Yay for trade sales at my local comic book store. I just hit the jackpot...

Yay for trade sales at my local comic book store. I just hit the jackpot…

THE DEFENDANT: The Amazing Spider-man, Vol. 2: Revelations, J. Michael Straczynski, artwork by John Romita Jr. and Scott Hanna, Marvel Comics

THE VERDICT: This trade contains the infamous “The Amazing Spider-man #36”, which dealt directly with the events of 9/11 within the Marvel Universe. This garnered a great deal of attention, praise, and controversy. In addition, the trade itself was challenged at one school for reasons unrelated to the 9/11 issue.

THE CHARGES: Issue #36, released shortly after September 11th, was very high-profile in the media, likely due in part to Marvel’s similarly timed Heroes which raised money for 9/11 first responders and their families. Spider-man’s reaction to 9/11 received a great deal of praise and was even featured in a History Channel documentary on the history of comic books as one example of how the often-dismissed medium addresses real-world, political, and social issues. However, there are a great many who took issue with this comic for a number of reasons, including the choice to tackle such a loaded issue in a perceived escapist medium and/or in the fictional Marvel Universe, an image of Doctor Doom crying, and the perceived “liberal bias” or “agenda” of the comic.

As stated above, the trade as a whole was challenged in a Nebraska middle school library for sexual content and being unfit for certain age groups. The parent behind the challenge was alarmed when her six-year-old son got a hold of the issue. As she says, “It has a lot of sexual undertones in here, as far as sexuality goes. They can learn this through any other place, but it’s not something I allow them to learn, in my house at least.” She went on to say that comics “hold little literary value” and that she was concerned for her young son, who was “still developing reading skills” (see above link). The mother in question, unsatisfied by the library’s selection and review process, has taken it upon herself to hold onto the book, thus keeping it out of circulation entirely, until the matter is resolved, according to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s website.

THE REVIEW: Due to the episodic nature of this particular trade and the particular controversy surrounding one issue, I will be reviewing individual issues and the trade as a whole separately.

“The Amazing Spider-man #36” (no title): Where to start? Much of my opinion on this comic is better suited to the Defense section of this review, so I’ll not delve into the heart of the matter just yet. I will say, however, that I read this for the first time in 2013. Had I read this issue in November 2001, I likely would have had a very different experience than reading it over ten years later with the comfort of distance and perspective. I shall try to keep that in mind when discussing the issue’s timing and treatment of events that were all too real.

Black Issue Cover

This issue is called the “Black Issue” due to its stark black cover (seen above). This lends the issue an air of solemnity and mourning many may not expect to find in their weekly pull. It also avoids any imagery on the cover that those in the comic book store may find triggering or exploitative so close after the events themselves. 9/11 occured in the middle of a Spider-man run. Given Peter Parker’s quintessential New Yorkerness and the Marvel Universe’s attempts to keep their world as much like ours as possible (current events, current presidents, etc), the creators had to decide if and how to include such a monumental event.

The Amazing Spider-man #36 has no flourishes, no fanfare, no melodrama, no dire pitch as so many do in a genre where the city or the world is nearly always in peril. While similar but fictional events in comics usually involve a great deal of lead up and aftermath, this is a break from the current plot and storyline to address the issue. The fact that this comic comes in the middle of a run, which picks up in the subsequent issue with no further discussion of the events is reflected on the first page.

Black Issue

While Peter really should be dealing with 9/11 for a while to come, this choice does allow for two things:

1) It allows this issue to be totally accessible to those not following or behind on the current run of Spider-man, be they old fans in need of a familiar hero, someone seeking a way to explain the unexplainable to their children, a casual fan who picks up landmark issues, or just someone seeking to own a piece of history. Comics found their beginning in WWII and many of those comics retained their historical, cultural, or monetary value; it’s understandable people may think this comic will remain similarly relevant.

2) Those who do not want to read the comic for whatever reason do not have to in order to keep abreast with the current run. They can simply skip this issue and pick up the next one without missing information integral to the storyline, relationships, or character development.

