“Yes siree, things are sure looking up for my favorite couple of guys–namely, me!”—ASM #12
Quick: what’s Spider-Man really all about, in one sentence?
With most major superheroes, someone might have to pause a second or two before answering. Try to come up with just the right phrasing to effectively get across all the pertinent information of what makes Wonder Woman who she is aside from a lasso and a plane. What defines Wolverine besides knife-fists and truly worrisome hairstyle choices. But I imagine readers could gamble their 401(k)’s on how most people would respond when it comes to Aunt May’s favorite nephew.
And they’re absolutely right. That’s at the core of just about every good Spider-Man story, that’s the lesson he imparts, that’s what we as readers are supposed to come away understanding.
But what’s he, as a character, about?
The biggest successes in the business, character-wise, tend to have more than one axis that they revolve around; take away one, and everything goes wildly off course. Yes, Batman’s very much about Justice, that’s what he teaches us about…but as a character, he’s defined by the idea of Family from the start, with the deaths of his parents to the various Robins, Alfred and Gordon, and even up to his old, familiar relationship with Gotham itself. Remove that element from the equation, and you wind up in an endless sea of post Miller-isms, a caped crusader without the humanity to make his vigilante mission anything more — on an ongoing basis — than a mad, lonely, overgrown boy lashing out. Superman wants to show us how to hope and work for a better world, but the kink that gives his relationship with humanity weight and definition is his alienation from those he loves so much. Even if it’s subtle in its presence, stories from All-Star to Birthright have taken that principle to heart in their portrayals of Clark Kent: take that away, and you end up with something like the largely unconflicted, uber-patriotic Man-God of John Byrne’s Man Of Steel (which I know to be many people’s benchmark for the character, but that’s a discussion for another time). Feed just his isolation into the storytelling machine, rather than the inherent optimism that elevates him, and out pops on the other side the bottomlessly atrocious Superman: Earth One.
To pick a non-caped example, Jesse Custer of Preacher is certainly meant to show us that we can be caretakers of our own destiny, even in the face of a dangerously capricious Almighty, but he also has to come to terms with antiquated notions of what constitutes honor and friendship acquired from the very stories that gave him his morality. That struggle to define himself on his own terms, and cast aside what’s holding him back from being the friend and loved one those close to him deserve, is what proves his principled stance right, that people can overcome their worst qualities and steer their own lives. These (minimum) two aspects — the character, and what the character is trying to tell us — feed on each other to drive things forward, and prove each other’s points regarding the human condition. Even as they limit what sorts of stories you can tell with the character, it also defines on the most fundamental of levels what makes them what they are.
And I’d argue that, flashes of inspiration aside, Spider-Man has been missing half of that equation for a long, long time.
“If only I could reveal my secret identity…if I could let people realize who I am…! …but I just don’t dare!”—ASM #21
Many, if you asked them what Parker’s second irreducible element is, would say that the big idea in play is the experience of being a teenager. And it’s hardly unfounded. Voices throughout the online comics community, from Chris Sims to Sequart’s own Colin Smith (R.I.P., TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics) to David Brothers, among many others, put forward that idea to greater or lesser degrees. And they’re not wrong, not really. The high school years, and everything that comes with them, are indisputably at the center of the earliest adventures. It’s a well people have been going back to for years from the late, lamented Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon; to David Lapham and Tony Harris’s With Great Power; Marvel Adventures Spider-Man; Sean McKeever, Takeshi Miyazawa and David Hahn’s Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane; twice over with Ultimate Spider-Man by Brian Bendis and assorted artists (in my opinion, the most effective comic at recapturing the spirit of the Lee / Ditko years during the first run with Bagley…though again, that’s a topic for another time); and soon enough once more with Dan Slott and Ramon Perez’s “Learning To Crawl”. Those earliest of stories are at the center of everything good about the character…but increasingly, they’ve become just as much the heart of everything that’s gone wrong. And at last, I get close to starting to address the point.
