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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Kitty Review: Allie Approves of JMS' Amazing Spider-Man



Admittedly, I was prompted to post this due to the camera photo opportunity of Allie, our lovable tabby cat, sitting on a stack of my comics. That he chose to sit on some of my Amazing Spider-Man Ultimate Collections ( large trade paperbacks collecting chunks of J. Michael Stracyinski's stories ) was appropriate, because I've been reading those thoroughly lately, and appreciating them a lot.

Discussions of JMS' Amazing Spider-Man tend to be myopic, focusing on the big events-- the totem stuff, the WTC tribute, Sins Past, the Other, the Iron Spider, and of course, the infamous One More Day. It is true that a lot of those stories were terrible-- I mean, there's no way to spin " Gwen Stacy had Norman Osborn's mutant love children before he murdered her " to sound like anything less than crap. Then again, most of the later stuff had a strong editorial hand, or was tied into crossover stuff. But to focus only on those is to undermine the excellent individual stories going on in between.

What I liked so much about JMS' Spider-Man was that he made the character of Peter Parker care. Even though Peter was still a working-class twentysomething, he lived his life to the fullest, and did everything he could. Having Peter become a high school teacher was a stroke of genius; despite low pay and unruly students, he realized that he could help kids feeling just as isolated and misunderstood as he was. When villains attacked him and his loved ones, he didn't just quip and dodge-- if needed, he'd go in there and fight until he blacked out from sheer pain and exhaustion. And when his marriage with Mary Jane was falling apart, he'd drag his ass all the way across the country to win her back.

JMS has been criticized for overly melodramatic writing, and in some cases that's a very accurate critique ( re: the WTC tribute, and the infamous tears from murderous despot Dr. Doom ). However, for Spider-Man JMS' voice worked very well. His stories worked to show us that Peter wasn't a superhero in the professionalized terms of modern comics ( i.e. anyone registered with the Initiative ), but a genuine hero. Compared to Ezekiel, who tried to seek power but never ended up using it for pure good, Peter's determination to do the right thing was all the more inspiring. Compared to his high school friend Charles Weiderman, who used his nerdy isolation to obsess over super-soldier fantasies, Peter was impressive for not giving into the bitterness of his lonely youth. Even Peter's family got in the act-- Aunt May became a staunch supporter of Spider-Man after finding out Peter's secret identity, helping in all the ways a seventy-something woman can help ( which is more than you'd think ), and Mary Jane tried to work out her difficulties being a superhero's wife like an adult.

Yes, " Adult ". Not adult in the sense of having more gore, but in facing consequences with responsibility and integrity. Post-JMS Spider-Man comics have been determined to show us that " twentysomething " means " slacker ", with Peter stumbling around blindly, mooching off his friends and family, and being Spider-Man reactively. These comics show us that for Peter, being Spider-Man isn't a choice he makes to do good in the world; it's a burden he's taken because he doesn't want to disappoint the big sky-daddy ( in his case, his uncle ). This Peter has the morality of a six-year-old, acting in accordance with internalized fear of being bad, while not really giving thought to hard choices and major progressions. As a twentysomething myself, it's grating that Spider-Man's fortysomething-plus writers see my generation like this-- especially if they're right, that this audience wants Spider-Man as a slacker who fights crime as an impulse/hobby.

But I digress...the point is that for all the melodramatic warts, and the stupid event stuff, JMS wrote great stories that were ethically driven and emotionally meaningful. They were more than just a bed for a cat wanting to nap in the sun.

( Though they serve that purpose well enough. )

9 comments:

  1. (Well, *of course* I'm going to comment on a Spidey post...)

    I love JMS' writing style; even when I disagreed with directions he took the stories, the voice he gave to Peter was consistently enjoyable. Yes, the Totem storyline was a lot of build-up for little payoff, and yes, Sins Past...well, just Sins Past, but there was a lot of really good stuff in there.

    What irritates me most about OMD, in fact, is that it essentially leaves no ending to JMS's run. How, exactly, did Peter get out of that rather desperate situation? We never get to see it, but the current editorial stance on what OMD changed indicates that it wasn't as simple as healing May; we just didn't get to see what hoops Peter had to jump through to escape.

    I don't think JMS was the end-all be-all writer he was hyped as when he first came onto the title, but I do think he has one of the more unique Spidey runs in his history.

    And his MJ kicked ass.

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  2. As I've said elsewhere, the main problem with the current writers is that they're drawing on sitcom versions of the hapless twentysomething rather than any sort of quasi-lifelike notions.

