Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Idea of Spider-Man

     I saw Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark last night.  Still in previews, still a work in progress, you've heard it all before, I'm sure.  It doesn't seem fair to review something before the artist(s) says it's complete -- God knows I wouldn't much appreciate somebody critiquing from over my shoulder while I was in the middle of writing a book (or even a blog, for that matter) -- so I'm holding my tongue with regards to the show itself.  But here's something it left me thinking about: just who does the idea of Spider-Man belong to now?

     Nowhere in the playbill, nowhere on the signage, nowhere in the theater, were the names of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko credited.  These were, of course, the two gentlemen who created Spider-Man back in 1962.  Mr. Ditko's art does adorn some of the set and his name, as well as Mr. Lee's, is tossed off in the dialog at one point, and while that's certainly a pleasant tip of the hat, it's far from giving credit where it's due.  I understand that, technically, Marvel (and ultimately Disney) actually owns the character and that they're not obligated to mention the creators' names, not even in the comic books, but you'd think that someone so committed to the artist's vision as the show's director Julie Taymor would have pushed hard for something like this.
     That's all dubious enough for an entire blog, if not an entire New York Times editorial, but that's not the quandary I mean to pose with my question about who Spider-Man belongs to.  What I mean is, once you create something like Spider-Man and release it to the world, and it's powerful enough that it lodges in the cultural consciousness, to what extent does it become the conceptual property of everyone?
     Taymor and her co-writer Glen Berger have used a great deal of narrative shorthand in re-telling Spider-Man's origin, relying on the fact that the audience already knows the ins and outs of the mythology.  At the same time, they have infused the story with their own mythology, even as they dispense with aspects of the character that are central in other depictions.  Certainly it's a tribute to the power of a particular art that it can be effectively interpreted in a number of ways, that so many different worthwhile themes can be taken from it, while it still maintains its essential thrust.  But to what extent does such a widely reinterpreted idea still "belong" to the guy or guys who originally had it?  With universes like those built in Star Wars and Star Trek, which are subject to such a huge amount of fan "ownership," when does the original artist (as people like Stan Lee and George Lucas seem to have done) throw up his or her hands, say "go ahead, take the idea for a spin, see what you can do with it" and just let it go?
      When something that sprang from your own mind undergoes such large scale re-shaping, does it always rankle a little bit or is widespread cultural acceptance the highest possible achievement for an idea?  That's what I've been wondering.

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