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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

New Year brings oldschool revamp to Spider-Man

Marvel's flagship comic Amazing Spider-Man is to start the New Year with a complete revamp to attract new readers, and a shift from monthly to three-times-a-month frequency. One might expect this news to be greeted with applause by Spider-fans but instead vociferous online fandom (Newsarama, Comic Book Resources, etc) is mostly outraged by the idea.

It's the execution of the revamp which has angered long-term fans. Over the past year or so Spider-Man has revealed his true identity as Peter Parker to the world but then became a fugitive for refusing to register under the (Marvel Universe) government's Superhero Registration Act (which effectively registers superheroes as military operatives). This led inadvertently to Peter's Aunt May being shot by an assassin (the bullet was meant for Peter) and leaving her mortally wounded.

To save his Aunt's life, at the end of his tether, and to make right what a mess he'd made of his life, Spider-Man makes a deal with the devil. (Mephisto, the name Marvel use for Satan as to not offend religious groups.) That's right. Spidey makes a pact with Satan. Don't try it at home kids.

Sat, er, Mephisto doesn't want Peter's soul though. Oh no. He wants Peter's marriage. So, in order to save Aunt May and make life easier for all, Peter and Mary Jane Parker give Satan their marriage..... meaning that it never happened, and history is rewritten. Even Peter's old buddy Harry Osborn is back from the dead. I guess Satan threw that in as a bonus as he'd had such a good day.

The actual reason for the reset? Because Marvel Editor In Chief Joe Quesada and Marvel management feel that kids can't relate to a married Spider-Man. (Even though the marriage has been in Spider-Man comics for the past 20 years.) Maybe they have a point. Stan Lee created Spider-Man as an "everyman" character for children and teenagers to relate to.... he suffers from colds, money problems, he's a geek... but then later writers had him marry a supermodel. Not quite in keeping with the concept really, but it did the trick at the time; readers felt that Peter Parker was growing up with them, so they stuck with the comic.

Now however it seems that Marvel are throwing out the past 20 plus years of continuity, and some fans feel this is an insult. Never mind the fact they can still read those comics. They're reacting as if Joey Q had sneaked into their homes, burnt their comics and wiped their memories.

Reaction from fans on message boards to the current revamp has been extraordinary. Whilst most have been articulate and rational, others have wailed like children. One even blamed Peter Parker; "If Parker had registered none of this would have happened", - seeming to forget that the character wasn't real. Someone called Skellion said "
This is a bunch of crap. I hope something really bad happens to Joe Quesada." (Oooh!) Another member of the intelligentsia pointed out that Spider-Man was bought by adults, not children: "when ninty eight persent creater of an industry are over 27 years it is perfectly exceptable to give an opinon comic books are not for kids any more and they havent been on years" (sic). Or at least I think that's what he meant.

The main point was that they had an emotional investment in the life of Spider-Man:
"I'm 31... I don't care about the possibilities... i want MY spider-man back" said one rather selfish adult. Tomorrow he'll be demanding jelly and ice cream.

From the many similar comments it appears that most adult fans of Spider-Man buy the comics not to follow a writer or artist but mainly because they're hooked on the characters: "money makes this industry run. Who do you really think has more disposable income to spend on comics? This long time adult fan with 30+ years of brand loyalty". (Disposable income also buys more penny chews, so by his logic all sweets should be marketed to 40 year old men.)

This isn't the first time fans of US comics have reacted so loudly of course. In fact they do it every time there's a major change of direction in their favourite comic. This time some fans are demanding that Quesada lose his job, and dissenting voices against such knee-jerk reactions are soon shouted down. The very nature of message boards allows such a lynch mob mentality to proliferate. Although moderators usually step in if members become too abusive the forums are primarily there as a release valve for such emotions. Companies such as Marvel and DC exploit this of course. They send press releases and exclusives to the websites knowing full well that the more controversial the subject, the more it'll be discussed, and the more free publicity they'll gain. The comic companies win, the fan websites gain more hits, and the fans get a chance to boo or cheer like a pantomime audience.

What's interesting is that the incentive for such passions point out a difference between collectors of US and UK comics. British comics have traditionally been concerned with plot and artwork, and little character development. However Marvel Comics have always focused on soap-opera storylines and brand loyalty. Whilst this did Marvel huge favours in the sixties it soon became evident that character development had to be finite in order for their core characters to remain viable to the company. Peter Parker could graduate from college (and did), get married (and did), but he couldn't grow old because the majority of readers wouldn't be interested in a Spider-geriatric. Likewise, Parker's friends and family could have "realistic problems" but never anything long term. (For example Aunt May is forever "frail" but never suffers from any ongoing debilitating afflictions to represent her age in a realistic way.)

Therefore Marvel introduced what became known as "The Illusion of Change". This meant that characters could die, the status quo could change, but by the use of skilled (or often clumsy) writing a cop-out would eventually return things to basics within a few months or a couple of years. (For example, Captain America, still currently dead, will one day return, Aunt May has died several times and come back, Iron Man has exposed his secret identity at least three times.)

