Like many young comic fans, my favorite superhero used to be Spider-Man. And why not? He’s basically what Bumblebee was for Transformers; a kid character who was ‘radical’, flippant, and treated like shit by anyone over 30 years old. Just like your childhood! Go ahead and cry a little. Stan Lee intended for Spider-Man to be the ‘every-man/kid’ who would have more mundane challenges, like girls and money. And he more than succeeded in his efforts:from the very beginning of the series you “get” who Peter is. He accomplishes this initially by making his journey to heroism a multi-step process rather than an immediate change.
Anyone who’s even mildly familiar with the character of Spider-Man is probably pretty well versed with the basic origin story, with a few minor details being subject to change ( webbing,the nature of the spider, etc ), so my recapping of Spidey’s first appearance in Amazing Fantasy #15 will only focus on a few important bits.
Unlike many other superheroes, the origin story puts emphasis on what shapes the character before he got powers rather than after. The first panel (above) establishes his complete lack of support from his peers. At one point he asks out a fellow student, who rebuffs him in favor of Flash Thompson, who’s conveniently standing right next to him. Afterwards he walks away sobbing, vowing to “show them one day”. As internet reviewer Linkara pointed out, he had all the makings of a school shooter. Despite the lack of subtlety, this kind of justifies why Parker, once receiving “great power”, doesn’t rush to help out any of the god awful assholes who occupy his Queens neighborhood.
To make up for his bullying, Stan assures us that his Aunt May and Uncle Ben treat him really well (which isn’t at all tempting fate…).
After getting powers and engaging in wrestling, he becomes a masked performer
This is where the comic’s portrayal of his reaction to getting powers differs from most adaptations. In both film series, Peter is portrayed as immediately neglecting his Aunt and Uncle once he gets empowered, which serve as precursors to his inadvertent role in Uncle Ben’s death. It also makes Peter a little more guilt-ridden because his Uncle died while they were on somewhat bad terms. This makes perfect sense for a film, which doesn’t have the time for drawn out character development. A comic series does, however, so instead of Peter brushing off his Aunt and Uncle, he actually vows to help them out since they were the only ones that have been nice to him.
Rather than turning into a selfish jerk, Peter stays the same. As established earlier, Peter Parker always wanted to show up his classmates, and getting his powers allowed him to act that out and get paid for it. In addition, he actually vows to help his family, with his powers. And yet, he’s still not a ‘true’ hero. In the rationale of the superhero genre, it isn’t enough that Pete doesn’t decide to become a criminal or even that he wants to help his family. He has to be the WORLD’S hero. Superheroes use their abilities for the sake of mankind and not just their friends and family. When he neglects to help his fellow man, it bites him in the ass when his Uncle Ben is killed. The problems of the world, even trivial ones, will eventually affect him in a local sphere. This becomes a recurring theme in Peter’s hilariously sad life.
Now you would think that after all of that tragedy Peter would see the light of heroism and become the hero he was meant to be. You would be wrong. The follow up story has Peter lamenting his Uncle’s death…then promptly going back to being an entertainer. When you think about it, this is a perfectly reasonable reaction. Ok sure, Uncle Ben is dead, but that doesn’t really warrant being a superhero in itself. First off, his Uncle Ben dying from the same mugger that he let go is an event so contrived that no sane person would really take much of a “lesson” from it.
Secondly, he still has much more pressing matters to worry about, particularly losing a SUBSTANTIAL amount of income due to his surrogate father dying. He actually considers becoming a thief in order to pay for bills, but quickly dismisses it. He doesn’t dismiss it for moral reasons, he just couldn’t stand hurting his Aunt May by getting arrested. We see here that Peter is still relatively self-centered compared to most superheroes at this point. He’s still thinking only locally. The ‘Call To Adventure’ has yet to be received by Peter, but he is forced to move closer to heroism by circumstance. What keeps Peter from resuming his career in show business is the arrival of probably the greatest non-powered antagonist in comics: J. Jonah Jameson.
