Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Twenty-five thoughts about Spider-Man for his fiftieth birthday

1 The first Spider-Man comic I ever read was issue #275 of The Amazing Spider-Man.

2 I was eleven and a half, an age when that extra half-year retained some vestigial importance. Spider-Man the character was twenty-three. Peter Parker was somewhere in his vague late twenties.

It was the first issue of a subscription I'd signed up for using an ad in a G.I. Joe comic. I don't know why I chose Spider-Man over G.I. Joe, but I do remember that it cost $7.50 for sixteen issues. The cover price at the time was $.65, though within months it would rise to $.75.

4 The issue arrived the day of the Challenger explosion, January 28, 1986. I remember lying on my stomach on the floor of the living room reading and re-reading the comic rather than watch the video being replayed and solemnly discussed. I won't pretend I took refuge in thoughts of "If only Spider-Man were real"--I was eleven, and smart enough to know better--but I did appreciate being able to bury myself in this fantasy story rather than watch the reality.

5 That issue was a good place to start: not only did it feature a full-fledged battle with the Hobgoblin, but it also included a reprint of Spidey's origin story from Amazing Fantasy #15, the comic in which Spider-man had made his first appearance.

6 Twenty-seven years later, two aspects of that comic, and the experience of reading it, stand out strongly: the sense that there was something real and important at stake in Spider-man's battles and his life--that Peter Parker was an adult facing adult problems--and that by starting to read this comic I was entering into (and possibly, if I was lucky, would become part of) something bigger and longer-lasting than me, a piece of a story that stretched far back into the past.

7 This was issue #275, after all. And the cover proudly proclaimed that 1986 was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Marvel Universe. Twenty-five years! Add in the annuals (18 at that point for Amazing Spider-Man)--to say nothing of the other two active Spider-Man titles--and you're talking about 6,000 pages of Spider-Man adventures, all happening to the same hero with the same friends in the same city.

8 For an American kid, especially an American boy, it seems like there's never a time when you didn't already know Spider-Man, and Superman, and Batman. You knew he was Peter Parker, and that he was a good guy. But that was about it before the mailman brought the comic that day.

9 Reading that 275th issue, the 6,000th or so page of an ongoing story, felt like being thrown into a deep, fast-moving river--but one that was surprisingly buoyant, so that I quickly realized that I didn't really need to worry about swimming, but could just let it carry me along.

10 What I mean is that many things were instantly clear. The Hobgoblin was Spider-Man's arch-enemy. Peter Parker was grown up now. His old girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, had been killed by the Hobgoblin's predecessor, the Green Goblin. His girlfriend now was Mary Jane Watson--and, surprisingly, she knew he was Spider-Man. He had a sleek new black costume. Peter was working for the Daily Bugle, and he had a number of friends who themselves had problems, but none as big as Peter's: the responsibility of being Spider-Man was wearing him down.

11 All of that came through in just 22 pages. And in addition, there were flashbacks--and editorial notes, too, alerting readers to the earlier issues in which they could find the stories the characters were referring to.

12 The result was a feeling of being invited into an incredibly populous, complicated story that stretched farther back into the past than my eleven-year-old brain could comprehend--and being invited in comfortably. By the time I got to the end of the issue, I was hooked.

13 And there at the end was the letters page, which sank the hook. Letter after letter from fans who clearly lived and breathed this stuf, full of praise, criticism, ideas, and--most important right then--speculation about the identity of the Hobgoblin.

14 When you're that age, some combination of brain plasticity, near-pathological focus, and endless free time combine to make it possible for you to utterly absorb new information in a  way that, looking back, seems almost unfathomable. I read and re-read that issue, did the same for each one that came over the next year, and with the help of cross-references, letters pages, and digging for cheap back issues, it didn't take long before I knew Spider-Man and his world. (I would do the same for baseball history a few years later.)

15 I thought then, and I still think now, that I got lucky and entered at a high point. The mid-1980s were a good time to be a fan of superhero comics, especially on the Marvel side. The Marvel universe was riding high, with a huge number of titles that were each selling ten times what issues today sell. They were still widely available in spinner racks in drugstores, groceries, and chain bookstores. And they were cheap, relative to their competition for the youth dollar--just a bit more than a candy bar.

