The Marvel Universe is populated with heroes, big and small, just as the internet if populated with bloggers, big and small. Each individual blogger tackles his/her own unique topic, just as each hero has his/her own rogues galleries. Here at Superior Spider-Talk, we obviously are focused on Spider-Man and his own friends and enemies. Yet, sometimes there is a monster/villain so terrifying… so undefeatable… that Spider-Man needs to call in The Avengers! So in that fashion, a number of the internet’s best and brightest comic bloggers have banded together in a “Super-Blog Team-Up” of sorts to tackle a discussion about alternate universes! Join Chasing Amazing, Between the Pages, Bronze Age Babies, Firestorm Fan, Flodo’s Page, In My Not So Humble Opinion, Longbox Graveyard, Rolled Spine, Mystery Vlog, Superhero Satellite, Ultraverse Network, and The Unspoken Decade for the greatest team-up of all time!
Co-host of the Amazing Spider-Talk, Mark Ginocchio, and I have wildly different opinions about one alternative take on Spider-Man, a 2007 book called “Spider-Man: Reign.” So we decided that we would present our cases and let you, the readers decide. Here is my take and be sure to read his, linked at the bottom:
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Kaare Andrews written and drawn mini-series Spider-Man: Reign? Perhaps not. If you’ve dug around any comicbook related websites over the past couple years, chances are that you’ve heard talk of its famous radioactive sperm sequence as one of the worst Spider-man comic moments ever or that it is merely a shameless rip-off of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Rises. I’m here today to convince you that both of these things are true and also contribute to what makes Spider-Man: Reign one of my favorite Spider-Man stories but also one that you should either read for the first time or revisit with new eyes.
Spider-Man: Reign is a story about an older Peter Parker who has retired from being Spider-Man, a dictatorial, militaristic regime that controls New York City, and a growing resistance to that regime led by J. Jonah Jameson who are intent on not only reclaiming their city but inspiring Peter to return to his red-and-blues. While all of these elements add up to a shocking and inspiring story of redemption and revolution in the face of insurmountable odds, Spider-Man: Reign is first and foremost about Peter Parker and who he really is at his core.
Let me be clear, Spider-Man: Reign is explicitly a Spider-Man version of The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley. Creator Kaare Andrews is upfront about his reinterpretation by naming characters in this book after those creators; the newscasters behind The Daily Bugle are named Miller Janson and Varr Magnuson. There are countless thematic and plot similarities about the books: a retired hero is compelled to don his old costume again, revolution, paranoia, and thought control. The book was a critique of the Reagan era and also a definition of what being Batman meant for Bruce Wayne. As the rain poured down on the bat symbol on his chest, Wayne experienced a rebirth to his rightful identity: Batman.
Spider-Man: Reign reverses that idea. Unlike Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man isn’t Peter’s real identity but a mask that protects him and empowers him to embody his Uncle Ben’s famous mantra “With great power must also come great responsibility.” This is what I love about Reign the most and what I think it gets the most right about the character, the distinction between these two identities. This is especially apparent now, during a period where this distinction is rarely if ever portrayed correctly.
Reign begins with Peter at one of his lowest points, which is saying a lot for him. He’s old, bearded, and failing at his job at a local florist. His boss pushes him around and even fires him after a customer complains about his inability to tell the difference between cream and white flowers. As someone who struggles not only with colorblindness but also with the fear of losing control, this Peter is immediately relatable. That is, until he returns to his home and we understand just how alone he is. Peter sees images of Mary Jane, his dead wife, sleeps alone, argues with himself, and has shut himself off from the outside world.
When the Reign police, a group of mercenaries that keep the city under martial law, attack several children we see Peter reach out to help, revealing the hero that still exists inside, but failing to do so. It is a smart reversal of the events with the burglar in Amazing Fantasy #15 where Peter had all the power to do something and resisted, here he has none of the power and it has quieted his desire to help. Something is holding him back and it’s not just his old age.
