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  1. #1
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    Default What "The Final Curtain" Has To Say About Life and Spider-Man

    An analysis of Paul Jenkins’ masterpiece Christmas story in The Spectacular Spider-Man #27.

    https://subatomicviewer.wordpress.co...nd-spider-man/

    If you want deep dives into Peter Parker’s psychology, J.M. DeMatteis (JMD) and Paul Jenkins are your go-to guys for that. Thanks to mainstream masterpieces like Kraven’s Last Hunt, any new reader will learn of JMD from more-or-less the first moment they get into comics. Paul Jenkins is well known too, but maybe not immediately with new Spider-Man fans the way the former is.

    Since it’s Christmas, we will be looking at one of my favorite deep dives into Peter Parker’s psyche by Jenkins, which also happens to be a Christmas story. We will be looking at Vol. 2 Issue #27 of The Spectacular Spider-Man titled “The Final Curtain” – not to be confused with Season 2 Episode 26 of The Spectacular Spider-Man titled “Final Curtain”. Yes, that happened twice.
    PREMISE

    The Final Curtain was published in 2005 and takes place during the JMS run, not too long after Peter and MJ reunited and May found out that he is Spider-Man. To summarize twenty-two pages in just a few paragraphs, the entire story is about Peter visiting Uncle Ben’s grave sometime in December close to Christmas. He stops by to drop off a gift for Uncle Ben, but begins imagining talking to Uncle Ben as if he were there. In reality, the “conversation” is just Peter talking to himself, but attributing the wise and insightful “voice” in his head to Uncle Ben.

    He tells “Uncle Ben” what is troubling him, and about a nightmare he keeps having. “They” reminisce over some old memories, including some from Peter’s childhood with his parents. Uncle Ben offers Peter some advice, and Peter goes home where he finally dreams a good dream.

    Jenkins could have set this story anytime of the year, and the basic story beats would have worked just fine. Aside from the time of year, there are several other reasons why this counts as a holiday story:

    1. Christmas is often a time when people remember their family and friends – those alive, and also those who are gone. Here, Peter reminisces over Ben, Gwen, his parents and all the other people he lost over the years.

    2. Christmas is also close to New Year’s, when people often reflect on past memories, feelings of guilt or regret, and on any progress they made. In other words, it’s also a time about trying to move on and accepting change – at one Peter even says he feels overwhelmed with all the recent change in his life. It’s therefore a New Year’s story as much as it is a Christmas story.

    3. Much like how Christmas is a tradition that goes back a long time, Peter visiting Uncle Ben’s grave is a tradition that goes decades back in comics. Since tradition is one of the things Christmas is about, Peter visiting Uncle Ben’s grave during this time makes perfect sense.

    In short, The Final Curtain not only has a lot wisdom to teach us about life and about our hero; it also did right where the live-action movies dropped the ball a bit (or a lot). At the end of the next three sections, we will also briefly compare what Jenkins does here with what the live-action movies did and where they could have improved.
    “YOU PAIR OF TWITS!”

    As mentioned, Peter visiting Ben’s grave to “talk” to him and leave gifts is a tradition that goes decades back in Spider-Man comics. In fact, it’s not even the first time it happened in Jenkins’ run – the first time it happened being in Peter Parker: Spider-Man #20, which is also the issue that starts off Jenkins’ run on Spider-Man. Funny enough, The Final Curtain is also Jenkins’ last issue on Spider-Man. In other words, him ending his run with yet another story of Peter talking to Uncle Ben’s grave is, in essence, his six-year run on the character coming full circle.

    Despite us seeing Peter visit Uncle Ben’s grave already in the past, to my knowledge this is the only time we “see” Uncle Ben talking back to Peter as if he were actually there. The only other instance was in Amazing Spider-Man #500, which came out not long before this did. JMS had Peter talk to Uncle Ben there too, but in the case of ASM #500 it was the actual Uncle Ben – thanks to a bit of help from Doctor Strange (too long to explain). If Jenkins chose to exclude Uncle Ben and just have Peter talk to his grave again like in PP:SM #20, I think the story would have played out the same. By having Uncle Ben take the form of Peter’s inner voice though, Jenkins deep dives into what exactly Ben means to Peter.

