Funnybook Babylon

September 18, 2009

Jamaal Reviews Amazing Spider-Man #604

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , — Jamaal Thomas @ 7:00 pm

Amazing Spider-Man #604Amazing Spider-Man #604
“Red-Headed Stranger pt. 3: The Ancient Gallery”
by Fred Van Lente & Barry Kitson

I’m one of those fans who opposed the One More Day storyline because I think that characters should always be allowed to develop and grow. In the great conflict between those who view mainstream superhero comics as a continuing narrative and those who view them primarily as part of a broader strategy to manage valuable intellectual property, I thought OMD was a victory for the latter camp: a victory of commerce over art. Why? It’s not the decision to end the marriage between the characters of Spider-Man and Mary Jane Watson, but the rationales offered, many of which were based on returning to a more ‘classic’ portrayal of the character (that would also make him easier to market and package on different platforms). Although there have been a handful of strong arcs in the months following the “Brand New Day” soft reboot of the Spider-Man family of titles, they only reinforced my ambivalence about the new direction. Dan Slott, Marc Guggenheim, Mark Waid, and Joe Kelly’s fun take on the book would have been equally effective before the reboot. However, with the three-part “Red-Headed Stranger” arc, I think that Fred Van Lente has written a fun, light, compelling story that actually benefits from the new status quo.

The antagonist for this arc is the Chameleon, one of those woefully underused mercenary/assassin types that are filled with potential (I could easily imagine a great Jonathan Hickman OGN starring Chameleon, but given the current views of Marvel’s EiC, I guess that’s a long shot). Writers traditionally portray the Chameleon as a hyper-competent cipher, and while Van Lente’s version of the character is pretty consistent with that, he also explores some interesting dimensions of the character without resorting to cliche. The Chameleon’s central gimmick is that he uses technology and masks to steal the identity of others, and Peter Parker is his current victim. A less ambitious modern comic book writer would update the character by giving him full-blown dissociative identity disorder, but Van Lente opts for a subtler approach. The Chameleon seems to view himself as an artist, a person who has developed a special insight into the human psyche. Not only does he want to exploit the identities of his victims for his own purposes, he wants to ‘improve’ their lives by making the choices that they were incapable of making. The reader is only given hints of his potential mental illness, through the Chameleon’s occasional insistence on being referred to by the name of his current victim.

The story is composed of two intertwined strands, one which follows the Chameleon’s efforts to facilitate a terrorist attack on New York and the other centered around his attempts to ‘fix’ Peter Parker’s life. The former’s entertaining enough, but is a bit disposable. Barry Kitson’s art helps cohere the two threads of the story as he effectively balances kinetic action scenes with slower scenes focusing on character development. Van Lente really shines with this portion, as Chameleon disrupts Parker’s life through a mix of assertiveness, unexpected charm and flashes of cruelty. There’s an entertaining meta-commentary in the second part of the arc that gently pokes fun at the weird contradictions at the core of the classic Spider Man character (Why does he still seem so aimless? How does he manage to accumulate such a large number of attractive female friends?) and tweaks the notion that all super hero comic book narratives are circular in nature (Chameleon commits Parker to a romantic relationship, alienates him from at least one long-standing friend, and amazingly enough, repairs two relationships).

The conclusion does not disappoint. Although the terrorism plot is neatly resolved in the first half of the issue (along with a pretty neat riff on the implications of J. Jonah Jameson’s new role) the fallout of Chameleon’s impersonation is handled in a manner that reflects the ambiguity of the new status quo. The retroactive erasure of the marriage means two obvious things – Marvel writers don’t have to write about a married couple, and artists get to draw more buxom female characters. But it also changed the book in a more subtle way – Spider Man has transformed from a story about a brave hero supported by his loving wife into one about a man who lies to all of his loved ones on a pretty regular basis. In short, he’s a talky Don Draper. So, when Parker’s life is utterly transformed in the space of a single day, one is struck by how little there was to disrupt.

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