During Dan Slott’s run on Amazing and Superior Spider-Man we’ve seen a Peter Parker that has blamed himself for every possible thing that has gone wrong in his life. While this level of guilt is a bit overblown, and tiring, there is no getting around its importance in Peter’s life. In a wonderfully drawn and written sequence in Spider-Man: Reign we discover that it is his guilt that is holding him back from saving the city and becoming Spider-Man again. The ghostly images of Aunt May, Uncle Ben, and finally Mary Jane appear before him to remind him of his responsibilities to them. Peter is Aunt May’s entire life, Uncle Ben is Peter’s mistake, and Mary Jane is his responsibility to love and protect. Each of these responsibilities weighs on the other. It is the essential drama of Spider-Man, how can one many manage so many responsibilities, especially when they are constantly testing him.
The Peter Parker of Reign believes he has failed in all of these things. Aunt May and Mary Jane are dead and he’s quit being Spider-Man, precisely because of these things. Peter’s guilt is amplified because MJ’s death is directly a result of loving him. Every ounce of his body, every fluid (yes this means semen too), was radioactively affecting her. This is important beyond the initial reaction of how silly some might find it. The very act of making love to Mary Jane contributed to her death. On her deathbed she told him to “Go…” to become Spider-Man once more, and when he returned the bed was empty. He hadn’t been there to comfort his dying wife. This becomes Peter’s ultimate guilt and like Peter’s reaction to his guilt for Uncle Ben’s death he makes a life-changing decision… to be Spider-Man no more.
Yet when Jonah comes knocking on his door and delivers him his mask he springs back into action, against his own will. The eyes of the mask reveal his reflection, a broken, old man beaten back by time. As Spider-Man the police call him “boy,” reflecting the energy that the costume fills him with, its otherworldly power over his mind. With his mask off, Peter is mortal. When he dons the mask he becomes his projection of what a hero should be. Spider-Man is funny, confident, and strong. All of these traits derive from Peter but are amplified by the mask.
Masks are a key motif in Spider-Man: Reign, almost every character in the book wears them but for vastly different reasons. Masks are outlawed by the police and yet the police wear them, uniformly black, as a way to project power over the people of New York City. Masked citizens and heroes are labeled terrorists to be dealt with in a brutal fashion. Kraven attacks Spider-Man and declares his victory, not by cutting off Peter’s head but by removing his mask. When the children begin to take back the city, they don masks to protect their identity. They are living embodiments of Spider-Man’s legacy. His mask spurs them to action, as it does Peter.
Yet the mask is nothing without the man and Peter’s journey to redemption isn’t complete by wearing it. What Spider-Man: Reign does next is one of the more interesting developments of the Peter Parker character and his supporting cast that I’ve seen in Spider-Man stories. Peter is dragged off to the graves of Uncle Ben, Aunt May, and Mary Jane but the legs of the deceased Otto Octavius, programmed to retrieve Peter and assist him in bringing about the age of “Gods” once again. The legs dig up the decomposing body of Mary Jane and force Peter to come face to face with his guilt, with the woman he loved, with the ghost that has haunted him for years.
Peter lays down in her coffin, prepared to die and meet her in the afterlife when he comes to a revelation that he has avoided all these years. Mary Jane didn’t just say “Go…” on her deathbed, she said “Go get ‘em, tiger.” All these years of feeling guilty about being Spider-Man were for naught. Mary Jane loved him for being Spider-Man and Peter Parker, for his responsibility, and for his power. Spider-Man buried his costume with Mary Jane, in both senses, and only in this moment does he realize his mistake. All Mary Jane ever wanted was for him to continue being Spider-Man.
In a way this is Mary Jane’s greatest declaration of love for Peter. All of his guilt over his presumed failures is cast aside by the power of love from his family, New York City, and even his foes. Mary Jane’s words reawaken Spider-Man, as he bursts out of her coffin in his classic costume, and forge in him a new origin story. Uncle Ben taught him that great power necessitates great responsibility and Mary Jane teaches Peter that he isn’t alone, that his responsibility and character are worthy of love as well. He’s no longer Spider-Man just because of Uncle Ben; he’s Spider-Man because of Mary Jane.
Peter’s relationships have always been the appeal of Spider-Man comics, as he tries to balance his responsibilities in an imperfect world. With Mary Jane’s support, Peter now has the greatest weapon in his arsenal, someone who loves him, forgives him, and is proud of his responsibilities, success or no. However, his relationships to the city and his enemies are also key to the success of Spider-Man comics.
