Spider-Man: Life Story – An Evocative Argument for Letting Superheroes Age

I’m not trying to be hyperbolic when I say, Spider-Man: Life Story is the future of the comic book industry.  Now I don’t mean to imply the comics industry as a whole is going to follow Chip Zdarsky’s elegant lead with every comic.  I’m just saying I think they should.  In Spider-Man: Life Story, Zdarsky (accompanied by my all-time favorite Spidey artist Mark Bagley (yay!)) explores what Peter Parker’s life could have been like had he aged naturally, with each issue of this six issue miniseries touching on one decade in Peter’s life.  For example issue #1 is set in 1966, four years after Peter was bitten by the radioactive spider (as Stan Lee and Steve Ditko created Spidey in 1962 (see how that works?)).  Issue #2 looks at the ‘70s and so on as Peter ages in real time.  He isn’t perpetually stuck in his late 20’s or early 30’s.  Four issues in, I’ll confidently say this will stand as one of the greatest Spider-Man stories ever told.  It’s the most interested I’ve been in Peter Parker’s adventures as Spider-Man in almost twenty years too.  In allowing Peter to age, Zdarsky has illustrated the hidden potential of the comic book genre.

I don’t want to give too much away in case you aren’t reading this yet (and if you aren’t then what are you doing with your life?? seriously you need to check this out NOW) but the series, as I said above, opens in 1966.  Peter is four years into being Spider-Man and having difficulty figuring out what he, especially as someone who has superpowers, should do in regard to the Vietnam War.  Does he enlist, giving away his secret but using his powers to greatly aid the war effort?  Or can he stay home, as he objects to the war on ethical grounds?  We see his budding relationship with Gwen Stacy and the classic Spidey tropes of trying to balance relationships, school, work, and caring for Aunt May with his web-slinging lifestyle.  One of many things that make this series so damn brilliant though is while these tropes have shaped the monthly stories in Spider-Man comics for over fifty years, Spider-Man: Life Story quickly outgrows them.

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Peter, almost forty, talks with Reed Richards during the Secret War in Spider-Man: Life Story #3. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

So far the series has covered twenty-nine years and the nineteen-year-old Peter Parker we meet in issue #1 will be forty-eight by the issue #4.  We see life, love, and loss.  We see important friendships begin and end.  We see marriages and second marriages and the birth of children.  Family and friends age and ail.  Peter goes from a student selling Spidey photos to working with Reed Richards at the Future Foundation to running his own company, Parker Industries.  We see the growing impossibility of Peter’s balance of power and responsibility.  And unlike the comics many of these plot points were adapted from, all of these events have lasting consequences.  Unlike most comic stories that always go “back to normal,” these events can permanently affect Peter’s life.  Zdarsky writes in such a way where the weight of their finality is felt in full.  Very few stories I’ve read in comic books have had the ability to carry this sort of emotional power.  The narrative Zdarsky is delivering is as intimate as it is epic.

In so doing, Spider-Man: Life Story transcends the comic book genre.  So much of its power comes from showing us a Peter Parker who is authentically aging and thus having to authentically deal with all that life brings.

The thing is, it seems so obvious.  Allowing comic characters to age naturally gives all of their stories more weight.  Part of my frustration with returning to reading The Amazing Spider-Man (as illustrated in this post where I break-up with reading it and then in this post where we get back together) is how redundant most of the stories feel.  If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a hundred times, comic books are unique as a genre because they produce at minimum one story a month for their most popular characters continuously over decades.  However, while there is a degree of growth allowed (Peter, for example, is no longer fifteen in the main titles) these constant stories rely on and require relatively static characters.  All change will eventually be undone and reset to the status quo.   For lifelong readers it can become trying.  It becomes boring.

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Far from static or boring, Gwen helps Peter as he wrestles with his guilt over friends lost during the Vietnam War in Spider-Man: Life Story #2. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

So why don’t publishers embrace this idea of letting superheroes age?  I think, naturally, it’s a money issue.  Why would you take incredibly popular and profitable characters and allow them to age themselves out?  It seems counterintuitive and certainly counterproductive.  But is that truly the case?  I’d argue allowing life to take it’s course is perhaps the most exciting thing you can do with comic book characters and thus something which would attract all manner of readers.

