CHRONICLES OF COMICS – WHAT IF… #42 – SPIDER-MAN HAD KEPT HIS SIX ARMS?

The Man Wit No Voice and The Pure Mood dig out and review a comic from their expansive back issue collection. It could be a pivotal story, a forgotten classic, or even a giant mistake not worth the staples binding it together. From the ’40′s to the ’00′s, come by every week as we take an in-depth look at comics history in CHRONICLES OF COMICS!

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There are certain comic book fans who’ve never connected to Spider-man – it seems hard to believe, but it’s true – and I think I know why. With superhero stories being never-ending narratives, Spidey’s whole thing kind of doesn’t work; if he’s a selfish and narcissistic adolescent who learns that with great power comes great responsibility and strives to be a better person, we’re stuck with a never-ending coming of age story. I may love his frail humanity, but when fans complain that Peter isn’t a ‘real hero’ or that he ‘complains too much’, I think that’s the place they’re coming from – they want some closure, they want to see a man struggling to grow up actually grow up.

WHAT IF…, a series normally dedicated to watching the heroes of the Marvel Universe die horrific and violent deaths in nightmare Butterfly Effect scenarios, gives us that closure. What happens when Peter does overcome his self-obsession and neuroses? What happens when he comes to an understanding that punching costumed villain after costumed villain doesn’t really amount to much? What happens when he finally understands that he has to accept his life for what it is, fight his hardest to make a difference and understand that with great power comes…well, you know. What if all of this happened?

As we all know, right before Stan Lee bid his most famous co-creation goodbye, he told a story where Peter finally had the chance to choose between Spider-man or Peter Parker forever. Unfortunately, the whole thing backfired, and he ended up with four extra arms and had to fight a vampire. Eventually, with the help of Morbius the Living Vampire’s unique DNA, and the scientific brilliance of Curt Connors, the bizarre transformation is reversed, and Spidey is back to normal. In WHAT IF…#42, Morbius never gets a chance to introduce himself to the Marvel Universe, being eaten alive by a swarm of sharks while swimming ashore. As a result, Connors can’t find a cure and Spider-man is stuck with his six arms forever.

This results in scene after scene of pure desperation, and pretty well sums up everything I love about the character – Peter visits every genius mind of the MU, being turned away at every corner. He becomes so hopeless and frustrated that by the time he makes it to the Baxter Building, he attacks the Thing, assuming Ben Grimm is going to try to calm him with a ‘this man, this monster’ inspirational speech. Peter can be so narrow-minded and self-pitying, he’ll lash out and people only trying to help him, and occasionally not even thinking of him. I mean, the Thing wasn’t even going to give a soulful speech – but in Peter’s narcissistic view of the world, everyone is always thinking of him, always misunderstanding him and ready to give the wrong advice. Seeing Spider-man this desperate is never pretty.

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Interestingly, it’s a midway trip to Charles Xavier that will help Spider-man the most, but he isn’t quite ready to hear it at the time. “You have to come to terms with the situation you brought upon yourself.” Xavier isn’t phased by Spider-man’s transformation at all, if anything, he probably sees it as a welcome addition to his dream of mutant/human co-allegiance. While everyone else is trying to give Peter an answer, Xavier is telling him it isn’t that simple – there’s no fighting where we’ve brought ourselves. Spider-man doesn’t hear it, and now spends his life entirely in costume, abandoning the Peter Parker identity behind, knowing that he couldn’t possibly explain his new arms to his family and friends.

Time passes, and though no cure is found, Reed Richards invents a device that will render the arms invisible. It’s not much, but it’s a lease on life. In his time as a permanent Spider-man, Peter discovers his arms aren’t always a handicap – he becomes stronger in battle, more agile, spinning webs six times over and taking out baddies like Doctor Octopus without a problem. Returning to his life as Peter Parker, it isn’t long until Aunt May passes away due to natural causes – and a tremendous amount of pressure is lifted from Parker’s shoulders. May’s death seems to teach Peter an invaluable lesson – there’s no use wasting time pretending to be something you aren’t, lying to yourself and others to keep in control, to keep some semblance of peace and order and have things the way you’re comfortable with.

It’s at this moment that Xavier’s words seem to gain traction – ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ doesn’t mean drive yourself miserable by keeping secrets and fighting super villains. “By ACCEPTING the consequences of his own actions and making the most of his personal circumstances, Peter Parker comes to personify that most noble of human attributes…the ability to RISE ABOVE one’s imposed obstacles to reach one’s FULL POTENTIAL.” Spider-man becomes a spokesperson for the physically disabled, inspiring others to accept our lot in life and never stop fighting to do our absolute best. WHAT IF…SPIDER-MAN HAD KEPT HIS SIX ARMS? is the only Spider-man story that gives us closure, it’s the only one that sees Peter truly understand the lesson that has been central to his entire adult life. If Spider-man has always been a weak character to you, a whining, neurotic white boy who can’t appreciate every wonderful thing he has, WHAT IF…#42 sees him get his stuff together, start thinking of others and thinking in larger terms than colourful costumed battles. It lets us see Spider-man grow up.

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