Spider-Man’s relationships with his villains are complex, but most of all they are personal. Each one is a twisted version of some element of Peter’s life: a father figure, a scientist, a mentor, an unlucky citizen rewarded powers by chance, a spurned lover, the list goes on. How they affect his life and counter the positive relationships in Peter’s life is a key part of Spider-Man: Reign’s story.
Andrews transforms The Daily Bugle into a fascist newscast, intent on upholding the status quo. They cast Spider-Man and the resistance as villains that need to be destroyed by Reign and project their messages onto every device in the city. Eventually Jonah hijacks the feed and projects Spider-Man’s battle against his villains and the government forces onto every screen in the city. Everyone’s eyes are glued to the ensuing battle until a pivotal moment when Kraven removes Spider-Man’s mask. The truth is revealed… Spider-Man is an old man. He’s just like us.
Spider-Man has always been just like us, no matter the situation, that’s the appeal that made the character so popular. He’s the everyman hero and in Spider-Man: Reign that distinction takes narrative form. The people are rallied by a hero that they see as one of their own. When they all don masks to fight back the monsters invading their city, they are all Spider-Man. We are all Spider-Man.
The relationship that looms large over Spider-Man: Reign is Peter’s connection to Venom. Here the symbiote has taken control over the city and installed a web shield over New York that is advertised as a way to keep the city safe. Instead, fueled by his loneliness after Pete’s rejection of him, Venom has invited dozens of other symbiotes to devour the city and all of its inhabitants. He claims to love Peter and want a relationship but he stands in stark contrast to the unconditional love expressed by Mary Jane.
Obviously, Spider-Man: Reign is a thematically weighty book, rich with motifs and critical analyses about how and why Peter Parker works as a character. The book is aimed right at the heart of Spider-Man fans and is a true dedication to the appeal and power that not only Peter Parker but all heroes hold.
A good thematic base is not enough to make for a strong Spider-Man comic, but it is a good start. While Kaare Andrews’ interpretation of Peter Parker as Spider-Man is spot on, it is how the book reads that puts it over the top. Kaare’s dialogue is weighty when it needs to be and hilariously funny when the story calls for it to be. Peter might not be the best comedian in the world, but his jokes in the face of overwhelming odds are almost always hilarious, particularly in his takedown of the Sinner Six.
Andrews’ art and layouts are often stunning, moving from minimalist dreamscapes to crowded city streets full of expressive characters and metered line-work. Panels are mirrored on pages as the eyes in Spider-Man’s mask mirror Pete’s reflection, splash pages are used in a bombastic fashion, panels go vertical as Peter ascends to his inevitable demise, and the pacing of the images ensures the flow and drama of the action is never interrupted. That said, I will admit that some of the computer generated backgrounds haven’t aged as well as the pencil and inks, but it is never enough to be distracting.
Spider-Man: Reign… what more is there to say? It is a book I adore (evidenced by the length of this piece) and increasingly gain more respect for with each reading. It is packed full of little details for fans of the character (old Hypno-Hustler and thin Kingpin?) and operates as an imaginary ending to the Spider-Man story, if there ever was to be one. Farewell, Spider-Man.
Here is Mark’s take on why he doesn’t like Spider-Man: Reign:
The Case Against Amazing Spider-Man: Reign
Let Mark and I know what you thought of our pieces and Spider-Man: Reign in the comments below.
Check out these other Super Blog Team-Up entries:
Between the Pages: A Tale of Two Cities on the Edge of Forever
Bronze Age Babies: Things Are a Little Different Here
Firestorm Fan: Firestorm on Infinite Earths
Flodo’s Page: An Earth-1/Earth-2 Team-Up Featuring Green Lantern
In My Not So Humble Opinion: The Many Worlds of Telsa Strong
Longbox Graveyard: X-Men #141-142 Days of Future Past
Rolled Spine: Epics Comics Doctor Zero
Mystery Vlog: Marvel & DC’s Secret Crossover – Avengers #85-86
Superhero Satellite: Marvel Comics’s Star Line – “Licensed Reality and Parallel Properties
Ultraverse Network: Altered Reality – The Ultraverse Before and After Black September
The Unspoken Decade: 5 Batmen, 1 Superman Zero Hour