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Orestes in Spandex

By (April 1, 2016) No Comment

spider5_convertedViewers of the latest trailer for Captain America: Civil War could be excused a certain amount of nerd rapture, as a certain well-known web-slinger (voiced charmingly by Tom Holland) unexpectedly swings into view. The movie marks the long-awaited entrance of Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe — and the character’s third movie iteration since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002. Undeniably, this is a superhero with some staying power.

It’s a curious thing to examine. Every superhero fills a certain psychic niche in the mind of its reader. Superman is God the Father, the omnipotent but good-hearted parental surrogate who will always be there when we fall off our bicycle (or or skyscraper, as the case may be). Batman is the body perfected, the perfect human specimen we imagine we could become, if we only put in the time, training, and limitless millionaire resources. By this measure, Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man is an outlier among these fantasies of wish fulfillment. He, alone among these modern Olympians, is a receptacle of readerly schadenfreude. He is the only hero we thank our lucky stars we will never have to be.

To understand the origins of this oddity, we need to go back to the character’s creation, in August, 1962 in the pages of the soon-to-be-defunct Amazing Fantasy anthology series. Characteristically for this hero, the circumstances of his origin are fraught. The creation of writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man was intended to be something of a page-filler for a series already likely to be canceled — though the creators must have spotted some potential, at least, since the final page of his first appearance promises “further amazing exploits of America’s most different new teen-age idol.” According to Lee’s now-familiar telling, the character was a deliberate attempt to break the orthodox mold of acceptable superheroes: a teenage hero who was a star, rather than a sidekick; a hero whose central gimmick could be seen as gross or creepy to the average reader; and most of all a character who was flawed and imperfect not just physically, but morally, too.

Whether Lee’s typically solipsistic account of the character’s creation bears any close resemblance to the truth is anyone’s guess. Ditko, for his part, credits the flamboyant writer with little more than a casual suggestion for a spider-based character, while Lee, as recently as a 2007 interview with journalist Jonathan Ross, could only begrudgingly bring himself to credit Ditko as a co-creator. Loaded as this question may be with issues of creator credit and fair compensation, it is, for the millions of readers who have known Spider-Man over the ensuing decades, merely background static. What remains beyond question is the result of this creative jockeying: a superhero who really was, by any standard of the time, a thoroughly odd duck.

What stands out in retrospect about that first story in Amazing Fantasy #15 is how little it resembles a superhero’s debut. There are no colorful villains on display here, and few superheroics — or, indeed, heroism of any kind. Rather, what we have here, as comics blogger Chris Sims has keenly observed, is a variation on the twist-ending crime comics in which Marvel had trafficked throughout the fifties. Here is bookish, bespectacled Peter Parker, “Midtown High’s only professional wallflower.” Bullied by school jock Flash Thompson and his mean-girl admirers, coddled by his elderly Aunt May and Uncle Ben (Peter is apparently an orphan), he stands in for every pimply, insecure high school freshman reading Amazing Fantasy between the pages of his geometry textbook. Until, that is, Peter drops by a public science exhibition and gets bitten by a soon-to-be-legendary radioactive spider — and finds himself gifted with the proportional strength, speed, and agility of a spider.

So far, so typical. But the story’s next turn reveals its genius: rather than use his “unbelievable abilities” for the good of mankind (the instinctive choice of virtually every superhero from Superman onward) Peter moves swiftly and confidently to “look out for number one — that means — me!” Having tested his abilities by thrashing a professional wrestler for a $100 prize, he proceeds to sew together a colorful costume and (within the space of two pages) secure a lucrative television contract that makes the newly-christened Spider-Man “the sensation of the nation!”

spider3 It’s this turn, more than anything else about the character’s origin, that proves the truth of Lee’s exuberant claim to have created a totally new kind of teenage hero. Peter’s reaction to his newfound powers is most authentically teenage response imaginable: what pimply, unnoticed 15-year-old wouldn’t think first to “look out for number one”? If given the chance, what victimized fanboy wouldn’t choose to out-jock and out-glorify the Flash Thompsons of the world? Peter uses his powers the way life has trained him to: he becomes the bully he used to fear.

