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Gimmick or Good? – Amazing Spider-Man #400

In this column, Mark Ginocchio (from Chasing Amazing) takes a look at the gimmick covers from the 1990s and gives his take on whether the comic in question was just a gimmick or whether the comic within the gimmick cover was good. Hence “Gimmick or Good?” Here is an archive of all the comics featured so far. We continue with 1995’s die-cut embossed “tombstone” cover of Amazing Spider-Man #400…

ASM 400 cover

Amazing Spider-Man #400 (published April 1995) – script by J.M. DeMatteis, pencils by Mark Bagley, inks by Larry Mahlstedt

In an attempt to piggy-back on the enormous cultural and commercial success and impact of Amazing Spider-Man’s previous “centennial” issue (ASM #300), Marvel busted out a cavalcade of 1990s gimmicks for ASM #400. The front cover sported an embossed die-cut overlay in the shape of a tombstone, promoting a “death in the family” (Jason Todd was spared this time). And if that was not enough to titillate collectors, Marvel released a very limited edition variant cover with a snow white tombstone rather than the standard gray/off-white edition.

On a personal note, I will always remember how the release of this comic bought out the speculator in me. After kicking myself over the fact that my 7-year-old self destroyed the copy of ASM #300 I had picked up on the spinner rack when it first came out (forcing me to have to pay upwards of 30 times the cover price for a copy at a comic book show in the early 90s so I could own the first Venom story), I reserved TWO copies of ASM #400 at my local comic book shop months in advance: one for reading and one to preserve for the day it would inevitably accrue in value. I was ecstatic when the store owner called my house the night before the comic was released letting me know I could come by and get my copy AHEAD of everyone else. When I saw that tombstone on the cover, I was convinced that my college education would be paid for in no time.

But what about inside the comic?

Hindsight is not particularly kind to this comic because the crucial “death in the family,” Peter’s elderly Aunt May – who had been near-death dozens of other times in Spidey’s history – was undone by Marvel a few years later in some kind of panicked attempt to justify the resurrection of Norman Osborn and make him the mastermind of the “Clone Saga” (and pretty much every other unfortunate incident that happened to Parker since Osborn’s apparent death in ASM #122 in the early 1970s). Additionally, the comic officially kicks the much-reviled “Clone Saga” storyline into high gear as the issue ends with Peter being charged with murder (which we would later learn was committed by his demented clone Kaine) and his friendlier clone, Ben Reilly, reveals himself to Parker’s wife Mary Jane.

ASM 400 05

If you are still with me after that and have not been reduced to a babbling, blubbering blob reminiscing about the many crimes and abuses Marvel has perpetrated against its most profitable and marketable character, I think it is worth saying that, despite the storyline silliness that followed ASM #400, DeMattteis really nails the tender, wistful tone that this script requires in order to pull off that emotional final scene between Peter and Aunt May.

Just the story’s title – “The Gift” – makes it very apparent early on that the moments Peter is sharing with Aunt May – the woman who has been a mother to him for the bulk of his lifetime – are final moments with an imminent expiration date. There is actually very little Spider-Man in this issue. He dons the costume in the beginning to quickly swing across the city and see May and then in another scene to confront his clone but, otherwise, this is a comic that is almost exclusively about Peter Parker the man, and his relationship with his Aunt May. The entire issue is nostalgic, without relying too much on previously published material.

ASM 400 01

And then there is the big bomb shell when May and Peter are on top of the Empire State Building and she admits that she has known for years that her nephew was Spider-Man.

ASM 400 03

And, after that moment of revelation, May is ready to die with all loose ends resolved.

DeMatteis even crafts a number of fantastic scenes between Mary Jane and May, and MJ and Peter, demonstrating that, at one point in the Spider-Man comic’s history, Peter’s marriage to MJ was not just some plot contrivance that was mandated by an editor-in-chief that everyone hated in the 1980s and thus had to be undone once a new Marvel regime was fully in command in the mid-2000s. DeMatteis’ Mary Jane is Peter’s closest friend – a grown, mature woman who May entrusts to take care of her nephew after she passes on.

ASM 400 02

Adding to the story’s drama is Peter’s growing concerns about the clone he thought had died years ago. MJ tries to convince Peter that there is no way someone like the Jackal was capable of cloning his heart and soul, but Peter is still struck by how emotionally connected Reilly is to his past and his memories. Peter’s brow furrows and his he tries to recall memories from his childhood and, when things get fuzzy, he is left wondering if perhaps he is actually a clone and Reilly is the real Peter Parker. Yes, the Clone Saga went on to become a true atrocity, but in its infancy, and when entrusted to a cerebral writer like DeMatteis, it is actually a very interesting story-arc.

And the final scene with Aunt May … “second to the right and straight on until morning.”

