Review: Amazing Spider-Man: Sins Past trade paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

[Review by Doug Glassman.]

With my search for X-Men: The Draco still underway (see note at bottom), I decided to move down my list of “infamously bad comics.” I chose to tackle Amazing Spider-Man: Sins Past because the problems lay in the writing, not the art. If the book is visually unreadable, I just give up, which is why it took me forever to get past the Liefeld-drawn part of Heroes Reborn: Avengers. Mike Deodato Jr.’s art is easily the best part of Sins Past, and his Norman Osborn seems almost familiar given his later work on Thunderbolts. It’s just a shame that the context for Osborn’s presence is so bizarre.

The cover is the first indication that something isn’t right: Gwen Stacy is back! No, actually, that’s her identical daughter, Sarah. I’m convinced that the hair band is part of Gwen’s DNA, as it appears both on her clones and her daughter. Within the book, Sarah is joined by her brother, Gabriel, who looks like Peter Parker. If you’ve already guessed the ending, well, you’ve figured out what J. Michael Straczynski intended: Gabriel and Sarah Stacy were supposed to be the illegitimate children of Peter and Gwen. Both of the kids have enhanced strength and speed due to chemically-enhanced blood.

Had JMS kept this in place -- had Gabriel and Sarah actually been Peter’s kids -- then there could have been some actual, lasting change in the Amazing Spider-Man title. Imagine how Mary Jane and Aunt May would have reacted. How would the kids interact with the rest of the superhero community? Spider-Man would join the Avengers shortly after this story; would he tell them about his kids? Their rapid aging is a problem, as is the fact that they hate him for abandoning them and killing their mother. Peter has long felt an intense guilt over his part in Gwen’s death -- the infamous “snap” -- and the kids’ anger almost feels justified.

But then, the editors had to step in. They decided that kids would age Peter. They decided to take drastic measures to keep Peter young and hip. If this sounds oddly familiar, it’s because Sins Past is, in retrospect, a dry run for One More Day, complete with character-destroying effects. You see, Peter isn’t the father. Norman Osborn is.

Before we even get into how out-of-character the whole thing is, let’s use my Amazing Spider-Man Official Index and my copy of The Death of Gwen Stacy to look into the situation as it stood in 1972-73. Norman Osborn kept remembering and forgetting that he was the Green Goblin, while Gwen was thinking about potentially marrying Peter. Apparently, a hurt and vulnerable Osborn lured Gwen into his bed, and she gave birth to her accelerated-age children during her vacation in Paris. We see a post-delivery Gwen confront Norman Osborn during Harry Osborn’s famous descent into drug addiction is ASM #97. The window for this to occur in is extremely slim, but more to the point -- it shouldn’t have occurred!

Norman’s motives are made very clear: he wants an heir, and he thinks that Harry is too weak. In the old comics, Norman had a difficult relationship with his son, but it never went this far. But out of all of the people ... Gwen Stacy?! He knew Gwen somewhat well; considering how paternally Norman felt about Peter in his saner moments, she could have been his daughter-in-law in spirit. Why would he take such a risk? Why not find some random woman to bear his children? Hell, if he wanted super-powered children, he should have had a relationship with Mystique (which would be a much more interesting story). There’s nothing special in Gwen’s genetics, unless the hair band really is her mutant ability; all of the kids’ abilities come from the Goblin Serum. (I still call BS on the Goblin Serum and the entire Final Chapter, but that’s another review entirely.)

The character assassination continues with Mary Jane, who knew the whole time. I ... no. I can’t think of anything to say about this, except that I’m amazed Mephisto didn’t bring this up as a reason for Peter to give up his marriage. This comes barely a year after MJ returned from being apparently killed in a plane crash, and to the credit of JMS, it feels very tacked-on and editorially-mandated. This is a scene that wouldn’t exist if the kids were Peter’s. In fact, they didn’t even change it quickly enough to fix the art so that Gabriel would have the trademark Osborn red swirl hairstyle; he still looks like a clone of Peter. Thank God Aunt May didn’t find out about this.

It’s not like Gabriel and Sarah do anything interesting. After learning about his heritage, Gabriel becomes the Grey Goblin. There’s another costume for Sarah, but due to some odd light, I can’t tell if it’s supposed to be green or not. Gabriel gets blown out of the sky, gets amnesia, and both he and his sister turn up in one more story in Spectacular Spider-Man. Then they’re tossed aside in the ill-thought-out superhero children bin with Marcus Kang and Equinox. I’d go into issues of how this negatively portrays women in comics, but it’s not worth the effort with this garbage.

