There’s been a lot of speculation that Peter may soon be passing the mask to someone new. We can talk all day about whether or not this is actually going to happen, but there’s a much more important question that I’ve seen a lot less serious discussion of: should it happen?
If anyone out there is crazy enough to want to listen to more of my opinions despite my rattling off about ASM every couple weeks, this is for you, because it’s been festering in my brain for the better part of the year, slowly burning a hole back there, and it’s gonna be a little lengthy. I hope at least a few of you will be interested enough to stick with me. I’d love to hear opinions, no matter how wrong-headed you guys may think I am.
The Amazing Spider-Man Legacy
or, “Never Give People What They Think They Want”
One part manifesto, another part open letter.
Way back in the mid-90s, Marvel made one of the worst decisions in comic book history and nearly drove their biggest character into the ground for good. Or that’s how the story goes. The infamous “Clone Saga” is one of the few pieces of Spidey’s history I haven’t read much of, and it wasn’t until many years later that I started reading ASM on a monthly basis and catching up with the character’s history. Since then the Saga is something I’ve learned a great deal about, and I find the whole concept of it as despicable as the next guy. But I wasn’t there.
I first got some notion of how that sequence of events must have felt to a long-time reader when I started reading Spideykicksbutt articles a few years ago. JR’s site was what first sparked my interest in writing about Spider-Man myself, and also the path through which I eventually came to the Crawlspace. It was also how I first learned some details about the Clone Saga.
I could hardly believe he was talking about something that actually happened when I read, in his Top 10 worst stories article, about the issues that transferred the title from Peter Parker to Ben Reilly. What really bothered me was the descriptions of what was being done to Peter. As JR puts it:
All the while, Peter is acting and talking like a loon and Reilly is far more calm and rationale, a tactic I believe which was used to try to encourage sympathy for Reilly and subtly set us on the road to accepting him as the original and Peter as the clone.
There are a lot of examples, including Peter breaking down and sobbing, and worst of all, hitting Mary Jane for no apparent reason when he finds out he’s supposedly a clone. Why Marvel felt at the time that in order to get readers to like Ben Reilly, they had to try to make them hate Peter Parker, is surely a subject that the internet can debate forever — but that’s not what I’m here to do right now. The point is that, to date, this is the only example we’ve ever had of an attempt at permanently shifting the role of Spider-Man to someone new, and it was a nearly unparalleled disaster. It’s probably left a lot of fans totally soured on the idea of Spidey ever becoming a legacy character. But what if things were done differently? What if the mask were handed down in a way that made sense and treated the character with the respect he deserves? Is such a thing possible?
Maybe I should back up a little bit first. Why are we talking about this, anyway? Rumblings about the possibility of Peter moving on first began at the beginning of 2012, when Axel Alonso mentioned in a CBR article that it “Seems like a pretty good final year for ol’ Pete, doesn’t it?” Shortly after, Stephen Wacker asked of readers in the letters page of ASM 680, “How drastically should we be changing Spidey? I mean, is it possible Peter Parker’s time has come and gone? Maybe it’s time for something different… let us know.”
If Marvel was going to make Spidey a legacy character, now would be the time. They’ve been teasing for quite a while that something very big is going to happen for the character’s 50th anniversary in ASM 700, and Dan Slott has stated that “in the 20-odd years I’ve been working in this industry, I have never done something as big to a character as what we’re doing to Spider-Man in #700.” Shortly before that issue, a “sidekick” character, Alpha, is set to be introduced — he’s young, and he’s going to gain his powers very similarly to the way that Peter did. There’s even been some theorizing that his symbol appears in the eyes of the Spider-Man portrayed in early artwork for Marvel Now, the new semi-reboot initiative coming soon to the Marvel U. And it’s worth noting that the company has been experimenting with some legacy characters lately — Ms. Marvel just recently became Captain Marvel, and for a while Captain America was Bucky instead of Steve. And obviously, I shouldn’t have to mention Miles Morales, who may have been partially an experiment to gauge fan reaction for all we know.
