Superhero Makeovers: Spider-Man
And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come — great responsibility!
Spider-Man used to be one of my favorite comic book characters. Now he’s not. Those who have read his recent comics can probably guess why. If you can’t, we’ll be getting to that soon enough.
Since I’ve already done the evolutions of Superman and Batman, I was going to finish off DC’s Big Three by going into Wonder Woman’s history. But I don’t know enough about her just yet, and what I do know about her is enough to give me a headache just thinking of it. While Spider-Man has gone through some big changes in his history, they’re changes I can wrap my head around and speak about with more authority. As a result, here’s a look at the evolution of New York City’s friendly neighborhood wall-crawler.
Spider-Man’s Not-So-Secret Origin:
Spider-Man’s origin, both in comics and in the publishing world, have got to be one of the most retold stories in the industry. According to Stan Lee, he got bored in a meeting and noticed a fly on a wall. He then pitched the idea of a superhero who could cling to walls. He further elaborated on the concept, making Spider-Man a teenager so the comic would appeal to young readers. The idea was seen as ludicrous by others, because teenagers were sidekicks, not superheroes on their own. But Amazing Fantasy was ending its run with issue #15, so Stan got his shot at debuting the character there. He turned the concept over to Jack Kirby, who did some designs for the character, but none of the designs seemed to click right. Then he passed it over to Steve Ditko, who designed the iconic costume and solidified many of the concepts behind the character. Amazing Fantasy #15 was a smash hit, and the editor who laughed at Stan’s concept came back a few months later to talk about “that Spider-Man character we both liked.” Spidey got his own series shortly afterwards, and has been Marvel’s most recognizable character ever since.
In terms of look and powers, Spider-Man has undergone several big changes, but few of them have stuck around. His most recognizable costume is still based on Ditko’s original design. His powers still include super strength, agility, and his spider sense. He still travels via web-slinging. Other powers have come and gone, but most of the big changes to the character have been seen as an ill-fated attempt to mess with success…as we will soon see.
The Death of Gwen Stacy:
Throughout his early years, Spider-Man got one of the best supporting casts in comics. Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Robbie Robertson, Flash Thompson, and many more characters began as window dressing in the Lee-Ditko stories and are still central to Peter Parker’s life today. In addition, nerdy little Peter Parker actually turned out to be quite a hit with the ladies, garnering the attention of Betty Brant, Mary Jane Watson, and Peter’s apparent true love, Gwen Stacy. A common theme with the character was his strange combination of good and bad luck. As Peter Parker, he had all the breaks and good fortune in the world. But he often had to turn his back on good luck because of his sense of responsibility. His Uncle Ben died because he was selfish, and he’s never lived that down (well, until recently).
For years, Gwen Stacy was set up as Peter Parker’s true love. Mary Jane was there as a rival, but Peter and Gwen were obviously meant to be despite their troubles. And there were a lot of troubles. Among other things, Gwen’s father was killed by Dr. Octopus and, in a misunderstanding, Gwen blamed Spider-Man. Despite tragedy and misunderstanding, Peter and Gwen kept getting back together. Then the Green Goblin killed her.
Gwen Stacy’s death is probably the biggest death in comics. This wasn’t death by origin story or someone who had been around for two issues. This was a major supporting player who had been around for years. Moreover, it was the hero’s primary love interest who died. And, unlike the many, many shock-value deaths to come, Gwen didn’t come back.
The knife in the side keeps getting twisted for Spider-Man, too. It all happened because the Green Goblin discovered his secret identity, then used it to lash out at the people Peter loved. He kidnapped Gwen and tossed her off the Brooklyn bridge, but Spider-Man shot out a webline, saving her like he always seemed to. Except this time, there was a snapping sound. In saving her, Spidey had potentially killed her by his own hand.
While not signaling a costume or powers change, Gwen’s death was a huge turning point in Spider-Man comics. It put the Green Goblin on the map, even though he died the same issue. (Unlike poor Gwen, the Goblin would be back…again and again and again.) For the comics industry as a whole, it signaled the end of the Silver Age and the start of the darker Bronze Age. And it caused Spider-Man to grow up in a big way.
Spidey changed quickly over the course of his first few issues, as many of Stan Lee’s characters did. Lee often didn’t get the personalities of his characters set until a few issues in. (Want proof? Check out The Uncanny X-Men, where Beast goes from being a boorish moron to an eloquent intellectual three issues in, or where Professor X is originally shown to secretly lust after Jean Grey, a teenager.) Spider-Man graduated high school, went to college, and got a job at The Daily Bugle, but he was still Marvel’s kid superhero in many ways. The death of Gwen forced Peter to deal with the biggest tragedy he’d faced since his origin story when Uncle Ben died. The event left Peter somber and more serious. While he kept cracking jokes and serving as the light-hearted hero in many stories, there was now the definite feeling that anyone near him could die at any time.
