Spider-Man 101

Part 6

Aging and Continuity

I am a continuity fanboy whore. At least when it suits me. And I'm not when it doesn't. Make sense? No? Well, read on...

Welcome to the sixth and final part of my Spider-Man 101 series, a thorough look at the web slinger aimed at the fan who has discovered Spidey through the motion pictures or other media translations and wants to know more about the comic world from which he sprang. If I have accomplished anything with this series, I hope that I have demonstrated that even though Spidey has been around for more than 45 years, he still remains a remarkably accessible character, and it isn’t all that hard to come up to speed on him and the events of his world, regardless of the anti-continuity propaganda and comic fan bashing that Marvel senior management unfortunately seems compelled to engage in from time to time. For years, two of the biggest scapegoats used by the company for sales problems on Spider-Man are the fact that he has aged over time (most notably by his marriage to Mary Jane Watson) and his "complicated continuity." Those excuses are merely bogeymen for the real problems, including poor writing, poor editing, poor marketing (well, just piss poor management period) and a fundamental shift in how younger Americans entertain themselves these days. To Marvel's credit, in the last few years, particularly relative to Spider-Man, they moved (belatedly, but they did move) to correct the writing problems. There are good writers on all of the main titles, as well as choices for those who like their Spider-Man older and wiser, or younger and volatile. The jury is still out on the editing and marketing, and the last problem is simply beyond Marvel's control - some of the historic audience for comics will never come back.

I must confess I wrote this particular article with a certain amount of fear and trepidation, particularly in reference to the continuity question due to its complexity and my perfectionism. Although I’ll cite what I consider to be some of the more notorious examples of problems or flat out errors, I know for a fact that Spidey’s thriving fan base is capable of inundating me with things I missed, or mistakes of my own. But then, I'd be in good company. After all, there aren’t too many people who know Spidey better than Jonathan Couper-Smartt and his cronies at Spider-Fan – yet some really sharp-eyed fans caught errors even in their ultimate reference source - The Spider-Man Encyclopedia. Of course, considering the sheer volume of data they sifted through and presented (and no telling how much they tossed aside due to lack of time and space), their cumulative errors are probably a microscopic number compared to the monstrous amount of Spidey-lore included in those pages.


How Old is Spider-Man?

30 years old.

All right, all right. I suppose a little more detail is warranted. After all, this is a frequently recurring question that pops up on message boards all the time, as people try to navigate through the twists and turns of Marvel continuity.

The first question we need answered is how old Peter was when bitten by that radioactive spider. In what could be considered the definitive answer, at the end of the highly controversial Civil War #2, where Spider-Man unmasks to the world - Peter states that he has been Spider-Man since he was 15 years old. However, Mark Millar, the author of the piece (and J. Michael Straczynski, who then continued the story in Amazing Spider-Man #533 (August 2006) have been known to place a little loose with continuity before - so can we be sure that they are right? Well, yes.

Peter was in high school when he was bitten by the radioactive spider, but what grade? Well, he was graduated in Amazing Spider-Man #28 (September 1965), but Stan Lee never specifically stated or implied Peter’s age or grade except on one occasion – in issue #16 (September 1964) – doubly interesting as it represents the first meeting between Spider-Man and Matt Murdock aka Daredevil. Spidey "rescues" Murdock from being accosted by muggers (obviously not aware that he would have needed no help) and as he swings away, Matt’s radar sense estimates that Spidey is 17.

Peter's grade level at the time of the spider bite is not revealed until Amazing Spider-Man #240 (May 1983), written by Roger Stern. When swinging around his old stomping grounds, Spidey reflects that if he hadn't been bitten by that radioactive spider, he would have remained a "normal Midtown High sophomore," when the spider bit him. This makes him either 15 or 16, as that’s how old most high school sophomores are.

Writer Gerry Conway finally pins this down in the trade Parallel Lives (1989) which starts out with concurrent narration by both Peter and Mary Jane. In it, Peter specifically says "I was 15 years old." This was validated many years later by J. Michael Straczynski in Amazing Spider-Man #473 (August 2001). When berated by the enigmatic Ezekiel for his choice of name and costume, Peter replies – "I was 15 years old, cut me a little slack." What’s funny is that later in issue #500 (December 2003) – JMS has Peter referring to himself as being 17! Oops - continuity error - or simple mistake? Also, in Ultimate Spider-Man, after being bitten by the spider, Peter refers to himself as 15. Two different continuities obviously, but in this case they seem to validate each other. Going back to Matt Murdock’s assertion that Peter was 17 - during those early issues, Stan Lee often referred to the previous issue’s story as happening "last month," (which obviously changed as the series wore on) – so in issue #16, we can assume that Spidey encountered Murdock almost eighteen months after being bitten by the spider, which is consistent if Peter was bitten in the latter half of 15 going on 16. Seldom are things so simple, however, particularly since after that the aging process began to slow significantly.

While it took only 28 issues for Spidey to age a little over two years, moving from high school sophomore to senior, his college years shifted the agining process into low gear – and he was not graduated from college until issue #185 (October 1978 - o.k. he was still a gym credit short - I know that). There had been considerable debate for several years up to that time over whether or not Peter should really graduate, as Marvel deduced correctly at that time (stating as such in one of the letter columns) that readers preferred a college age Spidey. Inevitably, however, most of the storylines that could be milked from that environment, i.e. "Peter’s grades are in bad shape because he’s always playing Spider-Man" wore incredibly thin, and Marv Wolfman correctly moved him out of college and towards new storylines and challenges.

As there was no indication that Peter was taking the circuitous route to graduation like it seems many people are doing these days – four years was the normal time – making him 21 at the end of issue #185.

With no specific lynchpin dating Peter after he graduated college – time really became convoluted. When the Clone Saga got underway close to Amazing Spider-Man #394 (October 1994) – it was repeatedly stated that the events of the final, original confrontation between Spider-Man and the Jackal took place "five years ago," and it was repeated incessantly that five years had passed – which takes us back to #149 (October 1975). Now during the original clone story in issues #147-149, the Jackal, aka Professor Miles Warren, who was obsessed with Gwen Stacy, refers to her death "two years ago," which is odd because in that case Marvel time actually paralleled real time. Why? The only explanation I can think of is that with the current pseudo science that existed at the time vis a vis what we understood about cloning – Gerry Conway figured that he needed the time for the clones of Gwen Stacy and Peter Parker to be sufficiently aged from the time their cell samples were originally taken. Anyway, the capstone of the Clone Saga, Glenn Greenberg’s Osborn Journals (February 1997), has Norman Osborn, on the eve of his battle with Spider-Man at the Daily Bugle (which took place in Peter Parker #75 (December 1996)), referring to the death of Gwen and his own assumed death as taking place "seven years ago," which seems to validate the above exercise. It should also be noted as well, that Gerry Conway has admitted that during the 1970's that when he was writing Spider-Man, that he (and many others) did not think that the comic book industry was going to survive the decade, and that he could write without serious repurcussions for the future, because there wasn't going to be one.

To extrapolate Peter’s age at the time of Gwen Stacy’s death we have a couple of reference points. In Amazing Spider-Man #70 (March 1969), Peter refers to himself as "boy sophomore." In issue #136 (September 1974), he tells Mary Jane that "I'm a college junior majoring in physics." If Peter was 19 as a sophomore and 20 as a junior, and issue #122 is a lot closer to #136 than #70, I’m assuming that Peter was 20 years old when Gwen was killed. Thus, he is 27 at the close of the Clone Saga in Peter Parker #75. (Hey - but I just said earlier that he was 20 when Gwen was killed - and if two years passed from then to the first clone story - then he'd be 22 during that story - and I also just said that he was 21 when he was graduated from college - and that means - aaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrgggggghhhhhhhhh! No wait - maybe he was really 19 when Gwen died, but turned 20 the next day - and maybe two years was really, like 22 months and - no - forget it - it's not worth it. I'll go on as planned.)

