Spider-Man's clone has returned to New York, as Spider-Man hits rock bottom. Power and Responsibility has ended, and Peter thinks the clone is dead, as he begins to claw his way back from the edge of sanity...
A drug deal goes down in New York, only to be interrupted by a feral Puma. Nocturne shows up as well, and makes short work of two of the drug dealers. Nocturne has to stop Puma from killing a third drug dealer.
Peter Parker returns to Aunt May's empty home a broken man. In the wake of finding out his parents weren't real, Harry's death, his part in his fake parents' arrival, his clone returning, and Aunt May's being in critical condition in the hospital, he starts to crack. He can't decide whether he's the mask, "The Spider", or if he's Parker. He keeps trying to repress his human, falliable side, so that he can keep moving. He sits in the house and remembers the ghosts, remembers being happy. The ghosts fade away, and he swings angrily away from the house.
Mary Jane drops in on her sister, taking a first real step towards the family she fled from years ago. Gayle answers the door, and Mary Jane asks to come in, and she welcomes her home.
Nocturne and Puma stalk through the night, until Nocturne declares that its time. The two are drawn towards Midtown High, to Spider-Man, as Noctrune can feel his tormented soul. Peter loses himself in nostalgia, remembering how difficult high school was, and how being trapped between two worlds then reminds him so much of the here and now. As he loses himself, he hears a growl, which wakes him out of his silent reverie. Puma attacks him in the school, and Peter starts to lose control of his temper, angry that the good ones die when animals like Puma keep coming back from the dead. Noctrune calms Spider-Man and asks him to come with her. He reluctantly puts out his hand into hers, and he goes with them.
Nocturne reveals to Spider-Man that she merely wants to help him with his pain, in return for when he helped her when she was first mutated. Nocturne grabs Spider-Man and joins their minds, so that Spider-Man can understand her past and her feelings towards both Puma and Spider-Man. Puma gets over-protective of Nocturne, and remembers how he was to battle and destroy the Spider. He lunges at Spider-Man, while Nocturne tries to stop him, only to get slashed on the face. Spider-Man realizes that perhaps Peter Parker is as dead as Thomas Fireheart, leaving only the Puma and the Spider, and that only one of them will come out alive!
This was a dark period for Spider-Man as a character, story-wise. Peter Parker went through a cycle of ever-more upsetting and depressing storylines, sinking him lower and lower. The fun of Spider-Man was starting to fade a bit, replaced my dark and angry stories. Peter Parker's retreating into "The Spider" reads as fairly heavy handed inner monologuing, but ultimately it works. Sure, its a bit dark for Peter Parker, but all the events occuring to the character to the time surely justified the retreat from his life, to something safe that would protect him from harm. And in his quest to push out Peter Parker's life, he only manages to keep returning to it, and keep it close.
The Thomas Fireheart angle on the story is a bit hard to swallow, it seems to come out of nowhere for the character, to suddenly be so reduced to nothing but a raging beast (although his own internal thought bubbles were very reminiscent of Kraven the Hunter and Vermin, both in style and lettering). Nocturne's used relatively sparingly here, which is a highlight, because of the character's ambiguous usefulness and her character being far from fascinating.
The overly heavy handed script does at times bog down the book, but then this is just part 1 of a four part story, and the only way to come back from the edge is to first brush up against it, which is the purpose of this story and the next which is in Spectacular Spider-Man #218, and is part 2 of both BftE and also this sub-story with Puma and Nocturne.
Ultimately, beneath the overly dramatic writing, is a story about the loss of hope, of retreating from oneself when the world just gets too hard and wanting to shut it all out. Peter Parker is a resilient character, but sometimes even the most resilient of individuals break down, and this is that story. Its extremely sad and poignant when Peter takes off his mask and sits by Aunt May's bed, his face discheveled and unshaven, just looking at the ghosts of his life, his past. Seeing him smile, and then the ghosts drifting away, is absolutely heart-wrenching. This is a dark period in Peter Parker's life, and I give credit to DeMatteis for not shying away from the dark and disturbing aspects of the titular character's inner journey.
The artwork by Bagley is absolutely gorgeous to look at. There's a reason that Bagley's Spider-Man is used for so many merchandising campaigns and publicity campaigns- its just one of the best Spider-Man renditions to ever grace these pages, which have seen some amazing Spider-Man artists (sorry the pun) over the years. The use of rain to convey the weightiness of the emotional moments is a nice stylistic touch, and the aforementoined scene with Spider-Man and the ghosts of Aunt May, himself and Uncle Ben is just phenomenal.
Even though its a dark and uncharacteristic Spider-Man story in some ways, its also a deeply emotional and thought provoking tale of a man who's lost his way in the face of terrible hardships. Fantastic script by DeMatteis.