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Have Them Fight God: Spyral versus Spider-Girl

I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each. My interest in Marvel characters is inversely proportional to Fox’s ability to market films about them.

Today it’s…

Spider-Girl #3

…from December, 1998. The comic in which Spider-Girl properly introduces us to the MC2 Universe’s Fantastic Five.

‘Spider-Girl’ being May Parker, Peter’s teenage daughter.

‘The MC2 Universe’ being an alternate continuity in which Peter Parker has a teenage daughter.

‘Five’ being a number that’s one bigger than four but which happily still alliterates.

Written by Tom DeFalco. Pencilled by Pat Olliffe. Inked by Al Wiliamson. Lettered by Dave Sharpe. Coloured by Christie Scheele.

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ONE

Things have changed for May since What If #105/Spider-Girl #0. Many of them linguistic.  For example, there have been efforts to give her an official adjective. It’s ‘stunning’ as in  “The Stunning Spider-Girl.” I don’t think it’s going to happen.

The zero issue’s key phrase (“feeling loose and slamming heat”) now seems well on the way to becoming the series’ catchphrase, but in the process is undergoing some variation. Issue one kept with the classic “feeling loose and slamming heat,” but then issue two had “cracking wise and slamming heat.” Issue two also saw May, under relentless attack from a baddie, complain, “I can barely stand — a-and he’s slamming heat!”

Also in flux is the narratorial voice. In issue zero the narrator was explicitly omniscient and external to May’s point of view, given to informing her in the second person of information of which she was unaware (“unknown to you, your parents whisper and huddle in the bleachers”). That started to change over the past two issues as the narrator became more and more aligned with May’s inner monologue. The voice haranguing May became her own as she questioned, congratulated and castigated herself. For a while in the second issue we had two narrators, one of whom was May and one of whom was not, both of whom offered their commentary in visually identical text boxes and both of whom addressed ‘May’ as “you.”  We also had two streams of May’s inner monologue; the narrator when she held that role and her thought balloons when she did not.

Things seem to have settled down by issue three’s denouement.

“Franklin Richards thinks you’re good people! Could he be any more scrumptious?” Says the narrator to May.

“I’m sure we’ll meet again, Spider-Girl!” Says Franklin to May.

“Believe it, cutie!” Says the narrator.

cutie

There’s no coming back from “Believe it, cutie!”

That’s not even one of May’s self-reflective thoughts. That’s just one of her thoughts. Franklin rather than May is the unhearing addressee. The narration boxes are May’s now, to fill with whatever she likes. It feels like she’s just won her first battle for control of her story.

In other theatres, those battles are still ongoing. After the events of issue zero, her parents ruled that her being Spider-Girl was to have been a one-time escapade and that’s that. Peter’s old Spider-gear has been ceremonially burned and they’ve drawn a line under the whole thing. Remarkably, there doesn’t even seem to be much of an ongoing conversation about all this in the Parker household. Over the course of two nights, May acquired superpowers, learned that her father used to be Spider-Man, and apprehended a would-be murderer. The parental line on this seems to be, “Well, that was a thing that happened. Back to normal now. Let’s say no more about it.” I know Peter has a somewhat avoidant personality, but I really feel he should be checking in with his daughter a little more about the whole business. Mary Jane sort of is, but all she’s really throwing May’s way are vague insinuations and recriminations. I’m not sure how she expects these to be helpful.

You can imagine how May’s handling this. She’s dressing up as a Spider-Person and sneaking out at night to fight crime. Of course she is. The reasons she’s giving herself for this behaviour are all painfully spurious but, to be fair, she’s had no guidance on how she’s supposed to process acquiring superpowers, learning that her father used to be Spider-Man, and apprehending a would-be murderer over the course of two nights. Dressing up as a Spider-Person and sneaking out at night to fight crime is a perfectly reasonable way to try and puzzle out who you are when you’ve just been left with those experiences and told to sweep them under the carpet.

Unfortunately, the practical subterfuge necessary to sneak about being a secret spider, and the emotional distance that comes from practicing subterfuge, has driven a rift between May and her parents. Her parents to whom it has not occurred that this rift, along with her changed mood and behavior, might have something to do with that time a couple of days ago when she  acquired superpowers, learned that her father used to be Spider-Man, and apprehended a would-be murderer. They seem to think she’s just randomly being a bit of a dick, and are kind of passive-aggressive about it.

