You could make a pretty convincing argument that Spider-Man is the only comic book character that makes more and more money the more the people in charge screw things up.
What’s interesting about this particular example of a large company Screwing Up A Good Thing (other than the fact that Spidey is still worth piles of money) is that, for the most part, the character really hasn’t been depicted in dramatically different ways. Sure, every once in a while you get the odd kid-show segment or glorified CG music video, but for the most part, the Spidey Checklist is always intact:
- Peter’s an orphan and total nerd no one wants to talk to (except for his super rich pal Harry Osborn)
- He gets bitten by a spider (I’m actually kind of surprised no one’s ever tried to change that one)
- Spider powers! No more glasses! Everyone realizes that Petey is a total babe!
- ”With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility”
- Uncle Ben dies
- He stays dead
- It’s Peter’s fault (unless you’re Spider-Man 3 or TheAmazing Spider-Man, in which case, stick around, I would have words with thee. )
- Parker wears tights and becomes the embodiment of Catholic guilt
- One of two probably-poorly-developed love interests gets thrown off a bridge and may or may not die/get lost in eternal limbo.
These are more or less constants every time Spider-Man shows up somewhere. I’m pretty sure they would have even included them all in that one breakfast cereal if it wasn’t prohibitively expensive to render all that in toasted rice.
Unlike, say, Batman, he’s never been “reinterpreted” or “reimagined” in-continuity—Spider-Man stories have been more or less tonally consistent. Spider-Man stories are, give or take a McFarlane or Millar, all-ages romps full of quips and derring-do and romantic hijinx and some mystery villain lurking in the background that we’re supposed to spend a decade wondering about before finding out who the hell they are.
Funny story: I actually love Spider-Man. He’s my favorite comic book character. I’m not going to defend that statement either. Instead, I’m going to point you to this absolutely incredible essay by Chris Sims that’s required reading for this course. Read it. Sims is a smart guy. I promise not to wander off or anything.
Now, whenever someone decides to make the claim that Spider-Man is the Best Superhero Ever And Batman Can Suck It (even when they’re as articulate as Sims, although that guy would never say Batman can suck it), people are bound to say pejorative things about your taste. But occasionally, someone will also present a Salient Point. Such as:
“If Spider-Man is arguably the best comic book character, wouldn’t he arguably have the best comic book stories? Where’s his Year One, his Dark Knight Returns, his Long Halloween? Does he have a Killing Joke?”
And by golly, you’d have a hell of a point.
Two facts about this list that make it relevant to our discussion. The first being that they’re all about a single character—Batman in this case. The second is that at least three of them (The Long Halloween just happens to be a personal favorite) aren’t just classic Batman stories, they’re widely considered Important Comic Books, ergo, Not Just For Fans. And if you want to argue that Batman has been around for thirty years longer than Spider-Man and that this isn’t really fair, I’m just going to remind you that all three of those books came out in the same decade and two of them were written by the same guy.
So, why doesn’t Spider-Man get this kind of love?
Sure, there are seminal Spider-Man comics—definitive moments that have anchored the way the character has been portrayed over the years. We’ll talk about those in a bit. But how many of them are widely considered important in the larger canon of comics as a whole? This is a hard thing to quantify, but I think we can narrow it down to just two: Amazing Fantasy #15, and The Night Gwen Stacey Died.
Both of these comics are pretty well-documented. Even a cursory glance at the Spider-Man wikipedia page will tell you why Spider-Man was such a hard sell in the 60s—teenagers were supposed to be sidekicks, spiders are gross, etc, etc. Amazing Fantasy #15 effectively sparked a whole new kind of superhero story, rooted in the teenage experience (you did read the Sims essay, right?). And then Amazing Spider-Man #121-122 is widely considered a watershed moment in mainstream comics—Gwen Stacey’s death roughly corresponds with the end of the Silver Age (there’s no real date for that) and completely changed the kind of stakes that a superhero comic could have.
That’s not to say that those are the only two Spider-Man stories worth reading. Far from it. There are so many—the entire first decade of Amazing Spider-Man is crazy good. But the best Spidey stories? They’re harder to recall or come by. There’s a very good reason for this, and it largely has to do with the way Peter Parker’s story has been described by its writers for years:
They call it a soap opera.
