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August 10, 2012

Spider-Man At 50 Part Two: David Brothers On How Spider-Man Is The Ultimate And Best Superhero



imageA lot of my younger peers in the writing-about-comics trade write very well about superhero comics, so I thought it might be fun to corral one into talking about Peter Parker/Spider-Man. It seems to me that the character looms large in a lot of comics fans' relationship with the medium. I also have to admit that the age difference made this appealing. As someone who came in on the last few years of what I consider the original, canonical run on the character -- with a lot of reprints to be had via Marvel Tales and digging around back-issue bins in proto comics shops and flea markets -- I have little in the way of knowing how kids that grew up with the character since that time might view the guy.

Everyone told me that David Brothers was the guy to whom I should speak. There were a couple of other suggestions, but only from people that also recommended Brothers. I enjoy Brothers' writing generally, and I knew that he had a certain amount of respect for the first 140 or so issues of Amazing Spider-Man the way I do. He was nice enough to take my questions; I got them back in frighteningly short order, a sign of his enthusiasm for all things web-slung. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: David, when I asked around for someone that was a fan of Spider-Man, for one of the writers about comics, I got a flood of people writing me saying you were that guy. I think that's kind of curious, to be known as a Spider-Man guy in a group where there are probably lots of Spider-Man guys. Why would your peers think of you in that light, do you think?

DAVD BROTHERS: [laughs] Yeah, that is curious. I didn't even know I had that reputation, but it's probably accurate. I can talk about Spider-Man all day, and probably have. If you and I somehow managed to put a panel on at a major convention, and you told me to freestyle 60 minutes of material about Spider-Man, I could do it and have enough left over to make it a traveling show. I'll tell anyone who'll listen about how Spider-Man is the ultimate and best superhero, basically.

imageIn thinking about how I got that rep... I (privately, and later publicly) quit Marvel comics earlier this year. As sort of a farewell to the company, I wrote about one of my favorite Spider-Man stories, Kaare Andrews's Spider-Man: Reign. It's one of my favorite tales because I think it gets right at the heart of what makes Spider-Man such a perfect character. The criticism at the time of its release boiled down to "Ha ha, Peter Parker has radioactive spider-sperm?", but it goes way deeper than that. I think that might have gotten a lot of eyeballs and solidified my rep.

SPURGEON: Tell me about you background with the character, when you discovered it and how. Am I right in thinking that one of the television iterations played a big role in how you were introduced to the character?

BROTHERS: Nope, you're wrong! [Spurgeon laughs] The cartoon with Firestar was canceled a month or so before I was born and the '90s toon debuted well after I was into the character and a few years before I was old enough to consciously quit comics when things went south.

No, for me, it was because my uncle discovered girls or graduated high school or something, so I got all his comics. This would've been around late 1989, if I had to guess, maybe even as late as mid-1990. My first comics, as in the first comics I distinctly remember owning and being able to call my own, were copies of David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane's Amazing Spider-Man #316 and #317, the first big return of Venom story. I also had ASM #321 and #322, parts two and three of "The Assassin Nature Plot," which featured Silver Sable, Paladin, Sabertooth, and more.

But yeah, I was given these comics and they made a huge impression on me. I had a few cover-less Sgt Rocks and early-'80s Superman/Justice League comics that were too weird to be good, but Spider-Man hooked me. I don't know if it was McFarlane's creepy cartooning or just how Michelinie scripted the character, but I basically took one look and knew that Spider-Man was the guy for me.

I discovered Jim Lee's X-Men a little later, maybe just before the big launch of X-Men #1, and fell in love there, too. So I was always an X-Men and Spider-Man kid, and I preferred adjectiveless to Uncanny and Amazing over Spectacular over Web of. When I quit comics in the '90s, it was because of Spidey and X-Men comics. The X-Men were knee-deep in Onslaught, which I thought was awful even to my unrefined palate, and Spider-Man had the Clone Saga, which eventually tied into Onslaught, and I just called it quits, barring flipping through books at the grocery store.

I rarely got to read entire stories back in the day, as a result of not having an allowance or easy access to a comics shop, so I got most of my comics via trading. Even as spotty as that was, I knew that Spider-Man was the business and the X-Men were a close #2.

