The Purity of Vision vs The Rich Tapestry of History
There’s long been a significant school of thought in comic book criticism that a single author, or perhaps a collaboration between a writer or artist on a single title or character for a set period of time, produces the only stories worth reading. Fine examples of this abound such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Jeff Smith’s Bone or Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man. These men made up their main characters and told their stories, and the stories stand alone and hold up well for years. Some critics like my friend Bart Beaty will even go so far as to say that these are the only stories that matter and anything else that comes later doesn’t count. I’m not as extreme as Bart, but this is generally an approach I hold with, and I still speak fondly of Starlin’s original run on Warlock. The fact that I can even use a shorthand phrase such as Segar’s Popeye and have that understood to be the early years of the strip and not Bobby London’s 1990s work shows how intertwined the author and character are.
But Spider-Man 3's debut crystallized a few questions with this approach that I have had. Certainly this “auteur” approach is a recent one. Oral storytelling meant that stories were changed and embroidered every time they were passed along. The long, tangled story of King Arthur and Camelot is a good example. Even in other art forms, Rembrandt didn’t differentiate between work that his pupils assisted on and probably charged the buyer the same, but now today a School of Rembrandt painting is worth considerably less.
So would Spider-Man somehow be a better story, if one can even say that, if the comic book ceased after Ditko left? The new Spider-Man movie would have no material at all in it, except for Sandman, whom promo stills show looking very close to Ditko’s vision. Gwen Stacy came into her own as a character after Ditko’s departure, and her death, a defining moment in later Spider-Man comic books, was much later. Similarly, Venom is a creation of the 1980s when Jim Shooter gave Spider-Man a live costume in the excesses of the Secret Wars miniseries, and then later writers turned it into a vengeful, rejected suitor. Sam Raimi has wholeheartedly reinterpreted the Spider-Man mythos, moving characters in time, and changing storylines, but I think he’s stayed remarkably true to the essential nature of both the character of those first Lee-Ditko books as well as the accretions of forty years of stories. On reflection, some of the best cartoonists have done similar work - from the 1970s reinterpretation of Green Arrow and Green Lantern as relevant heroes by writer Denny O’Neill and artist Neal Adams, and Jim Starlin’s reworking of Adam Warlock as a self-reflective wanderer in the stars to Frank Miller’s recreation of both Daredevil (essentially as a ninja) and Batman in The Dark Knight Returns. Even Alan Moore, one of the best writers of comics rarely invents out of whole cloth. His Swamp Thing took the existing elements of the story and recombined them wonderfully as did his Superman story ending the Silver Age, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” Even Watchman, his book most likely to be cited by fans as a story to give to non-comic book readers is a reworking of Charleton’s minor heroes like Blue Beetle and Captain Atom, and is a richer read with an awareness of the earlier characters. A revisionist interpretation needs something to revise against after all.
So while I prefer stories that stand on their own, I appreciate the rich elements that new creators can pull from forty years of Spider-Man’s tales.