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Spider-Man #700 and the nature of “big event” issues
By Sun-Times technology writer Andy Ihnatko
There’s a team of commercial contractors in the Marvel Universe called “Damage Control.” It’s their job to repair the buildings and neighborhoods that keep getting destroyed by super-battles. I’m guessing they have an IT division that also puts the Internet back together after a Marvel Comics writer has torn it apart with the latest Amazing Incredible Mind-Blowing Fundamentally-Altering Twist Event (AIMBFATE) in some book or another.
The latest AIMBFATE occurred on Wednesday, with the release of Amazing Spider-Man #700, written by the reliably wonderful Dan Slott. This story is such a big deal, and represents such a landmark transition for the character, that Marvel is canceling (well, perhaps it’s better to say “canceling”) the book with this issue. If you’re planning on reading the latest issue but don’t want to spoil it for yourself, skip the next paragraph. But if you don’t mind knowing what happens, read on:
Doctor Octopus is terminally ill and hours from death. He swaps minds with Spider-man while also gaining access to all of Peter Parker’s knowledge and memories. Peter is trapped in Ock’s body and, subsequently, dies. But before he does, Peter uses their mental link to force Ock to observe his life experiences and understand Peter’s sense of responsibility. Ock determines to continue Spider-Man’s duties as a hero but he also promises to do a better job of it than Peter ever did.
****END SPOILER ALERT****
You can imagine why so many comics fans are going full-Arkham about this.
I admire Dan Slott greatly. We’ve worked together on a hit Marvel comic, in fact.
“Hit comic” in the sense that he and I collaborated on an issue of “Ren And Stimpy Comics And Stories,” which ran for several dozen issues and was based on a hit TV show.
Er…and “collaborated” in the sense that I spent an hour or two hanging out in a bar in New York City with him and the writer of “Iron Man” back in the Nineties and I made a joke and he asked if he could use it and I said “sure” and I forgot all about it until months later, when readers of my column pointed out that my name was in a Marvel comic.
Still! It’s enough to flip the “Is credited in a Marvel comic?” flag in my database record from 0 to 1. I did definitely get him to sign a comic when he appeared in a small Boston comic convention. Does that help?
Regardless. Dan Slott a comic writer who can play every octave of the keyboard. If Alan Moore wrote jokes, he’d have as good a range as Dan Slott. I consider that to be a very big deal. “Gloom gloom gloom, heavy heavy gloom heavy” can never have the same impact as “Gloom gloom, lighthearted, heavy, uplifting, dark.” It’s those key changes that make every tone distinct and memorable.
And even on those occasions when I never buy into the central premise of one of his stories (like his run on “She-Hulk,” during which he explained how the legal system works inside the Marvel Universe) I’m still immensely entertained. That’s almost a magical level of craftsmanship.
Dan’s one handicap as a comic book writer is that he works in a creative field that just flat-out exhausts me. He started writing “Amazing Spider-Man” immediately after the Great Spidey Editorial Command-Z of 2008. Marvel reset Spider-Man’s history back to where it was before he married Mary Jane Watson. It was done for sketchy reasons, and with utterly horrible execution, but none of that was Dan’s fault. I’m sure his run on the title was terrific. I never read past the first few issues. My reaction to them was “Right, this is the same comic I was reading back in school.” I dropped the title. Not because I was outraged by the Command-Z, but because it didn’t seem like a book I needed to keep reading.
There’s been enough noise about the AIMBFATE of Amazing Spider-Man 697-700 that I picked up those issues.
Honest. One classic roadmap for telling a story is summarized as “Introduce your hero; chase him up a tree; throw rocks at him; then get him down out of the tree.” This story arc is filled with genuine suspense because at times, you wonder if Dan’s line of thought is “I’ll finish this story by spraying the tree with kerosene and then lighting it on fire. Spider-Man will burn to death and then getting him down out of the tree will be as easy as swatting a kite from the branches with a broom.” At times during this arc, you wonder if he ever intends to get Spidey out of there at all.
Along the way, Dan uses these events to define exactly who Spider-Man is, and why this character continues to be distinctive. #700 is a true classic because above all else, Dan Slott explains why Peter Parker is an important character. He’s by no means interchangeable. He has a unique perspective on the world and his role in it, a single, crystal-clear drive that provides the source of all of his happiness, all of his sorrow, all of his pride, all of his shame. And Dan Slott nailed it, all within a handful of pages.
