Deus Ex Machina: When a writer can’t figure out how to properly end a story, so the Gods step in and rewrite reality to make things go the way the writer wants them to go.
Deimos Ex Machina: When a benevolent God won’t set things up the way the writer wants, so he brings in a demon to do the job instead.
WARNING: stop reading now if you don’t want to be spoiled.
So far, the first 538 issues of Amazing Spider-Man, as well as all of the annuals, have been covered by one review or another. My original intent was to review issues 539-545, as well as the final issues of Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man and Sensational Spider-Man in a single review, capping off J. Michael Straczynski’s run. That’s not going to happen in exactly this fashion. The reason is this: the “Back In Black” and “One More Day” issues under review are too disparate to be handled correctly in a single review. Furthermore, I feel that a review of a comic should be based entirely on the finished product in the reviewer’s hand (or DVD-ROM), and not based on rumours and suppositions based on online chitchat.
My first column dealing with “One More Day” cannot be that unbiased. So, all of the rants and tangents that would have cluttered up the actual review are coming forward now. I’ll get caught up on reviews of “Back In Black” and “One More Day” before “Brand New Day” starts January 9, but they’ll be in two different reviews, and neither will be today.
First, I need to give you kind folks a rundown of what “One More Day” is. Essentially, it’s a complete reworking and redrafting of the status quo for the world’s most popular web slinger. Mephisto gives Peter a chance to save Aunt May’s life from the bullet meant for him, but in exchange, he has to give up his marriage to Mary Jane. He’s not trading one life for another, he’s not getting a divorce, and he’s not getting a wedding anullment. He’s getting a history anullment. The marriage will have never happened. It starts in Amazing Spider-Man #544, continues through Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man #24 and Sensational Spider-Man #41, and ends in Amazing Spider-Man #545. In the first issue of the event, writing credit goes to J. Michael Straczynski and pencil credit goes to Joe Quesada. By the final issue, they share story credit, with Straczynski listed first. I strongly suspect this underestimates Quesada’s impact on the story.
For those not familiar with Marvel’s staffing, Joe Quesada is the current Editor-in-Chief of Marvel, and he has served in that role for several years. (In fact, his may be the longest tenure seen since Stan Lee, but I haven’t checked the dates to confirm that.) In his time, he has managed to form partnerships with Stephen King, launch the Ultimate line, bring mass media talent (include Straczynski) in from Hollywood, and generally clean up the mess left by Marvel’s near bankruptcy. In general, his time at the top has been a very good thing for the company as a whole. However, no man is completely infallible.
I’m one of the many who read and enjoyed the “Joe Fridays” columns at Newsarama, in which he’d step up and answer any reasonably phrased question fans put to him. I applaud him for taking that risk. It generated interest in me, as a fan, in the material Marvel was publishing, and can be directly credited for convincing me to try out titles I hadn’t previously invested in. It also let us in on the decisions and considerations going on “behind the scenes.” Among these jewels were what Quesada considered to be the major genies that needed to be put back into their bottles at Marvel. The first genie was the sheer volume of mutants. Being a mutant was no longer considered as unique or special as it used to be; hence came “House of M,” “M-Day” and the 198. The mutant population dropped drastically under the pen of Brian Michael Bendis, and we saw major changes in the X-titles that brought about some very interesting stories. Like it or not, any reader has to admit that the story really did change things, and that it really felt like Bendis’ story.
The genie that seems to have been plaguing Quesada the most was Spider-Man’s marriage. In his view, Spider-Man works best as a very young character, free to deal with relationship issues with any woman he meets. Quesada has said that he felt a married Spider-Man was an older Spider-Man, and that the stories which could be told with him are limited by his committment to a single woman. Quesada has also said, however, that we were stuck with the marriage, since a divorced or widowed Spider-Man would be even older. Still, he felt that the marriage was a huge mistake, and that the stories which could be told were very limited.