The press and the general public are also as yet unaware that there’s new spider in town, but other superheroes are starting to catch on. Issue two saw her subject to the sceptical scrutiny of the mysterious ‘Darkdevil’, but this issue is where she officially, if accidentally, joins the superhero community and starts making connections. This is where she gets in with “the greatest heroes of her world.”

TWO

The Fantastic Five have never really been absent from this comic. Since DeFalco’s “Sixteen Years later…” world doesn’t want to speculate about what the Space Year Two Thousand and Twelve might be like, or to make explicit its shrewd choice that Nineteen Ninety-Eight is sixteen years on from Nineteen Ninety-Six, that creates a kind of cultural vacuum around its teenage characters. May’s ‘Girl Power’ t-shirt represents the limit of how directly they can allude to contemporary pop culture, but DeFalco’s reticent to fabricate a fictional pop culture for them to engage with instead. This comic wants its teenage cast to have posters of their favourite celebrities on their walls, but where is it to look for viable celebrities?

Knowing that the FF are celebrity superheroes, it has so far looked to them. And specifically to Franklin Richards, to whom the characters then look with starry eyes. Again there a whiff of vindicatory fantasy to what DeFalco’s doing here. Psi-Lord, the young adult Franklin he introduced in his Fantastic Four run, didn’t really work. But here’s a universe where Psi-Lord, another young adult Franklin, is considered to work so well that everyone’s utterly smitten with him. At one point May warns a villain that he’s risking the wrath of all women everywhere by attacking Franklin. So far the evidence on the page suggests that this is an objectively true fact about the MC2 universe. This world appears to have a universally desired heart-throb called Psi-Lord.

The status of the Fantastic Five as “the world’s most famous super-team” does not rest entirely on Franklin’s dishiness. They’ve a major public profile, with the first ten floors of the Fantastic Five Building given over to a museum of their exploits and the entire skyscraper thought of as a shrine. They’re a brand, and understood as such by the teenagers who identify with them and compare them against others. “I know that new Avengers team has been capturing the big headlines lately,” says May’s crush Brad, “But I’m strictly an FF man.”

May’s social group gives us an insight into how the FF brand works, because May’s social group is all over the place. Her personal high school drama, which the book has been contrasting with Peter’s from the start, arises from May being too popular. Her personality, prowess and interests make her appealing to a wide cross-section of broadly characterised nerds and jocks who all cluster around her with demands on her time and emotional labour. So when the Fantastic Five are mentioned in this group, we can get a good look at how the brand is read.

Nerdy Jimmy brings them up first in the context of something he’s read in the science section of the Bugle concerning their recent findings and May’s main girl Davida mocks him for this as a ‘geek’. Are the FF then a geek brand? Seems not, as the jocks then show up to enthuse about them as superheroes. So far we’ve got three vectors towards engagement with the Fantastic Five; Interest in Franklin Richards as a dreamboat, interest in them as scientists and interest in them as superheroes. The important thing about all of these is that none of them are based on the past. The attraction is towards who Franklin Richards is now, the scientific interest is in what they’ve recently discovered and the superhero fanboy discourse is about contrasting them with “that new Avengers team.” In the first of these articles we contrasted the marketing of the Two Thousand and Eight Iron Man film with that of the Marvel Island at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park. Clearly the way the Fantastic Five are marketed within the MC2 universe is closer to how the Iron Man film was in ours. They are not a heritage brand.

Which makes the museum a curious place. Here’s what it has on display; Puppet Master stuff, Inhuman stuff, Wizard stuff, Namor stuff, Doctor Doom stuff, Willie Lumpkin stuff, Watcher stuff, Impossible Man stuff, Yancy Street stuff, Galactus stuff, Silver Surfer stuff, Red Ghost stuff and Agatha Harkness stuff. Not only is everything we see from the team’s past as the Fantastic Four but it’s all specifically from the Stan n’ Jack era. In fact, everything except for the huge display about Agatha Harkness represents something from the first half of the the Stan n’ Jack era. Do punters have a nice time at this museum, do you suppose? Are their expectations met by exhibits of which Agatha Harkness is the most contemporary? Are Franklin’s constituency satisfied by a wall-sized headshot of his old nanny?