16 Oh, the seeds of the fall had already been sewn, and were even beginning to sprout. The age of the crossover had begun just a few years before, and the collector-frenzy bubble was clearly starting to inflate. But at the time it all felt like a big, cohesive universe just bursting at the seams with stories.

17 I gave up on comics after high school and stayed away for a good while after that, but I've been back for several years, and for the most part it's been enjoyable. It's still fun to open the mailbox and find a comic book there.

18 When I made my first trip to New York as an adult, it was hard not to see it simply as the embodiment of the city I'd seen in Marvel comics for years. Even now, I find myself look at the tops of buildings and imagining what it would be like to see Spider-Man up there.

19 Reading superhero comics as an adult requires accepting some frustrations. The characters, still resonant from childhood, draw you in, but the stories often disappoint. Frequently they're simply not very good, or are too juvenile even to serve as simple entertainment. But more often the problem is the ways the characters and stories are being deformed by external forces.

20 Comics, I think, suffer more than any other form from the demands of money and marketing: characters are regularly being re-conceived, storylines thrown up in the air, whole histories shuffled, in order to meet the needs of a current crossover plan, or align a story with a forthcoming movie, or simply match up to a new marketing strategy.

21 Movies, of course, also suffer from the demands of money. But a movie, even an installment in a series, is wrapped up in one sitting--mistakes and bad decisions, however maddening, are contained in that one unit. With comics, however, what you're buying is a serial narrative, a story that implicitly promises to keep going, month after month, continually adding to the skein that's been being woven for decades. When marketing or sales needs force changes that essentially abrogate that promise, the damage isn't so easily contained.

22 And then there's the different--and almost opposite--problem presented by a serial narrative that now stretches back fifty years: it's impossible. With reasonable suspension of disbelief--such that we're willing to accept that many, many things can happen yet Peter Parker could still be in his late twenties--it seems just possible to have twenty-five years of such a narrative hold together as essentially one story, but much more than that seems completely unworkable. (Try to follow the thread in the Wikipedia entries for, say, Jean Grey, or the Green Goblin, if you need convincing.)

23 But the serial nature of the narrative is what I love about it. Like with baseball, I love the sense that this is a soap opera of sorts that goes on and on and on. If that story becomes too complicated to sustain, and thus has to be repudiated and re-thought at regular intervals, the attraction diminishes. When I was eleven, a fight between Spider-Man and the Hobgoblin was inherently fascinating; now it's only of interest if it's embedded in a creative story that promises to go on and on, drawing on and refracting and building on stories I've already read and a history I already know.

24 Guilty pleasures aren't part of my way of thinking about culture. Pleasure is pleasure, and I'm grateful to any creator who delivers it. There's no question that comics are less important to me than novels--they're essentially a disposable distraction, something I enjoy and then move on from. But once in a while there are series and storylines that achieve something beyond that--Jonathan Hickman's recent multi-year run on the Fantastic Four, for example, or Darwyn Cooke's amazing The New Frontier--and they make me glad the medium still exists, and that I've stuck with it. I still like Spider-Man, and even with all the frustrations I'm still glad to know month after month what he's up to.

25 And behind it all is that comic that arrived in the mail twenty-seven years ago. I wrote this post before I looked at the issue, but I just brought it up from the basement--and page after page, image after image, whole words and phrases, are exactly as I remembered them, crystal clear. They're called formative years for a reason, and you could have far worse figures doing the forming than Spider-Man. Thanks, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, for what you gave us. Happy birthday, Spidey.


  1. This is great.

    The irony of #4 is that in an early issue Spider-man saves a space launch, a rocket piloted by J. Jonah Jameson's son. I do not know the issue number and refuse to look it up.

    For some reason I was never so interested in Spider-man as a youth, but now it seems obvious that he is the single greatest character Stan Lee had a hand in, no offense meant to Ben Grimm.

    Yeah, happy birthday! Fifty years, unbelievable.

  2. Number thirteen hits home with me. It's hard to make younger people, especially pretty girls proudly sporting t-shirts proclaiming themselves geeks, that in those days, you were lucky if you knew a handful of people who shared your reading interests, and that letters pages of comic books and magazines often served as tiny portals to larger worlds. I wonder, what comparable pleasures of discovery are there in our current world of interconnection and media abundance?