Power of Chest Expansion!

Monday February 16, 2009 @ 05:24 PM (UTC)

Once upon a time, at the urging of one Ryan Grove, I added a copy of Essential Spider-Man Vol. 1 to my collection of old X-Men continuity. It didn’t strike the same chord with me. We’re talking seriously old school Spidey – J. Jonah Jameson was not the only one with a vaguely square head, the villains were kooktacular (and I say that as a Batman fan) and the dialogue was somewhat clunky. Most memorably for me, Spidey’s powers hadn’t been pinned down. In one panel, pinioned by ropes, he decided to snap them using “my power of Chest Expansion!” I think I fell off my chair.

There may be worse sudden power inventions – the Superbreath of Memory Theft from Superman II, for instance – but it stands out for its petty perfection. Chest expansion? Couldn’t he have used his Spider Strength? From whence does this Chest Expansion spring? Since spiders have exoskeletons, it’s hard to imagine them puffing up their thoraces. It’s a one-off power (like the Superbreath) that solves the situation he’s in, with no care for consistency.

Every time a character in a book ‘remembers’ or discovers a new power or area of knowledge, I think of Spidey snapping those ropes. It’s lazy. It’s writing yourself into a situation and cheating your way out – giving the character a new tool to overcome the challenge, rather than using the capabilities he has creatively, rewriting the challenge, or changing the circumstances. It’s drawing endless Chekhovian guns out of your trenchcoat instead of going back and writing one onto the mantel. There are probably genres – campy, over-the-top or deliberately cinematic genres – for which this works. But for most books, having the author suddenly upload a skill into the protagonist’s head Matrix-style snaps me out of the action, unsuspends my disbelief, and leaves me feeling betrayed.

At least until someone breathes on a cup of water and I forget the whole thing.

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