I’m not sure. But on another level it all makes sense once the fighting starts. Once violence breaks out in the museum then what we have is May Parker struggling to make sense of her situation and keep herself safe whilst surrounded by re-purposed detritus of Marvel Silver Age. That’s a visual symbol of everything she’s been through so far. Finding out the truth about her father and her powers. Being evaluated by ‘Darkdevil’. So far May’s story has all been about her being confronted with the detritus of Marvel Silver Age and being challenged to work out what it all has to do with her. She knows it’s something. She’s learned that she’s not the person she thought she was and she learned that the reason for that has to do with an association between her and the detritus of Marvel’s Silver Age. Now she has to work out the details. She must ask how this iconography fits as a part of her and, thanks to the narratorial strategy, you are being asked how it fits as part of YOU.

May’s provisional solution to the problem has been to become Spider-Girl, but she’s really not sure about that. She has a lot of doubts about the identity on every level. Again and again she questions the name, coming back on multiple occasions to both ‘Spider-Woman’ and ‘Spider-Person’ as perhaps preferable.

She doesn’t yet know who she’s trying to be and doesn’t know why she’s trying to be it. The reason this issue gives for her secret life as Spider-Girl is that it’s to “continue the family tradition” but this issue is also very clear that this secret life is against her family’s wishes, unknown to her family, and driving a wedge between her and them. There is no conceivable way that May can possibly believe this is something she’s doing for her family. This is something she’s doing for herself as she figures herself out.

One exchange with Franklin makes her ambivalence very clear.

“I’ve got a hunch that there’s going to be a publicity maelstrom when the world hears about you!”

“Really?!” she says. “I’d rather keep a low profile.”

“Then why wear such a conspicuous costume?” he asks.

May’s stumped. She genuinely has been trying to conceal that there’s a new Spider-Person active in New York whilst dressed as a Spider-Person.  All this is a process of her trying to work out who she is and what face she wants to show the world, and she’s really not there yet.

Sadly for her, the most preferable option is not on the table. May Parker can’t be Bat-Person.

It’s easy to think that Batman is a darker story than Spider-Man if you mistake tone for content and colour scheme for narrative. It really isn’t. Bruce Wayne witnessed a tragedy for which he was not responsible and became Batman, a healing. Peter Parker witnessed a tragedy for which he was responsible and became Spider-Man, an open wound.

Being Batman is either good for Bruce or as good as it gets for Bruce. Being Spider-Man is not good for Peter, a man who is emotionally unsuited to being a superhero in just about every way but who has got it into his head that people will die if he isn’t one. Spider-Man is not okay. Spider-Man is a character who’s quipping constantly to push the panic down, whose tagline was once “New York’s Neurotic Super-Hero!” and whose signature power is literally weaponised anxiety. Being Batman is Bruce’s gift to himself. Being Spider-Man is Peter’s gift to the world. Being Spider-Man is not good for Peter. One of the things DeFalco has said the MC2 is there to do is to provide a happy ending for Peter. In the MC2, and in any plausible happy ending for Peter, Peter is not Spider-Man. While Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? has Bruce’s happy ending right; He gets to be Batman.

Bruce Wayne’s symbolic strategies for becoming his finest self have proved effective enough to replicate on an industrial scale. Scores of characters have interacted with the sign of the bat and the stories of almost all those characters, from Barbara Gordon to Steph Brown, from Brane Taylor to Bat Cow, from Tim Drake to Kate Kane, has been the story of them drawing on the potency of that brand, and the structure of the ‘Bat Family’ to work out who they are, to own that, and to excel at it. Not to become Batman or to please Batman, Kathy Kane made it clear from the start that neither of those things would be required, but to become themselves for themselves.

The sign of the bat is a tool for self-actualisation. The sign of the spider is a tool for self-sacrifice or self-negation.  

Dick Grayson, the first Robin, understands the contrast. His 2014 series Grayson saw him negate himself to infiltrate an intelligence agency called ‘Spyral.’ In the sixth issue he explained what this meant.

“The Flying Grayson. Nightwing. Robin. […] They were about inspiration, comfort, trust, family. I gave that up to become a spy. A spider man.”

i shall become a spider

Grayson #6

The bat is a place to grow. The spider is a place to hide. May Parker’s in trouble. She’s trying to build a bat out of spider parts.

THREE

This story is titled Fun ‘n’ Games with The Fantastic Five. Let’s meet these funsters.

