Spencer: I’m pretty sure Spider-Man is the reason I’ve become sick and tired of origin stories; two different Spider-Man movies retelling the 3rd most famous origin in all of comics within the same decade is enough to turn anyone off origins. Robbie Thompson and Nick Bradshaw’s Spidey is smart enough to cut that origin down to a single page and move onto more interesting things, but it’s still caught up in one of the greatest issues plaguing all retellings and reboots; this is just a story I’ve seen a million times before.
Actually, there’s very little “story” within Spidey 1; Peter and his classmates are attacked by Doctor Octopus during a trip to Oscorp, and Spider-Man saves the day. It’s the simplest of Spider-Man tales, and while the simplicity of the plot does leave plenty of room to reintroduce much of Peter’s iconic supporting cast — Aunt May, Gwen Stacy, Flash Thompson, Harry Osborn — these aren’t exactly characters who need a big introduction.
I do think Thompson realizes that, though, and subtlety ends up being one of Spidey 1‘s greatest strengths. The only relationship Thompson spells out is Peter and Flash’s — when it comes to Peter and Sajani’s rivalry, or Peter’s crush on Gwen, or even Peter and Harry’s friendship, Thompson lets the readers learn about these relationships through the characters’ actions rather than through any extended exposition.
The true focus of Spidey, though, is on Peter as a character, and particularly on how much fun he’s having being Spider-Man.
This is just such a refreshing take on the character. In the past Peter has so often gotten caught up in melodrama, but while this Peter still has his problems, he’s also allowed to enjoy the extraordinary opportunities being Spider-Man has brought him, and that’s always something we could use more of in Spider-Man comics.
Bradshaw also brings a unique visual take to Peter, always making sure he looks like an actual teenager in all their gangly, tiny glory. This extends to the other teenage characters as well.
Harry’s nearly a full head shorter than his father, and Peter’s another half-a-head shorter than Harry — again, it’s refreshing to just see kids actually look like kids, and that’s a big part of Spidey‘s charm.
Another aspect of Bradshaw’s art that I love is the differences between his takes Peter and Spider-Man.
I don’t think I’d ever really noticed how effective Spider-Man’s full-face mask was before reading this issue. Not only does it completely obscure his identity, but it also hides his age, making Peter look much older and mature than he actually is. Peter Parker is clearly a teenager, but under Bradshaw’s pen, with that suit on he can legitimately pass as a Spider-Man. Putting on that mask has always been a bit of a transformative experience for Peter, but I appreciate how clearly the art here brings that concept to life.
Unfortunately, Bradshaw’s storytelling isn’t always as clear. I’m still not sure what Peter does to damage Ock’s arms during their battle — at the end of one page he shoots a web at Ock (who is off panel; we can’t see where, exactly, on Ock’s person he’s aiming), and on the next page Peter’s holding a sparking wire while, on the other side of the room, Ock’s arms have taken massive damage. What did Peter do to Ock? Webbing alone shouldn’t have shorted his arms like that, and there’s no logical sequence of events where Peter could have shocked Ock with the wire (which he never does use on panel), or, at least, there’s no sequence of events that could have played out between those two panels. It’s perhaps the most pivotal moment of the fight, so it’s beyond frustrating for the actual action involved to be so murky.
There’s no singular moment that frustrating on the writing side of the equation — Spidey 1 is charming and solidly written from beginning to end — the problem is just that I’ve read this story so many times already. I’ve seen “Peter Parker in high school” at least half a dozen times now, and Thompson doesn’t add anything new to the scenario — with continuity being what it is, he likely can’t. Not even the cliffhanger can build any real excitement — the arrival of the Green Goblin was always inevitable, and his future seems equally inevitable (sorry, Gwen). Yawn.
