Nathan Kiehn is the author of over 100 blog posts on his family website Keenlinks and "The Gray Guard" ebook fantasy trilogy on Amazon.
We "May" Need Some Help Here
Back in Black is one of the more recent volumes of Spider-Man stories I've received, and I’m honestly not sure why it took me this long to get it. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I quickly became more interested in the 600 numbered issues instead of the 500 numbered ones since issues immediately following Civil War were a little older and therefore old news. I’d read Back in Black a while ago, and I didn’t remember thinking it was all that awesome, but since I’m trying to collect all 700 issues, on my list it went.
This—as well as the volume highlighted in another post, One More Day—seemed like issues I just needed to get instead of issues I wanted to get. However, having read it a second time, I found I enjoyed it a lot more this time around. As a note, there are also a few Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man issues in this volume as well, but I won’t go over those since they’re part of a different series and don’t really deal with Straczynski’s story.
J. Michael Straczynski and Ron Garney continue immediately where they left off, with Peter and MJ horrified at Aunt May getting shot. After throwing a jeep—yeah, a jeep—at the sniper, Peter rushes to take May to the hospital. Once again, we have a story where Aunt May’s physical well-being is in peril, and this time, it isn’t due to an illness or a heart attack. Peter knows this is a direct result of his unmasking. This time, it’s his fault.
(Okay, there was that one time where Aunt May got sick because Peter gave her a blood transfusion that she needed, and his radioactive blood did more harm than good, but the whole “getting shot in the stomach” thing seems a little bleaker).
It's always awesome when writers make Spider-Man "rush." Other characters have to fly quickly or run quickly. Us regular mortals are forced to drive cars and take buses, limited by their speeds. But Spidey gets to swing through the air on strands of webbing. There's still the tension that Straczynski creates--that he may not make it there in time--but it's done in a really creative way. Other writers have capitalized on this as well (such as Mark Millar) and they do it in such a way that makes you feel like you're the one rushing, like you're Spider-Man desperately shooting web-strand after web-strand as you hurry through the steel canyons of New York. It can get intense.
Spider-Man: Back in Black
The Spider vs. The King
The rest of the story chronicles quite a bit: Aunt May struggles to survive in a hospital where she’s entered in under a different name because “Parker” would bring SHIELD down on their heads due to Peter’s fugitive status; Peter dons his old black costume he wore for a time after being cut off from the Venom symbiote and takes a decidedly more ruthless approach to crimefighting; the Kingpin schemes in his jail cell and feels an overwhelming sense of pride at his accomplishment. Yeah, that’s not good for him.
This is another thing writers do with Spidey. Every so often, he'll ditch the friendly neighborhood shtick and channel his inner Batman, interrogating thugs as he holds them by their shirt collars or webs them to the sides of buildings. Gone is the goofball; instead out comes a serious superhero you do not want to cross. It's a decidedly darker take on the typically silly Web-Slinger, but it never crosses any ethical lines and always has him come back to the lighter hero we know and love.
Finally hunting down the sniper, Peter confronts him seconds before he’s killed by an unknown assailant. Peter continues his hunt and figures out that the Kingpin has been pulling the strings all the while sitting behind bars in his quadruple-XL prison jumpsuit. So Peter goes to the prison to confront him. Kingpin’s confidence is ridiculous here. He goes out to meet the hero, now dressed in his classic white suit, like some sort of victorious king who has broken his enemy. He’s ready to go toe-to-toe with the hero.
And Spider-Man proceeds to beat the tar out of him.
By the time the fight is over, Kingpin’s lovely white suit is torn to shreds, and Spidey is holding him up and threatening to shot webbing down his mouth and suffocate him. He doesn’t, because even ruthless Spider-Man has his limits, but his message is clear. You hurt his family, he will mess you up pretty good. The scene is great, largely because this isn’t one of those fights where the hero and villain are evenly matched and can trade blows for a bit. Here, Spidey is in his element and he beats the Kingpin to a pulp. He crushes his confidence, he humiliates him in front of the other prisoners, he avenges his aunt in the most spectacular, amazing way.
And then Aunt May dies.
Crushing the King
There's no crowd. No jokes. No cute remarks. No acrobatics. No webbing. No tricks. He thinks only one thing. "This is the man responsible for the bullet that ripped through one of the two people I love more than life itself. No, not a man. A target."
— J. Michael Straczynski
The Long, Spidery Arm of Lawlessness
Kidding, kidding. She doesn’t, actually, but that’s for the next volume. In my mind, she should. She’s been around for years, had however many hospital visits because of multiple medical issues, been kidnapped numerous times, lost two husbands, and almost married a supervillain. It’s a lot for an older woman to deal with. I’m surprised she’s hasn’t passed yet. Well, even a sniper’s bullet can’t keep Aunt May down. What Peter does do is he takes Aunt May from the hospital she’s currently in and brings her to another, cheaper one, committing a couple of felonies along the way, like stealing an ambulance. But it’s all for love, right? And he’s already a fugitive, so what’s the big harm in breaking a few more laws?
Admittedly, while I'm being coy about the whole thing, there is an ethical dilemma here, and Straczynski manages to tackle that as well. Spidey knows he's breaking the law multiple times, and it eats at him. Yeah, he's been a vigilante for years, but up until Civil War, he was largely accepted by the public, his actions were seen as good. Now, as a fugitive, even being free is illegal for him, and Straczynski shows how this eats at him. If he were inside the law, Aunt May could get better medical care. If he were on Iron Man's side, Mary Jane wouldn't have to be a fugitive alongside her husband. If he hadn't revealed his identity, Aunt May would be safe. There's a lot of internal conflict here, and Straczynski opens up those wounds.
Again, both Straczynski and Garney deliver an engaging Spider-Man story. Straczynski puts Spidey in a really dark place and takes him to places readers rarely see. However, he does have Spidey compromise a few of his morals in order to let that darkness settle in, and that is slightly unnerving. Sure, Spidey’s in a place where he really has no other options, but it feels weird rooting for a guy who’s always been a paragon of responsibility (that whole “with great power thing”) who’s now breaking his Aunt May out of a hospital, stealing equipment and punching a cop in the process. A minor scratch, but an interesting one to look at. It also sets up the lengths to which Spidey’s willing to go in the next volume, which ends Straczynski’s stellar run on the title.
Best Spider-Man Supporting Character
© 2017 Nathan Kiehn