[8 November 2011]
PopMatters Comics Editor
On the bus ride out from Mexico DF the idea finally hits and I know, when I get back home, I’ll get my MA in Film Studies, no sweat. I’m remembering wrong at the time, but it’s all about how Sam Raimi’s just-released Spider-Man speaks to James Ellroy’s My Dark Places. I know, when I get back home, I’ll begin a solid dissertation on those two moving pieces. The giveaway clue is right there in the picture accompanying the first part of Ellroy’s My Dark Places, “The Kid in the Picture”. A young Ellroy stands by a counter with assorted childhood paraphernalia. On toy that stands out is a Spider-Man rag doll. That rag doll is a secret signature, linking the story of Spider-Man to the story of Ellroy.
But a month later it all falls to pieces. “The Kid in the Picture” isn’t the first part of My Dark Places, it’s the second. Worse yet, there’re no toys, no baseball cards, nothing on the countertop that the young Ellroy is standing near. Nothing at all. I misremembered the entire scene. That wonderful story about personal fortitude and walking back from a nightmare you caused, that narrative that connected Raimi’s essentializing of the pivotal Spider-Man mythos with James Ellroy surviving the trauma of his mother being murdered just evaporated.
I did get one thing write, though. The first part of Ellroy’s book really does deal with the victimology of his mother. Who was Jean Hilleker and how did she come to be murdered late one Friday night and have her body dumped in the undergrowth near a baseball field? Ellroy’s story is all about the impact of his mother’s death on him, but simultaneously turns away from idolizing her. She was no saint, she was murdered the way she was because of a clear line of actions she took.
And that was the connection I saw with Raimi’s essential Spider-Man. Peter Parker was the same as Ellroy. Walking back from a great tragedy that should define his life negatively, but ended up defining his life positively. But without that “secret signature” of the Spider-Man rag doll in that picture, the analysis becomes arbitrary. No matter how much Ellroy’s story resembles Peter Parker’s, without that rag doll there’s innate connection between the two.
I push the Ellroy-Spidey analysis to one side and instead arbitrage my way through Final Fantasy: the Spirits Within, M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
And over time eventually even the Spidey-Ellroy story begins to whither. Raimi’s emotional core to Spider-Man, “With great power, comes great responsibility”, is so powerful it reads like an indictment, a final judgment. And it’s an easy equation. So easy that the next Spidey flick (which answers the question, “Must there be a Spider-Man?”) seems logical. Raimi’s vision of Spider-Man definitely scans like the all-growed-up version of the Spidey cartoons I watched just a few years prior in the mid-90s.
And of course, because Raimi’s Spider-Man is so formidable, what also withers is the Spidey I knew as a kid. No harm, no foul, right? This new Spidey is just the same Spidey, only it’s bite-sized, easily digested. Contrasted with 80s-era comicbook Spidey that seemed perpetually out of reach because of its sheer complexity.
Except now, Dan Slott, the Spidey writer at the helm of the “Spider Island” crossover event, proves that it’s the complexity that was really the enjoyable part all along.
“Spider Island’s” premise is intriguing; what if everyone in New York woke one day with Spider powers? What would then distinguish Spider-Man? Early on in the crossover, things get so confusing during an all-out brawl with Spidered-up street thugs that Peter’s teammates the Avengers “request he sit this one out”. It’s Spidey reduced to a second stringer. Or perhaps to the more cynical reader, “exposed for the second stringer he always was”.
That’s Slott’s real genius. It’s not that he engages naysayers. It’s that he is able to expose an inherent limitation in the Spidey character and simply blow this limitation apart. That easy equation of power and responsibility is exposed as a farfetched mythology. And ultimately, a severe restriction on the character.
By the end of “Spider Island”, Slott is able to reclaim Spider-Man. Not from the jaded, but from the limitations unwittingly placed by fans. Spidey saves the day despite there being millions of Spidered-up New Yorkers all over Manhattan. The words written for Kaine, the Spider-Man clone, ring out loud and clear. “You don’t get it do you? I used a move he came up with. A suit he built. In a moment he provided. I struck down a monster at its weakest. He healed millions in their time of greatest need. It was the Spider-Man who won the day. And there is only one like him”.
Dan Slott on Spider-Man inspires nothing but trust. A writer we can trust to carry forward a character older than ourselves, a character we love but fear we may have exhausted. In Dan Slott’s hands, Peter isn’t Spider-Man because he has great power. He’s Spider-Man because he’s Spider-Man. But the powers help.
And for me personally, and perhaps also for you, Slott has elegantly reclaimed Spidey even from the idea of victimology. This isn’t a story about how we grow from trauma, and it never was. Spider-Man is a story about fortitude, and becoming what we were always meant to be, always would have been. In a singular moment, Spidey is a battle against “tomorrow”. The kind of tomorrow that is a regularized idea of yesterday marching forward unhindered.
So what happens after “Spider Island”? Are any of the changes permanent? What about the other heroes who gained Spider-powers? The usual questions about crossovers seem simply to fall away. What matters is, through a long, cold dark we didn’t even realize we were living through, we’ve gotten Spider-Man back.