Escaping 2018: Year End Lists (Post-Script)

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Alt. Title: “Falling Back in Love”

Here at QnoA Laboratories, we base a lot of our discussion topics around things we either love or hate. Racism and Misogyny boomerang around the show the fastest, but if you’ll notice, every three or so episodes there’s some relatively neutral anchoring subject that enables both Harry and I to simply relax and bullsh*t around for two hours. Although we intend each episode to have resonance with the everyday experiences of the average person, our shared aspiring optimism has it to where the outrage that fuels our podcast results into a need for us to turn our analytical skills towards that which the engagement sharpens them fastest. However, the consequence of spending ninety, 120 or 180 minutes recognizing that the human race is awful is that those skills ink into the pleasure pool like the fast moving tentacles of the brain. Self-reflection is another theme of the show – and of our lives – and the more practice we get, the darker the image becomes when we look inward. It doesn’t have to be that way. At the end of the day I think Harrison and I are good people, and the questions we ask, the constant doubling back on previously held beliefs and the search for humanity in dark subject matter says to me that we’ve not completely lost our minds. Yet questioning the unanswerable is locked in our brains for now. So when we’re high on something, be it pleasant surprises, met expectations or surpassed expectations, we tend to ask “What now?” and down-slide from that sunny hill, figuring that it’ll probably never be as good as it is now, because how could it? And we wouldn’t want it to be this good again anyway, if we really thought about it.

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But for now, let’s celebrate.

As bearded-Urkel tweeted above, 2018 was the Year of Spider-Man, one that nobody saw coming. Black Panther took the country by storm, but not the world, as evidenced by China. Infinity War made its mark on the modern movie culture mostly by getting memed to death (with a more pleasant, friendly bent than the memes stemming from Batman v. Superman to be sure), and films like Deadpool 2 and Teen Titans GO! to the Movies had heart but were mostly looking at parodying the superhero film genre (BVS was, again, everyone’s favorite joke in both films). Also, Ant-Man and the Wasp happened. But in the actual comic books themselves, big things were happening. Action Comics #1000 dropped, marking a landmark event in superhero comics, though mostly by a technicality. The issue and the many stories included were fun, fine and enjoyable, and started a solid era for the Man of Tomorrow by Brian Michael Bendis –  Marvel’s equivalent of Geoff Johns – but it would’ve been nice if the event made more waves than it did. My copy of the comic is somewhere in my room.

More relevant to this post, Amazing Spider-Man #800 saw the end of Dan Slott’s final storyline “Go Down Swinging”, and #801 bringing the end to his eight year run on the character. If you’re a passive Spider-Man fan and general comic book reader, Slott’s run will be regarded as a fine era for the character and one that got back to the basics of what most people guess is Spider-Man, albeit with several crazy additions and the most  memorable storyline in the wall crawler’s recent history, that being when he switched bodies with Doctor Octopus for two years during the Superior Spider-Man saga.

If you consider yourself a hardcore Spider-Man fan, chances are that Slott’s run was part of the problem of your favorite character being basically ruined and staying ruined since 2008. The scars from “One More Day” and the subsequent “Brand New Day” – in which Peter Parker…

*deep breath*

…was talked into trading his marriage to Mary Jane Watson to the Marvel Comics version of the Devil to save Aunt May’s life, thus radically altering his history and resulting in cringe-inducing stories where Peter claims he’s “too young to get married”, deluged with half a dozen irritating love interests, taking a job as a sleazy paparazzi photographer, battling villains such as a Vulture who throws up on people and a version of the Lizard who cannibalized his son, having masked sex with the Black Cat who’s a burglar again and gleefully steals his blood to give to a crime boss-

remained.

Slott didn’t necessarily write all of those stories, and his run was more streamlined and consistent when he became the solo writer on Amazing. He made Peter a more pro-active hero, inventing costume after costume after costume, becoming a scientist and upon striking it rich using his wealth to benefit others. But there was always a juvenile streak with his storytelling. This is where things get complicated because the love/hate reputation fans have with Slott’s era is well-trodden territory. The story of Peter Parker in how he fails to meet his potential to the world, but saves it as Spider-Man is the constant tension that fueled much of the book’s narrative since the 1980s. Webswinger, a collection of essays edited by Gerry Conway (creator of the Punisher and killer of Gwen Stacy) has more than a few writers mention this narrative and ways it can be circumvented. But Slott’s writing always felt like it leaned into the “to his friends, Peter seems like a loser” perspective, to the point where it read like the reader, despite knowing everything about the character, should agree with that take. It was in accordance with how other writers during BND depicted the character, from Mark Waid to Zeb Wells, to Bob Gale. There’s even a video online recorded shortly after OMD where while speaking at a panel, former Editor in Chief Joe Quesada straight up says that Parker is a loser, much to the vocal annoyance of the crowd.