In Amazing Spider-Man #470 (May 2001), Mary Jane's kidnapper, who has made the world believe that she is dead, refers to the battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin at the Bugle which ended the Clone Saga happening "a year ago." In issue #506 (June 2004) Ezekiel tells Peter "You've probably noticed for the past year" that more of his battles have come from the supernatural side, and that year would date back to JMS' tour of duty on Amazing which began with #471 (June 2001). So - that's around two years passing between the end of the Clone Saga and issue #506. So Peter is at least 29.

As far as Peter being 30 – well the cheat is to refer to issue #22 of Brian Michael Bendis’ series Alias (no relation to the TV show starring Jennifer Garner). The heroine of that series (and also one of the stars of Bendis’ new series The Pulse) Jessica Jones also attended the infamous Midtown High School – and she had a crush on Peter Parker! Her recollections occur on the very same day that the spider bit Peter supplemented by the caption "15 years ago." Do the math – and Peter is 30 years old. Mary Jane was established by Gerry Conway in Parallel Lives as being a year younger than Peter, so that makes her 29.

So, you can take the lazy way out and use Bendis’ assumption, or you can go the long way around and come pretty close to it. So, you could say that Peter is either 29 or 30 and you’d probably be right. Which means that he's aged around 14 or 15 years, and the Marvel Universe is 15-16 years old based on when the Fantastic Four first took that fateful flight into space and encountered those infamous "cosmic rays."

Of course, does it really matter how old Peter is anymore? Frankly, I don’t think so. Some time ago, in response to the issue of aging characters, writer/artist John Byrne made one of his hateful little comments questioning whether or not the folks who are in favor of Spider-Man growing older (of which I consider myself to be one) want him to be 50 years old someday. Of course, and not surprisingly, that completely misses the point of the fan argument. It isn’t that fans want Spidey to age to the point that by Amazing Spider-Man #1,200 he's a grandfather who complains about his arthritis or clutches his heart when he hears that Norman Osborn is terrorizing the city in his flying Goblin Wheelchair, and yells upward "You here that Gwen? I'm coming to join you honey - with an explosive pumpkin rammed up my butt!" No - fans want Peter Parker to be a character who is the sum of his experiences. He has had a long and eventful career as Spider-Man, and fans want to see that reflected in the character and the stories that are told about him. They don't want to be repeatedly insulted as they were during the first year after the 1999 reboot, when Peter and Mary Jane were complaining about all of the troubles they were having because they were just too gosh darn young! I'm sorry, but you've faced supervillains, clones, alien invaders, the belief that you were a clone and your whole life was a fraud, and the alleged death of your own child (and honestly, I think that would be the worst, bar none) - I don't think you're going to blame your marital problems on the fact that you're "young." Maturity is not always a factor of chronological age anyway. Face it, you live a life like Peter Parker has, you mature pretty quickly, regardless of how old you are. So, he's simply not a kid anymore, that is, if he ever really was. But that's another article I wrote.

A perfect example of how Marvel mishandled the whole age question was the premise of the Clone Saga itself - that of replacing married Peter Parker with single, hipper Ben Reilly - the theory being that being married "aged" Peter (the reality is - being Spider-Man "aged" Peter more than marriage. You grow up pretty quickly doing a job like that!), and we needed a single Spider-Man. However, Marvel's new Spider-Man, Ben Reilly had spent the last five years as a wanderer on a motorbike drifting from town to town and situation to situation, living from day to day, eking out a living best he could. This wouldn't age a person just as much, or more than bashing supervillains and bunking down with Mary Jane? Of course it would.

And now that Peter has passed the threshold of 30 - he can literally look the same way forever. He's aged 15 years in over 45 years of titles. By the time he would age another ten and reach 40 - well, before then Spidey Kicks Butt will be on the forgotten slag heap of internet history. But the point is, now that Peter has gone through high school, college and graduate school, all of those factors that pinned him down to certain reference points (i.e. "geez! Pete's been in college 13 years!") are gone. And it's a fair bet to say that the same radioactive spider bite that allows him to heal rapidly probably has also retarded the aging process somewhat. Therefore, Peter would look the same at 40 as he would 30, maybe as he would even at 25 (he didn't get old, lazy and fat like me). Which is why I don't buy Peter Parker being a decrepit old man during the Spider-Man: Reign miniseries in 2007, which was supposedly 35 years in the future (putting Peter in his 60's). His powers, which gave him an amazing recuperative ability, as well as the fact that during the events of "The Other" his body was completely regenerated, should keep him looking young for much longer than his human contemporaries. In fact, that would be an interesting alternative universe story - decades in the future - Mary Jane is a frail old woman, and virtually everyone else that Peter has known is dead, but he still looks like a robust man in early middle age.

So, the fans don't have to have a "young! young!" Spider-Man as Marvel seems to think - and those of us who like to see him age don't really ever have to worry about him becoming an old man. He's the perfect age now - and forever more.

Not everyone one ages!
Of course, in a stab of irony, those of us who prefer to see Peter and his contemporaries (such as MJ, Flash, etc.) age apparently don’t hold his other supporting cast members to the same criteria! Take Aunt May for example - the old girl actually looks like she's getting younger when you compare her first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 to the more recent stories. She certainly doesn't look any older than when she first appeared. In Marvel Knights Spider-Man #2 (July 2004), our hero refers to his aunt being in her early 70's, but that would make her in her late 50's when Peter became Spidey, and there's no way she was in her 50's during the Ditko or Romita Sr. years! She would have looked more like Mark Bagley's Aunt May in Ultimate. And then compare J. Jonah Jameson in Amazing Spider-Man #1 and more recently. Jonah's looking pretty spry for someone who should be at the old newspaperman’s retirement home (not to mention how his moustache changes around from Hitler to conventional). Joe Robertson looks pretty good too. And some of the women, such as Dr. Ashley Kafka (the director of Ravencroft, the Marvel version of Arkham Asylum) and Dr. Marla Madison (Jonah’s second and current wife), who were clearly middle aged when they first appeared, must have been getting lots of botox shots and tummy tucks over the years! And none of Spidey’s villains have aged either. Neither Norman Osborn nor Doc Ock, for example look a day older than when they first appeared. So much for us being strict continuity freaks, eh? After all - what's more inconsistent than having your lead character age and almost everyone around him look the same? Soap operas pull that stunt all the time with the infamous "Kid Trick." One year a kid is born - next year he's 5 - then 15 - then a full-blown adult - and it certainly doesn't seem to faze their legions of zombified fans.

Then there’s the mysterious case of Billy Connors, son of Dr. Curt Connors – the Lethal Lizard! In the recent story arc in Spectacular Spider-Man, Billy’s age was given as 10 – yet he actually first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #6 back in 1963! But if that took place 14-15 years ago Spider-Time, and Billy is only 10 now – WTF? He was also clearly a teenager when he appeared back in Amazing Spider-Man #166 (March 1977)! And this is more than just Paul Jenkins' story arc - Billy's last two appearances prior to that (the Quality of Life and Lifeline miniseries) also showed him as a young boy, not a teenager or a young man. From a story perspective, I suppose that it makes Curt Connors a more tragic villain if he has a small child rather than a grown one - but it's still annoying - and it defies all attempts at rationalizing. But then again, Billy Connors is an infrequently occurring prop with which to tell a much larger story - of the tragedy that is the life of Dr. Curt Connors - so troubling as his inconsistent age is - he really isn't that significant a character to exhaust a whole lot of thought about.

Baby May Parker
As most of my long time readers know - this subject has been a very sore spot with me for a long time (then "get a life!" as William Shatner would say, eh?) - partly because I simply don't understand the thinking behind it. For those who follow the various Spider-Man message boards, the subject of Peter and Mary Jane’s baby pops up quite frequently. Yes, if you didn't know, Peter and Mary Jane have a baby daughter – however, they just don’t happen to know that she’s alive.