Think for a moment of some of the comic book stories most universally accepted as “iconic.”  Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns sees an aging Batman come out of retirement to wage a brutal war on crime in a city that’s slipped into despair, garnering decades of fan and critical praise.  There’s Mark Millar’s Old Man Logan.  The idea of an aging Wolverine who has put aside his warrior ways proved so iconic Marvel tapped it as part of the premise for Hugh Jackman’s swansong playing the character in Logan.  They also brought the Old Man Logan character into the main Marvel Universe after 2015’s “Secret Wars” to keep writing more stories with him.  And they’re redoing the idea in their current Old Man Quill series too, looking at the Guardians of the Galaxy in their waning years.  Alan Moore’s Watchmen looks at superheroes who have stepped away from their role as guardians as does Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come which envisions the DC pantheon of heroes coming out of retirement to fix a world gone wrong in their absence.

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Superman and Wonder Woman disagree over the best course of action in Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come. / Photo Credit – DC Comics

When you consult lists of “the best” comic storylines out there The Dark Knight Returns, Old Man Logan, Watchmen, and Kingdom Come are almost always there, and almost always sitting near the top.  Yes, they all have dystopian settings in common but I think it’s safe to presume it’s more their look at aging heroes which makes them so unique and allows them to affect the hearts and minds of readers as they do.  Afterall, the mid-‘90s “Age of Apocalypse” storyline was one of the coolest, most creative dystopian comic stories I’ve ever read and it is never mentioned on lists alongside Kingdom Come or The Dark Knight Returns.

Also, consider Miles Morales.  In his final issue, Spider-Man #240, Brian Michael Bendis writes a farewell to the character and to the fans.  In his letter he states that Miles Morales never should have worked because Peter Parker wasn’t broken.  There was nothing about Spider-Man that needed fixing.  Yet Miles did work.  And look at him now!  Eight years after he was created by Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli his title couldn’t be stronger, he was the centerpiece of last year’s BRILLIANT Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and he is popping up more and more on t-shirts and toys and all sorts of exciting merch.  As a character, he worked.  He spoke to readers.  He gave them something that resonated, something they needed.  Readers were ready for Miles…and look at the timeline.

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Miles Morales – for my money, the most consistently interesting Spider-Man stories Marvel has right now. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

If Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider in 1962 when he was just fifteen years old that means, originally, Peter was born in 1946 or 1947 (ha! let that sink in for a second!).  Which means, when Miles Morales debuted in 2011, Peter would have been around sixty-four.  That’s perfect timing for the new kid to come in and take over the mantel.  Heck, Miles need not even be the first to take over the webs for Peter as he retired and/or became a mentor to his successors.

Batman is a prime example of this.  It’s no secret I’m not a big fan of Batman.  But what I may not have written about is my favorite “Batman” stories are inevitably the ones where Dick Greyson has to step up and be the Batman in Bruce’s absence.  These make for engaging stories, the student becoming the mentor and all the conflicts it can bring.  What does his Batman look like?  How much does Bruce’s methodology shape what he does?  How much is his own?  We do see Robins age – and it works!  Dick has grown up to become Nightwing.  Jason Todd has grown up to become the Red Hood.  Tim Drake is in college and Red Robin now while Damien Wayne has become the current Robin.  But Bruce is still in his late 30’s or early 40’s?  Um, what??

Despite the fear of losing a lucrative character, I think letting comic characters age naturally would give the publishers far more than it would take.  It would certainly make the industry more accessible to newbies.  As Krysta outlines in her excellent post over at Pages Unbound exploring where new readers should begin with Marvel Comics, characters with less weight of continuity naturally make for an easier entry point.  If the mantle of these iconic heroes passed on with each generation (or even sooner) it alleviates some of the struggle faced by someone just starting to read comics.  While Peter Parker has almost sixty years of continuity to worry about, Miles Morales has only eight behind him.  That’s an easier and more welcoming place to begin.

