Wednesday, February 6, 2008

SM:FBFW ASM 121-122, Part Three

Spider-Man: For Better or For Worse?

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

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

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. Now, in this post, it's time to talk about something that is really the proverbial elephant in the room for mainstream comics these days: continuity, consequence, and responsibility.

So, first, there was continuity. It's probably the single defining element of the Silver Age, if you think about it. Instead of cool powers or imaginative plots being the focus of comics writing, suddenly characters and their lives and soap operas became the focus. Sure, there were cool powers, and sure, there were imaginative plots, but very few things that came out of the Silver Age comics were particularly novel. Galactus, the being who would eat the world? The Skrulls, the shape-shifting alien conquerors? The Hulk, an atomic-age Jekyll-and-Hyde? The Inhumans, a hidden society of super-beings? Seriously. These are ideas that had gotten plenty of play in literature, sci-fi lit, or even the movies for some time before Stan and Jack got to them.

Instead, the model character, the banner character for the Silver Age was Spider-Man, and soap opera is essential to Spider-Man, as I think this series of articles has proven time and again. Soap opera can only work when continuity is introduced. The Golden Age didn't really have continuity in a meaningful sense, but with Spider-Man (and Marvel as a whole, of course), the concept of continuity became a commonplace thing in comics.

And what good is continuity without consequences? Here's where the shift from the Silver Age to the Bronze Age really takes place, and the Death of Gwen Stacy storyline is the fulfillment of the need for consequences. Consider one of the conventions of superhero comics: the secret identity. The in-story reason for the secret ID is simple: the villains are so dastardly, and the hero so unbeatable, that it just stands to reason that if the villains really want to hurt the hero, they will strike at his family and loved ones. Well, it follows from this that if a villain were to ever discover a hero's identity, that villain would then kind of have to attack the loved ones. After all, that's what we keep saying is going to happen, right?

In the Golden Age, before continuity, such threats were effectively hypothetical in nature. Superman can't get a stamp with his picture on it because he might get postmarked in Kalamazoo, MI, have the “oo” over his eyes, and have someone recognize him as Clark Kent because if a villain... etc. Or the dreaded event might happen, but then the story is really about how the hero will reclaim his secret. (Robot duplicate? Stand-in superhero buddy? Time-travel? Memory manipulation?) By the end of the issue, however, the threat is gone forever, the cosmic-reset button is pushed.

In the Silver Age, though, continuity leads to the threat losing its power over time. After all, Norman Osborn knew Peter's secret for eighty issues before he attacked. Oh, sure, he had amnesia, but the amnesia never held, and the secret identity threat would be trotted out, shown off, and put back in the bottle... But if you're going to threaten, and threaten, and threaten with no pay-off, why threaten in the first place? Story-wise, it was put-up or shut-up time for the House of Ideas, and in more ways than one. After all, continuity also meant that Peter couldn't really have a perpetual girlfriend. In the Golden Age, Lois Lane could chase after Superman for decades punctuated only by the occasional masturbatory imaginary stories of marriage, and everything was fine. In the Silver Age, Peter had grown. No longer a high school student, he'd been in college for several years. Characters around him had gotten married, gone off to war, changed “irrevocably.” He couldn't just date Gwen for all that time... and continue to date her for another six, seven, ten years.

Continuity, which had given Marvel their power, now also demonstrated its burden: the need for consequence. Again, how many times could Peter and Gwen break up? If the Golden Age had stories with virtually no continuity, then the Silver Age had continuity with virtually no consequence. And, meta-textually, that had to change. If you look at interviews with Conway, Romita, etc., they all talk about how they “had” to kill Gwen because they couldn't marry Peter off, and they couldn't break the two of them up convincingly. In other words, they'd created a “perfect” relationship that could only be destroyed from without, never from within, and it was messing with the consequence model for the Marvel Universe to that point.

What was the consequence model? Up until 1973, it was the classic “illusion of change” idea. Inconsequential things could change, but big things could not. However, no storyline was permitted or explored that would require long term change. Sure, Reed and Sue got married, but let's be honest--they were already pretty much married at the beginning of the series. All marriage would provide was a baby. Tony Stark was still stuck in the armor, Cap was still a man out of time, Bruce Banner was still the Hulk. These were, in many ways, classic Golden Age style story engines that provided new stories on a regular basis. Had Peter and Gwen never gotten serious, Spidey's girl-troubles might well have provided a similar constant story engine.

Instead, they got serious, and the seeds of the Bronze Age were sown. The “illusion of change” was no longer an illusion. Something had changed... and the creators weren't ready to handle it. And in there lies the real problem: responsibility on the part of the creators.

