The tension in many superhero tales is often between the hero’s power and ability to save anyone and their desire to save everyone. Besides, perhaps, Superman, there are no superheroes who have powers that can prevent all harm; for every person saved in one place, there is someone else somewhere else that is not. Arguably, the superhero that most feels this tension in their everyday life is Peter Parker: the Spectacular Spider-Man. Gifted with great, but not absolute, power, Spider-Man is often unable to save everyone, as much as he may try. Gwen Stacy, Jean DeWolff, and Harry Osborn comprise just a partial list of people that, at one time and/or in one continuity or another, he failed to save. And, of course, the original sin of Spider-Man, the tragic mistake that led him to the path of the superhero, was failing to stop the mugger who would go on to kill Uncle Ben. It was that death, violent and unnecessary as it was, that taught Peter Parker a lesson that would last a lifetime and impart an ironclad moral code to use the power one has to help everyone that one can. That is the duty Peter takes up. That is his responsibility. It is only fitting, then, that Spider-Man’s life (and Spider-Man: Life Story) ends with him fulfilling that duty to the absolute by, just this once, saving everyone.
Spider-Man: Life Story (written by Chip Zdarsky with art by Mark Bagley) ends, then, on a triumphant note. Throughout the series — which adapts 50+ years of Spider-Man stories as one, decades spanning narrative — there had been no shortage of heartbreaks. People die, friends are lost, relationships become rocky, and things, both personal and political, fall apart. This is the comic, after all, where Flash Thompson dies in Vietnam and where Pennsylvania is devastated by nuclear weapons while the superheroes are off earth. Moments of heartbreak were handled masterfully, of course, with Zdarsky’s words and Bagley’s character acting always capturing the pathos amidst all the horror and pain; in particular, the homage to a famous Steve Ditko illustration of Spider-Man lifting up rubble gains a lot of power by making it the rubble of the Twin Towers that Peter is grappling with. This is not to say that the whole series was doom and gloom; being a Spider-Man story written by Chip Zdarsky, there is certainly a sense of hope and optimism to be found in many, if not all, of the devastation. Going into this issue, though, you would be forgiven for being weary, as I was, that there was one more shoe to drop, one more heart to break.
And there is.
This issue picks up in 2019, and it’s somehow an even worse 2019 than our own. The superhero civil war of the aughts has ended with Dr. Doom stepping in, killing most of the warring heroes, and taking over, as he always said he would, as ruler of the earth. All of this happens before the comic opens, and this information is relayed through Spider-Man’s narration. We don’t see any of these events, nor do we see, really, what the world is like under Doom (Hell, Doom isn’t even in the issue). Longtime readers, however, know, and new readers can probably guess, that a one-world government under Victor von Doom isn’t a good thing. While the absence of Dr. Doom appearing in person represents an issue with the comic that will be discussed below, for now, it suffices to say that it is up to Peter Parker and Miles Morales (who looks to be in his early to mid 20s in this issue) to mount a last ditch effort to free the world from Doom. A mission…IN SPACE.
That’s right, for this last issue, things are getting out of this world. Peter and Miles steal a spaceship and chart it for a hidden orbital base of the late (or at least presumed dead) Tony Stark. Once there, they plan to activate what amounts to an EMP that will only destroy Doom’s technology, giving the rest of humanity the chance to rise up against their oppressor. What could possibly go wrong?
Oh, yeah, everything. Parker luck is in full force in this issue, with the septuagenarian Spider-Man surrounded by sinister foes. Arriving on the base, Peter and Miles start the process of activating the EMP device, but the power quickly cuts out. When Peter goes to investigate, he is confronted by an amalgam enemy that was introduced in issue three; the Venom symbiote fused with the consciousness of Kraven the Hunter. Admittedly, it’s a little unclear how the damn thing got to the space station, but, at least on the first read-through, the surprise, horror, and fanservice-ness of it all makes that easy enough to overlook. Two of Spider-Man’s most deadly foes in one; it’s a fan’s delight and Peter’s nightmare! Being in his 70s, the fight doesn’t go too well for Peter, but he is saved by Miles, who behaves uncharacteristically callous towards their enemy. With Miles grappling Venom-Kraven, Peter is able to activate a sonic pulse that temporarily dispels the symbiote, revealing that there is nothing left of Kraven but his bones. Sergei Kravonof is long gone, having been absorbed completely by the symbiote. “All of my enemies are dead,” Peter says, as he turns to Miles, “Isn’t that right…Otto?”
