[14 December 2012]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
Between October 1987 and March 1989, five body-swap movies were released: Like Father Like Son, Big, 18 Again!, Vice Versa and Dream a Little Dream. While none of these movies were exactly the same, their similar plot devices introduced me to the concept of market saturation…or at least the entertainment industry version of the concept. If audiences liked one body-swap, age changing comedy, they’ll love more of them.
Many scholars have traced the body-swap plot back to the work of humorist Thomas Anstey Guthrie, who under the pseudonym F. Anstey wrote the novel Vice Versa: A Lesson to Fathers (1882)—the book itself adapted numerous times for TV and Film. Freaky Friday was a near direct retelling of the story, and much like the many adaptations and remakes of that particular version, the concept has been used so many times that the inherit lessons have lost meaning.
Just about every piece of serial science fiction, fantasy or adventure has used it. It usually involves a hero or heroes switching bodies with themselves or with villains, followed by hilarious or deadly consequences.
The least popular of the body-swap-change movies of the late 1980s was Dream a Little Dream—perhaps most notorious for being yet another “Corey” movie, starring 80s teen actors Corey Haim and Corey Feldman. But of all of them, Dream a Little Dream was the most philosophical, bordering on existential, if only it was remotely coherent and watchable. The movie suffered from an ineffectual director and an entire production that stewed in the excesses of Hollywood celebrity.
Enter writer Dan Slott and his final storyarc for Amazing Spider-Man, building up to the milestone issue #700, and the latest footnote for the body-swap plot. Peter Parker and Otto Octavius have switched bodies. While Slott works with the clichés of the plot device, most notably the ridiculous method of transference, he does add a new wrinkle by having Peter stuck in the near-death body of his enemy. The central point of the latest issue of this “Dying Wish” story is what lengths will Peter go to make everything right again? Unleash super villains? Injure heroes? The ethical and moral questions Slott raises are engaging, offering enough emotional conflict to satisfy many readers.
Those questions, and the moral intrigue, are written in the metaphorically largest lettering possible. You cannot ignore the ethical dilemma Peter is faced with, mainly because as a single issue narrative the story of issue #699 has to recover from the terrible and low-brow Aunt May-Otto Octavius hook-up. While Slott hides behind the convenience of ambiguity—are they making out or having sex?—the readerly and writerly interpretations of the scene create a distraction for a meaningless piece of humor that the issue must now take the remaining pages to recover from. Fortunately, the story does recover by splattering ethical questions instead of painting with focus and control.
Setting aside this particular installment, the far more interesting aspect is how Slott has connected a longer narrative together, and it involves the hubris of Peter Parker. The body-swap, as explained by Amazing Spider-Man #699, is the result of Peter foolishly using Doc Ock’s technology as he fought other battles. Doc Ock got his tentacles into Peter, and now the consequences of that arrogance has left Peter in a decaying body.
Hubris, as PopMatters Comics Editor Shathley Q explained in his “Iconographies” on this summer’s Spider-Man movie, is a key to Spider-Man comics and the character of Peter Parker. The movie lacked that element, replacing it with something else entirely. Slott emphasizes it, or rather reinforces it in his explanation of how Peter and Otto switched bodies. It is perhaps the only cornerstone of Spider-Man that Slott has celebrated in this build up to Amazing Spider-Man’s 700th issue and the title’s swansong.
Much like Dream a Little Dream lost itself in the excesses of Hollywood celebrity, Amazing Spider-Man over the course of the last 100 issues has lost itself in the excesses of superheroes. While Slott’s work has been absolutely readable, and at times brilliant (see Amazing Spider-Man #655), it too often falls into this category of being overtly self-reverential to its own gadgets and gimmicks at the expense of an emotional core. There have been moments, little scenes, but they often fade quickly or get tossed to the side for the more pressing matter of Spider-Man being the costumed vigilante he was never meant to be.
The title has fallen in love with its own history, which you would expect from the build-up to a milestone issue. However, that love is more interested in the platitude of superheroes than in the drama of life that separated Amazing Spider-Man from a litany of similar titles. There is a point that Peter is in a state of perpetual arrested development because of Spider-Man. While Slott should be praised for his attempts to evolve the character over his long run—giving him a chance at a real job more in line with his skills, being recognized by other heroes for his contributions—these developments have formed laments about what has been lost over the decades. Much as Dream a Little Dream is a mourning for the existential reality of living outside oneself in another.
There is a case that Amazing Spider-Man, and many comics, is suffering from the same market saturation that doomed the body-swap comedies of the late 1980s. If people love one superhero-being-superhero book, then that’s where we must take Spider-Man. He’s a superhero – the casual relationship being the emphasis rather than dramatic undertone that gave the title its ability to last for 50 years. That being the situation, Superior Spider-Man is a welcome change to the Marvel line-up. Best to put Amazing Spider-Man to bed if it’s going to be a shadow of what it was, then maybe the lost meaning can return anew.