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.
Life changes for Peter when he goes on a school trip to a laboratory and is bitten by a radioactive spider. He finds that he has super strength and the abilities and senses of a spider. He soon embarks — secretly — on a part-time career in entertainment as "The Spider-Man," making appearances on shows after school.
However, after one of his appearances, "The Spider-Man" refuses to stop a robber eluding a police officer. This thief would later kill Peter's Uncle Ben in a burglary, prompting the grief-stricken teenager to devote his life and his powers to the fight for justice. Spider-Man learned a lesson that his Uncle Ben tried to teach him shortly before Ben's death: With great power comes great responsibility.
The ‘Peter Parker’ in All of Us
From the beginning, readers clearly saw Spider-Man's humanity and vulnerability. Even with his powers, he could not protect his loved ones from harm and was not immune from the hardships of daily life — two long-running themes of the Spider-Man comic books. Readers saw a bit of themselves in Spider-Man.
"With Batman and Superman, both characters made a conscious choice to use their powers for good, to devote their lives to fighting evil," said M. Thomas Inge, professor of English and the Humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia. "Superman was born with his powers and Batman devoted his life toward avenging the murder of his parents. Peter Parker became a superhero by accident. He's 15 to 16 years old, unpopular in high school, he has acne, he's got a lot of problems. To a certain extent, he had no choice in that his powers were a gift thrust upon him.
"We can all be Peter Parkers," Inge added. "It feeds into our typical fantasy of wanting to escape our characters. We'd all like to escape our characters sometime and be someone else."
Heroes in Need of Shrinks
After Spider-Man, more heroes in Marvel Comics and elsewhere encountered "everyman"-type situations. While The Fantastic Four's Invisible Womanl worried about Dr. Doom and saving the world, her Susan Richards side worried that she was really invisible to husband Reed Richards, also known as "Mr. Fantastic," the workaholic leader of The Fantastic Four.
Iron Man's alter ego, Tony Stark, battled alcoholism in the 1970s. Bruce Banner was not only the victim of a gamma ray explosion who happened to always find himself in situations where his enemies would anger him and trigger his transformation into The Incredible Hulk. In stories written in the late 1990s and 2001, it was revealed that Banner was the victim of child abuse and had a lot of suppressed anger.
"Marvel Comics really gave birth to the idea of heroes with personal problems," Inge said. "It became a signature of the characters who came out of Marvel — The Fantastic Four, The Hulk … they all had personal problems."
Even longtime characters became more human. In D.C. Comics, more stories found Clark Kent wondering whether Lois Lane loved the mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter or his Man of Steel secret identity.
"After Spider-Man, everyone recognized the formula that Stan Lee figured out — quite correctly — that to make the character in costume more compelling, you have to make the alter-ego as much, if not that much more interesting," said Joe Quesada, Marvel Comics editor in chief. "You have to show the human side of the costumed character. You can't have the character in costume always have the victory well in hand because that situation gets played out after a while."
Spider-Man has shown that comic readers want their heroes superhuman, yet flawed. Readers turn to heroes for escapism, but they also want a dash of reality. Spider-Man reflects the longtime appeal of the flawed hero. Samson's hair was his source of strength — and easy target for Delilah. Achilles had his heel.
"All of our heroes in our society tend to have a chink in their armor, making them more endearing to the American sensibility," said Inge. "They tend to have a compromised morality. … Huck Finn was not an ideal character. He did some questionable things to get what he wanted and faced a moral dilemma with Jim the slave before he ended up doing the right thing."
New York State of Mind
Much of the dash of realism in Spider-Man is rooted in its setting. Superman and Batman protected the fictional cities of Metropolis and Gotham, respectively. Peter Parker is a New Yorker who lived in Queens as a teenager and later moved to Hell's Kitchen as a struggling freelance photographer in his adult years.
Many readers can identify with the real-life situations he encounters in a real city. That is why Spider-Man was the first character who directly addressed the Sept. 11 terror attacks in a storyline, not a specific tribute comic that featured only art. That issue, Amazing Spider-Man No. 36 was one of Marvel Comics' best sellers last year.
