I’ll admit it. I was
one of those fans who claimed to have no interest in the “Brand New Day”
Spider-Man. If I wanted to read about a
young, single, swinging Spidey, then I could always go back and read the comics
I grew up with- the great ‘80s runs by Peter David, Tom DeFalco and Roger
Stern. I didn’t need to add a new title
to my reading list, let alone a title that would come out three times a month.
But, week after week, I’d see these great covers in house ads and on the stands.There was that great Chris Bachalo cover with Spider-Man and Wolverine and the villains in black and white. There was that great Mike McKone cover with Spider-Man racing away from a trio of bad guys in bumper cars. There was that great Phil Jimenez cover with what appears to be Peter Parker wearing Daredevil’s costume. My resolve weakened. I’d flip through an issue here or there. I’d see new characters and villains like Screwball and Paper Doll. I’d see great, fun interior art by new favorites like Marcos Martin and Paulo Siqueira. My will to resist dissolved. And, thanks to a friend, I was finally given the chance to read the first “Brand New Day” hardcover. It included the original Free Comic Book Day story, the first two arcs from issues 546 to 551, a couple of back-up stories and even the Tom Brevoort Spider-Man manifesto.
So what did I think? Did the new Spider-Man overcome my well-developed sense of skepticism? Did I miss the Straczynski Spider-Man, accepted and accomplished as he was? Read on, True Believer, and find out…
The JMS run didn’t hold up after John Romita Jr. left the
title, but for a time it was a great book.
So I disagreed with Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada when he said that
Spider-Man had gotten away from his roots as a character. I thought that you could tell great stories
about a married Peter Parker and a Spider-Man who was part of the established
superhero community. Plus I could point
to JMS’ early run as proof of my position.
And yet, looking back, it seems that JMS took that concept about as far
as it could go. There were no more
hurdles for Peter to jump, no more mountains for Spidey to climb. It was like his story was over, as if he
already had his happy ending. There’s a
reason why the MC2 universe has a happy Peter Parker as a supporting character
while it focuses on the next generation of heroes.
So, despite my earlier objections and reservations, I admit that it was a good idea to start over. Spider-Man had reached the end of that particular road. At that point, it’s almost necessary to start down another road. Of course, if you’re going to start over with any character, you have to make sure that you do it the right way. What is it that makes Spider-Man Spider-Man? What is it that makes stories about Spider-Man different than stories about Captain America or Superman?
Fun and Funny
For starters, Spider-Man is supposed to be funny. There’s the well-known line by writer Mark Waid that if you can’t write a Spider-Man who makes humorous quips, then you should be writing something else like Thor. Editor Tom Brevoort says the same thing in his manifesto, “If you don’t have at least one funny line or exchange or situation from Spidey in your issue, then you’ve done something wrong.” I agree. Peter Parker is a comedian- though not always a good one. He should be cracking wise, making jokes, and poking fun at the villains, the situation, the person he’s saving, and even himself.
The new Spider-Man stories are funny. Peter is back to making jokes. He does it so often that another hero, Jackpot, even complains about it. “Is everything a joke with you?” she asks. “Not everything,” Spidey replies, “I make puns, too.”
But there’s more to being funny that just writing jokes. It’s not enough to force a one-liner or two into the midst of a serious situation. That’s not entirely inappropriate- as humor is a defense mechanism- but it’s not enough. Spider-Man stories aren’t just funny. They should also be fun. That means writing entire scenes and situations that are fraught with humor. And that’s something that the new creative teams are doing, and doing well. It’s one of the things that drew my attention to the new stories- Spider-Man in a bumper car shows that the entire story is going to be good for laughs. The cover blurb of “the wall-crawler vs. the web-slinger” was good for another smile. It was one of the best titles since Peter David named his Spidey book “Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.” Even the editorial blurbs are humorous, such as the one telling you not to read the last issue recap and then cutting itself off in order to get to this issue’s exciting new story.
So I’m surprised that the new Spider-Man isn’t being embraced by more fans. Isn’t this what we say we want? How many times have I read articles or posts decrying the lack of fun in today’s comics? Well, the Spider-Man brain trust has heard the cries and is giving us the book we claimed we wanted. There’s a fun book out there again and it’s named Amazing Spider-Man.
