We all know the story. Or at least, we all should know. It was plastered on the big screen on no less than two occasions, plus all the comics and TV shows. Peter Parker was an Ordinary High School Student. But when he went to that science lab and got bitten by a radioactive spider, he gained the proportionate strength, speed, and agility of a spider, plus a sort of sixth-sense that allows him to detect danger (dubbed "spider sense"). At first, he did what any real teenager would do: He used his powers to make money. But when his Uncle Ben was murdered by some random jerkhole whom Peter could have stopped earlier, Peter decided to take his Uncle Ben's admonition that "With great power there must also come great responsibility," and use his powers to help people. Thus, Spider-Man was born!
My bold declaration in the title of this post may have many of you wondering. Surely the lowly Spider-Man is not the world's greatest superhero? Does not that title belong to Superman? What about Captain America, or even Batman? Let me assure you that I stand firm in my conviction. Superman may be the world's most well known ("iconic") superhero, and Batman and his associates may be my personal favorites, but Spider-Man is still the best. Why? If you want a really good reason, go to Comics Alliance and find Chris Sims' article on the subject. My take, however, is a bit different. The thing about Spider-Man, about Peter Parker, is the whole "With great power comes great responsibility" thing. It may sound clichéd, but it is in fact pretty original. Spider-Man was the first real superhero that Stan Lee and co. actually wrote. The Fantastic Four were more like a team of adventurers, and the Hulk was just a rampaging monster, but Spider-Man was genuine superhero, when the superhero comic was still relatively young. I could go on about how this reflected Marvel and DC's differing modus operandi, but I'll leave that to Mr. Sims. The point here is that Spider-Man was specifically setting out to help people. Not to ruthlessly target crime like Batman, or to routinely save the world and circumvent disaster like Superman, though he has done that. He doesn't even do it to fight supervillains, though he does that a lot. Spider-Man's core purpose is to use his powers responsibly, and to him, that means helping people and doing the right thing, no matter what.
Of course, this trait alone is not enough to make Spider-Man the greatest superhero in comics. At least, not without elaboration. When Spider-Man was created, he was, as mentioned, an ordinary high school student. A teenager. Back in the day (that is, 1962), it was a pretty novel idea to have a teenage superhero headlining his own book. Before that, teenagers and other younger characters were seen as only worthy of being sidekicks. (Stan Lee, for the record, hated sidekicks.) When Spider-Man became unexpectedly and outrageously popular after first appearing in Amazing Fantasy #15, pop culture became awash in teenaged heroes, so much so that the character has become even more clichéd than "With great power comes great responsibility." (On a side note, it was also a pretty novel idea to have the story being set specifically in New York City, as opposed to some generic, made up metropolitan area.) The point is that Spider-Man does what he does, the right thing, no matter what, in the context of having to deal with all the normal problems that teenagers have. And by normal problems, I mean the feeling that everyone reading this got as a teen that the world's out to get them. The genius here, however, is that for Peter Parker, he has actual life-threatening situations to counterbalance perceived life-threatening situations. He's got midterms, girl trouble, an ailing aunt, adults who hate him for some reason, money problems, the whole nine yards, plus criminals, killers, supervillains who have a personal fixation on killing him, the media, and the general public, who all hate him.
The thing is, though, the things going on in his personal life are generally a lot more stressful and angst inducing for Peter than Kraven the Hunter trying to drive a spear through his torso. Just like a real teenager would. A real teenager, if granted the power of Spider-Man, would get cocky and have fun, like Spider-Man does. Chris Sims notes that Peter Parker's activities as Spider-Man is a way for him to "cut loose" and relax. That's why he cracks jokes, makes fun of his enemies, and relishes in hand-to-hand combat with unabashed glee. This is made abundantly clear in Ultimate Spider-Man when Peter decides to quit being Peter Parker, having come to the conclusion that everything's fine when he's Spider-Man, and that it's his personal life that's giving him all the trouble. Of course, this leads to an imbalance in his life as Spider-Man, nearly leading to disastrous consequences from neglecting his personal life. All of this makes it even more important to remember that whenever Spider-Man is despairing over a battle with his villains, stuff just got real. Because normally, an episode of Spider-Man's crime fighting adventures is another exciting interlude in the personal drama of Peter Parker's hapless mundane life. He doesn't have Batman or Iron Man's lax, luxurious secret identity, or the sheer, raw power and charisma of Superman. Peter doesn't even have a team of super-powered buddies to help him out every now and then (except when he does, such as when he's serving with the Avengers). And yet... he does the right thing. Because of all of this, Spider-Man is the first superhero to ever achieve something that all previous superheroes had not: He was able to make the reader relate to him.
