Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man 8 (III): Peter Parker's Glasses as a Clue to the Meaning of the Marvel Universe

Peter Parker's Glasses As A Clue to the Meaning of the Marvel Universe.(*)

"I’ve had it!" thinks the Spider-Man side of the Gemini-Face on the first page of Spider-Man #8. "I’m through pretending to be a pantywaist to conceal my real identity! I don’t need those specs anyway."

This is an astonishing outburst. Parker now thinks of Spider-Man as his real self, and himself as the assumed identity. He sees his glasses as a disguise to make himself appear weak (using the borderline homophobic term "pantywaist"). And he is going to throw away the glasses and abandon the disguise.

But the Peter Parker we met in the first pages of Amazing Fantasy #15 was weak. At any rate, he was shy, studious and non-athletic. This wasn't an assumed role: it was who he was. The mask and the spider-powers may have enabled him to express a different (an not entirely likable) side to his personality. He may choose not to allow Aunt May or his school friends to see that side of himself. But Peter Parker is not a constructed identity, as Clark Kent arguably is. When he says that he is going to stop pretending to be weak, he means that he is going to start integrating the two roles.

That weak, studious Peter Parker certainly wore glasses, and if he wore them he must have needed them. They weren't reading glasses; he wore them all the time. None of his class mates have glasses, neither does Aunt May or Uncle Ben. The only person who does is the elderly Principal Davies. I'm afraid that Lee and Ditko are being rather lazy here; using "specs" as a visual shorthand for intelligence. There is, I think, a buried assumption that athletes can't be good students and good students can't be successful athletes -- an assumption which wouldn't have been understood by Rudyard Kipling or the Boy's Own Paper.

The newly empowered Spider-Man certainly starts leaving his glasses off. He manages without them in his first fight with Crusher Hogan and is several times shown without them when doing science projects in the privacy of his bedroom. It is possible that he wears contact lenses under his mask; or even that the white eye-pieces in the mask are corrective lenses. (A background piece in the first annual claims that they are two-way mirrors, way before mirror-shades were a fashion item.) But the normal line is that the radioactive spider-bite gave him enhanced eyesight as well as enhanced strength; that he initially kept his glasses as a disguise, but doesn’t bother to replace them when they get broken.

But hang on. That's not how eyes work. A non-spectacle-wearer doesn't have better eyes than shortsighted person in the way that a sprinter has better legs than a couch potato. Shortsightedness is a minor physical defect: the sufferer can't focus because his eyeball is slightly the wrong shape. If a normal-sighted person looked through my glasses, they wouldn't be able to see a thing: everything would look blurry and out of focus and they’d get a headache. So how is that Peter can get away with sometimes wearing glasses and sometimes not? Did he go to an optometrist and ask him to make up a set of specs with plain glass in the frames?

Flash Thompson continuously pokes fun at Peter Parker for being puny and skinny. Midtown High does have gymnasium but it appears that senior students don't have to take phys ed or sports classes. (They do have supervised volley ball practice during recess, but they don't change into sports kit for it.) So the last time Flash saw Peter undressed must have been some time before the spider-incident -- when "puny" would have been an accurate (though unkind) description of him. But when the boys strip down to their shorts for the boxing match, no-one says "hey, puny Parker's not so puny after all!" Coach Smith, who is presumably used to assessing young men’s physical condition doesn’t think Peter has any chance in the bout. A pin-up in the first Spider-Man annual has Liz thinking “Flash may be more muscular – but I'll take Peter Parker any day." Not “stronger": more muscular. Peter Parker still looks like the little guy.

Steve Rogers and Bruce Banner are both little guys. When they have their strength boosted, there is an immediate change to their physical shape. They can’t fit into their clothes any more. Peter Parker doesn't undergo any physical change when he becomes Spider-Man: he can jump huge distances and crush metal chimney pots with one hand, but he still fits into his geeky clothes.

So. Spider-Man is super strong even though his muscle mass hasn't altered; and has perfect vision whether he is wearing corrective lenses or not. What is going on?

Spider-Man’s powers must be derived from a psychic or supernatural source. Some external force is correcting his vision, irrespective of the state of his eyes or his glasses; and that same force is enabling him to lift objects far beyond the power of his actual muscles. This applies to other powers as well. An actual spider can climb a wall because it has millions of little pointy hairs on its eight little feet. This clearly isn't what Peter is doing: the wall-sticking works even when he is wearing gloves and shoes, but he never finds cups and pens and test tubes sticking to his hands in ordinary life. Some kind of magic or alchemy must be making his hands sticky when he needs them to be so.

I would conjecture that what gives a spider-man his power is an energy field created by all living spiders. What the spider-bite did was make Peter Parker sensitive to this force. The little lines around Peter's head are not only warning him of danger and allowing him to telepathically hear radio-transmissions: they are also channeling the spider-force. This explains why he felt that his body was "charged with some sort of fantastic energy" right after the spider-bite. It also explains how his gloopy webbing can magically take on the shape of a bat or a parachute or a boat or anything else that Peter Parker needs it to be at that particular moment.

And the existence of the spider-force explains one other crucial fact about Spider-Man.

When Spider-Man is in a particularly dire situation, he is sometimes able to increase his strength through sheer force of will. It is clear that what Spider-Man was doing, for example during the fight with Doctor Doom, was channeling the spider-force. This is going to become a key part of the story of Spider-Man. His physical strength is as its greatest when he needs it the most.

(*) Do you see what I did there?

A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
Andrew Rilstone

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

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Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copywriter holder.

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Mike Taylor said...

(*) Do you see what I did there?

It took a while to sink in, but the second time I saw this article, the headline clicked. Nice work. (Also: good analysis of Flash's honour code in the last post.)

Gavin Burrows said...

Nice series, nice illos. But the real positive role model for us bespectacled youths of the Seventies was Joe 90. He wasn't just super despite his glasses - but because of them!!!