Thus, when a desperate police officer implores a post-performance Spider-Man to halt a fleeing criminal, the masked and arrogant Peter laughs off the request. And thus, when Peter returns home to find his beloved Uncle Ben murdered, he is set to receive the lightning-bolt revelation that the killer is none other than the crook he let escape. And, as a grief-stricken Peter tearfully stalks back home, Stan Lee can deliver the most famous caption box of his long career: “And a lean silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come — great responsibility!”

And that’s it. No redemption. No absolution. No promise to make up for his mistake by putting an end to crime. Just a heartbroken teenager learning the hard way that “looking out for number one” has its consequences. And here, in a pithy, 11-page Aristotelian tragedy, is the entire essence of Spider-Man: not a hero descending to earth to do good, but a wounded young man learning wisdom through pain. An Orestes in spandex.

By the character’s next appearance, in the pages of his own Amazing Spider-Man #1 in March 1963, the traditional superhero trappings are at least more in evidence. The debut issue features such standard Marvel Comics fare as the rescue of a threatened NASA rocket, and a battle against the nefarious Chameleon (the first of a series of baroquely memorable villains Ditko was to design for Spidey’s rogues gallery). But the underlying theme of struggle and tragedy is everywhere in evidence. The very first panel has Peter casting off his Spider-Man costume in a rage, declaring, “My Uncle Ben is dead! And all because I was too late to save him! My Spiderman costume! I wish there were no such thing!” In quick succession, the would-be crime-fighter is faced with the prospect of crippling debt for his Aunt May (Uncle Ben’s death has deprived the family of an income, in addition to a father-figure), continued bullying from Flash Thompson and his cronies, and (in the kind of subtly droll spider4humor at which Stan Lee excelled) the realization that he’ll never be able to turn a profit from his previous TV appearances, since masked vigilantes can’t cash a check (“Anyone can wear a costume! Do you have a social security card or a driver’s license in the name of Spiderman?”).

To this is added the more alarming presence of J. Jonah Jameson, a demagogic tabloid publisher who has taken it upon himself to lead a public crusade against the “menace” of Spider-Man (why the toothbrush-mustached Jameson should develop a consuming obsession with this particular costumed freak, in a comic book universe filled to the brim with them, has been a question of character psychology from that time to this). All of this goes well beyond the already established Marvel formula of presenting heroes with “real world” problems. Bickering with costumed teammates is one thing. Facing up to poverty, social ostracism, and crushing guilt over the death of a loved one is quite another.

Yet it would be wrong to characterize these early issues as maudlin or gloomy. All this weightiness is more than balanced by two factors that would become inextricably associated with the character: a bouncy, distinctive patter of jokes let loose by Spider-Man in the course of his crime-fighting; and an indomitable perseverance in the face of relentless setbacks. Comic writer Karl Kesel was fond of comparing Spider-Man to Daffy Duck: a wisecracking protagonist who’s at his funniest when he fails. But this is only half right. If Peter Parker is the hero who fails and despairs, he is also, in equal measure, the hero who never gives up.

Jameson is a case in point. After a fit of existential despair brought about by Aunt May’s susceptibility to the publisher’s fear-mongering, Peter has, by the next issue, come up with his own clever attempt to exploit the situation. By bringing along a camera on his super-heroing jaunts, Peter can photograph his exploits and sell the pictures to Jameson’s Daily Bugle — where they serve as fuel for more anti-Spider-Man paranoia. The resulting ironies bring out the best in Lee and Ditko’s imagination. Jameson unwittingly pays the rent for his costumed bete noir, while Peter finds himself egging on his boss’s hysteria — all the better for his freelancing gig. Aunt May despises her nephew’s secret alter ego, while Flash Thompson, wonderfully, turns out to be his biggest fan, organizing a local Spider-Man Fan Club with adorably star-struck devotion. This is good comedy, and good characterization, too: Thompson turns out to have more heroic qualities than his bullying persona would suggest, as even Peter soon has to recognize:

Flash: He’s the greatest guy in the world! And he’s all heart! He performed at a circus for charity last month! He won’t let his loyal fans down!
Peter: [In thought balloon] How can I ever be mad at a fella who feels that way about good ol’ Spidey…even though he hates Peter Parker!

