MLA 2012—The Material History of Spider-Man

Spider-Man in various guises

Session 371. The Material History of Spider-Man (A 50th Anniversary Observance)

Friday, 6 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m.

Room 606, Washington State Convention Center

Presiding: Jonathan W. Gray, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY

1. Written in the Body: Spider-Man, Venom, and the Specter of Biopower

Ben Bolling, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Psychoanalytic readings of the Spider-Man mythos may be augmented by considering the nervous preoccupation with biopower that undergirds the Wall-crawler’s fifty-year transmedia history. Considered within the frame of Foucault’s biopolitics, Peter Parker’s famous encounter with the irradiated spider leads not to his individual empowerment, but rather to the co-opting of his body (as he dons the red, white, and blue costume) for the purpose of policing the laws of the state. But if Spider-Man is a somewhat oblique rumination on the animating properties of biopower, then the creation of his villainous counterpart Venom in 1984’s The Amazing Spider-Man #252 (May 1984) manifests the terror of biopolitical subjugation in stark black and white. Although the creation of Venom seeks to alleviate the biopolitical anxieties fundamental to the Spider-Man narrative by displacing the specter of societal control onto a villain—a symbiotic creature that becomes first Spider-Man’s costume, then his antagonist—ultimately the character serves to underscore the force of biopower in shaping the actions of Spider-Man as well as his sinister reflection.

2. Out of Character: Traces of the Real Spider-Man

Samantha Close, University of California, Irvine

How do we know Spider-Man (of Marvel Team-Up) is Spider-Man (produced by the Toei Corporation for Japanese live action television) is Spider-Man (written by adogg5117 in fanfiction.net)? In my paper, I explore why creators and audiences keep coming back to Spider-Man. Through interdisciplinary textual and archival research, I analyze three very different re-appearances by the masked web-slinger and interpret them as embodiments of the trace, in Nancy’s sense—creations not of the author but of an author. I argue that these re-appearances work both to reference and contribute to a virtual cross-fictional level of cultural memory where the real, true Spider-Man “exists.” The death of the author, in other words, is the birth of the character. While some might view this idea with Baudrillardian concern, I argue that this complex phenomena is not historically novel. Looking back to textual-visual practices in medieval Europe reveals both similarities and differences that help explain the trans-fictional, cross-media Spider-Man of today.

3. Tangled Web: Spider-Man’s Discontinuous Continuity

Charles Hatfield, California State University, Northridge

The contemporary superhero comic book’s insistence on intertextual continuity—both within the adventures of a particular character and across a publisher’s entire line—engenders both narrative and ideological contradictions. This paper unpacks such contradictions as they manifest in The Amazing Spider-Man (multiple series, 1962-present), and more broadly in the whole fictive “history” of the Spider-Man character as published by Marvel Comics. Taking as a symptomatic example The Amazing Spider-Man #655 (April 2011), a dreamlike homage to the character’s past, I examine the revision of Spider-Man’s mythos starting in 2007-08, when the character’s twenty years of married life were declared never to have happened—albeit with an explanation that rationalized this change under the terms of continuity! Drawing on Eco’s analyses of serial structure (1962, 1990) as well as current work on superheroes, I argue that the life of the famously adolescent Spider-Man continually reverts to a basic blueprint meant to insure the character’s long-term commercial exploitability. Monthly iterations of the blueprint at once invoke the richness of Spider-Man’s material history and deny the opportunity for genuine novelistic growth in character. Commercial imperatives (from not only comics but also other media, e.g. film) reinforce the comics’ obsession with trauma, guilt, and penance even as the comics seek to offer an ever-renewable semblance of novelty. Ironically, then, Spider-Man’s history simultaneously cancels and reaffirms itself: the character’s traumatic losses and rites of passage are both emptied of force and overinvested with meaning.

Respondent: Danny Fingeroth, New York, NY

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