Strange Visitors: Superman & The Amazing Spider-Man, a Guest Post by Sean Dillon

[Today we’ve got a guest post by Sean Dillon, who can generally be found writing about Spider-Man at The King in Red and Blue, or about Mister Miracle for PanelXPanel. You can support him on Patreon here, find him on Twitter here, and perhaps most importantly, back his Kickstarter for an entire book of essays on Mister Miracle.]

I like Superman. He’s not my favorite superhero by any means (that would be Spider-Man), but I like him. One of my favorite comics of all time is All Star Superman (a statement that’s up there with “The Godfather is one of my favorite films” in terms of predictability and truthfulness). I like the idea of Superman as someone who tries to do his best for a world that adopted him as one of their own and as an outsider who can never truly belong to the world he calls home. I am also enough of a fan to note when a story has gone wrong (usually when it aligns itself with one end of the aforementioned binary over the other [that, or racism]) and tend to demand better quality in terms of his stories. I haven’t been following his stuff in a while, but that’s because a large majority of stories in between Grant Morrison’s Action Comics and Brian Michael Bendis’ domination of Superman have been aiming for mediocrity and repeatedly missing. A well of stories invested solely in revisiting the drabbest periods of Superman’s catalogue without an ounce of intrigue. In short, Superman is Star Trek.

Spider-Man, by contrast, is Doctor Who. That is to say Spider-Man is a character who even when the stories are bad, they’re fascinatingly so. A character defined by an inability to return to a status quo without things being completely altered beyond repair. Indeed, when Peter was shunted back into his Pre-Marriage status quo, it was only able to happen through diabolic intervention that’s seemingly outside the confines of a comfortable Spider-Man story, thereby expanding even further the types of Spider-Man stories that could be told. In other words, Spider-Man is a character defined by his ability to radically change, which provides a lot of contrasts within a universe that runs on the illusion of change. You would think, given such conflicting characters, there would be something to write about when it comes to crossing them over. And yet…

The problem with writing about Superman VS The Amazing Spider-Man and Superman and Spider-Man is that, besides being Spider-Man/Superman crossovers, they don’t have much going for them. They’re very standard, run of the mill, “two goodies fight before they team up against a common foe” type stories where plot, theme, and characters are secondary to fight scenes. I suppose it makes sense to do that for the first one of these (not only in regards to a team up between Spider-Man and Superman, but of Marvel and DC), but for both of them to be this banal in concept is rather troubling for someone who wants to get at least 2,000 words out of them.

It’s even worse talking about this in the context of a Superman blog since neither one of these does the Man of Tomorrow any service, treating him as a blunt flying brick at best. (The lack of importance is perhaps made most apparent in the first moment when Spider-Man and Superman share a panel in the first crossover comic. It’s a two-page spread to highlight the scope of such an occasion, but the way it’s drawn makes it looks as if Superman and his supporting cast are a background gag in a Spider-Man comic. The eye is drawn to Peter, MJ, and Jonah by virtue of Jonah’s jagged dialog balloon drawing us to him combined with all but one of Peter’s supporting cast having dialogue in this moment, while only Lois and Clark [who are so part of the tapestry that you’d likely miss their supporting cast is also there] have words to say. It’s not even a transitory trick of moving from a scene focusing on Superman to one focusing on Spider-Man. We’re dropped into the moment as if it was nothing.) Of the two, the sequel comic is better at it than the original in that it, for three whole panels, gestures at an interesting concept. That being the central conflict at the heart of the superhero genre: what does the introduction of the superhero do to the world?

The problem with the way this comic treats this subject matter is that it frames it in such a way as to negate the need for it to ever be brought up again. (The conversation above can best be described as Doctor Doom going “Because you aren’t a facist dictator, you’re the real fascist.” to which Superman sensibly replies “Fuck Off, Nazi Punk!” before Doom pulls out Kryptonite, which Superman throws into the sun.) This half-bakedness permeates the whole of Superman and Spider-Man with characters like Wonder Woman coming in with little fanfare and leaving just as abruptly, the plot being extremely thin, even by the standards of these sorts of plots, and certain narrative decisions being made without following through on them (most notably, the decision for Clark to work at the Bugle doesn’t go anywhere beyond paralleling Peter working at the Planet, which itself doesn’t go anywhere).

