While the possible schedules and formats for the series are important for any writer or editor to consider, the purpose of the format is to serve the content. And the lead character drives the content.
The central question for any Spider-Man writer is what approach they would like to take for Peter Parker. Many of the questions about the direction of the Spider-Man comics regard various aspects of Peter Parker’s life. Should he be married again? Should he have kids? Should he die? Should his story come to an end? Questions about supporting cast members depend on how they affect Peter Parker. What does Aunt May bring to a book about her nephew? What effect would bringing back Gwen Stacy have on the main character? How about Harry? How did J Jonah Jameson becoming mayor affect his interactions with Peter Parker and Spider-Man?
Even with someone else becoming the lead with Superior Spider-Man, many of the central questions of the series are based on Peter Parker. How long will he be gone from the book? Will he have a supporting role? How is the Superior Spider-Man different from Peter Parker?
So the main thing for any writer or editor to figure out is what Peter Parker’s life is going to be like. Tom Brevoort was correct to prioritize this in his Brand New Day manifesto.
Spider-Man is about Peter Parker.
This is the biggest and most basic concept that had kinda escaped us in the Spidey titles for the last decade or two. Peter Parker is Spider-Man, Spider-Man is not Peter Parker. By that I mean it’s Peter and his life and tribulations that’s the through-line of the Spider-Man titles, or should be, and Peter being Spider-Man is just one component of the overall whole.But in the last few years, it seemed like Peter is Spider-Man, fiest and foremost- and he kinda half-squeezes a life around being Spidey- and that’s wrong.
What made Spider-Man the flagship title of the Marvel line was the soap opera element of Peter’s life, the fact that he was a young character, a character who could screw up, a character who life seemed on occasion to dump on in interesting ways, and yet would keep striving to do right by everybody. An everyman, a schlemiel. Grounded in the real world. Grounded in Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn.
One of the advantages that ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN has, beyond the fact of starting again at Ground Zero, is that there’s only one book with one writer. So the soap opera element of Peter Parker’s life is clearly the backbone of that series, and the engine that drives it. Even when a particular adventure isn’t particularly compelling, readers want to know what’s going on with Peter and Mary and Gwen and Kitty and Flash and so forth and so on.
The focus on Peter Parker over Spider-Man was a key part about why the movies, both the Raimi trilogy and the current Marc Webb relaunch, have been so successful. Before figuring out what to do with supporting cast members (especially Harry and MJ) and the villains, the plotting has to be about the main character, and what happens to him.
Despite Brevoort’s intentions, it’s one aspect of the series that suffered in part under the Brand New Day era. I liked the character’s voice, but his subplots were rarely interesting. A careful approach to the private life of the protagonist is difficult to pull off with multiple writers. It’s just easier to focus on either the A-plot that’s going to be resolved at the end of the story, or ongoing arcs with villains and supporting cast members who can disappear from the title for a few months, as occurred to Harry Osborn between Character Assassination and American Son. The focus on Peter Parker was much stronger in the Big Time, when you do have one guy in charge of everything, including the transitions from one story to another.
It’s interesting to consider how earlier writers dealt with this aspect of the Spider-Man comics. Brian Michael Bendis reimagined the series as a really good teen drama, and kept it fun for 170+ issues. Gerry Conway killed off two members of the supporting cast, turned another into one of Spider-man’s greatest enemies, and just when Peter was recovering from these traumas, introduced the clone of Gwen Stacy. He really put Spidey through hell.
Peter David always kept Parker’s life interesting in the satellite books in two different decades, and intentionally made sure that Miguel O’Hara was radically different from Peter Parker. Tom Defalco turned Mary Jane into Peter’s greatest confidante, and then into a supporting character in Spider-Girl. J.M. Dematteis explored what made made Peter tic, and showed why the life of a superhero’s wife can sometimes suck. He also wrote one of the few comic books that made John Romita Sr cry when he killed off Aunt May.
Paul Jenkins showed the toll being Spider-Man had on Peter Parker, along with the quieter and more ridiculous moments of a young man’s life in New York City. Joe Kelly introduced Norah Winters, gave us Peter Parker’s prom, and had Deadpool visit the Lee/ Romita period. Dan Slott married off Aunt May again, had Peter Parker hit the big time, and showcased five different periods of Peter Parker’s life in the Spider-Man/ Human Torch mini-series. He liked to explore the character’s history, and all the things that had changed.
Roger Stern wrote Peter Parker as a young man, balancing his duties as Spider-Man with his experiences in Grad School. And something had to give. J. Michael Straczynski pared down the supporting cast to the essentials. reunited Peter & MJ, while bringing May in on Peter’s secrets. And then the superhero aspect of Spidey’s life slowly became all-encompassing as Peter moved in with the Avengers, became Tony Stark’s protegee and revealed his identity to the world. Marv Wolfman was big on the illusion of change.
It all started with Stan Lee, who turned high school student Peter Parker into a different kind of superhero. The series became even more popular when the lead went to college, a ballsy move on par with replacing the classic Avengers with Cap’s kooky quartet. While a handful of comics professionals and critics, including co-creator Steve Ditko, think it was a mistake to have Peter graduate, it doesn’t seem to have hurt the character’s popularity.
Writers can have different approaches for Peter Parker’s life. I think the main rule is to remember is that we’re always in the second act, and never at the conclusion of his story. So the obligation of the writer is to make sure that the next guy can do something completely different.
If I wrote the book, Peter’s personal life would probably get more chaotic. And his health would suffer. First, he’d get Malaria from a trip to Africa as Spider-Man. I’d borrow a bit from recent Doctor Who, with Spider-Man realizing the effect he has on the people around him. But I’d be careful not to break the character. And there are two ways that can happen: irreversible changes that ultimately hurt the series, or that make it harder for readers to relate to Peter Parker.
There’s some argument about whether Peter Parker really is an everyman character, as he’s smarter and more handsome than the average person. He may not actually be an everyman, but he feels like one. He’s a stand-in for the reader, and most readers (and people in general) have an inflated sense of their own intelligence and charisma. The secret identity metaphor is quite powerful, relating to the reader’s sense that people don’t really know/ appreciate him.