Last time, three very different Mysterios converged on Midtown High for reasons of varying complexity. Klum was thwarted, Berkhart was arrested and Beck... well no-one's quite sure about Beck, I'm sure Peter David will return to him in due course. More importantly, we discovered that the new school nurse, Miss Arrow, has a secret agenda. She can produce murderous spikes from her wrists, and is desperate to keep Peter at Midtown High. This proves to be very difficult because since last issue, Spidey has turned his back on superhero registration, denounced the act, betrayed Iron Man and gone to bat for Captain America. Miss something? Check out Civil War #5 and Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 1 #536. Suffice to say Spider-Man is now back in the red and blue, and trying to cope with the sorry turn his life has taken. Of course, it's about to get worse.
Sitting in her bedroom, in her mother's house, Deborah Whitman is looking at a the book she has written. It is entitled "Two-Faced: How Peter Parker Ruined My Life". Is this the sort of kiss-and-tell trash that all celebrities have to deal with? Is Deb Whitman just an old girlfriend with a grudge? Well, she doesn't seem pleased with the vitriolic spin her publisher has put on the book. It, and the memory of Peter, drives her to tears. Time will shed more light on this, she's about to catch a plane to New York for a book signing.
Meanwhile, in the Big Apple, a bunch of masked and heavily armed thugs are about to storm into Midtown High and take the students hostage. Good old JJJ has laid down a fat reward for Spidey's capture (how many times has he done that now?), and these guys plan to force Spider-Man into the open. It's a bad plan, we know it'll never work, and they see that soon enough.
Their way into the school is blocked, not by Spider-Man, but by Wolverine. Wolverine takes down the group in no time flat. Funny, he doesn't seem to fight like Wolverine. There's an awful lot of jumping and punching, but not so much with the claws. One thug manages to slip off and run for his life. He thinks he has made it, when he realises that he has jumped from the frying pan into he fire: he is face to face with the Punisher!
Pause for a moment. Wolverine and the Punisher team up in a Spider-Man book. Ah, it feels like the 1990s all over again. Don't worry though, there's more going on here than meets the eye. The Punisher scares the living daylights out of the thug, and sends him on his way with a message: Midtown High is protected, stay away. As the thug runs off the Punisher pulls out a something that looks like a TV remote. He clicks it once: he's Wolverine. He clicks it twice: he's Spider-Man.
I'd stop and explain that, but it's flashback time. In the wake of the defeat of Mysterio, Spider-Man is having a candid talk with Miss Arrow. She is telling Peter to stay in the school, that to leave would be irresponsible. People like Aunt May and MJ are protected by the Avengers, but no-one protects this school except him. Everyone knows how much the school and the students mean to Peter. If he leaves, then numerous villains and super-villains would descend on the school and tear it shreds, simply to revenge themselves on him. Makes a fair point, doesn't she?
The scene changes to high security prison. Adrian Toomes (aka the Vulture) has been imprisoned without trial, and is being interrogated via tanoid from another room. Toomes has no rights - the worm has turned and the public are fed up with super-powered maniacs turning city streets into war zones. Toomes has had it with the public - they're weak and he's the vulture: vultures prey on the weak. But surely Spider-Man isn't weak? Here Toomes would disagree: Spidey is mentally weak, because he doesn't use his powers for personal gain. He's needy, he wants people to love him. But people hate him, and yet he keeps trying: he's a masochist and stupid one at that.
But the voice is playing Toomes - trying to get him riled. Now that Spider-Man has spoken out against registration he's on the wrong side of the law, and he has to be brought in. Toomes is offered the vulture suit and his freedom if he brings Spider-Man down. He takes both.
Back at Midtown High, Roger the Principal is interviewing a prospective teacher. He's blonde, bearded and bespectacled and his name is Ben Reilly. What the !@#?? No time to explain, as we flashback again.
Spidey is in a church talking to the Beast. Seems as though Spidey contacted the X-Men for help in the wicked downward turn his life has taken. However, the X-Men have declared their neutrality in this whole Civil War malarkey and, although the Beast sympathises with Spidey's plight he can't offer him any material aid. What he can offer him is a patented uncanny image projector (used in the past by Beast and Nightcrawler to conceal their identities). With it, Spidey can appear as anyone he likes.
Spidey thanks the Beast and they are just about to part company when our web- headed hero notices something. Tucked in the eaves of the church is a cocoon made entirely of webbing. It is empty. Whatever gestated in there is long gone. Readers will recall that this is the cocoon spun by the mysterious Other in Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #22. Spidey just knows that is going to come back and bite him.
So the image projector explains away Wolverine and the Punisher, but what about the whole Ben Reilly thing? We flash back to Roger's office. This Ben Reilly is trying to apply for Peter's old job as science teacher, but the post has already been filled. But Ben is really enthusiastic (cue the best line in any Marvel book this month), and Roger eventually offers him a position as assistant Phys-Ed teacher, working under Flash Thompson.
Of course, Ben Reilly is Peter Parker disguised by the Beast's image projector. Still in disguise, Peter wonders down the street bemoaning his luck when he comes across a copy of the Daily Bugle and discovers all about Deb Whitman. Peter is outraged and determines to go to the book signing to confront her. He is not the only one reading the paper. The Vulture is devouring his own copy, and is delighted that he now knows just where to find Spider-Man.
"I like your spirit Mr Reilly. I wish we could clone you."
"No, you really don't."
That's a five-web comment right there! Ben Reilly? Ben Reilly?! That'll teach me to flip through a comic before actually reading it! Ben Reilly! For a second there I thought Peter David was going to... no, that way lies madness...
So, to the story. This was a very good issue that plays to Peter David's strengths as a writer. He's taken the fall out from Civil War and made it his own. All the elements of the story he was originally intending to tell are still in this issue, but somehow he has still made them work. Listen carefully and you can hear the scraping sound as he drags the story down its prescribed path. I have a sense that the story PAD was originally intending to tell was probably better than what we have ended up with, but this is Spider-Man and (like it or not) his destiny is not dictated by one monthly title.
Bringing back Deb Whitman after 24 years in the comic wilderness (yes, you read that right) seems a bit extreme, but it's a good fit for the story. Many Spidey readers weren't even born the last time Deb appeared, and may be completely unfamiliar with her. The issue you need to get your hands on is Spectacular Spider-Man (Vol. 1) #74. There's an excellent and detailed review of it on this site, click over there and read it. Go on. I'll wait.
The art is a major step up from last issue. I like the way Toomes climbed on to his chair and squatted like a bird: very evocative. It seems a shame that none of the Spider titles have consistent or top-notch artists at the moment. The best by far is Clayton Crain over on Sensational, but he's not drawing every issue.
The sub-plots get a little forward momentum this week, PAD pushing the readers toward the conclusion that Ms Arrow is the Other escaped from her cocoon. This will probably turn out to be a bluff, as it seems too obvious. Of course, I don't think she's Marrow either, for the simple reason Spidey has met Marrow and you'd think that he'd remember her.
The gripes I have with the issue are Civil War related, and my general frustration that the continuity between all the titles could have been handled better. Spidey has an image projector in this comic, but in recent issues of Amazing Spider-Man he disguises himself with a high collar and baseball cap. Not very convincing. I also marvel at the speed of Deb Whitman's penmanship if she managed to write this book and get it published since Peter revealed his identity.
However, these are small concerns. Friendly really seems to be hitting its stride now, and we have another solid issue on our hands.
Good story and good art, but something tells me that if it wasn't for the crossover we would have got something better. Different, but better.