1. A Brief Warning
I. Spoilers! Spoilers!
2. What's A Spider-Man For?
In their history of the mainstream of American comic books from 1956 to 1997, "The Comic Book Heroes" (*1), Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs hail the appearance of Spider-Man in 1962 as
" ... a full Romantic Rebellion against DC's '50s-style Enlightenment." Peter Parker, they write, was, unlike Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne;
"... the character's reality, not a coyly fabricated disguise. His first thoughts were of money and glory. Here was a believably ambivalent hero, who grew into his superheroic role by way of his personal life. Thus a need for growth had been programmed into his personality."
It's the traditional view of what has made Spider-Man such a popular and compelling character, and it certainly describes the beliefs that have motivated so many creators - and indeed fans - through the long decades between Uncle Ben's death and the dissolution of Peter and Mary-Jane's marriage, and beyond. Spider-Man, it's insisted, must develop and grow because his very nature is that of a character coping with change.
But I think that's there's a great deal of hindsight in this view, and hindsight, as Melvyn Bragg says in "The Adventures Of English, is " .. the bane of history. It is corrupting and distorting and pays no respect to the way life is really lived ...". Consequently, I'd like to offer my own measure of hindsight to the debate of what made, and indeed what makes, Spider-Man such an attractive and successful character. Because I don't think the original appeal of the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man was about change at all. Quite the contrary, in fact. I think "Spider-Man" was, at the strip's height, (*2) about the intense friction generated by the impossibility of Peter Parker avoiding change while he simultaneously couldn't ever achieve it either.
Or to put it another way, Spider-Man was entirely about the challenges faced by a Peter Parker who unexpectedly and traumatically found himself in the first stages of adolescence while being prevented by circumstances from becoming a man, and the further away from that metaphor "Spider-Man" has strayed, from his Graduation in "Amazing Spider-Man" # 28 to the present day, the less unique and affecting the character has become.
(*1) It's a book which I thoroughly enjoyed and which I highly recommend, and I'm only showing my respect for the book here by taking it so seriously that I want to engage in a debate with it. Jones and Jacobs of course worked in the very industry which they're chronicling. They know what they're talking about and, as a further spur to anybody thinking of tracking the book down, it's fun to note where they're perhaps being a little too obviously "discreet".
(*2) In the interests of full public disclosure, I regard the Lee/Ditko stories up until Amazing Spider-Man # 27 as the ur-text here. That doesn't mean that I haven't adored and admired Spidey adventures since then. In fact, I'm enjoying them still. It's just that, no matter what the rough edges and stumbling around, or actually somewhat because of them, that first few years of Spider-Man before Steve Ditko became infatuated with Ayn Rand's philosophy best display the remarkable DNA-helix of the character.
3. A Thirty-Something Spider-Man Is A Contradiction In Terms
This isn't a view of Peter Parker's situation and appeal which Spider-Man's co-creator Steve Ditko would have accepted as valid, though I doubt anything as crass as "popular appeal" would have been held to be pertinent by him anyway. According to Blake Bell in his "The World Of Steve Ditko" (*3), Mr Ditko was, from 1965 onwards, determined to act according to his Objectivist principles to recast Peter Parker from woe begotten loser to the master of his own fate. And so, for example, Mr Ditko had Peter Parker graduate from High School in "Amazing Spider-Man" # 28, and 10 issues later he had so removed Peter from the role of sympathetic everyman that Parker was contemptuously expressing his opposition to confrontational youth culture. Mr Ditko's Spider-Man would therefore be an independent-minded adult standing apart from, and indeed looking down upon, the corrupt society he inhabited.
Which explains why for me the appeal of Spider-Man as a character starts to fray in the mid-'60s, even while the Lee/Ditko team had almost a full year of Spider-Man tales before them. Because I don't believe that Spider-Man is a character predicated upon the need to change and develop, and I certainly don't believe that transforming Peter Parker into a poe-faced Objectivist sitting in judgement on the rest of we subjectivist masses would be a very good idea at all.
Indeed, as far as I can see, the very notion of "development" is inimical to the functional integrity of Spider-Man as a character. For Spider-Man was designed both by intent and chance to represent the specific moment when adolescence and its' increased potency begins to intrude upon the certainties of childhood. And the further from that moment the character's "growth" is allowed to stray and "develop", the less unique and fascinating Spider-Man becomes, and the more Peter Parker's alter-ego becomes just another superhero amongst ten thousand other superheroes.
(*3) Mr Blake's book is another volume that I'd highly recommend, though anybody who still harbours one of those"if only" thoughts about Lee and Ditko somehow managing to keep working together in the mid-'60s will be swiftly shown how that damn Ayn Rand woman was always going to stand between them. Ayn Rand, the Yoko Ono of the 1965 Marvel Bullpen. (No, I'm not saying Mr Ditko or Mr Lennon were wrong about where they located their allegiances. But I loved the Beatles and I adored the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man. The personal happiness of Mr D. and Mr L. may have been important to them, but what about me?)
