Sunday, July 5, 2015

Spider-Man Mythology: Murky Missed Opportunities

One of my favorite super heroes is Spider-Man.  The Amazing Spider-Man comic book originated in 1963 and Stan Lee and Steve Ditko took a 15-year-old kid and made him a household name around the world within 5 years.  After Ditko left the book, the great artist John Romita showed up and put his stamp on it, giving Spider-Man the legendary look and feel that many still associate with Spidey today.

Ditko Spider-Man:
 Romita Spider-Man:

However, I am not here to rant about the artwork.  (I love both.)  I want to talk about changes—specifically characters dying.  Change is good in a comic book.  Eras change, years change, clothes and hairstyles change.  No one says "daddio" anymore.  Cell phones and iPads are in and derby hats are out.

A pivotal moment in Spider-Man's life happens with the death of long-time girlfriend Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man #121.  The Green Goblin kills Gwen Stacy and this changed the tone of the books—in fact, many comic book fans consider this the moment that silver-age books went from silver age to bronze age.

Issue #121 is my favorite comic book of all-time.  The very next issue, the Green Goblin is killed.  The Green Goblin is Harry Osborn's dad, Norman.  Harry Osborn just happens to be Peter Parker's best friend.  So in two issues, back to back, we have Peter lose his girlfriend and the father of his best friend—and he had a hand in both of those deaths.  Brilliant stuff.  I love it. 

Instead of Spider-Man just battling robots and guys in long underwear, he becomes "real" at this point—he suffers loss and grows up from a teenager to a man.  Fans like me see Spider-Man as a "real" person (from a writing perspective, anyway).  There are real-life consequences.  It also helped that Peter Parker graduated high school, and eventually university, and then also moved around and wound up having a relationship with Mary Jane Watson.  Things change, just like in real life.  Peter Parker was different than Archie Andrews for example, who is stuck in timeless Riverdale with Jughead for 60 years.

Another key person in Peter Parker's life is Aunt May.  Remember, uncle Ben died in the very first Spider-Man story (in Amazing Fantasy #15) because Peter Parker didn't stop the bad guy when he had the chance.  From a writing perspective, Aunt May is Peter's lifeline to that other world and many storylines involve Peter trying to keep his aunt safe.

Aunt May dies in Amazing Spider-Man issue #400.

  This is a great issue.  It came out in 1995.  I highly recommend it.  At the end, Aunt May reveals that she knows that Peter is Spider-Man.  The writing is terrific.  It has heart and feels "real".  This marks the first time since 1974 that someone major in Spider-Man's life (really major, not just a supporting character) died.  From Gwen Stacy / Green Goblin in 1974 to 1995—for about 20 years, no one died.  Yes, super villains came and went, and Spidey donned the black suit, and characters were introduced, and Peter Parker even got married to Mary Jane Watson.  But no one died.  Marvel characters were becoming such important money makers that it is inconceivable that you could kill off a main character.  Between 1974 and 1995, Marvel characters were becoming like Disney characters—you couldn't throw Goofy off of a bridge, no matter how much we all want to.

Marvel was stuck in the mid-1990s now, because it is really tough to keep coming up with new story ideas.  How many stories had Spidey been in so far?
  • 400 Amazing Spider-Man stories
  • 100+ Spectacular Spider-Man 
  • 100+ Web of Spider-Man
  • 100+ Marvel Team-Up
  • 50+ "Spider-Man" stories (the Todd McFarlane series)
  • literally hundreds upon hundreds of cameos, Secret Wars, Infinite Wars, cameos, etc. 
What else can you do with this guy?  As a writer, it must have been torture to show up to work everyday.  One idea was to have Spider-Man / Peter Parker retire, and his old clone (from waaaay back in Amazing Spider-Man #149) not actually be dead. 

This idea was presented in the mid-1990s, and his clone was suddenly alive, called Ben (after good ol' uncle Ben) and he was a clone of Peter Parker, physically identical but living a separate life from issue #149 onward (so from about 1975 onward, or about 20 years).

Marvel premiered Ben with his own look and feel, calling him the "Scarlet Spider".    

I actually thought this was a cool idea.  Here's a guy who is Peter Parker, but not Peter Parker.  He doesn't have feelings for Mary Jane.  He might still love Gwen Stacy.  But the new guy has all the powers of Spider-Man.  From a writing perspective, I thought this was a fresh and new idea.  He could tangle with villains like Venom who knew Spider-Man (Peter Parker), but the new Spider-Man (Ben) wouldn't know who Venom was.  New Spider-Man would have missed the whole 1980s (Hobgoblin, Kingpin, Secret Wars, black alien suit, etc).  Again from a writing perspective, this would have opened up the floodgates to have 400 new stories over the next 20 years.  