It turns out that Venom wasn’t the only enemy that hitched a ride to the space station. Otto Octavius hitched a ride, too… IN MILES’ BODY (and that’s only slightly less gross than it sounds). Yup, it’s the 2010s, and that means that the big Spider-Man story that this issue is partially adapting is Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-Man, which saw Doc Ock switch bodies with Spider-Man and try to be a hero. In the original story, Octavius did so to escape his diseased original body, and he swapped bodies with Peter because the latter was still young, healthy, and strong. As the story plays out this time, though, Peter would be too old to act as anything more than a stopgap against death, so, naturally, Octavius chose Miles to take over.
This makes sense in the context of the story, but there are some odd, if not outright gross, implications to Octavius in Miles’ body that weren’t there during the original Superior Spider-Man story. Whereas Peter is white, Miles is of Hispanic and African American descent, and, though it’s never commented on, it’s more than a little disturbing that an old white man is piloting his body. I mean, with the change, Octavius has basically enacted the plot of Get Out and that’s…well that’s a lot to unpack. In a vacuum, it wouldn’t be so bad if Octavius was just being his supervillainous self. However, the comic tries, and mostly succeeds, in creating pathos for him, and the racial implications of this body swap sour that slightly.
Still, the final showdown between Otto and Peter is overall incredibly affecting and effective. Using his technology to challenge Peter in his mindscape, Otto confronts the hero with projections of some of his greatest adversaries in an effort to destroy Spider-Man once and for all. “I’m going to destroy your mind,” he announces, “I’m not going to take your brain over like I did with young Miles, I’m going to pound it into dust.”
What follows is an epic showdown between Spider-Man and Doc Ock, with both men projecting various forces to take the other down. Otto, as aforementioned, conjures images of Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery, including the Green Goblin and Venom, and Spider-Man fights back with an army of his younger selves. They punch, kick, shoot webs, and flail mechanical octopus arms in a war of brute force to take the other one down. Otto, who has never shied away from using violence to obtain his goals, seems to gain the upper hand when he projects himself as growing immense in size; he becomes a giant to squash the Spider-Man. Before he can land the killing blow, however, something catches his eye: May Parker.
One of Peter’s greatest sources of strength has always been his family. In times of struggle, when things seemed hopeless, he’s always found the strength to power on through by thinking about how much his loved ones need him, and how much he needs them. This process is made literal here, with his thoughts manifesting in Aunt May, here to save the day. She does not employ violence, however. I have long held that Spider-Man’s greatest power has never been his strength or agility or technical knowhow. Instead, it is his compassion: compassion which drives him to talk to his enemies and show mercy rather than, as Otto would, “pound [them] into the dust.” That compassion is here manifested as Aunt May because, if Uncle Ben taught Peter responsibility, she taught him kindness.
That kindness is what allows her, or perhaps Peter presenting as her, to reach out to Otto. To get behind the anger, the sense of superiority, and viciousness, and to empathize with the hurt that is lying underneath all of that. She consoles the man who, in this continuity, was once her husband, saying “You were always so angry at the future. I loved you, Otto, but you could never accept the world around you, or our limitations.”
At this moment, Otto begins to breakdown, and we quickly learn what has been driving his actions for all these years. “It’s not fair, May,” he whispers with tears starting to form in his eyes, “It’s not fair that you died, that I’ll…” He trails off, but the implication is clear. For all of his life, Otto has run from death, and he has allowed thantophobia to warp his morals. He has hurt others in an attempt to build something lasting or, failing that, to simply stay alive. He has viewed the rest of the world as something to be feared and hated because, from his perspective, in a world of limited resources and time, for someone else to gain is for him to lose. What he has forgotten, what Aunt May reminds him, is that it is only through others that we can gain anything. Moreover, she reminds him that she loves him. Unlike objects and unlike time, things which one will never find enough of if one is only driven by the pursuit of them, “There’s no limit on love.” With that, like a ghost finally brought to peace, Otto Octavius fades away from the mindscape.
The scene is incredibly compelling, and it does amazing work humanizing one of Spider-Man’s old, most outlandish enemies. I am no stranger to thanatophobia, and Otto’s visible fear and despair hit me harder than I was expecting. It’s a testament to Zdarsky and Bagley as storytellers that they are able to make the reader empathize with Doctor Octopus of all people; when the longtime supervillain admits that he is scared, that he is afraid of dying, it is genuinely affecting.
