Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
January 2008

Can't two androids and a werewolf have a chance in this crazy world?

Spider-Man: One More Day, Breaking Up: A Fashion High Graphic Novel

And now: A Very Special Miracle Pictographs.

No opening jokes. I feel like my heart's been peeled and cored.

In case you missed it, Spider-Man is no longer a married man. It's a long story and I'll try to tell it as quickly and wittily as possible, but it's long and painful and confusing and kind of makes me cry.

I try to be skeptical. I've been reading Spider-Man comics since 1989, and I'm very aware that Spider-Man is a franchise character. His writers have to keep giving us the same stories we've grown up on, only they have to make them more exciting and dangerous, which means they have to change things up, but not too much, or else they won't give us the same stories we've grown up on. So they kill off supporting characters for pathos and then the next writer brings them back because the story needs supporting characters and then kills them again for more pathos. For instance, Peter's old high school tormentor Flash Thompson has been, since I began reading, dead, the Hobgoblin, an alcoholic, in a coma, a victim of amnesia, and Peter's boss. Exhausted yet? Don't be. That's just writers. That's assuming the editors don't decide that they need to make massive sweeping changes, like making Spider-Man a clone, turning Venom into a hero, killing off Aunt May or bringing Peter's dead parents. Those have all happened, too.

Yet … I don't care. Every time I pick up a Spider-Man comic and see a man in red-and-blue tights swinging across the city, I get giddy. I love Spider-Man. A good Spider-Man story brings back the moment when I first read Spidey's origin story. I suffered with a reclusive nerd, rejoiced when he was suddenly gifted with a life he could have never dreamed of, then cried when he was saddled with the guilt of one moment's mistake. One good story can bring back the nights I lay awake imagining what it would be like to swing through the canyons of New York, or secretly being able to knock out the jerks at school. That's well worth three bucks a month.

With all that, One More Day, despite the fact that it's a contrived and out-of-character twist, is the most painful thing I've read in years.

There's been a running debate for years whether or not Peter Parker is better off as a married man or as a single guy. Marvel comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada loudly declared that he wants Peter as a young single guy, which creates more problems because he can't divorce Spider-Man or make him a widower and keep him young and hip. One More Day is supposed to be the story that "fixes" the marriage for good. Then there's the other side of the coin -- all the fans who have been reading the comics since the marriage occurred in 1987 (around six years ago comic time -- it's like dog years in reverse) and who like the marriage.

Also, for the last eight years Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski has written Amazing Spider-Man, putting Peter through some serious paces, some good, some bad, all ambitious. When his writing worked, as in the storyline where Aunt May finally discovered Peter's secret, it was fantastic. Other times he fell from the tightrope, like the "Other" crossover in which Peter died, was reborn and gained new powers … and the fans collectively vomited, ensuring that the new powers were never mentioned again.

One thing Straczynski has consistently nailed is Peter's marriage to Mary Jane. In one of his best issues, MJ and Peter had a major disagreement in between superhero battles. After Spidey leaves the scene of the fight with Dr. Doom and Captain America, MJ, looking at Captain America, says, "One other thing -- you never introduce me to your friends!" At the end of the issue, a chided Pete takes the time to introduce his "very special friend Mary Jane" to Captain America. If there is one thing fans will remember from his run, it will be that he never took the easy, cheap way out on the marriage. Spider-Man and Mary Jane had real problems but they loved each other and worked to resolve them.

(He wasn't the only one, not that Quesada will listen. David Michelinie's early 90s run was probably the best-selling continuous group of Spidey comics, launching the careers of industry bigwigs Todd MacFarlane and Erik Larsen, and Spidey was married the entire time. The time the Spider-Man books dipped into dangerous sales territory was when some very bad writers tried to write out the marriage in the mid-90s "Clone Saga" -- by having Peter revealed as a clone and replaced by the "real" Peter, who also happened to be single. Need I say it didn't work?)

Fast forward to now. In One More Day, Spider-Man, having revealed his identity to the world as part of Marvel's Civil War storyline, has had to pay for the mistake when a sniper shot at him and hit his Aunt May. Already on the run from the law -- another consequence of Civil War -- Spidey now has to face the fact that his aunt will die, and it will be his fault. This is a guy who already blames himself for his uncle's death, and for his girlfriend Gwen Stacy's death, and pretty much any other bad thing that happens within his vicinity. Naturally, his problem is not so much that his aunt will die, or that he can't pay for her hospital visit, but that he can't stand to live with himself if she dies. He will, in his own words, "break himself in two."

So -- deep breath here -- the devil appears and offers Spider-Man his aunt's life back. In payment, Peter and MJ have to give up their marriage. Not an eternity burning in hell -- the devil isn't into that anymore -- but they have to let their marriage never exist, with a small part of them screaming forever in torture and pain over the remembrance that, apparently, the large parts of them won't remember.

I don't have room to list the plotholes. The biggest one, of course, is the idea that the devil, this guy who revels in torture in pain, would rather have a "small part screaming in torture" than witness Peter's pain over losing his aunt and having it be his fault. But then again, this is essentially a selfish choice. An unheroic thing to do. And it damns Peter, which the devil is still into, I think.

Let's go back to the Clone Saga for a minute. The entire arc was predicated on one idea that just didn't work. Peter Parker, after discovering himself to be a clone of the "real" Spider-Man, was supposed to break down completely. But Peter Parker, as readers had known him for years, was not the type of person who could be undone by that. Even if one forgets that he was a scientist who would know very well that being a clone was no more significant than being an identical twin, he was not unheroic enough to wallow in pain and misery while the big bad supervillains were out causing problems. Spider-Man works because he will go out and fight supervillains even when he's in the midst of massive personal pain.

