I don’t know about the rest of you, but with the state of the world being what it is right now, I could use a light-hearted distraction like talking about silly comic book characters. So let’s talk about my number one, all-time favorite: Spider-Man.
Now I’ve covered Spidey a lot here, which has led to the accumulation of a figurative mountain of unused notes and research. In an effort to not waste this research, I’ve decided to publish it in relevant pieces, a little bit at a time. And out of all the of the various research at hand, this one feels the most timely, given Grant Morrison’s recent article on Xanaduum—his newsletter on Substack (which came out several days before World War III potentially started in the real world last week).
In case you missed it (and don’t feel like clicking the link and reading the whole thing for yourself), Morrison offered his view on DC’s pre-pandemic, “5G” plans to make Superman “more right wing and authoritarian” while likewise pushing Supergirl “in an increasingly fascistic direction.” He went on to say:
I questioned the desire to attribute the worst aspects of human behaviour to characters whose only useful function… is to provide a primary-coloured cartoon taste of how we all might be if we had the wit and the will and the self-sacrifice it takes to privilege our best selves and loftiest aspirations over our base instincts. While that great day is unlikely to happen any time soon in any halfway familiar real world, why not let comic book universes be playgrounds for the kind of utopian impulses that have in the past brought out the best in us?
This is the quote getting passed around the web the most, but there are some other thoughts Morrison shared that are even more relevant to today’s post, which I’ll get to later. For now, let me circle back to the research that originally brought me here.
Back in 1982
Forty years ago was a very different time for comic fans. Besides the fact that some Marvel and DC comics were still actually good then, the way comics were read was also very different: in order to read a comic, you had to purchase a physical comic, unlike today, where you can read them on your computer, smart phone, or tablet. And if you wanted to read an older, out-of-print comic, you would probably have to go hunting for back issues, as TPBs (trade paperbacks) were not a real thing yet. (The idea of looking up those back issues on Comixology and reading them instantly on some electronic device would have felt like something from The Jetsons or Star Trek.)
Younger blog followers out there can only imagine my joy, then, when Marvel announced that their venerable Spidey reprint title, Marvel Tales, would begin reprinting stories from the character’s very beginning in Amazing Fantasy #15, starting in Marvel Tales #137 (Mar. 1982). Talk about your serendipity, as the prior issue of Tales had reprinted Amazing Spider-Man #159, a Len Wein/Ross Andru tale from 1976 that was part of the storyline that marked my first issues of ASM as a regular comics buyer. (In other words, if Tales hadn’t gone all the way back to the beginning at that point and instead continued reprinting stories from just six years prior, they would have been reprinting issues of ASM that I already owned and had read, rather than classic stories I hadn’t seen before and was dying to read.)
As mentioned a few years back, I had purchased all three volumes of that Pocket Books series that reprinted Amazing Fantasy #15 along with the first twenty issues of ASM, so it would take until nearly 1984 for Tales to begin reprinting stories that were completely new to me. Even so, it was a thrill to see those first twenty issues in the conventional comic-book form, as opposed to the 4” x 7” format of those Pocket Books.
Kevin McConnell reviewed the first few issues of those Marvel Tales reprints in “Reflections on an Insect in Amber” from The Comics Journal #73 (Jul. 1982) and offered the following observations:
As for the rest of Lee’s initial effort—it’s fun, it’s essential, it’s nostalgic, but mostly it seems very redundant. This is because there are very few aspects of this 20-year-old tale that don’t have parallels in the contemporary publication. A few new characters have been introduced and a few old ones have fallen by the wayside, but the basic framework [of Spider-Man] remains unchanged. Jameson continues in his ever-petulant ways; Aunt May has a few more wrinkles (if that’s possible); and Peter Parker aka Spider-Man is a little older and a little wiser, but a very familiar raincloud continues to hover over his head.
It is not my purpose to denigrate the efforts of Lee, most of which I still find ultimately enjoyable. In respect to Spider-Man, his only mistake was writing a too-successful formula. It was too successful in that it was very difficult to continue the strip as something that was both as different and as appealing as time went on. Such change is all the more unlikely or perhaps even impossible today with the [animated] television series and myriad merchandising tie-ins.
And so, like an insect in amber, Spider- Man remains largely in stasis, a victim of his own success. But at least with these reprints we can take a look back at the choicest bit of that amber, enjoy them, and draw our conclusions accordingly. (TCJ #73, p. 43.)
