Pop Culture goes intellectual. That's the basic idea behind the "Smart Pop" books from BenBella, where they turn the harsh light of cutting cultural curiosity onto topics from "The Matrix" to "Star Wars" via Buffy and the Simpsons. Spider-Man is a natural side-route on that journey.
The idea is to invite a dozen or so writers to pick "interesting" aspects of the subject under discussion and to each write an essay which is both entertaining and yet with an air of academic validity. A tough task you might say? Well let's see what our contestants have managed to produce in "Webslinger: Unauthorized essays on your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man."
|Editor:||Gerry Conway, Leah Wilson|
|Writer:||Adam-Troy Castro, Brett Chandler Patterson, Darren Hudson Dick, David Hopkins, Joseph McCabe, J.R. Fettinger, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Lou Anders, Matthew Pustz, Michael A. Burstein, Michael Marano, Paul Lytle, Richard Hanley, Robert B. Taylor, Robert Burke Richardson, Robert Greenberger|
This paperback (6" x 9" 230pp) contains seventeen separate writings which take one or two points from the huge Spider-Man myth and then attempt to create a semi-serious essay which stays close enough to the Spider-Man topic to justify inclusion while also keeping sufficient distance to justify their intellectual independence.
As you might certainly have guessed, the level of success varies greatly among the various contributions. Do I want to cover each of the essays separately? No, not really, but perhaps I don't have a great deal of choice here. So let's get started.
"Horror in Long Underwear" talks about the troubled times in the comic book industry and the pressure to move away from its horror story past into a cleaner and more wholesome alternative. The essay makes the case that Spider-Man is in fact simply a horror story in another guise. It's a well written essay, even though I can't agree with the conclusion at all.
"Peter Parker's Penance" discusses the difference between the origin stories of Batman and Spider-Man, specifically that Spider-Man is guilty of helping cause the death of his Uncle, but that Batman shared no such guilt in the death of his parents. It's an interesting point, but the the style of the essay is so chatty and informal that the discussion becomes somewhat buried.
"Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man" talks about the difference between these two icons. Spider-Man is naturally more interesting as a character because he lacks Superman's omnipotence. This is a classic discussion, which is well-handled in this essay.
"Raimi vs. Bendis" is a discussion of the merits of the Spider-Man Movie retelling vs. the Ultimate Spider-Man Comic Book retelling. The debate dissolves into fan-boy raving, and is an embarrassing inclusion in this book.
"The Tangled Web we Weave" is tightly focused on Spider-Man's webbing, and the various commercial and scientific potential of products derived from Spider's webbing. It's a little out of step with the rest of the contributions which are nearly all sociological studies, but it's well-written and very interesting.
"The Perfectibility of Spider-Man" is about... well, I'm not sure. It's a long rambling essay which seems to talk about totalitarianism and the responsibility of the individual to do their best to improve the world the live in. But the essay dribbles along like it was working to a challenging page count, and any point there might have once been is long lost by the time the words stop.
"Spider-Man: Class Straddler as Super-Hero" analyses Peter Parker in terms of his social class, specifically as a straddler between different social classes - and yes, America does have social classes. Not "anybody" can be president any more.
"The Friendly Neighborhood of Peter Parker" is a discussion of Forest Hills which is full of photos and facts. This also is somewhat out of line with the rest of the essays, but it's a lovely piece and delightful to see included.
"Spinning a Web of Shame" is a terrible essay which attempts to analyze Peter to see if he suffers more from Guilt or from Shame, and hence then figure out if he's Jewish or Catholic. The whole concept is so unsound that I suffered both guilt and shame at seeing it included in this collection.
"Spider-Man: Ultimate Loner - Ultimate Partner" looks at the contradiction that Spider-Man is the hero who never joined a team, while also being the most prolific Team-Up character in Marvel's stable. Unfortunately to my mind, the underlying reason is pure commercial convenience! Hence the essay is left with little ground to stand on.
