Say that three times fast. Stan Lee would be proud of that kind of awesome alliteration.
In case you’re wondering why I’m back on comic books, it’s because I found a bunch of my old issues of Spider-man, and that got me to thinking. Whether this is good or bad is for you lovely readers to judge. Also, get comfy; this is kind of long. And probably whiny. But hopefully entertainingly so!
I love Spider-man. He is Marvel’s flagship character and possibly more well-known than even Wolverine (possibly). When he was fifteen years old, he became a superhero. And he had to go to school, and do chores, and try to win the girl. He was one of the first characters if not the first character to try to show how difficult a superhero’s life really would be, especially one with a secret identity. And he made mistakes, oh so many mistakes. But he did the best he could, and as a teenager, we the reading audience would cut him some slack.
His motto is “with great power comes great responsibility.” Those were the words of his dead uncle that he clings to when he finds himself conflicted between family and superheroing (i.e., his life). I’m sure other people have figured this out, but when I realized I had grown up, I also realized that Peter Parker is horribly irresponsible. He lies to his friends and family so they won’t find out his secret and tells himself that is for their own protection. Perhaps that is true; Matt Murdock had a hell of a time when Ben Urich outed him as Daredevil. But at some point lame excuses no longer ring true. A teenager breaking curfew is given more allowances than a grown man skipping out on rent again. At some point, great responsibility is not just part of a catchphrase; it needs to be part of the narrative reality. In short, Peter Parker needs to grow up.
And unlike Peter Pan, who stays a child because he wants to, Peter Parker is forced to remain an immature man-child by writers and editors and don’t want anything to change ever. I’ll add the caveat that this varies by writer and editorial staff. After all, Peter Parker did go to college and did move out of Aunt May’s house and did manage to barely scrape by on his own in one of the most expensive cities in the world on a freelance photographer’s salary and he did finally get married to Mary Jane Watson. By years and issues and slow, halting steps Peter Parker did start to grow up.
I liked JMS’s run on Amazing Spider-man for a lot of reasons. I already liked JMS’s writing (as I was a “Babylon 5” fan). There were certainly elements that were weird or didn’t quite work for me (and were virulently hated by other fans), but I could overlook those for the character development. JMS introduced a foil to Spider-man called Ezekiel. One day Spider-man explains to Ezekiel why he’s Spider-man, and Ezekiel asks (paraphrasing), “What does ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ mean? Responsibility to who? To do what?” And I had never thought of that before. That was also one of those things that made me realize how irresponsible Peter often was. Peter even realized how irresponsible he was when he thought he was dying and realized he never even bothered to buy basic life insurance. Under JMS, Aunt May found out Peter Parker was really Spider-man and it removed one more element keeping Pete stuck as a perpetual teenager constantly lying to protect his aunt. She was stunned, sure, and angry, but ultimately she was proud of him. Under JMS, Peter and MJ, who had been separated for very valid reasons, reconciled and appeared to be on the road to a healthy marriage. The characters were acting like the adults they were supposed to be.
And I, as an adult at this point, enjoyed this story/character arc. This was not anathema to me. This was not me saying, “Ewww, gross, cooties,” or “Ohhh, so boring…” I could relate. And I always thought that was the whole point of Peter Parker/Spider-man – he was the hero us ordinary fourth wall dwellers could relate to. Sure, he’s got awesome superpowers and has spectacular fights and is a font of witty banter. But at the end of the day, he also had a terrible boss, a tiny paycheck, a pile of bills, and an aunt who was disappointed he missed Sunday dinner again. To me, though, part of the reason Peter Parker always tried so hard as Spider-man was because of his family. He loved his aunt and his wife and thought it was important to make their world better in a way that only he, with his great power, could do. And yes, he neglected the bills to do this, but he had a good heart. Growing up and realizing neglecting the bills did not benefit them did not make him any less a hero. Behaving like an adult does not lessen the possibilities for drama.
But the worst editor-in-chief hated all this. He’s probably not the only one, quite frankly. There is a tendency with the comic book universes to make sure nothing changes ever, and I know Spider-man isn’t the only one, but I feel he’s been the most prominent victim. This may be because as a solo hero there isn’t a team dynamic to help disguise Peter Pan syndrome. Teams also are allowed to have new members, which makes it easier to have unattached swinging singles in their ranks that “creative teams” either seem to prefer to write for or seem to think are the only characters fans will care about (although I must point teams are not immune this “never grow up” attitude; one only has to look at how Jessica Jones and baby Danielle were rather rapidly written out of the New Avengers while Power Man chose the team over his wife and child! [all of that, by the by, from the same writer who was responsible for pairing off Jessica and Luke followed by the sudden arrival of baby Danielle so I’m not sure how all that character development and potential drama came to a screeching and sudden stop]).
Also, there are heroes, iconic ones at that, who are allowed to grow up (like Robin to Nightwing) which only highlights poor Peter’s persistent plight. Heck, even the Teen Titans are allowed to grow up. I recall an issue of “Young Justice” in which the teenage superheroes were talking about how different things would be once they grew up and the adult superheroes took them seriously. Superboy then told the group that he would never grow up; due to the cloning process that created him he would be a perpetual teenager. Even within the context of the world, the characters were horrified by this thought. They wanted to grow up!
The end result of the Peter Pan problem is lazy writing at best and terrible writing at worst (see “One More Day” and “One Moment in Time”).
Lazy – ‘Oh, Peter needs some more drama that isn’t Green Goblin kicking his face in. Hey, I know, how about he asks a girl out and totally bails on their date because he’s fighting Green Goblin and she’s all like, “you jerk,” and he’s all like, “I’m sorry,” and she’s all like, “Well, don’t screw up again,” and he totally does and then she dumps him and he’s sad again.’
Terrible – ‘Marriage bad! Making a deal with the devil is better than being tied down by marriage and, gods forbid, children!’
For all the reboots and retcons, if the “creative teams” really wanted Spider-man in particular to be a teenager again, why didn’t they just go for it? Harry Osborn was brought back to life in the aftermath of OMD and OMIT, so why not just go whole-hog and make everyone a teenager again? Hell, bring back Gwen Stacy. Bring them all back. If Peter Pan can’t grow up, don’t take him out of Neverland. The reason I think Marvel didn’t actually do that is because it would invite comparisons between 616-Spider-man and Ultimate Spider-man, who actually was still a teenager. Of course, I compared the two universes all along and was sad to realize Ultimate Spider-man (who, again, was only fifteen years old when the comic started), was a much more mature and responsible person than his “Amazing” and “adult” counterpart.
For a medium I do enjoy and want to enjoy, sometimes the “creative teams” make that so hard. I honestly don’t think younger fans will be so put off by heroes that deal with adult life as the head honchos seem to think. Younger fans do interact with adults, and watch television and movies which depict adult situations, after all. Would younger fans be put off by Peter discussing the household budget with MJ? Yes, probably, but I’d be bored by that too. But balancing adult drama with awesome superpowered battles is hard, and too many “creative teams” are too lazy to actually do that, or are headed up by a petty editor-in-chief with personal issues he’s going to take out on the world he purports to love (which is a supervillain origin story).
So, in short, perpetual childhood is entertaining in a classic children’s story but it is really, really obnoxious in a decades long comic book series. “Creative teams,” you need to grow the hell up so the characters you write/edit can grow the hell up too. And I, for one, would appreciate that.