Apr 14, 2014

JMS: "Sophisticated" Doesn't Mean Good

JMS: "Sophisticated" Doesn't Mean Good
Ben Smith

J Michael Straczynski is one of the worst Spider-Man writers of all time.

There seems to be this idea among a certain contingent of fans that he wrote great dialogue, the stories were more mature, the marriage was handled beautifully, and that they were overall just great. In reality, they were lifeless, unnecessarily dark, and out of character.

Those same fans that feel he should be on the list of the greatest to ever do it, also seem to forget that he wrote two of the all-time worst Spider-Man stories in the character’s history, Sins Past and One More Day. I don’t hate One More Day as much as the online contingent of sad and lonely fans do, but it’s not entirely great either. (If you think that marriage was written well, then you are a very lonely person.) But the commonly held belief is that OMD is all Quesada’s fault, despite JMS helping to plot the story, write it, and his name being on the cover. (JMS actually wanted to make it even worse, by erasing everything that happened to Spider-Man all the way back to the famous drug issues around Amazing Spider-Man #96. He publicly admitted he wanted to erase his own story, Sins Past. It was never about not erasing the marriage, his problem was with how far back it should go.)

My goal today, it to definitively put these myths to rest once and for all. That will never happen, but it’s a goal to aspire to, and I have some free time at the moment.

Our journey begins in Amazing Spider-Man #30, with a rousing inner monologue from Spider-Man about the lack of pockets on his costume. This is supposed to be clever and show us that he’s like us “real peoples” and is innocent enough, but it’s trying just a little bit too hard, and I can’t help thinking it’s some kind of veiled over-explanation for the silliness of costumes, the type of explaining that JMS likes to do so often.

Spider-Man follows this up by immediately using his powers to demolish a building marked for demolition, because “I really need to go pound a bad guy.” This may be viewed as a mature take on the character, and another example of him being a “real” guy because he’s frustrated, but it’s fundamentally different in how I view the character.

Early Spider-Man was very angry, under the guidance of Steve Ditko. Ever since then, the bouts of extreme anger are the exception to the rule. They’re supposed to highlight when Spider-Man really means business, no more cracking wise and joking around. That’s how I view the character, but JMS disagrees on that point apparently. He really needs to pound bad guys to make him feel better every so often.

Next we find him on his way to his new job as a substitute teacher, where he takes a second to keep a kid from being bullied. A lot of people liked this development of the character, considered it a natural extension of the character as a teaching assistant in college. That’s not entirely wrong. The problem isn’t that it isn’t a natural progression, it’s that this actually ages the character of Peter Parker too much. The primary foundation the character was created on was of youth and a never-ending stream of personal problems. Not only does this job make him an authority figure over youth, he’s solving other peoples problems. (All this after punching the walls out of a building in a fit of rage. Yes, come teach my children science.)

Now some of you might argue that his time at Horizon Labs made him too responsible and successful as a character. The difference between the two is that I feel like Horizon Labs offered a lot more potential for stories derived from that situation, and far better ones. Peter being a teacher and taking the nerds of the day under his wing might be heartwarming, but that’s one story, and it will get old quick.

So, Peter takes some time to scare the bullies as Spider-Man, because that’s how he should be spending his time, and that’s when we are introduced to the character of Ezekiel.

Ezekiel is an awful character. I am obviously not a fan of the whole spider totem angle. I generally don’t prefer when a writer comes along and “changes everything you thought you knew” about a character. I don’t like when a know-it-all character comes along to school the hero we’ve known so long, and all of a sudden it’s like that hero is incompetent and doesn’t measure up in the shadow of this mysterious new person that knows everything they don’t know (let’s call it Batman syndrome).

Spider-Man is shocked that he never considered the possibility that the spider might have consciously intended to give Peter its powers. Why has he never considered the possibility (probably because it’s stupid)? But it seems like it is a deep and thoughtful exploration of the character, and that it has a lot of meaning, so we’ll pile that on the stack with all the other evidence that this stuff is “well-written.”

After Ezekiel pulls a disappearing act, Spider-Man remarks to himself how he reminded him of Uncle Ben. This is a quick and easy way for the writer to convey the importance and the presence of this new character, even though he talks and looks ridiculous.

Finally we’re introduced to the dangerous new menace of Morlun. He’s supposed to strike fear into the heart of the reader, but how fearful can he be with his receding hair, and a full body leotard with finger holes in it.

That’s all I can stand this time around. I may or may not continue this look at the legendary JMS run, as it will all depend on how much I’ll be able to stomach reading these terrible, terrible comics. Look, just because JMS approached the character with a (seeming) level of sophistication and seriousness does not mean it is entertaining. JMS likes to explore a lot of themes and big ideas when he writes a comic book, but he often forgets to make them not boring. Superman walking the country and getting in touch with the people may be a big idea that could make for some meaningful stories (it didn’t) but it’s not all that entertaining to read.

In this one issue of Spider-Man, lots of mysterious questions were asked, Peter was shocked to learn that spiders might be cognizant creatures that can transfer their powers to other beings, but what did Spider-Man actually accomplish? He destroyed a building because he was having a bad day, and he picked on some high school bullies. Let’s not forget the riveting scene inside the halls of a high school, and the thrilling introduction of Grampa Spider and the balding vampire.

These comics were not good. They’re the kinds of stories that a teenager might think are really smart. Maybe they were better than the comics that came before it, but that’s not really a feather in anyone’s cap. At least it shouldn’t be.

Next time, lightning sex?

Duy here. I quit reading comics for around five years after I read the first JMS trade. I have never regretted that decision.


LaMar said...

People tend to give JMS a lot of passes because of his Sci Fi television work.
I, for one, don't read television.

Jeremy said...

JMS/JRJR Spider-man > Roger Stern/JRJR Spider-Man

show said...

JMS cut some supporting cast to mj and aunt may which i didn't like and there are some positive he did make a good aunt may in my opinion

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