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Welcome back superhero enthusiasts, 1990s arts and culture enthusiasts, Marvel Comics fans and comic book collectors! Today we go back to the wild 1990s and examine an alternate universe portrayal of one of Spider-Man’s many events told through the What If monthly series!
If you are looking for a portrayal of Spider-Man going over the edge and into the extremes emotionally, you are about to experience something in this retro review of mine. Some time ago, I reviewed a What If comic book about Spider-Man becoming a murderer which was compelling but ended on a whimper.
With those details laid down, here is a look back at What If #61 published in 1994 by Marvel Comics with a story written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Kirk Jarvinen, Andrew Wildman, Derek Yaniger and Jim Amash.
The story begins with Richard and Mary Parker (Peter Parker’s parents) arriving in the presence of Aunt May who happens to be visited by their son Peter (Spider-Man). Having learned something from a while back, Aunt May tells Richard and Mary that they are not genuine persons. Suddenly, Peter Parker’s spider sense intensifies and in an attempt to defuse the situation, he leads his aunt to walk out of the house with him. Richard and Mary watch them walk away.
It turns out, Richard and Mary are impostors and they have been working all the time for a secretive boss. Richard calls his employer under an emergency and reports that they have completed phase one of their assignment, that Aunt May knows the truth about them and is about to inform Spider-Man. Richard is then told that under no circumstances is the plan to be jeopardized and anyone who suspects must die. He is also told to flush Mary’s programming and reset her as she showed signs of acting odd to the situation.
A short time later, Richard and Mary – now in morphed forms with vastly different bodies and half their heads resembling their human selves – suddenly break into an apartment surprising Peter, his wife Mary Jane and Aunt May. Violent action by one of them accidentally ripped open Peter’s shirt, revealing his Spider-Man suit to Aunt May. Just as Peter’s aunt figures out the secret, he tells Mary Jane to grab her and get out.
However, the sight of the morphed Mary Parker shocked Aunt May and Mary Jane so much, they failed to move. Mary Parker then morphs her two hands into large, makeshift hammers, and swiftly killed Aunt May and Mary Jane. Peter is instantly shocked by their sudden deaths but deep inside, rage begins to burn…
I can start by confirming that Kurt Busiek’s writing is very strong and his alternate take on the events of Amazing Spider-Man #388 (1994) is indeed very solidly composed. In one way, I find the emotional stakes for Spider-Man has been raised a lot higher than what was portrayed in the 400th issue of Amazing Spider-Man (the canon story). The concept of losing his beloved family members to enemies who were impostors that looked like his long lost parents is indeed disturbing as well as highly emotionally charged. In relation to this, Busiek and the illustrators brought to life a Spider-Man who really went over the edge by taking matters into his own hands as the loss of beloved ones led to the blurring of the boundary between good and evil. Even the boundary between innocence and guilt gets blurred which adds more depth to the emotions of the story. As I read the story, there were moments when I felt that Spider-Man became as bad as the evil ones even though he is clearly the victim and his family was targeted.
Apart from showing Spider-Man getting outraged and pushed to the limits, Busiek inserted elements about how people perceive incidents without knowing all the facts and how easily they get manipulated by a news outlet – the Daily Bugle where Peter Parker worked as a freelance photographer – that does not care about ethical journalism nor the pursuit of the truth. In this age of widespread fake news and liberal news media outlets in America doing propaganda for American Communists (read: Democrats, abortionists, LGBTQ, Black Lives Matter, Antifa, the terrorists, the climate change extremists and the socialist hordes), this particular aspect of the story makes this comic book strongly relevant to read today.
The story also sheds light on Spider-Man’s connections with other Marvel superheroes who happen to be in New York City. You will see Captain America and Johnny Storm express their concern about Spider-Man’s state of mind as they themselves still tried to figure out what really happened. In short, the superheroes here showed restraint even as Spider-Man goes to the extreme being a victim as well as a fugitive.
If there are any weak points in this comic book, it would be the art which has this cartoon-like aesthetic. Considering the serious subject matter, the visuals are quite contradicting as they make this look like it was made for much younger readers.
As far as storytelling and characterization goes, What If #61 (1994) succeeded a lot on portraying the iconic Spider-Man as the superhero who went over the limits of his emotions and his reasoning which is the result of the tragic deaths of two beloved family members caused by individuals who pretended to be his parents. This is a very solid story which also has a powerful ending. Where What If #72 failed, this comic book succeeded and even exceeded it with Spider-Man truly becoming unheroic. I should state that this comic book should convince readers to go to the Amazing Spider-Man series and follow the Lifetheft storyline in issues #386 to #388 (which were released months before this comic book). Kurt Busiek’s script is indeed great and it is easily the driving force of the comic book, more than enough to overcome the cartoon-like visuals.
Overall, What If #61 (1994) is highly recommended.
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