Feb 11, 2012

What can Spider-Man teach you about writing?

Spider-Man in his Future Foundation uniform

This post is dedicated to Adebajo Amusa, fellow comics fan.

Some are moved by ideals. Others, driven by a constant, simmering rage. A few are impelled by guilt. Whatever the root cause of their actions, they don’t stop. Nor do they age, eat or sleep except when the story demands it.

Yes, I’m talking about superheroes -- that contemporary expression of the human need to mythologize. Superheroes attain to their ‘super-identity’ through great loss. Superman’s home planet disintegrates, Batman’s parents are shot in a dark alley, the Punisher’s family is mowed down in a public park, Daredevil loses his eyesight at a very young age... Origin stories are laden with a kind of tension best matched by Greek tragedies. Consider Hercules, who killed his wife and children in a bout of insanity. Hercules had to perform the twelve labors as atonement. This is a superhero origin story.

Superhero comics are modern folklore or, if you will, epic literature for children and teens.* They keep grand narratives alive and, as part of a balanced reading diet, they fire the imagination.
*Although many notable works have been created for adults, with considerable artistry at every level.  

Spider Man was created in 1962 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Peter Parker, the original Spider Man (there would be others), was a shy suburbanite, uninteresting in every way. Always strapped for cash, marginalized by the testosterone brigade at school, he developed an interest in science. A nerdy interest, unlike the normal and healthy concerns of aggressive team sports.

Who was more likely to escape into a world of comic-book adventure in the 1960s? Probably kids for whom physical activity wasn’t that rewarding to begin with.

So, what can Spider-Man teach you about writing a story? How many Lego bricks do you need to make a life-sized statue of Spider-Man? Let’s find out.  

Spider-Child in the Adult World

In addition to his dangerous crime-fighting escapades, Spider Man had to meet school obligations and worry about keeping his secret identity hidden from the elderly Aunt May. Just to make a few bucks, Peter worked for the Daily Bugle as a freelance photographer, enduring a stream of abuse from his employer, the volatile J. Jonah Jameson.
Lee and Ditko felt that Spider Man’s predicament would appeal to teenagers. After all, Peter Parker is a nerd given special powers by fiat.

(Are such powers deserved? It matters not. Lee and Ditko were right. The Delphic Oracle herself would have been amazed by Spider-Man’s popularity.

Unlike Batman’s sidekick Robin or Captain America’s young friend Bucky, Spider Man wasn’t supervised by an adult, superpowered hero. This means that Peter must learn to use his dangerous abilities on his own.

J. Jonah Jameson and Aunt May are Peter Parker’s idea of what grownups are like.
Adults are a) explosive, ill-tempered people who live to nurture their pet hates; or b) bland, conservative and superannuated worriers, a type that often gets mistaken for salt of the earth.
Neither type truly ‘gets it.’  

Spider-Man is a kid. He makes terrible jokes, often shows poor judgment, and lets his emotions run away with him. When the world is an unpredictable place where predators abound, you could say that Peter’s humor is a self-defense mechanism. We laugh at the horrible so it won’t seem so horrible anymore.

Laughter is interesting -- not only does it express a feeling of community but it also asserts individuality. Spider-Man tries to find reasons for laughter amid chaos and violence. Seen that way, Spider-Man is us.

Spider-Man Noir

 Spider-Man as Avatar, or Totem Incarnate

There’s a story in which Spider-Man meets a mysterious older man in plain clothes who can climb walls and move with extreme agility and grace. Spider-Man doesn’t know what to make of this individual, so he tries to evade him.

Spider-Man 2099
No luck. The old spider-gentleman is always two rooftop leaps ahead of Spider-Man. They finally sit down for a chat -- actually, they cling to a wall as they talk, which looks mighty uncomfortable, but they do look as if they were sitting.

Anyway: Spider-gentleman confronts Peter with a startling possibility.
“You think that spider bit you by accident?” he asks. “No, son, that Spider chose you. It knew it was dying, so it wanted to pass on its powers.”

Spider-gent continues --
“You belong to a long line of animal men, men and women who communicate with animal spirits and represent their power in this world. You are a living totem. And your enemies, do you think you met them by chance? No. They were drawn to you. Each hero attracts opposites that reflect him. False totems. They envy your power. That’s why Captain America fights the Red Skull and Baron Zemo... The Captain is a patriot, and in their own, twisted way, Zemo and the Skull are patriots, too.
“Now look at your enemies: The Scorpion, the Vulture, Dr. Octopus, Rhino. All animals.”
I’m quoting from memory here. Absolutely not verbatim.

Human-animal hybrids are not new to fiction. In fact, I’d say cave paintings are the earliest known examples of fiction and that’s where you find the earliest hybrids, like the Sorcerer of Trois-Frères.

The Sorcerer of Trois-Frères, France

 As a species, we were trying to make sense of the world around us and, more importantly, wondering about the unseen. Humans had begun to probe the mysteries of existence, asking new and bewildering questions. Could humans share in the power of wild animals? Might there be invisible creatures that were half-man, half-beast? What powers would they have, and would they have any effect on our lives?

Thanks to extensive research, we know that shamans see themselves as communicators, mediators between the spirit and material worlds, between the souls of animals, plants and men. Shamans bring us messages from the immaterial planes. As original storytellers, they were probably the first to weave tales of Spider Grandmother and Spider Goddess.

Such stories were the glue that kept villages together. They taught and entertained. No less importantly, they warned children of possible dangers. Danger and violence need to be dramatized for us to understand them. They need to be framed as necessary parts of a story.

Spider-Man, as living totem, is a hands-on, tough-love shaman that heals society by punching evil in the face numerous times. A problematic character, you say? Yes. All the good ones are, sometimes in dreadful ways.

Post-Scriptum: The Colors of a Spider-Man

Red is associated not only with Mars, but also with Jupiter. It is a jovial color, which is to say, a youthful one. Heroes are often garbed in primary colors, which imply strength and a straight-shooting attitude.

Spider-Man’s dark side would be expressed through the infamous black uniform. 

Black is the color of night and death. The spider blazon on Peter’s chest becomes ghostly white and its legs resemble iconic lightning strokes. In the black (symbiotic) costume, Peter became what he feared the most; a psychopathic adult, one who enjoys great power without responsibility. 

Post-Post-Scriptum: Lego Spider-Man

I wasn’t kidding about that life-sized Lego statue of Spider-Man. There is one.

Other superhero posts:
What can Batman teach you about writing?
What can Superman teach you about writing?


What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction.

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