In short, I'd argue that responsibility means that if you choose something, you own that choice and its consequences. Creators are responsible for their characters and situations. Creators are the ones making the choices, after all. Part of choosing the situations is creating the rules of the situations. Once those rules are established, they have to be followed. When creators don't follow their own rules (or the rules of their shared universe), bad things happen. These bad things range from poorly written stories to retcons.

If Spider-Man epitomizes the success of Marvel's continuity-driven concept, he also epitomizes its failures, especially now. With continuity comes lingering choices, with choice comes consequence, and with consequences come... more consequences. With all of this comes reader expectation, which firms up into rules, and those rules have to be obeyed. As JMS himself points out when discussing Quesada's eventual OMD decisions about how the Mephisto deal would work: “It made no sense to me. Still doesn't. It's sloppy. It violates every rule of writing fiction of the fantastic that I and every other SF/Fantasy writer knows you can't violate. It's fantasy 101.”

In other words: Once you set up a certain set of rules and expectations, you live by them and you die by them. Creators have a responsibility to play by the rules. Readers have a legitimate expectation to read stories created according to those rules.

I'd add to that the idea that the creators have a responsibility to create the best stories that they can given the resources that they have, and that the “Death of Gwen Stacy” storyline is not the best they could have done. Can I prove this? No. What makes me believe it? The interviews with the creators that I have read where they essentially say, “We didn't know what else to do, so we killed her.”

What needed to happen at this point in Spider-Man's life as a comic-book character is this: A decision had to be made about what the best direction was for him. Conway and Romita made that decision, and to their credit, they made it stick. At least they understood that Spider-Man had to deal with real consequences. For 1973, I think we can argue convincingly that this was “enough.” (I'm going to argue against that later, but I can see the argument and accept it just to move along.) No major comic book character had ever been killed as Gwen would be killed. Spider-Man, the reasonably happy-go-lucky superhero (who lived with angst but joked about it), would have the love of his life brutally ripped away from him. He would truly be affected by it, would be driven to the edge by it. He would be reminded of it repeatedly over the coming years, both by Conway and by others. This shift from simple continuity to real consequence is the line that ultimately separates the Silver Age from the Bronze Age.

And if the story was only two issues long? If Spider-Man were only really driven to the edge for the functional equivalent of ten hours before reasserting his basic heroism? Look, it was 1973, after all, and that's the way these things went. They were two good issues. Two classic issues. Excellent art. Dark overtones. Real emotion. If you've been slogging through this rambling looking for my opinion on Amazing Spider-Man 122, there it is. The issue is a success for its time, and if it doesn't know how to handle its own ramifications and consequences? If it doesn't know what it has done to comics as a whole? Well, that's the subject for next time.

(By the way, totally unrelated to most of this--I own a battered original printing of Amazing Spider-Man 122, and I compared it to my much cleaner reprint in Marvel Tales 192. The coloring has been completely redone. The color of the Goblin's skin, the color of the sky, of everyone's clothes... completely different. It's really pretty interesting, but I'm not enough of a color expert to be able to explain what exactly changes in terms of feel or mood. However, if you have a chance to compare two different printings of this, I'd really encourage you to do so. Crazy.)

To Be Concluded

Eric

Excerpt taken from:

Brady, Matt. “ONE MORE (MORE) DAY? JMS EXPLAINS HIS ENDING.” Newsarama.com. Accessed February 6, 2008. http://forum.newsarama.com/showthread.php?t=141756

4 comments:

Jared said...

This illustrates one of the greatest weaknesses of a shared universe though, doesn't it? One writer or book makes a series that ends up spilling across the entire line. Civil War is the classic example-pretty much every hero is affected by it to a certain extent, and these massive crossovers and 'events' work their way into the books whether the different creative teams want them or not.

Reading Madgoblin's analyses, I notice an underlying current of sympathy for Peter David in that David never really got the chance to tell HIS stories, that he was always either dealing with the fallout of JMS's mystical plotlines, or Civil War. The stuff he did have going was trampled by the need for the spider-books to deal with the big company event of Civil War.

And if it hadn't been gotten rid of by One More Day, future spider-writers would have had to put up with the consequences of JMS's changes. Like it or not, Morlun, the Totem, and the Goblin Babies would all be part of the spider-history, and they would, by necessity, affect future storylines.

And, as time goes on, for nigh on to four and a half decades now, future writers increasingly have to deal with more and more continuity and canon if they take up established characters. And if the guy in the kitchen before you didn't leave you any clean knives, or left you with a limited choice of spices, then you can be limited in what your creative choices are.

