By Hannah Blumenreich
Distributed by Gumroad
Hannah Blumenreich’s Spidey Zine delights in every way and it’s free. Well, duh it better be.
Parody comes as easy in Comics as imitation. Like Fred Hembeck, Kate Beaton, and even blatant carpetbaggers (remember Zhmen?) Blumenreich follows in a long line of jokesters, jesters, and other lords of misrule who by their own brio or the occasional loosening of the corporate reins are allowed to have fun at the expense of cartoon characters whom many readers collectively agree should be taken as seriously as medical emergencies. What gets missed in this corporately-sanctioned, eighth-grade-dance sort of chaperoned fun is the delight of drawing a favorite character and telling their story your way.
There’s a wide gap between our culture’s constant nostalgic itch and thumbing a nose at our corporate betters. Such a work works as long as it has purpose and talent. Blumenreich’s Spidey Zine goes beyond the sincerity of child-like flattery to get at a real truth of beloved characters, Peter Parker and Aunt May. Better yet, Blumenreich shows the kind of talent and chutzpah it takes to pull inspiration from imitation. Her cartooning and coloring are competent (bordering on fine). Even if they’re short on flash, like backgrounds, her drawings have an emotional truth and attitude, which goes beyond aptitude. Now if it weren’t for those pesky morals and legalities. Must be that ol’ Parker luck.
Right from the jump, in plain black and white, Blumenreich confronts the elephant in the room: lawyers. She begins with a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer stating the obvious: “This is fan art and not official Marvel or Disney or whatever …” An IP cuts both ways. For its owner(s) it’s a license to print money. For the rest of us, a license to spend. Either way the more the better, just keep in mind who’s doing the bleeding. Artists can be agents of chaos in the barroom of pop culture, but lawyers tend the taps for their clients and few artists have the kind of folding money for those kind of lawyers. Blumenreich is not some snotty punk nor a ragamuffin atop the barricades crying out for “the freedom of ideas over corporate greed.” She wants to tell Spider-Man stories, her Spider-Man stories and also the not-getting-sued thing.
Few people would argue with Blumenreich’s constitutional right to create a satire or parody. O.K. corporate lawyers, maybe. But what about the creators who have paved the way for Blumenreich? Does over a half-century of the work-for-hire efforts by writers and artists, in the case of Spider-Man, make for a shakier moral ground? Some may consider the bolder act to go through the well-trod paths and cul-du-sacs of building a career or portfolio as opposed to throwing caution to the wind, call a work a parody (or fan art) and give it away for free on the internet. Blumenreich and Gumroad aren’t charging for Spidey Zine. Blumenreich clearly states on the download page, “A free collection of short fan comics about Spider-Man. Which I am making no money off of. Because it’s free.” Two “frees” don’t make money. They also don’t make a statement which makes this effort toothless, but fun … because FUN (!).
As for the sucker’s refrain of “who Blumenreich is hurting” and/or “don’t Marvel and Disney have enough money,” like it or not, Bernie bros, Spider-Man is a corporately owned IP that moves bed sheets and toothpaste, sells movie tickets and, to a much lesser degree, comics. To Blumenreich’s credit the reason Spidey Zine engenders these kind of questions of moral relativism is because there’s “there” there.
Spending too much time (or words) on writs, rights, or wrongs, so called, misses the joie de vivre Blumenreich captures with this comic. It’s like she’s a fan or something. Like Beaton and others have done with Spider-Man in the Marvel’s Strange Tales I and II, Blumenreich riffs on two factors that have made Spidey part of our culture and, more specifically, a cipher for nerd culture: obsessiveness and naiveté. Couple this with Spider-Man’s baked-in appeal as the everyman superhero—his greatest superpower—and you’ve got the kind of … let’s call it, friendly-neighborhood relatability storytellers have to have in order to make a character culturally sustainable (if not downright lovable) so you can move those bed sheets, plush toys, and toothpaste.
So, yeah, Blumenreich stands on the shoulders of (mostly white, mostly male, and probably straight) giants.
Regardless, Spidey Zine is heart on the sleeve comics with all the soul and twice the feels of its corporate namesake.
In the more light-hearted of these seven stories, Blumenreich’s web-head wallows in garbage TV, 60’s kitsch, anime, and WB tentpoles. He’s like us (!) or, more likely, Blumenreich, as this is her story to tell after all. She gets that what Peter Parker is into, he’s … really … into, so much so, he constantly and consistently misreads the situation. Blumenreich knows social cues are not Parker’s play so she pokes at this foible until it cries uncle. Besides plucking the low hanging fruit of a character’s shortcomings, satire of this sort also provides opportunities to play with genre conventions. When Aunt May insists Peter take a sweater with him because it’s cold, he meekly protests about it clashing with “his look” — the payoff is a reminder the IP tree needs to be refreshed from time to time with up-to-date threads and logos with a more modern appeal, you know, (with apologies to Blumenreich) for the forty-year-old dudes who keep track of this shit.
