Between the Saturday-morning cartoons, the TV shows, the mountains of merchandise, his recent blockbuster motion picture trilogy, and this summer’s upcoming big-screen reboot, even people who’ve never seen a comic book in their lives must by now know a little something about Marvel’s trademark character, and probably the single most popular superhero ever, the Amazing Spider-Man. Having been published for over 40 years, there’s quite a lot to cover when it comes to Spidey, but we’ll try to cover some of the high points. Let’s open the floor to questions. Yes, you in the back?
Where did Spider-Man first appear?
Spidey’s first appearance was found in AMAZING FANTASY #15, dated August 1963, in a tale called, appropriately enough, “Spider-Man!”
As the legend goes, Marvel editor/writer Stan Lee, flush from the successful launches of the Fantastic Four and the Hulk, wanted to try an even more experimental super-hero strip, one in which the hero himself would be a teenager, as opposed to the usual teen sidekick role, and which would feature a more “hard-luck hero” approach. Taking inspiration from the 1930s pulp hero The Spider, Stan dubbed his new creation Spider-Man, and premiered his new character in AF #15, which was already slated to be the final issue of the series. Since the book was already getting the axe, as Stan explained to then-Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, what’s the harm in trying something new?
Something new indeed. Thanks to Steve Ditko’s brilliant costume design and spare, streamlined art style, along with the most inspired origin story of Stan Lee’s career, AMAZING FANTASY #15 caught the attention of comic readers in a big way, and the first issue of THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN appeared not long after.
I remember Spider-Man from Saturday-morning cartoons, but never read any comics. How close are the movies to the comics?
Very. Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN may not follow every bit of the Spider-Man lore chapter and verse, but man, does it come close. The only real departures are the armored Green Goblin, and the fact that Spidey’s webs are organic. As for this summer’s reboot, well, your guess is as good as mine.
Organic? Meaning what?
If you’ll recall, in the Raimi films, after Peter Parker has been bitten by the genetically mutated spider, he soon discovers that the bite has affected him, granting him increased strength and speed, the ability to cling to walls, a mysterious “spider-sense” to warn him of danger, and the ability to expel webbing from his wrists. Well, in the comics, he gets all of that except the webbing. Instead, Peter, a genius-level scientific prodigy, devises mechanical webshooter devices to wear on his wrists, which fire an adhesive “web-fluid” of his own design. By adjusting the nozzle, Spidey can fire a thick, sticky glue, a fine spray to act as a net, or long, sturdy strands by which he can swing from building to building. (The web-fluid would dissolve after two hours, preventing someone else from gathering up the evidence and copying the formula.)
The filmmakers decided to jettison the mechanical webshooters, thinking it too far-fetched that a teenager could invent so complicated a device. Also, director Sam Raimi has stated that he felt the organic webshooters further served as a symbol of Parker’s alienation and sense of being an outcast. This makes sense, and the minor detail certainly didn’t have any larger effect on the film. Still, the original version is preferable. Peter Parker’s scientific genius helped set him apart from most super-hero-type characters, and brought his character of “mild-mannered bookworm” into sharper focus. Also, the fact that he created his webs somewhat validated Spidey as a hero. Random chance may have given Peter Parker his powers, but it was his will and intelligence that made him a hero. We’ll see how it’s handled in the new version.
What about the origin story? Does that happen like it does in the movie?
Yes, indeed. Peter Parker, in a moment of arrogance and self-involvement, stands by and lets a criminal escape, and that same criminal later kills his beloved uncle. Some of the details change in the film: Spidey lets the criminal go at the wrestling match instead of the TV station, and Uncle Ben is killed in a carjacking rather than a home robbery, but the important stuff’s all there.
Spider-Man’s is the most powerful of all super-hero origins, because it can all be boiled down to a single motivation. Why is Clark Kent Superman? Because he was raised by decent people who taught him to always do the right thing. Why is Bruce Wayne Batman? Because his parents were killed by a mugger before his eyes as a child, and he wants to prevent that from happening to others. Both of these are good stories, but they require a basic sense of altruism that might be hard for a reader to identify with. Why is Peter Parker Spider-Man? Guilt. Guilt over the murder of his uncle, a murder he could have stopped if he’d done the right thing. Parker is compelled to do good as Spider-Man, because the absence of his uncle is a constant reminder of his failure to be responsible. It’s right there in black and white in AMAZING FANTASY #15, and we all heard Cliff Robertson’s Uncle Ben say it in the movie: “With great power comes great responsibility.” There are worse things to learn from a comic book.
Was Mary Jane always Peter’s girl?
Nope. Initially, Peter’s love interest was Betty Brant, J. Jonah Jameson’s secretary at the Daily Bugle. Also competing for Peter’s attention was classmate Liz Allen, who occasionally dated Pete’s jock nemesis Flash Thompson. Mary Jane didn’t enter the picture until over three years later, after Peter had graduated college, and after a hilarious running gag in which Aunt May was continually trying to set up Peter with Mary Jane, the niece of a friend, but the reader never got to see her face. MJ’s head would always be obscured by houseplants, trees, lampshades, you name it. When the gorgeous Mary Jane was finally revealed in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #42, as drawn by the fabulous John Romita, it was a moment Spidey-fans would long remember.
