Most discussions about the ideal direction of the Spider-Man comics are based on the assumption that the private life of the guy behind the mask (usually Peter Parker) is important. But some readers ask why it’s so essential for him to have an interesting personal life at all. Why not just focus on the superhero action, possibly leaving the compelling private life to the supporting cast? Why should there be any issue to issue subplots at all?
One argument goes that since Spider‑Man’s superhero activities are infinitely more interesting than Peter’s personal problems, writers wouldn’t need to concern themselves with the Parker stuff, or which status quo would make his life the most interesting in the long term. All that matters for the stories is the quality of the main plots, in which Spider-Man faces some sort of great challenge. Peter’s problems are just decorative.
Some of these readers still seem to be motivated by a preference for a particular status quo, but this isn’t always the case. If all you care about is the superhero side of things, it has to be annoying when stories like One More Day are done to change the components of Peter Parker’s relationships, when the writers and artists could just have Spider-Man fight the Sinister Six instead.
Spider‑Man’s an excellent superhero, so the argument is understandable. He’s got a great costume, an excellent rogues gallery (either the best, or second only to the Batman books, depending on who you ask) and a unique set of special abilities, like spider‑sense, web‑swinging, wall‑crawling, et cetera. Plus, he plays off well against other heroes. That allows for awesome battles, and riveting rescue sequences, especially during the times his abilities fail him, such as when he runs out of webbing, when he can’t stick to the wall of a skyscraper, when an enemy somehow bypasses his spider sense, etc. Meanwhile, if the supporting cast isn’t the best, it’s second only to the Batman books.
However, Spider‑Man is one of the books where his personal life is as important as the superhero action. Bruce Wayne is Batman first. Clark Kent is Superman, to the extent that Kent is arguably the disguise. But Spider-Man is Peter Parker. It’s one reason for the continued appeal and success of the character. Something important would be lost if anyone tried to tell stories without it.
Years ago, Sam Raimi was chosen to direct the Spider‑Man movies over more high‑profile and bankable directors eager for the job, because he was one of the few who understood that it should be as much about Peter Parker as it was about Spider‑Man. A major reason the resulting films were astoundingly successful was that Peter Parker was so appealing, and the viewers were interested in what would happen next with the character.
The superhero part’s an important aspect of the character’s success, and I hope that the future writers can present it just as well as Stan Lee, Roger Stern, Mark Millar and J Michael Straczynski, but you’re not going to have the best possible Spider‑Man stories unless Peter’s in a more interesting place.
Many of the best Spider-Man stories have been about how being Spider-Man affected Peter Parker. “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” would not have had the impact if the Green Goblin’s hostage had no connection to Peter Parker. The Master Planner saga has some extra oomph because Peter was fighting for the life of a loved one. Kraven’s Last Hunt showed the effect his disappearance had on Mary Jane. Key moments in the Sin-Eater saga involved attacks on Peter’s friends and coworkers. These stories all had a long-term impact.
A variation of the argument was that Peter Parker’s not that important was the suggestion that Marvel could splinter the various aspects of his private life across multiple monthly titles. JR Fettinger summed it up in.
I remember back in college when it was just Amazing and Spectacular – two different writers were deliberately taking different approaches to the character. Roger Stern in Amazing focused on the garish superheroes, primarily the Hobgoblin, and Peter David tried to tell darker, grittier, street-level dramas. Originally when the 4th title, simply called Spider-Man came out it really wasn’t supposed to be tightly woven into the regular continuity – but kind of be an entity to itself, mostly a plaything for Todd McFarlane. At another time, Spectacular routinely featured the Black Cat as Spidey’s partner, whereas her appearances in Amazing were very limited. That probably should have been the approach taken with Mary Jane. One title could have focused more on Peter’s relationship with MJ outside of the spandex, whereas another title could have spent more time with the Daily Bugle staff.
With this approach, Mary Jane wouldn’t even need to appear in every Spider-Man story or title. It would take longer for writers to run out of ideas for the marriage. While the move would give 3-4 Spider-man titles separate identities, it would prevent any one book from featuring his private life in its entirety. No one monthly could feature everything people like about the character. This restricts the ability of the writers to tell a story that encompasses the disparate parts of Spider-Man’s identity, such as an accurate “Day in the life” tale.
I’ll look at potential schedules in more depth later, but it can also be argued that the current comics environment doesn’t support several splintered monthlies with one lead. What worked in the 1970s may not be a viable option in the current market, where books are sold as single issues and as chapters of trade paperbacks. There are still a few satellite books, but there’s one title where we see the major parts of Peter Parker’s story.
With Marvel Team-Up and the latest iteration Avenging Spider-Man, Marvel sometimes focuses almost entirely on the superhero action. This way, readers who want to see Spider-Man fighting with and against people with super-powers will have a book available that doesn’t focus on the private life. But that aspect is still important in the lead title. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.