There are no hard rules in comic book storytelling, but there is wisdom to live by, and legacies to consider.
But with Spider-Man #1, Hollywood maven J.J. Abrams reminds us that he doesn’t adhere to conventions. When it comes to genre entertainment, Abrams is more of a Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg than George Lucas or Steven Spielberg. He’s a disruptor, building user friendly product with hyper-intricate engineering. His first book from Marvel, co-written with his 21-year-old son Henry Abrams, is the epitome of his instincts. Nothing is sacred, and the brazen step forward for the five-issue limited series puts the onus on readers to decide if that matters.
The short of the kickoff, given a ferocious, sinewy quality by artist Sara Pichelli: Characters die, new villains take the stage, and the mantle of Spider-Man expands into a new generation. There is lots to discuss — the guarantee of every Abrams project.
[Ed. note: this post contains major spoilers for Spider-Man #1]
Like Mission: Impossible III or the Lost pilot, the Abrams boys open Spider-Man in the smoldering heat of action. Dumbo is on fire, Brooklynites flee for their lives, and Spider-Man — who’s seen his fair share of brutality — emerges from a pile of rubble on the Brooklyn Bridge with a sliced-open right arm. It’s gruesome. Parker still manages a wisecrack, but Mary Jane scolds her husband as she lifts him back up. “The rules are different now.”
Don’t expect Just Another Spider-Man Arc, the script signals, before indulging in a trope that most writers collectively agreed to retire like, a decade ago. But with a swift stab to the heart, Cadaverous, the series new villain, fridges Mary Jane, leaving Peter Parker to grieve at her funeral, and wonder how he’ll be the father their son, Ben, needs in this world.
Twist! There’s a new Ben Parker in town, and he’s Peter and MJ’s kid. After a 12-year time jump, we meet the heir to the spandex throne. The setup is familiar: He’s in high school, he butts heads with bullies, he fumbles over flirting, and he’s adrift in this dizzying world of absent parents and super villains.
This is what J.J. Abrams does for a living. Just as The Force Awakens was a soft reboot of the original Star Wars’ story, Spider-Man #1 terraforms Peter Parker’s legacy in order to essentially tell the hero’s tale for the first time in the present day. Steve Ditko and Stan Lee hadn’t created the friendly neighborhood hero over half a century ago, maybe Spider-Man would look something like this.
Like much of Abrams’ franchise work, Spider-Man #1 resists the larger-than-life elements of Ditko and Lee’s creation to put relationships and kernels of human angst in front. There are eons of comics that prove the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but just as Ethan Hunt needed a wife under attack in Mission: Impossible III or Kirk’s formative enemy had ties to his father’s demise in Star Trek or the entire found-footage conceit of Cloverfield, Abrams strips down Spider-Man’s mythology and then rebuilds with a more complicated set of ideas.
He’s done this before in the comic world; his reboot script Superman: Flyby, which Warner Bros. passed on in the 2000s (but not before it took the internet by storm), would have undid the destruction of Krypton, turned Superman’s suit into a symbiotic entity, and revealed Luthor to be a covert alien agent. Plus Superman was angry. The movie was everything fans knew, but not.
The Abrams way turns this version of Peter Parker — older, bearded, obsessed with his job — into a shade similar to Luke Skywalker in the new Star Wars trilogy. Old Luke is a former hero who’s turned his back on the call to action, and his obvious successor’s emerging powers. Spider-Man #1’s Peter also abandoned his crime-fighting days long ago, and in the present, is unable to heal from MJ’s death or Cadaverous’ attack (literally, he lost his hand). Based on the prickly banter between Peter and Ben, father and son Abrams could be drawing from their own lives to breathe drama into this new scenario, but by the end of Spider-Man #1, it’s clear: This is not the Peter Parker readers know.
After reading the book, and knowing what we know about Abrams, breaking Peter’s fundamental self is probably the entire point. The choices in this book recall his thoughts on the original Star Trek TV series, dropped during the press tour for his reboot movie.
“Star Trek always felt like a silly, campy thing,” he told the Guardian in 2009. “I remember appreciating it, but feeling like I didn’t get it. I felt it didn’t give me a way in. There was a captain, there was this first officer, they were talking a lot about adventures and not having them as much as I would’ve liked.”
Unlike so many before him, a love for Spider-Man is not a prerequisite for Abrams to write a Spider-Man book; as editor Nick Lowe writes in the book’s final pages, Marvel hounded the writer-director-producer since the days of Superman: Flyby to write a book, and only a year ago did J.J. and Henry crack a story worth putting on paper. So what drew him in? Maybe Spider-Man was a campy character in need of deeper understanding. A threat only 2019 could provide.
Unlike Brian Michael Bendis’ introduction of Miles Morales in 2010 (which was also drawn by Pichelli), the Abrams invert the Spider-Man mythology within the Peter Parker saga. By the end of Spider-Man #1, Aunt May gifts Ben the suit that was destined to be his, perhaps knowing that Cadaverous is out there ... eating hot dogs ... plotting his next attack alongside a woman (MJ?) in a containment unit. A fight is brewing and a few mysteries linger. Knowing Abrams, we should expect a few twists before the “big idea” reveals itself.
The thing is, Spider-Man isn’t a dormant series in need of the patented J.J. Abrams kick to the butt, and offing a key female character in the first eight pages comes off like the decision of someone who isn’t keeping up. So as the book swings away from conventional wisdom, Spider-Man is in a position to vindicate itself. That doesn’t come easy in a post-Miles Morales world.
But, hey, if his last 20 years dominating Hollywood are any indication, Abrams is at up to the challenge. He has us talking, which is half the battle.