The Parker Luck, in those earliest days? Largely amounted to costumes shrinking in the wash, or misunderstandings with his girlfriend(s… You unmitigated cad), or his aunt just not getting it, man. Almost as often as Pete wondering if he’s “really some sort of crack-pot, wasting my time seeking fame and glory?? Am I more interested in the adventure of being Spider-Man than I am in helping people?? Why do I do it? Why don’t I just give the whole thing up?”, the earliest stories end with him privately celebrating his victory, with things turning out A-Okay, or at least him breaking just about even. Even back before Gwen and MJ, he had two bombshells doing some 60s-females-in-comics-weeping over not being able to win his heart in the form of Liz Allen and Betty Brant, with Ms. Watson’s niece perpetually waiting in the wings—known by readers to be gorgeous almost beyond words as far back as Amazing #25, even if Parker wouldn’t get a look at her himself until #42—and his late-night adventuring hardly seemed to get in the way of the studies that would net him a full scholarship to ESU, not to mention the job that’s not only keeps his household afloat, but allows him to indirectly monetize his mortal peril. By the standards of the other costumed adventurers of the time his experiences were certainly unorthodox (which was, of course, the point), but from any objective standpoint the boy was leading a charmed life. So why the misery?
Because he’s a teenager. Because it’s always the end of the world at 16, when in truth the world isn’t set against him (something we’ll be getting back to), but his problems simply result from misunderstandings, from the basic realities of his situation, and from screw-ups entirely on his own part. His was a situation entirely relatable, a lonely boy hiding behind a false face and acting as the man he wants to be, getting the strength over time to become that man himself. A kid who refuses to tell the people closest to him about himself, in theory for their own good, but deep down because he’s terrified of being rejected the same way so many do when you’re growing up and defining your identity. As the challenges increase, so too does he rise to meet them, maturing into the sort of person capable of realizing the responsibilities he’s taken on, and the storytelling engine I mentioned earlier purrs, as do sales figures.
But that’s not something that can last. It was never really meant to last. There’s an endpoint to the story of Peter Parker, Teenage Superhero, by a team no less official than Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. And it’s the most obvious thing in the world to figure out what that endpoint is, because it says so right on the cover:
Lifting some big-ass machinery aside, that’s the comic where his puppy-dog relationship with Betty Brant comes to a conclusive end, not out of manufactured concern that revealing his secret will somehow lead to her demise (that worry wouldn’t come to the forefront of his concerns until…oh, let’s say about 88 issues later), but from the simple and adult acknowledgement that it would never work between the two no matter how they feel. That’s where he finally meets JJJ on his own terms and gets one up on the skinflint. That’s where he finally, at least in theory, manages to overcome the shame of his first and greatest failure by saving Aunt May. It had been getting built up to for a while, with Peter graduating high school and getting into college, but things were still on hold with his preoccupation with his aunt’s medical problems distracting from his rapidly-growing new cast. But after this greatest of challenges, there’s a subtle shift right away, and the old era is dead even before Romita takes over. In the last Ditko issues, you see Peter going out of his way to connect with his new classmates, an idea that would have been anathema to him not many issues earlier, and turning down the advances of a potential Betty Brant in the making in ASM #36 because he’s managed to figure out where that will go. He’s no longer Spider-Man, the Teenage Superhero, but Spider-Man the young adult.
“Don’t let it bug you, fella! Things have a way of getti’g better when you least expect it!”—ASM #39
Suddenly the stakes are higher. Aunt May’s condition worsens. The fabled money problems start to come to the forefront, though at the moment they’re mostly limited to not being able to pay for dates or his snazzy new motorcycle, rather than the life-or-death issue it would become later. The social community surrounding him becomes something to be joined in and understood, rather than avoided at all costs. While almost certainly a coincidence, it’s interesting symbolically that the first real chapter of Peter’s new life, his ‘final’ duel with the Green Goblin – the unknowable specter of dread hanging over his life up to that point – has the villain turn out to be his new friend’s father, with goals far simpler yet far more twisted than suspected and a sympathetic backstory rooted in mental trauma: Peter gets older, things get more complicated. And even as the situation worsens, he doesn’t crumble under the pressure, because he’s changed enough as a hero and a man to rise to those challenges, even if he’ll never rise above them.
