Marvel Comics writers draw inspiration from all literal archetypes when creating characters: the man-monster (Hulk), the billionaire playboy (Iron Man), the mythical god (Thor), and so on. But for every rising star, there were dozens disregarded because of inadequate manpower and the financial pressure of developing characters proven to sell books. With so many heroes on the line, and too few editors to give the unfortunate ones a fighting chance, some early Marvel magazines naturally started to falter. Here begins the tale of Spider-Man.
In 1962, the Amazing Fantasy magazine was one of dozens on the brink of extinction. Under excruciating pressure from above, and fighting both physical and creative exhaustion, Marvel creator Stan Lee decided to lighten the load by tossing an ignored superhero onto the failing magazine. It was the perfect solution: the quota was filled and made one less superhero to worry about, which in turn freed Lee and his staff to focus more on the successful characters that kept the Marvel machine running. Everyone wins.
Only that character proved to be so popular that he became the face of Marvel Comics. That character’s name? Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spider-Man.
Nothing would be the same again.
Spider-Man allowed Lee and others to give old concepts a new twist that still resonate in present day. For example: sidekicks. Sidekicks allowed heroes to teach valuable lessons (and through them, the young fan demographic). But what if a sidekick was the hero? What if the hero dealt with high school as well as supervillains? What if bullying or academic pressure sat side-by-side with fighting would-be conquerors? The answer? Spider-Man.
Spider-Man was also responsible for making a hero’s brains just as important as his or her brawn. The sad truth is that physical strength is generally the first thing fans associate with superheroes. Spider-Man’s mind, however, is often the key to defeating his enemies. His iconic web-shooters and trademark cameras come from his intellect. It’s what allows Peter to support his ailing aunt and their money shortages. None of that would be possible if Spidey was just a macho action hero.
Perhaps Spider Man’s most influential twist is the origin of his crime-fighting motive. Peter, a typical nerd, gains incredible powers from an irradiated spider. But instead of using the powers for the weak, Peter gets drunk on success and fame. Convinced that looking out for number one is the highest priority, he lets a thief go free because it’s simply not his problem.
Then, Uncle Ben, the man who raised Peter, is killed. Naturally, Peter gives chase—and discovers the murderer is the same thief he didn’t stop. If only Peter had intervened before, Uncle Ben would be alive. Ben’s last gift to Peter: the words, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It’s a phrase that has since become the standard all heroes aspire to.
Spider-Man speaks to the awkward person in all of us: the teenager trying to fit in, struggling with peer pressure, jocks, pranks and bullies. But he also speaks to the inner adult: paying the mortgage, juggling jobs, pinching pennies, facing eviction and unpleasant landlords, everyday things that happen to everyday people. That’s the key. That’s why Spidey’s popular: because he could be you.
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