In 2020, in the first couple months of this Urbane Turtle experiment, I posted a Year in Review of some of the various forms of media that got me through a difficult year. I was very explicit that it wasn’t a “Best-Of,” and I did not limit it to any medium.
But after a full year as a semi-professional comic critic, I want to share with you my Top 10 comics from the year that was. There is not much in the way of ground rules for how books qualify for this list. They had to release new issues in 2021. I’ve spent the last 2 weeks catching up on a backlog of releases and am happy to finally share this with you all.
It is hard to imagine another pair of books that could elicit in me such diametrically opposed reactions than this week’s two Marvel headliners, Amazing Spider-Man #74 and Inferno #1.
Both issues represent, in their way, the culmination of longform serialized narratives, each abbreviated to some degree by what may or may not be a contract with a certain newsletter service. While at first blush it might seem unfair to compare a final issue with the first issue of a final act, I would argue that the narrative structure, the coherence of the issue as an individual work of serialized storytelling, and the promises Jonathan Hickman and Valerio Schiti’s Inferno delivers on for readers puts in stark contrast the sheer failure of Nick Spencer and his army of fill-in artists (16 credited, including the borrowed page from Sal Buscema!).
By way of introduction, Nick Spencer’s final issue of his 3-year long run on Amazing Spider-Man follows Peter Parker and Harry Osborn coming face-to-face with the demonic Kindred, revealed in the previous issue to actually be the twins once believed to be the children of Norman Osborn and Gwen Stacy. After a complex series of plot mechanics explained in issue #73, these twins were revealed to in fact be clones of Harry Osborn, perhaps activated by an AI back-up of his tortured mind from his stint as the Green Goblin, and maybe created to act as a vessel for Harry’s soul, which was sold to the devil by his father Norman, which led directly to him becoming the Green Goblin. All the while, Mephisto plays a game of fate with Dr. Strange, commenting that he has always been obsessed with Peter Parker because apparently, his daughter (stolen in the 90s, never mentioned even once by Spencer) will be directly responsible for his demise. The issue ends with Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson back together for the first time in more than a decade.
I don’t know a better way to explain all that, because I truly…I do not understand what is going on.
Inferno #1 is the first issue of Jonathan Hickman’s final story on the X-Men. After reinventing the franchise after years in publishing limbo due to disputes over the movie licensing rights, Hickman brings together many of the threads he seeded in his grand debut, House of X/Powers of X (Two Series That Are One!). The issue presents Magneto and Professor X having failed in the mission Moira McTaggert, who Hickman revealed has lived nine lives and seen mutantdom decimated in all of them, set out for them: to prevent the creation of Nimrod. Nimrod is the harbinger of a machine revolution, the ultimate enemy of all life on Earth. Magneto and Professor X realize their way forward has failed, and now need Moira’s help. Moira instructs them to destroy any chance for the resurrection of Destiny, the mutant precognitive and wife of Mystique, who Moira has a personal grudge against for killing her in a previous life, and who she sees as a potential barrier to her plans. In the issue’s stunning final pages, Destiny is revealed to be alive, the first move in Mystique’s mission to bring down the nation of Krakoa for failing to bring back her wife.
I’ve lamented Spencer’s obsession with past Spider-Man stories before, and the hollow ways in which it revisits them while bringing nothing new. Since I wrote that article at about the halfway mark of the run it has only gotten worse. What Spencer’s Amazing Spider-Man lacks is anything at all to say about Peter Parker. It is built on references to old stories in absence of any vision of its own.
Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men also draws on the franchise’s past, but in ways that move the characters and their themes forward into the 21st century, recontextualizing the past to inform the present and providing a space for long-time fans to see those stories built on, while never alienating newcomers. The mission statement is clear throughout, and it walks readers through the most important elements of past stories in a way that 1: makes novel use of the comics format itself and 2: does not rely on overindulgent monologues and issue-length explanations of out of print stories from the 1980s.
Both Hickman’s X-Men and Spencer’s Spider-Man seem, at the most surface level, to share a similar method, building their story around the history of their franchise. Both have at the center of their narrative a retcon (retroactive continuity, for that less-versed in superhero nonsense) that recontextualizes most of the publishing history of the book.
In Spider-Man, the central retcon does not come until the end. This critical piece that could make the whole thing come together, is where the entire experiment collapses. The reveal of Kindred’s true identity hinges on not just one retcon, but a series of them so convoluted and rooted in obscure and critically reviled stories, that it took the Spider-Man experts at Amazing Spider-Talk nearly 45 minutes to explain.
