After four issues of Spider-Man’s doubting Thomas act, it’s going to take a miracle to save Molina and Bianchi’s “Amazing Grace.”
If there is one thing both the devout believer and ardent atheist have in common, it’s that they are passionate in their convictions. Except on rare occasions, no amount of evidence or argument or insult (especially insult) is bound to persuade or convert either person into the others way of thinking. Give a copy of the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran to a believer, and they’ll proclaim them as the holy living word of God; give those same holy texts to an atheist or agnostic, and they’ll say they’re a load of hogwash or, if being charitable, a mere collection of fables, myths, and legends. Stories about religion are just as contentious, especially if the hero of said story declares God is a lie. And if the hero who says God is a lie is also a beloved superhero like Spider-Man, then batten down the hatches! Yet a story which tackles religion, when written well, can both challenge one’s beliefs, uplift one’s spirit, or even offer insights never considered. When written badly, it can come across as the sophomoric ravings of an obnoxious know-it-all who thinks that anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their exact point-of-view is either a Godless heathen or superstitious moron. Guess which category Amazing Spider-Man (2015) #1.4 and “Amazing Grace” falls under? If you need a hint, the “Stillanerd’s Score” is a dead giveaway.
Part Four of “Amazing Grace” begins with the funeral of Julio Rodriguez father, with Peter Parker in attendance. Having ran some DNA tests with the help of X-Men’s Beast, Spider-Man knows Julio Rodriguez is genetically no longer human. He also (correctly) suspects Julio murdered his own father, and hypothesizes he may not even be the real Julio Rodriguez but an “entity” that’s possessing his corpse. Of course the Santerians, who have known Julio since they were kids, refuse to believe this. Even Anna Maria Marconi thinks Peter is jumping to conclusions, wondering why Peter is so unwilling to accept Julio’s resurrection as a genuine miracle when he himself has seen things which could be described as miraculous. Of course, we know Spider-Man is right in that Julio has some ulterior motive. Julio is serving something he believes is God, and starts performing miracles in public to prove of His existence. We even learn, via Spider-Man’s interrogation of the mugger who attacked and killed Julio, that Julio’s death was really suicide, as he forced the mugger to stab him so that he could “ascend.” Thus what started off as story about a skeptical, rationalist Spider-Man investigating a possible miracle has become a story about him going up against a very charismatic and very convincing false prophet, one who sincerely believes he’s doing the Lord’s work. It’s an intriguing but all-too familiar set-up, and not a well-constructed one either.
One of the reasons The X-Files worked as well as did was that by teaming together F.B.I. agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, one being a conspiracy theorist and the other a skeptic, is that they put each other in check. Except all through “Amazing Grace,” Spider-Man doesn’t have someone like this. Oh, he’s had plenty of conversations with the Santerians, Beast, Anna Maria, and even someone who may or may not have been Uncle Ben’s ghost, all telling him to some degree that, when it comes to getting to the bottom of Julio’s resurrection, Spider-Man is operating out of prejudice rather than scientific curiosity. Except as this comic shows, Spider-Man was in the right all along. Which means every single person cautioning Peter to keep an open mind were really nothing more than theological and philosophical strawmen for the story to blow down, and that all those conversations were just pedantic naval-gassing.
We also get a proper explanation for why Spider-Man is so determined to prove Julio is a fraud, and predictably, it all goes back to Uncle Ben’s murder. Except it also results in one of the most inelegant, clumsy, heavy-handed, and downright worst examples of retconning I have ever seen. According to this comic, Ben Parker didn’t die right away after the burglar shot him; instead, he fell into a coma and died while in intensive care, and that Peter and Aunt May saw him pass away. Thus Peter no longer believes in God because, according to Peter’s logic, if God were real, then He, as an omnipotent being, could have saved his uncle if He wanted to but instead “let him die.” This, of course, contradicts numerous comic book stories about Spider-Man’s origin, including the very first Spider-Man story from Amazing Fantasy #15. That story–still official canon–makes it abundantly clear that Uncle Ben was already dead and gone by the time Peter arrived home. The police officer at the scene even tells Peter “your uncle has been shot—murdered!” so there’s not any ambiguity or creative wiggle-room on this point whatsoever. Not even Marvel’s “sliding timescale” can apply here. Nor is this even a case of Amazing Fantasy #15 being hard to track down to use as a reference, as its been reprinted numerous times, including as an Unlimited digital comic on Marvel’s own website. If you have rewrite a character’s well-established history to make your story “work,” then you’re doing something wrong.
But far worse than revising Spider-Man’s history for the sake of the story, the scene also contradicts why Spider-Man is even a superhero in the first place. While it does makes sense for someone to lose their faith due to the tragic loss of a loved one, the reason Peter even fights crime is because he holds himself responsible for his uncle’s death, a death he knows he could’ve prevented. He knows he had the power, means, and opportunity to stop the burglar but still allowed him to escape. He knows that because of this, the burglar would later rob Peter’s home and kill his uncle. He knows, or believes he knows, that he’s just as complicit in his uncle’s murder as if had pulled the trigger himself. It doesn’t matter that Peter couldn’t have possibly foreseen the consequences of his actions; from his perspective, he should’ve known better. Folks can debate Spider-Man’s religious affiliation or lack thereof all they want , but the one thing I think they can all agree on is that he never blames someone else for his own mistakes. For him to blame God for Uncle’s Ben death is not only a cop-out, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of just who Spider-Man is. Don’t forget: there was a scene where Uncle Ben’s ghost tells Peter how he needs to “forgive himself for what happened” in Amazing Spider-Man (2015) #1.3–which is just one mere issue ago. So not only is this Spider-Man inconsistent with his own history, he’s inconsistent within Molina’s own story.