The real heartbreak, however, is still to come. After a final talk with the image of his Aunt May, who expresses her faith in his ability to “save everyone,” Peter returns to consciousness in time to activate the device that will save the earth from Doctor Doom. Unfortunately, the device will destroy the very space station he and Otto-as-Miles are on, and there is only one escape pod left. Peter puts the humbled Otto into it, telling him to return Miles’ body back to him when he lands back on earth, and Spider-Man goes to activate the device.
As the EMP powers up, the station begins to crumble. Peter desperately tries to keep it together with webbing, but the damage is too much. It looks like hope is lost as a giant hole forms in the station, but hope reappears in a most unexpected form. The symbiote is still alive, and, with its last act, it covers the hole, giving Peter enough time to see the mission through. No words are said, but the meaning is clear in the spider symbol that the symbiote projects; as angry as it may have been at Peter, it always had feelings for the human it first bonded with, and its last act demonstrates that, of all the powers it absorbed from Peter, his compassion was one of them.
The pulse goes off. The station is destroyed. Earth is saved. In his final moments, Peter retreats into his mind. He imagines himself and his wife, Mary Jane, in their prime as he reflects on the life he lived. Just as he was able to do with his Aunt May, because he knows his wife so well, he is able to know what she would say in this situation. His projection of her reassures him that the world will be fine now, that she and their children are safe. This is the death of Peter Parker we are viewing, and it is as sad, beautiful, and powerful as the death of such an iconic hero should be. Peter’s final thought is, “You’re my heart, Mary Jane Watson. You are my jackpot.” I sobbed.
A week later, Peter’s funeral is held. Miles is back in his body, and he informs the bedridden Otto Octavius that, with his final days, he should reflect on the kind of hero and man Peter was, the kind Otto always failed to be. Closure is given to Mary Jane as well, who offers up the original Spider-Man costume to Miles for him to alter and use as he pleases; the Spider-Man legacy is firmly in his hands now.
The comic closes with a flashback of Peter describing a recurring dream he has been having. It is the moment where the mugger got away, where Peter could have stopped him. For most of his life, this dream was a nightmare; a recurring proof of Peter’s failure to do the right thing with his powers. Now, though, things play out differently; with the final panel of the comic, Peter’s dream sees him web up the mugger. He will do no harm to anyone. The message is clear; Peter, whose life story centered around him striving to be a hero, has lived up to his responsibility. His original sin has been redeemed.
On a character level, as I hope I have made clear, this story is incredibly effective. Zdasrky and Bagley, along with colorist Frank D’Armata and letterer Travis Lanham, have delivered a comprehensive tale of one man, Peter Parker, that takes us from his youth to his old age to his heroic final moments. While doing so, they fused real world events from the past 5+ decades with the storylines and events that were concurrently going on in Spider-Man comics. Through this series, we’ve seen Peter Parker deal with the Vietnam War and Secret Wars. We’ve seen him worry about keeping his family safe from the Green Goblin and nuclear bombs. We’ve seen him, as we’ve always seen him, as a man and hero situated in a constantly shifting historical context. How events affect him, as Peter Parker and as Spider-Man, is remarkably well done.
…But the events themselves sometimes leave something to be desired. No story is perfect, and all narratives have trade-offs. For a series that covers such an extensive period of time, Zdarsky had to be as economical as he could with what he was presenting. In this way, he often used references, nods, and narration to establish much of the setting and world building for each issue, and this had the unfortunate consequence of leaving some events and ideas little room to breath. I don’t know, for example, how a reader who had never heard of Secret Wars would react to the opening of issue three, which features Peter in the Beyonder’s Battle World fighting to get back to Earth. The narration establishes what’s going on, but the whole experience goes by so quickly that I can’t help but think newer fans might be left confused more than anything else. This problem comes to a head in the final issue the overarching antagonist, Dr. Doom, never actually appearing in the book. Again, as a longtime reader, I don’t need to know that Dr. Doom is bad news; I’ve read countless stories that demonstrate how dangerous and tyrannical he can be. New readers, I’m sure, can pick up on the fact that a man named “Dr. Doom” is probably a threat, but, without the context that comes from reading other stories featuring the villain, I feel like some of the experience that I had just wouldn’t translate.
