Let’s take a look at something just a little bit offbeat.
It’s the early 2000s, Marvel is becoming successful in its attempt to transform from a comic book publisher to an intellectual property licensing firm. They’ve managed to license characters for successful films like Blade, X-Men and Spider-Man as well as other less popular films. Bankruptcy is behind them and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still a little ways ahead.
And somewhere along the way, they started publishing miniseries that combine their popular characters with folklore, children’s literature and fairy tales. You may recall I did an earlier post on X-Men Fairy Tales. Well, this one is about the follow-up Spider-Man Fairy Tales.
This a four-issue miniseries written by C.B. Cebulski, a writer who is now the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics. . .
And who is also apparently in trouble with fans for culturally appropriating a pseudonym that made him sound Japanese (geez, this little miniseries is getting more scandalous by the minute).
Anyway, as I’ve said about anthology minis like this one, they work best as artist showcases. Luckily, that’s what this one is. Each issue is drawn by a different artist with a unique visual style. The first issue, a “Little Red Riding Hood” riff, is drawn by Ricardo Tercio. The second issue, an Anansi tale, is illustrated by Niko Henrichon. The third issue is a Japanese-inspired tale of samurai and yokai drawn by Kei Kobayashi (pretty sure he’s actually Japanese). The last issue is a “Cinderella” tale penciled by Nick Dragotta and inked by Mike Allred.
One thing you may be noting here is how the choice of tales this time around is a little bit more by the books. Or, it half is. The Anansi tale and the Japanese tale are more obscure and different while the other two are the most popular, cliché, overdone tales in all of Western culture. I’m pretty sure the folks at Marvel wanted to play more on familiarity, so they did.
But let’s just jump right in. I will give the same disclaimer I gave when I did this with X-Men Fairy Tales: I’ve been reading superhero comics for a long time. There’s a chance I may reference something from the comics that you don’t know without an explanatory link. If I do, then I’m sorry.
Issue 1: This first issue is our “Little Red Riding Hood” riff of the evening. It features a young woman named Mary Jane who is engaged to a woodcutter named Peter. The woodcutters in this specific village are not just those who cut down trees for firewood and lumber, but also the town’s chosen protectors. Mary Jane is feeling a bit uneasy about her upcoming nuptials as she doesn’t want to be taken care of by Peter so much as be his equal. Mary Jane decides to mull it all over as she takes a basket of goodies to Peter’s Aunt May through the dark and dangerous woods. Of course, she meets a wolf along the way (one that’s supposed to be based on Kraven the Hunter if I recall an early interview about the project correctly). Though, she does more to outwit it than Little Red usually does. There are other little Spider-Man Easter eggs. J. Jonah Jameson is the boss woodcutter. Betty Brant is one of the townsfolk. They even say something about the woods being where Mary Jane’s friend Gwen Stacy disappeared. One nice little bit is that there is no actual Spider-Man in the story. The “Spider-Man” is actually a legendary protector that’s supposed to live in the woods but who few have seen. He’s essentially a fairy tale within a fairy tale. It’s essentially Little Red Riding Hood turned into a modern relationship story based around the love story of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. And while that’s fine, especially for 2007, it kind of hurts a little in 2018. You see, they used a magical plot device to split up Peter and MJ a few years ago because they thought a married Spider-Man wasn’t relatable enough to kids (it’s okay. I get it. It just still bothers me). So yeah, it’s passable. It works. Or more accurately, they make it work. On a geekier note, I kind of think Man-Wolf would have been a better choice for the Big, Bad Wolf over Kraven, both because he’s an actual wolf-inspired character and because he’s Jameson’s son.
