Monday, February 4, 2008

SM:FBFW ASM 121-122, Part One

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

This Week's Reading List: Amazing Spider-Man 121-122

The end of the Silver Age. 'Nuff Said.

(This post is going to be... a little long. I'm mostly through with what we might as well call “Part One”, and I'm at six pages, which is long for a For Better or For Worse post. Clearly, I'm going to have to break this one up, and I might as well post it part-by-part. So...)

Part One: Eric and Gwen: A Love Story
Okay, there's no easy way to say this: I'm scared to write this post. I've been thinking about it for... pretty much the entire time I've been writing this series, and I've been actively thinking about it since the last post. Since I'm currently late on the post that was due February 3rd, that puts it at a little over a week. Combine that with my OMD/BND complaints, as well as my Ultimate Spider-Man complaints (both of which, I'm realizing, come out of my hatred of Gwen's death), and thinking about this post has been a little like peeling the proverbial onion and finding there's lots, lots more than one expected underneath. It's not an exaggeration to say that I'm a little afraid to unravel this whole knot and find that there's nothing at the center, since much of my love of Spider-Man seems bound up in these two issues.

Or I could be exaggerating, after all. I guess we'll see.

For any Spider-Man fan who started reading after 1971, Gwen has always been dead, and her death has long loomed over the Spider-Man mythos. It's so big that the movies had to include IT even if they didn't include HER. It's so big that Bendis had to have the scene, save Mary Jane, and then throw Gwen away for no reason at all over in Ultimate. It's the tragedy of tragedies, the fulfillment of the ever-constant premise of the secret identity: If my enemies knew who I really was, they'd threaten my loved ones. It gets even worse when you realize that the love-interest in a male-centric story is the externalized feminine half of the hero and, thus, the reader. Ultimately, Gwen Stacy's death is the fear that lurks in the hearts of all true super-hero fans, who clothe themselves in their idols' adventures and identities: If people realize how weak I am, they can hurt me anytime they want.

I don't mean to summon up the stereotypes here. I'm not interested in Comic Book Guy or fanboy-bashing. However, we have to face facts: superheroes are, at their core, adolescent male wish-fulfillment vehicles. How else to explain why superheroes have never really worked with women? Wonder Woman, when written best, is not a superhero. She's an adventurer, a myth, a role model... but put her in a situation where she's “fighting crime” and she falls apart. Most “pure” female superheroes are pale imitations of male superheroes OR they are supporting characters made from bad stereotypes.

I would be remiss in my duties here if I didn't note that Superman himself, the archetype of archetypes of superherodom, was the creation of two young Jewish men in the early twentieth century. That little story has been recounted many times in many different ways, and I am no expert on the psychology there. All I can say is this: I see virtually all “pure” superheroes, and all of the superhero conventions (secret ID, arch enemy, hideout, etc.) as male adolescent wish-fulfillment devices. They are for me, I'll tell you that much, and since this is my blog, that's what matters. If you want to argue the point, fine, but as far as I go, and as far as my opinions go, that little core (male-adolescent wish-fulfillment) is the atom, the indivisible, the unalterable. It is true for me and is the basis of my opinion.

In other words, you can argue the point outside of me, but you cannot argue that point about me, personally. (BTW, I will be getting back to Gwen's death. I promise.)

A bit about me. By all reports, I loved superheroes from the moment I saw them, much to my father's chagrin. My dad is a sportsman. He was a great tennis player, he loves to fish, loves the outdoors, etc. He wanted the same for (and from) me. He got a comic book nerd. Even as a boy, I didn't care about sports, fishing, the outdoors... I cared about guys in spandex. I watched The Incredible Hulk and The New Adventures of Wonder Woman. When I was three. In my house, the term “the Spider-Man with white webs” was a perfectly clear and understandable identification of the Nicholas Hammond show (as opposed to the 1960's cartoon, which had Spidey swinging on black webs). The earliest recording of my voice is me singing all the words to the classic Spidey theme song. (“Pider-Mah, Pider-Mah...” etc.)

On the playground, I was the superhero expert. I wanted to know things about superheroes, and I wanted other kids to play by the rules. I remember one argument, in particular, where my friend Zead wanted me to tell the future with my “spider-senses” and I tried to explain to him that the spider-sense didn't work like that. (Except when it did, when Stan was into the good stuff, if you know what I mean.)

Eventually, I found a series of books on the main Marvel heroes. The Spider-Man one was written by some no-talent hack named “Roger Stern.” (That's a joke, folks.) We found it at the library, I checked it out, and I read it from cover to cover, over and over. It was wonderful. It even had a reprinting of the very first Spider-Man story from a comic called Amazing Fantasy. It also contained this paragraph:

“But, once more, tragedy entered the life of Spider-Man. One of Spider-Man's deadliest foes was the Green Goblin. When the Goblin discovered Peter's secret, he kidnapped Gwen. Spidey battled the goblin, and eventually the web-slinger won. But Gwen, lovely Gwen, was killed.” (Stern 31)

Let's step back from Spidey for a second and talk a little more about me, because that paragraph just doesn't have the weight that it needs, not all by itself. Despite my love of comics featuring men in spandex and a tendency to memorize musical theater productions (both of which spawned the typical accusations), I have always deeply loved and admired women. I was the kid who chased the girls at recess and tried to kiss them. I never, ever, ever, thought girls were “icky” or “gross.” I got depressed at Valentine's Day at the age of five. I was in love with Daphne, but I would have settled for Jessica, Amanda, Sally, Tania, or Arthena. (The latter four there were girls at my school. Daphne only had eyes for Fred, of course.)

