In this column, Mark Ginocchio (from Chasing Amazing) takes a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and gives his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence “Gimmick or Good?” Here is an archive of all the comics featured so far. We continue with 1995’s die-cut embossed “tombstone” cover of Amazing Spider-Man #400…
Amazing Spider-Man #400 (published April 1995) – script by J.M. DeMatteis, pencils by Mark Bagley, inks by Larry Mahlstedt
In an attempt to piggy-back on the enormous cultural and commercial success and impact of Amazing Spider-Man’s previous “centennial” issue (ASM #300), Marvel busted out a cavalcade of 1990s gimmicks for ASM #400. The front cover sported an embossed die-cut overlay in the shape of a tombstone, promoting a “death in the family” (Jason Todd was spared this time). And if that was not enough to titillate collectors, Marvel released a very limited edition variant cover with a snow white tombstone rather than the standard gray/off-white edition.
On a personal note, I will always remember how the release of this comic bought out the speculator in me. After kicking myself over the fact that my 7-year-old self destroyed the copy of ASM #300 I had picked up on the spinner rack when it first came out (forcing me to have to pay upwards of 30 times the cover price for a copy at a comic book show in the early 90s so I could own the first Venom story), I reserved TWO copies of ASM #400 at my local comic book shop months in advance: one for reading and one to preserve for the day it would inevitably accrue in value. I was ecstatic when the store owner called my house the night before the comic was released letting me know I could come by and get my copy AHEAD of everyone else. When I saw that tombstone on the cover, I was convinced that my college education would be paid for in no time.
But what about inside the comic?
Hindsight is not particularly kind to this comic because the crucial “death in the family,” Peter’s elderly Aunt May – who had been near-death dozens of other times in Spidey’s history – was undone by Marvel a few years later in some kind of panicked attempt to justify the resurrection of Norman Osborn and make him the mastermind of the “Clone Saga” (and pretty much every other unfortunate incident that happened to Parker since Osborn’s apparent death in ASM #122 in the early 1970s). Additionally, the comic officially kicks the much-reviled “Clone Saga” storyline into high gear as the issue ends with Peter being charged with murder (which we would later learn was committed by his demented clone Kaine) and his friendlier clone, Ben Reilly, reveals himself to Parker’s wife Mary Jane.
If you are still with me after that and have not been reduced to a babbling, blubbering blob reminiscing about the many crimes and abuses Marvel has perpetrated against its most profitable and marketable character, I think it is worth saying that, despite the storyline silliness that followed ASM #400, DeMattteis really nails the tender, wistful tone that this script requires in order to pull off that emotional final scene between Peter and Aunt May.
Just the story’s title – “The Gift” – makes it very apparent early on that the moments Peter is sharing with Aunt May – the woman who has been a mother to him for the bulk of his lifetime – are final moments with an imminent expiration date. There is actually very little Spider-Man in this issue. He dons the costume in the beginning to quickly swing across the city and see May and then in another scene to confront his clone but, otherwise, this is a comic that is almost exclusively about Peter Parker the man, and his relationship with his Aunt May. The entire issue is nostalgic, without relying too much on previously published material.
And then there is the big bomb shell when May and Peter are on top of the Empire State Building and she admits that she has known for years that her nephew was Spider-Man.
And, after that moment of revelation, May is ready to die with all loose ends resolved.
DeMatteis even crafts a number of fantastic scenes between Mary Jane and May, and MJ and Peter, demonstrating that, at one point in the Spider-Man comic’s history, Peter’s marriage to MJ was not just some plot contrivance that was mandated by an editor-in-chief that everyone hated in the 1980s and thus had to be undone once a new Marvel regime was fully in command in the mid-2000s. DeMatteis’ Mary Jane is Peter’s closest friend – a grown, mature woman who May entrusts to take care of her nephew after she passes on.
Adding to the story’s drama is Peter’s growing concerns about the clone he thought had died years ago. MJ tries to convince Peter that there is no way someone like the Jackal was capable of cloning his heart and soul, but Peter is still struck by how emotionally connected Reilly is to his past and his memories. Peter’s brow furrows and his he tries to recall memories from his childhood and, when things get fuzzy, he is left wondering if perhaps he is actually a clone and Reilly is the real Peter Parker. Yes, the Clone Saga went on to become a true atrocity, but in its infancy, and when entrusted to a cerebral writer like DeMatteis, it is actually a very interesting story-arc.
And the final scene with Aunt May … “second to the right and straight on until morning.”
Shoot … why is my wife cutting onions in the room right now as I am typing this? Hold on, let me get a rag while I wipe the moisture off my keyboard from the slow leak dripping from the ceiling. Anyway, if this was actually Aunt May’s death scene, it was handled about as masterfully as I could have asked. I pity the Spider-Man writer who has to try and kill her off again because the emotional hammer DeMatteis drops here is just untouchable human storytelling. Good luck following this.
The comic’s biggest flaw in terms of storyline is the final sequence following May’s death. I know that Marvel is just trying to set up the next big arc, Peter’s trial for Kaine’s murder, but having the police show up at the Parker residence right after May’s funeral feels so inappropriate. I even get the sense that DeMatteis has a hard time scripting it since it almost feels like the whole scene was attached with a rivet gun.
As for artwork, Mark Bagley’s Spider-Man went on to become the commercially definitive version of the character in the 1990s. That’s not to say his is the best – of the early/mid-90s ASM artists, I would probably rank Todd McFarlane first, then Bagley, then Erik Larsen – but Bagley’s pencils are very clean and technically proficient, making it easy to see why Marvel chose to use his work in all of their Spider-Man marketing materials.
If you put aside how the issue’s events were later retconned and just view ASM #400 in a vacuum, Marvel’s streak in producing very strong ASM centennial issues continues with this comic. DeMatteis manages to scribe an emotional issue that never becomes overly schmaltzy or hokey. Bagley is game, as he always seems to be regardless of the script quality. ASM #400 never paid for my college tuition, but I still kept both my copies. You never know. At least I liked the story.