Mackie/Byrne Run Review Part 1

In my analysis of the Howard Mackie/John Byrne Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 2) run, I’m discussing both writers’ separate work first. The way these two writers approach this character in the complicated late-90s/early-2000s period is fascinating, illuminating the nature of serialization and how writers choose to depict decades-old, iconic characters.

By the time Byrne decides to take on the character, Mackie has been writing Spider-Man for quite some time. He has a brief stint on Web of Spider-Man in 1992, but I haven’t collected enough of this run to judge it. Following this, he writes a run of over 50 issues on the title Todd McFarlane created and quickly abandoned, the Adjectiveless Spider-Man. He opens up with Spider-Man #44, in which Spider-Man mourns Uncle Ben's death and demonstrates his character growth since the fateful event. The story is painfully average, and Mackie is still clearly trying to figure out Peter's character in this issue (even after writing him for about a year on Web). The following issues are embroiled in Peter's awful "the Spider" phase following Pursuit. Frankly, this version of Peter is inconsistent and frustrating during Mackie's stories (and most of his appearances during this era). During "the Spider" period, the Hobgoblin arc falls flat in making Jason Macendale a legitimate villain (although I'm happy someone finally killed Demogoblin). The big anniversary issue, Spider-Man #50, introduces the Grim Hunter, an embarrassing, vapid knockoff of his father, Kraven. Frankly, these stories do little to prove Mackie's merit in writing Spider-Man.

Following his few solo issues on the title, Mackie becomes entangled in the abysmal Clone Saga of the mid-90s. Mackie consistently writes during this extended mess from the beginning to the end. However, every story of this period crosses over among four main titles, and many writers are involved in the creative process rather than a single, distinct voice. Therefore, it is difficult to hold any writers responsible for the mess, especially since the editors and the marketing department are intrusive in the creative direction. Also, many of the writers of this time (including J.M. DeMatteis, Tom DeFalco, and Todd Dezago) write fantastic solo runs before or after the Clone Saga. I find it difficult to blame any of them for the crossover’s shortcomings if they prove themselves to be competent individually. For the sake of fairness, I will give Mackie the benefit of the doubt and judge him for his stories following the worst of the Clone Saga.

The main horror of this period ends once Ben Reilly, Peter’s clone, officially takes over as Spider-Man. Although the occasional crossover event distracts writers from their independent story arcs, each title generally takes their own directions, and the following stories are far better than what precedes them. For the majority of this period, Dan Jurgens provides the character-driven direction for the Spider-Books. Tom DeFalco and Mark Bagley give Amazing Spider-Man a classic feel, and Todd Dezago and Sal Buscema produce entertaining stories in Spectacular Spider-Man.

During Ben Reilly’s tenure, Howard Mackie’s Spider-Man takes the role of the gritty, street-level book. Stretching from Spider-Man #64 to Spider-Man #75, Mackie’s run is consistent and high-quality. His crime stories are particularly strong, and he introduces characters like Fortunato and Jimmy Six, his main two additions to Spider-Man’s large gallery of crime bosses. Fortunato is an old, quiet, and intimidating boss who takes over after the Kingpin. However, Jimmy 6, Fortunato’s estranged son, bucks his father’s role of the serious crime boss and befriends Ben Reilly. This odd friendship leads to some memorable moments such as Jimmy 6 staying uninvited in Ben’s apartment. The conflict between these characters, Hammerhead, and Tombstone provides the impetus for a few interesting, if not typical crime drama stories. Mackie quickly wraps up his crime threads to make way for the new status quo in the disappointingly rushed Spider-Man #74, but the crime direction is fun while it lasts. This issue unfortunately sets a precedent for Mackie’s bad habit of failing to deliver on build-up, although this by no means comes close to his worst conclusions.

Despite his weakness in plotting, Howard Mackie is excellent with character dynamics during this run. He highlights a complex relationship between Peter and Ben fueled by companionship and slight animosity. During the crossover Web of Carnage, Ben is possessed by Carnage, and he fights against the symbiote and his pent-up anger to keep himself from slaughtering Peter. Mackie’s scripting of the situation is creepy, and one of his best Spider-Man scenes involves Ben simultaneously combating the symbiote and trying to act normally with an unsuspecting Peter Parker. Despite their problems, Peter and Ben still share a brother-like relationship and the Onslaught tie-in Spider-Man #72 highlights this companionship as the two webslingers bust up robots and banter amongst themselves. Further, Mackie succeeds in depicting is the love between Peter and Mary Jane. Despite the chaos of Peter’s character direction during this period, Mackie’s Mary Jane is always supportive and resilient in keeping the marriage strong. Whether she is attending to Peter’s wounds after he is beaten by Cell-12 or waiting at his bedside when he is on the brink of death, Mary Jane sticks with Peter, and Mackie writes some touching moments involving the couple in this run.

