It's a device often used for Superman: surround him with characters who have the same powers and capabilities (or, alternatively, strip him of said powers and make him human) and show, in the process, that he's special not because of those abilities, but because of who he is as a character. It's obviously easy to do with someone like Superman (more Kryptonians! More!!), but with the exception of the random spider-powered foe (e.g., Venom), it hadn't really been done for Spider-Man.
Until Big Time. Until Dan Slott. Until SPIDER-ISLAND.
In SPIDER-ISLAND, Dan Slott and Humberto Ramos bring back the Jackal (a villain long thought dead and done for since the infamous CLONE SAGA) and use his knowledge of genetics and obsession with Peter Parker to infect the entire population of Manhattan Island with spider-powers. All of a sudden, everyone was a spider-man (or woman), and so our hero, Peter Parker, was basically reduced to being a "normal." The result is some damn fine storytelling, an excellent piece of characterization for our hero, and a rollicking, fun yarn that encapsulates the best aspects of the superhero genre.
Slott's take on Spider-Man has been pretty top-notch since the beginning, and it's followed the trajectory in terms of quality that I predicted it to since Slott's first issue. Slott eschews decompression, so every issue is pretty much packed to the brim with storytelling, characterization, and stuff happening. As Spider-Island starts, Peter had been dealing with the loss of his early warning system, his spider-sense, by learning kung-fu from the master, Shang-Chi. But then Spider-Island kicks into full gear as the city is invaded by a bunch of Spider-Man impostors (each wearing a different Spidey suit, natch), and the Avengers show up to stop them. Of course, Peter thinks it's his responsibility, so what happens when he shows up to take care of it?
It would be easy for anyone else to say, "Well, I guess the Avengers will take care of it," but Spider-Man's whole tagline is about responsibility, and if he can't help as Spider-Man, well, he'll find another way.
This sequence leads into just one of many moments that combine clever characterization and writing with a rush of pure adrenaline. Slott's run thus far has been characterized by answering questions that have been so obvious that no one thought to ask them, such as "Why doesn't Spider-Man use his science knowledge to build devices other than webshooters or spider-tracers?", and Spider-Island has been no exception. Wait till you see Reed Richards' introduction to Horizon Labs, Peter's workplace, and Peter's subsequent reaction. It's so obvious and sensible, and it really drives home the idea that Spider-Man is the everyman; how he reacts to his colleagues' reactions when they meet Reed Richards is exactly how the reader would react.
It's difficult for me to talk more and more about the Spider-Man moments in Spider-Island without spoiling anything, since it's just filled to the brim with action-packed goodness, but one of the things I can say is that it really highlights the uniqueness of Peter Parker, even with a city full of people with spider-powers and even his more powerful clone, Kaine, running around. This really underscores what makes Peter Parker such a special character, with his flaws and all, but most of all, his enduring sense of responsibility.
In the sense that he emphasizes both the character's personal traits as well as the awesomeness of his superpowered trappings, Dan Slott is indeed comparable to the great Roger Stern (and frankly, I think Slott's run is the best run on Spidey since Stern's). But there's another thing Slott does just like Stern, and that's his use of the overall continuity of the shared universe. Dan doesn't eschew the parts of continuity he doesn't like (like a top DC writer I know), but he doesn't get enslaved by the continuity he does like either (like another top DC writer I know). Dan is able to take the Jackal and Kaine, two characters from one of the most maligned comics stories ever, and integrate them seamlessly into a story that makes you care (in fact, one of the spinoff series from this, SCARLET SPIDER, is getting very good reviews now). The reveal of who's behind SPIDER-ISLAND also relies on Marvel's history and continuity, but not in such a way that it uses it as a crutch. I had no idea who the big bad was, and the fact that I didn't know did not matter in the slightest.
Nor did it matter that I just bought the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN issues. Significant events are handled in another title, VENOM, featuring Peter's friend Flash Thompson wearing the alien symbiote. But this is handled expertly: Slott depicts the key events happening in VENOM in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, so the readers miss no part of the big picture. It's like a sweet, sweet return to the way continuity was handled in the 80s: interaction between titles, but without the reliance to that interaction that's been omnipresent in mainstream titles for the last fifteen to twenty years.
One last thing I'll say about it is that there are great character beats in SPIDER-ISLAND that advance the overall Spider-Man saga. From J. Jonah Jameson getting spider-powers (not a spoiler; you knew he was getting them) and what that means for him to Kaine's development as a character to Carlie Cooper (Peter's girlfriend) turning into a giant spider, the storyline really gets you caring about Spider-Man's world. The most significant plotline, arguably, is that of Mary Jane Watson, Spider-Man's ex, not gaining spider-powers until it's too late. And when she does, it's a turning point, and you feel it in the story. It's one of those aforementioned adrenaline rushes, and had this particular reader screaming "Yes!" (I know that's probably going to shock people who think I'm not a Mary Jane fan, mostly the crew of people who missed the point of this article I wrote last year.)
Humberto Ramos' art takes a while to get used to, as he takes a lot of liberty with anatomy and technical correctness, but I think he works great for a character like Spider-Man, whose movements are packed with a manic energy and fluidity. I seem to always find Spider-Man to be the one character where I end up liking artists I usually don't (such as Ramos or Todd McFarlane) and not liking artists I usually do (Phil Jimenez comes to mind). In other words, Ramos' manic, energetic artwork is the perfect complement to this rather manic, energetic story.
SPIDER-ISLAND is one of the most fun events in Marvel history. It has excellent characterization, nonstop action, and the correct use of a shared continuity. The hardcover came out two weeks ago to comic book stores, and Comic Odyssey told me it sold out in two days. But the main storyline (which actually collects the VENOM issues) is available on Amazon today, with the Companion (with added tie-ins) coming out next month!
SPIDER-ISLAND is incredibly awesome, and I've read it three times from beginning to end. Would I lie to you guys?