Spider-Man: How Marvel's web-slinging, friendly, neighbourhood superhero came into being

Vinay Viswanath

Jul 06, 2019 09:26:21 IST

Editor's note: The characters — and story-lines — that inhabit popular comic books can be expansive, multidimensional, and often, just plain bewildering. Firstpost's #HeroesAndVillains is a one-stop definitive guide to understanding (and keeping track of) comic book characters. From the iconic to the little-known, the old and the new, superheroes and their villainous nemeses — this is the deep dive you need, and deserve.

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For superheroes, an anonymous civilian identity is usually a source of welcome respite. A way to relax from the inevitable fatigue and monumental stress that comes of having to repeatedly save a world that just can’t seem to keep itself out of trouble.

But for some heroes like Peter Parker of Earth-616, who has far less trouble saving the denizens of New York City than being able to afford to live in New York City, the opposite tends to be true just as often. Being a friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man may be fulfilling, but Parker’s brand of pro-bono vigilantism isn’t very lucrative.

“Seriously, a clinic that superheroes frequent and you think, ‘That's the place I want to rip off next’?! Let me ask you, and be honest, are you stupid? Or really, really stupid?” – Peter Parker, Spider-Man

 Spider-Man: How Marvels web-slinging, friendly, neighbourhood superhero came into being

*classic Spider-Man theme song intensifies* | Marvel Comics

Created by the classic Marvel dream team of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, Spider-Man first hit shelves back in 1962 as part of a collection of comics under the title Amazing Fantasy #15. Coming fresh off the success of the Fantastic Four’s debut, Lee was already working on what he hoped would be the next big thing. How Lee came up with the idea of Spider-Man is somewhat apocryphal, even to Lee himself, who stated in his autobiography that he was inspired by the noir comic crime-fighting series The Spider, as well as by watching a spider climbing a wall. As for that last one, Lee also admits that he had told that story so many times he was no longer sure if that was the actual truth, or simply the truth as he remembered it.

For Peter Parker, Lee took his inspiration directly from his audience. With comic book sales spiking among teenagers, Stan Lee wanted to create a character that reflected the experiences and hopes of his young audience. When Peter Parker made his debut in 1962, he was a teenaged comic enthusiast who dreamed of being a powerful hero — just like the characters he read about.

While his encounter with an irradiated spider went far better than it probably would for any of his fans, the challenges that young Peter faced, in school, at home or at work all mirrored the experience of his readers and made him an extremely relatable superhero. At least, far more relatable than the billionaire industrialists, erudite scientists, super soldiers, magic-wielding mystics or aliens from other worlds who starred in most of the superhero comics of that time.

Origins and Background

Born in Queens to CIA agents Richard and Mary Parker, young Peter was often left with his aunt and uncle — Benjamin and May Parker — whenever his parents were on one of their frequent assignments overseas.

On one such mission, Peter’s parents were killed when the plane they were in went down, but while Peter grew up believing that this was an accident, the truth is that they were assassinated and (just for good measure) framed for treason  by a Red Skull…not THE Red Skull, Johann Schmidt, but Albert Malik, a communist spy who claimed the title for himself (a transgression that Schmidt would later exact revenge for once he was back on the scene).

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He’d probably be more intimidating if he didn’t look completely terrified all the time| Marvel Comics

Growing up in the care of his aunt and uncle, Peter proved to be a gifted but shy student who was more than a little socially awkward. With his slender frame (you can call him scrawny if you’re feeling unkind) and relative social isolation at school, Peter soon found himself the target of bullies, and while he was always ready to stand up for himself, these encounters were extremely one-sided and their outcomes pretty much inevitable.

Fearing for her ward, Aunt May became protective, and then over-protective of Peter. And if you assumed that would only further entrench his pariah status at school and lead to even more bullying, congratulations, you’d be a less over-bearing parental figure than May Parker.

