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.