But with exceptions like Mary Jane’s arrival, “Spider-Man No More” and the rightly famous Harry Osborn drug issues, Stan’s remaining time on Spider-Man would never reach the heights of his collaboration with Ditko. It started to congeal into familiarity, the never-ending soap opera that others would come to imitate—after all, it’s far easier to replicate the success of something when it can be reduced down to a formula, rather than a constant series of innovations—and would eventually be accepted itself as an essential element of the character. And as a result of this, and the desire to reduce Spider-Man to an easily-repeatable equation being applied to the earlier stories causing the strip-mining of only the surface elements, the core character philosophies of the Spider-Man franchise would be twisted into Loss and the Soap Opera dynamics mentioned earlier.
One good example of the problem is the relatively recent “Mysterioso” arc of Amazing Spider-Man #618-620, by Dan Slott and Marcos Martin. Good writing, phenomenal art (as Marcos Martin is wont to produce), the return of a villain that was a favorite of mine, a great little action story. After having not read much with the character in some time, pouring through this in the library was a treat. And I remember just shutting down cold when we hit this guy:
What, you don’t remember Carlie Cooper’s father, introduced in that arc as having been a cop who died years earlier but actually being alive and really being in the crooked pocket of Mysterio but is taken down by his daughter getting her to make an emotional breakthrough, none of this having anything to do with Spider-Man himself and actually completely distracting from the engaging main plot and it worked about as well as this overlong sentence?
Yeah, that’s about what I thought. Yes, the character dynamics began early, but everything related back to Peter. Harry getting on drugs, mentioned earlier, affected Peter’s housing status, as well as his relationship with his own best friend, and would provide the key to defeating the Green Goblin (not so final after all, huh?) a couple issues later. Flash Thompson going off to war would lead to him taking his problems back home and forcing Spidey to team up with Dr. Strange against some unfortunate yellow peril stereotype villains to save him, as well as dramatically changing Peter’s interactions with Flash. It all came back to the guy on the cover, wonder of wonders, and actually behaved like a superhero comic, rather than a printed adaptation of this soap opera in Astro City:
But much as I may personally hate that sort of thing, it’s hard to argue it isn’t par for the course, for a lot of characters beyond Spider-Man. There’s a far more endemic problem, one well illustrated in an even more recent comic.
The morality of dropping your relationship issues on a guy right after he’s just gotten back (from having his mind and life violated on the most basic level imaginable, where he’ll need every bit of help he can possibly get to put his life anything like back on track) aside, this entire scene in the backup section of Superior Spider-Man #31 asks the reader to believe that someone that close to Peter for as long as MJ has been would passive-aggressively accuse him of “choosing” his life of service over protecting those closest to him, when literally every single Spider-Man comic in the history of time has been about how he really has no other moral option whatsoever. This isn’t about serving the character of anyone involved, it’s about adding on to Peter’s Noble Suffering. And while self-sacrifice has long been part of the Spider-Man story (the entire responsibility shtick wouldn’t mean much without it), it’s gone past the point of all reason. It’s gone from Gwen Stacy dying (shocking because it was unexpected, because it was the taste of death close at hand many must go through at some point) to Peter being the person people die around. It’s gone from Peter having trouble explaining himself to the person who can’t be trusted with even the simplest tasks—and in fact, he has become truly forgetful and neglectful a great deal of the time. He’s gone from a whiz-kid who has to take pictures of himself to pay the bills because of his aunt to the 250 I.Q. mega-genius who can barely scrape by, an empathetic naturally good-humored friend who can’t hold a relationship, a trouble-magnet whose luck once explainable by his own mistakes and misfortunes can at this point only be explained by witchcraft. He’s become the loser he was always afraid he was. What are we supposed to learn from this irresponsible schmuck, exactly?
People give things up for what’s right, things beyond what we might even think ourselves capable of. That’s part of what responsibility is.
But what duty asks us to give up the most basic of companionship and happiness, the most simple and necessary elements of what keeps a human soul from breaking? Yes, there’s the well-worn “superheroes’ loved ones in danger” setup, but who can actually relate to that in the target audience the way it’s presented here? Policemen, to the best of my knowledge, aren’t asked to sign a form after graduating the academy to never form another relationship of any sort again, lest they be become a social pariah for putting their loved ones at risk. This means the target audience for this now quite central part of Spider-Man’s story is…spies in deep cover who faked their deaths and trauma victims who had to leave loved ones behind in deadly circumstances to save other people?
