YA author, freelance writer, and Spider-Man “super fan” Preeti Chhibber has plenty of experience writing some of the most popular characters in comic book history. In addition to her work on comics like Women of Marvel, she recently launched Spider-Man’s Social Dilemma, the first book in an original, upper-middle-grade Spider-Man trilogy. This brand new story finds the friendly neighborhood webhead battling not just fantastical villains, but even tougher challenges like dating and starting a Twitter account.
How would you describe the target audience for this book? Who needs to read this RIGHT AWAY?
I think it’s ideally written for kids. It’s Spider-Man written for kids aged 10-14, it’s for old fans and new. I think everybody! Anyone who enjoys Spider-Man will enjoy this book. I was definitely conscientious about this while writing it, so if you’re new to Spider-Man, you’ll enjoy it. And if you love Spider-Man, you’ll enjoy it.
We’re in this place where I think it’s important to have accessibility points for these superheroes who’ve been around for 60 years. It was daunting when I was a child, like how do I start reading about this character who I like because of cartoons or the trading cards my brother had? So this is definitely for kids who’ve maybe seen the Spider-Man movies and want more story, or people who are just like, “I really love Peter Parker and I want to experience a new way to read about him.”
Was there any existing Spider-Man source material you were particularly inspired by?
I think twofold. There’s the Robbie Thompson Spidey series from 2014/2015, which was a limited run that was similarly targeted as an accessibility point for kids. It brought Peter’s origin story up to modern times; the issue was like a vignette, like you didn’t have to read the one before it, you didn’t have to read the one after it. It was just this really fun, sweet, Pete story set in modern times.
And then the Spider-Man PS4 game…
I knew you were going to bring that up!
It’s so good! It’s my favorite Spider-Man movie! It perfectly encapsulates what I love not only about Peter, but about MJ and their relationship. And that’s a big part of the book. So those were two things I was definitely inspired by and thought handled Pete and Spidey in a new and interesting way, which is difficult to do.
I loved the part where we actually get to be inside of MJ’s head. We very rarely get that.
Thank you, yeah! I think the multi-POV was important to me because from the beginning, this wasn’t just a Peter story, it was a Peter and MJ story. When I initially pitched it, I was like, “She has to be as important as Peter. The book cannot work if you take her out of it and that’s what I need to happen.”
So that was a wonderful opportunity because I love this MJ. And Mary Jane as a character, like all comic characters, is amorphous to a point, so you can have a lot of fun with her.
This is an original Spider-Man story, so it has a lot of familiar characters, but also a lot of new ones. How did you come up with a totally new story for such an established character?
So how this came about, I wrote a tie-in — it wasn’t even a novelization, it was like a tie-in middle grade, illustrated, fun little book — for Spider-Man: Far From Home called Peter and Ned’s Ultimate Travel Journal. And once that was on its way to being published, my editor reached out and was like, “Would you want to write an original Spider-Man book? And what would that look like?”
And literally the first thing I thought of was…for that age range, which is like upper middle grade 10-14 range, what’s a really interesting point for Peter? And it’s sort of when he hasn’t gotten good at being Spider-Man, but he’s not brand new. He’s in that little in-between stage where he’s still sort of figuring it out and still very much on his own and balancing all those pieces.
So it all started there, of like, “What kind of story benefits that character the most? What kind of situation can I put him in where he’s going way back to teen Pete, dealing with being a teenager, being a superhero, dealing with what those two separate pieces entail in one person?”
And this is what I came up with, which is about how technology is a part of our lives, activism is a part of our lives, how we engage in the world around us and what that means as a regular person and what that means as a superhero. So yeah, that’s kind of how the original story pieces came around after many, many iterations of a pitch to get it to a point that made sense with a like a plot, though (laughs).
Your book definitely reminded me of The Spectacular Spider-Man animated series, which also brought modern technology into a story where Pete is a bit tech-adverse. How would you say that ties into his and MJ’s arc in this story?
I think something that has to work for Peter…I didn’t want him to be super tech-oriented because I do think it takes a lot of time for people to be the people they are on social media and one thing Peter never has is enough time. Like he just doesn’t, he has too many things going on. And it was a really good point to have him and MJ have a reason to meet to like hang out together one-on-one.
