(With Apologies to Peter David. And Rick Moranis.)
You know a title I'd like to see? The Unsensational Spider-Man. Cover tag-line - "This Issue - Nobody Dies!!". Not very catchy, I'll admit, but let me explain.
Now, before I begin, let me first state that I have no grounding in psychology whatsoever - I've never even skimmed a text book and Rorschach tests all look the same to me (They're all classic Gil Kane covers, right?). I also have no wish to trivialize bereavement - just the opposite in fact. But, here's the thing; considering how much exposure he's had to death, just how sane is Peter Parker anyway?
I started thinking about this after recently enjoying Alex Ross and Jim Krueger's Universe X. The concept of this series, for those who aren't aware, revolves around a Marvel Universe twenty years (give or take) into the future. Peter Parker is elderly and rather overweight (Ben Grimm asks him at one point "So when were you bitten by a radioactive spare tyre?") and, having lapsed into clinical depression, is no longer Spider-Man. Mary Jane is dead, but daughter May is alive and is now linked to the symbiote, becoming Venom. There is also another character called Spiders-Man (extra 's' - this is one weird series, let me tell you) who can trap people in tangible illusions when smothering them in psychic webbing.
Anyway, at one point Spiders-Man has entangled Peter in illusion and Venom-May has to enter this dream-world to rescue her dad. However, the illusion has not been shaped by Spiders-Man but instead by Peter himself who, much to May's horror, has imagined his perfect life in an unexpected way; in the illusion, he is no longer Spider-Man because he is married to Gwen (who never died) whilst MJ has married Harry Osborn, and all are blissfully happy. Peter and Gwen even have a son who has taken up the role of Spider-Man - a son who looks suspiciously like Ben Reilly. May finally understands that Peter never really wanted Mary Jane and never wanted a daughter - he wanted Gwen, and a son.
All of this is great for a "What If...?" style story, but let's think about the original Peter Parker. Now, we all know that the real reason he hasn't been brooding over the death of his child these past few years is because Marvel's editorial policy is to insult anyone of medium or above intelligence and forget that this storyline ever happened, hoping that all their readers would follow suit (truth is stranger than fiction, after all). However, what if such an inconsistency was indicative of something rotten in the state of Parker instead of Alonso, Quesada and Jemas? What if Peter, whilst maintaining an outward semblance of lucidity, is actually experiencing so much turmoil in his soul that he is a few cooks short of spoiling the broth?
Consider the evidence. Here's a young guy whose world isn't exactly coming up roses even before he becomes Spider-Man. He's an alienated loner who has lost his parents at an early age and who now lives with an aunt and uncle whose financial difficulties are drawing them towards an early grave themselves. Peter is then bitten by a radioactive spider, resulting in the complete alteration of his physiology (and possibly his mind?) - an occurrence which would cause any intelligent scientist to panic, truly fearing for their long-term health. Peter, already withdrawn from society, then takes one step further towards the precipice by donning a mask to completely divorce himself from reality and responsibility for his actions - resulting in him famously not apprehending a crook following his wrestling match when given the chance.
And so Uncle Ben gets murdered - another traumatic event for young Peter under normal circumstances, but how could he fail to be unhinged when he learns that he is directly responsible for the killing? Peter's only answer is to try and assuage his guilt through righting wrongs in the guise of Spider-Man, with his dual divergent personalities often conflicting from that moment on. Peter almost feels that Spider-Man is a different person altogether at times, looming over him at critical moments in his life, affecting his decisions, but perhaps his sanity is maintained by one crucial element in his life - Gwen Stacy.
When George Stacy is killed, quickly followed by Gwen, Peter is unable to withstand the emotional onslaught. Did he himself kill Gwen, breaking her neck as she fell? If Spider-Man hadn't existed, would Gwen or her father still have died? It has often been noted that for as many innocent lives as Peter saves, just as many are endangered by costumed lunatics with a grudge against Spider-Man. An intelligent chap, how could Peter possibly resist the guilt that colours his every waking moment and not consider himself responsible for every innocent life taken by a Green Goblin or a Venom, adversaries he has actually encouraged by pulling on his Spider-Man costume? I would never advocate Peter taking another human life, but surely he should question his own motivations when he sees his personal battles affecting the city he lives in and its civilians. Does he think that his responsibility ends when he hands a psychopath with special powers over to the beleaguered authorities, especially when he ends up fighting them all over again a few weeks later? Delusional, methinks.
But it's the Gwen issue that interests me most. Peter sees the love of his life stolen from him, perhaps even contributes to her death, and thereafter cannot help but think about her and what might have been. A Gwen clone, the ultimate twist of the knife at the crucial juncture of his mourning process, doesn't help. Mary Jane is an obvious substitute for his affections, especially when she reveals that she knows his secret, for this offers him an opportunity to try and reconcile his separate persona and perhaps salvage his sanity. However, he never loves MJ - not like he loved Gwen. He even spends the night before his wedding thinking only of Gwen, but although he turns up to marry Mary Jane the following day can we, the reader, truly believe that he has reached a peace with himself and Gwen's memory? This is a man, after all, whose whole life is a lie - to loved ones, friends and work colleagues alike. Surely if anyone can fake a smile on their wedding day, it's Peter Parker.
So, it's hardly surprising that in the following years whenever Mary Jane is threatened that Peter fails to dwell on what might happen if, just once, he wasn't able to pull off a last minute rescue. He's already lost Gwen - losing MJ wouldn't hurt nearly as much. And it doesn't. Nor losing their unborn child, nor losing his 'brother' Ben. Because by this point Peter doesn't care - his life has taken on a surreal quality and he doesn't function in the way you or I might. He's been buried alive, he's visited the reaches of outer space and other dimensions, he's travelled in time, he's seen Aunt May - and others in the Marvel Universe - die and live and die and live again. And that's the crux, for me. Perhaps Peter has ceased to mourn death so fervently over the years because he knows that death is not necessarily the end, and that - one day - Gwen will come back to him. Better not to have a wife and child, then, just in case - right?
I wouldn't want any of this to be true, obviously. If this kind of storyline made it into the pages of Spider-Man it would disgust me and I hope I would stop reading instantly. But then, shouldn't Marvel's approach to death and tragedy have already sickened me? They've recognised their failings in recent years, with the aforementioned Universe X containing a plot revolving around the Realm of the Dead, and with numerous purposeless deaths in every issue of the satirical X Force, but still they treat life and death with utter recklessness (Mysterio, anyone?). For me, Mary Jane is as dear a character to me as Peter, and she doesn't deserve the trauma of being abandoned (as she would be if Gwen returned). But the previous treatment of her character was so callous and tasteless that it should have already been the final straw. My wife and I are lucky enough that we've never had to cope with losing a child, but I imagine any Spider-Man readers who have must be devastated that Marvel would disregard such an occurrence so flippantly.
I also don't want to see Spider-Man follow in the bootsteps of Batman or many other characters, and I suspect I'm not alone in that hope, considering how comics sales dipped so dramatically at the height of the "grim-and-gritty-realism" phase of the mid-90s. I don't particularly want realism in comics, because then everyone would be barking mad, surely - but death is the one thing that should be taken seriously. Earth-shattering events in characters' lives have become commonplace, and death no longer means anything in comics. Considering the state of the world right now, that's an uncomfortable message - but I don't want to sidestep into social commentary anymore than I want comics to (let's not discuss the stomach-turning ASM # 36 with its weeping Doctor Doom, okay?). I want to read about, and talk about, Spider-Man. The Unsensational Spider-Man, with a cover tag-line that reads "This Issue - Nobody Dies!!".
That isn't too much to ask, surely?