Friday, January 11, 2008

Spider-Man's "Brand New Day" Unmasked: They've Failed; Just When It Counted Most, They've Failed

AKA: Why Amazing Spider-Man #545 and #546 Are Total Disasters

OK, a word of warning: If you're not a fan of the Spider-Man comic books you'll probably want to check out right now. I don't want to alienate any one, but this “One More Day/Brand New Day” situation has me seething, and I have to vent somewhere.

This is the most asinine, ill-advised, wrong-headed move in all of comic book history and I am not exaggerating. It fails on so many levels it's PATHETIC, and I can’t imagine it won’t be ret-ret-conned within a year or so. Don’t get too attached to these new villains and characters, because I predict they’re ALL gonna be jettisoned completely when Marvel wises up and tries to erase this debacle from history.

For those of you who don’t know, here’s a quick paraphrase of where we are: Joe Quesada, the EIC of Marvel Comics, decided that Peter Parker’s 20-year marriage to Mary Jane (in real time) was a storytelling hindrance and he needed to get rid of it SOMEHOW, without killing her off or divorcing the characters, which he believed would age them.

So, he came up with this cockamamie notion of Peter Parker making a deal with the devil (Mephisto, in the Marvel U) to save his Aunt May’s life… on the condition that he would “lose” his marriage to Mary Jane in the process. Somehow… we’re not quite sure how… all the events “pretty much” played out the way we remember them the past 20 years, except that Peter and Mary Jane weren’t married. Oh, and everyone has forgotten that Spidey unmasked in public. And Harry Osborn is alive. And Peter’s living with Aunt May again. And hundreds if not thousands of little things we don’t know about have changed too. RIGHT. OK.

Once that outlandish, out-of-character plot contrivance was clumsily executed in the 4 part “One More Day,” we were then told by Merry Marvel that we should embrace “Brand New Day” as the jumping off point for the “second chapter” in Peter’s life. (You would think they’d want to avoid words that remind us of John Byrne’s “Chapter One.”) We’re also being told we should “LOOK FORWARD!” (read: not back at that crappy Mephisto stuff.)

Sorry guys, the ends don’t justify the means, and it’s not so easy to just “roll with the punches.” I submit this would be true even for readers who have never read a Spider-Man comic book before "BRAND NEW DAY.” This is just too egregious to overlook; and violates so many rules of good fiction/narrative that one would have to be brain dead to not be at least SOMEWHAT troubled by the whole thing. This has nothing to do with me being "older" (late 30's) by Joe's standards, and thereby lacking the ability to relate to this "younger" incarnation of the character. This has to do with bad storytelling, plain and simple. Tell a good story, and people will want to read it, regardless of their age. Tell a sucky one, and they'll flee in terror.

So why does the overall structure of “Brand New Day” suck so much? Let us count some of the ways.


When you watch an ongoing TV show, you know that the characters are really just actors and everything you see is fiction. However, when we immerse ourselves in fictional characters, we imagine them to have full lives and memories that extend back before the show (and presumably after). That’s why we ask questions like, “what do you think happened to them after the episode ended?” Likewise, we don’t imagine that when a character leaves a scene, that they simply cease to exist. At the very least, they exist no less than before they left the scene.

In other words, we develop a coherent, working model of the characters which allows them to be “real” within a certain schema. To introduce a plot device which effectively replaces characters with parallel-universe versions of themselves and remember a world that may or may not have existed, is to SERIOUSLY undermine the reader’s attachment or investment in that world. BND feels flat, forced and artificial at every turn, and I blame Joe Q., not Dan Slott.

Here’s an analogy: If someone came along and told you all the characters on the TV show “Brand New Jar” are all brains in a jar (for example), and possess no physical bodies, that would overshadow your perception of what’s happening on the show. This would be true even if you had never seen the “One More Jar” episode. You wouldn’t have to. You could TRY to “look forward” and get involved in what the characters are doing now and become invested in their lives, but that nagging feeling that they’re all just jar-brains is going to undermine everything you see.