The Black Suit:
In terms of costume changes, very few can be considered as successful as Spider-Man’s black suit. He originally got it during the Secret Wars event, which was Marvel’s first really huge crossover, written in response to DC’s success with Crisis on Infinite Earths. Spider-Man and many other superheroes were transported to an alien world by a cosmic being known as the Beyonder who chose to test both heroes and villains in a grand battle royale. While the quality of the series wasn’t all that great, it did have some memorable moments, such as the Hulk catching and holding an entire mountain range and, of course, Spider-Man’s black costume.
During one of the battles of the Secret Wars, Spider-Man’s costume got badly damaged. He and some other heroes discovered an alien machine that created new costumes. Knowing that alien technology can always be trusted, Spidey used the machine and was gifted with a black costume that could change appearance based on his thoughts, enhanced his strength and speed, and gave him an unlimited supply of webbing. The suit also had a presence in Spider-Man’s mind, though, subtly influencing his thoughts.
The fun part about the costume change is that there was initially no explanation for it. Secret Wars began with a group of heroes gathering at a strange site, then emerging from that same site with everything changed. For the heroes, months had gone by. For everyone else, mere moments had. In the literal blink of an eye, Colossus and Kitty Pryde ended their long-standing relationship, the Hulk had a broken leg, the She-Hulk had replaced the Thing as a member of the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man had his new costume. The Secret Wars limited series explained these changes, and readers didn’t find out how Spider-Man got the change in clothes until eight issues in. By that time, the post-Secret Wars events of the comics had revealed that the costume was actually an alien symbiote that bonded with its host. With the help of Reed Richards, Spider-Man got rid of the symbiote, but apparently liked the black costume enough to create a cloth replica. For a while, Spider-Man alternated between his red and blue costume and his black one. This led to some amusing bits with J. Jonah Jameson, who ascribed sinister intent to everything Spider-Man did, and who insisted that the costume change was some scheme of Spider-Man’s. In reality, it was a matter of, “Oh, my red and blue tights have a stain. I guess I’ll fight crime in black tonight.”
The black costume might have been a temporary change, or it might have become a permanent alteration in look, but instead it became a cornerstone in Spider-Man’s history when it created one of Spidey’s most deadly foes. The symbiote escaped apparent death and wound up bonding with Eddie Brock, a rival photographer of Peter’s who blamed his failings in life on Spider-Man. The result was Venom, a souped-up version of Spider-Man who had a homicidal streak to him. Venom would go on to menace Spider-Man for years, and eventually became an anti-hero when his suit spawned the even more deadly symbiote known as Carnage. With Venom’s emergence, Spider-Man went back to his red and blue suit permanently, but the change had covered about five years of comics…pretty significant as far as these things go.
Among the many effects of Gwen Stacy’s death was the way it changed Mary Jane. Previously the smoking hot “bad girl” to Gwen’s virgin-like purity, Mary Jane became a more serious character following Gwen’s death. The issue after Gwen’s death, she revealed some of her true self to Peter in her attempts to comfort him (as shown on the right). From those beginnings, a relationship between her and Peter began. Ultimately, Peter revealed his secret identity to Mary Jane, who may have already known, depending on how you want to read the subtext of the comics.
In 1987, the relationship came to a head as Peter and Mary Jane got married. There was a lot of hoopla for the comics event, including a mock-live version of the wedding officiated by Stan Lee. If Gwen’s death had forced Peter to start growing up, the marriage to Mary Jane firmly demonstrated that the kid superhero had become a man. Even back then, there was a lot of debate on whether it was a good idea, with editor-in-chief Jim Shooter supposedly against the marriage. In the comic scripts, both characters were shown as having some doubts the night before, which gave the writers a convenient back door to escape from and return to status quo to normal should the move prove to be unpopular. But it wasn’t, and Spider-Man and Mary Jane stayed together as a married couple for the next twenty years.
The con side of the marriage argument was that it made Spider-Man seem too old, when he originated as a teenager. Of course, the X-Men also originated as teenagers, and I don’t see people arguing that they should stay that way. While I can see the importance of keeping Spider-Man somewhat young, his relationship with Mary Jane was ultimately well-written enough that it became a good thing for the character while also not aging him too much – even married, Peter was still only in his early 20s.
