Friday, November 13, 2009

For the Love of Comics #4: Spider-Man in the Rye

Art by Jack Kirby (left); Willie Jimenez (right)

Words: Christopher Irving

While Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye and Peter Parker/Spider-Man from his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 are from contrasting genres and modes of storytelling, they both come of age through the grieving process.
Holden, the protagonist of Catcher, is a prep school misfit who is expelled for poor classroom performance. At the opening of the novel, he is standing alone on Thomsen Hill, feeling dejected since he disappointed the fencing team by forgetting their gear on a New York subway car. By standing apart from the student body, Holden's role as social misfit and loner is brought out from the outset of the novel.

Holden goes to meet up with his elderly professor, Mr. Spencer, who proceeds to berate Holden for his poor performance at Pencey Prep. The example of poor classwork that Spencer presents as testimony to Holden's ineptitude is an essay on mummification in Ancient Egypt, an example Spencer flunked Holden over. Author J.D. Salinger introduces us to Holden's symptoms within the first two chapters, and reveals the source of Holden's pathos by page 38, when Holden describes his brother Allie's baseball mitt:
[Allie]'s dead now. He got leukemia and died when we were up in Maine on July 18, 1946. You'd have liked him. He was two years younger than I was, but he was about fifty times as intelligent...

Holden not only has difficulties in living up to the example his younger brother had set, but suffers from "survivor's guilt" in losing Allie, perhaps in not treating his kid brother the way he wishes he had when he was alive. Throughout Catcher in the Rye, Holden struggles with his own sense of mortality and vulnerability, all something he denied acknowledging since Allie's death.

Out of sheer frustration, Holden decides to run away from school to go to the city, which is where, being faced with death on a few occasions, he will finally acknowledge his mortality and come to grips with Allie's death. As a defense mechanism, he often jokes about death, or refers to it in a figurative manner (there are several examples of Holden referring to something as "killing" him). The first instance of his light-heartedness towards death occurs on the train leaving Pencey. He is seated next to the mother of a classmate and he tells he will soon have a "brain tumor" removed.

After sending a prostitute out of his hotel room in New York, Holden starts talking to Allie; "I do that sometimes, when I get very depressed." What he tells "Allie" is to "get his bike and meet me..," which is Holden's attempt to correct an instance he shut his younger brother out. This is a sign of guilt on Holden's behalf and his attempt to fix something he still blames himself over. Shortly after, Holden is beaten by a pimp, and experiences his first brush with his own mortality. Afterwards, he says "I thought I was dying” and, before truly acknowledging his brush with death, pretends he is a movie character with a bullet in his gut.

When Holden encounters a couple of nuns, he discusses the play Romeo and Juliet with them, claiming his favorite character as Mercutio. "I liked him the best in the play, old Mercutio...He was very smart and entertaining and all." Mercutio, the comic relief of the play, is caught between the Capulet and Montague war and killed. It seems Holden identifies with Mercutio and, perhaps feeling guilty over Allie's death, wishes himself dead as well. However, due to his immaturity, Holden (like Mercutio) uses humor as a defense mechanism to keep from acknowledging that vulnerability.

His next brush with mortality comes when a drunken Holden stumbles into Central Park and develops chunks of ice on his wet hair. "I thought I'd probably get pneumonia and die." Holden begins to worry about his own funeral before recalling how at Allie's funeral "All the visitors could get in their cars and turn on their radios and all and then go someplace nice for dinner - everybody except Allie.” It is clear that Holden’s guilt goes down to the level of the funeral goers; he views them as embarrassing houseguests whom he has brought along to an important person’s house, and takes the responsibility on his own shoulders.
Holden’s guilt seems just one thing that he has repressed: he recalls the death of Castle, a fellow student at his old prep school of Elkton Hills. Castle was beaten by other students for calling another one conceited and refusing to take the comment back. In order to escape the torture and beating, Castle jumped out of a window, and to his death. Holden’s only connection to Castle was in loaning Castle his sweater as a favor, the same sweater Castle was wearing when he died. Holden must have looked at Castle as the way he should have been when Maurice the pimp beat him in his hotel room: defiant and willing to die for that defiance.

