So Peter Parker dies in the streets at the end of #700 while his arch-villain Otto Octavius trots off in Peter's body, having won the day?
Happy 50th anniversary, Spider-man fans!
Luckily we have a writer like JM DeMatteis on a backup story in this overstuffed, overpriced anniversary issue. DeMatteis already delivered the ultimate "villain defeats hero and usurps hero's identity" story long before Dan Slott got there with the seminal Kraven's Last Hunt (a tale which played out over a mere three titles, three months and six issues, compared to however long, possibly a year with double-shipped issues, that readers with have to contend with the new Schizophrenic Spider-man).
Let's see if JMD can show a little more respect for the greatest superhero in comics.
The setting is Chicago, Illinois "once upon a time...in the future". An elderly man (let's call him "Grandpa Martin" for the sake of identification) is talking to his grandson, Stephen, in an apartment. Does Stephen want to go out to a movie? Order in pizza? Or just sit and play his video games all night? Getting no response from Stephen, Martin reminds him of when he was a kid and Martin would have Stephen up half the night "telling you wild stories". Stephen demurs, saying he's almost thirteen and not a kid anymore, that he doesn't need a babysitter when his mother goes out of town anymore.
Grandpa Martin tells him to hold on, that he'll be right back, and exits the room. He re-enters in a Spider-man costume, saying nobody in the whole world knows his secret, but that if there's anyone he can trust with the secret, it's his grandson. That "back in the day", he was "the one, the only.." Martin is cut short when tries to shoot some webs and it plops out on the floor in a pile.
After a cleanup, and a change back into civilian clothes, Martin explains if he doesn't use the web fluid for awhile, "it goes rancid", but that he brought a fresh batch in his suitcase. He says "once or twice a year, I like to swing across the city, for old times' sake". Stephen doesn't really believe what he's saying, and turns back to his video game. Grabbing the controller out his hands, Martin says he's the one who kept the family together when Stephen's father walked out, that he practically raised Stephen while his mother worked. Stephen gives up and asks what it was like for his Grandfather.
Martin says there were superheroes on every corner in New York when he started out (and here's where things get interesting: in a mostly full-page splash, Spider-man is swinging in front of a group of heroes that look like compounds of different characters: Captain America / Thor; Cyclops / Magneto, Hulk / Abomination and so on). Stephen asks if Spider-man was special, Grandpa Martin explains that he was just an ordinary kid in an extraordinary circumstance. Flashback to High School, the science experiment gone awry. When Martin explains that he got his powers by a radioactive spider bite, Stephen laughs, saying that wouldn't give him powers, it would give him cancer. Unpeturbed, Martin continues, saying the next few years were incredible, that "every five minutes, another nut-job villain would show up".
And in another full-page spread, we see more character mash-ups, this time in the form of the villains; Kraven / Rhino, Lizard / Stegron (?) and what looks like a Sandman / Thing mixup. Martin says Stephen doesn't believe any of his story, does he? Stephen says it's just a good story, right? Martin replies if only it was just a story. Martin alludes to people in his life that died, a panel of Spider-man prone in front of a foggy grave, with the name 'Ben Parker' partially obscured. Martin begins to get upset, and Stephen asks him to talk about his great-grandmother (Mary Jane), and how she fits into it all. Martin says he had to convince her to marry him, but when the day came, it was the happiest of his life. They started a family together, raised a daughter. Martin says as he aged, the super-heroing became less fun, or rather more dangerous. While wailing on "Kraven, the Rhino" one day, he realized he wasn't living up to the responsibilities to his family, and hung up the webs. He approached SHIELD and had them erase his old life. The family was moved outside of Chicago, with new identities. Time flies by, and Martin grows old alone.
Martin suggests they grab a bowl of ice cream in the kitchen and call it a night. They retire to bed. Stephen hears a tapping at his window. Going to it, he finds his Grandpa there. They go for a web swing around the city.
JM DeMatteis has written numerous classic Spider-man stories over the years (and according to Spiderfan's own Tyler Barlass, he belongs on the "Mount Rushmore of the post-60's Spider-man writers" along with Roger Stern, Peter David and Bill Mantlo, of which I agree completely). This story almost ranks up there with JMD's best. We've seen several different iterations of alternate Spider-men over the years, in different issues (JMS' take in ASM #500, Grim Hunt's alternate future Spider-man ASM #637, Spider-man: Noir, and Spider-Man 2099 among them), but this story manages to stand out for the fact that the name Peter Parker is never mentioned. In this story, things are the same as the normal continuity, but a little off, with the heroes and villains mixed up.
Camuncoli delivers more great artwork here, as well (with Sal Buscema's inks providing a nice blend of the old guard with the new). Facial expressions are still a bit odd at certain angles, but his art is developing nicely. He's still the best on the title right now, in this reader's opinion.
As far as these landmark-issue backup stories go, this is a nearly-great one. It delivers on the emotional impact that the main story this issue lacks. Poignant and deftly written by JMD with a clear reverence for the character, it's also a creatively different and unexpected approach for a story.