Monday, September 7, 2015

Best Character Ever 11: Spider-Man

On this Labor Day, I figured there was no better time to talk about Spider-Man.

Romita's swinging Spidey is still one of the character's most iconic images.

Let's be honest, here's no greater working class hero than Spider-Man. Of course, Marvel dropped that element of him years ago to replace him with another super-amazing Marvel scientist, but his media appearances still understand the importance of his working class Queens background.

I grew up nowhere near New York, deep in the Midwest. I was raised in a tiny Iowa town, the kind of place books and movies would call sleepy. Smallville was a city compared to the 3000 person community I spent the first ten years of my life in. But despite that background, I had a love for superheroes from my earliest memories and a show called Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Iceman was my true favorite of the show because I thought ice slides were cool (pun intended). I am pretty sure I had my first crush on Firestar. But Spider-Man was the one with his name on the title card.

I really loved the Lobo brothers.
Art by Sal Buscema. Click for larger view.
By the time I was nine, my brother was regularly buying all three Marvel Spider-Man books at that time: Amazing Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man and Spectacular Spider-Man. All three books shared a narrative, but the second two were incredibly closely tied by sharing a writer in Gerry Conway. Along with his artists Sal Buscema and Alex Saviuk as well as the Amazing creative team of Dave Michelinie and Todd McFarlane, Spider-Man entered what I would call his last great renaissance in comics. Newly married to Mary Jane Watson, his wife and him found themselves at the mercy of a crazed businessman turned stalker that crippled their finances, evicted them from their home and got Mary Jane blackballed from her modeling career. Spidey was at his lowest point, only having a home because of the generosity of Harry and Liz Osborn.

I could understand it all perfectly at nine years old. I got being poor as my family never had much money. I could see how someone could be obsessed by Mary Jane and saw stories about corrupt businessmen seemingly daily on a dozen different TV shows. (Yes, it was a cliche even then.) I groked Peter's struggle because it was something I could relate to, even if I wasn't regularly fighting super-powered were-gangsters or helping my friend stay alive against an Albino hitman. I never wore an alien costume or had to fight to keep New York free from a citywide demonic possession. But I could always get Peter Parker.

I think that more than great power and great responsibility, more than his catching thieves just like flies, more than every variation of his origin, is what makes Spider-Man a truly special character. He was someone that no matter how hard life treated him, he always strove to do the right thing.

Alex Saviuk was always my Spider-artist,
making me the weird(er) kid.
Click for larger view
Spider-Man's influence on the superhero landscape cannot be under-estimated. Outside Superman, no one character did more to change the narrative of superheroes in the 21st century. Half the Marvel Universe is built around the storytelling cues first put together by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Even DC got in on the inspiration with books like Firestorm, Blue Devil and New Teen Titans. Comics became as much about the tribulations of everyday life as about the crazy super villain this month.

Even my own characters owe tons to Spider-Man. I always wanted to write characters with more depth than the comics I grew up upon. Even after that late 80s golden age of Spider-Man, I learned a lot about prose superheroics from Diane Duane's excellent Spider-Man: The Venom Factor. (They also served to show how easy it was to make Mary Jane useful, something modern Marvel might have took note of before any Mephisto based retcons.)

Of course, Spidey continues to be a frequently seen character in all Marvel media with his own TV series, two different movie franchises and a third on the way as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

All for a kid from Queens with a sense of responsibility. Not too shabby.

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