Lessons from Ultimate Spider-Man

From "Hamlet Spider-Man," which OF COURSE it exists.

From “Hamlet Spider-Man,” which OF COURSE it exists.

Sometimes, truth comes at you from the most unexpected direction. I spend a lot of time reading about Shakespeare (are you shocked?), but once in a while, I will steer my browser to some unrelated obsession — indie electronica, Community, Dungeons & Dragons, or in this case, comics.

In my adolescence, I was a big consumer of comics, contributing to the bubble that led to an over-saturated market in the mid-90s. When the bubble popped, and the quality of my favourite titles dropped, I quit collecting, and eventually sold my boxes of Uncanny X-Men in a pitiable buyers’ market and moved on. As a result, I almost completely missed the early 2000s event that saved Marvel Comics from extinction, and effectively spawned the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the Ultimates.

Long story short (and everything about superhero comics is de facto a LONG story), I was reading this article about the rise and fall of the Ultimates line, and at the end, I found this quote by writer Brian Michael Bendis:

The transition that we made was based on the fact that the concept of Spider-Man wasn’t broken … the Spider-Man origin and its themes are pretty much perfect. So adaptations are much like a Shakespeare play: The trick isn’t to fix it and say you know better than Shakespeare. It’s to find the truth of it and keep the truth going for a new audience.

That comparison hit home for me. I have occasionally likened Shakespeare to comics — usually at parties, to recover some cred after it’s revealed that I am a Shakesnerd — but I’d never thought about the similarities between a reboot in comics and an adaptation or production of Shakespeare.

“Find the truth of it and keep the truth going for a new audience.” That’s deceptively simple, I think. The truth of Spider-Man is there, in plain sight: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Or, if you want to get a bit more critical about the character’s abiding popularity, you could say: “Awkward misfit teenager enacts power fantasy.” Is Hamlet that straightforward?

I’ve thought a lot about my “new audience” — not only the high school students who will get conscripted into attending the matinees, but even adult theatregoers who didn’t happen to catch the last Cape Breton production of Hamlet in 1982 — or who weren’t even born yet! Like new readers of Ultimate Spider-Man, they probably know a thing or two about the character, setting, and genre of the play they’re about to encounter, and it would alienate and frustrate them if I strayed too far from that mold. But at the same time, if they don’t feel like the play is speaking to them, then I’ll lose them. In some ways, Shakespeare adaptation is an even trickier balance than comic book reboots, because there is an expectation that Shakespeare is going to remain essentially timeless. But who wants to watch a stopped clock?

For the first, but probably not the last, time, I find myself wondering if I’m about to go too far. I have been gleefully excising slices of Ham, rearranging and shrinking the play’s bloated corpse like a Victor Frankenstein working in reverse. I’ve been reassigning lines, adding stage directions, and in some cases, deliberately writing characters against the grain. Who is going to stop me? How will I know when I’ve gone too far?

“Find the truth of it.” Easy for you to say, Brian Michael Bendis. But he’s right; and I’ve been dancing around it for too long. Declarations like “Tim Burton meets Harry Potter” only serve to hide the truth. The truth is in the text.

Next, on Maple Danish: The Truth!

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