    Arguably, what Uncle Ben represents in this story is Peter’s conscience and inner coach.

    In psychology, there are two concepts called the “inner coach” and “inner critic”. To sum them up in just a few sentences, the basic idea is that every person has two “voices” in their heads: one that sounds like a coach trying to help you out, and the other that sounds like a critic putting you down. The “inner critic” would be the voice in your head that criticizes you and puts you down with what’s called “negative self-talk”. By contrast, the “inner coach” would be the voice in your head that tries to uplift you with what’s called “positive self-talk” and with a non-judgmental attitude.[1] Obviously these are not literal voices in your head (for most people anyway), and don’t literally talk to you as if they’re some person living in your brain; nonetheless they’re called that because they can have the same impact on you as a coach or critic in the real world. In some cases, if someone in the real world acted like a coach or critic to you for a huge portion of your life (e.g. a parent), you might even imagine your inner coach or critic to kind of look and sound like that person without realizing it.[2]

    Spider-Man stories were never entirely absent of these concepts. Just like Peter visiting Ben’s grave, Peter dealing with inner conflict or having a supporting character that embodies parts of his inner conflict goes back to Lee/Ditko. For example, some Spider-Man fans consider Jameson a metaphor for Spider-Man’s “inner critic” because Jameson sees the worst in Spider-Man the same way that an “inner critic” would.[3] (The Insomniac games even took this idea to the next level by giving Jameson a radio show that Peter listens to while he is swinging – turning Jameson into a literal voice in Peter’s ear at all times). I think that that is true but by that line of reasoning, Uncle Ben is Peter’s “inner coach”, especially in this story. More specifically, it is what Peter imagines his “inner coach” to look and sound like. It is for that reason why Peter’s “inner coach” in this story takes the form of Uncle Ben.

    In hindsight, Uncle Ben taking the form of Peter’s “inner coach” in a story like this is to be expected:

    1. For one, inner coaches or critics (as we just explained) are more likely to resemble a parent. Ben is the father that raised Peter, so based on that alone it makes sense.
    2. It also makes sense when considering that “with great power comes great responsibility” is Peter’s core philosophy, the one that he tries to live by the most and that he got from Uncle Ben (albeit retroactively in comics history, but still).
    3. The fact that Peter visits Ben’s grave so often to reflect and to “ask” for advice is further proof of how much Peter still looks to his uncle for guidance. Even in Peter Parker: Spider-Man #20, the reason Peter visited Ben there was figure out how to rediscover the joy in his life after losing MJ in a plane crash (again, too long to explain).

    In other words, Peter’s “inner coach” resembling Uncle Ben is a reminder of the kind of father that Ben was, and that he continues to have a positive influence on Peter’s life and thought processes everyday. But Uncle Ben’s impact on Peter doesn’t stop there. The flashbacks we see when Peter is reminiscing about his childhood, and also the banter between Peter and Ben here, give us a better idea of what Ben’s personality was like in day-to-day life. Based on what Jenkins shows us, Ben’s personality had quite a bit in common with Spider-Man’s.

    Jenkins writes Uncle Ben here as someone with a great sense of humor, who can keep up with Peter’s banter and has a misfit, lively personality to him. We see panels where Peter and Ben would pull pranks on May by building snowmen in places they “shouldn’t” have throughout their neighborhood, including a hilarious moment where May finds snowmen in their car. Peter also briefly mentions a time when Uncle Ben played one on him by unwrapping Peter’s Christmas toys to play with them before he could. Any way we look at it, the story implies that a lot of Peter’s personality as Spider-Man comes from Uncle Ben too. Peter always has a sense of liveliness and mischief while in costume; this story is Jenkins arguably trying to explain where at least some of that influence came from.

