Review by Frank Plowright
When J. Michael Straczynski inherited Spider-Man the character was experiencing the most protracted run of dismal material in his almost 40 year career, so for both parties it was a win/win situation. Straczynski gained editorial freedom and the removal of restrictive budgets from his storytelling, and Spider-Man gained an experienced TV writer with a significant following and a proven record for witty, thought-provoking and plain exciting strips. John Romita Jr was already in place as artist, but modified his style slightly, making his characters blockier, and his scenes grittier.
During the six chapters of Coming Home Straczynski turns Spider-Man’s life inside out and upside down. He tinkers with Spider-Man’s allegedly random origin of being bitten by a radioactive spider, and at the conclusion wipes away a story element over-used to create cheap dramatic tension over the decades. The care Straczynski applied to Spider-Man’s world is possibly best exemplified by May Parker. Since 1963 she’d been treated at best as kindly old dear, and at worst as a dotty old dear. Straczynski’s Aunt May is sympathetic and compassionate, but also understanding and knowledgeable, the experience of her years applied to Peter Parker’s life.
Straczynski also made a conscious decision to avoid the use of Spider-Man’s frequently seen and overly familiar foes, rightly reasoning he had the skill to create new villains equally compelling, and new supporting characters. His opening chapter provides Ezekiel, memorably introduced sticking to a wall in Spider-Man’s manner, but barefoot in an expensive suit with his shoes stuffed into his pockets. His place, in this collection at least, is to probe and prod at Spider-Man, ask why he’s never considered elements of his life, or why his foes are primarily totemistic. He also warns of a deadly hunter, and Morlun duly appears to give Spider-Man the battle of his life.
The improvements Straczynski brings to Spider-Man are numerous. The cast don’t just have dialogue, they speak. Like real people do. Peter Parker’s life is once again as interesting as Spider-Man’s, with a new job as a high school science teacher. There’s a telling line of dialogue in the first chapter that just slips right by on first reading, yet indicating how much matters had improved under Straczynzki. Peter Parker helps a student that reminds him of his former hapless self, a scene nice enough in isolation, and viewed by another teacher who believes the student needs to stick up for himself. “Evolve or die” is his comment, decent in context, but seemingly throwaway, yet later key to what Parker experiences as Spider-Man.
This would all be diminished without a capable artist. Depicting the subtleties of what’s provided in Coming Home requires an understanding of humanity, and for all the stylised nature of his art Romita Jr has an instinctive way with emotion. He only very rarely slips back into the exaggerated tropes with comics since the earliest days intended to hammer home points to the then generally pre-pubescent readership. If only more artists were that way.
Coming Home would be remarkable enough were it merely six standalone chapters after which another writer could tackle the ideas Straczynski introduced, but instead it started a long run of elevating Spider-Man.
In addition to the standard graphic novel, these chapters are available elsewhere. In the UK they’re presented with accompanying articles and interviews as part of Panini’s attractive hardbound Ultimate Graphic Novels Collection, or a standard Panini edition. They’re also the backbone of the oversize hardbound Best of Spider-Man Volume 1, and the starting point for a bulky paperback collection Amazing Spider-Man by JMS Ultimate Collection volume 1.