Superman VS The Amazing Spider-Man is certainly more well constructed, but it’s arguably even more devastating to Superman. As with the sequel, Superman is portrayed as a blunt instrument. But unlike the sequel, this is to contrast Superman with Spider-Man’s more vocal persona. In its defense, this is a sensible means by which to contrast the two, albeit a bit boring. One of the least interesting ways of exploring the Superman character is by focusing on his powers. Indeed, the least interesting Superman stories are the ones that think his most interesting asset is being a strong tough man. Conversely, Spider-Man is a character who is known to run his mouth when facing danger. As such, to have the two defeat the villains using these tools specific to their character (with Spider-Man convincing Doctor Octopus to turn on Lex Luthor and Superman punching a continent destroying tsunami) is an effective means to contrast them. Were this the only means by which Superman was negatively compared to Spider-Man, it would be an inoffensive and unremarkable story.

However…

Superman: what a guy.

Superman in this comic is, shall we say, a bit reactionary. Not just in the context of being, well, a racist shithead, but also in the wider definition of being “inherently mistrustful of things that aren’t “normal” people.” Consider his first encounter with Spider-Man. For context, Lex Luthor and Doctor Octopus have teamed up to ransom the world. As part of their scheme, they kidnap Lois Lane and, inadvertently, Mary Jane Watson to distract Superman. To do this, Lex Luthor disguises himself as Superman and…

So it’s quite sensible for Spider-Man to go “WHAT THE FUCK, SUPERMAN!!!” and explode into a near homicidal rage. (Side note: A thing most people forget about Spider-Man is that he’s an extremely angry guy. His response to the world going to shit is, by and large, to burn the whole thing down before realizing that this is only making things worse. Were this a post for a Spider-Man blog, this would be the part where I go on a tangent on why this reputation is the Sam Rami films’ fault. Alas.) But Superman? He just assumes that the evil clone of himself is Spider-Man’s fault because… he reads the Daily Bugle?

(Side note: An interesting thing to note in regards to both this bit on Superman’s reactionary tendencies in regards to the Bugle is that while the Bugle is very much a multicultural organization in these comics [such that it could be argued that Peter and Jonah are the token white people], the Daily Planet is homogeneously white. Now, to be fair, Jonah is being portrayed as more of a Rupert Murdoch type than a China Miéville and is thus probably using them as a shield for his “Spider-Man is rubbish because millennials are rubbish” or whatever the 70’s version of that was (plus… they’re probably cheaper than the upper middle class Planet workers). But at the same time, if we’re supposed to read the Planet as the more wonderful utopian of the two, maybe have like one non-white in there?)

There’s not an actual reason why Superman thinks this, he just does so there’s a fight scene. And while it’s a good, albeit short, one, it’s one that just happens. Superman’s first instincts when confronted with a Superman clone attacking Lois Lane is to assume Spider-Man’s responsible (because he’s there, I guess) and shout “You better have an Explanation for what you’ve done — or, my friend, take my Word — YOU’RE GOING TO BE SORRY!” instead of the far more sensible assumption that Lex Luthor’s the one to blame. Blaming Spider-Man for this is kind of a dick move.

Which brings us to perhaps the main issue with both comics. In crossovers such as these, there are two approaches one could make. One could contrast the two characters and highlight their pros and cons or the writers could use one group of characters to rebuke the assumptions of the other group. The problem here is that the writers are unwilling to actually look at Superman as anything but a paragon for good with no flaws whatsoever, despite the flagrant flaws he does have. In other words, they’re unwilling to treat him like an actual character. And because of that, it’s just another superhero team up. Besides a few name changes, nothing would be different if you just put a bunch of expies of Superman and his supporting cast in either one of these comics. Or, to put it another way, neither one of these comics are interested in being about anything, even the relationship between Superman or Spider-Man, which should be core to such a story.

So, what do we do to fix this? Or, to be more honest, what would a good version of this crossover look like? Well, let’s consider some of the actually good crossovers.

BATMAN/SPIDER-MAN

This is perhaps the most obvious pick I could make for a “Good Crossover” as Spider-Man & Batman: Distorted Minds is written by JM DeMatteis, a writer whom I have written an entire blog project examining why his work is amazing. But then, sometimes the obvious answer is the way to go. In many ways though, this has very much the same structure as the Spider-Man/Superman crossovers. It has our heroes initially fight over a misunderstanding before working together to defeat the baddies and end up with a respect for one another. Indeed, this isn’t that much of a comic to write home about.

So what makes this one better than the Spider-Man/Superman crossovers (or, at the very least, not as soul crushing an experience)? To start with the most obvious reason: JM DeMatteis is actually able to write both Spider-Man and Batman as if they’re fucking characters as opposed to the artifice of character the crossover this post is ostensibly about had with Superman. This is by virtue of DeMatteis being one of the best Spider-Man writers ever and having enough contempt for the caped crusader to write a good Batman yarn. (Sidenote: All great Batman stories require some level of contempt for the Dark Knight, even Grant Morrison. That’s why Batman has done better in the movies than Superman. A Batman story without contempt is Holy Terror.)

