Easily Marvel Comics’ most recognisable and popular superhero, unsuspecting teenage nerd Peter Parker was first bitten by a radioactive spider and learned the true meaning of power and responsibility in Amazing Fantasy #15, which was first published in August 1962. Since then, the Amazing Spider-Man has featured in numerous cartoons, live-action movies, videogames, action figures, and countless comic book titles and, in celebration of his debut and his very own day of celebration, I’ll be dedicating every Wednesday of August to talk about everyone’s favourite web-head!
Story Title: Spider-Man!
Published: August 1962
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
The year was 1962 and Marvel Comics had seen incredible success with the Fantastic Four; wishing to capitalise on this, Marvel editor and head writer Stan Lee wanted to create a teenaged superhero for his younger readers to identify with. After being inspired by a fly climbing his office wall, Lee experimented with different insect names before settling on Spider-Man (eventually placing emphasis on the hyphen to avoid associations with Clark Kent/Superman) and, after being dissatisfied with Jack Kirby’s interpretation of his new young superhero, Lee turned to artist Steve Ditko to finalise Spider-Man’s costume and accessories.
Stan Lee purposely set out to make Spider-Man a troubled young teenager rather than a flawless character or the sidekick to an older hero, one who was constantly struggling with relatable issues such as money, love, and the health of his family. Despite the success of the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee also still needed the approval of Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, who disliked the character and the concept and only allowed Lee to feature Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy as the comic was scheduled to be cancelled with its fifteenth issue. Despite this, Amazing Fantasy #15 proved to be one of the company’s best selling titles and the character’s popularity led to him not only getting his own solo title, The Amazing Spider-Man, in 1963 barely a year after his debut but also catapulting Spider-Man into mainstream popularity that endures to this day.
“Spider-Man!” immediately begins with Stan Lee’s peerless narration setting up just how different the concept is and the art delivers on this promise by introducing us to Peter Parker, a bespectacled teenager who is the subject of much abuse and ridicule from his peers who ostracise him and see him as nothing more than a bookworm and a wallflower.
Peter lives with his aged and doting Uncle Ben and Aunt May, who shower him with love and affection, and excels in his studies, particularly in science (which his aunt and uncle actively encourage), but is incredibly shy and awkward around his fellow students. When he ineptly attempts to ask Sally out, she rudely rebuffs him and his efforts to impress her, and the others, with an invitation to a science exhibit are drowned out by the braying taunting and arrogance of Flash Thompson, the most popular guy in school.
Though upset at the mockery of his classmates, Peter joins a number of other attendees in witnessing a demonstration of the latest in cutting edge atomic science, specifically the mysterious power of radioactive rays. As the head scientist begins the experiment, though, an unassuming spider, unseen and unnoticed by all, is bathed in a full blast of radiation and, with its dying breath, bites the back of Peter’s hand and immediately sends him a bit queasy (to the mockery of those in attendance because it’s not just teenagers who take the piss out of poor old Peter!)
Distracted by the sudden charge of energy that flows through his body, Peter narrowly avoids being run down in the street but leaping up a nearby building! Astounded, Peter finds he can cling to the wall as easily as…well, a spider…and that he can crush a steel pipe as though it were mere paper! As if that wasn’t enough, he suddenly has superhuman dexterity and balance, which allows him to easily and fearlessly traverse a cable as effortlessly as a spider would crawl along a web.
Excited at his newfound powers, Peter does the first thing anyone would in this situation and throws on a makeshift disguise to test his abilities in the ring against Crusher Hogan (and earn a cushy $100 in the process). Though initially dismissive of the proto-Spider-Man’s slight physical stature, Hogan is almost immediately left flustered and humbled when Peter effortlessly dodges his attack, hoists him up, and holds him precariously over the ring.
After the match, as Peter is counting his winnings, a television producer approaches him with an offer to appear on Ed Sullivan’s show. Overwhelmed at his incredible abilities and enthusiastic at appearing on television, Peter sets to work designing a colourful costume for himself; it’s not made clear why he choose red and black/blue but it certainly makes for a colourful, striking appearance. As if Peter’s sewing skills weren’t impressive enough, he also uses his scientific aptitude to construct a pair of mechanical web-shooters so that he can fire off webs just like a spider. Honestly, as much as I like Peter’s practical web-shooters, I always felt like the organic web-shooters made much more sense rather than him being “imparted” with the knowledge of how to make his own web-shooters because…you know, he gets a spider’s strength, speed, agility, well-clinging, and a version of their multiple eyes with the spider-sense but he can’t naturally produce webs?
