Infinite Spider-Man 9.6: 21st Century Man-Child

Posted by Mister Mets 09 March 2012

One of the current disagreements over the Spider-Man comics deals with the portrayal of the character’s youth. Some detractors have claimed that since One More Day, the character has become a man-child.

A few years ago, Tom Brevoort, then-Executive Editor of the Spider-Man books, said that youth is the most important part of Spider-Man’s appeal, greater than “with great power comes great responsibility.”  There's been an argument that this mentality represents a problem for Marvel and the Spider-Man books, though I alrgely agree with what Brevoort said.

Most of the best comic book series are about something--something that may not factor into every single last adventure, but which is the underpinning of the series as a whole. Fantastic Four is about family. X-Men is about prejudice. Batman is about revenge. And Spider-Man is about youth.  
Youth is the element that defined Spider-Man back in the days when he was created, the thing that separated him from all of the other competing superhuman crime-fighters and made him unique. Whereas up till that time, teen-agers in comics had been relegated to being either junior-sized reflections of their mentors, or simple sidekicks, Spider-Man was the one series in which a teen-ager was the hero, was the lead. And that influenced everything about the series, gave it its heart. As Steve Ditko once pointed out, being High School age meant that it was acceptable for Peter Parker to screw up, to make mistakes and learn from them, in a way that would have been pathetic for more established, more heroic super heroes. (Ditko also lamented having had Peter graduate High School and go onto College.) Unlike other heroes before him, Spider-Man was the audience--so successfully so that the folks working on X-Men in the 60s very quickly lost sight of their own premise, and attempted to turn the team into five Spider-Men, with dismal results.  
Spider-Man is no more about responsibility than Batman is about criminals being a superstitious and cowardly lot. That's the tagline to the first adventure, and a strong moral message to go out on, but it's what that story is about, not what the series is about. And in point of fact, it wasn't until the late 80s/early 90s that you began to see that phrase start to get beaten on like a drum, with story titles like "The Greatest Responsibility" and "Power and Responsibility" and so forth--not coincidentally, a time after Peter had been married, and the creators were looking for some other bedrock to take the place of youth. Responsibility is certainly an element of Spider-Man--but then, show me a hero for whom it's not an element.  
Spider-Man is about finding your place in the world, about figuring out who you are and who you want to be. It's about screwing up and trying again, It's about believing that you're worthwhile while fearing that you'er not, all the while being judged by authority figures who misunderstand you.  
Once you strip this element away, Spider-Man becomes just another in a long line of super heroes who are well-adjusted and self-aware (well, as well-adjusted as any super heroes can be). He becomes another set of powers and a costume--he loses the unique ground upon which he stands. It's no coincidence that when the character is done in other media, they inevitably default to the core, to the essential essence, and don't come anywhere near to a married Spider-Man until perhaps the point where they're ready to end the series. because really, that's what you're doing at that point, whether you know it or not. You're resolving the final question of Peter Parker's self-worth, allowing him to overcome all of his fears and doubts and guilt and letting him grow up and find acceptance. And that's the one thing you can never let him do. 

It’s a moot point to argue whether youth was more important to the character than power and responsibility. It's all intertwined, as the young hero has to determine the right course of action. Power and responsibility isn't much of a conflict if the hero always knows exactly what he should do. Part of the fun of the Spider-Man books is that he hasn't quite figured that all out yet.

Youth did distinguish Peter Parker from other superheroes with solo books, while pretty much every title can deal with the questions of power and responsibility. Prior to the marriage, Peter Parker was noticeably younger than the likes of Batman, Superman and Captain America. When he got married, a few younger heroes had popped up and one could argue that his status as one of the first silver age Marvel superheroes meant that he could no longer be the young superhero.

It was unique for Spider-Man to be the married lead superhero, especially with Barry Allen disappearing in the Crisis of Infinite Earths. But it didn’t quite work as a new way to distinguish the character. None of the younger heroes (Nova, teen Tony Stark) reached the heights or popularity of Spider-Man. And his marriage was no longer special, when both Wally West and Clark Kent tied the knot.

So there were reasons for Quesada & company to restore the things that had made the character unique. Peter Parker could still be portrayed as south of 30 unlike Batman, Superman, Captain American and Wolverine. This corresponds with a national trend of people taking longer to figure out what they're going to do for the rest of their lives.

Peter Parker Playa!

There were a few misconceptions about what making Peter Parker single again would entail. Some suspected that the development would have the inevitable result of writers portraying him as an unlikeable Casanova. They’re afraid that unscrupulous writers would try to live vicariously through the character, though I suspect in that case, the writers would prefer Peter remain married to the gorgeous and loving twenty-something supermodel actress redhead.

While Spider‑Man being single again would inevitably bring up comparisons with other Marvel bachelors, there’s no reason for those comparisons to be unfavorable. Stan Lee, Gerry Conway, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Roger Stern and other writers were able to feature an unmarried Peter Parker who was not an obvious manwhore, so I don't see why that would be a problem with future creative teams.

The writers have big incentive to not make Spider‑Man into a James Bond type womanizer. A lot of the fun of a single Peter Parker is in the times it’s worse than marriage, such as bad dates, and the periods when he’s not seeing any woman. This is what the brain trust/ web heads did for their first fifty issues. Then Peter was shown sleeping with two women over the course of a seven issue period, and the manwhore claim was briefly resuscitated.

Peter Parker The Loser

Conversely, some suspect that the single Spider‑Man would always be a loser, or made to appear too young. This is the "we already have Ultimate Spider-Man” refrain. I think a single twenty‑something Spider‑Man could be accessible to new readers, without tying him to modern slackers or making him seem obviously younger than the guy in his mid to late 20s in the current book. He could have continued as a young high school teacher if the writers choose to do that (I've had a few who were in their early twenties.) He can't screw up like he did when he was a teenager, but at this point, he probably shouldn't. At least not as often. While Peter Parker should not be portrayed as a perpetual loser, he should have his ups and downs which requires some significant losses (IE‑ He gets hired in one issue, downsized twenty‑seven issues later).

For either perspective (Peter Parker Casanova, Peter Parker Loser) you have to assume a fixed status quo. You have to expect that Peter Parker would always be lonely or he would also jump into bed with willing and inconsequential women. Perhaps because the marriage brought so much stability to Peter’s private life, that fans of it assume that any status quo is permanent, including ups and downs. With a single Peter Parker, there’s no need for a particular status to be cemented, nor should it be. He could meet a girl in one issue, and have any ups and downs as their relationship progresses and comes to an end 46 issues later. That could be followed by a period when he’s unlucky in love (which won’t be as tedious as a married Peter Parker working out his problems with his wife every now and then) and Marvel could always end the monotony of that by giving him a serious girlfriend for a few years, or just a few issues.

With the serious relationship, there always remains the possibility of a bad break‑up in the horizon, or even an amicable one, with the writers being able to explore the aftermath of both. Once the relationship becomes stagnant (or even before it has a chance to do so), the writers have the solution to just have him or his girlfriend walk away. Any problems are more significant as there’s always the option of leaving out the back door. This makes the single status quo conducive to one of the most important techniques in comic book serials: The Illusion of Change.

One More Day didn't just change Peter Parker. As Peter Parker became single, there were similar changed to members of the supporting cast.


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