Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Essays on Comics Characters: Spider-Man!

I was bound to get to the Web-Slinger sooner or later, eh?

Like with a lot of superheroes, my first exposure to Spider-Man was via a Saturday morning cartoon, the somewhat limited animated show Spiderman (note the lack of hyphen) with it's extraordinarily catchy theme song and extreme lack of webbing on the costume (only appearing on his mask, gloves and boots). As limited as the animation was, they did manage to catch the tone of Spider-Man pretty well, and even included most of the villains that comics readers had come to expect.

I'm not sure what my first Spidey comic would've been, although it's equally likely to have been Marvel Tales as it was Amazing Spider-Man (Marvel Team-Up would come later, as would Spectacular Spider-Man). I'm leaning towards Marvel Tales, only because I do have specific memories of reading some of the earlier John Romita-drawn issues, especially an epic battle with the Kingpin.

I'd imagine most of you know how Spidey began in comics, but just in case, here's the story as I recall it: Stan Lee had come up with the idea of doing a spider-based character, but Martin Goodman didn't like the idea of spiders and superheroes. Since Amazing Fantasy was going to come to an end with issue #15, Stan figured he'd put it in there, and went to Jack Kirby for the artwork of the story.

Now, somewhere in here, Joe Simon asserts that he'd come up with a spider-character himself... the Silver Spider, which was somewhat of a cross between the original Captain Marvel and the later Fly (at Archie -- in fact, this concept would be reworked into The Fly). And apparently Joe had done a logo up of "Spider-Man" (possibly without the hyphen) and may have shown it to Stan Lee -- at the very least, he likely showed it to Kirby, who may have mentioned it to Stan (since the only people who are still around from back then are Stan -- known for his spotty memory -- and Steve Ditko -- who doesn't talk much at all to the press -- it's unlikely that a completely truthful story of how Spidey was created will ever really come out).

Anyway, Kirby went and did a drawing of Spider-Man, possibly the entire story, and gave it to Stan, who wasn't impressed. Kirby had naturally drawn Spidey like he drew most of his heroes, muscular and heroic in proportion, and that wasn't what Stan had in mind -- he wanted a lithe, more gymnast build on Spider-Man. So he went to Ditko.

It's entirely likely that Stan didn't figure he'd ever get Spidey in the comics again after this issue (although there's apparently evidence that the stories that later appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #1 were intended for Amazing Fantasy, so perhaps it just got the plug pulled an issue or two earlier than Stan thought, with #15 being the last issue).

Anyway, the cover was drawn by Kirby instead of Ditko (because I guess Stan liked Kirby's cover better, although the Ditko version has also seen the light of day since then), and featured Spidey swinging over the city with a criminal under his arm, saying, "Though the world may mock Peter Parker, the timid teen-ager... it will soon marvel at the awesome might offf. Spider-Man!" I guess he figured the criminal wouldn't have been paying attention.

The origin story itself was one of those instant classics. We're introduced to Peter Parker, a glasses-wearing science nerd who has been raised by his kindly and elderly Aunt May and Uncle Ben. The two dote on Peter as if he were their own son, and Peter wishes he could pay them back for all they've done.

At school, Peter's a complete washout socially. The other kids in his class tease him, calling him "Puny Parker," and never want to invite him to anything fun. When Peter tries to get some of his fellow students to go to a science exhibition with him, nobody wants to come along, so Peter goes himself. The exhibition is about radioactivity (that standard go-to for powers in that era), and nobody notices a tiny spider being exposed to the radioactivity. The spider drops on the back of Peter's hand, biting it before it dies. The bite hurts, and while Peter notices the spider glowing, he doesn't think that much of it because he starts feeling sick.

He leaves and wonders what kind of effect the bite will have on him when suddenly his Spider-Sense kicks in for the first time, letting him know that a car is about to hit him. He reacts instinctively, leaping out of the way, and landing on a wall! Amazed, he climbs up the wall, accidentally crushing a pipe in his bare hand when he reaches the top of the building. Peter realizes the radioactive spider bite has somehow caused the spider to pass on its abilities to him, giving him the proportionate strength, speed and agility of a spider.

Instead of choosing to use his new powers to fight crime, however... he chooses to try to use his powers to make money! Donning a mask and sweats, Peter tries out his new powers by going to a wrestling match, where there's a cash prize for staying in the ring with "Crusher" Hogan. Peter easily wins the fight, and collects his dough... and is approached by a man wanting to manage him in show business!