The Clone Saga:
Back in the 1970s, there had been a story where a supervillain known as the Jackal cloned Peter Parker. The two Spider-Men fought, one died, and his body was dropped into a smokestack to keep people from discovering who Spider-Man was. That one-off story came back in the 1990s and proceeded to hijack comic book like some sort of radioactive mutant dinosaur out to steal kids’ lunch money.
At the time that the Clone Saga started in 1994, Spider-Man had four separate ongoing titles. This saga ran through all of them, and it didn’t stop for three years. This storyline was the first of many attempts by writers to “fix” the Spider-marriage and bring back a younger, single Peter Parker. Part of the catalyst for the saga was that Peter wasn’t just married anymore – Mary Jane was now pregnant. A lot of folks thought it was a bad thing for Spider-Man to be a dad. Actually, as a whole, Marvel seemed to hate the idea of parents at the time. Prior to the Clone Saga, Bruce Banner (aka the Incredible Hulk) was supposed to have a child as well, and Marvel editorial forced Betty Banner to have a miscarriage under the logic that readers wouldn’t like her anymore if she was a mother. (Flash forward to 2010 and the Hulk now has three, possibly four different children and is at a high point in terms of his popularity…but that’s another rant for another time.)
Basically, the idea behind the Clone Saga was this: the supposedly dead Spidey-clone of before wasn’t really dead. He had spent a few years wandering the world as Ben Reilly, combining the first name of Uncle Ben with Aunt May’s maiden name and fighting crime as the Scarlet Spider. Ben returned as part of the schemes of the allegedly-dead Jackal, who had created more Spider-Man clones including the new supervillain Kane, who made his mark in Spidey’s comics by killing Doctor Octopus. The plan by the creative team was to reveal Peter to have been the clone and Ben to be the real Peter Parker. This would allow Peter to go off into the sunset with Mary Jane and his new baby while bringing a young, single Spider-Man back. And, if the move proved to be unpopular, a switcheroo could take place that would reinstate Peter as the real deal.
Then the marketing team got hold of it.
Marketing noticed that the Clone Saga had boosted sales and ordered the storyline to be expanded. It grew to monster proportions, went through numerous creative teams, and started spawning plotholes right and left. Peter was revealed to be the clone, then he was revealed the be the real deal. He retired as Spider-Man, then he came back. Ben Reilly took over as Spider-Man for a bit, changing the costume some, and even got possessed by the Carnage symbiote at one point. Peter started to lose his powers, then got them back. By 1996, marketing had created the beast that could not be fed, and nobody knew how to get out of it. It got so bad that the creative team even discussed Mephisto, Marvel’s version of Satan, cropping up and magically retconning it all away. They ultimately rejected that idea, because while the Clone Saga had been stupid, that idea was even stupider.
Finally, Norman Osborn, aka the original Green Goblin, was brought back to life. Ben was revealed to be the clone, and Norman was revealed to have masterminded the whole thing. Moreover, Norman wound up taking Mary Jane’s baby from the hospital after birth, doing away with her off-panel and ridding continuity of Spider-Man’s child while building up his own EvilCred™. Shortly thereafter, Aunt May, who had died before the Clone Saga, came back, revealed to have never actually died but instead to have been a part of Norman’s evil machinations to ruin Peter’s life. The status quo went back to what Spider-Man had been like in the 1970s and 1980s, with Aunt May fretting over her nephew and Peter constantly trying to balance the responsibilities of his normal life with his superhero identity. But there was still that pesky marriage thing to deal with…
Not Quite the Dumbest Thing Ever:
I strongly suspect that Joe Quesada, the current editor-in-chief at Marvel, sees the company as an escapist fantasy that can let him forget about his real-life problems. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since comics are escapism at their core. But Quesada has had some interesting policies. In the midst of putting a lot of the old ultra-violence and a good deal of “mature” content into comics, he passed a smoking ban on the superheroes because he had lost his father to cancer. Okay…but it’s mixed messages when you see the Punisher feed a mobster to a polar bear, but smoking is where the line is drawn.
Quesada has also gone out of his way to return Marvel’s iconic characters to how he remembers them as a kid. One of his big goals was to get rid of Spider-Man’s marriage, because he remembered Spidey as a young, hip bachelor. In the early 2000s, Mary Jane was apparently killed off when a plane she was on exploded. But sales plummeted as a result, and Mary Jane was eventually brought back. Quesada compromised – he would eliminate the Spider-marriage someday, but until then, he wanted it written well.
