Thursday, January 03, 2008

Termite (Sequential) Art: Spider-Man: One More Day

Yeah, it's a film blog. Guess what: I like comics too.

Written by J. Michael Straczynski and Joe Quesada
Illustrated by Joe Quesada with Danny Miki

The greatest villainy in all of comics, the fiendish "illusion of change" strikes again, and this time it's erasing some twenty-odd years of continuity. In one misguided, poorly written, and downright upsetting storyline, all those decades of stories, including many of my personal favorites, have vanished as if they never happened in the first place. The reason seems clear, at least to me: in the eyes of some, Spider-Man was getting a bit too manly.

Editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, Joe Quesada has, for years, argued that a married Spider-Man/Peter Parker (as the character has been since the late 1980s, when he wedded longtime girlfriend Mary Jane Watson) is less viable than a single Spider-Man/Peter Parker. A while back, Quesada helped launch the "Ultimate" line of comics, stripped-down versions of popular Marvel properties with streamlined continuity with no ties to the regular Marvel Universe. In other words, while the Amazing Spider-Man could remain married to Mary Jane the Ultimate Spider-Man was a high school teen dating Mary Jane (and other girls) for the first time. For readers like myself, it was a superb arrangement. The books were different but both, thanks to writers J. Michael Straczynski and Brian Michael Bendis, respectively, were good reads. One would have thought this an ideal compromise, particularly because it doubles the amount of money the company can get out of a rube like me.

The situation probably could have gone on forever were it not for one Sam Raimi and his remarkably successful and popular films about your friendly neighborhood wallcrawler. Suddenly the Spider-Man most familiar to people isn't the one gracing the monthly pages of Marvel Comics; it's the one gracing the biannual silver screens of multiplexes around the world. And that Spider-Man isn't married, has never been married. Now, in addition to whatever personal preference Quesada might have held, there was a clear commercial imperative for a breakup: the move alligns the world of the comics with the world of the films. At the end of One More Day, the story that tells the end of Peter and Mary Jane's marriage, Spider-Man's world has literally been transformed all around him, into one that looks remarkably like the one Raimi presented onscreen. In the final scene of Part 4, for example, Aunt May's house in Queens looks exactly like the one from the first two films, right down to the stairwell just behind the kitchen table. That sort of synergy has got to be good for business. From that perspective, the move makes a whole lot of sense.

From a story perspective, not so much. The concept Quesada and Straczynski cooked up to break the two apart is truly a bizarre one. It spins out of Marvel's recent Civil War series, where a new law required all super-heroes to surrender their identity to the federal government. Peter Parker revealed his secret on national television, but later decided to rebel against the so-called Super-Hero Registration Act, turning him and his family into fugitives. While on the run from both friends and enemies, a sniper aiming for Peter accidentally shoots Aunt May instead. In One More Day, Peter learns that Aunt May's injuries are fatal and there is nothing medical science can do for her. Feeling responsible for her impending death (just as he still feels responsible for his Uncle Ben's death years earlier), he seeks supernatural assistance and eventually encounters Mephisto, the Marvel Comics version of Satan. He offers Peter a choice: Aunt May's life for his marriage to Mary Jane. After a couple of pages of half-hearted hand-wringing the deal is done, the history of the world is rewritten and now it is as if Peter and MJ were never hitched at all (and as if Peter had never told Aunt May he was Spider-Man, and so on).

What might be most galling in this entire sordid affair is the fact that this storyline was pitched to readers as a grand send-off to Straczynski, the creator of Babylon 5 and the regular monthly writer of Amazing Spider-Man since 2000. After years of stories so dreadful even I, hardcore Spidey fan that I am, stopped reading the series, Straczynski gave the book a renewed sense of purpose and its central character a clear, expressive voice. Most importantly, he was willing (some might say too willing) to push Peter Parker in new directions. He eliminated most of Peter's time at the Daily Bugle, where he'd spent decades as a freelance photographer and set him up as a science teacher at his alma mater, Midtown High School. He pushed the character through an otherworldly metamorphosis (in a storyline called "The Other") giving him enhanced powers. Most significantly, he finally revealed Peter's secret identity to his Aunt May (this was prior to the series of events where he ripped off his mask in front of the entire world). As part of the bargain with Mephisto, all of these changes were wiped away, as if they'd never happened in the first place.

