Last week, I decided to send a fellow SpiderFan a little present, as part of which I needed to know his age. "Forty-Five", he answered (showing that you're never too old to be a SpiderFan). But he also added the caveat... "Never trust anyone over thirty".
To save you the trouble of looking up Google, I'll remind you that the famous quote is from the U.S. Free-Speech movement during the 60's and 70's. It has been variously attributed to Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Jack Weinberg, Bob Dylan, and Abbie Hoffman.
Speaking of ages, it passed almost without notice last July or August that we had reached the 40th anniversary of Spider-Man's first appearance. Unlike the 30th anniversary, which featured at the time a smothering of trading card sets and a plethora of holographic covers. I guess the movie overshadowed the occasion, and I'm not complaining. I sure don't intend to celebrate my 40th birthday other than by drowning my sorry middle-aged ass in cheap gin.
But back to the point. The question is... should we trust Spider-Man at forty?
Maybe we're a bit premature here. Did we ever have reason to trust Spider-Man in any social matters? Has he even spoken out against "da man".
The answer is yes. Back in those heady days of 1971, Marvel did stick their neck out in order to make their voices heard on an issue they felt was important. Amazing Spider-Man #96 started the infamous 3-arc "Harry's Drug Addiction" story, which dared to leap onto the news-stands without the stamp of approval of the CCA... the Comic Code Authority. It was a bold step at the time, and it made plenty of waves. Good on ya, Marvel of 1971.
Subsequently, there were some appearances in comics promoting a few social issues... prevention of child-abuse, anti-smoking campaigns, equality. All very worthy, but less challenging in any real sense. All sponsored and double-checked by politically correct, government (or government approved) agencies.
Besides that? Struggle as I might, it's really rather hard to think of any story since which has really challenged the constraints of the establishment. Sure, there's been more violence, more realism, and such like. But for the life of me, I can't really think of any issue that has truly challenged any of the comfortable values of Middle-Class and/or Corporate America.
Case in point - consider the much-trumpeted "September 11" issue. While laudable for addressing a sensitive topic, it was reassuringly benign. The only real statement was "people can be heroes", with an overtone of "the western way of life will not be defeated by terrorism". Both of these are safe and bland truisms. If western civilisation is defeated by anything, it will surely be defeated by pride, self-indulgence, and a comfortable blindness to the wider picture. Rome, Part II.
So, the modern Spider-Man entertains. But does he challenge our comfortable, blinkered existence? Nope. Should he? Well, nope - 'cos it's not his job.
Spidey's responsibility is to sell comics, movie tickets, and toys. If he can do so more effectively by raising topical issues, then he does. But most of the time, activism just unsettles people, and brings unwanted attention from the powers that be. It's just too much bother.
Here's a quote that says it all:
"We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only obligation."
-- Michael Eisner, CEO, Disney, 2000
Quite reasonable. Many artists may, throught their own efforts, bring us Art, Philosophy, or Political Thought within the pages of our beloved comics. But Marvel is under no obligation to do so, except where it is good for the bottom line. And more often that not, it isn't.
So, like it says on the back of packets of Spider-Man breakfast cereal... "part of this complete breakfast". Remember to read some real books - and the occasional newspaper - as well as those comic books. You never know, you just might think something new.