Spider-Man and Guyland

onemore1_1945I just read a wonderful book (Thanks, Chicago Public Library!) by Dr. Michael Kimmel: Guyland. It examines how boys become men, specifically the years between 16 and 26, where a prolonged adolescence, guyhood, takes over. The best synopsis of guyhood is the feeling of being betwixt and between. It’s one of those books you find yourself nodding along to a lot. I mean, I’m still a fresh 27, so it’s not a stretch to lump me in with the guys under the microscope.

Parts of Kimmel’s book reads a little wonky, such as when he appropriates the language of guys (using the word gangsta, comes to mind) and it just isn’t quite right. It’s like an older boss using the word download to describe most functions of the Internet. Still, many of his conclusions are sharp and poignant and are best read once one has already passed through guyhood.

It’s easy to get defensive about a lot of this stuff, especially when most things dovetail back to guyhood, and masculinity, being a homosocial exercise. All the binge drinking, sports obsessing, danger taking, and womanizing, isn’t to show off to females, it’s done to impress other guys. Confronted with that observation, I have to imagine a typical occupant of Guyland’s response involves the word ‘gay.’

However, the most compelling part of this read was how guyhood is a retreat, of sorts. Pretty much everyone gets out at some point. Partying every night is wonderful at 21 but, come 41, it looks a bit, well, sad. But, according to Kimmel guyhood keeps getting stretched out longer and longer. There’s a lot that goes into this. Economics are a huge part, as well as a feeling of entrenched entitlement under attack, that typical masculine roles and mores are threatened (guyhood is a largely white, middle-class phenomenon).

Sitcoms can’t (and shouldn’t) explain much but just look at the ineffectual, henpecked husbands that have to beg for sex and are frustrated at almost every turn. That’s what guys are supposed to look forward to? New Balance sneakers, Costco jeans, and a gut?

Essentially, guys are messaged that manhood and maturity are The End of Fun. Even most comedies or romances portray a stable, mature relationship as game over. Roll credits. Thanks for playing, kids! No wonder young men revel in Guyland. You are given all the freedom without any of the responsibility.

Of course, this messaging can’t have anything to do with guys (especially 18-24 years olds) being the key demographic for advertisers and people who like sucking up disposable income…

All of this is a way to preface that a lot of superhero comics, those things I love and adore, have an interesting relationship with Guyland. One of the most pertinent examples came several years ago (incidentally, right around the time when Guyland was released) when Peter Parker and Mary Jane had their marriage, of many years (real time, not in story time) dissolved in a controversial story line, “One More Day.”

Joe Quesada, then Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief, summed up his approach as thus:

“When we fall in love with these characters, we claim ownership over them in our own way; so for some fans, Peter belongs to them and no one else. So, the way I see it, there are two sides of the argument, two segments of fans. On one side, there is a contingency of fandom that wants Peter to age along with them and live life as they do. He needs to get married, have kids, then grandkids, and then the inevitable. One the other side, there are fans that realize Spidey needs to be ready for the next wave or generation of readers, that no one can lay claim to these icons, no one generation has ownership and that we need to preserve them and keep them healthy for the next batch of readers to fall in love with.

To me, only one side of this argument is correct. If Spidey grows old and dies off with our readership, then that’s it — he’ll be done and gone, never to be enjoyed by future comic fans. If we keep Spidey rejuvenated and relatable to fans on the horizon, we can manage to do that and still keep him enjoyable to those that have been following his adventures for years. Will everyone be happy with the decision? No, of course not, but that’s what makes it a horserace. At the end of the day, my job is to keep these characters fresh and ready for every fan that walks through the door, while also planning for the future and hopefully an even larger fan base.”

I always thought (and still do) that this was a bad decision. It essentially tells readers that have logged the time and pledged their loyalty to take a hike. Basically, it says: “you know that Spider-Man you like? Well, he’s no good anymore.”

What’s that line Spider-Man always says about power and responsibility?

It also seemed like a very Peter Pan (a figure often cited by Kimmel) way to reject growing up. It assumes stories about a mature, loving couple in a staple relationship could only hamper, rather than help, a story. It’s like Quesada and Marvel crossed their arms and sang this out loud.

Also, considering that superhero comics’ fanbase is much older than it was twenty years ago, this decision makes little sense. Indeed, why would you shunt a character back to Guyland when most readers are several years past it, sitting in, I guess, Manland territory?

After reading Kimmel’s book and easing into maturity, slowly and fitfully, I can see there may be more to this decision. There are several disturbing passages that focus on the fathers with sons stuck in Guyland. These are often presented to showcase the reaction of a seemingly mature and stable parent to the sordid actives of their children (most times it accompanies sections on sexual promiscuity or potential depredation).

The fathers are often downright envious. They’re jealous of their sons’ open horizons and lack of commitments. Instead of expressing shame or remorse that their sons engaged in sex with questionable, inebriated female consent, it’s more “that’s my boy!” This isn’t meant to show some sort of quasi-scientific, genetic hard wiring at play, that boys will be boys just like their fathers were. It means that the contours of Guyland are far from defined, that they often spillover into adulthood and inform men’s choices, that even men who know better don’t know enough that Guyland is a closed, masturbatory loop.

Quesada just green-lit what he thought was right and, in a way, he was since it led to a flowering of new and interesting stories. Yet, it seems to send the wrong message that all of your problems can be fixed by regressing to an earlier, more juvenile age where responsibilities are few, the girls are available, and the high-fives never end.