4. Even When He Wins, He Loses, Because That's The Whole Point
I. For what little it's worth, I'm absolutely convinced that the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man was far more than just a book about the adolescent Peter Parker and his costumed alter-ego. I think it was in truth a book about the challenges and promises of adolescence that happened to feature Peter Parker/Spider-Man as the lead character. And if this is so - and I'll try to explain my case below - then it would mean that the constant attempts to update Peter Parker and his situation have all been based on the wrong first principle. For every new direction for Marvel's preeminent marquee draw has been based upon the belief that it is the combination of Peter's "lovable, wise-cracking loser" qualities and Spider-Man's costume and powers which have driven the character's appeal. And I suspect that while those qualities are obviously of vital importance whenever Spider-Man's popularity is considered, they are still secondary characteristics. On their own, they're brilliant, diverting and endearing, but they could have been replaced by equivalents and the Spider-Man story would still have retained a great deal of its' power and appeal; Spider-Man isn't the costume or the powers or Peter's happy/sad personality.
II. And I hope at this point that you're sharpening your pointy-sticks and reaching for your blogger-shaped voodoo dolls, because, yes, I did just suggest that Spider-Man's "irreducible minimum" doesn't necessarily include the traditional costume, powers and personality. (I could even suggest that Uncle Ben didn't necessarily have to die, although it was obviously a very good idea that he did. But a crippled Uncle Ben could have done the job to a lesser degree: he didn't have to be murdered for Spider-Man to "work".)
And I know that's somewhat of an - shall we say - eccentric point of view. (Although Spider-Man, for one thing, has retained his appeal even while his costume and even, to a lesser degree, his powers have been altered. And there have been periods when "Peter Parker" didn't seem very much like "Our Peter" either.) And I thought it best at this point to own up to the fact that the theory I'm about to spin is neither watertight nor testable nor, I suspect, particularly popular. But perhaps by pushing an extreme argument designed to provoke a measure of niggling unease and debate, some light as well as heat might be thrown on that perennial problem of "What makes Spider-Man "Spider-Man"?" For whether it's the debate about marriage or no marriage, hard-luck hero or Avenger, loser or man of confidence and substance, the truth remains that in the Marvel Universe at least, there's still a search for the character's "irreducible minimum", the least number of absolutely-central qualities that must be present in the narrative for Spider-Man to be Spider-Man rather than a Spidey-lookalike pretender in red-and-blue tights.
III. There's an endearing sense of the shock of the new in the contemporary accounts of how young comic book readers responded to the first appearances of Spider-Man. Many were disturbed, some were alienated, most were fascinated if many unsure. Because, as we all know, this was something very new and unique in the superhero landscape. From his very first appearance, Spider-Man stood apart as all revolutionary artifacts do. (Just as, sadly, in common with all revolutionary artifacts, that shocking uniqueness soon began to be obscured by the knock-offs, the copy-cats and the new disciples.)
And though I'm going to argue that there is indeed an "irreducible minimum" to be deduced from those first 29 or so appearances of the character, that doesn't mean that Spider-Man was ever a static comic strip where change was avoided by the creators. Indeed, Spider-Man's early appearances are characterised by small measures of development. For example, it takes three stories for Spider-Man to express himself with a characteristically light-hearted wisecrack, which happens during his aborted attempt to land a job with the Fantastic Four. (In his first appearance, Spidey tended towards arrogance, and in the second defiance and almost contempt.) Even then, once the conflict with the FF is over, the wise-cracking disappears too. And though Mr Lee has Spider-Man express bravado in his speech balloons over the next few issues, perhaps to indicate a teenager conscious that he's a little out of his depth and irritated by not being taken seriously, the first true Spider-Man wisecrack, free of aggression or contempt, doesn't come until issue 4, when in response to a criminal's "But ... who .. ?", Spider-Man quips "Well, it's not Dr. Kildare."
So change does occur over the range of the Lee/Ditko run, and the above is just one small example of how change and the Spider-Man strip have always co-existed, and how change has often enriched the comic. But the change in the early years is relatively limited and the pace of it is often glacial, for reasons we'll discuss below, and it simply doesn't follow that because change occurred, it's necessary or that it necessarily enriches the character. For the above example of wise-cracking actually helps to establish that several of those characteristics associated with Spider-Man's success were absent in the early stories even as the comic book was installing itself as a significant presence in the marketplace. Or to put it another way, Spider-Man was "Spider-Man" and becoming successful too before Peter Parker learnt to joke with and at the world, and therefore we might suspect that the wisecracking aspect of his status quo isn't as essential as we might expect.
For there's something going on in those very early Spider-Man comic books which lends the strip a particular power, and it's there even when many of the later-accepted "essential" components of the comic-book are absent.
IV: One of the reasons why all the attempts to replicate the success of "Spider-Man" in the almost 60 years of the character's existence is that the cloners have mis-identified the "irreducible minimum" of the character. They've seen Peter Parker's qualities of fortitude and self-doubt, klutziness and boyish charm, intellect and humour, shyness and determination, and taken some or many of them to create a Daredevil, a Blue Beetle, a Gravity or whomever. And the grafts have never entirely taken, because it isn't those qualities that powered the success and appeal of the early Spider-Man. Those qualities enhanced the metaphorical power of the strip, but they aren't the essence of the strip. Spider-Man was still a fascinating character when he was an apparent mix of petulance and arrogance, and Peter Parker was still "our Peter" even before his self-doubt and despair started to be tempered by a measure of self-confidence and social recognition and humour.