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To be fair, Peter didn’t do himself too many favours either | Marvel Comics

Of, course we all know what happens next: Peter gets bitten by a radioactive spider and in a billion to one chance miraculously develops superpowers instead of cancer. Except that this was no co-incidence. Later in his life Peter would find out that his powers did not come from a freak accident, but through the will of The Great Weaver, a trans dimensional spider-like deity that had chosen him as its avatar on Earth-616. As it turns out, the spider that bit Peter was irradiated by accident on its way to imbue him with the powers of an ancient Spider-Totem called ‘The Other’.

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No, thank you.  | Marvel Comics

I should probably also mention that as an avatar of The Great Weaver, part of the deal involves locking horns with a multi-dimensional, vampiric, presumably evil and possibly psychic being called Morlun and his followers who call themselves ‘The Inheritors’, a group which has taken it upon themselves to hunt totems of The Great Weaver throughout the multiverse. While Morlun does tend to keep coming back from the dead, Peter, with a little help from Spider-Men and Women from across the multi-verse have managed to keep him and his kin at bay, at least for the moment.

Anyway, moving on from the whole mystical aspect of Peter Parker’s powers, mostly because they raise a lot of questions and offer very few answers, the rest of the story is probably more along the lines of how you remember it. A young, newly empowered Peter begins trying to use his amazing new abilities to enrich himself by trying his hand as an amateur wrestler and manages to become a minor TV sensation with an acrobatics act that he performs with a combination of his new skills and the development of his trademark web-shooters.

After a momentary lapse in his generally helpful nature leads to the death of his uncle at the hands of a two-bit crook Peter vows to be a better man and honour his uncle by attempting to live by one of his favourite sayings…you know the one.

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Fun fact: This was not originally a saying by Uncle Ben but from Peter himself. | Sony Pictures

Since then he’s started standing up to his bullies like Flash Thompson, who eventually became a good friend, started working as a freelance photo-journalist and won a scholarship to study science at Empire State University (The Marvel equivalent of NYU). He also managed to get revenge of a sort on Uncle Ben’s murderer when he confronted the criminal and inadvertently scared him to death!

But while criminals now fear him, Peter, with his newfound confidence has even become something of a hit with the ladies; although his nerdy/goofball sense of humour is constantly hurting his chances, he’s still dated at least seven fellow superheroes, including Felicia Hardy (Black Cat), Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel), Julia Carpenter (Spider-Woman), Cindy Moon (Silk) and Bobbi Morse (Mockingbird).

However, his longest and most stable relationship is still Mary Jane Watson, whom he was (mostly) happily married to. That is, until Kingpin, who learned Spider-man’s secret identity when he unmasked himself during the civil war storyline, put out a hit on Peter’s family. In an effort to save his Aunt from a life-threatening gunshot wound, Peter made a deal with the demon Mephisto. As part of the deal, May would be saved and almost everyone would ‘forget’ Peter’s secret identity. However, Peter and MJ’s marriage would also cease to exist, along with the daughter they would now never have.

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Also, this almost happened | Marvel Comics

[Don’t worry they didn’t actually get married in the end…. She married J Jonah Jameson’s dad instead. Yup, Jonah is technically Peter’s cousin now.]

Powers and Abilities

Despite being one of Marvel’s top tier heroes, Spider-Man’s actual list of powers is actually fairly limited, even more so than other members of the so-called Spider Family like Miles Morales and Cindy Moon. Still, considering that the time-travelling mutant Cable once said that he is remembered as the greatest hero of his time (and that’s some pretty stiff competition he’s up against) I’d say that he manages to get by with what he has just fine.

As Spider-Man, Peter possesses the proportional strength, speed and reflexes of a Spider. This makes him super strong, super-fast and super agile compared to the average human. While his webbing is a product of engineering, his ability to ‘stick’ almost effortlessly to most surfaces as well as his heightened healing factor and toughened subdermal flesh that increases his durability are all natural. Perhaps his most powerful ability is what Parker often refers to as his ‘Spider-sense’, a physiological response to impending danger that manifests in multiple ways. In a fight, Peter’s spider senses can give him a near-clairvoyant ability to predict his enemy’s attacks. Coupled with his superhuman reflexes, this ability allows Spider-Man to anticipate every strike and even dodge bullets with general success (as long as he’s not ill at the time).

