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The Amazing Spider-Man #56
writer: J. Michael Straczynski
artists: John Romita, Jr. and Scott Hanna

The Spectacular Spider-Man #3
writer: Peter Jenkins
artists: Humberto Ramos and Wayne Faucher

For those of you who read last week's Formerly Known as the Justice League #2 (which was pretty good, by the way), here's the flipside. Of course we know what happens to the big guns that Peter puts away, but we rarely see the small fry, the petty criminals, and those who may have just been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Many get caught in Spider-Man's web, but he's never taken the time to set anyone free. Until now. The most unexpected element of this storyline, indeed, many of JMS's arcs in this book, is how it keeps tying back into the first one of his run. Weaving in and out of Peter's life, the mysterious Ezekiel pops up to drop another maddening hint as to just what has been going on for the last two years, and we're no closer to figuring it out.

But we're seeing pieces, and they look like they do fit into a grand scheme. As JMS did with his classic Babylon 5 television series, it's obvious that there's a goal.

Contrast that to The Spectacular Spider-Man, which labors in the shadow of the main book. Clearly, writer Peter Jenkins has been left darker corners of continuity. Not only can he not apparently make any real changes in Peter, the character he writes seems almost an alternate universe version. The book even has a completely different supporting cast (only Aunt May seems to be allowed to cross over) - to the point that Spider-Man has to prove himself to another uneasy ally on the police force.

It would be so much simpler if it was Detective Lamont, but instead it's just a wannabe with a gruff attitude and a real desire to see justice done. Straczynski's cop has a unique personality; Neil Garrett is just another one of Humberto Ramos' stock old coot characters.

Venom fans exist, and will scoop this book up. They're welcome to it. Jenkins has added a twist to the villain that may legitimately at least move the symbiote's saga forward.

To be fair, Jenkins has an unenviable task of just marking time. He's doing a fair enough job for it, but unless he can do something serious with Peter's character, there's just no point.




Aquaman #9
writer: Rick Veitch
artists: Yvel Guichet and Mark Propst

What started out as a promising turn on the Aquaman mythos (such as it is) has turned simply repetitive. A new mystic river gets discovered, The Thirst and Aquaman race to get there first, and Aquaman loses.

The twist is that each time Aquaman loses a river, he loses a finger. There's something vaguely mob movie to that, but really, it just makes him look like fantasy novel hero Thomas Covenant. Considering the sea king's usual recent bitter mode, that's only fitting.

But of course, he's not bitter anymore. The interesting thing that Veitch has been trying to bring to the table is a man putting his demons to rest. In order to fulfill his quest, Aquaman can't just learn to who mercy; it has to become second nature to him. (Anybody guessing now that the way to defeat The Thirst is to give in to him? Naaah.)

To play with that idea, Veitch has reintroduced Black Manta, possibly the deadliest, most hated, and yes, stupidest of all of Aquaman's foes. At least Veitch gave it an interesting twist by making Manta autistic, which somehow explains all his past villainy. Or it would, anyway, if Veitch didn't constantly have the now-healed Manta constantly explaining it himself.

For some reason, this has felt stretched out longer than it needed to be. Was Veitch contracted for a full year and only intended to complete the one change in Aquaman's personality? In order to kill time, he also throws in pointless cameos from the rest of the JLA - seriously, we've had J'onn J'onnz, Superman and Wonder Woman all just stop by to say hello.

Maybe it's all just some grand scheme for Aquaman's friends to be keeping tabs on him for some darker reason we haven't guessed. Again, naaah.

Veitch's more serious intent has been undone by the choice of Guichet as penciler. He's not a terrible artist by any means, but he is limited. Every character always looks pained somehow, but not in a sensitive way. It's more like constipation. When reading fight scenes, we've learned to accept that. But Aquaman trying to learn to be sensitive? It looks as if he might have Aquarrhoids.

The new direction was a good idea; it's just way past time to be heading into it.


Batgirl: Year One #9
writers: Scott Beatty and Chuck Dixon
artists: Marcos Martin and Alvaro Lopez

It's been a quiet mini-series, with not a lot of hype to it. But now that it's over, it stands as one of the best books DC has done over the past few months.

You can see the very beginnings of the relationship between Barbara and Dick, though it's completely under the masks. For the first time in the past few years, it actually makes sense that Cassandra considers her mentor to be the better Batgirl. Maybe "better" is the wrong word; certainly, Barbara is the braver, the tougher, and quite honestly, the more human.

Beatty and Dixon haven't just straightened out Barbara's character, though. Over these nine issues we see a Batman grappling with the issue of having a family - one that echoes in the regular books, especially Loeb and Lee's Batman. Need a good contrast between Dick Grayson and Tim Drake in the role of Robin? Tim may actually be better, but Dick certainly had more fun.

At least in comics, a hero is really only as good as her villains. By setting up and developing Killer Moth and Firefly, Beatty and Dixon have finally given Batgirl legitimate foes. Okay, Killer Moth is still pretty lame, but even he knows it. Firefly, who has tended to be a third-tier villain at best before, now has a personality beyond being a pyromaniac, one that makes him a logical counter to any and all female heroes in the DCU.

Bringing a slight hint of the animated series without betraying a more European style, Marcos Martin and Alvaro Lopez are a real artistic find. They've kept this book moving, light and airy where it needed to be, but still able to depict real darkness. It's a friendly style that may make this a perfect book to give to young girl readers.

That book, by the way, looks to be scheduled for November. So, if you haven't bought this mini-series (and you've missed out), be ready in three months. And if you have been reading, give that trade as a Christmas gift to any young readers you know.


Derek McCaw


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