Because at the heart of Spider-Man's revolutionary appeal in the early '60s was the fact that this was a comic-book about entering puberty. Pretty much every aspect of the strip locked together to produce a kaleidoscopic portrayal of the horrors and promise of adolescence, and even those elements of the strip which served the metaphor less precisely, such as the many and inventive super-villains, were informed by it and strengthened it in return. (Another argument about what makes Spider-Man "special" has always been the appeal of his distinctive rogues gallery. Again, I'm convinced that Spider-Man would have been successful with anybody's rogue's gallery, though the one he has undoubtedly been a significant advantage to his success.)
And so, any attempt to isolate the personal qualities which supposedly defined Peter Parker and Spider-Man particularly in the first few years of his existence, and which are assumed to be essential to that character's success, miss the point. For to replicate those qualities while failing to maintain the central metaphor of adolescence is the equivalent of deciding that "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is all about the guitar solo, or "I Feel Fine" the feedback, or "Tomorrow Never Knows" the tape-loops. And the world is full of brilliant guitar parts, masters of feedback and excellent manipulators of technology that can replicate something of the force of the last track on "Revolver". But the truth is, all those songs would have been remarkable without their arrangements. The arrangements add value, they polish and enhance the melodies and lyrics, but they're not on their own why the Beatles were so preeminently excellent. (*4)
And if we merely abstract Peter's characteristics from the metaphor of adolescence, what we have is a perpetual loser, a clumsy boy-child, a social misfit despite his many fine qualities, a failure in the market-place despite his genius, a barely-successful serial monogamist despite his obvious excellent heart. Separate the adolescent qualities from the adolescent metaphor and Peter Parker becomes a contradictory impossibility.
Nobody that bright and able can be a failure.
Nobody that kind and empathetic can fail to maintain successful and lasting relationships.
Making the adolescent Peter Parker the adult Peter and giving him most if not all of the same qualities while placing him in comparable situations to his youth may seem to be an example of change, of allowing Spider-Man to grow up, but it's actually the opposite. For not only is the original metaphor of adolescence shattered, but the adult Peter becomes a failure. What is understandable in a young boy such as Peter, with his whole life ahead of him, is almost contemptible in the adult Mr Parker. And whereas I will happily sit by and watch Peter struggle with learning how to be an adult while in High School, there's something which until recently I couldn't name in me that rebels against engaging with a Peter who grew up and learnt very little from all that unhappiness.
How can Peter Parker have grown up to be the perpetual loser, despite his brilliance, his power, his achievements, his friends, and his splendid good nature? That's not endearing. That's nonsensical, and I suspect strongly that it creates an unseen but significant narrative drag on the character's appeal. There's a reason why we're constantly talking about who Spider-Man is and how he should be portrayed. We've all misidentified the "irreducible minimum", and we've ended up with the equivalent of a Batman who's utterly free of the trauma of his parent's death.
(*4) Yes. of course I chose the relatively less-substantial songs to make the point. What, do you think that I load the dice in favour of my own arguments? For shame ....
5. The Adolescent Metaphor, And Why It Shouldn't Be Messed With
I. After all, it's not as if we're utterly unfamiliar with the point of view that the early Spider-Man was all about being an adolescent. We know how that fabulously appropriate costume, for example, is a brilliant metaphor in itself for how puberty provides both enhanced physical capacities and the disturbing sense of being something of an alien in one's own body. We're aware that the costume describes the sense of fearful difference arriving in pre-pubescence, being somewhat creepy and disturbing when Spider-Man is in a state of rest. And we also recognise that the costume, which is at it's most impressive when Spider-Man is in motion, speaks to us about how the very onset of those alien qualities brings with it strength and power and possibility of freedom. And as with the costume, of course, so with Mr Parker's powers, which are at the same time unsettling and enviable, familiar and exotic.
But the costume and the powers are surface elements. They don't define the essence of Spider-Man so much as the visual appeal of him at any one moment. (And this is why it's been possible to change them both to one degree or another over the years without the character disappearing from the fan's affections.) For there's something far more fundamental and essential to "Spider-Man", and the appeal and influence of those early Lee/Ditko stories, and it's something that is on occasion quite forgotten in flaming wars and creator manifestos. And we can trace this hidden but fundamental "Spider-Man" when we look beyond the visual tropes and focus on how precisely weighed the narratives were in those early stories, where every glorious advantage that his super-powers brought Peter Parker were counter-balanced by emasculating and counter-balancing disadvantages. Peter Parker was forever caught between longing for the security and routine of his lost childhood family life and striving to establish himself as an adult able to control the circumstances of his own existence. And he could never achieve either of those ambitions. His strange newfound physical maturity has yet to grant him significant advantages while it had already shattered the safety and security of his past. And until the end of their run, when Lee and Ditko permitted Peter to graduate and become something of a ladies' man, which caused much of the essential and informing tension to bleed away, Spider-Man could never escape from the Chinese water-trap that is the very stuff of early adolescence. The more Peter strove to belong, the more his changed nature accentuated his difference. The more he tried to put his past behind him and build a new life, the more every single step forward brought him at least another step back. This marvellously intricate latticework of opportunity and restraint, power and impotence, gave Spider-Man its' emotional power. The Lee and Ditko Spider-Man appealed to adolescents and to those who remembered adolescence because every part of the strip, from design to theme to metaphor and narrative, trapped Peter Parker in that no-man's land between child and man, safety and freedom, permanency and potentiality.
