Flexibility and the Illusion of Change


Spider-Man’s an astoundingly versatile character, when you consider all of the settings for Peter Parker’s personal life. There have been great stories with the character as a high school student, college student, Daily Bugle photographer, high school teacher and scientist. It’s possible for any of these avocations to be used in a video game or film adaptation. Most other characters like Batman and Superman for DC, or Iron Man and Daredevil for Marvel, tend to have much more consistency in their professional lives.

There have also been numerous romantic interests in the great Spider-Man stories, which suggests that the adaptability applies to that category as well. Betty Brant had the Master Planner saga and the first appearance of the Sinister Six. Gwen Stacy had “Spider-Man No More” and “Death and Destiny.” Mary Jane had Kraven’s Last Hunt and “To Have and To Hold.” Black Cat had the Octopus/ Owl War and Shed. Even Carlie Cooper had “Spider Island” and “No One Dies.”

For the long-term, it’s best to preserve the flexibility of Spider-Man’s alter ego. This means that the character probably shouldn’t get married. And it means that his current age according to the editors (mid-twenties) is ideal. It allows the writers to alternate between uncertain young adulthood and a fixed career path.

Because of the character’s ambidexterity, an illusion of change approach works better than a commitment to change approach. The latter ultimately closes more doors, eventually creating a more fixed version of the character. The illusion of change approach only prevents writers from telling the stories that close off opportunities for later writers. Everything else is fair game.

I admit that there is a different and probably irreconcilable way to view flexibility. One can interpret it as an argument for lasting change, since the character transitioned successfully from high school student to college student to married professional and so on. But some developments close too many doors. If Peter Parker’s a married dad, there won’t be further flexibility on this aspect of his life. The writers, editors and readers would be stuck with it. And as he gets older, he’ll be expected to stick around longer wherever he works, so there’s less versatility in the professional sphere as well.

Horizon Labs

It’s likely that at some point in the future, Peter Parker will revert back to a more familiar career. I suspect that there will be more stories with Peter Parker as a photographer. It probably won’t be permanent, which is a good thing. It’s also likely that at some point, he’ll have an entirely new occupation, different from anything we’ve seen before. With the illusion of change approach, if writers do something that turns out to not be interesting, they can reverse it quickly, and go to something else.

Writers are always free to get rid of characters they get tired of. If they don’t like Aunt May, they can ship her off to Florida. Or not focus on the times Peter interacts with her when they live in the same city. If they don’t like J Jonah Jameson—and who doesn’t like J Jonah Jameson?—they can always have Peter Parker not interact as often with the mayor of New York City. If Harry’s a part of the status quo, writers who don’t like him can ship him off to rehab or Europe for their entire run.

They’re far more restricted with what they could do with Spider-Man’s wife. Despite some fans of the marriage arguing that there is no need to constantly feature Mary Jane Watson Parker in the comics, Peter will be expected to interact with her fairly often. To be fair, I don’t recall writers or editors complaining about Mary Jane getting too much face time.

I see the Illusion of Change as the middle ground between the old school DC/ Archie approach and radical change, the type you usually only see in Independent comics. I recently reread Alan Moore’s run of Miracleman. And a lot of stuff happened in the space of sixteen issues.

  • The superhero’s wife left him.
  • There was a major suicide.
  • The superhero killed his best friend.
  • A child conceived during the story essentially grew up in a way that was quite different from what was anticipated.
  • Thousands of civilians died in the crossfire of a superhero battle.
  • The superhero found true love.

That type of approach works for an independent comic. It doesn’t work for a series like Spider-Man, which is part of a shared universe and expected to continue for several hundred more issues. Another approach is necessary for a series where the writers are borrowing the character from the next generation.

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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