ASM 400 04

Shoot … why is my wife cutting onions in the room right now as I am typing this? Hold on, let me get a rag while I wipe the moisture off my keyboard from the slow leak dripping from the ceiling. Anyway, if this was actually Aunt May’s death scene, it was handled about as masterfully as I could have asked. I pity the Spider-Man writer who has to try and kill her off again because the emotional hammer DeMatteis drops here is just untouchable human storytelling. Good luck following this.

The comic’s biggest flaw in terms of storyline is the final sequence following May’s death. I know that Marvel is just trying to set up the next big arc, Peter’s trial for Kaine’s murder, but having the police show up at the Parker residence right after May’s funeral feels so inappropriate. I even get the sense that DeMatteis has a hard time scripting it since it almost feels like the whole scene was attached with a rivet gun.
As for artwork, Mark Bagley’s Spider-Man went on to become the commercially definitive version of the character in the 1990s. That’s not to say his is the best – of the early/mid-90s ASM artists, I would probably rank Todd McFarlane first, then Bagley, then Erik Larsen – but Bagley’s pencils are very clean and technically proficient, making it easy to see why Marvel chose to use his work in all of their Spider-Man marketing materials.

If you put aside how the issue’s events were later retconned and just view ASM #400 in a vacuum, Marvel’s streak in producing very strong ASM centennial issues continues with this comic. DeMatteis manages to scribe an emotional issue that never becomes overly schmaltzy or hokey. Bagley is game, as he always seems to be regardless of the script quality. ASM #400 never paid for my college tuition, but I still kept both my copies. You never know. At least I liked the story.

Verdict: Good

27 Comments

In an attempt to piggy-back on the enormous cultural and commercial success and impact of Amazing Spider-Man’s previous “centennial” issue (ASM #300), Marvel busted out a cavalcade of 1990s gimmicks for ASM #400.

I don’t see how ASM #400 was an attempt to piggyback on ASM #300 in any shape or form, unless this is sarcasm that went over my head.

I liked the story, but it was the first time I really realized how lacking Bagley is at conveying emotional nuance and range. This became even clearer in Ultimate Spider-Man. He definitely tries though. You can tell he’s doing his best and never phoning it in.

Also, this issue really showed me how underrated Sal Buscema was as conveying emotion. He often gets dismissed because of his workmanlike style and for being old school and not the least bit flashy, but he was far better at conveying the emotions JM DeMatteis was aiming for than Mark Bagley was.

T – this could be clouded by 18 years of brain damage, but I explicitly remember this comic book coming out with marketing undertones along the lines “destined to be an instant classic like ASM #300 before it.” At least that’s how all of my teenage friends and I interpreted things. Obviously the stories and gimmicks are completely unrelated, but it’s not sarcasm, but perhaps my involuntary spew of memories confusing you.

This issue brought tears to my eyes all 3 times I’ve read it, Even after the “Screwing of Spider-Man” kicked into high gear with the awful Revalations story line that resurrected her, it’s still a pretty emotional read. Of course she has added absolutely NOTHING to the overall story since her return, but then again so have most of Spidey’s writers since that time as well. I prefer the Spider-Girl future where she stayed dead anyway.

I love Bagley as an artist for depicting Spider-Man and action scenes and the like–there’s none better. I completely agree with the notation that he is a little lacking in drawing emotions–his work just seems so…polished, I guess.

The Buscema comment got me to rethink the Spectacular Spider-Man issue where Harry Osborn dies. The ending of that is pitch perfect art (it has no dialogue, if I recall). The facial expression on Mary Jane is all that it takes to tell us that Harry is a goner. Bagley’s art is crisper and smoother (Buscema would occasionally have people look goofy, especially when they got mad), but it doesn’t convey the emotional wallop Buscema did in that issue.

I agree with you, they can never kill Aunt May again, because they’ll never be able to top this issue.

The cover was a true pain the the keister though. I almost tore the thing off getting it into the bag more than once. That floppy half page covered weak paper stock probably isn’t the greatest thing for a cover.

For some reason I thought Greg Burgas wrote this. I was like, why is Mark Ginocchio guy responding to my comment? Then I reread the article. Damn me for speed-skimming at work. Okay, I see where you’re coming from now Mark. I thought you meant it was trying to be somehow thematically similar or evoke comparisons to issue #300, and that that was the main motivation for the gimmick cover, when in fact during that time every debut issue or issue that ended in the numbers 50 or 00 got a gimmick cover.

I remember reading this for the first time a few years ago and being really surprised at how good it was. I had already relegated this entire era to a mental trash bin. This issue came into my collection as part of a bulk Spider-Man purchase. As I was rooting through what I should keep, I came across the ugliest gimmick cover known to man and figured I’d better take a closer look. For those of you with a copy, you’ll remember that the art did not translate well to the crap paper that made up the tombstone portion of the cover. So yeah, expectations were low.

