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Infinite Spider-Man 9.4: Repetition and Reader Turnover

Posted by Mister Mets 25 February 2012

One of the most common objections against the post-BND Amazing Spider-Man was that it no longer offered anything new. There are a few variations of the charge, with some detractors claiming that they're just reading the same tale over and over again, and that any given story could just as well have been published in the 1980s.



As far as editorial policy is concerned, the complaint should be limited to Peter Parker's "B" plots: his adventures and status quo when he's not in costume.The "A" plot of a given issue generally doesn't depend on the character's marital status. So if the Spider-Man/ Hawkeye team-up, or the battle with Morbius is something you've seen before, the problem has nothing to do with One More Day.

Once upon a time, significant reader turnover was the norm, which made writers more comfortable reusing earlier storylines. Check out all the times the Thing went berserk and fought the rest of the Fantastic Four during the Lee/ Kirby era. That only worked when comics readers lacked access to earlier storylines. Today, a kid with a computer connection could probably have access to every Spider-Man story ever made, and could probably read them all in the course of a few months to an year. And a lot of the crucial stories are collected in TPB form, or available on Marvel's digital comics site. This means that writers can't just regurgitate developments or stories from the past, especially if those developments were unlikely to begin with (a couple's marriage being magically restored, a supporting character coming back from the dead.) Even if all the old readers are replaced with new readers, the writers won't have a license to duplicate stories that have already been told.



Peter David and Reader Turnover

There are people in the industry who don't realize what's changed. In a recent interview with the Spider-Man Crawl Space podcast, Peter David expressed what I thought to be outdated notions on the topic, while making an anti-OMD argument. He suggested that it would have been possible to avoid the stigma associated with a change in the character's marital status, by simply never mentioning that the character had been married.
My attitude is that if the mandate had come down to me, and I was told that we want to make Peter Parker single again, I would not have been in favor of waving a wand and saying it never happened. I don't understand the concept of "It never happened" because that means that all the life lessons and those things you've learned during it don't mean anything. My attitude would have been "Okay, fine, either we have them get divorced, or we kill off Mary Jane. That's it."And the argument would be "Well, then, forever after, Peter Parker will always be a divorcee. Or he's always going to be a widower." And that's true. But that reckons without the concept of fan turnover. There are lots of stuff that you and I know about, things that happened 4 or 5 or 6 years ago, that there are plenty of Spider-Man fans who are new, and who have no freaking idea. You and I talk about "The Death of Jean Dewolfe" and there's going to be fans out there who only know about Jean Dewolfe and the Sin-Eater because they're buying a minimate.So time as they say, heals all wounds. And four or five years ago you're going to have an entire raft of Spider-Man fans who are unaware of the fact that he was ever married to someone named Mary Jane. Twenty years from now, you'll have no one who is going to remember it.
I recall reading similar arguments from John Byrne, who suggested that it was a mistake for DC to reprint Jack Kirby's Fourth World comics, because these contradicted appearances by the New Gods in DC comics at the time. The idea that you could just ignore past comics may have once been true, but it's no longer applicable. DC writers can't just pretend that Jason Todd was never Robin, or that Barry Allen was never in the JLA, without some sort of explanation and probably a retcon. The comics market has changed in a very significant way. While there will be some new readers who just won't be interested in older material, there will be other new fans who will devour much of the extensive backlog in a short amount of time. They will read classics like the Death of Jean Dewolfe. And they'll have many options for accessing those stories, including the back issue market, trade paperbacks and downloads, legal and otherwise.

Marvel could limit the access fans have to the material, in order to try to control perceptions regarding the character, by not reprinting any of it and making it unavailable for legal download. But that won't accomplish much, in the age of illegal digital downloads. Even if they hadn't read the older adventures, new readers could also still learn about the character's status quo in various articles about the Spider-Man comics online and elsewhere. And Disney would lose the revenue generated by reprints of all those acclaimed stories that happened while Peter and Mary Jane were married: Kraven's Last Hunt, Todd Mcfarlane and David Micheline's first Venom appearances, JM Dematteis and Sal Buscema's Harry Osborn Green Goblin Saga, the J Michael Straczynski/ John Romita Jr run of Amazing Spider-Man, the return of the Sin-Eater, etc.

In the old days, it was possible for publishers and editors to control what elements of a character's backstory readers were familiar with, as customers typically only bought what was available in the newsstand. But pretending that an element of the status quo, such as the lead being divorced or a widower, doesn't exist stopped being a viable approach when companies saw the financial benefits of keeping their classic material readily available. While you could disagree with the wisdom of the decisions in One More Day, the "time heals all wounds" strategy wasn't an option.