In true Jameson fashion, he begins his crusade against Spider-Man based on the perceived threat of children imitating his crime-fighting and acrobatics. Yes Jameson, god forbid children get interested in FUCKING GYMNASTICS. Jameson is basically the minister from Footloose. He manages to build up enough vitriol to get Spider-Man banned from performing. People really don’t like Peter Parker. But opportunity arises for young Peter: Jameson’s astronaut son is having a test of a space ship thing in Queens for some reason.
While Peter is in attendance, the shuttle thing malfunctions, causing Peter to intervene. Strangely, no one wants a masked teenager on a million dollar spacecraft, to which Spidey responds…
…and then proceeds to save the astronaut.
His first emotion when getting out was elation. Mind you, it wasn’t because he just saved a man’s life, it was because he’s sure Jameson won’t write negative editorials about him anymore. Though he did save Jameson, it was more of a knee-jerk reaction, rather than proactive heroism. Hell, his statement afterwards makes it plausible that he was GLAD the thing malfunctioned since it meant he can look like a hero and continue his entertainment career. Once again, Peter is still thinking about his own problems. Of course, Jameson not only doesn’t take back his slander, he actually accuses him of SABOTAGING the module in the first place. That guy really is an asshole.
The success of Amazing Fantasy #15 led to Marvel deciding to give Spider-Man his own series, The Amazing Spider-Man. Given that the character is now supporting his own series, one would assume that in the next story, he will truly become a proper superhero and fight evil. And you would be wrong again! He fights Marvel’s greatest heroes at the time, The Fantastic Four!
Now granted, covers like this were pretty common back in the day, because nothing made a kid plunk down a dime faster than heroes fighting each other. Most of the time, some one was brainwashed or whatever, but this time, Spidey ACTUALLY picked a fight with the Fantastic Four. Thinking it was a great idea to just break into their house (as many of us do) he pries open a window and steps right in like Brotherman from Martin (sorry for that reference, white people).
They of course attempt to beat his ass, but he manages to evade and out fight them for just long enough before Mr. Fantastic actually questions why the hell he broke in. His answer? He wants to join the team, which they accept. Except Spidey didn’t realize that no one gets paid to be in their club. He promptly leaves. Our hero!
For a few issues this is the usual manner of conflict Spidey has, he tries to do something in his personal life and shit just kind of happens around him. He’s no hero, he’s just a victim of circumstance. As you see in the green section of the cover, Spidey has his first encounter with a super-villain, the Chameleon, who impersonates him and frames him for various crimes.
The Chameleon then calls the gullible Spidey for a job so that he can take the fall. Thus conflict. In the next issue, Peter begins a photography career, focusing on the crime beat, which isn’t weird at all for a high school student. Seeing the Daily Bugle reward for pictures of a jewelry thief known as the Vulture ( i’m sensing an animal theme here ), he dons his outfit and catches the bird in the act, only to be knocked out by him. He of course recovers, and desires more pictures. And revenge! Thus conflict. In the accompanying story, aliens appear. Thus conflict.
Now during this issue, Spidey makes a few steps in the right direction. After taking the first couple of pictures of Vulture, he realizes that he actually wants to be Spider-Man. And not just because he can get easy money doing it, he just finds it fun. Granted, he still doesn’t have much heroic motivation, he just likes the thrill of it.
This transition deconstructs the usual unambiguous altruism of super-heroics: as Captain Stacy points out in the The Amazing Spider–Man (2012), nothing about Spidey’s modus operandi is heroic. He goes around, beats up low end criminals, and is justifiably disliked by the people because of his carelessness. This is a guy who broke into someone’s home just to get a job and interfered in a robbery for some pictures. Stacy’s comments could serve as an indictment of ALL masked heroes, and the genre in general. Should the people, and us an audience, admire those who assert their power for their own glory? Shouldn’t a hero be more than that? Many authors as of late have posed that question. Over at DC, Superman: Grounded (2010-2011) featured the titular hero literally walking across America, committing acts of heroism such as fixing a man’s car and shutting down a drug lab. The goal of the series was to have Superman attempt to connect with the people he saves everyday in order to remind himself why he does what he does. While Spidey isn’t nearly as ‘above’ normal people as Superman, he needed a humbling in order to become akin to heroes like Superman.