Spider-Girl_Vol_1_3

Franklin Richards does not seem to have gone Bieber under the strain of adulation. His main character traits seem to be curiosity, politeness, and clarity of thought. He seems a perfectly pleasant and well-adjusted young man and I’ve no idea how he squares that with going around calling himself ‘Psi-Lord.’ He is in the middle of growing out a mullet.

Lyja, the Skrull who was Alica in that retcon, is now going by ‘Ms Fantastic.’ That is not an obvious name to have taken. In DeFalco’s Fantastic Four run there was much agonising over whether or not she still counted as Johnny’s wife given that they only married because she was Alica in that retcon. Here though, they remain wed. We don’t get much insight into the relationship, which is a shame because I really want to know about the family dynamics that lead to her adopting and adapting her brother-in-law’s Action Name. However it came about, it is a very strong statement for Lyja the Skrull who was Alica in that retcon to now be the one who carries the team’s name within her own.

She obviously carries the name well. The Fantastic Five brand is thriving with her as Ms Fantastic. May even says that she had a poster of her on her wall when she was a kid. Which is interesting, because it’s said as if it’s the sort of thing one naturally grows out of. As if having a poster of one of the Fantastic Five on your wall is a thing of childhood. Yet we know that the MC2’s teenagers are super-into the FF and that May would be as happy to have a picture of Franklin up in her room as Jessica Jones was to have one of Johnny. Why is Lyja something that you grow out of? My theory is that she’s thought of as the kids’ favourite. She’s the green lady who turns into terrifying giant alien insects. I think children love her. I think children love her because they think she’s creepy, gross and cool and, since old people don’t recognise her as a classic member of the team, they get to claim her as theirs. 

Big Brain is Reed Richards’ brain inside a little flying robot.

John Storm is the leader of the team. Not Johnny. John. He’s the leader now. John Storm. We see John Storm  give one order. It is met with “I’m way ahead of you, Johnny!” from Reed. All other orders are given by Reed. They include “Back off, Johnny!” to a hot-headed Human Torch who is impetuously rushing into combat.   

Ben’s here too. There feels something vaguely sour about him. I hope he’s okay. We only get one of his catchphrases, and that’s from the narrator, and his violence against May seems to go beyond the established bounds of the misunderstanding-fuelled superhero punch-up and to continue past the point where everyone else is sorting things out. He has metal bits. On the cover these include one of his thighs, but inside the comic they’re all on his upper body, so perhaps they’re clearing up.

Much about the balance of the team is implied in a conversation between Franklin and May regarding an astonishing claim made by the antagonist regarding the nature of reality.

“I suppose it’s possible,” says Franklin, “My dad gives him the benefit of the doubt. Uncle Johnny and Aunt Lyja don’t care. And Uncle Ben…well…let’s just say he thinks the guy’s full of it!”

Ascertaining the truth of the claim is of no interest to two of the five, and one remains openly hostile to inquiry. Three of the Fantastic Five, including the leader, can’t be bothered with doing science. But the Fantastic Five remain scientific adventures and continue to make headlines as such. The surface level agenda of the team remains Reed’s.

FOUR

I’ve never read an issue of Spider-Gwen that lived up to her first appearance in Edge of Spider-Verse. My suspicion is that there isn’t one. My further suspicion is that that’s because that first appearance was the only time she was ever on the edge of the Spider-Verse.

The distinction between ‘street level’ and ‘cosmic’ superheroes is kind of a dodgy one most tightly cleaved to by people up to something really tedious like trying to objectively prove who could beat up who or trying to insist that the Punisher can’t be a Frankenstein. It’s a nonsense. You can say more about the soul in a Daredevil comic than you can in Doctor Strange. Darkseid is a Jimmy Olsen villain. All superheroes are cosmic. Have them fight God.

But there are some ways in which ‘the cosmic’ can hobble the telling of a ‘street-level’ superhero story, and that is to do with how they frame the space where the story is told.

Back when you had a Lyja poster on your wall, you were probably told at least two versions of ‘The Three Little Pigs.’ The version where the wolf meets its end immediately after the assault on house three, and the version where they go to the fair afterwards. Your response was probably to process them as two different tellings of the story, rather than to hypothesise the existence of a multiverse in which both were true. They share a space in that they both go in the box labelled ‘versions of The Three Little Pigs’, but they don’t demand that you imagine a fictional space called ‘The Three Little Pigs Multiverse’ which houses both narratives as stable and persistent accounts of events.

