Book Review, Comics, Essay

Spider-Man Life Story The 70s: What the Concept Tells About the Characters and Time

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Chip Zdarsky and crew return with the second installment of Spider-Man Life Story. this issue is set in the ’70s in the disco era. While working the concept of Spider-man and his cast of supporting characters aging through the years Zdarsky also focuses on current events in the the Spider family’s lives like Vietnam.

Along with Chip Zdarsky (Daredevil, Invaders, Jughead, Kaptara) on writing duties this issue of the book is penciled by Mark Bagley (Amazing Spider-Man, New Warriors, Trinity) , Drew Hennessy (  is on the inking duties and colors were handled by Frank D’Armata.

The concept is that we’ll get a miniseries where every issue is Spider-man as he grows older in every decade. The first issue of this miniseries was set in the ’60s and Peter Parker was a teenager. The pressure to join Vietnam was hanging over everyone and Peter had a moral decision, as a powered human should he be using his powers for his country? In the course of a single issue Peter not only deals with his feelings on Vietnam, he also has to deal with Norman Osborn learning his identity and battling Spider-man in his Green Goblin motif. The issue was good, based on the reader knowing the full concept of the miniseries, but it was still a rehashed version of a story we know and the size of the comic didn’t allow the plot to flesh out properly. The ’60s could have been its own four issue miniseries.

In issue two we’re in the disco age and the cover of the comic book reflects that. The cover is all orange depicting one of Green Goblin’s pumpkin bombs stylized as a disco ball. A very creative cover that will be on my end of the year best covers shortlist but also pops on the newstand. I saw this comic from a mile away when my local comic shop opened the day of its release.



SPOILER WARNING : SPOILERS BELOW : SPOILER WARNING

What time passing in a comic like it does in real life shows us.

The story starts with a clever misdirection. Spider-man, being one of Marvel’s most developed characters, we get a lot of Peter Parker brooding over the death of his Uncle. It was the event that made him into the Spider-man we know and the one he’ll always revert back to when some writer gets crazy with his word processor.

Peter is standing at a gravesite melancholy and talking about life. Most would assume this was Uncle Ben’s grave but when his now wife Gwen Stacy interrupts him the camera shows Peter was at Flash Thompson’s grave. Flash insisted on going to fight in Vietnam in the first issue prompting some soul searching by Peter. A comic series based on that would be a great concept.

This highlights the way real life moves on, but in the comics where the way time passes is shrugged off because it would ruin the narrative, we see characters stuck on their one defining moment. Batman has had many defining moments but we can’t seem to go more than ten issues of any one of his comics without finding ourselves back in the alley where his parents were murdered.

If Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker had to live life like we do there would be dozens of other moments that would append our defining moments as youth. In the opening pages of this comic Zdarsky misdirects us but also makes the reader realize that there was another death that Peter feels responsible for which could be an additional defining moment in his life.

Flash’s death isn’t more or less important than Uncle Ben’s but it is much more fresh. Batman and Spider-man writers haven’t been able to effectively use the impact of other deaths as drivers or changes in the character’s personality, when that event happened in their story long ago. Writer’s always revert to the defining moment.

For example in today’s Spider-man book instead of a flashback of Uncle Ben being murdered by the robber Peter let get away as a drive to have both great power and great responsibility, why not use the murder of Gwen Stacy as that driver? Batman could use Jason Todd’s death or the breaking of his back by Bane or any number of other events to reflect back on. Despite that plethora of mythology in the character’s past everything goes back to the alley in Gotham or the character in question’s defining moment leaving opportunity on the table.

For Peter Parker the more recent death of his friend Flash Thompson is a either a driver or a conflict for his decisions as Spider-man and that death is a chronological event that weighs on Peter’s soul just like his defining moment with Uncle Ben. Flash Thompson’s untimely demise and the reasons behind happen to be a more fresh pain.

The way Chip Zdarsky portrays familiar characters

An advantage of writing out of universe stories is that you can make tweaks to the actual character of our favorite comic characters. There are a few examples of this in this second issue but my favorite is Reed Richards. Reed is shown as a boss/mentor of Peter’s in the late 1970s. He is a curmudgeon with strong negative opinions about powered heroes like Iron Man keeping the US in the war. He shows support of for Captain America who has gone rogue by saving lives on both sides.

For various reasons in Peter’s opinions Reed Richards “hoards” his inventions. Peter, reflecting on current events, thinks Reed and himself could do more. Reed holds back his inventions because he sees super-human strength as something that could lead to them ruling the world and creating massive inequality.

Zdarsky and Reed Richards should read a economics book, despite that tidbit Reed’s world view give Peter a strong contrast for the way he feels and where Chip Zdarsky is likely to pull the characters in subsequent installments.

Zdarsky gets to play with Marvel history and Peter goes to a dark place with Reed referencing Sue Storm/Richards leaving him for Namor. Peter getting that dark foreshadows the aftermath of his battle with Harry Osborn, the Black Goblin, who is driven by jealousy of Peter like he is in the main run.

Zdarsky portrays a much darker pessimistic Reed Richards and it’s gives the reader a new way to look at Reed that might not work or might be too much of a departure for a writer to do in the main universe.

Mary Jane Watson makes her first appearance in the series as Harry Osborn’s girlfriend. Mary Jane is on edge and somewhat annoyed by Peter when he asks about her relationship with Harry. It’s tenuous at best and Zdarsky portrays her as somewhat shallow. I expect them to be together in future issues but at the end of issue two Mary Jane has inherited a ton of money from Harry and Peter is in dark spot mentally similar to his clone saga attitude from the story arc in the 1990s.

The first two issues have strong B to B+ level comic books. I would say the concept gets an A but unfortunately Zdarsky is required to stuff a lot of story and a lot of time into single issues. Through two issues the series comes off as a hybrid. There are a lot of elements that make the series feel like a couple of  one-shots. At the same time the stories were linked enough that it has saga written all over it.

That last point is what makes me most worried. It has saga written all over it but we’re stuffing an entire decade into what isn’t enough pages to flesh out the story and let Zdarsky’s plotting shine.

So I talked a lot about the writing. I want to make it clear I realize that comics aren’t all words. In subsequent write-up / think pieces / reviews / critical thinking essays I’ll take a closer look at Mark Bagley and crew.