Imaginary Stories: The I in Spider-Man

When Stan Lee and Steve Ditko changed the comic book landscape with the debut of Spider-Man in 1962, the keyword was “relatability.” Unlike the successful superheroes of the previous decades, their Peter Parker was, like the majority of the readers, a younger man and someone who, despite his amazing powers, was down on his luck and all too human.

I talked last time about how, as audience members, we take in stories in all kinds of different formats and, while movies are clearly a major part of my (and, presumably, your) life, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to talk about how important comic books have been as well. With Dan Slott’s grand finale of “The Amazing Spider-Man” this past December and the rebooted “The Superior Spider-Man” having just released its second issue, it seems like a good time to take a look at what Slott’s storyline says about the character, the medium and, ultimately, the readers.

Please be aware the following post does contain spoilers from issues up to and including “The Superior Spider-Man” #2.

“The Amazing Spider-Man” #700 hit the stands to a fair share of fan ire, concluding an arc wherein Peter Parker, trapped in the body of Doctor Octopus, was seemingly killed off while Octavius’ own consciousness, in Parker’s body, received all of Peter’s memories. Changed by them, Octavius vows to carry on as Spider-Man, finally understanding the book’s central message of great power coming with great responsibility.

Thankfully, much of the fan wrath (which even included death threats against Slott) has dissipated with the reveal in the first issue of “Superior” that, somehow, Peter’s “soul” still exists beneath Octavius’ and that Peter is doing whatever he can to reclaim his life.

In a lot of ways, body-swapping is a classic, arguably cliched trope of the sci-fi/fantasy genre. To understand what makes Slott’s approach innovative, then, requires a bit of an examination of one of the more original aspects of the medium.

“Space,” Douglas Adams writes in “The Hitchhcker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” “is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

I think of that quote when I think of comic book universes or, in this case, the ongoing continuity offered by Marvel’s primary fictional universe (that of Earth-616, if we’re going full nerd). This is a faux reality built on more than half a century of stories that span hundreds of titles and include thousands of ongoing characters. Of course, there’s the unfortunately inherent fact that, quite a bit of the time, this can cause muddled character arcs, hard-to-follow crossover storylines and even flat-out contradictions. Even with those problems, however, there’s something appealing about the sheer scale of it all and the fact that said scale is matched nowhere else in fiction (Although two serious contenders would be the ongoing and similarly decade-spanning worlds of “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who,” both of which are sure to be the focus of their own columns in the not-too-distant future).

So what’s so great about being big? Because life is big. Because every single day you have, at the very least, the potential for a great adventure and for things to happen that you could never possibly anticipate. You exist in this world surrounded by billions and billions of other characters, all of whom are in the middle of their own story arcs and whose personal continuities are equally impossible to fully follow.

What fans of Spider-Man (or, again, any serialized character) often come to rely on is the parallel structure that said protagonist has against his or her own “story.” Spider-Man will always be fighting for what’s right despite bad luck and fantastic hardships and, while the specifics are infinitely variable, so will you. The biggest obstacles of your day may not come in the form of electrically-charged bank robbers or brain-eating alien symbiotes but, if Spider-Man is a character you love, you’ll tend to connect through metaphor and, in the process, gain inspiration from. This could be as mundane as driving through rush hour traffic, as life-and-death as serving your country overseas or as tedious as trying to finish writing an overdue column.

If you accept that one of the functions allotted to any form of fiction is use as sort of walking stick — something to lean on — then comic books have the added benefit of being a tool generally introduced in our youth and the relationship we have to characters like Spider-Man is bolstered by the amount of time we’ve been keeping their lives parallel to our own. When you take into account that that connection can actually be collected and re-read, our nostalgia becomes quantifiable.

Simply put, most readers know exactly what issue got them hooked and can look back between then and now and see, to some degree, not just the shape that the comic book story took over however many years, but the path their own life has followed as well.

Now consider that Spidey’s exploits aren’t just produced from a vacuum. Not only is there someone on the opposite side of the mirror constructing these stories, but that someone changes on a fairly regular basis and, odds are, their own connection — especially in the case of someone like Slott — began as a fan.

Therein lies the beautiful meta-narrative of Slott’s current arc. If you hate the notion that your favorite character has been taken over by an evil personality that is making him do things you don’t like, you should at least appreciate that that’s a story that transcends the fiction. If, on the other hand, you’re Slott’s biggest fan, surely there’s an era you can point to where, for whatever reason, you felt the central writer behind Spider-Man at the time was getting it all wrong and having exactly the effect on Parker’s life outside the narrative that Octavius is having now within it.

If the stakes can exist simultaneously in reality and fiction, then maybe the salvation can exist as well. After all, without knowing exactly how “The Superior Spider-Man” plays out, we can still rest comfortably knowing that, with a fair degree of certainty, Peter Parker will eventually regain his body, a brand new writer will take over the book and that the webhead’s life will more or less return to its status quo.

The more things change, the more they stay they same. That’s the blessing and curse of most comic book icons and, while it certainly serves to give the narrative a happy ending, I think that Slott’s overall point in the meta-narrative is something a bit more special.

It was in late 2011 that the “Distinguished Competition” decided to reboot their entire universe, eschewing established continuity and starting over from the beginning (again). There are plenty of ongoing arguments as to what exactly improved and what didn’t, but the real world economic result was that it worked. At least in the short term, sales were up and a new audience found a way into titles that previously seemed too overwhelming.

When “Marvel NOW!” (of which “The Superior Spider-Man” is a major title) was first announced, rumors began that the company was gearing up for a similar cosmic slate cleaning. Instead, books were relaunched with new first issues, but Earth-616 remained intact. The Marvel Universe decided that its own history was of paramount importance.

How pointed a comment, then, does it become that Peter Parker’s existence in the book today as an intangible consciousness — essentially his soul — seems due entirely to the fact that Octavius acquired his memories in the final pages of issue 700. Here’s a character that might as well be undergoing a DC-style reboot in his first issue, but who is literally held back by the weight of hundred and hundreds of issues that came before. Then, if we, as readers, share those (fictional) memories, don’t we also share that (fictional) soul?

It’s no coincidence that one of several back-up stories included in issue 700 is the delightfully bizarre “Spider-Dreams” by J.M. DeMatteis. In it, an old man, Martin, entertains his great grandson with the story of his secret life as Spider-Man. Like in a dream, the details seem a bit off but, as he recounts his days as the web-slinger, the key elements are there.

“We think it’ll go on forever,” Martin tells his great-grandson of his final days as Spider-man. “We think we’ll never lose the people we love. And then, just like that, it all vanishes like a dream. But a good dream, I think. A very good dream.”

You should listen carefully to what that old man has to say and not just because he’s Spider-Man. You should listen because, if you want to be, so are you.

Silas Lesnick is a staff writer for You can follow him on Twitter @silaslesnick. Also, check out previous entries of “Imaginary Stories,” An Unexpected Journey Through the Heart of Middle Earth, Tanks for the Memories, Arnold Schwarzenegger and How to Watch Movies.


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