Today, Ryan M. and Drew are discussing Spider-Man 1, originally released February 3rd, 2016.
Ryan: The danger of starting your story with a climactic image and then jumping back in time is that it can displace interest. At best, it builds anticipation. At worst, it feels like a bait and switch. It’s like when a friend starts a story with “Did I ever tell you about the time I made out with a mime in Vegas?” and then proceeds to tell you details about how she booked her hotel room. By getting me too invested in the end of the story, you’ve diminished my interest in the preamble. At that point, I’m just listening for mime specifics that indicate we’re getting to the good stuff.
Spider-Man 1 doesn’t have any mime makeouts, but the issue opens with a striking image of the Avengers fallen at the feet of a big ugly Demon and a diminutive Spider-Man building his courage to face him alone. Then, we go back several hours to spend seemingly endless morning with Miles at school as he deals with all of the ways he is disappointing the people in his life. The girl he stood up for a date won’t even let him finish his lame excuse before she stalks off, his mom is on him about his grades, he hasn’t done the reading for class and even his best friend is dismayed with his choice in girls. Just when it seems like Miles can’t do anything right, he hears sirens in the distance and dons his Spider-Man suit. Instantly, the narrative has a verve and excitement that was missing in the school interlude. Writer Brian Michael Bendis and Artist Sarah Pichelli turn the mullish teen into a dynamic and funny figure who saves buses full of kids and bravely faces down Blackheart. As Spider-Man, Miles becomes the kind of kid you want to read a series about.
Miles is so passive in his real life, that the narrative is bogged down. It’s a weird dichotomy, because the things that make him a less than engaging protagonist are also the elements that make him feel like a real teenager. There is an opacity of intention. What does Miles the high schooler want? The only desire he expresses is that he wanted to make out with Julie. While this is understandable (the girl rocks suspenders like a boss), it doesn’t really offer any insight to his character. Miles doesn’t really do anything in this sequence. He is completely reactive, and getting more and more visibly strained by the waves of let-down women who let Miles know he has failed them. The only real levity Bendis and Pichelli offer during the school day are brief playful panels interspersed with people asking Miles what he was up to in lieu of his responsibilities.
Pichelli does an excellent job contrasting the internal image of a proud Spider-man with a puffed-out chest and open body language with the real Miles. The sadness and isolation of Miles in the second panel above is visceral. The images switch abruptly from the cartoonish style of the first panel to the realism of the classroom. We have a trio of swooning girls with literal hearts in the their eyes in his mind, while in reality, every woman he knows is angry with him. Aside from his school life and his daydream, we get to see a third reality for Miles once he hears the sound of an alarm.
The transition is handled with a spread that takes us from the classroom to the city streets. On the left side above, Miles speaks in single words. It isn’t until we see see his thoughts in red that he expresses anything complex. He is in hero mode and it seems to turn him into a much more observant, engaged individual. Most of the panels are separated with the sound of the alarm but once Spider-Man gets to the fire truck, the sound quiets. As he tells himself to focus and starts to rally his confidence, his body language and that moment of stillness helps build our confidence in him.
Miles’ grace and instinctive fluidity in the suit further draw a contrast with his more passive “real” life. As Spider-Man, he doesn’t fumble with how to respond, he takes action without any angst or second-guessing. In one of my favorite moments in the issue, Miles catches a glimpse of Cap’s shield lying on the battlefield, he no sooner asks himself if he should than he takes the shield. His lack of hesitancy speaks to a much different boy than the one we see moving through his school life like a victim of circumstance. Even in the face a bunch of fallen Avengers, there is joy in Miles when he attacks and defeats Blackheart. It’s almost a shame that the issue ends with someone else looking at him with disappointment.
Drew, what did you think of the issue? Was pacing as much of an issue for your or were you more engaged by Miles’ school day? Given Miles’ efficiency and success at defeating the threat, how quickly will Senior Spider-Man’s lecture run out of steam? Also, how hard do you think it is to clean spider goo off a shield?
Ryan, I think your assessment of this issue’s pacing is spot-on; Miles is an absolute joy in costume, but a passive chump in his civvies. Those high school scenes stop the story cold, opting for the broadest strokes of Miles’ life, but, as you point out, they all end up hitting the same notes: he disappoints the women in his life because of his Spider-Man responsibilities. I think there might be some fun autobiographical subtext here — Miles’ responsibilities standing in for Bendis’ prolific writing output — but making that point three times in a row is overkill.
I understand the desire to get us up to speed on all corners of Miles’ non-costumed life — romance, friendship, family, and school — but all of these scenes contribute to the same portrait of a passive, almost listless teen. Introducing four different relationships is a great way to show four different sides of the character (though might be ambitious for one issue), giving us a sense of his emotional range, but that’s an opportunity Bendis completely misses. Instead, Miles’ penchant for disappointing everyone in his life is drilled into us, begging the obvious question of why anyone has high expectations of him in the first place — this is apparently his resting state, not the result of any new, unusual circumstance.
It’s tough — a passive, mild-mannered alter-ego is such a given in comics, we might take it for granted. For me, it emphasizes the fantasy nature of Miles’ costumed adventuring, such that a passive, mild-mannered reader might see it as their own escape. But, the hero can’t actually be passive and mild-mannered. We need to know that Superman would show this bully what’s what if he weren’t trying to maintain his cover. The tension between what the hero wants to do and what he has to do is essential to making those non-costumed adventures anything but boring. This issue lays no clear motives for Miles, which is odd, given Bendis’ engaging use of narration in the back half of the issue. Why not just have Miles tell us what he wants?
I don’t mean to advocate for “tell, don’t show,” but after eight pages of Bendis dialogue, we know more about what the world thinks about our hero than what he thinks about himself. Which I guess is getting at another diagnosis: this issue is too interested in its own banter to make way for actual storytelling. That’s a common refrain when discussing a Bendis book, but the strength of the issue with Miles’ narration actually makes the case for Bendis’ handle on Miles voice — he just needs to make room for it. Since so many of the scenes in this issue are largely articulating the same point, anyway, they could have easily been altered (or excised) to make room for explicating Miles’ interests and desires. As it is, the uneven distribution of narration leaves Miles’ non-costumed exploits decidedly lifeless.
I always struggle in assessing first issues, as introductions are necessarily incomplete (and often a little boring). Bendis manages to cram in a survey of all of Miles’ most important relationships –he even gets Peter in just under the wire — but the quantity of those introductions undermines their quality. It leaves a big hole in the center of this issue. It’s a hole that can (and, I’m cautiously optimistic, will) be filled as the series progresses, but as it is, this issue isn’t quite the introduction to Miles I was hoping it would be.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?