Spidember: Spider-man, what makes a hero great?

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My first introduction to the Web-slinger. Image taken from Wikipedia.

I still remember being 6 years old, going with my Dad to the town centre and taking a stop into Blockbuster (a movie rental store throttled in its sleep by Netflix, for those of you too young to remember). Dad was just going to get a movie for later. I, however, had a date with destiny. It was on that fateful day long ago where I wandered away from my father and took a stroll along the game aisle. It was when examining the PS1 games on display that I first saw a man in red and blue spandex swinging through the air, staring at me with big white slits for eyes. I was intrigued and engrossed even at a single glance. I pulled my dad over and pointed it out and because I was an only child who, I will fully admit, was spoiled rotten, I soon left with a new game in hand: Spider-man 2: Enter Electro.

That was my first introduction into the world of Spider-man and quickly, I was thrown headlong into the entire experience. I played the game as much as I could and even got the first game when that proved not enough. I poured through all the available extras and discovered that Spider-man was a comic-book character. The next time I was out in town with Dad and we visited the local magazine shop, I spotted what would be my first Spider-man comic: Astonishing Spider-man 87. It took a while to get going, grabbing issues of the comic sporadically like issue 91 (my first Green Goblin story) and then 97 (where the focus was on Spider-Man and a new Spider-Woman fighting an evil Spider-woman, oh and Doctor Octopus was there). 98 was a Venom story and from then on, the Spidey fever hit hard and fast.

For the next few years, I eagerly collected Spider-man comics, following the mainline Astonishing Brand in the UK and starting to collect the new Ultimate Spider-man comics monthly. Then, there were the Sam Raimi movies and the games of those movies. Then, the 90’s cartoon started getting re-runs on the weekend. Before I knew it, I was pulled deeper and deeper into the web of content. I eventually slowed my collecting of Spider-man comics when my Dad told me the prices were getting too dear, especially for two Spider-man comics, one of which came out fortnightly. One comic a month it would have to be and I was so in love with Ultimate Spider-man, Astonishing was left by the way-side. Then, on Issue 41, Ultimate Spider-man fused with Ultimate X-Men and soon, I fell out of love with that too. I tried getting into the Ultimate X-Men story-line but didn’t enjoy it and even as a child, I thought it was pointless spending money to read half of one comic-book. Thus my comic collecting days ended…at least for then, but the whole experience instilled in me a love of Spider-man and his universe that remains to this day.

It’s a love that I now wish to share with all of you.

As you might be aware from my wittering on about Spider-man for three paragraphs instead of talking about D&D, this is a very different blog from my usual topic. This September marks the release of Insomniac’s new Spider-man game, which is looking incredible so far in every new material I see from it. Plus, I’ve recently been getting back into collecting Spider-man comics. My mum threw away my old collection when I was a teenager, something I still hold against her to this day, but now, I’ve started to rebuild it. With this in mind, I decided to channel this Spider-man related energy into something productive.

This is going to be Spidember (yes, I know, the name is terrible. I really struggled to think of a better one). Every week for the rest of September, I’m going to be making a Spider-man related blog post on top of my usual ‘From the DM’s Chair’ segments. Some of the blogs are going to be reviews and some are just going to be me rambling on about Spider-man related things because I’m really in the mood to talk about it and this is a good platform to do that on.

Now, to start off Spidember, I’m going to be talking about the Web-slinger himself, at least the original: Peter Parker. Now, Spider-Man is one of the most famous superheros to ever have ever existed. On top of that, in my honest opinion, I think Peter Parker/Spider-man is actually one of the best fictional characters of all time. That claim is a little beyond the scope of this blog, so for this post, we’re just going to pursue the argument that Spider-man is the greatest comic book character of all time and try to unravel why that is. Obviously, that is only my opinion but I can imagine a lot of people who don’t like Spidey are probably already on their way out. Luckily, I have years of Spidey-fan material to draw upon when constructing my argument for this. For this blog, we’ll be diving deep into Spider-man’s motivations, his relationships with other characters and the little details of his identity as Peter Parker and Spider-Man that make the character so likeable and enjoyable to read.

