Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Miracle Pictographs
    Graphic Novel Reviews by Spencer Ellsworth
August 2009

It's Perfectly Normal To Wear The Suit This Tight!

Civil War, The Amazing Spider-Man: Civil War, Peter Parker, Spider-Man: Civil War, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man: Civil War (Marvel 2007)

Hello, Internet. I have a deep-seated conviction to share with you all today, and a story to trouble the soul.

I testify before this Internet that Spider-Man is the best thing ever. Maybe Superman could beat him up. Maybe Batman could outsmart him -- or steal his girlfriend. Maybe Wolverine could carve him into hors d'oeuvres and serve him skewered on a little claw. But he would still be cooler than all of them.

He has, for one, the best origin story. Okay, the radioactive spider was pretty hokey, but Peter's motivation for fighting crime is genius. It was not just that he lost a parent to a criminal, he lost a parent to a criminal when he could have done something to stop it. Talk about a motivation to drive you the rest of your life.

He's got a rather unique place in comic-book canon. If you look at comic book heroes as representations of mythic pantheons, then the gods represented by Superman, Iron Man, Captain America, Flash, Green Lantern and of course Thor are the straightforward powerful gods -- Apollo, Zeus, Hermes, Ra and of course Thor. Batman, Daredevil, Wolverine and their ilk are the dark gods, Pluto and Anubis. Wonder Woman, whose secret identity is actually named Diana, is of course the huntress of legend.

But Spidey is the only truly enduring trickster -- Coyote, The Monkey King, or, as writer J. Michael Straczynski pointed out many times, Anansi. He survives on quick wits and he acts days before he thinks, usually getting him into trouble. And like all tricksters, he is loveable even when he's laughable.

Spoiler warning: these are crappy Spidey stories, but stories they be, with twists.

Last month I talked about Marvel's big gamble in 2002, the revelation of Daredevil's identity by Corleone-esque writer Brian Michael Bendis and darkly realistic artist Alex Maleev. In Daredevil's case, it paid off amazingly. Bendis and Maleev made Daredevil a must-buy comic for over five years, and the follow-up team of Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark have kept the madness going.

Spider-Man also revealed his identity to the world, in 2006. The difference was, that revelation was the second-to-last nail in the coffin of his book's quality. Between the identity reveal, the terrible The Other crossover, the silly Sins Past story, and finally the dissolution of his marriage in One More Day, Spidey limped from one failed story to another until the Marvel editors had a supposed clean slate. By then most readers were too disgusted to care.

Spider-Man lost his identity as part of Civil War, a giant Marvel mega-event spinning through almost every Marvel superhero book. So though J. Michael Straczynski wrote the Amazing stories, Mark Millar wrote Civil War itself, and Peter David and Robert Aguirre-Sacasa wrote Friendly Neighborhood and Peter Parker, the story itself was the product of many more people -- editors, writers, publicists and the Mighty Marvel Marketing Machine.

At the beginning of Civil War, some undertrained superheroes screw up and force a confrontation with incognito supervillains, right next to an elementary school in a sleepy suburb. One of the said supervillains uses his powers to blow the town, including the elementary school, all to hell.

In the wake of this tragedy, the U.S. government pushes through a bill that requires all superheroes to register with the government and get trained, which includes giving that government their name and address. Of course, in any real world that had people running around with extranormal powers, this would have happened long ago, but if reality reigned entertainment, John Updike would have a lucrative merchandising deal.

Captain America opposes this deal -- in his words, "Superheroes have to stay above that stuff or Washington will start telling us who the supervillains are" -- but Iron Man supports it -- in his words, "Why shouldn't we be better-trained and publicly accountable?"

I really liked Civil War as a series. For one, it was a way to genuinely have superheroes fight each other without mind control or evil contrivance (well, except for editors). Second, Mark Millar wrote it, and as he showed on The Ultimates, he wasn't afraid to take the kid gloves off the heroes and have them be genuinely nasty to each other. Finally, Steve McNiven's crystal-clear, detailed and composed art made the whole thing very pretty. It was a nice exercise in making everything in the safe little Marvel world more dangerous.

