Wednesday, February 13, 2008

SM:FBFW ASM 121-122, Part Four

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 121-122 (For the last time, I promise!)

Part One: Eric and Gwen: A Love Story
Part Two: The Necessity of Death (and Life) in Fiction
Part Three: Growing Up: Continuity and Consequences
Part Four: Playing Nice, Playing Smart

In Part One, I tried to establish the mind-set with which I first encountered the fact of Gwen's death and my own prejudices regarding it. In Part Two, I established my basic criteria for judging character death in fiction: The quality of the death story (and its consequences) has to outweigh the quality of the potential future stories featuring the character in question. In Part Three, I discussed the inevitable relationship between continuity, consequence, and responsibility.

So now, then, we come to a point where judgment must be rendered on the Gwen's death issue, both in concept and in execution, and it can't be a snap judgment. As a child, my personal prejudices led me to a powerful “They shouldn't have killed Gwen!” opinion that stuck with me for a long time. But I'm not a child anymore, and that opinion bears revisiting. However, a judgment on Gwen's death sets a precedent for judging many other consequences in comicdom, and that's where this particular post is going to lead. There's a few questions that need answering:

1) Should they have killed Gwen?
Answer: Yes, they had to.
The Spider-writers had to kill somebody. It could have been Aunt May or it could be Gwen, but not for the reasons they cite. The reasons they cite for killing Gwen were (and are) pathetic ones that stem from creative cowardice and ossification.

“We had to kill Gwen because they couldn't break-up.” Bullshit. Not only could they have, but they probably should have. All it would really have taken, even by 1973 standards (which were lower, and that's okay--it was the state of the business), was for Gwen to find out the secret ID, freak out, and bolt. “You lied to me, Peter! You lied to my father! I never want to see you again!” There you go. That story would have totally worked.

“We had to kill Gwen because they couldn't get married.” Okay, I'll grant the last part, but not the first part. If Marvel is unwilling to move the Spidey story-engine into the “married super-hero” phase, especially in 1973, when their core audience was the 8-14 group, I'll go with it. That doesn't mean she had to die.

The real reason they had to kill Gwen was about consequences and responsibility. Comics had been teasing the “If the villains knew who I really was, they'd attack my loved ones” argument for decades. You tease long enough, you'd better deliver. BOOM. They did. Right there is the shift from the Silver to the Bronze Age. People argue different points, but especially in the context of Spider-Man, there it is. The line.

2) Why, then, did Eric argue that “Gwen shouldn't be dead”?
Answer: Because I was eight, and I haven't really had to look that idea full in the face until this.

George Lucas (I think it was Lucas) told an interesting anecdote about The Empire Strikes Back one time that explains this. He said that they found that kids who'd just seen Empire fell into two basic camps: Those who thought Vader was lying, and those who thought he wasn't. One of the key dividers between those groups was age: little kids couldn't believe it, older kids could. Once kids grew up a little bit, they could handle the idea of the good guy having a bad father.

There's a part of me that always wants the good guy to win, to make the right choice. It's the same part of me that still insists he believes so that Tinkerbell will live. That's the part that, no matter what, wants Gwen to live. It's a good part of me, a part I don't want to lose, but it's not a part that should rule.

3) What should they have done differently?
Answer: Ah, that's the $64,000 question. In short: let the characters grow, even if the status quo goes through a situational reset.

Let the characters grow: Either break-up Gwen and Peter or have them get engaged. Either one would have been fine. Give it... six months to a year of stories (in 1973 time, 12-36 issues of stories in current “decompressed” time). I'd have her discover the secret ID, but that's me. Ultimately, deliver on some of the potential of the relationship one way or another. A break-up makes the inevitable death easier on the reader, engagement makes it harder.

Reset the status quo: If they decide that a single Spidey is the way to go (I don't entirely disagree), then keep him single. Have the break-up/engagement change things up for a while, focus on the two of them, and then kill Gwen. Peter falls back on his support systems: school and the Bugle. This puts him in familiar situations but gives them something new to deal with for another six months to a year of stories.

