Sunday, May 6, 2007

SM:FBFW Introduction

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

Spider-Man comics are not as good as they used to be. I don't know about you, but I find myself thinking this a lot. I've been thinking it ever since the Clone Saga, and I guess that twelve years of thinking it means that I really believe it. Sure, there've been some decent stories, and the first fifty issues of Ultimate Spider-Man gave me some hope, but the fact remains that I find myself saying “Spider-Man comics are not as good as they used to be.”

My name's Eric, and I've been collecting Spider-Man comics without interruption since
Amazing Spider-Man 251, the end of the Roger Stern Hobgoblin arc. I've been reading and watching Spider-Man since before I could actually read the words in the comic. I have extended my run of Amazing Spider-Man issues back to issue 163, which gives me about thirty years of Spider-Man comics in my house. Now, in the last few years, I haven't picked up every one-shot or limited series, but if it's a Spidey comic book, I probably own it. Spider-Man has been a part of my life literally as long as I have been conscious. Longer than Batman, or Star Wars, or anything else. I've sworn that I will never miss an issue of Amazing Spider-Man for the rest of my life, even if I stop collecting comics in general. Honestly, in the last ten years, I have come increasingly close to dropping comics as a whole. Several of my friends have done so, and a couple of them started reading years before I did. What is wrong with comics, and Spider-Man comics in particular, that so many long time fans have dropped it? Why are more fans not joining the hobby?

The simple answer, the fanboy answer, is that comics suck now, and they didn't use to suck. You hear this kind of thing all the time. To listen to some fans, there was a halcyon age (you can't say golden age with comics unless you mean THE Golden Age) where all the comics were well written, all the ideas were new and fresh, all the characters were written to their potential. When was this halcyon age? Well, that depends largely on the fan. For many people, the comics that are “the best” are the comics they grew up with, and once they grew up, the comics weren't as good.

Spider-Man comics are not as good as they used to be. I've said it myself several times. But do I even believe what I'm saying? Can I back that opinion up? I'm not sure I can, but I realized recently that, with the acquisition of a couple Essential Amazing Spider-Man volumes and several Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man back issues, that I had a “complete run” of every Spider-Man series (not counting Marvel Team-Up, since it doesn't have “Spider-Man” in the title). I could basically start at the beginning of Spider-Man's long, colorful, troubled history and read all of it straight through. I've done it before with the Peter David run on The Incredible Hulk, with his Supergirl, recently Fallen Angel... I've gone back and reread Preacher and Powers from the beginning. I could do it with all of the Spidey stuff I've collected over the years, right?

Folks, just the core titles and relevant mini-series and one-shots brings that total easily to 1400 issues. That's where you can set the bottom on “I'm reading all of Spider-Man.” 1400 issues. Good lord, that's a lot of comics. I own them or reprints of them, and I can do it. I'm reading fewer comics these days, as Infinite Crisis and Civil War have pretty much soured me on the Big Two for the foreseeable future. On the bright side, I'm reading more indy stuff, more Vertigo stuff, and there's definitely good comics out there. But no matter how good Strangers in Paradise or Fables or Y the Last Man get, they're not Spider-Man.

When I realized what a monumental undertaking this was, I thought that I should probably keep some sort of reading diary as I went so that I would give the comics due consideration. I also wanted to keep myself from “glossing over” periods in Spider-Man history that were worse than the modern day, because part of my motivation was exploring that concept, that “Spider-Man books are not as good as they used to be.” I'd be thrilled to be proven wrong, and I wouldn't be surprised to hear my opinions change as I go through this little diary/blog/podcast experiment.

Basically, I also thought that people might be interested in hearing my thoughts on Spider-Man. I thought also that people might want to read along and see if they agree or disagree. I thought that the number of people in the world who've ever done what I'm about to do with Spider-Man is probably pretty small. So, I decided that I would post my thoughts in the Internet You're listening to them or reading them now.

And here it is. My introduction to this series on Spider-Man, from then to now. It is my hope that I will gain some perspective on what one can reasonably expect from a Spider-Man comic. I have spent much of my comic collecting life thinking, “Spidey comics used to be better than this.” But the more and more back issues I buy, the more I find myself thinking “thank God I wasn't reading about the Spider-Mobile!” Were they really better? Or is it possible that fans like me pretty much just remember the good stuff or the great stuff and forget all of the idiocy in between?

