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  1. #1
    Groucho Marxiste Omar Karindu's Avatar
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    Thumbs up Why I Don't like the Totem Storyline from JMS's Spider-Man Part One

    Part I: It Wasn't a Story, It Was a Writer's Quirk

    The totem story wasn't a bad idea necessarily, but based on the execution it was probably never going to be a significant or lasting addition to the Spider-Man premise or the serial narrative. At a fundamental level, it simply had much less going on than there appeared to be on the surface. As I'll show at tedious length, the totem storyline falls apart thematically and at the plot level when even a few very basic, simple questions are asked. In the end, it wasn't an idea or a perspective; it was a hollow exercise in yammering vaguely about the words "totem" and "animal."

    I'll start with a cheerfully unfair comparison. Probably the most memorable example of adding a spiritual or mystical component to a superhuman origin that had previously been "scientific" is Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. Now, that's an unfair comparison, since Moore had both a freer hand and a larger goal when he revised Swampy's backstory, but it's undeniably the touchstone for this sort of thing. Moore revised Swamp Thing's origin to fundamentally change the stakes of the book. The plots shifted radically. Instead of being Alec Holland's quest to regain his humanity, the story was now about Swamp Thing's quest to come to terms with his lack of humanity, and to discover what he really was and what powers and responsibilities -- eh? eh? -- his new state of being entailed.

    More basically, however, the reason it worked, and indeed, gained lasting acclaim, was that it changed the themes of the book as well. Swamp Thing became, more or less permanently thereafter, a title about a very specific, increasingly detailed mystical cosmology of elemental forces and avatars, heavens and hells, of ecological parables and tales of the difference between nature's perspective and humanity's -- and most of all about the practical actions needed to retain the balance of these forces and perspectives. That was clear from the very first arc, where the villainous Floronic Man becomes the vengeful self-declared avatar of the plant world, slaughtering human beings for polluting and deforesting and so on...until Swamp Thing pointed out the very real ecological role of all the "meat" the Floronic Man wanted to eradicate, at which point the poor villain lost his connection to the plant world and went irretrievable, solipsistically mad.

    Put briefly, Moore had a vision, and made his changes to spell that vision out, to set an agenda and follow it through.

    When we compare the Spider-totem, the whole thing seems much less ambitious and, more damningly, much less considered as a a storyline.

    Superficially, it didn't start from the same place Moore's revision did. JMS doesn't really explore deep spiritual visions when he develops superhero origin stories. Rather, he simply likes to rewrite "random" origin events into intelligently directed, even destined occurrences. In his run of Fantastic Four, he explained that the cosmic rays storm that had empowered the heroes was actually the work of a member of a heretofore unseen intelligent alien race; in his own Rising Stars, superpowers are dynastic and predictable inheritances, not the results of mischance or accident.

    It's less a theme in his work than a preference, though. He doesn't seem to think of predestination or spirituality or intelligent design as actual themes with implications and importance in any of the works listed, for example. Rather, in his comics work he seems to be one of those writers who seems to dislike coincidence as the basis of fundamental, premise-making plot points.

    The problem in a shared-universe feature work is that he rarely follows through on the reasonable implications of the plot changes of this sort of premise revision. In Fantastic Four, for example, we're left to wonder where the cosmic rays that created the Red Ghost and his Apes, the U-Foes, and so forth came from. As written, the event that empowered the heroes should have been singular and unrepeatable. The JMS story sort of forgets those other cosmic-ray characters and their origin stories exist, which is part of why it's never been referenced again.

    The other reason the story has been mostly forgotten is that the new aliens that JMS tied to the origin retcon weren't very interesting, and once they stopped showing up, no one ever needed to refer to what they allegedly did again. As you'll see, that's essentially what happened to the totem storyline as well -- the consequences were so thin and so uninspired that even when it was recently brought back up in the storyline that -- ugh -- resurrected Kraven the Hunter, it was radically altered. That story even went to the trouble of assuring us that Ezekiel, the one character from the original totem storyline with a chance of catching on, was really dead and really not coming back.

  2. #2
    Groucho Marxiste Omar Karindu's Avatar
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    Part II: It Wasn't Thought Through

    The Totem storyline is a good case study in a retcon doomed by its poor follow-through and by the way it was used to introduce and tout the virtues of several quite uninspiring characters. Because it was used to establish or even spin off other characters like Arana, the Totem storyline was more than a mere perspective shift, as some have suggested in its defense. Unfortunately, it was also a lot less than a brilliant reimagining of the Spider-Man premise and sub-universe, as some people claimed at the time of publication. Really, in retrospect, the Totem storyline was at best a minor diversion from the usual Spider-business, but more generally an uncompelling, vaguely-plotted, under-imagined misfire.

