenkins starts writing Peter Parker: Spider-Man with issue 20 and after issue 24, I’d advise readers to check out Roger Stern and Ron Frenz’s Revenge of the Green Goblin miniseries, which continues onto issue 25 of the 1999 relaunch of The Amazing Spider-Man (also known as volume 2) and ends with Peter Parker: Spider-Man #25. Afterwards, the run continues as normal, save for a fill-in story by Zeb Wells and Jim Mahfood in Peter Parker: Spider-Man #42 and #43. It’s a funny story where Peter goes to MTV Spring Break, and I would recommend it as another hidden gem, but it is not a compulsory story to this material. Jenkins’ last issue on the title is issue 50. 

 I want to talk so much more about Jenkins’ run because there are so many good stories and I feel like I am omitting some incredible ones, but I absolutely recommend it to anyone who wants to sink their teeth into a Spider-Man run that is accessible. I find myself often revisiting the run for old times sake. Other times, I just revisit it to find some comfort when life kicks me hard in the shins. It’s a run that has taught me something important about storytelling. 

Sometimes, the best stories are the ones that we come back to for comfort. This is my comic Dairy Milk chocolate. It evokes memories from my childhood and I guess it’s just nice to read something and then know that things will be okay. 

Because they will be. 

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