Tangled Webs: The Culture Shock of Brand New Day

With solicitations suggesting that Dan Slott’s run on Amazing Spider-Man is coming to an end, it’s likely that the series will see its most radical change since Dan Slott started his run during the Brand New Day era just over ten years ago. There has been some writing (a fair share by me) about the controversial changes to the status quo during the transition, with the erasure of the marriage and the return of Harry Osborn, but there is something else that happened that made some of the backlash inevitable. A new generation of writers took over in a way that is more significant than most comic book transitions.

When Brand New Day started, the book suddenly had younger (defined by the year they were born, rather than the year in which they started writing Spider-Man) American writers. For 30+ years from September 1972 to December 2007, the series was dominated by writers who were a few years older than Gerry Conway, or a few years younger. Conway was born in September 10, 1952. Len Wein, the next Spider-Man writer, was born in June 12, 1948, and was roommates with Conway while they were both starting out in the comics industry. Marv Wolfman was born in May 13, 1946. Bill Mantlo was born in November 9, 1951. Roger Stern was born in September 17, 1950. Tom DeFalco was born in June 26, 1950. Peter David was born in September 23, 1956. JM DeMatteis was born in December 15, 1953. Howard Mackie was born in January 22, 1958. J. Michael Straczynski was born in July 17, 1954, making him two years younger than Conway, a guy whose seventh Spider-Man issue touched on social controversies of 1973 with a feminist villain named Man-Killer.

There were a few other significant runs by younger writers, although these don’t prepare readers for the sensibilities of the writers of Brand New Day. Paul Jenkins and Mark Millar were British. Roberto Aguirre Sacasa had an elite upbringing as the Ivy League educated son of a South American diplomat. His run was also fairly short, often with a fraction of the sales of JMS’s Amazing Spider-Man. Brian Michael Bendis had Ultimate Spider-Man, but he didn’t really work on the version of Peter Parker introduced in Amazing Fantasy #15.

The people who dominated the Spider-Man comics for a 35 year period until late 2007 could have all gotten together for drinks on January 22, 1977, to celebrate Howard Mackie’s nineteenth birthday (New York’s drinking age was 19 until the 80s.) The question isn’t whether this has an effect on characterization, but if it’s conceivable for this to not have a major effect.

It appears to be a unique situation. There aren’t that many series with so many writers on a character. It comes down to Batman, Superman and the X-Men. There hadn’t been a recent situation where writers of a particular generation essentially lucked into a stranglehold on a major franchise. It would have been a bit different if Johns or Fraction or Brubaker had extended runs on Spider-Man, but it just didn’t happen that way. Writers on smaller books also have less competition when it comes to the writers of the past. It’s understood that Matt Fraction will have a different take on Thor than Dan Jurgens did, but Spider-Man was part of a series where there were typically multiple writers, resulting in a consistent sense of continuity.

There may be some analogues in the distant past. In Superman the Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon described the middle-aged writers of the book during Marvel’s Lee/ Kirby/ Ditko boom. However, that was at a time when turnover among readers was a lot more normal. So when new guys like Cary Bates and Eliot Maggin came along, there wouldn’t be as many complaints from long-time fans that the character was written differently than he was under writers of Siegel’s generation. Spider-Man readers during Brand New Day were more likely to be familiar with the older material, which was readily available in reprints.

The writers on Brand New Day were usually younger than their predecessors. Dan Slott was born in 1967. He was no spring chicken, but a different generation than Conway. Zeb Wells and Joe Kelly’s ages are’t readily available on the internet but I think they’re slightly younger than Slott. Fred Van Lente was born in 1972. Mark Waid was born in 1962.

There was still work by older writers. Bob Gale (who wrote about twelve issues in total) was actually an year older than Conway, who has contributed some work on the character in recent years, as have Stern and DeMatteis. But they’re no longer as dominant, and that has an effect on characterization and sensibility.