But the turnaround for me came with Chip Zdarsky’s run on the relaunched Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man series. Whereas Slott’s run was bombastic with super science and downright wacky concepts, Zdarsky’s run leaned more into character dynamics and ingenuity. I ignored it for the first five or so issues, but word of mouth piqued my interest, and while the issue of Peter eventually revealing his identity to Jameson was  well written, it was the action sequence in #297 that grabbed my attention.

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This run showed me things that were new. Peter using the wide breadth of his abilities to their fullest extent. Him wearing the black costume with the red mask. Time traveling to a seemingly inconsequential past and righting every wrong he could. It was a fun run, full of energy and surprises. The final issue was nice and poignant in a way that recalled my second favorite era, Paul Jenkins Peter Parker series from the early 2000s.

Ultimately, Slott left Amazing halfway through 2018 to write Iron Man and the Prodigal Son Marvel book Fantastic Four. Nick Spencer, acclaimed for his series that focused on C-list Spidey villains “Superior Foes of Spider-Man” and threatened with death over his “Secret Empire” storyline where Captain America turned out to be a sleeper HYDRA agent, hopped onto the book with Invincible artist Ryan Ottley. One can see this as a redemption for Spencer, even though I thought Secret Empire wasn’t the worst story ever (word on the street is that Axel Alonso, the successor to Joe Quesada as Marvel’s EIC got fired over the major backlash to the story). I didn’t expect much from Spencer’s Spidey, because his image had been set in stone for the last decade. Even beyond the comics, there had been two cartoons depicting the teenage “fifteeeeeeen” year old Spider-Man that was seemingly born into a full established Marvel U, despite him being around production-wise well before most of the heroes in the comics. The adult Spidey had been stamped a dope in major crossovers, even in ones that demanded his direct involvement such as Siege when Norman Osborn captured Asgard or some sh*t. So there was no real reason to think anything of this new era, based on Marvel’s current mode of operation in refining characters for the face of their brand. To the point when Joshua Lapin-Bertone called me on the phone to discuss the last page of Spencer’s first issue, my immediate response was “Yeah, right.”

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It’s not so much that ASM as a series requires Peter and Mary Jane to be together, but that their reunion demonstrates an understanding which the previous brand, the previous version of Spider-Man from the 90s through the mid-2000s carried: a sense of maturity that fans appreciated. People identify with Peter Parker, and while they root for him and laugh with him and sometimes laugh at him, their connection to the character is much deeper than that of the writing experiment on the other side of the aisle at Marvel. It’s not fair, but it’s how it is. Additionally, Mary Jane’s return recalls the last time the character was at his highest profile. During the Raimi movie era, Mary Jane was the face of Marvel women. Books and YA novels and miniseries were made to both profit off of Kirsten Dunst’s popular* portrayal and to broaden the scope of who could now read Marvel Comics without being alienated. And in the last decade, I think the same attention to that detail of female readership has remained, with Kamala Khan and Spider-Gwen and America Chavez and especially Carol Danvers. But Mary Jane is iconic in a different way, and in a more “Spider-Man” way. Her troubled home upbringing and her relationship to Peter represent a recognizable domesticity that delivers not escapism but a sense of normalcy. Things can be bad but they can also be good, again.

So my engagement with the Spider-Man comics was back in full swing. Not that I had ever really left, but the Miles series had stagnated, and everyone was pretty much waiting Bendis out. With him on Action Comics and especially Superman, he clearly needed a change of scenery. Miles is a character I always wanted to like more than I have, which isn’t to say that I don’t like him. His original series was interesting, and I rapidly went after the first Spider-Men miniseries. The death of his mother at the hands of Venom was a stunning issue. But then Secret War happened and he was living in a New York with the adult Parker-Spidey and his mom was alive again and his dad knew who he was and…continuity just did this character in, and Bendis couldn’t really keep my interest beyond “exasperated fealty“.

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But the new PS4 comes out and includes Miles Morales in a way which was so seamless and clean that I don’t know why it didn’t occur to Bendis to follow the same storytelling avenues. In both of the comics origins, Miles never demonstrates any interest in Spider-Man before he gets his powers and in the Jason Reynolds novel neither Spider-Man (Parker) nor any Marvel heroes are mentioned at all. In this game he’s a Spidey fan, which gives him an ideal to follow once his father dies. He acts heroic and yearns to do more, well before the spider bites him. We see him meet Peter, meet Spider-Man, never connecting the two until the post-credits sequence. Thus, a full developed character is realized well before he shows off any new abilities or gets close to putting on a costume. Not to suggest that Bendis didn’t do a decent job in the comics, but the connection to Spider-Man is going to grab our interest faster. The best thing about Miles in the game is his relationship to Peter. They’re friends. Miles learns about Peter’s dead parents and uncle and sees him in a different light than he did at his father’s funeral. Peter acts like a friend to him, never pushing but suggesting and always supportive. When Miles reveals his powers at the end, it’s his enormous luck that the one guy he feels he can talk to is the only guy he could ever talk to about what’s happening to him.

