Spider-Man’s Bad Connection—the sequel to Marvel Universe novel Spider-Man’s Social Dilemma, part of Preeti Chhibber’s middle-grade series—is out in September. To celebrate the cover reveal for book two, io9 caught up with the author to discuss her inspirations for the novel, including what music she listened to while writing. She also shared an excerpt you can read here first.
The Marvel Press release continues Peter Parker’s journey as he steps into early Spider-Man adventures, all while trying to figure out life as a teen and spending time with his partner in crime fighting and love, MJ.
Sabina Graves, io9: What are your favorite things about tapping into Spider-Man and friends’ teenage world?
Preeti Chhibber: One of my favorite things about writing for young readers is reaffirming that it’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to make the wrong call, sometimes. So, when Marvel approached me about writing this Spidey trilogy, I knew I wanted to write about Peter when he’s still figuring out—he’s still trying to figure out what it means to be Spider-Man, and what it means to do that well. And he might mess up. Okay, he does mess up. And for Mary Jane, it’s the same thing—she might not have superpowers, but she’s a teenager who is trying to do good in the world, but she doesn’t need to have all the answers right away.
io9: How do you balance showing Peter’s coming of age stories with how he learns about the importance of service through being Spider-Man?
Chhibber: I think the two things are intertwined—Pete’s the kid whose coming of age is learning about the importance of service. Because the series starts off with him already being Spider-Man, Peter’s heard “with great power comes great responsibility,” and now it’s just a matter of figuring out how to live that while also growing up. It’s not that I have to have him choosing between a date with MJ or saving the day—he’ll always try to save the day—but, he has that little voice in the back of his head asking: what if this isn’t the right way to save the day, what if you make the wrong choice and people get hurt, what if you fail, what if—what if—what if. That thing that I think a lot of us had growing up (and maybe still do), and it’s about growing up and learning (and relearning) that that voice doesn’t have to control you.
io9: What were your key influences for this book? Did you create a mood board, watch certain movies, or make a playlist for inspiration?
Chhibber: Aside from the obvious: anything and everything Spider-Man (including a replay of Spider-Man: PS4, the best Spidey movie ever made)… the second I decided book two was going to feature the Spot back in 2020, I read all the Spot stuff I could get my hands on—so, obviously Al Milgram’s issues of The Spectacular Spider-Man are in there, especially #99, with that iconic cover. And because these books are for kids, I think a lot about my favorite kid lit books featuring young people in extraordinary circumstances, whether it’s Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, Madeleine L’Engle’s Time quintet, or more recently, Daniel José Older’s Dactyl Hill books or Roshani Choksi’s Aru Shah series.
I’m a big fan of writing to movie soundtracks—and the one I went back to time and time again while writing was How to Train Your Dragon. John Powell did not have to go that hard, but I am glad he did! And because I’m an early aughts scene kid at heart who wanted her main character to play into some of that teenage awkwardness, there were a lot of bands like Taking Back Sunday, Finch, Steel Train, or Something Corporate on the music-with-lyrics playlist. There may be a few tilt-your-head-and-squint-to-find-them references in the book to some of these bands.
Read an excerpt from Spider-Man’s Bad Connection by Preeti Chhibber below!
Spider-Man is swinging through the streets of New York City, grinning under his mask. It’s a new year, and he has to admit, he’s feeling fine. The teeth-chattering cold weather isn’t even bothering him because over his suit he’s got on a matching woolen scarf and winter hat courtesy of his girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson. She presented them to him over the holidays.
“You know, for your night job,” she said, and grinned prettily when she handed over the box.
He ﬂies forward, up past the Empire State Building, ﬁst tight around a web-line. The skyscraper is still lit up red and green despite the fact that it’s been the new year for a few days already. He should know, considering he rang it in right on top of that building with MJ by his side. As he thinks back to it, Spidey can almost feel the reverberations of the ﬁreworks.
It was viciously cold while they were sitting there, just the two of them. But they’d brought extra blankets and very thick winter coats; MJ had even managed to bring up two thermoses of hot chocolate. Peter had his mask off, and the green-blue-and-yellow hat was doing a great job of keeping his ears warm. MJ was ﬂush against his side, and her head was tilted down and leaning on his shoulder while they both looked out at the ﬁreworks going off over Times Square. They were only minutes into the new year, and Peter was glad that he was spending it here. He hoped it was a good sign for the year to come, if you believed in that sort of thing. Which he would, if it meant his year would have way more MJ time. He turned to look at her; she was still facing the ﬁreworks, and her face glowed in the bright, tiered lighting around them. Her eyes were actually sparkling. Peter had to stop himself from pinching his own hand to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.
“We have to do this every year, you realize.” MJ’s voice had a laugh in it. “Nothing else is going to compare to this view, sorry to say, Spider-Man.”
Peter grinned and put his arm around her.
“Mary Jane Watson, I promise you that we will come back here to watch the ﬁreworks for as long as we both shall live.”
