Nathan Kiehn is the author of over 100 blog posts on his family website Keenlinks and "The Gray Guard" ebook fantasy trilogy on Amazon.
Shock Follows Shock
This volume of comics is the first Brand New Day-era volume I have outside the Complete Collection volumes that I own. It also has the very important role of introducing multiple variables into Spidey’s brand new world that will become essential down the road. There are a couple stories included in this volume to unpack, so let’s get to it.
The best story here is the first one, titled “Unscheduled Stop,” taking place over the course of two issues, written by Mark Waid with art by Marcos Martin. ASM 578 and 579 mostly take place on a subway train that suddenly derails and crashes (minor spoiler alert: it's no accident). One of the passengers? Our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, and it’s a good thing he’s friendly and in the neighborhood, because also on this train are the jury for an important criminal court case.
Even more interestingly, one of those jurors is J. Jonah Jameson Sr., the father of former Daily Bugle owner J. Jonah Jameson. It’s a fun way to introduce a supporting character who will play a much larger role in Spider-Man’s life down the line (and that might count as a subway joke).
Over the course of the story, Spidey must take on the Shocker, who derailed the train in the first place at the behest of the criminal on trial the jurors are headed to, and get everyone to safety before the tunnels collapse. It’s a tense couple of issues. Not only does Spidey have to take down a super criminal, but he faces rising waters, rats, and collapsing structures as he tries to rescue all these people, including Shocker! It’s not your typical Spidey story, and that’s part of what makes it a fun tale.
Mark Waid is not your typical writer, either. He’s one of my favorite writers in the business, and the handful of Spidey issues he’s written are all fantastic. Look at this opening shot, for example:
Marcos Martin does a great job, as usual, but I find the scene to be really unique. Other writers will start a Spidey story with him swinging across New York or coming across a crime in progress, but Waid gives us that rare glimpse of Spidey just chilling out, eating lunch, while facing his ever-present case of bad luck with the pouring rain. It’s different from how other writers do it, and that makes Waid’s work unique. He understands storytelling and dialogue really well, and it’s made him a popular. Pair him with an artist like Marcos Martin, and you tend to get comic book gold.
The Shocker has also been one of my favorite Spidey enemies. Yes, he looks like a quilt and is constantly treated as a joke (especially during Brian Michael Bendis' Ultimate Spider-Man run), but he's been around a long time. It's awesome that Waid actually makes him serious here, as someone with dangerous weaponized gloves who can really do some damage, instead of a dorky B-list adversary for Spidey to punch.
I really love it when writers can give classic members of Spidey's rogues gallery a new touch or use them differently. It adds an additional flavor, or level, to the character, gives them another edge, a reason for readers to go "Huh, Shocker's in this one" instead of "Ugh, Shocker? Why'd Waid pick that guy?"
Fill in the ____
The same unfortunately cannot be said for the next issue, an one/off story called “Fill in the Blank,” about Spidey facing a dude called “The Blank” (duh) who wears a suit without any texture, meaning webs and stuff can’t stick to him. Written by Roger Stern and illustrated by Lee Weeks, this filler tale follows Spidey as he tries to figure out a way to take this guy down and hobnobs with some detectives and his Aunt May.
That’s really all the issue brings to the table. It does showcase Spidey’s trademark wit—with lines such as saying “I get blamed for everything short of global warming!” which is nice touch of Spidey’s self-deprecating humor—but it’s largely an issue that feels dry. It's another one of those single issue stories meant to bridge the gap between two story arcs, and I've noticed how these issues decrease in quality over time. Makes the story's title even more appropriate, doesn't it?
Perhaps the biggest issue is it feels like Stern is trying to call back to his earlier days of writing Spider-Man stories in the '80s. The detective he brings into the story is Ray Donovan, a character Stern created years ago; the Blank is also a character he made, a villain who’s appeared only a handful of times; the dialogue feels a little clunky and harkens back to earlier days of comics as well. Perhaps for older readers it’s a nice reminder of days gone by, but for a younger audience member such as myself who had never heard of the Blank and could only remember one image of Ray Donovan, it feels a bit forced.
