The Man Who Killed Spider-Man

Dan Slott faces his fans. Plus: Spidey's New York!

The Man Who Killed Spider-Man
Illustration by Edel Rodriguez

Think of a smart kid retelling a favorite adventure story. The breathless investment in each beat of the narrative, the tendency to linger over the suspenseful parts, the full, fresh excitement in a form grown-ups dismiss as predictable. That's Dan Slott, leaning in over a late Le Pain Quotidien lunch, telling me all the terrible things he has done to Spider-Man—and all the hell he's getting for it.

"This is 'Oh, my God, John Wilkes Booth is inside Lincoln!'" Slott says. "It's Moriarty inside Sherlock Holmes!"

He's describing the latest, maddest peril he has crafted to torment the now-50-year-old hero and his fans, and he's as giddy as they are agitated. (And, Jesus, they're agitated.) At the cliff-hanger ending of the supersize, gorgeously drawn, surprisingly expensive ($7.99!) Amazing Spider-Man #700, out the last week of December, Spider-Man's brain is trapped in the dying body of Doctor Octopus—while Doctor Octopus's brain has taken over the virile, swinging body of young Spider-Man. And, as always, "swinging" has a dual meaning in the soap opera life of this most lovelorn of superheroes: Access to Spider-Man's body and life also grants Doc Ock access to Peter Parker's, which naturally includes Parker's supermodel ex, Mary Jane Watson.

Amazing Spider-Man writer Dan Slott, in full geek regalia, gets ready to catch his mind if it blows.
Doug Zawisza
Amazing Spider-Man writer Dan Slott, in full geek regalia, gets ready to catch his mind if it blows.
The Amazing Spider-Man #175 (drawn by Ross Andru and Jim Mooney).
Courtesy Marvel Comics Inc.
The Amazing Spider-Man #175 (drawn by Ross Andru and Jim Mooney).
The Amazing Spider-Man #161 (drawn by Andru and Mike Esposito).
Courtesy Marvel Comics Inc.
The Amazing Spider-Man #161 (drawn by Andru and Mike Esposito).
The Amazing Spider-Man #638 (drawn Paolo Rivera).
Courtesy Marvel Comics Inc.
The Amazing Spider-Man #638 (drawn Paolo Rivera).
Peter Parker trashed Spidey in No. 50 (drawn by John Romita Sr. and Mike Esposito), but there were no Internet trolls in 1967 to trash writer Stan Lee.
Courtesy Marvel Comics Inc.
Peter Parker trashed Spidey in No. 50 (drawn by John Romita Sr. and Mike Esposito), but there were no Internet trolls in 1967 to trash writer Stan Lee.

"They have a date!" Slott says. "And it gets worse!"

Spider-Man pairing up again with Mary Jane has been a cause taken up bitterly by the comic-shop faithful for 155 issues now, ever since Marvel Comics dissolved the couple's marriage with a bit of hocus-pocus in Amazing Spider-Man #545. Reluctant to have a divorced hero, but also tired of having a drearily married one whose wife was forever getting kidnapped, the company contrived to have Mary Jane do a deal with a (literal) devil to scrap the marriage to save the life of Peter Parker's truest longtime love: his doting Aunt May.

So the death threats Slott has lately been receiving on Twitter and YouTube are as much about what he has done to poor Spider-Man as they are about what he's doing to fans dedicated to Spider-Man's 1990s status quo: He's salting the wounds. On Twitter, a reader expressed a desire to "shove a pencil" in Slott's eye; to less playful threats, he tweeted back: "I'm middle-aged and out of shape. I can't take someone in a fight. But I can sue them."

Forking at his quiche lorraine, Slott seems unshaken. "I read them as a positive thing," he says. "We've got them this hooked. A friend showed me this YouTube video that is the equivalent of 'Leave Britney Alone.' This guy is screaming, 'Why have you done this to Spider-Man?' I'm a horrible human being. I've taken fiendish delight in everyone's pain and suffering."

That delight is apparent throughout the 70-odd issues Slott has written since joining the staff of The Amazing Spider-Man. (He is now the comic's head writer.) What's strange about the fanboy outrage Slott has stirred this time is that even his detractors admit the actual comics themselves are good. A typical review of issue 700, on Ain't It Cool News, acknowledges that "the story was handled fairly well" and "hit on some very emotional levels" and even conceded "Maybe, just maybe, it's possible that Dan Slott isn't a total douchebag." Still, the post's author snarls, "Killing off Peter Parker and replacing him with a megalomaniac is quite possibly the worst idea since the clone saga." (If you don't know about Spidey's "clone saga," we'll spare you.)

