The Other reads at times like a surreal, gruesome fever dream. Though compelling in a strange way, the story’s numerous disjointed plot points and flat-out bizarre narrative tics make it a less satisfying read than it could have been, offering up far more questions than answers.
The tenure of J. Michael Strazynski on the Spider-Man books took a daring step and questioned the half-century-old mythology of the character: what if Spider-Man’s origins had been supernatural rather than scientific? What if the spider that bit him had meant to pass on its abilities as an arachnid before it died of radiation poisoning, as opposed to being given the powers by the radiation? What if Spider-Man was merely one in a long line of ‘totemistic’ heroes, to whom villains with similar origins (animal imposters, like Doc Ock, the Lizard…) are drawn?
A controversial turn to be sure, but when asked by Peter which one is true, an African shaman in The Book Of Ezekiel provides an astute quote on the subject: “Tomorrow the sun will come up. You can tell me all the reasons of science that it does come up, the orbital mechanics, all the laws of thermodynamics. And I will say that it will come up because it is meant to come up. I see no contradiction. Do you?”
Very nice, JMS. Basically, it means, ‘believe what you want’ in the context of Spidey’s mythology. I’ve learned that there’s a certain divide between people who prefer their narratives to have a materialistic, scientific bent, and those who prefer the fantastic: it’s the difference between the “so advanced that it mimics magic” Element Zero in Mass Effect, and the actual magic that Daniel Radcliffe is wielding on the big screen. But Marvel comics exist in this funny little wibbly-wobbly zone that picks and chooses from either side of the table as it sees fit: genius physicists work hand in hand with Sorcerer Supremes, and it’s been like that for a good while, so JMS’s decision isn’t quite as far-flung as it might seem, no matter how ingrained the usual narrative of Peter Parker’s superhero origins has been in our society.
But The Other shows the scales tipping decidedly in the totemistic direction. This arc intends to show the end result of the fusion of man with spider, but a lot’s going to happen on the way.
Over this arc and the previous one in which Spidey and the rest of the Avengers took on Hydra (whom today’s audience will recognize from the Avengers movie universe), Spidey began to be prone to strange black-outs and nightmares. When being treated for bullet-wounds from a Villain Of The Week called Tracer, the doctor makes the startling revelation that Peter is terminally ill. This becomes the focus of the arc at this point, with Peter having to break it to his family and try to find ways to cope when even the uber-powerful Doctor Strange tells him, “You’re a good man who’s led a good life. Prepare to die.”
Around this time, Morlun resurfaces, claiming that he’s returned from the dead to kill Spider-Man. For those not familiar with JMS’s run, Morlun was a new villain introduced in Coming Home, the very first arc JMS penned for the wall-crawler. Morlun’s whole ‘thing’ is that he fed on the life-essence of superheroes, lending credence to the whole totemistic notion, and also that he was really, really strong and unstoppable. Think the T-1000 mixed with a much faster Pyramid Head. In fact, JMS actually came under fire for “over-selling” the villain by having Spidey claim that he’s never been hit that hard before (Hulk? Juggernaut?), and that Morlun is the first villain to ever tick him off (Norman?). But writer overzealousness aside, Morlun is one bad cookie.
Sorry, but I need to digress from the summary at this point to make clear one of those niggling issues I have with The Other. Look, I know people coming back from the dead in comic books is less of “Oh wow, wonder how that happened!” and more “oh, okay”, but there’s still typically some kind of explanation for it, no matter how…comic book-y it may be.
At the end of Coming Home, Spidey figured out how to hurt Morlun by shooting himself up with more of the same radiation that turned him into Spider-Man to begin with, and when Morlun tried to feed on him, Spidey forced him to essentially OD and become weak. After he had beaten Morlun to an inch of his life, the guy lost control and shifted into his reptilian true form, at which point his mistreated assistant Dex shot him. At which point he shriveled up and turned to dust. There’s zero ambiguity, no “they didn’t find the body” hijinks. That’s the kind of death you give to a final boss in a video game to make clear that yes, that was his final form and the game is now finished and you need to run out of his collapsing castle and see the credits.
So it begs the question of why there isn’t a single word brokered as an explanation for how Morlun survived. I’m not looking for something big, just a single sentence would satisfy me. “Did you really think a being such as I would be simply bound to flesh and bone?” Boom, there, done. But the fact that we’re not even given that is just…weird. I’d call it inattentive writing, but in the context of everything else that’s going on here, it just adds to the surreal-ness. It’s distracting. And I honestly find it disappointing, because Morlun was one of the main reasons I was itching to read The Other: his presence in Coming Home brought a level of desperate intensity to the story that I thought worked really well. (I’m aware that I’ve a minority opinion on Morlun, and I’m fully willing to admit that it might just be because Coming Home came to me during a really crucial part of my formative years as a fan of this stuff and a to-be writer, so nostalgia goggles could well play a part) But here, he’s just a cipher. A means to an end.