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A final ability that Peter rarely makes use of is a move called ‘The Mark of Kaine’. While it sounds like a cheesy wrestling move, what it actually entails is Peter using his ability to grip firmly to any surface, combined with his super strength to launch a devastating tearing attack on his enemies. This attack penetrates deep into the flesh and muscle tissue of its target on the rare occasions that he has used this ability, which gained its name for the handprint-like scar that it leaves behind. But this move is not limited to just organic targets as Peter has also used this attack to tear plates off Iron Man’s armour piece by piece.

Beyond his superhuman abilities, Peter Parker is also an expert inventor and an apparent genius (even when he’s not being possessed by the mind of Doc-Oc) with an IQ of over 250, with some of the other biggest brains in the Marvel Universe such as Hank Pym and Reed Richards regarding Peter as an intellectual peer.

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Genius…genius comes in many forms. | Sony Pictures

Using his engineering expertise, Peter has developed a collection of specialised Spider-suits, creating an Iron Man-like collection of suits, although not anything quite as extensive as Stark’s. In addition to this, Parker has also developed a number of custom vehicles such as the Spider-Glider, Spider-Mobile and Hydro-Spider to help him operate effectively and move quickly through environments where a lack of convenient high-rise buildings make web swinging impractical.

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Sometimes a car is just much more convenient | Marvel Comics

Finally, Peter is also a master hand-to-hand combatant, having trained under the legendary martial artist Shang-Chi and worked with him to create a unique fighting style, ‘The Way of The Spider’ that fully utilises Peter’s superhuman senses, strength and reflexes.

Weaknesses

Spider-Man’s abilities are heavily tied to both his physical and mental health, with his powers often being heavily weakened or leaving him entirely when he is depressed or ill. A possible explanation for this would be due to the fact that only part of his powers come from physical mutations while the rest is power granted to him by his Spider-Totem, The Other, whose connection to him could wane when Peter’s mental state is compromised. The result is that on several occasions, Peter has actually lost his powers as a psychosomatic response to trauma — not really ideal for someone who puts themselves in harm’s way constantly.

His other major weakness, if I may be more flexible with the term, is that his financial situation is precarious and he is all too often on the verge of poverty, struggling to make ends meet. Although not all heroes are billionaires, for one reason or another, money just doesn’t seem to be that much of an issue for them. Even Luke Cage — who also has occasional cash flow concerns — is better off, since as a hero-for-hire his vigilantism isn’t pro-bono.

While Peter was at one point much more financially stable, having finally got a research job more fitting for a genius (than slogging as an underpaid freelance journalist) as well as getting married to his long-term girlfriend, up and coming model/actress Mary-Jane Watson, recent events have changed things for the worse. The loss of his job at Horizon Labs (it blew up), the loss of Parker Industries that was founded when his body was controlled by Doc-Oc (it also blew up), and the loss of his wife (she didn’t blow up but reality was altered so they were no longer married) has left Peter at the end of his twenties with professional prospects as bleak as they were all those years ago when he was working for the Bugle.

Any excuse to use this clip again is a valid one | Sony Pictures/ Youtube

Allies and Adversaries

While Spider-Man has made a few friends in the superhero community, he has, for the most part, preferred to remain a solo-act, often complaining that he finds it hard to work in teams. That said, he has tried to join up with multiple groups in the past such as the Fantastic Four and the Avengers. That said, it could have been that both those moves were made out of a desire to make more money: Spider-Man initially asked to join the Fantastic Four hoping for a salary and later The Avengers, because he heard Tony Stark was providing a stipend to members.

Unfortunately for Spidey, saving cities doesn’t put food on the table| Marvel Comics

While he has at times worked with the Avengers since then, he has usually not lasted long on the team as his more casual approach to crime-fighting tends to not gel well with their less light-hearted approach to superhero work. Following a bad experience with The Avengers, he also turned down recruitment by the X-Men, who were interested in having him join since he was technically a mutant, even if he didn’t share their particular X-gene mutation.

That said, he maintains fairly good relations with most of the major superhero teams and also regularly teams up with a few of them to take down larger threats, particularly when said threats occur in New York City. He often works with The Human Torch, Daredevil, Wolverine and, more recently, Deadpool and Moon Knight. He is also a founding member of the ‘New Avengers’ and has grown to trust his teammates enough to even reveal his secret identity to them.

