Part of the reason Marvel Comics’ “Amazing Spider-Man” series has been so successful over the years is because at its core, it’s a simple story about an everyday guy wrestling with the responsibilities of the real world…not to mention those that come with being a superhero. For such a simple story, though, there are a lot of complex moving parts; like one of the largest supporting casts in comics. Both Peter Parker and Spider-Man have their own networks of friends, associates and enemies, and each one needs some time in the spotlight. Complicating matters even further is the fact that “Amazing Spider-Man” ships three times a month.
These factors mean that not one, but numerous creative teams have been tasked with chronicling Spider-Man’s ongoing adventures for the last few years. At any given time, several artists are busy drawing issues of “Amazing Spider-Man” and a collective of writers dubbed “The Web-Heads” are tasked with penning and planning Spidey’s next adventures. Overseeing all these creators is Senior Editor Stephen Wacker.
Lately, it’s been a busy time for Wacker and his creators as their month spanning saga “The Gauntlet” is wrapping up with a “tentpole” story titled “Grim Hunt,” and immediately following that tale comes another big story – “One Moment in Time.” In part one of a two part interview, CBR News spoke with Wacker about the experience of working on Spider-Man and how and he his creators come up with the big “tentpole” styled stories. We also discuss how Wacker and his staff went about polishing up Spider-Man’s classic villains for “The Gauntlet” storyline.
Wacker’s run as editor of “Amazing Spider-Man” officially began in January of 2008, right as the book began its “Brand New Day” era, as well as its three times a month shipping schedule. As of this interview, Wacker had just sent his 89th issue of the book off to the printer.
“The amount of work is interesting, to say the least. We started publishing in January of 2008, but we had been working on it for a year before that. So it’s been a long time for these guys to be together as a team. And that’s the thing that’s made it interesting all along. The content of the book is always fun and coming up with stories is always great, but really, the best thing about this job is working with creative people,” Wacker told CBR News. “It may sound totally corny and lame, but working with the different writers, artists, letterers and colorists is what makes this job interesting. And the schedule is just the extra ingredient that gives me indigestion! [Laughs] Because there’s never enough time. It feels like we’re always late.”
When Wacker began his run on “Amazing Spider-Man,” the story structure of the series changed to something resembling a television show. Usually, a number of plot threads are running concurrently in the series, and when one moves to the forefront another recedes into the background for a little bit. Then, after several months of build, these storylines are usually tied up or blow up in multi-part blockbuster style story arcs like “New Ways to Die,” “Character Assassination,” “American Son” and the currently unfolding “Grim Hunt.”
“When we start off, we don’t generally think of them as ‘tentpole’ stories. When you try to aim for something like that, you usually miss. Each and every retreat that we have, we go through all of the characters and we brainstorm anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours about ideas for some interesting stories that we could have happen to Pete and the cast,” Wacker told CBR. “You have to be fearless about voicing bad ideas. You have to be able to suggest something that’s ridiculous, just so you can toss it around and see where it leads. If you’re lucky, you might end up in some other and more interesting places. Sometimes there’s a nugget of something good in a bad idea and you have pare it down like when you whittle a stick. Then if you have a bunch of ideas that work, you overlap those stories into each other. Just by the nature of the work, you’re looking for some sort of ‘thrust’ throughout the book. You ask yourself, ‘Where are we going? And what are the big moments that we can build to?’ You want to feed into that a little bit each issue. You want to add a little bit of high-octane gasoline to the car every 22 pages. We try to give every story at least one big moment for the audience and creators to hang on to. So our big “blockbuster” stories just kind of form from those discussions.”
Even the “Dark Reign” tie-in saga “American Son,” which focused on the relationships between Peter Parker, Harry Osborn, and Norman Osborn came about because of Wacker and his creators focusing on taking character driven stories and turning them into “tentpole” stories. “Very early on, we knew the set up of the ‘Dark Reign’ world going into ‘American Son.’ We knew that Norman was taking over the world. So it was an easy jump to realize that we had to do a story with Harry and Norman. We already had the Lily Hollister [Harry’s former fiance] piece that we had been playing with for a little while,” Wacker revealed. “That story would have played out more or less the same without the backdrop of ‘Dark Reign,’ but that certainly helped us add some exciting superhero pieces to the whole thing. With Spider-Man breaking into Avengers Tower to get to Norman and with Norman in the armor, it gave us something superheroic for Harry to do. The emotional beats of that story would have happened anyway, though.”
One upcoming arc not entirely driven by character is the upcoming “One Moment In Time” storyline, or “O.M.I.T.,” which starts in July. “With O.M.I.T., we had a goal in mind in terms of the plot. In other words, we knew the story we wanted to tell,” Wacker remarked. “That said, it’s still, at its heart, a very small, character driven story developed by Joe (Quesada) with assistance of the rest of the Spidey writers. We knew the plot pieces we wanted to add in with that story. So I guess it didn’t come strictly from character since it’s a not a ‘What happens next?’ type of story and more of ‘What happened back then?’ story.”
The retreats where Wacker and his creators come up with the ideas that eventually become the big multi part Spider Sagas are two day affairs that are usually held several times a year. “We do two full days, and we go outside of Marvel,” Wacker explained. “They have a meeting room, that I don’t know if they rent or they own, where they hold all of their retreats. It allows us to get out of the office so we don’t have the constant distractions of things like e-mail or people coming into your office and asking you to sign things. So, we get away in a more relaxed environment and we bring some lunch and some coffee in. It looks like any corporate retreat that you would go on. There’s a big pad of paper on an easel, and I’m standing in front of it with a marker and giving the Alec Baldwin speech from ‘Glengarry Glen Ross.’ So it’s mostly me yelling, ‘Continuity is for closers!’ [Laughs]. Between Toms Brennan and Brevoort and me, we usually come up with some sort of an agenda…but really, these things are so free flowing that you’re off the agenda in the first 20 minutes.
