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

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.”

RATING 7 / 10