Spider-Man, a character appearing in Marvel comic books from 1962, ranks not only as Marvel's most popular superhero, but as one of the most instantly recognizable comic-book characters of all. Of the many superheroes to appear over the years, only Superman and perhaps Batman have had a greater impact on the history and fortunes of the comic-book industry. And no other comic-book character has more perfectly realized the adolescent angst and male fantasies at the heart of the modern superhero genre.
With innovative characters like the Fantastic Four and the Incredible Hulk, Marvel, in the 1960s, pioneered the formula for superheroes who evinced such human failings as jealousy, insecurity, and alienation. This stood them in sharp contrast to the impossibly noble and stiff superheroes offered by competitors like DC Comics. Marvel's formula would attract an expanding fan base throughout the 1960s and beyond, ultimately making it the preeminent comic-book company. Although he was not the first of the new Marvel superheroes, Spider-Man was the true archetype of the Marvel formula. In a calculated stab at the teenage market, which had dwindled since the institution of the Comics Code in 1954, writer-editor Stan Lee set out to create a superhero who was himself an adolescent—one who had to wrestle with his own insecurities and personal difficulties as often as he had to fight the bad guys. This superhero, in Lee's words, "would lose out as often as he'd win—in fact, more often." Lee bypassed his chief artist Jack Kirby and chose Steve Ditko to illustrate the concept, feeling that Ditko's own offbeat style was more appropriate for such an odd character as Spider-Man. The premise was so unusual, in fact, that Lee chose to debut Spider-Man in the fifteenth and final issue of Amazing Fantasy, a series slated for cancellation.
The August 1962 issue of that title introduced readers to Peter Parker, a shy bespectacled teenager ridiculed by his classmates for his social awkwardness and his love of science. One day when he attends an exhibit on radioactivity, Peter is bitten by a spider that unbeknownst to him has just been irradiated. Later, Peter discovers that somehow the radioactive spider's bite has transferred its power to him. Now possessing superhuman speed and agility, the ability to cling to walls, and the proportionate strength of a spider, Peter designs himself a pair of web-shooters attached to his wrists, tailors a costume to conceal his identity, and becomes Spider-Man.
What came next in the originating story set the character apart from his costumed predecessors. Instead of swearing an altruistic oath to aid humanity, Peter sets out to cash in on his new powers. Why, after all, should he do anything for a society that has done nothing but ostracize him? He cares only for his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, who have raised him since the death of his parents. So selfish is his pursuit
of fortune and glory that Spider-Man refuses to come to the aid of a policeman who fails to apprehend an escaping burglar. Then one night, Peter comes home to discover that his beloved Uncle Ben has been murdered. As Spider-Man, he pursues the killer only to discover that it is the very same criminal whom he had earlier neglected to stop. The shocking revelation that his self-interest has indirectly led to the death of his uncle forces Spider-Man to accept the role that fate has forced upon him. He learns that "with great power must come great responsibility." It is this painful lesson that would form the guiding principle and tragic quality of his life as a superhero.
It is difficult to conceive of a more perfect origin story for a comic-book superhero. Lee and Ditko created a hero instantly relevant to the many shy, lonely, and disoriented adolescents who read comic books at a time when anxieties over the perils of atomic energy prevailed in the culture. Young people had a new superhero whom they could truly claim as their own. But Spider-Man's story imparted an important moral message as well. Although inclined to be a loner, Spider-Man was compelled by tragedy to enlist in a cause. This call to commitment proved to be a watchword not only for Spider-Man, but for the discontented baby boomers who mobilized their numbers in the service of political, social, and cultural change. In this important respect, Spider-Man meshed effortlessly with the currents then shaping 1960s youth culture.
Spider-Man immediately became Marvel's most popular superhero—a distinction that he has held ever since. Responding to overwhelmingly positive reader mail, Stan Lee in 1963 launched the character in his own series, The Amazing Spider-Man, which remained in circulation in the late 1990s. Spider-Man's commercial
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success fueled Marvel's mid-1960s superhero revival and set the company on the course toward becoming the industry leader.
Stan Lee quite ingeniously billed Spider-Man as "the superhero who could be you." Peter Parker lived at home with his Aunt May, whose motherly doting was a constant source of inconvenience, as Peter had to fabricate explanations for the late nights and extended absences that Spider-Man's lifestyle demanded. His high school and college life figured prominently into the stories, as did his job as a photographer for the cranky publisher J. Jonah Jameson's Daily Bugle. His perennial money problems and romantic travails with high school sweetheart Liz Allen, co-worker Betty Brant, and college flames Gwen Stacy and Mary-Jane Watson became an integral part of what was arguably the first comic-book soap opera. Spider-Man's good-natured wise-cracking, irreverence for authority, and self-deprecating humor made him an especially endearing antihero to the young. Although he battled a colorful array of middle-aged villains like Dr. Octopus, the Green Goblin, and the Vulture, Spider-Man was himself branded an outlaw by the press, the police, and other sources of adult authority who always seemed to suspect and misunderstand the hero's motives and actions.
Spider-Man's popularity only grew over the following decades with a proliferation of licensed products, several Saturday-morning television cartoon series, and a long-running syndicated newspaper strip. In keeping with industry trends, Spider-Man's stories became increasingly sophisticated during the 1970s and 1980s. Three notable issues in 1971 defied the Comics Code Authority by dealing explicitly with the subject of drug abuse. The controversy over the anti-drug stories led immediately to the liberalization of the Comics Code. Mindful of the fact that Spider-Man was especially popular among the youngest comic-book readers, Marvel has tended to keep the series rather squarely within the boundaries of mainstream cultural acceptability.
Several new comic-book titles featuring the hero increased his presence in the market to near-saturation point during the late 1980s and 1990s. In 1990 the first issue of Spider-Man sold a record two million copies in multiple printings. The proliferation of the Spider-Man series and crossover stories prompted a number of fans to charge that Marvel was over-marketing their favorite hero at the expense of coherent stories, but this controversy has done little to diminish his standing among general comic-book readers. The lack of a major movie deal and accompanying hype on par with that of DC's Superman and Batman has limited Spider-Man's exposure in American mass culture. But that fact may also help account for his continuing popularity among comic-book fans, a subculture generally resistant to mainstream media trends.
It is Spider-Man who most completely epitomizes the ideal of the comic-book superhero for people raised since the 1960s. As a personification of adolescent anxieties and fantasies, Spider-Man truly deserves his status as the quintessential modern comic-book superhero.
—Bradford W. Wright
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Jacobs, Will, and Gerard Jones. The Comic Book Heroes. Rocklin, California, Prima Publishing, 1998.
Lee, Stan. Origins of Marvel Comics. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1974.