Saturday, July 8, 2017

Climbing the Walls: Other Web Slingers of Marvel

by Kerey McKenna.

Peter Parker has been swinging from web lines since 1962. With Spiderman: Homecoming, Tom Holland returns as our third big screen iteration of Peter. 2001’s Sam Raimi-helmed movie starring Tobey MaGuire helped launch the millennial superhero boom and James Garfield admirably tried to recharge the franchise in two films that failed to launch a Spider-centric universe for Sony.

But Peter Parker isn’t the only person to take on the great responsibility of donning a spider mask over the years, at least in the comics. Heck, back in 2014, Marvel even had a great big event comic called “The Spider-verse,” consisting of a crossover of the alternative versions of Peter Parker and other webslingers readers had seen pop up over the years; others were created especially for the event. Now, alternative versions of Peter Parker would be a whole article in and of itself and be full of entries like Zombie Peter Parker, Film Noir Peter Parker, Peter Porker the Spider-ham, and so on ad infinitum. But since Spiderman: Homecoming is already giving us the latest version of Peter Parker, I thought it would be fun to share with you some notable characters other than Peter Parker to spin webs. And I mean other than Peter Parker. No alternate universe doppelgangers.

Jessica Drew: Spiderwoman

Premiering in 1978, Spiderwoman was Marvel Comics attempt to stake a claim on the name “Spiderwoman” so other publishers couldn’t try to ride the coattails of its breakout character.

Feeling that female sidekicks of popular male characters had already been done to death over at DC with Supergirl, Batgirl, and Mary Marvel, the editors didn’t want this new character to be tied down to the Peter Parker Spiderman. Her costume is very distinct from his, her spider powers have a different origin, and instead of street crime in one city she tended to be a globetrotting espionage agent, even working with SHIELD to thwart the machinations of HYDRA (And for more about the history of Hydra and how they bent Captain America to their will, check out my post Captain America: Hail Who?)

Given no directive but to publish books every once in a while to protect the copyright, she benefited from a sort of benign neglect allowing some of Marvel’s greatest creators the narrative freedom to tell some really out there but exciting stories.

Takuya Yamashiro: Supaidāman

Supaidāman, or Japanese Spiderman, is an interesting example of cross-cultural exchange between the USA and Japan. Produced for Japanese television entirely for a Japanese market and sensibilities, it’s fascinating to see what was translated directly from the original American version and what was added for the adaption. His suit and iconic theme song translate very well. Although his secret identity is motorsport athlete Takuya Yamashiro instead of scientist/photojournalist Peter Parker, Takuya resembles Peter in his struggle with the complications of upholding the responsibilities of both his mild-mannered alter ego and his superhero persona.

However the series makes additions to the mythos that seem very out of place to an American viewer. Instead of the Sinister Six, Supaidaman’s main antagonist is the “Iron Cross Army,” and our hero has custom vehicles like a motorcycle, car, and giant robot (none of which really have spider iconography in their designs). Why does Supaidāman need a giant robot? To fight giant Godzilla-sized monsters of course. These are a lot of conventions of Japanese superheroes that the US didn’t become familiar with until footage from a long running series was harvested to create Power Rangers for the western market in the 90’s.

Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider

Okay, I said no alternate universe doppelgangers of Peter Parker. But I didn’t say anything about clones now, did I?

The Scarlet Spider was the product of a mid-90’s Spider-Man “Clone Saga” arc that got out of hand. In an earlier classic Spiderman tale, a mad scientist created a clone of Spiderman who battled Peter to a standstill before joining the side of the angels but seemingly perished when the scientist’s lab collapsed on itself. But what if the clone didn’t die?!

The Clone Saga posited that he survived and had Peter's memories implanted into him, and therefore Peter’s sense of responsibility to protect New York City. Creating the civilian identity Ben Reilly (naming himself after his beloved Uncle Ben and adopting his mother’s maiden name), he swung through Manhattan as “The Scarlet Spider.”

The original idea for the clone saga had a lot going for it, and the original plan for the endgame was that Ben Reilly would take up the mantle of Spiderman, allowing Peter Parker to retire and settle down with Mary Jane, who was pregnant with their child at the time. But when the concept started selling through the roof, the writers were given editorial mandates to keep stretching it out. Furthermore, a rotating creative team on the Spiderman books couldn’t seem to make up its mind if Ben would assume the title of Spider-man or not. Or if Ben Reilly was actually the original Peter Parker returning to take back his life from the well-meaning clone. The whole thing became a convoluted mess.