While Mary Jane remained a presence in the series, it was Gwen Stacy who would be the major love interest for Peter Parker for the next five years or so. Gwen was a classmate of Peter’s at Empire State University, and the daughter of Police Captain George Stacy, one of the few authority figures who didn’t automatically assume the worst about Spider-man. Gwen was the first significant love interest for Peter in the series, at least until it all went bad.
Uh-oh. Bad? How bad?
Very bad. Moviegoers will remember the climax of Sam Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN, in which the Goblin dangles Mary Jane from the George Washington Bridge. Well, if you saw the film with any Spider-Man fans, you may have noticed a stunned, open-mouthed gape on their faces at that point. That’s because this sequence is taken directly from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #121, except for instead of Mary Jane in peril, it was Gwen. Just like the movie, the Goblin drops her. And just like the movie, Spidey catches her.
Unlike the movie, however, it’s not enough.
You mean she’s dead?
Yes. Spidey manages to catch her with his webbing, but it’s all for naught. To further twist the blade, in the panel which shows Spidey’s webbing catching her, the small sound effect “SNAP!” appears by Gwen’s neck. Was she already dead from the shock of the fall, or did the abrupt stop of the rescue attempt only seal her fate? Neither Spider-Man nor the reader ever gets a concrete answer. All together, kids: what’s Spider-Man’s motivation again? Guilt.
So what happens to the Goblin?
Once again, the movie follows the events of the comic very closely. After seeing to Gwen’s body and saying his goodbyes, Spider-Man furiously pursues the Goblin, dead-set on revenge. After a heated battle in which the headpiece to the Goblin’s glider is damaged, coming to a now-lethal point, Spider-Man pummels the Goblin mercilessly, almost killing him, before stopping himself, not wanting to become a murderer like the Goblin. Spidey coolly informs the Goblin that he’s heading to prison for the murder of Gwen, knowing all too well that it will effectively ruin his life, since the Goblin would undoubtedly expose Spider-Man’s identity to the world if captured. The Goblin, meanwhile, has been surreptitiously controlling his glider remotely, which is now hurtling towards Spidey’s back, about to impale him. Spider-Man’s spider-sense kicks in and Spidey leaps away at the last moment. No such luck for the Goblin, who is speared in the chest by the glider, killing him. As writer Gerry Conway put it:
“So do the proud men die. Crucified not on a cross of gold, but a stake of humble tin.”
Pretty heady stuff for a super-hero comic, especially in 1973.
I feel like reading some Spidey. What do you recommend?
When in doubt, always go to the source. You can’t get any better than the original tales of Spider-Man by Stan Lee, Steve Ditko and John Romita. Luckily, you can own the first 89 issues of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN in THE ESSENTIAL SPIDER-MAN, Volumes 1 through 4. The first appearances of Spider-Man and all his friends and foes, in chronological order. Doctor Octopus, the Green Goblin, Electro, the Lizard, the Sandman, the Chameleon, Kraven the Hunter, Mysterio, the Vulture, the Rhino, the list goes on and on. While it’s a shame they’re only in black and white, it’s hard to be too upset with an average of 400 pages for only fifteen bucks.
For the epic Green Goblin/Gwen Stacy tragedy detailed above, you can check out SPIDER-MAN: THE DEATH OF GWEN STACY. Written by Gerry Conway with art by Gil Kane. It’s much, much better and more affecting than our meager prose can convey.
This one is tough to find, but if you should stumble across it at a used bookstore or comic convention, hip-check whoever’s next to you out of the way and pay the man at the register whatever they want for it. It’s called THE BEST OF MARVEL COMICS, VOLUME ONE. A lot of books boast that in the title, but this one has got the goods to back it up. A handsome leather-bound edition published in 1987, not only does the collection feature Lee/Kirby FANTASTIC FOUR and THOR stories, Roger Stern/John Byrne collaborations on HULK and CAPTAIN AMERICA, a gorgeous Stern/Paul Smith DOCTOR STRANGE story and a great X-MEN tale by Chris Claremont and John Romita, Jr., it also contains arguably the two best Spider-Man stories ever published. That’s a bold statement, yes, but that’s how good these stories are. First up is the three-part Master Planner storyline from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #31 – 33, a tense action piece pitting Spider-Man against the aforementioned Dr. Octopus, while a gravely ill Aunt May’s life hangs in the balance. The climax of the piece comes in Part 3, in a bravura 5-page sequence by the amazing Steve Ditko, in which Spidey struggles to free himself from beneath a mountain of collapsed machinery.
The other Spider-Man story in the collection is “The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man,” from AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #248, by Roger Stern and Ron Frenz.
(A digression: Of the 13 stories in this collection, four are by Roger Stern. This is no accident. Stern is one of the most talented writers to work in comics in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and it’s a travesty that the major comics companies, in their typical youth-centered myopia, aren’t tripping all over themselves to give this man some work.) In the story, we see Spider-Man pay a visit to 9-year-old Timothy Harrison, the world’s biggest Spider-Man fan. Spidey tells Timothy all about his powers and adventures, and more. Much more. Easily the most poignant and touching Spider-Man story ever published. If you can’t find this collection, go ahead and track down the back issue. It’ll be worth the effort.