That's what I want to find out. It is my hope that a few folks out there will be interested in what I have to say and will respond. I'm planning on pacing myself to about five issues a week, writing no more than a page an issue (if that much). Some issues, of course, like ASM 121 or 238 or the wedding annual (just to name three) will merit more consideration, but I'm trying to keep this reasonable. It is my hope to be done with all of this within 7 years. By then, my now-three year-old daughter will be ready to start middle school, I'll be nearly forty, and we'll still be stuck in Iraq. But hopefully Marvel will be publishing Spidey comics, I'll be reading them, and I'll have a better understanding of them.

Let me explain my take on Spider-Man. There are things I'm pretty much willing to say and stand by, and there are things that I'll admit to saying but that might change as time goes on. Besides, it wouldn't be fair or helpful for me to go on a huge, multi-year rant about Spider-Man and not explain where I'm coming from, now would it? By the end, I'll establish a few basic criteria by which I will judge all issues that I read. You are welcome to agree or disagree, but this is my thing, and these are my opinions. BTW, these are all opinions you'll hear me spout at my local comic shop, but that doesn't mean that I'm 100% confident in them. There's a reason why I'm rereading EVERYTHING. These may or may not change as I go through the books.

Spider-Man is not about guilt, he is about responsibility. The movies, especially, seem to have missed this point. It took the tragedy of Uncle Ben's death to wake the headstrong, egotistical Peter Parker to his responsibilities, but Uncle Ben's death did not create those responsibilities. Spider-Man does not always carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. Just trying to do what he should do is enough to keep him busy. Peter Parker is allowed to be happy (sometimes), and he is allowed to try to have a life. It wouldn't be very interesting if he always lived a happy life, of course, but the movies and the recent comics seem to suggest that Peter can never do enough, not even for a day, and that Peter can never be happy.

Spider-Man is not about despair, he is about fun. Spider-Man comics have to be fun. One of the ironic things about the identity is that it brings Peter both great pain and great release, and it brings more release than pain. For every time he's thrown his costume in the corner and wished that he'd never been bitten by that darned spider, there's five or ten times that going out web-swinging is the only thing that keeps him sane. Spider-Man laughs in the face of danger. Spidey is funny, and his books should be moderately humorous. Where has that been? Spidey books seem to be an either-or thing these days. Either they're serious and dark (JMS's Amazing, for example) or they're almost slapstick, but there's no chance of moments of humor to offset the new menace Spidey faces this month. Why would a kid read a book that's just depressing? Why would anyone do that?

My major complaint about Spider-Man through the 90's and the 2000's is the complete lack of a sense of hope. Prior to a series of stories that seemed intent on pushing Spider-Man over some sort of “edge” and into the land of the grim and the gritty, Spidey went through some tough stuff. No one would call the murders of Uncle Ben or Gwen Stacy happy times, but there was always hope that things could get better. In the 90's, however, stories started having blurbs on the covers like “THIS ISSUE--Spidey crosses the line YOU NEVER THOUGHT HE WOULD!” as though Spider-Man as an actual murderer were somehow a desirable direction to go with the character, or as though most of us were living lives where we were equally close to crossing that line. Put simply: Spider-Man is about responsibility, not about vengeance. I don't feel that Marvel gets that anymore, nor do I feel that they've gotten it in some time.

Spider-Man is the coolest super-hero ever. Batman is great, Superman is the original, but Spider-Man's life is kind of like my life (or it was). Spider-Man's troubles are like my troubles. Spider-Man comics are not about action, not about crime, and not about fantasy, even though all three of those are important elements. Spider-Man comics are about the problems he has while he tries to do the best he can with what he can do. In other words, Spider-Man is like me, except for smarter, stronger, and better looking. He's still me. Peter Parker's problems are my problems, except they're more exciting and more complicated. I can relate to Batman and Superman in many ways, and I love the characters. But Spider-Man is the coolest
because he's about as close as a super hero with fantastic powers can get to being a real guy.

BTW, the Hobgoblin is the best Spidey villain since Norman Osborn, and his stories were better written. Sorry, Stan, but Roger Stern did you one better with the Hobgoblin issues. And to all of you fans who disagree with me, tough. This is my blogcast, and you're wrong.

