Al Sjoerdsma and Jonathan Couper-Smartt continue their journey through the "Ages of Spider-Man". Our progress so far:
The First Age
The Ditko Age
Amazing Fantasy #15 – Amazing Spider-Man #38
Aug 1962 - Jul 1966 (4 years)
The Second Age
The Stan Lee Age
Amazing Spider-Man #39 – Amazing Spider-Man #150
Aug 1966 - Nov 1975 (9 years)
The Third Age
The Experimental Age
Amazing Spider-Man #151 – Amazing Spider-Man #251
Dec 1975 - Apr 1984 (9.5 years)
The Fourth Age
The Black Costume Age
Secret Wars #1 – Amazing Spider-Man #299
May 1984 - Apr 1988 (4 years)
The Fifth Age
The Superficial Age
Amazing Spider-Man #300 – Web of Spider-Man #116
May 1988 - Sep 1994 (6.5 years)
Last episode we settled the "Fifth Age of Spider-Man" to be the "Superficial Age". It was the age in which Marvel really discovered the power of "hype", and where fan-favorite artists replaced writers at the heart of the industry.
By the time we get to 1994, Ron Perelman has been driving Marvel for short-term windfall profit since his purchase of the business in 1989. The company is struggling with both debt and with waning fan interest, as DC, Image, Malibu, and Valiant are stealing market share.
[Theme Song - "Blues in C minor"]
Jonathan: Hey Spider-Fans. Welcome back to the Spider-Fan podcast. We are up to episode... err... one, two, three, four, five six!
We are working through the ages of Spider-Man, in terms of the story, the culture, the management. Everything we can think of that's important to the ensemble.
I've got with me Al Sjoerdsma from Michigan, USA. Hi Al!
Al: Hey Jonathan.
Jonathan: Now, Al. Where on earth did we finish up with number five? Err... we ended it with the fiasco of Facade. Web of Spider-Man #116.
Al: That's right, we did. Yep. And we still don't know who Facade is.
Jonathan: No. We don't know, we don't care. As you said so wisely.
Al: That's right. We don't care! Heh, heh, heh.
Jonathan: Was that Terry Kavanagh? Was that... was that his mess?
Al: That was Terry Kavanagh, I'm pretty sure.
Jonathan: Gosh. He was a thing, wasn't he.
Al: He was a thing.
Jonathan: But we're not talking about Facade this time 'round. We are talking about the Sixth Age of Spider-Man which begins with the Clone Caga.
What was the Clone Saga about? Why the Clone Saga? Who, what, where, when?
Al: The Clone Saga comes in, because Spider-Man was failing. He was losing readers in the wake of things like Facade, and in the wake of the return of Peter's Parents – who turned out to be "Life Model Decoys". And also in the wake of the Death of Superman, and Batman's back being broken, and these big events over at DC that were drawing in readers like crazy.
So, the edict came down from on high that they wanted a "big event" to... uh... bring in readers again. And to counter what DC was doing. But the whole plan of the Clone Saga was not the monster that it became.
Jonathan: Right. It was just going to be a little story.
Al: It was going to be a story that was going to essentially culminate in [Amazing] Spider-Man #400... with the death of Aunt May, and with the revelation that was going to happen then, not later, that the real Spider-Man was Ben Reilly.
With of course the whole idea – according to at least Tom DeFalco – that they were going to reverse that pretty soon down the line.
Jonathan: So... so, how does this tie into the big factor that always bugged me. The "Getting Rid of the Marriage".
Al: Yes. I think that does factor into it. I'm not sure that that was something that was in there initially. It all just began with this big idea, and it all began because of the marketing department... the idea of boosting the sales of Spider-Man.
Which apparently it did. Which is why they kept extending it, and extending it, and extending it!
But certainly, you've got mixed messages here. And the first message, and it's DeFalco I think who says this, is that it wasn't going to be permanent.
And yet. Somewhere along the line, it's somebody's idea that this is a way that you can get rid of a married Spider-Man.
Jonathan: Because getting rid of Married Spider-Man, and reinventing Spider-Man for a younger audience is to my mind the theme of this age.
Jonathan: And there's various attempts to do that, and we'll cover those as we go through chronologically. But getting rid of Mary Jane and making Peter single and independent seems to be the key driver here. To make him what he once was so they can recapture the glory days.
