Nobody thought it would work. So, a kid gets bit by a radioactive spider — and it gives him superpowers? He swings around New York City on webs and fights crime? Superhero titles were starting to come back into fashion, but Marvel Comics owner Martin Goodman didn’t believe a superhero title with a high-schooler hero would sell; teenagers were generally relegated to humor comics, like Archie, or to sidekick roles, like Batman‘s Robin.
That was the response that writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko got when they first introduced Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15, in August,1962. You could already tell this do-gooder was different. The webslinging hero – or, more accurately, his alter ego, Peter Parker – was everything other superheroes were not: Nerdy, neurotic, picked on, and burdened with a whole host of real life problems. “I just wanted to do what I thought would be the first realistic superhero,” Lee once told author Tom DeFalco. “I wanted to write about a character that worried about money – just like I did. I liked the idea of him having a sick aunt. I also thought it would be interesting if he wasn’t popular in school.”
After that inaugural appearance, however, the character would be given his own title – The Amazing Spider-Man – in March 1963. Almost immediately, Spider-Man became a phenomenon. Peter Parker was an incredibly relatable character, and readers were as interested in his life as they were in Spider-Man’s crime-fighting antics. “Nowhere else in history had you seen the alter ego get that kind of face time,” says Blake Bell, author of Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko. “The alter egos of Batman and Superman were largely superfluous, focusing mostly on, ‘Will someone discover them some day?’ But with Peter Parker, fans could really imagine that they were that character.”
Perhaps even more importantly, Spider-Man wrestled with this identity crisis: Peter wasn’t just a front, it was his very real self. “The Spider-Man character speaks to the fact that we often don’t think people see our true best selves,” says Dr. Robin Rosenberg, the author and editor of numerous books on superheroes and psychology, including Superhero Origins: What Makes Superheroes Tick and Why We Care. “Peter was made fun of and marginalized because of who he was. He also suffered from a lot of guilt: When his Uncle Ben is killed early on, it’s because of a specific choice Peter has made, not just a random criminal act. That guilt informs the whole character.” The tormented nature of Spider-Man, and its success with readers, would fuel other Marvel titles as well, such as the mutants of X-Men, who had to contend with their rejection from society.
Armed with a rich and complicated psychology, and a mandate for realism, Spider-Man would help expand the audience for the entire comic book form throughout the 1960s. Once thought of as being strictly for little kids, comics were now being read by teenagers and on college campuses. “Stan Lee was a frustrated novelist, and I’m sure he was really excited about the fact that he was getting all this newfound respect among college students and professors and intellectuals,” says Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. “He really wanted to play to that as much as possible.” (Even the film director Alain Resnais came calling at one point, to work on some unproduced film projects with Lee.) And while Marvel courted a broader range of readers, they also expanded Spidey’s reach to TV, signing off on a Saturday morning cartoon show in 1967 and, later, letting the PBS kids’ show The Electric Company use the superhero’s likeness free of charge. Television gave Spidey a chance to reach a bigger underage crowd than a comic-book rack could. (When the cartoon was later syndicated to numerous foreign markets in the late Seventies, a whole new generation learned to love the webslinger as much as these guys.)
Spider-Man had broadened the comics audience beyond the braces-and-baseball caps set; keeping that audience meant keeping with — and being relevant to — the times as well, something that would allow the character and the comic to avoid being a Pop Art flash-in-the-pan. So, through the late Sixties and early Seventies, Lee and his team continued to not only reflect but purposefully refract the cultural issues of their day. Spider-Man introduced one of the first major African-American supporting characters in a comic book series (Joe Robertson, an editor at The Daily Bugle); subplots involved college protests, and even a famous three-issue arc about drug addiction that was refused approval by the Comics Code Authority. The world outside of the stapled pages kept barging in.”This was sort of the whole Marvel approach, these neurotic characters in real life settings,” says Howe.
