[11 April 2012]
PopMatters Comics Editor
I honestly wonder, what will be the outcome of the suit brought by Elon Musk and Tesla Motors against the British Broadcasting Corporation. Have the BBC really staged the breakdown of the Tesla roadster reviewed by Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson? And if this is the case, will Elon’s attorneys be able to prove this? The non-sequitur, hyperbolic tone of the show’s journalism and the dramatic almost on-cue “breakdown” of the electric sports-car certainly seems to support Tesla’s claim. Elon has had his fair share of uphill, but he seems to be one of those genuine kind of 21st century folk heroes, the kind that you can believe in. Whatever the outcome of the proceedings, I can honestly say I really want things to go in Elon’s favor. Because I’m deeply involved in the work that he’s doing, and I’m deeply involved in the ideals of a greener tomorrow. Just as you are.
It’s been a long time since the kinds of real-world heroes that have captured the popular imagination have not been Hollywood A-listers. And an even longer time since these popular heroes have been entrepreneurs. Maybe Bill Gates and Steve Jobs gave us a flash of this kind of story played out in public. We heard rumors about the heavy-handed micromanaging that we understood to be Steve’s style. But we also understood that the ideal of transcend the new paucity that the age of computing threatened us with. Certainly we were involved in Richard Feynman being awarded the Nobel, and a generation earlier, in Einstein.
You’d have to go a generation or so before that, to find a time when entrepreneurs and scientists were married together, in personalities as large as Thomas Edison or Nikolai Tesla himself. It was that Gilded Age psychology that constructed a sense of Newness in the New World—a promise that innovativeness could manifest first technologically and then entrepreneurially. The idea that living here, at this time, we need no longer find ourselves hemmed in by the limitations of the past. And it is this promise that Elon Musk evidences in the world. And this promise that Dan Slott finds in Spider-Man once again.
With Spider-Man event-stories over the last few years it seems that Peter Parker and his alter-ego Spider-Man have really come through slaughter. We’ve seen Spidey unmask, revealing his secret identity to the public. We’ve seen a switch to a red-and-gold techno-armor, replete with six artificial limbs. And, after the events of “One Day More” and “Brand New Day”, we’ve seen a Spider-Man ready to face the world with a mystically renewed secret identity.
But what of the Spidey from back when Spidey stories were simply “Amazing”? Remember the “Amazing Spider-Man”? Stories from when Spider-Man captured the imagination of a generation? What of the Spidey who tilted at the world and found his adolescent life complicated rather than simplified by his recently-acquired superpowers? Spidey has been Spider-Man for longer than any other superhero. When more powerful heroes like Thor or Iron Man or Captain America behave like superheroes, it’s because Spidey invented the concept. What of that Spidey, how would that Spidey have grown up?
Did the character really go through ultimate turmoil over these last few years? Or were the events of “One Day More” and “Brand New Day” a necessary way to reset the clock on a kind of aestivation the character had entered into since his marriage to Mary Jane Watson? Was Spidey broken, for longer than we realized?
Dan Slott’s really effected a renaissance for Spidey. Not just cosmetic shifts and artificial dramas for the character, but Dan’s really effected a fundamental reorientation of the character, bringing Spidey closer to an adult version of Peter Parker. It’s no secret that Spidey’s been kind of a slacker, an almost purely reactionary superhero. Lizard shows up, and Spidey takes him down, a giant cosmic threat appears, and Spidey pitches in with the Avengers to prevent it. But what would it look like if teenage science-nerd Peter Parker had grown up to become a fully-fledged scientist. What if snapping Spider-Man: Menace pics had just been an awkward teenage phase for Peter Parker?
It’s here that Dan finds the emotional core of the character, one we seemed to have lost decades ago, without even noticing it. Dan’s first move was to upgrade Peter Parker to get him working at independent think tank, Horizon Labs. Next, Dan wove a convincing story around Marvel’s decision to incorporate Spidey into not only the Future Foundation (Reed Richards’ followup project to the Fantastic Four), but into two Avengers teams. Rather than attempt to carve out a unique Spidey-only tree-fort with the Amazing Spider-Man title, Dan embraced the broader reality of the mainstream of the Marvel universe.
Spidey was a member of all these teams because it meant he’d begun to take his superhero role more seriously. Spidey had matured. And because Peter Parker “shared a secret relationship with Spider-Man”, Spidey’s crimefighting got more tech-savvy, and more proactive. Spidey began to interdict situations before they became a problem.
This entire renaissance brings us here, to a moment in “Ends of the Earth” when Spidey punches out Al Gore. (Well he doesn’t really, but you’ll have to read the story for yourself to understand the hows and the whys). What a singular moment. Following on from An Inconvenient Truth Al Gore has become a figurehead for “more with less” thinking inside the green movement. It’s a tragedy that the former Vice President’s position should be distorted in this way by what seems at first to be a highly vocal fringe. The deeper question, however, the question about an infrastructural response to climate change, always resurfaces. Is the minor recalibration of an industrial system that is inherently geared towards excessive pollution really enough?
Or is a ground-up rethink of our technologies called for? Is the enormity of our shared dilemma a rallying cry of a very different kind, the kind that demands we look to actively enabling non-polluting, emissions-free technologies? When Spidey punches out “Al Gore”, it is a public wrestling with these exact issues. Is it going to be enough to just reduce? Shouldn’t we actively be doing more? Shouldn’t we be thinking about renewable fuels and the kind of tomorrow where our relationship to the planet isn’t simply parasitic?
It’s taken decades for Spidey to break free from the thrall of Peter-Parker-grown-older, of marrying MJ, of teaching high school, of just getting by. Maybe about a decade back now, I recall one of the most powerful, most arresting covers to feature Spidey. A Daredevil cover drawn by Alex Maleev. Daredevil in his darkest hour, his head sunk in despair, and Spidey behind him, reaching out to place a hand on his shoulder.
This was an image from Daredevil: Out when DD found himself at war with the tabloid press for revealing his secret identity as high-powered attorney Matt Murdock. It’s ironic, that all the while Spidey was experiencing a similar decline. But Spidey’s decline was far less obvious. It was the slow, grinding poison of ordinariness, of learning to live within ever-increasing limitations.
When I read this bold new Spider-Man, this Spider-Man who confronts limitations rather than bow to them, this Spider-Man who is Peter Parker grown up, rather than grown older, this Spider-Man who is “Peter Parker, the boy from Queens, addressing a world assembly”, it’s like coming home to the vast promise of the original Spidey who stirred and defined and captivated a generation. It’s the very same sense of promise and ambition I get when hear Elon Musk speak about why we need to become an interplanetary species. It’s Jack Kennedy once again telling us all, we’re doing this, because “we choose to do this thing”.
Building companies like Tesla for building emissions-free cars, or SpaceX for building rocketships (actual rocketships!), or Solar City for engineering human activity free from pollution and fossil-dependence, Elon Musk has involved me deeply in his quest for tomorrow, just as he has you. And in no longer simply responding to danger, Spidey has finally, flawlessly transitioned from being a teenage hero into being ready for an entirely new kind of tomorrow.