The 2002 Spider-Man movie was just about all right, but some of the changes to the original material drove me up the wall. It’s the problem I have with all the Marvel Universe movies: as a kid I reread the reprints from the Sixties of all these titles, and I reveled in the Seventies comics as they came out. Nothing on screen could live up to the Marvel Universe in my head – it’s brash, noisy, full of team-ups, crossovers, star-spanning sagas, cheeky badinage and, at most, four colours, tops.
But reading the novelisation of the movie this week I realized something I knew long ago and forgot: ie, through some strange alchemical evolutionary process, novelisations can come to replace the thing they’re based on. The Tobey Maguire trilogy of movies has been rendered obsolete by remakes three times over already, and so the book I was reading was hopelessly lost in time… and yet, picking it up this week, I found myself drawn into it so easily and happily. It was like I’d found the ideal literary version of that Spider-Man origin story.
I suppose it’s because I feel exiled from comics. They stopped being something I can read with the same enjoyment sometime around 1988. When I was a kid I’d be utterly transported: I’d live inside each and every frame. As soon as I got to about eighteen it had to be prose fiction for me, if I was to be caught up completely inside a story. I think it had something to do with seeing the limitations of the artwork; of not buying into it completely when you can see the rough edges of the pictures… And maybe it’s just that I grew out of superhero stuff? That seems fair enough, too…
And yet… those characters at the heart of the Spider-Man story are so present in some deep layer of my mind. I’m fond of them all: MJ and Norman, Aunt May and dead Uncle Ben. I love the fact that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko gave everyone – and especially their colourful super villains – such believable back stories. Everyone had a history, and foibles we could understand. And each of them was preserved in my memory, from endless summer holiday afternoons re-reading those old comics.
So… when I come to read Peter David’s elegant adaptation of an imperfect movie from sixteen years ago, I find myself reunited with all these people. They’re not in the Sixties and Seventies – they’ve been bumped up to the turn of the century (an era that seems almost just as quaint by now) – but everyone is present and correct. Peter Parker is just as neurotic and sweetly tortured as he ever was. Aunt May is a doughty and tetchy and loyal. Even J Jonah Jameson is a lovable, idiotic curmudgeon in the exact way I remember. It’s as if the author is taking the broad outlines of the movie, and the events, and the relationships and set-pieces and the dialogue too… but somehow he’s infusing it with the spirit and the atmosphere of the original comic. Gone are the flickering CGI effects that made everything look like a computer game, and gone are the usual superhero movie clichés… and what we’re left with feels rather like a definitive Spider-Man novel, that gets us to the heart of everything that was good about that character in the first place.
David is a class act. This is my first time reading him, I believe, and I’m delighted to find his prose as fast and direct as webbing fluid – and what’s more: it sticks. It just runs along effortlessly and takes us with it. He dances rings around the original material – introducing fabulous extras, such as scenes from the point of view of the runty radioactive spider who bites Peter Parker, and Peter’s own letters to his departed parents. The whole book is chockablock with Easter Eggs, as they call them: little mentions and glimpses and references to Marvel characters and stories, sprinkled like goblin dust throughout the text.
I loved it from start to finish. If I were Marvel I’d repackage it without reference to the film at all and let it stand by itself. And, of course, as soon as I finished it, I ordered the next two from Ebay (my Beach House Mountain isn’t getting any smaller.) As I remember, the two sequel movies were slightly ropey? So I’m hoping that novelizations work in inverse ratio and the books will get even better.