For those of you who haven’t heard (there may be one or two), this is the last issue of Avenging Spider-Man. Does it end on a high note?
The Superior Spider-Man is keeping an eye on his city with his spider-bots, “For with great power etcetera, etcetera. But today…my city bores me.” There is a traffic accident, a pickpocket, a car thief. Nothing worth his time. (Still, “The responsibility nags at me. I send an image to the police, they can deal with such petty theft.”) Then he spots purple smoke billowing out of a bank with panicked people exiting quickly. He enters to find space aliens, King Kong and the furniture on the ceiling (nice little homages to Amazing Spider-Man #2, May 1963, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #4, 1967, and Amazing Spider-Man #24, May 1965 respectively and a tip-off to those in the know as to the villain responsible). “Hmph. Well, in all fairness,” he thinks, “I’m not bored anymore.” But his spider-sense registers nothing and he soon spies projectors casting the images. He recognizes the technology. (“The first time I saw it, I was impressed by how advanced it was. And then I improved upon it. Because that’s what you do for your friends, right?”)
Marching right through the images, Spidey finds Mysterio at the bank vault but he is hamming it up, calling himself “Mysterion” and coughing from his own purple smoke. SpOck is not happy to see him, mainly because he remembers that Mysterio was “a lying, backstabbing, spineless cowardly traitor of a friend” who teamed up with the Peter Parker Spider-Man against him when he was Dr. Octopus (back in Amazing Spider-Man #686, July 2012. He lunges at Mysterio and takes him to the ground. “Start talking, Beck!” Otto says, “How did you escape the other universe?!” (Spidey is referring to the Ultimate universe where Mysterio was stranded and arrested in Spider-Men #5, December 2012, but since he eliminated all of Peter Parker’s memories in Superior Spider-Man #9 should he know that Mysterio is in “the other universe?”)
Mysterion acts very un-Beck-like; yelling “Get off me!” and stammering, “He told me…told me what to do…” Distracting Spidey with a dinosaur illusion, Mysterion shoots gas into the web-slinger’s face and escapes, rushing out onto the bank’s roof, screaming. He tries to call someone on a phone built into his gauntlet but Spidey arrives, shoots webbing onto his fishbowl helmet and yanks him back. Using his talons to etch into the fishbowl, SpOck demands to know why he betrayed Doctor Octopus. “He would have made you a king!...I expected better from you, Beck!” To which Mysterion replies, “Who is Beck?!” With that Spidey realizes that this Mysterio is not Quentin Beck. But this only makes him angrier. He slams Mysterion up against a wall and slashes away at his costume, demanding to know where Mysterio is. “How dare you! To attempt to impersonate one of the greatest villains on the planet! The arrogance!” he says. When Mysterion corrects him by asking, “Thought you said he was a coward,” SpOck replies, “That is beside the point! Regardless of his shortcomings, he was a member of the Sinister Six! I will not stand to see his identity stolen by a two-bit…” but he is cut off by a gunshot and a bullet going right through Mysterion’s helmet. Spidey turns and sees Frank Castle, the Punisher, on an adjacent roof. The bullet has narrowly missed Mysterion’s head but SpOck is more concerned “that my spider-sense didn’t sense it coming.” He concludes that Mysterion’s gas has dulled his sense. Then, the Punisher strafes the rooftop with bullets. Spidey shoves Mysterion to safety but Mysterion tries to stagger away. “That’s the Punisher! You saved me!” Mysterion says. Spidey replies, “Only so I can kill you myself!” The fishbowl helmet has lost a big jagged chunk revealing Mysterion’s face. He is a young African-American man and he looks terrified. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” he says, “He said that super heroes don’t kill.” Then he uses a smoke bomb to hide his escape.
Spidey knows he must follow Mysterion but first he must deal with the Punisher. “He has a long history with Parker,” he thinks, “I must handle this subtly.” Which means, he webswings over, yelling, “Punisher! You’ve interfered with my plans for the last time!” and kicks the Punisher in the teeth. The Punisher tells him that killing Mysterio is on his list, “just like it should have been on yours years ago.” When SpOck says, “Who do you think you are to judge me?” Frank replies, “Not judge. Execute.” (Ha! I love this line. Because the Punisher is not Judge Dredd who was very likely based on him but is much like Mack Bolan, the Executioner, on whom Gerry Conway has said the Punisher is based. Or it could be that I just created a whole thing out of nothing there.) Anyway, the Punisher presses a trigger and a whole bunch of flash grenades go off all around Spidey, felling him. “Didn’t realize how much I came to rely on spider-sense,” thinks Otto; a distinctly Peter Parker-type thought. The Punisher slams his foot down on Spidey’s neck and levels a gun at him. “I heard the stories about Massacre (Superior Spider-Man #5). I saw what you did to Screwball and Jester (Superior Spider-Man #6). You’ve crossed a line I never thought you’d cross. Want some advice? Turn back, before it consumes you,” says Frank and departs.
