Spidey Turns Slacker?!

Great Power, Not So Much Responsibility

by Lana Cooper

7 April 2008

As Marvel Comics turns back the clock on Spider-Man, returning him to the struggling single life, questions erupt about the relationship of hero to audience.

It seems that no one is exempt from the current cultural phenomenon that “30 is the new 18”—not even Peter Parker and his alter ego Spider-Man. Thanks to a dramatic overhaul of the Amazing Spider-Man title’s continuity and a changing of the guard of the book’s scribe, Peter Parker is now a web-slingin’ single sans solid source of employment and taking up residence in dear, sweet Aunt May’s digs in a house that burned to the ground years ago.

The conclusion of a recent story arc entitled “One More Day”, which also marked the end of the run for long-time Amazing Spider-Man writer J. Michael Straczynski, backed over at least a decade of the title’s continuity. Apparently, this storyline had been in the works for some time as a means to dissolve Peter Parker’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson and get him back into the single life.

The break-up of Marvel’s most beloved couple was not the only point of continuity to be neatly retconed. Spidey’s organic web shooters reverted back to Parker’s more scientific roots, requiring him to make his own web fluid. Aunt May’s house was still standing, ready to house Peter in a room of his own once more. Spidey’s best and most dead friend, Harry Osbourne (son of the villainous Green Goblin, Norman Osbourne) came back from the dead—and rehab, to boot. Yet, the most beneficial aspect of continuity to be reset was that Spider-Man’s identity as Peter Parker was no longer public knowledge.

Prior to the “One More Day” storyline, nearly every existing Marvel Universe title was impacted by the expansive “Civil War” story that called for every costumed crusader to reveal his or her secret identity as part of the Superhuman Registration Act. With the “Civil War” storyline, many super heroes were willing to publicly out themselves to a society that viewed their powers as potentially dangerous in exchange for government benefits, training, and sanctioning. On the flipside, there were other heroes (led by Captain America) who saw this as a dangerous intrusion that would do more harm than good, putting them in the position of defying the government and other heroes who had joined this alliance and risking jail time for attempting to save citizens without a “license”.

Initially supportive of the Superhuman Registration Act and having disclosed his identity as Peter Parker, Spider-Man grew uneasy with the Act’s vilification of many of his former brothers-in-costumed-arms and defected. This led to Spider-Man being hunted by both the government and his own enemies.

Outing his true identity then allowed Spider-Man’s arch-nemesis, the extra-large crime boss Wilson Fisk—AKA - Kingpin—to put out a hit on him. The bullet instead hit Aunt May, sending Peter and MJ on the lam under false identities while simultaneously scurrying to get his comatose aunt medical care and staying with her in the hospital.

In an act of pure deus ex machina, the conclusion of “One More Day” rolled out with a Satan-like demon, Mephisto, offering Peter and MJ a deal. In exchange for Aunt May’s return to good health and for the public at large to forget that Peter Parker revealed his secret identity, Mephisto would turn back time to render the bonds of Peter and MJ’s holy matrimony to be non-existent. Mephisto benefits by getting his netherworldly jollies out of the fact that he’s busted up a union sanctified by his own holy nemesis upstairs. In fact, this arrangement negated Peter and MJ’s entire long-term relationship, including seriously dating. In order to save a life, the couple agreed to Mephisto’s deal and thereby pushed the easy reset button on a large chunk of the series’ continuity.

The currently running story arc, “Brand New Day”, picks up with Peter still in his mid-20s, the same age he was at the end of “One More Day”, yet lacking all of the life-changing responsibilities that he had accumulated prior to striking the bargain. He’s without a job, freelancing as a photographer for the Daily Bugle. His lack of finance is compensated for with a comfy room and home cooked meals provided by saintly Aunt May. He’s unmarried and playing the field while still managing to hold down a steady gig as everyone’s favorite friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Even more conveniently, no one remembers that Peter Parker outted himself as Spidey. Now, as the story arc is progressing, the government agency is hot on Spider-Man’s trail, insisting he kowtow to the Registration Act.

As sticky a situation as this is, it’s nowhere near the earth shattering decisions and danger Peter Parker and those closest to him were confronted with mere issues ago. He doesn’t even bear the emotional scars from the recent death of yet another father figure in his life, Captain America. Spidey’s as carefree as ever, cracking jokes while fighting crime and dodging the government and superheroes in their employ.