This is Spider-man, what makes a hero great?

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The words that started it all, right from the pages of Amazing Fantasy #15. Image taken from TV Tropes. Artwork by Steve Ditko.

Great words of a great man

At this point, we all know the story of Spider-man’s origins. I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the most iconic superhero origin stories, up there with Moses but in space (Superman) and THE traumatic parent deaths (Batman). For sake of ease, I’m going to avoid re-telling you the backstory, because you already know it, which is proof if anything of Spider-man’s popularity. However, no blog about Spider-man could go on without addressing the words that came from it.

‘With great power comes great responsibility’.

It’s a part of Spider-man lore that everyone knows. It’s the ultimate moral of Spider-man’s origin and sums up his main motivation as a character. It is the best example of a mission statement for a hero in comic books and has transcended into a level of prevalence beyond that of any other hero’s dialogue. Batman has a few recurring phrases, about criminals being superstitious and cowardly or being vengeance and/or the night and Wolverine uses the word ‘bud’ like a comma. In the end, though, it is Uncle Ben’s words to Peter have bled into almost every form of media that exists and has become ingrained with the popular culture.

It’s even become a cultural thing in the Marvel universe itself. At one point in World War Hulk, Iron Man gives a speech to New York about his previous actions in the Marvel Civil War and begins quoting Peter, saying a friend of his believes ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. This seems a little out of nowhere, except when you consider that Tony himself is motivated by these same factors: finding out his weapons were causing pain and becoming the ultimate weapon to take responsibility for his actions. He just didn’t have a cool, albeit, simple explanation for what he was doing. Peter does and the words have stayed with him.

That, to me, is one of the reasons why Spider-man is so compelling as a hero: his mission statement is simple and under-stable. Not everyone can relate to an alien coming to earth as our protector or a rich man financing his own war on crime, yet Peter’s mission stands not only for his own goals, but signals the approach of all other heroes. With Great Power comes Great Responsibility is about a simple call to action, doing what you can with what you’re able to and helping people to the best of your abilities. For Peter, sometimes that’s saving the world. Other times, it’s just looking after Aunt May. It’s an idea that everyone can understand and comprehend and it helps that Peter is just an ordinary guy trying to do his best. It’s a mission statement that encourages the common everyday type of good deeds in everyone. Because, at the end of the day, Spider-man is just like us.

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Peter Parker: Nephew, friend, loser and our Spectacular Spider-man. Image taken from Marvel Database.wiki, artwork by Mark Bagley.

Peter Parker: The Everyman

At the core of his character, Peter is more relatable than other superheroes. He struggles with bills, balancing his schedule, his love-life, family life and he lets people down a lot. People understand these problems a lot more easily than Superman’s quest for peace. No-one knows what it might be like, say, to be a immortal mutant with claws, but everyone in the world is a Peter Parker. Everyone feels like a freak sometimes. Peter’s mistakes and bad luck are things we can recognise in our own lives, when we try our best and don’t succeed but still carry marching on anyway. Even the most popular and successful people in the world can understand what it’s like to let people down and suffer. And its these flaws that make Spider-man so real.

Even before putting on his costume, Peter was approaching his powers in a very realistic way. As much as we’d like to hope we’d do good things if we ever gained superpowers, most of us would be more than willing to use our powers for selfish gain. After all, we don’t exactly owe the world for any magic powers just happen to fall in our laps. That’s the exact same stance Peter takes and it takes a tragedy to shake him free from that grip, to learn the pain of passivity before he aspires to be a better person. The constant set-backs that result around this decision only serve to make Spider-man more relatable as a character and more heroic, the fact he is flawed and susceptible to change. It’s the reason why we like watching Peter overcome adversity and continue fighting on, even in the face of modern problems with a side-order of super-villains.

