Marvel's Flawed Adolescent, Spider-Man

The Friendly Neighborhood Web-Slinger

I've refrained from doing a Spider-Man feature up until now because of certain painful memories. In 1972 I had decided to sell part of my comics collection at Phil Seuling's Comic Art Convention in New York, very carefully keeping my rarest items at my feet under the table. More pedestrian titles were arranged in front of me.

After a few hours of huckstering I noticed my beloved girlfriend approaching with a grim expression on her usually adorable face. "Steve," she haltingly began, "I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but..." Uh-oh! In short order I was hearing that classic line "We'll always be friends," a part of the standard bovine effluvia break-up speech that ex-sweetpatooties have used since the Dawn of Time. Yep. I was toast.

Well, that certainly was pretty grim, but sadder still was the fact that some (expletive deleted) had used my anguished distraction to crawl under the table and relieve me of one of my comic books. The title in question was Amazing Fantasy#15, the hottest Marvel collector's item of all time, valued in the Overstreet Price Guide at $27,000 in near-mint condition.

So, if the heartless slimeball who did that is reading this today: Shame on you, you Expletive Deleted!!!

As I've mentioned in previous articles, one of the key ingredients to the explosive growth of Marvel's popularity was the introduction of the flawed super hero, who, although possessing special powers, was just as frustrated and confused as the rest of us mortal schmucks. The web-slinger was the quintessential example of this new breed, haunted by difficulties at school and at work, suffering disappointments from family, friends, employers, and (ahaha) girlfriends.

Originally, the character was conceived as a mere experiment. Amazing Adult Fantasy (dubbed "The Magazine That Respects Your Intelligence"), a monster title of the early sixties, had suffered poor sales and was slated for the scrap heap. That being the case, there was nothing to lose when Stan Lee decided to drop the "adult" from the title and introduce a new character. The cover dialogue on 1962's Amazing Fantasy #15 says it all: "The world may mock Peter Parker, the timid teenager-- It will soon marvel at the awesome might of Spider-Man!"

It sure did. A few months later sales figures revealed that the one issue of Amazing Fantasy was a best seller. By March 1963 "Spidey" soloed in his own title, The Amazing Spider-Man #1. As originally conceived by Lee and the title's penultimate artist, Steve Ditko,

Spider-Man began life as a bookish nerd, Peter Parker. Bitten by a radioactive spider, Peter gains the strength, agility, and instincts of an arachnid but, being self-absorbed, refuses to use his new abilities to stop a fleeing crook. Later, the same criminal murders Parker's Uncle Ben, and the guilt-stricken youth vows to never again avoid the responsibility of great power.

Adding to Peter's pathos were a wide cast of supporting characters. There was frail Aunt May, always on the verge of a heart attack should Peter's secret identity become known to her. His employer, "Jolly" Jonah Jameson, hates Spider-Man with a nearly psychotic passion. Harry Osbourne, his best friend (who would go through a period of drug addiction) is the son of Spidey's worst enemy, the Green Goblin. And Flash Thompson, Spider-Man's biggest fan, never neglects the opportunity to publicly humiliate Peter Parker. All these characters, and more, never failed to add to the soap-opera life of Marvel's alienated adolescent. The fans loved it.

Jack Kirby had usually been the artist to handle the introduction of new Marvel heroes. Lee, however, decided the web-slinger needed a different look and settled on Charlton artist Steve Ditko (Captain Atom, Blue Beetle).

It was a good choice, and some feel that Ditko's Amazing Spider-Man was the best super hero comic ever. Ditko's art had a fluid, grotesque charm, and in one of his best sequences, The Amazing Spider-Man #33 (February 1966) consisted of eight pages of Spider-Man pinned under tons of rubble; few other artist could've pulled it off, but under Ditko's pencil the sequence was extraordinarily dramatic.

Unfortunately, 1966 was also the year the artist would leave Marvel. Some attribute his departure to his new interest in author Ayn (Atlas Shrugged) Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, which left no room for the shading of values between good and evil; that very same gray area was a staple of many of Marvel's stories. Stan Lee believes that the bone of contention was a dispute about the Green Goblin's identity. Whatever the case, Ditko was soon working at DC (Hawk and Dove, The Creeper, Shade, The Changing Man), ultimately launching his own Rand-inspired hero, Mr. A.

John Romita Sr. had a tough act to follow. Romita had briefly worked as a super hero artist on the short-lived
Captain America revival, but since then had spent eight years as a romance comics artist at DC.  Back at Marvel, Romita quickly mastered action adventure, and his expertise as a romance artist didn't hurt when he drew the two loves of Peter's life, Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson. By 1971 Romita began easing away from the title as he took on new art director tasks, but found time in 1977 to work on the Spider-Man syndicated strip written by Larry Lieber, continuing on with it until 1982, when he became Marvel's production manager. Years later his son, John Romita Jr., would follow in his father's footsteps with his own dynamic rendering of the web-slinger.

Comics veteran Ross Andru, my own particular favorite artist of the series, next picked up the artistic reins on Spider-Man. Andru was a master of action, setting, and perspective, and his most memorable job was on the very first Marvel-DC crossover, the ninety two page tabloid sized comic, Superman vs. Spider-Man (1976). Other artists on the series reads like a who's who in comics. To name just a few: Gil Kane, John Byrne, Erik Larsen, Steve Austin, and Tod (Spawn)McFarlane (whose 1990 Spider-Man #1 broke all sales records). Writers on the series have included Gerry Conway, Roger Stern, Peter David, Dan Jurgens, and Howard Mackie.

Over the years Amazing Spider-Man has rivaled The X-Men as Marvel's most popular title, generating countless spin-off titles, cartoon series, movies, and video games, as well as a wide variety of collectable toys, action figures, dolls, and other merchandise. The first Spider-Man movie, directed by Sam Raimi, hit the screens in 2002 to universally good reviews, and Spider-Man 2, which debuted in April 2004, got an equally enthusiastic reception.

In the winter of 1998 Marvel decided to reboot the series, with new first issues of The Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker: Spider-Man. Both series promise to roll on for a good long while, along with poor Peter and his highly entertaining hang-ups.

--Steve Stiles