A familiar complaint from the Journal, as well as other comic critics (at least back then)—that most superhero characters never grow or change; that they remain static, and this is why they’re considered part of the literary ghetto, along with cheap romance novels, penny dreadfuls, and other genre fiction.
Suffice it to say, I find such criticism to be ignorant and painfully misguided.
What are the greatest works of English literature? The categories of poetry, drama, and the novel are usually considered the greatest, with Shakespeare, Eliot, Joyce, and Hemingway among the best writers. I would argue that the static nature of these categories of literature plays an immense part in precisely why such works (and their writers) are considered great. Allow me to begin my argument with Ol’ Willie Shakes.
I was first exposed to Shakespeare in high school with Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. Then, during my college years, I eventually read nearly everything else Shakespeare wrote. When I go back and re-read those plays today, is it somehow a flaw that these stories and their characters haven’t changed; that they are exactly the same as when I first read them? Does this make Hamlet feel stale or staid? Has any critic ever complained that such was the case? Of course not. If anything, the static nature of such literature is a strength, not a weakness. It’s a comfort to know we can return to Hamlet in all its glory any time we want and that the words of Shakespeare will always be there, unaltered and waiting for us.
Could the character of Hamlet work in a serial form like comics? Why the hell not? A great character is great regardless of format. Having him somehow survive the bloodbath at the end of the play and continue wrestling with his guilt and shame over all that death could be compelling. Or if you don’t want to change the ending of Shakespeare’s play (which would certainly be understandable), we could go back to before the start of the play, examine Hamlet’s childhood, explore how his life developed up to the point the play begins. Then we could do the same through the viewpoint of other characters, like Hamlet’s father, his mother, his uncle. We could do all these things without altering Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the character or the play) one iota.
The same holds true for other literary formats, like the novel. How about Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises—could Jake Barnes work in a serial format? Sure he could. You could continue to explore how Jake’s sexual impotence affects him throughout the rest of his life after the conclusion of the novel; there would be no end to the pain and suffering you could explore. If you want to really rip the hearts out of your readers, have Jake stand by helplessly as he watches Brett get married and make babies with some other man. There’s always some potential in nearly any idea, as long as the writer is good enough and possesses the necessary imagination.
And this is why today’s comics so often fail. If modern comics were to do a series on Jake Barnes, they would likely make a clone of him with fully-functioning reproductive organs, have the clone marry Brett, then Brett would get pregnant and have his baby, and then the baby would be revealed to be a Skrull. Or something equally stupid.
As Patton Oswalt recently put it on Twitter:
Yeah guys I’m good. Thanks. pic.twitter.com/54SwIlyCYb
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) February 24, 2022
The writers and writing on Spider-Man needs to evolve, grow, and change—but the actual premise and character of Spider-Man need not, and should not, change at all. Like Jake Barnes, Spider-Man’s creators got him right the first time, so why would anyone want to change him? Or think he should be changed?
Back to Grant
Here is where we get back to Grant Morrison. In that Xanaduum article mentioned at the beginning of this post, he would go on to say:
To deliberately misrepresent the intentions of [Superman’s] creators or portray him in a way that would best suit some other character strikes me as an oddly blinkered refusal on the part of otherwise imaginative people to even try to conceive what might go on in the mind and motivations of a fictional paragon created to do the right thing with no thought for his own safety.
And as long as we’re here, let me also pass along Morrison’s thoughts on trying to write superheroes in “real-world” terms:
The trouble is super-powered people don’t exist except in comics, films and games. One can just as easily lay the blame for the financial crisis on unicorns by writing stories to prove once and for all what terrible duplicitous cunts they’d be if they were real and ran the markets with their sparkly hooves.
It’s not the format and it’s not the category of writing, it’s the writer. It’s the creative choices. Characters and stories are either well executed or poorly executed. Nothing is bad strictly because of the medium or form; it’s bad based on the flaws of its creators and their poor creative decisions. I tell ya, it would be really nice if the two mainstream superhero publishers could figure this out while I’m still alive on this Earth.
Meanwhile, some escapist fantasy would really hit the spot right now—now more than ever. So excuse me while I go read some classic Ditko Spidey stories and try to forget that the world outside is falling apart.