In many ways, superheroes are like mythical heroes. As such, one can only become a true hero by accomplishing godly feats of skill and bravery. Often these challenges take on the form of dread monsters. Hercules had the the three-headed hell-hound Cerberus, Theseus had the horned hybrid Minotaur, and Spider-Man had…Doctor Octopus.
Alright,alright; I know he isn’t exactly Doomsday, but in context, Doctor Octopus was a pretty big deal. He the first enemy to be as strong and as smart as Spider-Man. Up until this point, Spidey had fought regular criminals, a guy who was really good with masks, 5-foot tall aliens,and an octogenerian with wings. I guess we could count “fighting” the Fantastic Four but it’s pretty clear during the brawl that no one is really endeavoring to kill the kid, just stop him. The fact is Spidey still has not been vetted in true combat. He even reflects on this himself in the beginning of the issue, stating that he “wished he could have a true test of his skills”. And boy does he eat those words. The good Doctor, while working on a nuclear experiment, nukes himself, giving him control over the tentacles which give him his moniker. Now having a severe case of nuclear brain crazy, he decides to take over the hospital for some reason and shake it’s staff incessantly. The cad! Because no one else can take care of him ( since there sure aren’t any other heroes in New York ), Spidey decides to intervene, thinking it will be cakewalk. It isn’t.
Despite his silly appearance, Ock overwhelms him with surprising speed and strength and he’s beaten into unconsciousness. Ock mocks Spidey’s feeble power and tosses him casually out the window. Having suffered his first loss has an extreme effect on him. What he thought would be a merry life of beating up muggers has turned into something that could result in death. In Campbellian narrative, Ock would probably be referred to as his “Threshold Guardian”: he is the first real obstacle to Spider-Man’s status as a superhero. TV Tropes defines the Threshold Guardian as one who “puts the hero in a position where he must make a decision that reflects a sincere commitment to the task at hand, by providing a threat or bar to progress that the hero must specifically choose to overcome”. Everything else leading up to this point has been circumstantial; Peter hasn’t made a true commitment to heroism. His initial choice is to fold rather than challenge Ock again. He decides to quit being Spider-Man ( a recurring event in the character’s history ), even going as far to tell Jameson that he can’t provide any more photos. He continues on his sob stroll until he hears a rousing speech from a very unlikely source: The Human Torch ( that guy he tried to beat up a few issues ago ). Having been contacted by the authorities to take down Doc Ock, who has now taken over the entire U.S. Atomic Research Center, he decides to visit Peter’s high school since he’s too sick to fight immediately anyway ( once again, why no one didn’t contact the SEVERAL other active heroes in New York is beyond me ).
Despite the triteness of the Torch’s “rousing speech’, it still works well in the context of Peter’s journey so far. At this point in Marvel, Fantastic Four was by far the highest selling property and in-universe, they were Earth’s greatest heroes. Having a visit from Johnny Storm was like having a visit from JFK. As such, Peter takes whatever the Torch said as invaluable nuggets of wisdom. In addition, this brings Peter’s journey full circle back to the first issue; at first he rejected the call to heroism the Fantastic Four offered him, which meant he wasn’t ready for it. Having delved further into being a superhero, he now sees the path the Four represent and is ready to jump at the call despite knowing the dangers. Facing an even greater threat than before, Spidey heads to the Atomic Research Center to defeat Dr. Octopus. While the Doctor manages to put up an immense fight using atomic weapons and his arms, Spidey finally manages to put him down with one knockout blow (the first in a loooong series).
Afterwards, Spidey thanks Johnny for his unintended help and swings away. From then on, Spider-Man’s heroism was no longer ambiguious. He still had the financial and social problems that plagued him before he got his powers, but he didn’t let them take priority over his self-appointed duty as a hero. Peter Parker became an idealized everyman, someone who had the same struggles you and I did, but always did what was right.
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