It started, of course, like most other messes, during that damn Clone Saga, when Marvel decided in its infinite wisdom to make the Peter Parker that fans had been reading about for 20 years a clone, while the "real" Spider-Man, Ben Reilly, had been walking the earth like David Carradine’s character in that old 1970’s show Kung Fu. Of course, there couldn’t be two Spider-Mans (or Spider-Men?), so one had to go. But, there had to be a reason for Peter Parker, the alleged clone he believed himself to be, who was as obsessed with his sense of responsibility as the alleged original whom he believed Ben Reilly to believe, to walk away from the webs. And so it was decided that Mary Jane would give birth, and Peter would realize that he couldn’t be Spider-Man any more with a baby depending upon him, and thus retire, move away and live happily ever after. An ultrasound had indicted that the baby was a girl, and Peter and MJ decided to name her May. The blessed event was supposed to have occurred at the conclusion of the mini-series called One More Screw Job to Get Your Money, oops, I mean The Final Adventure (November 1995).

But then things changed as Marvel realized that making Peter a clone was a friggin’ disaster (duh!), so he had to come back, but sans baby. The powers that be reasoned that there’s no way Peter could justify continuing to be Spider-Man if he had a child at home - which surely they can't say with a straight face - or else that would preclude firemen, policemen, and military personnel from ever having families. Well, maybe they don't in that parallel universe Marvel management sometimes lives in.

Anyway, Marvel wanted to give Mary Jane a miscarriage, but the spider-editor at the time, Tom Brevoort, refused, as I mentioned in my last article, because he did not want to be known as the man who killed Spider-Man's baby. As it turned out, a perfect backup plan became available when it was decided that the original Green Goblin, Norman Osborn, would come back to provide the sufficiently evil bad guy that closure to the Clone Saga demanded. Norman's henchwoman, the creepy Allison Mongrain, thus insidiously drugged Mary Jane at a restaurant to induce labor - and a crooked doctor (under the watchful eye of Osborn) - delivered the baby, but Mongrain was on hand to quickly spirit the child out of the room - and Mary Jane was told that the baby had died.

But had she?

The mystery of Baby May is wrapped up in how you interpret this final page of Amazing Spider-Man #418 (December 1996). What exactly are Norman Osborn and Allison Mongrain talking about? If it's a baby - is Osborn telling Mongrain to dispose of its body (which, if the baby had died in childbirth - what was the point of the whole scam anyway?) - or simply to spirit it away for the time being? Osborn's cryptic comments in Peter Parker #75 "that which I took from you today made up for the loss of my son," clearly indicate that he had something to do with May's disappearance. Did he kill her? Probably not. Even if you assume that Norman Osborn is sufficiently warped enough to kill a newborn baby (He's definitely a psychopath - but I don't think even he would stoop that low) - it would have been ridiculous for him to do so because it would deprive him of a card that he could play in the future against Peter Parker. Marvel remained quite cryptic about the subject of Baby May immediately after the Clone Saga, and the writers, especially Tom DeFalco, began to drop hints that the baby was indeed alive and well and would return.

Then Editor in Chief Bob Harras decided that the titles had to be rebooted - all of the evolving storylines were shit-canned in favor of the god-awful "Gathering of Five," and "The Final Chapter," and virtually all mention of Baby May has been purged from the series, as not even Peter and MJ discuss her even in the most oblique of references. That either makes them seriously cold-hearted scumbags, or in seriously harmful denial - because as bad as it is, miscarrying is tragic enough - but I don't think losing a full term child at birth would be something that you would ever, ever forget.

That said, children do present a problem in a continuing storyline because their aging automatically ages everyone else. For example, the lead characters can be in a nebulous age range forever and no one will notice or care. But a child's aging, or lack thereof, would be far more obvious. Years ago, after Stan Lee decided to give Reed and Susan Richards a child, Franklin, this gave later writers fits, and while they correctly judged they couldn't kill Franklin off, they came up with the brilliant idea of having Reed put Franklin in a coma, which really pissed off the fans as much as killing him would have done - and this was quickly and thankfully reversed. Still, as we've seen in the example of other supporting characters - they seem to age (or not) independently of the leads, and there's no reason that a certain "suspension of disbelief" couldn't happen with regards to a child as well. But the problem is, there is a large contingent of writers (and fans also) who think it is anathema for Spider-Man to be a parent - period. Current Editor in Chief Joe Quesada has explicitly stated that if he had been a kid reading a Spider-Man comic and Spidey changed a diaper, he would never have read the title again. I don't know if he fears that he would actually smell the diaper while he was reading the story, or if a comic book featuring a baby would be soaked in urine, but in my opinion this thinking is just utterly - bizarre. He also made the comment wondering why people don't seem to expect Bart Simpson or Charlie Brown to age, but want Spider-Man to. But in that argument, he's comparing two incongruous concepts. First of all, Charlie Brown already is an adult - he's a neurotic adult in the body of an eight-year-old boy, which is why he has appealed to both young and old for more than 50 years. The Peanuts characters are as much allegory for childhood and adult fears and other behavior patterns as they are children. The Simpsons are flat-out satire, which doesn't play by the same rules as drama. None of us would expect Homer Simpson to learn from any of his mistakes, nor would we even want him to. The central concept of many a Simpsons show is not so much them, as it is the issue that they are being used to parody.

Frankly, I'll be willing to confess to a certain amount of personal bias toward Spider-Man being a parent because I am a parent, and as I flat out stated once to a letter writer, I sometimes selfishly want him to age with me - although I know that such a thing literally cannot happen. I want Spider-Man to be there for my son and even my grandchildren, which means that he cannot move along the entire spectrum of life as I eventually must. I'm not that selfish and shortsighted that I want this character to die with me and not entertain and inspire future generations. But I also don't want other short-sighted forces dictating that there are only certain experiences he can have, or certain stories he can be a part of, or only certain situations that he can encounter based upon questionable data or narrow minded opinions. Frankly, I simply feel that parenthood is one of the greatest (but certainly not the easiest) adventures a person can embark on - and it seems like it's tailor-made for one of the greatest of characters to face.

A Final Thought on Aging
I leave this particular topic by referencing two icons of young girls' literature - Nancy Drew and Judy Bolton. You've probably heard of Nancy but not Judy. Both were fictional teenage detectives who got their respective starts long before the aged MadGoblin (yes, that is true). Nancy Drew, who first appeared in the early 1920's, was a pretty blond who was forever 16 years old, lived in a completely fictional town, had a rich lawyer daddy who placed no curfews or restrictions on her behavior whatsoever, and gave her a nice car to tool around in to solve mysteries. Several different writers in the series recrafted the older books to reflect modern times, and the newer editions clearly have Nancy as a hip, funky girl of the 21st Century, though no less spoiled or improbable as she was decades before. Judy Bolton, on the other hand, lived within limited economic circumstances in an area that was clearly based on a real town (Coudersport, PA if you need to know), aged, married, and was even (gasp!)pregnant with twins as the series was unceremoniously brought to an end in the 1960's as the publishers of the aforementioned Ms. Drew ruthlessly moved to eliminate all of Nancy's competition for young girls' readership. Even though many readers of and experts on children's fiction believe that the Judy books were superior to the Nancys, Ms. Bolton is largely forgotten, living on only in the hearts of her die-hard fans. The ageless, improbable Nancy Drew lives on and continues to make money for her publishers, however - more than 80 years after her debut.

What does that have to do with Spider-Man? Maybe not a damn thing - or maybe its a sobering reality check on what has to be done to keep a character viable from generation to generation, regardless of what us old duffers think. To be able to look into the future and see Amazing Spider-Man #1000 (August 2045)...

This has been a growing controversy in comics, particularly for Marvel fans, for whom continuity has historically been held as nothing short of sacred. However, the editorial focus at Marvel has been steadily moving toward the direction of "continuity doesn't matter." Now does Spidey's continuity mean that you have to read every single Spider-Man title to understand what is going on? The answer is a resounding NO! I think I made that point fairly well back in Part 3 The Indispensable Spider-Man. Sometimes when Marvel wants to get a dig in on continuity, typically in promoting some new title ("jumping point for new readers" or "title can be enjoyed without understanding complicated continuity,"), it implies that there isn't any way that a new reader can possibly latch on to an older character and series, which is, of course, utter bullshit.

Before I go on, let me establish how I define "continuity," and what isn't continuity, particularly as it pertains to Spider-Man.

