The Amazing Spider-Masochist

Matt Singer on the masochism of the comics fan and the ultimate masochist superhero, Spider-Man.

The Amazing Spider-Masochist

Somewhere between "Mama" and more complex consonant and vowel combinations like "Bob Barker," I spoke one of my very first words: "Meh-Meh." That was my 15 month old attempt to pronounce the name of my very first hero:

Spider-Man.

I've loved Spider-Man since before I could relate to Peter Parker, uber-nerd picked on and teased by his peers in high school. I've loved Spider-Man since before I could even read a Spider-Man comic, when he was a recurring character on the PBS children's television show, The Electric Company. In my home office, there's an entire wall dedicated to Spider-Man: action figures, dolls, stuffed animals, statues, busts and original artwork from Spidey comic books. My wife calls it my "golden calf." Maybe it is.

When I was 12 years old, Spidey turned 30, and Marvel Comics celebrated his anniversary with a series of "cool" holographic covers. My dad, a comic book fan as a kid (he owned Spider-Man's first appearance, Amazing Fantasy #15, along with many other significant Marvel first issues until my grandmother, bless her soul, threw them away), must have read an article about it somewhere, and told me about it. The next time we went to the video store I spotted Amazing Spider-Man #365 on a spinner rack. I bought it. And then I tracked down the next issue. A formerly casual comic book fan, I became fully obsessed. I own almost every issue in the 20 years since.

My Amazing Spider-Man collection ended just a few months ago - but not by my choice. That's when Marvel stunned comics fandom by canceling his flagship book. Amazing Spider-Man ended with issue #700, and so did Peter Parker's life when he died at the hands (all eight of them) of his arch-nemesis Otto "Doctor Octopus" Octavius. Using some kind of brain-swapping technology, Doc Ock swapped minds with Peter, putting his own consciousness into the body of Spider-Man, and trapping Peter inside his own frail, rapidly dying form. Peter used all of his own genius to try to transfer himself back - and failed. And then, in a shocking moment, he died, making Octavius the new "Superior" Spider-Man, who got his own comic and new #1 issue, starting last month. Not a dream, not a hoax: Peter Parker was dead.

Spider-Man fans, somewhat understandably, lost their minds. Doc Ock in Spider-Man's body? Won't everyone immediately know something's up when he starts talking like a super-villain? What will Mary Jane do if he comes on to her? If she hooks up with him, is that rape? Commence the rending of red-and-blue Spandex - and even, idiotically, the tweeted death threats to Amazing/Superior Spider-Man writer Dan Slott.

While the death of the main character is a pretty monumental change in a comic's status quo, I've seen a lot of monumental changes in Amazing Spider-Man's status quo in my two decades as a reader. Most of them have come and gone pretty quickly. That very first issue I bought, Amazing #365, saw the "amazing" return of Peter's missing parents, Richard and Mary. Later, they were revealed as robot doubles created by the Chameleon. In the milestone 400th issue of Amazing Spider-Man - complete with gimmick tombstone cover! - it was Aunt May's turn to kick the bucket. She stayed dead a few years, then came back when it was revealed that the May who had died was actually a "genetically-altered actress" controlled by Norman Osborn. He'd been dead for a while too; eventually he got better. Comics are like a Monty Python routine sometimes.

There was that time Peter Parker had a breakdown and Spider-Man became cruel and angry. That lasted a few months. Then Peter got tricked into believing he was a clone of the "real" Peter Parker, and he retired from superheroism so that the clone - who thought he was the "real" Peter Parker at the time - could assume the mantle of Spider-Man. That storyline dragged on for a couple years. Then Aunt May almost died again, but this time Peter and his wife Mary Jane saved her by making a deal with the devil that erased their marriage. That change stuck. For now.

It's already lasted longer than Peter Parker's "death" in Amazing #700. On the final page of Superior Spider-Man #1, just one month after his moving hero's farewell in the back matter of Amazing #700, Peter was revealed as kinda alive and mostly well, trapped in his own body as a sort of spectral presence overing around the consciousness of Doctor Octopus. As a kind of helpless observer, he sees and hears everything Doc Ock does as Spider-Man - he's basically the 1970s version of Captain Marvel or DC's character Firestorm, only the two personalities can't communicate and never switch places. But though Peter would have always come back eventually (The Amazing Spider-Man 2 hits movie theaters May 2nd, 2014, and if you don't think Marvel will have a new #1 issue on shelves to celebrate, I've got some swampland for sale in Latveria I want to sell you), the clock is already ticking on the reign of the Superior Spid-Ock-Man.

So while many Spidey readers were losing their minds, I was upset for a totally different reason. As a devout Spider-fan, I was certainly happy to see Peter Parker back - but I was sort of miffed that he came back so quickly. At least let the poor guy stay dead for a few months before you put him back to work! You kill off arguably the most beloved character in superherodom, you commit to months of hype, you convince readers to prepare themselves for a huge change, and then it doesn't even last through a single issue? I've had vacations that lasted longer than Peter Parker's final rest.