That’s not a bad thing, but it is instructive as to how Spider-Man stories have worked from ASM #1 until the present day. Unlike DC, whose first heroes were direct descendants of pulp serials which encouraged multi-part, self-contained adventures; the “younger” Marvel stable of characters embraced this sort of never-ending drama right from the get-go. And with Spider-Man, it was taken to a kind of extreme—Peter Parker initially ages shockingly fast. He graduates from high school and goes to college in something that’s remarkably close to real time. He has school troubles, then work troubles, meets women, and deals with shitty landlords. All while trying to be a super-hero.
There are loads of great stories there, but a lot of them are caught up in the context of the soap operatics—who's dating who, what’s Flash doing, which cast member has been missing a lot lately—Spider-Man stories were never really concerned with arcs. Today you’d probably have “WHO IS THE HOBGOBLIN??? PART 1 OF 37,” whereas then you’d have the Hobgoblin just intermittently show up and be mysterious for eight years until the powers that be deemed it appropriate to reveal his identity. That’s a much harder thing to wrap up nicely for a trade.
This environment made it difficult for a creator to come on board for a couple of issues and tell a unique story with a beginning, middle, and end. The earliest notable story of this nature was probably Kraven’s Last Hunt in 1987, and it was incredible. It also almost never happened—in a 2006 introduction for the collected edition, writer J.M. DeMatties says that he first conceived Kraven’s Last Hunt as a Wonder Man story, only to have it turned down and reimagined as a Batman story (twice!) before the story in its final form as a Spider-Man yarn began to take shape.
If you look at the covers for the comics that comprise KLH, you’ll notice that Marvel wanted to make it clear that this was something very different—a “six-part saga.” It even had a “conclusion.” And it was great! An actual, self-contained adventure about things like mortality and fear and humanity. That’s not to say a single issue of Amazing Spider-Man wasn’t capable of being about things—it’s just hard to accomplish that sort of intent when you’re trying to write a soap opera.
And it’s not like anyone didn’t want to give Spidey his own Year One or Dark Knight Returns. People tried all the time. Even as late as 2006—Remember Spider-Man: Reign? It was awful. And of the various mini series and the few, odd, graphic novels (Ever read Hooky?) none have really stayed with us. The only one that comes to my mind is Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Spider-Man: Blue, which happens to be my absolute favorite Spidey story that doesn't get nearly enough love in my opinion. But that’s about it.
None of that really matters when it comes down to dollars and cents, though. Spider-Man comics continue to sell incredibly well. But I worry. I worry that while it’s great that more and more people are being exposed to Peter Parker and his world, that stories set in it are more successful than they’ve ever been, I can’t help but feel like they’re starting to mean less than they ever did.
A lot of it had to do with the whole One More Day/Brand New Day continuity reset. If you’ve never read it, now’s a good time to check out Tom Brevoort’s Spider-Man Manifesto—just click here and scroll down a bit for the scan.
I could rage for a bit on why the whole document and rationale for BND sucks, but put simply, it’s because of this: Brevoort spends the entire essay repeatedly saying the creative team shouldn’t just tell stories like it’s 1962 and then proceeds to tell them to do exactly that.
Do you like it when characters grow and mature? That’s the worst, right?
In a Comics Alliance piece called “The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling” Chris Sims (the guy’s really insightful) argues that mainstream superhero comics have focused too much on what came before:
“What made Jack Kirby or Cary Bates or Alan Moore or Frank Miller so exciting wasn't what they were doing, but that they were doing things that hadn't been done before. Instead, we're in an industry right now that wants to constantly reset itself, running on nostalgia rather than innovation, moving backwards instead of moving forwards, and while I complain about it both often and at length, it seems to be what the majority of comics readers want, no matter how wrong-headed I think it is.”
That was written three years ago, and it's still relevant today. But things have changed in the past year, things that I’ve avoided mentioning until now.
It’s time to talk about Superior Spider-Man.
That means spoilers, of course.
