Or – “Mary Jane Who?”
This month marks the two-year anniversary of the “Brand New Day” storyline that changed the life of the Amazing Spider-Man forever (and this time they MEAN it!) In those 24 months, much vitriol has been thrown at the editorial process that created the new storyline and the HUGE changes for Peter Parker’s status quo, and many people have opined that the whole thing is a terrible sham of a farce. But as we finally find out the full story of what happened, a thought has occurred to me:
Marvel Editorial’s belief that changes were necessary for Spider-Man were absolutely correct.
Joe Quesada Was Right!
Before I’m branded as a heretic and run out of town on a rail, allow me to take a moment to explain my thought process. The greatest failing of any fictional character isn’t going to be alienating old fans, nor is it going to be in changing beyond the parameters of their original incarnation. Hell, characters that last for decades do both on a regular basis, and that very flexibility is key in their longevity. No, Faithful Spoilerite, the worst thing that a fictional character can be is BORING. Predictable. Dull. Spider-Man as a married pseudo-father (remember that Mary Jane disappeared while pregnant, and the child was delivered and then spirited off-panel to be forgotten) IS a less malleable character than Spider-Man as a free-swinging single man with money problems and practically no surviving family. I make the argument regularly on our Major Spoilers podcast that, while unmasking Spider-Man allowed for storytelling possibilities that had never been done, these avenues were much more limited than the story possibilities open to a masked mysterious Spider-Man. The decision to change Peter Parker’s past and backstory was made to try and give the character that sense of unpredictability, to return to a time where he could be hunted by the police, pilloried by JJJ, trapped in a villain’s lair for three days without a shell-shocked wifey waiting at home in fear. Take, for example, the classic “Kraven’s Last Hunt” storyline. If we supplant the phrase “Spider-Man’s wife Mary Jane Watson-Parker” with, say, “Spider-Man’s lover/roomate Michelle Gonzalez,” what does this do to the original story? NOT. A. THING. Indeed, while the wedding itself was a nice stunt (and make no mistake, it WAS a ratings stunt), it opened up avenues of storytelling that were inherently more limited than Spider-Man’s original story premises. Thus, by taking the opportunity to change the status quo, thus opening avenues that were closed by the marriage (and by the unmasking and the organic webshoter and half a dozen other things that were undone by the Mephisto Retcon) and improving the character’s long-term viability.
What Do We Want? Patriotic Swimwear!
When Do We Want It? NOW!
A more recent controversy involving one of DC Comics central characters has led to a similar outrage on the part of many people, most of whom identify themselves as long-term Wonder Woman fans. Of course, the majority of the fans with whom I’ve spoken recall the Superfriends or the Lynda Carter television show rather than any recent interactions with Wonder Woman as a character. (Of course, this is the same thing that happened when Spider-Man unmasked, when Captain America was assassinated, when the Hulk movie premiered and people didn’t see a friendly musclebound Frenchman with a horrible green afro, etc…) Once again, though, I have to argue that the costume change stunt is a positive thing for the Wonder Woman character in the long run. First, it put Wonder Woman on the pages of the New York Times, as well as on CNN and major news outlets, reminding people that she still EXISTED. The sales on the Wonder Woman title have already spiked at my comic store (Gatekeeper Comics and Hobbies, Huntoon & Gage, Topeka! Ask me about our back issues of the last three times that Wonder Woman did this same thing!) and the “drive-by” factor is unequivocally going to increase sales of the character’s book. The cynics in the audience (indeed, the cynic writing this column) is certain that it’s only a short-term change and will lead to a trimphant return to spangled panties and striped stripper shoes just in time for the Wonder Woman movie, and perhaps they’re right. But we’re looking at a character who has been in circulation for over SEVENTY YEARS. That’s more than James Bond, more than The Doctor, more than Marlena Evans, all of whom have gone through much more drastic changes in shorter timeframes, and whose legends are stronger for it. There can be no lasting harm to Wonder Woman in terms of nerd rage and venom aimed at J. Mike Straczinski or the editorial staff, and the benefits of reminding people that Wonder Woman is still extant (and, indeed, capable of change) are going to come in additional press, additional readers, and theoretically a nice “resting period” for the classic costume which will make it’s return an event.