I did like the '94 cartoon, but I could never figure out why it was 200 percent brighter than the concurrent X-Men cartoon, which I loved. I also remember really digging the '70s live-action series, which I think aired on the Sci-Fi Channel or Nick at Nite at some point during the '90s.


SPURGEON: Does Peter Parker/Spider-Man as a character appeal to you in part because he speaks directly to you as a younger man? Was that ever part of how you accessed the character? Because I suppose thematically that's his special contribution to superheroes, this idea of growing up, of taking responsibility. Or is that overthinking things?

BROTHERS: Yeah, that's definitely part of it. As a kid, just getting into Spider-Man's world, I greatly enjoyed the fact that there was this married hero who was just a regular guy. Batman has a mansion, Superman has outer space, and Peter Parker has... a crappy apartment with a skylight in the bathroom or his aunt's guest room. I thought the wife thing was very cool.

As a kid, Spider-Man was aspirational. He had a life that was like what I imagined being an adult was like and he had superheroic adventures. Best of both worlds. Amazing Spider-Man felt like a comic for grown-ups and had grown-ups doing grown-up things.

As I grew, my appreciation changed and deepened. I liked seeing Ben Reilly's attempts at being a hip early twenty-something when he wore the mask, and the emphasis on action the franchise had for a long while. Eventually, once I hit my own adulthood, I saw that he wasn't actually a blueprint for adulthood, but a dramatization.

When I eventually sat down and read most of Amazing Spider-Man front to back, I felt like I really got the character. He's very much about growing up and taking responsibility, but the series as a whole also deals with trust, love, familial obligations, obsession... there's a lot going on here that would normally be heightened to superheroic levels in other comics that was just regular business in ASM. I think Spider-Man is the most regular-guy hero out there, and infinitely relatable. He started out as a hero for me, but quickly turned into something else, something you can point to and say "I'm going through this and he is, too, so things'll be okay."

I think I'm far past the point of being able to not-overthink Spider-Man. Before I started my blog, I sat down with a bunch of milestone comics (the death of Gwen, the marriage, the college issues, and so on) and figured out that Peter Parker had to be about 27 or 28 in the Marvel Universe at the time. I had a bunch of persuasive arguments, issue references... I would've been around 20 or 21 at the time. Maybe that was my attempt to make sure Peter Parker stayed older than I was, like Frank Miller did with Batman in Dark Knight Returns.


SPURGEON: Reading what you've written about Spider-Man, I was surprised -- pleasantly -- that you hold the original series run in high regard. Can you talk about what drove you to go back and read that material, and what you thought of it, what you think of it as a critic and a reader. For one thing, what do you consider to make up that first one?

BROTHERS: I got lucky, is the short version. Someone, I feel like probably my grandparents, got me a copy of the first Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man volume, which seemed horrendously expensive to a ten year old. But they'd always encouraged my reading, and it was a Real Book, so hey. It worked. I would've read anything in those days, and often did, but I tore through that book. I think I eventually lost it in a flood.

For me, the original run is from Amazing Fantasy #15 up through around Amazing Spidey #140 or so. It's my Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four, basically, the chronicle of a boy becoming a man and a hero.

The Ditko/Lee material is precious to me, because it's barely a traditional superhero story. Peter Parker thinks a lot about getting back at the normal people who hassle him. "That Flash Thompson! He's gonna keep messing with me and one of these days...!" He's constantly behaving as if he's going to regress or turn bad, but he never does. Half Spider-Man's enemies are his own mirror image, regular people and geniuses who were infected by radiation and ruined forever. Dr. Octopus especially -- it's easy to see why he was Spidey's original arch-villain.

And yet, here's this scrawny little teenager, and he's got more heart than all the incredibly ancient men and animal enthusiasts Ditko and Lee threw at him. Where Batman and Superman are about exceptionalism ("I've got so much money to spend!" and "I've got so many powers I'm basically a god!"), Spider-Man is about weathering the slings and arrows and growing into yourself, no matter what.

Like, case in point, as a critic, if I had to write a thinkpiece on something, it would be about how Spider-Man is a hero who was created after superheroes were a mainstream affair, and it shows in his actions. When he's just Peter Parker, professional wallflower, he's just a normal guy with no friends. He's not funny or interesting, or at least no one thinks so. But when he pulls on his mask, when he becomes Spider-Man, he begins playing the role of the hero. He laughs, he jokes, and he flirts with girls constantly. I mean, I forget which number it is right now, but I love that issue where he decides to go off and steal the Torch's girlfriend.

