Avoiding Or Courting Controversy In The Spider-Man comics

One argument against One More Day, Superior Spider-Man and any story that exists to restore or change a particular status quo is that it would be a bad idea, just because it is guaranteed to be controversial. Before OMD, Spider-Man’s marriage was a seemingly permanent part of the status quo, so any change was going to be rocky. There were going to be people emotionally invested in earlier developments for the characters who were going to be upset, and were going to do what they could to let others know that.

The anti-controversy argument is counterproductive for anyone who wants the marriage to be restored because it focuses on whether a bad decision was made in the past, when the more significant question is about what would be a good decision in the future. At this point, any decision Alonso, or Slott could make regarding the marriage would be debated. Although the idea that controversy is inherently bad is questionable, considering the other things that happened that could have affected reader interest prior to One More Day (a focus on new villains, new creative teams, departure of JMS and a thrice-monthly schedule.) It’s possible that without the attention and new direction of OMD/ BND, sales would have been lower.

While readers might not have had an obvious reason to drop the title without OMD, there may be a greater danger when there’s no obvious reason to buy the title either. It would just be one of those books on the stand that’s probably on okay read, but just doesn’t interest you enough to buy. Say what you will about controversy, it brings eyeballs to titles.

During the Brand New Day era, I think the brain trust and web-heads did a good job waiting for most of the vocal critics to calm down before focusing on Peter’s private life. Readers had an year and a half to get used to the absence of the marriage when Amazing Spider-Man #601 hit in which Peter Parker had a one night stand with Michelle Gonzalez, and Mary Jane returned to the supporting cast. It was three years after One More Day that Peter Parker began his first serious relationship with Carlie Cooper. The writers recognized that tensions die down with the passage of time.

Some suggested that the marriage shouldn’t have been changed, because many readers just weren’t familiar with a period in which the Parkers weren’t husband and wife. That wasn’t a particularly persuasive argument, as in addition to untold tales, oft-reprinted classics and the various retellings of Spider-Man’s story in the Ultimate Comics and in other media, there was the clone saga, the interval in which Mary Jane was believed dead and the period in which they were legally separated in those twenty years. The latter two were the most obvious ways writers could shake up the status quo, and it can’t be used again, which restricts future writers.

And it doesn’t work when it’s been more than four years after One More Day. The writers will have to continue ignoring some of the most vocal fans, and that’s fine. Otherwise, we’d have had a story where Spider-Man found his long-lost baby, and the Aunt May who turned out to be alive was revealed as a Skrull, regardless of whether these would have been good for the series in the long term. If writers decide those are stories that they really want to tell, that would be one thing. But it shouldn’t be mandated because some of the fans are calling for it.

Fans in general aren’t concerned about the same things which writers and Marvel Editor‑in‑Chiefs worry about. How many of these readers are bothered by whether or not the book will be enjoyable decades down the line? It’s the job of the writers to know when it’s okay to defy the fans, and write stories that some of them will not enjoy no matter how well its told, such as Ultimate Marvel, the resurrection of Bucky, the return of Hal Jordan as the Green Lantern and the addition of Spider‑Man and Wolverine to the Avengers.

Hell, there was a time when Mary Jane was suddenly (and very memorably) introduced to the Spider‑Man books. If there were message boards then, I’m sure fans would have been reacting to the solicitations of Amazing Spider‑Man #43 (which would be available before Amazing Spider‑Man #42 comes out) complaining about how Peter should be with Betty Brant forever.

The only real indication of whether something is successful is sales. If sales had plummeted (and we’ll talk about sales very soon) with the new format, it would have been easy for Marvel to undo the retcon with a stetcon. They can either have a new story in which magic is used to undo the marriage. Or they could have Peter and Mary Jane start dating one another, and see if the fans are happy with that, eventually moving on to an engagement and a marriage. But it would be irresponsible for Marvel to make decisions based solely (or in a large part) on how segments of the fanbase react on social media.

There are ways for writers to avoid controversy. They could preserve as much of the status quo as possible, and quietly focus more on characters who readers aren’t as invested in. So the likes of Carlie Cooper, Max Modell and Michelle Gonzalez can make difficult and sometimes poor decisions, while familiar figures will not be put in that position. One problem with that approach is that the new guys will be more interesting than the classics, because their stories will be more exciting. It’s what happens when you take the safe approach in fiction. There’s also the risk of losing customers to titles where the protagonists do stuff that’s worth arguing about.

Superior Spider-Man Annual #1 cover

Controversy suggests that there are people who are passionate on both sides of an issue. And it often pays off. Stan Lee was right to feature drug use in Amazing Spider-Man, Gerry Conway was right to kill off Gwen Stacy and Bendis was right to kill off the Ultimate Peter Parker and replace him with Miles Morales, despite the inevitable resentment from some of the consumers.

Contentious outcomes are equated with gimmicks, which aren’t automatically bad, but it suggests a lack of substance and long-term thinking. You can disagree with the decisions involving One More Day, but getting rid of the marriage was not a gimmick. It’s something that Quesada thought about for years, and has discussed in depth numerous times.

That said, something can be controversial even if there isn’t a parity between the two sides making an argument. So there is a legitimate concern for Marvel. What if, with One More Day, they chose the wrong side? What if the fans want change?

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. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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