I’ll be the first to say I will never take anything the Marvel higher ups tease at face value. They want buzz and controversy, and articles like the one I’m writing this very moment are playing right into their hands. And if the only reason for this article to exist was to talk about what’s the haps in Spider-world, I wouldn’t do it. But I believe there’s ample reason to discuss the possibility. Whether Alonso and Wacker are just stirring the waters with misdirection or not, I’m going to argue that passing the role on might actually be the best thing that could happen to the character at this point.
Now that all this meandering has actually led somewhere, allow me to take it on another tangent. Let’s talk about arguably one of the most important legacy-related characters in comics: Barbara Gordon, a.ka. Batgirl, a.k.a. Oracle. I’m not a Batgirl reader myself, but I’m steeped enough in comics culture to know what her story is. “Babs,” as she’s often affectionately called, made a transition from her original role as Batgirl when she was put out of commission — as permanently as can be done in superhero comics, which of course isn’t very — by a bullet through her spine from the Joker. This lead to her role as Oracle, an information-focused identity in which she played a vital support role to Batman and many other allies.
Oracle was a good example of what can happen when a character retires because of three qualities she possessed: she lasted a long time — well over a decade — without reverting to her former role; she became a fan favorite, enough that there was significant internet backlash when DC announced she’d be returning to the role of Batgirl in their New 52; and she filled a role that was unique in the DC world, offering up new storytelling possibilities. All of those are rare and vital qualities in the ephemeral world of cape stories. If I were prone to philosophizing about super hero comics, I would say there’s a valuable lesson to be learned from Babs.
Since we’re talking about Batgirl, maybe we should consider taking a look at Spider-Girl, too. There’s another character with a rabid fan base, one that kept her alive through several cancellation attempts before the book was finally closed on her, and probably only as a part of Marvel’s current campaign to eradicate all traces of the Spider-marriage.
Unlike with Barbara, I am among that rabid fan base that helped The Amazing Spider-Girl stay alive as long as it did. In some ways, Spider-Girl is even closer to my heart than Spider-Man himself, because she’s an example of what can happen when you allow a chapter to close organically and as it should. She’s also a perfect example of a legacy character done right — she had adequate reason to take on the mantle, Peter had adequate reason to pass it to her, and she was both similar and different in just the right ways to justify telling new Spider-stories about her.
Despite all the rambling I’ve just done, I’ve still left the biggest question unanswered. Maybe it’s true that legacy characters can be, and have been done well in the past, but nobody’s clamoring for this to happen to Spidey, and everyone likes Peter Parker, and it didn’t work the first time, so a pretty legitimate argument could seemingly be made that there’s just no reason to bother. I’m arguing that perhaps the fact no one’s clamoring for it is part of the problem.
Here’s why I’m a believer in legacy characters. It’s a little problem I like to call the paradox of serial media. Anyone who’s been reading cape comics for long probably already knows what I mean, but for the sake of completeness, I’ll flesh it out. Serialized fiction is trying to draw readers, or viewers or whatever, into its plotlines to get them hooked there so they always want to know what’s going to happen next, thus remaining loyal customers. So by its nature, it wants to keep going indefinitely. But stories, by their own nature, are ephemeral. In order to have an interesting story you need plot and character arcs that inevitably conclude at some point. Typically the way that serialized fiction deals with this is by introducing regular, smaller arcs about the same characters that go in cycles. This model can be sustained for a very long time, but the longer it goes, the harder it becomes to keep developing fresh new arcs that will keep readers engaged. There’s also the problem of aging characters. In TV shows, the actors naturally age; but in comics the problem is stretched over decades and it becomes one of the changing technology writers want to represent, as well as the sheer volume of events that occur in the lives of characters who are supposed to stay in their 20s or even younger.