Continuity is not reality
No, I'm not being flippant. There are simply a lot of things in the Spider-Verse and the Marvel Universe that make absolutely no sense when laid parallel with common sense and we simply have to suspend our disbelief in order to enjoy the stories, which is a handy trick when dealing with continuity as well. For example:

Frankly - I haven't even scratched the surface. Sometimes I wonder if Marvel would be better off by having Galactus or somebody split the Marvel Universe into about a dozen different realities and reduce the superhero population per universe drastically. But that's something DC would do - and then years later they'd have to have a "Crisis on Infinite Earths" to blow them all up and merge them back. And Marvel couldn't have those convenient marketing ploys by having a certain hot hero who's starring in a movie cross-pollinate with all of the other titles.

Also, while the Ultimate Universe is a lot more realistic than the regular Marvel one, I think that it's a lot less fun. There's something about the hokiness of the whole basic superhero myth that appeals to me so I simply accept it. However, sometimes it is done so badly, so blatantly, and the story is so poor, that even a healthy suspension of disbelief still doesn't make it work (aka Maximum Carnage (1993)).

Anyway, so what IS continuity? To me, continuity means every single story featuring Spider-Man, for the most part, including:

And among those I don't consider continuity include:

I consider the first group to all be part of Spider-Man's historical timeline. In other words, they all "happened." Now, notice the emphasis I placed earlier on the word "story." That doesn't necessarily mean that every single statement, or line of dialogue, in every single story has to count, or to qualify as a reference in a future story. After all, particularly in the older comics, there are a significant amount of dated references, or just sheer silliness that are indigenous to the times and the method of storytelling in those days. Also notice that I left some wiggle room stating "for the most part," because sadly, even for a rabid completionist and continuity freak like myself - there are just some things that are best left forgotten as either they are so awful that no amount of rationalization can explain them away, or they simply are so insignificant that referencing, or even failing to reference them, would have no impact on Spidey's overall history.

In my opinion, for what it's worth, continuity in comics is largely a creation of Stan Lee. DC Comics, which had been the juggernaut of superhero comics prior to the Marvel Age which began in 1961 with the arrival of The Fantastic Four, for the most part paid no attention to it and the reasons why are subject to debate and beyond the scope of this article. Over at Marvel, Stan thought it would be "neat" (not to mention serve as a promotional tool) to have heroes routinely guest star in each other's mags, and even occasionally bump into each other on the street - since after all - they usually lived in New York City or the surrounding area (another Marvel idea - the stories would take place in real cities with recognizable landmarks). And, in a stroke of marketing genius from which Marvel reaped benefits long after Lee left New York to schmooze with the babes in L.A., he created the concept of, or should I say the illusion of, the "Marvel Bullpen," where all of the creators were one big happy family under the same roof and looooooooved making comic books. They were made accessible to the fans through the use of loopy nicknames like "Smilin' Stan," "Jolly Jack" and "Jazzy Johnny." The same philosophy was applied to Marvel's "family" of superheroes - that they were all part of one universe. And as a corollary, all of the stories counted in a character's history, with frequent references to past issues and asterisks referring to captions stating things to the effect of "Spidey's last bout of gastrointestinal difficulties occurred in Spider-Man #27 - Nuff Said! Natch!" These gimmicks all helped create a near slavish devotion to Marvel Comics by its fans. And, with almost everyone working together under the same roof and the histories of the characters still relatively short and confined to one monthly title - continuity really didn't require a whole lot of heavy lifting.

But then things began to change as the old guard at Marvel retired, moved on, or simply died off. Improvements in communication and technology meant that artists and writers didn't even have to be on the same side of the country in order to collaborate on a comic, which fractured the whole "Marvel Bullpen" concept. Marvel later hit bottom due to several poor business decisions, among those trying to totally crush any and all competition by flooding the market with titles to suck up as many retailers dollars as possible (Secret Wars was probably the most glaring example of this), trying to control the distribution of its titles from stem to stern by buying a distributor (which subsequently failed), and feeding a speculator frenzy that any intelligent person had to realize was going to bite them in the ass (but - they certainly weren't the only ones to blow this last one - DC Comics with its over hyped and overprinted Death of Superman created a brilliant example of nearly sacrificing the future of the entire industry in order to look like a king at the next quarter's analyst call). When the music stopped, Marvel was bankrupt, and the loyal non-speculator comics’ buyer who was the true backbone of the industry had become disenchanted with Marvel because the company had stopped paying attention to story quality in its zeal to push more and more product out the door. Again, this wasn't just a Marvel problem, but being the biggest player, its problems become the industry's problems. And let's be honest, while their tour of duty has been fraught with some controversy, Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada, overseen by Avi Arad, realized some things had to change at Marvel in order for it and the industry to survive - and one of those things that had to change was that the company had to import some fresh new talent that was truly that - talent - folks who could write and write well, and who also had a fan base outside of Marvel comics that could bring those fans with them (i.e. Bendis, JMS, and others). And they did that - and Marvel is better off in the long run for them having made the changes they did (my problem with them stems from some very unnecessary public comments - but that's another matter). Some of that talent, while aware of continuity, and perhaps even respectful of it, simply isn't slavishly devoted to it as a lot of their predecessors were and many fans still are.

That - and the sheer volume of product, which seems to multiply exponentially every year - virtually makes the supposedly seamless continuity of Stan Lee's day impossible.

After all, new spider writers simply cannot and will not be able to read the 1000+ and steadily increasing volume of Spidey comics in order to memorize every single character or reference. And according to Spectacular Spider-Man author Paul Jenkins, Marvel doesn't do a very good job keeping back issues on hand as reference materials in the first place! And frankly, the older I get and the more about the business of comics I learn, I have become convinced that virtually the only reason Marvel sticks as close to continuity as it does is because of Stan Lee’s longevity and impact. Taking an objective look without the hero worship that frequently follows him, you have to admit - Lee is, no pun intended, an amazing man. The dude is over 80 years old, yet seems like he has the energy of a man 30 years younger, and looks like he could keep it up well past 100! He's still seen and heard from constantly, making cameo appearances in virtually every Marvel related movie and granting interviews and supplying narration for every DVD derivative. Everyone at Marvel still seems obligated to pay some sort of deference to him, some as they grit their teeth. I remember that as recently as the "death" of Aunt May, back in Amazing Spider-Man #400 (April 1995), that event was run by Lee to get his blessing – not that they would have changed their minds if he didn’t like it, but since Stan created May as an integral figure in Spidey's history, they wanted to get his input before killing her off. Lee has no authority at Marvel – basically he still gets a nice fat check for just being Stan Lee. So, it’ll be interesting to see what things change when the last spade of dirt gets shoveled on Lee’s grave.

But notice that in the paragraph before last I said the "supposedly" seamless continuity of Stan Lee's day. That's because it wasn't seamless - the old Bullpen made their mistakes too - plenty of them - and that's what the infamous "No-Prize" was for. Marvel editors bestowed certain letter writers with the No-Prize, which obviously, was exactly what it said - nothing - not for just catching errors by the creative staff, but by engineering solutions that made these mistakes not really mistakes at all. So, it wasn't that there weren't continuity errors "in the good old days," because there were - but Marvel management at the time was able to laugh at its mistakes and create an environment of inclusion that let the readers believe they were in on the creative process - which consequently made fans very forgiving of subsequent mistakes. It seems that nowadays, however, creators "don't make mistakes," and if someone brings up a continuity error - then they're just a deluded wanking off fanboy living in mom and dad's basement and they need to go out and get a life. Now, I'll be the first to concede that fans can get overly bent out of shape at times, and more than one writer has been savagely blistered by internet fan rage over "continuity" even if it's an honest mistake, which is not appropriate behavior. But, I also wonder if some of that fan belligerence is a result of perceived increasing arrogance (or maybe just defensiveness) of the creative talent these days, which are apparently not used to being scrutinized as was the earlier Marvel staff. Or maybe they just didn't have the forums (or it wasn't part of the work culture at that time) to strike back. Or maybe they've been ambushed at too many conventions by jealous fans who want to tell them in excruciating detail all of the "sins" they've committed against a character or writing in general. Sigh. It happens.

