The Infinite Spider-Man Part 6.1: The Commitment to Change

Posted by Mister Mets 07 November 2011



If the current direction is an illusion of change approach in which writers and editors aren't beholden to the series as a clear linear narrative, an alternative would have been a commitment to change, in which major developments were not contradicted and remained part a consistent part of the character's history. And you can certainly make an argument for it.

I was reading Malcolm Macdowell's Blink, in which he cites the example of an improv comedy troupe, and how the're able to create one act plays seemingly spontaneously. One of the things they do is always make sure to follow through on what their costars set up.


While there's a major difference between something as finite as a one act play, and a serial with no end in sight, this blueprint could be applied to serial fiction. It's a medium in which the story is told chapter by chapter, and in the case of the Spider-Man comics, without a clear idea of how it's going to end.

Readers who follow the comics want to see the writers build on the foundation of the issues they've read, as it creates the sense that the previous stories were worthwhile and relevant. For the writers, working backwards to figure out how a retcon works can be time-consuming, and contrary to the instinct to just build on what the previous guys did.

With a straightforward "commitment to change" system, it's much easier to explain to an absent reader what's happened with the characters since the last time they followed the title. It's a lot like finding out what's happened to a real person. "Peter and MJ had a baby" or "Peter and MJ got divorced" is simpler to understand than "Peter and MJ broke up, but the marriage was also erased" or "Aunt May got married to J Jonah Jameson's father, but she no longer remembers that Peter Parker is Spider-Man." Explaining the nuances of what's no longer continuity can get quite complicated, and scare away lapsed readers.

For readers who hate retcons and reversals, One More Day was anathema. Several turning points from the Spider-Man comics were undone. The marriage was erased. Harry Osborn was back from the dead. Aunt May and Norman Osborn no longer knew her nephew's secret. Peter Parker's identity was a secret again. Quesada and JMS even wanted to bring back Gwen Stacy, although that was vetoed. There was precedent for it. The end of the Clone Saga was a similarly tumultuous time, as Norman Osborn came back from the dead, Peter realized that he wasn't the clone. and a subplot was established that would ultimately end in Aunt May's return from the grave. Though in those cases the majority of the reversals were for more recent developments, when there's a bit of a grace period. As for the return of Norman Osborn, there's no way anyone can argue that it made things easier for Spidey.

Preferring that changes to the series be permanent suggests further alterations in the near-future. This is fine with many fans of the married Spider-Man, who have suggested allowing Spider-Man to further grow and evolve, which essentially means that he should have a family. They argue that “growth” is the chief reason for Spider‑Man’s popularity and appeal, though the sequels making less money than the original Spider‑Man film somewhat contradicts that notion. These fans view Spider‑Man as the everyman, who has evolved since his first appearance. A kid is the next logical step in that process.

And Then What?

I would argue that the Spider‑Man writers shouldn't have the luxury of aging Spider‑Man and giving him kids, because it creates a mess for the next writers. It’s difficult to reverse these changes, or to go from a status quo in which Peter Parker is a married father to one where he is not. Killing Peter’s wife and/ or child is way too depressing and there are significant disadvantages to having either Peter or Mary Jane abandon their family. There are some mega-arcs Marvel could do to shake things up (Mary Jane goes missing, Mary Jane takes the kids and goes into hiding when a new villain targets Peter) but the readers would still be aware that at the end of the storyline, Peter Parker would still be a happily married father.

The most likely way to change things would be to have the family expand, and to have everyone involved become a little bit older. Writers will eventually run out of ideas involving Peter and Mary Jane as the parents of newborns, so the first kid will become a toddler. And then go to nursery school. And Kindergarten. And Elementary school. And Peter and Mary Jane thus become one year older for every year the child ages. The effect will spread to the rest of the Marvel Universe, including the characters who were in their twenties and thirties during the silver age. How should the books move forward when Peter Parker is presented as a father of three in his late thirties? The big question pops up again: And then what?

You had 130+ issues of Spider‑Girl, if you want a book about Peter Parker raising a family. You could argue that it’s inadequate as Peter’s not the main character in that series, but the reason Peter’s not the main character is that his life in that book is no longer interesting enough to justify headlining a monthly, let alone an (almost) weekly.

Marvel could prevent things from being too comfortable for the characters by portraying Peter Parker as a bad father, in the hopes of getting some drama out of that. It will come at the cost of a lot of goodwill for one of the most likeable characters in fiction. While it’s true that many great men have been poor husbands and fathers (Rudy Giuliani comes to mind) writers choosing to deliberately portray Peter Parker as an incompetent dad aren’t going to get readers emotionally invested in what happens next.

Some argue that the character needs occasional change, and this is the best way to prevent the status quo from becoming stale. While a fixed and permanent state of affairs isn’t a good solution, neither is change for the sake of change. All major developments with the character should be mindful of the fact that the story will most likely continue for decades. The ability to shake things up is severely limited when writers are forced to commit to these alterations forever.

There are some who suggest that Peter Parker should “grow” simply to make the character more appealing to an increasingly older readership. Such a move admits defeat against getting younger readers for the books (which is essential for keeping the comics going for a prolonged period of time), and simply ties the books to a slowly declining readership. Spider‑Man existed before most current readers started reading comics, and should still have new adventures after the current readers depart this Earth.

If Marvel tries to make the title appeal mostly to the longtime fans, they're going to lose current younger readers, and the future readers necessary to keep the Marvel Universe alive. The company would also lose out on getting great artists and writers to work on the book, because most A‑list creators wouldn’t want to do a project with no potential for long‑term success/ expansion/ new readers.

If the characters became older with their initial audience, the teenagers in Lee/ Ditko’s Amazing Spider‑Man would be in their Sixties by now and I doubt most current readers would have been interested in the books in the first place. The desire to see characters age with you screws over the next generation of readers. Chances are that the people who want to see Spider‑Man age and have children would not have become as interested in the character when they started reading the comics if Spider‑Man had a wife, and three kids. Eventually you're going to deal with issues that many younger fans don't care to read about: Stable Jobs, Menopause, Retirement, Death.

With the illusion of change, the goal is to add to the story without restricting later writers. Growth is still possible without Peter Parker, and the supporting cast becoming discernibly older. As long as Peter Parker learns from his experiences, his character will grow even if it's not as obvious. But there are other ways to do it than giving him children, and more birthdays or wedding anniversaries.

With a commitment to change approach, you might just lose what made the series interesting and compelling in the first place, especially when irreversible changes start piling up. Then you’re left with something radically different (and likely not an improvement) over the original. Or you’re left in a position in which none of the changes seems to matter, such as when Peter Parker divorces his fifth wife.

I'm not worried about whether Peter's portrayed as being twenty‑three or twenty‑eight, but what will happen when he's 38 or 58. This is the stuff of crude comedy, not exciting superhero adventures. Granted, I believe the comics would be cancelled long before either milestone is reached, as that's the logical consequence of a bad status quo. The majority of the fans who want to see Peter get older with them will eventually slowly stop reading and buying the books, leaving the continuing adventures of a less commercially viable Spider‑Man.

Some would cite the Dark Knight Returns as a successful storyline involving a much older version of a top-tier superhero, but while a Mid 50s Batman coming out of retirement made for a kick-ass self contained 192 page story, it wasn't viable for a regular series. The continued adventures of an older Batman would probably have degenerated into self parody, assuming the book never quite became boring) There are probably interesting stories to tell about a Peter Parker in his 50s, just not 360 issues worth, and that's just if the books would continue in real time.

The counter-argument to concerns about the character's continuing viability is that there could be other leads than Peter Parker.

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