Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Climbing the Walls Part II: Other Web Slingers of Marvel

by Kerey McKenna.

Spiderman: Homecoming opened to a well-deserved first place at the box office last weekend. It's fun and I would certainly recommend it for some light summer entertainment.

As I noted in Part I of "Climbing the Walls," Peter Parker isn’t the only person to take on the great responsibility of donning a spider mask. Over the years, there have been female versions of the character (Jessica Drew: Spiderwoman, May Day Parker: Spider-Girl), Peter Parker clones (Ben Reilly: The Scarlet Spider), former adversaries turned to good (Doctor Otto Octavius: The Superior Spiderman), and even a Japanese Spiderman (Takuya Yamashiro: Supaidāman). In this part I wrap things up with two alternative spiders that are relatively new to the scene. Both have monthly comics still in print: Miles Morales and Spider-Gwen.

Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spiderman

In the early aughts Marvel created the “Ultimate line of comics” that would re-introduce flagship characters like Spiderman, the X-men, and the Avengers (re-dubbed the Ultimates) to a new, contemporary continuity less bogged down in decades of backstory. And because the Ultimate line wasn’t replacing the regular line and continuity, creative teams were encouraged to try new spins on classic characters in appearance, temperament, and origin.

Also, because there was greater creative liberty and the emphasis was on keeping the continuity streamlined (a losing battle, but they tried valiantly), death in the ultimate universe tended to be more permanent than in regular Marvel Books. So in 2011, Ultimate Spiderman Peter Parker was killed in action defending New York City.

Manhattan is apparently full of labs haphazardly irradiating spiders, because a new teen answers the call: Miles Morales. Of Afro-Caribbean American descent, Miles was able to put contemporary spin on life as a teen in metropolitan NYC.

Initially, the premise drew controversy from the portion of the fan base averse to change and willing to sacrifice at least two spider babies to preserve Spiderman as an eternal twentysomething. They were joined by culture commentators, many of whom hadn’t picked up a comic in years, or ever. The culture commentators assumed that a minority character taking up the mantle of a traditional white male protagonist is part of a sinister plot to do...something. Honestly that whole can of worms is probably a column in and of itself but suffice it to say I wasn’t particularly impressed with the “I’m not racist but...there can’t be a black spider-man” op-eds. The job for irrational hatred of Spiderman is filled quite ably by J. Jonah Jameson thank you very much...

The Ultimate Universe has run its course. Its role as the streamlined version of Marvel’s characters has been taken over by (more profitable) movie and TV projects. Yet despite the backlash from the culture critics, Miles has won over enough of the fan base that he is one of the few surviving legacies of Ultimate, long after it was discontinued.

Now that Miles occupies the same universe and NYC as a grown-up Peter Parker, Marvel might finally be able to strike a balance between teenage Spiderman stories and stories of a spiderman that is growing up and assuming more adult responsibilities. Previously Peter has been ping ponged between the two. I say let Peter Parker stay grown up (at least outside the movies) and leave the high school drama to Miles Morales and his new circle of friends, allies, and enemies.

Gwen Stacy: Spider-Gwen

Second only to the death of his beloved Uncle Ben, the tragedy of Gwen Stacy weighs heavily on Peter Parker’s conscience. Daughter of police chief Stacy, Gwen was a close friend of Peter and a rival to Mary Jane Watson for his affections. The love triangle came to a sudden and tragic end when Spiderman’s enemy the Green Goblin held Gwen hostage on top of the George Washington Bridge, threw her off, and Spiderman was unable to rescue her.

This death hung over Spiderman and his franchise for decades. Comics have teased at Gwen Stacy clones, or long lost children and mysterious resurrections. When Sam Raimi brought Spiderman to the big screen, he sent chills down the spines of long term fans by placing Mary Jane in the same precarious standoff at the bridge. Although Spiderman 3 introduced Gwen to moviegoers, The Amazing Spider-Man reboot movies went through with her death, surprising almost no one, and carrying almost no narrative weight.

But what if the script was flipped? What if Gwen Stacy was the friendly neighborhood webslinger and her friend Peter Parker was the Martyr?

In the Spider-Gwen universe, it is teenage Gwen Stacy who is bitten by the radioactive spider that fateful day, becoming “The Amazing Spider-Woman,” and Peter Parker who dies as a result of his ties to her super-heroics. Originally created as a one-off side character for the Spider-verse event, Spider-Gwen became a fan favorite and has been given her own regular series and fairly regular visits back into the mainstream Marvel Universe.

I get a kick out of Spider-Gwen because it’s constantly playing with the Marvel universe. Beyond who wound up with spider powers, Spider-Gwen’s alternate world isn’t a simple gender flipped or “evil” version of the Marvel universe. Its zigs and zags between similarity and difference are constantly playing with the readers’ expectations. Instead of the protector of Hell’s Kitchen, blind lawyer Matt “Daredevil” Murdock is its crime lord, the Kingpin. Yet Foggy Nelson, whom Marvel audiences would know as Matt’s partner, is still the same character: an honest attorney. Frank Castle still seeks to punish criminals but does so as a loose-cannon cop instead of a vigilante loosing cannon fire into the streets.

And Gwen herself is given a distinct identity beyond “Peter’s girlfriend who died tragically.” She’s part of an all-girl rock band with Mary Jane Watson. Although she doesn’t have the hard science chops of Peter or Miles, growing up as the daughter of a cop has given her insight into investigative skills and police procedure. Gwen’s “active wear” and different color palette are a distinctive twist on the spider costume that seems to be resonating with fans better than May Day Parker’s (which was a contemporary 90’s Spiderman costume but “filled out” in certain places).

 

So that’s my list, far from exhaustive, of other characters to spin a web of any size or capture crooks just like flies. Congratulations to Tom Holland and the Homecoming Team, but if ten years down the road, the powers that be at Marvel, Disney, and Sony decide they need another reboot, maybe they should keep one of these versions in mind.

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 www.watchcityfestival.com.

Note: all art used belongs to its respective owners.

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