One of the more controversial pieces I wrote at my old Marvel blog, where I talk about the fact that Spider-Man is about youth.
Okay, while we’re gathering up nominations for the GOLDEN LOEB AWARDS (still available in the previous blog thread), I thought I’d pound away at some of the issues that have been swirling around. But rather than just diving back into Reader Mail (though I am interested in that one question/response about female characters’ body types and the like) I’d instead take a few minutes out to talk about why and how Spider-Man is about youth, since people seem confused by this concept.
Most of the best comic book series are about something–something that may not factor into every single last adventure, but which is the underpinning of the series as a whole. Fantastic Four is about family. X-Men is about prejudice. Batman is about revenge. And Spider-Man is about youth.
Youth is the element that defined Spider-Man back in the days when he was created, the thing that separated him from all of the other competing superhuman crime-fighters and made him unique. Whereas up till that time, teen-agers in comics had been relegated to being either junior-sized reflections of their mentors, or simple sidekicks, Spider-Man was the one series in which a teen-ager was the hero, was the lead. And that influenced everything about the series, gave it its heart. As Steve Ditko once pointed out, being High School age meant that it was acceptable for Peter Parker to screw up, to make mistakes and learn from them, in a way that would have been pathetic for more established, more heroic super heroes. (Ditko also lamented having had Peter graduate High School and go onto College.) Unlike other heroes before him, Spider-Man was the audience–so successfully so that the folks working on X-Men in the 60s very quickly lost sight of their own premise, and attempted to turn the team into five Spider-Men, with dismal results.
Spider-Man is no more about responsibility than Batman is about criminals being a superstitious and cowardly lot. That’s the tagline to the first adventure, and a strong moral message to go out on, but it’s what that story is about, not what the series is about. And in point of fact, it wasn’t until the late 80s/early 90s that you began to see that phrase start to get beaten on like a drum, with story titles like “The Greatest Responsibility” and “Power and Responsibility” and so forth–not coincidentally, a time after Peter had been married, and the creators were looking for some other bedrock to take the place of youth. Responsibility is certainly an element of Spider-Man–but then, show me a hero for whom it’s not an element.
Spider-Man is about finding your place in the world, about figuring out who you are and who you want to be. It’s about screwing up and trying again, It’s about believing that you’re worthwhile while fearing that you’er not, all the while being judged by authority figures who misunderstand you.
Once you strip this element away, Spider-Man becomes just another in a long line of super heroes who are well-adjusted and self-aware (well, as well-adjusted as any super heroes can be). He becomes another set of powers and a costume–he loses the unique ground upon which he stands. It’s no coincidence that when the character is done in other media, they inevitably default to the core, to the essential essence, and don’t come anywhere near to a married Spider-Man until perhaps the point where they’re ready to end the series. because really, that’s what you’re doing at that point, whether you know it or not. You’re resolving the final question of Peter Parker’s self-worth, allowing him to overcome all of his fears and doubts and guilt and letting him grow up and find acceptance. And that’s the one thing you can never let him do.
I know this is upsetting to a lot of people, especially those who have invested in Spider-Man’s life over the last twenty years or so. But when I hear the arguments for why a married Spider-Man works from people, my mind inevitably casts back to a conversation I had with my friend Doug Peacock almost twenty-five years ago. A huge Spidey fan, Doug had been reading Spider-Man for years, and was lamenting its lack of forward movement. And his specific quote was, “The day I’m older than Peter Parker is the day I stop reading the book.” By that logic, Doug hasn’t read a Spider-Man comic for longer than many of our current readers have been alive–but there’s a core of truth to what he was getting at. The heart wants what it wants, but it’s a bit self-centered to expect these characters to all grow up with the audience (especially an audience that first encountered them ten or twenty years after they began, and yet suddenly want them to start advancing along with them.) And as one of the custodians of the character, I want a Spider-Man that can continue to attract new readers, new audiences, well into the future and beyond the point where I’m around. Doesn’t mean that I don’t like the readers who’ve been with the book through thick or thin–but only servicing that readership’s desires is a road of inevitable diminishing returns.
Taking a slightly different tact, Karl Kesel has posted his thoughts on why Spider-Man works better single as the response to the video blog at this link:
Typically, Karl puts it more succinctly and more simply than I could. Here’s the key big:
>Spider-Man is the best archetype of teen (or young person) angst that comics has. He’s an archetype on the same level as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman– in fact, I think you can make a very good argument that Spidey is Marvel’s only archetypal character. Other people can be Iron Man or Captain America, there can always be new Avengers or X-Men, but Spidey should always be Peter Parker, he should always be young, and he should always be single.
Why single? Because by the very concept of the character, his life should be constantly frustrating and difficult and happiness should ALWAYS seem to be just beyond his grasp. Being married gives him way too much of a comfort zone– he always has someone who loves him to go home to. Even if you throw in the obligatory marital strife, at the end of the day Peter still has someone who has promised to (and, let’s face it, will) love him no matter what. Spidey shouldn’t have that sort of certainty in his life. And when the wife’s a super-model– !!! >
I’ll brace for the hate mail now. But while you’re here throwing rocks, don’t forget to put in your nominations for the GOLDEN LOEB AWARDS just one thread back!