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A MAJOR part of what made Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse such a hit was having Gwen Stacy and Miles Morales at the center of the action, with an aging Peter playing the hilarious and quasi-competent mentor. / Photo Credit – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Second, this way each generation has heroes who speak to/reflect them.  Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy obviously speak to people as Spider-Man and Spider-Woman, given their popularity.  They can do something Peter Parker can’t which is part of why they haven’t faded away as one-offs.  So why not let Miles Morales be THE Spider-Man in the new millennium?  New readers will find a hero who is welcoming to them.  Longtime fans will get something that feels fresh each month (something I always find in Saladin Ahmed’s Miles Morales: Spider-Man that Nick Spencer (and Dan Slott before him) gives me randomly at best in The Amazing Spider-Man).  And this would make back issues and trades more exciting too as the superfan could enjoy the quest of amassing all the stories of all the heroes to be Spider-Man (or whomever the title character is).  People could discuss their favorite incarnation of a character too, as opposed to just favorite runs on the same character.

As the Guinness record holder of the largest comic collection in the world (105,000+ and counting) Bob Bretall told SCYFY Wire last year, “I love Riri Williams as Ironheart.  I love Squirrel Girl.  I love Jane Foster as Thor.  And I am really, really happy whenever I open up the letters page and I see little girls or little boys with a picture of themselves in a Squirrel Girl costume.  I love that they’re doing something that gets kids excited about reading comics and growing new fans.  I don’t sit back and say ‘Gee, in my day, Iron Man was a white guy.’  I’ve got probably a thousand Tony Stark Iron Man comic books.  I don’t need to have them print another one of those for me.”

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I’m with Bob.  I’ve loved comic books and superheroes since I was a kid and I never regularly read any Iron-related titles until Riri Williams showed up.  She’s brilliant! / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Lastly, this allows comic book stories to have far greater emotional impact.  By allowing characters to age naturally things must have an ending.  One of the most cited observations/criticisms/jokes about comic books is that no one is ever really dead for good.  Everyone will always come back eventually.  Of course this has to be the case when the same characters are circling the same conflicts unendingly for decades.  But with real aging, with real mortality, as a part of the story events carry a greater significance.  It allows the comics to speak more directly to our human experience too.

We all age.  We all grow.  We will all, eventually, die.  We are finite creatures living a finite existence (discussions of the afterlife being left aside for now (and whatever the afterlife is anyway, it will by nature have to be some sort of transformed existence so this existence is still finite in it’s own way)).  And that’s important!  Much of life’s meaning comes from our being finite.  It grounds our identity, gives weight to our personal and professional journeys, makes our memorable moments and time spent with those most special to us all the more precious.  To state the obvious, if we were immortal we’d cease to be human.  Yet comics, in the desire to preserve lucrative cash cows popular characters, deny them this central tenant of humanity.

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As Peter and Reed debate the role superheroes should play in the world in Spider-Man: Life Story #2, it carries a feeling of real importance because it has lasting effects on their world and their relationship. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Comic publishers embracing this wouldn’t need EVERY character to grow old regularly either.  Characters like Thor Odinson or Wonder Woman, who have divine blood in them, could believably stay young forever.  Characters with healing abilities like Wolverine, Deadpool, or Captain America could realistically age much slower.  Maybe Superman’s alien physiology affects his aging too.  But the overwhelming majority of characters would grow old as we all do.  Think of the layers this could add to narratives.  Imagine an Odinson who’s been with the Avengers since their inception in 1963 or a Wonder Woman who’s fought alongside the Justice League since 1960, struggling with their own immortality as they mourn the teammates they’ve lost or envy those who have retired to “normal” lives while they feel compelled to use their perpetual youth to continue to fight alongside an ever-changing roster of heroes.   Owning this concrete, unavoidable facet of our humanity in a narrative, especially in a genre that produces new stories every month, would allow them to explore human nature in strikingly unique and uniquely powerful way.

This brings us back to Chip Zdarsky’s Spider-Man: Life Story.  I’ve read a lot of Spider-Man comics in my time.  I’ve read far more Spider-Man stories than any other superhero.  No one else even comes close.  But I’ve never seen anything quite like this.  Spider-Man: Life Story doesn’t just feel fresh and innovative – it feels urgent and it’s wrapped in all the tragic, impermanent beauty of life.  It adds this weight to all its unique plot elements while also imbuing the classic Spider-Man stories it adapts with it as well.  Seeing my favorite superhero envisioned in a tale bold enough to set his exploits against the very real backdrop of mortality fills me with such pleasure.  Even though I know this is just a miniseries and I know Marvel and DC won’t be rushing to make this their regular modius operandi, it still leaves me imagining the greater depth superhero stories could carry if we’d have the courage to let them all age as we do and savoring the powerful brilliance of one which does.

