Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Spidey's back!

Today I've got three quick things that I failed to work into last week's post about Spider-Man. A warning, though: comics, clearly, are off my usual beat, and we're getting pretty deep into the weeds on this post, so if superhero comics aren't your thing, you might duck out and come back later.

1 I can't believe I failed to note the appeal of Spider-Man's driving idea: With great power comes great responsibility. For an eleven-year-old, it doesn't get much simpler, or profound, than that. Then you add in the fact that Peter Parker is perpetually discontented with being Spider-Man--which is confusing to a kid because who wouldn't want to be a superhero?--and you've got a potent recipe for adding emotional complexity to simple stories, and beginning to introduce a young reader to irony, contradiction and ambiguity. And all with six lines that I'm guessing Stan Lee came up with over lunch one day when he had some pages to fill and no more time to get it done.

This will give you an idea of how much time I used to spend with each issue back in 1986: I used to pore over the Post Office–mandated Statement of Ownership, Management and Circulation that Marvel ran in each title once a year. Seriously--the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man I read, #275, included it, and I was fascinated from the start. The USPS required them to list their base subscription price, their ownership down to holders of 1% of the stock, bond-holders, and, most interesting, their "Extent and Nature of Circulation"--numbers that I watched and compared, year after year, like the young nerd I was. They printed 476,932 copies of issue #275, down a bit from the twelve-month average of 498,367. Of those, a stunning 169,577 on average came back as returns from newsagents and stores. The death of the drugstore spinner rack solved that problem for comics companies, but I bet they'd be willing to take it back if they could get those overall circulation numbers back with it. (Oddly, DC never ran that statement; presumably they were set up under a different type of mailing license?)

3 To close, I'll share a discovery I made about fifteen years ago when I was reading through a long run of issues from the late 1970s. That period wasn't one of Spidey's best--it feels stagnant, with Peter Parker is running in place, so that more than at any other time you can feel the drag of having characters who can't really age. And in issue #188, from January of 1979, there's a letter from Kurt Busiek, at the time a reader but later to be an innovative, clever writer of comics for Marvel and other companies. I'm going to quote at length both because I haven't spotted this letter elsewhere online and because Busiek, at eighteen, did a remarkable job of diagnosing what was wrong with Spider-Man at that moment:
Dear Marvel,

When Spider-Man first appeared on the comics scene, he was immediately a smash hit because (if we are to believe the hype) he dared to do what had never been done before-to be unpredictable, to have that funky element of real life that you never know what's going to happen next. Spider-Man is stil the same as he was back then. But this is not such a good thing. Spidey is still daring to be different, but different from whwat super-heroes were in 1960. He was unpredictable back then, but he has now established a record of doing "unpredictable" things over and over again. Speculating about what will happen next in Spider-Man is like wondering if the good guys will win on your seventh viewing of Star Wars. Spidey has degenerated into a red-and-blue Mego doll; other than the fact that he's a nice package, he's the same as most of the other super-heroes around. He is no longer in the vanguard.

I was talking with some friends about issue #182 where Parker proposes to Mary Jane. It was fairly obvious that she was gonna say no. I mean, when has Marv Wolfman ever exhibited the urge to change something so it shows? Still, we mused, Spider-Man's concept is that of radical change. Wolfman is the new writer, so maybe he's trying to bring back the old unpredictable Spidey. We were wrong. We were caught on guard.

After so long with Gerry Conway and Len Wein, I thought we might be seeing daylight with Marv. So maybe his Spider-Woman and Nova mags aren't up to par. Dracula certainly is. Maybe we'll see that taut chracterization, those nice conflicts, in a super-hero mag. Maybe not. Blast! The idea of a married Parker, bouncing between a teacher's assistant job, the Bugle, home strife, and the usual plethora of super-villains, really appealed to me. It would open up a new vista of stories, guaranteeing that the writer would do something new. But with MJ's turn-down in #183, it is not to be.

I'm sure that Marv thinks he has gobs of "new, exciting ideas that'll really throw ya for a loop, effendis!" But I doubt it. You can't kill off another supporting character, and I'm sure readers wouldn't want you to. You've done it twice (Capt. Stacy and daughter), it won't be any good again.

But maybe you could clear up some of the long-running plot threads and replace them with new ones we're not expecting. Spider-Man's biggest gimmick is his cavalcade of personal problems. What's wrong with his life that hasn't been done before. A three-year-old could clear up Parker's life. Take his "wanted by the police" schtick. That has not only been over-used in Spider-Man, but in most of Marvel's other books as well, not to mention a few of DC's. Why not clear him?

Is Spidey in the forefront of the field today? When people ask that question Marvel usually points to the sales figures and says, see, see, ain't he great? Well, that red-yellow-and-blue goon at DC has pretty impressive sales figures, too, but in no way is he in the artistic forefront of the industry. Which is where Spidey was back in the Stan Lee days. Spider-Man was once famous for his radical changes. Not raditional comic book "changes" that appear for about eight issues and fade away to be replaced by the standard. I mean lasting changes like Peter's high school graduation, his love life, and the Gwen Stacy affair. Something that will still be important fifty issues later.

This may seem a little emphatic and overemotional, but believe me, this letter has been building for some time. The Mary Jane affair was just the proverbial straw. Thanks for the chance to berate you like this. It may not help, but it makes me feel better.
The editors' response is very polite, if a tad defensive--but most amazing is that they apologize for not having printed his letter in full! There's more that they cut out!

Seems to me there's only one proper response to a letter like that: "All right, kid, send us a script. Let's see what you can do."


  1. Yes, but . . .
    Even if Kurt Busiek sent in a solid script that pushed Spidey in a new direction, that wouldn't necessarily assuage Marvel. Making the change, presumably, is not difficult. What scared them was the question, Would the other readers follow? The problem wasn't that one script, but the script fifty issues down, when Parker was married, had two kids, and a beer gut.

  2. True: the diagnosis is the easy part. And it's not like Spider-Man's stasis was the worst of that period. Good god, that was the time when it seemed like every single issue of The Incredible Hulk opened with Bruce Banner waking up somewhere new, confused, then getting angry. hulking out, and fighting some guys, then bounding off. Repeat for a decade.

    It's probably a sign that I was always essentially older than my age that I was really excited when Peter and Mary Jane finally did get married in 1988--and I was completely surprised when other fans weren't, and, eventually, when the writers got bored with that stability and decided to rip it up. To teenage me, Peter was so clearly a stand-up guy, and Mary Jane so clearly loved him, that surely they would just make this work. (And good god, couldn't they just give the guy something for once?)

    But you're right: that's the real dilemma of serial narrative, especially when you're dealing with characters that people have very strong attachments to (and that also, these days, are very valuable properties). You have to find a way to simultaneously have the characters always in the thick of new things and staying enough the same to always be familiar and welcoming.

    My dream wherein Marvel back in 1961 also decided to let its characters age, so that we would now be on the third or fourth generation of Marvel heroes, is so clearly unworkable in that context. Alas.