Monday, June 6, 2011

Year of the Superhero - Amazing Spider-Man

A couple weeks ago I signed a copy of Amazing Spider-Man Volume 2 out of the public library. Reading it was an interesting experience. I’m mainly familiar with superheroes through movies, after all, with a smattering of TV shows and fanworks filling in gaps. This means that Tobey Maguire’s Spiderman is the baseline for my understanding of the character, and that I’ve always accepted the sequence of events in the movies as the way those events happened in the comics. So yeah, the comics opened my eyes.

A few things struck me right off. Where I jumped into the story in Vol. 2, Spider-Man had already been around for a while, and his powers, hangups, origins, and several major recurring villains had already been established—so I don’t know for sure how close the film stuck to the canon origin story. I can tell you that while the Green Goblin’s origins translate to the silver screen well, they appear much, much later in the comics than his introduction as a villain. I was almost done with the omnibus (so, about 2-3 years into the run) when I learned them. Doc Oc’s origins appear to be in Vol. 1, as do the Sandman’s. Venom and the Hobgoblin don’t feature this early in the comic canon, so I can’t comment there.

Everyone’s character, just about, is recognizable between the comics and the films, the exceptions being Harry Osborne, who’s introduced in the comics as a jerk and a bully; Gwen Stacy, who wants to like Peter but keeps getting mad over accidental brushoffs; and Mary Jane Watson, who the comics have a classic 60s party girl who says things like ‘groovy’ and ‘daddy-o’ and the films have as a determined yet vulnerable girl from an abusive home. Are the film characterizations from one of the Spider-Man reboots? Or are they unique to the movies?

I mentioned in my discussion of the Spiderman movies that one of the things I like best about Spider-Man is how he never seems to catch a break. That’s in the comics too, of course. It’s too intrinsic to his character not to be. But comic-Peter seems to have it rougher, in that there’s more time to spend on his lack of money and social problems, and easier, in that film-Peter always seems to need money while comic-Peter only needs to worry about funds when it’s important to the plot, and never seems to need to scrounge for cash for his web slingers, tracking devices, or costume materials. For that matter, the bad guys rarely worry about money in either medium, even when the plot involves a heist. However, that’s kind of expected of comic book baddies, I think. It’s certainly part of the quirky charm of the medium.

Speaking of quirky charms, I want to talk about the dialogue for a sec, the witty banter especially. There’s an awful lot of it. It can go on for pages at a time and generally includes bad puns—and yet it gets across a fair bit of characterization all the same. There’s a sense of bravado in Spider-Man’s quips, as though it’s his defense mechanism and if he stops quipping, he won’t be able to enter a fight or handle himself while he’s in one. There are enough ‘hey, that gadget was expensive!” lines from him to reenforce his poverty. We also get a sense of his intelligence, through some of the things he references. The villains’ quips tend to be a bit more bombastic and grandstanding—”Now I have you! You won’t get away! Today, I finally defeat Spider-Man!”—but still, there’s enough variation between the different villains to get a sense of their character. (I’m ignoring the dated language, since that’s not relevant to the plot of the comics at all, but it certainly lends something to the reading experience as well.)

I talked to a comic-reading friend when I was just about done the omnibus and mentioned how the quips, while cool, where kind of wearing. She said, “You know there’s so many of them between Stan Lee had to hit a certain word count to get cheaper shipping, right?” Funny how a small thing like that can have such a big influence on how people perceive superhero universes, isn’t it? I can’t imagine a world where no superhero has a witty comeback and no villain monologues.

I also noticed during my reading of the comics that they are an incredibly male medium, or at least they were during the 60s when these issues were first printed. On one side, there are the fights and explosions and action. On another, there are Peter Parker’s girl problems and string of girlfriends/love interests. On a third, there’s his general geekiness which I imagine was designed to make him an everyman, and which probably had an effect on why geeks in particular like comics and superheroes. There’s also a fair bit of morality slathered throughout the comics—Peter’s the man of the house and it’s his duty to care for his elderly aunt; he’s a good boy so calls home when he’s running late; he knows how to treat a lady—and a fair bit of ribbing and self-referential moments from Stan Lee and the other creators.* Stuff like, “In case you were worried this wasn’t a Spider-Man comic after all” and “Chee! Why do they always have to shoot at me?” I see that as a guy-to-guy thing, not a guy-to-girl or girl-to-girl.

I’d also imagine that if a woman’d written Spider-Man in this era, there’d be a lot more empowered female characters and fewer female stereotypes. Of the three young women/girlfriends we meet during Vol. 2, one is a secretary, one is a wealthy college girl and model, and one is an aspiring actress. Betty-the-secretary and Gwen-the-student both seem to define themselves in relationship to the men around them. Mary Jane was only introduced in the last couple issues of the volume, so I can’t say if she’s the same, but my guess is she is. There are notably no female villains, nor are there female henchmen. The only other major recurring woman in Spider-Man is Aunt May, who’s frail and needing care, and is otherwise a pretty standard mother-figure. She often comes across as clingy, to the point of delusion at a few points. How can she not see that her college-aged nephew doesn’t need to be coddled as if he were six? But hey, her interactions with Peter provide him with some good angst, so I’m willing to go with it.

One last thing: the formulaic structures of these comics is deceptive. I tend to think of superhero comics as consisting of “bad guy shows up, hero fights him, hero loses, hero rallies, hero wins” and being stand-alones. You can pick up any issue and nothing would’ve changed from the last time you did. And this is partly true, at least with Spider-Man. You’ll get that formula, guaranteed. But there’s also other stuff going on, that’s set up issues before it goes anywhere, or which continues over several issues. For instance, in Vol. 2, which is about 20 issues, Peter’s relationship with Betty falls apart as she starts seeing someone else; he pines for Betty then gets a new girlfriend; Aunt May falls ill but Peter doesn’t find out for several issues; we meet Mary Jane months before Peter does, in teasing glimpses; and characters who turn out be connected initially seem not to be. It’s pretty cool, really, and speaks to a greater amount of planning than I’d given Stan and co. credit for. I should’ve expected this. I knew about the plot arcs going in and any writer worth their salt is going to build a world that allows for a lot of complexity, including relationships that can come out of the woodwork to spice up the story and multi-issue threads to keep readers coming back. It’s one thing to know this; it’s another to see it.

Reading these issues of Amazing Spider-Man has left me with a new appreciation of the movies (what changed, what stayed the same) and a desire to read a more modern comic omnibus, probably Marvel but not more Spider-Man. I want to see how things changed as the second and third generations of comic book writers rose through the ranks. How do they handle the plot arcs differently? Are the issues less episodic than they were? What are people doing these days to make the witty banter less campy? Perhaps DC’s announcement to restart all their series at #1 will be an opportunity to see that. Jumping in at the start of a reboot sounds infinitely easier than jumping in partway through an established series. I hate playing catchup when I don’t have to.

Thoughts, anyone? Suggestions?

* Yes, this is a polygon.

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