Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Web of Insanity: Spider-Verse Thoughts

Comic readers have an insatiable appetite for alternate universes. Whether it was DC's old multiverse and imaginary stories, Marvel's What If's and Ages of Apocalypses, or DC's new multiverse, people who read comics will never, never, ever, never ever stop thinking "Hey, I love these characters, but what if they were different?" Would they hold true to the core principles and remain true to the essense of the original, or will they be dark and grim and gritty - and in so doing be way more marketable? Being published continuously for decades on end will have that effect I suppose. And then once you've racked up a sufficient number of alternate versions of your well-known character, you start to wonder, "What if some insanely high-stakes event were to occur that caused all the different versions of these characters to have to interact with each other?" That's when shit gets real.

The current Spider-Man event is called "Spider-Verse." It seems to have been going on forever, gradually building until it became the all-consuming focus of my comic-reading life. In reality it's only been a few months, but this has been a very long few months and I am not sure when the story ends. Not that I'm checking my watch exactly, although there are times.

The premise of the story is this: All the Spider-Men and Women from across the Multiverse are being hounded by a group called the Inheritors, which feast of the life-force of "Spider-totems," ie people with spider powers. They go around killing and (after a fashion) ingesting different versions of Spider-Man, many of which have been created over the years, and some specifically for this story.

Academically, this is kind of fascinating. It's a concept that explores the notion of Spider-Man's uniqueness, that is the "real" Spider-Man whose adventures have been published monthly-or-more since the 1960's. He's not unique, there are thousands out there who are like him either because they are an alternate Peter Parker or because they are a different person with spider-powers (shout out to Spider-Gwen,) but he also must somehow be unique, because he's the one whose adventures we've been following. We are attached to him. The creators must some how prove to us, the reader, why we care more for the Peter we know than some other one. It's, incidentally, the same concept that was recently explored in Superior Spider-Man, the year during which Dr. Octopus inhabited Peter's body and acted as Spider-Man on his behalf. The question at the core of that was why was Peter a better Spidey than Ock was?

It's either a fun postmodern examination of a trope only really found in mainstream comics, or a story that disappears very far up its own ass and is inaccessible to anyone but the most hardcore obsessive reader. So, you know, it's a modern superhero comic.

On the one hand, the main story is kind of bleak. The bad guys are murderous vampire types who hunt versions of the protagonist for sport. They rack up a lot of kills in any given appearance: many Spider-Men exist as fodder. It's pretty dark. In the most recent installment, we meet the chief antagonist, Solus, who has the ultimate power of a multiverse-conquering God and shows it when he handily defeats a version of Spider-Man who has the powers of a single-universe God and, you know, eats his soul or whatever. The odds have been stacked impossibly high against our heroes, to the point where you wonder if it's possible to resolve this story without some kind of cheapo ending.

On the other hand, it's led to some pretty great moments, from Miles Morales and Ultimate TV Comics Peter Parker teaming up to find 60's cartoon Spider-Man, or the debut of the new Spider-Woman series by Dennis Hopeless, which is surprisingly readable for its own merits despite being part of this whole hullaballoo. (And let's not forget, again, that this whole event has added Spider-Gwen to the landscape, and Spider-Gwen rules.) There's a punk Spider-Man, a Japanese robot Spider-Man, Spider-Man Noir, and of course Peter Porker the Spectacular Spider-Ham. As bizarre and chaotic as it is, it, like the X-Men's Battle for the Atom last year, endeavors to be a celebration of the patchwork of insanity that a comic franchise becomes after so many years of existence. In the end, I think it's a labour of love, whether it winds up working or not.

Lastly, by design or not, this whole story bears an odd resemblance to the final arc of my beloved 90's Spider-Man cartoon, where the Beyonder and Madame Web recruited multiversal Spider-Men to defeat an insane Spider-Carnage who was bent on destroying the multiverse. In that one too, we learned there was something special about the Spidey we know and love. I guess that all just means that the longer these things go, the more reiterations we get, the more new spins on the old webs.

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