I can’t quite square that circle. He’s not Daredevil: you can only throw so much at the guy until it stops being the action hero struggling, and becomes a Youtube video by some jackass of a puppy getting kicked. Continuously. For 50+ years. The loss is a byproduct of what Spider-Man deals with, not the root issue.
“Some day I’ll show them! *Sob* Someday they’ll be sorry!—Sorry that they laughed at me!”—Amazing Fantasy #15
So if he isn’t about loss (at least not, I’d argue, in a manner that can really work long-term at such a high level as what’s been going on for so long), but he’s not really about being a teenager either, what is he ‘about’?
He’s about growing.
That scene above in ASM #8 (by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, which is as official as if Marvel the corporate entity gained sentience and started writing comics on its own), where Spidey’s hogtying the Human Torch? Johnny’s not secretly the Chameleon in disguise, nor is he being mind-controlled by Dr. Doom or the Ringmaster. Peter’s doing it because he’s angry at the guy getting all the breaks he doesn’t, and feels like publicly ruining his day. This was not, by the way, the slightest bit uncharacteristic of Peter Parker as we’d seen him up to this point.
In the earliest material, Peter Parker was a dick, and that went on long after the mugger got turned in. His immediate response after Ben was killed? Keep on going with the show business until Jameson starts going after him. His first couple saves are at least in part about His Good Name, whether saving Jameson’s son with the idea that it would get him on the old man’s good side, or going after the Chameleon for impersonating him, and even once he starts going after criminals on a consistent basis it’s initially only for photography money. He takes stupid chances. He’s desperate for cash. He insults and attacks undeserving people. He fakes pictures of Sandman and Electro with the flimsiest of moral justifications. He’s got a chip on his shoulder the size of Queens and can barely begin to control his temper. He’ll lash out at people on suspicion or anger alone, and in some early stories he just plain gave up or ran away until he learned his lesson or circumstances changed. He’s a bitter, arrogant know-it-all who looks down on virtually everyone around him, and even if we can’t blame him with all he goes through, he’s often far afield of anything resembling “likeable”.
But he changes, so completely many seem to forget he was ever anything other than the official co-saint of the Marvel Universe alongside Steve Rogers. Perhaps it’s in part because of this misunderstanding that Spider-Man 2—starring Peter Parker being Very Sad because he won’t trust the people around him with information that directly impacts their safety, and pushing himself so hard he can’t even effectively fight crime anymore, defeating the purpose altogether of him taking the pain of the entirety of New York unto himself like a bargain-basement Christ—is widely considered the high-water mark of the character’s modern history, while the Peter Parker of The Amazing Spider-Man—who actually acts like a teenager, keeps on making mistakes and operating under selfish motives even after the mugging and has to learn, and is willing to place hope in tomorrow and try and still make a happy life for himself alongside the obligations he must shoulder—is quite widely considered a “douchebag”.
He grows, he shifts, he learns lessons and forgets them and falls and picks himself back up, and he never stops pushing forward. He takes on the responsibility of becoming the Man he claims to be, that others need him to be, even if he doesn’t consciously realize it at first. That’s how he was built, and how he was visibly meant to keep going at first. That’s the “in”, that’s what makes him an everyman we can all relate to, because no one ever stops growing up. It’s what differentiates him, makes him real, compared to Superman or Batman or the FF or Captain America. And while the steps needed to keep that wheel moving are still implemented, one aching step at a time, it’s still drowned out by a deluge of perfectly satisfactory but no longer cutting-edge superhero adventures (that is, when such steps aren’t rolled back altogether, Mr. Quesada). Is such an approach capable of being implemented, long-term? Or does Spider-Man have to surrender his throne, leave behind any sort of concept of a definitive superhero “everyman” in favor of characters with limited arcs, or creator-owned heroes able to go places the corporate bread-and-butter can’t?
“It’s a do-over. New lease on life. Second chance. I’m gonna make this work. They’ll all see.”—ASM #1 (Vol. 3)
Starman, Invincible, even the “Clark Kent” of Superman: Secret Identity…I like those guys. They have options available to them that mainstream corporate properties like Spider-Man don’t, and in the current climate of the industry, it’s possible to tell a story a lot closer to—ahem—my barebones idea of the character than what’s going on right now in his own titles.