Peter Parker is playing at being Spider-Man, but he's also playing at being a man, too. He was 15 or 16 when he got bit, and at least for me, nothing makes sense at that age. You're not a man, but people will treat you like a man up to and until the point that you ask to be treated like a man, at which point you're relegated to being a child again. How does that situation affect a teenager who's found himself forced into semi-adulthood, both in terms of taking care of his aunt and dealing with adult villains?

And that's just going off Ditko & Lee's issues. I love the Romita era, the Pretty People Having Pretty Problems era. (There was an HBO show recently, How to Make It In America, about twentysomethings in hip New York. It was the most Jazzy John-on-Amazing-Spider-Man thing ever at times.) I love that they let him grow up and attend college, get his own place, introduce Glory Grant and the rest of his glorious supporting cast...

I can't get enough of those old comics. I try to reread them in chunks a few times a year, just because they're such a pleasure and so re-energizing. Peter Parker and Harry Osborn as best friends is one of the most inspired things in comics ever, and I love-love-love those early Lizard and Sandman tales.


SPURGEON: One of the distinguishing characteristics of the character is that he transitioned so well into work by other artists -- Steve Ditko and John Romita and Gil Kane and Ross Andru are very different artists; they're even more different than JR JR and Mark Bagley and some of artists known for the character over the last 15 years or so. What is it about that character that he stands up to different interpretations in others might not?

BROTHERS: I think it's that he's a character who, if you are the slightest bit talented at showing action, is easy to make look good. I like Ditko's skinny Spidey, and then way his fights were all about position and effort. Kane and Romita's was a more classic hero, but still lithe. JRjr's best take on Spidey is when he's super skinny, like Ditko's, but throw into the middle of Kirby-style bombastic action poses. I feel like the sign of a great Spider-Man artist is that they draw him as a shorter guy, sub six feet. It's a throwback to his teenaged years, maybe, but it always looks great to see Spider-Man backing down someone six inches taller than him.

The height thing also adds to the general concept of Spider-Man as an underdog and weird, creepy hero instead of an upright and honest Captain America or brawny Hulk. Spider-Man's supposed to be unsettling, and he's undertrained, so he does whatever he has to do to get by. So he should fight differently from most heroes and maybe get by on a lot of lucky punches or strange attacks. Building actual spider-webs, maybe, or swinging kicks.

I think that emphasis on (weird) acrobatics and action is what makes Spidey so great to draw, or to see drawn. There's definitely an iconic Spider-Man (Mark Bagley's, I think, followed by John Romita Sr, followed by John Jr), but the character as conceived allows for a wide variety of interpretations. I don't think Chris Bachalo's hyper-kinetic style would be good for Batman, for example, but if you give him Spider-Man, his amped up cartooning looks natural.

There's a freedom of depiction to Spider-Man that's hard to beat. Paolo Rivera did a comic a few years ago where Spidey spends the entire fight scene walking around on the walls and ceiling, and it's quintessential Spidey. When Paul Jenkins and Humberto Ramos did a lot of stories of Spidey in dark and rainy alleys, that was quintessential Spidey, too. Tim Sale did a hard Romita homage in Spider-Man: Blue, a period piece, and that looked perfect, too. Spider-Man's just... it sounds unfair and like a bad critical opinion, but he feels more free than most characters do. If you can draw a backflip and good webs, you're in. You can tell a lot of stories with this guy, and I think the diversity of artists who've nailed his look speaks to that.

imageSPURGEON: The comics artist turned architectural and drawing teacher Pierce Rice used to laud comics artists for their practical knowledge of anatomy. In a way Spider-Man is all about that human figure, I think particularly later on. He may be the most about that, really, of all the characters. How much does Spider-Man work when a skilled artists gets a hold of him; what works about him visually right now, with the best of the artists that do him now?

BROTHERS: When a really skilled artist picks up the pencil, someone who really gets Spider-Man and Peter Parker, magic happens. Chris Bachalo's work during the Brand New Day era was amazing, from his cartoonishly irate J Jonah Jameson to Spider-Man vomiting inside his own mask. I'm really impressed with Paolo Rivera, both on covers and interiors. I like my Spidey cartoony. Alex Ross or John Cassaday would draw him too real, too grounded for my tastes. Joe Madureira still draws an amazing Spider-Man, even after his years away from comics.