I had a recurring dream/fantasy where one of the bad kids at school would hold one of the aforementioned ladies hostage on the roof of our elementary school. He would eventually throw the girl off the roof... and I would catch her. She would notice me, realize that I had saved her, and fall deeply in love with me, and all would be right with the world. (Of course, I also sent a check for three dollars into a comic book ad hoping to get a “hypnotist's medallion” to use on these girls in case my classmates never snapped. I'm still waiting for the damned thing in the mail. It's guaranteed to work or my money back! Buffy Season Six was more than a little disturbing to watch.)

I'm not here claiming that I'm sane or normal, but that was the kid that I was when I first encountered that little paragraph in Stern's book. There's also a reprinting of Amazing Spider-Man 80 in there, where Peter and Gwen manage to sneak off at a party and grab some necking time... almost. So, it turned out, one of my two favorite super heroes (Batman was up at the top back then, too), who was smart (me), brown-haired (me), and who had a secret, powerful side that no one else could see (also me, I thought), had had what I'd always wanted almost as much as super powers: the love of a beautiful woman. And a bipolar, evil father figure took that away from him. (Me? Not if you had asked me then, but the concept touched me.)

Oh, wow. “Gwen should not be dead,” I thought. I remember some small part of my heart raging against that fact, against that paragraph with the belief in both fairness and fiction that only a child can muster. From that moment on, Gwen was, in my heart and mind, the only girl for Peter, and she should not have died. It was a bad move on Marvel's part, on the writers' part. Do you remember when you got to the age where you realized that movies could be bad? When you'd get to go to the theater and see a film and come away from it not completely enthralled, but saying, “Eh, it was okay, but...”? This, for me, was one of the beginnings of that revelation.

In my heart, I still believe it: Gwen should not be dead.

To Be Continued


Excerpt taken from:
Stern, Roger. Spider-Man: The Secret Story of Marvel's World-Famous Wall-Crawler. 1981. Children's Press, Chicago.


Jared said...

Given that Gwen died a good decade before I was born, I have a somewhat different perspective...but oddly enough, one that still has some remarkable parallels.

I first got into the Spider-mythos through the 1960s cartoon, which eventually lead into reprints of the old Stan Lee run. I met Gwen before I met MJ, and I saw how well she connected with Peter. I also didn't see her fiery, hard-edged side until much, much later, which helped to cement my view of what she should be like.

Hence, I too was outraged with JMS's little retcon, which we won't go into here. I think part of the reason for my anger ties back into your main point here, about male wish fulfillment. I was livid because it depicted Gwen as someone who would climb into bed with someone she barely knew, someone old enough to be her father, apparently on a whim. In my mind, it cheapened her and made her look bad, rather than someone who would be deeply and powerfully devoted to the one she loved. We didn't need any more proof that Osborn is an evil son of a bitch-all it did was make Gwen look bad without really adding anything to Osborn.

Madgoblin theorized on how, as time goes on and people tend to focus more on the positive memories than the negative ones, and people remember Gwen more for her kind heart and good nature than for whatever hot temper and nasty attitude she may have occasionally manifested...and those attitudes get picked up by later generations of fans like myself.

And, admittedly, whatever else some of my female characters are, they have traits that reflect my own ideal mate and some of the girls I tend to be attracted to. That's not to say that they can't be fully developed and intelligent characters in their own right. It's quite possible, even probable, that Stan and his successors wrote some of these kinds of traits into Peter's love interests over the years.

Hell, a lot of what I write with Sleepwalker is in many ways really personal, and sometimes the underlying themes reflect my own views and dilemmas...which ties back somewhat into the wish fulfillment you mention. I'd like to think, however-and this is something Stan was really good at with his Spider-stories-is that a lot of it is kind of hidden in the background. It's there if you look for it, but you can enjoy the main plotline even if you don't get it.

Lastly, it's also interesting to note how one's reading tastes can be influenced by what goes on in their life-your identifying with Spidey in part because of his relationships with the girls, and my liking Spidey because of his social difficulties, or Sleepwalker because of how Rick Sheridan is forced with trying to figure out how to deal with a major change in his life that he can't do anything about, but that he has to live with anyway.

Eric Teall said...

I don't think it's just interesting--I think it's fundamental. I've thought for a long time now that people can only love themselves, that people only want what's best for themselves, and that this goes triple with fiction.

I'm not arguing that people are pathetic, selfish pigs. I am arguing that people can only understand what they have in themselves. If there is something that we hate, we hate it in ourselves. If we fear something, we fear it in ourselves. If we love something, we love it in ourselves.

(BTW, I'm not sure I believe this 100%, but it has been in my mind for quite a while.)

I hope that makes some sense. I'll try to get to the rest of your post later this week, but now it's time for bed.

Thanks for responding and not ridiculing--that was a scary post to.. post. You know?