In the same interview, Peter David mentioned how most Fantastic Four readers are unaware that the Human Torch was ever married. But it's not an apt comparison, as that still involved a retcon to establish that Johnny Storm was not married to Alicia Masters. That marriage also lasted for a shorter period of time (58 issues of a monthly VS 15+ years with a minimum of three monthlies), a stretch mostly consisting of forgotten runs on the title (Tom Defalco, Steve Englehart and Roger Stern). Although someone who picks up one of the Walt Simonson Visionaries TPBs will be off to Wikipedia to understand what happened.


Hoping for reader turnover doesn't seem to be an effective strategy for the people who want One More Day to be undone, as they tended to be long-time fans. But the problems with it demonstrate how Marvel has major incentives to avoid repetitive plots in the Spider-Man comics.


Stories that could have been told decades ago

Any stories published today should still be different from what you've seen before, although it shouldn't matter where Peter Parker finds himself at the beginning or the end of the issue.  There is a grain of truth to the final point of some of the critics, that in some ways, many of the stories could have been told decades ago. A few years ago, Marvel launched the Forever line, allowing acclaimed writers to show what they would have done had they stayed on the book. They had Chris Claremont on X-Men Forever, Louise Simonson on X-Factor Forever, and Bob Layton on Iron Man Forever. But there wasn't any need for a Roger Stern Spider-Man Forever, because the Brand New Day era Spider-Man was in a similar place to Peter Parker circa Amazing Spider-Man #250.


Hell, Stern went on to write a few issues during the Brand New Day era, including one which referenced "Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut" as having occurred "months earlier." As far as Roger Stern was concerned, it could just as well have been less than an year for the characters since his run ended.


Even if an issue could have been told in the 80s, it should still offer something original, just as Peter's story in Amazing Spider-Man #242 should be different from what he goes through twelve issues later. Of course, in the decades since, writers have more toys to play with, including a new supporting cast, villains and settings. Despite an intentional rejection of the "writing for the trade" approach from Slott and company, the storytelling sensibilities are also quite modern, which also results in new material.

The contemporary setting meant that things were different in a few big ways, including Peter Parker's access to the internet, cell phones and changing social norms. While Roger Stern's original run showed what Peter Parker would be like as a young man in the 1980s, the post-One More Day Spider-Man is a guy who was born in the 1980s. That informs the writers.



The anti-repetition argument hasn't been made very often recently, as the Big Time era has featured some significant and obvious changes to the status quo, which have been relevant to the stories. The previous four issues have been heavily dependent on Peter's job at Horizon Labs, while the earlier Vulture two-parter focused on Peter's association with Carlie Cooper post-Spider Island and the opening Avenging Spider-Man arc required Spider-Man to be on a team with the Red Hulk, and J Jonah Jameson to be Mayor of New York City. All these developments could be removed from the book (Carlie moves to Florida, Peter's fired from Horizon Labs, Spider-Man leaves the Avengers, Jonah loses a special election, etc.) and Peter Parker could find himself in a remarkably similar situation to where he was in the 1980s, but even in that case,  there's no reason writers have to feature new versions of old stories. They could still take the series in a different direction from there. It's also worth noting that the best-selling Spider-Man comic book of the last decade was a response to a contemporary news story: the election of a noted Spider-Man fan into the White House.


Even if the Spider-Man comics right now were just duplicating earlier material, this wouldn't be a particularly effective point in favor of retconning One More Day. At this point, the recommended solution to the alleged problem would be a variation of the problem. Marvel would still be restoring the title to an earlier status quo, and if you think such a return is the equivalent of repeating earlier stories, the new Amazing Spider-Man will be a book of repeats. You don't see many people suggesting that the way to avoid repetition is to take the series in a radically different direction post-OMD, when technically that would be the way to avoid the problem.


There were some who wanted the unmasked era to last longer. So, a return to the immediately pre-OMD circumstances would offer something that could not have been done at most earlier points. But this isn't something that all OMD detractors are united on, and I'm not sure those particular conditions could have lasted much longer. It would have been a radically different title, when Peter Parker's a fugitive and everyone knows his secret identity. That would be a far cry from what made the series successful in the first place. The 50th Anniversary of Spider-Man is coming up, and a big reason we're still interested in the character is that the template has worked so well. For many, the suggestion that a story could have been published decades ago is a compliment.


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