Thursday, June 3, 2010

A Close Call for Spider-Man

My subscription to Amazing Spider-Man expired a couple of months ago. At first I meant to renew it as a matter of course, but ... well, one thing led to another and I didn't get around to renewing it for a couple of months.

And what worried me was that I didn't feel any particular urgency about it.

Now, you have to understand that Spidey and I go way back. I may not have been around when he made his debut in 1961, but I do remember reading old Spider-man comics in the early 1970s at one of our neighbors' houses when a friend's older brothers would let us into their comic book stash. You see, there was a lot about Peter Parker that I could relate to and respect as a character, and by the late 70s I was hooked in an addiction that would carry me pretty steadily all the way through until the early 90s.

By then I was moving around a lot and pretty broke, and Spidey was entering the second or third year of the incredibly overgrown "Clone Saga." (The Clone Saga was originally a six-issue storyline that got stretched far too thin over something like fifty episodes because it was selling well.) So, at some point in the early 90s I lost track of Spidey for five or six years. But eventually I hopped back on the bandwagon towards the end of the decade via subscription and have been reading pretty consistently for the last dozen or so years.

The best run is still the first ten years or so and probably climaxed with the death of the Green Goblin in issue #122. That run was mostly written by Stan Lee and illustrated first by Steve Ditko (issues 1-38) then by John Romita, Sr. with help from a few other well known comic artists, including John Buscema and Gil Kane. I hopped on board a few years later, around the time that Spidey's greatest foes list had devolved from the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus to the Rocket Racer and the Hypno Hustler.

Ahhh, the Hypno Hustler, Supervillain King of the Disco Era.

But I digress. The point here is that Spidey during the time I've followed him has had a few great issues, a few truly terrible issues, and mostly a vast sea of decent-to-good issues. As a flagship comic there are usually some pretty talented writers and artists working on Amazing Spider-Man. However, since Spidey is a flagship character, he tends to appear in a lot of other series and special event comics, which sometimes causes his own comic to be a bit of an afterthought. And a few times Spidey has been re-launched or re-imagined with some new creators and a slightly new direction. But for the most part I've truly enjoyed the ride with ol' Peter Parker as he's tried to learn how to make the best use of the proportionate strength and speed of a spider.

For a long time there were three monthly Spider-Man comics, Amazing Spider-Man and two others from a lineup that over the years has included Marvel Team-Up, Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man, and a handful of others with similar names. A few years ago Marvel combined them all into a single comic that came out three times per month, which was fine with me. The old three-different-comics method kind of meant that you were following three different stories at the same time, so it was always slightly disjointed to have to jump from one storyline to another as each comic came out. So making it one comic the same frequency as all three made a lot of sense to me. As it's played out, you tend to have some of the same disjointed effect as you move from writer and artist to writer and artist, but most of the writers and artists are on the book for three- or four-issue arcs and at least it's consistent within a single month.

But somehow, when it came time to renew this time I just didn't feel the urgency to make sure that I didn't miss an issue. And for a while I couldn't put my finger on what it was. But then it came to me.

You see, the reason I stayed on the ride all these years was that it felt as if the ride was going somewhere. And to me that was always the great strength of the Marvel comics over the DC comics. Superman and Batman have generally been the same guys all along, especially in terms of their secret identities. Yes, Superman eventually married Lois Lane and Batman's cycled through a few Robins, but the Superman of seventy years ago was mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent by day while the Batman of seventy years ago used his image as dissolute millionaire Bruce Wayne to through everybody off the track.

But over in the Marvel universe, characters grew and changed. Heck, over in Fantastic Four the Invisible Girl became the Invisible Woman, married Mr. Fantastic, and they went on to have a couple of super-powered kids.

And Spidey? Well, first of all, he wasn't really Spidey. To me he was always Peter Parker, a guy who happened to be Spider-Man. And therein lies a considerable diffence. But beyond that, he was a character who was slowly growing and changing and trying to work his way towards becoming a better person. He graduated from high school; then went to college; then dropped out for a bit; went back; graduated from college; went to grad school; and eventually became a working stiff with a bit of a growing career. He had a first love that he lost tragically; then he dated around for a bit; then he found a great second love; married her; and they went on to have a great and challenging marriage with ups and downs. There was tragedy and triumph and a recognizable life, even within the context of a nighttime gig crawling on walls and swinging from webs.

And sure, all that happened at the speed of a 12-times-per-year comic for most of the run. But that story was going somewhere.

But then a few years ago Marvel decided that they needed to appeal to a younger demographic, and that the kids today just couldn't relate to a married guy. And so -- through a plot twist so ill-conceived that I won't even begin to explain it -- they wiped out the last 30 or so years of Peter Parker's life and sent him back to being a mostly unemployed and poor early 20s slacker.

And that broke something important. Peter Parker stopped being a character who learned and grew, and instead became a character frozen in time. And something was lost there.

I suppose it's a dilemna that faces almost any long-running fictional character. Either they go the route of Hercule Poirot and become increasinly elderly and fragile, or they stay as they were when they first blazed on the scene, eventually cramming hundreds of adventures into what could only be a year or two of time. And so, the kids of For Better or For Worse eventually grow up and have kids of their own, while good ol' Charlie Brown is still standing on his pitcher's mound, essentially the same age as when Sparky Schulz first drew him.

But darn it, that's why I cast my lot with Peter Parker. He wasn't trapped in amber like a fossilized insect. Be it ever so slowly, he was going someplace.

And now he's not. And maybe he never will.

It makes me a bit sad every time I open up a new issue of Amazing Spider-Man.

That's why I just didn't feel any urgency to renew my subscription. It now feels as if I'm not going to miss anything if I miss a few issues or a few months or a few years. I can hop right back in and Peter Parker will be exactly the same as he was when my subscription lapsed.

Oh, I re-upped my subscription for another year today. But I didn't make the call to Marvel because my Spider-Man subscription had lapsed. I made the call because my Fantastic Four subscription had lapsed. You see, unlike Peter Parker those characters are still growing and changing, albeit ever so slowly.

But while I was on the phone renewing my Fantastic Four subscription, I decided to give Spidey another year. Peter Parker's been a friend for a long time, and in the end I'm pretty loyal. But I'm really not sure I'll make the same decision next year. There are a lot of comics out there that I could read. I'm not sure I want to spend my money reading the same story again and again, even if I really liked it the first time I read it.

We shall see. But it feels as if I may be closer to the end of my Spidey days than the beginning.

P.S. There's a really good comic out there called Spider-Girl, or occasionally a variation thereof since it occasionally changes titles and has returned from cancellation several times thanks to its devoted following. It takes place in an alternate universe in which Peter Parker and Mary Jane are still married and have two kids. Peter has retired from web-swinging to become a crime lab technician and his teenage daughter May Parker picks up his web-shooters. It's odd, but in a lot of ways that has begun more and more to feel like the main Spider-Man comic to me, since that's the comic in which the characters that I remember are still growing and progressing.

P.P.S. And Stan Lee decided to keep the married Peter Parker in the Spider-Man newspaper strip. So if my newspaper still thought it was in the newspaper business and would deign to occasionally deliver a paper, I suppose I could find Pete there, too.


  1. Fascinating! Art is art, isn't it? And you can't break the fundamental rules without suffering loss of readers...

  2. Can I sell you a couple of comic books I bought off ebay a few months ago?