Amazing Spider-Man vol. 2, #46 © 2002 Marvel Comics. COVER ART BY FRANK CHO.
Spider-Man is easily the most widely recognized character in Marvel Comics' four-color pantheon, and has been an American pop-culture mainstay for more than four decades. He was a radical departure from the staid conventions of the comic-book superhero of the 1950s—a teenage character that wasn't relegated to sidekick status beside an older, more experienced hero. Creators Stan Lee (editor-scripter) and Steve Ditko (artist-plotter) loosed Spider-Man on an unsuspecting world in 1962 in Amazing Fantasy #15, portraying a scientifically brilliant but socially maladroit teen named Peter Parker—a high-school everyman—who receives a fateful bite from a radioactive spider during an atomic science demonstration. Parker consequently finds himself in possession of the proportional abilities of an arachnid, including heightened strength, speed, agility, the ability to cling to walls and ceilings, and a precognitive
spider sense that alerts him to approaching dangers. Using his inborn scientific talents, Parker synthesizes a unique adhesive
web fluid—though superstrong it dissolves after an hour's exposure to the open air—and builds a pair of wrist-mounted web-shooters that enable him to shape the webbing into various useful forms. He also designs and sews the web-festooned red-and-blue costume that would quickly become
Spidey's most visible trademark, and a ubiquitous sight along Manhattan's skyline (hence the immortal and oft-repeated tag-line,
Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man).
In addition to possessing superpowers atypical for his era—heroes with arthropod-like abilities were relatively uncommon in the early 1960s—Spider-Man also departs from the background typical of other
long-underwear characters. Instead of hailing from another world like Superman, inheriting millions like Batman, or having the godlike advantages of Wonder Woman, Spider-Man is essentially an ordinary guy whose alter ego lives a basically normal life prior to gaining his extraordinary abilities. Co-creator Lee has described him as
an orphan who lived with his aunt and uncle, a bit of a nerd, a loser in the romance department, and who constantly worried about the fact that his family barely had enough money to live on. Except for his superpower, he'd be the quintessential hard-luck kid. He'd have allergy attacks when fighting the villains, he'd be plagued by ingrown toenails, acne, hay fever, and anything else I could dream up. However, Lee's publisher Martin Goodman wasn't initially receptive to the idea of a teen hero taking center stage, nor did he want to accept Spider-Man's neuroses, romantic deficiencies, and chronic concerns about money. Goodman also thought that the audience would be repelled by the character's spider motif. Fortunately, Lee's instincts prevailed; Spider-Man's debut in Amazing Fantasy was an immediate and resounding success.
From the beginning, Spider-Man's behavior deviates significantly from the prevailing superheroic norms as well. Instead of selflessly dedicating his superhuman gifts to crime-fighting or the general betterment of humankind, the newly empowered Spider-Man cashes in on his talents by becoming a television celebrity. After his first performance before the cameras, he refuses to bother to stop a robber from stealing the television station's studio box-office receipts. During the days that follow, Spider-Man's fame grows, though Peter Parker wisely keeps his identity concealed. But his world abruptly collapses a few days later when a burglar murders his uncle, Ben Parker, leaving Peter's Aunt May a widow (Ben and May Parker had raised young Peter after the boy's parents, Richard and Mary Parker, died while performing espionage on behalf of the U.S. government). The grief-stricken Spider-Man tracks down Uncle Ben's killer, collaring his first criminal—only to make the horrible discovery that the murderer is the very same robber he'd allowed to escape from the television studio.
My fault, a tearful Peter Parker soliloquies after catching the killer.
All my fault! If only I had stopped him when I could have. But I didn't—and now—Uncle Ben—is dead Spider-Man's debut story closes with a somber narration that permanently sets the series' moral tone:
And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility!
Although Spider-Man's one-shot comics
pilot in Amazing Fantasy #15 soon led to an ongoing series that began with The Amazing Spider-Man (abbreviated ASM) vol. 1 #1 in March 1963, the eponymous character immediately became integral to the ever-burgeoning
Marvel universe as well, interacting (and sometimes exchanging blows) with such mainstays as the Fantastic Four, that group's Human Torch (another teen hero), Daredevil, and the Incredible Hulk. Spidey also quickly developed a colorful, soap opera–worthy supporting cast of his own, including: the rabidly anti-vigilante Daily Bugle newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson; girlfriend Gwen Stacy (to be replaced later by hipster
party girl Mary Jane Watson following Stacy's untimely death); high-school jock bully Flash Thompson, who would later become part of Parker's circle of friends; college roommate Harry Osborn; and a roster of costumed adversaries such as the Chameleon; Mysterio; the Tinkerer; the Vulture; Doctor Octopus; the Sandman; the Lizard, Electro; the Enforcers; the Green Goblin; Kraven the Hunter; the Ringmaster and His Circus of Crime; the Scorpion; the Beetle; Spencer Smythe and the Spider-Slayers; Crime-Master; Molten Man; Master Planner; the Looter (later known as the Meteor Man); and the Kingpin. Like most of the superheroes of his time, Parker takes great pains to conceal his secret crime-fighting life from everyone around him; he is largely successful, despite being unmasked on more than one occasion. Stacy's father (NYPD Captain George Stacy) and Watson also figure out his secret on their own, but keep it to themselves. In 2001, even Peter's Aunt May discovers his secret.