There is no doubt that the weight and meaning of every event you witness in that context would be altered, because what you’re seeing is LESS real (in a sense) than fiction already is. Even worse, what if someone told you that before everyone became jar-brains in a fictional world, they were ACTUAL PEOPLE in a fictional world? Wouldn’t that dampen your enjoyment of those characters even more? I think it would have to.

Now, at this point I would expect Mighty Marvel to protest “mightily” that Peter and his friends aren’t jar-brains, they’re the real deal; they actually ARE Peter and Mary Jane and Harry Osborn, etc. I flat out reject this. Either Peter and his cohorts in “Brand New Day” are from a parallel reality, where all the events THEY remember actually did occur, or they are altered versions of the original characters living in a world which has been seriously tampered with to confirm their falsified memories.

If we accept scenario A, we are not reading Amazing Spider-man anymore, we are reading Amazing Parallel-Reality Spider-Man. That’s fine, I guess, but that means we don’t get to read about the Spider-man we all knew and loved for the last 20 years plus.

If we accept scenario B, the altered “one-Peter/one-universe” scenario, then why should I care about ANYTHING that happens to the characters in Brand New Day? They’re living a lie, and I can’t tell them!!! Everything they do is a hollow mockery of what really is, or what should have been, until the devil came along. They have memories of things that never happened, or altered memories of things that did. Worse, nothing has a feel of permanence. What’s to stop the devil from sashaying into town and shaking things up again? Who gives a crap what happens to so-and-so at the end of “Brand New Day?” It can all be undone with a little mystical mumbo-jumbo, if need be, at least in THEORY. It doesn’t matter if the editors say these changes are permanent; the narrative is FOREVER UNDERMINED. It doesn’t feel like anything’s at STAKE anymore. I don’t think they realize how damaging this Mephisto contrivance really is to the integrity of the story.

I believe part of the problem is Joe wants to have his cake and eat it too, and he expects us to just “accept things” that aren’t clear, using the pretense of “magic.” Well Joe is no Criss Angel. Marvel expects us to believe that Peter in BND and Peter in OMD is the same guy, but that can’t be (in a very real sense) without having him and the rest of the world live a lie. And that’s a problem.


We could almost make sense of all this if we view “Brand New Day” as the adventures of parallel reality Spider-Man. But Marvel is trying so bad to resist the notion of parallel worlds in its main universe that the whole concept as executed in BND is an unholy, unintelligible mess. If this was a parallel reality, we could at least believe these characters have SOME sort of claim to legitimacy. We could imagine that they have full lives that are playing out differently than 616 Spider-man; we just never got to see them before. Obviously, it would take some time for the reader to get invested in such a story. But it could be done. Unfortunately, as many people have pointed out, Marvel already has an Ultimate line which ostensibly serves this function.

Likewise, rather than EARNING our emotional investment, Marvel wants to hedge its bets by keeping up the pretense that this is the SAME Peter Parker in the same universe (with altered memories) and we should still feel the dramatic gravitas that stems from a lot of key moments in Peter’s life. They want to cherry-pick what we should keep and we should dispose of. In other words, they implore us to “LOOK FORWARD!...but oh! -wink wink- Keep this! And this. Oh, and that wasn’t too bad, if we tweak it a little… but LOOK FORWARD, true believers!” To which I answer: Huhn?

The end result of trying to straddle two different narrative interpretations is the story loses its power on both counts: It has neither the dramatic impact of watching a whole new reality reveal itself, nor the emotional impact of watching the same character in strange new circumstances.


Did no one think this was a bad idea? I know they’re probably planning on using Mephisto for some “dramatic” stories down the line (who the hell knows anymore), but if this is really the new status quo, and the beginning of a “bold new chapter,” couldn’t we have predicated it on something other than the Prince of Lies? Sort of taints/overshadows the whole thing, doesn’t it?