The moment where Holden finally acknowledges his mortality is in the museum. After bringing two boys to the mummy exhibit, Holden comes to peace with the general idea of death: “I was the only one left in the tomb then. I sort of liked it, in a way. It was nice and peaceful.” Then, Holden realizes that peace can not be found anywhere, when he finds “Fuck You” written in graffiti on the tomb wall. “You can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any.” He left Pencey Prep with an unconscious deathwish, thinking death the only escape into peace; it took something as simple as a scrawled profanity to realize that ultimate peace is unobtainable in life or death. When he passes out in the men’s room, having nearly “killed” himself, he awakes feeling better and more alive than (perhaps) he has the entire book.
When Holden meets up with his sister Phoebe and decides to return home rather than run away, he not only decides to choose life (as unpeaceful as it may be), he allows her to be his Catcher in the Rye, preventing him from hurtling off the cliff to his death. Holden has come of age and realized that he must accept life, no matter what knocks it renders to him.

Where Holden Caulfield is an antihero of 20th century American literature, Peter Parker/Spider-Man is the first antihero of superhero comic books. Much like Holden Caulfield, Peter Parker tries to escape his flawed life, and makes a fateful decision when faced with mortality.
From the first page of Amazing Fantasy #15 by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, Peter Parker is shown standing aloof from a group of fellow teenagers at his high school (much like Holden alone on the hill). “Peter Parker? He’s Midtown High’s only professional wallflower!” a girl in the group states, while one student points and another dismisses the forlorn Parker with a wave of his hand. Unlike Holden, though, Parker has a support system at home in his elderly Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Ironically, his old-fashioned upbringing makes him unable to relate to others his age.

Peter is also a teenage outcast; the only difference is that Parker sincerely tries to fit in, but can’t seem to fit in with his interests in science. When he invites peers to go to a science hall exhibit, they turn him down with a flippant “You stick to science, son! We’ll take the chicks!” and turn their backs on him. At the science hall, a spider interrupts an experiment and “the dying insect, in sudden shock, bites the nearest living thing, at the split second before life ebbs from its radioactive body!” That nearest living thing is Peter Parker, who suddenly feels woozy from the bite by the burning and glowing spider.
Nearly hit by a passing car on his walk home, Peter’s instinctive jump becomes a spider-like leap onto the side of a building, and he scales the wall with his new power. Peter’s brush with the mortality of the spider, and with the near-miss with the car, ironically results in his finding his new life. Peter decides to test his new powers by competing against a wrestler for reward money, disguising himself to avoid embarrassment if he fails.

Peter wins the money after defeating the wrestler with his spider powers, and embarks upon a career as a masked showman, the Amazing Spider-Man. Wearing a black and red costume with a web design, spider-goggles, and a pair of “web-shooters” which shoot lines of “liquid cement” like a spider’s web, Peter makes the rounds on variety shows. The entire time, Peter has kept his Spider-Man identity secret from his loving aunt and uncle.
One night, after a show, Spider-Man fails to stop a thief from escaping a security guard. When the guard berates him, he comes back with “Sorry, pal! That’s YOUR job! I’m THRU being pushed around—by anyone! From now on I just look out for number one—that means—ME!” Peter continues his show career as Spider-Man until, on fateful night, he comes home to a police car parked in front of his house. A policeman notifies Peter of his Uncle Ben’s death, shot by a burglar the police have trapped in “the old Acme warehouse at the waterfront!” Angered, Peter runs to his room, changing into his Spider-Man costume. “A killer could hold off an army in that gloomy, old place!...But he won’t hold off—SPIDER-MAN!”

Determined to avenge Uncle Ben, Spider-Man swings across town to the dark and abandoned warehouse and defeats the burglar. When Spider-Man holds the burglar into the light, he sees his face and makes a horrid realization: “It’s the fugitive who ran past me! The one I didn’t stop when I had the chance!” Leaving the burglar tied up for the police, Spider-Man retreats to where he can remove his mask. “My fault—all my fault! If only I had stopped him when I COULD have! But I DIDN’T—and now—Uncle Ben—is dead...”
Walking down the dark streets, alone and dejected, Peter Parker is “aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility!”

The death of Holden’s brother sent Holden on a suicide course, where he grew apathetic at everything from guilt, and culminated in a life-threatening pilgrimage to New York. Holden’s final acknowledgement of mortality’s severity (and, in return, his vulnerability) was in his finally deciding to live.
Peter Parker’s brush with mortality allowed him to live on a social level; when he forsook his social responsibility as a citizen with the ability to make a difference, he lost the absolute peace provided him by his Uncle Ben. Peter’s existence became more tortured after his acknowledgement of mortality, where Holden’s existence became more peaceful after his.
In the end, the Holden Caulfield walked away with his kid sister, while the well-meaning Peter Parker walked away alone.

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