Saturday, December 29, 2007

Goodbye Spidey

I've read in a couple of different places that marketers make a priority of targeting adolescents because consumer choices that one makes in those formative years tend to become ingrained habits that persist well into adulthood. Though I've often said that if everyone had my consumer habits the economy would collapse, I can't claim to be immune from the pull of adolescent buying habits. For example, I started subscribing to USA Today Baseball Weekly as a 6th grader in 1990, and I still subscribe today (under its new name Sports Weekly), more out of habit than anything else. Likewise, I started purchasing Spider-Man comic books around that time, and never really stopped. Until now.

Why the drastic move? A little backstory is needed. Spider-Man was created in 1962, and over the intervening years, his character grew and changed. He graduated high school, graduated college, suffered triumphs and tragedies in not just his costumed life but his personal life as well, and finally in 1987, he got married to Mary Jane Watson. Pretty much immediately after this event, writers and editors started scheming for ways to undo the marriage. They thought that this made Peter Parker less relatable, and that he should be eternally unlucky in love.

I was pretty much ignorant of the controversy surrounding the marriage, having come aboard in about 1991, but I kept reading Spidey comics through some weird times, all brought about by attempts to undo the marriage. In 1994, they established that the Spidey of the last 30 some years was a clone. The plan was to have the Peter clone retire and live happily ever after with Mary Jane, while the original Spidey would return as a relatable single guy. This turn of events blew up so spectacularly that it was (somewhat simplistically) blamed for Marvel Comics literally going bankrupt (they've since been bailed out by their lucrative film franchises). The clone plan was scrapped (if you really want to know more about it, there is a Wikipedia entry). Then in 1999 came the infamous "relaunch," with Mary Jane seemingly killed in a plane explosion. Sales went absurdly low and she was brought back (comic book characters are notoriously able to resurrect themselves).

Still, Marvel's editor-in-chief, Joe Queseda, has been openly scheming for years about his desire to end the marriage. His solution came this week in the form of the universally reviled "One More Day." Long story short: Peter's Aunt May was shot, partially because Peter had decided to make his secret identity public. She is in a coma, teetering on death's door. Blaming himself, Peter vows to do anything to save her. In comes Marvel's answer to the devil, a character named Mephisto. Mephisto offers Peter and Mary Jane the chance to save Aunt May. All they have to do is agree to let him rewrite history so that they were never married. They reluctantly agree, and Peter wakes up, now living with Aunt May. He goes to a party where Mary Jane gives him the cold shoulder. Also at this party is his friend Harry Osborn, who had died in a great story 15 years ago. (I thought the death of Harry in Spider-Man 3 was poignant, but the comic book death was incredibly moving).

So not only do we fans lose the marriage (and unscientific Internet polls showed fans overwhelmingly in support of the marriage), but it appears as if we have lost 20 years of history (covering my entire reading lifetime). Not only that, but our "relatable" hero just made a deal with the devil. Words escape me. However, they do not escape our less than esteemed editor (some fans have taken to calling him "Joephisto"). Here's what he had to say:

Sometimes when I look at the way that the lines of opinion have been drawn in comics about the marriage, I see the argument falling into two basic camps. The fans may not perceive it this way on the surface, but it is what's happening when you look at it clearly. When we fall in love with these characters, we claim ownership over them in our own way; so for some fans, Peter belongs to them and no one else. So, the way I see it, there are two sides of the argument, two segments of fans. On one side, there is a contingency of fandom that wants Peter to age along with them and live life as they do. He needs to get married, have kids, then grandkids, and then the inevitable. One the other side, there are fans that realize Spidey needs to be ready for the next wave or generation of readers, that no one can lay claim to these icons, no one generation has ownership and that we need to preserve them and keep them healthy for the next batch of readers to fall in love with.

The rhetoric here is appallingly bad. First, it is arrogant and condescending ("Fans don't realize it, but I am smart enough to see the truth"). Second, he uses no less than three logical fallacies. He's got a strawman (right Joe, there are so many fans clamoring for Spidey grandkids). He uses a slippery slope, and he tosses in a false dilemma for good measure.

He's actually right that there are two camps, but he's a bit off in his assessment of the situation. Here's the way I perceive it. One group of fans indeed claims ownership in the character, and they see Peter as someone they want to relate to. On the other hand, there is a group of fans that don't really want to relate to Peter--they just want to see drama, and I will concede that there is more room for drama with a single Peter. If Joephisto would come out and say it is the second camp that he wants to appease, then it would be less galling. But he actually claims that it is for the first camp that this change was necessary. Any Spider-Man fan under the age of 30 grew up with a married Peter Parker. Like me, they started reading when he was already married. There is obviously something about the character that still has made a whole generation of fans relate to him. And now that generation has been case aside, but for who's benefit? Joephisto claims that it is for the future generations, but I wonder. Joe is a little older than most comic fans. He grew up in the era when Peter was still single. Could all of his blustery rhetoric about future generations be designed just to cover a reactionary shift back to the preferred status quo of his generation?

So until sales once again dip so low that Marvel is once again forced to undo this, I'll be boycotting the
Spidey comics, or at least stop buying them. I will probably pursue methods of reading them that don't put money in Marvel's pocket (adolescent habits are hard to break, after all). And for a less articulate but more humorous fan response to the situation, you can check this out (warning: it contains immaturity, foul language, and literal bathroom humor, and is in very poor taste):


Blogger The Green Panther said...

I used to read Spiderman comics (revealing my age, it was before 1991) so I had no idea this Mary Jane controversy existed.

It sounds as if Marvel is desperate to (a) have the Spiderman-Mary Jane relationship "on the books" as having, at some point, occurred, even if it's later to be undone, and (b) to have Spiderman be single and available.

It reminds me of Christianity, where the desire is to attain the state of virginity and motherhood simultaneously!

It's possible I paint my strokes too broadly and am losing it.

On another note, wasn't Peter dating/married to a character named Gwen originally? Unlike most entities she was "before my time"; was she killed off in earnest, or did she also conveniently evaporate?

9:04 PM  
Anonymous Andrew H. said...

It was rather entertaining to read through Queseda's statement, noting the problems with his argument, and then reading on to see that I nailed most of them. Granted, they were rather blatant anyway. :)

10:55 PM  

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