S'been a while since I've regularly read any of Marvel's current Spider-Man titles — last time I was following any was when J. Michael Straczynski was rewriting character history to add a sexual abuse component to long dead girlfriend Gwen Stacy's past. (This would've been in 2004 — how long ago and innocent that all seems!) Personal financial considerations kept me from following Marvel's Big Events — Secret War, Civil War, et. al. — so I missed all the machinations that went on in those series. Occasionally read some of the fannish bemoaning that accompanied them, of course, but since I wasn't following the books none of it stuck with me.
In this, I wasn't much different from most of mainstream America: for those outside the world of comic shops, the two most visible venues for Things Spider-Man are the three Sam Raimi movies and a "Spider-Man" newspaper comic strip. Both versions have largely remained true to the character I remember — and were seemingly impervious to the vagaries of big event manhandling until now. Earlier this week, however, I read on Abandoned Towers that the current "Spider-Man" strip has adopted the plotline presently being pushed in the comics. Due to a variety of calamitous events arising from the Marvel Universe Civil War, our hero makes a deal with the devil (a.k.a. Mephisto) to get his world reset. As a result, once-married teacher Peter Parker finds himself younger, back in college, no longer wedded to Mary Jane Watson and living with his elderly Aunt May.
The newspaper strip doesn't really bother to explain how or why this trip into a reworked past occurs. Instead, we're treated to a "Special Note to Perplexed Readers" text panel in the January 2nd entry that states, "In keeping with the new Spider-Man storyline at Marvel Comics, we, too, are going back to Spidey's roots. He's single and attending college. Now let the surprises begin!" None too smooth that — but, then, my computer also acts all clunky at first whenever I'm forced to reboot it.
The idea of reworking longstanding comic book characters so writers can "get back to basics" is not a new one, of course. Back in the '80s, DC comics hired then-hot writer/artist John Byrne to pull Superman back to his earliest incarnation — blithely wiping out years of Silver Age continuity in the process. In 2000, Marvel tried a half-way reboot of their little ol' webspinner with Ultimate Spider-Man, a retelling of the earliest Stan Lee/Steve Ditko comics featuring a moderately less geeky Peter Parker and a Mary Jane Watson who was part of the storyline from the get-go. In the original comics, she was talked about, but unseen, for several years.
The Ultimate series has run alongside the original series for years, providing readers with two variations of the character (immature high schooler or older happily married teacher) they could follow. With Marvel's new reboot, that distinct line has grown a bit blurrier, but perhaps that doesn't matter to the Wednesday Week crowd. I do wonder what newspaper strip readers will make of the sudden change, but, then, Marvel's long treated this strip like an afterthought, anyway. Nobody reads newspapers these days, right?
Keeping a long-established property like Spider-Man fresh, while holding onto those elements which hooked its audience in the first place, can be a tricky business — especially considering the diverse creative (and decidedly non-creative) hands that have played with the character over the years. For many readers, watching Peter Parker sorta mature from the weedy high school bookworm of the early Stan Lee/Steve Ditko days to the wisecracking young adult of the mid-nineties definitely took some of the shine off the character. Still, Marvel's "Everything Old Is New Again" ploy strikes me as rather like "improving" Malibu Stacy by giving the doll a new hat. Too often, "Going Back to the Basics" means catering to a talent pool and audience who find this growing up business wayyyy too complicated . . .