Other factors accenuated any culture shock. Thanks to the sliding timescale, the 2007 comics also depicted a Peter Parker who had become Spider-Man at some point in the 1990s. Since Peter Parker was single again after 20 years, some readers were going to be surprised by what is now acceptable in a mainstream comic book with a flagship character. For decades, the main stories with a single Peter Parker were adaptations or untold tales, which tended to be intentionally old-fashioned (Busiek’s Untold Tales of Spider-Man is an example.) There’s stuff Spider-Man did in Amazing Spider-Man #601-607 (where Peter Parker hooked up with his roommate and Black Cat took Spider-Man to a stranger’s hotel room) that wouldn’t have been allowed on most of the animated series. It also didn’t occur in the Raimi trilogy, although that’s mainly because the guy and the girl didn’t get together until the end of Spider-Man 2. To use the feature/ bug analogy, many readers looked at a bug in the earlier comics–a prudishness of the main character mandated by the comics code of authority and his status as a character marketed to children–and saw it as a feature, a defining element of Peter Parker’s character, rather than a product of the format and the times.

Peter Parker arguably had an interesting and PG-13 love life in some of the later issues of Spider-Man, but those aren’t reprinted as often. During 2008, someone could read 1967’s Amazing Spider-Man #53-56 in Marvel Tales back issues, Marvel Masterworks collections, Essential Spider-Man collections, the Lee/ Romita Omnibus, the British Panini digests and the Out of Print but relatively cheap  Spider-Man VS Doctor Octopus TPB. A reader would only have opportunities to come across the following scene if they had read Amazing Spider-Man #289–an issue before his engagement to MJ–either by owning the original issue, or by getting their hands on something that collects a lot of Amazing Spider-Man issues (IE- the out of print Complete CD/ DVD-Rom collection.)

This might be part of why the character just felt off to some readers. There’s a tendency in discussion about pop culture to try to define things you’re against by one specific example, but that’s usually not the experience of reading and enjoying (or not enjoying) a comic. It’s not one thing that ruins a book. It could be a hundred little things, or just the larger sense that there’s something missing. And a part of it could be the sensibility of writers who grew up in the 1960s or earlier.

This process could repeat itself in the future. The main writers at the moment are Slott, Bendis (who has handled the Marvel Universe since Secret Wars) and Zdarsky, who have similar sensibilities and frames of reference. If the next writers were in their twenties/ early-thirties (IE- if Sarah Bruni—author of the novel The Night Gwen Stacy Died about a teenager’s relationship with a man who is a bit too obsessed with comics, James Tynion IV and Max Landis became the new writers on the Spider-Man comics) their take on Peter Parker might be quite different from Slott’s, informed by experiences growing up in a different time, in addition to the sliding time scale changing Peter Parker’s cultural norms as well. On a side note, it’s odd to observe how many rising stars in comics are all in their late 30s and even 40s. It’s not that easy to find people 32 or under with the resume to plausibly write Spider-Man.

In one of my first pieces for the Crawlspace, I noted that Roger Stern and J.M. DeMatteis were both exposed to Spider-Man through the same issue (Amazing Spider-Man #40.) The coincidence is a bit less surprising when you consider that they were born three years apart, of the generation primed to like Marvel comics just when Amazing Spider-Man was exploding in popularity. Both writers would come to the character from a similar vantage point, and related similar themes, including extended mega-arcs with goblins. To get a sense of how long they influenced the books, Roger Stern wrote Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man #50, and DeMatteis was on the title for Spectacular Spider-Man #250.

This might be part of the reason the silver age comics were so influential, and many later developments didn’t quite stick as much. For 35 years, the guys writing the Spider-Man comics were exposed to the character at that time. This influenced their understanding of the character. Marv Wolfman picked up Amazing Fantasy #15 when it was on the stands, and wrote the rematch between Spider-Man and the Burglar. Peter David drifted away from comics until he asked a friend of his if Peter Parker ever ended up marrying Gwen Stacy. JMS tackled social issues in his Amazing Spider-Man run because that’s what Stan Lee had done.

The writers of the last decade came on at a different time, and had a different foundation on the character. Mark Waid became a fan of the book with Amazing Spider-Man #100, Stan Lee’s last issue. Dan Slott loved Marvel Team-Up. When describing the Spider-Man comics he liked as a child in a Comics Creators on Spider-Man interview, Bendis mentions spider-mobiles and clones. Chip Zdarsky describes himself as a child of the 80s and 90s, and says those are the comics that imprinted on him.