    JMS always seemed invested in writing Peter as a proper character, that is, as more than either a stock type or an archetype, and it's that that makes his work so strong and memorable. This isn't to say his runw as "realist" in any sense, or that it didn't have some thematic power at its peak. Rather, it's an indicator that he seemed to recognize that strong characterization is what makes thematic elements work in a story.

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  3. Well, a proper character is a character that has enough depth so we can sympathize with them as if they were real.

    And as for the totem story...up until The Other, I quite liked it. It wasn't saying that Peter wasn't given his powers by science, it was exploring what science in a superhero context means. I also thought that Ezekiel was a good character, especially when his less-than-savory true intentions came out.

    And while Morlun was a Boring Invincible Villain, I have to say that the fight between him and Peter was really strong, and one of the best showcases of JR Jr.'s talents.

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  4. JMS was not a Spider-man writer, but never the less got to work on the book for years and got to do 90% of what he wanted. I don't see Spider-man in the comics anymore since he got involved. Who is Spider-man, is he a magical Spider-man totem god or what? since this TV writers last couple years fans were introduced to things that were either so bizarre I can't figure out how this is a Spider-man book and then we're promised big stories involving big reveals and new powers that never go anywhere or are going to go anywhere because the EIC doesn't want him to be married. Now the book is a mess. Do they even have pay-offs anymore. Who cares about the new villian Eightball (or whomever) when we were introduced like big things involving everyone knowning who Spider-man was and never got that story. I didn't see one? It was just introduced to take it away.

    What is supposed to happen now? Thanks, JMS.

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  5. " JMS was not a Spider-man writer, but never the less got to work on the book for years and got to do 90% of what he wanted. I don't see Spider-man in the comics anymore since he got involved. Who is Spider-man, is he a magical Spider-man totem god or what? since this TV writers last couple years fans were introduced to things that were either so bizarre I can't figure out how this is a Spider-man book and then we're promised big stories involving big reveals and new powers that never go anywhere or are going to go anywhere because the EIC doesn't want him to be married. Now the book is a mess. Do they even have pay-offs anymore. Who cares about the new villian Eightball (or whomever) when we were introduced like big things involving everyone knowning who Spider-man was and never got that story. I didn't see one? It was just introduced to take it away. "

    Um, the answer to the totem question wasn't conclusive, nor was it meant to be. The very first story with Morlun ended with Peter injecting himself with further radiation, and using his scientific powers to poison the villain. The other stories involved Peter falling into magical situations, but with established characters ( Strange, Loki, etc. ) or characters drawn to the spider aspects ( speaking more to their background than his ). And the Book of Ezekiel ended with the Inca guide saying that it doesn't matter if something is science or magic if the result is the same.

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  6. Love it! And I agree with you about the content of the JMS run. I really miss it. And there is definitely a maturity lost in the newer books.

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  7. "Um, the answer to the totem question wasn't conclusive, nor was it meant to be. The very first story with Morlun ended with Peter injecting himself with further radiation, and using his scientific powers to poison the villain. The other stories involved Peter falling into magical situations, but with established characters ( Strange, Loki, etc. ) or characters drawn to the spider aspects ( speaking more to their background than his ). And the Book of Ezekiel ended with the Inca guide saying that it doesn't matter if something is science or magic if the result is the same."

    It most certainly does, particularly if it undermines a central component of Spider-Man's character.

    A lot of Spider-Man's appeal was that it was a quirk of fate, a random act of chance, that Peter Parker got bit by the spider. It could have happened to Flash Thompson, Aunt May, John Jameson, Gwen Stacy, you or me.

    But when it's revealed that Peter was bitten Because Destiny Says So, that pretty much means that you or I couldn't have had it happen to us. About the only people I'm aware of who are actually destined to inherit something by destiny are royalty and nobility, and I don't know how many of them read Spider-Man comics.

    So we go from an Everyman who could have been any one of us to a Chosen One who got nicked because he was supposed to.

    Related to that-and just as aggravating if not more so-was the fact that the Chris Carter Effect was in full force. We never actually learned about who these totemistic deities are, how they relate to the Ancients, anything to do with the Ancients' culture or origins, why one deity saw fit to revive Spider-Man while another thought he should stay dead...

    Strazcynski had six years to give us the payoff and provide some concrete explanations, but we never got them. And I somehow doubt he was a passive victim when it came to The Other, particularly when he wrote the last three issues of the arc. All that did was provide more mumbo-jumbo and doubletalk, more mysteries, with no resolution.