    First, it was never all that clear what the "new perspective" actually meant or added, other than introducing one or two new villains. (And they weren't even particularly inspired villains, as I'll get into later.) As many have pointed out, Peter's basic mission didn't change and his personality was mostly unaffected by the totem stuff. All that really changed was that there was this new guy Ezekiel, talking about totems and new ideas of responsibility and hunters and such. Of course, Ezekiel was later revealed as vaguely lying about all of this to manipulate Peter into being some kind of sacrifice, so it was all a bit of a detour without consequences in the end. No harm done, right?

    Well, in a sense, sure: no lasting consequences to the franchise or the premise really occurred because of the Spider-Totem material, but that's mostly because the totem idea itself was handled inconsistently, vaguely, and inconsequentially by JMS himself. In another sense, though, the basic storytelling preference that animates JMS's Marvel origin retcons -- no coincidences! all events must have agency behind them! -- wreaks havoc with the formulae that Spidey is the hero who could be you, that power is linked to responsibility, and so on. As it turns out, the totems always have to *pick* someone, and of all the people at that radiation experiment, Peter was deemed the best suited. And why? According to the story, Peter Parker was picked because he'd been bullied, tormented, abused...he had rage and reasons for revenge in him.

    It's undeniable that this retcon diminishes, however slightly, the random chance aspect that was so central a theme in Marvel's Silver Age. More critically, though, it makes Uncle Ben and Aunt May and most readers wrong about Peter. He didn't gain powers and then neglect the responsibility they entailed, thus learning the hard way that he must never shirk his duties to use those powers responsibility for others' betterment. Instead, he got powers that were evidently meant to make him go out and get into fights with animal totem folks, to channel his inner resentments into predatory fury, and so forth.

    This is a serious thematic problem, then. all that power and responsibility stuff wasn't "another perspective;" it was just wrong. The moral choices characters make in the Spider-universe is thus not free choice. A world where totemic powers can compel humans to dress up as animals and get into fights with each other to fulfill some sort of vague magical-animistic pattern is fundamentally not a world where one can reasonably, intelligently demand moral responsibility from people. All those villains Peter fought? That wasn't because he chose to protect the innocent, it was because they were attracted to the fact that a magical spider was earlier attracted to him. Of course, no one in the story ever realizes this or acts on it. The totem storyline created a problem, but that problem had no consequences because even the writer didn't notice or care about it. The problem didn't exist when the totem material wasn't being talked about by the characters, and it went away completely when JMS left and the totems left with him.

    Peter's mission and personality aren't visibly changed because JMS had Peter mostly dismiss the totem stuff, even when it made no sense for a vaguely reasonable, sane character to do so. He didn't believe in it to begin with, but even after he saw and experienced things that should have challenged his point of view -- the mass of spiders that consumed Shathra, his own and Morlun's otherwise inexplicable resurrections, Ezekiel's very existence -- none of it made a lasting dent in Peter's worldview. This isn't so much a writer having it both ways as it is a character failing to react in a remotely credible fashion to extraordinary, bizarre events that happened to *him*. The fact that Peter was written as the same guy with some new physical traits after The Other says a lot about how badly JMS thought through the character implications of the totem material. It also tells us that this who totem business is so unimportant that it doesn't even matter to the title character himself.

    Even at the level of plot detail, it caused some rather problematic implications. For starters, it made the new totem-based villains utterly awful characters. Now, I know a lot of people liked Morlun, especially in his first appearance, because he got some witty lines and he was given a fearsome degree of persistence and physical strength. And he worked very well for that one story arc. The problem is that Shathra repeated the same plot ideas in a way that revealed their shortcomings, and later Morlun was resurrected minus the traits that had made him fun and interesting to read about the first time around.

    The reason Morlun and Shathra are not long-term villains of interest is that their shared motivation is fundamentally limiting. They want to kill Spider-Man because they feed on totem-people -- in Shathra's case, specifically spider-totem-people -- and this desire defines their existences. It's not clear, for starters, who these characters are other than hunters. Were Morlun and Shathra once normal humans like Ezekiel and Peter? Are they something else? What do they do when they aren't hunting, other than shop for clothes? Where does Morlun's money come from that he can buy clothes anyway? How did Dex come into his service in the first place, and why would anyone actually work for him? If they were human, why do the wasp-nature and the whatever-the-hell-Morlun's-totem-is nature override their bearers' personalities entirely while the spider-totem clearly doesn't have much influence at all? JMS never indicates the slightest interest in answering these basic questions about his own characters. If even the writer is that uninterested in the characters, I can't see why a reader should care about them at all.

    I'll admit that Ezekiel was sometimes interesting, though the least interesting thing about him turned out to be his spider-powers and their origins. The idea of Peter having a mentor who at first seems more mature, more farsighted about responsibility and power than Peter himself, is a really, really good one. Alas, the tie-in to the totem storyline meant that Ezekiel had to become just another undermotivated hunter, a man trying to escape a ritual sacrifice with his name on it, instead of a genuine challenge to Peter's views and perspectives.