Al: Yes. It is really like the first main attempt to... bring back a "single" Spider-Man. And I think it was quite an ingenious way to do it, actually.,
Jonathan: I can certainly believe that the original plan was just to make a big event, and that the idea of unmarrying Spider-Man became apparent as they went along – as they began to realize that a married Spider-Man with domestic obligations, limited his love interests... this was problematic.
Al: And they already were struggling with that. Well, a lot this stuff we talked about last time. Beginning with things like, Spider-Man being in the grave, for Kraven's Last Hunt. And the effect that has on Mary Jane.
They were already were trying to deal with... what makes this different now that Spider-Man is married.
But it isn't too far along before it becomes just... "Well he just disappears all the time and she worries about him."
Or, you know, his villains come along like Venom and she... and, and they threaten her. So they do seem to be sort of stuck in a rut.
Jonathan: And... the idea of having them just... figure that it isn't going to work out and get separated. That, to my mind, is the reasonable outcome, because being married to Spider-Man would be an absolute heck of a life. It would be a nightmare.
Al: Heh, heh. Exactly. Which is what they actually did a pretty good job with to start. But then it just sort of becomes, you know... "one note".
But they did again... that's later on, isn't it? That's uh... with J. Michael Straczynski. There is a separation of Peter and Mary-Jane. That's yet another attempt that's farther down the line.
Jonathan: And to my mind, they should have just made that stick. Heh... you know... what's... What's wrong with the natural, reasonable outcome?
Al: They could have made any number of these things stick. But there isn't enough guts. There isn't enough "oomph" there to make these things stick.
Nobody is... nobody's sitting there saying... "This is the way it is. Period."
Jonathan: And that's just a complete lack of leadership. And that's because of the financial and commercial turmoil that's going on at the time. The senior management is being turned-over as a reflection of the high level problems that are happening from Marvel corporate.
And it's sort of reminiscent of the time after Stan left, where editors came and went. But this is for entirely different reasons.
Jonathan: So, Perelman and Revlon bought in, a few years before this time. They raised a lot of money, they issued junk bonds, they used it to buy things like Panini, and Fleer, and Skybox. The trading cards, sports companies, that took a big crash immediately afterwards. And suddenly Marvel is a billion dollars in debt.
So, by this stage they've strip-mined the place. They're in real trouble, and that's represented in terms of morale and staff turnover. Especially at the high level, people coming and going on a revolving door basis.
Al: So again, the... the decision for the Clone Saga – the decision to go ahead on the Clone Saga was with Tom DeFalco, who was editor-in-chief at that time. But by the time the thing really starts to get going, he's not editor-in-chief any more. They've come up with this new plan to have the groups – the Spider-Man group, the X-Men group, and so on. And there's a different head editor for each one of those groups.
Well the guy who comes in for Spider-Man is, uhh... Bob Budiansky. And he's not interested in any of this clone stuff at all.
So you've gone with somebody who is into it who said "Let's go, let's do it!" to somebody who doesn't want to do it. You know, well what does that do to the books? And meanwhile of course you have marketing pushing, saying, you know... "More, more, more, more!"
Jonathan: No wonder they can't decide whether or not the Clone Saga is going to finish or not.
Jonathan: But it's not until the end of '96 – which is two years after the whole kicks off – that we get Revelations and the death of Ben, and the return of Peter and MJ.
And this is almost the "fourth wave" of the marketing "up-sell" strategy from Marvel. So we started off with one title, Amazing Spider-Man. And then they up-sold us to Web, and Spectacular, and Sensational. And they cross-sold us with these crossover events to buy Spider-Man appearances in all these other titles.
And then they persuaded us to buy multiple copies of the same magazine, because of the variant covers.
And then the fourth wave is to create these new versions of Spider-Man – "Untold Tales" [of Spider-Man], "2099", and say "Look, if you're going to be a Spider-Man fan, you should be buying all of these as well, because they're Spider-Man" – yes but no.
Al: And you're right. You're exactly right. Spider-Man 2099 is a different character. So it's more along the lines of what they end up doing later with Miles Morales, or... you know. It's not Peter Parker.
