Changing a series (assuming any of us are lucky enough to have one) is risky business, whether it’s a book series, comics or TV.
The reason series work is because you’re giving a reader roughly the same thing every time. The more you deviate from what you started with, the more risk you run.
Some change is just natural and unremarkable. Characters who’ve been dating get married. Kids grow up, which may mean going to college, getting a serious love interest or moving out of the house (a common development in family sitcoms where unlike print it’s obvious kids are aging). Even so, some series shy away from it; I’ve read that a lot of older detective series would marry the protagonist off, then just shuffle the little woman off-stage. Even in comics, where you don’t have to worry about aging (Robin, after all, stayed in K-12 from 1940 through 1969), this stuff happens. Reed Richards married Sue Storm. Flash married his long-time girlfriend.
Then there’s the change that comes because sales are slumping and you have to shake things up, as when Wonder Woman turned mortal adventurer for a few years.
Then there’s the risky decision to change things because you have a better idea. Case in point, Green Arrow’s switch from millionaire playboy to bearded firebrand radical. But of course, GA was such a minor character at DC at the time, it’s not like anyone had anything to lose if it didn’t click.
The changes Stan Lee wrought on Spider-Man during the sixties didn’t fit any of those categories. And while I’ll always be more of a DC fan, I have to give him credit.
These thought sprung to mind after reading SPIDER MAN/MARY JANE: You Just Hit the Jackpot, a collection of stories from Peter Parker’s first meeting with MJ Watson through learning (and helping with) her troubled family situation and finally, their wedding. What struck me was that in the opening story, MJ meets Peter and brands him as one of the cool kids.
That puts him light-years away from the nerdy, bespectacled, insecure kid who first appeared in Amazing Fantasy #15. Peter had been bullied, ignored, sneered at, and he looked like your classic wimpy guy. By the time MJ meets him (Amazing Spider-Man #43), he’s grown into an attractive young man, drives a motorcycle and attends college (unlike most teens in the comics of the day, he aged out of high school at roughly a real-time rate). Of course, he still has problems—money problems, suspicious cops, relationship problems and later an ulcer—but still that’s a radical shift in the series’ tone. And it’s not like Stan had to worry about sales: ASM was #2 during the first few years, then rose to Marvel’s top-seller.
Tampering with a formula that successful takes a lot of courage, and Lee (and his co-creators, Steve Ditko and John Romita) deserve kudos. It would be hard act to follow, too: trying to keep Peter’s life from being too good while letting him change and surprise us is a difficult balance after 50 years, and they don’t always manage it.
Stan Lee did. My hat’s off to him.
For more thoughts on series, see here, here and here.