In the early 1970s, when Stan Lee began to pass the responsibilities of Marvel’s core titles to the next generation of Marvel writers like Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Len Wein, he stressed the importance of “the illusion of change.” The idea that a Marvel writer should make audiences believe there is about to be a major status quo shift, but in the end things will always stay the same. The Fantastic Four will always be Reed, Sue, Ben, and Johnny. Spider-Man will always be a nerdy kid from Queens. Thor will always be the god of thunder, caught between his duties to Asgard and loyalties to Earth. Lee understood that mainstream comics have no third act; they were eternal narratives forever caught in the second act idea of growth and development for the protagonist. To do that, supporting players could come and go and antagonists would be an endless stream of inventive evil that would threaten to upset the balance of the established world. Nothing could ever really change or else the next generation would be robbed of their Spider-Man and X-Men stories. Superheroes are generational connectors, where the bells and whistles may change but the core concept stays the same. After decades of this, one would think fans would understand the medium they are consuming. The reaction to Superior Spider-Man says otherwise.
Now, the hero switching bodies with the villain is certainly nothing original in the world of superheroes. It happened a bunch of times between Superman and Lex Luthor, it happened with the Justice League and a cadre of villains in the Silver Age, it happened with the Red Skull and Captain America in the 80s. It’s always the twist to these familiar tropes that makes these stories either a good read or a forgettable gimmick. Fans all over the nerdosphere seemed to condemn Dan Slott even before a word of his story could be processed. Why is this a typical reaction to a story that, at its narrative core, isn’t that crazy? For some, it comes down to the idea that comics are an insular experience. Many critics expect their comics to match their private memories of a good time that connected to a beloved character, and anything that is an extreme contrast to that memory is met with derision. Does anyone really believe that in 8-14 months Doc Ock will still be Spidey? If so, then maybe there can be some terse responses, but most comic fans are experienced, they know stories come and go, and their success is in the telling. Whatever the case, Peter will back in good time, and this story will be one of three things: a point of curiosity, a fond memory, or a colossal failure. Either way, there will be more Spidey stories to come, with Peter in the uniform.
Maybe it’s because this story comes so close on the heels of the Miles Morales controversy. Fans were horrified that Ultimate Peter was leaving them. Reactions ranged from the indifferent to the pervasively racist. Now that Miles has been around for over a year, things have settled down, but the initial reaction was cringe worthy. No one seemed to acknowledge the idea that the Ultimate Universe allowed for a creator to go beyond the second act. They only focused on their own private relationships with the characters. Forget creative growth, they thought, don’t take my memory from me. Now it would appear that the original Peter has been removed from the narrative. Maybe the relationship between fan and character is so personal that any threat to it is taken personally. It seems like any time a major comic company announces something new it’s met with a barrage of self-indulgent anger. Social media is spreading the message of comics like never before; imagine being a neophyte fan stumbling across a Facebook thread following any Marvel or DC announcement. What would your first impression of comic fandom be?
Dan Slott received death threats over a piece of fiction. Death threats! If a fan is so emotionally involved in the life of a fictional character that they would actually threaten another living, breathing human being’s life, shouldn’t they already know about the illusion of change? Are they so protective of their own feelings of security brought about by the character and their personal perceptions of that character that they lash out at the slightest attempt to upset the apple cart?
Criticism is acceptable and welcome in any forum. Saying that the fact that no character in Spider-Man is crying “Holy Crap! The Chameleon!” at any point when Peter is not acting like Peter is a legitimate gripe and a hole in the concept. Feeling icky while Octo-Pete stares at M.J’s breasts and expressing those feelings in the form of criticism is totally legitimate. Yet, as it always seems to happen with status quo altering events in comics, the bulk of the online criticism appeared before the issue even hit the stands. Criticism comes from dissatisfaction with the creative process, not a fear of what may happen in the future. Slott has an opportunity to tell a good story or to fall flat on his face, publically. This is why I believe that creators should always be met with a certain level of respect, because they’re the ones daring failure with every word they type or line they draw. If Slott fails, he harms his own brand and career. There will always be a Spider-Man, no matter what kinds of creative mishaps occur (ahem…remember the Clone Saga?). The wailing and gnashing of teeth that surrounds any major story is counterproductive. We sound like a bunch of overgrown children that don’t want to share their toys.
Every Spidey story has probably already been told. It’s not enough to have him miss brunch with Aunt May because he’s fighting the Shocker. Creators have to get imaginative, do something not seen before, or at least take an old staple and put a fresh coat of paint on it. Yet, it seems the old guard doesn’t want even this. They want stories that are safe and predictable. Life is scary, and heroic adventure should be an escape. Nothing predictable is ever inspiring. Creators have to take structural and thematic chances in order to inspire an audience of veteran readers that have seen almost everything. For the sake of the heroes we love, let’s try and let them.