I was pretty upset. Not at Marvel; at myself. With two decades of comics readership under my belt, I should know that comic books never undergo "huge change" when the "illusion of change" will do. The illusion of change is the idea that because there always has to be a new issue of The Adventures of Superman on newsstands and in comics shops next month, nothing can ever shift too drastically. The hero might get a new haircut, or a new girlfriend, or make a deal with the devil to save a loved one at the expense of his marriage, but in the long run, everything returns to the original, classic, found-in-licensing-and-movies status quo.

I wasn't surprised by any of it. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me endlessly over the course of seven hundred comic books, shame on me. So why was I still mad? And why did I keep reading anyway? Some Peter Parker-style soul searching later, I realized:

Because these comics are supposed to make me mad - because all comics are, to varying degrees, supposed to make us mad. Whether we realize it or not, comic book reading and collecting involves an enormous amount of masochism. Which, in a way, makes Spider-Man the ultimate comic book superhero - because his entire character is defined by masochism.

Sure, I've gotten superficial pleasure out of reading thousands of comic books in my lifetime. There's the pleasure of a yarn well-told, and the pleasure of admiring some truly beautiful artwork. There's the pleasure of a clever, unforeseen plot twist, and the pleasure of a viscerally exciting action beat. There's the pleasure of great sequential storytelling and the pleasure of someone using the comic book form in new and creative ways. There's the pleasure of going to the comic book store every Wednesday, and chatting with clerks and fellow fans. There's the pleasure of ranking the best books at any given moment online and there's the pleasure of looking back at your collection from a great distance.

Yes, sometimes comic books make me happy.

But other times comic books have driven me crazy. They drive me crazy when I've been forced to buy books I don't want to complete a story that crosses over into multiple series. They drive me crazy when artists get pulled off books when they can't meet their deadlines. They drive me crazy when artists just ignore their deadlines completely (Hello Daredevil/Bullseye: The Target!).

But those are more unusual cases; when you think about it, the core business model of comic books is to drive you crazy with three little words: "To Be Continued." To Be Continued is the reason you buy every comic book, because you want to see what happens next and, more fundamentally, because you want to read the end of the story. But you'll never read the end of the story, because there's always another issue coming out and another To Be Continued. As I wrote once in The Village Voice, Superman's never-ending battle for truth and justice isn't simply a tagline. It's the essential business model of comic books. That's what mainstream superhero comics do - and that's what they're designed to do: leave you unsatisfied, so you'll go back to the store next Wednesday and buy more.

But here's the thing: no one's putting a gun to my head and forcing me to keep buying them. Marvel may have cancelled Amazing Spider-Man, but it was my choice to pick up Superior Spider-Man #1. Which means that on some level I actually derive a kind of pleasure out of being driven crazy; that I am kind of a masochist (this might also explain why I'm a New York Mets fan). Somehow, these feeling of dissatisfaction and torment make me happy.

Spider-Man can relate. Every time he straps on his web-shooters, he does it to punish himself. Everyone knows his credo - "With great power must come great responsibility" - and the fact that Peter's one selfish act resulted in the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. Now he becomes Spider-Man not because he wants to, but because he has to in order to atone for his sins. Even if Peter Parker was only actually dead for about 25 pages, that was really the only way his story ever could end - he hates himself too much, blames himself too much for Uncle Ben's death, to stop being Spider-Man for any other reason.

Peter Parker himself, then, is comic book medium's commentary on its readership. Any sane person would have eventually said "Y'know what? I've done enough. I did kinda get Uncle Ben killed, but since then I've saved thousands of people, and maybe the entire world on a couple of occasions. I've earned a few days off." But not Peter - and not a comic book reader. We both enjoy the pain too much.

The interesting twist on this angle: part of Superior Spider-Man is about this very idea. Check out some of Peter Parker's comments as he watches Doc Ock ruin his life:

-"He's saying super villain stuff! How can no one see through this?!"

-"MJ! No! Don't fall for it."

-"It's official. I've stepped through the looking glass. Doc Ock's mind has been in my body for two weeks and he's already got Jameson eating out of his hand."

Complaining about storylines and the actions of the characters; arguing that they're doing and saying stuff they shouldn't do and say; helplessly watching these events unfold; kvetching but never looking away or doing something else. You know what Peter Parker sounds like in these new issues?

He sounds like a frustrated Spider-Man fan. 

Good or bad, too quick or too slow, this Superior Spider-Man storyline has at the very least, reinforced the idea that Spider-Man is comics' ultimate hero - and its ultimate masochist. And for as long as this status quo continues, it seems like he'll get to keep feeling his fans' pain. Because with absolutely no power comes the responsibility - to gripe and keep reading regardless.

Matt Singer's photo About the Author: Matt Singer runs Criticwire, the blog of film criticism, at Indiewire.com and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. He owns the original art for the back cover of Spidey Super Stories #8.
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