Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Man or the Spider?



Spider-Man is a coming-of-age story. Peter Parker, the teenage geek, is given wonderful powers, but has to master them while dealing with all the standard adolescent problems - bullies, relationships, over-protective relatives, bad skin. The specialness of Spider-Man is that it's set in a transitory phase of life: Peter's low ranking in the Daily Bugle food chain, say, or his inability to pay the rent, are excused by his youth. If Peter were thirty-five and yet still allowed J Jonah Jameson to push him around, if our credibility let us to believe that Spider-Man would allow anyone to treat him that way, we would conclude that Peter was a weak fool.

Peter has to grow up. But when he does, the adolescence elements that make his story compelling evaporate. Granted, most of our early-twenties peers haven't been dropped off bridges by the Green Goblin, but the incremental loss of Stan Lee's great cast does reflect what happens in real life. Friendships may endure, but people disperse and get married and change, and once you're married that becomes the primary relationship (or should be, anyway). And people do take jobs that don't fulfill their erstwhile promise as bright spark of the 7b Physics class.

But if Peter Parker has grown up, the classic early-adult elements of Spider-Man remain the same. The inability to square this circle means that Spider-Man has been in a low-level crisis for a couple of decades now.

It's not that Marvel is unaware of any of this. The Clone saga and the Byrne-Mackie relaunch - two storylines which between them almost killed off the series - were both ham-fisted attempts to haul Spider-Man back to earlier times. The Clone saga's plan was to reveal Peter as a clone before replacing him with Ben Reilly, the true Spider-Man who would be younger, poorer and have lots of woman problems. Byrne-Mackie simply threw Mary Jane Watson out of a plane, moved Peter in with Randy Robertson and had him start acting like a seventeen year old. Or maybe seven year old.

It's to J Michael Straczynski's credit that he's stabilised the ship, though his big idea (that Spider-Man is some or other mythical insect totem) hasn't ever looked like filling the void in this series.

And now comes Civil War, and Peter's secret identity - the last standing cornerstone of Stan Lee's series - is gone. Peter is now a grown-up hero who lives in a mansion with his supermodel wife and surprisingly healthy aunt, who hangs out comparing biceps with his Avengers pals and trolling after a right-wing billionaire.

Now I have to acknowledge that this may not be a status quo, and would hope Civil War might shake things up. But there are some big problems here.

Abandoning a secret identity is a short-term device. You'll get stories featuring the reactions of pretty much everyone who knows Peter Parker. On Newsarama recently, Joe Quesada was saying that they thought they could get a couple of years of stories out of this. We can compare this with the editorial team that allowed Peter to get married. Often derided for their naivete in thinking like fans, not writers, I think they've been misjudged. They saw a huge potential for Peter-and-Mary Jane stories: he'd never been married before, after all. For a while, they were right. The fifty or so episodes after the marriage were as good as they get.

But once the novelty's worn off, the marriage was the new status quo, and it quickly became a bicker-fest. The quarrelling has now stopped, but only at the expense of a near-total neutering of Mary Jane Watson's once rebellious, fiery and utterly irritating personality. Mary Jane is the new Gwen Stacy.

So what happens once the novelty wears off? I expect the next year or so will have some good storylines, but, once Flash Thompson and JJJ and Betty Leeds and Curt Connors and Jill Stacy have had their moments in the sun, what then? You've resolved a pile of conflicts which have accumulated over the years, but at the cost of eliminating any more secret identity problems.

Then there's this armour business. I'm not one to worry much about powers, since they're just plot devices. But a few months ago, we have this whole The Other business, where Peter turned into a big insect and got a power upgrade, which mainly consisted of having webs shoot out of his wrists, rather than shooters. If Spider-Man needed anything extra in order to survive with the Avengers, this was the time to do it. But, no, a few months later and Peter is presented with an altered form of Iron Man's armour. Two power changes in a year is a sign of an uncertain editorial team.

Without a secret identity, will the dual-personality of Peter (neurotic, insecure, bit of a loser) and Spider-Man (confident and funny) tend to erode now there's no difference between them? There is effectively no difference between Logan and Wolverine, or Reed Richards and Mr Fantastic. The secret identity is a powerful device to perpetuate these differences. We may be losing something important here.