Whether or not the comic was appropriate in its timing and execution is up for debate, but, putting that aside for now, this was a deeply moving story that actually brought me to tears. It shows hope amidst despair, heroism amidst vulnerability, and unity in a moment of fear and paranoia. If nothing else, this is a powerful testament to how far we have come. Comics have gone from this to a heartfelt and even-handed cry for understanding and recognition of our shared humanity. Perhaps there is hope for us yet.

All in all, this comic was a solid, poignant work of catharsis.

“Interlude”: This issue may seem trivial after the events of the previous installment, but it’s actually a break from the status quo. The issue opens with Aunt May walking in on an injured and sleeping Peter. The discovery of his shredded Spider-man costume causes her to disappear for most of the issue as she processes this revelation. Meanwhile, Peter Parker, currently a science teacher, delves into the home life of a troubled student named Jennifer. This is essentially the Peter Checks His Privilege issue.

While trying to find out what’s going on with Jennifer, Peter stumbles onto an abandoned building full of homeless children. While Peter is having a moral crisis over when he stopped seeing these realities in his own city, Jennifer’s brother ODs. Peter slings him to a hospital and convinces the indifferent doctors that it is indeed a priority.

Unbeknownst to Peter, the sudden appearance of Spidey in a neighborhood he’s usually never seen in makes Jennifer a target. Jennifer pleads with Peter not to tell anyone about her housing situation, insisting it’s better than foster care. He acquiesces, provided she calls him with any problems.

The whole thing is an indictment of Peter’s privilege (despite all the Parker money problems and his orphan status) and his failure (whether willful or not) to patrol neighborhoods like Jennifer’s. He may fight big baddies downtown all day, but what does that do to help kids like Jennifer?

With issues of class, race, drug abuse, and selective policing on behalf of our costumed heroes at the forefront, “Interlude” harkens back to the comics of the 60s and 70s that more directly addressed political and hot-button issues. If old school X-Men and Green Lantern/Green Arrow hold special places in your heart, this comic is for you. If you don’t like comics being used to explore issues of social justice, do us all a favor and skip this one.

“The Conversation”: At the end of “Interlude”, Aunt May calls Peter and says they need to talk. This issue picks up exactly where the last one left off. Aunt May shows up at Peter’s apartment, reveals what she knows, and chews him out for lying to her all these years. They both reveal why Uncle Ben’s death was their fault, forgive each other, and try to feel out the new rules of their relationship.

Aunt May is upset about what Peter does but knows she can’t stop him (and breathes a Seinfeld-style sigh of relief that it wasn’t his sexuality he was lying about all those years). This issue, though a bit preachy and melodramatic, is sweet and shows the Parkers as a loving, functional family, something Peter is especially grateful for after the last issue.

“Meanwhile”: This “silent comic” features no dialogue, no narration, and no interior thoughts. It follows a restless Mary Jane as she struggles to sleep at night and is dissatisfied with her success. Meanwhile, Aunt May goes about her day, tries to improve Spider-man’s reputation, and does some soul-searching in her attempt to forgive Peter and come to grips with what he is.

The anxiety in this issue is palpable. The silence is an effective tool that brings the many unsaid thoughts home to the reader, forcing them to sit through the comic equivalent of an uncomfortably silent family dinner. Aunt May’s order and routine show us a woman desperately trying to hold things together, to be strong. This is especially powerful after the last issue in which we saw her at her most vulnerable and she confessed several times how hard it was to go on raising Peter after Ben’s death (there was a veiled reference to her considering giving him up, which, to a Spidey fan, is pretty earth-shattering).

Mary Jane’s insomnia is perfectly portrayed and easily relatable to anyone who’s ever stared in hopelessness at their alarm clock all night. Her deep pervading loneliness and restlessness has a subtle air of sexual frustration to it. Or maybe that was just me. I don’t care if you think me a sappy fake geek girl for it; I love the Spider-marriage and I will go down with this ship.

Mary Jane is haunted by Spider-man’s constant presence on the news, just as he is by her presence on television. Neither can escape the other, nor can they pluck up the courage to contact one another and reconcile. The last page shows all three characters, each in a bubble of isolated anxiety.

The ending is ambiguous, offering the reader no closure. The fact that the trade ends with this issue makes the troubled and unresolved ending that much more potent, forcing the reader to join the Parkers in their uncomfortable, liminal space of confusion, yearning, and disappointment.