Jonathan: Well, Ultimate Spider-Man happened first. Late 2000. But Ultimate Spider-Man feels to me like yet another attempt to reboot Spider-Man back to being a young, independent, non-married character.
Al: Exactly. And that's what Untold Tales is as well.
Only instead of creating, you know, a whole new story-line with a new Peter Parker – like you do with Ultimate Spider-Man – you just go back into the past and you try to insert stories in and around the, the Lee/Ditko stories and act like "Oh, this is all part of the continuity."
But exactly, you're right. That's part of the point I think, is you're back to the single – in that case, high-school – Peter Parker.
Jonathan: And of course there's Chapter One happens in the middle there... late '98.
Al: Oh Lord. Heh, heh, heh, heh.
Jonathan: Yeah. So... I've lost count. Is that six different times they attempted to reboot Spider-Man? They brought Mattie... umm...
Al: Mattie Franklin!
Jonathan: Mattie Franklin. They're trying to make her the Spider-Man... Spider-Woman.
Al: Yeah, yep.
Jonathan: Really, it's, it's "Anybody but Peter." It's "We hate Peter!"
Al: Well, it's "We hate Married Peter.
Jonathan: And, uh... in the midst of this, they doubled-down, and they give MJ a baby.
Jonathan: And... look... I struggle to think about this. Because I think what they did here was... disgusting.
Al: It was.
Jonathan: They give her a baby in an attempt to make it absolute guaranteed that she has to go.
Married Spider-Man is difficult. Somebody makes the decision that MJ is going to have a baby, and now married, father Spider-Man... you know, that's going to be the straw that convinces everybody that Peter has to go.
Jonathan: The baby... it's not a save the marriage baby, it's a... it's a "Break-Up Peter" baby. It's an attempt to ruin the relationship between Peter and the readers.
Al: Heh, heh, heh. Yes. Well, it's not the only attempt during that time to ruin the relationship between Peter and the readers. Because you may recall, during the Clone Saga, Ben Reilly is a much more sympathetic character than Peter is.
Peter is the one who is sort of half-crazed by everything, and angry all the time. And there's even that... notorious issue. It might be the one where... I think it is the one where it's revealed that Ben is the real Peter Parker. So, you know, Peter's understandably upset. But he ends up hitting Mary Jane.
Jonathan: Right, yes.
Al: You know, he... he doesn't really realize that it's Mary Jane that he's hitting. But he does hit his wife.
So, you know, they put him in this situation where they're trying to force the issue. They're trying to get you to think "I don't like this guy any more. But fortunately there's this this guy over here that I do like that can take his place."
Jonathan: They're tripling-down on the whole thing.
Jonathan: And then... having stepped themselves in blood so deep... they back out. And they kill the baby. Which as I understand was a bit of a... argument inside inside Marvel at the time. "I don't want to kill the baby... you kill the baby!"
Al: Yeah, well... you know. Did they kill the baby?
Jonathan: The alternative is worse.
Jonathan: The alternative is that the baby was kidnapped and Peter's just like... "Meh."
Al: Right, well. Heh. Well... Peter and MJ believe that she miscarried.
Al: You know, but does the reader... think that?
Jonathan: Exactly! That's no better either. Because now it's the reader... us, who's supposed to be "Meh."
We're just expected to just "let it go". To just walk away from it.
Al: Yeah. Right. Once again it was gutless. There's so much gutless stuff going on here. They, they didn't have the nerve to just say "The baby's dead."
No, they had to give that idea to the reader that: "Well, maybe the baby isn't dead."
But they never had any intention to go back to that baby.
Al: Except that DeFalco went back to that baby in his alternate world of, his alternate universe of Spider-Girl. Of "Mayday" Parker.
Jonathan: Right. Yet another reboot to create a young, single, school-aged...
Al: Yeah, so that's true. So somebody ends up using that baby... for the same thing that we're talking about. To combat the Married Peter.
Jonathan: Tehh! Anything but marriage!
Jonathan: So, Joey Quesada comes on board. He's the Editor-in-Chief around 2000.
Jonathan: And about that time, they reboot into Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 2) for the very first time. The "Number One" addiction finally hits the Spider-Man title...
Jonathan: ...and Amazing Spider-Man finally reboots. Now, it doesn't last because... because reasons.
