Here’s a little something different, and something I hope to make a regular part of my blog.
Before I really embraced the cinema, my passion was comic books (before that it was ice hockey and the NHL, but that’s another story). I collected them, read them fervently and often feverishly, devoured interviews with creators, and even tried my hand at writing reviews and comic book stories for my comic collector’s club newsletter. And the first comic book character I really embraced and loved was Spider-Man. This was the late seventies, not necessarily a golden age for the character, but he was still the marquee character for Marvel with two solo titles (“The Amazing Spider-Man” and “Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man”) and his cross-over “Marvel Team-up,” plus the reprint “Marvel Tales,” where I could revisit the old Steve Ditko stories and the handsome John Romita run. Here was a smart but geeky teenager, a social nerd at the low end of the high school pecking order, who found himself with wondrous powers that he felt obligated to use to protect the citizens of his city – because his inaction led to the death of the uncle who raised him – but was unable to use them to make his out-of-costume any easier. This was a hero that an adolescent reader could embrace and identify with.
Spider-Man and Batman are, to my mind, the two great comic book icons, and they couldn’t be more different. Batman is the dark knight, driven to be a vigilante out of rage and obsession. His social counterpart, Bruce Wayne, is a cover for his real identity as a grim hero who works the night and uses his costume and his attitude to create an enigma, a symbol of dark justice. He doesn’t care if he’s loved by the city. He’s just fine with being feared. And his drive is laced with an arrogance that he no longer even notices. He’s staked out his territory and his tactics and no one is going to tell him otherwise. He’s a magnificent creation and remains, if anything, even more interesting now than ever before.
Spider-Man is both a responsibility and a release valve for Peter Parker, who keeps his identity secret to protect his loved ones more than to protect himself. He’s branded a villain by the news (especially The Daily Bugle) and he can’t catch a break. He’d love to be liked and it hurts him to be maligned for his sacrifices. His private life is in a state of melodrama, and any sustained period of happiness is doomed to be shattered. There’s a soap opera aspect to it, of course, but it’s a mythic soap opera, the Hero’s Journey with a human vulnerability and a modern urban grounding. He’s the working man’s hero, wisecracking as he saves a citizen from a mugger or the world from an alien attack because he finds a joy in his work, and because sometimes he faces threats so intimidating that it’s the only thing that keeps him from panicking.
The Spider-Man comics have gone through all sorts of permutations and cycles over the 45 year run and many of them have been pretty, let’s say, mediocre. A lot of the scripting really doesn’t hold up decades later (especially the exposition-laced dialogue of the seventies and eighties comics, a pale continuation of the sixties Stan Lee style that somehow, even today, still feels more organic) and the storylines are repetitive. There was a renewed vogue for the comic in the nineties thanks to Todd McFarlane’s dramatic and busy artwork (that was the time that Venom and the black costume were introduced), but I was not impressed by the run. Otherwise, it was the rogues gallery that kept the title alive so much of the time.
I had not bought a comic book from the newstand or comic shop in years when I returned to comics through graphic novels and bound collection reprints. That was how I checked in on the character, and how I first discovered J. Michael Straczynski’s run on the flagship Spider-Man title, “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Within the first few issues, Straczynski brought the character back to life with a sharp focus on character and powerful relationships with a resonance that hadn’t been felt in the comic for years.
[SPOILER ALERT – I discuss the major story developments of Straczynski’s run in the following paragraphs. Read no further if you have not read them and don’t want these plot points revealed.]
From working through the strains in his marriage with Mary Jane (under Straczynski’s hand, their time together is the most satisfying portraits of a loving marriage I’ve seen in comics) to sharing his secret identity with Aunt May (who Straczynski made a central player with a vibrant identity and a strength of character so often missing from her earlier portraits) to his relationship with Tony Stark (aka Iron Man). Stark became a real father figure to Peter Parker, the first since the death of Uncle Ben in the origin issue, and not just as the man behind the hero. He encouraged Parker to embrace the fledgling scientist that had been so long neglected.
Straczynski brought Peter Parker to a state of happiness through love and friendship, to a place of trust and respect with the great heroes of his world, to a family that made his problems their problems. The eternal loner, who might cooperate with the Marvel heroes who carry the stamp of authority from the government, never remained with them after the fight was over. He never felt that he belonged. For a brief moment, Tony Stark reached out and told him that he did belong and Captain America confirmed it with his nod of approval.
And then Straczynski took it all away.
Straczynski helmed the title through the Civil Wars, the company-wide seismic shock through every comic book in the Marvel stable. In a nutshell, it was the fight over the Superhero Registration Act, the law the obligated all superheroes to not only license themselves but take their direction from the government. There were, of course, objections from skeptical heroes who had long worked in their own maverick fashion, but Spidey put his trust in Stark, the good company man who sided with the government, and defied his own instincts. It wasn’t necessarily Straczynski’s decision to unmask Spidey to the public, but he handled the whole story with maturity and intelligence, and he charted the devastating fallout with emotional power.
Narratively, Spidey’s break with Tony Stark and his allies in the registration fight tosses the hero back into his old alone-against-the-world place in the hero hierarchy, hunted not just by the law but by half the heroes in the world. But the sense of betrayal that came from Tony Stark, the man he put all his faith and trust, the man who gravely mishandled the conflict and (directly or indirectly) killed a respected hero, makes it all the more devastating. The unmasking made his predicament all the more mortal. What he’d been afraid of all these years, that his loved ones would be targeted by his enemies, came true with a vengeance.
But Straczynski also took Spidey through a literal rebirth that explored another side of the identity, a totemic connection to an animistic dimension of the hero, his powers and his origins. It’s not a rewrite of the radioactive spider origin story, but an addition that gives Spidey a connection to the mythic world (one that Parker himself doesn’t necessarily embrace). As in his landmark science fiction TV serial Babylon 5, it straddles Darwinism and creationism: evolution in a world where there are spiritual forces beyond science, and where those forces face the same predatory laws of survival as the natural world. It’s a supernatural perspective that reminds me, at times, of Neil Gaiman, rethought for the superhero mythology.
There were missteps in the run (the children of Gwen Stacey felt like a throwback to the contrived storylines of the seventies – Straczynski himself was frustrated by the direction it took and discussed his compromised version in an interview reprinted in the final collected volume of his issues: “One More Day/A Brand New Day”) but overall it featured some of the best stories ever in the character’s run. And for all the controversy of the final issues of his run, “One More Day/A Brand New Day,” it solves the unmasking problem with a sacrifice that removes the last bedrock of support that grounded Peter Parker’s life in happiness.
Straczynski’s six year run on “The Amazing Spider-Man” gave us strong characters, evocative relationships, dramatically potent conflicts and interesting stories of a level rarely seen in mainstream comics. Superhero melodrama may be a rarified genre, but Straczynski brought it down to Earth, offering resonant human drama behind the four-color battles of gods and monsters. His storyline is not really a self-contained run, but it creates a distinctive and compelling story arc that ranks alongside the greatest comic books ever written, or at least those I’ve had the pleasure to discover.
Time permitting, I plan to revisit comic books, graphic novels and comic book storytellers that interest and intrigue me. Let me know if it interests you too.