The Infinite Spider-Man Part 5.9: The Second Chapter

Posted by Mister Mets 04 November 2011

The last decade has seen a major change in the way comic books are produced and consumed. Most recent comics are now quickly reprinted as trade paperbacks, and soon every issue will be available for legal same day digital downloads. You no longer need to hunt down back issues to enjoy a superhero's earlier adventures. Whereas Marvel had to cater to previously cater to both novices and collectors, there's also now a peculiar breed of beginners buying material: readers who will consume a lot of the backlog in a short period of time. They're going to approach things quite differently from other fans, and publishers will have to take this into account.


When the publishing structures and ways of reading have changed, it's practical for Marvel to come up with a new approach for the direction of their top character. I found much of editor Stephen Wacker's first letter column for Amazing Spider-Man especially encouraging. He made some bold claims, but I agree that things have changed and a new approach is warranted.
Ever since Spidey first appeared waaaay back in the dark, barely-Beatled days of 1962 (ask your grandparents about it, no "Halo," no Spike TV, no MySpace, no 11 year olds with tattoos, NOTHIN’), he was a breath of fresh air to a public whose collective creative breath had grown stale from too many old men with capes, girlfriends and permanent smiles.

A kid with powers and real problems was a brand new concept at the time, but over the years it seems almost every super hero became a reflection of the groundbreaking work created by the nigh-legendary trinity of Stan, Steve and Johnny. For the past 45 years, through ups-and-downs, black costumes and iron costumes, bad TV shows and great movies, he has endured.

It’s clear that like love handles on a comic book editor, Spider-Man will be with us forever.

As longtime readers know, Spider-Man has just gone through one of the most dramatic periods in his life. The specifics are unimportant (you can go search them out if you like, but we’ll probably be gone by then). What matters is that THIS is where it all begins. This is the Brand New Day. For four-and-a-half decades we’ve given you the first chapter of Spidey’s life. The second begins now!
Given the initial title of this once thirty chapter essay, I welcomed the then-incoming Amazing Spider-Man editor's realization that the character should be around indefinitely. There’s a true power to the idea that the adventures of the Spider-Man introduced in Amazing Fantasy #15 will continue for a long time, and Wacker suggests a middle-ground between two possible approaches; bringing Spider-Man's story to an end, or doing away with continuity altogether. I hope the creators take steps to ensure the character’s appeal for decades to come, which requires a different approach to the Spider-Man franchise than the one we had before. At the moment, I’m satisfied that they’ve found it.

The Second Chapter

Wacker’s editorial raised a simple question: If this is the second chapter of Spider-Man's life, what's going to make it distinct from the first? A discussion I started on the subject at CBR quickly led to some fans proclaiming that the marriage represented the second stage of Spider-Man’s life, which led to others arguing that the first episode ended when Peter Parker went to college, or Steve Ditko left the title. I'm sure many editors and writers believed that their approach marked a radical departure from everything that had been done before.

So you could certainly contend that the post-OMD era doesn't represent the second chapter. Depending on how you look at it, it may be the fifth chapter, or the twenty-ninth. That semantic side-argument ignores the significant ways in which the current Amazing Spider-Man will be radically different than it once was.

Three key distinctions include an increased commitment to a modified illusion of change approach (more on that later), an awareness that this is a series that should continue for at least another 45 years with Peter Parker as the lead hero, and a focus on utilizing the rich history. The alternative most of the time seemed to be a belief that the Spider-Man books would come to an end some time in the near future or that Peter Parker won’t always be Spider-Man. Though sometimes there have been suggestions of just starting over from scratch.

Before One More Day, there was a clear linear progression to Spider-Man, and the comics could be seen as one big story, inching towards a conclusion at some point down the line, with a major development every five or so years. Peter Parker graduated high school, buried his girlfriend, graduated college, quit grad school, got married and moved with his wife and Aunt to Avengers mansion. OMD was the first time some of those developments were erased, suggesting a new attitude towards continuity. One casualty of the current approach is attempts to figure out exactly how old Spider-Man is. Stephen Wacker calmly says that the Peter Parker in the comics is in his mid-twenties, regardless of what elements of the comics this might contradict. There won't be a repeat of the flashbacks from Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos's Alias revealing exactly how many years ago Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, as more things will be kept intentionally ambiguous.

The contemporary approach increases Spider-Man's long term prospects and maintains the character’s core appeal. As it seems to be successful, you're not going to see Spider-Dad any time soon, at least not until Marvel decides to bring the current Spider-Man’s adventures to an end. While some believe otherwise, it is thus unlikely that OMD will quickly be undone for a status quo in which Peter is allowed to “grow” more.

All-Star Spider-Man

The best explanation for how the second chapter can be radically different came from Stephanie Garelie of the Comic Book resources forum. She aptly described the first Brand New Day issue as what Amazing Spider-Man would have been like had the writers opted to continue using the “illusion of change” approach in 1985. This is similar to Grant Morrison’s description of All‑Star Superman as what the Superman books could have been like if the Crisis of Infinite Earths reboot never happened. On the Jinxworld forum, Matt Linton noted that the series had the added benefit which ASS lacked of being able to interact with the Marvel Universe.

That may be the most significant reason I was excited about Brand New Day, as I loved All‑Star Superman. Dan Slott, and whoever's next on Amazing Spider-Man effectively have a blank slate to do whatever they want, in the same way anything can happen in Cary Bates's Action Comics. This is very rare in a decades old franchise of any sort. They’re able to use the best developments of the past writers and ignore everything else.

The other possible second chapters of Spider-Man’s life quickly started referencing recent prior continuity in significant ways, often by revealing the major beats of earlier stories. For example, after Spider-Man got married “The Death of Jean Dewolfe” was followed up on in two stories within the year: Peter David’s second Sin-Eater storyline and Venom’s first appearance. The Imposter Spider-Man from the 1999 reboot was revealed to be someone who got their powers in the penultimate storyline before the reboot started. The first BND arc did follow-up on “The Tablet of Time” storyline, indicating that continuity still mattered, but it was done without confusing anyone who hadn’t read that story. It also helped that the writing team was fresh, so you didn't have anyone continuing stories they had set in motion prior to OMD.

On the publishing side, with Brand New Day, the satellite books were dropped in order to get more issues of Amazing Spider-Man each month, and this is part of the "second chapter" approach. It's now the norm to get 40+ pages of Amazing Spider-Man a month, which make it easier to develop meaningful private plots as there's less concern regarding how multiple titles could juggle all the stories.

I'm satisfied with the approach, and I think it has worked well in the past few years. With a looser approach to continuity, a magic retcon was probably needed. But it's worth considering all the things Marvel could have done instead.


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