    At the same time, the humor we see from Uncle Ben in the flashbacks is not completely interchangeable with the humor we associate with Spider-Man. There is an innocence and a lack of snark to be found in both Ben’s humor and the humor of seven-year-old Peter. Since we know Peter’s history, we know that his innocence is gone by the time we first see him as a teenager in Amazing Fantasy #15, and that by the time he becomes Spider-Man, he is all snark. Basically, what Jenkins is also communicating via the flashbacks is the loss of innocence that comes with growing up.
    Last edited by Kaitou D. Kid; 11-26-2023 at 09:41 AM.

  2. #2
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    Part 2 (cont.):

    The innocence we see in seven-year-old Peter makes the flashbacks a bit tragic to read in a way that I’m sure everyone who has “grown up” and left their childhood behind is familiar with. It’s also tragic for the simple fact that Ben is now, well, dead. And yet, it’s bittersweet and magical the way all Christmas memories from our childhoods are. We all have those “perfect” Christmas memories from when we were kids that we look back fondly on, often when someone close to us was still alive but is now gone. It’s yet another way that Jenkins manages to make this feel like a Christmas story, and why the story is a great tribute to Uncle Ben and what he means to Peter.

    WHERE THE MOVIES WENT WRONG

    Enough has been said already about the MCU’s omission of Uncle Ben. I’m not going to get into the nitty-gritty details about that here, since the whole internet is familiar with that critique by now.

    I’ll just clarify that my problem was never that he didn’t come up per se, but that he didn’t come up in places he would naturally come up. Some of the scenes where he would have naturally came up would have taken no effort, like showing him in a picture or simply including a gravestone next to Aunt May’s at the end of No Way Home. The fact that it was so insanely easy to allude to him in certain places (but still chose not to) makes the whole omission feel artificial instead of organic.

    However, the MCU also does a disservice to Uncle Ben by reducing him to just the slogan “with great power comes great responsibility”, and by essentially arguing that him and May are interchangeable. There is a lot more to Uncle Ben – or any believable parental figure for that matter, real or fictional – than just a Wikipedia page. I believe this is one of the stories that shows just how much there can be to Ben Parker and to the history that he shares with his nephew.
    THE EIGHT-LEGGED ANT


    As Peter continues to reminisce over his childhood, he remembers a time from first grade when his parents were still alive and he was in a school play. We then get another flashback to Peter’s seven-year-old self. As we deep dive into it, we will learn a lot about (1) what Spider-Man really is and (2) about how Peter sees Spider-Man.

    We learn that Peter was once in a school play called “Soldier Ants and Ladybugs”. He was one of the ants in the play, and was apparently looking forward to being in it for an entire week leading up to the play. They also apparently let the students come up with their own costumes for the play, since we see a seven-year-old Peter drawing an ant costume and getting Aunt May to make it. As I’m sure it’s obvious by the panel, Peter’s costume resembles more of a spider than an ant, since it has eight legs instead of six. It’s also red and blue, and would clearly come to eventually resemble his Spider-Man suit. In a way, this is the first “Spider-Man” costume Peter ever wore.

    There are two meta-jokes in here that crack me up. The first is how Peter apparently insisted his costume should have eight legs instead of six because he wanted to be “more than just an ant”. As longtime Spider-Man fans know, Spidey will often jokingly correct people that spiders aren’t insects whenever someone calls him an insect in the comics. To see Peter himself sort-of fall for that misconception is hilarious. The second is Ben jokingly telling Peter’s dad he should only worry if Peter wears it to his senior prom – the irony being that Peter wore his red-and-blue Spider-Man costume under his clothes throughout his entire senior year of high school, and only didn’t wear it to prom because the Lee/Ditko run didn’t show one (prom was not a major high school tradition until after the 1960’s). Still, Peter did wear it under his clothes at his graduation and at several college dances, and continues to wear it under his clothes as a grown man. (Honestly, considering the sliding timescale nature of 616 and the fact we know there are more stories that happened in high school thanks to stuff like Untold Tales, Comics Peter probably wore his Spider-Man suit to prom too.)