Let’s digress a moment to look at the Spider-Man titles Marvel has on the market right now. Going in order based on the number of issues published, then first and foremost, we have Amazing Spider-Man, the flagship title that started it all. This is the foundation of Spider-Man continuity, and it has a married Spider-Man. Lately, this seems to fit the role of showing how Spider-Man fits into the Marvel Universe at large. Second is Ultimate Spider-Man, a reimagined version of Spider-Man who is still a very young and unmarried high school student. Next up, we are met with Sensational Spider-Man, originally launched as Marvel Knights Spider-Man, which also takes place in mainstream continuity with a married Spider-Man, and has spent the past few years showing Spider-Man’s adventures that don’t impact the rest of the Marvel Universe. Our fourth title up is Marvel Adventures Spider-Man, an all ages title that restarted continuity, as Ultimate Spider-Man did, but is also acceptable (though not necessarily geared for) younger audiences, and tends to tell complete stories in a single issue. The last time I checked (back when this was a “Marvel Age” title) Spider-Man was unmarried here, as well. The fifth title is Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man, a mainstream continuity title that revolves around Spider-Man’s interactions with his supporting cast. Spider-Man is married here. Our sixth and final title is Spider-Man Family. If my understanding is correct (and it may not be, as I haven’t read the title; I’m basing this on the descriptions of the “Back In Black” event crossover issue, which may have been a one time thing), this allows writers to tell stories about Spider-Man and his supporting cast at any point in Spider-Man’s continuity. So, it allows for stories in which Spider-Man is married as easily as those in which he isn’t married.
Let’s do some basic math here: six titles, three which can only have a married Spider-Man, one definitely with a single Spider-Man, one which likely still has a married Spider-Man, and one which may be able to go either way. Married or unmarried, if you’ve got a Spider-Man story to tell, it can be told in one of these titles. Furthermore, if you want to tell a story without supplanting that title’s current writer, you can create a miniseries, such as Spider-Man / Black Cat: The Evil That Men Do (which was set a few real world years before the story ended, when Peter and MJ were separated, allowing Kevin Smith to write the story he wanted to write) or Spider-Man: Reign (set in the future) or Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four set at an unspecified time in the past. The bottom line is that the pre-“One More Day” Marvel line of titles had room for stories in which Peter and Mary Jane were married, and for stories in which they weren’t.
Now, let’s look at the post-“One More Day” options. Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man and Sensational Spider-Man have both been cancelled. The logic is this: most people who collect just one title of the three collect Amazing Spider-Man, and the writers of the other two titles can’t make significant continuity changes for fear of messing with the flagship. Instead, starting January 9, 2008, Amazing Spider-Man will ship three times a month. Those of us who collect all three titles will, in theory, see smoother storytelling with better odds of any given issue having long term importance. (I’m also sure that Marvel hopes they’ll sell three times as many comics to people who just get one of the three titles.) The other three titles continue on as before.
In other words, if a writer wants to tell a story in which Spider-Man is married, he or she has no place to tell it. You can’t tell it in Ultimate Spider-Man, unless Peter and MJ want to get married before they’re old enough to drive. You can’t tell it in Amazing Spider-Man, because Peter’s single again. You can’t tell it in Marvel Adventures Spider-Man, unless Peter did or is about to get married again in a hurry. You can’t even tell it in the continuity-jumping title I believe Spider-Man Family to be, because there no longer is a continuity in which Peter and Mary Jane ever were married. The deal with Mephisto didn’t just make Peter and Mary Jane unmarried now, it made it so that they’ve never been married. We’ve gone from having room for both types of stories, to room only for stories about a single Peter Parker. Gee, Mr. Quesada, wasn’t one of your two biggest complaints about the marriage that it limited the kinds of stories that could be told? And didn’t “One More Day” have just the opposite effect, by eliminating the chance to tell stories like this little gem? Wasn’t your other big complaint that it aged Peter Parker in a way that was only apparant in three out of six titles being published?
Of course, we have to take a look at what else this continuity revision could mean. Have you ever enjoyed a Spider-Man story published from 1987 on? Well, guess what? That might not have happened anymore. Anything and everything in the last twenty years may simply be gone. It may not, of course, if it wasn’t directly involved in the wedding; we can bet Carnage is as healthy now as he was before. However, if the current Spidey writer isn’t too fond of something that happened post-wedding, it can simply go away. That’s a massive, massive revision. The question now is this: can this possibly go unnoticed?