But something that strikes me as odd is editors and writers who act surprised that a large part of the fan base clings to continuity. Frankly, I think it's the nature of the beast with comic book fans, or fans of series fiction in general. For example, don't you think that if Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta or Sara Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski began acting out of character in one of those series novels, the authors would be besieged with mail pointing that out? In fact, in researching this article, I found an internet listing of all of the inconsistencies and glitches in Cornwell's Scarpetta series (apparently though, she ignores any references to inconsistencies)! Not only that, but there is a strong sci-fi bent to superhero fans, and sci-fans love their continuity. Don't try to tell me that Star Trek fans, Babylon 5 fans, Battlestar Galactica fans, X-File fans, and the like are not hung up on the continuity surrounding their favorite shows. All you have to do is check out the respective message boards. The Star Trek fans in particular are all over Enterprise for its canon violations - but then, there's a lot to gripe about Enterprise. I’m reminded of the time when the original Dark Shadows soap opera was on in the late 1960's and early 1970's, and the show was getting so complex that while filming an episode, there was a reference that needed to be made to an event in an earlier show, but no one on the cast or crew could remember what it was! Jonathan Frid, who played Barnabas, suggested someone go outside to the group of devoted fans hanging around the studio and ask them - and they had their answer in minutes.

So for writers and editors to gripe about fans' devotion to continuity is rather disingenuous. After all, it's not like they don't know what they're getting into. Their griping is similar to a person buying tickets to a Wiggles or Barney concert, and then walking out complaining about all of the snot nosed little kids running around.

Plus, in today's internet driven world, a lot of good research is available right at one’s fingertips. Sites such as Spider-Fan and Spider-Man Info have painstakingly devoted long hours of work and research into developing profiles on various characters in the Spider-Man Universe, including the major villains – so that there isn’t really much reason for a writer not to check these out when deciding to feature such a heavily used villain such as the Green Goblin, Doc Ock, or the Lizard. Even a devoted Spidey-phile like myself is not ashamed to say I've looked at these sites in order to ensure accuracy on various matters. Plus, there's also that little old Spider-Man Encyclopedia that Marvel was more than happy to license and make a few buck from, but apparently doesn't believe that anyone at the company should pay attention to. And, while I believe that a writer can’t possibly sit and read all of Spidey’s appearances without going blind – I still think that anyone who writes the character should become very familiar with the first 50 or so issues of The Amazing Spider-Man. That in a way is still very much the series "bible," with virtually all of the major players that impact Spidey today introduced in that time span. The fact that Spidey's early stories are so neatly packaged together in the "Essentials" series makes them even more accessible to the casual reader or researcher.

But, yes, I will admit to being a "continuity freak." Part of that is probably just in my nature. I tend to be a very linear person - I like to know where everything "fits," and I also work in an area of the financial services industry where it is important that everything adds up and balances, where everything being in its proper place and properly reported.

And I like steady character growth as well. To reference another famous "modern myth," James Bond as a character bores me. Oh, the action can be fun at times, but there is virtually zero character development. Even if the actor ages in the role (as Roger Moore did rather noticeably in the 1970's and 1980's more so than the others who've had the role, I think) - the character doesn't - and its a little disquieting to see a middle aged secret agent cavorting with the young ladies and committing feats of daring do without the slightest concession to the aging process (such as sore muscles and broken bones - I'm not counting the last Connery film Never Say Never Again, in which Bond is portrayed as an older man, as this is not considered one the "regular" Bond films). But even more unnerving for a person who likes good drama, the character never seems to have to deal with the consequences of previous actions. No embittered family members of previous villains come back for revenge. No unanticipated children result from his numerous dalliances, nor hard feelings over failed relationships. Every young lady seems just fine with being 4-F'd by Bond (Found, Fingered, F****d, and Forgotten). And in the one Bond film in which 007 jeopardized everything he had worked and lived for to pursue a mission of personal vengeance (Licence to Kill 1989), the events were completely forgotten as by the next film, the role was recast. Conversely, William Shatner's Captain Kirk, who was a serial womanizer and dashing Errol Flynn type hero in the 1960's Star Trek television series, noticeably and painfully aged along with the actor, and with the exception of the silly fifth film where it appeared that Shatner was deluding himself, the consequences of previous actions weighed heavily on Kirk and his crew, and his womanizing days were behind him.

This goes back to a statement I made earlier in the section about aging - it isn't so much that people want to see Peter Parker grow old, but they want him to be the sum of his experiences.

An example of how DC "continuity" (that word does belong in quotes when referencing DC) differs from Marvel is in the Superman titles. For almost 50 years, part of the core mythology of Superman was that Ma and Pa Kent were long dead, after inspiring Superman to go on and do good for humanity with his super powers. However, in the mid-1980's writer/artist John Byrne was given the job of rejuvenating the Superman franchise, starting with a six part miniseries that dramatically re-wrote the canon. Byrne changed Krypton from a gloriously tacky Silver Age, Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers inspired world to a cold, unfeeling atmosphere more suited to 80's nihilism. He also decided that Superman needed humanizing (he was right on this point) and decreed that Ma and Pa Kent had been alive all along. His reasoning was that their deaths in the previous continuity, which were designed to propel Superman to do good, were essentially meaningless because Superman being Superman - he would have done good anyway! So, that there was no point in them being dead. Just like that. One month they're dead - the next month they're alive. Lex Luthor also went from evil bald mad scientist in a purple and green jumpsuit equipped with rocket boots to evil businessman in a three-piece suit with red hair (although he soon became an evil bald businessman - which is a good thing - messing with Lex's baldness is like messing with those red Osborn cornrows). And the entire Superboy, Superdog, Superhorse, Super Monkey mythos were completely eliminated (although the Superdog did come back). Superman and Batman, closest of friends before, were at odds with each other at first, and uneasy allies later. Superman never suited up in the red and blues until adulthood. From one month to the next, they were different characters in a seemingly different universe.

Now, in the Marvel Universe, particularly Spider-Man, with characters who have returned (or apparently returned) from the dead - such as Norman Osborn, Aunt May, and Doctor Octopus (even though various people have different opinions over the validity and the circumstances surrounding their resurrections), you can actually go back to the specific issue and find out exactly how they came back and why. However, you don't have to know that the Green Goblin faked Aunt May’s death or that Doctor Octopus was resurrected by a group of mystical ninjas to enjoy the current crop of stories. Maybe you're better off not knowing about that last one. Still, I much prefer this method, however the bounds of credibility are stretched, than the DC method of simply changing what doesn't suit them anytime, anywhere, and in any title.

So, every story you read in a core Spider-Man title is likely to mean something. Maybe it won't be referenced repeatedly (or ever), but it still likely happened. For years, every event was presented in a linear fashion - happening in the order the stories were originally published. If it wasn't told in those original stories, it never happened. However, as with the recent crop of Doc Ock Minis - including one that supposedly took place back in Peter's college years, Marvel has thoroughly fuzzed up the frames of reference, so that it's not nearly as easy to say - "oh yes, this tale took place between Amazing Spider-Man X and Amazing Spider-Man Y. This is particularly true with the two stories, the Spectacular Spider-Man #6-10 story written by Jenkins and the Doc Ock mini Out of Reach - which appear to be set in the present time - but which happened when relative to each other? No clue. Frankly, I hate when that happens, but if a story is good, I'll overlook it. However, the mini wasn't very good at all, so it's not likely to be remembered or referenced in the future.

