"Web-Spinning Heroics: Critical Essays on the History and Meaning of Spider-Man" (McFarland, $40) is a remarkable new book on Marvel's wall-crawler, for a variety of reasons.
Fair warning: Your humble columnist has an essay in the book (on whether J. Jonah Jameson is a hero or a villain). But other than that, it's really very good. "Web-Spinning" covers a variety of genres and approaches, offering something for everyone from fans to academics — which, we learn once again, aren't mutually exclusive conditions.
The book is edited by Robert G. Weiner, an associate humanities librarian, and Robert Moses Peaslee, an assistant professor in the College of Mass Communications, both at Texas Tech University. Neither is a beginner at this game; Weiner was the editor of "Captain America and the Struggle of the Superhero: Critical Essays" (2009), and wrote "Marvel Graphic Novels: An Annotated Guide" (2008). Peaslee has edited volumes related to visual culture and written for the book "Super/Heroes: From Hercules to Superman" (2007), among other publications.
But, as noted, being an academic doesn't mean you can't be a fan — or identify with the hapless Peter Parker.
"I do feel like Peter Parker in many ways," Weiner said in an online interview. "I've always been sort of the 'odd' man out and never one of the popular crowd. The one who was unique and individualistic. I always had problems with girls, like Parker always seems to have. Even when he 'gets' the girl, he always seems to lose them, as do I. Yet he does things with terrific conviction, which I am inspired by."
Which wasn't the case with Peaslee, who said that he related more to the guys in secondary colors.
"Honestly, to the degree that I've identified with any character, I've always identified most with the villains, particularly Doc Ock," he said. "There's something about that fine line between great and horrible deeds that really resonates with me, and provides some of the most compelling narrative in the genre."
But the duo's interest in Spidey (and his villains) wasn't the only reason for "Web-Spinning Heroics." There were, Peaslee said, several factors.
"One, it appeared to us that there was a need for a volume like this, looking at so prominent a character," he said. "Two, the timing was good, with the upcoming release of 'The Amazing Spider-Man.' And three, Spidey provides lots of material related to both our respective areas of expertise: Rob's done the bulk of his work in sequential-art studies, and my focus is popular cinema."
Weiner agreed that the two made a natural team, whose "strengths play off each other." And that the Andrew Garfield movie was pretty important, too.
"When I heard that they were rebooting the film series, it seemed natural to do a book like this on Spider-Man," Weiner said. "Dr. Peaslee and I were both interested in seeing what could be written academically about this character that had not already been done."