It was bound to be disorienting when new guys took over the book exposed to the character in a different era, with a new set of stories influencing their understanding of the series. There wasn’t much that Marvel could have done to avoid this. This was largely the result of coincidences, with Conway taking over the book at a very young and JMS taking it over decades into his career as a writer (Given how well his run worked, it definitely would have been a mistake for Marvel to turn him down due to age.) Marvel could have had Slott & company do more work on the titles in the months before One More Day, although that would have required kicking off writers like Peter David even earlier, and prevented Brand New Day from being a clean break. They could have opted for older writers in Brand New Day, but that seems restrictive. It seems like a situation where anything they did would be controversial, before there’s any discussion about plot points.

What do you guys think? Am I on to something here, or are there key details I’m neglecting? Is there any way these writers would not have been influenced by their initial exposure to the series? Do you see hints of the influence in their work?

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(10) Comments

  1. Joshua Nelson

    This is an interesting perspective, but not one I entirely agree with. I think a lot of the "Brand New Day" backlash had to do with very questionable character choices rather than the age of the writers.Some examples:*Peter Parker needing his Aunt May to wake him up and tell him to get a job (issue #546) just made the character come off as overtly childish and immature.*Spidey taking photos of a private funeral (issue #552) was incredibly out of character and just made him look terrible.*Peter becoming a paparazzi member who profits off of the humility of others and doesn't realize it's wrong until literally everyone points it out to him (issues #559-561) just made the character look like an oblivious fool.*You already mentioned this, but Spider-Man breaking into a hotel room to have masked sex with a thief like The Black Cat (issues #606-607) was like bad fanfiction.This is also to say nothing of the weak supporting characters introduced during this era like Carlie Cooper, Michelle Gonzales, Vin Gonzales, Dexter Bennett, Norah Winters and Lilly Hollister who all ended up going the way of Marcy Kane and Deb Whitman by fading into obscurity.There's also the incredibly weak new villains like Overdrive, Menace, Paperdoll, Freak, the Myan snow demon cultists, Screwball, the Vomiting Vulture, etc. who all really failed to leave an impression.So in the end, I really think it has less to do with culture shock and more to do with the comics themselves not being very good.

  2. Thomas Mets - Post author

    The board moved to a new host recently, so some comments may have been lost in the transition.

  3. Kasper

    I could see this. Comic Books work mostly that Creators are fans themselves, They Grew up on Comics. They become comic creators, and decide to bing back things that they grew up themselves. I don't think how much really this work, since there were many creators on Spider Man durning BND.

  4. Enigma_2099

    ... what the f*** is this s***?The backlash of BND had NOTHING to do with the age of the writers! Again, WTF is this s***?

  5. hornacek

    It wasn't just that the BND stories were mostly bad (which they were) - I had gone through the Micheline era where some of the stories were good but there were a lot of very forgettable stories, so I can live with that.While returning Peter to being single was such a bad idea, what was even worse than that was how they got there. Quesada thought that it was *so* important to have Peter be single again that he was ok with having Spider-Man, the Marvel flagship character and favorite hero of many kids, make a deal with the devil. Seriously, how did this idea ever get past the people in charge? Oh wait, it was the people in charge that came up with it.

  6. RDMacQ

    No. There was no "culture shock. "Sorry, but this is jut an attempt to rewrite the narrative. People didn't "Reject" Brand New Day because they were so unused to a single Spidey. They rejected Brand New Day because the stories were lame, the direction was lazy and uninspired, the creators were condescending to their critics, and what we got didn't justify what was taken away.Simple as that.

  7. hornacek

    Um, why is Spidey's collar open to reveal his chest in that Nixon cover? His costume does not work that way."it’s likely that the series will see its most radical change since Dan Slott started his run during the Brand New Day era just over ten years ago." Um, I think killing off the character and having one of his greatest villains take his place for 2 years is pretty radical.Ugh, that variant with Slott on the cover is disturbing on so many levels. Not only is Slott's ego in full display here ("the awesome might"), but I don't know if he gets the point that the reason that "the world" mocks Spider-Man is because of the way that Slott writes him."with Amazing Spider-Man #100, Stan Lee’s last issue." Well, not really. His last issue of his original run."Dan Slott loved Marvel Team-Up." Well this explains why most of his run has read like MTU.

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