But still, perfect continuity is not only impossible, but probably undesirable as well. Without the ability to tweak continuity a little bit, some good stories might never be told. An example of a story that just doesn't make sense in light of what we know about the character is Ron Zimmerman's Tangled Web #13 story where Norman Osborn goes to a supervillain bar and hangs out with the Vulture and one of Kraven the Hunter's sons. At the very end, Osborn shows his face (he had been wearing a hat most of the time) and leaves a pumpkin on the table where he has been drinking. Now, I cannot believe for one second that Osborn, a public figure in the Marvel Universe, and one who had recently spent a considerable amount of effort in trying to break any notion of him being linked to the Green Goblin (this was before recent events in The Pulse and Marvel Knights Spider-Man), would reveal himself to anyone, let alone a bunch of lowlife criminals in a bar. Yet, in the context of that particular story, it made perfect sense and provided a strong and satisfying ending to that particular tale. However, the same writer later wrote a follow-up story ("You can call me Al") and a mini-series (Get Kraven) that were both so awful that they should probably be simply forgotten and never referred to again. Zimmerman turned Aloysha Kraven, whose last significant appearances were as a leopard skin clad psychopath who had just murdered his and his father's common lover (eeeewwwww), into a harmless playboy who could sit at the same table as J. Jonah Jameson and movie stars and no one would bat an eye - not even Jameson - who hates most super powered folks. The Chameleon, who had a dramatic "death" in Paul Jenkins’ chilling Webspinners 10-11 by hurtling himself off a bridge after faking MJ's kidnapping, inexplicably shows up physically sound, but cackling madly in a lunatic asylum and Spidey doesn't bat an eye. Admittedly, villains "die" and reappear all the time, yet the Chameleon didn't "die" in just one of those unoriginal explosions where no body was recovered in a run of the mill tale - but suffered a dramatic death in a particularly strong story that shouldn't have been ignored. Also, even though Get Kraven was intended more as a satire on the movie industry than a Spider-Man story, the use of the Vulture, one of Spidey's oldest and clearly unrehabilatable villains as a heroic, though violent vigilante, at the end, with Spidey just accepting that turn of events in a good natured "isn't that old bald guy cute and funny," sort of way is just flat out ridiculous.

Then there's current spider-writer Paul Jenkins, who, although he doesn't ignore continuity, freely admits that it isn't his strongest point, and as we talk about later, sometimes, well, he flat out creates some serious conundrums and you wonder if he could have just done a leeetle more research. But, in the last four years, he has brought us some terrific Spider-Man stories, and although I'll call 'em as I see 'em, I'm not going to jump all over the guy's ass because of "The Lizard's Tale," and ignore the stuff he's done well (Of the four "Year In Review" articles I've written since the reboot - Jenkins has had the "Story of the Year" three times.) Sometimes, with some extra spit and polish, we can actually make perceived errors work in the context of a certain character and actually create an interesting story or background! For example, take two completely disparate looks at Norman Osborn in the Revenge of the Green Goblin mini, written by Roger Stern and Jenkins' own Death in the Family and what seems like continuity errors can actually be woven together to give us a better look at Norman Osborn's complex and deeply troubled psyche.

Some people want to ascribe the term "continuity error" to every mistake or incongruity that occurs within the titles, which really isn’t right. There is also a big difference between a writer making a "continuity" mistake because the issue at hand was too obscure, or he was rushed, and one making a mistake because he simply didn't care or couldn't be bothered to take a couple of seconds to find out. And fans know the difference, or we should. There are the incongruities created when a perfectly logical reference in the particular time period that a story is written becomes woefully outdated as time moves on. And then there’s the infamous term "retcon" or "retroactive continuity." This is usually a tricky one – because continuity has definitely been changed – but it’s been changed within the context of the saga. Everyone, including the creators and company, assumed one set of circumstances existed, but really something else was going on – which now has to be reflected in stories from then on. And then there's the "re-imaginings" which flat-out alters continuity, slipping it in and saying "oh by the way this is the way it's always been." This is the type of continuity changes DC typically practices. Today Jason Todd is the child of circus performers murdered by Killer Croc, tomorrow he's a street punk who steals the tires off the Batmobile (and now he's dead - but that's another story).

Anyway, let's take a look at the different kinds of continuity issues.

Dated References
Comics, like very everything else, are largely products of the time in which they are produced and typically reflect the social and cultural environment of that time. And although most comic book science is not really science, but pseudo-science, it does reflect what is known about various applications at the time. There are two primary events that create big "oops" factors decades later: (1) the origin of Spider-Man and (2) Flash Thompson's service during the Vietnam War.


Retroactive Continuity
As we’ve stated before retcons are really not mistakes or continuity changes as they are a "re-interpretation" of the facts as we thought we knew them. And in Spidey’s history, some retcons have been retconned!

Mary Jane always knew
In one of the more dramatic moments of the 1980’s – Mary Jane Watson told Peter Parker at the end of Amazing Spider-Man #257 (October 1984) that she knew that he was Spider-Man. However, for several years it was left to the imagination just exactly when she made this deduction. In 1989 in the trade paperback Parallel Lives, writer Gerry Conway revealed that she knew from the very beginning – that she saw Spider-Man crawl out of Peter Parker’s bedroom window on the night that Ben Parker was killed! This was a major, major retcon – but unlike some others, it hadn’t been too seriously contradicted by previous stories – although if you read them it’s pretty obvious that none of the writers, including Stan Lee himself (or even Gerry Conway – when he wrote Amazing Spider-Man back in the 1970’s!), even remotely considered that Mary Jane already knew. If she had, then clearly she would have said something much earlier in their relationship. Still, with 20/20 hindsight, it actually fits in Spider-Man's tortured continuity because it explains why this dynamic red headed bombshell, who could have had any man she wanted, seem fascinated beyond all logic by Peter Parker. Face it - girls who look like Mary Jane aren’t historically interested in guys who looked like Peter Parker did, particularly during his younger days. And even now, although Peter has certainly outgrown his four-eyed geek look - he's still essentially a socially awkward nerd who can't make ends meet and seems directionless in his life and career, while MJ is hot and successful. It would seem that Peter Parker is the last person any upwardly mobile young woman who wants to be one of life’s "special people" would hang out with. Unless of course, there’s something very special about that nerdy and directionless young man – which of course, there is. And for all of her griping and agonizing about Peter's lifestyle choice, and all of the other things she does love about Peter, like his sense of responsibility, it definitely is a turn on for MJ to be making the mattress springs squeak with a superhero. Don't let her fool you. Looking back, the surprise isn’t that Mary Jane knew, but that no one else (with the possible exception of Joe Robertson and Ben Urich) close to Peter has figured it out!

Gwen Stacy II was a clone. Then she wasn’t. Then she was again. The Jackal was dead. Then he wasn’t. Now he is again. The clone of Spider-Man was dead. Then he wasn’t. Then he was the real Spider-Man. Then he wasn’t. Now he's dead again.
The Clone Saga of the mid-1990's really messed with a lot of things, mostly for no good reason at all. Back in the 1970’s, Gerry Conway devised the original clone story in which Professor Miles Warren, driven to insanity as a result of his unhealthy obsession with Gwen Stacy, cloned both her and Peter Parker. At the end of this particular story, both Warren and the Spider-Clone appeared to die, and the Gwen clone, realizing that she really had no place in Peter’s life anymore, left for parts unknown. It was one of the better Spidey stories of the time, and came to a logical and final conclusion, although the fact that a Gwen Stacy clone was out there was still a loose end...

Well, things were fine for several years, and the clone seemed to be forgotten. Then, Conway changed his mind about what Gwen really was. Although I’ve never seen him speak on this directly – I’m assuming the various changes in what we knew about cloning technology and genetic manipulation prompted him to revise his original story (in addition to perhaps wanting to tie up that aforementioned loose end). Back in the 70’s, when clone stories were the rage in TV and movies, it was a given in sci-fi circles that you could just grow a full-bodied clone by taking a cell from a living human being and pumping it full of Miracle-Gro. A decade later, it was pretty clear that if you could clone a human being (certainly never a given, even now), it would have to be implanted as a cell in a human female's womb, be born the normal way and grow to adulthood just like the rest of us. That meant no growing human clones in big long test tubes. So, in Spectacular Spider-Man Annual #8, (1988) the Gwen clone returned, with the High Evolutionary (Marvel's version of the genetic tinkerer Dr. Moreau) on her heels – and it was ultimately revealed that she wasn’t a true clone – that Warren had simply kidnapped a young girl about Gwen’s age, injected her with Gwen’s genetic material, and essentially mutated her into Gwen Stacy. This woman was changed back to normal and it seemed that Gwen’s fate was finally resolved. However, that also required Conway to retcon Bill Mantlo's original Carrion storyline from Spectacular Spider-Man 28-31 (March-June 1979) - and we found out that the Carrion we thought we knew wasn't really a clone of Miles Warren after all, but was the victim of another one of Warren's creations - the "Carrion virus." Well - O.K. I guess.