“We’ll kind of go through and see what’s worked and what hasn’t since our last retreat,” Wacker continued. “We’ll do a quick overview of where we’ve been, things that we feel might be missing from the book, or stuff that we’ve really got a handle on and maybe should focus on even more, and some things that didn’t work or that we didn’t see coming. And we go from there. At this point everyone knows we need the next 18 issues or so planned out. We need to know what’s in them by the time we leave that room.
“Then we kick Mark Waid out, and the rest of us plan out the books. [Laughs]
“So it starts with a little bit of socializing, a little bit of post mortem on the last few months and certainly by the time we get to lunch we’re already brain storming about the characters and stories we want to get to; plus stuff that we may have left by the wayside and need to get back to. We sort of start putting everything into the pot. Then, throughout the day, I write these notes on the big pieces of paper that get stuck on the wall. By the end of the day, we’ve got a wall covered in notes, which Tom Brennan, my assistant editor, somehow has to make sense of and type up for me.”
One of the primary focuses at the Spider-Man retreats is what to do with and how to handle Spider-Man’s villains. When Wacker and his creators began their tenure on “Amazing Spider-Man,” they concentrated on creating new enemies for their protagonist. It wasn’t because they had a problem with the classic foes, however. It was quite the contrary. Spider-Man is generally thought to have one of the best Rogues Galleries in all of comics, and Wacker agrees with that sentiment.
“It’s mainly because of Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and John Romita. The designs of those characters are so great. They had the luxury of being some of the first Marvel villains, so there wasn’t as much to compare them to, but they’re each such strong characters. They’re easily motivated. Their power set is easy to understand,” Wacker explained. “They’ve been in tons of good stories, but I think that we might have treated them a little shabbily over the years. As time went on, they sort of became punching bags. Certainly, familiarity bred contempt in some of the cases. I don’t know the exact alchemy of what makes a great character, but for a number of reasons those characters work. And in super hero comics, you need all the good villains you can get”
Last year Wacker and his creators began bringing back Spidey’s classic villains in a series of interconnected storylines dubbed “The Gauntlet.” “We approached all of them from the same angle, which was giving them an updated and believable motivation to hate Spider-Man. As storytelling has matured with the times, I think updated motivations are always one of the hardest things to wrap your head around,” Wacker revealed. “It’s like, this Spider-Man guy has beaten you like 50 times – why would you possibly go up against him again? How about going away from him instead of going towards him? You’ve got to give them new reasons to interact with each other, because the level of believability in the readership anymore is a high wall to climb over.
“So we started with motivations, and we definitely looked at powers. These characters have power sets that are pretty well defined and solid,” Wacker continued. “You usually don’t need to fuss with them that much. In the case of someone like Electro, we just looked at him and saw that there was much more potential than there had ever been shown. So we tried to add to him a little bit.”
Eventually, Wacker and company brought back all of the original incarnations of Spider-Man’s classic rogues except for the Vulture. The original Vulture, Adrian Toomes, is still around, and in last year’s “24/7” arc, he explained to Spidey that a new villain had usurped the Vulture identity. This new Vulture wasn’t your run of the mill supervillain, though. He was more of a deranged vigilante who viciously attacked and literally ate organized crime figures.
“I think we went into this with the idea that we could do one new character based on an older villain. We didn’t want to get rid of the old Vulture, though we kind of shot that around the room for a bit. It was us just wondering, ‘Does the new guy kill the old Vulture?’ We liked the old Vulture, though, and like I said, good characters are hard to build. So we had no good reason to kill Toomes, but because of some past stories with the character, it felt right to move him off for a little bit, just so our new Vulture can have some space on the page to make an impact,” Wacker said. “Then, we thought about what the new character would be like, and the power set of flying isn’t that unique anymore, since so many Marvel characters can fly. So we took a gamble and came up with a completely new character and decided to see where that took us.”
For a couple of months, it appeared as though the original Rhino was going to be replaced by a new incarnation, as well. A new version of the character was introduced in January’s “Amazing Spider-Man” #617 by writer Joe Kelly and artist Max Fiumara, but two months later, the same creators reunited for another story in “Amazing Spider-Man” #625 that pitted the original against his replacement, ultimately bringing the original back into the fold of Spider-Man’s Rogues Gallery in a big way.
“That was our big feint. That was originally a one part story. Issues #617 and #625 were originally one issue. It was a double-sized issue, but it was one issue. I read it and I talked to Joe. Clearly there was a lot of potential there but the story just felt so jam packed to me,” Wacker explained. “So I suggested splitting up the story between two issues –and not two issues, one right after another, but two issues separated by a couple of months. So you would have some readers hating this new guy and sure that we had screwed up Rhino for good with this new sort of ‘Rock N Roll’ version. To his credit Joe (along with Max Fiumara) ran with the ball all the way to the end zone after that, and I much prefer the way it ended up playing out where you got some space and the story got to breathe a little bit. I’m proud to be associated with the work Max and Joe did on both issues.”
Check back soon with CBR for part two of our discussion with Wacker where we touch on Peter Parker’s romantic life, the coming “O.M.I.T.” storyline and more, and for more Spidey news, be sure to check out CBR’s Spider-Man hub.