If you don’t think that’s a big deal, let me re-emphasize for you: PETE’S ENTIRE LIFE IS NOW THE DIRECT RESULT OF MAKING A PACT WITH THE MASTER OF ALL THAT IS EVIL. Not only that, but the REST OF THE WORLD HAS CHANGED TOO!!!! So now the entire universe is a grotesque, Diablo-determined distortion of what was and was “meant” to be. And try not to think about the butterfly effect of all the people who will probably live or die because of the imperceptible changes in the fabric of reality, because Joe sure isn’t. That was really nice of Peter to do that.

Of course, all Peter’s worried about in OMD is HIS kid who won’t get to be born. I’m sure Marvel would probably tell us that no one else will have their fate changed in any appreciable way by this pact. Are we really supposed to believe that an event like having Harry back from the dead (for example) wouldn’t have major repercussions on people’s lives, somewhere along the line? And yeah, this time PETER would be responsible for things that go wrong. Most of the time Peter just whines about stuff he really has no control over. This time he’s FULLY responsible for SCREWING THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE. Wow.

Ah, who cares, if it gets us to where we need to be, right? NOW LOOK FORWARD, DAMN YOU!


This has been mentioned in reviews and on many message boards already, so I won’t delve into it much here. Suffice it to say, Peter would know better than to make a deal with Mephisto; he would know that Aunt May wouldn’t want him to change reality so she could live; he would at least contemplate the consequences of such a drastic, sweeping change; and it’s questionable he would willingly give up his marriage to MJ for such a selfish reason. (HE can’t live with the guilt over May? How narcissistic can they MAKE this “lovable” loser be, for kripe’s sake?)


There is nothing wrong, in theory, with wanting Peter to seem younger and more unencumbered. But the whole “swinging single” vibe which pervades the comic book is downright weird. And the first page of BND, JOKE OR NOT, plays like a big middle finger to the fans. (I don’t know if I should admire or be pissed off by the colossal balls on Marvel. It’s like they’re re-affirming their intentions and really want to rub your face in it. It reminds me of George Bush stubbornly digging his heels in the sand, refusing to admit he’s made any real mistakes and foolishly thinking he’ll be vindicated by history after his presidency goes down in flames.)

The 2 page “crib notes” in Brand New Day really captures the outdated creepiness of it all. JRJR gives us a lovely rendition of Gwen and Mary Jane with the caption “Pete’s Girls” (because that’s really all they are, ya know) and a brief description of their roles in this brave new world. Hey yeah, and one of ‘em’s DEAD! WHOA, DON’T BRING ME DOWN MAN! BUMMERS-VILLE! (CUE TEARS) OK, ENOUGH OF THAT! NOW LET’S GO SHOOT SOME WEBS!!! THWIP! THWIP!

Even though the early Spider-man stories were groundbreaking in many ways, they were still pervaded by a sensibility that was informed by the era in which they were created. To try and shoehorn that sensibility into a 2008 comic book, especially one that’s being built on the flimsiest of premises, is a risky endeavor at best. In more capable hands, it could be a bold statement of artistic intent. In Joe’s hands, it comes off as inept attempt at shipping a few more units and recapturing the glory days he never knew, but is single-handedly trying to destroy.


Some of the more pivotal moments in recent Marvel history have been either shrugged off or fudged in an attempt to get this clumsy reboot off the ground. Spider-man’s unmasking, Peter’s running from the law, Aunt May’s shooting, Aunt May’s discovery of Spider-man’s identity, Peter Parker’s rebirth, organic webshooters… like ‘em or hate ‘em, these storylines could have given GOOD writers years and years of fertile material. Many fans were looking forward to seeing these issues addressed or resolved in a dramatic, ORGANIC fashion.

But there is nothing organic about BND. (Guess that’s why they got rid of the organic webshooters.) Apparently, Joe’s plan for the past few years has been to just throw as many crazy plot devices out there as possible because he knew he was going to flush it all away with OMD/BND. Viewed in this light, Spider-man’s unmasking comes off like a cheap ploy to sell more comics instead of a measured attempt to tell good stories. It’s shoddy; it’s a disgrace. People care about these characters and the editors are just screwing with them.


