Why the “Happy Birthday” arc is the perfect celebration of Spider-Man
As you live your daily lives and go about your busy, whether in work or personally, do you ever feel a question slither into your mind? A simple inquiry that, for many, carries the weight of the world? Something that, as the problems mount and your life becomes busier and busier or filled with obstacles, seems more of a luxury than a necessity? Have you ever asked yourself if you’re happy? It seems like an easy question to answer on the surface, but the pursuit of happiness can be the hardest thing to achieve for an individual.
One hero who deals with problems like this daily is Peter Parker, AKA The Amazing Spider-Man. In 2003, writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist John Romita Jr. brought this to light in their early 2000s run on The Amazing Spider-Man. My personal first experience into Spider-Man and Marvel’s world was through this run and has stuck with me as the definitive version of Peter Parker. This volume also sees the character go through more growth than ever with him juggling married life, a job as a teacher, his responsibilities as Spider-Man, and even his powers evolving. However, as the villains continue to grow and meet this threat, so did his support structure. With Aunt May knowing his secret identity and the heroes of the Marvel Universe also at his side, Straczynski’s run on Spider-Man dared to have Peter firmly established in adult life.
That being said, some of these changes in his life happen a few years later from what the topic is today. To Properly tell the story of the Happy Birthday arc, we have to wind the clocks back to 2003, in the pages of The Amazing Spider-Man issues 498-500. In these issues, Peter is dealing with the typical problems of working in the public school system. With the administration giving him issues over a wrongly ordered textbook, Peter vents to MJ and his Aunt May and, in turn, learns an important lesson that will stick with him and us for the duration of the story. “You can’t be more than offended at a thing or a person who acts in their nature.” Forcing Peter to ask what his nature truly is.
Considering this arc is called “Happy Birthday,” it’s important to note that the events of the story take place on Peter’s birthday, and just as he is spending time with MJ, a flash of red lighting bathes New York. With Spidey on the case, he sees the Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, and Cyclops fighting off creatures known as the Mindless Ones, the puppets of the dark lord Dormammu (magic stuff, don’t worry, it’s as confusing as it sounds). With everyone, including Peter, facing the threat with their fists, Reed Richards, AKA Mr. Fantastic, arrives with a gadget to hopefully close the portal and send the creatures back. Of course, this fails and forces Dr. Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, to arrive and inform them that they may have just given Dormammu enough power to return and take over the world. The chaos doesn’t stop there as Spidey, and the heroes give the two mystical entities time to battle it out in Times Square. Unfortunately, the plan gets a bit muddled when Spider0Man is punched into the middle of Strange and Dormammu’s magical duel!
With a boom, the two heroes are placed outside of time and space. Strange and Spidey are now in a void of time that both has and hasn’t happened. Even the book compared this to Schrodinger’s Cat. That doesn’t stop Spider-Man from trying to save MJ from a Mindless One, though, and while he does, at first, ultimately, he fails. This loss sends him to a point between the beginning of his journey as Spider-Man and the end, setting the stage for The Amazing Spider-Man #500.
With Peter stuck at a point where he could stop his end by preventing his beginning, he realizes, yet again, that with great power, there must also come great responsibility and decides that he must be Spider-Man to save the lives in his future, meaning Uncle Ben must die and he may send himself him to the violent end he just witnessed. As Peter comes to terms with his difficult decision, Doctor Strange finds him again to tell him that to return to a point to save New York; he must fight his way through his time as Spider-Man. At this point, readers are treated to the greatest hits of some of his most early battles and iconic moments, including him lifting the rubble to save Aunt May and the tragic death of Gwen Stacy.
The mental gauntlet takes a lot out of Peter, and after wanting to throw in the towel, Strange reminds him what is at stake and with a tired “Bring it on.” we are treated to an astonishing splash page of Spidey taking on all of his villains as he follows Strange’s voices back to his time. At this point, the issue goes as one would expect, Peter warns Reed, and Doctor Strange stops Dormammu before he even arrives. The two heroes later chat, and the Strange from this timeline gives Peter a gift from his cloak (perhaps from the future Strange); then both go their separate ways, with Peter being greeted to a surprise birthday party from MJ and May.
These last few pages are where one of the best Spider-Man moments is shown, with pencils by Spider-Man legend John Romita Sr., Peter opens his gift from Strange “You have five minutes. Spend them as you wish.” and as if he was always there, he turns to see his Uncle Ben in the flesh. After a warm embrace, the two don’t have long, and Peter has a lot to say, apologies to make, but Ben won’t hear it. All he wants is for Peter to live his life to the best of his ability and never settle, then he asks him the most important question of all, “Are you happy?” What makes Spidey so great is even after all of the loss, guilt, betrayal, stress, battles, and mistakes, he can say with confidence that he is happy for everything that has happened in his life because at the end of the day and this story he knew his true nature; he is Spider-Man, a hero. The two hug again, and Ben disappears. Peter returned to that apartment a changed man, someone with much less weight on his shoulders and the recipient of the most important birthday gift he could have ever received.
The Amazing Spider-Man #500 has and always will be my most favorite single issue I own and read countless times. When I was younger, I loved that I got all of the best villains in one issue (and some of the coolest heroes as well); however, now that I am older, I realize that what makes this issue and this arc so great is that Peter shows us that we all can endure the best and worst life has to offer, but throwing in the towel is never an option. The best thing we can do is forget the towel is there, get up and try again. Never compromise. Never settle. So long as we do that, the next time anyone asks, “Are you happy?” it’ll be a lot easier to say yes.