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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE and HUMANITY ENHANCED.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Comic-book time: Spider-Man, Mary Jane, and all (2)

In my previous post on this subject, I brought up the retrospective destruction of Spider-Man's marriage to Mary Jane Watson (in the controversial "One More Day" and "One Moment In Time" story arcs (note that the Wikipedia articles I've linked to are not necessarily entirely accurate summaries)), and I promised a bit more.

Once again, I don't really have a dog in the fight about whether it was a good idea to get Spider-Man and Mary Jane unmarried, or even whether or not the method adopted was aesthetically pleasing. Although I did read Spider-Man when I was a kid, that's a long time ago, and I'm not especially a fan of the franchise - in fact, I still haven't seen the third movie. I doubtless will sooner or later, but I haven't got around to it yet. I'm more interested in Marvel's thinking behind this ... and the opposed thoughts and of the many angry fans who have expressed feelings of grief and betrayal. This seems like a teachable moment in the field of cultural studies. (I'd have a more emotionally-invested response to a similarly controversial story arc in X-Men, and probably will some time in the future.)

To understand how it all works, and my thoughts that follow, you need to have a sense of Marvel's floating timeline policy. All stories, when they are first published and read, take place more or less now, i.e. at the time of publication; however, all inevitably drift into the past, and all inevitably have to be silently retconned to at least some extent if only because of decor changes and the like which lead to anachronisms in older issues; and the current Marvel timeline from the events of Fantastic Four #1 (published in 1961) to now is 13 years. Thus, the Marvel superhero universe as we know it got underway in the readers' world in 1961 but the initial events - involving the space journey of Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, Sue Storm, and Johnny Storm - must currently be thought of as happening in 1997. That date will keep changing. Marvel is currently leaning against allowing the 13-year period to increase, though that will probably cause it some problems and I expect that it eventually will be allowed to increase to some extent.

In 1987, Marvel depicted the marriage of Peter Parker and his girlfriend Mary Jane Watson. Within the diegesis, this happened just a few years ago. Peter was only a teenager when he was bitten by the famous radioactive spider (depicted in 1963) and he is now supposedly in his mid-20s. He must have been in his early twenties when Marvel married him off. We might well ask, in retrospect, what Marvel thought it was doing when it took that decision, but I suppose it was thought at the time that it was a great wish-fulfilment thing to marry our harried hero to a beautiful, sexy, and surprisingly resourceful actress and model.

Since then, many fans of the franchise have grown up in a world where the marriage of Peter and Mary Jane is long-established within the original Marvel continuity, and the adventures of the couple together have been standard fare. The two heroes were seemingly inseparable. For longer-standing fans, Peter's character had developed well beyond what it had been in the 1960s, when he was portrayed as a teenage boy with all the associated growing-up troubles. He was a "nerd" (note my inverted commas!) who was continually picked on by bullies, though obviously, after the radioactive spider bite, he was well able to punch the lights out of any high-school bully if he wanted to. The appeal of this to bright teenage boys is obvious. He had many of their problems ... but also a secret identity as a costumed, superpowered crimefighter (far from the most powerful character in the Marvel Universe but one of the coolest). It was some kind of reward to loyal readers when he got the beautiful girl, and the franchise has continued successfully since then: even if it looked like a mistake to give him such a traditional home life (albeit an uber-glamorous version), the Spider-Man comic books continued to be successful over the next couple of decades.

So what was Marvel thinking, making another drastic alteration in 2007 to a successful product that seemed to be well-received by the fans? Note the means used: a powerful demon, Mephisto, offers Spider-Man the continued life of his elderly Aunt May, on her death bed, in exchange for his marriage. Peter and Mary Jane agree, and Mephisto engineers things so that time is changed and they never did get married several years back, but just lived together. Eventually, they actually break up, so Peter is now not only a bachelor but also decidedly single, able to have other love interests.

The reasoning is that Marvel wanted to be able to offer a Spider-Man who is not "old" to future generations of readers - to a young teenager, at least, being married automatically makes you old even if you are only 25 or 26 or whatever. They didn't want Peter and Mary Jane to fight and get divorced, because being divorced carries even more stigma of being "old", so it was necessary to create a situation in which the marriage retrospectively did not happen at all. The past has changed, the marriage is retrospectively erased, and no one remembers it (except, I suppose, Mephisto) because it did not happen. Marvel sees youth as of the essence of Spider-Man's character, and the senior editorial staff clearly want to be able to write soap-opera stories of a kind that would be impossible as long as he is in a faithful monogamous relationship. Whether all this works remains to be seen over time, but it does mean that Spider-Man can now be written in a way much more like it was back in the 1960s and 1970s.

Of course, those fans who are angry see the destruction of a status quo in which they were emotionally invested, and they see the step as retrograde, reversing years of character development (I sense that some of them would have been happier if a series of events over time had produced some estrangement between Peter and Mary Jane and they'd eventually have ended up divorced; that is, of course, an all-too-realistic scenario compared to the pact-with-thea-devil story, but it wouldn't have given Marvel all it wanted).

One interesting point about all this is that Marvel has been very astute in realising that 26 is the new 16. Twenty years ago, and certainly forty years ago, the cultural meaning of being a mid-20s man was very different. You were expected to be in a stable relationship by that time, well into a long-term career that was supposed to be your only career (though times had already changed on the ground), and certainly you'd have moved out of home and away from your parents. These days, you can be in your early or mid 20s and still be living at home, or certainly turning up on your parents' door from time to time, maybe still figuring out what career to pursue, and possibly still playing something like the teenage dating and mating game. Though teenagers are more precocious than ever, the effect is that something like late-teenage life has now been extended at both ends.

