Spider-Man was different. He was a teenager, in a genre where teenagers were only allowed to partners and sidekicks. He was named after an insect which people just don’t like. He suffered from colds and allergies and dandruff and realistic personal problems. He was defeated as often as he won; maybe more often. His enemies were three-dimensional human beings rather than just snarling bad guys. His publisher expected him to fail, so his creator snuck his origin story into the final issue of a comic that was earmarked for cancellation. But that one issue sold so well that Spider-Man was relaunched in his very own comic, and went on to become Marvel Comics’ most iconic super-hero.
None of this is true.
We all know the myth of Spider-Man – dandruff, allergies, cancellation and all – far too well. What we don’t know so well are the comics themselves – the strange, surreal, funny, rambling incoherent comics that emerged from the Stan Lee and Steve Ditko gestalt between 1962 and 1966.
Because those comics were different. Different from what came before; different from anything Marvel was doing at the time; different to everything that came afterwards. Different enough that when a black-and-white reprint of Spider-Man #13 came into the hands of a little English boy in in February 1972, he read it; and read it again; and read it twice a day for the next week, until the black-and-white reprint of Spider-Man #14 was published. That one had the incredible Hulk in it. English comics at the time were still about spitfires, custard pies and misbehaving school-boys.
What, if we reject the easy clichés about antihistamines and scalp-complaints made those comics so different? What was Spider-Man about?
Here is an unfinished list.
Spider-Man is a situation comedy.
Spider-Man is about fame.
Spider-Man is about the press and the media.
Spider-Man is about the codependent relationship between the paparazzi and the celebrity.
Spider-Man is about the difference between the person we are and the person we show to the world.
Spider-Man is about masks.
Spider-Man is about whether there is any point in being good if everyone thinks you are bad.
Spider-Man is about what being good even means if no-one knows about it.
Spider-Man is about the corrosive power of guilt.
Spider-Man is about an arrogant, self-destructive, outsider who systematically sabotages his own life and blames it on “bad luck” and “a curse”.
Spider-Man is a story engine in which one protagonist and five supporting characters are embroiled farcical knots of confusion and misunderstanding.
Spider-Man is a soap-opera into which a monthly super-villain is shoe-horned.
Spider-Man is a monthly wrestling match between the hero and a series of ever more absurd super-villain opponents.
Above all, Spider-Man is about the parasitic, mutually self-destructive relationship between Spider-Man and his co-star J Jonah Jameson, a vicious circle which ruins both of their lives.
Spider-Man #33 was called The Final Chapter. It was not, however, the final chapter. The comic continued long after Ditko had walked away. There was a pretty lady under a bridge, a dippy redhead who eventually grew up, a little boy with leukemia, an evil black costume.
But no other comic has ever remotely captured the special magic of Ditko and Lee’s original Spider-Man: and I would like to try to explain why.
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