[14 May 2014]
If there is a holy text in the history of the comicbook, a sacred scripture both originary and continually relevant, it is Amazing Fantasy #15 and the great Steve Ditko/Stan Lee run on The Amazing Spider-Man that followed, especially those first few issues, when the character of Peter/Spider-Man was developing into the hero so familiar to comicbook readers and moviegoers today. (Lee and Kirby’s magnificent Fantastic Four series is a close second for this distinction.) Unlike, for example, the original appearances of Superman and Batman, these early tales remain canon in the Marvel Universe. Peter’s actions in these books can still have consequences for storytelling today. They are not tales of another Spider-Man, on another Earth, from another universe. They are stories of the same conflicted hero that swings through New York City in the latest issues of The Amazing Spider-Man. (Just re-launched two weeks ago with a new #1.) To drop back into them, even if only to embellish rather than to reboot, is a serious matter. It is, in a sense, to rewrite history. It is to risk corrupting both the source of so much wonder and all that followed. This is especially true when the motivations are serious, as they appear to be in The Amazing Spider-Man 1.1 by Dan Slott and Ramón Pérez.
Slott has a lot at stake in the “Learning to Crawl” story that begins with this issue. Slott’s story takes place between the scenes of the Lee/Ditko stories. He is not retelling the classics, but supplementing them, filling out the details. As the writer of such important and critically acclaimed Spider-Man story lines as “Spider Island” and “The Superior Spider-Man” he has a tough task. He must be true to the sacred text, to the stories told by Lee and Ditko, but he must also be true to the complexity of his own characterizations of Peter Parker/Spider-Man. The question is: can this creative team tell a compelling story, true to the original yet consistent with the standards of Spider-Man storytelling that readers expect today, standards sharpened, in no small part, by Slott’s work on the character over the last several years?
I must admit that I come away from this first installment hopeful that Slott and Pérez will pull this off. The artwork is, in some iconic scenes, compellingly reminiscent of Ditko’s work. Spidey’s acrobatics appear, as they do in Ditko’s hand, at once both graceful and teen-age awkward. The characters, including the costumed Spider-Man, show attention to detail, an attempt to capture the essence of Ditko’s designs without strictly copying them. The most starkly different elements come from the book’s color palate, more earth toned than the primary colors that I am used to seeing in reprint editions of Ditko’s tales, and in the detailed backgrounds that replace Ditko’s monochromatic framing of the characters.
Slott also appears to be aware of the importance of the original narratives. His story begins where Amazing Fantasy #15 ends, with Peter walking home to Aunt May after capturing Uncle Ben’s killer, clutching his mask and casting long shadows. All of the familiar support characters and plot elements are there: Aunt May, strong but needy; Flash Thompson and the turmoil of Peter’s high school social life; Peter’s attempt to use his new powers to make money as an entertainer. There is also plenty of attention to the details of the original. An early Spider-Man villain, The Chameleon, makes a brief appearance.
Slott’s tale does more than recount the familiar elements and story beats, however. Without Stan Lee’s omniscient narrator, the tale unfolds mostly from Peter’s point of view. (And that of a new character, introduced in the supplement to last week’s Amazing Spider-Man #1.) The effect is to allow Peter’s motivations to be at the center of this story. The simple version of the origin of Spider-Man’s crime fighting career has always been inaccurate. Lee and Ditko’s Peter developed into a crimefighter over time. He did not walk away from Uncle Ben’s grave fully formed, all “great power and great responsibility.” His motivation to make a difference may spring from the death of Uncle Ben, but in those early days it was often centered on making money to help Aunt May instead of patrolling the city to fight crime and help those in need. Slott digs even deeper into Peter’s motivations. He sets up what looks like will be Peter’s slow awakening to the kind of man Uncle Ben was and what it might mean to carry on after his death, to use his great power responsibly. At the end of this issue, Uncle Ben is dead and buried and Spider-Man is still saying: “All I wanna know is . . . when do we get paid?” Peter is not yet a hero. We know, from our vantage point, what kind of hero he will become; we do not know, at the end of this issue, how that hero will rise.
I am left wanting more. So far, there is nothing heretical going on here, but there is development and complexity. So far, it doesn’t feel as if the story is being remade, updated for a new age, but rather explored, mined for details and angles that we all might have missed over the years. This is a good approach. The old tales have held up just fine. If Slott and Pérez continue as they do in this inaugural issue, they might help us to see that fact even more clearly than we did before.