The subtitle to this issue is "What If... Spider-Man Had Rejected the Spider?" In other words, what if Spider-Man: the Other hadn't turned out for the best?
In homage to classic What Ifs of yore, we begin with the Watcher narrating the backstory to The Other story arc. Namely, Spider-Man, already dying of cellular degeneration, apparently perished during a battle with one of his foes. But what actually happened was that Peter survived: his body lay wrapped in a web-cocoon hidden under a bridge, while his spirit lay trapped in some mysterious other world. There Peter's spirit met the 'spider-essence' that had originally given him his powers.
(You thought he got his powers from the bite of radioactive spider? Nah: in recent issues of Amazing Spider-Man J. Michael Straczynski has been building up the notion that Peter's powers came from the gift of a mysterious spider-spirit. This spider-spirit, natch.)
The spider-spirit offers Peter a choice: in return for resuscitation from death, he must accept that he is, and will be, both spider as well as man. In the mainstream continuity of The Other, Peter accepted the bargain, and was resuscitated, with a brand-new body and tricked-out new powers. Actually, given the new body, new powers, and mystical overtones, perhaps 'resuscitated' isn't the right word; 'resurrected' might fit the case better. But what if, the Watcher asks, Peter had rejected the bargain? The Watcher shows us a world where that happened, and what the consequences were.
In this world Peter rejects the bargain in the most gruesome manner possible: after the spirit, which has manifested in the form of a giant spider, makes its offer, Peter reaches out and rips its head off. (The spider's response to its decapitation? "You... unbelievable... idiot..." I think I'd have had choicer words.) Peter explains that he doesn't believe he's got any special entitlement to resurrection, and even if he did, he's unwilling to become even more inhuman, and the spider-spirit's pawn to boot, in order to live again.
But with no spider-spirit to bargain with, Peter remains trapped where he is, spirit and body separately imprisoned. Speaking of prisons, the story cuts to an unnamed holding facility, where Mac "Venom" Gargan is monologuing in his cell. The symbiotic costume recently chose to bond with Gargan, but now senses (how?) that Peter is alone and vulnerable. Ditching Gargan like a bad habit, it escapes from the symbiote-proof cell (how?), kills the guards, and makes its way to the bridge where Peter's body rests in its cocoon.
The Watcher admits that in storytelling it's better to show than to tell, but he doesn't know how to show this, so he won't bother. Just take his word for it: the symbiote infects Peter's body and spirit, and in his vulnerability it succeeds in taking him over. Now the two entities are fused together into something new: not Spider-Man, not Venom, but Poison.
Breaking free of the cocoon on a dark and stormy night, Poison makes its way to Avengers Tower. Months have passed since Peter's apparent demise, but MJ and May still live there, May having become intimate with Jarvis in the interim. May and MJ are sharing a late-night heart-to-heart when Poison bursts in through the window. (A neat trick, since we readers just learned in Civil War #5 how well-reinforced those windows are.) While May and MJ stare, horrified, Poison monologues. His return, he explains, is nothing short than a miracle, and he intends to share that miracle with his true love, Mary Jane. What does sharing this miracle entail? Why, he can make her into the same kind of being that he is. So MJ is faced with her own bargain, one just like Peter's, a bargain where she may trade enthrallment for a new life. Like Peter, she refuses. "I'd rather die."
Poison, unfazed, explains that he can transform her even if she is dead. But he doesn't have the chance to make good on his threat: enter the New Avengers. Logan and Luke Cage burst in and throw down. Poison proves stronger and faster than Logan, and tough enough to break Luke Cage's unbreakable skin. Does Brian Bendis know about this? Ahem. Before the fight gets really out of hand, Mary Jane interrupts it by accepting Poison's offer. Rather than see the New Avengers get hurt on her behalf, rather than suffer the knowledge that her former lover now haunts New York as some sort of monster, she agrees to go with him... but warns him that her revenge will be to make their new lives together as miserable as she can.
Poison ponders this, and then takes off into the night. Maybe he still loves MJ, or maybe he is stung by her rejection, or maybe he finds her unworthy of his gift. But whatever the reason, he leaves her and goes in search of some other female companionship. And since death is no barrier to fashioning the companion he wants, he returns to his first love. The story ends with a montage of Peter digging up Gwen Stacy's corpse, infecting it with his seed, and watching her rise, resurrected, from her own web-cocoon.
The Other was a pompous, confused, and overly-padded story arc. What better follow-up than a pompous, confused, and overly-padded single issue?
Seriously: almost nothing about this issue works. Take, for instance, the characters. Peter is uncharacteristically violent: he underscores his rejection of the spider-spirit's offer by ripping its head off. May drops out of the story without explanation just when her reaction (to MJ's acceptance of Poison's offer) is most relevant. The Watcher's dialogue is not only painfully grandiose, but also reeks of faux-intellectualism (here's a sample: "Think of it as the personification of that most intriguing of speculative games, namely, the road not taken.")
Or take the story. Venom and Poison gain new plot-device powers-- psychic connections, amped-up spider-strength, the ability to resuscitate the dead-- just to move the story where writer Peter David wants it to go. And where does he want it to go? To that last panel, where Poison re-animates Gwen Stacy's dead corpse. Oooh, creepy!
Why would Poison want to do that, anyway? In fact, why is Poison so malevolent? Asking that question can lead one into the hell of symbiote continuity, but let's tread that way just a little bit. So Peter is now irrevocably fused with the symbiote, and in fact is the junior partner in their new life together. But why is he violent, hostile towards his family and friends, and willing to accept an animated corpse for a companion? For the story makes clear Gwen's mind wouldn't return, just her body. Peter certainly wouldn't act this way. Okay, fine, he's not in the driver's seat, but why would the symbiote act this way?
That's not an idle question. A key appeal of the Spider-Man titles is the readers' love for the characters. Refusing to explain why these characters behave as they do is a cardinal sin.
So. Poisoned Minds can be summed up really quickly: Peter comes back from the dead, but this time it's in a corrupt form. Because he's corrupt, he chooses to bring his dead lover back, also in a corrupt form. A story this simple doesn't deserve 32 pages unless the execution makes it worthwhile. The execution here certainly doesn't.
One web. The writing is terrible, and the whole exercise is just an attempt to amortize the costs associated with the execrable The Other story arc, but Khoi Pam's art isn't bad at all. Unfortunately I buy these books for the writing.
This issue's best bit of dialogue occurs during the New Avengers-- Poison fight scene:
POISON: "Being overprotective, Logan? Got something going on with my wife on the side?"
LOGAN: "She ain't yer wife, bub. She was Pete's wife. And whatever you are... whatever you've become... you ain't Peter Parker."
This dialogue is good because it plays off the low-key sexual tension between Logan, MJ, and Peter that percolated in the background during the New Avengers era. Did MJ and Logan hook up after Peter's death? The idea was floated and dismissed all too briefly in the original The Other arc. Too bad Peter David didn't run with this angle instead. What If... Wolverine Loves Mary Jane would have made for a better issue.