    The eight-legged ant costume itself actually symbolizes several things:

    1. It’s a metaphor for Peter being an outcast and for his awkwardness as a kid – eight-legged ants to our knowledge don’t exist, and such an ant would be a mutation and aberration from the “norm”.
    2. It’s a foreshadow of who and what he would eventually become.
    3. Peter says he wanted to be “more than just an ant” and seems to view being “just an ant” as a bad thing.

    Regarding that last point, not wanting to be associated with an ant is arguably more common than we might think. I remember when Ant-Man came out in 2015, some thought the name “Ant-Man” wasn’t cool enough – so much that the movie itself threw in a joke over whether or not “it’s too late to change the name”. Others were confused why “Spider-Man” was seen as a cool name but “Ant-Man” wasn’t. Personally, I thought the double standard there was obvious: ants are known for their tiny size and insignificance, while spiders are not (helps that many species of spiders are quite big). If you say the word “spider” to a random person, first thing that might pop in their mind besides Spider-Man would probably be a spider’s webs, or the way it crawls and bites, or some of a spider’s creepy physical characteristics like their high number of legs and eyes. If you say “ant” to a random person, first thing they’ll probably think about is the tiny size of the ant. People may hate and fear spiders, but they’ll literally look down on ants. That is if they bother to look down at them in the first place. Usually ants are just ignored and not given any thought before they are stepped on and squashed like a bug (hence the expression). Do you remember the last time you accidentally stepped on an ant while you were walking? Me neither.

    In other words, ants are a lot like Peter before he got his powers: tiny, powerless, ignored and stepped on by the bigger guys and the bullies. Essentially, Peter wanting to be “more than just an ant” is a sign that Peter was always looking for an escape from his life and from what he was seen as by society. That escape is, of course, what Spider-Man ended up being.

    At the same time, it’s important to note that Peter didn’t clue in that his costume looked more like a spider. Nor was it the intent. The messiness of the costume shows that Peter wanted to be “more than just an ant” – AKA more than what he was as at the time – but he still had no idea what he actually wanted to be. It’s the opposite of the Peter from Amazing Fantasy #15, who had a very specific idea of the kind of person he wanted to be after he made his costume and started doing public appearances.

    In the next panels we finally see Peter on stage in full costume, with his parents and aunt and uncle watching from the house. Peter apparently had only one line in the play, which he apparently practiced for the whole week and couldn’t wait to deliver it… only for him to experience stage fright and go silent. Far cry from the Spider-Man who would come to quip nonstop off the top of his head, isn’t it? Arguably nothing demonstrates better how much Spider-Man is about growth than if we compare Peter in the play here with what we know he’ll be like when he is older.

    Jenkins in these flashbacks explicitly draws attention to an idea that has been subtext in comics since AF#15. That idea is that Peter to a certain extent views Spider-Man as a performance he gives to the world watching. More specifically, he views it as a performance of his best self, or of what he wishes and imagines his “best self” to be.

    Keeping this in mind, certain things about the “Spider-Man persona” start to make sense. For example, it makes sense why Peter picked red and blue as the colors for his costume – both for his “ant” costume as a kid, but also for his superhero suit. Red and blue are primary colors, which stick out more than other colors. The colors of the costume thus reflect Peter’s deep desire to be seen and acknowledged by the world, and to not be “invisible”. The line of dialogue in the play that he had as a kid, and the quips in the case of his older self, are likewise part of the persona and image he wishes to project. It also explains why one of Peter’s first instincts when he first got his powers in AF#15 was to be a television performer.

    It’s clear that what Peter envisions to be his “best self” and the image he wishes to project and to captivate the world with has certain specific traits. They are the traits of a person that is confident, entertaining, and at least somewhat talkative – all of those being traits that (at the time) he struggled to emulate and embody at school and in daily life.
    Full link: https://subatomicviewer.wordpress.co...nd-spider-man/

  3. #3
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    Thanks for sharing this essay. Quite insightful.
    The spider is always on the hunt.

  4. #4
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    Glad you enjoyed it!

  5. #5
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    I really like deep dives into why an issue of a comic book that I enjoyed is even better than I remembered.
    Sincerely,
    Thomas Mets

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