Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Melancholic Spider-Man

All the original Marvel characters had their own adjectives—the Fantastic Four was, obviously, fantastic. Thor was mighty, the Hulk was incredible, Iron Man was invincible, the X-Men uncanny and Spider-Man was, at first, amazing. He would later be sensational and friendly neighborhood, as well.

But he was never depressing. At least, he never starred in a comic book called The Depressing Spider-Man, but that's only because someone thought Peter Parker: Spider-Man had a better ring to it. Last night I sat down with three issues of the book from 2001, and by the time I finished the third one I had almost completely lost my will to live.

Now, I don't know if Peter Parker: Spider-Man #33-#35 are representative of writer Paul Jenkins' run on the title or not, but they are some incredibly downbeat comic books. Like, so downbeat I'm not even sure why they exist. Well, I can sort of almost kind of see the logic that since this was the title with Spidey's secret identity's name right there in the title that they'd want to focus on his inner, emotional life over his superheroic exploits but, my God, not like this, not like this!

Issue #33 bears a cover of young Peter Parker and not-dead-yet Uncle Ben at a ball game. It's drawn by Humberto Ramos, and it's a kinda funny image. You see Pete got konked on the head by a flyball and is seeing stars, while various game-goers react to that and other events in exaggerated, cartoonish ways.

Kinda looks like it might be a fun comic, right?

Then you turn the cover and, on the first page, Spider Man is clinging to the spire of a skyscraper, thinking about how fast time is moving now that he's getting older, and, in th elast panel on the page, we see his unmasked face, his eyes filling with tears, and his narration box reads: "This is the day my Uncle Ben died."


Page two, Aunt May visits Ben's grave. The next twenty? Peter goes to a Mets game by himself, all the while flashing back to ones he attended with Ben as a kid and the life lessons he learned at those games, including the last one they attended together—just three days before Ben died!

Okay, well, that was a bit of a downer, I thought, but not a bad piece of super-melodrama, really.

On to #34. This one's got Spider-Man on the cover, doing something Spider-Man-ish, plus a guy with glowing blue laser eyes. This one's gotta be a more standard superhero book, right? (And by "standard superhero book" I mean not completely focused on the brevity of human life).

The first three pages deal with a couple of monks freaking out about another of their order having escaped the monastery. Apparently, he's a mutant of some kind with the Cyclops-like problem of laser blasting and killing whoever he looks at. And he's on the loose!

Meanwhile, in the city, Aunt May gives Peter a used set of salt and pepper shakers shaped like an angel and a devil, which Jenkins writes into the story specifically to set up a sight gag referencing the angel on one shoulder, devil on the other cartoon staple. For some reason, artist Mark Buckingham draws the shakers huge though. Like, they're the size of jars.

Peter is at this point still married to Mary Jane, but they're separated (geographically but not legally, if I remember millennial Spider-marriage status quo correctly), and he's not sure if he should go on a date-like outting with his sexy neighbor, although he eventually decides to go to a neighborhood fun fair with her.

That's where the laser-eyed monk is heading. He kills a whole bunch of people by looking at them, he fights Spider-Man a bit, but, in the end, he gets aboard one of those, tilting, spinning amusement park rides that's a bit like a giant cup you stand in and while it spins around (here called "The Wall of Death").

The specifics of his eye whammy are that a) it only goes off if he's standing upright as opposed to laying down and b) the longer he keeps his eyes open, the more life-energy he expends and the closer he gets to death.

He wants to ride this ride simply because it allows him to see the stars as he expends all his energy in looking at them, and dies. Spider-Man, hero that he is, fails to save the suicidal laser-eyed monk.

So this is essentially a done-in-one story about a mutant monk committing suicide right in front of Spider-Man. William (that's the monk's name) sees the stars, but also sees God (William switches pronouns from I see "them" to I see "Him" as he dies). Spider-Man looks down at the dead monk, and then up at the night sky, and envies him: "All I see are little points of light against a big black blanket. A vast shroud of nothing, infinitely far away. Somes I wish I could be as lucky as William."

Presumably Jenkins means Spidey's an atheist and wishes he could believe like William could believe. Or perhaps he wishes he were dead, and put out of the misery that is his life? After 40 pages of vicariously living it, I can understand where he's coming from.

Sheesh. Well surely Jenkins will lighten things up next issue, right? He can't keep providing emotionally punishing stories month in and month out. No one reads Spider-Man comics to be bummed right the hell out, after all.

So that brings us to #35, on which Ramos draws Spider-Man sitting with his chin on his knee (uh-oh) talking to a little boy about something. Fuck. I bet it's something sad, isn't it?

That little boy is excitedly running home from school on the first page to tell his mom that he got invited to a classmate's birthday party, but inside he finds her laying face down on the couch of their filthy apartment, beer cans and an empty bottle of gin piled around her.

"Momma. I got home from school," he tells her sadly, awakening her. When he asks where dinner is, she says she has a headache and it's in the fridge before shes passes out again. He goes to the fridge, but all he finds are two cans of beer in it.