Amazong Spider-Man: Sins Past isn’t the worst Spider-Man story ever written, mostly because Spider-Man isn’t much of a factor. It’s almost entirely about Peter Parker, and even then, it’s mostly him reacting to MJ and the Osborn children. Peter actually comes out pretty well, and Norman Osborn’s creepiness is vaguely in character. It’s Gwen and MJ who have their characters ruined. Had JMS kept the original story in place, Sins Past would have been very controversial, but it could have opened new opportunities. What we got was very controversial and very stupid.

Save your money and go buy the Amazing Spider-Man Official Index and my copy of The Death of Gwen Stacy instead; they’re worth the investment and won’t make you want to reach for the brain bleach.
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12 comments:

  1. Oh, man.. this sounds like a pretty awful book, all in all.
    I put it on my "forget it ever happened and move on"-list :/

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  2. It's character-destroying stories like this one and Avengers vs X-Men that make me wish Marvel had the balls to reboot its continuity.

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  3. Shagamu -- what do you think a "reboot" would accomplish that simply ignoring stories like this one would not?

    Doug -- I think that to give "The Draco" a proper look, you really need to take a look at Chuck Austen's entire tenure on Uncanny X-Men as well. It's a very odd run..."The Draco" actually isn't the worst story arc, and even more surprisingly, there are actually a few (faint) glimmers of goodness sprinkled throughout too.

    That's what makes Austen's Uncanny X-Men such an interesting set of issues to discuss, in my opinion. If it were all bad, there would be no reason to even talk about it -- what new flaws could we find in it today that haven't already been pointed out a thousand times in the ten years since it came out?

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  4. Ignoring a story you don't like only works until a certain point. In Sins Past's case, it's easier because very few writers have referenced that story ever since, but events like Schism and AvX have such far-reaching consequences and affect so many books, it's just impossible to pretend they never happened.

    Instead of a reboot, maybe Marvel could try a "rewind". Just like DC wiped the "5 years later" Legion from continuity and restored the team back to where it was when Levitz left the book, I wouldn't mind if Marvel erased these past few years of heroes acting like scheming a-holes and fighting each other over the stupidest of reasons.

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  5. But a reboot (or "rewind") wouldn't change the event-driven market that superhero comic books exist in today. While it might erase the physical trappings of something like Avengers vs. X-Men, it wouldn't stop the annual event cycle. Sooner or later, some line-wide event with consequences you didn't like would come along, and you would be back in the same boat.

    The only way a "reboot" can really differentiate itself from what came before is if it involves a change in publishing strategy. DC hasn't done that with the New 52 (there have already been several mini-crossovers, with bigger ones on the way), and it's already beginning to sag under the weight of its own continuity -- the same "problem" that led to the reboot in the first place.

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  6. It's all about perception, really. Inspite of its lax approach to continuity, DC still has this big stigma of inaccessibility, and the reboots are just a way of telling prospective new readers "hey, you can start reading our books right now, no need to know what happened in our previous stories".

    Other than Heroes Reborn (which I believe was never meant to be permanent) and the Ultimate universe (which was so popular early on, people thought it could end up replacing the 616 continuity), I think the closest thing Marvel did to a reboot was when the Jemas/Quesada regime was hiring outside-the-box creative teams and letting them run wild, not worrying about contradicting past stories or even then-current stories in other books.

    That bold, experimental approach wasn't always successful (Tsunami line, anyone?), but I was hoping the New 52 would be something more akin to that. Instead, what we're seeing is tight editorial control driving talent away from DC, but I take solace on the fact that, overall, I'm enjoying DC's output much more than I was immediately before the reboot.

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  7. Marvel actually did do a "soft reboot" of its entire line in 1998, when Heroes Reborn ended. All of its main titles, except for the X-Men books, restarted with new #1's. (X-Men got a soft reboot of its own in 2000, and then another one the following year.)

    It actually worked pretty well for Marvel, and the reason (as I mentioned earlier) was that it changed its publishing strategy. The last few years had been dominated by huge, line-wide crossovers, but beginning in 1998, everything became much more self-contained. (There were a few small crossovers between two or three titles, but nothing on the scale of Onslaught or Age of Apocalypse.) It's a model they kept intact until Avengers Disassembled in 2004, which basically launched the event-driven age we're still experiencing today.

