Spider-Man and his best frenemy J. Jonah Jameson are trapped in the latter's own personal hell, brought to life as only erstwhile X-Men villain Arcade can. The issue opens with the duo set upon by a giant-sized version of old-school Spidey foe The Big Man!
While Spidey fights for his life, the real villain behind the plot stands revealed, and strikes a personal chord with Jonah. Jonah realizes that all his misguided Spidey-bashing over the years has had far more of a widespread impact than he ever realized, but that guilt manages to motivate him to rise to the occasion and save Spider-Man's life.
Then it's Spidey's turn to save the day, as he hurls the oversized Big Man robot away before it can explode!
Having won the day, Jonah finally arrives at the award ceremony Mayor Wilson Fisk is throwing in his honor (but only as a means of humiliating Spider-Man). And predictably, the Ghosts of Christmas Past show Jonah the error of his ways, and he publicly stands up to Fisk while rejecting his phony award.
When Nick Spencer’s writing in his element, he is on. His affinity for the intersection of crime and comedy gave us the cult classic Superior Foes of Spider-Man and the still-uncompleted The Fix; his personal politics and sense of right and wrong in the current zeitgeist gave us the controversial yet excellent Sam Wilson: Captain America. Take him too far out of either of those familiar milieus, though, and he shows noticeably less confidence as a writer. Take this current issue of Amazing Spider-Man, for example: in trying to bring poignancy to J. Jonah Jameson’s recent turn toward his better angels, he winds up rendering an issue that is frustratingly uneven in its delivery.
There are some strong character beats, even if they are a little hokey:
But for every one of those, there’s whole pages that are nothing but exposition dumps, seemingly designed to eat up the page count by rehashing the events of the previous two issues…
…or just grinding the narrative momentum to a halt by recounting the villain’s backstory in the dullest manner possible.
The first example – the rehashing of the previous issues – is a textbook example of why we have recap pages in comics now. Before comic writing had matured as an art form, writers would spend pages out of the story having characters unnaturally narrate whatever happened in the previous issue or two. It was one of the most frustrating things in the world – and I can’t tell you how many Bronze Age comics I’ve read with some variation of the following line: “His mind drifts back to recent events…” right in the middle of a fight scene with the Yellow Claw or whoever – although in the days before the internet unselfishly provided us with Everything We Need To Know, it was merely a product of both the time and a general lack of refinement in the comic writing process. Then some mad genius came up with the idea of a recap page, and it was a whole new ballgame: suddenly, writers were free to craft whole chapters in an ongoing story from start to finish, unencumbered by the editorially-mandated need to explain what everyone just read a month prior. It also allowed for a move toward more naturalistic storytelling styles that had more in common with film than the episodic “kids'” comics of yesteryear.
So to bring that lengthy tangent back to where it started: there really wasn’t any reason for Spencer to force a third of a comic’s worth of needless, backwards-looking exposition on us unless he was just trying to stretch his script out as much as possible, which is indicative of one of two problems: a) there simply wasn’t enough story to fill an entire issue on is own, or b) Spencer didn’t quite know how to use what he had to fill 22 pages. I’ve read enough good Nick Spencer to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that it’s the former rather than the latter in this case.
However, in the case of the second example of exposition dump I showed above, as pertinent to the villain, it almost couldn’t be avoided. Spencer dug deep into the Spidey mythos for this one, and most modern readers probably aren’t going to know who he is, what his connection to J. Jonah Jameson is, and why it resonates so powerfully with him. A recap page wouldn’t have necessarily been the right move for this one because of its surprise nature, yet there must have been a more elegant way to convey the necessary information to readers without running the narrative momentum full-stop into a brick wall.
Which is all a shame, because the strong character work just gets lost in all the muddle. And the action’s climax really does shine with a taut intensity. Artist Ryan Ottley does a solid job of bringing a sense of urgency to the situation. Jonah steals the entire comic with the scene where he stands up to Fisk… and somewhere in the mix, Spencer stealthily dovetails Spidey and Jonah even further together by realizing that they are now both driven by a sense of guilt and a need to redress their past sins. Am I greedy to wish we could have gotten more of that? (Even if the riff on A Christmas Carol more than wears out its welcome by issue’s end; by this point it’s about as subtle as a titanium bat to the back of the head.)
Though technically a solid ending that manages to tie up all of this story's loose ends, the uneven nature of its storytelling style makes it too clumsy to pull off everything it's trying to accomplish. There are strong character beats, but everything else falls flat.
Amazing Spider-Man #13: Atonement
Writing - 5/105/10
Storyline - 6/106/10
Art - 6/106/10
Color - 6/106/10
Cover Art - 4/104/10
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