The only interesting addition to these stories is the existence of modern technology. This leads to some fun jokes that are also surprisingly fitting — yeah, if smartphones existed when Peter was a teenager, of course he would post humiliating selfies of the crooks he defeated — but it’s not a strong enough concept to rest an entire series on. Moreover, this just raises more questions about the setting and the Marvel timeline — at best, shouldn’t a teenage Peter Parker at the dawn of the Marvel universe have a flip-phone, or an old Nokia?
For most Spider-Man fans, Spidey is pure comfort food — it’s pleasant and comfortable, and generally well-executed, but fails to offer anything new or take any risks. I actually forgot everything that happened in this issue in the two days between my first and second reading, and that’s never a good sign. Spidey 1 would be the perfect book for kids or brand new Spider-Man fans, but even then, there are probably better options available (such as Ultimate Spider-Man, which shares many of Spidey‘s strengths, but went much more in-depth with its storytelling). I would love to see Thompson and Bradshaw’s take on Peter in some legitimate adventures, but I don’t think we’ll be seeing much more than fluff and filler in Spidey.
Drew, what say you? Do you think Spidey can be something more than it was in this issue? Do you think that even matters?
Drew: I’m honestly not sure Spidey can be much more than this. When this series was announced, I imagined it more in the vein of those Amazing Spider-Man 700.# Marvel ran back in 2013 — that is, continuity-free stories that take the character back to his roots. Those were a lot of fun, and seemed like the best way for Marvel to have its cake and eat it, too: there’d still be the ongoing story in Amazing Spider-Man for those who want the character to progress, while this series would allow writers to riff on “classic” Spider-Man for those who miss the stories of a teen trying to juggle life with his superhero responsibilities. I hate to hold what I thought this series would be against it, but I think this illustrates the difference between “familiar stories” and “all-out retreads.”
Spencer, you call this comfort food, but I’d argue that this is more like some well-meaning chef radically re-imagining your favorite comfort food. It still has all of the empty calories that make comfort foods a guilty pleasure, but none of the childhood associations that make it comforting in the first place. That’s not to say that Spidey is radically re-imagined, just that its goals of giving us the same story with a new twist seem at odds with one another.
I think the question of who this series is for is an interesting one, and I think you’re right to suggest that it’s best for folks who are totally new to the character. The problem is, that’s a weird little niche to appeal to when your character is one of the most recognizable superheroes in the world. It’s hard to imagine someone who doesn’t know the ultimate fates of Norman Osborn, Gwen Stacey, or any of the other characters this series will continue to introduce — at least, it’s hard to imagine someone who doesn’t know those things and would also be interested in picking up a monthly series out of the blue. This may have avoided origin syndrome for Spider-Man, but it’s still got it pretty bad for anyone else who might show up.
For me, though, the biggest problem is that that origin syndrome is compounded with the fatalism of being a prequel. We know who survives, who dies, who becomes a villain, and who becomes a hero, not just because they’ve done it before, but because the ending is already prescribed by the Marvel Universe as it appears in Amazing Spider-Man. This series is necessarily predictable in ways that even the Amazing Spider-Man films weren’t. Whatever surprises this series might hold can’t be enough to rock the boat of really any of the other Spider-Man books. An straight-up, back-to-zero Spider-Man series might have worked in the wake of Secret Wars (though, as Spencer points out, we kind of already did that with Ultimate Spider-Man), but doing that while also keeping him older and more established elsewhere seems like the worst of both worlds. These aren’t new Spider-Man comics, they’re redrawn summaries of old ones.
Those sound like harsh words, but really, the parts of this story that we’ve seen before distract from those we haven’t. Maybe it’s not possible to tell a story about teenage Peter Parker without including Gwen Stacey and Harry Osborn, but their eventual fates distract from whatever role they’re meant to play here. They’re too trapped in their own histories to really act as characters. Their inclusion makes this issue less about Peter learning to “never give up” and more about remembering when these characters were all alive and innocent. The thing is, we don’t need new comics to remember old ones — certainly not now that their stories are apparently written in stone.
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