Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Hooplah Reviews "Spider-Man: The Other - Evolve or Die"

We're digging into the vault for this review. I checked this out from the library, some three years after it finished, too curious to pass it up.

Stupidly long title aside, I can recommend it. While the twelve issue story could've been compressed, or the climax moved an issue later, providing more build-up for Morlun's part and Peter's illness, I can't find much to fault.

The set-up is simple: Peter Parker is dying.

In an effort to stave off death, he's seeking help from all fields scientific, natural and supernatural. But in the end, they all have the same sad story to tell. In these twilight hours, he interacts with his friends and loved ones, fights the good fight now and again, but it's a losing action. And if his illness doesn't kill him, there's help waiting in the wings. Morlun, the totemistic villain introduced at the beginning of JMS' run makes a surprise appearance, back from the dead, to harvest Peter's powers.

(For those who don't know the specifics of the totem-aspect of JMS' run, it boils down to Peter being the current incarnation of the spider totem, one of many animal-based powers floating around. Morlun feeds on these, gaining in strength as he kills and absorbs their power. It was all introduced in the very first JMS arc. While this knowledge is passingly mentioned, knowing it can't hurt; it also shows why this is such a big deal, as it's the climax of Peter's development and acceptance of this mystical nature of his being.)

Peter and Morlun fight in great superhero fashion, the nigh-omnipotent villain rarely suffering, the very mortal hero plunging on, knowing death is near but also willing to give all. For with great power--! You know the rest.

Morlun savages Spider-Man. It's barely a fight, in the end. Cops arrive, denying Morlun his meal, Peter is rushed to the hospital and the heroes gather around their fallen comrade. Then Morlun returns, you get another fight but wait!

Yeah, now Peter Parker/Spider-man's got weird new powers, debuting in his second (and last, to-the-death-of-both) fight with Morlun. And he technically does die, but the story is told well from there. I won't get into the final act, but there's some internal struggles, more mysticism, rebirth and a decent, suitably heroic resolution.

Consider this: it's a death and return story, told over four months and twelve issues in three titles by the same three creative teams. From a technical standpoint, it's perfect. The story might have a few structural problems, but you cannot fault the framework overall that contains this (somewhat major) Marvel Universe story within only one (small) family of comics.

Mike "Ringo" Wieringo and Mike Deodato, Jr. both show why they are so popular - Deodato especially, as he redefines his style to more reminiscent of early Sandman or Hellblazer than his Wonder Woman stuff. Pat Lee I could do without; he can't draw Aunt May (looks like an old tranny) and in general misses out on nuance. JMS, Peter David and Reggie Hudlin write as one here, without any big differences in style or characterization. It's a little melodramatic at times, a fault I have with Spidey comics in general (it's either wisecracking or hyperangst), but it is supposed to be a monumental event. Thankfully, Morlun is toast.

Much can be said for the way it handles Peter's last days with his family, the interactions with the supporting cast and the overall emotional content of the story. Perhaps it's all made more bittersweet by Ringo's death since publication, and the parallel I couldn't shake of a life taken too soon. Unintended, but it helps. Even without that, I think we can all connect on a human level with these works of fiction, better here than in any other Spider-Man comics I've read.

The Other sits well with me as I write this and I think I know why it works for me, when it wouldn't for regular Spidey fans: I'm not a fan.

There is little appeal for me in the character, because there never seems to be a decent or well-written challenge. But here we have a story that is obviously complex and substantial, but one that flies in the face of Spider-man orthodoxy. Were you a fan from the 60s and 70s reading this, you'd no doubt call it trash or whacked out mysticism (maybe not "whacked out." Perhaps dastardly. How did people speak back then?). 80s and 90s-era fans see something potentially as grating and confusing as the Clone saga.

But I've followed nothing, care little for continuity and can come into this almost a greenhorn to recent storylines. Almost. There is no explanation who the group of heroes is he hangs out with (The New Avengers, pre-Civil War) until their costumed names are dropped. And it didn't click that Jessica Drew, not Jessica Jones, was the "Jessica" always there, until "Spider-Woman" was mentioned.

I like it because it doesn't feel like Spider-Man - the teenage, wisecracking webslinger pining after MJ or Gwen and struggling to balance home and hero lives - but a What If Spidey were a regular hero without all that youthful drama? It might stand as one of the few mature Spider-Man stories in print.

I don't know if "The Other: Evolve or Die" was part of a larger "The Other: [etc title]" series of stories, but it could've been. I'd certainly read more.

And for me to say that about Spidey comics is saying a lot.


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