Spidey recovers, thinking of Castle as a “Pompous buffoon.” “Consume me?” he thinks, “I am the one that consumes.” He has injected Mysterion with “nano-spider-tracers” through his talons and knows exactly where he is, flying above traffic on what seems to be a cloud. The Punisher is in pursuit on his motorcycle. As he flees, Mysterion makes a phone call and tells his contact that “Both the Punisher and Spider-Man are trying to kill me!” Spidey traces the phone signal and collides with the original Hobgoblin, Mysterion’s benefactor, who zaps Spidey with a finger blast and tries to fly away on his glider. Spidey snags it with his webbing, then digs into the side of a building with his talons, sending the glider crashing into a wall. Hobby falls but Spidey snags him with webbing.
During this Spidey expresses outrage over Hobgoblin stealing Mysterio’s gear “and sell[ing] to the highest bidder.” He threatens to turn Hobby over to SHIELD and tells him, “Having your man impersonate Mysterio was a mistake.” But Hobby is unrepentant. “You have a decision to make,” he says, “Stay here with me or stop the Punisher from killing my man…Your choice.”
Soon after, the Punisher has Mysterion’s head right in his sights. (Literally. The artwork shows Mysterion through Frank’s rifle sights.) Just as Frank fires, Spidey appears and pushes Mysterion out of the way, knocks him out with a blow and attacks the Punisher, pushing him off his bike. He webs Frank up against a wall and tells him, “The line you mentioned to me earlier? The one I crossed? That line was the only thing keeping me from killing you. I could have taken you down any time I wanted. Maybe part of me realized that what you were doing was right. But any sense of justice, any sense of pity I had for you, as of right now, it’s gone. Here’s your new reality, ‘Frank.’ You don’t get in my way, I won’t get in yours. Understand?” Then he swings away. The Punisher later writes in his “War Journal” that “Whatever it was that changed Spider-Man’s worldview on dealing with criminals…I approve. Which is something that before now, he would never want. And if he goes too far over the edge? I’ll be waiting.”
The Hobgoblin has escaped from the webbing by the time Spidey returns, for which he blames the Punisher. He is also concerned about Hobgoblin’s “replacing villains.” “It will have to be dealt with. Harshly,” he thinks. Back in his hidden lab, Spidey sits surrounded by six human-size tubes. Two are empty. The others contain Sandman, Electro, Chameleon and…Mysterio? He thinks, “The Avengers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four…I am superior to them all. But it’s not enough. It’s time to go to the next level.” And that next level is…Superior Spider-Man Team-Up #1.
Now this is more like it. Chris Yost rebounds nicely here from the two-issue Chameleon fiasco. Spidey-Otto’s evolution proceeds apace. Though now rid of Ghost Peter, he still exhibits moments that betray Peter’s influence. Sure, he chooses to ignore “petty theft” like picking pockets and car theft (though he does “send an image to the police”) and he tries to kill Mysterion (or so he claims) but he also relies too much on his spider-sense (which I assume is back by the end of the story…or did the gas cause it after all? Remember, his spider-sense wasn’t triggered when he first entered the bank either), makes a pun about a “mysterious benefactor” and then thinks, “Perhaps the bad jokes are genetic,” and, most tellingly of all, returns to rescue Mysterion from the Punisher, even though he knows Hobgoblin will escape. This last has Peter Parker written all over it, as does the webbing up and lecturing of the Punisher, though it’s not the lecture that Peter would deliver.
On the other hand, there are still things to which Otto is blind, which also nicely embellishes the character. It is Frank Castle who is acutely aware of what crossing the line does to you. His advice to “Turn back before it consumes you,” plus the hollow angry, half mad eyes that artist David Lopez gives him on page 8 panel 4, plus that he continues his killing in spite of the spiritual damage he knows it has inflicted on himself, says most of what you need to know about the Punisher. But Otto doesn’t get it. Instead he thinks, “Parker never had the stomach for this. He could never do what needed to be done.” I assume this attitude will come back to haunt him in the future.
