By Dr. Michael Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor
Except for its cover story, Amazing Fantasy #15 was a routine comic filled with conventional twist-ending sci-fi stories. An elderly man’s commitment to ringing the town bell is rewarded during a disaster. A fleeing criminal makes the mistake of trusting a talking mummy in a museum. An ordinary family couple turns out to be Martians hiding out amongst humanity.
Spider-Man was something new. When that wall-crawling “long underwear type” first hit the stands on August 1, 1962, he changed everything.
You know the origin story by now because of the fairly faithful movie adaptations. A young orphan named Peter Parker lives with his kindly Uncle Ben and Aunt May. The older couple dote upon and encourage the boy as much as their modest means allow. Yet for all his academic acumen, Peter is lonely, unable to fit in with the cruel bullies and popular snobs of his high school.
When Peter is bitten by a radioactive spider, he gains the proportionate abilities of that spider. Using his science skills to create webbing and his surprising sewing abilities to make a costume, Spider-Man embarks on a lucrative career of fame and popularity. However, when in a moment of selfishness, Spider-Man refuses to stop a burglar, he learns a terrible lesson about great power and great responsibility when that burglar kills Uncle Ben.
The pulse-pounding prose of Stan Lee and the film noir art of Steve Ditko created this legend in just eleven pages. That is all it took to introduce one of the most important characters in popular culture. Six decades later, Spider-Man is a household name and a merchandising goldmine.
Two important elements in this tale are the key to understanding that longevity.
The first element is that Peter Parker is a good kid, but not a saint. He loves his aunt and uncle, but he painfully feels the bite of social isolation. He craves fame, but he also sees it as a way to help the loved ones who have always helped him. In other words, Peter is complicated. Peter feels more real than any superhero before him (and most since). Later, Marvel would market Spider-Man as “the hero who could you” because he lived such a complex life of wild adventures mixed with life problems.
The second element is tragedy. Peter Parker makes a terrible mistake. He gets selfish at just the wrong moment, refusing to help a security guard stop a robber. Uncle Ben suffers for that mistake and Peter pays for it the rest of his life. Trauma and loss are crucial parts of the superhero origin. Superman’s whole planet was destroyed. Batman’s parents were gunned down before his youthful eyes. These losses were not their fault.
Maybe the loss of Uncle Ben is not Peter Parker’s complete fault either. The burglar is the murderer (we would learn decades later the criminal entered the Parker’s home looking for money supposedly sealed in the walls decades earlier by gangsters). But Peter Parker believes that this all rests upon his shoulders. He learns too late that with great power comes great responsibility.
And Spider-Man has spent the past six decades making up for that.