February 1, 2010

Why Doesn’t Spider-Man Beat Up Women?

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Information on Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the “circus rock ‘n’ roll drama” whose Broadway premiere has now been pushed back to the fall, is scarce so far. What we know now, though, is that it’s directed by Julie Taymor, of Across the Universe and The Lion King fame; that its songs were written by U2’s Bono and The Edge; that its costume design is by Eiko Ishioka; and that it will involve Spider-Man fighting a host of villains: Electro, the Rhino, the Green Goblin, Carnage, Swarm, the Lizard, and Swiss Miss.

Wait–who was that last one? Swiss Miss is a new addition to the Spider-Man rogues’ gallery. Her Ishioka-designed costume has been described as white dominatrix gear, and apparently involves corkscrews and rotating knives. She’s also a genuine anomaly in the world of Spider-Man, who’s been fighting bad guys for close to half a century now. And they’re almost inevitably bad guys. Spider-Man has no villainesses from comic books interesting enough to put in a musical because, historically, his relationship with costumed villains is all about his alter ego Peter Parker looking for a replacement father and failing to find one. That doesn’t seem to have been an intentional theme–but it’s present anyway, and it’s turned up in the three hit Spider-Man movies, too.

The central canon of Spider-Man stories is the forty-odd comic books about the character by artist Steve Ditko and writer Stan Lee that were published between 1962 and 1966. An endlessly inventive and very odd cartoonist, Ditko gave Amazing Spider-Man a sense of constant motion and trembling tension. He had a remarkable knack for action and grotesquerie and urban landscapes and broad comedy. His spindly, contorted figures inspired the style of every subsequent Spider-Man cartoonist. And he drew almost all of the series’ villains as old men–much older men than Peter Parker, men old enough to be his father.

Peter’s father, in fact, is conspicuous by his absence in those early stories: he wasn’t named or even mentioned directly until 1968. As the first Spider-Man story begins, Peter is a teenage boy, living in Queens with his elderly aunt and uncle. Uncle Ben is murdered within a few pages, and the disaster that drives the rest of Spider-Man’s career is Peter’s realization that he could have saved his second father’s life.

After that, Peter’s blown it. Again and again, Spider-Man finds himself fighting men who represent one model or another of bad fatherhood. The Tinkerer, Electro, Dr. Octopus and the Lizard are all scientists, like Peter, but instead of mentoring him, they turn on him. (Before director Sam Raimi’s plans for Spider-Man 4 were scrapped a few months ago, he had been pushing for the Lizard and Electro to appear in it.) Kraven the Hunter is the bad father as alpha male, bloated with his own machismo and his need to prove his superiority. J. Jonah Jameson, the editor of the Daily Bugle, where Peter works, is a furious, pompous, unsatisfiable father who parcels out precious crumbs of respect amid torrents of abuse.

And then there’s the Green Goblin, Spider-Man’s chief enemy–but it wasn’t clear what kind of father he was until Ditko left the series. In their first issue together, Lee and new artist John Romita put the crown on the series’ bad-daddy motif. The Goblin, they revealed, is the wealthy, successful Norman Osborn, who seems at first to be a good father to Peter’s friend Harry–but turns out to be the worst kind of father, the kind who passes along his legacy of violence and lies to his son. The Green Goblin went on to murder Peter’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy a few years later. (By that point, Gwen’s own father, police captain George Stacy, had been killed off as well. In Spider-Man stories, bad fathers never stop coming back, but good fathers are doomed.)

Spidey occasionally got to fight women: he tussled with Medusa, a supporting character from Fantastic Four; he had a run-in with the Black Widow, who dropped in from the pages of The Avengers. (“How can I fight her?” he asked on that issue’s cover. “She’s a female copy of MYSELF!”) But he didn’t get an actual recurring villainess to call his own until the Black Cat first appeared in 1979. (In more recent comics, they’ve developed what can only be described as an enemies-with-benefits relationship.)

That brings us back to the curious case of Spidey’s new hot-chocolate-inspired, castrating-weapon-wielding adversary. It’s hard to imagine a Broadway extravaganza like Turn Off the Dark not featuring a woman as one of its central characters; unfortunately, the 48-year history of Spider-Man comic books simply doesn’t offer many options. Taymor and Ishioka have created an option of their own, and it sounds like Swiss Miss will be a visual spectacle in the tradition of Ditko and Romita’s inventions. But it’s the painful undercurrents of masculine identification in Spider-Man’s early battles–the sense that he was fighting the substitute fathers he could never again have–that made them more than just a spectacle. TC mark

Douglas Wolk

Douglas Wolk is the author of “Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean” and “Live at the …

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