Why Good Writers Aren’t Enough

Many fans viewed any fix of the Spider‑Man books circa 2006 as unnecessary, arguing that the only thing the book requires is a good writer, who can make any status quo compelling. In this case, if a decade of Peter and Mary Jane being married became tiresome, that was the fault of the writers for not making it interesting. If Spider-Man’s unmasking changed the tone of the book, the problem is with the creative team. If Aunt May’s death means that something is missing from the books, a clever writer should be able to come up with an alternative.

It’s probably the most common argument I’ve heard against any change to the series, especially the idea that Spider-Man should be single. There are a few shortcomings to this position, which can sometimes be used for veiled (and sometimes not so veiled) personal attacks. One assumption made by a few proponents of the “good writers argument” is that the writers who dislike the marriage do so because they don’t understand how to write compelling women, due to a lack of the necessary skill or experience.

This can only be interpreted as a personal or professional insult against the writer, implying that every professional who prefers Peter Parker to be single is either untalented or socially retarded. This denigrates the excellent writers who were opposed to the marriage, including Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern, Ed Brubaker and even Quesada, whose “The Mask in the Iron Man” arc was pretty damn good.


There are other insulting claims against professionals who disagreed with a few fans regarding the direction of the series, such as the suggestion that the writers, readers and editors who want Peter Parker to be single wish to live vicariously through him. If that were the case, I’d imagine we’d want him to remain married to the gorgeous supermodel actress redhead. He also wouldn’t ever get his ass kicked. “Unscheduled Stop,” the various Gauntlet stories and Amazing Spider-Man #698 were not written by anyone who wishes to experience what Spidey goes through.

Some have argued that most of the opponents of the marriage lack a respect for the institution, though if word of that got out, it might result in Joe Quesada getting smacked by his wife. The general rule is that what is best in a work of fiction is not necessarily what we would prefer in real life.

Almost as silly is the argument that writers supported the retcon because they’re lazy, given the work required to pull it off, and the initial uncertainty of whether the readers will accept it. The difficulties continue for Dan Slott and Chris Yost. It was challenging to come up with a reason for a character not accustomed with magic to encounter an individual with the ability and desire to change reality so that the protagonist is he’s no longer married to the love of his life. But it’s going to be much more challenging for the writers to develop new romantic interests who will inevitably be compared to Mary Jane. Lazy writers would go for the cheap applause by reuniting the couple, keep the two married, exhaust the good “married Spider-Man” stories as quickly as possible and probably start giving the supporting cast the interesting private lives.

It also seems that many supporters of the marriage believe that Joe Quesada’s been the only significant Marvel employee opposed to the marriage. I admit I grew to like the idea of a break-up while he was EIC, but that was when I realized that it could be done without a divorce or the death of a beloved character, both of which I found to be unacceptable alternatives. Roger Stern, Kurt Busiek and Mark Waid had expressed their opposition earlier. I don’t see how Joe Quesada’s opinion on the marriage should have any impact on whether the writers handle it well, unless he was ordering them to not portray the relationship in an interesting manner. As some of the best stories with the marriage have come after Straczynski reunited the couple, I would imagine that such an order was ignored.

Good writers would tell good stories with the marriage, and have done so in the past. Look at Millar’s run on Marvel Knights Spider-Man, Matt Fraction’s Sensational Spider-Man annual or JMS’s Amazing Spider-Man, in addition to older material by Dematteis and Michelinie. Due to the increased availability of hundreds of good Spider‑Man stories for the average reader, just “good” isn’t going to cut it for new material, when readers are paying four bucks for something that will take the majority less than ten minutes to read. The relevant questions are whether good writers would be able to tell better stories if Peter Parker were not married to Mary Jane and whether the benefits of keeping the marriage surpass the benefits of getting rid of it.

Many of the problems with the marriage have nothing to do with the quality of the writers. As Peter Parker has a supportive wife, any attempt to shake up the status quo or move the series into a new direction will need to affect her too, which will cause events to be more extreme and add up fairly obviously. There are less private conflicts available than there are for a single Spider-Man. It will be a herculean effort to convince readers that Peter and Mary Jane may not be together at year’s end, especially without repeating the stories that have already been done (Peter and Mary Jane are separated, Mary Jane is believed dead, etc).

Even if the “good writers” argument is correct, it doesn’t mean Marvel was wrong to do away with the marriage, or to retcon any other developments in the series. If you don’t believe that the pre-OMD writers on the Spider‑Man books (JMS, Bendis, Millar, Slott, Jenkins, PAD, etc) were good, you’ve got a bit of a problem as they’re considered to be among the best in the industry. It’s unreasonable to assume that we’ll suddenly find better or more competent writers as very few would fit the criteria. The exception would be if you have unconventional tastes, which means the guys you’d prefer are simply not commercial.

If there are so few good writers, Peter’s marital status should be whatever makes storytelling easier for the current and future incompetent creative teams to give the series any shot at surviving. In addition, if there are so few good writers out there, it would be selfish and bad business sense to put them all on Spider-Man titles. Surely other series need their talents more.

By the writer’s imagination argument, they should be able to work with any limitation. So if Alonso decrees that the only supervillain Spider-Man can fight is the Vulture, the writers shouldn’t complain. Solid writers could probably do good stuff for a while, regardless of the constraints (IE- if they were told that they can’t use webbing, and/or can’t use any Lee/Ditko villains, and/or can’t have use any of the Daily Bugle supporting cast) but that hardly serves as a justification for narrowing their options.

They should tell better work, and more of it, if given more storytelling possibilities. And it’ll probably encourage them to stay on the title longer, when there are more stories to tell. Some of the problems won’t be solved by switching writers. If Writer A shakes up the status quo every now and then by jeopardizing Mary Jane, the next guy will be less able to do so as he can’t really repeat anything Writer A has done, or the stuff that’s already happened to the couple (Mary Jane leaves Peter to find herself, MJ gets pregnant.) If somehow I was given the opportunity to write Spider-Man comics after Peter and Mary Jane’s marriage was restored, I’d take the job in a heartbeat. As every now and then readers should be convinced that Peter Parker may not have a loving, supportive and gorgeous wife at his side at the end of the issue, arc or year, I’d occasionally shake things up in that department.

I might have one year in which Mary Jane disappears without a trace with no warning of any sorts, followed by two years of the couple being relatively happy and stable, followed by one year of Mary Jane getting progressively sicker for an initially unknown reason, followed by one year of the couple being relatively happy and stable, followed by one year of Peter sending Mary Jane into hiding, as he deals with a grave threat who wouldn’t hesitate to use her against him. It’s not a great long term strategy, as eventually this stuff would add up, especially with everything else that’s already happened to the couple.

Some options close more doors than they open. The marriage was an example. It doesn’t take away from Peter’s character. Nor is it against his character to get married. But it’s something which limits the writers, which is why it was a problem, even if all the writers are talented and capable of circumventing it.

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


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. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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