Most of the point of doing crossover events is to promote other comic books. Such a fact of business has always been apparent ever since the start of larger scale crossovers in modern comic books in the mid 1980’s. When done well, they can be expansions upon an already interesting story and/or showcase characters and smaller series that need it. When done poorly, they merely showcase the flaws and shallow commercialism of the crossover as a whole. This week sees the release of two comics that tie into Marvel Comics’ latest “Amazing Spider-Man” crossover, “Spider-Verse”. They are “Spider-Man 2099 #6”, a fledgling spin off which has seen Peter David return to the character he co-created in the 90’s, and “Scarlet Spiders”, a spare mini series which hinges mostly on nostalgia.
To sum things up before the greater analysis begins, both of these manage to provide better reads than the last three issues of “Spider-Verse” proper. The downside is that such a thing isn’t high praise, and their attempts to stretch the concept of “Spider-Verse” instead serve to highlight how thin it really is.
In “Amazing Spider-Man #10” (which is technically the second chapter of “Spider-Verse” but which feels like the tenth), the Spider-Men and women have split up to deal with the threat which has united them throughout existence – which is stopping Morlun’s family of boring slashers from killing all of them for food and rampaging through their worlds. As proven from his long run on “X-Factor”, writer Peter David has long been willing and able to bob and weave around any crossover he’s been instructed to get involved with much like a plucky tugboat through a rough sea. This new arc on the relaunch of “Spider-Man 2099” is no exception. Having begun the series with the idea of the late 21st century based Miguel O’Hara being trapped eighty-five years in the past due to previous events in “Amazing Spider-Man”, now David gets to have his lead character once again return to the “future” of 2099. Although the fifth issue of “Spider-Man 2099” was also a Spider-Verse tie in (which seemed to reinforce the idea that not only is no Spider-Man safe from the Morlun family, but that Mary Jane also can’t be allowed to bond with any Spider-Man for a prolonged period without being killed or assaulted), this one sees the return of Will Sliney on regular art chores and feels more knee deep in what passes for Spider-Verse’s story.
Miguel is teamed up with the steampunk Lady Spider from “Spider-Verse #1” (another spare crossover mini series) as co-created by Robbie Thompson (“Supernatural”) as well as a six-armed version of Spider-Man who may or may not be from 1992’s “What If? #42” (which is itself derived from a story from 1971’s “Amazing Spider-Man #100-101). The “superior” Spider-Man (Dr. Octopus possessing Spider-Man’s body) had set up his own team and base of operations within the 2099 timeline, and had seemingly defeated one of Morlun’s kin, Daemos. Unfortunately, Daemos seems to immediately reappear in a new body, forcing the three spider-heroes to flee with his “old” body and sort out what’s going on. There’s no time for Miguel to enjoy being back home as he immediately has to bring his new allies to his brother Gabriel’s home to hide out. Immediately, however, Daemos immediately crashes through a wall and proceeds to do what he seems to only be about – killing Spider-Man and being a creep in general. Completely overpowered, Miguel has to utilize his wits and knowledge of his home era to prevail.
Will Sliney and colorist Antonio Fabela once again provide brilliant art for this series. Peter David once again offers an excuse to draw Spider-Man’s classic costume, and once again Sliney seems to handle it even better than Miguel’s 2099 costume; it is once again a shame that it is so brief. As usual, Peter David is at home with 2099, handling Tyler Stone (the boss of Alchemex), Gabriel, and how Miguel interacts with his world as if he’d never left. As the writer of a crossover tie in, it is up to Peter David to embellish upon the threads that he is being allowed to embellish upon. Unfortunately, you can only stretch a simple and threadbare line so long before it shatters. Morlun by himself is more of a walking natural disaster than a character; even his creator J. Michael Stracynski left him as little more than that. He isn’t a concept which is served well by attaching a family of distaff counterparts to, and each distaff counterpart seems to be even more thin than the last. Daemos’ angle is that he’s more of a glutton and a brute than Morlun, and he’s clearly been the member of the family who’s inflicted the most pain upon readers. He personally slew Spider-Girl’s parents and left the (just cancelled) New Warriors for dead. The most that Peter David can think to do to expand upon such a “concept” is to have Daemos threaten to rape Lady Spider and then offer to spare her life should she submit to being his sex slave. They are loathsome scenes with a character who couldn’t be any more crude as a villain unless he had a twisted mustache and top hat above a t-shirt which read, “Evil Man”.