Coming off of those last few paragraphs, you’d think I’d like Superior. It certainly addresses a lot of those points. But man, come on. Having Otto Octavius trap Peter in his dying body while he takes over Parker’s is straight up Silver Age silliness that would've been done and wrapped up in two issues, tops.
But let’s say I’m into it. Let’s call it an exciting new status quo, and buy into the idea of Peter’s mind perishing in Otto’s dying body in ASM #700 and that the last vestiges of Peter that remained in his own body were eradicated by Ock in Superior #9. Just because there’s a new Spider-Man movie coming out next year and that status quo has to be undone next summer doesn’t mean great stories can't come of this, right?
It should, yes. The desire is clearly there—writer Dan Slott seems to be very interested in what it’s like for a selfish person to inherit the legacy of a selfless person, and did a really interesting thing by painting Peter in a negative light when his struggle to regain control of his body put a girl’s life in danger (although I really don’t think that’s something Peter would do at all). It also gives the question of whether or not Otto actually deserves redemption some weight.
But Slott can’t stop writing characters that aren’t just a pastiche of Silver Age tropes. Sure, its entertaining—Superior Spider-Man is not boring. But Slott’s work since BND is also full of monologuing villains in Secret Lairs and Mad Science and LOADS of exclamation points! This can all be great fun—Slott can be great fun, just read his Spider-Man/Human Torch mini—but it all just seems like fast food by the time Dying Wish and Superior came around, stopping just shy of trying to say something.
You know, maybe I’d be okay with Spider-Ock just being the cliched evil genius type if it weren’t for Spider-Man 2. It’s too bad that movie gave us an Octavius that was sympathetic. It took a character that was nothing more than a ridiculous, sputtering mad scientist and turned him into someone with real pathos. Sure, on the page his final “I will not die a monster” line is hammy as hell, but in the hands of Alfred Molina it’s wonderful. But for some reason Spidey villains must remain caricatures (I would argue that most modern Spidey characters are caricatures, but this is long enough as it is). And so we have something that’s on the threshold of being compelling, but isn’t. And we already know it’s going to be null and void soon enough, so there really isn’t a whole lot of time left for a turnaround anyway.
But once again, it doesn’t matter much. Because financially, Spider-Man is making bank. Superior has been a top seller for its entire run. Actually, Spider-Man titles have been top sellers for most of the past ten years, but why? Take a look at some of the lists, at the titles that sold. It’s really hard to find a top-selling Spidey comic that isn’t tied to some larger event or marketing stunt—and ultimately, Spider-Man’s death and rebirth as Superior is just a marketing stunt.
It just isn’t sustainable. And Spider-Man’s mishandling isn’t exclusive to comic books. It’s lousy that a genuinely great, all-ages cartoon like The Spectacular Spider-Man gets cancelled to make room for something that feels so uninspired as Ultimate Spider-Man. And it’s even more lousy that it takes the name of the one consistently great modern portrayal of the character in comic books. Seriously, Ultimate Spider-Man is money, even now with Peter dead and Miles Morales wearing the webs.
God knows what the next Amazing Spider-Man film will be like, but if it isn’t good, there will be considerably less people willing to see a third. The last trilogy ended with a plot that totally undermines the character’s reason for existing (the cheesy dancing really wasn’t as big of a problem as everyone would have you believe) and the reboot started with one that ends with us scratching our heads and wondering, “Gee, didn’t Peter learn anything after all that?” And that’s before you start thinking about where a good thirty minutes of the film went. I wouldn’t sweat it, though, it would’ve probably been terrible.
And it doesn’t have to be this way. Not only have there been good takes on Spider-Man in recent memory, Marvel Comics as a whole are better than they’ve been in a long time. Daredevil is in the middle of a third acclaimed run. Hawkeye rules. Marvel Now! is full of some really good titles like Young Avengers or Thor or Iron Man. X-Men comics are having a field day. But Spider-Man? Nah.
One of the oft-cited reasons for Spider-Man’s immense popularity is that he’s the Everyman, the one that we could most relate to. But I’m not sure anyone cares about that anymore.
It’s been a long time since Spider-Man has looked or felt like anyone I know.