Web-Spinning Heroics (Spider-Man Essays)

 Title: Books (Essays)
 Posted: Aug 2021
 Staff: The Editor (E-Mail)


Books pass through trends – just like movies, colours, styles, language, and many other aspects of human culture.

That makes perfect sense of course. It only takes one success to trigger a flurry of "Ooh... that's a good idea!" tag-alongs. This works well for creators and audience alike. An appetite is awakened, and the free-market provides until the collective metaphorical stomach is satiated and bored.

We saw this in the mid 2000's, when we got a double-dose of hard science with The Science of Superheroes and The Physics of Superheroes.

Then from 2007 to 2012, it was time for the softer end of academia to show what they had to offer. We had a burst of Spider-Man Essays from sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers – even the religious crowd got in on the act. Check out our Books (Essays) if you really want more of this stuff.

Story Details

This "Web-Spinning Heroics" is part of that trend. Published back in 2012, it's a collection of 23 essays grouped into seven loosely-correlated sections in the same way that 27 cats might be tempted onto seven beanbag chairs.

The books itself is a large-format paperback at 6.9" x 10". With 272 pages in quite a dense font, this is not an easy book to read at all. The text is intimidating, and the language is downright hostile. In fact, in the finest academic manner, the text seems frequently obtuse just from pure spite. Let me quote from the introduction:

...the character of Aunt May is among the long-standing and narratively fecund players found within the pages and frames of the Spider-Man textual apparatus.

I mean. Really. I'm not sure I could have done better if I was writing a deliberate parody.

Presumably your Ph.D gets revoked if somebody catches you saying something simple and easy to understand, like... "Aunt May appears in the Spidey comics quite a lot." I dunno. I don't have a Ph.D so I'm not sure what the rules are in this regard.

But the whole book is pretty much like this, leaving me to wonder who the target audience might be. There is surely a very narrow band of people who take Spider-Man seriously enough to consider attempting to tackle a work like this, and frankly, I suspect that a high percentage of that big target audience would just heave the thing across the room within the first few pages, having suddenly realised that this kind of self-flagellation isn't as much fun as they had imagined.

I had a friend back at college who was rather taller than me. Whenever we walked anywhere together, he deliberately insisted on walking faster than was comfortable for me with my little legs, just to show that he could. These essay-writers are just the same. This is their chance to flex on us, and they're going to play it out to the max.

Of course, like all things academic, the actual underlying message is pretty straight-forward once you scrape away the excess verbiage.

Let me translate the entire first essay for you. It goes like this:

So – Donald Glover (who is black) offered to play the role of Spider-Man in the 2012 movie. Then lots of people said "Umm... that would be kind of weird for Peter Parker to be black," but some other people said that not letting a black guy be Peter Parker was racist. I guess they're both kind of right.

...except that it's 3000 words of post-graduate-level supercĂ zzola.

Now, personally, I think that Peter Parker is white, Miles Morales is Hispanic, and Spider-Man can be any colour you want underneath because he wears a full body-suit and a mask. But I also think, personally, that if you're trying to leverage 40 years of reading about Peter Parker to get me to go to the movie theatre to see Peter Parker, then you had better damn well show me Peter Parker. And if I get there and Peter Parker is a red-haired Tibetan girl who lives in Alaska, works on a building site, and speaks only through sign-language then I'm going to have serious questions...

But what do I know? Like I said, I ordered my Ph.D but there was a problem getting it through customs and in the end Amazon gave me a refund instead.

General Comments

Look, I'm not going to go through each of the essays one-by-one. I don't have the stomach for it.

But I am going to say this.

If your source material for trying to figure out the meaning of life is a kid in long red-and-blue underwear who owes his existence to a 50-year-old guy making stuff up on-the-fly 'cos he's writing 20 comic books a month and trying to chase the next trend just to earn enough money to keep the lights on at a struggling publishing house targeting the pre-teen drug-store market...

...then you're going to have a bad time.

Because, yes, there are some few moments of greatness in Spider-Man's career. But many (or most) of the stories were rushed out to meet a deadline to satisfy a fickle market of children – or hormone-soaked university students whose political views were somewhat more adult but still rather imbalanced and poorly-formed.

These stories were detached from reality, full of sexism, dangerously over-simplified, and were frequently inconsistent with themselves.

For example, the second essay looks at inter-generational conflict in the Spider-Man comics. At one point it struggles with the apparent disagreement between Peter Parker's disdainful attitude towards the on-campus student protesters in ASM #38 and his later support in ASM #68.

How should we interpret this in terms of a transient sociological paradigm vector shift? Well. Let me make it easy.

  1. On one hand, Stan Lee was trying to sell comics to university students, and a shift to the less was certainly the correct move from a sales point of view.
  2. But more importantly, Steve Ditko was a famous Libertarian follower of Ayn Rand, and ASM #38 was very much Ditko's story. Whereas John Romita (and Stan) leaned further to the left when they wrote issue #68.

So yeah. It's a curious piece of history that is fun to discuss over a beer or two. But such an inconsistent, semi-random collection of pop-culture inputs is not really the ideal material for drawing any deep philosophical or sociological conclusions about society as a whole.

So, let me summarise that second essay for you:

The college-aged readers of Amazing Spider-Man are quite liberal, but the parents of pre-teens, the business owners, and the government were very conservative. Stan had liberal tendencies, but also had to avoid offending people. The individual writers varied greatly in their attitudes. The resulting comics reflected that entire mess of sympathies. Maybe you should read them.

Ugh. Enough. I'm not going to do that 25 more times.

Overall Rating

These "Essay Books" were all very well-intended. And I feel great sympathy for all these academics with their doctorates in Multi-Cultural Metaphysics and Urban Anthropology. They don't really get out much, and they don't get a lot of respect.

Unfortunately, this kind of essay compendium does kind of demonstrate why that might be the case.

These are JUST comic books we're talking about. No more. No less. Written by 500 different people across 50 years. Sure – going back through them can be fun, especially if done with pictures, a sense of nostalgia, and an appreciation for what these stories are.

But that only goes so far. There's a line that can be crossed. And that line has been crossed herein.

These densely packed, jargon-filled, sesquipedalian academi-fests are just self-indulgent. It's like going to the drive-through at McDonalds and asking for "the sommelier" to recommend the right soda to go with a triple cheese-burger.

Two Webs.


For the record, I adore Donald Glover. Troy and Abed is my favourite meta-fictional breakfast TV duo, his Lando Calrissian was perfect in every way, and I would say that "This Is America" is quite probably the most important music video to come out of the decade.

But that wasn't the question.

 Title: Books (Essays)
 Posted: Aug 2021
 Staff: The Editor (E-Mail)