A Simple Web
I recently read a very interesting comic book. It was about a young man still burdened by the death of his uncle after a decade or so of guilt. The young man blames himself for the death of his only father figure to the point that the guilt has become the driving force of his entire life. The story takes him out on his yearly journey to a New York Mets game, once a yearly treat from his uncle—to help cope with his uncle’s death and reflect on the good times. It was just a simple story about coping with loss. The type of story you might have found in a mature Vertigo comic or a self-published independent mag. But I did not find this story in an adult comic. I found this story in Peter Parker: Spider Man #33. That’s right, Spider-Man.
Like many twenty-somethingers, I grew up with “Your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.” The first comic I begged my mom to buy me when I was a kid was a Marvel Team-Up starring good old Spidey. As the years went on, I drifted away from Spider-Man; I thought I was out growing Spidey. By the late ‘90s, every major character that legendary creators like Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and John Romita had created in the Spider-Man world had been killed off and brought back to life at least twice. I had finally said enough is enough: no more Spider-Man comics for me.
A little over a year ago, things changed for me. A Spider-Man comic caught my eye on the rack in a gas station. The cover depicted a frail and fragile Spider-Man cowering in his own webs. Rain was pouring down on my old pal Spidey, and it was obvious that under the mask, Spider-Man was probably crying. I picked the comic up and noticed that Paul Jenkins was the writer. I knew Jenkins was good. His run on the Inhumans for the Marvel Knights imprint was one of the best comics in the past few years. I thought, if he could turn a property as dead as the Inhumans into a good comic, then maybe he could save Spider-Man. The comic in question was Peter Parker: Spider-Man #20 by Paul Jenkins with pencils by Mark Buckingham. It reflected on Peter Parker’s life with his Uncle Ben before his murder. I bought the comic and have been hooked ever since. I’m reading Spider-Man comics after swearing I’d never read them again!
How did Paul Jenkins convert my cold, cynical “grown-up” heart? Good stories. Simple stories. Stories to which I could relate. Funny stories. Stories about real people. (Well, real people with the proportionate strength and speed of a spider.) Stories with real human emotion. In the past year or so of Peter Parker: Spider-Man, Jenkins has recovered Spidey from all the nastiness of the ‘90s. He has healed the wounds and chaos of lost loved ones whom suddenly re-appear and mended the scars that a few decades of hack writers have inflicted on our beloved Webhead. He has done it with stories about Peter Parker remembering his uncle, using those warm memories to reaffirm his role as a hero. He has done it with stories of washed-up villains who just want a second chance. Jenkins even had Spider-Man face the question of whether to accept the request of a dying villain and put him out of his misery. Assisted suicide is not the kind of issue you expect to see in a Spider-Man comic, but Paul Jenkins has made it work.
But of course it is still Spider-Man. Mark Buckingham’s simple yet dynamic renderings of the old web-slinger keep the pacing punchy and fresh (helping one forget all those over buffed testosterone-driven comics of the ‘90s). The action is there. The swinging. The flipping. The wall crawling. The spandex fights. The Human Torch, The Sandman, and, of course, the Green Goblin have all made appearances. It is still a superhero comic book and perfectly accessible to kids—but each month I have found this comic book moving higher on my list of must-reads. This comic has made me realize that I did not outgrow Spider-Man; instead, it was just punished by a decade of bad writers. All he needed was someone like Jenkins to come along and give him a good story. You don’t outgrow good stories.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Paul Jenkins a few times. I asked him a while back at a comics convention how he writes Spider-Man: How does he keep things fresh with a character that seems to have had every plot possibility exhausted? He said it was very simple. He just writes stories about Peter Parker as a real person—simple stories about this guy who lives in New York and just happens to have a career fighting crime in his pajamas. He said you just let the character drive the story. Not the villains. Not the powers. Not the costumes. Just simple stories about a young single guy and his friends and family. It’s a writing strategy so simple and obvious that countless creators have completely overlooked it. As Descartes said, “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” And it seems to have done the trick.
Spider-Man has experienced a noticeable revitalization in the past year. Brian Michael Bendis’ “new reader-friendly” Ultimate Spider-Man has sold like mad and lead the way for Babylon 5 creator J. M. Straczynski’s new and improved Amazing Spider-Man to be a sell-out hit. But, for my money, the best Spidey comic in town is the one with the least amount of hype. Don’t get me wrong though—the hype is nice. It’s nice to see kids buying Spider-Man comics at the grocery store again. I’m sure that, next year when Sam Rami’s Spider-Man movie hits theaters, there will be a whole new generation of kids noticing the Spider-Man comics on the magazine racks. I only hope that when they take those comics home, they find good stories . . . like the ones in Paul Jenkins’ and Mark Buckingham’s Peter Parker: Spider-Man.