But then this was all turned on its head when former writer Terry Kavanuagh infected Marvel with his "hey, let's say that Peter is really the clone from that old story and let's bring the "clone" back and say he's the real Spidey. Won't that be a blast? Har har har." Now, everything was as we originally believed it to be - everyone really was a clone - but the High Evolutionary, because he didn't want a select group of genetically altered beings to realize that the cloning process had been perfected - altered all of Miles Warren's diaries and other bullshit to make it look like he had not created clones, when he really had.

Oh god, whatever! Not only that, but there's still the fact that a Gwen Stacy clone is out there and a dangling loose end...

Norman Osborn never really died, either. He was just living in Europe at the time.
This was more Clone Saga fallout - but this one I actually agreed with, although Norman Osborn’s revival was one of the biggest stretches foisted upon the Spidey-reading public, and remains a pretty unpopular one among segments of Spidey fans. First of all, if you actually read Amazing Spider-Man #122-123, or even saw the first Spider-Man motion picture, then you know what happened to Norman was pretty unambiguous – he took the Goblin glider square on in the chest (the comics) or the lower abdomen (the movie) and died. Issue #123 shows his body actually being carried away on a stretcher with J. Jonah Jameson spewing venom (no, not the villain) that Spider-Man was responsible. Fast forward more than 20 years, and the debacle known as the Clone Saga is a badly adrift story in need of a resolution – namely a villain sinister enough and with the wealth, intelligence and connections to have manipulated the whole "Peter is really a clone, no he’s not he just thinks he is affair." In a controversial decision, Marvel Editor in Chief Bob Harras decided that person had to be Norman Osborn, although the spider-writers at the time had worked it out that it would have been Harry Osborn. It turns out that as a result of the Goblin formula, Norman’s body now had a special healing factor that just happened to repair what for all intents and purposes had to be a ruptured heart. Right. And monkeys really will fly out of my butt - Jim Carrey notwithstanding. And then Norman spent the next several years building a criminal empire in Europe while nurturing his secret plans against Peter Parker to fruition, all the while letting Harry flounder as his successor and Roderick Kingsley get away with playing the HobGoblin after ripping off all of Norman's good ideas (this was explained in Osborn Journals, but as much as I liked that one shot - it's full of rationalizations).

Aunt May actually knew for some time. Then she died. Then it turned out that not only did she not die, but also she never knew. And now she knows.
Since, during the Clone Saga, it was decided that Peter wasn’t going to be "real," and he and Mary Jane were going to be shipped out to Portland, there was a big problem of what to do with Aunt May. After all, if May still lived, there was no way that Reilly could ignore her - because after all, he was her "real" favorite nephew, and he couldn't avoid communicating with her, even before he came back to New York. But if Peter and MJ moved to Oregon, wouldn't May go with them? And what would happen if she actually saw Reilly and realized he was the spitting image of Peter Parker? Now, since May had never really progressed as a character in all of the years that she had been part of the titles, and in many ways was actually an irritant, it became fairly easy to send her packing to the Great Beyond – which writer JM DeMatteis did in a damn fine and touching 400th issue of Amazing Spider-Man (April 1995). And shockingly enough, May told Peter that she knew he was Spider-Man. But then again, maybe it shouldn’t have been that shocking. As May stated "I would have been a fool not to know." Of course, this created some continuity problems – for example – just when did May find out? Surely it was after she shot at Spider-Man back in issue #115 (December 1972), or when she nearly married Doctor Octopus in issue #131 (April 1974) - probably Gerry Conway's biggest goof. So that was a solid subject of debate in spider fandom for some time, and was never really resolved, although it was generally assumed that it was around the events of Amazing Spider-Man #200. Still, though, continuity problems aside, it was the perfect resolution to May's character and storyline.

And then came the reboot. EIC Bob Harras decided that May should come back. The problem was, fandom wasn’t really screaming for May’s return, nor was she really needed to bring a story to a logical resolution, like Norman Osborn's return. Sales on the Spider-Man titles, which really tanked when it was found out that Peter was the clone, didn’t rebound as hoped when he became the real one again. Of course, there were a lot of reasons for this – people who still pissed off about the Clone Saga – those who hated the fact that Peter was the clone – and those who liked Ben Reilly and were pissed that he was killed off! Spider-Man was overexposed with four monthly titles, and the industry in general was in a state of serious decline after the speculator bust. Apparently, though, Harras assumed that Spidey’s problems would be solved by bringing May back – and this time she wouldn’t know that Peter was Spider-Man because Harras "hated that idea that she knew." Well, if Bob Harras hated it - then it was surely reason enough to shit all over a beautiful story now wasn't it?

So - in conjunction with the other stupid ideas that were rampant at the time, it was decided that Norman Osborn kidnapped May months ago, substituted a genetically altered actress in her spot, told her of Peter's id, etc. Then after she died, Norman brings back the real May, but has implanted a genetic bomb in her that if removed will melt down all of humanity into primordial soup.

I won't bore you with the rest.

Anyway, not only does May come back - but she's a f*****g moron and with the same doddering old fool characterization that wore out a long time ago - but she did get a new hairdo.

And then JMS comes along and say "geez - here May is, essentially Peter's mother, and she's been this same old fool for 40 years - we need to move her character and relationship with nephew along a different path to keep her viable!"

Sometimes it helps to be a big shot writer who can suggest something new and bold and having the bosses say "O.K."

Untold Tales of Spider-Man and Webspinners
For three decades, Marvel had avoided the "untold tales" temptation that DC long gave into. The only events that happened in Spidey's life were those that had been chronicled in the various spider-titles up to that time.

But then, in conjunction with the revelation that Ben Reilly was the "real" Spider-Man as part of a plan to "de-age" Spidey, Marvel came up with the "Untold Tales" stories as a way of capitalizing on the perception that the public was hungry for stories of a teenage Spider-Man, but still trying to work within the foundations of the originally continuity. Written by Kurt Busiek, Untold Tales literally took place in between the original Lee-Ditko stories, not contradicting, but supplementing the original continuity. Busiek was actually able to do what John Byrne was unable to do years later with Chapter One, tweaking Spidey's continuity as we knew it to update some of the content and references, but still tell entertaining stories that were completely faithful to the tone of the originals. It was also priced at an affordable 99 cents, which may have been a factor in its demise after only 25 issues (retailers don't get much margin on a 99 cent comic), along with Busiek's desire to leave the title.

For a while I never considered it continuity, but eventually relented because it was a completely faithful rendition of the characters, and it was entertaining - two things that tend to cover a multitude of sins.

Webspinners' take on bending continuity was not presenting stories that unfolded in a linear fashion, but by having them occur in various times in Spidey's history. For example, one story could take place during Spidey's high school prom, and another could be in the current time line, while another could take place during the days he wore the black costume. Part of the idea was to give different creative teams that weren't part of one of the regular core titles a crack at telling a Spider-Man story. Like most other things - when the story worked it was a good idea, and when it didn't - it sucked. Ultimately, the fact that it was still a pretty soft comics market for a third Spidey title, combined with the revolving creative team concept that seems to be contrary to what comics fans want (although that didn't stop Marvel from trying again with Tangled Web years later), resulted in the demise of Webspinners after only 18 issues.


Chapter One
Chapter One is one of those bizarre ideas that came from the post Clone Saga, reboot period where most of Marvel's senior management must have been smoking dope. The problem wasn't so much in the concept, because the concept was not a bad one - but remember, this was Marvel of the 1990's, and execution was often a problem.