And Jameson, too, reveals himself to have a deeper interiority than we might suspect. Alone in his office, drawn by Ditko in looming shadow, he recites a confessional soliloquy that reads like Shakespeare by way of Upton Sinclair:

“All my life I’ve been interested in only one thing — making money! And yet, Spider-Man risks his life day after day with no thought of reward! If a man like him is good — is a hero– than what am I??? I can never respect myself while he lives! Spider-Man represents everything that I’m not! He’s brave, powerful, and unselfish! The truth is, I envy him! I, J.Jonah Jameson — millionaire, man of the world, civic leader — I’d give everything I won to be the man he is! But I can never climb to his level! So, all that remains for me is — to try to tear him down — because, heaven help me — I’m jealous of him!”

Taking as a given the Edgar Rice Burroughs-esque extravagances of Lee’s dialogue, this was ambitiously nuanced background for a comic antagonist. And it resulted, all told, in quite easily the best-written series in Marvel Comics’ ‘60’s output.

This extended, of course, beyond Peter Parker’s personal travails, and into his costumed adventures — the arena by which, in the end, any superhero must stand or fall. Here as elsewhere, the defining trademark is Spider-Man’s perpetual inadequacy in the face of his opposition: almost invariably, Spidey’s rogues are stronger, more powerful, and occasionally smarter than he is. Peter’s first confrontation with Doctor Octopus, for instance, is notable for the absolute pummeling the hero receives: there is no question that Spider-Man’s career, like Parker’s, is going to be an uphill battle. Sometimes, Spidey’s solution comes in the form of a clever, roundabout solution to spider6the puzzle of a villain: the seemingly invincible Sandman, who can dissolve his form at will, is defeated by a well-deployed vacuum cleaner. But more often, it is that same dogged tenacity that saves the day: against Doc Ock, Spider-Man wrestles against defeat for page after page, until his persistence wins at last — “I can’t retreat any further! My back is to the wall! I’ve got to take a desperate chance!”

Ditko’s artwork, in his villains as elsewhere, are perfectly in tune with the tone and content of these issues. His nervy, spare lines and curiously attenuated figures somehow capture the low-level neuroticism inherent in the subject — a far cry from the psychedelic set-pieces the artist was putting out in Dr. Strange during the same period. And Ditko, it should be said, was contributing much more than pencils and designs. Even by the notorious standards of the “Marvel Method” (by which artists were expected to come up with the specific storylines and panel-by-panel breakdowns of issues, with writers filling in dialogue after the fact), Ditko carried the lion’s share of writing duties on Amazing Spider-Man. By the mid-point of his run on the title, he was being credited with plotting as well as art, with Lee apparently responsible for little more than histrionic word balloons.

Perhaps it was Ditko’s decidedly unfettered position that allowed Spider-Man to grow and evolve to a degree remarkable even for this era of Marvel characters. Peter, as we’ve seen, begins the series as a friendless teenage wallflower. But from the outset, he exhibits a steady movement toward growth and maturity. After nearly a year of abuse at the hands of Flash Thompson, Peter finally accepts the invitation to boxing match against his tormentor — and promptly clocks him out with his spider-infused strength. At the same time, we begin to see that Parker is perhaps not the lonely, loveless nerd we were led to believe. On the contrary, he becomes the recipient of an ongoing face-off between his high school classmate Liz Allan (erstwhile girlfriend of Flash Thompson), and Daily Bugle secretary Betty Brant — even if Peter’s spider-sense can’t seem to detect their interest, and even if his superhero escapades have a tendency to complicate matters. (In one bravura comic set piece, a profit-hungry Peter tries to sell Jameson on yet another doomed scheme to kill Spider-Man, while Betty — an admirer of Spidey as well as Peter — attempts to physically pound him into silence.) This all reaches a kind of apotheosis, late in 1965, with the unprecedented decision to graduate Peter from high school to college, accompanied by the departure of the bulk of his supporting cast, and the introduction of a new group of friends and romantic interests — not to mention a new and improved self-conception for Peter himself, free once and for all from his status as a social pariah.