"We're a crazy medium where people put on skintight costumes, climb up walls, fly, and shoot things out of their eyes," Slott says. "If there's any part of you that goes, 'You can't do a brain swap!' then you should go read Great Expectations." He rattles off a list of other fantastic story lines from his run on Amazing: "If you say, 'You can't give everyone in Manhattan superpowers!' or 'You can't create a doorway that takes you 24 hours into a future where Manhattan is destroyed!' remember, this is the Marvel Universe. We have mutant children raised by talking cows. We have teleporting dogs. It's fun."

It's somewhat fitting that the masked vigilante's 50th anniversary is marked with such discord. After all, in the comics, TV shows, and movies, Spider-Man is perennially detested by the powers that be. (Although "real" New Yorkers, usually central casting construction workers and crane operators, are always there to shout that he's all right.) Here, it is the fans howling for Slott's head and/or eye, fulminating with the recklessness of Spidey-hating newspaper coot J. Jonah Jameson, the flat-topped editor played by J.K. Simmons in the Sam Raimi films. Just as Jameson's Daily Bugle rages that Spider-Man is a "menace," these fans insist that "douchebag" Slott—a man whose apartment is as decked out with Spidey swag as a 10-year-old's bedroom—must hate Spider-Man.

The high-profile cock-up of Julie Taymor's Broadway Spider-Man didn't elicit this crowd's fury. Neither did Hollywood's recent re-re-telling of the hero's origin story. (How many times have even non-Spidey fans had to sit through Uncle Ben's death?) But movies and musicals are less intimate pop experiences than a comic crafted by a handful of creators. As an audience, the couple hundred thousand still ponying up $3.99 per issue are probably closer to the producers of their culture than any other—save maybe those Game of Thrones fans George R. R. Martin has knighted at barbecues.

United by a ComiCon-bred- intimacy, the creators and readers share a subculture distinguished by two quirks: 1. Dedication to a print art form that remains the headwaters of the superhero digital pop-culture flood, which means it's possible to believe that Spider-Man being ruined in a comic might, via some trickle-down mechanism, ruin him everywhere. 2. The awareness that comics readers are the pool from which future comics creators emerge, which means readers angry at a story's shittiness naturally assume they could do better themselves. At the end of that Ain't It Cool review, the critic—KletusCassiday—pleads with Marvel to replace Slott, adding: "Contact me if you need to. I have a couple stories up my dirty, whiskey-stained flannel sleeve!"

The stories up Slott's sleeve aren't shitty, though. If you read them unencumbered by pre-existing opinions about Peter Parker's marital status, and with an acceptance that wildness is much of the medium's appeal, the trade paperbacks collecting Slott's issues (such as the huge Big Time Ultimate Collection) are as fresh and lively as any in the wall-crawler's half-century. They're as sharply written as top TV and much more inventive than any of the Spider-Man movies, reading at times like a long, riffing "what if" session: What if everyone in Manhattan had the same powers as Spider-Man? What if J. Jonah Jameson became the mayor of New York? What if Peter Parker weren't always hapless and broke?

"Peter Parker always wanted to be a scientist," Slott says, with a degree of feeling for the character that a "total douchebag" would find impossible to muster. "In his very first appearance, he invented his own web-shooters, and after that almost nothing. All these years, he's been a photographer, which, if you think about it, says very little about what Peter Parker can accomplish. He just webs the camera to the wall, and it takes pictures of him as Spider-Man, and that pays his rent. What a horrible, miserable existence. Sure, you saved the city from Doc Ock, but what have you done with your life? When you go to your college reunion, what do you say? 'Yes, I've been taking pictures of Spider-Man. They're kind of blurry and out of focus, and his head is always cropped out.'"

So Slott let Peter Parker get ambitious—and much less whiny than Tobey Maguire's take on the character. "Now, with Peter's new job at Horizon Labs, when Spider-Man has a problem with a villain, Peter Parker will come up with a scientific solution and them some peaceful application for his new tech—so he can earn his paycheck. He's found a way to have the best of Peter Parker and the best of Spider-Man and have them work in tandem."