If Spidey Zine was only in-jokes and pop culture references it would be a fun and forgettable fan-art lark. Blumenreich is smarter and savvier than that. “Walk Home” gives Spidey his hero moment, but more importantly shows Blumenreich as a cartoonist who can take a tired cliché like the damsel in distress and turn it so it provides a woman agency without being too obvious or heavy-handed. An African-American women—with a fresh looking dyed-blond Mohawk and shaved on the sides hair-do—is walking home when she’s accosted by a couple of knuckle draggers. She sees Spider-Man sitting on a stoop and asks if he’s “the real Spider-Man or some guy in a costume.” She explains her situation and asks him to walk her home. He agrees. They ride the subway which is totes adorbs and gives the webslinger time to recap, in acute detail, the first episode of Cowboy Bebop. Nerd! Once the women is safe at home, she thanks Spidey and he goes off to do his superhero thing. And scene. Instead of Spider-Man saving this woman—he’s distracted at the time by a Chinese takeout mishap—Blumenreich has the woman take responsibility for her own safety by asking the hero for help. As subtle a play as it is impressive. By giving this woman this small gesture of agency, Blumenreich proves she has a better handle on gender equality than many purveyors of pop culture (especially her peers in comics who get paid to do this stuff). If more comic creators thought like this, not to mention made the woman non-white, perhaps such a simple gesture wouldn’t seem so grand. Now who’s being naïve?
Since Lee and Ditko, Spider-Man has always been a mocktail of fizz, simple syrup, and something sour, darker. Blumenreich has the under-her-fingernails understanding of a true believer that Parker luck runs in the family—equal parts one-fortune-cookie-short-of-a-full-order and death-obsessed-near-debilitating pathos. Like with “Walk Home,” Blumenreich leavens the laughs and hero-making with another story, “Uncle Ben,” a silent comic about the origin, of sorts, of May Parker’s love and dedication for both her husband and her nephew. Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man completist can probably point, chapter and verse, to which issue in the last half century plus has dealt with a similar script-flip. Who cares. This story feels specific to Blumenreich’s own perspective, interpretation, and understanding of these characters and its integral part in the Spider-Man canon.
Cartoonists are mark-makers of emotions and there’s no better example of this than how feelings are expressed in wordless comics. Blumenreich’s layouts and cartooning in Spidey Zine are run of the mill and simple. Perhaps she doesn’t need to be more complex in order to fit the structure of set-up and punchline. After all, backgrounds do miss the point if the laugh is about the jackpot that is Mary Jane. For “Uncle Ben,” Blumenreich pulls out all the compositional and design stops because she gets that that’s what her story needs. And so she provides a montage—a quasi-photo album—of what it was like when Pete first rode his bike, had chicken pox, listened to his uncle read The Hobbit, watched Star Wars at home on the couch with his aunt and uncle, and caught snowflakes on his tongue. As a page it’s an act of perfection in its design and nuance. She leaves Uncle Ben and Aunt May sketchy-enough so they look like memories, their faces are either off panel or turned slightly away so what’s shown are glimpses as ephemeral as the moments themselves. The sepia shades of the past are replaced by deep blues and grays of the present, another shrewd shift that doesn’t need to say what’s changed for the characters.
Blumenreich may be a young cartoonist, but she has wisdom beyond her years when it comes to demonstrating what “show don’t tell” means. If this comic were an Official Marvel Comics Try-Out Book™, Blumenreich would have the job—if she wanted it—simply with the expression on Peter’s face on the right-hand panel at the bottom of page fourteen. That look expresses all the guilt, anxiety, and Strum und Drang of Parker’s familiar code: “with great power comes great responsibility.” This comic is the epitome of both “great power” and “great responsibility.”
Left unsaid in such a bombastic statement is what matters most: now what?
There’s the rub of Spidey Zine: what to do with it? Blumenreich has made a comic (?), well-thought out fan art (?) that showcases her sense of humor, her talent as a cartoonist, and, for the true-believers, her Spider-Man bonafides. And? Maybe it doesn’t have to go further than that. Perhaps that’s all “a free collection of short fan comics” needs (or should) be, fun, nothing more than a calling card or something Blumenreich hands out at zine fests and cons while she shares a table with two or three other cartoonists at a similar stage in their careers. Perhaps this will get Blumenreich noticed at Marvel. Does she want/need that? Perhaps they’ll deign to hire her to write a script for a one-shot or a forgettable tie-in. Perhaps she’s the next Michel Fiffe. Perhaps she’ll be sued.
All that … is on Blumenreich. And what about the reader? Spidey Zine caught a spark when J.A. Micheline mentioned it as a sort-of honorable mention in the A.V. Club’s Best Comics of the Year So Far (2016). Blumenreich receives kudos for her understanding of Spider-Man’s humanity, something Micheline points out is missing from “mainstream superhero storytelling that focuses more on superheroes as symbols and metaphors.” Awesome. Wow. Does Spidey Zine correct an imbalance, a deficiency of vitamin S-M in the (jaded) Spider-Man comics reader? Or is it like a purgative, a palate cleanser, a fine sorbet between courses of less humanistic interpretations of the ol’ web-head? Pity.
Since this is Spider-Man we’re talking about, it’s imperative I bring up the responsibility/power dynamic/binary. Blumenreich is going to continue to make her comics. She can’t help it, she’s a fan. If other fans want to read her comics, they’re out there and they’re free, well, some of them. The power of Spidey Zine rests with its readers, with fan culture and the camaraderie therein.
And that’s what great responsibility is all about.
Keith Silva keeps a twitter: @keithpmsilva