Jesus. Spider-Man doesn't appear until page five, and man, even Spider-Man's not gonna help any here. The boy goes to his room and fishes a collectable Spider-Man card out of a box under his bed, and suddenly Spider-Man appears with a, "Heya, Secret Sidekick!"

The boy, Lafronce, tells Spider-Man all about his day, and Spidey tells him about the villains he fought. But it's not really Spider-Man! No, it's the imaginary Spider-Man that Lafronce summons to hang out with him as a way of coping with his miserable life.

We wallow in Lafronce's terrible life for a few more scenes. Here he is at school drawing his hero Spider-Man hanging out with he and his mom, there are his aunt and uncle arguing with the principal that he should have Lafronce taken away from his mother, here he is coming home from school again this time finding a mean man beating on his mom, here's imaginary friend Spider-Man again, and there's a social worker talking about how he's doing everything he can for Lafronce over the phone, while we see him at a golf course.

Then one day Lafronce goes home and finds his mom's body being removed from their apartment. Apparently she's been dead for three months, and Lafronce was living with her the whole time?(!?!)

At the end of the story, he has another conversation with imaginary Spider-Man who is apparently going to quit being his imaginary friend now, and when he's ready to leave Lafronce, imaginary Spider-Man says "Big men don't hug each other when they part ways..they shake hands."

Ready for the last page surprise ending? Spider-Man has removed his glove and mask to shake hands with Lafronce and...Spidey's a black man!
It's a neat image to be sure, and certainly a surprise ending. Perhaps Jenkins is trying to say something about how we project ourselves into our heroes, or want them to be like us, all I could really think was Jesus, if Lafronce actually got to meet his hero like that, would that be just one more disappointment to learn that Spidey is actually just an ineffectual, whiny white kid?

Part of me wouldn't mind reading more of Jenkins' run on this title just to see if it's all like this, and part of me hopes I never come across any more. I don't think I can stand to read any more about the human misery and suffering in Spider-Man's world. After all, isn't that what all the comics set in our world are for?


Linus said...

I remember REALLY liking these issues at the time. I can see how they could be a bit of a downer all read in one sitting like this, but I found them significantly more enjoyable than the stuff that was going on over in Amazing at the time (Mackie/Byrne mostly, though some Strazynski).

I think overall Jenkins's run is solid (thanks in no small part to some nice work by Buckingham), but Spidey does get fairly emotionally wailed on a bit for several years. Such was the state of things when they cloned him, brought his greatest enemy back to life, and blew up (then separated him from) his wife mysteriously. Sad times.

Michael Hoskin said...

>Then one day Lafronce goes home and finds his mom's body being removed from their apartment. Apparently she's been dead for three months, and Lafronce was living with her the whole time?(!?!)

I believe the scene referring to her being dead for three months is supposed to be set three months after the previous scene. I guess it doesn't help that no one changes their clothes during the story?

Scott said...

Some of these issues were less okay than others(the one with the monk wasn't very good) but I thought the one with Lafronce and his imaginary Spider-Man was good and there was a great running gag of Spidey fighting a gang of evil mimes every now and then that eventually came to a head.

Also, the end of Jenkins's run featured an all-heroes poker game featuring the fantastic four, Doc Strange, Black Cat, and Angel from the X-Men... and the Kingpin crashes the party with a ridiculous offer to stake each player $50,000 with the intent to win all of his money back from them.

Duncan Falconer said...

Yeah, these are among the last few proper Spider-Man comics I ever bought, and they're basically all like that - probably Jenkins one real strength as a writer, Inhumans was similar composed of sad wee, evocative vignettes; the ones that aren't, and feature Typeface or Fusion, are terrible.

Austin Gorton said...

Yeah, in one sitting I can imagine these issues are pretty heavy and soul-deadening, but Jenkins run, as a whole, was pretty good (Typeface notwithstanding). The Uncle Ben/Mets issue in particular is one of my favorite Spider-Man issues.

googum said...

Yeah, I imagined that Lafronce kid being a bit disillusioned during Civil War.

In that same run, I think Jenkins did an issue with Morbius and a kid with cerebral palsy or something. Good times.

Matt said...

Man, I loved that Uncle Ben/Mets issue. It was one of the things that got me back into reading Spider-Man after a clone saga induced hiatus.

For me, it was the first time I really felt sympathy for the character of Peter and saw that bond between him and Ben.

For the record, I had started reading Spider-Man in the ninties where emotions like sadness and love were replaced with agony and lust.

The other two issues were not necessarialy my favorites, but I still think they were head and shoulders above the stuff being published between 1992 and 2000.

Steven Timberman said...

I'm unsure if it was during Jenkin's tenure, but pretty much the first two years of the relaunched brands were really and truly terrible.

"Look!" they kept on saying. "It's back to basics!" Even as the plots got more and more hilariously awful. The best was the resolution to the two years-running mystery over a suspicious senator. Seriously. Look it up.

Linus said...

Jenkins was pretty much the antidote to the relaunch. He came on Peter Parker with #19.