Over the next few months, SuperiorSpiderTalk.com will publish “Mysterious Ways,” which will look at some of the most significant, long-running “mysteries,” as well as a number of unresolved mysteries from Spider-Man comics. Entries will outline what made the mystery so important to the overall mythos of the Spider-Man universe, and whether or not the payoff (or lack thereof) was worth the build.
For our next installment, let’s go jump forward to the chromium-encrusted 90s and find out what the deal was when Peter Parker’s parents returned from the dead:
In the early 1990s, Richard and Mary Parker, aka Peter’s mom and dad, who were long-presumed dead in a plane crash following a S.H.I.E.L.D. mission gone awry, showed up at Aunt May’s doorstep looking to reunite with their son. Peter is naturally incredulous about their return since he himself had verified their deaths while fighting the Red Skull in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #5.
Unlike the Green Goblin mystery (which was featured here last week), the mystery behind the return of the Parkers did not come in the form of a steady crescendo of twists, turns and reveals. In fact, after a short run of issues following their initial return in Amazing Spider-Man #365 (the 30th anniversary issue of the series), Richard and Mary more or less become acclimated as part of Spidey’s supporting cast and the drama focused more on Peter learning how to be a son again, instead of Peter trying to figure out if one of his enemies was trying to dupe him.
Still, the Spider-office gave readers plenty to be skeptical about when information about the Parker’s whereabouts all those years first started to get rolled out in in ASM #366-367. In almost “too simple to be true” fashion, Aunt May verifies that Richard and Mary are who they say they are after a simple call to the government. Additionally, Richard and Mary tell their shocked family members an alternative history of what happened to them that seemingly defies the contents of ASM Annual #5. Instead of being willing double agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., trying to trap the Red Skull before things go haywire, Richard admits that he and his wife were simple government employees who were threatened by the Skull to betray their country in exchange for the safety of themselves and their family. The Parkers report this incident to their supervisors but rather than put them into hiding or witness protection, the government sends two people with zero training into the field to serve as double agents. The Skull and his goons ultimately sniff out the ruse, but Richard and Mary are able to survive the plane crash that allegedly killed them by parachuting out before impact (Richard was trained to do this, ‘natch).
The Parkers are then captured by the Soviet Union and become “lost in the system,” going from prison camp to prison camp before the Soviet Union is dissolved and they are granted their freedom.
Obviously from a comic book standpoint, this entire scenario is not wholly implausible, but Peter still isn’t entirely comfortable with this new status quo. So he breaks into the Red Skull’s headquarters (by teaming up with the mercenary, Solo), hacks into a computer system and finds a file on his parents that confirms Richard and Mary’s story. From there, he seemingly becomes satisfied with the validity of his parent’s claims (apparently not taking into account that he received all of this information from a computer file owned by one of the most nefarious villains in the Marvel Universe).
Some of the mystery behind Peter’s parents would be further served in a series of backup stories found in ASM’s “Invasion of the Spider-Slayers” arc. Each one of those vignettes featured a different supporting cast character reacting to the news of Richard and Mary’s return, including — oddly enough — Harry Osborn, who attempts to escape a mental institute before his wife Liz breaks the news to him. This one story seems oddly placed, but would prove to be very, very pertinent about a year later when Marvel finally pulled the trigger on the Parker parents mystery.
The next year gave readers a run of stories where Richard and Mary became accepted components of Spidey’s supporting cast. They were captured by Venom (like you do) and had a few critical moments in the 14-part “Maximum Carnage” among other things. But the “mystery” of their reappearance wouldn’t be explored again until the “Trial By Jury” arc found in ASM #383-385. In it, Aunt May very suddenly reveals to Mary Jane that she thinks something is up with Peter’s parents and that she’s going to hire a private investigator to look into it (behind Peter’s back no less).
May’s investigation turns up nothing, and the PI even turns the tables on her, suggesting to Peter that she’s exhibiting the early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. This subplot naturally leads to Peter trying to get to the bottom of his aunt’s well-being, but not before unveiling his secret identity as Spider-Man to his parents. And that’s when the “you know what” hits the fan.
The Parker’s heel turn comes with very little build or fanfare. After spending more than a year trying to convince readers that Richard and Mary were legit and casting all investigations into their stories as dead ends, Peter’s big reveal triggers a switch of sorts in his parents and they suddenly devolve into mustache-twirling bad guys who are working for some higher power.
The mastermind behind this fiasco turns out to be the master of disguise (well, at this point, technically a shape-shifter), Chameleon, who apparently is trying to figure out the civilian identity of Spider-Man by tormenting Peter Parker. The Parkers turn out to be henchmen sent into Peter’s life by the Chameleon who were tasked with making him comfortable enough for him to eventually reveal Spider-Man’s identity. In terms of evil plots, I’ve heard worse, but this whole Chameleon ruse definitely has some logic holes in it (by design as it would turn out). Still, things would get more puzzling before we had a clear resolution of this mystery.
The Vulture also inserts himself into the middle of this storyline (“Lifetheft”) when he attempts to steal a device from a doctor that steals the aging life force from its victims (because the Vulture is old). All of these plot points inevitably converge leading to one of the biggest head-scratchers in Spider-Man history.
Richard and Mary aren’t actually spies, or supervillains in disguise, or some other (in comic book speak) reasonable alias that would justify their quick turn to the dark side. Instead Richard transforms into some killer android bent on destroying Spider-Man. Unfortunately for the Chameleon, this transformation alters Richard’s ability to speak, thereby nullifying the entire point of his mission, which was to verbally reveal Spider-Man’s identity. Details, details. Mary kills her android-husband because she feels guilt for her “son” and she, in turn, is killed by Vulture, giving Peter just more pain and misery to deal with. The Vulture is carted away by the cops, but the Chameleon is still at large, setting the stage for the final chapter of this storyline, found in the “Pursuit” arc.
When Peter catches up to the Chameleon, we would get ONE MORE big reveal — that the Chameleon was not the mastermind after all but instead it was Harry Osborn (from beyond the grave no less). Via computer screen, Harry credits his trick as revenge for Peter killing off his father, the original Green Goblin, years earlier.
Harry’s role in this storyline is actually a very effective reveal … if only there was more of an indication that he was behind it in the first place. Beyond that one backup story I mentioned earlier, the reader never gets any hint that Harry was playing a role in all of this. On the other hand, because Harry was one of the few villains who knew Spider-Man’s secret identity, it at least makes sense that he would be able to hatch such a scheme (it at least makes more sense than Chameleon’s “using Peter Parker to get to Spider-Man” strategy).
ASM briefly transitions into a “dark” period, but the lingering damage caused by the return of Peter’s parents would quickly be dropped in favor of yet another big mystery in the books — the return of Spider-Man’s clone (more on that another day). Instead, the legacy of this whole mystery is usually boiled down to “the story where Peter’s parents come back from the dead and are revealed to be killer robots.” In other words, just a day in the life of 90s comics.