Tuesday, January 6, 2009

A Few Words on Spider-Man and Marriage

Note: I wrote this about a year ago, but the latest news that the Spider-Man newspaper comic strip has followed the misguided lead of the comics has reopened fresh wounds. I also thought it would be appropriate to kick off a comics-obsessed blog, since it tells some of my history as a reader.

One of my most vivid childhood memories is of waking up Christmas morning at my grandparents house in Bowling Green, Kentucky to find 4 sets of Underoos displayed across the fireplace mantle. I was ecstatic. Green Lantern, Batman, Boba Fett, Spider-Man. The latter was, hands-down, my favorite. I would have liked nothing more than to BE Spider-Man. Underoos were the closest I could get.

Spider-Man had it all, cool powers, weird villains, a sense of humor, an everyman relatabilty, and after 1987, when he jumped the broom with childhood friend/supermodel Mary Jane Watson, a beautiful wife. He was completely enviable.

Not surprisingly, considering my childhood ardor for super heroes, I spent my teen years completely immersed in comic books. It was a hobby with a high price, and not only monetarily. Let's face it, reading comics is not cool. No matter how many literary geniuses endorse it, no matter how many blockbuster films get made, no matter how many TV shows legitimize the idea, no matter how complex and artful the comics themselves are, you will always be a loser if you like comic books. Even at the height of my obsession I would see these 30 or 40 something men in my local shop (Metropolis Comics in Bloomington, Illinois, long gone) and think, "God, I don't want to turn into them."

I could just picture myself, with a loser-ish hobby, an inability to appeal to women and a fear of many many things, easily sliding into that life.

I unceremoniously gave up comic collecting in 1999. Throughout college, my comics obsession had been competing with a similarly passionate affair with pop music. At age 22, music finally won decisively, and I didn't even mourn the passing of my other hobby. Afterall, my new interest was more acceptable, relatable and grown-up. I was in no danger of arrested development, only listening to Arrested Development.

A couple of years ago, I began to slowly revive my interest in comics. Like a newborn, it was small and fitful at first, but it has grown steadily. Almost simultaneously, I've found another love. Wendy and I are getting married in May. I've mused on the timing of it all. Is being in an established relationship in any way related to the sudden resurgence of my childhood hobby? Is the stigma gone now that I'm no longer in danger of being a single loser who reads comic books? I never consciously used such reasoning, but I wouldn't deny under oath that it was a factor.

Where am I going with this? It's strange to me that as I take the next steps in life, my once favorite hero is taking steps backwards. As of issue 545 of The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter Parker and Mary Jane are no longer married.

Some background: Marvel Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada (a comic artist himself) is firm in his belief that Spider-Man should not be married. In various interviews he has stated that he believes the marriage prevents the comic from being a true soap opera, limits the writers, ages the character and makes him less marketable to kids. Similarly, he was adamant that Spider-Man should not get divorced, as it would create negative press and send the "wrong message" to kids.

His solution? In a story meeting, creators decided that Peter would, to save his beloved Aunt May (accidentally shot by a sniper aiming for Peter) make a deal with Mephisto, Marvel's version of the Devil. The deal? Peter and Mary-Jane give him their love and marriage and Mephisto saves 80-year-old Aunt May's life. How this lazy, ridiculous idea ever made it past the brainstorming stage, I'll never know.

No matter what you think of Quesada's rationales (I think they're crap: 1. Nothing hinders good stories except bad writers and over-controlling editors, 2. The character, while happily married, has gained a higher profile than ever before in his history, and 3. Don't even get me started on his divorce logic) and no matter how the deal went down, the big question is actually very much a real-life question. It's growth vs. arrested development. Do you let Spider-Man continue to mature and change as a character, or do you stall him forever at a certain point at his life?

Recent pop culture has been playing on this theme quite a bit. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Scott Baio Is 45 And Single all gave us man-child protagonists struggling to grow up and eventually realizing the futility of neverending adolescence. Now, of course, maturity is not a prerequisite for marriage. And getting married no more grants someone maturity than staying single grants someone an interesting life. But this is a case of a character who had ALREADY grown up regressing.

In the first issue after the magical dissolution of his marriage (which he no longer remembers, by the way), we see Peter Parker living in his aunt's house, riding his bike to work, mooching off of his rich friend Harry, and dealing awkwardly with affection from various ladies. It's arguable that this set-up creates more interesting stories, but there's no doubt that those who have followed Spider-Man from his beginnings as a high-school nerd to a married, confident science teacher should feel robbed.

Consider for a moment DC Comics' the Flash. There have been 4 men to hold the title, but the current version (and my favorite) is Wally West. He's the nephew of the second Flash, Barry Allen. Wally gained his super-speed powers as a young boy and took on the mantle of Kid Flash. He joined a team of fellow kid sidekicks (the Teen Titans) and grew up with them before taking over as the Flash after Barry Allen's death. Through the years we've seen his character change and grow. He continually bettered himself as a person and hero. He gained a deep understanding and mastery of his powers. And, yes, he got married! Besides being good storytelling, there's just something special about being able to witness that, about being able to follow the same character for so long and through so much.

Despite what Joe Quesada believes, good storytelling is not about standing still. He's right that comics are essentially soap opera, but he ignores that good soap operas have to allow for change. Otherwise there's no reason to care about anything that's happening. Otherwise, nothing that happens is ever of any consequence. Quesada and the creators who spear-headed Spider-Man's regression should know that this sort of move is the exact reason why comics have such a poor reputation, both as literature and as a hobby. If the creators don't respect their own characters or readers, why should anyone else?

Cooler heads have pointed out that things always seem to eventually return to status quo in comic books. Even death rarely sticks. There's a chance that Marvel has plans, or will eventually decide, to restore the marriage. Even if that does happen, it doesn't make this any less of a terrible idea.

Look at it this way: There was a time when I would have traded lives with Spider-Man in an nanosecond. No longer. With things the way they are now, he'd be getting the better end of the deal.

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