Now that Marvel is claiming Peter and Mary Jane were never married, (and Harry is alive, and the webshooters are back, etc. etc.) hundreds of issues of backstory have been rendered inaccurate or unclear in Marvel’s ongoing continuity. This is not the same as ignoring an arc of Ghost Rider, or pretending a year or so of stories in Moon Knight was a dream. This is far-reaching and almost universal damage to the Marvel U. at large.

Marvel (or Joe) can poo-poo this and say the stories are still there and people can read them at anytime, but that shows a stunning failure to grasp what comics are all about. Part of the fun in reading comics is immersing yourself in a sweeping mythos that you can go back and explore at any time. At the very least, you know there IS a history even if you don’t read the old books. Spider-man and Mary Jane’s marriage is not a small thing that can be undone without affecting tons of stories, because Spider-man is their flagship character and is ubiquitous in the Marvel U.

Not only that, the dramatic import of an event like Harry’s death has just been completely negated by his return. How the writers cannot see this is beyond me. Part of the reason Gwen hasn’t come back (except as a clone) isn’t just because her death defines a lot of who Spider-man is; it’s because it would drain, in hindsight, a lot of the drama associated with her death scene.

It is disingenuous for people like Joey Q to just say, “The old stories are still there for people to read.” If they REALLY believed this, then why the hesitation in bringing back Gwen? I’m sure there are writers who have wanted to do this. And hell, that would make Pete seem even younger if his FIRST girlfriend was still around! The reason they DON’T bring Gwen back (at least not yet) is because they KNOW comics aren’t only about what’s to come, but the drama derived from what has come before. To feign ignorance of that fact just to forward some hackneyed agenda is downright insulting.

The craziest thing of all, believe it or not, is that I am by no means a continuity nut. I don’t care if they play fast and lose with the rules from time to time, or prune away stories that were kind of crappy to begin with. But this is like cutting off everything below the waist just because a toe is infected. Were things really THAT bad that there was no other solution other than throwing the entire Marvel Universe into a state of flux? Considering the amount of ass kissing for JMS at the end of OMD you would think things were going GOOD for Spidey!


While the goal of Brand New Day is, ostensibly, to return the character to his roots, I can’t help but feel like this is just another trip down a well-traveled road, and the device used to get us here ain’t helping things. There MUST have been a better way to inject freshness into the title than THIS. Or, maybe not. Maybe The House of Ideas has just gone to the well one too many times over the years and sucked the very life out of their most important property. It’s very hard to come up with fresh, new stories that are “true to the character” when you’re cranking out like 986 books a month that feature that character. Maybe it’s too late to reverse the rot. Maybe it’s time Marvel stop relying on Spider-Man to prop up their sorry asses every two seconds and actually have a new idea for once.


In summary, I’d like to mention that when I first heard about OMD, I actually thought the concept was intriguing. Peter has had a lot of tragedies in his life, and another death would be redundant at this point. But I think there is pathos in the idea that two lovers would just forget each other and not even remember the love they shared. It’s a different kind of tragedy, I thought, and I held out hope that OMD and BND could be good.

Boy was I wrong. The execution has been horrid (barring some decent writing from JMS in spots), and you can see the hand of editorial mandate forcing the pen across every page. That can’t be something an EIC aspires to, can it? To make you PAINFULLY aware of his involvement? Basically, OMD comes off like a rush job designed to get rid of Mary Jane as quickly as possible without tapping into any of the real drama inherent in the scenario.

BND then grabs the torch and ends up feeling ephemeral, fake, inconsequential and unearned, asking us to empathize with characters just because they are running around with the names of characters we once cared about. Sorry, no dice. The whole thing is built on the most dubious of foundations, and as a fan, I hate it. A house built on a weak foundation is doomed to collapse, no matter how great the paint and wood and furniture inside are.

The most ironic thing about all this? They didn't want to kill Mary Jane so they devised OMD, which ended up killing all three of the leads instead. Peter, Mary Jane AND Aunt May have now been, in effect, killed and replaced by alternate reality versions of themselves. R.I.P. , guys.

Way to go, Marvel.