Anyway, Spider-Man makes his big television debut, wowing the audience with his many abilities; he becomes an immediate headline sensation and is suddenly inundated with offers for interviews, photo shoots, and even movies (imagine that!) However, as he is making his way back to the changing room, a security guard is in the process of chasing down a thief; Spider-Man allows the thief to escape unhindered to the elevator, rightfully but crucially stating that it’s not his job to stop criminals since he’s a performer, not a cop!
Peter revels in his newfound fame but, one fateful evening (not that same evening, it’s interesting to note), he returns home to be told the news that his beloved Uncle Ben has been shot and killed by a house burglar! Overcome with grief and a burning desire for revenge, Peter races to his bedroom and pulls on his Spider-Man costume to confront the burglar after the cops tell him (Peter) where he’s holed up. Thanks to his web-slinging abilities, Spider-Man easily crosses town to reach the warehouse where the thief is hiding out and gets the drop on him.
Of course, Spider-Man is easily able to corner the thief, disable his gun with his webs, and knock him out with one right hook. However, Peter is devastated when he sees the face of his uncle’s killer and recognises him as the same thief he refused to stop a few days earlier! Peter leaves the thief in the custody of the police and wanders off into the night, distraught with grief and guilt at his selfish ways and learning, as the narrator sombrely informs us, the harsh lesson that “With great power there must also come — great responsibility!”
“Spider-Man!” is a brilliant, almost timeless tale; of course, it’s obviously full of allusions and references to the time period it was created in but none of these elements really overwhelm the general pace, direction, and themes of the story. Spider-Man was the first superhero to be a normal, everyday, awkward teenager; shunned by his peers for being a bookworm, he’s far outside of the popular social circle yet, though he’s clearly affected and upset by the teasing he constantly endures, he never falls into angst or despair and, instead, revels in the love and affection his adoring aunt and uncle constantly show him.
Upon being granted his amazing spider abilities, Peter is immediately fascinated and excited and jumps at the chance to flex his newfound muscles in the ring. Finally, after years of persecution for being a wallflower, he has the power to topple even large, muscular wrestlers like Crusher Hogan and quickly becomes a television sensation. It’s clear that Peter is both overwhelmed and enthusiastic by the fame (and, presumably, brief fortune) his celebrity status brings him; there’s a sense that all these opportunists and media moguls are simply using Spider-Man and taking advantage of him but Peter is too distracted by the applause and adulation to even care.
So overcome by this admiration and fame is Peter that his selfish actions cause him to make one fateful error in letting a seemingly harmless thief escape punishment and, of course, pays for it when that same thief kills his beloved Uncle Ben. The sight of Peter staring at the face of his uncle’s killer and realising that he (Peter) could have easily stopped him is a haunting and enduring image, as is the valuable life lesson that would go on to not only define Spider-Man’s superhero career but also become largely synonymous with the character. This origin, one born out of pure, unadulterated grief, is perhaps second only to the traumatic murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne in its significance, iconography, and impact on both the character and the comics and subsequent media he appeared in and ensures that Spider-Man’s dramatic debut is both memorable and relatable since Peter’s actions, though selfish, were completely understandable and natural. He didn’t get his powers and immediately become a crimefighter; he used them for fortune and glory and who among us can say we wouldn’t do the same?
What are your thoughts on Spider-Man’s iconic debut? Were you a fan of the character at the time or were you introduced to him through some other means and, if so, what were they? How would you rank Spider-Man’s traumatic origin story and how important would you say it is to the character and the comics industry as a whole? What is your favourite Spider-Man storyline, costume, or character and why? Do you prefer mechanical or organic web-shooters? Why do you think Peter chose red and black/blue for his costume? How are you celebrating Spider-Man Day today? Whatever your thoughts on Spider-Man, leave a comment below and be sure to stick around for Spider-Man Month starting this Wednesday!