Issue 2: Here we have Spider-Man as an Anansi story. It starts with Anansi, sporting a familiar red and blue color scheme bored with his life. So, he climbs into the heavens to seek advice from his father but instead finds his uncle Nebasti (Uncle Ben). He tells Nebasti that he wants to seek the power of the Great Beasts. Nebasti warns him of the responsibility that comes with that power. After some more talk, Nebasti tells Anansi that he must travel to the end of the world and find the spider-orchid. Then he gives him a calabash and sends him on his way. Anansi sets out on his journey and along the way he encounters spirits of the wind, water, earth and fire that try to stop him. The wind he traps in his calabash. The water he soaks up into his clothes, but then lets go so it can continue to nourish the land. The earth (which is mostly made up of sand) he sucks up into a reed and traps. The fire he just talks to. Now, I want to say these characters are supposed to coincide with Whirlwind, Hydro-Man, Sandman and Firebrand respectively. However, only Hydro-Man and Sandman are usually associated with Spider-Man. So, I don’t know. Anyway, they all agree to travel with him up until the end when he meets Fire. Then, Anansi decides he’s had enough of companionship and goes on alone. Anyway, Anansi gets to the valley of the spider-orchid, but ends up being opposed by a living swarm of bees who I’m absolutely sure is supposed to call back to the super-villain Swarm. Anyway, the four elements come back and help Anansi fight off the bees. Then, with his path to the orchid no longer blocked, he chooses not to pick it. You see, Anansi’s discovered that he doesn’t really need the power of the great beasts because he has the power of friendship, responsibility, etc. So, that’s issue two and honestly, it’s probably the best one of the bunch. You see, unlike some of the other issues that just try to force Spider-Man into a folk tale framework, this story instead tells an Anansi story and uses our familiarity with the Spider-Man mythos highlighted by visual cues to accent some subtextual elements of Spider-Man. Most notably that there’s always been something oddly tribal about Spider-Man. The notion of “Spider-Man as trickster” is kind of obvious, of course. Everyone knows that Spider-Man is often depicted as an underdog who wins his battles through agility and cunning. But also consider how many of his enemies have an animal motif (Dr. Octopus, Rhino, Scorpion, Lizard, etc), are themed after forces of nature (Electro, Hydro-Man, Sandman), are positioned as rival tricksters (Mysterio, Green Goblin, Hobgoblin) or even rival spiders (Venom, Doppelganger). Heck, he even has a villain named Kraven the Hunter who’s supposed to be a “great, white hunter” with a lion motif thrown in for good measure. Even emphasizing Uncle Ben’s role or even the role of New York City kind of calls back to the roles that family and community play in African folk tales. This comic isn’t the first to note this. J. Michael Straczynski wrote a run on Amazing Spider-Man in the early 2000s that essentially turned the subtext into text by suggesting that Spider-Man got his powers not from a radiation accident but from a mysterious spider totem. But yeah, best one of the bunch.
Issue 3: This one draws on Japanese folklore in its depiction of Spider-Man. In this case, our Spider-Man is a young boy named Izumi who lives with his aunt and uncle on the border of a forest populated by evil yokai. At some point in the past, the yokai killed Izumi’s parents and now he burns with a need to get revenge. His aunt and uncle warn him against it. However, Izumi goes off into the woods anyway only to find the yokai went after his aunt and uncle after he left. His uncle is killed in the encounter. His aunt however is kidnapped and he goes off to rescue her. The yokai in this are reminiscent of the Spider-Man villains Venom, Vulture, Black Cat and Man-Wolf. Here, they seem to be taking the form of a Tsuchigumo, Tengu, Bakeneko and Okuri-inu respectively (keep in mind that I’m not an expert in Japanese folklore, so I could be a little off). There’s also some stuff about Izumi being corrupted by the power of the Venom Tsuchigumo. This is reminiscent of the famous “Alien Costume” story, which you may be aware of if you’ve seen Spider-Man 3. This is the second best story in the miniseries. It plays with some decidedly Asian and Buddhist takes on the themes in Spider-Man like family honor and revenge, playing off how the loss of Peter’s parents effects him. Playing the alien symbiote thing as a sort of contamination of spirit rather than body is also interesting. Not as good as the Anansi story, but still good.
Issue 4: Guess what, folks! It’s “Cinderella” time again! That’s right! The most over-played folk tale in all of Western culture is at it again.
Okay, okay. I’ll try to be fair to this one.
In this case, Peter Parker is the son of Sir Richard Parker, a knight who is slain in battle. He’s raised in the household of the Goblin Knight, Sir Norman Osborn. Peter is mostly kept as a slave/servant at the beck and call of Norman and his son Harry. He isn’t alone in the endeavor, because Mary Jane also slaves away in the Osborn household. Peter finds out that the king is holding a grand ball to win the hand of Princess Gwendolyn (Gwen Stacy). So, Peter sets out on a plan to disguise himself as a sort of Spider-Knight, attend the ball, win the hand of the princess and reclaim his birthright. There isn’t any Fairy Godmother. Peter does the work himself. Though, Mary Jane does his work for him while he’s at the ball. There’s some stuff with a webbed brassard instead of a glass slipper. There’s also some sword-fighting action between Peter and Norman when Norman learns who the Spider-Knight is. And if you know your Spider-Man storylines, you can probably expect that Princess Gwendolyn doesn’t come out of that unscathed. So, it’s basically “The Death of Gwen Stacy” turned into a gender-swapped Cinderella story. I’m going to be honest, this is my least favorite of these. Combining the Spider-Man elements with the Cinderella elements doesn’t really feel like it enhances either. At least it has some interesting artwork. The combo of Nick Dragotta and Mike Allred is very good and Allred’s distinct style even comes out when he’s just on inks.
So, what’s our takeaway here? Well, I suppose it’s that these kind of mash-ups are most interesting when one half can bring some sort of interesting theme or subtext out of the other. That’s why the Anansi and Yokai stories were so interesting while the “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Cinderella” riffs were not.
There’s one more miniseries in this cycle. It’s Avengers Fairy Tales, which is kind of a different animal in its own way. But, that’s a post for a future date.