The best aspect of this run is quickly John Romita Jr.’s artwork. At this point, JRJR’s return to Spider-Man was major, since he had mostly stayed away from the character since the 80s. Of course, his 90s work is far blockier and more angular than his early, Romita Sr.-inspired art is, but he returns to depicting Spider-Man with little trouble. Despite his propensity for chunky figures, his Spider-Man is skinny and agile, and the character’s positioning is always distinctly spider-like. Besides this, Romita is one of the best storytellers in the comic book industry, always creating the atmosphere necessary to pull off Mackie’s often-moody scripts. He effortlessly transitions from tender character moments to wild action scenes. Reading these issues, I am constantly stunned by the detail of JRJR’s splash pages. Every page in the Onslaught tie-in is amazing in displaying the large scale and power of the Sentinels. His take on Carnage, a character he had not drawn earlier, is terrifying and haunting, and his redesign for the Hobgoblin, the character he originally helped create earlier, is memorable. Further, Romita’s take on Norman Osborn and the Green Goblin is instantly iconic.

The element that truly elevates Mackie’s Ben Reilly stories is the goblins. This period features the return of the Hobgoblin with cybernetic technology (oh, you have to love the 90s), and in Spider-Man #69, Mackie depicts him as both desperate and powerful, a dangerous combination. The real defining moment of his entire Spider-Man run is Spider-Man #75, the return of the Green Goblin and the official end of the Clone Saga. Frankly, Revelations probably would have been well-received no matter what since many fans were ready for clones to finally go away. But, Mackie’s conclusion is masterful and wastes no time in cleaning house. With fantastic splash pages by John Romita Jr. displaying Norman Osborn’s triumphant return, the story has an epic feel that is especially amplified by Peter’s resumption of the Spider-Man guise and the high stakes of his friends trapped with pumpkin bombs in the Daily Bugle. The battle between Peter and Norman is fittingly intense and personal, and the Green Goblin reassumes his position as Spidey’s most fearsome villain like he hadn’t even been dead for about twenty years. Although it is sudden, Ben’s death is selfless and heroic, providing a fitting conclusion to his character arc (which was retconned in Dead No More: The Clone Conspiracy). This issue is the highlight of Mackie’s Spider-Man career (and probably his comic book career in general).

Behind the bombast and spectacle of Spider-Man #75, there is an interesting statement about Spider-Man’s serialization. Marvel introduces Ben Reilly to send the Spider-Man titles back to a simpler time, the status quo of Roger Stern and DeFalco’s runs before the marriage. However, Ben only makes continuity more complicated because writers never truly commit to him being the true Spider-Man. They fail to make Ben an independent hero and let him establish himself as a permanent character. While his past self takes over, Peter is supposed to drive away into the sunset with his wife to live a simple life and start a family. Instead, the original Spider-Man always loiters in the books, and the writers always feel obligated to add the exposition about “Ben being the real Spider-Man and Peter being the clone.” Every time Ben fights a villain that his “clone” faced but he did not, the writers need to mention it.

Simply put, it’s narratively easier to just reinstate Peter as Spider-Man. But, the problem of serialization still remains. Peter is still a married man with a kid on the way, and Marvel editorial figures the kids at home can’t relate to this character. With Spider-Man #75, Mackie and the Spider-Office in general attempt to fix the status quo as well as possible. Peter could come back and so could Mary Jane, but the baby could not. Therefore, little May falls into an odd character abyss. Although the characters all assume it is a miscarriage, Mackie leaves the baby’s fate open with Norman taunting Peter about possibly kidnapping her. Bizarrely, as soon as the Clone Saga ends, the characters quickly forget about Ben and May. Even so, the Spider-Books are left with the problem the Clone Saga was supposed to solve. Peter Parker is married and “old.” In the Life of Reilly project (an excellent blog series that I highly recommend), then-assistant editorGlenn Greenberg indicates that the original plan was to split Peter and Mary Jane, but they decided Norman’s return would be controversial enough. Thus, Revelations may solve Marvel’s immediate problems, but the long-term issues remain. And May could still be out there somewhere…

Despite his role in the generally miserable Clone Saga, Mackie proves he can write interesting stories during the “Ben Reilly as Spider-Man” period, which lasts for only a year. I really can’t recommend these stories to casual fans because they are tied too closely to the clone nonsense of the period what with random crossovers and references to other titles. If you’re a brave soul bracing yourself to read the entire Clone Saga, just know that Mackie’s work near the end isn’t bad. The plotting and dialogue may not be the best, but the stories are at least interesting with cool characters, fun crime stories, and fantastic art. Even factoring in the lower quality pre-Clone Saga issues I covered, I give this short run 3 webs of 5.