In a shared universe, you're greatly affected by what the other guys in the sandbox do. If you don't want to play, or they end up breaking one of your favorite toys before you're done with it...well, T.S.

And, as Madgoblin said, sometimes creative types HATE to have their creative freedom restricted. It's necessary to some point, but afterwards it can really cramp your style.

That's kind of what happened with me writing Sleepwalker-picking up where Bob Budiansky left off simply wouldn't cut it. Reimagining the various heroes and villains was in some ways essential for the themes I was hoping to touch on. If I were to follow in Budiansky's footsteps, SLEEPWALKER would have been a much, much weaker series. Fortunately, the editor of the site where my work is posted is an awesome guy, and he gave me my own section where I could write my own continuity without stepping on anyone's toes, or anyone stepping on my toes. I'm grateful to him for it, since it allowed Sleepwalker to be the best it could be.

Tying this back into the notion of continuity and change, changes can drive away readers if they're not to the readers' tastes. Had I not been in diapers in the early '80s, much less even alive in the 1970s, I would have had a grand time reading the spider-comics in that era, likely even moreso than I do now because I wouldn't know what was going to happen. But now, after Sleepwalker got me back into comics, the changes and consequences that arise from them over the last decade do not impress me, and so I did not collect any longer.

Sometimes the changes and their consequences simply don't work-some of the posters on the Comicboards Spider-Man forum, for example, are remarking on how Spidey finally seems like himself again, in a way that he was not under JMS. As I've said before, I'm neutral on the marriage, kids and all that...but with all the headaches resulting from clones, totems and unmaskings, it seems almost like Peter Parker has been embroiled in one life-changing spectacle after another for well over a decade.

Change is good, if applied in moderate doses. However, there are times when a little of it goes a very long way. The fallout of a major event, if handled correctly, can generate years of storylines without needing to shake up the status quo. Conway and his successors handled it very well-Spidey was quite capable of dealing with other things even as the major events were going on, and the events weren't the only thing going on, for that matter.

Eric Teall said...

This illustrates one of the greatest weaknesses of a shared universe though, doesn't it? One writer or book makes a series that ends up spilling across the entire line.

Well, that's a little bit more what I'm going to say in Part Four: Get some f-ing self-control and take responsibility for your choices as a creator/editor/etc. Civil War was just badly written and poorly conceived on several levels, so its spillover was bad. If Marvel actually had someone minding the store, they would have long before put the kibosh on anyone saying, "We should register heroes! That's what would happen in the real world!" Why would they do this? They'd do it because they'd understand that the "real world" and the "Marvel Universe" are NOT the same place and that they go by different rules.

If ANYONE thinks about this for two seconds, they'll see that the normal rules of what would happen in the "real world" got thrown out decades ago under Stan and Jack, and no one cared. How could Galactus show up, threaten the world, and disappear without MASSIVE societal upheaval? Alien invasion? The people of Earth would have long since elected a new Hitler to lead them to defend the planet, I guarantee you that.

Doom would be emperor.

Reading Madgoblin's analyses, I notice an underlying current of sympathy for Peter David... The stuff he did have going was trampled by the need for the spider-books to deal with the big company event of Civil War.

That doesn't change that some of David's stuff was completely inaccessible to the average fan. The Evil Uncle Ben/Spider-Man 2211/Hobgoblin 2211 stuff was OUT THERE. I was glad to see it, but I'm not sure even I, who own a complete run of Spider-Man 2099 and love it dearly, knew exactly what was going on.

Besides, PAD is a big boy who knew what he was getting into. (I will say, though, that I wish they'd let him take over Ultimate Spider-Man.)

And if it hadn't been gotten rid of by One More Day, future spider-writers would have had to put up with the consequences of JMS's changes. Like it or not, Morlun, the Totem, and the Goblin Babies would all be part of the spider-history, and they would, by necessity, affect future storylines.

True, but under a better editing team, such stories would either never have been told or would have been done right. I have no trouble with the Goblin twins IF they're the Stacy-Parker twins. Seriously, how cool is THAT idea? The way they let it go out, though? UGH.

And, as time goes on, for nigh on to four and a half decades now, future writers increasingly have to deal with more and more continuity and canon if they take up established characters.

Damn it, Jared, you're bringing up a bunch of stuff that I was going to hit on in Part Four!!!! ;-)

Seriously, I'll deal with that one later.

And, as Madgoblin said, sometimes creative types HATE to have their creative freedom restricted. It's necessary to some point, but afterwards it can really cramp your style.

