A few articles ago, I went after Spider-Man and everything I hated about his biggest, status-quo-shaking story in recent years, Brand New Day. But I have said before -- and maintain to this day, and will forever -- he is my favorite hero. I grew up with the character; he was the older brother I never had. And, much like my real life family, I can write scathing articles in my corner of the Internet about everything I think he’s doing wrong and still be on good enough terms with him at the end of the day to stay in touch (Right, Uncle Frank? I’d sure appreciate it if you’d return my calls.). He connected with me in a way other heroes didn’t, and for a reason that goes way back to his beginnings in the fantastically weird annals of Stan Lee’s mind.
In the early 1960s, Batman, Superman, and Captain America were all established characters, known and recognized in newsstands and magazine racks across the country. And while their adventures were equal parts dashing, daring, and amazing, they were lacking the other half. Who were their civilian identities, and why were readers supposed to care about them? Comic readers weren’t rich like Bruce Wayne; from dead planets like Kal-El, last son of Krypton; or pumped up on government juice like Steve Rogers. Their super exploits were thrilling, but the audience quickly lost interest when the villain was vanquished, which made for pretty shallow storytelling.
Stan Lee saw this as an opportunity to sell comic books. He created a hero that didn’t have what the others did. He wasn’t a tall, broad-shouldered slice of American beefcake. He wasn’t rich. He wasn’t suave. Hell, he wasn’t even an adult. Peter Parker was an average, nerdy teenager who did well in school, didn’t know how to talk to girls, and loved his momma (well, his mother figure, Aunt May). When comic readers looked at him, they didn’t see a wealthy playboy, a otherworldly alien, or a government super-soldier; they saw themselves. When Peter Parker was rejected by the kids at school, readers felt his shame. When he didn’t have enough money to take a girl out, they felt the tightness of their own wallet (a tightness comic fans feel even today after their weekly trip to the comic shop). In Peter Parker, Stan Lee created a character whose shoes fans could actually put themselves in. With Bruce Wayne, readers got to imagine what it’d be like to be a billionaire with a superhero identity. With Peter Parker, they got to imagine what it was to be themselves with a superhero identity.
Further, Spider-Man’s powers are some of the most far-removed from other mainstream heroes (besides the family of spider-based heroes that has grown up around him in the decades since his inception). The vast majority of heroes’ powers are simply ways to make them super-strong, super-fast, or able to fly. Superman is exactly this, with a couple extra add-ons. Batman’s gadgets don’t quite put him in Superman’s power bracket, but all his tech and training are ways to make up for his human shortcomings. Captain America’s physical attributes are the peak of human capabilities; he is as strong, fast, and agile as a top-notch Olympic athlete. Iron Man’s suits grant him supersonic flight and have even allowed him to go toe-to-toe with the Hulk on occasion. Luke Cage, the Hulk, She-Hulk, and The Thing are all super-strong. Storm, Thor, J’onn J’onnz, and The Sentry can all fly. The Flash and Quicksilver are super-fast. And while Spider-Man has the proportionate strength of a spider, it’s his web slinging, wall crawling, and spider-sense that set him apart.
But even with his incredibly unique power set, Spider-Man’s biggest asset wasn’t given to him by a radioactive spider bite, and it’s what relates him to the nerd in all of his readers the most. It’s his tenacity, his absolute refusal to compromise or give up regardless of the odds set against him that makes him the hero that he is. He has come up against the immovable object more times than not, and found himself in situations where he was dramatically outmatched. He’s looked Galactus in the eye and not turned away. Yet even when he’s faced with insurmountable odds, he doesn’t give up. He shifts tactics, finds another way to approach the situation, and must use his birth-given (though admittedly, genius-level) intellect when his incredible powers fail him. It is in his steadfast refusal to quit that at least this reader found a part of himself in.
That’s the genius of Stan Lee’s creation. Peter Parker isn’t just a thrilling adventure character with daring tales of bravado. He’s you, he’s me, he’s every single one of the people that comic books are written for. Normal people, the common man. He’s the moral ideal, what we’d all like to imagine ourselves to be if we woke up tomorrow with super powers, be they super-strength, flight, or the ability to scale walls -- steadfast, honorable, and uncompromising in our principles.
That’s the magic of comic books, and fiction in general. It’s not the lasers, dinosaurs, mutants, mad scientists, time travel, space travel, aliens, or magic (although those are all awesome). When we remove the strictures of reality and the real personal consequences that come from every decision and place ourselves in fantastic worlds where good and evil are clearly delineated, then however powerful the villains might be, we can imagine ourselves as unflinching moral compasses. Real life has right and wrong, to be sure, but the average individual’s moral quandary usually deals with every shade of grey without a hint of a solid black or white. Should I to lay off a department of worthy, loyal employees that’s been inexplicably and irreversibly hemorrhaging money? Do I put Mom in a full-time care home, where she’ll be able to get the treatment and attention she needs, even though she’s expressed how much she hates it? When faced with decisions like this, one almost wishes to be facing down Kang the Time-Conqueror or the Frost Giants of Jotunheim or Darth Vader or any other villain that offers the same black-and-white moral certitude. , No matter how impossible the odds might be, “This villain aims to destroy my way of life and everyone I love and he must be stopped” makes for a far easier decision than, “My family could use the extra, unaccounted-for $2000 I found in my company’s books, though it’s not really mine.”
Stan Lee, in Spider-Man, offered readers the opportunity to get as close to that hard right-and-wrong moral coin as possible. Closer than heroes like Batman, Superman, the Fantastic Four, Luke Skywalker, or Neo can get us, because Peter Parker is all of us. He’s short on his rent, he’s another mistake away from losing his job, he’s got problems with his girlfriend. He has the uneasy problems we all have, but he allows us the chance to escape that uncertainty into a world of capes and tights where the tough decisions only require us to stick it out, armed with little more than our convictions (and webshooters). When we put ourselves in Spider-Man’s boots, we’re allowed to leave behind the grey and embrace the black and white.