In addition, there seems to be some lack of communication between the editors and writers as to what quite marks a spider-being as a target for Morlun and his family. This could be because such marks are left intentionally vague so the writers can make them up on the fly. So far, the marker has been that someone represents “the Spider-totem” or some other mystically related dues ex machina role (such as Kaine as “the other” or Silk as “the bride”). Therefore, all of the alternate Spider-people were supposed to represent the “spider avatar” on their perspective worlds. It is, quite literally, the entire point of the affair; that the Morlun family are so terrible that they’ve forced Spider-Men and Spider-Women from across existence to unite against them. Yet as a heroine who utilizes technology rather than super powers, Lady Spider is considered a “pretender” to Daemos. This means her world would never have been endangered by the family, and the only reason she is a target of Daemos was because she was apparently recruited by either Dr. Octopus or Spider-UK in error. This is also vastly inconsistent as other Spider-Men are empowered by technology and yet still somehow embody the “Spider-totem” enough for Morlun’s family’s needs. It also, unintentionally, implies that a woman can’t possibly measure up to the shadow of a better known male hero. One could have claimed that any Spider-person was somehow “invalid” in the role, but making it a woman even in today’s age attaches a stigma which one would imagine Peter David didn’t intend. It doesn’t help that Lady Spider hails from an alternate version of the 19th century, which was hardly the most ideal time for the equality of women. The entire point of a crossover is to allow readers to pay for an expanded version of the story from the main titles, and in order to make that gimmick work, all of the critical details of the plot need to be agreed upon by the editors and writers involved. Without even enough care put into that fundamental element, the risk of these tie ins being seen as even more of a blunt marketing vehicle rises considerably. Marvel Comics once had similar struggles during their extended “Civil War” crossover of 2006 in that the entire event hinged on a law called “the Superhuman Registration Act”, yet no two writers or editors agreed on quite what that law exactly entailed. Sadly, it seems that mere editorial competence has not become a part of “Marvel NOW”. A shame, as it would solve a large degree of their narrative problems.
Some of the same strengths and weaknesses arise in “Scarlet Spiders #1” by newer writer Mike Costa and artists Paco Diaz and Israel Silva (colors). The gimmick of this three issue series is that it features three characters who either once or currently used the mantle of “Scarlet Spider” while also happening to be clones of Peter Parker. Kaine is the clone of “our” Spider-Man and is just coming off his own run on “Scarlet Spider” from writer Chris Yost which ran for two years against all odds. He is teamed alongside Jessica Drew of the “Ultimate” universe, who was a female clone of that world’s Parker who once called herself Scarlet Spider before becoming the new Black Widow. Leader of the trio is an alternate universe version of Ben Reilly, the original Scarlet Spider and easily the most famous of the Spider-Man clones. They’ve fled to a parallel universe led by another of Morlun’s family members, Jennix. It is a world where advanced technology rules and clones of people are produced with the cold efficiency and speed of factory machines. Costa employs a third person narrative style that mostly follows the thoughts and details of Drew, but which can shift on a dime to cover Jennix when needed.
At best, the trio embody some strict stereotypes together. Reilly is the idealized leader with a positive outlook, the most like the “actual” Spider-Man. Kaine is the ruthless outsider, more at home with tearing enemies apart or employing his suit’s stealth mode to accomplish things alone. Drew, then, serves as the middle figure between both extremes (more coldly efficient than Reilly, but less of a loner than Kaine). Since any Spider related person who shows up in this world is a target, the trio have to assume disguise and go undercover. They deduce that the Baxter Building (which is usually home to the Fantastic Four) to be the central hub of technology within the area, and set about to infiltrate it. Through the course of their adventure they learn there are parallel universe counterparts of other characters here, such as Tony Stark and Johnny Storm.
Costa’s narration is, at worst, a bit stuffy and more suited for a prose novel than in a visual medium such as comic books. At best, Costa’s narration may remind some of the styles of older writers such as Chris Claremont (who has always seen fit to spend fifty words describing an action his artist has drawn perfectly well). Diaz’s art is on the whole quite good, managing to balance details with a flair for action. At times Diaz puts too much detail into muscles of characters which can become distracting. Easily the most distracting thing is that the belt area of Drew’s costume seems to always be pointing to her crotch due to the angle of both it and her own poses. Such things involving even teenage heroines are nothing new (perhaps because the ugly secret of comic books is their creation by people who sometimes prefer jail-bait, such as John Bryne), but in an era where those old tropes are being exposed more than ever it is a distracting oversight.