I would have liked it even more if Spider-Man wasn't the collateral damage.

In the second chapter of Civil War, as many heroes are already choosing sides, it's clear that Spider-Man is one of the big question marks. On the one hand, he's always been a suspicious figure, more so than any other hero, so why would he trust the public? On the other hand, for those very reasons, he has the most to gain by gaining legitimacy.

Here's where it gets weird. We have the potential for a really good story, one that reveals hitherto hidden sides of Spider-Man, that will show him making his play for the side of the angels at last.

Nope.

To start with, Spidey should have been pretty mentally broken at this point. In 2005's House of M, he lived in an alternate world where he married his college sweetheart Gwen Stacy and was the world's biggest celebrity. At the end of that story, he had that life taken away. Then in The Other, he died and was reborn with totally different powers. But during Civil War, neither of those potentially unhinging events was mentioned.

Pre-Civil War, Peter is asked by Tony Stark, Iron Man, to make a vague promise that he will stick by Tony and support Tony in . . . whatever. (Though anyone who was paying attention to the Marvel buzz at the time knew what it was -- Tony was going to ask Spidey to support him and unmask.)

Peter's response? Tony has already taken them in when their house burned and built Spidey a new techno-savvy suit, so he expresses thankfulness and then says, "You've been like a father to us. Yes."

Now hold on.

First, Spider-Man's age is usually frozen around 27, but the idea that Tony Stark could be a father figure is pretty laughable -- as the Spidey Kicks Butt website pointed out, do Tobey Maguire and Robert Downey Jr. look like son and father? Plus, a billionaire industrialist, suddenly relating to this working-class science teacher/photographer who has always been on the wrong side of the law?

And why bother with this loyalty oath? As we said before, there are plenty of reasons for him to go public at this point, even if he's conflicted. And Peter Parker isn't stupid. An oath of loyalty, no questions asked?

Aunt May gives a rather heartfelt speech to Peter, saying that since she learned he was a superhero, she's been so angry at the world for the way they treated him. But Aunt May's speech is the only real hint of this motivation, throughout any of the storylines surrounding Civil War. He acts like Tony Stark brainwashed him.

The story already feels like a cheat because an event that should come from a lot of deep change and self-realization in a character instead comes off as a dupe, a catch-22 that Peter agrees to far too readily, and it pulls you out already with a "hey . . . wait a minute . . . this is because of the editors, isn't it?"

In the second chapter of Civil War, Spider-Man yanks off the mask at a press conference. Support for hero registration gets an all-time high, and he becomes an instant celebrity. Then he pukes for a good half hour afterward and Jonah Jameson sues him. That was a nice little moment.

Within a few weeks, it has all fallen apart, Tony Stark has built a gulag for rebellious heroes and an android Thor to enforce his will, a superhero has died (a conveniently disposable -- and black, for God's sake, Marvel -- hero named Goliath) and Spidey decides to buck Tony's decrees.

It's not the death of Goliath that does it, though. Peter gets taken on a tour through the massive gulag and told by Tony, "It would be a terrible thing to spend the rest of one's life here, wouldn't it?"

This apparently cracks him, enough that he sneaks away and later goes back on TV to condemn Stark's prison and declare his allegiance to Captain America's outlaw side. Never mind that Stark was working with Green Goblin and dozens of other villains -- Spider-Man's big sticking point was a humane prison for rebellious heroes.

In the scene following his rebellion against Tony, he, MJ and May have one of the worst conversations ever written. Peter is presumably going to tell them what they should do to protect themselves now that he has totally thrown in his hat with the outlaws.

It starts out normal enough, with Spidey affirming that Tony did wrong and he should join up with the other heroes. But he doesn't want MJ and May to be in danger, so they should get the heck outta dodge.

May shows up for five panels, says that she and MJ helped him make the decision, so they should bear with the consequences. Then she walks out, and MJ takes her shirt off.

