As anyone who read his uniformly brilliant Howard the Duck are already aware, Chip Zdarsky writes a great Spider-Man — witty, put upon, and endearingly downcast. But in 2017, the question of who Spider-Man actually is can be a complicated one. You’ve got three separate film series to consider, multiple cartoons, and in the sprawling Marvel Universe of the comic books, you’ve got Spider-Man 2099, the popular Miles Morales, that Scarlet Spider clone guy, and many more, all swinging around (mostly) heroically. Point is, the Spider-Verse contains multitudes. And multitudes get confusing.
It’s temping to view Zdarky and artist Adam Kubert’s Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man #1 as a narrowing of the lens, a relatively compact, “back to basics” take on the character. After all, It’s Peter Parker, the science wiz/perennially bummed-out wisecracker, whose name appears first in the title. And from Marvel’s Star-Lord to Image Comics’ Sex Criminals to Archie Comics’ Jughead, Zdarsky excels at writing warm and complex protagonists. But the first issue is hardly a stripped-down, intimate character study. The Human Torch, Captain America (Sam Wilson), Ant-Man, Ironheart, Black Widow — plenty of big names make guest appearances in both the main tale and Goran Parlov-illustrated bonus story.
That’s not all — the issue sets in motion a plot involving hacked Stark cell phones, which editor Nick Lowe’s afterword promises has something to do with “every single hero in the Marvel Universe.” Despite Parker’s desperate yearning for some chill action — as just a “young(ish) man, only slightly terrorizing the city he loves with grace and beauty,” solving “old-fashioned” robberies — Zdarsky and Kubert seem determined to make this book big, referencing deep cut Marvel history and Spidey’s legendary rogues gallery of senior citizens, along with a killer cliffhanger to close things out.
But even if the grand design is elaborate, it’s the little moments that really cement what the creators are up to. Spidey struggling to connect with Rebecca London (a cute stand-up comedian he helps mid-mugging), being a bad friend, constantly comparing himself to more illustrious heroes, and talking on the phone with Aunt May (Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” is her ringtone, of course) — it’s these classic blunders and details that remind us why Peter Parker is one of the classic secret identities. With great power comes great responsibility, but great levity, too. No one weaves in pop culture references like Zdarsky, whose nods to Better Call Saul and Prince make Peter Parker feel a lot like a guy you’d likely get drinks with after work.
Kubert’s expressive art and colorist Jordie Bellaire’s bright splashy style perfectly matches the madcap energy Zdarky’s cooked up. Kubert’s Spidey bounds over buildings, looped strings of web carrying him across the skyline, and his Peter Parker looks youthful but not teenaged. Even when there’s scant dialogue — such as a particularly funny scene featuring Johnny Storm — Kubert’s subtle art breezily stuns.
The best Spider-Man stories have always mined as much drama from Parker’s personal life as his heroic one; this “low-stress tech mystery” points toward doing the same, even if it promises to be very stressful for our web-slinger. The Spider-Man mythos may be as complicated as any other in modern comics, but Zdarsky and Kubert’s Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man illustrates why the character has stuck in imaginations all these years.