Legacy characters represent the best, and I’d even go so far as to say the only truly good way out of the paradox. Legacy characters don’t have to have decades of continuity constraining what writers can reasonably do with them. They can have new personalities that give new life to the persona they’re adopting, giving readers something fresh to absorb. But that’s only half of what they can do. Legacy characters not only give super hero personas room to spread out and try new things, but do the same for those heroes’ former alter egos. This is why I consider Barbara Gordon one of the best examples. Batgirl went on to be new characters, and meanwhile Barbara was able to become something new that would never have existed if it wasn’t she, specifically, who was freed up to do it. One of the greatest difficulties in comics is coming up with new characters who will actually catch on, when they’re competing for attention with characters who’ve been beloved for decades, sometimes half a century or more. Legacy characters can be the best of both worlds: they can give inventive writers the chance to create a new persona out of an old one.
In the Spider-Girl version of Marvel reality, Peter Parker is retired. He lost his leg and hung up his web shooters to focus on raising a family. He didn’t give up fighting crime entirely, though, as he became a police detective, focusing solely on what was always his greatest asset — his wits. This version of Peter was allowed to take on a variety of new roles, the most significant obviously being a father. But with that father status came his responsibility as a mentor to his daughter as she developed her own version of his powers, allowing him to come full circle and adopt the role that his uncle Ben played for him. That’s a kind of closure and completion that the character has never been allowed to have in his primary continuity, and there’s a sense of satisfaction involved in it. Undoubtedly, if Peter steps down in the primary continuity, this won’t be exactly how things play out, but it doesn’t have to be. Spider-Girl is just one good example of the kind of potential Peter has as a character outside of his role as Spider-Man.
No one can doubt that Peter Parker will always be the essential Spider-Man — the one who forever defined who the character is, and the benchmark against which every alternate version has been and and will be judged. But Peter Parker is the man and Spider-Man is the persona, and if he ever sheds that persona, he won’t have lost himself. In fact, I believe he could become a stronger character than ever. He’s brilliant, capable, and infinitely perseverent, which means he could pretty much do anything he wanted. A great writer could tell truly amazing new stories about him. And perhaps even more to the point, doesn’t Peter eventually deserve to move on?
I think that he does. Spider-Man is what he created as a teenager in order to find a way to use his power to help others. I’m not suggesting for a moment that he ever should or could abandon his dedication to that principle. But Spider-Man is not the only way that he could do it. We’ve already seen great examples of his potential as a teacher and an inventor. But I don’t see Peter ever settling down to focus purely on doing things like that, either. I think he’d still have a role fighting super villains, and I think that role might even play a bigger part in the Marvel U than he ever did as Spider-Man. But what I think more than anything else is that now, after fifty years of being dead, Ben Parker would want his nephew to stop punishing himself and start living. Never to abandon the valuable lesson Ben taught him, but to stop treating it as a burden and start living it as a guiding principle.
I’m one of the diehards who doesn’t like where Marvel has taken Peter since One More Day came along and uprooted his reality. I like him married, I like him older and wiser, I like him grown and respectable. But I’m not incapable of understanding why the people in charge of him right now don’t want him that way. They’re trying to be creative in the shadow of 50 years of stories, and that’s not a task I would envy any writer. No matter what they do, some fans will hate it. Like every other Spider-Man fan on the planet, I’ve often contemplated what I’d do if I was the writer of ASM, and it’d be drastically different from what’s happening now, but I have no illusions that there wouldn’t be hordes of angry fans decrying it on the internet. You can’t please everyone. There’s no doubt whatever in my mind that Quesada, Slott, Wacker, Alonso and everyone else love the character as much as I do, and they’re doing what they really think is best for him.
But, still. Some things are more unpopular than other things, and some things are more balanced approaches than other things. Maybe the real problem all this time is that Peter Parker’s just too worn out, period, for anybody to do what’s best for him as Spider-Man anymore. We want a Spidey who’s older and more developed; they want a Spidey who can be reckless and uncertain and mess things up. There’s a way that we can compromise on this. So if you’re reading this, Wacker — come on, I know you still visit this web site — consider this article my belated response to your question. Yes. I think Peter should move on. But whatever you do, I’m begging you, just treat the man with the respect he’s earned. He’s a smartass, he takes things hard and he’s had a lot of bad luck, but he’s not a clown or a fool or comic relief. Let the guy grow up and move on.