"Stan Lee and Steve Ditko made such a compelling cast of supporting characters and a prolific world for Peter Parker to live in," said David Gabriel, executive director of the New York City Comic Book Museum. "Spider-Man is set in the real city of New York, and he has to deal with a set of real problems you would encounter in a city. We've seen him grow from a teen to now in his late 20s. He's had trouble finding an apartment, holding a job, getting a girlfriend and maintaining a relationship, getting married, and losing a wife … all the things everyone can identify with."
Spider-Man also changed the way teenagers were portrayed in comics. Before his debut, teenagers were mainly sidekicks to stronger, more dominant heroes and they rarely had an entire book devoted to them. After Spider-Man, writers found that teenagers could be leading heroes, producing titles such as D.C. Comics' Teen Titans, The New Mutants in Marvel, solo series for Robin and Batgirl, and the 1990s' Static Shock of the now-defunct Milestone comics.
And they did not have to be built like Greek gods. Peter Parker's newly acquired super strength did not translate into a super physique.
"Spider-Man started a whole revolution of comics," said Quesada. "He was a teen when most heroes before him like Superman and Batman were not only god-like but they were mother-father types — they were older."
Escape and Empathy in the Turbulent '60s
Spider-Man's youth may have been part of his appeal to many young readers in the turbulent 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing, and television screens were bringing the horrors of the Vietnam War into America's living rooms. Comic book readers both found an escape in — and empathized with — the web-slinger as he cracked jokes and talked trash while battling villains and worrying about how he could keep his extracurricular activities hidden from Aunt May.
"When Spider-Man came along in the '60s, there were a lot of kids entering college who had a hard time finding their identities, what cause to get involved in," said Inge. "There were a lot of internal problems in this country, with the civil rights movement going on. A lot of kids continued reading comics after entering college, which is unusual since most teens stop at that time."
But doesn't angst take something away from a hero? Perhaps too much angst and humanity can turn a superhero into a super wimp.
"I think it makes them into bigger heroes," said Feliu. "We live in a world where cynicism runs wild. You wouldn't think a fireman was less of a hero because you see him going home to his wife and kids. It gives you a sense of what he's fighting for when he's out there."
The Gameboy: Spidey's Greatest Opponent?
It's uncertain whether Spider-Man the movie will give a boost to the comic book industry or bring kids back to the comics. Places like New York's Midtown Comics tend to be filled businessmen with briefcases and aspiring artists and writers in their 20s, not children or teenagers.
"In this age of video games and the computer, I just don't think it will," said Inge. "Most comics are not written for children. They're written by full-grown adults who have adults in mind who want to write compelling stories without dumbing it down."
However, the industry hopes the movie's release will at least bring some attention to comic books and promote reading. On the day after the movie's opening, Marvel, D.C., Image Comics, and Dark Horse Comics, among other publishers, will unite to sponsor Free Comic Book Day, where 2,000 comic specialty shops will give away selected books.
"I hope that with Spider-Man, people remember that a comic book is where it came from," Gabriel said. "With the X-Men [movie], I don't think many people remembered it came from a comic book. With Blade, I don't think people were aware at all it came from a comic book."
Comic book awareness or not, the anticipation for Spider-Man is high.
"Oh hell yeah! I can't wait," said Feliu. "I just saw a trailer where they showed him, perched on a pole, looking over the city. I thought to myself, 'That's him. That's Spider-Man. That's the way he supposed to be.' "
At the Magic Johnson Movie Theater in Harlem, an 8-year-old boy on his way to see E.T.: The 20th Anniversary Edition pointed to a banner promoting the movie's upcoming release, yelling, "Spider-Man! Spider-Man! I want to see Spider-Man!"
His excitement did not ebb even after he sat down for his movie. When the trailer for Spider-Man showed before E.T, the boy started cheering again, his feet swinging back and forth and not hitting the ground once. Like any "true believer," he was doing his best to stay tuned.