It's that narrative balancing act explaining that specific metaphor which made Spider-Man so unique and so effective. And when that perfect foundation was operationalised by the story-telling, was wonderfully brought to life by the design and the artistry and the wordsmithery, then we got "Spider-Man". The Spider-Man.
And then, when new elements such as a self-deprecating humour and the beginnings of social competence were introduced gently into the strip, the underlying structural latticework shifted and compensated for the change and the whole strip retained it's relevance and elegance and force.
But remove the metaphor and leave the secondary characteristics in place, and all you get is the illusion of change and yet another costumed acrobat. Worse yet, you get a loser of a lead character, and Steve Ditko was right about Peter Parker being somebody who shouldn't be anything other than the master of his own destiny when he enters adulthood. That's the whole point of Spider-Man, I'd argue, to show how adolescence is the crucible in which good folks such as Peter Parker learn to overcome their biology and their situation and their natures in order to take some significant measure of control over their destinies.
If Peter Parker went through Uncle Ben's death and Aunt May's suffering, if he persevered through the terrifying challenges of being Spider-Man while maintaining his academic progress, if he lost Betty and Gwen and Harry and just about everyone else, then it has to be for something, or all that counts for nothing. He has to learn and move on, and win. Because Peter was obviously never going to be an adult loser. He was just learning to be a boy when he was first bitten by that radioactive spider, and we loved him for it. And in the worst of circumstances, we could see that there was hope for him, even if he couldn't recognise it for himself, and so consequently there was hope for us too. Circumstances could be learnt from, situations could be mastered and overcome.
But an adult Peter Parker who retains most of the qualities of the powerless, bullied, isolated youth? Wouldn't that be a sign that Peter didn't learn from his experiences, and that he really was the loser he always feared he was?
II. Consider, if you would, how every advantage of becoming Spider-Man brought Peter Parker an equal and opposite disadvantage;
- Peter gains awesome power, but at the cost of the death of his Uncle Ben and the health, both physical and mental, of his Aunt May.
- Peter is forced into becoming the head of the household long before he is mentally and financially capable of doing so, but at the same time he must defer to the authority of his Aunt and bear the burden of deceiving her when it appears to him to be necessary.
- Peter's powers allow him to fight the good fight, but they can't be used to secure either his families' well being or his own independence for fear of exposing himself to the vengeance of his opponents and the strain on his Aunt's health.
- Peter can contribute to society, and indeed to the constant saving of society, but only at the cost of being loathed by much of the public at large, including large swathes of the police force. He seems doomed to forever be the "changing" man, remarkable and useful, but different and unappreciated.
- Peter's powers allow him to capture photographs of himself in action which he can sell to The Daily Bugle, but their use will only further incriminate him on the eyes of the general public.
- Peter's growing vitality and potency allows him to attract the opposite sex, but - with Betty Brandt, Mary Jane and Gwen Stacey - his commitment to fighting the good fight and protecting his identity fearfully prevents him for developing a mature and trusting relationship with the women in his life in case they discover who he really is.
- In essence, Peter is undoubtedly unique and special, but he can't yet lastingly and substantially harvest the reward for that. And because he's never - obviously - been through adolescence before, he can't believe that the torment will ever be over and his virtues and gifts recognised. He's caught in the tyranny of the unresolved moment.
- And therefore Spider-Man is the escape for Peter Parker, and Peter Parker is the escape for Spider-Man, and neither identity, not powerful man or hesitant boy, can protect our hero from dealing with the changes he's going through.
III. Consequently, "Spider-Man" retained its greatest measure of potency when Peter Parker was never permitted to gain enough advantage to turn his back on his past and move on. With one foot in the old home and another sticking to the wall of Manhattan's great skyscrapers, Peter Parker was trapped, neither a child nor a man. Able to punch his weight in costume, but unable to punch Flash Thompson. Able to attract, but not fulfil. Always becoming and never quite being. We could love him for his weaknesses, because they were symptoms of his passing situation rather than qualities he'd never overcome. No wonder we cheered when he hauled himself free of tons of crushing debris, no wonder we retained a sense of dread whenever he'd apparently won a great victory. No wonder we cared so.
6. A Very Brief Digression: On His Villains
I've mentioned how Spider-Man's rogues' gallery has always been seen to be one of the major reasons for his great and lasting success, and I've mentioned that I'm sure that, as long as the original metaphor is maintained, Peter Parker could be fighting garbage-men and building inspectors and he'd still enthrall us, albeit not nearly as much as if Dr Octopus was charging at him all arms a-clacking. But, again, there's absolutely no doubt that the majority of the protagonists that Spider-Man faced in his golden age were utterly appropriate to the maintenance of the adolescence metaphor, and that their presence greatly enhanced it even if they weren't essential to its' functioning. For example, the super-villains Peter Parker fought were usually;
- Adults, and powerful adults too, examples of what would likely happen to Peter Parker if he avoided his responsibilities in the present day while trying to grow up. (This covers the demagogue J Jonah Jameson and the Crime-Master too, for, though lacking in super-powers, they're definitely examples of power acting without responsibility.)