Miles always implied huge potential, but most of his stories have been about that hypothetical potential. The prospect of a young, black Spider-Man making the key selling-point of the world’s most relatable hero that much more attractive has failed to materialized because everyone’s busy stuck in the “what if scenario” of that prospect. He’s got new powers, a cool costume and a solid supporting cast. As a character in his own right, he’s perfectly likable. But in the eight years since his creation, Bendis could only run the ball so far, not really heading anywhere towards the end-zone. Is the ball of diversity really the game we’re playing? If so, is it a good game?

When the word of mouth for Into the Spider-Verse came in, I got anxious. Going back to our last episode, both Harry and I have hang-ups about checking out popular things, much to our loss. Either the hype is too big, or we just don’t end up caring about things most other people care about. Or we wait too long to see what’s really great out there. But Spider-Verse had me with the first teaser trailer, with visuals I wished I would’ve thought up. An animated Miles in a world with an MCU Peter Parker felt like a cop-out and a runner’s up trophy, so the announcement of the film gave way to my superficially excited loyalty. But with this film and most great things, the imagination and the senses are playgrounds for the next icon. The films begins with a sonic chorus of excitement and adrenaline tantamount to a power-up sequence from Dragon Ball Z, climaxing with a stamp of approval from the Comics Code of Authority. I laughed in my first viewing, but it’s not a cheap gag appealing to meta-ness. It’s a paean to the source material, and far from the last one. The following hour and sixteen minutes are filled to the brim with kaleidoscopic rainbows, hip-hop beats ranging from smooth to booming, lightning fast references and Easter eggs that had my eyes ping-ponging back and forth like a shonen character keeping up with an invisible fight. But that’s all the topping.

This film proposes a catechism that sets the basic question of multiple Spider-People and defines what it is that keeps them similar, yet different and how those differences and similarities are valuable. Who is Miles Morales? He is Spider-Man. Who is Spider-Man? A super-powered individual with the proportional speed, strength and agility of a spider who fights crime and saves people from harm. Why do they fight? In memory of his/her lost loved one as a result of their own mistakes or failing to act with their great power. Or, in the case of Miles, to reconcile with the potential that had always been in him in order to come to terms with himself and save his and an infinite number of worlds.

The story of Miles is so baked into this film that the text echoes the meta-narrative of his published biography, and wraps around to echo the narrative in all of our lives. Everyone struggles with feelings of inadequacy, failed expectations and internalized pressure, and we’re the only ones that can bring ourselves out on the other side. In Spider-Verse, Miles is confronted with the expectations of his school and family, followed by the expectations of other Spider-People and the needs of a multiverse that will be blown apart without his help. He’s confronted on all ends to meet these challenges and throughout the first two-thirds of the movie he either backs down or fails to follow through. Coming to terms with himself can only happen on his own, no matter who talks to him, and when he decides he’s had enough he breaks through his own limitations, doing more than what anyone expected of him. The film’s final line “Anyone can wear the mask. You can wear the mask.” is a call to everyone who relates to Miles or Peter or Gwen or anyone else burdened by their own potential and the weight of expectations.

It’s also a call to imagination and expression. Writing for NBC News.com Noah Berlatsky gave the film props but also cautioned enthusiasm by reminding that it’s an also-ran animated one-off stop-gap between the adventures of the MCU’s more profitable white Peter Parker. “The movie needs so many people to pass Miles the torch because it doesn’t quite believe he can carry it. Though the film celebrates diversity, the fact remains that most Spider-heroes are white.” For the first point, I don’t think that’s quite true. But in the second point, though the film battles the fifty-plus legacy of white Peter Parker, the message of inclusion has stayed with people to the point that the baton of diversity has been carried through via the #spidersona trend of making Spidey-personas that represent culture and incentivizing identity.

Considering the fact that the current relaunch of Miles’ book is being written by Hugo and Eisner Award-winning writer Saladin Ahmed known for addressing racism to products targeted to children, I’ve faith in a more perfect union of Spidey products. True diversity in comic books, in anywhere, is the tallest hill to climb, but it’s also one where the top isn’t too far to view considering the strides made in the past few years.

But the tangent of #spidersonas returns us to the initial point, “Will it ever be this good again”, and “would we even want it to be?” Well, yes, for the latter but the lesson I take from this year in addition to one I already learned and discussed in Part 2 of our Fan Entitlement episode is that when it comes to works with a fandom, personal enjoyment always has a pendulum swing of coming and going quality. It may not be good now or then but it will be again or someday. More more importantly, this year left me feeling inspired. Inspired  to follow my own creative interests, or really, stay in the game. We can wait around for things to get better, or how we would like them. But wouldn’t it be better to make things happen ourselves? It’s easier said than done, but it’s still worth pursuing. We tend to have a dim view of the world because of the darkness that surrounds our everyday, whether its personal circumstances or the global situation at large. But starting from the micro, from what we can control, and working our way up from that gets us further. What topped our list in 2018 showed Harry and I worlds that we want to see with the kind of creatives that we wish to be. In years past, the lack of sight of those worlds spurred us on into making them. Take the good and the bad. Use it however you can and go forward. Keep pushing, and enough will happen around you to remind you that anything is possible.

 


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