Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Every Man Has His Spider. (Best of Enemies)

CW: Discussion of abuse.
Touching hands...
Reaching out...
Touching me...
Touching you!

I guess we should start with the ending, as that is where we find ourselves. Some of you might notice this is outside of the circle of October/November, 1987. As Clive Barker put in my favorite book “And this story, having no beginning, will have no end.” So too do circles. And so, to find the end of this story, we have to look at it from out its grasp. This is not the end of the blog though; I still need to talk about the Hunt after all. This is just a way of gaining some perspective on the matter.

But I’m getting distracted; we’re here to talk about the ending of JM DeMatteis’ Spider-Man: Spectacular Spider-Man #200. He would write more Spider-Man stories (though none would ever reach the heights of this one [however some would get close]), this is where the themes he was building upon since Kraven’s Last Hunt reached their climax, their breaking point. When ideas reach that point, the author has three choices: leave the story for new storytellers to tell (an example of this would be Grant Morrison’s Animal Man); change the idea you want to explore or explore a minor theme in more depth (Dan Slott’s Superior Spider-Man); or keep pushing the idea past its breaking point, gaining only diminishing returns (Spider-Man 3).

DeMatteis chose the second option, and all the better for it. But what was the theme that died at the end of his story (indeed dying is the correct term for a theme that reaches its climax. How else can it haunt the rest of the story if it’s still alive)? It’s found in the ending. (Why do I keep going off into tangents that have little to do with what I’m talking about? Do I just not want it to stop, for the story to have a to be continue? Or is it something different… The truth is, this isn’t an ending for me. This is where it all started. My library [or a library, I can’t seem to find it] had a trade that collected different stories of Harry Osborn as the Green Goblin. This was the first time I had ever knowingly read the work of DeMatteis, and I was enthralled by the images and the implications of the words. It wasn’t even the end of the trade.)

Fig. 1: Spider-Man
defeats the bad guy
(Spectacular Spider-Man #200
Written by JM DeMatteis,
art by Sal Buscema)
It’s a short sequence, only two pages long. There’s no dialogue, but we don’t need it. Panel One depicts an ambulance driving down the streets of New York, showing where the action takes place. Like with previous sequences within the issue, Panel Two is layered atop Panel One to show this is the next panel in the sequence. There are no more layered panels for the rest of the comic. Peter Parker, wearing his Spider-Man suit, is approaching Harry Osborn’s hold him. He reaches him in the next panel, and it is clear that Harry’s not going to make it. They both know it and, in the following panel, Harry clasps Peter’s hand. In return, Peter clasps Harry’s (we get a close up of these hands) and Harry dies.

The next page depicts the immediate aftermath of Harry’s death. Everyone’s sad and alone. The last panel is an image from happier times. But that’s not the important bit. For me, [fig. 1] is Spider-Man personified. Not that he’s about pain and sorrow and all that jazz, but rather he’s the kind of person who would be there for his best friend, even after all the horrible things Harry’s done to him. But why would Peter go through all that? Harry, after all, threatened not only Peter, but his family and friends as well (sure, Harry claims he will never hurt Mary Jane or Aunt May, but if Harry goes through with his threat of revealing Peter’s secret identity, they will be hurt by the countless other villains who don’t share Harry’s conflicted relationship with the Parker family).

Fig. 2: The lie of love
(Spectacular Spider-Man #200
Written by JM DeMatteis,
art by Sal Buscema)
And that’s not even getting into Liz Allen. In this comic alone, it is clear that their relationship is an abusive one with Harry physically throttling her when she implies he’s weak because she’s concerned about his fever. Her body language is full of fake smiles and tense movements [fig. 2]. (In many regards, she’s a mirror to Mary Jane. For all she’s aware that she’s in an abusive relationship, Liz tries to act as if their relationship is just a bit bumpy. Mary Jane, who has had experience with abusers in the past, refuses to allow her to repress this aspect of the relationship. Indeed, her defining trait throughout the issue is a refusal of repression, be it Peter’s repressed fondness for Harry or Harry’s rose tinted view of the past. With Liz, Mary Jane directly confronts her with the reality of the situation. Liz responds by kicker her out of her house and claiming, “You’re as bad as he is, you know that? You’re as bad as Spider-Man!” [In an interesting turn, the last sentence is in a text box in the following panel and depicted crooked, implying that Liz doesn’t actually believe that about either Mary Jane or Spider-Man and is just saying that to keep up appearances. Another interesting note is Mary Jane’s word choice for Liz’s denial: cocoon. The implication is that though this is a painful experience, once she emerges, Liz will be a better person for it.])