Bad storytelling? Wait, what about boobs?

It is not as simple as one side or the other, especially not when his family is at risk. Peter can sit the conflict out and not be arrested. He has the press on his side as long as he remains legit, and as a public figure, his wife and aunt are in major danger. There's a lot of inconvenience for being a conscientious objector, but Stark couldn't throw him in jail for it. All he has to do is hang up the mask until Iron Man and Cap's war is over.

But Civil War needs him for the fight scenes, so he goes to Cap's side. Fine. If he must take his wife and aunt with him, then he should find a safehouse or a superhero hot-spot -- maybe he could have the ever-present Wolverine take them back to the X-Men mansion -- where they will be safe.

Instead, he hides out with them at a roach-infest hotel, and he walks around with no more disguise than sunglasses and a hat, with his face on every paper.

Of course they had to do that, because Aunt May gets shot in that hotel, taking a bullet meant for Peter, leaving her near-death and Peter desperate to save her, willing to make a deal with the devil and erase his marriage what the **** -- sorry, still ahead of myself.

The other two Spidey series, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man and Peter Parker, Spider-Man, did a better job of exploring some of the possibilities of the reveal. In Friendly Neighborhood, Peter gets attacked in the school where he works while trying to explain to his students what he was doing, and then he deals with a tell-all memoir by an old girlfriend. In Peter Parker, among other stories, an old friend, angry over what she perceives as Peter's duplicity, tricks him into the hands of some B-list villains.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, writer of Peter Parker, pens the best Spidey stories of the three titles, truly nailing the character. Besides his wonderful take on Aunt May and Mary Jane and Peter's old flame Liz Osborne, he writes a great little story about a science nerd in Peter Parker's classroom watching as his teacher is outed. Doctor Octopus, naturally, goes after Spider-Man, really angry once he's learned that Peter has been Spider-Man since he was fifteen. Muttering, "first time we met -- fifteen year old-boy," Octopus attacks Spidey in front of the school. With a little help from the science nerd, and the girl he likes, who is "rethinking her status" on geeks, Peter takes out Octopus for the billionth time.

In his teeny 16-issue run, Aguirre-Sacasa nailed Peter, Mary Jane and Aunt May's personalities, brought in old supporting cast members, and truly made use of the identity reveal. The liquid-quick pencils of Clayton Crain on a few of his stories were great too, and Ron Garney, Angel Medina and Todd Nauck deserve credit for making this whole abortion at least a pretty abortion.

Looking back now, it's clear that the ID-reveal was always part of the strategy to get to One More Day and erase Peter's marriage, that personal demon for Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada. So Spider-Man reveals his identity, switches sides, is wanted by the law, is shot at, his aunt takes the bullet, and, desperate, he is willing to do anything, even give up his marriage to Mephisto the devil. Revealing his identity is the one thing he can never undo, the one thing that will ruin his life -- so therefore the editors planned it as collateral for the deal that would take his marriage.

And so what should have been one of the coolest, most earth-shaking Spidey stories of all time instead became a mass emotional manipulation.

Of course, you're getting into this any time you deal with franchise characters -- imagine how bizarre Harry Potter would seem if he had over one hundred books in his series, dozens of writer, and fans constantly clamoring to "make it more like the Rowling days."

This is why Daredevil is a better book than Spider-Man and always will be, because in the end Daredevil has a small contingent of fans and little merchandising appeal, so hey, if you think you can raise sales by revealing the identity, Mr. Writer, go ahead. But Spider-Man Underoos pay for six-figure salaries, so the guys who write the checks have turned into the guys who write the stories.

Good thing I have Daredevil to wash the bad taste out of my brain.

(One of these days I'm going to take all the passion I feel for Spider-Man and devote it to some charitable cause, like helping orphaned children or reversing global warming. And on that day, the world will get that much closer to being a better place, because dang, do I get worked up about Spider-Man. Arg.)

Read more by Spencer Ellsworth


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