The Hard Luck Hero
Another thing that makes Spider-Man Spider-Man is that he’s the hard luck hero. If he didn’t have bad luck, he wouldn’t have any luck at all. That’s why the readers can relate so readily to Spider-Man. That’s what makes him an everyman. The new Spider-Man stories remember this. In this way, they’re a very direct contrast to the previous stories by J. Michael Straczynski. And, as much as I enjoyed the early JMS run, I have to admit that I like the way the new stories play off against him. One of my favorite scenes was the one in which Peter Parker went looking for a job. He was rejected as a photographer (“there’s no design- it looks like you left your camera on a ledge and walked away”), as a teacher (“there’s no way I can hire you after you missed so many days without explanation in your previous job”) and as a scientist (“you were brilliant in high school but what have you done since then?”).
The hard luck hits Spider-Man every bit as much as it hits Peter Parker. He’s thanked by mobsters. He’s mistaken for a murderer. The current situation in the Marvel Universe adds to the story in this way as well. As an un-registered hero, Spider-Man finds himself being chased by the cops. Plus, he’s embarrassed when they defer to new and obscure heroes like Jackpot and Blue Shield, just because they’re registered and he’s not.
One aspect of the restart is that Spider-Man once again has mechanical web-shooters. Within fandom, it was a pretty controversial choice for director Sam Raimi to give Spider-Man organic web-shooters in the movie rather than devices that he invented himself. I was always on Raimi’s side on this one. I had no problem with Spidey’s web-shooters being part of his natural power set along with super-strength and stickiness. And I didn’t find the “running out of web fluid” scenario so compelling that I missed it in any way. Quite the opposite, it was often a hackneyed and clichéd way to limit Spider-Man’s effectiveness. So, this is one aspect of the new Spider-Man that didn’t need to be made for me.
Even so, I don’t consider the change to be a total loss. First, it’s not a big deal to me either way. I prefer the natural web-shooters but it’s not like the presence of mechanical ones is going to prevent me from enjoying a good story. Second, I can appreciate that this is another way in which Marvel is trying to listen to the voice of the fans with their revamp. Fans say they want fun stories? Let’s give them what they want. Fans say they like mechanical web-shooters? Let’s give it to them. Third, I judge the web-shooters on whether or not they’re used effectively. I thought that Dan Slott did a great job with them in the first story. He has a mugger still one of Peter’s web-shooters, thinking it’s a watch. That means that Peter is running around for most of the story with only one shooter, limiting what he can do in some situations and running out of fluid earlier than he would have expected. I think it was a bit much to have the lack of web fluid be a major impediment in the second story, as well. It was redundant. But, it was at least a different scenario (Peter couldn’t afford the chemicals he needed to make the fluid), did a good job of limiting his effectiveness especially in the eyes of the new hero Jackpot, and gave him motivation to make some money.
Of course, there’s more to any title than just the featured character. Any lead needs a strong supporting cast around him. This is a complaint that has dogged Spider-Man for decades. As Brevoort notes in the manifesto, most of his original supporting characters were turned into villains, killed off or rendered useless. JMS did a good job with Mary Jane and Aunt May- he was arguably one of the best at handling them- but didn’t really establish a supporting cast beyond those two. Peter’s fellow teachers and students were mostly a nameless crowd.
The new Spider-Man stories are clearly working at rebuilding a supporting cast for Spider-Man. Peter Parker’s best friend Harry Osborn returns “from Europe” and reinserts himself into Peter’s life. Harry also brings along a couple of other characters, his girlfriend Lily and her roommate Carlie. I know that some fans complained that the new Spider-Man was given a love interest so quickly. Yet I didn’t see it that way. Yes, Peter was set up on a double date with Carlie but it didn’t work out that well. And Carlie stayed in the story as a police officer/morgue technician rather than as a love interest. I’m not saying that Peter and Carlie won’t date at some point. But I can see the story going in a different direction. And, if they do date, it seems like it will be an organic development rather than a rushed relationship in the first story arc. My complaint isn’t about Lily and Carlie. It’s about Harry. I just don’t find him interesting or, dare I say it, nice. I liked the way that James Franco played Harry in the movies but I don’t like Harry in the comics.
Anyway, I like how the supporting cast is being built
up. Aunt May has a new side interest in
her volunteer work at a soup kitchen.