You could also occasionally follow Peter Parker, who would be married to Mary Jane and maybe even crank out a kid or two.  Peter Parker with mini spider-kids?  Of course, the kids would be mutants, and have powers, and the next 50 years of stories would be ready to roll.  Jane the spider-daughter!  Come on man, this stuff is writing itself!

Marvel killed this whole idea within a couple of years.  In 1996, barely two years into having started the whole "clone" storyline, Peter Parker returned, rescued Ben and regained his role as the "rightful" one true Spider-Man. 

Really?  Instead of a true reboot, Marvel killed the one true opportunity to have fresh storylines for the next 20 years.  Understandable, but still disappointing.  In an even worse twist of fate, Marvel exposed the following: the Green Goblin never really died.   Norman Osborn was really alive all this time!  Come on man. 

So issue #122 (one of the hallmark, great landmark issues in all of comics) was totally cheapened.  Marvel would do the same sort of thing over the next 20 years.  Changes that were undone: 
  • Aunt May didn't really die.  It was a "fake death" with someone just pretending to be Aunt May lying in the hospital bed.  Aunt May was still alive, even though she is like 200 years old and always on the brink of dying.  Come on man! 
  • Mephisto popped up and took away Peter Parker's and Mary Jane's wedding.  He stole their love and Peter Parker wakes up as an unmarried guy with no memory of what happened.  I hate it when that happens.  Come on man! 
  • Spider-Man and the new Green Goblin battled in Spectacular Spider-Man #200.  The new Green Goblin was Harry Osborn, taking up the mantle of the evil Green Goblin.  Harry died in 1993 in a battle for Mary Jane, eerily similar to the Gwen Stacy death, on top of a bridge.  Awesome story.  Nope, Marvel undid that as well.  Time is "turned back" in a future storyline and Harry is now still alive. 
Peter Parker wound up dying in Amazing Spider-Man #700.  Finally, the end of the great run arrived, warts and all.   Dr. Octopus, who is dying, winds up switching bodies with Peter Parker, so Parker dies and Otto Octavius is now in a healthy Peter Parker body.


Cool cover at least.  Anyway, this ended the original Amazing Spider-Man run. Fans were outraged again.  Peter Parker was dead?  For a couple of years, the Superior Spider-Man ran around, which was really Dr. Octopus' mind stuck inside Peter Parker's body.  Of course, Marvel undid that change as well.  Peter Parker is back!

So that leads us back to this: 


We're back to the beginning, with a brand-new Amazing Spider-Man (which debuted in 2014).  He's 28 years old and the origin story has been "retconned" (basically rewritten) to include other people like Cindy Moon (who is she?  New character.)  The spider also bit someone else, so we have a female Spider-person as well. 

I'm all for changing characters, but this is getting convoluted, complicated and quite frankly, hard to follow.  If changes are constantly undone, then what's the point in following any of it?  

I'm not railing against Marvel or Spider-Man.  I love the Spidey.  And Marvel's in a bind—they can't kill off or change Spider-Man in any meaningful way, because he is their big money maker. 

From a strict writing standpoint, here is what I would have liked to have seen: 
  • Gwen Stacy dies in Amazing Spider-Man #121.  Never comes back. 
  • Norman Osborn dies in Amazing Spider-Man #122.  Never comes back. 
  • The clone survives in Amazing Spider-Man #149.  He does come back. 
  • Aunt May dies in Amazing Spider-Man #400.  For real. 
  • Harry Osborn dies in Spectacular Spider-Man #200.  For real. 
  • Peter Parker really does die in Amazing Spider-Man #700.  Maybe he sacrifices himself of something, but he's dead for real.  Never comes back. 
  • Ben (the clone) is alive renames himself Peter Parker and separates from Mary Jane (since he's not really married to her).  This gives the fans a Spider-Man and also gives us new characters, as Ben can meet other people and have a circle of new characters in his life.
It's frustrating that fans say that they want change, but then when actual change happens, people flip out and demand the old status quo.

It will be interesting to see how Marvel handles the increasing weight of years of storylines for Spider-Man.  Does he stay 28 years old forever?  Do we go through all this stuff again?  Do they even acknowledge the stuff that has happened over the past 50 years?  If you aren't going to acknowledge it, why not give him a big, grand meaningful death and find a new Spider-Man?  His son?  Daughter?  Bueller, Bueller?

The nice thing about comic books is that fans can read the old stories and pick a "starting point" and an "ending point", and we can mentally discard the stuff that we don't want to worry about.  Plus, it's all made up anyway, so hopefully no one takes any of this stuff too seriously.  After all, we are talking about a guy wearing pajamas who is punching a guy who looks like a rhino, a goblin or an octopus.