One time when I was in high school, I was walking to the subway with Charles, a classmate, and made a detour at St. Mark’s Comics for the latest issue of Spider-Man. Charles had a question that made me think about my hobby: What stories were left for a character who had been around for so long? What was the point of reading Spider-Man, as opposed to series (he liked manga) that hadn’t been consistently published for decades, where the possibilities within the core concept had yet to be exhausted? That was the day Peter Parker Spider-Man #20, the first issue of Paul Jenkins’s run, came out. So there was plenty of good material material left.
It’s easy to come up with new smaller-scale stories for Spidey. Writers could deal with some contemporary event. Peter Parker attends a memorial for Aaron Swartz. They could look at older events through a modern lens. Peter Parker wonders if he ever mansplained things to Gwen Stacy. They could also pit him against new character introduced in other Marvel titles. Spider-Man VS Coyote from Daredevil. Spider-Man VS the Godkiller from Thor God of Thunder. And they could always introduce new characters. Peter Parker gets a Paleo coworker. Spider-Man fights a villain who uses 3D printers for nefarious purposes.
Let’s assume that someone who was paid to come up with new adventures for Spider-Man would have slightly better ideas. If so, you can certainly have 12 issues worth of material each year for relatively insignificant Spider-Man stories, the type that Len Wein’s run of Amazing Spider-Man consisted of. The difficulty is in coming up with more of the consequential stories that had come to define the series. This applies to characters in never-ending action series, mostly superheroes, James Bond and the Doctor. They will find themselves in crazy situations. Sometimes it will get bad. Sometimes they’ll be put through hell.
They will experience more tragedies. Bad things will happen to Peter Parker’s loved ones, James Bond’s coworkers and the Doctor’s companions. The writers, actors, directors and artists will try to find ways to convince readers that this time the situation is worse than it has ever been before. Somehow, this new situation is more intense. They won’t always succeed. But sometimes it works.
From a list of the best Spider-Man stories, 18 were released after Charles asked why I still bought Spider-Man comics. Granted, a few of those were straightforward remakes of earlier stories (Ultimate Spider-Man #1-7, Spider-Man: Blue) and there were a handful of “final” Spider-Man stories on the list (Spider-Man: Reign, The Death of Ultimate Spider-Man.) There were also appearances by new villains (Massacre, Morlun) and four battles against Norman Osborn. So the hero who was introduced in Amazing Fantasy #15 is able to face new challenges, as well as variations of scenarios that had been done before (IE- Spider-Man VS Shocker, Spider-Man VS Norman Osborn & Venom.)
It’s one thing when Spider-Man faces a serious challenge in a self-contained story, such as when JMS and John Romita Jr. pit him against Morlun, or when Mark Waid and Marcos Martin featured a daring rescue of subway passengers endangered by the Shocker. A few issues later, the villain is defeated and the hero has recovered.
It’s different when something happens to shake up the series. JMS ended his Morlun arc with Aunt May finding Peter seriously injured, passed out in bed wearing a torn Spider-Man costume. She went on to marry one of the passengers Spidey rescued from the Shocker. The Spider-Man Unmasked era was one development that affected each of the titles. The new Superior Spider-Man era is another, changing the direction of Avenging Spider-Man, and The Avengers.
Some of these changes stick. Some get reversed, and some get retconned. But it all remains part of the character’s history, for the writers and readers to navigate through. That also complicates matters, when you realize all that a long-standing character has been through. All of the exploits add up.
In a perverse way, traumatic experiences can be worse than death. Characters who are killed off are likely to return, when it’s revealed that they faked their death, or that a supervillain did it as part of an elaborate plot. And there won’t be much need for writers to mention this in later stories. In the last five years of Spider-Man comics, all the times that Aunt May or Mary Jane were believed dead haven’t been referenced.
Traumas however can remain defining aspects of the protagonists and members of the ensemble. This is probably why readers are so opposed to a relationship between Mary Jane and Spock. If Mary Jane is killed off, she can be expected to come back. Severe anguish, as would occur were she is seduced by a supervillain pretending to be her husband, can remain a part of both characters’ backstory.
When heroes in novels, films and television series with definitive endings face tremendous challenges that push them to their limits, there will eventually be a point when the story ends. There may still be adversity in the character’s future, but it will never be as bad. We know what they achieved through their triumph. As long as there are Spider-Man comics, Peter Parker won’t have that luxury. Anything he has won can be taken away.
The methods of reassuring readers aren’t particularly worthwhile. Spider-Man’s story could come to an end, although it hasn’t yet been clear that the series will end happily for the hero. Writers could decide to stick to a consistent status quo, never pushing the character too hard. This would reassure readers that previous changes will stick, but it doesn’t make the book particularly interesting. The problem with satellite books and untold tales would now be extended to the main title, when none of the stories seem to matter.
As long as the series continues, the hero has to keep struggling. And there has to be the possibility that what’s coming next is worse than what’s come before.