Jonathan: And it gets... it gets four variant covers which seems like a lot at the time. But by modern standards if you don't get fifty variant covers, you're not really much of a number one.
But moving on. We need to figure out when this age ends. What is the major transformation, the complete shift of direction. When do we see that happen next?
So let's consider the end of the clone saga. Which is presumably the Death of Ben.
Al: Yes. Peter Parker: Spider-Man #75
Jonathan: And the easy way out is just to say, "Well, the end of the clone sage is the end of that era."
But, you know, I'm not entirely convinced that that's true. Because all of the underlying problems that the Clone Saga represents – none of that really goes away. The difficulty with Peter Parker being married is still there.
And the kind of thinking behind the clone saga just carries on through the next – goodness knows how long.
Al: So, they way they end up wrapping-up the clone saga is that they make it all the machinations of Norman Osborn, who turns out to be not dead after all.
Jonathan: Well all of that... the Goblin Madness goes on for years after that.
Al: Yeah, exactly. Once you bring Norman back, you know that's sort of an aspect of the clone saga. So I think it at least runs through the time when they reboot to the new number one. Just the ramifications of it.
Even though, you know, there's all sorts of silliness that goes on in there that has nothing to do with it – like the Slingers, and Carnage getting Silver Surfer's power, and...
Al: Heh, heh, heh. Things like that.
Jonathan: But... but even... even the reboot to number one, you know it's not... it's a funny sort of temporary milestone, because the whole thing about the reboot is that Peter is back, and specifically he's back with MJ.
But then within another year, they're back to the same old nonsense. What, Amazing Spider-Man (Vol. 2) #13 – Mary Jane's plane explodes. Oh no, Mary Jane is dead! Yet again, Spider-Man is single. De-married!
Al: Yes, yes. Exactly. And, you know, how long did that go? It... w... went on for like a year, before they...
Jonathan: Yeah, year and a bit.
Al: ...once again pulled back on that and said, "Oh no, she's not dead – she's just been abducted by this guy they called The Stalker."
Jonathan: Which was a mess.
[For more details, see Al's detailed analysis of that mess in his Rave entitled Stalker Screw-Ups - Ed.]
Al: Which was a total mess. It just once again was people flying by the seat of their pants, not really knowing where they were heading. That's another aspect of this stuff.
You got the feeling... whether it was true or not. When Stan was writing, when Gerry Conway was writing, when Roger Stern was writing and so on. That even though there may be some editorial oversight or edicts (though I guess not with Stan) they were pretty much putting things together the way they wanted to put things together.
And you finally get to a point where you have multiple books, so you have multiple writers. And they all have to get together for these writers meetings. And they end up writing things that maybe they personally don't even wanna write. And they end up creating characters that they don't even really understand. And they don't really know where they're going with these characters.
Jonathan: And... and once they go somewhere, then they turn around and go back again a year later.
Jonathan: So you get Ben comes in, and he's the real version and Peter's the clone. Wait, not it's not. It's Peter, we've changed our mind. We get Mary Jane's having a baby. Oh, wait, no, we've changed our mind, no she's not. We get Mary Jane is dead. Oh, no, she's not. We get Mary Jane is leaving Peter. Oh no, she's not.
Al: Heh, heh, heh. Right.
Jonathan: You know, Mary Jane, when she comes back from The Stalker, they spend a couple of years apart, and we have another two years worth of Peter being single and un-Married.
Jonathan: Until they reconcile in 2003.
Al: Right. So you have these characters like, during the clone saga, you're introduced to Judas Traveller, and Scrier.
And by the time we're done with the Clone Saga, they've turned those characters around so that they're nothing like what they were presented to be. And certainly not what the writers thought they were when they were writing.
And then you have situations like with The Stalker. Even though that was all Howard Mackie I think writing that. Where you have all this... this implication, all this set-up of what this character is. And then he turns out to be nothing like that at all.
And it's not a matter of "Oh, hey, that's a... that's an interesting twist that had me fooled."
No. It's just a mess. It's just people not following through.
Jonathan: It's either a mess and people not paying attention. Or else it's cowardice. It's "We're not going to back ourselves to make this decision."
Jonathan: In a lot of the big decisions it's just cowardice.
Al: Yeah. I think it is cowardice. It's editorial cowardice, or it's... or it's corporate cowardice.