Two Men With Four First Names
Comics used to engage in this sort of ratings grab every single month, whether it be a cover with a gorilla, an inexplicable riddle or the sudden appearance of a more popular character in a floundering sister title, the comic publishers of old had no compunction about this sort of thing. Indeed, if we look at the fallout from the twin deaths and resurrections of Bruce Wayne and Steve Rogers, we see a renewed interest in relatively moribund characters. Don’t forget that it was a mere four or five years ago that we were knee-deep in the third or fourth round of post-9/11 imagery and 15-minutes-to-plan scenarios that made the characters tiresome in the first place. With Steve abdicating the role of star-spangled Avenger and Bruce playing Rip Hunter, their respective second bananas are keeping the franchise alive in new ways. Much as with Spider-Man, there is some resistance to the “supernatural” or “magic gun” elements of their deaths and resurrections, but these elements have been part of the characters from nigh-on day one. (One of Batman’s first real cases was a battle against a vampire in Transylvania, while Captain America’s villainous roster of magical mystery Nazis who cannot die is longer than Rodrigo’s TPK list.)
If and when Steve returns to the role of Cap, it will more than likely spike coverage and interest in the Captain America character again, just as his death did, just as his resurrection did. They’ve already proven this with Bruce Wayne as his return miniseries is completely a completely impenetrable read, but anyone who dares speak against it faces the kind of ostracization usually reserved for those who are not “One with Landru.” And as with Spider-Man, if we’re troubled or offended by the “magic guns” that led to these characters’ return from the timestream, we can blow off that particular piece of story and just focus on that which works for us. (But they better give Cap back his corsair boots! I’m just sayin’, some things are sacred…)
Forget About Mayday! Pete And MJ Did!
It wasn’t all that long ago that I took up my bully pulpit to argue that event-based storytelling is a volatile sort of thing, and I stand by that conclusion, but when I look at the Spider-Man titles in 2005-2007 compared to today’s output, I see three main differences:
1. Aside from the umbrella “Brand New Day” and the just-ended “Gauntlet” arcs, there has been less focus on Big Events to sell Spider-Man’s book.
2. There has been more excitement and more general discussion of Spider-Man since the revamp than any time going back to the time where he grew bone claws and ate a guy’s face. (And let’s be frank, “stealing Wolverine’s script” doesn’t make the character any deeper, either.)
3. The stories being told feel more accessible to me as a casual reader, and the character DOES feel younger without additional entanglements of wife and spectre-of-missing-child.
Marvel’s coup de grace in this whole affair was the rebranding of ALL Spider-books as “Amazing Spider-Man,” a canny move that has it’s basis in one simple fact of life: Amazing sells better. When Spidey had three monthly titles (Amazing, Sensational and Friendly Neighborhood) the hold lists for SS-M and FNS-M combined numbered less than the holds for ASM. Not only that, by putting out the same NUMBER of books in a month but rotating story arcs, the Web-Heads at Marvel have made it much simpler to catch a continuing storyline, with no chance that he’ll be teaching in Queens in one book, trapped in the Microverse in another, and fighting his ex-girlfriend’s clone on a bridge in Paris in a third. Much as many fanboys like myself would hate to admit it, the changes have made Spider-Man more accessible, made his continuity more streamlined, and opened up avenues of story that have been closed since 1987, a literal lifetime ago. As someone who enjoys Spider-Man, you have to admit that what’s good for the character’s long-term viability, even if the plot device used is as ridiculous as a literal deal with the devil, has to be seen as a positive move.
And let’s be honest here: Spider-Man hasn’t actually been a ‘realistic-street-level’ hero since about 1972, anyway…