- Obvious symbols of the often unfair and constricting demands that the adult world can apply to its' "trainee" almost-members, since those villainous characters were insistent on using their advantages to obtain their own satisfactions without interest in the needs of any others.
- Scientists who'd screwed up or surrendered to self-interest, providing a clear and illuminating contrast to Peter Parker's attempts to do his best in his own chosen career-path.
- Examples of catastrophic bodily change, just as Peter was, though his antagonists were individuals who'd chosen to grasp the "with great power" segment of Spider-Man's motto while ignoring the "comes great responsibility" part.
7. Even When He Wins, He Wins, Because We've Forgotten The Whole Point
I. And this is why all attempts to recreate the original shocking power of the first run of Spider-Man's existence have failed. Oh, there have been fine takes on Spider-Man, beginning with John Romita's splendid run. But much of the pleasure to be derived even from Mr Romita's romantic rendition of Spider-Man was the thrill of seeing the constantly-thwarted and lonely hero becoming a romantic lead. It was such a relief, and offered something of a promise to a generation of comic book readers that they too might one day be fought over by the two most beautiful women in College. But compared to what Steve Engelhart once called the "strangeness" and "darkness" of the Ditko years, the Romantic years were an thinner brew, and these short-term victories for Peter were soon bleed of their pleasure. Like a ruptured dam, the original force of the relief from the tension of the Lee/Ditko years soon subsided as the strip founds it's level as a superior but typical superhero strip. And Peter went from tortured to whinging, and many of us wondered, except in the aftermath of Gwen Stacey's death, what the hell he had to whine about.
For I wouldn't have wanted to be the Peter Parker in the Lee/Ditko years, up until # 27 or so, but I'd have had no qualms in opting to be any Peter Parker from those days onwards. Problems? What problems? The advantages of being Peter Parker have since 1965 slowly increased until I just want to clip him over the ear and tell him to grow up.
Compassionate, intelligent and beautiful women love you, Peter!
You have incredible super-powers, Peter!
You're a genius, Peter!
You're an Avenger and despite problems with the public's opinion, you're respected by some of the finest people your world has ever know!
Grow up, Peter Parker. Grow up!
Or rather, stop letting Peter Parker grow up in such an inappropriate, counter-productive way.
II. Peter Parker and Spider-Man will never be returned to their most affecting state in the Marvel Universe until the strip's original metaphor is substantially reconstituted or brilliantly recast. But if, for example, a team of creators decide to accentuate an adult Peter Parker's romantic failings, they merely create a hard-luck hero. But Peter Parker was never a hard-luck hero in its most banal sense. The lack of romantic satisfaction was never a marker of Peter Parker's true and lasting nature. In fact, any reading of even the earliest Spider-Man tales will reassure the reader that in time Peter was undoubtedly going to blossom into a well-loved and successful man. Peter's problems aren't intrinsic to being Peter. They're being Peter in a Jock-dominated school during his adolescence. He's a lovely bloke. He was always going to win the love of a Gwen or a MJ.
He's better than you and I. He's Peter Parker. And just because most of us comic book readers, of whatever gender and sexual orientation, struggled at one time or another to establish ourselves in the dating game, it doesn't mean that we should seek some validation and solace in Peter Parker's eternal failure. And that is especially true since the constant sense of failure that's been grafted onto the adult Peter Parker's psyche is entirely illusionary. As Dan Slott has Johnny Storm tell Peter in the excellent "Spider Man: Human Torch - I'm With Stupid" TPB;
"How can just one guy have it all? To grow up and have someone like your Aunt May there, to be this big hotshot photographer, to have a brain the size of Mr Fantastic's, and the babes! The girl's I've seen you with! God I've always envied you!"
But we fanboys and fangirls - and fanboys-and-fangirls-turned-creators - do want it all, don't we? We want a Peter Parker whose failures make us feel better for our short-comings, and we also want the Peter Parker who's super-successful so we can live out our hopeful fantasies through his success. But making Peter a simultaneously hapless adult loser and world-class adult winner destroys much of the entire bedrock of the Lee/Ditko metaphor. Peter was never going to grow up into a loser. He was bright and kind, trustworthy and inventive, loyal and decent. He was always going to be somebody's loving and well-loved husband and probably the boss of a great deal of people. We must all know in our hearts that loser-adult Peter would truly be a failure, a denial of the considerable measure of potential that was only sharpening and deepening while his adolescence progressed. And so the story of Peter Parker isn't about a lovable looser. It's about the period when he had to learn and learn again how - yes - "with great power comes responsibility".
And that's why the present-day take on Peter Parker never quite succeeds in defining the character in the way the Lee/Ditko Peter did. Because if you take that adolescent tension out of Spider-Man, then you have to work forever to make a boy who was destined to be winner become a loser. Which is why Spider-Man eventually ended up married up to Mary-Jane, I would suggest. It wasn't a betrayal of the character. It was the logical, even necessary culmination of Peter Parker's life-story.