It is an anticlimactic dud, drowning in exposition and devoid of pathos or resonance because most of these pieces did not factor into the story until the last issue.
Spencer ultimately fails to justify his use of Mephisto in these last issues or make any commentary in regard to what this supernatural threat represents in the context of Spider-Man’s core themes of power and responsibility. The brief appearance at the end provides only oblique references to his motive and never provides a satisfying emotional or thematic reason the demonic creature was rewritten to tie in so firmly to the character’s history and the creation of the Green Goblin. Spencer’s Mephisto has, apparently, always been obsessed with Peter Parker. But Mephisto’s absence from the entirety of the run and the character’s publishing history undercuts the whole thing. If Spencer wants readers to not only buy into this revelation but learn something about Spider-Man through it, he failed from the outset.
Spencer’s Amazing Spider-Man trades on the past, remixing stories and rewriting what Spencer saw as plot holes or missteps, all the while ignoring the development of Spider-Man himself. The endless teases of Kindred’s motivations and identity, with no genuine hints given to readers to lead them to the secrets of these last two issues, are robbed of any catharsis or impact because the truth was never alluded to and never intersected with Peter Parker’s journey. Both the fake revelations during the “Last Remains” story and the truth here at the end about Kindred are weightless because so much page real estate is devoted to the mechanics of the retcon and there is precious little space for Spider-Man to even acknowledge the truth.
What victory does Spider-Man achieve in the end? He is reunited with Mary Jane, but what personal struggle did he overcome to end up there? By failing to incorporate elements of his complicated revelations until the last two issues, Spencer could never provide a climactic payoff. Whatever the intent was behind Kindred and Mephisto and the complex machinations of the Green Goblin and how they all relate to one another, as told, Spider-Man confronts nothing and learns nothing.
This is from Amazing Spider-Man #73. I can’t credit the artist because there were several working on this issue and I don’t know who did what.
Contrast with Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men, which after the initial 6-week introduction in House of X/Powers of X, transitioned into a mostly episodic anthology series that explored the new status quo of the mutant sovereign nation of Krakoa. In doing so, Hickman introduces and strings throughout his year and a half on the title new ideas and plot points that first appear disjointed or unrelated. When he brings these things –Hordeculture, Dr. Devo, Nimrod, Orchis, the long-simmering tension between Moira, Magneto, and Xavier–together in the pages of Inferno #1, the conflagration is exciting. It is a harvesting of seeds planted, not an issue-length monologue explaining plot points that were never before present in the story. As readers, we have seen what each of these elements is and what they represent in isolation. So their convergence is ominous, a growing tension that explodes in the issue’s final moments.
Hickman introduced many of these elements early on, the most important perhaps being Destiny’s final warning to Moira in House of X #3. Hickman does not play coy and dangle future revelations in front of readers every issue. The House of X #3 confrontation between Destiny and Mystique and Moira in her third life is one of the series’ most memorable moments. Destiny’s dire warning that Moira would only have 10 chances and 11 lives to make things right for mutant-kind has been a loaded Chekhov’s gun waiting to be fired. It is instrumental to everything else.
House of X 3, art by Pepe Larraz and Marte Gracia
Hickman succeeds where Spencer fails by letting the audience in on the important facts up front. Moira MacTaggert, the X-Men’s closest human ally, is revealed to be a mutant almost immediately. Her involvement in the creation of Krakoa and the new mutant status quo is not a secret to the reader. She is not interminably teased to be holding more sinister dark secrets. We see her story throughout Powers of X and it plays directly into the themes that Hickman’s X-Men tackles most concretely: the inevitability of human hate, the endless pursuit of individual power at the expense of the greater society, and the way a dominant culture discards and dehumanizes the “other” both systematically and individually.
The final pages of Inferno #1 where the long-dead Destiny returns, are effective because he lays the groundwork for the character drama over the course of his entire story.Mystique’s growing frustration with Professor X and Magneto, her desire to have Destiny returned to her, has been simmering for two years. Moira and Mystique have been on a collision course since House of X #3.
