Why Spider-Man Is Popular

For a nerd, Spider-Man's not doing so bad these days — after 40 years of web-slinging, he's got a new movie and has managed to remain hip with youngsters while staying true to his aging longtime fans.

From billboards in New York's Times Square to toy stores, book shelves and even music stores, Marvel Comics' flagship character seems to be everywhere as his fans await Friday's opening of the Spider-Man movie. However, Spider-Man's enduring popularity has little to do with his ability to climb walls, his super-human strength, or his somewhat creepy-yet-cool costume.

Fans have loved Spider-Man because he has trouble paying his rent. He was not the most popular guy in school and does not always get the girl. Comic book readers — or "true believers," as Spider-Man co-creator Stan Lee likes to refer them — have followed the web-slinger for so long because his very human alter-ego is Peter Parker, who struggles with the same everyday life issues as everyone else.

"He was just like an everyman," said Ken Feliu, a 29-year-old commercial production director and lifelong comic book reader. "Batman had his secret identity but Bruce Wayne was a millionaire. Superman had his alter-ego [Clark Kent], but he was still Superman.

"With Spider-Man, he had his aunt nagging him, he had to get through school, he had to deal with his life, he had to hold down a job. He almost seemed like a regular guy," said Feliu. "Here's a guy who, while swinging from building to building on his way to fight Doc Ock [Dr. Octopus], is also thinking, 'Oh man, how am I gonna pay the rent tomorrow?'"

Smudging the Lines Between Marvels and Mortals

Before Spider-Man's debut in 1962, the two most popular comic heroes at the time were Batman and Superman. Both heroes and their contemporaries were portrayed as godlike — they seemed omnipotent and had Adonis-like physiques. There was a distinct line drawn between the heroes and the people they protected.

Lee and original Spider-Man artist and co-creator Steve Ditko smudged that line when their human wall-crawler made his debut in Marvel Comics' Amazing Fantasy No. 15.

Lee, who had success in creating The Fantastic Four in 1961, had wanted to unveil an unlikely hero who did not fit in with the Supermen and Batmen of the comic book universe, and saw an opportunity in the fledgling Amazing Fantasy series. Still, as he recalled in Son of Origins of Marvel Comics, his publisher, Martin Goodman, was very skeptical.

"Martin told me three things that I will never forget," Lee said. "He said people hate spiders, so you can't call a hero 'Spider-Man.' Then, when I told him I wanted the hero to be a teenager, as he was in the beginning, Martin said that a teenager can't be a hero, but only a sidekick. Then, when I wanted him not to be too popular with the girls and not great-looking or a strong, macho-looking guy, but just a thin, pimply high school student, Martin said, 'Don't you know understand what a hero is?' "

Readers were introduced to Peter Parker, a shy, highly intelligent, bullied teenager who lives with his doting Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Peter is a high school outcast, the butt of many jokes perpetrated by popular jocks and an object of scorn among girls. A lonely orphan, Peter has only two friends: his aunt and uncle.

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