    Tsunami doesn't really work as an analogy for DC's reboot, because it was always an imprint targeted at a very specific audience (what we might call the YA crowd today).

    The Ultimate universe works better, especially as an example of where the New 52 could be headed. Just as the Ultimate universe got more continuity-heavy as it went along, the New 52 is already showing similar signs. The "zero issues" seem like a pretty good indication that DC's general approach toward continuity hasn't changed -- they just want to substitute the "old" continuity for a "new" (though not necessarily less complex) one.

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  8. Other than the Heroes Return and Spider-Man books, I don't recall that many relaunches in 1998, but in 1997 Marvel tried to fill the vacuum left by the Avengers and the FF in their regular universe by launching new books like Thunderbolts, Heroes for Hire, Quicksilver and Ka-Zar, which were still around after a year. And it only took them 8 months after the relaunch to do a big Avengers crossover ("Live Kree or Die"), although it was only one month long.

    The X-Men books, on the other hand, did stay away from line-wide crossovers for a year or so after "Zero Tolerance", but sales fell so much that they started doing one editorially-driven event after another ("The Search for Xavier", "The Magneto War", "The Shattering", "Apocalypse: The Twelve", etc.).

    As I recall, it was only after Bill Jemas replaced Bob Harras with Joe Quesada as Marvel's EiC in 2000 that they really started shying away from crossovers and big events, except for the month-long "Maximum Security". And that changed in 2004 with "Avengers Disassembled", as you said.

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  9. Heroes Return and Spider-Man made up the majority of Marvel's highest sellers in 1998, so to suggest those were the "only" relaunches is a bit misleading. We're talking about relaunches of Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker: Spider-Man, Avengers, Captain America, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Iron Man, and Thor -- PLUS all of the Marvel Knights relaunches: Black Panther, Daredevil, Inhumans, and Punisher.

    My point is that in 1998, Marvel pulled off a successful relaunch ("successful" both financially and creatively), in large part because it let its relaunched titles do their own thing, for the most part. "Live Kree or Die" was not a "big" crossover; it's exactly the kind of smaller crossover I was talking about. It was only four issues -- two issues of Avengers, and one each from Captain America and Iron Man -- all of which (except Captain America) were by the same writer. Odds are, most people who were buying one title were already buying the other two.

    The X-Men might be considered an exception to the argument I'm making, but the "crossovers" there rarely involved more than the two main titles (although Wolverine got roped in a few times as well). However, there were no Onslaught-level crossovers pulling together all of the X-titles -- and there were certainly none that pulled in titles from outside the X-universe.

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  10. The main reason I'm seeking out just "The Draco" is two-fold. Firstly, I don't have a ton of money to spend on comics, so I want to narrow it down as much as possible. I want to spend that money on good comics. I could buy the entire Austen run... or the Walt Simonson Thor Omnibus.

    Secondly, while "Holy War" is worse, Linkara has done such a thorough take-down of it that I don't think I can add anything else to the conversation. Plus, once I get done with "The Draco", I'll also move on to "She Lies With Angels".

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  11. Not to sidestep the point of this conversation entirely, but I think it's interesting what Marc raised, that the DC New 52 initiative neither really wiped DC's continuity slate clean (since books from Killing Joke to Blackest Night are still fair game) nor did it invent a new way of publishing comics (still event-driven, crossover-laden).

    Instead, the on-the-ground success agent of the New 52 appears to be simply 1) put interesting creators on titles (Johns and Lee on JL, Johns on Aquaman, Lemire and Snyder on Animal Man and Swamp Thing); 2) shuffle things around whenever there's a hint of staleness (Second, Third, Fourth Wave); 3) when possible, tell good stories (Snyder on Batman, Snyder and Lemire on Swamp Thing/Animal Man). Twenty years from now I don't believe we'll regard the big "win" of the New 52 to be reinventing comics, so much as taking some really obvious strategies and adhering to them consistently (putting books out on time should be somewhere in there, too).

    How this might relate to Marvel NOW! or whether Marvel's universe itself needs a reboot, draw your own conclusions.

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  12. I'm collecting all of the "modern Spidey" (The Next Chapter-onwards) paperbacks, and even when I've almost completed the JMS stuff, to this day this is the one volume I refuse to purchase.

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