"Spider-Man No More" is another long meandering essay which looks at Peter's responsibility to continue being Spider-Man. It also attempts to figure out what religion Peter might be. Personally, I've found that quitters and losers, hypocrites and honest men tend to turn up in pretty equal mix in all religions, so I can't see what part that plays in the discussion. The essay consumes several pages, but doesn't shed much light on anything.
"The Absent Father and Spider-Man's Unfulfilled Potential" tackles Spidey's lack of a father figure, and proposes a few replacements. Ezekiel Sims anybody? Didn't think so. With Spider-Man's back-history being so huge and having been reworked and extended countless times, there's doubtless enough material to justify the essay - though it wouldn't make it on to my list of "top ten most notable aspects of Spidey's psychology".
"J. Jonah Jameson" looks at everybody's favorite cigar-munching psychopath. It's an interesting study, but sadly suffers from the same problem that unhinges so many of these essays, and that's the fact that JJJ's character has been written by so many different writers over so many different decades that there is no longer any single "truth" about this character. It's not so much "Blind Man's Elephant" as "Helen Keller's Petting Zoo" out there. Any argument you care to make about Jonah, you can point at five stories to prove the fact and five to disprove it. What's a writer supposed to do?
"Power Responsibility and Pain" is about Gwen's death. And... well, not much else.
"Secrets and Secret Keepers" is about Peter's identity and the challenges of keeping it secret. Timely discussion, given the recent events of Civil War. However, the essay heads from humour to academia to such an extent that the continuity of the discussion is threatened.
"Spider-Man Saves the World" quotes Shakespeare and Emmanuel Kant, but still doesn't make any real point that I can see.
"Inner Demons, Outer Heroes, Outer Villains" is the final essay. It starts by (I think) comparing the plot of Spider-Man 2: The Movie to the basic concepts of Greek Tragedy, but finishes by being as confused as its title.
As you can see, there's a hugely mixed bag in here. There's the ravings of fans, the gentle wander through the streets of Forest Hills. There's debates and discussions of a dozen anthropological topics from class structure to religion. You certainly can't complain about the range of material on display.
Unfortunately, many of these essays fail fundamentally - if I was the professor, I'd give half of them a "C Minus" at best. Fundamental structure is so often missing: e.g. A statement of the argument, a detailed debate of the points, and finally a conclusion and summary. Many of these "essays" seem to be simple sequential flows... with the writer happening across new points in the middle of the discussion, and deciding to abandon their original flow in favor of this interesting side stream they have encountered.
That might be fine in a heated conversation after existing the movie theater, but when you're being paid to write an essay for a collection such as this - I think you can be expected to do a little better.
To be fair, there is a huge challenge in the whole concept here, which stems from the huge background that Spider-Man now possesses. The writers are trying to pick out single threads from the complex tangle that is "Spider-Man". The books, comics, movies and the contributions from thousands of different writers mean that there is very little consistent pattern to weave into an essay.
The writers need to pick an idea out of the Spider-Man mythos, then follow it into non-Spidey discussion, and hope to be able to find other Spider-Man concepts down the track that support their point. Of course, given the vast amount of contradiction and change in the Spider-Man tale, you're just as likely to stumble across a point which doesn't support your argument. It's like being lost at sea in the Pacific Ocean, hoping your boat hits a sandy beach before it hits the rocks.
This however is where the skill of the writer comes into play. They must pick out there points before they start writing. In addition, they need to walk that narrow balancing beam with Spider-Man on one side and their non-Spider-Man discussion on the other. The writing must tie to Spider-Man at key points in order to justify being a "Spider-Man Essay", but it must also constantly have one foot in academia and anthropology in order to be more than fan-fiction. It's a tough task, I won't deny that.
The guys at BenBella and the writers they have invited to contribute have all taken on a big challenge. Some have succeeded better than others. I'm going to hedge my bets and give them a solid middle-of-the-road three webs. If you're comfortable with books without pictures, you may well find something in here to interest you.