(EDIT circa 2015: Now that Spider-Verse is a thing, we retroactively have an official explanation of how Morlun came back: his whole family, the Inheritors, have a cloning facility located in an alternate dimension, from which they procure a fresh cloned body when the previous one dies. I should do a review of Spider-Verse one of these days: there’s certainly a lot to discuss.)
So Peter does some touching stuff with his family, including stealing away on a space probe with Mary Jane to see the Earth from orbit thanks to some string-pulling by Tony Stark.
The very next issue, Spidey is swinging around NYC commenting on how the fact of impending death is making him feel so free, at which point Morlun decides it’s time to feed. They fight, and Spidey dies. That’s it. That’s the whole issue. (Or “chapter” would be a better term in graphic novel format, I suppose)
To elaborate, this is one of the most brutal and graphic moments of the entire Spider-Man saga, culminating in Morlun ripping Spidey’s eye right out of its socket (“SQUITCH!”) and eating it in front of him. He then beats Spidey so brutally that the close-up of Peter’s face in the next issue is frankly cringe-worthy. That’s another level of surreal in The Other: while I don’t personally have an aversion to it, this arc (mostly this part) exposes the reader to a greater degree of brutal violence than one would expect from a Spider-Man book.
But Peter is not dead. He is rushed to ICU, where Morlun intends to finish the job. However – and in sight of Mary Jane – the mortally-wounded Peter…changes. It’s as though the more spider-like aspects of his personality take over in full: his face actually transforms to that of a feral creature (Red eye, sharp teeth) and he kills Morlun. Then, his last wind exhausted, he expires.
I should lay out the philosophy that’s espoused here while Peter is on the ‘other side’. Basically, ever since getting bitten by the radioactive spider, Peter had embraced the elements that were favourable to him, that helped him fight crime: the wall-crawling, super-strength, proportionate agility of a spider, the good stuff. But in case you haven’t noticed, people hate spiders: they’re often considered creepy and nasty in popular culture. And there’s a reason for that: to many people, myself included, they’re gross and in some cases dangerous. What, pray tell, did you expect to happen when you fused a man with a spider? There are elements of the fusion that Peter has never embraced, those feral elements that he simply chose to bury deep within, but now it’s time…time to embrace The Other. The Spider part of the Man.
It’s really an interesting concept. Long story short, Peter re-awakens in a web cocoon, and we find that he has some new skills. Firstly, his webbing is organic now, much like in the Raimi film trilogy. Strangely, this is not even alluded to in The Other; the first (and last) it’s mentioned is in One More Day at the end of JMS’s tenure, but more on that later.
The other thing is that Pete now has massive bone-stingers that erupt from his wrists. He even questions this, saying that spiders don’t have stingers, and the only explanation he gets is “Spiders evolve. You evolve.” So Spidey is, in essence, the combined evolution of the Spider and the Man…? It’s not really explained too well.
Speaking of explanations, there’s a pretty major hiccup at the end that I tried my hardest to ignore, but I just can’t do it. Okay, so after Spidey returns from the dead, a new villain pops up: this vaguely feminine monster made entirely of a mass of spiders. She’s not given a name. Some noise is made about how Spidey returning has upset some amorphous cosmic forces, and this creature was sent as a “corrective response”, Spidey’s equal-and-opposite, meant to kill him. They fight, and…she vanishes.
Because this villain – who managed to web up the entire top floors of Avengers Tower, consume Spidey’s old body and prove perfectly adequate in a head-on fight, just doesn’t appear afterwards. She isn’t defeated (in fact, she proves to be more than a match for Spidey), she just escapes the battle. Then there’s some stuff about Spidey rescuing people from a collapsed building, and then…it pretty much ends there.
That’s so weird. Like, that’s the kind of creature you’d think they’d put a super-APB out on. As for what it does for The Other, it makes the climax bizarrely dull for such a twisted, strange story arc. It’s not a point of high action, it’s not an emotional climax, it’s just…disjointed. I actually checked to make sure that nobody had ripped an issue’s worth of pages out of my paperback; it’s that jarring in terms of story structure. Sorry about my poor summary, by the by: there are a lot of little details in The Other and I tried to just include the essential ones.
Something’s been nagging at me as I write this. It’s another narrative tic about the story that makes it feel strange and disjointed: Peter’s terminal illness. Okay, for The Other’s concept to work, let’s say that Peter has to die and come into direct contact with the “Other” that he must then embrace. So his death and resurrection are a given. So in hindsight, it’s very strange that they build up this terminal illness…and then BOOM! Morlun crashes in and beats him to death so brutally that you can almost imagine someone in the background shrieking MORTAL KOMBAT, eliminating that subplot from existence.
Or, more accurately, one subplot eliminates the need for another. If Spidey is dying, let’s say because his totemistic powers are decaying and he needs to embrace the Other in the spaces after life (I don’t know, it’s not explained too well), then there’s no need for Morlun in the story at all, especially with such an odd non-explanation for his return. If we’re having Morlun in the story to beat Spidey into a quivering bag of guts and bruises, then there’s no need for the terminal illness subplot. It’s double redundancy.