Eventually the clone saga came to an end with no major changes to the status quo. In fact, narratively the restoration of normalcy was quite brutal, with the clone dying and MJ miscarrying her child.

The Scarlet Spider costume is one of my favorite of the 90’s-style redesigns. Doing away with the intricate black webbing probably saved the artists a lot of time and I think if the 90’s style (hey give them a jacket or a hoodie) aesthetic is going to work on anyone it would be a “street level” superhero like Spiderman. I also believe Peter Parker’s first homemade suit in the films Captain America: Civil War and Spider-man: Homecoming owes a debt to the Scarlet Spider.

May “May Day” Parker: Spider-Girl

Okay, remember when I said Mary Jane Watson was pregnant with Spiderman’s child in the 90’s? Well what if the resolution to that hadn’t been a huge backpedal that just left everybody back at square one?!

Spider-Girl posits that the writers’ original intention won out and Spiderman retired from superheroics to settle down with Mary Jane and raise their daughter May “May Day” Parker, seemingly an average girl until she reaches sixteen and develops spider powers of her own. Against the initial wishes of her father, May takes up his web-spinners and becomes “The Amazing Spider-girl”

Unlike other properties that imagined the successors of their hero in some post-apocalyptic wasteland or Blade Runner-inspired urban dystopia like DC’s Batman Beyond or Marvel’s own Spiderman 2099, the Spider-Girl series wasn’t interested in making a cyberpunk reimagining of their character and didn’t try to visually distinguish the far-distant early 2010’s from the late 90’s. As I write this in 2017, it’s clear that the creators were quite forward-thinking not to assume we’d be dressing like the Jetsons.

Spider-Girl took the drama of the spider saga back to high school, this time through the lens of a character not driven by personal tragedy, but by the desire to uphold the family legacy. And it allowed the characters of Peter Parker and MJ to mature as people and take their marriage to a logical next step, something subsequent Spiderman creative teams were so afraid of they notoriously...ahem...HAD SPIDERMAN MAKE A DEAL WITH THE LITERAL DEVIL TO ERASE THE PARKER/WATSON MARRIAGE AND ANY RESULTING CHILDREN FROM CONTINUITY.

Doctor Otto Octavius: The Superior Spiderman

What Doctor Otto Octavius? As in Doctor Octopus? One of Spiderman’s most iconic enemies, how could he be Spiderman? Is this another crazy “what if?” story from a parallel universe or dream sequence?

Surprisingly, no. But the story is still pretty crazy. In 2013 Otto Octavius pulls off his greatest crime yet, a body swap, stealing Peter Parker’s body, memories, and identity and leaving Peter’s mind in his own elderly, decrepit, and dying form. Like a malicious Freaky Friday. But as the transfer becomes final, and Spiderman dies in Dr. Octopus’s body, something amazing happens: Otto, accessing Peter Parker’s memories, finally understands why Spiderman was always foiling his plans over the years. He decides that with his “Powers” must come the “Responsibility” to become the best Spiderman possible, a Superior Spiderman.

It’s a bonkers premise and eventually the status quo is restored but it was a fun ride while it lasted. Doctor Octopus's attempts are at turns reasonable (going back to school to get Peter a doctorate) and at other turns clearly the thinking of a megalomaniac mad scientist (creating a swarm of spider robot drones to keep constant surveillance on NYC).

The villain and hero body swap is a stock plot device for an episode in a sci-fi action adventure series, but the Superior Spider-man arc gave the premise much more than a single episode to explore some of the potential of the premise. What happens when a super villain tries to turn over a new leaf? Does Spiderman still work as a character if he’s an arrogant tech millionaire like Iron Man, or for that matter, a ruthless proactive vigilante like Batman?

Eventually the status quo was restored but not before Otto had burned some bridges and also, perhaps, opened some doors for Spiderman and Peter Parker to develop and mature. With his new doctorate and proof-of-concept that he can do more with his mechanical skills than keep his web shooters in working order, Peter founds a tech start up and finally gets out of the struggling photo-journalist rut. And he can put those resources to good use helping a rookie friendly neighborhood spiderman.

More about that in Part II.

Kerey McKenna is a contributing reviewer to Nerds who Read and SMOF for the annual Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham, Massachusetts. Check it out at

Note: all art used belongs to its respective owners.

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