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Even something as commonplace in the comic book world as facing down a gunman takes on greater significance when the characters’ mortality is real. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

12 thoughts on “Spider-Man: Life Story – An Evocative Argument for Letting Superheroes Age

  1. Ageing superheroes would also have the option to retell their earlier adventures (like e.g The Phantom does), which would allow for some more youthful stories.

    However, I wonder whether ageing superheroes, although satisfying to adult readers, might not be boring to many teenagers? If so may it not be more reasonable to cater to the teenage readers? I’m all for adults enjoying things originally aimed at children but not when the adult fans with their greater resources take over.

    But of course the comic world is big, so there should be plenty of room to try both approaches.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I agree with you 100%. That’s actually part of why I was thinking about this! Part of how I learned to love to read was with comic books. They were cheaper when I was a kid and I could find them anywhere – grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, etc. So I grew up with a stack of comics next to me. I love giving comics to friends for their children too or pointing them towards titles I think their kids will like.

      Part of me wonders if/would hope that the switch out from older superheroes to younger ones would be a way to draw in new readers. I was reading an article about Scholastic book orders and book fairs in elementary and middle schools awhile back. The article said at book fairs and with book orders, titles like ‘The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’ and ‘Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur’ are their huge hits/sellers. Those are both new comics (coming out in the last five years) and featuring younger characters. So I’d hope this approach would be a way to bring kids into this genre. Because you’re absolutely right – we need to preserve and amplify the enjoyment younger readers and teenage readers can find here.

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    1. Oh, you’re absolutely right! And I think, as much as I like this idea *in theory,* it would be hard at times in practice. Like if the Spider-Man I grew up with was in his 60’s now…I wonder how that would feel to me to read? Or what it would be like in between the transition periods? I’m not saying I still don’t see lots of power in this narrative approach but it would be a weird thing to get your head around. We love what we love and we often don’t like to let those things go. It’s difficult to do.

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  2. I would love to see this! I can imagine ageless heroes repeatedly facing the same issues, whereas aging would mean they’d have to have more character development. And, really, there seems to be no reason why you can’t have both aging and ageless heroes. Don’t comic books reimagine storylines all the time? Is anyone going to question an aging hero who then reappears later as a younger version?

    There are even precedents for this sort of thing in non-comic series like Nancy Drew where you have classic (18-year old) Nancy Drew in the 1950s, child Clue Crew Nancy Drew (contemporary), graphic novel Nancy Drew, various updated versions of Nancy Drew throughout the years. No one ever complains about Nancy Drew continuity across the various series, as far as I’m aware. You just choose the ones you like best and read them.

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    1. I love the Nancy Drew analogy because, with them all existing simultaneously and harmoniously, it just allows readers to – as you put perfectly – choose the one they like best. In so doing, it allows the readership to grow! And I’m always all for anything that gets more people reading :). The more welcoming the comic book genre can be to others, the better!

      You’re right too about the age-change not being unheard of in comics too. Just a few years ago they did this story where the teenage version of the X-Men were pulled through time to help their adult selves and they ended up staying around and fighting side-by-side for awhile. In fact, if I remember correctly, Cyclops (the adult one) had died (at the time (he’s back now (because of course he is (because…comics))) and the younger Cyclops was the only version of that character at the time. While I didn’t read much of it myself, it was a pretty well received storyline from what I recall.

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      1. That seems like an awesome storyline, even though I admit I am not entirely sure who Cyclops is. 😉 I think, though, that fans accept a lot of changes in comics in part because they know that things can always be reversed or made into an alternate universe or timeline whatever. They know their favorite iteration of a character has some chance of coming back, at some point. So why not do heroes who age? I think fans will embrace that and, if they don’t, well, they know there’s a possibility they can still have what they like, too. Everyone wins!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You’re probably okay not knowing who Cyclops is :). I ADORED the X-Men when I was a kid but have struggled to find a modern story that captures me in the same way. But yeah, it was a creative way to use his character. The aging could even lead to interesting “resurrection” narratives. They age and die or are reborn in their youth or whatever. It opens up so many more doors to unique storytelling potential. Especially in a genre like comics where you’re only limited by the writer/artist’s imagination they could really take advantage of this.

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