I don't think for the most part that it's cowardice on the individual writers. 'cos I think a lot of these writers didn't agree with the decisions that were being made.
You mentioned Howard Mackie. Err... shout-out to quite possibly the worst Spider-Man writer of all time.
Al: Heh. WHOOOOO! HOWARD!
Jonathan: Yeah... hey Howard!
Hey, uh... look. We need to figure the end of this thing.
Jonathan: I'm gonna make the argument that... the Clone Saga was hugely important. It was a massive change in the way that Spider-Man was written, presented, managed, edited, coordinated.
But I'm going to make the argument that the Clone Saga is just one part of the whole process of "How do we go back to how things used to be... with an... un-Married, young single Spider-Man."
But I respect Joe Q's... courage. Because we talked about cowardice. And Joe Q – who came on board originally with Jimmy Palmiotti just to do the Marvel Knights – ended up being the editor-in-chief, and... finally... grew a pair in 2008 and said "You know what... I'm tired of all this flipping and flopping. Mary Jane's gone. They were never married. It never happened!"
And he stuck to it. He could have flipped and flopped, 'cause the backlash was brutal at that time.
And he could easily have folded yet again, and they could have zig-zagged for the seventh time.
But he didn't. He stuck to his guns.
Unfortunately, the guy who finally stuck to his guns, had possibly the worst solution... to the whole thing.
Jonathan: Yeah. It's pretty awful.
Al: I mean, I would accept almost anything else that they tried to do, over... what they ended up doing with Brand New Day.
Al: But you're right. They said "This is it." And they stuck with it.
The problem is... at this stage, you're really dealing with "fandom".
You know, you're not really dealing – I don't think, too much – with kids growing up reading Spider-Man any more.
So, you know... "fandom" never really wants change, ultimately. They may talk about how "boring" or "stuck-in-a-rut" a series is... but when all of a sudden Ben Reilly turns out to be the real Peter Parker... or if all of a sudden, um... Barry Allen is killed in "Crisis on Infinite Earths" and Wally West becomes the Flash... people are not happy.
Al: They want... what is comfortable for them.
So people were going to be unhappy, no matter what. In terms if you were going to eliminate the Peter and Mary Jane marriage.
Jonathan: Look, I'll throw one more thing into the mix here. And that's the fact that the Disney buyout of Marvel is happening at this time. It takes place in 2009, but these things don't happen overnight, so presumably it's in discussions at this stage.
And you have to ask maybe... did Disney want a stable resolution to it's soon-to-be-acquired flagship character? Did Disney want something that was more child-oriented, teen-oriented? Did they push for an un-Married Spider-Man as well?
Al: Well, they also, you know... they're still putting out things like... Spider-Man Adventures, or I'm not even sure what those things are called.
Jonathan: Yeah, back then it was Marvel Adventures I think.
[Technically it was Marvel Adventures Spider-Man in 2008 - Ed.]
But you're right, they do continuously run a couple of parallel kid-friendly titles that run in their own little universe.
Al: But you know, it's a shame that the main title is not necessarily kid-friendly.
But you're right. I think Disney would very definitely like that.
And so... if you wanted to get rid of The Marriage, it really was time that you just stuck to your guns and said "We're rid of The Marriage."
But as I said. As we said. Unfortunately [it] was this weird thing that they stuck to, where there never was a marriage at all.
Jonathan: Yeah... [deep sigh]
So. How do you feel about that theory? Is it too long? It... it would make it the longest of the ages, I think, that we've considered.
Al: Yeah. It's very long. And we just jumped from like, 2000 to 2009. In the blink of an eye.
Al: Yup. We jumped through all of that stuff. But the question is... whether we need to actually talk about that stuff.
Jonathan: Well, let's talk about the big changes that happened during that period from 2003 to 2008. What were the ground-breaking stories and the structural changes?
Al: Well, again. You know, things get retconned all the time.
So, I would have said that the "big story" under J. Michael Straczynski was that... Aunt May discovered that Peter was Spider-Man.
But... it's completely forgotten that in [Amazing] Spider-Man #400... which was intended to be Aunt May's Death. Period. She says to him that she has known for a while that he was Spider-Man.
