By Alex Wukman
After months of speculation, and an almost unending deluge of hype, the first issue of Marvel Comics’ Scarlet Spider hits stores this week. The series is set in Houston and marks the first time that the Bayou City will play a prominent role in the Marvel Universe. The creative team behind Scarlet Spider, writer Chris Yost and artist Ryan Stegman, have owned up to the fact that they are approaching Houston with virgin eyes and that they are going to try their hardest to get the city right. Anyone familiar with Houston knows the city presents a wide range of difficulties, from spontaneous floods to swarms of mosquitoes,but one of the more overlooked problems in the city–one that was quickly pointed out by Stegman–was a lack of a signature architectural style.
“The biggest difficulty [in drawing Houston] is understanding the architecture. New York buildings are older and more ornate, in Houston the buildings are newer and boxier,” said Stegman. He went on to explain that because New York is represented so frequently in mass media artists can develop a visual shorthand for the city. Even though the very postmodernism that wrought contemporary Houston created a lack of both dominant architecture and signature landmarks that has allowed the rare depictions of Houston in popular culture to allow the city to stand-in for everything from dystopian futures to D.C. suburbs, it has also made it hard for visual artists to encapsulate the city the same way that an establishing shot showing, say, the Statue of Liberty or the Golden Gate Bridge immediately lets audiences know where they are.
Despite the difficulties Stegman and Yost are confident that, with the help of the fans, they can achieve a level of authenticity. Yost recently said that he and his cohorts at Marvel have “pages of suggestions” that are helping to shape the depictions of the city and that they fully expect more. One of the earliest concerns raised was how the ethnic and sexual diversity that characterizes much of Houston would be depicted. “We gave that a lot of thought and the supporting cast features African Americans, Hispanics and a gay couple,” said Yost. He continued on by saying that while the book is a piece of popular art set in a fictional universe it will feature themes and issues familiar to Houston residents.
“In issue one we touch on Human trafficking and in issue three we deal a little bit with the environment,” said Yost. He elaborated that the environmental threat faced by the Scarlet Spider is one that might feel a little too-familiar to Houston readers. Yost explained that Roxxon, an energy company/conglomerate in the Marvel Universe, “owns a rig in the Gulf that springs a leak. It’ll sort of be the Marvel version of the BP oil spill.” From the first issue Houston’s Hispanic influence, and the main character’s lack of familiarity with it, will feature prominently in the world of the Scarlet Spider. “The first bad guy is called Salamander not because he’s a salamander, but because Kaine misunderstands Spanish and the character [a Central American male] has a tattoo of a Salamander,” said Yost.
Both Yost and Stegman are quick to point out that the book is not simply going to be Spider-Man on a field trip and that both Kaine’s reactions to Houston, and Houston’s reactions to Houston, will be far different from anything seen in the Spider-Man universe before. One of the things that separates Scarlet Spider from other Spider-Man related books will be how the city in general, and law enforcement in particular, reacts to the presence of a superhero. Stegman states that after arriving in Houston Kaine, the titular Scarlet Spider, “develops a working relationship with HPD that would be hard to replicate.” Yost goes on to explain that Houston law enforcement welcomes Kaine without knowing about his shady past. “The irony is that Spider-Man is a hero but New Yorkers treat him like a villain and Kaine is a former villain that Houston embraces as a hero, but if he took off his mask the cops would shoot him on sight,” said Yost.
When the topic of how Houston’s notoriously embattled law enforcement community would be portrayed in the series Yost doesn’t shy away from controversy. “Wally [one of the supporting characters] is a cop and through his association with Kaine he starts to gain attention and advance through the department and he starts thinking about how he can use the Scarlet Spider to make a difference and one of the things that he quickly runs into is police corruption,” said Yost. So far the positive reaction to the Scarlet Spider has spread far beyond the fictional confines of the Marvel Universe. Fan and local media reaction have been incredibly positive and both Yost and Stegman are very aware of the amount of goodwill they have generated, and know that they can’t squander it.
“I’ve never had this type of backing before…so many eyes are on us because it’s a new city and we don’t want to disappoint,” said Stegman. Yost added that he hopes the buzz generated in both comics and mainstream press about the book translates to strong sales figures. Both Yost and Stegman offered a few words of advice to aspiring creators. Stegman said that the key for an artist is to “work harder than you ever thought possible and work harder than anyone else.” He went on to say to use sites like digitalwebbing and deviantart to gain to try and gain notoriety before making the trek out to conventions. Yost offered similar advice for aspiring writers by saying “focus on your own material. Editors are more interested in seeing what you can do with your own stuff and your own voice than seeing what you can do in an 11 page treatment of a Spider-Man story in Spider-Man’s voice.”