And Spider-Man was the most neurotic of them all. In a 1965 article about Marvel in The Village Voice (an early sign that comics were entering the realm of truly hip), writer Sally Kempton had declared, “How can a character as hopelessly healthy as Superman compete with this living symbol of the modern dilemma, this neurotic’s neurotic, Spider-Man, the super-anti-hero of our time?” The answer, of course, was for the likes of Superman to become more like Spider-Man. So, over the years, practically all superheroes – even ones that existed for decades before the web-slinger – have become more and more like Spidey, tackling more real-life issues, attempting to become more relatable, and expanding their emotional lives. In the 1970s, Lois Lane transformed into a black woman for 24 hours and became aware of racism. In the 1980s, Superman was revamped to put the figure of Clark Kent more at the center of the tales. It seemed as if Spider-Man was suddenly omnipresent by proxy.
Even so, there was something truly unique about Spidey, and one could see that in the way he took off internationally. From January 1970 to September 1971, for example, Japan’s Monthly Shonen Magazine featured a Japanese-drawn Spider-Man, with a teenage alter-ego similar to Peter Parker named Yu Komori – proving that the concept had appeal beyond America’s borders. In 1973, he got his own British imprint, Spider-Man Comics Weekly, reprinting the original American tales. Years later, thinking on the webslinger’s popularity around the world, Lee observed to Comic Book Resources that, “the costume he wears covers him completely. You see no skin at all. Now, because of that, any youngster can imagine that he is Spider-Man. It could be a black kid, it could be an Asian kid, it could be anybody of any skin color. They could imagine they’re Spider-Man because he’s all covered up and he could be anybody. We didn’t do that purposely, but it’s certainly worked out that way.” (As if to bear out that observation, a 1978 Japanese TV series featured a totally different Spider-Man, whose alter-ego was that of a motorcycle racing champion who had made contact with aliens.)
Spider-Man also broke new ground in terms of the tragic dimensions superhero tales could take, thus keeping his stories from becoming a save-the-day-rinse-repeat cycle of diminishing returns. In 1973, in what may be the first instance of a comic book superhero losing a battle to save a loved one (outside of an origin story), Peter Parker’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy died as Spidey tried to save her during a battle with the Green Goblin. The furor among fans was immediate and profound, and the issue instantly became comic book lore. Decades later, a similar failure would serve as the climax to Christopher Nolan’s Batman sequel The Dark Knight, as Batman/Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) failed to save the love of his life, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal) from The Joker.
That echo between Spider-Man’s most tragic adventure and one of the highest-grossing superhero movies of all time is not an isolated case. For as much as Spider-Man’s realism, relatability, and psychological complexity helped redefine what was expected from comics, they also fed right into the demands of blockbuster filmmaking. (Per BoxOfficeMojo.com, the combined box-office grosses of the original Spider-Man trilogy and the 2012 reboot add up to a little over $3.4 billion; the sequel is on track for a $95 million opening weekend in North America.) As superheroes have gone from comic book pages and Saturday morning cartoons to four-quadrant tentpole movies, they’ve begun to live more and more in Spider-Man’s anxious, fretting world. Because nowadays, even our most escapist, popular films are expected on some level to reflect our world and to help make sense of it – the same way those first Spider-Man comic books did, forever underlining the fact that with great power still comes great responsibility.
And so, you can see the influence of Peter Parker and Spider-Man in the Iron Man films, in which onetime playboy Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) wrestles with the consequences of being a weapons manufacturer, and, later, struggles to achieve a proper work-life balance with his assistant-paramour Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). In last year’s Man of Steel, Clark Kent is picked on at school as a weirdo, as he struggles to come to terms with his alien powers – proving that even Superman’s hallowed origin story isn’t safe from the influence of his red-tight-wearing rival. “The standard cultural tropes for all superheroes have all changed over the years, to include richer inner lives, and more angst,” says Rosenberg. “Spider-Man is the one that hasn’t really had to change: He always had that inner life and that angst.”