Comics

Anti-Hero: The Soap-Operatic, Melodramatic Life in 'Amazing Spider-Man' #649

Michael D. Stewart
All That's Left Is A Band Of Gold: In 'Big time' spider-scribe Dan Slott reembraces the melodrama that was a wellspring for the original Amazing Spider-Man stories.

New Spider-Man storyarc, 'The Big Time' takes the title character back to its nerdy, anti-hero roots while offering a reassertion of the soap-operatic nature of the original Amazing Spider-Man stories.


Amazing Spider-Man #649

Publisher: Marvel
Length: 22 pages
Writer: Dan Slott
Price: $3.99
Contributors: Humberto Ramos (artist), Carlos Cuevas (inker), Edgar Delgado (colorist)
Amazon

It’s been a few years since the controversial “One More Day” storyline in Amazing Spider-Man reset the status quo of the comic series. Bemoaned by fans, yet making way for some of the best Spider-man stories in the last 20 years, “One More Day” was Marvel’s way of rebooting the ailing franchise. The wounds from that editorial decision were recently re-opened in Amazing Spider-Man issues 638-641 with the “One Moment in Time” story. It was a vehicle to fill-in the narrative gaps left by the dissolving of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watsons’ marriage. With all that now firmly in the past, Amazing Spider-Man launches into “Big Time,” a chance to get back to the melodramatic stories that made “Spider-Man” comics so beloved in the first place.

“One Moment in Time” was an interesting attempt at narrative closure: there was some wonderful art work by Paolo Rivera; the creative team worked in classic panels from 1987’s Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21 in the first chapter of the plotline with limited results; Marvel editor-in-chief, writer and artist Joe Quesada showed limited skill and a lot of ego in the narrative and execution; and it’s yet to be proven that the four issue arc was any better than a few panels of exposition scattered throughout other storylines.

“One More Day” hurt deep down in that part of us that always hopes for a happy ending. Peter and Mary Jane are a couple that are nearly as classic as real life couples like Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; George Burns and Gracie Allen; Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave. No matter what happened in Peter’s life in and out of costume, he had Mary Jane. But instead of working with that, the directive became to rectify the creative corner the many contributors to Spider-Man comics had painted themselves into. The many critics of "One More Day" who hold Quesada (and to a lesser extent storyline writer J. Michael Straczynski) responsible for its devastating impact, should perhaps look at the other contributors over the last 20 years with a similar ire.

The thing that cannot be argued is that the stories following “One More Day,” in the 100-plus issues under the “Brand New Day” banner, have been very good, and more in line with the tone of “Spider-Man” than anything in the last couple of decades. Peter Parker’s life is not a straight line of man, hero and saves the day. It often happens like that, but the thrust is the rollercoaster of emotion befitting an anti-hero of his pedigree. He is an anti-hero in the nerd-turned-superguy tradition. And no anti-hero can have a happy ending…or so we’ve been seemingly told.

The anti-hero has changed over the last 20 years. Perhaps it started to turn even earlier with the debut of “Dirty” Harry Callahan in the Clint Eastwood films? This type of hero was typically defined as being the antithesis of the romantic hero, usually represented by the Arthurian character Lancelot. They are also the opposite of the tragic hero, universally represented by Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Anti-heroes can be socially awkward nerds (Spider-Man) or violent amoral revenge-seekers (The Punisher) or pop-culture witticism-inclined assassins (Deadpool).

As comics readers, we’ve been trained (or clouded) to see anti-heroes as the amoral archetype. As mentioned, The Punisher from Marvel comics is a prime example of this, but to a lesser extent so too is Frank Miller’s take on Batman. Classically, that doesn’t fit completely with some of the older anti-heroes such as Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis.” Their amalgamation is the thrust of Peter Parker (minus the dishonesty of Caulfield and the existential dread of Samsa). Seemingly, the anti-hero is a broad swath of characters that don’t fit neatly into the romantic and tragic categories. They are reflections of the dark decades proceeding the Post-World War II years. They are our reflection as we stare into the mirror of economic turbulence, endless war, urban blithe and a cavalcade of tragedies that woke us up from the post-war dream of the 1950s.

The anti-hero is crucial to the Spider-Man stories coming out of “One More Day.” The reset button hit, the creative teams during “Brand New Day,” and now “Big Time,” are fundamentally charged with reinventing the nerd anti-hero in comics. The main creative force behind this has been writer Dan Slott. His work in the pages of “Amazing Spider-Man” has essentially brought Peter Parker back to the basics: life out of the costume is just as complicated, if not more so, than life in the costume. The circumstances surrounding Parker’s life have been re-rooted in the melodramatic tradition that has been the hallmark of many Marvel characters. In essence, Slott is looking to the past to inform the present and carve a path to the future.

Amazing Spider-Man issue 648 kicks-off the new direction. It is one hefty comic trying to layout all of the narrative threads that will be sewn into a new status quo of “Big Time.” Having endured so much heartache and pain over the last few years of stories, it’s time to give Peter Parker something to hang his hope on. He finally gets a dream job working for a scientific think-tank. He can move on from the romantic pain of Mary Jane by starting a relationship with CSI sleuth Carlie Cooper. He can finally get the credit he deserves as a member of the super-hero team The Avengers. It’s all upbeat and delightful.

With the latest issue, Amazing Spider-Man #649, writer Slott presents a slightly more sinister element to the narrative. There’s a new Hobgoblin and he’s a culmination of various storylines that have been weaved throughout Marvel comics. This new goblin is darker than any we’ve seen before. His motivations more psychologically grounded and there by more terrifying. It’s an intriguing set-up, laying the foundation for a very interesting challenge that Spider-Man will face as he finally seems to be getting his life together.

The subplots are also firmly established. The Goblin Cult threat is becoming more than an isolated phenomenon; Carlie and Peter are trying to become closer; and the Daily Bugle is being re-launched. These elements in other comics could become distractions, but in the “Amazing Spider-Man” they are the driving force behind the web of the comic’s narrative foundation.

Artist Humberto Ramos’ exaggerated visuals are something else. His style lends itself very easily to this new goblin. The character is both sinister and bizarre, and the visual created in his and Spider-Man’s first encounter is a highlight of this direction. Sadly, the non-costumed scenes are far less attractive. Painfully ordinary in their execution, these appear to be where Ramos lacks skill. The scripting is there, but the final panels are deprived of the emotional impact they should have to drive the soap opera that is Peter Parker’s life.

Marvel comics have never been short on anti-heroes nor soap operatic stories. The Hulk, the Punisher, Hank Pym--it’s a style that Marvel has captured best over the company’s history. But in Spider-Man, the company created a character that many of us can related to. It’s hard to balance the challenges of life and work. It’s hard to engage in romantic relationships and meet the challenges of the circumstances of our lives. The anti-hero is not necessarily the violent and amoral rumination of our collective experience. Rather, the anti-hero can also be the symbolic representation of our normal struggles; the masking of our egos in the power versus responsibility argument. Peter Parker is us, but with a wittier personality. We should all hope for happier days, whether or not they come is another matter. For Spider-Man in this latest direction, he’s got a shot. Welcome to the “Big Time.”

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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