And MJ…I think I see how kids use the internet and use their access to tech for organizing in a really interesting fun way when you’re doing it well. So I wanted to pull that in through Mary Jane’s character and let that be a part of her story, because Peter has all his other stuff going on. It felt like a nice way to have them both be active, either by using the tools or needing to learn how to use the tools to protect themselves, which is what Peter’s sort of perspective on it is.
There’s a lot of great LGBTQIA+ representation in this story. Queer characters, nonbinary characters…what was your process for introducing them into this story?
For me…this is what the world looks like. It’s what my world looks like, it’s what living in New York looks like. I was very conscientious of not wanting to default, which is an issue I think a lot of us have as readers, especially ones who grew up reading in earlier eras (laughs). Where if a character isn’t specified as “other,” we default to them looking a certain way, loving a certain way, existing a certain way.
So I was very conscientious about how I was describing characters, which is why it might come across as being more-so than otherwise. But to me, in terms of “diversity,” this is the one part of the book that isn’t fiction, this is just the real world. And these people exist in the real world so they should exist in the book.
Because while the main characters are all legacy and exist as they are and have always existed in the comics, anyone I was able to bring into it as a new character…there was a very thoughtful effort behind it.
You integrated it well! To me, it never felt like they stood out in the wrong way. Let’s talk about Spider-Man’s rogues gallery…
Uh oh (laughs).
For existing villains you have so many options. Why Sandman? Why Flint Marko? (Laughs)
(Laughs) Why not Flint Marko?!
Spider-Man does have a really big rogue’s gallery. For the second book, the Spot is a major villain and I chose him independently of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse 2. That second book has been written since like November of last year, so when they were like “Aha, it’s the Spot!” I was like, “Oh no!!” (Laughs)
But Sandman felt like the right level of villain for this book. He’s not a Goblin who’s gonna take over the story. He’s not somebody who’s this huge presence in Spider-Man’s life already.
He’s a goon.
He’s a goon. He’s a great opportunity for story because he’s not sort of weighed down by his legacy in a way. In ways that other villains might. And I felt the same way about Spot when I picked him for the second book.
I assume, then, that we are not in the Sam Raimi continuity, so Flint Marko did not kill Ben Parker. (laughs)
No, he did not. He would not magically go back to that scene (laughs).
I’m sure for you, writing Spider-Man quips during the fight scenes was second nature, but in terms of the set pieces, how did you pull that off? People are so used to seeing and visualizing Spidey in action, so how did you make that come alive on the page?
That was really hard, actually, at certain points. And I had to ask Marvel a lot of questions because these are characters who haven’t been in prose all that much. Like Sandman. I remember emailing my editing and being like, “I need to know if Sandman has bones? And if he has organs.” Because he’s sand!
He has sand bones.
Right! Chip Zdarsky in his wonderful Spidey run…very clearly was like, “Sandman is one grain of sand. That is who Sandman is, this one grain of sand.” So when he’s walking around as Flint Marko, is it like a skin shell? What’s happening? And they sent me back a screenshot of a character encyclopedia or something and I was like, “This doesn’t answer my question.” So then I just had to decide (laughs).
I mean that’s fair since it’s your story.
And it was fun because there were opportunities for that. But yeah, the action was really interesting because while you can do all sorts of dynamic things with Spidey on the page where you’re looking at a visualization of his twists and turns and thwipping his webs out, there is a limited amount of ways you can say “shoots the web” or even the word “web.” There’s just a limited amount of literal phrasing that exists for some of these actions, so that was a fun challenge.
So what are the advantages, then, of doing a Spider-Man story in a book? What can this medium do that others can’t, necessarily?
To your point earlier, you can be in these characters’ heads. The act of reading prose is different from the act of reading a comic, but both are important. This allows, I think, a level of imagination for young readers that’s really fun. I want to see how kids interact with this differently. And what’s so nice about a character like Spider-Man…there are so many opportunities for where he exists, and this is just another one for you to hang out with him in.
Spider-Man’s Social Dilemma is now available to order in hardcover.