Youth VS Power and Responsibility

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One disagreement over the Spider-Man series deals with the hero’s perceived youth, and the degree to which it defines the series. Some detractors have claimed that since One More Day, the character has become a man-child. A few years ago, Tom Brevoort, then-Executive Editor of the Spider-Man books, said that youth is the most important part of Spider-Man’s appeal, greater than “with great power comes great responsibility.” There’s been an argument that this mentality represents a problem for Marvel and the Spider-Man books, though I largely agree with what Brevoort said.

Most of the best comic book series are about something–something that may not factor into every single last adventure, but which is the underpinning of the series as a whole. Fantastic Four is about family. X-Men is about prejudice. Batman is about revenge. And Spider-Man is about youth.

Youth is the element that defined Spider-Man back in the days when he was created, the thing that separated him from all of the other competing superhuman crime-fighters and made him unique. Whereas up till that time, teen-agers in comics had been relegated to being either junior-sized reflections of their mentors, or simple sidekicks, Spider-Man was the one series in which a teen-ager was the hero, was the lead. And that influenced everything about the series, gave it its heart. As Steve Ditko once pointed out, being High School age meant that it was acceptable for Peter Parker to screw up, to make mistakes and learn from them, in a way that would have been pathetic for more established, more heroic super heroes. (Ditko also lamented having had Peter graduate High School and go onto College.) Unlike other heroes before him, Spider-Man was the audience–so successfully so that the folks working on X-Men in the 60s very quickly lost sight of their own premise, and attempted to turn the team into five Spider-Men, with dismal results.

Spider-Man is no more about responsibility than Batman is about criminals being a superstitious and cowardly lot. That’s the tagline to the first adventure, and a strong moral message to go out on, but it’s what that story is about, not what the series is about. And in point of fact, it wasn’t until the late 80s/early 90s that you began to see that phrase start to get beaten on like a drum, with story titles like “The Greatest Responsibility” and “Power and Responsibility” and so forth–not coincidentally, a time after Peter had been married, and the creators were looking for some other bedrock to take the place of youth. Responsibility is certainly an element of Spider-Man–but then, show me a hero for whom it’s not an element.

Spider-Man is about finding your place in the world, about figuring out who you are and who you want to be. It’s about screwing up and trying again, It’s about believing that you’re worthwhile while fearing that you’er not, all the while being judged by authority figures who misunderstand you.

Once you strip this element away, Spider-Man becomes just another in a long line of super heroes who are well-adjusted and self-aware (well, as well-adjusted as any super heroes can be). He becomes another set of powers and a costume–he loses the unique ground upon which he stands. It’s no coincidence that when the character is done in other media, they inevitably default to the core, to the essential essence, and don’t come anywhere near to a married Spider-Man until perhaps the point where they’re ready to end the series. because really, that’s what you’re doing at that point, whether you know it or not. You’re resolving the final question of Peter Parker’s self-worth, allowing him to overcome all of his fears and doubts and guilt and letting him grow up and find acceptance. And that’s the one thing you can never let him do.

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Former Spider-Man Writer/ Editor Tom Defalco had a different approach. He explained it in an interview with Matt Adler of Ain’t it cool news.

MA: Obviously this is something Marvel has come back to over the years, most recently with “One More Day”. Do you agree with the people who say Peter Parker has to be single?

TD: It depends on how you view Spider-Man. Tom Brevoort recently said that the Spider-Man series is all about youth. And he’s the editor, so he gets to call the shots. Now, when I was the editor of Spider-Man, I thought the series was all about responsibility.

MA: And what greater responsibility could you have then a family?

TD: Right. So I think that if you’re playing that the series is about responsibility, that allows you to have him get married, ultimately allows you to have him have a baby, because the more responsibilities you pile on the character, his life and the series become more interesting.

It’s a moot point to argue whether youth was more important to the character than power and responsibility. It’s all intertwined, as the young hero has to determine the right course of action, second-guessing himself before, after and during the process. The problem with saying that Spider-Man is about responsibility is that every superhero deals with that theme. It’s not something that distinguishes Peter Parker from Superman, Iron Man or the Hulk. But his relative youth was initially a big deal. It’s why Stan Lee promised on the first page of Amazing Fantasy #15 that Peter Parker were different.

Power and responsibility isn’t much of a conflict if the hero always knows exactly what he should do. Part of the fun of the Spider-Man books is that he hasn’t quite figured that all out yet.

In a CBR post, Dan Slott suggested that the writers still take power and responsibility seriously.

The “Manifesto” was NEVER hard and fast rules. (It even says that at the beginning!) They were just a bunch of notes and ideas that Tom Brevoort wrote up when he was trying to wrap his head around Spider-Man then & now– examining the sum and total of Spidey before he jumped on as Senior Group Editor. And even THEN he knew that Steve Wacker was sitting in the big chair as editor. He really just wrote those up as a way to start up a conversation at the first BND Spider-Summit.

There’s a LOT of things in the Spider-Man Manifesto that a LOT of creators at that summit skewed away from. In that Manifesto, Tom wrote down the idea (which is now infamous on the internet) that Spider-Man wasn’t about “Power and Responsibility”, but was instead mainly about “youth.”
Yet in almost EVERYONE’S first arc of BND, EACH CREATOR hit the Power and Responsibility beat HARD.

Prior to the marriage—which came a few years after Marvel stopped publishing stories of Peter Parker as a student—he was noticeably younger than the likes of Batman, Superman and Captain America. When he got married, a few younger heroes had popped up and one could argue that his status as one of the first silver age Marvel superheroes meant that he could no longer be the young superhero. Meanwhile, it was unique for Spider-Man to be the married lead superhero, especially with Barry Allen disappearing in the Crisis of Infinite Earths. This didn’t quite work as a new way to distinguish the character. None of the new younger heroes (Nova, teen Tony Stark, Darkhawk, etc.) reached the heights or popularity of Spider-Man. And his marriage was no longer special when both Wally West and Clark Kent tied the knot.

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Quesada suggested that the marriage came with a loss of the sense of Peter Parker’s youth.

When Peter Parker got married, it caused the character to be cut off from many of the social situations and settings that put him at conflict with his family, friends, and especially the girl he was dating. Suddenly, something as simple as the tension he had with Felicia Hardy was completely defused; if Peter ever gave in to temptation or even considered it, he would be, in the eyes of the fans, the lousiest guy in the world. It became harder to place Peter in situations where he could hang out with other single characters, without him seeming like the oldest person in the room, even if he wasn’t. And whatever nerdish sex appeal he possessed, we had to tread very carefully. He became the perpetual “designated driver.” Sure, Peter could hang around with other married folk I bet that would be exciting!

So there were reasons for Quesada and company to restore the things that had made the character unique. Unlike Batman, Superman (pre-Flashpoint), Captain American and Wolverine, Peter Parker could be convincingly portrayed as south of 30. This corresponds with a national trend of people taking longer to figure out what they’re going to do for the rest of their lives. Even if youth is seen as more important than power and responsibility, the latter can remain a major theme in the series.

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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