Todd McFarlane, I think, said something that totally changed how I look at how the character is drawn. He said that Spider-Man should be just a little bit inhuman, and if he's in the air, you should be able to see the bottom of just one of his feet. Not both -- just one. That forces you to make him pose in a way that other superheroes can't. He's more acrobatic than everyone else.

My preferred depiction of Spider-Man has a few specific features that need to be met, and then anything goes after that. He's thin, he's short, he's not brawny, and his eyepieces are expressive. (The eyepieces are a cartooning gift, I never get tired of seeing his facial expressions when masked. I'll never get along with fans who disagree.) I like his costume when they color the blue bits black, but the costume is classic regardless.

And the best Spider-Man cartoonists -- off the top of my head: Ditko, Romita, Kane, McFarlane, Bagley, JRjr, Chris Bachalo, Paolo Rivera, Humberto Ramos -- all have different and often contradictory specialties. Romita's classic musculature runs counter to Ramos's deformed style, and Ditko's thin, stringy webs are the exact opposite of McFarlane's goopy mess. But they all look "right" to me.

There's a lot of moving parts when it comes to depicting Spider-Man, and if you can do one really well, then the other things will seem okay. I always wish that 300/Sin City: Family Values-era Frank Miller got a chance to go wild on a Spider-Man graphic novel. No one in comics draws jumps and leaps over a city like Miller (for example) and I think he would've done great things, because so much of what makes Spidey great are avenues that Miller has explored with other heroes/characters.

SPURGEON: What is the state of that franchise creatively right now, or at least your sense of it? Are you still keeping tabs on what's going on?

BROTHERS: The current state is pretty definitively not for me. I loved the Brand New Day era, but wasn't too impressed by Dan Slott's first solo at-bat with Big Time. I quit the series around then for the third time ever (the first being during the '90s, the second when Mike Deodato drew Joseph Michael Straczynski's "Norman Osborn and Gwen Stacy Doin' It In The Dark" arc), but I've greatly enjoyed the semi-breathless "You're not gonna believe this!" recaps friends have delivered since I bailed out. So I guess I keep tabs in the loosest possible way, and those tabs aren't the tabs that get my Spider-Buggy revved up.


SPURGEON: Do you think it's possible to still make good Spider-Man comics that speak directly to fans in the way that the character used to? Do you think he's still a priority for Marvel?

BROTHERS: I think he's definitely still a priority. The past few years have seen a remarkable amount of great work with the character. Both volumes of Spider-Man: Noir by David Hine, Fabrice Sapolsky, and Carmine Di Giadomenico are among the truest interpretations of the character ever, remaining remarkably true to the Ditko/Lee/Romita era while simultaneously exploring the Great Depression, racism, horror, and honor. The Amazing Spider-Man: Shed was a marvelous reinvention of the Lizard that sounds like every terrible darkening but reads like one of the best comics that year. Anything written by Fred Van Lente (especially Keemia's Castle) or Zeb Wells is a Spider-Man I want to read. They really get the sort of Woody Allen-with-muscles take that I enjoy a whole lot.

Like with the art, Spider-Man is a fertile character in terms of narrative, too. His high concept is "poor boy from Queens gets powers, screws up, and still has to take care of his family." That's pretty universal, yeah? You can apply that to India, Japan, the '30s, the '90s, and the '10s. If you can nail the foundation of the character, then anything goes. I hope Marvel keeps pushing the character into newer and stranger contexts rather than rehashing superhero tropes again and again (the end of the world? sidekicks? ehhhh).

SPURGEON: Why do you think Marvel partly shies away from openly celebrating anniversaries like this year's 50th? Is it just they don't want to look old?

BROTHERS: My only guess is that it has something to do with Sony having the Amazing Spider-Man license, cutting into Marvel's profits.

But Marvel is terrible with anniversaries anyway. I found out that the Hulk turned 50 this year from my buddy Chris Eckert's fantastic 5-10-15-20 feature for March, not from any comic or press release. I think they just don't particularly care to celebrate it how they used to. I remember those little UPC box images from the '90s that celebrated anniversaries. I loved those. Sure, the character's old, but these are new stories. C'mon, Marvel. Push that history. Tell us about how Ditko and Lee created the best superhero in the entire world.