4) What's wrong with the current books, then? They aren't afraid of the big changes!
Answer: No, but they are still afraid of consequences, and that needs fixin'.

Current books have, in many ways, gone the opposite direction of the Gwen Stacy death: They'll kill anyone at anytime to get a shock, but then never deal with it. They'll screw up any character (Iron Man, anyone?), have anyone act out of character, and then claim that it's “development” or “progression.” One MAJOR event follows another: “Disassembled” to “House of M” to “Civil War” to “World War Hulk” to “Secret Invasion.” All in... what. Five years? All the mutants disappear, Iron Man takes over the world, Cap is assassinated, Hulk declares war on the Earth, and the Skrulls have been invading since 1967?

All of these are big shockers, and they're full of widescreen, big-plot moments. But where's the character? Is Reed Richards the same in Civil War as he is in, say, Amazing Spider-Man or Fantastic Four? (Considering that his reasoning for supporting Registration in ASM is completely different from his reasoning in FF, I'd say no, but...) If something major happens in of the storylines, are the repercussions of that event explored in subsequent issues? Are they allowed to have real consequences? I would argue “no.” There may be immediate consequences, but these kinds of rapid-fire events DO eventually “fatigue” the readers, who ultimately care more about character than they do about plot.

5) Isn't this article called “Play Nice, Play Smart”?
Answer: Yes. Yes it is.

Not breaking the shared toys is “playing nice.” There are more Steve Rogers stories to tell. There are more Tony Stark stories to tell. (Indeed, the Tony Stark I grew up with hasn't been seen in YEARS.) There were good Gwen stories to tell. Until an established character is truly played out, it is generally unwise to kill them off or ruin them. There are always exceptions, of course, but the cavalier attitude of both Marvel and DC towards their supporting characters has been nothing short of appalling the last few years. Characters are resources, not used-up lightbulbs.

Planning for future stories as one makes the current ones is “playing smart.” I'm not just talking about creative summits to “coordinate” the chaos of a new crossover. Make sure future character development has more than a tangental relationship to past character development. Look for sources of conflict within current supporting casts and villains before creating a new one. This isn't about stifling creativity--it's about playing the old toys to their potential before casting them aside for new ones.

Playing nice and playing smart means writing responsibly. These characters, these universes, are built on continuity, and bad choices on the part of the writer destroy continuity, which destroys the universes and the characters.

In the end, if you have continuity, accept that there will be consequences. Since there will be consequences, choose wisely and then take responsibility.

Well, I hope that made an ounce of sense. We'll be back to our regularly scheduled format with the next entry.

Anyway, let's check my Spidey-Standards against this week's reading list:

1) Spider-Man stories were better then than they are now. Could it have been better? Yes. Could it have been better in two issues? No.

2) Spider-Man's supporting cast is essential to good Spidey stories. How can I even comment here?

3) Peter Parker is not just a secret identity. Seriously, doesn't this go without saying?

All right, that's it for this week. Up next week will be Amazing Spider-Man 123-127! Until Marvel brings Norman back from the dead to “fix” a crappy story, Make Mine Marvel!



Jared said...

This just goes to show once again that, with great power, comes great responsibility.

I wonder whether they couldn't have killed off Aunt May instead, thus sparing us any more of those storylines where May is ill, or she acts like a senile dingbat.

Eric Teall said...

Short answer: With their attitude at the time (and now) being "Peter can't get married and we can't break them up!", the only person to kill was Gwen.

Long answer: Gwen really was probably the superior choice in every respect. Ultimately, May is Peter's caretaker, and while he has to protect her from his life as Spider-Man, he doesn't bear the same kind of responsibility for her that he would for his girlfriend/wife.

Also, since Norman is clearly an evil father figure, there are sexual undertones in his threatening Gwen that couldn't be reached with May, and that makes the whole situation that much more tense and creepy.

The real answer to sparing us crappy Aunt May stories is to bring in writers that don't suck and writing Aunt May... Like JMS, ironically enough.

BTW, I have to say that I like it when you post as "jared" and not "anonymous." I'm not sure why, but I'm always glad when you sign-in.