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.
“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.