First, we have Layla Miller. She knew something was wrong in House of M. There’s no reason to think she wouldn’t know that this time, too. Of course, she’s unpredictable enough that she may not say anything about it. Similarly, House of M established that Psylocke also would go unaltered, but as she’s currently gallavanting around with the Exiles, she may not notice the difference either. I don’t think either of these two might actually be a problem. That doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
The problem I see is this: if Peter is still a New Avenger, he’s going to be spending time around Dr. Strange. Currently, the New Avengers are running around paranoid, as they’ve learned that Skrulls are invading and replacing people with completely identical duplicates. In New Avengers: Illuminati #5, it was revealed that Black Bolt was one of these Skrulls. Moreover, the method of reveal and the reactions to it strongly implied that the other Illuminati, Dr. Strange included, were not Skrulls. Couple this with that fact that, as established in Brian K. Vaughan’s recent (and excellent) Doctor Strange: The Oath, Strange’s magic can’t perform any task that can be done with technology, and we’ve got a pretty good bet that Strange isn’t a Skrull. This means that the Sorceror Supreme, who is particularly attuned to alterations in reality, will be hanging out with Peter Parker. The odds of Strange not picking up on the differences are pretty much nil. The question then is, how would Strange respond? If this took place before the Skrull Invasion was noted, he’d probably question Peter, and go directly into an investigation, trying to determine what happened. As Peter would trust Strange, but have no recollection of the deal with Mephisto (as that is a part of the deal), he’d probably work with Dr. Strange to identify and undo whatever it was that was one. “One More Day” would then have not happened, although Peter and M.J. would probably now remember both versions of reality, and have to live with their decisions. I’m not convinced that this will play out in this fashion at all, or that it even could in the Skrull Invasion climate we have now. Perhaps Strange could convince the other Avengers that this is beyond the abilities of the Skrulls, but I don’t see them having enough trust in each other to hang out with either hero if that were the case. Rewriting reality around a New Avenger at this time means that character would be imprisoned by and/or ejected from the team, no questions asked.
If Strange doesn’t notice, then that’s a continuity flaw. The character would notice. Do I expect him to notice? No, I don’t. The reason is this: this reeks of a decision made to fit an editorial goal, rather than one to fit the characters. Strange won’t notice that which the writers and editors aren’t allowed to let him notice. This isn’t a character-based decision, but then, neither was the deal with Mephisto.
Why am I so sure this wouldn’t fit with the characters? After all, I’m not the writer. How should I know? Because, essentially, Peter already made that choice when this whole thing started. Mephisto asked him to choose between MJ and Aunt May, and he chose Aunt May. Well, if you go back to the moment when Aunt May was first shot, you’ll notice that Peter’s Spider-sense warned him of the shot about to be fired. He’s a capable and experienced hero. In similar situations in the past, he’s used his webbing to pull all endangered civilians out of the line of fire. In this case, he saved MJ, but left Aunt May behind. In other words, at this point in his life, MJ means so much to him that he forgets other people he cares about are even there. If he were the kind of guy who would have chosen Aunt May over MJ, May never would have taken the bullet in the first place.
Congratulations, Mr. Quesada. You saw what you perceived as a problem that limited the storytelling in one of the three universes over which you are the current caretaker. Your solution: limit storytelling even futher in a way that may introduce even more errors and problems into the world so many people have created over the past 46 years. Why am I giving Mr. Quesada all of the credit? Because, even if I hadn’t read the Newsarama interviews, I’ve still read everything Mr. Straczynski has written using this character. Straczynski’s writing has a certain feel to it, borne of his passion for the characters and the world they inhabit. That passion is still felt in Thor, but I didn’t feel it here. Unlike Bendis’ House of M, this doesn’t feel like the “writer’s” story. I am convinced that the plot was all Mr. Quesada’s. I am equally convinced that Straczynski’s writing credit was, ultimately, reduced to the level of dialogue work allowed to the line producers on most movie and television sets. Finally, I am convinced that it is no accident that Mr. Straczynski decided to leave this title at the end of this story arc. I’ll keep reading Amazing Spider-Man, because I have faith that the talent working on it can tell entertaining stories in any available continuity, but I will be neither saddened nor surprised to see Peter and MJ remarried early in the tenure of Marvel’s next Editor-in-Chief, whoever that may be, and whenever that may come.