Peter goes home and makes up his Spider-Man costume... and also develops the web-shooters (either of these would be amazing for the average high-school sophomore to manage, Peter seems to do both in one night).

Soon, Spider-Man becomes a television sensation, demonstrating his powers and abilities to the public. However, after one TV appearance, as Peter prepares to go home, he lets a crook run past him, who'd been chased by a security guard. All Peter had to do was trip him to stop him, but he's decided to look out for number one now!

Later, Peter arrives at his home to find it surrounded by police. A burglar as broken into the Parker house, and Uncle Ben has been shot and killed! The police tell Peter the burglar's been cornered at an abandoned warehouse, and Peter goes after him.

It's a very condensed timeline here, obviously!

We all know the rest from here... Spider-Man confronts the burglar and captures him, realizing to his horror that it's the same burglar he'd let get away at the TV studio. If he'd only stopped the guy when he had the chance, Uncle Ben would still be alive, so Peter Parker has realized that With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility.

It's one of the great super-hero origin stories of all time, especially remarkable given that it was so short! This wasn't an issue-length story by any means, yet Stan Lee managed to introduce us to Peter, give him powers, and set up his motivations for the rest of his crimefighting career in that time!

There really were only a few items that were "missing" here from what's considered standard Spidey mythos stuff, and those would get introduced pretty quickly when Amazing Spider-Man #1 came out some time later. Obviously, sales on that final issue of Amazing Fantasy were great, which gave Stan leverage against Martin Goodman in order to get that new book started. Those elements were Spidey's wisecracking sense of humor in costume (this was somewhat touched on in the origin, but not nearly as thoroughly as it would be), his relationship with J. Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle, and his spider-tracers. Of these, I think only the latter wasn't introduced in that first issue of the regular series.

Oh, there were other members of the supporting cast to be added, to be sure... Liz Allen, Flash Thompson, Betty Brant... and while they're certainly classic supporting cast members, none of them were parts of the Spidey saga that, if missing from an issue (or even a run of multiple issues), would make it feel like something wasn't there that was supposed to be.

A lot as been written about Stan's writing characters with the idea of there being an "illusion of change," but Peter Parker's life did go through quite a few changes over the years. His taking photos of himself as Spidey to sell to the Bugle became more than just a part-time deal, he graduated from high school and went to college (seemingly forever), changed apartments multiple times, gained and lost supporting cast members, gained and lost loves... and all these things did have their effect on him. Heck, even Aunt May was killed off for some time (although this happened long after I stopped buying new comics)... to say nothing of Peter marrying Mary Jane Watson!

So change is part of Spider-Man's mythos, and rightfully so. It was rare that things in the Spidey books would ever go back to square one after a major change occurred (unlike other books in the Marvel line... Tony Stark might lose Stark Industries, but he'd get it back; the Fantastic Four would break up or move out of the Baxter Building, but they'd get back together or move back in; and how many times have the Avengers had a line-up that ended up being 3/4 comprised of members from the first nine or ten years, usually in a story called "The Old Order Changeth"?).

It's very difficult for me to read Spider-Man's adventures these days and be able to reconcile them with the Spider-Man I'd been reading most of my life. Some of the changes made to him have been dropped or ignored by subsequent writers -- I recall reading a TPB that had Spidey's powers explained as being some kind of mystical animal totem kind of thing, and this is why so many of his foes had an animal basis, and having Spidey get some new powers as a result, and while some people might've thought, "Hey, that makes sense!" it felt like someone thought, "Hey, this is a cool idea, I'm going to run with it!" and not consider that it doesn't make a lot of sense (good grief, how many animal adversaries have Batman and Robin fought, yet there's not been some storyline in which it explains all this by saying that animal spirits have been causing all of this to happen... well, there's been some stuff involving bat-demons and the like, but nothing like that Spidey story).

Spidey's whole set-up is beautiful in its simplicity, I believe, and trying to put too much thought into trying to have it "make sense" smacks of deconstructivism to me. Some thing just don't require too much rethinking.

So here's how I see Spider-Man, and how he should be portrayed... and just as a slight nod to the current books, I'll even concede having him not being married (although I still think that was one of the best changes made to Spidey ever, because it gave him some real grounding):

Peter Parker is good person. He's learned from his experiences that being selfish doesn't work for him, and he's genuinely concerned about his fellow person. This doesn't mean he automatically feels brotherly love for everyone, but he tends to treat people he meets as though what's on the surface is what's real, and he lets his spider-sense let him know otherwise.