So one wonders why Peter stays with Harry at the end. Is it because he’s the hero and that’s the role the hero plays?  One could argue that. After Harry abducts Mary Jane and takes her to the place where Gwen Stacy died to show how he isn’t going to hurt her, Peter describes his lot as “…the noble super hero” to Mary Jane and he “…couldn’t kill anyone—not even Harry.” He’s aware of the role he plays, and at times feels like it’d be better if he could just kill Harry. But this isn’t a cynical story about how heroes don’t exist and when push comes to shove, we’d kill each other. It believes in the genuine heroism of Peter as, when the final confrontation comes, Peter pleads with Harry that this violent confrontation isn’t getting them anywhere and they should just talk. The super hero, for all their nobility, tends to solve problems with their fists. Peter finds all this pounding a bit stupid.

Fig. 3: The moment Peter Parker
came out canonically as bisexual
(Spectacular Spider-Man #200
Written by JM DeMatteis,
art by 
Sal Buscema)
The real reason he does this is far more simpler than that: Peter loves Harry. Mary Jane flat out says it [fig. 3]: “We love you, Harry. For all the agony of these past months… We truly love you. You haven’t had an easy life… Neither have I… And, God knows, neither has Peter. But the one thing that holds any of us together… keeps us going—is out love for each other.” All along, JM DeMatteis has been telling us a love story. A tragic one certainly, but a love story nonetheless. It takes a while for Mary Jane to realize this. She thinks Harry’s going to kill her, the psychopathy that ruled Norman passed down to his son, and refuses to give him the satisfaction of begging or pleading. Instead, what Harry wanted out of her was to let her know it won’t go this far. He wanted to share the nostalgia of “Those long, lazy nights… just driving around together? You, me, Gwen… and Peter.”

Let’s turn the clock back to the last of those nights… the night Gwen Stacy died. Given the narrative presented before us, it can be read that it was a four-sided relationship and Gwen was the glue that kept them together. (The word “polyamory” has been one that the previous paragraph has jumped around. And the implication of emphasizing love as the crux of their relationship puts them into that word quite nicely, though [if sticking to "canon" is key for a text making sense {it isn't, but comics fans pretend it is}] the important part is that they had a close relationship and it fell apart.) When she died, everything collapsed. Sure, Mary Jane was able to emerge from her cocoon, but Peter went on a rampage of revenge that, when he got it, was found wanting. And Harry became an abusive, spiteful super villain, blaming his problems on Peter while misreading his father into someone caught in the crossfire of a cruel menace.

Fig. 4: Love, betrayed
(Amazing Spider-Man #122
Written by Gerry Conway,
art by Gil Kane)
In some regards, Harry’s right to blame Peter. Not for killing his father, it was clearly Norman Osborn who killed himself (while trying to kill Peter). Rather, that night after Gwen died, Peter abandoned Harry in his time of need [Fig. 4]. The night Gwen died, Harry was dealing with a bad trip (he had a history of drug addiction, called back to in the issue this story haunts by the new Goblin formula Harry’s been taking that kills him in the end). When searching for Norman at his house, all Peter finds is Harry and when deciding between revenge and helping his friend, he chose the obviously correct choice of vengeance. Peter’s been paying for that choice ever since.

In truth, the story, indeed the core of the DeMatteis era itself, ripples from that one decision. The choice of cruelty over love broke and mended our leads. Mary Jane has been exorcized of her demons by that night. The repression she typically uses to avoid situations of emotional extremity was pushed to its breaking point, and she decided to stop in favor of open dialogue. She thinks that if Peter and Harry were just open with one another, if they’d stop fighting and just talk. Peter, meanwhile, embraces repression as he does with a lot of his problems (indeed, for all his status within fandom as a whiner, he keeps a lot of his diatribes internal. If one were to ask a person in the Marvel Universe what Spider-Man’s like, they’d probably compare him to Bugs Bunny). Deep down, he knows this isn’t going to work out well for him, but he tries anyways (this theme of repression gets explored deeper in the second DeMatteis era, where Spider-Man tries and fails to repress Peter Parker). As for Harry, he doesn’t repress his emotions. He lashes out on everyone around him, despite his claims to the contrary. He hurts his wife (who he probably married due to being blonde like Gwen, and hates Liz for not being as he remembered Gwen being), his friends, even himself… all to cope with not being able to save Gwen Stacy… to save his father from the evil Spider-Man.