Thus it's become viable for Marvel to make a decision to present Spider-Man in a way fairly like his original incarnation, while also presenting him as a decade or so older than when he first appeared and became such a popular character. Like it or not, that's very smart, and I, at least, find it interesting to see a major comics group latching on to such a sociological point. The move that's been made in "One More Day" and "One Moment In Time" may lose Marvel a lot of readers in the short term (though the sheer notoriety of those arcs will also bring sales), but the opportunity is now there to gain new and younger fans with an updated version of more classic Spider-Man stories - which is precisely what has been happening for the past two or three years.

Note that Marvel has made a strategic decision here with perhaps its best-known character - it won't necessarily be undoing the marriages of any other characters. Youth and its problems are not of the essence of Storm or the Black Panther, so their marriage is probably safe.

While I'm impressed by the sociological smarts shown by Marvel, and I think this massive retcon could be a worthwhile commercial risk - possibly even allowing for better stories in the longer term - I'm also intrigued by the idea of what a comics franchise, or anything similar such as a long-running TV show (Doctor Who, anybody?), owes to loyal fans who may be invested in aspects of character development or other points of continuity. Marvel insists that no one is entitled that anything stay the same, no matter how invested fans may be in it. If you are entertained on each occasion when you buy the product, nothing further is owed to you - so the argument goes.

There's some force in that, I suppose, but do the creators of an ongoing storyline such as Spider-Man (comics version) or Doctor Who (TV version) really owe nothing more to loyal fans or, in some sense, to the general culture? In the particular case in point, Marvel could say that this is not character derailment: it is merely returning its character to something more like the original conception (and thus also more like the movies), so it is not breaking any implied trust put in it by the readers.

Obviously, however, many loyal readers of the comics (as opposed to the separate diegesis of the movies) don't see it that way. They believe they are investing in an ongoing story whose ending they may never see but which at least involves incremental developments along the way, in which characters and situations change and what comes later builds step-by-step on what has come before. When a loyal fan buys a new issue, he or she expects to see some sort of plausible progression, and much of the entertainment value is delivered to those fans by skilled presentation of established characters, getting their voices and attitudes (as established to date) correct. If something as well-established as Spider-Man's marriage is written out without a fairly long process of attitudinal changes brought on by the characters' depicted experiences, it can seem like a cheat.

As I say, I don't have a dog in this fight, but the attitudes taken by the fans are at least understandable, and anyway I think this is a fascinating situation - as I said, a teachable moment.

I mentioned above that the 13-year duration of Marvel's main timeline will probably cause some problems in the future. One is that the 13 years has already been mentioned in one recent issue of Fantastic Four, so a time will come when many, many issues have appeared long after the 13 years has passed. Perhaps this will be ignored, but perhaps not.

Another is that keeping all the character fairly young (with even Reed Richards only in his early 40s) has the effect that very young characters such as Reed/Sue's kid, Franklin Richards, can't grow up (though versions from the future can be introduced now and then). If Marvel ages these very young characters, soap-opera style, without extending the duration of the timeline, then the consistency of the diegesis, which has been maintained to a considerable extent, will break down. There are already characters who seem be too old for their histories, such as the group of young villains who call themselves the Bastards of Evil, though Marvel is at least aware of the problem and has even alluded to it in-world. In any event, there will always be characters for whom further character development means getting older - but that then puts pressure on the age of characters like Spider-Man, whom Marvel would ideally like to keep forever young. Perhaps further changes in society will allow for new possibilities over the coming decades (if 26 is now the new 16, what will 36 be ... come 2050 or 2060?).

So, no strong opinions here - but some interesting phenomena and particularly some fascinating relationships between popular culture and the society that partly shapes it and in which it is received. I don't have a lot to add for now, but all this will be worth watching over the next few decades. I hope that teachers of cultural studies are onto what's happening here; it's a good opportunity for students to get into discussion and debate over aspects of popular culture and society that tie in with nuts-and-bolts issues about the workings of pop-culture narratives.

4 comments:

Bruce Gorton said...

Someone once pointed out that the reason child sidekicks suck is because kids don't want to be child sidekicks, they want to grow up to be superheroes.

And I think that is something about our current culture - we don't strictly want heroes who are us, so much as we want heroes we want to be.

What the whole Mary Jane storyline did was turn Spiderman from being a hero we want to be, into a whiny douche who aborted his life in a fit of manchild cowardice.

Rena said...

...I have to say I've never experienced as a teenager the feeling that married=old. In fact, I was often deeply annoyed by "unattached," "swinging singles" characters.

Deepak Shetty said...

"Once again, I don't really have a dog in the fight about whether it was a good idea to get Spider-Man and Mary Jane unmarried"
You take away the fun of being a fanboy. I suppose you arent bothered whether Batman has a yellow oval around his chest either ?
From my reading of the forums , I don't think it was the married/ unmarried part that caused the fight - it was the way it was done and the condescending interviews that Joey Q gave that caused this blowout.

Russell Blackford said...

I'd have a dog in the fight if it were X-Men, though. Fortunately, Marvel seem to me to have been doing a good job there lately. Of course, I might feel differently if I were emotionally attached to Jean or Cable or Nightcrawler - but, to take the last example, at least his death was handled in a way that made sense and gave the character due credit. Grant Morrison did some crazy things in his run, but the worst got retconned out very quickly and others were made to work.