NINTH ART: WORLD WIDE WEB

The best art speaks to something fundamental in human nature, whether it�s love or hate, hope or fear, lust or lamentation. The best art crosses borders and boundaries of race, creed and religion. The best art speaks to us all.

Enter your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.

Shut Up. There�s a reason why people have been reading Spider-Man comics for forty years. There�s a reason why more people saw the 2002 movie � and are going back for more next month � than have ever looked twice at the comics. And it�s not because of the marvellous CGI.

Spider-Man � Peter Parker � is a character that people relate to on a number of levels: kids respond to the boisterous adventures, and the character�s co-dependent relationship with his Aunt May. Older (or smarter) children and young adults also respond to the character�s self-deprecating, outsider nature, the relentless stream of problems he has to face, and the cheerfully awkward romantic element.

And adult readers � or, at least, those who give a little thought to the matter � see Spider-Man for what he is: a celebration of Youth. Of being young. Of those few sacred moments when you hit seventeen or eighteen and the world opens up before you with infinite promise and possibility�before closing behind you with a depressingly final THUDD.

It�s no wonder, then, that from Soweto to Southampton, people can�t get enough of that friendly neighbourhood action.

This degree of cross-cultural appeal might appear shocking to the outsider: while Spider-Man is popular the world over, he remains, fundamentally, a white, lower-middle class American. Conventional wisdom suggests that people like characters they can relate to � that remind them of themselves. So why does this masked Manhattanite travel so damn well?

The clue may be in the question: many observers, including co-creator Stan Lee, have noted that Spider-Man�s all-in-one mask and bodysuit allows people to project their own identity onto the character. In theory, looking at the character from within the context of the fictional universe, he could be any man under that mask: black, white, Asian or Australian. And in being any man, Spider-Man therefore becomes Everyman. This goes a long way to explaining the character�s universal appeal. He�s always been known as �The Hero Who Could Be You,� after all.

Recent comics have exploited this idea to poignant effect. Paul Jenkins and Mark Buckingham�s �Heroes Don�t Cry,� (Peter Parker vol. 2, iss. 35) told the story of a young black child, neglected by his mother, who conjures an imaginary friend and father-figure, in the form of an African-American Spider-Man.

Lafronce and his pal Spider-Man. Art by Mark Buckingham. Spider-Man (C) Marvel Comics.

It�s interesting to note that, despite the best efforts of many a patriotic (if unimaginative) cover artist, Spider-Man isn�t as closely tied into a broader American identity as other superheroes. Instead, he is more specifically linked to New York City, to the extent that the Big Apple becomes as much of a supporting cast member as Aunt May or J. Jonah Jameson.

Rather than fighting for Truth, Justice and The American Way, Spider-Man fights to make his world better, because he has to. Because he knows he should. Because he knows he can. And because otherwise, he can�t face himself in the mirror.

But what happens when Spider-Man is taken out of his familiar friendly neighbourhood?

Recently, the Gotham Entertainment Group, which distributes comics to countries all over South Asia, announced that they would be publishing original Spider-Man adventures, written and drawn by Indian creators, and starring a brand-new, Indian-born Spider-Man.

Pictures courtesy Gotham Entertainment Group. Spider-Man (C) Marvel Comics

Debuting in July in India (and later, the US), Gotham Comics� Spider-Man India will chronicle the adventures of Pavitr Prabhakar, a young boy from Mumbai who receives his spider-powers from a mystical yogi. Pavitr will be spinning his web (or �jaal�) above the streets of Agra, fighting a demonic Green Goblin at the Taj Mahal, for the fate of the world.

The new Spider-Man, while staying true to the basic roots of the character, will be reinvented with careful attention to local detail: instead of the stifling one-piece bodysuit, Pavitr Prabhakar will sport a dhoti-kurta costume, complete with webbed loincloth. The mask, shirt and basic colour scheme stay the same, of course: you can�t deviate too far from the trademark, after all.

Pavitr�s enemies, too, will spring from Indian customs and mythology, giving the new Spider-Man a strong cultural context. This is something that good old Peter Parker lacks: the best Spider-Man villains (e.g.: Doctor Octopus) are more of a reflection of Peter Parker than they are of American culture � especially since the end of the Cold War.

And Spideyji would be nothing without his friends and family. Spider-Man India recasts Uncle Ben as Uncle Bhim, Aunt May as Aunt Maya, and the beautiful Mary Jane as the similarly gorgeous Meera Jain.

While this might be the most comprehensive and ambitious adaptation of the Spider-Man story outside of the silver screen, it�s not the first time the character has been remodelled for a new audience. Ryoichi Ikegami (Crying Freeman) adapted Spider-Man for Japanese comics in the late seventies, turning lonely outsider Peter Parker into�lonely outsider Yu Komori.

Ryoichi Ikegami's Spider-Man, Yu Komori. Spider-Man (C) Marvel Comics

Ikegami�s Spider-Man Manga was more of a surface reinvention than anything else: like Peter Parker, Yu Komori was a student who received his powers after being bitten by a spider. He wore the traditional tights, worked for a suspiciously familiar and irascible boss, and fought villains such as The Lizard, Electro and Mysterio. He even had a girl to get all angsty-walks-in-the-rain over.

Ikegami�s Spider-Man, while recalling Steve Ditko in both atmosphere and figurework, nevertheless felt much bleaker than the American version. At the time of publication, this made a refreshing change from the bland fare on offer in the other eighty-three monthly Spider-comics. And it was certainly far better than the recent Marvel Mangaverse series.

Unfortunately, the run only lasted for 31 issues, and the reprints suffered from being both poorly translated and hideously expensive. Dreams of remastered, rewritten trade paperbacks of Ikegami�s Spider-Man remain just that.

Given the notion that people enjoy characters that speak directly to their specific situation and experience, it�s hard to see the friendly neighbourhood franchise as a particularly bad thing. No matter what it says on his driving licence, he�s still Spider-Man. He�s still P.P., no matter what that stands for.

And while some purists might argue that a capital-I global Icon like Spider-Man doesn�t need reimagining or relocating, I say: to hell with it. If this is a way to inject new blood and bring a new readership to Ol� Web Head, then I�m all for it. It�s not just the snazzy jumpsuit and terrifying villains that make Spider-Man an icon. His success owes just as much (if not more) to the human frailties of the man behind the mask. And at 42, I think it�s safe to say that Peter Parker isn�t going anywhere. So why not embrace the new - or at the very least, the cosmetically novel?

And beyond Pavitr Prabhakar, what next? The return of Yu Komori? Can we expect to see The God of Spidermen, spinning his web, John Woo-style, across Deep Water Bay? Is there an African Arachnosapient on the horizon, combining the adolescent drama of Peter Parker with the trickster comedy of Anansi the Spider Man?

My only fear is that local creators might get swallowed up in the Mighty Marvel Machine. The temptation for artists to take the Marvel Shilling, in order to work on a high-profile character like Spider-Man (or to be brought more fully into the Marvel US fold), is as great outside the West as it is within.

The globalisation of comics, if that is what this is, has to be a two-way street if it�s going to be anything other than a missed opportunity. Gotham Comics is already cultivating a number of original, non-licensed projects: if Spider-Man India is all we get to see in the West, or if the artists are left serving somebody else�s trademark, then that would be a terrible shame.

As much as I love reading new Spider-Man adventures every month, I�d just as soon see these artists creating their own characters, with genuine local resonance, as I would see them reinvent The Hulk as a mopey Samoan.

More diversity in comics makes Spider-Sense to me�

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Review text (C) Matthew Craig

Originally published on the comics culture website Ninth Art

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