As for Jennix himself, nothing more is revealed about him besides the fact that he’s “the science one” of Morlun’s family, which was known before. If Daemos is what Morlun would be as more of a glutton and a creep, Jennix is an older, more well read, and skinnier version of Morlun. All have been dreadfully boring as antagonists and even as visual designs; none of this is the fault of Costa or Diaz (or David or Sliney), but of Dan Slott and the other architects of “Spider-Verse” who have given their peers little to worth with besides rote team-up stories involving one stock villain with a slight palette variant after the next. One can almost imagine rejected members of Morlun’s family under sketch notes such as “Morlun, only with a hat”, “Morlun, only with a clown nose” or “Morlun, only with freckles”. After all, “Morlun, only as the man in the iron mask” is literally what Karn passes for. Very few villains within Marvel Comics would be served well by having an entire family of poorly designed and crudely developed distaff counterparts attached to their hip for over half a year, and Morlun is served even less well because at best all he ever was was a more dangerous version of a vampire. The fact that Morbius already fills that role within Spider-Man canon only makes Morlun’s role as a walking natural disaster more apparent. Shoving Morlun against an entire roster of concepts which were slightly expanded from him is a bit like comparing tornadoes or hurricanes; beyond their timing and destruction, they’re all very similar. Considering the use of clones, Morlun merely cloning himself throughout reality would have accomplished virtually the same effect. In fact, painting him as a darker, more powerful version of Multiple Man may have been more interesting, and even played to Peter David’s strengths. When a review article comes up with a more interesting plot than the plot being reviewed, that is rarely a sign of quality in the aforementioned material. If “Spider-Verse” was intended as an attempt to elevate Morlun’s status and recognition within Marvel Comics in general and “Amazing Spider-Man” in particular, all it has actually done is wear out his welcome with alarming speed and highlight just how sparse a concept he is, as well as showcase how limited the imaginations of the writers and editors who first proposed “Spider-Verse” can sometimes be.
Even more tragically, as both of these tie ins showcase, having so many alternate versions and distaff counterparts of a superhero can have the same effect on the superhero itself. Much as Morlun has become merely one of a cast of knock offs, so too has Spider-Man quickly found himself lost in a sea of imitators. Most superhero franchises have room for some imitators or distaff counterparts; Batman and Superman employed them long before Spider-Man did to good effect. There is enough room for Scarlet Spider, Spider-Girl (especially one set in another universe), Spider-Man 2099, and Spider-Woman within Peter Parker’s core canon. Eroding the bonds of separation for an occasional story or two is also perfectly fine; “Spider-Man 2099 #6” alone makes references to a one shot in 1995 where Miguel met his past’s Spider-Man (which Peter David also wrote and which in part helped inspire “Spider-Verse”). However, months and months and months of seeing a literal army of Spider-Man knock offs with only a few sparse details separating them can have the adverse effect of making the original look less unique than he is. Even the best idea can ware thin when overdone. To a degree this may remind some of the Jeph Loeb run on “Hulk”, where his idea was to literally transform everyone within Bruce Banner’s supporting cast into a Hulk permanently. Rick Jones, Betty Ross, and even Thunderbolt Ross soon become Hulks. What once was a simple hero (and his distaff counterpart cousin) quickly became a rainbow muscle parade where what made the Hulk distinct and unique was worn down as he merely become one in a sea of gamma brutes. The fact that every writer who has handled the Hulk since has tried to keep them all separate seems to signify how flawed this idea was. After all, sales for Marvel’s one time top character “Wolverine” first began to wane when his son Daken was made to imitate him (atop of other figures like X-23, Wild Child, or Sabretooth). Spider-Man is one of the best and deepest superheroes ever created; but making him seem like just one action figure within a warehouse full of variants for such a long period of time does him a disservice. And as much as these spin offs of “Spider-Verse” want to enhance and embellish the story, all they seem able to do is showcase how shallow the entire enterprise is.