In his book Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, comics critic Douglas Wolk made some interesting observations about one of my favorite Spider-Man stories, and the character’s appeal.
Curiously, though, even some great characters’ creators sometimes don’t understand their symbolic resonance. Take Spider-Man, for instance. Pressed for an explanation of why he’s so popular for so long, a lot of cartoonists- including Stan Lee, who cocreated him with Steve Ditko- suggest that it might be because he’s sort of cool-looking, or that he’s got “real problems” (a well-meaning but overbearing aunt, a bruised public image, perpetual broke-ness), or that there’s something strangely abject about his powers and persona. Readers- at least adolescent readers who feel perpetually misunderstood- can relate to him, the argument goes.
But what all good Spider-Man stories have in common, beginning with the eleven-page story that introduced him in the final issue of Amazing Fantasy (previously Amazing Adult Fantasy, “the magazine that respects your intelligence!”), is their exploration of the relationship between power and the obligation to use it correctly. Lee even spells it out in the endlessly quoted final line of that final story, “with great power there must also come- great responsibility. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid encountering the origin story, its plot is that Peter Parker, a teenager from a poor family who has just got superhuman abilities, has an opportunity to stop a fleeing burglar but figures that it isn’t his problem: the burglar goes on to kill his beloved uncle. The central theme of Spider-Man from then on is the friction between what Peter wants to do, and what he believes he’s required to do, given what’s he’s able to do.
Ask longtime readers what their favorite Spider-Man stories are and they’ll always say the same ones: “Spider-Man No More,” “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” and “The Death of Jean Dewolfe”- the stories that explore the theme best. In the famous sequence in Amazing Spider-Man #33 that I’ll discuss in the chapter on Ditko, he’s trapped under a giant piece of machinery and convinces himself, painfully, to lift it up, to free himself, and rescue his aunt: there’s the power/ responsibility theme right there. The best-loved Spider-Man artists (Ditko, John Romita, John Romita Jr, Todd McFarlane) have their own followings, but even some run-of-the-mill artists have drawn some Spider-Man stories that have succeeded on the strength of their thematic resonances.
One that I particularly love is 1987’s Spider-Man VS Wolverine one-shot by Jim Owsley, Mark Bright and Al Williamson. It looks just like another exploitative piece of product (make two characters fight on the cover; watch it sell), but the point of its fight scenes and spy cliches is putting Spider-Man in a situation that’s a moral quandary for him and wouldn’t be for anyone else: an international intrigue that everyone tells him to stay out of because he’s out of his league. He can’t – because of the power and responsibility thing- and his doing what his ethical cod obligates him to do at every turn ends up making matters far worse. It’s not a particularly graceful or subtle comic book, and it wouldn’t have anything like the same impact for someone who hadn’t already read a hundred other stories about Spider-Man, but it’s an unforgettable superhero story whose force comes from the core idea of its protagonist’s history.
His interpretation gives responsibility and youth equal weight.. He’s not saying the responsibility is the cornerstone. He’s saying that the tension or conflict between responsibility/ obligation and what Peter wants to do (which you could sum up somewhat as “youth”) is the cornerstone.
I doubt Spider-Man would be as successful without some of the other things which aren’t as important to his appeal as responsibility and youth (the full-body suit that allows non-Caucasians to identify with him, the sense of humor, etc) but some aspects could still be more important than others.
For the hell of it, I tried seeing how my favorite Spider-Man stories (those not explicitly mentioned by Wolk) measure on the template.
Amazing Spider-Man #267- “Whence Commeth the Commuter”
This one works surprisingly well, as Spider-Man’s obligations take him into unfamiliar territory.
What If? #88: Arachnophobia
Deals with an alternate Peter Parker’s responsibilities as a father.
Spectacular Spider-Man #178-200:
Peter Parker reaches a breaking point as an enemy of Spider-Man manipulates his loved ones. For starters.
Spider-Man/ Human Torch #1-5:
Usually includes an excellent exploration of the tension between Spider-Man’s obligations and Peter’s social life, while also suggesting a reconciliation at the end.
Kraven’s Last Hunt
Kraven’s impersonation of Spider-Man demonstrates that he’s just not as effective as the real deal, something demonstrated in Spider-Man’s fight against Vermin. There’s also the scene where an exhausted Peter has to leave Mary Jane to go take on the bad guy.
Ultimate Spider-Man #8-13: “Learning Curve”
Spider-Man finds a situation in which he may not have the power to do anything to make things better.
Peter Parker Spider-Man #30-32: “One Small Break”
Fusion’s son and an unpleasant years-old headline explore unintended consequences of Spider-Man’s fame.
Amazing Spider-Man #248: “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man”
Explores Spider-Man’s relationship with a kid inspired by his heroic deeds. Asks the question of Spider-Man’s obligation to a single individual, while also demonstrating in which he is entirely powerless.
Amazing Spider-Man #229-230: “Nothing Can Stop the Juggernaut
Amazing Spider-Man #121-122: “The Night Gwen Stacy Died”
The downside of the obligation, as the Green Goblin seeks revenge on Peter in the worst way possible.