Whereas one of the basic tenants of the Spider-Man mythos was that “with great power comes great responsibility”, this latest retooling of the character has seemingly eliminated much of the “responsibility” part of the story. Uncle Ben would be rolling around in his grave (if there wasn’t any danger of it drawing attention to him and bringing him back as a clone yet again).

In an extensive five-part series of interviews on ComicBookResources.com, Marvel’s editor-in-chief, Joe Quesada, outlined his executive decision behind ending Peter and MJ’s romance and for taking Spider-Man back to a more fancy-free state: “When Peter Parker got married, it caused the character to be cut off from many of the social situations and settings that put him at conflict with his family, friends, and especially the girl he was dating. It became harder to place Peter in situations where he could hang out with other single characters without him seeming like the oldest person in the room, even if he wasn’t…Bottom line, there are so many things that 20-somethings are doing with their lives that a married Peter can’t. He needs to be a single guy. A married Peter just cuts off too many avenues for good soap opera.”

Quesada makes an interesting point with his statement. It’s hard to find a more human superhero than Spider-Man. Part of the book’s drawing power lies within the more “soap opera” aspect of Peter Parker’s personal life intertwined with his crime-fighting career as Spider-Man. This characteristic of the title is atypical among some of the bigger names in comics,  like Superman, Batman, or even X-Men‘s Wolverine. Batman, along with his alter-ego Bruce Wayne, is a cold fish with intimacy issues. Superman is a “Big Blue Boy Scout”, squeaky clean with the occasional glimmer of an over-inflated ego. Wolverine has a checkered past and a closet full of dead or jilted lovers. As human as this facet of Wolvie’s character is, unlike most of his fans there’s usually some violent and bloody physical altercation that accompanies the details of his love life.

On the flipside of all of this is Peter Parker as Spider-Man. Easily, he’s one of the most relatable characters in all of comic book fandom. He’s intelligent, sometimes socially awkward, has a great sense of humor, and is a genuinely nice guy in spite of the fact he’s been dealt some pretty tough breaks in his lifetime. Who doesn’t know someone like that, or more importantly, isn’t that how a lot of us wish to see ourselves?

For this reason, Amazing Spider-Man has drawing power like very few other mainstream titles. It’s refreshing to see someone like ourselves, albeit with radioactive powers. It makes the burden of a superhero gig seem plausible, that average people who make mistakes can act with heroism on a regular basis, even if they have the same problems that plague all of us at one time or another. It’s equally as interesting to read about the, as Quesada put it, “soap opera” aspect of Peter Parker’s personal life as it is his adventures in battling costumed criminals.

Although he makes a solid argument in his interview, Quesada ultimately comes across as an overly diplomatic editor-in-chief, giving more the impression of a marketing spin machine than an editor. Although he seems to possess a love for and knowledge of the characters populating the Marvel Universe, the way in which he attempts to make these changes in continuity more palatable to readers seems like more of a sales pitch than an actual explanation. It would stand to reason that no form of media is safe from commercialization and the godlike power of skewing towards demographics—even the comic book medium.

It seems that the House of Ideas used this continuity reset as a means to appeal to and reflect a greater basis of their readership. According to Quesada, Peter Parker can only be relatable if he is unmarried and his daily life parallels today’s under-30 crowd. Spider-Man/Peter Parker, as he’s being written now, without the responsibilities of being married, no longer having a private identity, and holding down a steady job in addition to his super hero gig is by admission the result of Marvel trying to cater to a readership of adults living out an extended adolescence.

It appears that Peter Parker and Amazing Spider-Man have been rebirthed in the image of many of his 20-ish contemporaries. Perhaps owed in part due to the dismal economic landscape and the scarcity of quality jobs available to seasoned professionals— let alone college grads just starting out—young adults have put off full-fledged adulthood by eschewing a less-than-stellar ground floor job opportunity for “shopping around” for their dream job, all with the safety net of their parents’ home waiting beneath them. For the most part, this is normal. Thanks to the high standard of living in even the most Podunk of communities, moving back home post-graduation is a smart long-term investment.