“Meanwhile” uses simply but effective storytelling to tell a feeling more than a story. Though short and deeply unsatisfying, this issue was excellent. The mirroring of Peter and Mary Jane’s longing, evident by parallel scenes, as well as photos of one another present in both of their living spaces, shows just how stupid the whole thing is. Both clearly miss the other, but neither does anything about it.

The fact that none of the characters interact with anyone shows how very alone they feel, floating through their life or carrying on. The very last panel shows a magazine with Mary Jane’s face on it, eclipsed by the Spider-man mask. Holy symbolism, Batman.

The Amazing Spider-man, Vol. 2: Revelations: This trade features several strong, interesting stories that make the reader feel despair, triumph, anxiety, frustration, and the occasional “d’awwww”. I don’t dislike any of the issues. However, they don’t exactly make a cohesive whole.

The 9/11 story is supposed to be a break from the story, but the following three, though they share the thread of Aunt May’s discovery and attempt to accept Peter’s life choices, don’t seem to have all that much to do with one another. Jennifer is never seen again, her clear setup dropped for now. Mary Jane kind of comes out of nowhere and no resolution is offered (which, while the strength of said individual comic, doesn’t help a trade that already feels incomplete). Each issue is solid, but the trade feels disjointed.

THE DEFENSE: I will address the challenge to the trade first, as it is both unrelated to all other controversy surrounding this volume and, frankly, bizarre. To start, I’m not entirely sure why an elementary school student is getting a comic from a middle school library in the first place. Is it one of those joint middle/elementary deals or do they share a library? If so, wouldn’t there already be a system in place for dealing with different age groups/reading levels? The whole thing seems a little weird.

Secondly, the mother seems concerned in part because she believes comics are not literary and will somehow harm her child’s reading comprehension skills. This seems more an issue with all comics than this one in particular. I’m also not certain what a beginning reader has access to that is all that literary. See Spot Run is not exactly Moby Dick. I’m not sure how reading a comic can harm the boy, even if the mother’s right and it is literary junk food with no merit. Also, this comic is likely above the reading level of a six-year-old, as comics have not been written for six-year-olds in decades.

In the first half of the 20th century, comics were on the newsstand and were aimed at small children. However, since comics have moved into specialty stores, they have become the domain of increasingly mature and literary audiences, in part because it is teenagers and adults who make the trek to a specialty store or online retailer. There is a children’s section of the comic book store better suited to the age group in question. This is not to say that children cannot read comics, but that adult themes are the norm, not the exception.

Which brings me to my next point: sex. This objection is bizarre on many levels, including the grammatically inaccurate way the mother voices her issue with sex (which likely has more to do with her own puritanical neuroses than this comic). To start off, this is not a sexy comic. 9/11? No sex. Helping homeless children and drug addicts? No sex. Not even a sexy schoolgirl in sight. I hope to god the issue all about Peter and Aunt May isn’t sexual.

The only issue in which there is an adult woman is the silent comic. Mary Jane never interacts with anyone, never sees Peter, and never says or does anything at all suggestive, let alone explicit. She is shown in bed with *gasp* bare legs, but her sleep attire is more modest than most would wear to the beach or many female superheroes would wear just about anywhere. For Pete’s sake, the men in Elfquest are more scantily clad.

This trade is remarkably devoid of romance, sex, or any sexploitative content and imagery. A rare feat in comics. Speaking of which, comics are FULL of sexual content. Sex, sexual violence/assault, orgies, three-ways, scantily clad women, scantily clad men, sexual innuendos, sexual harassment: you name it, I can find you a comic that has it. Again, comics are not written for elementary schoolers and they were full of bondage, BDSM, homoerotism, and sexualized imagery even when they were (leading to the government-led comics witchhunt of the 50s).

This comic is seriously tame. If you don’t want your child exposed to sex (or women wearing less than a turtleneck and long pants, in this case), do not let them read any comic. And don’t have a television or radio. And homeschool them. And, frankly, don’t let them leave the house. If this very platonic comic is too sexually suggestive for you, I sincerely implore you to find a counselor or join a celibate order.

