Life On The Web
Tripwire’s contributing writer Laurence Boyce takes a look at Spider-man: Life Story, out now from Panini/ Marvel…
Spider-Man: Life StoryWriter: Chip Zdarsky
Artists: Mark Bagley
Colours: Frank D’Armata
Letters: Astarte Design
Published by Panini Comics / Marvel, £14.99
Almost every other comic nowadays is an ‘alternate timeline’ or ‘out of continuity’ story. Whether it’s the DC Black Label – containing moments such as Batman’s Bat Bits all swinging in the breeze, to emphasise how all non-canon it is – or countless editions of What If? (with titles such as ‘What If The Thing had sticky buns all over his body instead of rocks?’), there’s a cavalcade of re-tellings and re-imaginations out there. Of course, this frees writers from the shackles of tortuous continuity and allows them to play with the archetypes and icons that make up the comic book world – as well as sell books to people who can’t be bothered to keep up with 10 different individual titles a month including crossovers. But it happens with such ubiquity nowadays that there’s a tendency for titles to fall into the realms of gimmickry and the joy of seeing a creator let loose on a character suffering from diminishing returns.
It is thus that Spider-Man: Life Story was approached with a small amount of trepidation. Examining the career of Spider-Man as if it happened over the span of one lifetime – with our hero beginning as an all familiar teenager in the 60s to a web-slinging pensioner in the 2010s – would this a pointless exercise in alternate storytelling or a genuinely interesting examination of a classic superhero complete with treatise on the passing of time in the comic book world? Thanks to writer Chip Zdarsky – whose stellar work on the brilliant Sex Criminals and the likes of Daredevil precedes him – the answer is mostly the latter.
With each issue in the 6 issue collection taking place in a different decade, we begin in the 60s with Peter Parker already four years into his career as Spider-Man and still trying to work out the dividing line between himself and his super-hero persona. The Vietnam War looms large and Parker must wrestle with his own feelings about the draft, and his responsibility as a superhero as he sees his friends – amongst them Flash Thompson – shipped off to war. Coupled with all this, Norman Osbourne is about to reveal a very unpleasant secret to Peter….
Beginning the story ‘in media res’ avoids another tiresome origin story retelling (here we rely on a couple of panels of flashback). Partly this is pure narrative expediency – originally Zdarsky wanted to do a mini-series per decade. Marvel gave him one issue per decade. But it also works in making the story a paean to the character of Spider-Man himself. While it can be enjoyed on its own terms, those who know their Spider-Man lore will get the most out of it. The Death of Gwen Stacy, Kraven’s Last Hunt, Civil War, Superior Spider-Man and many other classic (or in the case of the Clone Saga, infamous) story arcs are all given a unique spin all through the prism of a Wall Crawler who is growing older and part of an alternative world history (like Watchman, this posits an alternate outcome for a Vietnam War in which superheroes played their part).
Sometimes this conflagration of elements can make things a bit ponderous, with sections of characters pontificating on the nature of responsibility, family life and aging that make momentum grind to halt. True, the appeal of Spider-Man had always been partly about his angst in dealing with his powers – but this was tempered by the wisecracking wallcrawler springing into action. But even when it lags, Life Story manages to stay afloat through the sheer exuberance and love for the character.
Life Story also works as showing why the character is so popular in the first place – it was his teenage and youthful naivety and angst that made a fun juxtaposition with his brash and confident alter-ego. Certainly, in Life Story Peter Parker as a middle-aged person is – well – a bit of a dick. His naivety is replaced with a cynicism and an inability to juggle his responsibilities (that word again). It makes for an interesting character beat and reinforces why we also like our comic book characters preserved in narrative amber. Character development is important but we still want our superheroes to have the same appeal they had at the start.
While some of this character exploration is slightly fudged in the middle (because of clone shenanigans – look, let’s be thankful there’s no Mephisto in sight) the story leads to a grand and breathtaking conclusion that provides closure for Peter Parker, some sly nods to the past and – with the appearance of a certain Miles Morales – a look to the future.
Mark Bagley’s art is bold and heavy, with an aesthetic that straddles the line between the stylised and cartoonish with some darker tinged elements of realism. It suits the story well, with its attempt to connect the usual over the top superhero antics with a more sober examination of the man who wears the suit.
Despite its uneven tempo, Spider-Man: Life Story is a well-rounded celebration of what is arguably Marvel’s most beloved character with a concept that is put to often fascinating use. One will expect that a few more Marvel characters will be treated to their own ‘life stories’ down the road….