Monday, February 8, 2010

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Being a Comic Book Fanboy

Reading comic books is an experience akin to being a baseball fan. You pick a particular book, character, writer, artist, or publisher based on some early personal experience and you stick with them for years, through thick and thin, boom and bust, feast and famine, just like a sports team. No matter how tough the going gets, they're yours and you'll always come back to them.

For me, my character of choice is Spider-Man and my house is the House of Ideas, Marvel Comics. My devotion to America's favorite webslinger can be traced back to a routine doctor's appointment around the time I turned five. As it is with most children, visits to the pediatrician were fairly traumatic and my boomer parents knew the best way to get me to go through with them was to present me with rewards for being a tough little trooper. My childhood doctor's office was located next door to the College of Comic Book Knowledge, a comics shop seemingly built into the front of its owner's house.

Spider-Man came into my life via an unusual route, Ren & Stimpy. In kindergarten, I was a humongous Ren & Stimpy Show fanatic (and I still am). On that first voyage to the Comic College with my father eighteen years ago, I bought a Ren & Stimpy comic, but specifically a crossover comic: "The Amazing Spider-Man vs. Powdered Toast Man". While Powdered Toast Man may have been the first superhero I was exposed to (and I do mean exposed), Spider-Man was the first to capture my imagination. Trade paperbacks of The Very Best of Spider-Man (featuring the origin story among many other classics), The Return of the Sinister Six (where Doctor Octopus concocts a scheme to poison the world's cocaine supply and thus turn the 80's ruling class of coke addicts into his loyal minions, I read this when I was six years old mind you), and a Spider-Man vs. Venom collection soon followed.

My youth was one of worship for my Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, Peter Parker was my hero and idol. My moral compass and life model. In my young eyes, he could do no wrong.

So you can imagine I might have been disheartened when, a few short years ago, Spider-Man sold his soul to the Devil.

In a controversial move, Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada took over an arc called "One More Day/Brand New Day" of The Amazing Spider-Man, Spider-Man's and therefore Marvel's flagship book, from its regular writer J. Michael Straczynski. Quesada's brief time as author saw Aunt May mortally wounded by a Kingpin-backed sniper's bullet meant for Peter in the wake of Marvel's Civil War. Despite being friends with Doctor Strange, having a good working relationship with several gods and otherworldly beings, being a member of Earth's Mightiest Heroes- the Avengers, and you know...being a superhero, Peter had no means to save his beloved geriatric aunt from the sweet embrace of death. However, an opportunity to save May's life came from Mephisto, a demonic character and the Marvel Universe equivalent of Satan. Mephisto, Prince of Darkness and Father of Lies, offered to prevent an elderly woman with a long history of health problems from dying in exchange for erasing Peter's marriage to Mary Jane from existence.

In essence, Lucifer un-opaquely offered Spider-Man a retcon.

Retconning (from "retroactive continuity") is the unfortunate but oftentimes necessary comic book practice of erasing confusing, inconvenient, politically incorrect, or unpopular events from the continuity of a long-running title in an effort to keep things making sense. A good (or maybe a bad) example of retconning might be the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy; Boba Fett used to be a silent badass with a mysterious past, but when Episode II came out he was clone of some douchebag named Jango and was responsible for the Clone Wars. A recent comic book retcon is the inclusion of Captain America as being part of the Weapon X project that would eventually create Wolverine and other characters.

It was clear from the beginning that Quesada was making this drastic change because he hated Mary Jane Watson, Peter Parker's longtime love interest and wife. Quesada felt that a character as schlubby and down-on-his-luck everymanly as Peter Parker lost his edge if he got to come home to a really hot supermodel. Now, this isn't the medium for me to debate the merits of the Mary Jane character, but I will say that I have been an MJ fan since I was a little boy so I think Quesada is a hack and deserves to be put up against a wall and shot for his crimes against all of us Peter Parkers of the world who would just like to daydream that they could have a beautiful redhead as a girlfriend who didn't mind if we dressed up in red and blue tights and stayed out late fighting crime.


Anyway, Quesada's move of making Marvel's avatar of common decency and underdog goodness strike a bargain with the forces of evil to save the life of the only mother he ever knew at the cost of his marriage, not Mary Jane's life or soul mind you, she still exists in Marvel continuity but she and Peter just never got together, was pretty lame and was seen by most fans as such. It's a really transparent effort to correct some of the in and out-of-universe screw-ups perpetrated by the Marvel bullpen and a classless grab at making the books closer to the movies. Spider-Man had recently revealed his true identity to the world on national television at Iron Man's behest during the events of Civil War, which saw the Marvel Universe split down the middle between heroes who wanted to disclose the truth to the public in the name of security and those who wanted to keep do-gooding the old fashioned way (there was a whole national security vs. privacy thing in there that was beat over your head pretty thoroughly). After Mephisto's reality-altering magic spell, everybody oh-so conveniently forgot that Peter Parker was Spider-Man and writers no longer had to deal with that messy factoid. Mary Jane was gone and Peter was back to his old "I can't pay the rent!" bachelor crises, and Harry Osborn was brought back to life for good measure. Whatever.

This all happened around the time of Spider-Man 3's release, so my faith in comic books was pretty much shattered for a short time. But Marvel has recently promised a move away from these big, confusing, and uncharacteristically dark crossover events like Civil War that make retcons so necessary in favor of a new direction called "The Heroic Age". The current literal crossover to end all crossovers Siege is set to resolve all this and begin a return to good old fashioned comic book storytelling. Siege depicts a Götterdämmerung-like battle in Asgard between the forces of evil led by the former-Green-Goblin-current-Iron-Patriot Norman Osborn and his Dark Avengers (long story) and a resurrected Captain America and every good guy ever.

Marvel has ensured readers a new equilibrium will be established after these events conclude in the spring, I can only hope that, for the sake of the medium, Mary Jane is a part of that.