Supporting characters are pretty useful in serials. It helps to have a handful of characters as Peter’s primary supporting cast, for him to interact with in most stories. This provides touchstones, along with a sense of consistency and consequence, as these people would be aware of prior developments.
Should Marvel decide to go back to the three monthlies approach, I think there’s a lot of potential in a Web of Spider-Man focusing largely on one supporting character. Mary Jane Watson could fit the bill here. That type of approach also makes it easier to parallel events in Amazing Spider-Man (and vice-versa) and gives the satellite book a structure/ separate identity. It’s something to consider, although the main focus should remain on the flagship title.
In most cases, it seems to me that the title needs a smaller core cast, people for Peter Parker to consistently interact with. It would help to have characters who serve at least two purposes (ie- roommate and coworker.) There can be more ancillary characters, or characters who pop in and out for short stretches, but a clear top-tier core has tremendous benefits.
This seems to be what we’re getting with The Big Time. In Horizon Labs, it seems the most significant coworkers are Max Modell (the boss), Uatu and Grady. Because of Horizon Labs’s stature, they’re often called in by Mayor Jameson for help during a crisis. It’s not perfect. The staff of the Daily Bugle hasn’t been seen in some time. The only friend Peter seems to hang out with is Mary Jane, although it’s worth noting that he’s pulling double-duty as a member of the Future Foundation and the Avengers.
If I was writing the book, one possible supporting cast would consist of Aunt May, J Jonah Jameson Sr, J Jonah Jameson Jr, Mary Jane, Harry Osborn, Norah Winters, Betty Brant and a few new characters. The basic set-up would be a media venture by Harry Osborn and Betty Brant.
May Parker could just be the most essential member, as one of the few links to the boy he was before the spider-bite. Jonah Sr’s come closer than anyone else to essentially replacing Uncle Ben. Plus he provides a link between the two best characters in the Spider-Man franchise. Mayor J Jonah Jameson continues to be Spider-Man’s nemesis, as well as a constant subject of journalistic investigation. Mary Jane Watson can stay, as she’s the other most recognizable supporting character. Just to complicate Peter’s life even more, she should be dating someone in his social circle, and involved in a project that deserves media attention.
Betty Brant’s new media venture would be Peter’s job. Harry Osborn could be the financial backer of the project. So, there’s that whole dynamic as their friendships are tested by the new business partnership. There are several possibilities here. Peter could be in a subservient position to two of his friends. Or he could have more responsibility in a leadership position, investing some of the money from Horizon Labs.
Norah Winters is a terrific personality, so it would be fun to add her to a series. She’s savvy enough to be a significant contribution to a 21st Century media project. A new character could be an accomplished reporter, perhaps a Journalism school classmate of Ned Leeds. This guy could complicate Peter’s personal life, and make an excellent first impression on Mary Jane Watson.
Obviously, there are many approaches one can take. A mistake writers sometimes make is an unwillingness to ignore certain characters. Some have complained about Harry Osborn’s departure post-Brand New Day, but there wasn’t a particular role for him in the Big Time era. I have no objections to bringing him back to the book if he fits well with the rest of the cast. But there’s no obligation to have these characters around all the time, if they don’t bring anything to the current stories.
Stan Lee and Steve Ditko were right to send Liz Allen packing when Peter Parker went from High School to College. Gerry Conway was right to bring her back when he had a new hook for the character, revealing a connection between her and a minor Spider-Man villain, before she became involved with Harry Osborn.
The main way to get rid of unpopular supporting cast members was to kill them off, but that’s often a bad idea. There are things that some characters bring to a series that no one else can, so it’s important to consider the disadvantages of getting rid of someone permanently. No one’s been able to replace poor Lance Bannon.
The supporting cast members usually aren’t as important to a typical story as the villain is. But they can be more important to longer runs, as they’re more likely to become fixtures in the series, whereas the bad guys usually show up for just one story. This is my not so subtle way of indicating that it’s time to consider the potential strategies for writers and editors dealing with that group.