Yes, for some, the nostalgia is certainly there, but it feels to me like a fluff piece intended to fill in the space between story arcs. You’ve got your hammy villain, your Spider-Man humor, your “hero saves an innocent from a falling object” scenario. It doesn’t add much to the mythos. Lee Weeks art is fun, but he’s always reminded me of a discount John Romita Jr. They draw faces very similarly. On his own, he does a good job, but with that comparison in mind, Romita Jr. will always come up on top for me.
The Osborn Question
The next story is another two-part arc, written by Dan Slott and illustrated by Mike McKone. I think I’ve said my bit on Slott, so I’ll leave him alone. Mike McKone has done a few ASM issues by this point, and while I think his artwork is fine, I’m not going to be showering any accolades. There’s just not much unique about his work that makes it discernably recognizable, except for the fact that he can’t seem to get Spidey’s head the right proportion. It’s too big almost every time, I’m pretty sure.
Harry Lives (But How?)
These issues answer a question that’s been around since the start of Brand New Day: How is Harry Osborn still alive? Didn’t fans clearly see him die way back in Spectacular Spider-Man #200? Yes, we did, but he’s somehow back from the grave, a fact which shouldn’t surprise anybody because nobody stays dead in comics except for Uncle Ben, and I fully expect Dan Slott to bring him back at any moment because nothing is sacred with that man. Sorry, I guess I won’t leave him alone.
Anyway, Harry’s back, and he and Peter decide to pay a visit to his ex-wife Liz Allen and son Normie, named after Norman Osborn (man, Slott likes his Osborns). Along the way, Peter learns that Harry’s death was a ruse set up by both Norman and classic Spidey foe Mysterio. And that’s it. That’s really all we’re told. I’m not hugely disappointed in this—and it’s actually an answer that makes some sense, even in superhero fantasy land—but this was the selling point of the story, and it’s over in a few pages. It’s like, they answered the question, case closed, let’s move on.
And move on we do. Turns out, Liz is harboring her brother, Mark Raxton the Molten Man, who busts out at hearing that Harry is there. His condition is unstable, and he’s dying quickly. I mentioned OsCorp secrets back in the New Ways to Die post, and one of those secrets is that Harry’s been developing a cure for Mark. Mark isn’t too happy that Harry’s there, though, so he attacks the guy until Spidey shows up.
This creates more conflict, because nooobody present likes Spider-Man (including Normie, who apparently hates Peter too after hearing he’s “friends” with Spider-Man—“How could you?” he cries at Peter, cause that’s how real children talk), which is a nice touch by Slott. Guy can make good conflict. Spidey keeps Molten Man at bay until Harry gives him the cure, which Spidey injects.
It’s a nicely rounded couple of issues. There’s tension and action, the Harry question is answered (albeit quickly) and old characters like Liz and Molten Man make appearances. If anything, the main selling point of the story is too mainly reintroduce Harry into Spidey’s world. Yes, he’s made several appearances until now, but this is the story which really brings all the Harry Osborn-related elements together—his resurrection, his view of Spider-Man, his friendship with Peter, his relationship with his extended family—so all the bases are covered nicely.
There’s also an epilogue that cuts to the Bookie, the guy who recently accused JJJ with being a murderer, putting together the pieces of the identity of the actual Spider-Tracer killer. And then he’s killed off-panel by the real murderer. Duh-duh-duh! Though it feels a little shoehorned and just a tactic used to remind audiences that we’ve still got a murder mystery subplot on our hands, they still needed to string us along, so it’s an okay addition.
Bringing Back Betty
Waid returns for the final story, with Barry Kitson providing art duties. Again, it’s a one-off story focusing on Peter’s relationship with Betty Brant. He also faces a dude named Carapace, who will never, ever go down in annals of being one of Spidey’s greatest foes. Spidey even makes fun of him, as he is apt to do, calling a “bargain-basement, would-be Iron Man.” Ouch. Still, it’s a nice issue, not too important overall, but it cements Betty’s position as Peter’s friend within the Brand New Day world and wraps up the volume well enough.
If anything, that’s the most important part of this volume. Supporting characters—J. Jonah Jameson Sr., Harry, Liz, Normie, Betty—all get their spotlights here. There’s always been a huge focus on Spidey’s supporting cast, but we get introduced or reintroduced to some people in these issues. Maybe the stories aren't huge or add depth to already plot-driven story lines, but there’s good world-building here. Nothing memorable, but Spidey’s little section of New York is growing by the issue.