Betty Brant is becoming a trusted friend and helper. And, as much as I don’t care for Harry
Osborn, he’s getting involved in local politics on behalf of his girlfriend
which sets up some future possibilities for Spider-Man stories. The second story arc didn’t do much with any
of these characters, but the first arc did a good job of setting some things in
This is another thing that I like about the new Spider-Man. It’s one of the things that drew my attention to the title in the first place. And it’s another way in which Marvel appears to be responding to fan complaints. Spider-Man is running into a whole host of new villains and new foils.
I’ve read a lot of articles and posts complaining about the lack of new characters in comic books. Well, once again, Spider-Man is the answer. There’s Swing Shift and Overdrive and Screwball and Paper Doll and Jackpot and Mr. Negative. Some of those characters don’t appear in this first volume. The creative teams do a better job of spreading out the introductions than that. But we do get new villain Mr. Negative in the first arc and new foil Jackpot in the second. Personally, I like Mr. Negative. I like the name and the look. And I like that Peter makes fun of him anyway. I’m not as fond of Jackpot. I thought that she was one of the best things about the first story from Free Comic Book Day when it was teased that she was Mary Jane. But she didn’t work quite as well in Marc Guggenheim’s arc. As a fan of those old ‘80s comics, I can appreciate that they’re going for a bit of a Black Cat vibe with her. Even so, I’m not sure that the Mary Jane/Black Cat comparisons help her at this point.
Not Just Nostalgia
Perhaps it’s unfair for me to disparage Jackpot for not
being Mary Jane (maybe) or Black Cat.
Yet that’s one of the tricks of a restart of this nature. The restart can’t help but elicit comparisons
to earlier versions. It’s one of the
things that has dogged the Ultimate Universe, as it often retells old stories
or introduces new versions of old heroes.
So I was pleased to read Tom Brevoort’s manifesto in which he insisted
that they can’t just rely on the nostalgia factor. It was the reason why he argued against
bringing back Gwen Stacy- it would be too much like 1968 all over again.
I think that the new Spider-Man does a good job of walking
this tightrope. It recaptures what
worked in the past while also telling new stories. One of the ways it does this is by using new
villains, heroes and supporting characters.
Yet it also does this by setting up new situations. The big one for me happens to be the changes
to the Daily Bugle. While J. Jonah Jameson
is in the hospital recovering from a heart attack, the Daily Bugle is bought
out by a media mogul. The result is a
big upheaval at work and a new philosophy.
They’re now the “new DB!”- a playful dig at recent events and the
distinguished competition’s parent companies.
That’s the big one. But there are plenty of other pieces to remind you that this story is very much taking place now. There are the references to Marvel’s superhero Civil War and the registration act and real-life New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. There are situations that you wouldn’t have seen in earlier incarnations of Spider-Man, such as inter-racial dating. And there are all of the gadgets that we now take for granted that weren’t around even ten or twenty years ago like personal computers, cell phones and email addresses. All of which makes Peter Parker seem younger and hipper than he was even a year ago, despite still being the downtrodden, hard-luck everyman we know him to be. There’s even a real world antecedent as Sting went from being an English teacher in a boys’ school to a rock star.
Amazing, Amazing, Amazing
Obviously, I enjoyed what I read of “Brand New Day.” It was fun, well-crafted, exciting and fresh. It was everything I would have wanted it to be. And yet, there’s one other aspect of the new Spider-Man that helps make the revamp a success. And it’s a factor that I think is unappreciated. Rather than starring in three or four separate monthly titles, Spider-Man now appears in one title that comes out three times a month. And that scheduling change has had a profoundly positive impact on the stories.
As part of the thrice-monthly scheduling, the creative teams are also given exactly three issues in which to tell a story. That’s not quite the done-in-one model of the ‘60s. But that style of story-telling was already out by the time of the stories I grew up reading in the ‘80s. It is, however, the end of the decompressed story that has been a big part of this past decade. There’s no stretching each story into six issues so as to be more easily packaged in a trade paperback. These three issue stories strike just the right balance. They’re quick-paced instead of drawn-out. Yet the art still has room to shine with only four or five panels per page instead of the eight or ten of yesteryear. Plus, each story has a clearly defined opening, middle and final act. It’s amazing to think that a scheduling change could have so much of an effect on the contents of the book. Yet that’s exactly what’s happened with Spider-Man.
If you’re looking for fun stories as an antidote to the decompressed titles of the past few years, then I heartily endorse “Brand New Day.” And I’m surprising even myself by saying so.