For better or worse — and, without question, Straczynski's run, particularly in the last couple years, had some lackluster moments — Straczynski's Spider-Man was one that ventured into new territory and explored new avenues. The status quo established at the end of One More Day by Quesada and his new writers is a deliberate return to the past. Even ignoring the troubling moral implications of having your company's most popular super-hero make a literal deal with the devil, the story establishes a new continuity that is not only old-fashioned, it completely erases the accomplishments of a particularly progressive writer. What kind of happy send off is that? The final page of Amazing Spider-Man #545 is stacked with quotes from J.M.S.' peers, celebrating his achievements on the book. This is the proverbial gold watch; he's barely out the door and they've already made it so he never even existed.

The obvious disconnect between the editorial intent and the writer's was made unusually clear during a rather candid message board post written recently by Straczynski in response to widespread displeasure with One More Day. He'd actually asked to have his name removed from this so-called "tribute":

"...there's a lot that I don't agree with, and I made this very clear to everybody within shouting distance at Marvel, especially [Quesada]. I'll be honest: there was a point where I made the decision, and told [Quesada], that I was going to take my name off the last two issues of the One Mre Day arc. Eventually [Quesada] talked me out of that decision because at the end of the day, I don't want to sabotage [Quesada] or Marvel, and I have a lot of respect for both of those."

Quesada responded by insisting that Straczynski knew full well what sort of story he was getting hired to write, and that they disagreed only in the particulars and not in the execution. He also explains that a lot of their differences grew out of the fact that much of One More Day's ending had to be rewritten to reflect the new Spider-Man books that were already being produced months before the series actually finished; to change the conclusion now would mean to scrap months of already completed work. Once again, it's a decision that makes perfect business sense and terrible story sense.

But then narrative corners were cut anywhere Quesada (and, yes, Straczynski) could. One More Day is a four issue story in which the first full issue (cover price $3.99) is little more than a well-illustrated prologue. According to the title ("One More Day"), this is a story about what someone does with the love of their life when they have only one more day to spend with each other. Straczynski and Quesada's space management is so bad, and the execution so poorly botched, that we don't actually get to see what Peter and Mary Jane would do with the day. Even if you resigned yourself to the story's outcome; heck, even if you wanted to see it because you agreed with Quesada's rationale, you couldn't even savor that last day the title promised because it wasn't in the book.

Now Amazing Spider-Man takes off in a new — or rather old, but made to look contemporary — direction with a host of new writers (the series will now appear three times a month, replacing the prior format where Amazing was joined by sister series Sensational and Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man). They will attempt to pick up the pieces and move on. These stories may be good. But if fan reaction remains as negative as mine (and if you do a Google search for "Spider-Man" "One More Day" and "sucks" you'll see what I mean) the comics franchise could be in long-term trouble. This shameless deus ex machina wiped away decades of stories in a single stroke, but the creators following it may find the damage caused in its wake a bit harder to erase.

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Blogger Mike said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:57 PM  
Blogger Matt Singer said...

Well this is odd. I just spent a half hour writing a response to an excellent blog comment by someone named "Mike" only to find as I was about to post it that the comment had been deleted. I'm almost tempted to post the original text (which I have in my email) because it was such a good response, but I'll respect the author's wishes. Nevertheless, I took the time to write all this back to him anyway, so I'm going to post it. I think it's pretty self-explanatory even without the comments I was responding to.


Yours is a fine, well-reasoned and well-articulated response. And your reaction is an incredibly rational one; a far more rational one, in fact, than mine. Your attitude, if I'm reading correctly is simply that you enjoy reading Spider-Man comics and you know that all of these changes, particularly big dramatic ones, get smoothed out over time. And Marvel did certainly leave themselves a certain amount of loopholes to retract most of the changes caused by One More Day (except for the return of the long-dead Harry Osborn...not sure how they'd re-revise that one unless he's somehow not the really Harry Osborn). As someone who typically feels the same way about Spidey (and comics in general) I very much understand what you're saying. Under typical circumstances, I think I'd feel the same way.

But I remain uncharacteristically upset about this story for a few reasons. First, I resent the whole grand-send-off-to-J.M.S. slant that was attached to the book and, I think it's clear from Straczynski's continuing comments on this book that he does too. It's disingenuous and unfair and doesn't jive at all with the content, tone, or intent of the book.

