Friday, June 16, 2006

COMICS: Spidey's got a secret

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingWell, if you don't troll the comic book shops and haven't heard the news, there was a minor earthquake in superhero comics this week. In the pages of "Civil War" #2, the latest "everything must change"-type miniseries from Marvel, we had a heck of an ending – Spider-Man calls a press conference, and in the view of the entire world, reveals his secret identity: "My name is Peter Parker and I've been Spider-Man since I was 15 years old. Any questions?"

It's a bold storytelling move, although how strong the tale is ultimately depends on what's done with the idea. I liked the first two issues of "Civil War," which manage to combine writer Mark Millar's knack for shock theatre with a genuinely interesting political hook – what if superheroes were forced to register themselves with the government? Would they agree, or would they go underground? Who would fight, who would give in?

But right now, I'm just interested in how this story will affect my favorite superhero, Spider-Man. One of the things I've liked the most about reading Spider-Man comics since 1982 or so is that the character has grown and matured over the years. We've watched Peter Parker grow up, from a 15-year-old in his earliest adventures to whatever age he is now (nearly 30?). He's fallen in love, gotten married, gone from outcast to team player, and now discards his secrecy. Lots of fans seem to hate the move, but I'm cautiously interested in seeing what happens next.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingHaving a secret identity was an integral part of Peter Parker's character for the first 25-30 years of his existence. He started out as "puny" Parker, teenage outcast and glasses-wearing nerd, picked on by bullies and only able to enjoy himself as the wisecracking, carefree Spider-Man. Gradually, Parker became less of a failure in his civilian life – he bulked up, lost the glasses, found steady girlfriends. Tragedy still dogged him, but he had come a long way from the sweater vest-wearing egghead seen back in "Amazing Spider-Man" #1.

I've actually really enjoyed the changes to the Spider-Man dynamic the last few years have wrought, even if the execution of the stories isn't always great. His joining the Avengers, being part of a team rather than the weird loner, offers real opportunity for his talents to be appreciated. (Although in "The New Avengers," very little of this has been explored to its full potential.)

Spider-Man's "secret" identity has gradually been less and less guarded the past few years anyway. Dozens of his allies have learned his identity, many of his foes. Some of these came in great stories – the "Sin-Eater" tale in the late 1980s where Daredevil and Spider-Man learned each other's secrets, or the superb "Spider-Man/Human Torch" miniseries of 2005. The final issue of the latter series, where clueless Johnny Storm finally figured out after all these years that Peter Parker = Spider-Man, was a real pleasure, particularly in the warm inviting scenes at the end where Peter's family and the Fantastic Four "family" enjoy some leisurely family get-togethers without a supervillain in sight. It felt like the "happy ending" Peter's so long been denied. Even Peter Parker's ancient Aunt May has learned the secret in the comics. So "coming out" to the general public has been foreshadowed for a few years now in the Spider-Man comics.
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Of course, there are purists who want Spider-Man to eternally be the outcast teenager, always falling short in love, affection and success. Even Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada has frequently voiced his disapproval of Spider-Man's marriage (as if this were a recent event; it took place in 1987, after all, nearly 20 years ago now!). Yet what appeals to me about Spidey is that he DOES grow – other characters, like Batman, Superman or Wonder Woman, seem mired in a stasis, with little real changes over the years that aren't quickly fixed. But Spider-Man's stayed married, he's stayed out of high school and he steadily continued to age (at a far slower ratio than the 44 years worth of comics he's starred in, obviously).

"Civil War" is only two issues in of its seven, and it's uncertain which way Millar & co. will go yet with the unmasking story. I'm genuinely curious to see what comes next. How can Spider-Man remain married, protect his aged aunt, or have a normal life now? Is his stand of principle worth the cost it'll demand? Nothing lasts forever in comics (the list of characters who've died and come back could fill Valhalla), and the cynic in me is pretty sure they'll come up with some giant deux ex machina to correct it all (alien memory-erasing pixies? plastic surgery? it was all a dream?).

But the fan in me kinda would like to see them ride with this a while, explore the idea of a public identity and what it would really mean for our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Done right, it would provide further opportunities for growth for Spidey – and change is far better than stagnation for comics' most fascinating, multi-layered hero.

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