To celebrate Spider-Man’s 50th anniversary, I decided to re-read and write a review of some of the top ranked Spider-Man stories of all time according to IGN.com and GoodComics.com. My first time out proved to be an interesting one since I haven’t read any Spider-Man title consistently since early adolescence. In order to get back into the mythology, I opted to take a random stab at these pieces rather than move in numerical order (from the proverbial best to worst or vice versa).
Reign seemed like a good place to start since it placed Peter Parker/Spider-Man in an alternate reality where the reader finds the title character at an advanced age and horribly reverted back to his sheepish, unsure, bookworm days. While the mini-series didn’t crack a lot of top 10 lists, it sounded like an interesting tribute to Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which isn’t necessarily the right tone or setting for this character, but I thought it could work, and it many ways it did.
It reminded very much of Todd McFarlane’s run on the Spider-Man title of the early ’90s, which was essentially Spider-Man as Batman. At one point, McFarlane even dubbed him as the “Arachknight”. But I digress. The premise of Reign revolves around Peter Parker eventually regaining a lost sense of responsibility after the untimely death of his wife, Mary-Jane. Writer-artist Karre Andrews devotes a great deal of the opening issue to soul-searching, and somewhat off-putting self-loathing, in which Parker anguishes over whether or not he should come out of retirement. Predictably, he opts to don the spandex once more and goes to battle against foes old and new. The conflict, ensuing plight, and resolution are fairly standard, what isn’t, however, is the emotional development of Parker. Yes, we know, he loves Mary-Jane, but this story takes the nature of that relationship to an entirely new depth.
In an odd twist that I won’t reveal, we learn, in an overly expository way, that Parker was unintentionally responsible for MJ’s passing. The trauma of her death coupled with the stark reality of undeniable fault push him over the edge. He no longer works as a photographer, can barely get up in the morning, and web-slinging is simply out of the question. His mind, in an effort to compensate for an unparalleled loss, begins placing a mute image of MJ in random spots, luring Peter into understandably frustrating one-way conversations. These placements are just enough to remind Peter of a responsibility he has long ignored in favor of guilt and depression.
The pain he experiences is nearly visceral throughout the series, and is often more intense than the emotional turmoil experienced when other Spider-Man favorites (Gwen Stacy, Aunt May, and Harry Osborn) were killed off. The audience truly sees Peter at his lowest form. Old, lonely, sad, and defeated. These feelings are most palpable when Peter, in a dreamlike trance of some kind, remembers himself as the quiet bookworm from the comic’s early days. As before, however, he relies on his most consistent love-interest and foil to bring him out of his rut.
MJ enters from stage right to find young Peter Parker sulking over an unfortunate encounter with a group of bullies. She coaxes him out of his stifling characterization by reminding him of the promises he made so long ago. For it’s that undying loyalty to a greater responsibility that is Parker’s greatest and most attractive trait. It’s why Mary-Jane, like the character’s audience, fell in love with him and have remained faithful for over 50 years. By the end of the sequence it’s implied that Parker has once again abandoned the glasses and books in favor of an iconic mask that force him to forget about self-pity and place the needs of others before his own:
And isn’t that Spider-Man at his best? Hasn’t that always been this character’s cornerstone? There’s never any true glory to be gained or awards to be won. Peter Parker did it because he knew he should. Even when he doubted himself he always got back up, put his worries behind him, and tried to do what was best for those around him.
In the end, Reign is uneven and often at odds with the character’s tenets, but the themes of responsibility and true love resonate so greatly that it’s hard to dislike this piece. It’s a worthwhile read, especially for fans of the character.