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In the Chained Melody of Spider-Man

What’s lost in the circus atmosphere of the new Superior Spider-Man is what critics should be picking up on: is this a good direction for the Wall-crawler, are the comics in question good, and what does this all mean in the larger picture of comics and popculture?

You have to feel for Amazing Spider-Man, and now Superior Spider-Man, writer Dan Slott. There are polarizing opinions about the state of everyone’s favorite human-spider. Either you love the current direction or you hate it. And hate it to the point of threatening the writer’s life, a mind-numbing and ridiculous thing to do. While there are obviously readers in the middle, people who neither love nor hate Spider-Man’s predicament, it’s the extremes that garner the most attention. What’s lost in the circus atmosphere is what critics should be picking up on: is this a good direction for the Wall-crawler, are the comics in question good, and what does this all mean in the larger picture of comics and popculture?

This question of meaning in the larger popculture picture is something I wrote about previously, comparing the body-swapping plotline to the body-swapping movies that were prevalent in the late 1980s. Dream A Little Dream may have been a disaster of a film, falling victim to the excesses of Hollywood celebrity, but its connection to how Amazing Spider-Man (and much of superhero comics) has ruminated in the excesses of superheroes enlighten a situation we should be concerned about. The difference between the two is that Spider-Man under the direction of Dan Slott has been well-written. There is no evidence that that will change anytime soon.

While Slott’s humor tends to be sillier in certain respects, he has attempted to retain the melodrama that has been a hallmark of Spider-Man comics--a hallmark and the very thing that separates Spider-Man from most of his contemporaries.

The adventures of Spider-Man are as much about the costumed hero as they are about the life of Peter Parker. While this side has been diminished to an extent, Slott has at least tried to create a balance. This is not Slott’s strength.

His strength is in developing the type of action, superhero plots that have dominated Amazing Spider-Man for the length of his run. They are heavily invested in Superheroes being superheroes, and the excess of that direction weighs heavily on the title as it has evolved.

Peter Parker has grown a little. He’s gotten a real job as a scientist and…well a job as a scientist certainly changes the Parker luck and adds various possibilities for storylines.

But that luck also casts a blinder of sorts, preventing Parker from seeing what was going on and leading to his greatest mistake: he allowed his enemy Dr. Octopus to take over his body. That exercise in hubris is in keeping with the legacy of Spider-Man.

By now we know this is not a permanent change. The end of Superior Spider-Man #1 has told us as much, but the history of comics should have been our first clue. That is what makes the callous death threats directed at Dan Slott so disconcerting. You would hope that it is a result of fan enthusiasm for Peter Parker, but it’s more the result of an uninformed, unthinking and juvenile readership. Not enjoying the direction of Amazing Spider-Man is one thing, but forgetting the tendencies and clichés of comics is shortsighted and disconcerting.

If we look at the progression of events then the real criticism is that Amazing Spider-Man #700 as a milestone issue simply did not effectively celebrate the character. Yes, we had a melodramatic “at death’s door” moment that showed off the long history of Spider-Man, but a couple of pages after 700 issues is not enough. While the issue was eventful, perhaps the plot would have been better used issues prior?

Regardless, Superior Spider-Man is where we are at.

If the first issue of this new series is any indication, this won’t last long. While well-paced and somewhat thrilling, the concept has a limited lifespan…and that’s obvious before the last page. You also must think of the context and timing. About 15 months from now a sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man movie will be released, and if Marvel and Disney’s previous efforts are any example, then the property will be realigned on or about the May 2014 release of the film.

There is a certain appeal to Superior Spider-Man. That we readers are well aware that the villainous Doc Ock is now Spider-Man creates a reversal of the previous Amazing Spider-Man dynamic between Spidey and New York Mayor J. Johan Jameson. The reader is now Jameson, in that we see Spider-Man as a menace. That meta relationship between reader and narrative is interesting, but not interesting beyond maybe 10 issues.

The hiccups in the issue outweigh most of the interesting pieces. The Dr. Horrible sight-gag and recycled Simpsons robot joke are annoying enough, but the out of character lecherous Doc Ock and way too close for comfort Ghost plot connect us back to the clichés of body-swapping comedies I mentioned previously. Now if we get a Peter-MJ pottery scene, much may be forgiven. Just how do you convey “Unchained Melody” in a comicbook?

The current Spider-Man plot is a fine effort, but there is a feeling that much of its hype comes from its positioning rather than its merits. Certainly the “death” of Peter Parker is a moment, but if this was part of the build-up to Amazing Spider-Man #700 it probably wouldn’t have the impact it does, however limited it is now. Publishers now tend to shy away from that type of execution, fearing they might telegraph of the plot’s resolution. But that’s exactly what we have now. The end of the title only indicates that it will be resurrected in the future. What’s changed? Besides Doc Ock’s libido?

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