As a rule of thumb, the main difference between Marvel and DC comics is that DC’s heroes are ones you look up to, Marvel’s are ones you relate to. Whilst there are outliers, Spider-man himself is a symbol of Marvel’s writing philosophy, showcasing great action but also a tense undercurrent of drama through his grounded social interaction with the people around him.

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Spider-man and friends…and the crazy people on the right. Artwork taken from Writeups.org, originally drawn by John Romita Jr.

Supporting a Spider

Whilst I’m on the subject of social interaction, Spider-man’s supporting cast is one of the strongest of all time. A hero is only as good as his villains. For example, Superman has Lex Luthor and green rocks, Incredible Hulk has the military and a green man with a big head. Peter’s villains, however, aren’t just the super-villains he fights as Spider-man, they’re the people around him and the real problems that they to have to deal with.

J. Jonah Jameson’s way of using Peter to make money for his photos, Peter and Harry Osborn’s complex friendship and the various entangling relationships that Spider-man gets into all serve to compliment and develop Peter and his alter-ego as a character. The only superhero to have a supporting cast rivalling Spider-man’s own is Batman’s ‘Bat Family’, though Spider-man has a more complex relationship with his supporting cast.

Peter’s navigation of his personal life and his superhero side makes for the main conflict within the Spider-man universe. Numerous times, Peter has cast off the shackles of his secret identity, only to don them again when he realises that he still has a responsibility to people. The dynamic should be tired after these many years but it never ceases to get old. We understand the struggle within Peter and it’s a struggle that we can relate to: to do something good but lose out on our lives, or to surrender our gifts to spend time with those we love. And there’s no real right answer to that question either. Peter deserves peace but so does the world. Self-sacrifice isn’t all its cracked up to but it’s what makes Spider-man a hero, being defined by the people he loves and how he lets them down to achieve a greater good.

This contrasts with Superman’s own personal life. The Man of Steel has a group of staff that love and respect him, with a successful journalist career and a loving wife, child and best friend that dresses up like a bat. There’s no real strife or tension here. Even another iconic hero, Wolverine, has close friends, despite his anti-social nature and a small army of young teenage girls who view him as the father figure they never had.

Spider-man, on the other hand, gets the lovable J Jonah Jameson tearing down his image, love interests turning evil, leaving or dying every other year and friends and loved ones railing against him for failing them or letting them down. Peter’s only stable source of support in the world is Aunt May, who even then, isn’t so stable herself, being elderly and frail.

The fact that Spider-man’s extended cast are so likeable means that we also understand what Spider-man is sacrificing when he does go off to be a hero and adds greater weight to Peter’s decisions. When he lets down Aunt May or when he has to blow off a date with Gwen or Mary Jane…or any of the other love interests that just aren’t as good as those two, we feel their frustration and Peter’s pain. It helps us to be pulled more into Peter’s world. Even when we get into the realm of his villains, Spider-man still finds a grounded and human way to approach them.

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The Sinister Six, just a small example of some of Spidey’s incredible Rogue’s gallery. Artwork by the legendary Alex Ross.

 

 

The Dark Reflection

Spider-man’s Rogues gallery really have made a mark, not just on Peter, but surprisingly, on the world as a whole. Only a few people could name, say, Baron Zemo from Captain America, but I’m pretty sure everyone can name at least five Spider-man villains if they were really pushed. For some reason, they’re some of the most well-known and most developed villains in the comic pantheon. I think I can posit a reason for this: the Spider-man Rogues gallery present the perfect foils to Spider-man himself. There’s a notion in writing that every character relates back in some way to your main character. Superman, for example, has Lex Luthor, who acts as a dark reflection of the human race Superman seeks to save, Brainiac, an alien seeking knowledge and ultimately holding a deep relationship to Superman’s homeworld of Krypton, even showing a dynamic between Superman’s saviour-hood mentality and Brainiac’s effort to preserve knowledge, and General Zod, the ultimate expression of what an evil Superman could truly be capable of.