I'm also not buying into the argument — and this is something I didn't discuss in my original post, but maybe I should have — that there are no good stories to left to tell about a married Spider-Man. Just last summer, for instance, Marvel published Sensational Spider-Man Annual #1 by Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca. I thought this simple, one-and-done comic was so effective, I even gave it to my fiance to read (whose interest in Spider-Man comics typically begins and ends with the out-of-continuity romance book Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane). She absolutely loved the issue. Frankly, if I was in charge, I would have given Fraction a Spidey book right then and there.

You, in all your rationality, probably argue that there ARE more stories to tell with a married Spider-Man, just as there are more stories to tell about a single one. And that at a certain point, they'll probably tell those as well. That's fair enough.

I would say, though, that unlike some of the other instances of the illusion of changes that you cited (the deaths of Superman, for example, and Captain America, though the ultimate outcome of that one is still pending) the actions of "One More Day" are more a reversion from a change. It's a specific act of returning the core soap opera to the past, just as bringing Superman or Cap back to life is. I think you have to look at One More Day more like The Return of SuperMan rather than The Death of Superman (the fact that Spider-Man and Mary Jane's marriage lasted for 20 years of continuity, and Superman's death lasted only about 18 months is another consideration as well).

Finally, maybe what I'm most upset about is that lack of catharsis, that lack of seeing that one more day between Peter and Mary Jane. You say you were emotionally affected by their final pages together; I, unfortunately, was not. To me, that felt cliched (I guess you have to use that line but I didn't care for it) and anticlimactic. And Quesada's constant hyping of the fact that he disliked the marriage and wanted it to go away made that aspect of the story a foregone conclusion. I wanted more emotionally from it, and maybe a little bit to surprise me. Instead the product just left me feeling like I'd wasted my money on something that didn't deliver what it promised (i.e. that last day together) and was riddled with a bunch of plot holes to boot.

That said, I'm a Spider-Man fan. I'll keep reading, at least for the time. And I should say, I still love what's happening every month in Ultimate Spider-Man.

12:42 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

I sent you a couple emails about this, but I ended up posting the response to fourteen seconds so I could expand and edit it! I must run to work now but I'd love to chat more!

11:24 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

Here is that expanded and edited essay, for your reading pleasure! ---

I find myself in the strange position of coming to the defense of “One More Day”, at least in a loose sense. Aside from the lack of focus over the course of the story arc on MJ and Peter’s last day, a point on which I could not agree with Matt more, I can’t jump in with the rest of the Spider-Man lifers and pretend I’ve been betrayed.

I’ve been a Spidey reader since I was 5 years old and thanks to a youth filled with comic conventions (in a bygone time when these things were not worth near as much money as they are now), own pretty much every issue of Amazing from about issue #70 onwards. And though I once was an utter purist and wished much figurative harm upon writers of the series for stunts like Ben Reilly and the return of Norman Osborn, I’ve come to believe that, with 45 years of back story, there is very little an effective writer can do other than introduce radical change, as in any other long-running soap opera.

And Spidey is definitely a soap. In a far more demonstrable sense than other long-runners like Superman or Batman, Spidey has always been weighted by an emotional core and a focus on personal problems and family and friends that very closely mirrors the arcs of television (nee radio) soaps. Although “One More Day” rubs me wrong in terms of brevity and structural soundness, at the end of the day, a year’s worth of issues where Spidey fights a Villain of the Month would bore me to tears.

And I will even admit to the presence of some deft emotional manipulation in the story arc. With MJ and Peter’s final kiss and her utterance of the classic line, “Face it tiger, you just hit the jackpot…”, 25 years of personal nostalgia crept up on me. I remember spending my allowance on the MJ and Peter wedding issue right after moving to Minneapolis from Northern Minnesota at the local comic shop, now closed. Everything about that experience still seems tactile and real and it’s the clever writer who knows, frankly, how to totally rip that open and exploit it.

And do I believe for one second that “One More Day” is the eternal future of the book? Of course not! Does anyone believe Captain America is really dead and gone? Did any but the most naive of readers go into the whole “Death of Superman” fracas and sincerely think that Steel or the goddamn Robot Superman were going to entertain readers for decades to come?

Long-form storytelling is unforgiving business. Readers get bored easily yet balk at the slightest change. The status quo has to be fucked with in order to allow for its triumphant return. I’m definitely and deeply upset that MJ has been retconned out of Spidey lore. But clearly the storyline is designed to evoke this exact emotional response. I may not be thrilled, but I remain curious - and angry and curious is always a better beast than bored and indifferent.

11:30 AM  

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