Chapter One was conceived as a twelve part limited series that would run through most of 1999, and would retell the first year of Peter Parker's life as Spider-Man - which writer/artist John Byrne considered to be the first 18 issues of the original Amazing Spider-Man run (not an unreasonable assumption). Byrne had become one of comics' most notable forces after his turns at redefining Superman in the 1980's, and stints on X-Men and Fantastic Four. The idea of updating a few events and "re-ordering" certain others (for example, he made the comment that he wanted to reduce the number of radioactive accidents in the Marvel Universe) so that they made a little more sense in the context of what we now know about Spidey wasn't a bad idea. Back in the early 1960s' Stan and Steve were cranking out the stories and making up the character as they went, with no idea that they were creating a contemporary American mythology. Of course, the whole style of writing was different at the time, more flamboyant and by the seat of the pants, and certainly less "realistic." Plus, Stan has admitted that no one knew less about science than he did at the time, so naturally there were all kinds of leaps in logic. Rightly or wrongly, the internet fan community went immediately ballistic at the news, particularly since there were hints that Spidey's origin was going to be revised and tied in with Doctor Octopus'! Even though fans often have a reputation for going whacko at the drop of a hat, this furor has to be taken in context of the events of the times (1) the Spidey titles were going to be rebooted with new #1's, which was hugely unpopular also (and since reversed on Amazing), (2) the rumors were flying, soon verified, that Aunt May was coming back after having been "dead" for four years, which frankly, seemed like a dumb idea, (3) the titles were being wound down with a truly awful storyline ("Gathering of Five" and "Final Chapter") which consistently show up on several worst Spidey stories lists to this day, (4) John Byrne, hugely popular in the past, was in the minds of many fans, in addition to being past his prime, a cranky, bitter, and mean spirited person. The last point is conjecture based on the chatter I saw during those times. It was during this time that the internet term "Byrne stealing" came into being - as Byrne made the comment that folks who read through a comic off the shelf without buying it are committing an act equivalent to stealing. And (5) it was also learned that some of Spidey's old villains were in for a redesign.

Ultimately, the series sold fairly well, but fan reaction was mixed to poor. As the series rolled out, even many who had positive expectations (like myself, I was actually looking forward to this) had their hopes dashed because of the execution. What was wrong with Chapter One is worthy of an article itself (and I wrote one - but it needs updating). As it turned out, the changes that Byrne made actually did nothing to improve or enhance Spidey lore. One of the most glaringly dated aspects of the origin, the bite of the "radioactive" spider was replaced by an even more ridiculous concept of a radioactive explosion that killed virtually everyone who was present, except Peter Parker and Doc Ock, plus a few others that were fodder for a follow-up story later during Amazing Spider-Man. Doc Ock received a horrible redesign to which I shall always refer to as "Pantsless Bionic Ock" because he looked like a cyborg with no pants, and it was revealed that not only were Norman Osborn and the Sandman related (because of that funky hair, no doubt), but Osborn was responsible for siccing the Sandman on Spidey in the first place, of outfitting Electro after his electrical accident (giving him a blue costume - o.k. technically lightning is blue, not yellow. But Electro isn't Electro without that dumb green and yellow costume. As silly as it is - you know what his deal is when you see him), and of even employing Quentin Beck aka Mysterio in the special effects department of Osborn Studios (actually, I liked the idea of Osborn owning a movie studio, but that was about it). Even worse, Byrne's revised origins began to show up and be referenced in the regular Spider-Man including an awful villain known as "Captain Power" (Amazing Spider-Man #451 (October 1999)) who turned out to be another survivor of that radioactive explosion that gave birth to both Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus. Again, the problem wasn't that things were tinkered with, it's that they were tinkered with badly, the changes added nothing, and improved nothing but were merely changes for their own sake, sometimes making even less sense that the tacky 1960's stories. The stories unsuccessfully tried to impose the more deliberate and methodical method of storytelling on old plotlines that were slam bam thank you ma'am, and the humor that was such a key component of putting Spidey on the map in those early days was completely absent.

Marvel began running away from Chapter One before the series was even completed, as evidenced by what happened when writer Paul Jenkins, in his first assignment on the Spider-titles, asked editor Ralph Macchio what origin story he should reference when he did his Chameleon story beginning in Webspinners #10 - the original Lee-Ditko version or Byrne's Chapter One. He was told to use the original, which was the effective end of any possibility that any of the Byrne revisions would take hold. As far as Marvel, and most fans are concerned, Chapter One does not exist.

Unfortunately that created some nasty continuity problems as the regular titles in that first year after the reboot, particularly the "Captain Power" story - clearly depended on Chapter One being a part of continuity. So what do we do with it? Reconcile it into continuity by some convoluted explanation? Say that it was part of a parallel universe? Or ignore it completely? Sad to say, since I am a continuity buff, it is simply better off left ignored. That doesn't mean that the whole first year or so after the reboot can be ignored, just those plotlines that dealt specifically with the ramifications of Chapter One, which fortunately, aren't that many. So my advice to the new Spidey fan is ignore Chapter One. It’s like new Christians watching something like The Last Temptation of Christ. Only see it when you thoroughly understand the source material.

Interesting, as this article is being written, the current Marvel Age series is out which also retells those original stories, but clearly takes a more respectful tone - changing very little except what is needed to update to modern reference points. But frankly, I don't see that it serves any purpose - those old stories were for the most part fine the first time and are still fun to read, dated references and all. If the revisions improved the stories then I would be more inclined to accept them - but they don't - and they don't even succeed at recapturing the old magic. My opinion is that unless something really new, revolutionary, and interesting can be done that make the old stories better, they should simply be left alone. They are what they are. Invest the time, energy and resources in new Spidey stories. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind if Marvel Age is successful in brining in new Spidey fans - because ultimately, that is the name of the game.

But what happens 40 years down the line? When we do reach the year 2045 and Amazing Spider-Man #1000? Many of us will not be around, and those who are - will we even care about Spider-Man's continuity string? Will life in that era be so radically different from the current times that it will be silly for the characters to be anything but products of that future time, rather than the 1960's - which in many ways they still largely are? Will it make even less sense to try to keep a single string of continuity over 80 years than it did 40? Is the question as silly as it sounds? Will the subject even be debatable at that time? Will the Marvel Universe as we know it just one day "end" and start all over again? Or will it just simply change without any notice? Or will there even be comic books as we know them in 40 years? I honestly do not have an answer. Whatever the answer it - I hope it ensures the long-term survivability of the character as we know him. And really, that's what it is all about. I don't diss Marvel at times because their vision at times disagrees with mine - that's life in the US of A. And I like Marvel. I really do. I just expect that the vision they articulate be soundly supported by facts and figures and a careful consideration of such - not "Let's do this with Spider-Man! It'll be cool! Will people like it? Don't care! It'll be coooooooool!!!!" Or ditching or failing to promote certain characters or concepts because of one person's personal bias - or coming to a conclusion about what a market wants without doing one damn bit of market research. That's the stuff that irks me.

But here's another question - why do certain people care so much about continuity? I can't speak for everyone - but as for me - continuity gives the whole story of Spider-Man an epic saga feel - not just a "cool story of the moment," feel. For his adventures to go back to literally his first appearance more than 40 years ago, to chronicle the rise and fall of certain villains and relationships over many decades (I'm thinking of the lives and deaths of Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborn in particular), for events of the long past to influence the future - all of this makes each issue more of an exciting (if the issue's good, that is) chapter in an ongoing literary experience. It's like the reader is part of an epic tale told over the span of decades, and it also makes back issues more fun to read, knowing that they still resonate, even now.

This has without a doubt been the longest, and one of the hardest series I’ve completed. Hopefully, it fulfilled the purpose for which it was intended – giving the new reader the lowdown on Spider-Man, while keeping the old fans interested and entertained as well. Did I succeed or fail? Please let me know! Of course, there is always a possible that there may be additional chapters in the future, depending on whether or not another angle occurs to me.

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Copyright © 1998-2006 J.R. Fettinger. All Rights Reserved. All original content is the exclusive property of the MadGoblin's Ward. Spider-Man, the Green Goblin and everyone else who appears in the Spider-Man comics is the property of Marvel Entertainment.