This weekend at Amazing Arizona Comic Con, Stan Lee is giving away exclusive copies of Amazing Spider-Man #700, and the opportunity got me thinking about the issue’s impact on the comic industry.
I’m certainly not the only comic book fan to boast an opinion on the highly controversial Amazing Spider-Man #700 without actually having read it, but my still-developing perspective has less to do with the issue’s impact on its title character and more with its reflection of the comic book as a contemporary storytelling medium. Yes, this is going to be one of those articles, where I use words like “icon” and “mythology” to describe silly spandex-wearing superheroes like Spider-Man. And it won’t be the last time.
First of all, I’m curious about the numbering system of comics. When I started collecting Amazing Spider-Man in the early ‘90s, the title was quickly approaching its 350th issue. Simple math explains that in the 20 years I’ve collected comics since, ASM plowed through another 350 issues, and, had it stayed on course, the title would’ve reached 1000 issues in another 20 years or so. I’d be in my 50s, and quite capable of appreciating that milestone. Of course, had DC Comics not relaunched their longest running titles, Action Comics and Detective Comics would’ve reached their centennial issues first. My question is, why are DC and Marvel afraid of the number 1000? Does reaching a quadruple number define how outdated a comic book could be, or defy it? Of course, since I perceive comics as modern mythology, I lean toward the latter, but if their publishers shared that opinion, they’d race toward the landmark rather than run away from it.
Secondly, and conversely, the decision to (spoiler alert) continue the adventures of Spider-Man with Doctor Octopus in control of the hero’s body bucks the latest trend of devolving superheroes into perpetual twenty-somethings. In DC’s New 52, the medium’s oldest characters are suddenly young again, depicted at the beginning of their cape-wearing careers. I presume that youthful look and angsty attitude are meant to make them more approachable to a newer audience, apparently intimidated by Superman’s crow’s feet. Yet, Doc Ock was always one of Spidey’s oldest, most bloated bad guys. Ock may be posing in Peter Parker’s younger body, but writer Dan Slott has made no bones about Otto’s established persona in the driver’s seat. Simply put, Slott has actually aged Spider-Man. Ironically, Spidey was once the medium’s youngest heroes; now, in terms of worldview, he’s one of the oldest. Will this help maintain the title’s appeal?
My final thought on the matter is an amalgam of those first two, with an emphasis on the role comics’ play in culture. The word “mythology” is often used to describe comics nowadays, but I daresay the superhero has the potential to transcend the classic myths in their perpetual nature. In other words, the stories of Achilles and Odysseus are finite, whereas Spider-Man’s story has the potential to be never-ending. By ending Amazing Spider-Man with the death of its hero’s alter ego, Marvel has time-stamped Peter’s adventures, effectively dating this moment in an otherwise timeless context of do-gooding. The cynical fanboy speculates that Peter Parker will be back; so, when he returns, his ongoing story will have this hiccup of presumed finality. It actually haunts every character in comics that has died and returned — therein, it haunts practically every character in comics. When death is just another villain to thwart, where’s the danger when that battle is won? Where’s the mythological element that elevates the protagonist to unattainable ideal?
At the end of the day, I genuinely like the idea of a bad guy taking over a good guy’s body, and realizing he could be a good guy better. I just wish that these concepts didn’t come at the cost of the greater goal of comics — to tell sequential stories. By ending one title to start another, by clinching the universe to restart as a New 52 or a NOW!, the sequence is interrupted by episodic interludes of experimentation for sales’ sake. Sure, Amazing Spider-Man #700 may have sold well, but will it be as priceless as it should be timeless? Appropriately, that’s a story only time will tell.