Fig. 5: Harry assumes
that we are fucked
(Spectacular Spider-Man #200
Written by JM DeMatteis,
art by Sal Buscema)
In the end, Harry realizes that he’s been hurting those he cares about deeply and decides that Peter’s wrong. They should both die [Fig. 5]. Like many of us can and have done… like I have done, Harry has fallen into a pit of pessimism and despair. A pit that tells you that the world is better off with you dead. Because you can’t change anything, let alone yourself. And you’re terrible. You don’t care about how other people feel; you hurt them just to prove you aren’t weak; you blame others when the problem is clearly you or someone you care about. You’re aware of these things, but you feel they’re inherent to who you are. So you decide to end it all rather than let the suffering of those you love go on.

But as Peter damn well knows, we change. Peter Parker’s story, after all, is about change. The Fantastic Four are the explorers of the unknown; the X-Men are an oppressed race trying to stay alive; the Avengers are the fighters for the status quo; but Spider-Man? Spider-Man started out as a teenage superhero, but then he graduated High School. Then he went to college, and graduated that too. He’s changed and evolved in the years since his debut. Spider-Man’s story is about change (which makes him a bit dangerous in a universe that runs on the illusion of change, but that’s a conversation for a different article).

Fig. 6: Harry Osborn, triumphant
(Spectacular Spider-Man #200
Written by JM DeMatteis,
art by Sal Buscema)
Fig. 7: Peter Parker, triumphant
(Amazing Spider-Man #33
Written by Stan Lee and
Steve Ditko, art by Steve
He doesn’t argue this point, as this is a thematic aspect of the character as opposed to a thing Peter consciously knows about. Instead, Peter goes for an argument that life is worth living, which, as many people with depression will tell you, doesn’t actually work. What does work however is the discovery that Mary Jane and Normie Osborn, Harry’s son, are going to die with them. Peter, in a position where he can’t save them, pleads with Harry to save them. And he overcomes his self-loathing (if only briefly) and saves them. (Note the similarities between [Fig. 6] and [Fig. 7]. Both are moments of ultimate personal triumph of their respective characters and both share the same declaration of “I Did It!” Both carry massive implications that reverberate to this very day).

But, when Mary Jane finds out that Peter’s still going to die, she pleads with Harry to save him. And he does so. He does so for the same reason he saved his son and Mary Jane. It’s as she said: Harry loves them. And it’s their love for one another that’s able to save them in the end. (I want to make this clear, this isn't redemption. Harry's cruelty towards the Parkers and Liz Allen isn't forgiven by him saving three people. Rather, it's the sign that redemption is possible. The tragedy is that it wasn't. [Another aside: I really hate the decision Post-One More Day Spider-Man writers made in regards to Harry Osborn. While I'm fine with bringing him back, they shouldn't have retconned away his abusive tendencies. Shame on them for that and especially for the numerous stories attempting to vilify Liz Allen.]) But it’s not enough to save Harry. Harry dies at the end. Because sometimes love isn’t enough. Or it’s too late to do anything. If Harry hadn’t pushed himself as far as he did, if Peter hadn’t been so bull headed about killing Norman, if Norman hadn’t killed Gwen (for those of you who argue Peter killed Gwen, no. Just no), if Mary Jane could’ve convinced them to talk sooner, maybe they would have lived happily ever after.

Alas, it does little to ponder what could have been. Love doesn’t last; it’s a fleeting sensation that we cling to until the bitter end. It’s wonderful, and important, but it’s not forever. And this theme of love and loss that started out with Peter coming back from the dead with Mary Jane’s name on his mind ends here. Sure, there’s the death of Aunt May and all, but DeMatteis goes in a different direction for the rest of the run, opting to explore other themes and ideas. This is where the theme reaches its natural conclusion. And all we have left of these painful, wonderful times… are memories:

Fig. 8: Love Everlasting.
(Spectacular Spider-Man #200
Written by JM DeMatteis,
art by Sal Buscema)
(Next Time: Did The Hand That Made The Lamb Make Thee?)

[Photo: Blue is the Warmest Color by Julie Maroh]

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