The mother’s insistence on keeping the book until the matter is resolved is a deeply inappropriate overreaction. If she does not want her child reading it, she can have a talk with the librarian and lay down ground rules specific to him. The library already has a system in which to deal with parent objections or book challenges which she has chosen to ignore. If she has an issue with them or feels so deeply that this comic should not be available to other students, she can take it up with the school board, discuss the matter with the librarians, or scream her lungs out at a PTA or PTG meeting. Holding the book hostage is way overstepping her boundaries.

If I was a parent of another child at that school, I would be livid. If every parent can be a censorship vigilante and decide to remove a book from the library because they alone have a problem with it, there will be no books left. This mother does not get to parent every child and she cannot force her will upon the school through such immature means. If the review process determines the book is appropriate enough to keep in circulation, will she refuse to give it back? What is that teaching her child, that if you don’t get your way you should take your ball and go home? Great parenting there.

I’m surprised the issue of 9/11 did not come up in this case, but this woman’s shock at the content of modern comics plays into many of the issues surrounding the 9/11 story. As I have said before on this blog, many parents operate under the mistaken assumption that comics/graphic novels, animation, and speculative fiction are unilaterally for children. They are not. Not all animated features are targeting the same demographic as Disney and most comics today include such themes as sex, relationships, terrorism, crime, politics, and international intrigue.

In fact, there is a whole slew of graphic novels dealing with trauma and historical events. Some, like Maus and Persepolis, deal with war, genocide, and oppression while others deal with child abuse, sexuality, and other coming of age issues. Comics aren’t all capes and patriotism and those capes have seen their share of murder, loss, rape, torture, abduction, and non-caped evil they are powerless to stop. Even Superman the eternal Boy Scout killed the President once.

Thus, any objection to a so-called fluff medium dealing with mature material, historical/real world events, politics, or human suffering is either naive or uninformed. Its inclusion within the Marvel Universe is another matter, but the X-Men have been stirring the political/social pot for decades and Marvel Comics placed themselves squarely in the middle of the PATRIOT Act debate with the Superhuman Registration Act and the not so subtle commentary of Captain America’s high-profile death during the Bush administration.

In some ways, comics are the perfect means to discuss, process, and seek catharsis for a terrorist act. Not only are these guys our heroes and our cultural ideals and anxieties made flesh and bone (or sinew and shading in this instance), but superheroes have had terrorism at the forefront long before ‘terrorist’ became a household term. Pick up any comic or watch the old X-Men cartoon and you’ll see acts of terrorism left and right and the word ‘terrorist’ bandied about in a way not seen since that fateful September day.

As superhero comics have long been addressing these issues and how to carry on in the face of them, it does seem a logical place to discuss a real life terrorist attack that many find hard to process. Genre fiction has long provided a place to explore and process traumatic events and cultural fears. It’s not escapism; it’s a cathartic way of confronting our trauma, for the writer, the artist, and the reader alike.

To its benefit, this comic has a better portrayal of the events of Septemeber 11th than some “serious literature”. Those concerned that caped heroes would be insulting to the real life heroes and victims of September 11th need not worry. It is humans who take center stage here, first responders and everyday people who are the real heroes.

We see the events unfold through the eyes of Spider-man, but he is a very passive character, spending most of the comic stunned and helpless. Similarly, the other heroes may help lift a beam or two, but they do little to overshadow civilians. Their once muscular action poses are replaced with very stationary, vulnerable reposes. I feel Doctor Doom crying was both excessive and out of character. I also think that Magneto was a subtler but far more tragic image, clutching his cape for comfort, his face weary. He has seen too much horror, yet is somehow still caught off guard.

I do believe this comic treated the events with the respect and realism they deserved. Though, I believe it was a wise move to not include an image of the actual attack just yet, sticking instead to the aftermath. However, within the context of the Marvel Universe, this whole issue is more than a bit unbelievable. This is a world where supervillians try far worse plots on a regular basis, alien invasions are a regular occurrence, and a couple buildings falling down in every fight is just par for the course.

The civilians of the Marvel Universe are conditioned to accept such acts and must have excellent emergency response protocols in place. Just look at the destruction wrought on NYC in The Avengers. Superman (though not Marvel) made even the damage done in the Avengers look like a child knocked down some legos. Even the Powerpuff Girls cause more collateral damage than a typical terrorist attack does. In such a universe, the events of September 11th should not have anywhere near the same level of impact or come as so much of a shock.