I tend to side with Robert Frost on this one, who argued that the structure of things like blank verse actually required MORE creativity and MORE skill to learn to work with them. If Billy is not "creative" enough to work with what he's given, then he should go home.

The exception to this, of course, is that it is necessary to know when to put an end to an incarnation of something, end it, and restart. A better executed Crisis on Infinite Earths would have been nice this way.

That's kind of what happened with me writing Sleepwalker-picking up where Bob Budiansky left off simply wouldn't cut it. Reimagining the various heroes and villains was in some ways essential for the themes I was hoping to touch on. If I were to follow in Budiansky's footsteps, SLEEPWALKER would have been a much, much weaker series. Fortunately, the editor of the site where my work is posted is an awesome guy, and he gave me my own section where I could write my own continuity without stepping on anyone's toes, or anyone stepping on my toes. I'm grateful to him for it, since it allowed Sleepwalker to be the best it could be.

The difference is, though, that you're really doing a kind of "Ultimate Sleepwalker." That's cool--I'm currently working on something similar for the Star Wars Prequels--but that's not the only way to deal with stuff.

Plus, you might have found some ways to make the best of Budiansky's stuff that would have surprised you. You never know.

Tying this back into the notion of continuity and change, changes can drive away readers if they're not to the readers' tastes.

True, but that's what makes company A superior to company B at a given point: a sensitivity to what readers need. Marvel used to have that. Now, they don't.

Check out John Seavey's current series on "How to Save Marvel Comics" where he takes Marvel to task on this. Insightful stuff. (fraggmented.blogspot.com)

Sometimes the changes and their consequences simply don't work-some of the posters on the Comicboards Spider-Man forum, for example, are remarking on how Spidey finally seems like himself again, in a way that he was not under JMS. As I've said before, I'm neutral on the marriage, kids and all that...but with all the headaches resulting from clones, totems and unmaskings, it seems almost like Peter Parker has been embroiled in one life-changing spectacle after another for well over a decade.

That's because of poor leadership. Nothing more, nothing less. At this point, Marvel should Crisis their whole line--616 and Ultimate--and start from scratch with iconic versions of the characters.

Change is good, if applied in moderate doses. However, there are times when a little of it goes a very long way. The fallout of a major event, if handled correctly, can generate years of storylines without needing to shake up the status quo. Conway and his successors handled it very well-Spidey was quite capable of dealing with other things even as the major events were going on, and the events weren't the only thing going on, for that matter.

Well, I'd argue that change is only good... when it's good. Radical change can also be good--it's just more of a risk. You're right, though: events are only worth doing when their ramifications are adequately explored--that's part of the responsibility thing.

Eric

Jared said...

-You're absolutely right in that Stan and Jack got rid of the rules long ago, but in a way it's kind of fun to come up with explanations as to why things "work" the way they do.

Why do they all dress up in costumes? Given the last seven decades of influence from Superman and Batman comics, is it any real surprise, it'd be more surprising if a lot of people DIDN'T end up doing that for various reasons, if that's what they've been conditioned to think that people with superpowers do?

Why do so many smart people use their talents to commit crime, when they could make a fortune with legitimate ventures? I'll answer that when you answer why all these real-life organized crime figures, art forgers, counterfeiters, sophisticated smash-and-grabbers, drug lords, and all these other guys, who commit crimes that require exceptional intelligence, daring and skill to pull off, don't just use their talents for legitimate gain.

Where do the villains get all their fancy gear, customized to match their motifs? Easy-shady corporations like Hammer Labs, Roxxon, Baintronics, and others all make special gear to order, and they ask no questions. Given the way arms trafficking works in real life, who's to say corrupt corporations wouldn't specialize in making the snake-themed hovercrafts of the Serpent Society, the Green Goblin's spooky equipment, or anything else themed and weird?

-As far as the Stacy-Parker twins, I heard an unconfirmed rumor that there would end up being some tension between Peter and...well...the daughter who looks like Gwen. I don't know if it's true, but if it is...

Pardon me while I go throw up.

-As far as Robert Frost goes, I agree that it can be a fun challenge to try something more complicated, and off the beaten path...but one would assume that in Frost's case, he actively chose to take up that creative challenge. When the choice is dictated by editorial, executive meddling, or other choices, it can be more of a hindrance than a help. That's what I mean-if you want to try something new and unusual, more power to you. But when the choice is dictated, it can really cramp what you're planning to do.

-It's possible that I could have built on Budiansky's stuff, and in some respects that's what I've done-fleshed out the Mindscape, elaborated on the society of the Sleepwalker race, and other things that would fit comfortably with canon.