So that’s one villain who is given no adequate explanation as to his return, and another villain who is not given an adequate explanation as to her exit, and a major part of the story which is hammered at by two different points at once, each one eliminating the need for the other. The whole story is like a genetic mutation: it’s disjointed and you’re never sure if it’s going to hold itself together, or fall right apart. It’s really uncomfortable, like a quivering narrative trying desperately to hold itself together and failing, like that scene in the first X-Men movie where Senator Kelly disintegrates.
The Other could have been vindicated by history if things had gone differently in the months that immediately followed. But ultimately, the arc was overshadowed, shoved out of the limelight and denied proper time for its repercussions to develop and be made clear. You’d think it would be difficult to so quickly overshadow an arc that kills Peter Parker, brings him back and has him undergo a strange metamorphosis that shines an unsettling and potentially game-changing light on his spider-powers; you’d underestimate Marvel circa 2007. Immediately after The Other, events are set in motion that lead to the Crisis Crossover event, Civil War, which dominates the Spidey arcs Mr. Parker Goes To Washington and The War At Home. Spidey mavens know exactly how the rest plays out: The War At Home leads directly and swiftly into Back In Black, which led directly into One More Day…
Let me explain it for people who haven’t read any of this. One More Day is widely considered to be one of the worst story arcs not just in Spider-Man history, not just in comics history, but in the history of Western narrative, right up there with the ending segment of Mass Effect 3. It is considered contrived, insulting and poorly written, and I can honestly say I haven’t met a single person who doesn’t think it’s crap. To wit: Spidey has his marriage to MJ retconned by Mephisto to save Aunt May’s life, who’s dying from a bullet wound that none of the abundant scientists, doctors or Sorcerer Supremes in the Marvel universe can fix for some reason.
Because editor-in-chief Quesada wanted a ‘swingin’ single’ Peter Parker, Mephisto retcons a bunch of things, like Harry Osborn’s death, the marriage itself, May’s house being burned down (which happened two arcs before The Other, which is why they were staying in Avengers Tower to begin with)…point is, much of The Other got simply forgotten or left by the wayside after One More Day. OMD is the first and only time in which Spidey’s organic webbing is given a moment to shine (when he webs up Iron Man, it’s a sight to behold), but it’s one of the things that got retconned out of existence after OMD. The stingers are gone too. Great job picking a direction and sticking with it, Marvel.
It’s so much worse than it sounds. No. I’m not doing a review of One More Day. I’ll just say that it (and one scene in particular – guess which one! It’s like a game!) may be the first-ever narrative so bad that it actually makes a rock-solid case for coma-drinking.
So because a crisis crossover pulled in the webhead, which led directly into a dumbfounding flustercluck, The Other never really got a chance to become the long-haul far-reaching evolution of the character that it seems it wanted to be.
That said, the Spider-Man think tank has shown that it hasn’t forgotten or discarded JMS’s totemistic ideas. When Dan Slott wrote Spider-Island, he had Kaine (Spidey’s clone) resurrected from the dead and turned into a gigantic monstrous tarantula who served the Jackal. When Kaine was cured of his, uh, monster-ness, he laments about waking up from death with all these strange new powers. Peter says that he’s been there. Throwaway gag? Well…shortly after in that arc, Kaine kills a major antagonist…with massive bone-stingers erupting from his wrists.
Well, bizarrely enough, this fever dream finally came to a sort-of conclusion…over half a decade later. After Spider-Island, Kaine took off for his own adventures down in Houston in the Scarlet Spider books, and runs afoul of a pair of werewolves (don’t question it) and lingers on the brink of death. From there, a familiar scene plays out: a Totemistic presence between life and death beckons for Kaine to ‘embrace the Other’, that it has moved on from Peter and now summons this particular spider to embrace his feral other.
And lookie who it is! That vaguely female spider-creature that just up and vanished from the story years ago is the one tempting Kaine. And unlike Peter, Kaine gives in to the Other. Long story short, he wakes alive, but as a monstrous creature that scarcely recognizes friend from foe, until he’s able to get it under control.
I…guess that’s the end of The Other. It is nice to have an actual resolution after all these years as to what would concretely have happened if Peter had fully embraced the beckoning Other, but I can’t help but feel like it might be too little, too late, even as such a continuity maniac as myself.
So at its core, The Other is a deeply flawed story with an interesting philosophy behind it, but a troubled narrative with a strange, unresolute conclusion that doesn’t make productive use of the whopping twelve issues it took to get there. As far as JMS’s run goes, it lacks the wicked intensity of Coming Home and the surprising poignancy of Happy Birthday, but avoids the squicky canon-defilement of Sins Past and the all-around offensiveness of One More Day. It sort of stands alone. This story takes us places I’ve never seen a Spidey book take us before, and while it doesn’t always satisfy, you definitely feel on the last page like you’ve been through something. It leaves an impact, for better or worse.
Because the original stapled comics and the trade paperback are long out of print, your best bet for reading The Other is in Volume 4 of the JMS Ultimate Collection, which is the version I own.