Or at least he did, before Parker's brain got trapped in Doctor Octopus's dying body. That story has been gestating for years, Slott says, but a good jump-on point for the curious is Amazing Spider-Man #698, an accessible read for those not fully invested in the Spidey-verse. After #700, Amazing Spider-Man will cease publication for the first time since its launch in 1963. The cancellation—which is certainly temporary—has incensed the incensible, who are (honest to God) arguing over the permanence of changes to a character worth billions to his corporate owners. Reminding them that even Spider-Man's marriage didn't stick would probably just set them off more. This month marks the debut of Slott's new Superior Spider-Man, an ongoing series about the mad Doctor Octopus's adventures in Spider-Man's body—and, quite possibly, in Mary Jane's.

EIGHT LEGS, FIVE BOROUGHS:

The Arachnid Tour of NYC

The Village Voice: What's Mayor Michael Bloomberg doing in the New York of Marvel Comics?

DAN SLOTT: Emptying Mayor J. Jonah Jameson's wastebasket.

Jameson is the mayor in Marvel New York now. He seems to shift, over the years, from the worst of all yellow journalists to a paragon of journalistic integrity.

I blame Frank Miller. That happened in Daredevil. Before that, Jonah was all: "I ate a bad sandwich. Spider-Man! He must have done something to the mayo!" Anything would set him off. "My son went to the moon and came back, and no one threw him a parade. Spider-Man!" The problem for us now is that with the sole exception of The Village Voice, newspapers are irrelevant. Everyone just goes online. We might as well have Jonah making Betamax tapes or playing on his Atari. The fun of Jonah is he's the biggest thorn in Spider-Man's side, so making him mayor of New York—of course."

Is the money Mayor Jameson has to invest in Spider-Slayer robots and armor some sort of commentary on the real NYPD's billion-dollar para-military budget?

I'm going to say yes because it makes me look smart. But the answer is no. It's just Jonah! What's he going to do when he takes over the city? "We need a Spider-Slayer Army!" Obviously!

Was your idea of what New York would be like informed by reading comics?

I've been here almost 20 years, but, yes, when I was growing up in California, my entire image of New York was from Marvel comics. New York is the extra character in any Spider-Man story. When we did Spider-Island, the cause of it was bedbugs. And a lot of the biggest moments in his life are rooted in New York geography: Gwen Stacy being thrown off the Brooklyn Bridge. In the original comic, it's the George Washington Bridge, because of a story point, but the art was clearly the Brooklyn Bridge, and over the years, that's what it's become. In Spider-Island, we had Spider-Man and Mary Jane fighting giant spiders on top of the Empire State Building. That's always been their special spot. His meeting place with the Human Torch is the top of the Statue of Liberty. When he pledged that nobody else would ever die while he is Spider-Man, he was overlooking Washington Square Park. Everywhere you look, there's something that links Spider-Man to physical New York.

And somehow they're all still standing despite the battles.

Here's an obscure fact. Captain Britain for a couple of issues was an exchange student who was Peter Parker's roommate. When they started having adventures, Spider-Man and Captain Britain, their meeting spot was the Chrysler Building. And his current job, Horizon Labs, is stationed at South Street Seaport. He's living in Tribeca. This terrible event happens in #700 in Columbus Circle, right in front of the globe. You could have a New York tour based just on what happens to Spider-Man.

After 9/11, there was that special issue, done by other creators, where Spider-Man surveyed the damage at the World Trade Center. Would you ever do anything like that, maybe for Sandy?

Marvel's doing an issue: what happens to Hawkeye [the bow-wielding Avenger] during Sandy. So you have all these moments where he's linked to New York. And Spider-Man can only work in New York. When I was a kid, I liked the Spider-Man cartoons, but the thing that got me into comics was Spider-Man coming to my town to a 7-Eleven to sign comics. I was eight, and I brought my first comics for him to sign. I got there early because I wanted to see him swing him in. This was Spielbergian California, like E.T. or Poltergeist, and after a while I started freaking out because I realized there were no tall buildings for him to swing on.

Will you know when it's time to let someone else take over Amazing or Superior or Whatever Spider-Man?

If I ever wake up and think, "I have to write Spider-Man" rather than "I get to write Spider-Man," that's when I stop. But I am a long way from that. You walk into my apartment, and it looks like Spider-Man's head blew up.

ascherstuhl@villagevoice.com

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7 comments
JiminNYC
JiminNYC

It isn't that you can't do brain-swap stories.  It's that they've been done.  Repeatedly.  Ad infinitum, ad nauseum, ad vomitum.  As for stealing Spider-Man's identity, three words:  Kraven's Last Hunt.