7. However, On Uninventing The Wheel
Let's suspend our better judgement and make-believe that there's some truth in what I've written above. How then might an editorial/creator team discharge their "stewardship" role with "Spider-Man" while maintaining and hopefully increasing sales?
- Perhaps they might choose to focus on the original metaphorical power of Spider-Man's first run, lock the character in a perpetual adolescence, and try to maintain the integrity of the metaphor and the intricacy and balance of the win-and-don't-win narrative. But this would require the utmost editorial restraint and the most ingenious and able creators in order to hold the line while still crafting entertaining stories. It's the toughest call of all.
- Or they might decide to focus themselves on the task of developing a different metaphor which reflects a later transition point in Peter Parker's life. This is quite different from deciding that the contradictions in Peter Parker's character which were the product of adolescence should simply be picked up and dropped into a latter stage of his life.
- Or their could be a collective shrugging of collective shoulders and the maintenance of a perpetual kiddiehood for Peter, however old he's supposed to be in whatever superhero universe he inhabits, where he's the adorable and yet unlucky handsome, genius, super-powered loser. It's a kind of join-the-dots Spider-Man, almost a post-modern way of assembling a super-hero mainstay. But a bumper, a music system and a retractable roof don't a sports-car make, and the problem with Post-Modernism is that it's all surface and no depth; Spider-Man is not simply the sum of his costume, his powers, his jokes, and his failures.
I. What's most remarkable about Mr Bendis's current take on a teenage Spider-Man, as shown in "The New World According To Peter Parker", is how substantially it diverges from the framework of the Lee and Ditko ur-text. It may not immediately look like it does, but it really does. It sails off in a direction that's never been attempted by any creative team on Spider-Man before. And it doesn't so much ignore the irreducible minimum that I speculate about above as change the whole foundation of the character's existence so as to create a new irreducible minimum of its' own. Now, all of the above is not a statement that heralds a grand good kicking being aimed in Mr Bendis's direction for revisionism, for I'm well aware that this is the 21st century and that there's far more ways than one to skin this particular cat. (In fact, that's the point of this whole piece.) And what has caught my attention and refused to let it stop turning over is how this reboot of the Ultimate Spider-Man is a far, far more radical take on Peter Parker and his life than I've ever seen. It's an absolutely revolutionary departure from the past, and I'm surprised that it's not been more written about in that light. (*5) This is different.
Which is of course undoubtedly necessary. For where Mr Lee and Mr Ditko piloted Spider-Man's destiny for around 41 issues, including annuals, Mr Bendis has almost reached 150 issues of his take's career. (*6) Given that the intention seems to have always been to keep the Ultimate Spider-Man as a teenager, clearly differentiating that take on Peter Parker from the "original" in the Marvel Universe proper, the problem of how to develop the book when it could never be developed too far, too swiftly, must have been a challenging and gradually-deepening one. And since "Ultimate Spider-Man" can't just have the character graduate and weave on into an uncertain and perhaps-dysfunctional future, it makes perfect sense for the world-changing "Ultimatum" cross-over to be put to use to establish a new status quo in the relatively-new Peter Parker's life.
(*5) Either it has been written about and I've missed it, in which case I'm sorry, or it hasn't been written about because I've got it wrong, in which case I'm sorry. (*6) These are approximate figures. I'm sorry about them too.
II. Perhaps I might be forgiven for touching again on some of the points I outlined above in order to compare what Mr Bendis has done with his adolescent Peter Parker with what Mr Lee and Mr Ditko did in what I've called Spider-Man's golden period.
- From the very first appearance of Spider-Man in "Amazing Fantasy" # 15, Peter Parker was been forced to assume much of the responsibility of the head of his household. Mr Bendis has quite deliberately and successfully taken another path for "his" Peter Parker here. In "Ultimate Spider-Man", Aunt May is fit and well and unbroken by fate, and she has no need for Peter to protect her from the world in any shape or form, emotionally or financially. As she says to Peter when he expresses his unease at his Aunt taking in stray super-heroes into their home; "You need to be Spider-Man. I need to do this. I've learned .... I need to help ... the way I can." She has a purpose beyond mothering Peter to help her rebuild her life after her husband's death. And so immediately the fundamental difference between the original Peter, who I argue was profoundly not designed for change, and this Peter becomes howlingly obvious. This Peter doesn't have to crucify his public standing for spare change, doesn't need to protect his Aunt's heart from his super-powered identity, and would be quite insane to try to assume authority over Aunt May. And so this Spider-Man is in no way the precise metaphor for the early stages of adolescence. This Spider-Man is a character who is undergoing adolescence, but it's passing and he's learning as he goes. Which is a sensible technique for Mr Bendis to adopt. To keep writing about a Peter Parker perpetually frozen in that moment between boyhood and manhood would quickly run the risk of degenerating into nine-tenths technical exercise. Maintaining the lattice of frustration and promise which Lee and Ditko raised would surely be stifling for any modern creator over a decade of story telling, and anyway, modern teenagers face a somewhat different set of challenges. So, this is a Peter who can change, and undoubtedly will. Yet, by changing one of the fundamental pillars of the early-adolescent metaphor, Mr Bendis has inevitably changed the whole nature and direction of the strip. And as with all change, there is a cost for this, and perhaps it's a necessary cost, but it's there. And we'll come to it in a few short paragraphs.
