Change in Stories — The Curious Case of the Superior Spider-Man

Oh my God, they killed Spider-Man (or did they?) ! Indeed, the final pages of Amazing Spider-Man #700 feature a rather grizzly end to Peter Parker’s webslinging days. To add insult to injury, his identity is usurped by super-villain Dr. Octopus, who promptly proclaims himself to be the Superior Spider-Man. To call the issue controversial would be akin to calling the Harry Potter franchise a moderate sales success. Spider-Man scribe Dan Slott was flooded with angry tweets, hate mail and even death threats. Change, it seems, can be hard to accept — even if it happens in the realm of fiction.

Change is very much a double-edged sword. Whether it arises as a direct result of our choices or serves as a reminder of our helplessness in certain situations, there’s no avoiding it. It’s something we just have to live with. You’ll never know how your career might’ve turned out if you hadn’t turned down that job. There’s no way to unsay that horrible thing you said. What’s done is done; there are no do-overs.

Change in fiction is an entirely different beast. In fiction, there is always a do-over. Literally everything that’s done can be undone in the blink of an eye. If the good folks at Marvel so desired, they could have 15-year-old Peter Parker wake up in bed next month, revealing the last 50 years of Spider-Man stories to have been a dream sequence of epic proportions. Probably wouldn’t take more than one tightly written page. I’m not saying it would be a good idea or even something I’d want to see, but the fact that such a possibility exists is exciting. In our world, death is the ultimate, most threatening form of change. In the world of fiction, it can be reduced to a footnote in a much grander story. That doesn’t mean it should always be that way — but it’s an option. I, too, used to complain about the much lamented „revolving door of death“ in comic books. I’ve since stopped my eyerolling because it’s things like this door that make fiction fun.

Amazing Spider-Man #700 wasn’t the death of Spider-Man; it was death of Spider-Man. This is neither the first time a verison of the character has died nor is it likely to be the last. We’ve already read „final“ Batman stories 1 and „final“ Superman stories 2, and yet the adventures of Batman and Superman continue unimpeded. Spider-Man, too, has conquered death long ago — Peter Parker will still be swinging across the New York skyline when I‚m dead and buried. He and his ilk will live forever in comic books and TV shows and movies; on t-shirts and posters; and, of course, in the hive mind of pop culture. Grant Morrison once suggested that these „paper people“ are actually more real than we are, because they have much longer lives and are known by more people than any of us.3 You couldn’t end their stories if you tried.

So, why play it safe? The world of fiction knows no bounds and its inhabitants are, for all intents and purposes, immortal. You couldn’t ask for a more exciting playground or a better place to escape to. Imposing artificial limits and real-world concerns on this environment merely serves to dampen its power.

In Neil Gaimain’s aforementioned „final“ Batman story Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, a dying Batman becomes privy to the ever-changing iterations of his own life and death. He realizes that he’s lived more than just one life. This is what he takes away from the experience:

[I]t doesn’t matter what the story is, some things never change. Because even when they aren’t talking about me, they are. Because they’re talking about Batman. […] Sometimes I die hugely, bravely, saving the city […]. Sometimes it’s a small, ironic, unnoticed death […]. Everything changes. Nothing stays the same. Every friend betrays me, sooner or later. Every enemy becomes a lover or a friend, but that’s the one thing that doesn’t change: I don’t ever give up. […] I’m the Batman. […]4

The monologue summarizes the nature of Batman and iconic characters like him. They are flexible. They can be bent and shaped and molded in countless ways without breaking. They are made to endure. Only in fiction can one person have a hundred lives, a hundred faces, a hundred bites at the apple. In my book, that’s something worth celebrating.

Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? concludes with Bruce Wayne dying and being reborn into a new reality, where his path towards becoming Batman begins anew. Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? ends with a wink, as a retired Superman reveals to the reader that he survived his „final“ adventure after all. And a quick peak at Marvel’s Superior Spider-Man #1 makes it clear that we haven’t seen the last of Peter Parker. Maybe this „new“ Spider-Man doesn’t feel like „your“ Spider-Man. That’s okay. Your Spider-Man isn’t going anywhere. You will see him again in one way or another. As the great Alan Moore famously put it:

„This is an imaginary story… Aren’t they all?“5

  1.  Neil Gaiman Writes a Final ‘Love Letter to Batman’
  2.  ‚Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?‘ on Wikipedia
  3.  Grant Morrison explains realism in comics
  4. Gaiman, Neil: Batman – Detective Comics (Vol.1) #853, p.12-14. 04/2009, DC Comics
  5.  Moore, Alan: Superman – Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?. 1997,  DC Comics