Also, why does a comic book need a "head writer"--implying that there are secondary ones?  How many people does it take to write a 50-pages-or-fewer comic book, particularly since the modern style disdains such "archaic" conventions as narration and thought balloons, leaving only dialogue?

Vincenzo
Vincenzo

Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can...


No, I won't torture you with that, but I will regale you with my history. I believe my first actual comic ever was Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man #34, with the Lizard and his creation, the Iguana.

I grew up a science geek, just like Pete...well, not exactly like Pete. I was already very tall and made lots of friends by my formative years. I wasn't really shy around girls; in fact, I managed to make friends with the most beautiful girls in school since sixth grade on. Yes - I mean all of your, my dear women friends.

I got an aeronautics kit for Christmas one year - and what a fantastic year that was! The next year, I got a scientific kit, and I may still have the microscope from said kit - no slides, however.

Still, with my scientific acumen, I could imagine being the wall-crawling hero, wisecracks and all. One of the highlights of my life was being invited to the Marvel Comics offices (when they were still located at 287 Park Avenue South) to participate in a round table to discuss the future of comic books - and I got to take a picture with Spider-Man! I still have it, along with my over 15,000 comic collection, which, unfortunately, is languishing in a storage unit in Naples, Florida as we speak. At this point, I'd be interested in either establishing a comic book museum or donating them to a library - if anyone has any ideas along these lines, please write to me at masterkhan69@hotmail.com and let's see what develops. I do wish to hold on to a couple of books; namely, my copy of Amazing Spider-Man 252 autographed by Stan "The Man" Lee, along with X-Men vs. Micronauts #1, autographed by the great Bill Mantlo, who I just ran into at Jugger Grimrod's shop back in the 80's. 

As you can see, I'm a real comics buff. There's something unique to the comics art form that you cannot get anywhere else - in sequential art, you get to control the media. You can study the panel for as long as you like. To use the example of Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons turned a murder mystery into one of the richest examples of what could b done with a blank piece of paper - and gave us something in which each subsequent reading unpeels yet another layer of the onion that is the story of Edward Morgan Blake, who has been murdered before you have opened the cover of the book. Or try out The Coyote Gospel, featuring Buddy Baker, also known as Animal Man, written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Charles "Chas" Truog and Doug Hazlewood - if you are a fan of the Warner Brothers family of cartoons, as I am, you'll delight in the nuances of this story. If you want to start easy, pick up a Sandman trade paperback by Neil Gaiman. If you've ever pondered how a utopia forced upon its citizens would work out, look no further than Squadron Supreme, written by the dearly departed Mark Gruenwald, illustrated by Bob Hall, Paul Ryan and the also departed John Buscema, aided by a host of inkers, colorists, letterers and assistants. 

I've met so many creators - I even had the pleasure of having Walt and Weezie as the special guests at the Science Fiction Club (thanks for the Thor/Beta Ray Bill drawing, Uncle Walt!), and I have a number of books in my collection signed by said creators. I would love to get at a couple of key books - the rest can be up for grabs. Write to me at the above listed address - let's see what we can do.

Now, I mentioned what many people know as the cream of the crop of the comic book art form, but Spider-Man is an icon. Spider-Man is a voice. Spider-Man could be YOU. Spider-Man could be ME.

That's what Dan Slott maybe sees in Spider-Man. That's why he's having the time of his life chronicling the adventures of Peter Parker...even though he's not quite Peter Parker right now, right? After all, it's what's this article is about. 

But Dan has a point - Peter Parker is a scientist; and yet, besides the mostly minor inventions used to tackle separate cases, before joining Horizon Labs, Peter had missed his calling.

Here is why Stan and Steve (Ditko) are great - after 50 years in existence, the formerly Amazing (and now Superior) Spider-Man still has room for growth.

So...to Dan Slott - I hope that the morning you wake up dreading to have to write Spider-Man is indeed far off. Let me say it now - if I run into you at a convention, I'll owe you a hearty handshake and some good conversation to offer. Ask Peter David - he got me to caress James Fry's dreads, and we're all still pals.

Right, guys?

Binkconn
Binkconn

Great article. Comics don't get enough credit for creating an advanced literacy in kids that school curriculums don't provide. Slott's changes are bold and the reboot the character deserves.  Nice job, Scherstul!

 
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