In came writer J. Michael Straczynski, who proceeded to really emphasize the supporting cast. Early in his run, Aunt May discovered that Peter was Spider-Man and handled it in a remarkably well-done way. Peter and Mary Jane grew even closer as a couple. Straczynski really brought back the human element to Spider-Man, emphasizing who Peter Parker was and what his family and friends meant to him. But, as is his MO, he pursued some storylines that just made people scratch their heads and go, “what the fuck?!”
Case in point: Sins Past, a storyline in which it is revealed that the pure as snow Gwen Stacy had two illegitimate children that she kept hidden from Peter and who had aged at a rapid pace to become basically super ninja assassins. Straczynski originally wanted the kids to be Peter’s, but Quesada axed the idea under the old, “readers won’t sympathize with someone who has kids” idea. So instead it turned out that Gwen had a secret affair with Norman Osborn, who impregnated her with twins. God…just writing that makes me want to wash my brain out.
Straczynski also presented a 12-part storyline called The Other, in which it was revealed that the radioactive spider bite that gave Spider-Man his powers was more or less incidental to his origins. In truth, he had a mystical connection to a magic spider totem. In the storyline, Peter died and was reborn with new, enhanced spider powers, such as stingers he could use to stun people. It’s another in a long line of Straczynski stories that isn’t really bad, but just makes the reader go, “What the hell did he do that?”
Running parallel to this, Brian Michael Bendis decided that the Avengers should be Marvel’s version of the Justice League, comprised of the company’s highest-profile characters. So Spider-Man joined the Avengers, where Iron Man became a mentor for him. Iron Man even gave Spider-Man a new suit, which leads us to…
Iron Spidey and the Civil War Fiasco
Spider-Man got a new suit of armor from Iron Man that boosted his spider powers even further. In a nice example of how much of a dick Tony Stark could be, it also collected data on Spider-Man’s physiology, allowing Iron Man to simulate Spidey’s powers and to override his spider sense if necessary.
The new Spidey armor wasn’t really a bad idea, but it was another change right on top of some pretty big changes…and the biggest one was yet to come.
In Marvel’s Civil War event, the government decided that superheroes needed to register with the government so they could be monitored. This led to a schism in the superhero community, with Iron Man leading the pro-registration side and Captain America leading the anti-registration side. A cool concept was ruined by the fact that everyone was on a different page. The pro-regs were written as fascists, the anti-regs as guerrilla terrorists, and the heroes as a whole stopped being heroic. In the midst of this, Iron Man convinced Spider-Man to set an example for the rest of the superhero community and reveal his identity to the world. After all, his loved ones were safe under the protection of the Avengers, right?
Well, Spider-Man revealed his identity in an event that made national news in the real world and that Marvel claimed would be a permanent change (in reality, it was undone within two years). Spider-Man soon realized that he was fighting on the wrong side of the Civil War because Iron Man and company were total dicks, ignoring things like due process and using mind-controlling nanites, among other things. Spidey fled with Mary Jane and Aunt May in tow and went into hiding. But it was only a matter of time until Spider-Man’s foes took a shot at him now that his secret identity had been revealed. Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin of crime, hired an assassin to go after Peter’s loved ones. The assassin shot Aunt May, fatally wounding her. Poor Aunt May died.
Yep, that’s what happened. Nothing else. Let’s just end the rant here.
Good night everybody!
What the shit is that?!
One More Day:
And here’s where I start hating Spider-Man. One More fucking goddamned piece of shit Day. So Aunt May got shot and was near death. All of Spider-Man’s buddies, guys who could travel through time and alter reality, couldn’t cure a bullet wound. Maybe it was because she didn’t want to live…after all, she was ancient and had her husband waiting in Heaven for her. In fact, when Peter consulted a mystic and spoke to Aunt May’s spirit, she specifically said he should let her go. But did Peter listen? NOOOO!!!
Anyway, this led into a storyline called Back in Black, where Peter donned his old black suit and went about kicking ass while trying to save Aunt May. That eventually led to One More Day, which is one of the worst comic book stories ever.
Remember how superheroes are supposed to be, you know, heroic? Well, Spider-Man stopped being a superhero in One More Day. Why? Because he makes a deal with the Devil. Mephisto, that guy who the people writing the Clone Saga realized didn’t belong in Spider-Man’s comics, showed up and offered to save Aunt May. The only requirement? Spider-Man had to give up his marriage.
