RETRO REVIEW: Amazing Spider-Man #400 (April 1995)

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Or – “The Reason Why I Believe Aunt May Should Have Stayed Deceased…”

Here’s the real truth about comics, Faithful Spoilerites: Every story you hate has fans.  Every character you don’t want to read about is immensely popular with someone.  And even the worst thing, THE VERY WORST THING you have ever read in comics is someone’s favorite moment of all time.  And the thing is, we’re all right.  Thus, in the midst of the barren wasteland called ‘The Clone Saga’ came one of the most touching Spider-Man stories I’ve ever read, and one of the most memorable Marvel issues of the 1990s.  Cynics may want to skip this one, but for softies like me?  I recommend a tissue or two…

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #400
Writer:J.M. DeMatteis
Penciler: Mark Bagley
Inker(s): Larry Mahlstedt; Randy Emberlin
Colorist: Bob Sharen
Letterer: Bill Oakley
Editor: Danny Fingeroth
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Cover Price: $3.95
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $8.00/$25.00

Previously, in Amazing Spider-Man:  Spider.  Nerd.  Bite.  Endless array of weird-looking dudes in green with mostly animal names.  Power.  Responsibility.  Hot Wife.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Seriously, if you don’t know Spider-Man, you probably clicked on this one by mistake.  What you really need to know is, there’s this guy named Peter who lost his father figure in a tragic accident, and dedicated his life to protecting the innocent because of it.  And then, one day, his beloved mother figure fell ill, dropping into a coma from which the doctors thought she would never recover.  Of course, medicine is hardly a zero sum game…

Having raced across the city thanks to an emergency call, Peter is stunned to find that May seems to be back in her regular spirits, and is even more amazed when his aunt firmly informs the doctor that she is going home, first thing in the morning.  The doctor tries to protest, but she is no match for a determined old lady, and backs down.  That’s also the point where Peter notices an intruder…

How’d he get in?  In-tru-der window!  That alternate Spider-Man, by the way, is one Ben Reilly, a clone of Peter Parker created by his college professor to try and…  Um…  Frankly, I don’t know WHY he did it, and it seems clear nobody else does either.  Just roll with it and accept that he has returned after years seemingly dead, put on a hoodie, and dubbed himself The Scarlet Spider.  While one psuedo-Parker broods in the rain, the other Peter welcomes the only mother he has ever known home to their little abode in Forest Hills.

When she is written well, May Parker is one of the strongest characters in the Marvel pantheon, and this issue is kind of a tour de force for Aunt May, done right.  May retires to her bed, while Peter confronts his other self.  For all the hatred heaped upon the Clone Saga (much of it valid and earned), the basic premise of it all is pretty solid, as we see when the two Spider-Men come face to face to talk out the question of who is real and who isn’t…

Of course, the thing that really sinks it all is the lack of commitment to the concept, honestly.  Marvel eventually took the bold stance that the Peter Parker we had been reading about for years was the clone, then folded when the readers response wasn’t to their liking.  (In the readers’ defense, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, especially since it seemed to be aimed mostly at phasing out Mary Jane and the spider-marriage more than anything else.)  Aunt May bonds with Mary Jane, and when May finally falls asleep, MJ finds her husband brooding over old home movies and, as always, questioning his recent decisions.

There’s a lot of really well-done exploration of the Peter/Ben dynamic in this issue, but the real story here isn’t about which clone is which, it’s about May Parker spending some time with the child she raised into a man.  It’s a bittersweet issue, something we’ll get to in a moment, but one that allows us to get inside May Parker’s head in ways we very seldom do.

I’m still not sure whether Peter is just trying to put on a brave face, or if he truly believes that his Aunt is all better, but it’s clear that she views their time together as one last hoorah, time to finally put their oldest ghosts to rest…

Wham.

Right there, everything you know about Peter and May’s relationship is changed forever, and, in my mind, for the BETTER.  She’s turned from a doddering old fool to a woman so strong that she never even showed the strain of carrying such a startling secret for YEARS without ever sharing even a hint of it.  May is a smart cookie, after all, and she takes the moment of shock to tell him that he doesn’t have to run from the spectre of Uncle Ben any longer.  “You’re as good a man as your Uncle,” she tells him, expressing her pride at his selfless behavior, before a bout of weakness overtakes her and she tells Peter that it’s time to go home.

May Parker holds Peter’s hand, and he tells her that it’s okay to let go, reminding her of the stories she read to him when he was a boy.  “Second to the right, and straight on til morning,” sobs Peter, as May finally slips away, and the scene of Peter leaning in to hug her one final time chokes me up every time.  I’m stunned at how powerful and touching this sequence is, and it never fails to make me miss my own mother.  After this lovely moment, the story continues with no dialogue, as Peter’s life blurs into fast-forward, as his friends and family gather for the funeral proceedings.

The issue is marred by a terrible ending, though, as the police show up to take Peter Parker into custody for a murder perpetrated in Salt Lake City, while Ben Reilly angrily confronts Mary Jane.  It’s a really jarring moment, made even more distasteful by my knowledge that the whole arc ends not with a bang, but with a quiet farting noise.  There are a couple of backup tales to fill out the double-sized issue, one of which is pretty uneventful save for some interesting art by John Romita Jr.  The other, scripted by Stan Lee, is interesting for casting light on the early interactions of Peter and May after Ben’s death…

Peter finds his aunt inconsolable after Ben’s death (which is quite understandable, given that they’d been married for decades) and comes up with a fifteen-year-old’s idea of what might help cheer her up…

It’s a very interesting tale in this context, as it gives a solid explanation for why he never told her (other than the old “she’s too frail and stupid” chestnut that would have undermined the lead story) of his second life, and the issue ends on a slightly better note thanks to it.  The parts of this story that are about a mother and son coming to grips with one’s impending death are very strong, and very realistic portrayals of grief, even if the bits related to the Clone Saga are as embarrassing as your 8th grade poetry notebook.  Amazing Spider-Man #400 creates a rare ending for a major character, one which (like the Clone Saga that frames it) would be quickly undone when people vocalized how they didn’t like the story, but still manages to generate some genuine emotion and sense of family, earning a qualified 4 out of 5 stars overall.  Even a genuinely sucky ending can’t complete torpedo the strength of May’s death scene, and no matter how nice it is to have her alive, it’s a shame the good parts of this story got destroyed to do it…

Rating: ★★★★☆