J.J. Abrams and son Henry discuss their Spider-Man comic, tease mysteries to come
Over the past few years, J.J. Abrams has put his spin on some of the biggest franchises in pop culture. First there was Star Trek, then Star Wars (which he’ll return to this December with The Rise of Skywalker). But earlier this month, Abrams embarked on a new story featuring one of the biggest S-named properties he hadn’t yet tackled: Spider-Man. And this time, he brought his son Henry along. Spider-Man #1, written by J.J. and Henry Abrams and illustrated by Sara Pichelli and Dave Stewart, landed in comic stores Sept. 18 and immediately introduced readers to a new future for Peter Parker.
It’s not a very fun future, it must be said. Within the first few pages of Spider-Man #1, a mysterious new villain named Cadaverous damages Spider-Man’s arm and [spoiler alert!] kills Mary Jane.
Flash forward 12 years, and now Peter is a single father with a single arm who has mostly given up the great responsibility that comes with his great power. He’s no longer fighting crime as Spider-Man and has mostly left his and Mary Jane’s son, Ben, in the care of the indefatigable Aunt May. As a high school outcast, Ben has obvious similarities with his father — but as Henry Abrams points out, he was born with spider-powers rather than gaining them in an accident.
“There are absolutely parallels between Ben and Peter. They both have these abilities, they’re both teenage boys in a middle/high school environment where they’re confronting bullies and having difficulty making friends, but one thing that got me excited about the dynamic is how Peter could trace back the origins of how he got these powers,” Henry tells EW. “He got bit by a spider, he knew that. Right afterwards, he began to experience sticking to walls and getting abs, all these things. But for Ben Parker, a kid who already has these emotional difficulties about feeling abandoned, and then having difficulty with making friends and meeting people and finding your place in the world, all of that is compounded with feeling like a monster because you don’t know what you are. You’re different, but you don’t know why you’re different.”
That last part, at least, changed at the end of issue #1, when Ben found his father’s old costume in a box in Aunt May’s basement. That of course, will lead to some difficult questions about why Peter kept this vital truth from his son for so long. Part of it surely has to do with Cadaverous, who poses a mystery in the vein of classic Abrams stories: Who is this guy? Where did he come from? What is that he’s keeping in what looks like an incubator of some kind after the flash-forward?
“The story of Cadaverous doesn’t go exactly the way you might think it will,” J.J. teases. “In the first issue, the intention was for him to be this horrific catalyst for this nightmare that not only the Parker family but also the city and the whole universe of superheroes goes through. You’re not meant to know much in the beginning. Without giving too much away, what I like about this character is the notion is he was named by the news, in the spirit of classic heroes and villains, but he’s this real mystery, and no one quite knows what he’s about or where he came from. The thing that makes any villain interesting is what’s behind their motivation. Where we go ultimately takes Cadaverous to places you would never expect when you first meet him.”
There is something familiar about the way Cadaverous strikes at the heart of the Parker family by killing Mary Jane. The writer Gail Simone once coined the term “women in refrigerators” (in honor of a particularly horrific ’90s issue of Green Lantern) to refer to the too-common trope of comic stories killing female characters in order to provide male characters with motivation. Henry acknowledges that he and his father are familiar with certain superhero tropes, and says that in this case they’re expanding the scope of the trauma outward to show how Mary Jane’s death affects the whole world by depriving them of Spider-Man.
“We understand what some tropes are in superhero origin stories and with giant, mysterious, ominous villains. With this, our hope is to double-down on who these people are and why they do these things,” Henry says. “What brings people together in this world? What tears them apart? How do you recover from a tragedy that’s so immense? It just doesn’t affect one family, it affects a whole city and world who feel the absence of this iconic superhero.”
It’s worth noting that a world without Mary Jane would represent a pretty big break from standard Marvel continuity. It’s not yet clear how this story relates to the rest of Marvel comics. Given that Peter Parker and Mary Jane once had their marriage erased by the demon Mephisto, pretty much anything could happen by the end of this six-issue series: We could find out it exists in an alternate universe (there’s a lot of those out there in the Spider-verse), or it could all be magicked away, or it could be made to fit the regular continuity.
J.J. says he’s been discussing the idea of doing a Spider-Man comic with Marvel editor Nick Lowe for years. He acknowledges that bringing in his son might seem suspicious at first, but their partnership has been incorporated into the story.
“We talked about how doing this with me meant he was going to be collateral damage, because there were going to be people attacking the fact that a screenwriter was coming into comics and a kid was getting a shot who normally might not,” J.J. says. “That was the most cringe-worthy part of it for me, because you don’t want to take your kid into a situation where he’s going to be a public target. And yet, this is an opportunity to tell a story that Nick and I have been talking about for a long time. The truth is that because of Henry’s love of comics and Spider-Man, plus the fact he’s got some incredible ideas and is a promising writer, the fact that I got to collaborate with him was a completely selfish thing and fun for me. Because the story for me is this generational story, it felt like a perfect opportunity to collaborate with Henry on something that was meaningful to both of us in different ways, and to have this be a first foray into comics.”
There’s a real similarity between Spider-Man and J.J.’s first Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens: They’re both generational stories. Though many people discover these franchises for themselves, the fact that they’ve been around for decades means that they are just as often passed from one generation to the next. That dynamic has been incorporated into both stories — Kylo Ren, Rey, and Ben Parker have all had to reckon with the legacy of their parents’ generation and decide what to do with it.
“You are inherently telling a story that is self-aware. In a sense these characters have read the books we all have,” J.J. says. “On the one hand it’s a story of history repeating itself, but on the other hand that does not obviate a new story with something interesting to say about what it’s like to be in the shadow of what’s come before, and I’m already seeing it working with Henry, being better than the generation that preceded it. It’s a fascinating thing to tell stories like this about a character who is living in a world where their history is the books we’ve read and the stories we know. What does that mean? How do you reconcile being a human being who exists in the world when you’re also saddled with the baggage of being the son of a superhero, in this case? That kind of story is a relatable in a lot of ways, and it’s familiar because you’re dealing with the history, and yet there’s such fertile ground for new revelations, new relationships, new challenges, and new villains to overcome.”
Spider-Man #1 is on stands now. Issue #2 goes on sale Oct. 16 — check out two exclusive pages from it below, one featuring Cadaverous and the other featuring May, Ben, and Peter Parker. They are illustrated by Pichelli and colored by Stewart.