A failed politician-turned-comic book writer may make for a great success story, and by no means has Marvel storyteller Nick Spencer had little success. Once a two-time running, two-time failing Cincinnati City Council hopeful, one-time Republican, and one time-club owner (also a failure), Spencer was apparently evicted from his home before eventually finding his way to New York, peddling comic ideas to Image before landing a solid job at Marvel in 2011. I mean…dang. For a guy who couldn’t seem to catch a break ten years ago, he and his pencil (okay, probably laptop) have come far in the past decade. That, I can appreciate.
Nevertheless…this is a polarizing man, both in political circles and with comic book fandoms. Spencer infamously “outed” Captain America as a Nazi-loving Hydra agent a few years back, having him “Hail Hydra” and whirl his shield for dishonesty, injustice, and the Hitler way up until the culminating crossover epic that was last summer’s “Secret Empire.” And fans hated it. Nothing seemed to go right—sales were worse than even some of Marvel’s lower-selling crossovers, poor narrative pacing led to fan annoyance, and the incredibly divisive premise was lambasted for its all-around ridiculousness. I, personally, believe that Spencer allowed his political lens to injure his story rather than uplift it; while I haven’t read “Secret Empire” itself, gazing over various articles as well as reading issues of both Steve Rogers’ Cap and Falcon’s version of Cap has led me to believe Spencer really likes hearing himself talk without saying a lot.
In short: Spencer used shock for the sake of shock, letting his political history and viewpoints undermine the tale he was telling. It didn’t matter which side of the political spectrum he fit in as much as it mattered that he was blatant and antagonistic.
And now he’s writing Spider-Man. Joy upon joy.
Spencer is taking over from Dan Slott, a writer who has been on the book both alongside a group of other writers called the “Web-Heads” and on his own for a combined ten years. No stranger to controversy himself, Slott has written a nice little niche within Spider-Man’s history. Is he good? Debatable. He has his moments, his good stories (as I pointed out in a few previous blogs)…but these are often balanced out by poor story choices, lazy dialogue, and deliberately shocking narratives. He’s like Spencer, but without the politics and with a few better jokes under his belt. Am I sad to see him go? No. Do I wish he was being replaced with someone better? Heck, yeah.
However, in Spencer’s defense, I want to view this as somewhat of a clean slate. Goodbye, “Secret Empire,” Goodbye, terrible “Captain Falcon.” Let bygones be bygones. And despite some negative reviews of Spencer’s Free Comic Book Day ASM #0 that may reinforce my poor viewpoint of Spencer’s lackluster writing, I’m still willing to give him a shot…for now. I’m not happy with Marvel’s decision, but I guess the best reaction is to not peg Spencer for a screw-up until he actually, y’know, screws up.
But I have opinions. Knowing the ASM history that has come before, and knowing some of Spencer’s previous writing, I’ve come up with a list of what I feel should be Spencer’s do’s and don’t’s while writing the Amazing Spider-Man. Nothing definitive, obviously, just my thoughts. Over the next four installments, thrill at my opinions (which I hopefully voice more nicely than Spencer does).
Don’t mess up, Nick. Please?
Number 10: Narrative Threads
Spider-Man stories work best when they have an interwoven plot or several subplots strung across various issues that craft a larger story readers can see unwoven piece by piece every month. Various examples of this include Mark Millar’s impressive twelve-issue masterpiece in “Marvel Knights,” the wonderfully fun “The Gauntlet” storyline during the “Brand New Day” era, and almost everything J. Michael Straczynski did during his ASM run about a little over a decade ago. Millar fed an ongoing plot into his story that kept me intrigued the whole way through; “The Gauntlet” featured bad guy after bad guy in individual tales that ran into a larger story; Straczynski masterfully wove the relationship between Peter and MJ into the bedrock of his stories. Point is, these tales all have themes and characters and story points that work together to strengthen the pieces of the whole.
I feel like Spencer needs to do the same. Slott has, in some ways, carried along some narrative concepts—such as heavily featuring Doctor Octopus in both antagonist and protagonist formats—but he’s always been very quick to leap from story to story. While each story is enjoyable on its own and can build on each other at moments, it’s difficult for me to place my finger on the “thing” that makes Slott’s run unique. I can’t define it in one word. I’d like for Spencer to find the one “thing” to make his run stand out.
Number 9: Villains
Other than Batman, Spidey may have the most recognizable and prominent rogues gallery in comic book history. He’s still fighting many of the same guys he was fifty years ago by our time. It’s a testament to their characterization and their evolution; these guys change and grow dramatically in interesting ways as time goes on, never staying stale. If the cover of Spencer’s first ASM issue is to be taken a bit more literally—featuring the Rhino, Sandman, Vulture, Mysterio, Kraven the Hunter, the Lizard, Venom, Scorpion, and the new female Electro—Spidey’s gonna have some serious problems on his hands. Here’s hoping Spencer goes wild with the bad guys, especially with such iconic, classic enemies as those listed above.
