The hero who could be you

The hero who could be you

Spider-Man turns 50,proving that with great power comes great longevity

In December,The Amazing Spider-Man No 700 brought its eponymous hero to the lowest of his innumerable lows,swapping his brain with that of his eight-armed archnemesis Dr Octopus. One of his mightiest foes was now walking around as Peter Parker,long-suffering superhero,while the real Parker’s consciousness was trapped in Doc Ock’s dying body. Well,not completely trapped — he hovered above his former body as a spectral presence,capable of watching,but not of intervening,while Doc Ock chatted up his supermodel ex-girlfriend,Mary Jane Watson. (She’s also his ex-wife,but as ever in superhero lore,that’s a long story.)

This all happens in the final issue of Amazing,the flagship Spider-Man title that’s appeared monthly (and sometimes biweekly) since 1963. There have been many other regular Spider-Man comics,of course,and the discontinued Amazing was immediately replaced on Marvel Comics’ publishing schedule by the first issue of a new title,The Superior Spider-Man,which picks up the story from the same dire place where the Amazing left it. Boosting reader interest in a long-running title by restarting the numbering with a new “first” issue is a gimmick that Marvel and its primary competitor,DC Comics,the home of Superman and Batman,have been milking for decades.

Superheroes were already old news in 1962,when Spider-Man was introduced in the final issue of Amazing Fantasy. Over at DC,Superman had been around since 1938; Batman since a year later. Other supernatural characters whose adventures were being published by Marvel — Captain America,The Human Torch,The Sub-Mariner — had all been around since the 1940s. And to us,half a century after his debut,Peter Parker — the kid who acquired “the proportionate strength and speed of an arachnid” instead of just a painful welt after being bitten by a radioactive spider — seems no more or less unusual than any other costumed do-gooder. But he really was radical,once.

Jack Kirby,the comic artist who created,with a still-debated degree of assistance from Stan Lee,The Fantastic Four,The Uncanny X-Men,the Incredible Hulk and many other Marvel characters,claimed to have had a hand in Spider-Man’s creation,too. But it was the private and intense artist Steve Ditko who is credited with dreaming up the character,in collaboration with Lee. He designed Spider-Man’s wiry,insect-like posture and drew the first 38 issues of the character’s monthly adventures.


Early Marvel comics were written via a curious mode of collaboration,wherein Lee would write a rough “plot,” which the artist would translate into 12 to 24 pages of art,determining the pace and visual tone of the story. As the scripter,Lee would then add dialogue to the pencilled pages. The method raised substantial questions of authorship. Ditko eventually received credit for “plot” as well as for artwork. He was a deeply conservative man with an inflexible sense of personal responsibility and justice. Superman,the alien who came to Earth to inspire us puny humans to be more selfless and noble,might have seemed a fit for him,but Ditko was probably too pessimistic to invest in a character like that.

In any case,Peter Parker was no Superman,or even Clark Kent. He was a nerdy high-school student who couldn’t play sports or talk to girls. Once he acquired his bizarre gifts,his thoughts turned not to altruism,but to how he could exploit them for fame and treasure. He competed as a wrestler. He appeared on TV. Not until his Uncle Ben was slain by a mugger Peter could have stopped,but chose not to,did Parker learn that “with great power comes great responsibility.” But this newfound maturity only made his personal problems worse. Clark Kent,Superman’s alter ego,never seemed to suffer much when he was out of uniform. Bruce Wayne,who spent his nights policing Gotham City’s streets as Batman,cultivated the image of a millionaire playboy. It was intended to deflect suspicion of his nocturnal exploits,but he really was rich.

Not Peter Parker. Peter fought with his girlfriends,fretted endlessly over his Aunt May’s frail health,got chewed out by his boss,struggled to pay his rent. He was,as Lee himself once wrote,“the hero who could be you.” Never mind that he was brilliant enough to invent a pair of wrist-mounted “web shooters” after acquiring his powers,an innovation that seemingly could have brought him a personal fortune that Bruce Wayne might envy. He was,by superhero standards,a neurotic,vulnerable,fallible guy. He was us.

Chris Klimek is a Washington DC-based writer,