Needless to say, I had the same reaction as everyone else – “Is there something in my eye?” followed by “I better call my mom.” Great issue.

May was not brought back with Norman in Revelations she was brought back for the reboot in gathering of five (after a tease about baby may),she was not repairing the damage of the clone saga she was added to help bring an old school feel to the reboot.
The biggest problem with the May retcon is it makes no sense so is bigger insult to this story, atleast bringing Norman Back the story made some sense.

I’m sure others will argue with me, but I still think that it’s one of the best death scenes ever written, period. In any medium.

Yup, it’s a good issue, a strange oasis of quality in the vast wasteland of the Clone Saga. Stories like this one illustrate how frustrating it was that a raft of good creators and Terry Kavanagh couldn’t get themselves out of this situation (or sustain it, per executive edict).

Wow, still to this day nothing can ruin a spider-man comic like mark bagley on art duties. Not even the clone saga storyline is as unbearable.

Wow Alastair you are absolutely correct! Been so long since I’ve read them I’d gotten the stories mixed up. There were actually some good stories between Revelations and the Gathering of the Five. Spider-Girl actually picks up after an alternate version of “Gathering” storyline where the May in question was her, not Aunt May, thus ASM 400 remained intact.

Love reading this feature! Keep up the good work.

My eyes can’t help but well up a little every time I read this one. If you’re going to kill Aunt May, this is the way to do it. I thought this issue was a beautiful send-off for the character. I was, actually, quite mad at Mackie and Byrne for retconning it. Now, May will live forever. No way they could top this.

[…] ongoing guest spot at CBR’s Comics Should Be Good blog takes a look at the die-cut gravestone cover atop of Amazing Spider-Man #400. This is obviously a […]

The comments on Peter and MJs relationship are interesting in this context because the clone saga was among other things also meant as a way to “undo” the wedding—by having Peter and MJ move out, and Ben take over as new, single Peter & Spidey.

According to DeMatteis, John Romita, Sr. let him know in so many words how “Aunt May’s” death scene affected him emotionally.

Always disliked Bagley & Larsen’s work on spider-man. Ankles were toothpicks, the shading atrocious, folds in clothing was unnatural. just look at the sample panels in this article. And you can’t say it was the style at the time, there was a lot of great art still going on.

This is still by far one of my favorite issues ever. I teared up reading it the first time and even reading this article got me a little misty, and not much does.

This should hav been Aunt Mays final issue. It’s reall unfortunate Marvel screwed this issue up later. I was curious what new villain they were going to introduce to top #300. Figured t would be a let down, boy was I wrong. This issue easily topped #300. Glad to know I’m not the only one with a leaky ceiling while reading this issue.

[…] part of “Frost” presents us with one of the most beautifully written Spider-Man scripts since J.M. DeMatteis’ epic ASM #400. Yes, there’s no witty Spidey banter and the story’s conflict is of the internal man vs. […]

[…] for me to mention “Frost” alongside some all-time great Spidey stories like J.M. DeMatteis’ heart-wrenching classic, “The Gift,” especially since Morrell is a relative newcomer to the comic book medium (despite being a literary […]

[…] Final Chapter” provides to the world of Spider-Man is that it resurrects Peter’s Aunt May only a few years after J.M. DeMatteis and Mark Bagley crafted one of the finest, tear-inducing character d…. But that’s not the worst part. As much as it was an insult – period – to resurrect a […]

I agree with whatever you wrote in this article almost 100%

This is one of my favorite issues ever. Not for any other reason but for the amazing writing, and the emotional wrerck that makes you.

However the issue itself has so many bad stuff, or at least not so good, attatcht to it that it would never reach “classic status”:
It is between, as you said one of the most controrsial storylines in comics. And the stuff the follows are so much worse than what was before…
Bagley is not the best artist. I understand and agree whith pretty much what you say though. I don’t think he is bad. He is great, if you are 15, like I was then (if not younger). Buchema, in spec #200, for example, shows unbelievable emotional tension.
The cover alone… Oh my god! This was supposed to be a marketing stuff… but the gimicky cover was a disaster!! I mean, you can’t read what it is writen!!

I loved that issue and everytime it bings tears to my eyes (along with spec #200, and pretty much everything DeMatteis). I hated marvel for “destroying” the issue with May’s return. DeMatteis tried to do an amazing work in a not so great storyline, along with award nominated for stupidity editorial.

AUNT MAY DIED!

That’s back when they actually did stories in Spider-man. If they had done a story where everyone found out Spider-man was this shlub named Peter Parker, it would have been an awesome story and some not some promised event that was just another empty promise. Aunt May was always going to be there in Spirit. It was a god death and they should of left her go that way.

I admit, I don’t like the cover. It’s just plain and doesn’t reach you as a reader. It’s practically just light blue and grey.

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