In much the same way, the Spider-man villains all relate back to one of Peter’s core values and characterisations. A majority of the villains are common crooks, like Rhino, Sandman and Shocker, that do what they do literally because they like abusing the power they have, spitting on Spider-man’s own notion of ‘great power and great responsibility’. Doctor Octopus and The Lizard are examples of scientists, like Peter, who stumbled into powers and yet gave into their destructive lure, butchering Peter’s love of science. Venom and Carnage are bitter glances in the mirror for Peter, the darker side of himself given flesh. And, of course, there’s the likes of Norman Osborn, the rich and privileged who have all the power in the world and wield it with no sense of Spider-man’s responsibility. Each of these villains come back to Spider-man with questions about his own identity and sense of right and each time, we re-evaluate our web-slinger and see just how good a person he can be going up against overwhelming odds.

Now, most of you are going to be screaming at me ‘What about the Batman Rogues’ Gallery? Joker? Cat-Woman? Mr Freeze? Riddler! (well, actually no-one’s thinking Riddler, which is sad because I love The Riddler and he should get more love)’. Yes, Batman does have a superb collection of villains. Amazing character-driven examples of the best villains in the genre or perhaps any genre. The Joker is iconic beyond even my beloved Green Goblin. One thing the Spider-man universe has over the Batman Rogue’s, however, is interesting power sets with varied abilities, as opposed to being mostly humans with only thematic adjustments. Sure, both sets of rogues have outlying awkward villains such as the Spot for Spider-man or Calendar Man for Batman. However, one of these villains has the ability to make teleportation portals that leads to cleverly countered attacks from Spider-man and creates interesting visuals on the page, and one likes to murder people based on calendar dates. Batman’s Rogues are great but they lack the variety of Spider-man’s own villains and the fantastic set of powers they possess.

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Spinning a web any size is just one of Spidey’s surprisingly varied abilities. Image taken from Playstation.com from Insomniac Games Spiderman.

The ‘Great Power’s

As a superhero, Spider-man’s powers are so interesting when you consider them. For one, a lot of his powers aren’t as powerful as other super-heroes, or otherwise utterly minor. Having super strength is nothing new for a hero and the added acrobatics makes Spidey only a more spry Captain America. Crawling on walls also doesn’t seem to be much on its own but it’s these factors in combination with Spidey’s last two powers that make all the different: his spider sense and his webbing. Peter’s spider sense is essentially a vague warning system about imminent danger which, if perceived correctly, Spidey has a chance of reacting to. Spider-man’s webbing, on the other hand, is actually a Peter Parker original. A basic understanding of chemistry allowed him to invent a webbing solution that lasts for up to an hour before dissolving and gives Spidey his trademark means of moving around New York: web-swinging.

Spider-man’s move-set is one that might be useless in any other setting but in the concrete jungle of New York, his abilities make him the perfect hero for the job. Agile, strong and with an assortment of powers specific enough to be useful but vague enough to prove resourceful in a pinch, it’s another factor of Spider-man’s arsenal that makes him so likeable and relatable. Peter doesn’t have access to Superman’s limitless supply of powers, the staples of which are obviously flight and extreme super strength to move a planet. He’s an underdog with an underdog’s set of powers, but with a brain and a lot of luck able to pull off some daring rescues that other heroes could only dream of.

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If it’s not the powers or the suit that makes a Spider, it has to be the quips. This brilliant scene is taken from Superior Spider-man #31 and IGN.com. Image belongs to Marvel Comics.