Suddenly, a tingling at the base of his skull breaks through the memories, and Spidey swings to a stop, settling into a crouch atop a deli sign. His spider-sense vibrates at a dull frequency and then goes silent. He looks down at the sidewalk below him. There’s nothing that he can see; it’s a quiet side street. Someone’s walking toward the intersection at the end of the block, and all the windows are dark. A movement across the way catches his eye, though. It was too quick to see, but it looked like someone was there and then they weren’t. He drops to the ground to cross the street. There’s an ATM with its screen bright blue outside of a darkened storefront. There’s an error message on the screen that says NO CASH HERE in big block letters. He sees a few bills dropping from the cash dispenser, ﬂoating softly down to the concrete below. His lenses narrow as he takes it in. There’s a thick metal chain circling the machine, presumably so no one can run out with it while the owners are away. But he can’t see anything else. Spidey steps closer and sees it— There!
A small, ﬁlled-in black circle sits on the side of the machine. He groans, a warm puff of air coming out through his mask as a tiny cloud in the cold. The circle is exactly the same as the others, about four or ﬁve inches in diameter and solid black. But with some kind of paint he’s never seen before. It looks like it’s part of the plastic encasing the ATM, not like someone drew it there. He takes out his phone and texts MJ.
FOUND ANOTHER ONE
Three dots pop up. Spidey thinks that she must have been waiting for him to check in and can’t help the smile breaking out across his face. It was nice to have a partner in crime. Well, not crime. Vigilantism? That does not roll off the tongue. . . .
Then her reply pops up.
He takes a picture and sends it her way. She replies quickly again, telling him she’ll add it to their folder. She sends one more follow-up.
I DON’T KNOW HOW THIS PERSON IS DOING IT, BUT THEY’RE GOING TO HAVE TO GET CAUGHT AT SOME POINT. AT LEAST ON SOMEONE’S CAMERA OR SOMETHING? MAYBE THE CIRCLE’S THE RESULT OF SOME KIND OF TOOL . . . BUT NOTHING I CAN FIND. I EVEN WENT TO THE HARDWARE STORE TO DO SOME DIGGING! THERE IS NOTHING THAT LEAVES THAT KIND OF RESIDUE.
Spider-Man stops to look at the ATM again. It’s so strange. His gut is telling him there’s something going on, but none of the clues add up to anything. There have been some minor stories in the paper about a slew of ATM robberies, but so far no one has been able to ﬁgure out who might be responsible. There’s a loud honking down the street, and Spidey starts. He looks around one more time and ﬁnally interlocks his hands behind his neck and sighs in frustration. That’s that. My spider-sense is quiet; there are no discernible clues around. I must have just missed the guy. His phone lights up with another text, and it’s MJ asking him when he’s going to be heading back home. He types out Now! and hits send.
He kneels down to pick up the leftover cash and shoves it under the locked door of the store before turning around to shoot a web at a ﬁre escape a few stories up and launch himself into the air in the direction of Forest Hills.
* * *
MJ is sitting in her room with her desk lamp on. It’s very late. She’s in her coziest robe and pajamas and might be struggling to keep her eyes open. How does Peter stay up so late all the time and not collapse in the middle of the day? she thinks. He should be back soon based on when he replied to her. She brings up the photo he sent on her phone and takes two ﬁngers to the screen, pinching out to zoom into it, hunting for any clues she might have missed the ﬁrst ﬁve times she did it. But there’s nothing—just a regular old ATM with that same strange circle grafﬁti.
Maybe it’s a calling card. . . .
An alert pops up on her phone reminding her about her required reading, but MJ just makes an irritated sound and swipes it away. She stares intently at the image again before ﬁnally shaking her head, frustrated. There has to be another connection. No one is this good. Her visit to the hardware store was a complete bust—the clerk just called her “little lady” and laughed at her questions. MJ is still furious about it. There’s a tap at her window, interrupting her thoughts. She jumps up to open it, and there’s Peter grinning at her, sticking to the side of her house. Am I ever going to get used to this? she wonders. He’s taken the time to change out of his suit and into a warm sweater and thick sweatpants, but he’s kept on her gifts to him, the scarf wound tight around his neck and the hat pulled low over his ears. She steps back, and a rush of cold air follows him into her room. She shivers and shuts the window before any more can get in. Then she turns and ﬂings her arms around him, and he’s hugging her back.
“Hi,” she says. “Hi,” he replies.
MJ takes a step back and sits down on her bed while Peter takes his place on a beanbag near the bedroom door.
They’ve been doing this for weeks now, all through winter break, and it’s become a habit at this point.
“So, this ATM guy is really annoying,” MJ says.
Peter laughs, and MJ bristles. He puts his hands up placatingly. “I’m just glad I am not doing this alone. I would have been driving myself up the wall trying to ﬁgure it out,” he says. “I know we’ll get there, though. You’re really good at the investigative part. I’m just the muscle,” he jokes, ﬂexing an arm.