Most importantly of all, however, is that Peter Parker does not stay an angsty teenager. He grows up. He matures. He lives life. He falls in love.
Spider-Man's greatness is also helped by the fact that he has, as Mr. Sims has observed, the best supporting cast in comics. Aunt May, Mary Jane Watson, J. Jonah Jameson, Harry Osborn, Gwen Stacy, Captain George Stacy, Flash Thompson, Robbie Robertson, and all the rest of them. And while not having the best rogues gallery around (that honor goes to Batman), he does have a quite memorable set of villains, including the Green Goblin, Doctor Octupus, Venom, Sandman, and the Vulture. I'd go on, but it's a bit beyond the scope of this post.
As hard to believe as it may seem, I've actually been into Spider-Man a lot longer than I've been into Batman. I remember borrowing the 2002 Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie from my Aunt when I was a kid, though my parents wouldn't let me watch it until a couple of years later. I still have fond memories of that movie, the original Raimi film holding a special place in my heart, kind of like Jean-Paul Valley. I remember pouring over Spider-Man: The Ultimate Guide, which, I'm sad to say, is the only exposure to the original comics that I've really had. (The originals are on my list, don't worry!) This in turn led me to read Ultimate Spider-Man, which I read faithfully until Prelude to Death of Spider-Man. I intend to return to it later, but I was thrown for a loop by certain plotting decisions that the esteemed Brian Michael Bendis made. On the other hand, it's worth noting that TVTropes refers to Ultimate Spider-Man #1 as the beginning of the Modern Age of Comics. I just find it difficult to believe that 10+ years worth of comics happened in a little over 1 year. They didn't even show the seasons changing! But I'm getting off track...
I've only read a little bit of the main continuity Spider-Man (such as the woefully messy Spider-Island crossover.), and I don't think much of the new stuff. I've been wanting to check out Scarlet Spider and the original stories, plus The Superior Spider-Man, which I heard was good, but I haven't had much interest in reading post-One More Day stuff. Then again, Chris Sims has gone on record saying that Brand New Day initiated a long overdue shake up in Spider-Man's status quo, but we'll get back to that later.
Spider-Man has appeared in many other media besides the many comic book series, with two movie series, multiple animated series (one of which I wrote a review on in the early history of this blog, The Spectacular Spider-Man), a short-lived live action television series, and even a Broadway musical! For the record, Marc Webb's The Amazing Spider-Man was decidedly underwhelming, and I haven't heard good things about its sequel, leaving me hesitant to embrace it.
A final question must be addressed concerning the topic of Spider-Man: If Spider-Man is, in fact, the greatest superhero in comics, then why do I prefer Batman and associates? I guess it's because the Batman mythos harbors another character similar to yet very different from Spider-Man: Tim Drake. I'm primarily a DC man, and I'll always cast my sword with Batman and his associates in that regard. I like Batman, Tim Drake's Robin, and Jean-Paul Valley's Azrael because they've got this edge to them, this "cool" factor. Spider-Man may be more fun, but Batman is more cool. Nevertheless, I'd like to make clear that Spider-Man is really the only Marvel hero that I've ever particularly liked. I intend to get into Thor later, and maybe Captain America, but for now, Spider-Man is my only hero at Marvel. But perhaps that will change someday. In the meantime, Thwip!
Image courtesy of designyoutrust.com