Written by: Zeb Wells
Art and cover by: John Romita Jr.
Inks by: Scott Hanna
Colors by: Marcio Menyz
Letters by: Joe Caramagna
Zeb Wells always seemed like a fill-in writer, to me. He’d just show up and substitute on a particular series, sometimes. He’d only be there to keep a book on schedule when its real writer needed less on their to-do list. When he supported writer Dan Slott on The Amazing Spider-man way back in 2008, he exemplified this type of career.
There were also the instances when he supplied stories for ancillary, forgettable publications, such as the various Crossover Event tie-in specials he helped Marvel Comics sell. But the guy did the work. He hit deadlines. I saw his name on a lot of comic book covers. And his stories really weren’t bad. They served out solid entertainment. I can’t remember much about them, but I know I never avoided what he worked on. If anything, I knew his name.
He’d just never convinced me to slow down and actually read what he wrote.
To be fair to him, he may have never had the chance to try. He is a big-time TV writer and director, sure. And he’s familiar to a lot of people for his work on Robot Chicken. But writing superhero comic books for Marvel or DC is something else, entirely. Not many of the people who make them get an opportunity to tell an interesting story. Its industry is a whole other mess of politics, competition, and corporate expectations that lie separate from Hollywood’s. Wells’s resume holds clout, but he’s had to work his way inside the Marvel machine.
It shows. In The Amazing Spider-man #1 (2022), Wells has found a way to slow the story down.
Superhero comic books so often rely on ever-evolving plots promising mega-new revelations and violence. The universe shatters daily. As a reader, repetition is part of the experience. Fans love the nostalgic aspect of their hobby, so superhero stories are often recycled, catering to their audience. All that ever changes is how the superheroes in their costumes appear. The publishers keep selling this genre by giving the characters new outfits. All else is mostly glued to strict expectations and cannot shift. You can blame this on considerations of copyright, or the need to adhere a comic book character to its defined intellectual property. But I also consider the readers and their wants. Comic book fans are vocal. They’re not shy in their thirst for Big Boom Content.
But Wells writes this series opener with a different approach. The story presented actually resembles a story with somewhere to go, not a smattering of geek fodder held in Easter Eggs. The Amazing Spider-man no longer revolves around a relentless publishing schedule that’s always upping the ante. It seems to be taking a break, catching its breath. Reflecting on the core characters this book has carried for 59 years.
The man drawing it is one of the best to do it.
Zeb Wells’ artistic collaborator, John Romita Jr., has taken the writer’s paired-down approach and brought it to life. The way he draws Spider-man, New York City, Aunt May, and Mary Jane Watson grabs at a particular nerve that’s buried deep. It pushes me to turn the page, to keep reading, to see where the story goes. That human instinct, something nostalgic. The way he draws reminds me of how long I’ve read about this character, 18 years. But it impresses me to no end, how someone can take this subjective matter and make you feel it.
You might look at this two-page spread, and assume this story is another dramatic take on a superhero’s personal life, but I would disagree with you. This isn’t the work of a writer trying hard to be a serious artist, writing about Serious Subjects. It’s actually a very good page-turner, driven by real attention to character and a few subtle nudges at their development. The creative team steps aside to really service the story and its 60-year progress, so far. Their egos aren’t on display. Just their ability.
They’re professionals, good at their jobs. They can clearly engage our sensibilities as people, by showing us a favorite character under another filter, at a different pace, roping me back into the Spider-man saga.
They, in no way, talk down to their reader or try to sell them something other than what’s happening when they turn the page. They allow their audience to see the story that’s right in front of them. The story that’s usually buried beneath the latest plot twist or big event, the marketing idea that sells more books. The Amazing Spider-man #1 (2022) shows Peter Parker as someone who is tired, and as someone who has maybe gone too far. His family is through with his superhero life. Too much has been lost to them because of it. So, Peter Parker is at a crossroads. He’s down on himself. He’s a loser. Selfish, too. And now, without his family to back him up, out of the picture yet on the periphery, it seems he’s about to be neck-deep in his life as a costumed hero. He’s throwing all of who he is into the role, self-destructive in the classical sense. And as this happens, Aunt May, Mary Jane Watson, and even Johnny Storm have to watch him navigate the maze, while they live their lives, too.
The scene that’s shown above, this conversation between Peter Parker and his Aunt May, really benefits from John Romita Jr. He shows you the moments that make a story. Those little beats that convey what is actually happening, on the surface and, at times, underneath. He makes them viewable. This is a common-sense approach. But it can be often pushed aside by other artists in exchange for flash and flair, and want to impress.
If you’ve ever listened to Romita Jr. talk, though, you know he’s an experienced pro. He learned his trade first-hand from the old school writers, artists, and editors that told many of the iconic superhero tales. Some of his teachers, including his father (John Romita), actually wrote the rulebook of how to entertain in this genre. Romita Jr. is a student of it. He believes in the work these individuals did, and he’s studied it. He now applies their lessons to everything he does. It seems so, at least.