    But by turning Ezekiel's provocative questions and implications into a pack of self-serving lies, the story demonstrates that it isn't interested in challenge, change, or provocation any more than it is interested in introducing and developing consistent, multifaceted characters. Morlun and Shathra exist because they have particular powers that will make them very hard for Peter to beat up in a fistfight, and they attack Peter because a Spider-Man comic requires fistfights. They act, but have no real personalities, and they appear and die largely without consequence as a result. Ezekiel is the exception...but then, he lies about pretty much everything, so he ends up having little to no verifiable personality or human motivations beyond irresponsibility anyway.

  3. #3
    Groucho Marxiste Omar Karindu's Avatar
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    Part III: It Didn't Add Much of Lasting Value

    Leaving aside the new totem-villains, it's also quite hard to connect the totems to any of the other animal-themed villains' origins or motivations. With Spider-Man, Ezekiel, and the like, the totem has to act through certain animals or rituals. Most of Spider-Man's villains are labeled "pretenders: to totemic powers because they don't have these deep mystical links -- Doc Ock wasn't bitten by an octopus, the Chameleon started out just using masks, the Vulture was just an old guy with a flight suit, and Kraven..well, Kraven never called himself Lion-O or anything, so I'm not sure why he was depicted as one of the pretenders at all. But somehow, Spider-Man's sheer, uh, totemness influences them to pretend to be totems because they secretly want to be totems even though none of them have any reason to be connected to the totems in the first place. The word "totem" has no meaning. It's fairly clear that for most purposes "totem" is just a word JMS uses to mean "animal motif," only with never-developed hints of deep spiritual portent.

    Ultimately, the story didn't matter, and the problems it caused never became lasting problems, because JMS himself didn't actually seem to care much about what the totems meant spiritually or metaphysically or whatever. In cosmological terms, the Totem arc was a reveal that the very notion that the Marvel Universe contains a group of eternal animal totems that empower human avatars to do battle in their names. Now, this is a complication to be added to a cosmology that already include a wide range of intelligent or pseudo-intelligent beings. There are abstract personifications of Eternity, Death, Chaos, and Order; Celestial and Kree genetic engineers; pagan pantheons of humanoid gods and demigods; extant magical beings like the Vishanti, the Elder Gods, and Dormmamu; and supernatural beasties like vampires and werewolves.

    Heck, most of the mystical threats that Spider-Man faced in the JMS run weren't linked to the totems at all -- most of them were guys like the astrral plane villain, or the sorceress Loki needed help with, and so on. Even JMS's own magical plots couldn't make the totems seem like a significant or valuable or interestingly novel addition to the MU's rich cosmology. Small wonder, then, that they haven't popped up again outside of a dreadfully poor Black Panther storyline everyone's already forgotten about and an even worse Kraven storyline most readers are actively trying to forget. As if to underline the point, that Kraven story didn't even use the word "totem," presumably for the same reason that no one on the X-books was willng to call Joseph a clone of Magneto after what that word had come to mean next door in Spideytown.

    When we compare this to the DC universe as altered by Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, we realize that Doctor Fate and Superman and Green Lantern and the Spectre had, at the time, rarely if ever encountered abstract beings or given elaborate metaphysical or mythical backstories to their foes or themselves. Sure, there were vague mutterings of a never-seen God and exclamations of "Great Rao!" and some generically Satanic demons, and yeah, the Monitors and the Guardians were there to set up the Green Lanterns and the parallel Earths, but it was a fairly simple, unexplored cosmos at the time. After Moore, we had an explosion of heroes with elemental roles like Swampy's (Red Tornado, Firestorm, and Animal Man all got into the act at one point or another). These elemental forces worked to do things -- to keep the ecology of the Earth going in specific ways, for example, and to connect intelligent life to natural force in the name of that balance. The "elemental" retcon had a purpose and role for storytelling, giving the DCU a new and needed metaphorics for stories of ecological bent, or for playing out the ancient "man vs. nature" conflict. Moore gave the DC universe the pathetic fallacy, in other words.

    But Marvel already had that in spades, as I've shown above. Jim Starlin dines out on it to this day. What, though, do the totems do in JMS's story? They eat each other, in imitation of the animals they resemble or perhaps began with, but...why? To what purpose? Again, there's nothing defined as at stake, no reason this totem-world of predation and sacrifice and empowerment actually happens. Nothing really depends on it as far as the story can be bothered to explain.

