“Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can!”
I’m sure at least half of you hummed the tune or sang those words as you read them. Spider-Man, and all things related to him, are so ubiquitous to pop culture now, you don’t even need to be a dedicated fan to know about the guy or to like him. His origin is so
well-known, it’s the throwaway comment for any super being’s origin. “What, were they bitten by a radioactive ?” He’s had three different live-action blockbuster adaptations, an Oscar-winning animated film, and countless cartoons, TV series and comics, some even adapted for local culture like the tokusatsu-styled Supaidāman in Japan. With Spider-Man Day being August 1st, and the MCU placing his birthday on August 10th as a nod to the release date of Amazing Fantasy #15 (the comics say he’s a Libra, but that’s okay), this seemed like a good time to write about the ever-loving webhead and why he’s become “the world’s greatest superhero” to me and countless others. As Peter B. Parker would say, “Let’s do this, one last time.”
On August 10th, 1962, the Amazing Spider-Man, the world’s greatest superhero, was introduced to the world (technically it snuck onto newsstands on June 5th, but the book is dated August 10th, so we’re just gonna use that). I know some of you read “world’s greatest superhero” and snickered. Maybe you thought, “Thor could easily beat him,” or “he’s nowhere near Superman-level.” And you’d be absolutely right. What makes Spider-Man such a great hero is the very fact that he isn’t great. He fails a lot. His familiar origin is itself rooted in failure: he failed to act, which resulted in Uncle Ben’s death. Peter Parker is an everyman who just happens to also be a Spider-Man. In any given issue, his fights with other super-powered beings almost feel like the B plot, inconveniencing the A plot that is Peter’s life. Peter’s problems are problems we’ve all had: Can he get enough money to pay rent on time? Will he make it to his date with Mary Jane this time? Will he be there when Aunt May needs him? Usually these problems are caused by the existence of Spider-Man: Peter’s sense of responsibility to save others as Spider-Man gets in the way of his responsibility to his loved ones.
This isn’t an accident either; this is exactly what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko had in mind for this character when he was being conceptualized. Prior to Spider-Man, teenagers in superhero comics were solely sidekicks—think Robin to Batman or Bucky Barnes to Captain America—and whatever personal problems came from their superhero antics were largely skimmed over or used as a joke for their older mentor, the “real” hero. Lee and Ditko saw this as an opportunity to fill a void. Kids and teens are buying these books, so why not make a superhero that was just like them? Merging the melodrama that you’d expect from Archie dealing with Betty and Veronica with the action from any other superhero book wound up being an instant recipe for success. Peter would save the day as Spider-Man, only to get back to the soda bar and see his friends all left, tired of waiting for him. He’d be late to school because he stopped a burglar, only to have his teacher shame him. Of course, no one could know why he was so unreliable: Peter could never risk revealing his identity. Thus, the actual conflict is revealed. Even as Peter has aged up in the comics—with Marvel’s sliding timeline, their last fixed time point put him at 25—these problems have stayed the same because they are the DNA of the character. Attempts have been made to move him up to top-tier Avenger, to make him rich, to make him effectively solve all of these basic problems, but he usually cycles back to being broke, being late, and being an average guy: a Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man. This is all further emphasized in his design, as Ditko drew him relatively spindlier than standard
superheroes at the time to accentuate his younger age and frame, and perhaps most importantly, he gave Peter a full face mask. This allows him to be more intimidating than his young face would warrant, but also lets anyone see themselves in the character. “Anyone can wear the mask,” as Stan would say, and with the creation of a Spider-Verse with Spider-People of all backgrounds, that’s more true now than ever.
Spider-Man has meant the world to me for the better part of my life. I loved the cartoons as a little kid, but then I got my superhero fix from Power Rangers for a while, only coming back to Spider-Man when he hit the big screen in 2002 played by Tobey Maguire. The sense of awe I felt as a ten-year old watching him swing through New York reignited that love, and it hasn’t left since. I began purchasing and reading the comics, seeing myself in the nerdy, academic Peter Parker who found confidence from his abilities as Spider-Man. While none of us will ever get the ability to spin a web any size or to lift 25 tons, we can find confidence in personal superpowers—things that we feel we excel at. For me, at least in my teens, it was music. My life in a touring rock band felt like a super alter ego to the high school valedictorian persona that I was almost exclusively known for up until that point. In adulthood, I’ve found this confidence in teaching and my charity work with Critical Care Comics (CCC). In both cases it feels like I put on a persona, whether it’s the suit-and-tie-wearing “Mr. Mutzhaus” for my students, or Spider-Man for children in hospitals across the valley.
Wanting to be Spider-Man—literally as a child and figuratively as an adult—has changed my life in so many positive ways. The way I met my aforementioned family in Critical Care Comics was a series of comical coincidences, all beginning with me buying my first decent Spider-Man costume to make that ten-year-old in me happy. If I hadn’t done that, and if I hadn’t met CCC founder Jason Golden at the Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival while in said costume six years ago, I wouldn’t be who I am today: I wouldn’t be Spider-Man for this charity, I wouldn’t have the other superfriends I do, and I likely wouldn’t have the same connection to MFB (Millennium Fandom Bar) that I have thanks to its partnerships with CCC.
Spider-Man isn’t the strongest superhero. He’s not the fastest. His powers aren’t even the best; they’re highly specific and work only because of his urban environment—think the suburb chase scene in Spider-Man: Homecoming. But he’s the world’s greatest superhero for exactly every reason he isn’t the best, and he inspires us all: to try a little harder, to go a little further, to think a little harder, and to remember that “with great power comes great responsibility.”
"Happy birthday, Pete. Next one’s on me."