At least five comic books constitute additions to the Western Canon: Watchmen, Calvin & Hobbes, Peanuts, Maus and Amazing Fantasy #15, if not the first 67 or so issues of Amazing Spider-Man as well. As this essay touches on the appeal of the character and the series, hyperbolic terms such as excellent, best and greatest are going to be thrown around a lot. As should be the case when we’re talking about Spider-Man.
The character is probably the best in comics, topping even Scrooge McDuck. While Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis is hardly in a position to be objective on the matter, I think he was absolutely correct to compare writing Ultimate Spider-Man to adapting a Shakespeare play; Peter Parker has enduring appeal on par with iconic figures like Macbeth and Hamlet. He is the lead of a story which has been ongoing since June 5 1962 and successfully retold in various formats. The core is just so brilliant: an intelligent, likable and witty young man atones for an early screw up at great cost to himself, unable to articulate his inner dilemma to the outside world.
And then there’s all the other stuff that works so effectively. Marvel Manhattan is simply the best fictional setting in any work of speculative fiction. If the Rogues Gallery isn’t the greatest, it’s up there, competing with Batman, Doctor Who and maybe Dick Tracy. Likewise if the supporting cast isn’t the absolute best in the comics medium, they merit an honorable mention. The power-set (super-strength, webbing, spider-sense, etc.) is perfect for an action series in a visual medium.
Several years ago, I wrote a series of essays for another website about Marvel’s choices going forward with the Spider-Man franchise. This was before the One More Day storyline, in which Spider-Man’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson was essentially erased. The options, as I saw it at the time, included maintaining the status quo, giving Peter & MJ a child, divorce, the death of Mary Jane, ending the Marvel Universe, and variations of the magic retcon. JR Fettinger (AKA Madgoblin of the Spidey Kicks Butt website) praised it somewhat, writing in his take on One More Day that “Mr. Mets penned several essays cumulatively called Spider-Man Forever that take an anti-marriage position in a reasonable and non-condescending manner.”
Others correctly noted that I have no life.
I decided to rewrite the series for another website, as it was somewhat out of date years after One More Day, with over a hundred issues of practical applications of what was once theoretical. New arguments had arisen and new issues had been considered. As the Brand New Day era gave way to the Big Time era, Alex Alonso became Editor in Chief of Marvel and Joe Quesada—the driving force behind Spider-Man’s new direction—became Chief Creative Officer. And frankly, some of my writing at the time sucked. As a result, there were some changes in terms of structure and points of contention. The second draft is available at spidermanreviews.com.
I’m posting a third draft here, with some edits, mainly for practical reasons. I don’t want web hosting to be dependent on someone else’s decisions, and I’ve had some formatting issues when editing older entries on blogger, the hosting service used by Spider-Man Reviews. With Amazing Spider-Man coming to an end in a few months, to be replaced by a Superior Spider-Man title, it feels like an appropriate time for what should be a final draft.
The series was originally called Spider-Man Forever, which now has slightly different connotations, due to the X-Men Forever books a few years back. The approach with that line was to allow acclaimed writers to return to series they had once left, to take the title in a different direction from their point of departure. Considering the occasional discussions on message boards over whether there should be a Spider-Man Forever series to showcase whatever direction the readers would have liked the writers to explore, giving this essay a similar title might be misleading. Especially since it’s possible Marvel might one day release such a title, a topic which will be addressed later.
New titles I considered for the essay included the Enduring Spider-Man, the Accelerating Spider-Man, Spider-Man Accelerating, the Effective Spider-Man and whatever terms came up when I looked up words like advancing, forward, momentum and progressive in a thesaurus. I settled on Infinite, given what it suggests about a character with more than fifty years of successful publication, without the loss of almost unlimited potential.
It also echoes what Harold Bloom said of Hamlet, one of Spidey’s competitors for the title of best fictional character:
Here is a bewildering range of freedoms available to Hamlet: he could marry Ophelia, ascend to the throne after Claudius if waiting was bearable, cut Claudius down at almost any time, leave for Wittenberg without permission, organize a coup (being the favorite of the people) or even devote himself to botching plays for the theater. Like his father, he could center upon being a soldier, akin to the younger Fortinbras, or conversely he can turn his superb mind to more organized speculation, philosophical or hermetic, than has been his custom. Ophelia describes him, in her lament for his madness, as having been courtier, soldier and scholar, the exemplar of form and fashion in all of Denmark. If the Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is Poem unlimited, beyond genre and rules, then its protagonist is character unlimited, beyond even such precursors as the biblical David or the classical Brutus. But how many freedoms can be afforded Hamlet in a tragic play? What project can be large enough to contain him?
Poor Hamlet was a protagonist of infinite potential, constrained by the demands of his genre. There are similar conflicts with Spider-Man, constrained by the requirements of superhero comics that function as never-ending serials.
I began work on the first version of this essay a few years ago, due to a slight dissatisfaction over the shape of the Spider-Man books, and the questions of where the series should go and what needed fixing.