Otto is also blind to the irony of his outrage over Hobgoblin stealing Mysterio’s identity. He thinks the anger stems from the effrontery of someone “besmirching the name of one of my minions,” and seemingly remains ignorant to the fact that Hobgoblin’s stealing of Mysterio’s identity isn’t much different than his stealing of Spider-Man/Peter Parker’s identity. More and more Otto believes himself to be the true Spider-Man, even as (or, perhaps, because) bits of Peter’s personality creep in.
The seriousness of violence permeates this issue. Mysterion is a man who has bought a super-villain’s gear in order to have super-thrills. When we first see him, he is playing a game in front of the bank vault, hamming it up. “Open, vault! I, Mysterion, master of illusion command[s],” he says, deep into his cosplay. But then he immediately coughs on his own smoke, the first indication that Marvel Earth reality is not so benign. By the end, he is whimpering, “I’m sorry,” before Spidey lays him out but the most telling image is on page 17 panel 1; the scene seen through the Punisher’s gun sight. Mysterion’s helmet is broken. He looks back at Frank aiming at him, looking scared, and says to himself, “I just…I thought it’d be fun.” That’s what we all think of the violence and mayhem when we read comics. Translating it to reality is quite another matter.
I don’t know David Lopez’ work, but I enjoyed his art here. The page 1 image is inventive and fun. Spidey’s mask is covered in spider-bots and shows magnified spider-bot scenes through the eye lenses. A rectangular panel below doubles as a mouth so that the scene of people and purple smoke coming out of the bank entrance makes it feel like the mask is spitting out these people and this smoke. On the next page, a web-slinging Spidey almost jumps off the page in panel 1, then reverses and is actually falling to earth in panel 2. The action is palpable and intense. On page 7, we can almost feel the impact of Spidey pushing Mysterion against the wall in panel 1, the pain of the talon slash in panel 2, and the closeness of Punisher’s bullet in panel 6. In the panels in between, Spidey lifts Mysterion off the ground and panel 4 shows his feel dangling. The facial expressions (of those whose faces we can see) are some of the best storytelling. The aforementioned mad look on Frank’s face on page 8 panel 4, Mysterion’s terrified look on page 9 panel 3, Frank’s leer before he triggers the flash bombs, Frank’s subdued, chastened but defiant look on page 18 panel 4. Even the Hobgoblin, though masked, has a great look of surprise when falling on page 15 panel 3.
Paolo Rivera’s cover is also well done, with Spidey’s taloned hand in the foreground, the Punisher in the mid-ground and all that great steam and those water towers in the background. A New York rooftop through and through.
The assembling of the Sinister Six continues in this issue. Apparently, SpOck has decided that a fake Mysterio is good enough for his purposes and has trapped Mysterion as he has Chameleon, Electro, and Sandman. (Except the helmet of the trapped Mysterio is undamaged. Did he give Mysterion a new helmet?) He has two empty tubes remaining, presumably for the other two members of the original Six; Kraven and the Vulture. (Except he had a chance to grab the Vulture back in Superior Spider-Man #3 and didn’t.) What happens next? What’s the plan involving the Sinister Six? Is it a plan for good or is Otto reverting to his old ways? What’s the next level? It’s going to be fun finding out.
And, look at that! I didn’t even mention the title! “Pro-Death.” Does that refer to professional killers like the Punisher? Or is it a commentary on the Superior Spider-Man’s apparent willingness to kill? Or it is just a pun on “Pro-Life?” Or is it something else? Or all three? Discuss.
In my review of Avenging Spider-Man #11, I said, “I’m placing the “over-under” for this series’ longevity at 20 issues. Right now, my money is on under.” And it turns out I was wrong. It made it to 22 issues. Even that is deceptive because the series will reboot as Superior Spider-Man Team-Up #1 next time. I like this just fine for two reasons. One, it implies that Spidey-Ock will be around for a while (unless they’re faking us out and SSMTU becomes a mini-series). And, two, I love my team-up books but I love them even more when “Team-Up” is in the title. I’m ready to be dazzled, Yost!
Yes, it ends on a high note. Four webs.