*See Issue #129, -Ed: "Spider Island" and the Art of Social Media
At the dawn of the 21st century, some of us are only now beginning to feel the wave of super-connectedness that comes from emerging social media technologies, some of us have lived in NYC all our lives, and some of us just read Spider-Man.
Add social media powerhouse Guy Kawasaki's @ AllTop to your TwitterFeed, or Reg Saddler's @Zaibatsu, or Calvin Lee's @MayhemStudios, and it will hit you like a wave. Social media is all of the internet, all of the time. As your social network tweets links they've discovered themselves, you're immersed in the world around you. More than the specials put together by news networks, social media is raw and specifically tailored to you. The media found by your social network, is media that matters to you. And if one user's tweeting offends, or worse becomes irrelevant, simply remove them from your feed. Social media is conceptually different from the micro-blogging that many stars use to inform their fans about lifestyle choices or breakups or hookups. It is the world, brought to you by people you trust.
That sense of super-connectedness (connectedness to both other people and to the world Out There) lies at the very core of Dan Slott's (@DanSlott) summer megaevent, "Spider Island", now wrapping up the first month of a three-month run (five-month if you count July's Prelude and November's Epilogue). The story, couldn't be simpler: a strange "spider-flu" spreads Peter Parker's unique superpowers to millions throughout Manhattan. As sole writer on the Amazing Spider-Man, Slott writes the central storyarc (appearing issues #666-673) of the megaevent. But throughout the months of the megaevent, the story will wend its way through a slew of limited series, one-shots and other titles (like Venom and Herc). "Spider Island" (#SpiderIsland, if you're searching twitter), is the story of New York, as much as of Peter Parker.
And yet what makes "Spider Island" so completely engaging (for me at least, sufficiently engaging to forego seeing Contagion and to set aside Deus Ex: Human Revolution), is the masterful facility with which Slott is able to entwine the story of New York and the struggles of identity production in the changing media landscape of the 21st century, by rooting both of these in the emotional core of Spider-Man itself.
The July issue of Amazing Spider-Man, issue #666 is not only a superb introduction to "Spider Island" but a superbly skillful introduction to Peter Parker and the State Of The Spider-Man. If you've not been following Spidey stories for fear of becoming shut out in too-much back story, if you've longed for more concise Spider-Man action since Sam Raimi's movie trilogy, then Amazing Spider-Man #666, "The One and Only" is the book for you.
In its pages, Slott unfolds the tale of Spider-Man on the day before Spider Island. Slott's first move, is simply sublime. He opens the story with Spidey swinging through his beloved Manhattan. In monologue Spidey considers how much things have changed for him. He's professionalized his super-heroing now. Instead of just stumbling into crime the way he did in the 70s and 80s stories, Spidey's now fully immersed in his masked identity. He's a member on two Avengers teams (Avengers and Mighty Avengers) as well as a member of the Future Foundation (the Jonathan Hickman, @JHickman, book FF) which has come to replace the Fantastic Four since the death of Johnny Storm's Human Torch.
But Spidey's rambling meditations are more than just a cutesy gateway into the character's legendary neuroticism. Instead, Slott makes masterful use of the genre latent within Spidey stories to mark out the rise of the character's popularity within Marvel's publication list. Creativity countervailing commercial decisions, Slott's storytelling is flawless in its assay of Spidey both as a character to love, and a commercial reality for its corporate owners.
Peter Parker too, has had a wake-up call in Slott's more-than-able hands. No longer simply selling pictures of his Spidey alter ego to a daily paper that abuses those to tell "Spider-Man Menace" stories, Peter has come to work for heavyweight think tank Horizon Labs, where he "reverse-engineers Spider-Man's gadgetry". Just as 60s/70s Spidey ran its course with Peter in high school and then in college, so too has 80s/90s Spidey run its course with the happy, small life of Peter Parker having married Mary Jane Watson. Slott's Spider-Man is a bold, new Spider-Man, one specifically retrofitted to deal with the super-connected reality of the 21st century social media landscape. This Spider-Man is a Spidey that's always plugged-in.
But there is a much deeper sense in which Peter Parker's (and Spidey's) story reflect the emerging social media-defined reality. And this sense relies heavily on the elaborate and skillful tango between Dan Slott as writer and Stephen Wacker as Senior Editor on Amazing Spider-Man. And again, this dance finds its roots in a classic Spidey books of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Together, Slott and Wacker have reinvigorated the editorial footnoting in Amazing Spider-Man.
You know the kind, Peter will mention "the new Venom", leaving you clueless as to the context. But a handy star appears next to "Venom" and it leads you to a useful footnote explaining that details can be found in Venom #4. (The current Venom is being written by Rick Remender, @Remender). Together with this classic style of footnoting is Slott's paraleptic style of monologue where backstory is filled in, in Peter's thoughts while he talks with other characters.
With these reinvigorated genre of the classic Spidey books, Slott and Wacker present a radical new take on backstory and continuity hell. In short, if treated right, backstory can enrich the experience of reading a comicbook story, rather than simply overwhelm readers. There's a sense of immersion you get when you read "The One and Only", complex backstory is something you feel you need to embrace rather than be inundated by.
But the emotional core of the story runs even deeper. In a stroke of genius, Slott has tapped the primal Spider-Man counter-narrative. For decades now, Spidey's fictive New York has been built as a place where a strange hero swings through the skyscrapers leaving the citizens of New York dizzied in his wake. Spidey was just about as large as New York, a big enough idea to make the Big Apple stop and stare.
And of course, there's been J. Jonah Jameson's campaign, almost from the beginning, to call out Spidey as (at best) reckless nuisance or (at worst) lethal threat. The genius of Slott's "Spider Island" lies in the ordinary people of New York inheriting Spidey's powers. But not one of them learned their responsibility by having their Uncle Ben's blood on their hands. Power, but no responsibility, "Spider Island" is very much the story of the erosion of the idea of genius. It is the de-spectacularization of Peter Parker, Spider-Man. And "Spider Island's" mastery lies not only in telling this emotionally moving tale from Peter's POV, but in multiplying the number of monthly titles to a point where Amazing Spider-Man almost becomes a second-tier story in the megaevent.
If the throwaway nature of the full operatic scope of "Flashpoint" left you cold, or the swollen, grandiose dramas of "Fear Itself" feels too much like nothing more than interregnum to ongoing continuity, then "Spider Island" is for you. In truth, "Spider Island" is for you anyway, whoever you are. Slott's masterful skill in wrestling with the turmoils of social media-oriented identity production is a sight to behold. But his being able to do that within the context of the continuity of a character's 50-plus year publication history? That's breathtaking.
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Footnote: It's been a weird, strange rush writing this piece, the story of a disease that has wide-scale sociocultural impacts, on End Malaria Day. Malaria is unique among the diseases in that we possess sufficient technology and resources to eradicate the disease, but seem to lack the simple political will to take that first step. If you're reading this today, or tomorrow or on any day, please logon to the End Malaria Day website and make a difference in the ways you can. Or please, simply buy a copy of End Malaria, whose authors include Gina Trapani, Jeff Jarvis, Sir Ken Robinson and more than 60 other of the world's most influential thinkers.