It’s this willingness to change, I think, that most accounts for Spider-Man’s enduring cultural longevity. From a purely commercial standpoint, allowing Peter to grow up was a brilliant coup: Marvel, already ahead of the game in targeting a high school (rather than pre-pubescent) readership, now advanced through life along with their fans. As Marvel readers moved through the inevitable stages of geek life (from pimply teenagers, to bell-bottomed undergrads, to under-employed 20-somethings, and finally to happy geek matrimony), Peter Parker moved along with them. It put the lie to the commonplace notion (still angrily defended by certain sectors of aging fanboys) that the natural tendency of superhero comics is toward the status quo. And it allowed Spider-Man, as a fully realized fictional creation, to reach a sort of resolution to his hero’s journey. The wounded, guilt-plagued boy, issue by issue, became a more-or-less happy young man.

If the transition to college was the high point of Lee and Ditko’s collaboration, it was also its last hurrah. By 1966, the relationship between the two creators, always chilly, had frozen over completely, with communication taking place by mailed envelopes and minimal face to face contact. The reasons for the estrangement are still debated, with both parties remaining notoriously tight-lipped. It seems clear that creator credits and personal animosities played the largest role, but so too did matters of philosophy. Ditko, as later years would prove, had become a devoted follower of Objectivism, Ayn Rand’s philosophy espousing strict divisions between right and wrong, absolute respect for artistic originality, and an almost sociopathic elevation of self-interest into a paramount virtue. It is easy to imagine that to such a true believer, Stan Lee, with his huckster mannerisms and pension for hogging credits, must have seemed the worst sort of leech on artistic talent. Easy to imagine, as well, that Lee’s epigram about great power leading to great responsibility — as succinct an expression of postwar liberalism as ever devised — must have grated uneasily against Ditko’s politics.

In any event, the result was a permanent breakup before the year was through, and an end to the first great era of Spider-Man’s history. But not, however, before Lee and Ditko produced one last, great swan song. The celebrated “Master Planner Saga” is justly remembered as one of the peaks of the character’s long history in print — and it serves, as well, as a distillation of everything that he had become up to that point. The story, in brief, runs as follows: while Peter begins his new life at college, Aunt spider1May suddenly succumbs to a rare and potentially deadly illness. Meanwhile, a villain known only as the Master Planner (actually Doctor Octopus in disguise) is committing a string of robberies of high-tech equipment, including, as it turns out, an isotope needed to save Aunt May. Spider-Man confronts his nemesis, only to find himself trapped helplessly under the crushing weight of heavy machinery.

What follows is the most prodigiously brilliant sequence in Ditko’s long career: a sustained, five-page spread in which Spider-Man, progressing from broken despair to unstoppable determination, slowly, gruelingly, and triumphantly lifts himself free. Lee’s captions are icing on the cake for what is, essentially, a visual showpiece. But they nonetheless express in perfect form the basic ethos of this hero. Looking at the isotope beyond his grasp, Peter laments:

“It’s lying there — just out of reach — as though mocking me — taunting me. The one thing — the only thing — that may save Aunt May! And I can’t bring it to her–! If she — doesn’t make it — it’ll be my fault! Just the way I’ll always blame myself for what happened to Uncle Ben…! The two people in the world who’ve been kindest to me! I can’t fail again! It can’t happen a second time! I won’t let it! I won’t! No matter what the odds — no matter what the cost — I’ll get that serum to Aunt May! And maybe then I’ll no longer be haunted by the memory — of Uncle Ben!”

A page later, still struggling, he continues:

Anyone can win a fight — when the odds are easy! It’s when the going’s tough — when there seems to be no chance — that’s when — it counts!”

Here, at last, is the redemption Peter Parker has been seeking since that very first appearance. Here is the happy ending for the troubled, crying teenager at the end of Amazing Fantasy #15. Not through easy victories, but through a simple, tireless resolve to fight on against odds that no other costumed hero would tolerate. As Spider-Man finally lifts off his weight and emerges into freedom, the caption box declares, “And then — as the agonizing ache in his limbs seems unendurable — as his superbly muscled body suffers the torment of a virtually indescribable ordeal — from out of the pain — from out of the agony — comes triumph!”

We’ve come a long way, in 33 issues, from the insecure teenager who only looks out for number one. So much for our troubled Orestes. The Spider-boy has become a Spider-Man.

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Zach Rabiroff lives in Brooklyn and works for a consulting firm during his daytime hours.