- Whereas the first Peter Parker was apparently doomed to be the perpetual outsider, the Bendis Peter Parker is actually the opposite. This Peter Parker is utterly adored. This is perhaps the most popular character ever presented in a comic book short of Starfox on a "love-me" jaunt. Captain America may be revered, Superman practically deified, but this Peter is universally adored. Women love him: Gwen Stacey, Mary-Jane and - possibly - Kitty Pryde all think he's the absolute knees of the bee. His aunt knows about his Spider-Man identity and grants him validation there. His school principle has developed, as a result of the recent flooding of NYC, a serious case of respect for his heroic virtues as well as his academic potential. Johnny Storm looks up to Peter, Sue Storm is overwhelmingly respectful and grateful to Peter, hugging him tearfully and declaring; "I'm glad you're OK. You're such a great guy." And in fact, we never see Peter alone unless he's flipping burgers in his dead-end job, for the only person who doesn't seem to adore him is his boss, who, since he's an overweight know-nothing who ignores his own rules, obviously doesn't matter anyway. This is a Peter Parker who has already passed through the membrane between early-adolescence isolation and mid-adolescent acceptance, if not unqualified bliss. In fact, if Peter has any problems in the Bendis world, it's in getting some time to himself. He's only afflicted by having two other male teenage super-heroes sharing his home. In a sense, he's become John-boy from the Waltons, the good example whom the rest of the children in the family look up to, despite feeling somewhat weighed down by his responsibilities at times. ("Good night, Johnny!" "Good night Peter!" "Goodnight Bobby!")
- And if we narrow our focus from Peter's social relations to the previously-fraught arena of romantic and sexual affairs, here we have an explicit acknowledgement of what was always obvious and yet strangely ignored in the text of Spider-Man from the John Romita days onwards: this Peter is an absolute winner with women. There's little hesitancy here, little fear, and relatively little doubt. Everybody loves Peter! He may not be equipped with the self-confidence of a smalltown stud, but that's effectively what he is. And even if future issues see him losing one or both of the current main rivals for his heart, as the mechanics of soap opera narratives surely demand, then he'll never return to being the loser that he was in the days of Lee and Ditko. Clive James is quite right to remind us that every man becomes a virgin again after he's lost a lover, but there's a universe of experience between a boy who's only dabbled in relationships and one who has been effectively, if somewhat surreptitiously, shacked up with Gwen Stacey for several months. Peter knows alot more about how women smell than just the perfume on their necks or the shampoo on their hair. He's crossed the Rubicon and no-one can ever take his potency as anything other than having being spectacularly established, as indeed we might indeed expect from a handsome young man who's built like a Olympic gymnast.
- And then there's Spider-Man himself, who, to his own bemusement, has become exceptionally popular with the citizenry of New York City. Which is a logical idea, and draws off how the respect for NYC's emergency services soared after 9/11. It's amusing to watch Spider-Man continually assume that he's going to get the blame for whatever robbery he's discovered trying to thwart. (Has there ever been a super-hero so familiar with adversity that its' absence only communicates itself to him as the cruel calm before an awful storm.) This is Spider-Man as the people's champion, as the openly-valued colleague of NYPD "Captain Franky". This is, in fact, the Marvel Universe's version of Superman, or at least, the original Superboy. We love him, they love him, who doesn't love him? Well, certainly not his superhuman friends from the neighbourhood, congregating together in the wake of Magneto's flooding of NYC. In fact, what we essentially have here is a team-book, Spider-Man and his Amazing Amazing Friends, with Kitty Pryde standing in for Firestar and Johnny Storm on a season-long loan from the major leagues. And Spider-Man is apparently their leader.
8. But The Jeopardy, Captain Stacey? What About The Jeopardy?
I. The advantages of this new set-up are so manifest and many that it'd take a very long time to list them, and I promise that I won't do so obsessively. For Mr Bendis has, with one single bound lent to him by "Ultimatum", created a soap-opera set-up which can be used to endlessly create and resolve conflict. The constraining loneliness of the Lee/Ditko years, where Peter's interactions with others existed only to stress his isolation and his conflicting responsibilities, are replaced with a far broader range of personal connections. And if "Ultimate Spider-Man" is still to be the "entry-level" book for the Ultimate Universe, then this set-up is fit-for-purpose; there's an easy-to-grasp "family" core to the book, and there also a great set of linkages to the rest of the Ultimate Universe.
And so Mr Bendis has done what all able writers do when they're committed to a protracted stay on a property. He's created a situation which generates the potential for considerable conflict - both personal and "super-heroic" - while constructing a stage for action which is specific and constrained enough to remain distinct within the panoply of other associated books.
But at what cost?