Incredibly, it's the fans with the longest years of "brand loyalty" who always seem to fall for the hype of the revamps. You'd think they'd be bored by now. Instead of observing these marketing techniques with a wry smile, they become fiercely upset by such "everything changes forever" hucksterism. Why? Because they've become too emotionally attached to the characters. This is exactly what Marvel wanted of course. They know that Spidey
addicts will, as one fan admitted, be "sticking it out through a crappy patch because they loved the characters" in the same way that fans of tv soaps will tune in week after week. Whoever's writing or drawing the comic becomes of secondary importance because the fans just want to know what happens next to Peter Parker.

That said, to a certain extent it's understandable that fans are annoyed with this particular story. It would appear that this time the reset button has rewritten so much of Spider-Man's backstory that it affects practically every other comic he's appeared in over the past 20 years as well. (The Civil War mini-series for example, in which Peter unmasked to the world. Do readers now have to ignore that particular sequence and its consequences?)

This current revamp, altering two decades of Spider-Man history, could potentially cause more confusion if new readers go on to read older stories in graphic novels. Never mind. I'm sure there'll be another "everything changes forever" situation along to resolve it. And another to resolve that. And another.... Maybe it's all a dream. Will Marvel really let Mephisto win like this? Nahhh. Stay tuned.

Amazing Spider-Man No.545, featuring the end of the current continuity is on sale now from comic shops. Issue 546, with the start of the new continuity (below) is on sale soon.

Update 4th Jan 2008:
This has to be the most outlandish reaction to the Spider-Man revamp yet. From the Newsarama message boards:

"this happening means that classic 9-11 line rings true...the terrorists have won...cap is dead and spidey might as well be...because he's dead to me".

Someone desperately needs to get a grip on reality!


Anonymous said...

The unmasking didn't really have any effect on Civil War, did it..? (Other than its sales effect, of course, but story-wise, it wasn't even referred to again in the main book.)

Quesada's problem with the marriage wasn't just the age thing; it was the restrictions it created in the storytelling. (And, to be honest, the story in which they got married in the first place was a lot more 'forced' than this one. If that story's not in "continuity" any more then continuity is better for it.)

Lew Stringer said...

Very true Tom. I wasn't reading Spider-Man at the tme of the wedding but from what I understand it came about through editorial remit and was very much forced as you say.

As for the unmasking; no it didn't affect the story too much but it's still there. However a recent issue of Avengers: The Initiative seems to put doubt in the (Marvel Universe) public's mind so maybe that's their cop-out.

Anonymous said...

Makes you wonder: just why should we buy any comics with "important" storylines - why buy any at all? - if the company sticks two fingers at us and wipes out its own continuity the way Marvel and DC have been doing lately? They sell their story as being important milestones, then shaft us a year later with rubbish like "It didn't happen"?

Lew Stringer said...

I don't think it matters in the case of Spider-Man. It's been a "too many cooks spoil the broth" situation for years with that comic. If the story and art are to one's liking why not cherrypick the storylines one wants to read over the past 45 years?

(Besides, if it had any proper continuity Peter Parker would be 60 years old now.)

Anonymous said...

Thought I'd just leave a comment based on my position as a film-maker with no previous exposure to the Spider-man comics: Marvel now has Marvel Studios to run and is currently planning a wave of films to compliment its already successful Spider-man and X-Men films (they'll sideline the less successful ones for now by simply remaking them, like Hulk!) These films will contain links to the wider Marvel Universe and so begin the spreading of characters from comics to the big screen. The first of these will be Iron Man and will, I believe, feature a number of cameos from other forthcoming productions.

From Marvel's point of view, they had three Spider-man films that featured a character somewhat at odds with his comic equivalent, who had over thirty years of plot more. Who the hell is going to go to the trouble of reading all that? It doesn't surprise me in the least that Marvel would take the opportunity to appeal to a new wave of younger readers whose only exposure to the character was at the cinema or watching the animated series. They can then also combine these efforts with the rest of their portfolio (this is a business!) to rejuvinate their characters, e.g. Thor.

Currently for Marvel, the film business is more lucrative and attractive than the comic market. And they get to hang out with stars and top directors! Suddenly they're cool! As far as they're concerned, they need to keep attracting new readers and currently the best way of doing that is by focusing on animated or filmed media, the entertainment of choice of the vast majority of their new target audience. Dark Horse are pursuing similar efforts, by all accounts.

Anonymous said...

I asked Dan Slott about that INITIATIVE issue last week and he says that it isn't as redundant as one might assume. Hmmm.

(The strangest thing about the marriage is that Peter and MJ weren't even a couple until the issue before the wedding. They'd been split for about ten years prior to that.)

Rol said...

As a long-term Spidey fanatic, I suppose I should be gnashing my teeth about this too, but though I don't entirely agree with the way it's been executed, I do support the return to the character's roots... and I'm more excited about what comes next (especially having read the online preview of Slott's first issue) than I have been in a long while.

But dare I admit that on the internet without incurring the wrath of the rabid?

Lew Stringer said...

Yes the mob do seem to be hanging anyone who disagrees with their opinions.

Where did you see the preview of 546? I'd like to read it if it's publicly available.

Rol said...

It's on the myspace comics page. Hopefully this link will take you to it...

Anonymous said...

I'm quite looking forward to this. Slott is a great writer, and having 1 title rather than several (most of which last a few years before disappearing again) is a very good idea. I gave up reading Spider-Man a few years ago but I'll be picking this up.

And hey - it's Rol "Groo Grams" Hirst! (You don't know me Rol, just remember you from there, and CI reviews...)

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