We pass the halfway mark of Untold Tales of Spider-Man with the eighth story: Ann Nocenti's "The Liar."
Peter Parker watches off and on as a spider spends the day making a web. Later he watches as she waits patiently for a moth to be trapped, feeding on it. "How could I have anything in common with her?" Peter thinks. He both admires and shudders at the spider's "round-the-clock surveillance." And the web itself: "Her beautifully constructed home is also a death trap...The spider's elegantly poised web is a lie." Peter jumps up and destroys the web, then feels guilt about it, knowing the spider will just create another. "She can't help it. Lie or die."
As Peter starts to leave, he receives a visit from Aunt May. She tells him that Empire State University contacted her because he missed several days of classes. She also asks if he washed something red at her house. Peter was gone for three days, confronting the Red Skull in Algiers and he washed his mask at May's place but he lies to her, telling her the school made a mistake and that the red came from a nosebleed.
At ESU, Ms. O'Grady, Peter's advisor, tells him that she talked to Aunt May about his absences and that May didn't seem to know about that. Peter tells her that May's memory isn't what it used to be. Ms. O'Grady tells him she's sorry to hear that. Peter thinks, "A big one. The two this morning to Aunt May were little enough, but this lie is a big one." Ann elaborates, "The little fibs are like annoying black moths, fluttering at the edges of his consciousness; shadows that flit about and dog his heels, they haunt him when he least expects it. The big ones are like rocks tied to his feet, that he has to drag with him wherever he goes."
Through the course of the day, Peter promises May he'll join her at 4PM to help with groceries and makes a date with Mary Jane over a fudge sundae at 6PM. Now he tells Gwen he'll join her for a 5PM revival showing of her favorite film, "Casablanca." "How," asks Ann, "will he pull this off?"
Not long after lying to his history prof to explain being late for the class, Peter is at the market with May. It is a warm day but he sees a man in the parking lot in a wool cap. Lying to Aunt May about needing to make a phone call, he leaves her in the market and changes to Spider-Man. He re-enters the market just as the thief pulls a gun and tries to rob the place. Spidey easily takes care of him. The store manager gratefully offers him "a cart of food, on the house." Spidey takes a look at May and says, "Hey, I just ate. But it looks like this poor woman got the worst fright. Maybe you could take care of her?" Which makes him look like an altruist when he's actually just helping out his relative. Back home, Aunt May tells the story to Peter for the third time. Peter notes that the story never changes. She tells it straight, never embellishing. She is grateful to Spider-Man but notes that his manners are terrible. "I just wanted to thank him properly. But he just turned his back on me!" When Peter tells her he has to meet Gwen at the movies, she comments that she thought he was meeting Mary Jane. "Oh yeah. Did I say Gwen? I meant Mary Jane," says Pete as the lies mount up.
At Casablanca, Pete enjoys sitting next to Gwen. "She's like a warm bed you don't want to get out of in the morning," he thinks. But he still needs to meet Mary Jane. So, telling Gwen he has to go to the bathroom, he slips away. He joins MJ for ice cream during which she almost lets her "party mask" slip when she refers to her repressive father. Peter notices a large bird in the sky and realizes it is the Vulture. Coming up with yet another ridiculous lie ("I promised this guy, I'd help him move his birds...he's got a pet shop, and he's got a big delivery of birds.") Peter promises MJ he'll be back in 20 minutes. MJ doesn't seem to mind. In fact, Peter thinks that she is acting as if she expected this. But he doesn't think about it long. He has to change into his Spidey duds and tackle the Vulture. Unfortunately, the Vulture has recruited four partners and provided them with wings. The five Vultures beat him up, carry him into the air and drop him over the river, too far away from any buildings on which Spidey can web-swing. As he falls, he realizes his identity will be revealed after his death. "They'll all know what a liar I was. A lowlife fibster with a devil's tongue. A mendacious arachnid. A lousy deceitful cock-and-bull jerk. A two-faced stinker." Then he passes out.
While unconscious, he dreams about his Mom and Dad, telling him conflicting stories about their impending trip; the trip that leads to their deaths. "I was three years old when I noticed the first little lies," he thinks, "By the time I was six, nothing quite added up...All those lies. I guess they thought they were protecting me. Benevolent lying. I know all about it."
He awakens seventeen feet above the water. There is a tug boat right below him and he webs the smokestack, saving himself, ending up in the river, then climbing up onto the tug. The tug's captain, Gallager, tells him he saw him falling and swung around to help. As they sail back to port, Spidey notices how capable Gallager is and he envies his straightforward life. "What do you think of liars?" Spidey asks him. Gallager replies that it depends on what kind of lying, adding that he lies all day. "Every time I give an order," he says, "it's to save the ship but risk the man. ..They trust me and I send them to risk death with every command...Well then, a few lies along the way aren't really lies, are they? Not if you bring all your men home alive." Spidey thinks about this as Gallager docks his tug.
He gets back to MJ who asks him if he had a nice swim. "What swim?" he asks, then he notices that his bookbag, containing his costume, has created a puddle on the ground. MJ, playing along, kicks at the puddle and says, "Rained while you were gone."
From there, Pete returns to the movies, tells Gwen he couldn't find their seats in the dark and watched the rest of the movie from the back. "What a perfect ending," Gwen says. "Yeah," Peter replies, "I love happy endings." "Gwen looks at him queerly, then smiles. They walk on silently for a while. Soon, it begins to rain."
So, what to make of this one? Ann Nocenti explores an interesting theme, Peter's ongoing lies, but tries to tie them all together into one tidy little package when there isn't enough of a statement that can be made to make this feel significant. On one hand, he is forced to lie to function as Spider-Man but the same excuse can't be made for wanting to date Gwen and Mary Jane at the same time. So, Ann tries to tell us a story of a liar who has let the lies get the best of his life, even presenting it as a learned behavior from his parents rather than contingent on being a super-hero, but then tries to put a positive spin on it with the tacked-on wisdom of Captain Gallager who seems to justify Pete's Spidey lies but still not his Gwen-MJ duplicity. In addition, Peter seems fortunate in the recipients of his lies. Aunt May seems more concerned with decorum than truth, Gwen is too infatuated with Peter to care about the inconsistencies and MJ knows his secret. But so what? What does this tell us? In all this as with other things, Ann tries too hard. She arduously makes her way from the spider's web analogy to Captain Gallager's lesson with little to connect those two themes. In fact, none of the elements, such as the "five Vultures" device that comes and goes without resolution, really come together. Ann has some nice touches, such as MJ's flirtatious, outrageous enabling, and some nice details, such as naming Pete's Chemistry professor (Mr. Sebastian), advisor (Ms. O'Grady), and history teacher (Mr. Swenson), and some nice turns of phrase, such as ""He felt so powerful and so lost at the same time," "Peter began to understand that great strength had to lead to heroism, or it led elsewhere: to dark, greedy, arrogant places," and, of MJ, that she is "So spirited she scares me," but it ultimately feels like a square peg in a round hole, a colorful ribbon that doesn't tie into a neat bow, a carefully-assembled shell that doesn't have the substance to hold its shape.
All of which leads to two webs. Well-intentioned but too forced and over-thought, with a wishy-washy ending.
Next: Exit Gwen Stacy. Enter the Ripper.