II. What's most odd for me about "The New World According To Peter World" is, firstly, the lack of purpose in the life of Peter Parker, and, secondly, the lack of jeopardy in Spider-Man's life. Because in the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man, Peter Parker's desperate and inadequate efforts to carve himself out a place in his life - where he was the only authority of what happened to him - was always a considerable strain and never resolved. And in that struggle, every aspect of his experience was dangerous. Catching a cold was dangerous. Visiting the school lockers was dangerous. Tearing his costume was dangerous. Even doing everything he could to avoid trouble inevitably brought trouble straight to his door.
So the metaphor and the theme and the narrative all coalesced into a structure which meant that that poor Peter Parker was perpetually at risk and we were always worried for him. And that wasn't because he was a lovable loser so much as he was a decent bloke who lived directly underneath a permanent cloud of pure, 100% dread.
But if we were to ask ourselves what it is that Mr Bendis's Peter Parker wants, well, it seems that he just wants to be left alone a little bit more. There's no dread hanging over him, and very little jeopardy. He just feels a little crowded in his Aunt's home, though it isn't that he minds so much the new boarders as he wants his measure of space free from them. Similarly, he wants to be free of the responsibility of being nice to the customers at the Burger Frog and pleasant to his idiot of a boss. In fact, since Peter has nothing but the most mundane of everyday problems left to deal with, bar the uncomfortable dreams he suffers as the consequence of the tidal wave which took out NYC, there's a danger that he's gone from tragic all the way down to peevish. He simply seems somewhat stand-offish and almost selfish at times. In the scenes of his sulking at his job, for example, I so wanted to reach into the panels and say to him that it isn't usually the customer's fault that Peter Parker needs to flip burgers, and that it isn't fair to them to be surly and unhelpful. Of course, I'd have no problem with Johnny Storm acting like that, because the young Johnny is surly and unhelpful, but the original Peter Parker never was to that degree. Still, a change in the structure means a change in the effect; perhaps this Peter isn't going to grow up as well-adjusted-despite-his-demons as the Lee/Ditko one seemed destined to.
And what of Spider-Man? Unexpected and dangerous super-villains, on the evidence of these six issues, don't seem to shake Peter very much either. Even Mysterio, the antagonist of these issues, isn't a source of considerable jeopardy to Spider-Man. Yes, he's powerful. He murders the Kingpin and he's only prevented from killing Spider-Man by the appearance of Kitty Pryde, who's been rather obviously positioned in the narrative as a mysterious supposedly-new Super-Hero in the neighbourhood. But separated from the metaphor which organised and drove the Lee/Ditko stories, Mysterio is just another superbaddy here. He doesn't symbolise anything except himself, unless it's some vague sense of change he's supposed to embody. In fact, he doesn't seem to particularly frighten or anger Peter at all, and even when Spider-Man is lying prone before Mysterio, there's not a sense of a terrified hero facing his doom. And so, why should we care very much either? We've seen thousands and thousands of supervillains and their long monomaniacal monologues detailing their world-conquering plans. A super-villain operating according to a super-villain's typical designs isn't anything remarkable, particularly when even the comic's hero is pretty unfazed by the whole affair.
Which would be fine, if somewhat dull, if the intention of the books was to replace the metaphor of adolescence with one concerning the mundane nature of everyday social reality. But I don't that's what's at work here. I think Mr bendis is recasting the original situation laid down in the Lee/Ditko books to create new narrative options, as he always has in the Ultimate Universe. But I don't think there's much evidence that he's replaced the original and so-powerful metaphor with an equally forceful and unifying one of his own. He's given himself new plot options, but he's just meddling with the super-structure and not the base.
And consequently, even in the Ultimate Universe, Spider-Man has become just another young, learning-on-the-job super-hero, surrounded by lots of other super-heroes, facing nothing more scary than yet-another-super-villain and the strains of having lots of women attracted to him, a dull job at Burger Frog, and a few too many super-people bedding down at his place.
III. It's not that I'm immune to the skillfully created sense of fun that Mr Bendis's scripts create. And there can never be enough comics free of faux-angst as far as I'm concerned. So let me make sure that I'm being honest and fair here. This is a highly competent, well-crafted book. It's decent in its' morality, clever in how its' scenario can generate future stories, and useful as a gateway title to the Ultimate Universe. If I had a child, from 4 to 47, I'd happily buy this for them, and I'll be pleased to find the follow-up volume in my local library for myself.
It's a superior super-hero comic, and an entertaining version of a super-hero called Spider-Man. And it's a very good take on that Spider-Man indeed.
But it's not Spider-Man. It's not strange and unique, it's not saturated with dread and captivating and heartwarming despite of and because of that.
It's a Spider-Man. It's not the Spider-Man.
Because the central problem still hasn't been solved. How can that original metaphor be replicated or replaced while preserving the uniquely odd mixture of "scary" and "uplifting" that powered the original Lee/Ditko version?
Can it be?
Or have I made that whole stupid metaphor business up ...
I've been captivated and on occasion perplexed by the story-telling tecnniques exploited by Brian Michael-Bendis in this trade paperback. I hope that you might join me soon to have a look at these in another TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics piece. Aside from that, thank you for dropping in and, regardless of how it might sound like something Peter Parker is compelled to say while serving at the Burger Frog, I hope you have a fine day.