There are plot holes, but much like the business of the Death Star being a planet-killing weapon that’s so huge that it practically can only be used against planets that happen to be nearby, they don’t occur to you while you’re reading the book.
My sole disappointment, as I got to the last page of “Amazing Spider-Man 700,” was the knowledge that I didn’t really care as much about the ending as I know should have. It’s terribly unfair to Dan’s work. But that’s what happened. It should have slackened my jaw and sent me back to Page One to read the whole thing all over again. The ending is indeed mind blowing. At another time, or if this comic had been published by someone other than Marvel or DC, I’d have been excitedly messaging friends of mine. “Did you read #700 yet! Damn! Okay, but promise that you’ll call me the minute you finish it!”
Instead, I closed the comic, and thought “Well, then.”
And I moved on to the next book in the stack…with the details of the dramatic final page of #700 already fading from my memory.
It’s the same way I reacted recently when Johnny Storm died in “Fantastic Four.” It’s the same way I reacted when Captain America died in his own book. It’s the same way I reacted when Spider-Man revealed his identity to the entire world, on live television, during “Civil War.”
Editing a line of comic books is an enormous challenge. I’ve always wondered about how those editors strike a balance between so many competing mandates. They need to keep their creators creatively challenged, and keep their readers interested. They have to protect the value of these corporate properties for all of those movies and products over which the editors have no investment or control. All the while, they have to maintain a certain kind of structural integrity of this whole complex creative world, with all of its interlocking components, so that it’s possible to tell stories five years from now that can still have an impact.
So much of that is undermined by the current climate. Why do Marvel and DC keep going for these huge events? Because it’s what their readers want; the minority of fans who like to complain about these things on message boards aren’t the ones paying the majority of Dan Slott’s (and ASM #700′s artists and editors’) salaries.
These big events demand big publicity. The hype machine cranks up months in advance, beginning with exclusive sneak peeks and interviews, granted to one of a few favored comics news sites. It snowballs and expands into mainstream media until you really can’t get away from it. You can’t simply “encounter” Amazing Spider-Man #700. I made sure to read it on the morning of its release, largely out of self-defense. I’m a fan of Dan Slott’s writing, I was interested in the book, and I knew from past experience that Marvel had probably already placed a feature article about #700 in a national newspaper to run the day before its release.
USA Today, et al, aren’t very cool with this sort of stuff. If they treated movie spoilers the same way, their headline for “The Sixth Sense” would have read “M. Night Shyamalan’s Next Movie Opens Tomorrow…It Turns Out That Bruce Willis Was A Ghost All Along.”
Big events plus big publicity means that Marvel has to shout very, very loud to make the story seem worth all of this trouble. Can any creative work live up to those kinds of expectations? Meanwhile, even comic book readers like me, who are capable of disliking a specific story development without feeling any desire to publicly imply that Marvel Comics Executive Editor Tom Brevoort is the result of an unnatural congress between a lamprey eel and something far less socially-palatable than a lamprey eel, can only read a book like this one with cynical and bloodshot eye.
Johnny Storm was killed in “Fantastic Four” and his sister was so distraught that she could only huddle in the fetal position. It seemed ridiculous, given that each member of the team had already “died” at least once and come back. Sure enough, he was back in action just a few issues later, in time for an upcoming anniversary issue. Writer Ed Brubaker proved that Captain America was dead, dead, dead. He did it with all of the meticulous, overblown certainty of a stage magician demonstrating that there is absolutely no freaking way that there could be two white tigers hidden anywhere underneath or behind what is obviously just an ordinary, empty cage made out of irregularly-spaced chrome bars. And soon enough, we learned this slab of aged beef jerky that had been thoroughly autopsied and then buried with full military honors was back in action.
The whole world learned that Peter Parker was Spider-Man. How the hell could Marvel undo that one? Ah: the deus ex ipecac that undid his marriage to MJ also made the whole world forget. Which isn’t actually a correct summary, but I myself never understood how that worked. Even after 30 minutes of steadfast online research, I’m only more confused than I was when I started.