He's a brilliant scientist, even if he hasn't completely finished his schooling yet (something that, if it hasn't happened in the comics, really should... Pete's been exposed to so much advanced scientific stuff over the years, and been able to deal with it in ways that, to me, should make him considered one of the smartest guys around -- maybe not in a class with Reed Richards or Tony Stark, but certainly up there). This is a guy who, as a high school student, invented his web-shooters and later spider-tracers, plus he was able to convert his camera so that it would fit on his belt! Maybe the only reason he's not made the full 100% commitment to science is that by this time, a lot of it's come way too easy for him, and it doesn't have the challenges he'd expected. In many ways, he's been his own worst enemy holding himself back from a scientific career.

He's also a great photographer when he takes the time to be great. Unfortunately again, he's his own worst enemy, because he lets his camera take pictures automatically in order to get his photos for the Bugle. At this point in his career, he should definitely have gone digital, and perhaps even got to the point where he uses several cameras at once to get a better range of shots when he's fighting crooks.

He has the respect of most of the Daily Bugle staff -- yes, even including Jameson, although you'd never catch Jameson saying so directly to Peter's face (at least, not without taking it back almost immediately). Pete's photos have sold newspapers, and as great as the Bugle has been throughout its life, it seems to me that Pete's photos have probably done as much as anything else to keep the Bugle going as long as it has, when other papers have folded.

There's been stories in the past of Pete working temporarily for other papers -- papers that even paid more -- but he always goes back to the Bugle again. Why is this? Because it's like a second family to him. The money should be better, but everyone in the newspaper industry is facing potential layoffs or salary cuts, so even though he deserves more money, he's not going to get it there. Perhaps there could be more books of his photos in his future.

He's no longer the nebbish he was in high school, nervous around women. He's got more self-confidence than he probably realizes -- this probably ties in to letting the burglar go that killed Ben Parker. Whether he realizes it or not, Pete knows that mistakes can cost him and others dearly, and I think this can be used to explain why he rarely has much of an active social life. On some level, he must feel that anything he puts a lot of time into has to count for something... it's either got to put food on the table or help others. This is probably why he enjoys being Spider-Man so much; it's fun, and really about the only recreation he's got. Exercise can release endorphins, and while he certainly takes being Spidey seriously, he's always admitted that being Spider-Man is fun. When he's been studying and needs a break, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Web-slinging.

I don't think I need to focus too much on his powers... he can be presented as strong as he needs to be, although he's certainly not in the same weight class as Thor or the Hulk (or even Iron Man), he's certainly up there. He's got to be the most agile superhero in the Marvel Universe, being able to avoid obstacles and maneuver in ways that can't be matched. Perhaps he could work on reworking his web-shooters a bit so that he doesn't run out of fluid at critical times (perhaps some warning beeper when a cartridge gets down to a certain point).

His webbing is one of those things that I feel needs to be explored a bit more. Consider the size of his web fluid cartridges, and then consider how much webbing he goes through. Clearly, when he spins his webbing, it can't be the same volume that was stored in the cartridges. Something in the chemical make-up has to react with oxygen or something else in the air in order to get the volume increased. Either that, or the webbing's much finer than is usually depicted (this actually makes more sense -- real spider's webbing is very thin, after all).

As I referenced above, he's a wise-cracker, and while this helps keep him from stressing out too much while fighting powerful villains, it's also one of his great weapons. Many of Spidey's stories have pointed out that Spidey's quips make his opponents quick to anger, and this anger leads them to make mistakes that Spidey can exploit.

While his life has been full of tragedy, I don't think that Spidey's stories should be dark so much of the time. Grim and gritty doesn't really work with the Wall-Crawler on a regular basis, and should be kept to a minimum. His stories should be exciting, and not like anyone else's tales. The great thing about Spidey is that he seems to work well in just about any kind of environment (although I think he's best kept in New York City, he is able to adapt to his circumstances). He's always considered himself a loner, but he's probably teamed up with more superheroes than just about anyone else, although I'm still undecided if I like him being an Avenger or not.

Anyway... I feel like I'm kind of running out of steam on this whole essay by this point, so perhaps it's a good place to start. As always, I welcome seeing your own comments about Spidey!

1 comment:

  1. Shoot I remember my first issue that I saw. Amazing Spiderman 214. Been a Trapster fan ever since. First issue I ever got was 224 and the first one ever in the mail was 232.

    ReplyDelete

Please keep your comments relevant, I delete all spam! Thanks.