Spider-Man and Soap Operas

A related point to the claim that Spider-Man should not be like Archie is that the title should not be like a soap opera. It’s worth noting that when some detractors denigrate the “soap opera” aspects of the Spider-Man comics, they’re referring to something that’s part of high culture as well as low culture. There have been romantic triangles in War and PeaceThe Brothers Karmarazov, The Great Gatsby and Madame Bovary, as well as great films like CasablancaGone With the Wind, and The Graduate, all of which top “Best of” lists.

While Spider-Man can’t be like the Archie comics, since those require a stable status quo, it is worth noting the debt that the book does owe to Archie. The entire romance comics boom of the 1950s started when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby looked at the Archie Comics, and the various imitators, and decided to play it straight, a tale recounted by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey in The Comic Book History of Comics. So whereas Archie trying to choose between Betty and Veronica was meant to be funny, these new comics played it straight. And there was one artist who got his start with the material.

John Romita Sr. became one of the most successful romance artists. And when he replaced Steve Ditko on The Amazing Spider-Man, the series took off. It became Marvel’s biggest hit, overtaking The Fantastic Four. Peter’s tumultuous love life had been part of the book under Ditko, where Betty Brant was often jealous of Liz Allen. But it was under Romita that it really did become like a romance comic. As well as Marvel’s top title. Of course there was the difference between romance comics and superhero comics—the characters stuck around and kept going.

Having Peter involved in interesting prolonged arcs is crucial to his drawing power. So-called soap opera elements were essential to Spider‑Man’s success, and are important in keeping Peter Parker’s life interesting. Most superheroes have a default status quo. Bruce Wayne is Batman with Alfred as his trusty butler and James Gordon as Gotham City’s trusted commissioner. There may be a few (mostly interchangeable) Robins around, but that’s usually not essential. Superman is a reporter for the Daily Planet, while his coworkers are Jimmy Olsen, Lois Lane and Perry White. The Fantastic Four are Reed Richards, Johnny Storm, Susan Storm Richards and Ben Grimm.

There are other variations, but these could be window dressing, to be corrected soon enough when the earlier status quo is restored to the default setting. So Black Panther and Storm may temporarily replace Reed and Sue on the Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man may take over for the Human Torch until he comes back from the dead. Someone else may become Gotham City’s police commissioner after James Gordon is framed for larceny, but that situation will be resolved pretty quickly.

Spider-Man doesn’t really have a default status quo. The first few years featured Peter Parker in high school. Then he went to college. Then he went to Grad School. Then he quit Grad School. Now he’s at Horizon Labs. The variety is one of the most engaging things about the character. It also makes the character poorly suited for an approach that requires complete consistency.

Romita

Peter Parker represents the best secret identity of any superhero. He’s brilliant, often witty (hilarious actually), wracked by guilt and a bit flawed (sometimes selfish and angry) although he still has an excellent moral code, along with a tragic and perfect motivation. The question of whether Peter Parker or Spider‑Man is more compelling is a meaningless one, as no superhero book has such a perfect merging of secret identity and alter ego (Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Matt Murdock come close). The Spider‑Man stories are why you start reading, and the Peter Parker stories are why you keep reading year after year.

This could contradict the argument that what made Spider-Man unique was that he wasn’t the typical lead.  What made him unique in the Lee/ Ditko period is that he was unlucky with girls. The Lee/ Romita Spider-Man still had problems, but he was a lot less lonely.

It suggests there are three different approaches to Spider-Man’s love life, which corresponds to the most popular Spider-Man artists. The Lee/ Ditko Peter Parker was the opposite of the Kennedy Men. The Lee/ Romita Peter Parker had to undergo the torment of choosing between at least two beautiful women. The Michelinie/ McFarlane Peter Parker had settled down with the love of his life.

There was one suggestion that would allow Marvel to publish at least two of these types of books.

The Infinite Spider-Man is a series of mini-essays regarding Marvel’s options for the future of the best character in comics.

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About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. Currently, I’m writing a few comic books about my grandparents’ experiences in Soviet Estonia for Grayhaven comics. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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