Oh, before I forget, Peter also has a long-lost younger sister he never knew about, Teresa Parker, who has worked with the CIA and SHIELD. I’d tell you more about her but there’s really not much more to say other than it seems like it’s rarer at this point for a Marvel superhero to not have a long-lost sibling they’ve never known about. You’ve got to love that limitless comic book creativity. Oh well, at least she’s not a villain.

With the exception of Norman Osborn (the original Green Goblin), most of Spider-Man’s main villains are fairly low-tier criminals, focused on theft and organised crime rather than global domination. Among his rogues’ gallery are some very well-known villains such as Doctor Octopus, Sandman, Electro, The Vulture, Mysterio and Kraven the Hunter, who occasionally worked together under the moniker ‘The Sinister Six’. There was also The Lizard, The Rhino, Kingpin and, of course, Venom; who fills the role of being Spider-Man’s dark reflection. Then there is the occasional clone (or two) of Peter Parker that still occasionally pops up from time to time to either help or hinder him.

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If this large number of animal-based villains seems odd, the explanation is that as the avatar of the Spider-Totem, Peter naturally attracts those whom, knowingly or unknowingly, serve as conduits for some of the other multi-dimensional totem-deities that exist.

However, by far, Spider-Man’s greatest adversary has got to be the hostile news media, led primarily by J Jonah Jameson who sees the vigilante as a menace, no better than any of the criminals that he claims to protect people from. Few villains have ever been able to convince Peter Parker, a man known for his relentless resolve and sense of duty, to hang up the onesie and retire in despair. And no criminal has been able to turn public opinion against Spider-Man the way that The Daily Bugle has in the past, with its unceasing smear campaigns. It got to the point that New Yorkers would openly jeer or flee from the web-slinger even as he performed the thankless task of saving this bunch of ingrates.

So, to answer the question of who Spider-Man’s arch-rival is, my money is on old flat-top here. At least he was back in the day, he does seem to have mellowed a bit over the years.

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I didn’t even mention the killer robots and bounty hunters that he regularly sends after Spidey | Marvel Comics

Character and Philosophy

Although Spider-Man’s personal life is often turbulent and complex, his work as a crime fighter and the philosophy he brings to the work he does is both extremely simple and extremely idealistic. Both are perhaps a reflection of his relative youth and the fact that he started his crime-fighting career in his mid-teens.

As someone who was motivated to become a vigilante due to a loved one dying violently through, at least in part, his own inaction, it’s not at all surprising that Peter Parker is motivated by an enduring sense of guilt. This would have been further reinforced by the loss of Gwen Stacey, who was killed by Norman Osborn. This appears to manifest itself through a saviour complex where Peter is determined to always save everybody, becoming distraught when he fails to do so, even in situations where he was not even directly involved.

Peter Parker firmly identifies as a ‘lawful good’ character in terms of alignment. That’s not to say he’s perfect though. In fact, Peter even briefly considered becoming a criminal since that would be far more lucrative, and everyone hated or feared him anyway. However, what’s important is that he quickly realised how empty a threat that was, as being a villain simply was not in his nature. Maintaining the trust of the public remains one of Peter’s most difficult challenges, with everyone from citizens to police to other heroes still apparently ready to always believe any negative rumour they hear about Spider-Man despite a record of over 15 years of crimefighting to prove the opposite. Ironically Spider-Man’s villains are the only ones who have always believed that he was a hero (and a highly frustrating one at that) no matter what the media or anyone else said.

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Sucks when the only people who believe you are your enemies | Marvel Comics

But while the haters and self-doubt can get to him, his strong sense of morality and duty will always make sure that no matter how many times he gets knocked down, he’ll always get back in the fight. So, when any of the Boroughs are under threat, New Yorkers can always count on their friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man to help save the day — even if they aren’t always particularly glad to see him.

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Here comes a Spider-Maaaan | Sony Pictures/ Marvel Studios

Updated Date: Jul 06, 2019 09:26:21 IST