The scene above is all close-ups and facial expressions. It rolls along to the rhythm of a private talk, following the dialogue shared between two characters. Again, it’s a simple approach, but to actually execute it well and give it some life, that’s talent. That’s knowing how to use the rulebook while adding a few things of your own to it. I feel the tension in this exchange that May and Peter have because John Romita Jr. shows us the facial hair and the eye bags. He shows a few wrinkles and long looks. These characters are in bad shape. They’ve been run through the gamut of superhero crisis and corporate overuse. If they were real, we’d feel sorry for them, while at times in awe of their persistence.
If you’re a fan of this superhero character at all, you know some of its histories. You know the fictional tragedies and lost lives that decorate some of its stories — These occurrences may have even resonated with you, in a way that’s real. The artwork and panel composition that presents this scene reflect that connection. As choices made by a man, based on his mastery of a craft and an interest in communicating something clearly, John Romita Jr. draws and frames these characters as if they’re old friends.
The fold of the page spread literally shows a divide cutting through May and Peter, telling you that this separation only exists because of a deep personal past. This presentation of the scene is effective and suspends your disbelief, so you care about the story. You can see the characters as people, in their quieter moments. To accomplish this as a storyteller, it takes a talented human hand to lend that kind of spirit. But a human hand that knows what it’s like.
I don’t know why John Romita Jr. continues to work on some of these characters. Probably for the money. But I like to think that he draws Spider-man to supply food for thought regarding how effective fiction is constructed. And that he just likes to draw this stuff. His Spider-man is iconic because it feels so lived in. He’s drawn this character over the years, in the 80s and 90s, and in the early to mid-2000s. His dad even defined the character in its heyday of the 1960s, when Spider-man was still brand new. Any time Romita Jr. returns to do another stint on this hero, he seems to bring all that history with him. It feels inherently personal. As an artist, he has a real relationship with the subject. As fictional as it all is.
The real fun of it, though, is that the story doesn’t stay here. The drama shifts out of focus, and the action happens. It’s a superhero comic book, after all. And John Romita Jr. shows you that he’s good at conveying that type of energy, too.
I have to give Zeb Wells credit, though. His script gives Romita Jr. plenty to work with. His ideas support a greater range of tones, and the story isn’t full speed ahead to the next major plot surprise. You can sit in the scenes it offers. For instance, the notion that these longstanding character relationships are bearing strain and turning sour is fresh enough in this context, and the choice to put them front and center is notable. It’s an acknowledgment of how rich these characters can still be.
Their quiet conflicts create space for Wells to write slower sequences that churn underneath. He actually gets to chew on something, as a writer. However, as a professional, his character work still embraces the nerd allure of continuity and shared stories that superhero comics promote. He gives the fans who tune in for these sorts of updates enough to be interested in, whether that’s the status of Peter and MJ’s love affair, or by referencing a conversation from a 60s issue of Spider-man*.
He just writes continuity parts in a way that feels considerate. It doesn’t read like lip service. That’s a bonus, as someone who can be nerdy about these stories but still appreciate their craft.
Another plot point Wells grabs onto is Peter Parker’s failure to hold his life together. The character is shown in this issue as being irresponsible, which (at this point in the ongoing, 60-year narrative) is the only way to see it.
Peter Parker has never pulled it together, and he’s endangered so many along the way. His life is traumatic and sloppy. He’s stuck as an eternal teenager, down on his luck. He’s never been allowed to move forward.
The recent Nick Spencer-written run on The Amazing Spider-man investigated this aspect of the character. But it did so through high-octane melodrama and embarrassing extremes (and so many lackluster fill-in artists). It really failed to nurture the tiny seed it managed to plant, the question posed. Why is Peter Parker such a fuck-up? It feels like Wells is more up to the task of answering this. Or, he’s at least asked the question again. He’s picking up the bit Nick Spencer wanted to write about, and he’s having his own go at it.
The whole thing kind of reminds me of the J. Michael Straczynski-written run of The Amazing Spider-man, too. That connection could just be from John Romita Jr., who also drew some of those comic books. But Wells shows Peter Parker as the more nuanced adult he can be, just as Straczynski tried to do. His run attempted to rekindle the subplots of Peter Parker’s personal life, calling back to when Stan Lee really emphasized these story points. In those early Spider-man adventures, the superhero action was prominent, but the other elements of the character mattered just as much. These are the things like Peter going on dates he couldn’t believe he’d got, the girlfriends; the struggle to pay rent and make money to help his aunt; the deaths of friends, and the balance of being two different people while honoring the responsibilities of each.
Wells is pulling at this familiar thread, trying to reveal more of the character’s potential, or at least, reconnect the readership to aspects of Spider-man they may now overlook. That’s not to say no one has really touched these elements in their own stories, or that Marvel Comics has abandoned them. It just seems that Wells, like Straczynski, wants to utilize these pieces to really drive the plot forward. They’re the true focus of the story, Wells and Romita Jr.’s story.
And who knows how it’ll turn out?
It’s only the first issue. These things turn sour all the time.
By the end of the year, we’ll have a better idea of this Spider-man story’s true quality. Whether, in its entirety, it’s actually worth reading. But as a first issue, it sells what is to come. It gives me pause and invites me to speculate about what happens next. It’s a wonderful instance of a capable writer handing a master artist something to work with that holds meat on its bones. Zeb Wells now has my attention.
*See the Human Torch scene in The Amazing Spider-man #1 (2022)
– Audacious Al