Even Julio’s plan “to give mankind its faith back” doesn’t make any sense. During my review for Part One of “Amazing Grace,” I alluded to how the concept of an ordinary, non-superhero coming back to life in a superhero world was a fascinating premise for a comic book story. Now I realize that just as Spider-Man refusing to believe there’s nothing miraculous in play doesn’t work within the context of his own experiences, neither does the public accepting on blind faith that Julio’s resurrection and new powers are the result of divine intervention. If people are believing Julio is God’s messenger on Earth just because he’s performing signs and wonders, why would anyone in the Marvel Universe immediately jump to this conclusion? Wouldn’t they just think Julio was another mutant or inhuman instead, as both have been known to exhibit similar powers? Scientists and doctors would be swarming all over him conducting numerous tests–including genetic testing like Beast did. S.H.I.E.L.D. would be monitoring him 24/7 on the basis he’s an unknown super who poses a potential national security risk. Even the Catholic Church, of which Julio Rodriguez is a member of, would be conducting their own investigation into Julio’s “miracles” to determine their validity. In short, Spider-Man wouldn’t, and shouldn’t, be the only skeptic in this story.
As for the art, Simone Bianchi continues his hit-and-miss streak which he’s had for this entire miniseries, and with this issue, its mostly miss. There are moments in which his art does have vivid clarity and detail, but all too often it looks unpolished, unfinished, and even cluttered. The only standout panels are those where the interrogation of Julio’s killer divides a close-up of Spider-Man’s mask, used to comically convey a “difference” between the wall-crawler’s “happy” and “angry” faces. It’s also another instance in which an issue requires a fill-in artist to complete it. This time, the fill-in artist is Andrea Broccardo, and unlike Bianchi, her style is consistent, utilitarian, and basic; if anything, it looks bland and generic. It’s also so visibly different from Bianchi it takes you out the story anytime it appears. That this issue would even need to have a fill-in artist, considering this is just a six-part miniseries which only comes out once a month, meaning Bianchi should have had plenty of time beforehand to finish all six point one issues, is just baffling.
“Amazing Grace” does deserve some respect in that it’s willing to tackle questions about God, faith, and miracles within a modern, secular world. Yet it’s also a comic book miniseries which as gotten progressively worse with each passing issue, but not because of its themes. It’s gotten progressively worse because it’s just not a well-constructed, well-crafted, or well-characterized story. If there is any faith that is lost, it’s the faith that “Amazing Grace” will finish on a satisfying note.
Stillanerd’s Nerdy Nitpicks (spoilers ahead)
- Hey, Pete? Just because someone isn’t crying during a funeral doesn’t mean they’re “indifferent” about the person who died. I don’t see you crying, so does that mean you’re also “indifferent” about the death of Julio’s father? It also means you’re exaggerating when you say, “There’s not a dry eye in the house,” correct?
- I’m not sure if Jose Molina is a practicing or lapsed Catholic, but speaking as a Catholic myself, I can say with certainty that, unlike Mass during Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation, collection is not taken during a Requiem Mass! To have one would not only be seen as opportunistic, but a distraction from the funeral service’s message, which is to honor and pay respects to the person who died. For Father Felix to allow a collection to take place during Julio’s father’s funeral would be as tasteless as if he mooned the congregation. I mean, if you’re going to base a story around religion, and Catholicism in particular, at least do some homework beforehand.
- Whoops! Spider-Man slipped on an icy lake when he landed? Hadree-har-har! Wait? Doesn’t he have spider-sense to warn him a potential danger such as this ahead of time? Not to mention agility to regain his balance if he slips?
- Um…I know the Santerians are upset about the death of Julio’s father, so the notion Julio may have committed patricide is something they wouldn’t want to even consider, but they did ask Spider-Man to investigate what was up with Julio. But hey! What kind of superhero comic would it be without having an obligatory fight scene based off a misunderstanding?
- I realize “Amazing Grace” takes place during the Christmas holidays, but what’s Anna Maria doing in New York City? Shouldn’t she be in London overseeing Parker Industries’ European division?
- Want another reason why Peter’s flashback to his Uncle Ben’s death doesn’t work? Young Peter Parker isn’t wearing his glasses, which he had ever since he was a little kid right up to Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 1 #8. After all, this scene takes place during Amazing Fantasy #15, right? Oh, right! If it did, then Uncle Ben should already be dead and not dying in the hospital.
- Julio? You realize it was your friends, the Santerians, who kidnapped you before and not Spider-Man, right? The only reason you would say “Kidnap me once, shame on you” to Spider-Man is if he was the one who did it. Hmm…maybe Spider-Man does have point when he says you literally don’t have a brain.
- So during Julio’s prayer to Jesus on the Cross, “Jesus'” responds with dark red caption boxes? Hmm…dark red? Who we know from Spider-Man that’s dark red, connected to various religious denominations, especially Christianity, and is known to manipulate others, often by impersonating someone else? Oh no! Please tell me that whoever this really is, his name doesn’t start with the letter “M” and rhyme with “Francisco?”