I’ve been given some tough challenges in my life as a writer, but when Eaglemoss asked me to write a bunch of 7 page Spidey strips for a new partwork magazine, I felt more like a kid let loose in my favourite toy shop.
Working on licence from Marvel USA, we weren’t allowed to invent new heroes and villains, but we were allowed to use just about anyone from the classic Marvel universe.
It was great fun putting my own crazy schemes into the minds of the super villains. Nightmare decided that dreams could be more dangerous than nightmares, and tried to defeat Spidey by trapping him in a perfect dream where his old love Gwen, and his dear Uncle Ben were still alive.
I had always loved the supremely offbeat Superadaptoid. In my tale this superbly versatile android adapts to human life a little to far and ends up in a soft job watching TV and scarfing pizza every night. Maybe a trace of autobiographical angst in that one.
But perhaps the biggest pleasure in writing Spidey is in handling the normal human characters, Jonah Jameson, Mary Jane and Aunt May. As a teenager I loved reading about Peter Parker’s private life every bit as much as I enjoyed seeing him punch bad guys. It’s writers with this human touch that really bring Spider-Man to life, not people who create multiple parallel universes, clones and anti-dark-nega-Spidey riffs.
We had the problem right from the start of deciding which era of Spidey to set our strips in. Working with Keeper of the Comics Flame, Alan Cowsill, we chose a perfect Spidey era. He’s a student, at Empire State University, old enough to move into a pad of his own, but young enough to still be served cookies and warm milk by Aunt May. He sees Mary Jane, but isn’t married to her. He’s still crossing swords with school rivals and sometime pals Harry Osborn and Flash Thompson. And he’s still selling pix to grouchy old Jonah Jameson.
Weirdly, after we decided all this, we discovered Marvel USA were also rebooting Spidey. In Brand New Day they chose almost exactly the same set up to us. It seems that Spider-Man is faced now with something of a creative problem. Rather like in Nightmare’s master plan as described above, Web Head is trapped in a perfect time. No new creators can invent a set up for Spidey that will ever be seen as better than the one Stan Lee and Steve Ditko first created for him.
A prisoner of perfection, he plays out the same dramas now, probably for eternity. But within this pageant, there is always something new to say, new fun to be had. Years ago I met Dirk Maggs, a radio producer who presided over a Spidey series on BBC Radio One. Mr Maggs said: ‘In creating Spider-man Stan Lee dealt a lot cards. But each card turned out to be a pack in itself.’
Very true. The core characters capture a teenager’s life in microcosm. And countless writers for the last four decades have gone into that microcosm and found it contains all they need to explore their own world-view – and, of course, add a bunch of fights with loony villains. I enjoyed shuffling this pack myself and building my own crazy card-house of ideas.
John Tomlinson also wrote on this series. He writes funny stuff like ‘Let’s do something before the Hulk turns this town into a jigsaw puzzle.’ And ‘he’s pounding the Thing into chunky orange marmalade!’ I’m paraphrasing, as those strips have long since been turned into French, Russian and Polish, and it’s a while before they’ll appear in beautiful Australian.
John managed to rope classic Marvel artist Herb Trimpe into drawing a few strips for us. In one email Herb said he liked writing for Eaglemoss as we gave him a panel-by-panel description of what to draw. Not so the old Marvel, apparently, where the artist received a brief written outline of the story and had to decide how to fill the pages himself.
This explained a favourite moment of mine in the original Spidey stories. Round about issue sixty there’s a strip that begins something like: Our story begins with all the impact of a falling feather, as Peter Parker sets out for college one day…’
I always took this to be an example of Stan Lee making fun of himself – deriding his own homely opening to a supposedly pulse-pounding comic . Not so. It seems that in the Marvel way of working, artist John Romita would have decided on that opening to the story. So Stan’s ‘falling feather’ line, which I had loved so much over the years, would have been a gentle jibe at his own artists’s expense.
Not self-slander, but delightfully confident and cheeky mockery within Marvel’s own creative team. It still sets for me, a shining example of just how much fun comics can be.
Take a peek at some of the feathers falling on our own Spider-Man Heroes and villains! More fun than you can wiggle a web at…