There’s a paradox at the heart of mainstream superhero comics; the story has to perpetually move forward without ever actually changing. We’ve seen it dozens of times, at some point something LIFE SHATTERING happens to a mainstay of the genre, something that changes the character or book in a way that it can seemingly never come back from. Peter Parker reveals his identity to the world, Matt Murdock is placed in jail, Superman dies. All of these moments change the status quo, but deep down we all know they won’t last. Even as we work up a fervor discussing it on message boards or Facebook groups or with our friends we know it just won’t stick. This is because mainstream superhero comicbooks are stuck in the perpetual second act of a story that, for the forseeable future, will never reach its ultimate climax.
The second act of a story is where everything goes horribly, horribly wrong and our heroes have to rise above the obstacles in their way and, in the process, become the hero that will ultimately vanquish their foe and set the world right. This story can be seen through-out historic heroic literature – Theseus, Osiris, Samson – all of these fit into the idea of the monomyth – but Batman can never ultimately defeat the Joker and Superman can never finally beat Lex Luthor because if they did, well, there wouldn’t be any more stories they could tell after that. We are constantly seeing our heroes over-coming the obstacles in front of them, becoming better and better. We see this with Superman and the power-creep phenomenon the stronger Superman becomes, the stronger his villains have to be to pose a threat and create dramatic tension which in turn forces Superman to become even stronger again and the whole thing just goes in a loop until we end up with pre-crisis Superman who could move planets about with his bare hands. Now, speaking of Crisis, this is how DC have chosen to resolve the issue of the perpetual second act.
Every so often, DC reboots their entire continuity, returning their characters to an earlier period in their journey. Crisis on Infinite Earths did it. Flashpoint did it. Arguably Zero Hour and Infinite Crisis did it too. It buys them time to have the heroes re-learn crucial points in their history. There’s a reason every DC reboot is accompanied by a subsequent Superman series which aims to lower the big blue boy scouts power levels to more reasonable levels – it’s so they can slowly raise them again.
Marvel on the other hand opt for a sliding continuity scale, the Fantastic Four got their powers roughly ten years ago from now. That means that Frank Castle originally served in the Korean war, then it was Vietnam, then it was Desert Storm. Now? We’re probably looking at Afghanistan or the second Iraq war. It requires a little bit of mental acrobatics on the behalf of continuity-afficionados but it keeps things fresh and allows the characters to stay at the rough age of 30-ish. Any stories that cause issues with this are conveniently forgotten. They’re never stated as never happening, but they just aren’t mentioned again. Peter and MJs baby comes to mind. These sorts of tricks that the big two employ to keep their characters from aging help to keep up the second-act status quo. Spider-man is always in his mid-twenties because if he were to be in his mid-thirties it would become unbelievable that he would still fall for Mysterio’s illusions but as a younger hero it becomes easier to understand why he sometimes fails. It’s those failures that facilitate his growth throughout a given story line and provide a satisfying triumph in the climax of the second act. He learns from his mistakes and works out a way to counter-act Mysterio’s illusions.
Superhero comicbooks as a medium are almost unique. They share a lot in common with long-running soap operas like Eastenders or Coronation Street – they’ve been running for a lifetime with no end in sight but unlike British kitchen sink dramas they don’t have an ensemble cast. There’s no singular main character in Eastenders, if there were then they’d have to age in real time or be recast every four or five years (à la Doctor Who.) So, to keep us interested in the events of Spider-mans life the creators have to come up with inventive ways to change things without ever really changing things. I remember hearing Brian Michael Bendis say in an interview on the Wordballoon podcast that writing superhero comics is akin to taking the toys out of the toy box, breaking them, and then putting them back in one piece when you’re finished, so that the next guy can break them in all new ways.
All of this brings me around to a particular comicbook and the fan-theories I’ve seen flying about the web. For those who don’t know, currently in the Marvel Universe Peter Parker is dead. Doctor Octopus, on his death bed, used crazy Octopus science to pull the old Freaky-Friday body-switcheroo on his arch-nemesis and despite Peters best efforts, he couldn’t switch back in time. Peters mind died along with Ocks body, leaving the eight-legged octo-villain in the body of everyone’s favourite friendly neighbourhood wallcrawler. At the same time, an alternate universe Spider-man, Miles Morales, is set to make his way over to the regular universe. Could it be that Miles will take over as the heroic Spider-man in the regular universe, deposing the nefarious Doc Ock and finally laying Peter Parkers story to rest? I find it unlikely. Like I said at the start, there’s a part of me that knows that it won’t stick. As exciting as it might be to have such a big departure from the status quo, I know it won’t be too long until the most dramatic thing they can do is bring Peter back from the dead. Once people get used to Doc Ock being in Peters body, the most dramatic and shocking thing that can happen is to bring Peter back. It’s not like defeating death itself would break the suspension of disbelief, it’s something comicbook fans are used to and even expect. So I’m laying it out right here – if Peter ain’t back in his own body by the start of 2015, I’ll eat my words.
The writer of this piece was:
David McIntyre aka (Big Dave)
You can also find David on Facebook