MJ throws a pillow at him, and even though she knows he could have dodged easily, he lets it hit him before taking it and resting it behind his head. “Peter, you better not be coasting just because I’m here to help!”
“I’m not, I’m not! I just know we’ll get there. I have faith in us.” And he says it with such certainty that it makes MJ feel warm all over. She decides to change the subject before he notices her blushing.
“Anyway,” she says, looking at the wall to compose herself, “can you believe school starts the day after tomorrow? I haven’t even touched the reading we were supposed to do over break.” Her head twists back at Peter as he lets out a monster of a groan.
“Don’t remind me. I am not ready to start getting up so early again. And I haven’t even thought about the reading.” He rubs a hand over his face, like he can already feel how tired he’s going to be on the ﬁrst day back in classes.
“I’m glad we have that group study with Dr. Shah to work on our project ﬁrst thing, though. The rest of my sched ule is rough.” He slides the hand down his face. “I can’t believe we only have the one class together.”
“Sorry,” MJ says apologetically. “I had to work my schedule around my internship with Councilman Torres. But,” she adds with a sly smile, “at least classes will be a lot easier without a weird alien thing taking over our entire lives?”
“Speaking of which, any luck on ﬁnding that last cell phone? I did some digging on my end, but you’re . . . deﬁnitely better at this part,” Peter says, voice hopeful.
MJ bites back a sigh, thinking of their experience with the arc lamp, the alien meteor, and Sandman a few months ago. Part of ﬁguring out how the alien matter had worked had been on her—she’d realized it was somehow living in the phones of anyone who connected to the Wi-Fi at the Museum of the Moving Image the day she’d been there. That had been why she’d been so furious and couldn’t get a handle on her anger. There were still three phones unaccounted for by the time Peter had fought Sandman and the strange alien at the New York Hall of Science and successfully destroyed the arc lamp. Together, they’ve managed to ﬁnd two of the phones . . . but the third is still missing. She shakes her head, and Peter’s shoulders fall just the smallest bit.
“It’s been months, though!” MJ is quick to add. “We would have heard something by now. Right?”
“You’re probably right,” Peter agrees.
“We can keep looking, but I think we’ve done everything we can do,” MJ continues. “Honestly, at this point, if anyone even says the words ‘arc’ or ‘lamp,’ I’m immediately convincing my parents to go on a no-technology-allowed- vacation.” She’s trying to lighten the mood and feels good when Peter lets out a bark of laughter. She’s glad they can laugh about it now. Turns out taking down a secret alien, using an actual criminal, is pretty emotionally—and physically—exhausting. Especially when it involves a lot of research and Peter having to ﬁght both Sandman and the mysterious alien thing at the New York Hall of Science without anyone ﬁnding out. Not to mention the fact that it has taken her weeks to get comfortable around her phone again without being worried about the thing controlling her emotions! She side-eyes the device sitting on her desk and edges away from it. Mostly comfortable, she thinks.
Peter’s laugh is loud, and he slaps a hand over his mouth, eyes shifting toward MJ’s bedroom door. She shakes her head at him but stands up to walk to the door just in case. She opens it and peeks outside, and the hall way is still dark and quiet. The other bedroom doors don’t show any light underneath, and she knows they’re safe.
She turns back to Peter and agrees. “Just what I thought. My mom and aunt are dead asleep. Nothing ever wakes them up. One time the ﬁre alarm malfunctioned and went off, and I still had to go wake them up.”
Peter nods and grins, reaching up to grab her hand. “Sounds good to me,” he says, pulling her down to join him.
She falls, laughing softly, and they spend a few seconds as a tangle of limbs before situating themselves next to each other, with Peter’s arm tight around her shoulders. MJ pulls her phone out again and brings up the photo so they can look at it together.
“I can’t believe we can’t ﬁgure this out after ﬁve different times spotting this thing.” She frowns, pinching and zooming again.
Peter narrows his eyes at her screen. “Wait, zoom in a little more.” She does, and he points at a small line next to the black dot. “Is that anything?”
She brings the phone close enough that her nose is nearly touching the screen. “No. I think that’s just someone leaving a scratch on the machine with a key or something. Sorry, Pete.” She feels him shrug, and she settles back into the seat.
“It was a long shot; I think I’m just trying to reach for stuff at this point.”
“We’ll ﬁgure it out,” she says, echoing his earlier sentiments. “It’s what we do.”
* * *
There is something . . .
Home is near us; we can feel it.
Home is near us.
But we’re too weak. Too weak to find it. Too weak to battle . . .
THIS IS SPIDER-MAN’S FAULT. BUT WE ARE TOO WEAK.
Remove him, remove him. We will remove him.
Find another problem. He will not see us.
Keep up with author Chhibber online at PreetiChhibber.com. Spider-Man’s Bad Connection—from Marvel Press, part of the Disney Publishing Group—is out September 5.
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