    It should also be noted that Executive Meddling can be a *good* thing, since apparently Strazcynski's original plot was to have Peter be the father of the children. I just can't see responsibility-obsessed Peter having sex before he's able to look after any children that may result, to say nothing of doing it without every conceivable precaution against conception.

    Peter would essentially have been a deadbeat dad who never did anything to support his children. Great image for a character who's extremely heavily merchandised. J.R. Fettinger, AKA Madgoblin, quite rightly called out this idea and actually praised editorial for nixing JMS's original plan.

    I'll give full credit to JMS for fixing things that needed fixing (Aunt May finding out Peter's secret, giving Peter a steady job and income support), but he kept trying to fix things that weren't broken to begin with.

    What *does* the whole totem thing add to Spider-Man's character, anyway? Bill Mantlo and Peter David fleshed out the Hulk with the multiple personalities and abusive background, Iron Man's alcoholism confronted Tony Stark with a problem that couldn't be solved with technology, and the X-Men have been compared to everything from alienated youth to ethnic minorities to gays to the disabled.

    But how does this grand mystical destiny flesh out a street-level hero whose main concerns are usually trying to balance his superheroing and his social life?

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  8. Jared,

    The early totem stories, at least, didn't show Peter as having a mystical destiny. Ezekiel's presence wasn't really as a mentor to help Peter on his spiritual quest-- he was there so he could sacrifice Peter to save his own ass. Similarly, Morlun wasn't a grand nemesis of the spider people-- he just wanted to eat Peter. The other magical threats work under similar guidelines-- Peter just happened to get caught up in them. What made them work was that Peter approached the situations as a scientist-- he was still the everyman, possibly moreso because his own supernatural background is comparatively limited. ( I should also note that there were scientific threats, such as the corporate shark who stole Doc Ock's research, or the gamma zombie mobster. )

    You can read the story starting with Coming Home and ending with the Book of Ezekiel as not so much about Peter being mystical, but about a contrast between Peter and Ezekiel as characters who used similar powers with very different results. After his parents' deaths, Ezekiel actively sought power, failed to do anything virtuous with it, and ended up being consumed by the need to maintain it. Peter gained power by accident, and after his own personal tragedy, used it to do good no matter what the cost to him.

    The Other, unfortunately, made all this stuff literal with Peter coming back from the dead. And the spider stingers were one of the dumbest new powers a character has ever received. And yes, from there on you can say it all went downhill, but even the later JMS stories had a good read to them-- Peter standing up to Tony Stark was one of his best moments, even if it required complete butchering of Tony's character.

    And as for the thing with the original plan for Sins Past-- yes, that was a worse idea in the long run. But if Peter's radioactive spider-sperm can kill Mary Jane ( at least if you believe Spider-Man: Reign ), surely it would have no trouble with a mere prophylactic? :P

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  9. To be fair, I could forgive a lot of the totem stuff if we actually got some concrete explanations and background on the Ancients, these mysterious deities who alternately want to revive Peter and see him stay dead, and so forth. Really, the Chris Carter Effect is arguably my worst Pet Peeve Trope.

    I love a good mystery as much as anyone, but I want a payoff and an explanation within a reasonable amount of time. This is what drove me so batty about the X-Files when I watched it as a kid. In Ultimate Spider-Woman, for example, I plan to reveal the source of Mary Jane's powers in the next couple of issues, although I need to figure out how and when to reveal Jack O' Lantern's identity.

    And I really should acknowledge that I haven't been fair to JMS is recognizing the genuinely good aspects of his run, namely the changes to the status quo of Peter Parker, as opposed to Spider-Man. Not using as many of the classic villains and supporting cast is a fair critique, although in truth that doesn't bother me too much since letting supporting characters rest for a while is always better than wearing them out.

    As for Sins Past and Mary Jane being killed by Peter's sperm, I submit to you the case of Jennifer Walters, who received a sample of Bruce Banner's irradiated blood and only ended up gaining superhuman powers from it. If Bruce Banner can be caught in a point-blank explosion and not be incinerated, and Peter doesn't get cancer from the spider-bite, I see no reason Mary Jane would die from Peter's sperm. That's only a small amount of radiation, and humans in the MU seem better able to cope with it than their real counterparts.

    And yes, I know Aunt May was at one point sick from getting a blood transfusion from Peter, but that's because she was already very old and frail, and her body naturally couldn't deal with it very well. Someone young and healthy like Mary Jane would be able to handle it much more easily.

    God, I love Epileptic Trees. :P

    P.S.: New Ruby's World reviews coming soon, as well as a link to it in my Fanfiction.net profile, which needs updating anyway.

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