Saturday, January 14, 2006

So Long, Spider-Girl

Or: "All Good Things Come To An End (Some Sooner Than Others)"

Marvel has reported that "Spider-Girl" is being cancelled at issue 100. I've taken it upon myself to eulogize the Little Series That Could.

"Spider-Girl" will probably go down in history not as a particularly significant Spider-book, but as proof of the rarely-exercised power of the readers. In many ways, the claustrophobic, monotonous market of today exists because we allow it to - or to be more precise, because we don't take any specific, collective action to change it.

This is most evident in "Spider-Girl", a series which - by every "law" the direct market follows - should not have made it to twelve, let alone a hundred. It features a female protagonist, spins out of an extremely unpopular crossover event (The Clone Saga) and emerged out of an issue of "What If", and it takes place in an alternate future. And the fact that the series was never, ever a high seller proves as much. But for a very long time, "Spider-Girl" succeeded in achieving something very few books these days can boast: establishing a faithful readership. For almost ten years, it maintained consistent sales, and it did so without variant covers, ultra-mega-crossovers or any artificial gimmick. Rather, it worked because it didn't aspire to be anything more than what it appeared to be: a fun, endearing retro-style Silver Age book with modern sensibilities, that went a step further by applying the generational approach to Spider-Man (who, in mainstream continuity, reached fatherhood and promptly lost the kid, lost the wife and moved back in with Auntie).

In retrospect, this was clearly a series that had every right to work, in spite of general sales trends. It cast Spider-Man as an adult in a way that could not be reinterpreted or retconned; it created a distaff version of Spider-Man that, for once, actually had a direct tie to the original; and it allowed DeFalco to play with a lot of Spidey-continuity through temporal detachment, so you could see what became of the Osborn line fifteen years later, etc. It provided something the regular Spider-Man books weren't offering: undiscovered territory.

The MC-2 boom that arose from Spider-Girl's popularity was a big mistake, for several reasons: by expanding the universe, May became less of a focalizer, as we now had other ways to explore this new take on the MU (a future which was refreshingly not dystopian). But it was also too much, too soon, and DeFalco ended up writing all his protagonists with the same "voice" (which promptly led to their cancellation; they were already knock-offs, and did not develop any sense of individuality in time to attract readers).

But even as the rest of the line crashed and burned, "Spider-Girl" moved on. I've honestly lost count of the number of times cancellation drew near (a symptom of the series' inability to climb up out of the lower end of the sales spectrum). Fan support, under two separate regimes (Jemas' and Buckley's), was enough to keep it going, and remember, this was long before digests were introduced into the market.

So what went wrong? Why is the axe falling now, in a "this time we mean it" tone?

Well... as I've said before in past reviews of "Spider-Girl" (a book I've dropped recently), the series took a wrong turn somewhere. Looking back, I find I can't point to the specific turning point: was it when the Kingpin was killed off in a lame bait-and-switch, proving DeFalco didn't have the stones to hurt his main cast? Was it the overextended Lady Octopus storyline? Or the black costume arc, which had all the trappings of a major development for May and didn't ultimately have any effect at all?

Somewhere along that line, the series went stale. And, based on its recent performances on the chart, it started losing the readers it had held onto for so long. It was, I think, the lack of drama that killed it. When May was just starting out as a heroine, I think it was easy for DeFalco to convince us that a single slip in battle would kill her. After playing variations on that theme ten or twelve times, it ceases to be convincing. There were no more overarching storylines: everything was broken down into episodic, "ouroboros"-type issues that were resolved all too quickly and left no ripples. May herself stopped changing, her supporting cast kept getting bigger and bigger despite the fact that most of them had nothing to do. It's not that DeFalco lost his passion for the series, because he's clearly still as enthusiastic about it now as he was then. It's just creative entropy, enforced by the fact that after a while he stopped bringing anything new to the table. And instead of reminding us about the positive qualities of the Silver Age, "Spider-Girl" started indulging itself in the aspects of that period that we (by which I mean the readership) had outgrown. The Scooby-Doo endings, the Very Special Episode moments, etc.

Sadly, "Spider-Girl" will be remembered for being the longest-lived Marvel book with a female protagonist, and for being a testament to the power of the readers, more than for anything that actually happened in the book. Because the content stopped being something we could really compliment a while back. And maybe it's for the best that the series end now, while its descent is still fresh, rather than have it go on and lose even more of what made it enjoyable.

In the end, I can only offer Tom DeFalco and the remaining "Spider-Girl" fanbase these words of consolation: with zero publicity and advertisement, Mayday Parker outlasted Arana. And in these times where marketing rules all, that definitely says something.