So they already had dealt with that. Except then they retconned that, and made Aunt May some... doctored, genetically-altered – or whatever – woman that Norman Osborn had put in there, that died.
Jonathan: Oh... yes!
Al: So that they could bring the real Aunt May back. And once they bring Aunt May back, she doesn't know Peter is Spider-Man... that was the, the... fake Aunt May that knew that!
Jonathan: That's exactly it. That's why this five year period seems so irrelevant... is because huge chunks of it were just dropped in the bin.
Jonathan: And sure, that's a good run, that's a good story-line. But one run does not "an age" make.
Al: Exactly. I would agree.
Jonathan: OK then Al. Here's my suggestion. This sixth age of Spider-Man begins with Web of Spider-Man #117 – Power & Responsibility Part 1, the beginning of the clone saga.
And then it runs for years and years and years, up until Amazing Spider-Man #545 in 2007 which is the end of One More Day. It's Peter separating from MJ as Mephisto undoes time. And the seventh age of Spider-Man begins with Brand New Day – Amazing Spider-Man #546.
Although... the other alternative is that we go into the detail – and every attempt to split up Spider-Man, like the Clone Saga, becomes its own individual age. And is that really the path that you want us to go down?
Al: You've convinced me!
Jonathan: Heh, alright.
Al: If for no other reason that, I don't want twenty ages of Spider-Man.
Jonathan: Heh, heh...
Al: But yeah, you know, it's a good point. I thought we were going to just deal with this as the "Clone Saga Age of Spider-Man". But once you started talking about how one of the big points of the Clone Saga was to create a Spider-Man who is no longer married, I think that that's a good theme to carry all the way through to the point where they actually succeed in doing that.
It's the "Age of Getting Rid of Marriage", and it's the also the age of... getting rid of the people that were bankrupting Marvel Comics.
Jonathan: Is it "The Unmarrying Age"?
Al: The Cleansing...
Jonathan: "The Cleansing Age"...
Al: "The Purging Age"...
It's really sort of sad that we're to call it "purging" or "cleansing" when we're talking about getting rid of a marriage.
Jonathan: I feel like there's more going on than just the un-marrying.
Al: But it's not really the cleansing age. Because it doesn't get cleansed until the end of the age.
Jonathan: You're quite right. This isn't the cleaning up age. It's the age of making the zig-zag mess that needs to be cleaned up. Eventually Joe Q and Disney come along and do the tidying and start again with a clean slate.
So maybe this is "The Messy Age"?
Al: See, it... it's interesting. Because generally speaking, we are talking about a time that's pretty messy.
But there are some good stories in there. It's not like thirteen years of just... devastation.
Jonathan: How 'bout this? It's "The Age of Undoing".
Al: Aaaah! Oh... I think I like that. The Age of Undoing.
Jonathan: Because... so much of what was done during this age was undone.
Jonathan: And so much of what they did was an attempt to undo, and the undoing was undone.
Al: Yes, exactly. Right. Even within it, things that were done are undone. Like the Death of Aunt May...
Jonathan: For example!
Jonathan: Uh... alright, there we go. It's "The Age of Undoing". It's official. Locked in stone.
Al: Got it!
Jonathan: OK, Al. Before you go, there's one more thing that we didn't mention. One more big thing. The movies... the Sam Raimi movies. If we're going to 2008, 2009, then those movies happen inside this period.
Al: Yes, that's right they do. But... they once again do sort of fit what we're talking about. Because they're undone later on, when Disney steps in and creates the Marvel Universe that is now occupying all of the films that we get.
Jonathan: That's true, and of course feature a very young, school-aged Spider-Man. So it's yet another resetting of Spider-Man to his beginnings, in order to capture a new audience.
Al: That's right.
Jonathan: Well there we go, the movies are in there too.
Al: We snuck them in there at the end.
Jonathan: We did. Nobody noticed.
Al: Heh, heh, heh.
Jonathan: So, I'll see you back in a few weeks for the Seventh Age of Spider-Man, which I've got a feeling might be the last one we do. We'll find a new topic to start again with, but meanwhile, that's all for now. Thanks, Al!
Al: I like it, I like it. Seven Ages. Seven Ages of Man... Seven Ages of Spider-Man.
Jonathan: Nicely done there. OK, bud!
Al: Take care, Jonathan.