Secondly, there’s an actual thematic through-line between the characters. Specifically in regards to how the two deal with trauma. The comic opens with parallel scenes with the main duo having a dream of their origin with the respective baddies haunting them. Where Peter copes by having relationships with other people, Batman copes through isolation. These also come about through their interactions with one another throughout the comic with Spidey wanting to work with Batman against the Joker and Carnage whereas Batman has to be cajoled into working with other people. Indeed, it’s gotten so bad that Batman rejects the very existence of Bruce Wayne as anything other than a mask whereas (even though he doesn’t appear unmasked for most of the comic) Peter relies on being Peter Parker.

At the same time though, this isn’t completely “Spider-Man is better than Batman” as was the case with Superman. Peter is very much the kind of person who’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown that looks to lead to him killing someone, but Peter’s able to beat it in the end. (Tellingly, Peter’s narration boxes never appear in the sequence when he’s going after the Joker to kill him on the grounds of “the Joker is literally everything I hate”) Conversely, Batman appears to be functional in terms of his nervous breakdown. This is DeMatteis we’re talking about. The guy who wrote Batman: Absolution.

Even God spits on Batman.

So then a run of the mill plot can be elevated by having good character dynamics and thematic unity. Who knew? But what if we want more out of our crossovers than mere competence? What if we want something that actually looks at how these characters have impacted the culture around them? Well…

SUPERMAN/BATMAN: GENERATIONS and SPIDER-MAN/HUMAN TORCH: I’M WITH STUPID

Yes, I know Bob is going to cover this at some point in this project, so I’ll let him talk about it in more depth. The base concept of this story is that it follows the careers of Batman and Superman decade by decade, aging in real time. It’s not so much a continuity mine in regards to “how do we make the time Superman brainwashed Batman into having a split personality for a birthday present?” Rather, it ignores the continuity concerns of various silver age stories in favor of telling new ones like the time Superman kissed Lana Lang when she was a little girl and he a grown man. Because John Byrne.

On the flip side, there’s Dan Slott’s Spider-Man/Human Torch, affectionately called I’m With Stupid. There, the lives of Peter and Johnny Storm are viewed with specific eras in mind. Slott is an interesting writer when it comes to Spider-Man. He’s written the longest run on a Spider-Man comic and yet no two stretches of them feels the same. From the early, mundane Spidey stories to the Colin Baker-esque Superior Spider-Man to the post CEO/not most important Spider-Man book any more era, the run feels like four or five different eras. On the note of Colin Baker, Slott also has a fondness for referencing obscure continuity that most people wouldn’t be aware of, and those that were would find it to be… best ignored. However, Slott’s capabilities as a writer elevate it to new heights.

Which brings us to I’m With Stupid. Like Generations, it tells the story of Peter and Johnny’s relationship with one another over the years. Unlike Generations, which allows the characters to radically age, I’m With Stupid views their relationship in terms of the Marvel Universe’s assumed aging scale of Peter being a superhero for 10–15 years. The two grow and change with massive events like the Death of Gwen Stacy occurring off screen and the focus being more on how the characters reacted in the aftermath of such events. How the two were there for one another in times of need and grew from rivals to something akin to brothers.

Given these two stories, what I’m suggesting could be done with a Spider-Man/Superman story would be a melding of these two approaches. Have the continuity affairs happen as the story goes on, but have the characters age. The story could start in 1960 something with Peter as this thin-skinned teenager slowly growing up into a decent human being while Superman’s America’s Dad living in a strange world of Rainbow Kryptonite and Talking Animals. Then the story could move through their respective careers from the romantic 70’s to the tragic 80’s and the bitter 90’s.

Each era highlighting the ways in which these two both have and haven’t changed, with the most obvious changes being in regards to Spider-Man. Think something akin to following the careers of David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. One is constantly improving and reinventing themselves (sometimes for the better, sometimes the Clone Saga) while the other refines themselves into something purer, with occasional dips into alternative possibilities (for good and for growing a mullet). Mulling it over, it would probably culminate in a sort of eulogy for Superman (paralleling The Death of Superman) with Spider-Man making a kind of peace with the Man of Steel: an honest, yet heartfelt, look at the man’s legacy and a hope for the future. Or maybe end with Miles Morales interacting with a New, 21st Century Superman who’s a bit more Antifa than the typical interpretation tends to be. A sign that even Superman can radically change. That he can be something new and not just America’s (Conservative) Daddy.

Alas, what comics we do have are a pair of comics that aim for mediocrity, and miss. But there’s always room to come up with better stories, even if they are simply imaginary. But then again, aren’t they all?

“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” -Frank O'Hara

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