All of those things were in my mind when I read Amazing Spider-Man #700. I can’t help it. I also can’t help but remember that the Spider-Man film franchise rebooted this year with a new origin movie. So I fully expect all of these events to be completely forgotten, reverted, or otherwise twinkled into irrelevance before the summer of 2014, when the second Spider-Man 2 film is released. The tail must wag the dog and the Spider-Man in the comic book must revert to what moviegoers will be seeing in the theaters.
Am I cussing out Marvel (and DC, by extension) for “ruining comics”? Naw. I’m just a bit nostalgic for the old days. It used to be easier to be surprised by what you encountered when you opened up a fresh issue. The big publishers didn’t feel as much pressure to create and hype up an AIMBFATE-scale event once every fiscal quarter. Mega-crossover events were no less mercenary then than they are now, but they still somehow felt creatively organic.
The “anything that happens can be un-happened” aspect of comic book continuity didn’t seem quite so manipulative, either. Even when DC killed off Superman — which is still the high water mark for mainstream news saturation — there was a sensible undertone to what DC was doing.
“You and we all know that we would never really destroy our most valuable piece of intellectual property,” they seemed to be saying. “We just thought it’d be interesting to tell some stories about what happens when a world full of people who have gotten used to thinking ‘Superman will save and protect us! He’s utterly invincible!’ watch their savior and protector die.” (I’m not even sure that DC didn’t even say so explicitly, in some interview or another. That can’t happen today.)
I love that Dan Slott and Marvel have the guts to try something so new with what is inarguably the company’s flagship character. When Superman “died,” several figures stepped in to take his place. And so it goes at Marvel. “Amazing Spider-Man” is being replaced by a new series. “Superior Spider-Man” sees a new person in the costume, fulfilling the same heroic role but a different attitude and sense of purpose. By putting a new guy in the tights, hopefully Slott will be able to teach us a lot of things about the old guy who, again, is definitely coming back.
Many people are nonetheless furious about Amazing Spider-Man #700. To these people I can only say “It’s just a comic book. It’ll be fine.”
I would also suggest a moment of reflection. I’ve been reading comics for decades at this point. Like most people who have invested this much time in Marvel and DC characters, my expectations are completely unrealistic.
I’m legitimately pleased when these companies take risks and throw huge twists into familiar books. Who wouldn’t want characters to move forward? Who doesn’t want things to happen, and for the things that happen to actually matter? The Great Spidey Command-Z only upset me because I (quite correctly, dammit) saw it as the undoing of twenty years of character development.
At the same time, every time I open a new comic I want to have the same experience that I did when I was still in school, back when I’d read fewer than a hundred comics total. Every twist, every piece of drama, every fight, every resolution, and yes, even every AIMBFATE was uncharted territory: fresh and thrilling. I couldn’t wait for the next issue; I truly had no idea what could possibly happen next.
This sort of innocence and lack of awareness can’t last forever. When She-Hulk replaced The Thing in the Fantastic Four more than a quarter century ago, I wasn’t cynically wondering how many months would pass until the book inevitably restored the status quo. I just relished the opportunities that writer/artist John Byrne was creating created by putting an outsider into the tightest-knit superhero team in all of comics.
(Okay, look, to be fair: when Fantastic Four #265 was released, Marvel executives also weren’t all over the airwaves screaming “NOTHING WILL BE THE SAME AFTER THIS COLOSSAL SHAKE-UP! BUY THIS ISSUE OR YOUR DOG WILL HATE YOU!” either.)
I still get plenty of joy out of comics. But it’s okay to acknowledge that a certain kind of comic isn’t “mine” any more. It now belongs to a new generation of readers. These mega-event books sell in huge numbers, which ensure the next wave of mega-events.
I don’t hate these younger readers for buying these mega-event books in such huge numbers, thus perpetuating the cycle. Instead, I envy them for still having a fresh set of eyes. It pleases me to think that maybe they enjoyed Marvel’s 2012 mega-event “Avengers Versus X-Men” as much as I liked DC’s “Crisis On Infinite Earths” back in the Eighties.
Dan Slott is certainly giving them a lot to look forward to, that’s for sure. I dropped “Amazing Spider-Man” in 2008, but I know the start date for “Superior Spider-Man” without checking the schedule. If you give someone a reason to come back to the comic book shop next week, you’re playing at the top of your game. Even if that shop is an app on my iPad.