Lines are being drawn in the Marvel Comics universe over the issue of superhero registration, with some heroes revealing themselves to the government or even the public while others fear the repercussions of losing their secret identities. Early surprises: Iron Man reveals himself publicly and works with Mister Fantastic to hunt down the rebels. And Captain America has gone rogue, defending the civil liberties of his fellow heroes despite his identity having been public for years.
But that's not the big shock. The shock is that in Civil War #2, released yesterday with nary a leak or a fanfare, Spider-Man took off his mask in front of a crowded press conference, flashbulbs a-popping, and said:
"My name is Peter Parker, and I've been Spider-Man since I was fifteen years old."
<--- Look at this. Just holy cow. Now I'm more than a little bit of a geek. I freely admit it, and wear it as a badge of honor. But you know what? This was national news yesterday, and it deserved to be. Not that the geeks aren't freaking out; they are. And as the internet is mainly a place to share porn and complain about Star Wars, the reactions are fairly predictable. Here is a random anonymous sampling from HCRealms:
"So utterly pissed about the last page of Civil War #2... "
"I try to consider myself open minded, but unless the next few Spider-Man stories seriously kick butt, this will be completely wasted. "
"Great issue - dumb Spider reveal = meh."
"I'm waiting for the Beyonder to show up, or some big surprise to happen in issue 12, that will cause everyone to forget all of what happened." [Ed. note: Civil War is a 7-issue mini, not 12.]
"I don't plan on reading anymore Spiderman comics that come out after this. It is a giant mistake by Marvel and it is utterly rediculous [SIC]... I might have to change my user name..."
"Generally unimpressed. It seems like kind of a dumb thing to do (editorially). And in 2 years they'll just be looking for ways to take it back. "
And a single, very measured word of wisdom: "And I've yet to decide whether I like this or not. I'm gonna see where they go with it."
Wow. I love my homeboys and homegirls at the Realms, and I appreciate their passion, but sometimes I swear the amount of whining on that one site alone could power a small city. How mature that last statement seems in perspective. Ah, there's that dreaded P-word: perspective. So let's use it, shall we?
I believe I once read that the Marvel Universe is history's longest-tenured continuous work of fiction, dating back to Captain America's and Nick Fury's adventures against the Nazis. I'm too lazy to look it up, but suffice it to say that Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Avengers, the line's core books, have been in continuous publication since the early 1960s. Many things have changed in that time; the late 1970s saw Chris Claremont's "All-New, All-Different X-Men" ushering in a mutant golden age. The original Fantastic Four have had to be replaced by a freakish sub team consisting of Spidey, Wolverine, Hulk, and Ghost Rider, of all people. The Avengers, "Earth's Mightiest Heroes," have founded and dissolved a West Coast branch, went global and cosmic, and recently disbanded entirely, re-forming without an international mandate. Jean Grey has died seven or eight times. A story that long is loaded with change by its very definition, and while there are the occasional time-travel/cosmic-being resets, most changes stick.
But a few things are untouchable, or if not untouchable, touching them makes the whole readership shake. Sue and Reed Richards are married. Captain America stands for truth, justice, and the American way. Mutants are feared and hunted. Cap, Iron Man, and Thor are Avengers. Wolverine's past is a mystery.
And the biggest one of all: Spider-Man's identity is the most closely-guarded secret in New York.
Now Sue and Reed have had their problems. Captain America has been stripped of his title, and is rogue even now. Mutants have been more and less popular and numerous. Even the core Avengers have come and gone, and Thor has been missing for two years. And Wolverine recently recovered all of his memories, though they're being parceled out to the readers in dribs and drabs.
Nothing, nothing, changes any of these characters like going public does for Peter Parker. No one else short of Batman has villains that are so determined to hurt their heroic nemesis; these are not just conquer-the-world or rob-the-bank baddies, these are hurt-you-and-watch-you-writhe baddies; these are kidnap-and-torture-your-family baddies. Spider-Man's best defense was never his agility, his webs, or his spider-sense; it was always his mask. He's an Avenger now, working for Tony Stark and living with his family in the opulence and security of Avengers Tower. If he's got a problem, his friends have his back, so the security of his loved ones isn't the same problem is once was. The time was ripe.
The complaint I heard in the dressing room for The Taming of the Shrew last night was that Peter Parker needs to have the problems that made him famous: fighting baddies, keeping his grades up, wooing Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane, and keeping his identity secret from his Aunt May. Since the 1960s, he's graduated from high school and college, lost Gwen, married MJ, and been found out by Aunt May. Every one of these developments has been met with geek outrage. And to every complaint, I have a set of answers:
- People change, even fictional characters. Spider-Man has aged something like 15 years in the past 45 years of writing. How many different acne stories do you want to read? I can't get emotionally involved in a character who deals with the same issues in 2006 that he did in 1966.
- If you like classic Spidey, there are many very inexpensive trade paperbacks available that you can purchase in order to read wonderful stories about Peter fighting baddies while hiding his identity.
- If you want the issues of classic Spidey with the immediacy of current release, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley's brilliant Ultimate Spider-Man is exactly what you want, and would probably please you more than any current Marvel U Spidey-titles.
- Get over it.
This is a huge event in comics history. Imagine if Batman's identity became public; this is just exactly that big. It may be bigger, because if the world found out Batman was Bruce Wayne, they would say, "Oh, the billionaire guy. That makes sense, if you think about it." The response to Spider-Man? From Thunderbolts #103:
Atlas: "Hey, check this out-- Spider-Man unmasked himself on TV!"
Smuggler: "He's my age!"
Joystick: "Looks like a science dweeb. Now I'm embarrassed he cleaned my clock."
As for the argument that Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada just intends to use this to sell comics, and then "put the genie back in the bottle" in a few months and have everyone forget? I can understand the anticipated frustration. This is the company that gave us Ben Reilly, after all, not to mention the return of Norman Osborn and that awful Gwen Stacy retconning nonsense. Don't even get me started on Teen Tony Stark. But just because this stuff has happened in the past is not a guarantee that this event has no consequences.
Having mined all the possibilities of "secret Spidey" (many of them a couple dozen times), the storylines for "public Spidey" are myriad. We've already seen J. Jonah Jameson fall out of his chair when he heard the news. What happens at the Daily Bugle? What will this do to Peter's marriage to MJ? And how do his enemies respond? How does his relationship with the authorities change?
To re-quote: "I've yet to decide whether I like this or not. I'm gonna see where they go with it."
I've decided I like it. And I can't wait to see where it goes.