And then there's other things that disappear - the shabby flat, the day job, the relationship with JJJ, the worries about money. A great clump of Spider-Man stand-by's are being cast away here.

Meanwhile, the other two Spider-Man titles are cut adrift while the big boys get on with their revamp. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is bumping along retrying the whole mystic-Spider scene, while the Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man of Peter David (the man who once wrote the superb "Death of Jean DeWolffe") reads like a cry for help, bringing back Flash Thompson's long-gone and unmourned jock personality and beaming in Uncle Ben from some alternative universe in a rehash of an old Spider-Man 2099 plot.

Losing the secret identity is a big step. If it goes wrong and Spider-Man slides down the pan again, Quesada will probably lose his job, and Marvel will have to patch it with idiotic retcons. I want it to succeed, but right now, whatever the new Spider-Man is, I just can't make it seem like Spider-Man.

4 Comments:

Blogger doppelganger said...

Spot on about Spidey's adolescent roots - all that sticky fluid suddenly spurting out all over the place....uuugh...

seriously though.... there's an odd dynamic to these debates. Spidey's age is fetishised (in the true sense of the term) - it's seen as something above and beyond the writers - like there's an inevitability to spidey's ageing that the writers have no control over...

There are several solutions:
1) Maintain the status quo pretty much semi-permanently - let him stay a teenager for ever...
2) Reboot the whole thing every five years - start again, tweak the origin, make Aunt May a man this time around, doodle around with the villains, shrug off the weight of continuity - this'd be a great jumping on (and off) point.... Be open about this - don't have Reed Richard's kid trash the universe - just say look, it's all got too bloody complicated, we're starting again Ok?
3) Run several versions concurrently (Batman manages it - how many different versions of Bats available each week?)

I know that pretty much all of these have been tried and have pretty much failed... I agree that Marvel have lost the way with their flagship character.
The movies get it right though - and they do this by getting back to the basics and figuring out what Spidey is really about, and then doing THAT well....

Personally, time for a reboot I think - but then again, don't affect me - if it's Marvel and it ain't Daredevil, I ain't buyin' it anymore....

2:18 pm  
Anonymous Beta Ray Steve said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head, they don't know how to establish a status quo for Spider-Man. He can't be married to a super-model, and Avenger and a teacher, and stay true to the original concept, but they don't have something to replace the original concept with. Hence the armor, mystic stuff and the secret identity revealed. They are hoping they have enough stories that we'll forget what bad ideas got them rolling.
They can't get rid of MJ, so they've made her as dull as possible. They've got to throw MJ from the train... "See that billboard? I used to be married to her. And now everyone knows it."

3:44 am  
Blogger Disintegrating Clone said...

doppelganger & Steve

I'm not sure that writers do have control over Peter staying a teenager. Adolescence is transitory. Once you've gone on the first date, or slapped the school bully, or played your last game of D&D (but let's not broadcast that one), you're not quite the adolescent you were. Add it up over hundreds of stories and the end result is a character who, whatever might have been intended, is quite grown up.

The question is, why isn't there an adult Spider-Man? If Clark Kent is a journalist with the Daily Planet, and Tony Stark is an industrialist, and Bruce Wayne is a billionaire with his own cave and a industrial sized collection of women-seducing Barry White CDs (OK, I made that last bit up, but he would if I wrote Batman), then why do we draw a blank with Peter Parker? Is he a teacher, scientist, photographer, or what? Weirdly, Marvel haven't begun to answer that one.

Despite my dislike of MJ, I wouldn't kill her, cause she has the makings of a fine embittered ex-wife. I think it's highly likely she'll have an affair with Stark.

But they'll probably have to reboot in a couple of years, now the secret identity is gone.

3:16 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Marvel is trying to "have their cake and eat it too" with continuity, and with some success, such as with Ultimate Spider-Man and Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane. Peter Parker can be a High School student for as long as they want in those books.

JMS's "Spider-Totem" idea seems like they are trying to go from science to magic. Which, according to what I remember of Kraven's Last Hunt, meant that Kraven was *right* about Spider-Man all along with that "The Spider" stuff.

Starwolf

6:23 am  

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