Now, any hero – hell, any moderately decent person, would have told Mephisto to go piss off. But instead, Peter browbeat Mary Jane into agreeing to the deal. And, just like that, Quesada got his wish. The Spider-marriage was done, and Peter went back to living with his Aunt May. Did I mention he made a deal with the Devil? How can you be a hero after that?!
It’s worth noting that Straczynski, who wrote most of One More Day, asked to get his name removed from the credits of the conclusion because it was basically Quesada who wrote the story. Again, we see Quesada trying to play wish fulfillment through comics – he stated that he would have done anything to keep his dear old mother from dying. That’s fine, Joe. But I personally think most decent people would stop short of selling their holy matrimony to the Lord of Darkness!
Seriously, I’ve got nothing against writing as wish fulfillment. Both my novels Shadowslayers and Reality Check were written partly out of a sense of wish fulfillment because after my father died, I wanted to explore the idea that people could come back to life in some form. As with Quesada and his mother, I would do anything to bring my father back to life…well, anything except for making a deal with Satan!
The deal with Mephisto not only negated the marriage, but inexplicably retconned away Spider-Man’s new powers from The Other, undid the revelation of his identity (you know, that thing that Marvel swore they wouldn’t undo), and brought Harry Osborn, a long-dead supporting character, back to life. The identity part was later explained in the storyline One Moment in Time, which revisited One More Day and explained that Mr. Fantastic, Iron Man, and Dr. Strange teamed up to wipe the world of the knowledge that Peter Parker was Spider-Man. Again, people who couldn’t treat a bullet wound got together and erased the memories of everyone on Earth. Spidey getting depowered and Harry Osborn coming back to life never got explained to my knowledge. When asked how the deal worked, Quesada explained, “It’s magic; we don’t have to explain it.” Um…yes, Joe. Yes you do. Because if it’s just “magic,” then Dr. Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme could have take care of Aunt May and Peter never would have had to go to Mephisto.
The add insult to injury regarding One More Day, an easy way to undo the marriage showed up in the big Marvel crossover even going on at the time, Secret Invasion. There, it was revealed that several Marvel characters had actually been replaced by the shape-shifting aliens known as skrulls. Now, revealing that Mary Jane has really been a skrull all along wouldn’t have been the most elegant of retcons, but it would have allowed for some decent storytelling. Suddenly Peter would have to deal with the fact that Mary Jane, who he loved dearly, had no memory of their relationship. It could have had some drama, at the very least. But no…better to have an American icon sell his marriage to the Devil in order to give his octogenarian aunt another year or two to live.
To sum up: kids, smoking is bad. Making an unholy pact with the Prince of Lies and helping him to get a win over on God, though, is okay.
Today, Spider-Man is back in his blue and red tights and his mechanical webshooters. He’s taking a break from fighting crime so he can be a man-slut and hook up with Joe Quesada’s daughter. I’m only kind of kidding. See, after One More Day came Brand New Day, which introduced the new status quo. During that time, some of Peter’s antics include:
- Having drunken maybe-sex with his roommate who he hates,
- Having sex with Felicia Hardy, aka the Black Cat, under the sole condition that she not look at his face while they do the deed,
- Breaking into some poor couple’s honeymoon suite so he can have sex with Felicia, and then jumping out the window pantsless and talking about how he’s not guilty at all,
- Angsting about dating a girl named Carlie Cooper, who is a totally new character with no personality, who happens to have the same first name as Joe Quesada’s daughter, and who everybody in the comic, including Mary Jane, claims is Peter’s soul mate.
The superheroics in both Brand New Day and the storylines following have been bland at best. The emphasis has been the new “relatable” Peter Parker, who enjoys such things as breaking and entering, treating women like things, and wheeling and dealing with minions of Hell. And he’s not even single anymore, since he just went and hooked up with Carlie Cooper. It seems that the whole “getting rid of the marriage” thing was just Quesada’s chance to hook Spider-Man up with his daughter in a fictional setting.
The good news is that sales are dropping like a stone. At the time of One More Day, sales of The Amazing Spider-Man were around 100,000 issues per month. Now, they’re in the neighborhood of 50,000 or so – good for an average comic, but terrible for Spider-Man. Eventually, someone will probably revisit Peter’s deal with the devil and fix it in an attempt to salvage sales. While Quesada is editor-in-chief, though, Mary Jane probably won’t be back as his wife, which is a shame – the biggest sales plunges in the past decade both came right around the time that Marvel tried to undo the marriage.
So that’s Spider-Man. He was awesome for a long, long time, and not even the Clone Saga did permanent damage to him. Then Joe Quesada came along and wrecked him.