    True, there's a lot of talk about a supernatural food chain, but unlike the real food chain, which is part of evolutionary pressures in which creatures change and develop, the spiritual essences themselves are eternal and unchanging by nature. When Ezekiel dies, the spider-power itself doesn't die, just whatever poor schmuck is carrying it around. Morlun's been eating totem-folk for decades, but it's not as if there are any lasting consequences when Spider-Man doesn't get eaten or when Morlun later wins. Neither he nor Morlun really stay dead, after all, and Morlun moves on to another comic despite, er, dying yet again. This means it's not a food chain in any real sense either; it's a pointless, ceaseless cycle that can be repeatedly altered and violated at no apparent cost to anyone. It means nothing -- "supernatural food chain" is merely buzzwords littering the page.

    If the totems offer a spiritual perspective, what is that perspective? They do not seem to answer any metaphysical "why?" that Thor and Hercules and Eternity and Mephisto don't answer better and earlier. Unlike DC's elementals, they don't seem to contribute to or affect material ecology. (Shathra died, but it's not as if the wasps of the world became subservient to its spiders as a result.) The totems exist to give people powers and make them fight, because...I guess because fights happen in superhero comics and Spider-Man villains often dress as animals. It's the solution to a mystry that was never a mystery, the answer to a question whose answer doesn't matter.

    The story perhaps missed its big chance to man something when it refused to bring in any recognizable elements of real-world animism. it has no perspective regarding why the totems exist, or why it's important that they exist, or why they act through humanoid beings at all. They don't pose a moral issue, because they can't. Spiders aren't making a moral choice when they eat wasps, and vice-versa. So why Peter is good and Shathra is manipulative and wicked is utterly unclear. The stakes of the fights also don't seem to affect the wider world. If Morlun kills Spider-Man, what happens other than Spider-Man being dead? What are the spiritual stakes of that battle, pray tell? Is it going to be a bad harvest that year? Will Halloween be ruined by an absence of spooky cobwebs? If it's a spiritual perspective, the spiritual world of animistic totems needs some definition and some significance beyond a few uninspired cults of wasp- and spider-worshippers far from Peter's New York stomping grounds who don't like each other very much.

    Frankly, the totems don't *do* anything all that important, or interesting, or nuanced, or exciting, or challenging, or clever. Not to the plot, not to the themes, and not to the some axis of "perspective" that shifts from comic-book pseudo-science to comic-book pseudo-spirituality. They're just there because JMS noticed animal names pop up a lot in a comic book about a guy with an animal name. The totem storyline isn't a clever new angle or perspective, it's not a statement of ideas or beliefs. It's some empty phrases masquerading as a high concept, a way to introduce new antagonists without the bother of writing actual characters or backstories.

  4. #4

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    I agree with a lot of what you say here, and think it's an exceptional analysis. I haven't read the totem stories in a while, so I can't comment on some of the minutae (other than the fact that I did enjoy reading the totem stories, regardless of their conceptual faults. Even The Other had a few good points amidst the nonsense.)

    One thing that strikes me as I read this is that these critiques could be applied to most of JMS' Spider-Man stories. Almost all of his stories were self-contained arcs with disparate premises and few shared threads. He didn't have much of a supporting cast for Peter beyond Aunt May and Mary Jane, and both of those characters had their journeys completed in short order (both involving them coming to terms with Peter's dual life). Even the totem stuff only went through a few story arcs, none of them consecutive (IIRC). The longest uninterrupted arc in JMS' Spider-Man was the Civil War stuff, and that was all just building towards the reboot, with the writing on the wall that none of it was going to matter.

    Beyond that, we got.... evil drug dealer guy Shade, evil corporate guy Doc Ock #2, evil gamma zombie mobster guy, the Loki story, the Happy Birthday time-travel story, Sins Past, evil childhood friend Molten Man #2, evil Hydra Avengers copies, and some other villains I'm probably forgetting with the same shelf-life (or lack thereof). I suppose that JMS could be forgiven for writing in a "Monster of the Week" format, given how he came out of the TV industry when he arrived at Marvel. But he came off of Babylon 5, which pretty much ditched that formula after its first season ended...

  5. #5
    14 Time Rita's Champion SUPERECWFAN1's Avatar
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    I have always said if JMS had left ASM right at the Loki story , and just ended his run there , we would be discussing how pretty solid it was. Totem added an aspect to Peter's life that was missing since Madame Web . In it the whole totem and destiny a Spider-Man would emerge. Today we see the new Madame Web basically tell Peter that if he wants he could quit in #673 and retire. That someone else in destiny would take his role.

    The other aspect of the Totem was the rogues created for it. Morlun and the female rogue who wanted to mate and kill Peter. It was unique rogues for Peter and ones he really hadn't had any new unique rogues in years created for him.

    In all , I didn't hate the Totem run . Its when JMS went away from it and suddenly pushed horrible events in like Sins Past , The Other and Back in Black that made me think his run went to shit there at the end.
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