All the things above are my basic take on Spider-Man, but on a week-to-week basis, I'm going to look at three major criteria for the comics, both old and new.

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Find me a modern equivalent to the Master Planner storyline, the Goblin/drug storyline, the Stacy/Goblin/Death storyline, the Owl/Octopus War, the original Hobgoblin storyline, or the original Venom stories (before he sucked). Go ahead, I dare you. Especially in the 616 continuity, they don't exist. The last fifteen years of Spider-Man stories have been nothing but one false start after another, one revamp after another. Don't even get me started on the Clone Saga, bringing back Norman Osborn, or turning Gwen Stacy into a slut.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. We all have people around us, whether we like them or dislike them. We don't live in a vacuum, and neither does Spidey. When was the last time we saw Spider-Man at the Bugle exchanging banter with JJJ, or Peter working with Joe Robertson or even Kate Cushing? No, Peter has been more involved with the greatest super-villain in the Marvel Universe, Tony Stark, and other super heroes than he has been with “real” people. This makes him less relatable. Notice that the best use of Jameson in recent memory has been in Daredevil by Brubaker, and not in Spider-Man.

Speaking of supporting characters, killing characters off is generally bad, but when they're dead, they should stay that way. Norman Osborn was a great example of a character who needed to die, story-wise, and then STAY DEAD. He was way too much of a threat to Spidey (because of his knowledge of Spidey's secret ID) for the two of them to continue fighting over and over. The threat of the revealed secret ID was paid off, and then Norman no longer served a viable purpose, because he couldn't just keep killing off other supporting characters (in story terms, anyway). His legacy (through Harry and especially the Hobgoblin) was powerful and lasting, and his death used to have meaning. Sigh.

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. He's a story gold-mine, and he should be treated as such. His scientific abilities, in particular, have been completely wasted in recent years. When was the last time Spidey needed a Spider-Tracer? A web-shooter? These things did not over-complicate stories--they enriched them. They made Spidey stand out from some of the other super-hero crowd. These elements should be reintroduced to the stories.

Well, that's about it for the introductory 'cast. I reserve the right to change any or all of these opinions over time, except that Spider-Man is the greatest super hero ever. That's just fact, really. Next time I'll dive right in to Amazing Fantasy 15 and Amazing Spider-Man 1-5. By the way, I'm not sure how I'm going to handle the ever excellent Untold Tales of Spider-Man series (along with Amazing Fantasy 16 and 17, also by Busiek). They might get special treatment because they were so great. We'll see.

Until Spider-Man reveals his secret identity and ruins the whole concept of Peter Parker, Make Mine Marvel!



Rainbow Quiver said...

Hi Eric,

I have a friend, not TOO deep into the comic world, that just does not understand the scope, depth, and character (he actually used the word "appeal" ugh!) of Spiderman. I'm absolutely appauled, but my counter-assault is currently limited to what i've read and what I own. While that's a decent amount over the years, it just doesn't cover it all. In your expertise, point me towards the best few series of Spidey to illustrate the breadth of the character, if you will. Many thanks!!

Eric Teall said...

Hey RQ,

My very first suggestion would be to hit the Spider-Man Message Board (see link on top left of my main page) simply because you'll get a better variety of responses.

For my part, when I'm trying to get people in to comics, I have to ask myself what kinds of comics they like. You say that your friend is "not TOO deep" into comics. What does that mean? What are his top three comics right now?

Now, if you want a simple list of great Spidey stories, understand that there really is no such thing. There are personal favorites, there are best sellers, there are "Spidey-definers", etc., but none of those lists is necessarily going to work for your friend.

(BTW, this is a great time to note that Spider-Man does NOT appeal to everyone. I've always been a big Spidey fan, but I've never been a Wolverine fan. I can enjoy a good Wolvie story, but that character does not do it for me. There are many others with "flipped" feelings regarding Wolvie and Spidey. Do bear that in mind.)

Let me make a list on the main page--it'll be its own separate post.

Bottom line, though, is that your friend may simply not be a Spidey fan. I've also seen people come around to the character in time. New comics readers are funny creatures (while old fogeys like me are NEVER persnickety about our reading choices), and sometimes you have to just let them read what they want to read, you know?