Wikipedia’s pages on Disney comics are often an incredible mess of wrongness. The influence of how superhero comics are discussed on how all comics are discussed, and the weight accorded to Don Rosa’s wonderfully cranky and completely atypical work, means that the doings of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck are talked about in terms of ‘continuities’ and ‘universes.’ Universes! What a word! What a concept to apply! As if there’s a fictional cosmology needed to explain why different sorts of things happen in Italian Duck comics and Scandinavian ones rather than it just being a matter of different traditions.

It is incredible how much the language of science-fiction has been absorbed into how we account for differences in stories. Duckberg contains no ostriches according to Carl Barks’ The Tuckered Tiger. Donald has a pet ostrich in the Al Taliaferro newspaper strips. This discrepancy does not constitute proof that the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics holds true in either fiction. It does not make those stories into universes.

When Marvel launched its ‘Ultimate’ line it knew that it was important for that retelling of its material, that version of its Three Little Pigs, to be understood as a retelling and not as something sharing a fictional space with the existing material. That would eventually change, but early on the point was stressed that the Ultimate books did not share a ‘multiverse’ with the stories they retold and would not be interacting with the Marvel universe. They were a different version of the story, not part of the story of a shared cosmology.

Spider-Gwen was awesome because she was a version of the Spider story in which Gwen was the Spider-Person and Peter the beautiful corpse. She got to be that for most of one issue, and then she crossed the edge of the Spider-Verse. Thereafter she was the Spider-Woman of Earth-65. It couldn’t be helped, given the circumstances of her creation, but her interaction with the multiverse came disastrously early for the character. It robbed her of her right to establish herself as a version of the story and instead established her as something that only makes sense as a component of a structure that houses her alongside the original.

Officially, all the different DC ‘universes’ we saw in between Crisis on Infinite Earths’ destruction of the DC multiverse and its vague and creeping reintroduction in the early Two Thousands weren’t universes at all. They were simply versions, simply stories. There was no shared fictional cosmology for them to abide within. Conversely, all the Marvel ‘universes’ that we saw in What If?  were absolutely officially components of a Marvel multiverse. There were out there somewhere. The Watcher told us so. In practise however it was hard to read them like that. They didn’t often look like worlds. They looked like thought experiments.

Three issues on from spinning-off out of What If?  then Spider-Girl  has to decide what it is, or at least how it presents itself. It is officially a part of the Marvel multiverse, but how much does that matter to the story? To what extent is this book telling the story of Spider-Girl and to what extent is it telling the story of the Spider-Girl of Earth-982? What’s the stage on which this is set? Does it go with the strategy that the Ultimate universe will or the strategy that circumstance foisted on Spider-Gwen?

This is a world where Mary Jane kept her daughter. How much does the world where she didn’t matter to this story?

DeFalco has thought about this very carefully. Maybe not with reference to Spider-Gwen and the Ultimate universe, since they haven’t happened yet, and possibly even without reference to Donald Duck’s pet ostrich, but he’s identified all the dangers anyway.

One of the functions of this issue is to introduce the Multiverse but also to create a buffer between it and May’s story. The Fantastic Five form part of that buffer. Huge structures of multiple worlds are their turf, not May’s, and her involvement with it is a consequence of her interaction with them. This has long been one of the things that the FF are for for regard to ‘street level’ characters; Providing a bridge between them and big science-fiction. The FF are what you invoke when you want a reason for Daredevil to be on a space rocket.

Another way that May’s story is shielded from the multiverse is by scepticism. That other universes exist is only asserted here by the story’s villain. He says he’s from one. Franklin supposes it’s possible, Reed gives him the benefit of the doubt, Johnny and Lyja don’t care, and Ben thinks he’s a gobshite. Based purely on what’s presented in this issue, the existence of a multiverse is completely doubtable.

The third buffer, and I think this is the cleverest and most delicate, is that DeFalco never confirms which universe our antagonist is from. He wants the fun of being able to compare the Fantastic Five to the Fantastic Four, but does so in such a fuzzy way that there’s nothing to say that he’s talking about the main Marvel universe. The world where Mary Jane lost her daughter is not introduced into the the story of the world where she did not.

We know very little about the villain or the world he’s trying to get back to. His aged appearance imply that he’s been away for some time.  What families and comforts has he left behind? He’s got very little apparent personality, very little self. His name’s Spyral.