Perhaps some of this is to be expected. Spider-Man: Life Story is a celebration of Spidey’s history, after all, and a celebration usually requires that one knows what one is actually celebrating. And what the comic loses in being new reader friendly, it definitely gains in pleasing fans; the dopamine hit that came from every reference I understood was quite a high, let me tell you. Moreover, being confused about who the characters are and/or what is happening can sometimes be one of the best parts of reading stories set in an established superhero continuity. I know that when I first started reading comics that I loved seeing editor’s notes explaining that a character’s dialogue was referencing the events of another issue (or even another book), Similarly, team-up issues featuring another superhero I had little to no familiarity with only sparked a greater sense of wonder and excitement. When I was new to comics, opening up an issue didn’t feel like opening up a story to be comprehended. Instead, it felt like looking through a window into some vast, fantastical other world, made all the more wonderful because of its vastness. The Marvel Universe is alive in a way many other fictional worlds are not because it has grown and will continue to grow in ways that will make experiencing all aspects of it nigh-impossible. We cannot know all there is to know about our world in one lifetime, and neither can we know the entirety of the Marvel Universe; the joy of reading comics is that of stepping into something that is far larger than any of us. It is, in a way, the positive reflection of the Eldritch horror; its massiveness and incomprehensibility incites not terror but wonder and fascination. If the world Spider-Man: Life Story is occasionally too big and fast moving to be readily understood, then, perhaps, that is because the 50+ years of comics that it is adapting are too.
The impressive size of this story, in terms of distance traveled (to the moon!) and time passed (multiple decades) stands in contrast, however, to the sometimes limited nature of the cast. The comic absolutely nails it’s portrayal of Peter Parker (seriously, Chip Zdarsky GETS this character in a way few others seem to), but the presence of the extended cast can be hit or miss. Aunt May only shows up twice in the series; she first appears in issue three suffering from senility and then again as the aforementioned projection of Peter’s subconscious. Mary Jane, meanwhile, has a strong initial few appearances in issues 2 and 3 before being sidelined in issue 4, where she stays for much of the rest of the series; issue five features her fleeing Morlun in the arms of her superpowered children, functioning as little more than a damsel in distress. And as genuinely heartbreaking as Peter’s mental goodbye to MJ is in issue 6, it, again, is only in the form of a mental projection. There is probably something to be said about the final issue of the book featuring the two most prominent women in the Spider-Man mythos, Aunt May and Mary Jane, as little more than supportive mental constructs that reaffirm Peter’s decisions. As much as the script stresses that, after a lifetime of being together, Peter knows Mary Jane well enough to know what she would say, it still feels a little odd for a man to be thinking up words to put in the mouths of the women in his life.
Still, if the comic occasionally stumbled in some places, it soared in others. Spider-Man: Life Story is a comic that captures what is amazing (and spectacular and sensational and…) about Spider-Man and the corner of the Marvel Universe he inhabits. Zdarsky wrote a story about an everyman struggling to do the most good he can in a world that seeks to thwart his efforts in ways both mundane and fantastical. We can relate to Peter Parker — regardless of how many clone sagas, secret wars, and energy vampires he has to deal with — because, at bottom, he is a character who strives to do the right thing, who questions himself constantly, and who struggles with being a good person, partner, and parent. As Spider-Man, he is funny, heroic, and a delight to read. As Peter Parker, he is depressed, nervous, and a mirror for the real life problems of the reader. The marriage of these two sets of aspects, the super with the ordinary, and the Spider with the -Man, is what has made him one of the greatest, if not the greatest, superheroes of all time. To write him is to take on a great responsibility to tell tales both to amaze the audience with fantasy and connect to them with a grounded relatability. And, like Peter in Life Story, Zdarsky fulfills his responsibility admirably. He, and the entire creative team, have crafted a Spider-Man story that is comprehensive (adapting over 50 years of history from both the real world and the Marvel Universe), dramatic, and utterly heartfelt. The love the creators have for these characters and this world jumps at the reader from every page (even when they’re putting them through hell), and longtime fans will be able to appreciate the deep bench of comic book history being drawn from here. As I said before, this is a comic that celebrates all things Spider-Man, and fans old and new are sure to find something to love.
Grant Morrison once said that stories about Superman’s death remind us why we love that character. Spider-Man: Life Story, in taking us from the conceptual birth of Spider-Man as a hero all the way to his death, remind us why we love him as well: because he’s the guy who will never stop trying to save everyone. And, with this final issue, Spider-Man gets the send off he truly deserves. Just this once, with the fate of the world on the line, he got to save everyone.
Spidey saved the day.