Spider-Man: Life Story (2019)
Written by Chip Zdarsky
Art by Mark Bagley
Peter Parker was fifteen years old when he was bitten by a radioactive spider. That was in 1962. Today it’s 2019, and he’s in his early thirties, finding some success in life but still rare in love. An expected conceit of comic book superheroes is that they will always age at a much slower rate than an average person. This allows writers to extend their lives. Superman has been around for 80 years, and in the last four has just become a parent through convoluted circumstances. Batman has been through five Robins yet is still mid-thirties at most while former Robin, Dick Grayson, is a mid-twenties Nightwing.
In the late 1990s, writer-artist John Byrne penned the Elseworlds trilogy Generations that sought to explore what it would be like if Superman and Batman aged at the standard rate of time. This meant they had adult children in the 1970s, and Bruce Wayne passed on in the 1990s, leaving the mantle to his own son and grandchild. Writer Chip Zdarksy is attempting something similar with Life Story, an out of continuity mini-series that explores Peter Parker’s life as he ages in real-time. We begin in the late 1960s with Parker as a college student and end in the 2010s as an aged Parker passes the torch to twentysomething Miles Morales.
Zdarksy initially imagined a year-long maxi-series that would encompass the whole Marvel Universe before his editor wisely asked him to narrow the focus to tell a tighter story. The writer admits that the further he got into the concept, the harder it became to balance what is established in the Spider-Man lore and how that might change if the character aged. Villains, already adults to Parker’s teenage hero in the 1960s, would grow old and die off-screen. So too would J. Jonah Jameson and other supporting players. More noticeable was the complete absence of certain characters like Eddie Brock and Black Cat, whose introductions in the 1980s were made much harder when Parker would have been pushing forty by then.
Venom is still introduced by Zdarksy has to be a little smarter and weaves “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” a classic Spidey storyline from the 1980s with the emergence of the villainous symbiote. Kraven’s corpse is resurrected by the creature who carries him within until the 2010s issue where it’s revealed all that remains are lifeless bones. In this same issue, Secret Wars is summarized while major arcs in Spidey’s life are ignored, like Hobgoblin. This approach allows Peter Parker to become a successful businessman in the 1980s and ride that success for the rest of his life. That also serves to point out how much of the character’s stunted emotional and career growth is a writing conceit that attempts to keep the character frozen in his “golden era.”
There is a constant tension in long-running shared universe comics about change. If a creative team goes “too far” during their run on a title, the next people to put in charge of the book will announce a “return to the classic.” Often that new team goes off in a direction that the next one will reset. It’s only when a writer really presents something powerfully game-changing that the title indeed alters. Lois and Clark becoming a couple, and her knowledge of his dual identity is one of those things that DC just can’t shake at this point. At Marvel, they have become notorious for the reversion to the status quo. See the endless parade of deaths and resurrections for starters. Jonathan Hickman appears to be doing something radically different in the pages of the X-Men books, but I also cynically wonder how long after he leaves, will Marvel hit the big reset button.
One danger for a corporation who seeks to sell a character or a brand is that if these superheroes were to age with the times, then they might become dangerously relevant in regards to the issues of the day. In Zdarksy’s first issue, set in 1966, Peter Parker tussles with the idea of signing up to serve in the Vietnam War as his powers could be of benefit to his country. In this same issue, Captain America comes about against the war and actively fights US soldiers to protect innocent Vietnamese villagers. This ultimately puts him at odds with Iron Man, who, while not a war profiteer any longer, sees himself as a crucial player in global conflicts. Zdarsky can cleverly weave this into a decades-long prelude for the Civil War that breaks out off-screen during the 2000s issue.
By the final issue, Parker is 72 years old and mentoring the young adult Miles Morales (also aged since his first appearance in 2011). I can tell that Zdarksy was seeking to layer in some poignancy about the legacy of Parker, sending him off with a sense of grandeur, but it was definitely a miss for me. If you’re looking for a masterclass in how to say goodbye to Peter Parker, you’re never going to beat Brian Michael Bendis’ arc in Ultimate Spider-Man. The sense of loss just isn’t there in Life Story, likely because so much of Parker’s life happens off-panel and is implied through bits of exposition along the way. Life Story is not a bad comic, but it didn’t live up the emotional arc I was hoping for. This is a reliable and fun What If? style story, though.