 

Jokes on you

If there is one thing Spider-man is known for, it’s his quips. In every single fight, Spidey can give at least two witty one-liners or variations there of. It’s a method of entertainment and writing but it also really strongly helps develop Spider-man as a character. Canonically, the reason why Spidey is such a sarcastic and witty individual when in fights is literally to calm his own nerves, as opposed to someone like Deadpool, who is just insane. It’s another feature that makes Spider-man entertaining and interesting as a character.

The Final Point

Ultimately, if there is one thing that defines Spider-man, it is tragedy. The story of Spider-man, in its entirety, is about putting the greater good above yourself, saving the day even if it ruins your day. For Spider-man to be successful, Peter Parker messes up, and for Peter to succeed, Spidey needs to sit out. It’s a persistent dynamic and one that never works out. It doesn’t help that every civilian in the Marvel universe is just an awful person. Spider-man can save the city time and time again and J.J would still…J.J and New York would eat it up.

Spider-man is no stranger to failure; he’s a very flawed and broken person. Between the losses of Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy, not to mention a whole host of other characters whose blood rest on his hands, Peter has a lot of lingering confused emotions: sadness, anger, pain. The most important of them, though, is guilt. Everything is Peter’s fault. His own inaction causes the death of his dearest friends, simple mistakes end loved one’s lives and at the end of the day, no matter how hard he tries, Peter always loses something.

This is why Spider-man is so special to me, because I felt very similarly. As a person, I have suffered an immense weight-load of guilt I carried around and I thought a lot about things I’d done every day. I have said things that were stupid and hurt people because I didn’t think or acted rashly at times and have done the wrong thing and made problems for others as a result. Because of all this, I have had a lot of regrets about my life and whenever anything goes wrong, I usually found a way to attribute the fault to me. A lot of people probably feel the same too. I can’t speak for them, of course, but for me, I want to help people and make people happy. When I can’t, or when things go wrong, I get worked up and blame myself. It happens and sometimes, all those worries and fears can overwhelm you.

And yet, Spider-man never stops trying. No matter who he loses or how many bad things happen to him, Peter Parker always stands up and goes to greet the new day. Because, even though Spider-man is a tragic figure and there’s a lot of darkness behind him, Spider-man’s story is ultimately an uplifting one. It’s about the strength of the human spirit and the power of the human will. In Spider-man Issue #33, The Final Chapter (spoilers: it isn’t by a long shot), Spider-man becomes crushed under some heavy machinery as the result of foiling one of Doc Ock’s evil schemes as the Master Planner. In a moment of strain and pure humanity, Peter realises he can’t escape and has to come to terms with the fact that he’s going to die, crushed under machinery, with water seeping in to drown him. Then, he thinks on Uncle Ben and Aunt May and all the people he is leaving behind. And he lifts. Peter strains himself, bracing his muscles and channeling his pure willpower to survive and protect those he loves. Of course, he lifts the rubble.

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“It’s when the going’s tough–where there seems to be no chance–THAT’S when–it counts”: The words of Spider-Man. Drawn by the legendary Steven Ditko, taken from the Marvel Database.

If that sounds familar, it’s because you’ve watched or read anything Spider-man related in the past 60 years. The idea of Spider-man lifting an object with pure will has become another staple of the character and it’s a statement, not only on his eternal quest to use his great power to protect those he feels responsible for, but also a statement on life. That no matter how hard or how terrible life may seem, we always have the power to continue on, to stand up and lift and keep moving forward.

It’s a powerful message and Spider-man is a compelling character because of this. This brilliant mess of power, responsibility, geekiness, coolness and, ultimately, heroic nature. It’s what makes him so enjoyable to me and why I think he is one of the greatest characters of all time: relatable but definitely someone you’re able to look up to.

That’s it for this segment of Spidember and I hope I’ve given you a little new perspective into how awesome our friendly neighbourhood Spiderman really is. However, no-one is perfect, especially not Peter Parker and definitely not Marvel. Next time, we’ll be looking at a major factor of Spider-man’s story and a feature of comic books in general as we discuss my least favourite part of the Spider-man mythos.

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