SPURGEON: How much does the fact that they've done so many stories with the character have an effect on how the character is perceived?

BROTHERS: I think that, depending on your introduction to Spider-Man, it can really dick things up for you. [Spurgeon laughs] I know people who see Spidey as just an annoying jokester Avenger, while others want him to be the ultimate giant killer ("He beat Firelord once! And he could take the Hulk!"). That's sort of annoying, just from an "arguing from a firm and equal foundation" point of view.

But I think the thousands of Spider-Man stories are a strength, rather than a hindrance. Marvel Team-Up did a lot to widen the types of stories Spidey could appear in without seeming silly, and it pretty well convinced me that everyone in the Marvel Universe has Spider-Man's phone number, even if they don't particularly care to use it.

I would like it if everyone loved my personal Spider-Man, but that's lunacy. I like that he's a character that speaks to other people in different ways. I wouldn't trade his deep catalog for the world, no matter how bad Amazing Spidey got between #415 in 1996 (my original "last issue") and everything up until JMS and John Romita Jr took the reins. (It got really, really bad.)


SPURGEON: Finally, just to end on a more interactive-with-the-material note: Do you have one or two favorite stories that might surprise in the character's long run? Do you have a favorite supporting character? A favorite villain? Defend your answers!

BROTHERS: First story: Spider-Man: Return of the Goblin by Paul Jenkins and Humberto Ramos is tremendous. It ran from Peter Parker, Spider-Man #44-47, and it's the big comeback story for the Green Goblin. It's really about Norman vs Peter, though, and that's what makes it so special. It's about their codependent relationship, shared loss, and hate for each other. It's about Gwen Stacy. It's intensely personal, which makes the end of it, where Norman and Peter stop fighting, sit down on a curb, and they have a conversation. Norman talks about how his original villain name was almost "Mister Coffee" and they both bust a gut laughing about it. They have a real conversation, first names instead of code names, and they spill their hearts to each other. Tears and everything. It's spectacular.

Second story: James Stokoe's Spider-Nam. It's unofficial, but Marvel should've backed a truck full of money up to Stokoe's cave in Canada and got him to finish it. Stokoe posted samples here and I think there's a colored version out there. You know how people say things like "Jeff Parker is writing a comic just for me these days!" or "Oh man, Mark Waid knows exactly what I want out of a Daredevil comic!"? That's what this is for me. I love reading about Vietnam (my grandfather served) and the culture around it. And then along comes James "Orc Stain" Stokoe and he knocks my socks off. His story is faithful to the Romita era, is appropriate for the setting, and just... works. It's such a great twist on an old character, and it's the type of twist that you could see simultaneously changing and honoring everything you know about the character. I love how quiet and reserved his Spidey is, and how real the story feels. I'd love to buy a page out of it one day, or somehow hit the lottery and force James to finish it with oodles of cash.

Favorite supporting character: Mary Jane Watson, pre- and post-marriage. I loved that instead of just being a weeping willow, she was basically his partner in crime. She'd cover for him, she would fight if put into that situation, she was smart enough to know when to pour on the love and when to leave him alone... and she never felt like she was just a supporting character. She had a life and career of her own, and both of them were rich. I love MJ, especially around the Kraven's Last Hunt and McFarlane era.

Favorite villain: Harry Osborn. Not the Green Goblin, either. I mean Harold Theopolis Osborn, Peter's best friend and Norman's son. I think having a best friend was the best thing they could've possibly done for Spider-Man, and then turning that friend into a villain with a good reason to be a villain was icing on the cake. Harry's death in Spectacular Spidey #200 ("Why, Harry? Why'd you come back for me?" "Hey... what else could I do? You're my best friend." !!!) made me sob my eyes out as a kid, and just thinking about it is getting me misty. I love that balance, and it's essentially the perfect Spider-Man story. His relationship with his villains is personal. He grew up with them and they've watched him blossom into full manhood. For his bitterest enemy to also be his best friend is almost poetry.

A lot of people hated One More Day, and were primed to pre-hate Brand New Day because the marriage between Peter Parker and Mary Jane dissolved. I was, too, until I saw that they brought Harry Osborn back to life and gave Peter a best friend again. That's my favorite relationship in comics, or maybe top five, and I can't get enough of it.



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