However, obviously that would not be a viable option as these events had to be treated with the utmost seriousness and care, regardless of how little sense it makes. The whole situation is a bit of a catch-22. Marvel keeps its world as similar to ours as possible, thus would have to incorporate real world events. However, the mere presence of superhumans, gods, mutants and aliens for the past however many years (10 years? 70 years? A couple hundred years? Canon is complicated.) would have caused their world events to diverge from ours long ago in every aspect of life, from reverse engineering alien technology to whatever religious/moral/social crises the existence of gods would have caused. If you want to read comics though and not implode, however, you simply have to accept these failures of logic and canon and live with the contradictions.

Given this, Marvel had to integrate the events of 9/11 if it wanted its continuity to keep up with modern events. They could either just say it happened and hope a footnote or reference was enough or do a comic and risk not handling the matter in a manner viewed appropriate. I believe the way in which this was done was probably the best way of dealing with the situation.

Doing it in a Spider-man comic was the logical choice, as he has the most widely known association with New York. He was also the first non-adult superhero. Though he is an adult at the time of this comic, his status as the young hero still makes him the right character to deal with events that shaped America’s youth most of all.

“The Amazing Spider-man #36” features the most ethnically and culturally diverse crowd shots I have seen in a comic (or anywhere for that matter), showing that, in this moment, we are all effected, we are all hurt, we are all afraid, we are all strong, and we are all in this together. The comics prevalent inclusion of Muslim Americans further drives home the narration’s point that evil is not a foreign face or a distant land. It is an unfathomable reality that happens everywhere, in every culture, in every age, and can just as easily look like us.

For a medium that has long featured outsiders, be they Romani or Kryptonian, this seemed a perfectly natural application of the existing themes and morality of comics, rather than a sudden burst of liberal rhetoric as some have suggested. Politics in comics is not new and, from my perspective, this comic lets politics take a backseat to human trauma and human compassion.

Though the horrors and turmoil of other countries once seemed so far away, we now know that our safety is not a given and our lives, too, can be suddenly, violently interrupted by realities we ignored or never saw coming. Some have interpreted this as somehow implying that we got what we deserved. To those people I say you clearly missed the point of the comic. Failing to see something coming and deserving it are two very different things.

In addition, the comic decries right-wing extremists who claimed September 11th was America’s just desserts just as it decries the extremists who contrived or celebrated the attack. Telling our children that evil only exists in scary foreigners is a cop-out. As the issue goes on to say, there are no easy answers. There is no easy way to explain this to our children. Sometimes, even heroes are at a loss.

My one qualm with this trade is that there was no clear indication that it contained the 9/11 comic. While I knew this trade was banned, I had not yet read why, and so figured it was the usual suspects of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Thus, I went into an emotionally loaded comic with no warning. It was like being suckerpunched in the humanity. Had I known, I would not have read this comic in the middle of the night when I was already feeling anxious.

Admittedly, the description on the back of the trade did make a reference to terror in Spidey’s city, but, again, in the Marvel Universe that’s just Tuesday. I have little to no personal connection with September 11th, save for being a military brat and an American who heard of the attack while sitting in class in the 7th grade. However, for someone who lost a loved one or witnessed it firsthand, this could be a PTSD trigger. Some kind of trigger warning or tip off to the potential reader would be appropriate.

Further Reading:

‘Amazing Spider-Man #36’ reacts to the WTC disaster

Spotlight: Amazing Spider-man #36 – The 9/11 Tribute Issue

Daily Bugle destroyed: Clawing Back Amazing Spider-Man’s Black Issue

Marvel Masterworks Resource Page


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About boundandgaggedbooks

Shannon is a freelance writer and folklore buff. She has a degree from Hampshire College in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion, with an emphasis on epic/oral traditions, their anthropological implications, and their modern counterparts. Her work can be found in Fabulously Feminist, Wolf Wariors: The National Wolfwatcher Coalition Anthology, The Concord Monitor, Redhead Magazine, and The Climax.

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