The catch, thought, is the personal growth between Rick Sheridan and Sleepwalker. While the series was cancelled, editorial was gracious enough to let Budiansky and company wrap everything up in a final issue to give the series a proper send-off. But by the time the series ended, Rick and Sleepwalker had both already greatly developed and overcome some of the initial hurdles in their relationship-which was the crux of what I wanted to explore.

I wanted to explore the nature of having your life completely and permanently changed by circumstances beyond your control, and in some ways Rick had already fully adjusted and come to terms with it, which meant I'd end up unable to properly explore one of my most important themes.

-I've been reading Seavey's stuff on his blog. We need him as EiC of Marvel.

-I can't help but think that Crisising the whole Marvel line would lead to screams of outrage from long-time fans, who view Marvel's four decades of continuity as what distinguishes it from the Distinguished Competition. I personally wouldn't be sad to see it go, but you can imagine the protests of people who think their comics are somehow no longer valid.

I would reply that everything that's happening now post-'Crisis' would be on Earth-617. Earth-616 and everything that happened there would all still technically be in continuity, but now we're on a "different" Earth, so to speak. That way, the Crisis would be done in a way consistent with Marvel Universe cosmology.

As far as the creative teams behind the relaunches, if I were in charge I'd reserve Sleepwalker for myself, but all the iconic characters would be up for grabs.

Eric Teall said...

-You're absolutely right in that Stan and Jack got rid of the rules long ago, but in a way it's kind of fun to come up with explanations as to why things "work" the way they do.

Oh, definitely. The difference is, though, that people like Bendis and Millar have decided that the rules of the real world now do apply to the MU... except when they don't. (GAG)

-As far as the Stacy-Parker twins, I heard an unconfirmed rumor that there would end up being some tension between Peter and...well...the daughter who looks like Gwen. I don't know if it's true, but if it is...

Pardon me while I go throw up.


Well, she was supposed to be the spitting image of Gwen, so that would definitely be weird. However, any decision by editorial or the writer to tease that as a potential sexual relationship would be a hideous travesty of everything good and holy in the multiverse.

-As far as Robert Frost goes, I agree that it can be a fun challenge to try something more complicated, and off the beaten path...but one would assume that in Frost's case, he actively chose to take up that creative challenge. When the choice is dictated by editorial, executive meddling, or other choices, it can be more of a hindrance than a help. That's what I mean-if you want to try something new and unusual, more power to you. But when the choice is dictated, it can really cramp what you're planning to do.

Sigh. I hear what you're saying. I really do. I'm just saying that good or bad, previous editorial decisions are what a writer's stuck with. It's kind of a stare decisis thing ("let the decision stand"), which says that, unless you've got a rock-solid reason to overturn a previous decision, live with it. That's part of the challenge of being a writer of serial fiction, especially in a shared universe.

-I've been reading Seavey's stuff on his blog. We need him as EiC of Marvel.

As long as he hires me to write, I'm right there with you.

-I can't help but think that Crisising the whole Marvel line would lead to screams of outrage from long-time fans, who view Marvel's four decades of continuity as what distinguishes it from the Distinguished Competition. I personally wouldn't be sad to see it go, but you can imagine the protests of people who think their comics are somehow no longer valid.

All stories have a beginning, middle, and end. A classy send-off to the current universe would assuage many people's feelings, and those that can't take it need to get out of town.

I've said many times that I could deal with Marvel changing its history--even somehow retconning the marriage--if they could do it in a classy, non-DEAL-WITH-THE-DEVIL way. What really ticks me off about Brand New Day is that they don't have the balls to admit what they've done.

Finally, (and again, this is more for part four) I'd argue that Marvel is currently ignoring such a HUGE percentage of its potential fan-base that, were they to tap into that potential, they wouldn't need any of us old fans. More on that later.

I would reply that everything that's happening now post-'Crisis' would be on Earth-617. Earth-616 and everything that happened there would all still technically be in continuity, but now we're on a "different" Earth, so to speak. That way, the Crisis would be done in a way consistent with Marvel Universe cosmology.

I disagree. Collapse the current Marvel cosmology, end it, and start 100% fresh. No Infinite Crisis for the MU, please. Once the old is done, it should be done.

As far as the creative teams behind the relaunches, if I were in charge I'd reserve Sleepwalker for myself, but all the iconic characters would be up for grabs.

Again, as long as Seavey hires me for Spider-Man, you can have Sleepwalker. We'll do a cross-over--I'll have my editor call your editor.

Eric