Change or Die:

A Farewell to The Amazing Spider-Man

The Amazing Spider-Man got me in to comics. If my interest in comics was graphed, it would be a sine graph with The Amazing Spider-Man being the line that intersects the wave. My first issue was part one of the “Invasion of the Spider Slayers” arc. I followed ASM until “Maximum Carnage” (a crossover that ran through all the Spider-Man titles), during which I fell away because the Wal-Mart in my hometown didn’t carry enough copies of Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man, and Spectacular Spider-Man to go around. With those comics, it was first come, first serve. I followed Dark Horse’s Star Wars comics for a while before giving up comics completely in the late 90s. That changed when a friend gave me the first trade of J. Michael Straczynski’s run on The Amazing Spider-Man. I was a big Babylon 5 fan, so anything else with JMS’s name got my money. I walked away from the title again at the end of One More Day, the story in which Peter Parker essentially made a deal with the devil to save Aunt May’s life. In the resulting “Spider Crisis,” Peter was made younger, he still worked for J. Jonah Jameson, and he was never married to Mary-Jane. I felt as if large swaths of Peter Parker’s story had been tossed out, invalidated. Looking back, I think I’m more annoyed at the lack of consequences from this story. (To be fair, they may still arise.) But here is what is amazing about the whole Spider-Man thing (no pun intended): I didn’t need to know all the things that happened between “Maximum Carnage” and “Transformations: Literal & Otherwise” (JMS’s first story). Sure, big stories had happened, but Peter Parker was the same character I had known from before. Spider-man was the same character.

It is very rare to see a character survive consistently for decades. Sure, we have James Bond and The Doctor (from Doctor Who), but even these characters have evolved slightly over the years. Neither is played by the same actor for the entirety of the run, nor have the personalities remained unaltered. But in comics, we often find characters who are the same. Peter Parker is always the wise-cracking, slightly awkward, solo vigilante who feels guilty about uncle’s death. Wolverine is always the bad ass loner who is prone to snikt first and ask questions later. Call them clichés or tropes or whatever, but these characters have become a type of comic book archetype. The only story you need to know is the origin story. Everything else is modular, by which I mean you can pick up any story and read it without needing to know what came before—at least where characters are concerned. And I can’t help but wonder if the static nature of comic characters, their lack of significant change, adds to their appeal and longevity.

The comic industry is changing. The Ultimate line has done away with some major Marvel players (Peter Parker, Wolverine, Cyclops, Magneto, and Professor X are all dead). The Ultimate titles are free to explore a radically different Marvel Universe. The New 52 has seen some major revision of DC continuity. Even my comic mainstay is about to change with Amazing Spider-Man ending with issue 700, bringing a symbolic close to 50 years of history. It will be followed up with Superior Spider-Man, which may or may not include Peter Parker. This is a fairly big deal. In 2013, readers can pick up a Spider-Man comic, and they may not find Peter Parker. Not long ago, you could pick up a Batman comic and surprise! Bruce Wayne was dead! Dick Grayson was Batman. These changes had their supporters and their detractors, which is somewhat understandable. The comic industry has been modular for so long and it now seems to be moving toward a blend of modular storytelling and stories with characters that change and evolve (albeit slowly, over years). There seems to be a move to bring consequences in the comic world (which was a huge part of Grant Morrison’s run on both New X-Men and Batman). Characters face challenges and they change. And if you have grown up with modular comic stories, I think this can be a bit scary, if not downright irritating. Life constantly changes—sometimes in ways we don’t particularly want. But to be able to return to a beloved comic, a beloved character—someone who hasn’t changed even though your life has run the gamut of joy and sorrow—can be a comfort. It can be an escape. Thus, when these characters change, or even die, it reinforces the unwanted changes in life. The story is no longer a comfort.

I don’t believe there is right or wrong way to write comics, whether modular or otherwise. I just want good stories. But I must express the sadness of watching The Amazing Spider-Man end, even though I haven’t read it since Brand New Day. It isn’t the end of the world, but it is a reminder that there is truth in adage that Neil Gaiman paraphrased when asked to describe The Sandman in twenty-five words or less: “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.” Everything changes, and so do comics and the characters we love. But what never changes is the joy that they brought to us or the things we learned from the stories.

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1 Comment

  1. Eric Zandona says:

    Hey Steven, I really liked the article. It reminded me of why I gave up on superhero comics.

    Around 1998 I stopped reading superhero comics because I got tired of the fact that despite several epic world altering story arcs in both Superman and Batman, the next arc would start with little or no memory of what came before. The characters were essentially stuck. Each arc became its own self contained universe in which the hero’s origin (and motivation) remained constant. Eventually, I grew tired of the fact that these characters remained the same while my own interests, tastes and character was changing due to the fact that I am alive. I turned to graphic novels and other comic book storytellers who weren’t afraid to let their characters come to a resolution and end the story. Either with their death or with the end of their journey.

    For a while I was jaded and cynical about superheros (and sometimes I still am) and I assumed that the incessant rebooting of characters was/is solely an economic ploy to to bring in new readers. However, recently I have begun to see them as totems of cultural values. In this light I can understand the deeper allure and need we have for these stories. Before Homer, the stories of Odysseus and Achilles were passed down orally from one storyteller to the next. And while it is certain that some of the details of these stories changed as they were passed along it is also likely that moral and cultural values these stories carried remained intact. Just as the Classical epics helped to propagate the values of the Greeks, the telling and retelling of a superhero’s fated origin and their driving quest is as much about our own societal values and identity as it is a work of entertainment.

    In my mind the superhero that best represents the emphasis of symbolism is the Green Lantern. Unlike Superman or Batman who were born into their roles, Hal Jordan is just one of many who have become a Green Lantern. There ability of will over fear is the source of their power. Yet even with this trait built into the storyline, its writers have found a way to bring Hal Jordan back to his post afte he had given it up for a time. Batman has also played with the idea of symbolism. Bruce Wayne’s choice to become the Bat-Man was based on the desire to create a symbol to strike fear into the hearts of men. At times the writers of Batman have allowed this idea to carry through by letting another i.e. Dick Grayson or Azrael to take on the mantel of the bat but again these were both intentionally temporary.

    With each reboot the writers return to the essential values at the core of each story that have captivated readers and taped into our social self-conception. Like the bards of ancient Greece, each twist and turn in the story is less important than the fated path each hero walks. Unlike their contemporary works of fiction, superhero stories have become our own myths that we tell and retell ourselves as a means to understand our own values and identity.

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