So now we've got a Spider-Man who is tormented by his own pain. He can't live with himself if Aunt May dies. That's very in-character for a guy who has traditionally been consumed by guilt over his Uncle Ben or his girlfriend Gwen's death. More true to Spider-Man than the Clone Saga, certainly.

But still, the dissolution of the marriage is not a heroic act, which goes against Peter Parker as we know him. One More Day is one long round of selfishness. This is Spider-Man refusing to be a hero and choosing to spare himself his own pain. This is him giving into Macbeth's ambition, or Lear's pride, and anyone who can see story logic, meaning anyone who's read Aristotle's Poetics, will know that it's setting up one hell of a fall. It shouldn't be treated as an awesome reboot story. If we take it seriously, it's the fall of a hero into villain territory.

What's more, this is emblematic of the problems within Quesada's "Spider-Man should be young and hip!" mantra. Spider-Man was fifteen years old in 1962, when my dad was twelve. J. Jonah Jameson used to tell him, in the original run, to "go buy yourself some Twist records" when he got paid. He's always been older than his target audience -- eight-to-twelve-year-olds -- and he's always going to be, not just a sympathetic hero, but a role model to them. I'm twenty-seven now -- more or less Spider-Man's permanent age -- and I'm married. I have a kid, I go to graduate school, and guess what? When I was twelve, I read comics about a married Spidey who went to graduate school and who thought about having a kid. He was my role model. My hero. Now, it makes a good story to have a hero do something very unheroic. But only if, as in Spider-Man's origin story, they pay very deeply for it.

Before I finish with this very long review, let me say that One More Day is worth reading. It's well-drawn -- Quesada's style can be both beautifully realistic and quirky fun -- and well-written. It's very moving despite the plotholes. It has "editorial mandate" written all over it, as have the last few years of Spider-Man stories, but it still succeeds. I personally recommend you vote with your wallet and read this in the aisle of Barnes and Noble's, because Marvel doesn't need any more support of their heroes and role models being bad examples. But it's not the festering piece of crap the fans have said it is. It's just Act One, and let's hope a writer and editor come along who are brave enough to write Act Two.

Whew…

(For one of those good Spider-Man stories with no glaring problems, see the recent Coming Home, The Hunger, Down Among the Dead Men or any Ultimate Spider-Man collection. Done now, promise.)

Having embarrassed myself already by revealing the depth of feeling I have for Spider-Man, I'm going to go all the way and say that Breaking Up: A Fashion High Graphic Novel is seven shades of awesome. It would be the perfect "after-Christmas" present for any preteen girl you might know, but judging by my wife and my reactions, it'd be good for anyone else.

Georgia O'Keefe High School is a center for the arts where the students are so into having their own style that it's been dubbed "Fashion High." The story revolves around a breakup -- not between girls and boys, thought that's in the periphery -- but between four girls who have been best friends since elementary school. Artsy Chloe, angelic Erika, sassy Isabel, and wild MacKenzie have been friends for probably ever. But junior year is different. MacKenzie's obsession with popularity has led her to spend more time with the school's queen bee, which hurts Chloe, but since Chloe is secretly attracted to a nerd whose social status would murder MacKenzie's, she lets herself drift apart from her friends -- while Erika has trouble with her boyfriend pressuring her for sex and Isabel tries to get around her parents' decrees. It gets more complicated as Chloe's relationship with a nerd is outed, MacKenzie cheats with queen bee's boyfriend, Isabel dates a boy secretly and Erika breaks up with her lustful yet sensitive man. Like well-meaning friends who have started to take each other for granted, they take it out on each other and suddenly realize that a friendship they thought would last forever has been completely wiped out.

It sounds cheesy, but it works. Aimee Friedman, the author, is already a well-known young adult writer, but this is a story that could only be a comic book, as evidenced by Christine Norrie's beautiful renderings of the visual puns. When Chloe says that she and her friends "clung to friendship like a raft," we get a beautiful rendering of them sailing in a stormy sea made up of words like "acne," "sex" and "cliques." When Chloe's friends discover her kissing Adam, her nerdy boyfriend, Chloe pictures herself as a Puritan woman wearing a large, presumably red (it's a black-and-white comic) letter K. She will never live down the Kiss.

Norrie's artistic genius doesn't stop there. The girls look beautiful and sexy, but not in the typical exploitative way of superhero comics. These are fashionistas, and they sashay through the comic like queens of a shopping district sidewalk. Half the time I thought I was reading just because some part of my soul wanted to get up the nerve to ask them out.

Breaking Up hits all the right points for teenage angst, so that by the time you're done reading you might not even realize how much angst you've just been through. Aimee Friedman is able to conjure up all the pain of high school relationships and popularity, yet make it far more glamorous than any high school has a right to be.

For a long time people have complained that comics, for the most part, are aimed at boys. My thirteen-year-old sister-in-law will read Simpsons and Futurama comics, and independent cute stuff like Bone, but she stays mostly away from the superheroes that fulfill all my adolescent fantasies. It's a big problem, too, since comics can spike preteens' reading levels better than all the green vegetables in the world.

Friedman and Norrie have made the ultimate preteen comic that will scream for girls to buy it and have guys secretly reading it as well. The only problem with Breaking Up is that it isn't the first of a ten-book series coming out once a month. I demand MORE.

Next issue: A little reprieve from all the drama as we visit that Family of Families, the Fantastic Four, in a tribute to late artist Mike Wieringo. And possibly a comic that isn't Marvel.

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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