The evidentially soon-to-conclude The Bounce, by Joe Casey and David Messina, is a product of the former claiming to deduce what the “essence of Spider-Man really is, why that type of character works so well” and applying said essence to a new sort of character, one not beholden to the demands of the Marvel machine. It’s not exactly something I’d recommend to a layman—especially by the end, it’s a very, how shall we say, Joe Casey-ish book, a sort of product with charms not necessarily of the kind sought by your average Spider-Man fan—but it’s fascinating regardless to see the result. 20-something Jasper Jenkins, stoner and all-around layabout, ends up with abilities that amount to making him a human powerball as the result of a government experiment gone wrong (with far-reaching ramifications that extend into noted Casey-ish mindbending territory), puts together a costume, and starts fighting crime because…well, because he feels it’s just the thing to do in this circumstance. He’s just a dude, having fun and going through the motions as events push forward in the background that may decide the fate of his world. It’s not necessarily Eisner material, but it’s an exuberant, confident little title that does little that hasn’t been seen before, but makes it on attitude strong enough to make the old feel fresh again. And while Casey seems disinclined to share the ‘Spider-Man Code’, the idea of Growth is seen throughout the book, in both a transcendental sense and in a “stop making such a fuck-up of yourself” sense (in an amusing, if subtle running gag, Jasper has yet to win a single fight in the entire book). And when Responsibility comes into the picture as it must, it’s tied together with its brother pillar of Spider-Man even more closely than in the source material, with Jasper’s responsibility being to grow, to uncover both the nature of his abilities and the nature of what’s driving him, that he might become the person he and everyone around him need. It’s all a fairly natural tweak on the first principles, applied to early twenties rather than the college or teen years (which never really happened with Peter Parker on any consistent basis, for all the reasons outlined before). So again: is that the only future? Is that the sole way any trace of Spider-Man as originally envisioned and executed can survive?
I don’t think so. You can’t keep a good superhero down, and if there’s any superhero among them all where the very idea of him staying down is something of an oxymoron, it’s this guy:
While limited, growth has happened for the character, and it tended to be in some of the better stories of the last decade plus. Whether starting to guide children like he himself once was in the solid early sections of J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr.’s run on the main title; confronting the nature of his role as a superhero in relation to his villains and Peter Parker’s own role in society in Mark Millar, Terry Dodson and Frank Cho’s Marvel Knights: Spider-Man (a largely overlooked gem by the former, and the most traditional of his modern work besides perhaps his Fantastic Four run); having him take his mission to the next level in both technology and dedication in Dan Slott and Marcos Martin’s modern classic “No One Dies”; showing what would happen if Peter Parker finally started to pursue his dreams as well as his duties in Slott’s “Big Time”, or revealing what would happen to a Spider-Man who couldn’t grow in Superior Spider-Man under Slott again, Peter Parker can still keep moving forward one step at a time, still undergo the growth that informs his responsibilities which informs his growth and so and so on into forever, and still maintain what he is: the normal guy in the world of giants.
Hopefully it won’t be long before seeing more of Peter Parker’s neverending progression. At the time of writing, I’m soon to pick up the newly relaunched Amazing Spider-Man by Dan Slott and Humberto Ramos. Given that he wrote three of those examples I just listed, I have fairly high hopes. Obviously he’ll have his fair share of issues to deal with after the events of Superior, yet more foisted upon him in a life already overburdened. But with all the talk of Peter embracing his new take on life, maybe it will show him moving past this, taking in the good as well as the bad of his situation and finding a way to make it all work, moving forward in spite of it all, just as he was built to.
Or maybe it’ll just be an amusing superhero comic. For all my griping, that wouldn’t really be so bad with all the misery that’s been thrown Parker’s way. This is going to be by the writer who had him come back from the dead in part by admitting that being Spider-Man is actually pretty fun.
The relaunched Amazing Spider-Man #1 (the comic) just arrived Wednesday, and Amazing Spider-Man 2 (the movie) is out today.