Symbiote Spider-Man: Alien Reality #5
Things have officially gone from bad to worse. Reality has been warped, and Baron Mordo and Hobgoblin have destroyed the Word of God, which means all history is rapidly being undone. Oh, and then there's the fact that Spidey and Dr. Strange are stuck in Nightmare's realm...
With the Word of God destroyed, there's no way to stop reality itself from unwinding. Or is there...?
And so, one pandemic later, Symbiote Spider-Man: Alien Reality at last comes to its mind-bending conclusion. It’s a real head trip of an issue, honestly, one that somehow manages to work but not work at the same time, depending on a reader’s point of view. How is that possible? Glad you asked…
From a narrative perspective, most everything from this nifty little miniseries (the second Symbiote Spidey one to come from author extraordinaire Peter David) wraps up pretty neatly, if a bit abruptly. Okay, make that very abruptly. There’s a lot that goes on in these pages, and reaching the end of the issue, it becomes apparent that, given a lack of pages to properly breathe, David chose to keep the meat of it rather than kick up heels in the denouement. Given how much actively works in this issue, there’s more good to this trade-off than bad. The downside, of course, is that there’s no time for reflection or rumination or, well, much sense of closure. I actually had to check to make sure I hadn’t skipped a page, or there wasn’t another one or two hidden after the letters page. Nope. There wasn’t. The story just… ends.
The downside of this is – depending on your perspective – if you’re not inclined toward Spider-Man stories that take him out of his comfort zone and into, say, a magical mystery tour in an alternate universe where Hobgoblin is zipping around wearing the sartorial nightmare of Dr. Strange’s cloak on orange-and-teal, then this story probably hasn’t been for you. I can’t help that, and don’t want to pass judgement on anyone who feels that way, but it sort of is what it is.
Fortunately, that’s really it for the negatives. As I said at the top, the meat of the story is a real mind-bender, locking dead into full-tilt Ditko Dr. Strange territory (visually and thematically) for one of the trippiest Spidey yarns this humble reviewer has stumbled upon in years, if ever. Trapped in Nightmare’s realm, all hope seems lost as the destruction of the Word of God means Baron Mordo and the mystically souped-up Hobgoblin are free to shape reality to their whims. And that’s when David decides to foray into metanarrative territory:
Retcons, folks. Retcons. That ever-so-dirty word that seems to get thrown around like so much monkey poo by a certain sect of fandom is used by David to not only break the fourth wall – see above second page of this sequence in the recap – but also enable Spidey to, briefly, become something akin to a god, and draw upon humanity’s collective memories and rewrite history based on their own recollections. (Human memory is terribly faulty and selective, of course, and it’s indeed something of a cheat to ignore that.) It also allows Dr. Strange and him to return to the real world and kick major bad guy butt (shout out to Wong, who wins the entire issue).
Retcons are pretty much inevitable at this point in superhero comics’ history. So many things don’t age well, or are anachronistic beyond salvaging, that certain details have to be retconned and updated to keep from straining story credibility. (Remember, both Professor X and Mr. Fantastic both originally fought in World War II. If it weren’t for retconning that, they’d both be pushing 100 by now.) Sometimes retcons are necessary in that way. And generally, they don’t rankle fans, who at least for the most part can understand their necessity. Other times, though, they’re used more deliberately to wipe out a facet of a character’s past that a particular writer or former Editor in Chief doesn’t like… as for example, a marriage… and when they’re used that way, retcons tend to incite a wide berth of reactionary venom from fandom, especially in the internet age, where everyone has a voice (which, to paraphrase, fanboys use to constantly yell about things they love yet can’t seem to stop bitching about). In the worst cases, retcons invoke a certain sense of fan entitlement, and that’s what David seems to be commenting on here. His argument is that retcons need not be inherently bad things – and no one, not the writer, editors, or fans – has true ownership over a character’s destiny. Frankly, this sort of meta-commentary is more DC territory than Marvel (though, David’s entire Captain Marvel vol. 5 was pretty much one long running meta-commentary). It’s uncommon to see it in a Marvel comic, but more than welcome in this case. But then, Peter David is an old hand at this game. He knows fandom, and comic book tropes, and he knows the score.
But what, if anything, does this have to do with Spider-Man having a symbiote? What about this story screamed, “This MUST be set in this era?” Barring a few minor details, it could have involved regular-costume Spidey and worked the same. Therefore, the branding of the issue is somewhat problematic, as the “symbiote” part of the title isn’t exactly reflective of the story within. It’s more of a branding trick. None of that negates the fact that this is a helluva good story, but it’s an interesting observation nonetheless.
Greg Land and Jay Leisten have pages where they shine in this issue, but also ones where they’re clearly out of their comfort zone. Anytime Land is given the opportunity to draw people looking pin-up worthy pretty, he’s at his usual peak (for better or worse). But when he has to draw something trippy or out of the ordinary, he seems to struggle a bit, other than cribbing some obvious Ditko visual references. It’s not awful or anything – just a matter of one artist’s strengths versus opportunities to grow. Frank D’Armata pulls it all together with his coloring, though, and renders one heck of a beautiful book with his bright, vibrant color palette.
Ultimately, Symbiote Spider-Man: Alien Reality #5 is a fun, though somewhat flawed conclusion to this miniseries. It doesn't necessarily earn the "symbiote" part of its title, but is a pretty unobtrusively great Spidey yarn nonetheless.
Symbiote Spider-Man: Alien Reality #5 (of 5): Spider-Gods and Men
Writing - 8/108/10
Storyline - 7.5/107.5/10
Art - 7.5/107.5/10
Color - 9/109/10
Cover Art - 7.5/107.5/10
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