Recent years have given some great twists on old foes. The Rhino has become an incredibly empathetic and emotional figure, brute force and rage tethered to well-displayed humanity; Kraven the Hunter has been all but absent from the main series following his resurrection eight years ago and deserves some “screen time”; the Lizard has evolved over the past couple of years into a more terrifying, smarter form of monster; the female Electro is new and fun to play with. There’s a lot of possibilities here, and if Spencer sticks around as long as Slott has (is…is that a good thing?), he’ll have ample time to plumb Spidey’s rogues gallery to new, darker depths.
Number 8: Humor
Spider-Man is silly. It’s simple. The guy dresses up in a dorky costume, climbs walls, shoots silly string from his wrists, and cracks jokes. If he weren’t punching criminals, he’d be a clown or a sitcom actor. He’s not as irreverent as Deadpool, but he can get a few guffaws in there while he’s chatting up a storm during a fight. Pretty much all versions of Spidey—from comics, to video games, to TV shows, to movies—have emphasized this part of the hero. It’s second nature to the character. The only problem? It just sometimes isn’t second nature to the writers.
A YouTube channel titled Diversity & Comics pointed out an interesting notion in a recent video: according to his review on Spencer’s FCBD ASM #0, this YouTuber made the excellent point that Spidey’s villains often point out how “terrible” the hero’s humor is, but here’s the thing: the only reason that it’s “terrible,” in his opinion, is because the writers don’t write it well enough and, therefore, use this form of deprecating humor to hide that fact. It’s kinda like they’re blaming Spidey instead of their own shortcomings. Slott often wrote legitimately bad jokes—they weren’t funny to begin with and sometimes overstayed their welcome as random asides that added nothing to the original joke. Occasionally, he found his groove and wrote some clever stuff (a journal editor who once told Peter his photography looked like he “left his camera on a ledge and walked away” is still one of the best jokes I’ve read in comics), but it was mostly dumb. Spencer should be able to steer clear of that, to honestly give his best shot at quipster Spider-Man. Read some of Straczynski’s run to remind himself what good humor is. Use clever wordplay, be unexpected, don’t go for the low-hanging fruit…maybe that’s simplifying it, but Spencer needs good material to be funny. Having written the apparently hilarious “Superior Foes of Spider-Man” a few years back, he should have no problem. Then again, this is the guy who turned an American patriot into a joyless Nazi, so…
One of Slott’s biggest strengths was making his narrative feel like it had a natural flow from the previous “Brand New Day” era of stories. The change from a group of writers to his solo take on the book felt rather seamless. While his story started with some rather large changes for Peter right away—new job, new home, new girlfriend—he still carried over many of the same elements from the previous stint. Various superheroes continued popping up throughout his run, various villains continued story arcs that had been planted earlier in the series, old characters continued their stories, and newer characters got shaped over the course of the next 153 consecutive issues of Slott’s run.
This gave Slott’s take on Spidey’s world a very organic feel—very indebted to what came before it, but also structured and founded on his many self-referential moments. The stories themselves can feel out of place at moments—it’d be hard to argue that “Superior Spider-Man” wasn’t a sudden jolt in storytelling—but the arc as a whole feels rather natural. If Spencer can employ similar techniques, crafting stories based on the work of previous writers while giving his own signature mark on them, he will continue that trend. Again, shots of various supervillains on ASM #1’s cover feels like Spencer will, in some cases, carry over previously founded story arcs and, in a way, pick up where Slott left off. If he can keep that feel and not offer a complete tonal shift as he did in his Captain America books, Spencer should easily find his footing.
Number 6: Supporting Cast
Much like the villains Spidey’s been pounding for the last fifty years, many members of ASM’s supporting cast have stuck around the past five decades. While characters have come and gone, or been introduced and killed off, key individuals such as Aunt May, Mary Jane, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Harry Osborn (following his resurrection), and Flash Thompson (until recently) have been there since pretty much the beginning. All writers have used these characters to their advantage and, especially in recent years, have allowed them to grow. Aunt May’s become a globe-trotting philanthropist; Mary Jane’s come under Tony Stark’s employ; JJJ has recently learned Spidey and Peter are one and the same; Betty’s now an ace reporter; Harry helped run Parker Industries; and Flash lost both legs and became a heroic Venom for a stint before his very recent and untimely demise at the hands of Norman Osborn.
Likewise, even newer characters such as Yuri Watanabe, Carlie Cooper, the staff at Horizon Labs, Stanley Osborn, Norah Winters, and Vin and Michelle Gonzales have been given their time to shine on the page, only adding to the fantastic complexity of Spidey’s world. Spencer cannot leave such a treasure trove of characterization in the attic. How will he continue the stories of the aforementioned characters? What will happen to Peter and JJJ’s relationship? How will Mary Jane continue to play a role? Will Aunt May finally die? Unless Spencer pulls off some really, really dumb character arc for any of these people—like the time Aunt May got turned into an evil version of herself by her crime lord boss—he could keep several subplots running at once. It’s a tactic both the Web-Heads and Slott used to their advantage, keeping readers on their toes over several issues and really adding a feeling of connectedness throughout various storylines.
That completes the first half of this list. Stick around (ha, Spidey pun) to see what else I think Spencer should do in order to make his run on ASM truly amazing.