But, again, Hickman has already made it clear what the outcome to these events will be. Mystique will burn this nation to the ground to get what she was promised. The cards have always been on the table. The tension exists in what we know that the characters do not. It is not enough to revive a dead character from a past story and reveal him or her just to remind fans of the old story where the character died. Without laying the foundation for the character conflict, without the intentional work to tie that history to the themes of the story you are telling, all that exists are the references in and of themselves.
Amazing Spider-Man and Inferno might both draw on the history of their franchises to tell their story but only one uses that history to move the franchise forward. Hickman’s X-Men is a culmination of decades of ongoing publishing history. It is a story of an oppressed people joining together to apply their combined voice and power against the systems that seek to beat them down. Inferno reveals the cracks in the foundation when egos and personal vendettas within those communities inevitably creep in. I cannot even guess what Spencer’s intended themes might have been.
Though I am spending most of this piece referring to the writers, it has to be said that comics are not the product of a single mind or vision–or at least they shouldn’t be. Jonathan Hickman has had an editorial team that supported his story with a consistent visual identity. House of X/Powers of X was defined by the art from Pepe Larraz, R.B. Silva, and Marte Gracia whose stunning, detailed, and action-packed artwork ushered in a bold new era that expanded and redefined the look and feel of the X-Men series. When the X-Men ongoing launched with Leinil Yu on pencils, the series took on a more visceral look that suited this new proactive era of mutantdom, a group of beautiful and tough super beings redefining the world. While several artists stepped in after Yu left the title around issue 8, the series’ other primary artist was Mahmud Asrar, who captured similar energy to Larraz and Silva, but with an angular and sharp line quality that suited those issues’ themes about the danger of runaway technology. Colorist Sunny Gho provided colors for the full run, giving the book a brightness and clarity that spoke to the newfound hope for the long-beleaguered heroes.The graphic design and integration of data pages from Tom Muller has also defined a specific look and feel
And while Inferno will have a rotating team of artists joining Hickman they are consistent with the visuals already established, including the return of Powers of X artist R.B. Silva. The series is not plugging holes with rotating artists every second page, but intentionally creating a coherent visual throughline that complements the rest of the series.
Amazing Spider-Man, on the other hand, has been a visual mess since the departure of Ryan Ottley, whose spellbinding, kinetic artwork and thick, cartoony lines evoked a playful Romita era joy that was familiar but with enough of a modern twist to be fresh. Spencer’s story largely fell off the rails after Ottley departed, perhaps in part because he elevated his material. For most of the rest of the time, the book was drawn by a rotating cast of artists, many inexperienced and not up to the task of headlining the premiere Marvel Comics character. In an attempt to grind out a single Spider-Man title on a near-weekly basis the book soon devolved into issues that had 2, 3, 4, or 16 artists working on a single issue.
The lack of visual consistency or attention to comics making as a craft is another way Amazing Spider-Man failed to create a satisfying experience. It takes for granted the artist, discounting what a consistent and skilled visual storyteller brings to a collaborative medium. With no one to join him for the long haul, Spencer becomes a singular architect. Even the rare strong visionary (Patrick Gleason for example, who appeared for one or two storylines to create stunning imagery of no dramatic importance) could not resuscitate an ultimately hollow narrative.
The differences between Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men and Nick Spencer’s Spider-Man, though similar in ambition, make clear that it is not enough to simply remix old stories without a strong and declarative statement on the characters you are writing. Lacking that point of view, all of the retcons and callbacks fall apart under the weight of their paper thin foundation.
There is a version of Nick Spencer’s Spider-Man that pulls off whatever he was trying to do, but it requires putting all the elements he held back until the final moments on the table much earlier and allowing the knowledge of those revelations to impact Peter in some way. It is clear that Spencer left before he intended to, and he dumps all of his plot points at once without doing the work to connect them to the three preceding years. But after all that time, that he still had not incorporated any of these revelations into the narrative is a stark and shocking failure.
Amazing Spider-Man #74. Again, 16 people worked on the art in this issue. I don’t know who drew this page.
Hickman has shown, in just the first issue of his 4 issue conclusion, that by intentionally working in the elements critical to your overarching story from the beginning, even if the resolution comes earlier than expected, those pieces can be put together satisfyingly, especially with a committed and consistent artistic identity to help navigate the story. These kinds of ambitious storytelling projects are unique to superhero comics, and Marvel in particular since it has never rebooted its stories, and these two eras stand as a testament to the potential for this kind of longform narrative to either have a triumphant payoff or torment readers with empty promises and hollow callbacks.