This phenomenon isn’t born entirely of economics, though. Some of it is due to complacency. Five years is the new norm for obtaining an undergraduate degree instead of four. Hustling to get out on time isn’t exactly a priority. At the same time, parents scarcely have a chance to develop empty nest syndrome before the kids come back home from college to stay… Until they’re 30.

As it pertains to Amazing Spider-Man, from Marvel’s perspective, divorce would have “aged” the character of Peter Parker, as would have making him a widower. In a rather contradictory statement, Quesada also played “the kid card” when explaining why the characters could not have had their marriage ended more traditionally, and without taking out a large chunk of the book’s continuity: “How would a parent feel when they had to explain to their kid that Spider-Man just got divorced from his wife? How would that headline read across the AP or on USA Today? The same can be said with an annulment. Sure, divorce is a reality of life, but Peter Parker and Spider-Man are not the types of characters who would do that. Spider-Man is a worldwide icon and is… one of the good guys, like Superman.”

This stance is something of a cop out, considering that, statistically, children do not account for a significant part of the comic book reading audience. Let’s face it, comic books can be a rather expensive hobby. Amazing Spider-Man is now being released three times a month, as opposed to once a month. Most comic book readers—particularly in this era of universe-spanning storylines that require you to read several titles in order to understand what is going on—do not subscribe to just one comic book. Although the variant cover market that was prominent throughout the comic book industry in the ‘90s has calmed down, there are still collectors who snap up these alternate covers at premium prices.

With this in mind, it’s highly unlikely that children would be emotionally crushed by a divorced Spider-Man. Considering that many kids today either know someone whose parents are divorced or are from divorced families themselves, the concept of a divorced Spidey is likely not as controversial a topic as Marvel’s editor-in-chief paints it.

And as stated, contrary to Quesada’s statement, kids aren’t the main demographic who read comics. An entry on a reliable comics-related blog, The Occasional Superheroine, revealed statistical findings on mainstream demographics after querying a publicly traded comic book company. According to these statistics, 90% of comic readers are male with the average age falling between 20-25. Additional information found on the site and rounding out this profile listed them as avid video game players, single, “techies”, and with disposable income. These readership statistics are further bolstered with paralleling subscriber demographics as listed on the Comic Book Resources website, also listing their readers as being 90% male with an average age of 24.5 years old. Additionally, Wizard, a monthly publication geared towards comic books and sci-fi/superhero/supernatural-themed movies and television shows, bills itself as “The Number One Men’s Pop-Culture Magazine”, lumping itself into the same category as Maxim and FHM.

It would appear that the recent major changes in Amazing Spider-Man in fact part of a strategy to more accurately reflect and appeal to their true readership audience. Characters, even well-known characters like Spider-Man, are now viewed as commodities, and in this day and age of demographics dictating direction, Marvel has opted for commercially viable storytelling instead of artist-driven storytelling.

That’s not to say that the current story arc is bad. All philosophical waxing aside, “Brand New Day” is a fresh and exciting take on the title that has breathed new life into the Spider-Man saga. The title’s new writing team has delivered a very well-written story along with a battery of new villains for Spidey to take on, instead of rehashing battles with the same old guard of the web-slinger’s Rogues Gallery of the past 30 years. The approach is somewhat unusual, with a revolving cast of four scribes (Marc Guggenheim, Dan Slott, Bob Gale, and Zeb Wells) creating the story together, with each one of the four tackling formal writing duties for a portion of the “Brand New Day” arc.

While the Mouthpiece of Marvel makes sense in his rationale that “Spidey needs to be ready for the next generation of readers … If Spidey grows old and dies off with our readership… he’ll be… gone never to be enjoyed by future comic fans,” there seems to be something more to the title’s and character’s revamping than a concept that simple. Art usually imitates life, and life has been turned into one big pie-chart of demographics dictating what is popular.

It’s not that Spider-Man is any younger than he was before, he’s just without a job, a home of his own, or any other great responsibilities—just great power. Although he’s on top of his crime-fighting detail, he’s floundering for his place in the world, but without a sense of urgency or drive in his own life. While it has made for an intriguing new chapter in Spider-Man’s story, it’s hard not to notice how a hero like Spider-Man and Peter Parker now more accurately reflects his audience as they are now, rather than standing as something to inspire them.

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