Parker is beset by chronic personal and financial difficulties from the outset, such as having to earn enough money to pay his ailing Aunt May's medical bills; she had been poised at death's door virtually from the beginning of The Amazing Spider-Man, and even experienced
fake deaths on two notable occasions. For many years, Peter Parker earned the money he needed to keep his aunt alive by selling photos of himself in action as Spider-Man (taken surreptitiously with an automatic camera, usually webbed to a wall) to his unsuspecting newsprint nemesis, Jameson. But Parker's earnings are barely sufficient to keep body and soul together, let alone properly maintain his Spider-Man costume; on one memorable occasion (Spectacular Spider-Man magazine #1), Parker had to make do with a knock-off Spider-Man uniform borrowed from a costume-shop window; on another (ASM vol. 1 #258, November 1984), he had to wear a paper bag over his head—and a Fantastic Four uniform lent to him by the Human Torch—while waiting for his Spidey suit to dry in a public Laundromat. Despite the myriad mundane problems Parker faces, he generally approaches life—and crime fighting—with an upbeat attitude and a sly sense of humor that often manifests as wisecracks delivered in the midst of battle.
As The Amazing Spider-Man developed through the 1960s, the series distinguished itself with a sense of moral ambiguity that the vast majority of its contemporaries lacked; thanks largely to the inflammatory editorials of The Daily Bugle's Jameson, Spider-Man spends many years as a fugitive from the law, though all the while he is attempting to do good in the world. Spidey's reputation isn't helped when he is blamed for the death of George Stacy, who had actually been killed by Dr. Octopus (ASM vol. 1 #90, November 1970). The wall-crawler's first ongoing series is also unusual in that Parker and his supporting cast are not completely frozen in time in the manner of many competing comics. Issue #28 (September 1965) presents Parker's high school graduation. By issue #31 (December 1965) he begins his physics studies at Empire State University, where he meets Gwen Stacy, the first major love of his life, who would later be slain by the first Green Goblin. By issue #185 (October 1978), Parker graduates from college. And in ASM Annual #21 (1987), Parker marries the second great love of his life, Mary Jane Watson; in an alternate universe first glimpsed in What If? vol. 2 #105 (February 1998) and explored more thoroughly in the monthly Spider-Girl series (which debuted in October 1998), Parker and MJ eventually have a daughter named May
Mayday Parker who inherits Dad's powers and takes up the family business of costumed crime fighting.
Steve Ditko, the artist who originated Spider-Man's characteristic lean,
spidery look, left the series with issue #38, after which penciler John Romita took over the illustration chores, adding a dash more realism to the character's still-developing milieu and greatly affecting the look of the rest of the Marvel line as well (Romita eventually became the company's art director). It was Romita who provided the visuals for Spider-Man's climactic battle with the first Green Goblin in 1966, which broke another long-standing superhero taboo—both characters learn one another's secret identities (the Goblin is really Norman Osborn, the industrialist father of Parker's college roommate, Harry). Issues #96–#98 (May–July 1971) broke more new ground by portraying substance abuse by Harry Osborn. Although these three comics (written by Stan Lee and illustrated by Gil Kane) weighed in negatively on illegal drug use, the subject matter was sufficiently ahead of its time to prompt the Comics Code Authority (an industry self-censorship board) to withhold its seal of approval.
Many other Spider-Man artists and writers followed in the creative footsteps of Lee, Ditko, and Romita throughout the 1970s, including such scribes as Gerry Conway, Len Wein, and Marv Wolfman, and such illustrators as Gil Kane, Ross Andru, and Keith Pollard. Even prior to this period, Spider-Man was already a fast-expanding franchise, unable to be contained between the covers of a single monthly publication. Not only had the character crossed over into numerous other Marvel titles (this
shared universe was always one of Marvel's most appealing features), but he spun off briefly into a large-format magazine titled Spectacular Spider-Man, which lasted only two issues (July and November 1968). Spidey's frequent crossovers with other Marvel characters led to a bimonthly title dedicated to this idea, Marvel Team-Up, which began in March 1972 and ran for 150 issues. The debut issue teamed Spider-Man with the Human Torch, and the series eventually paired him with nearly every high-profile character in the Marvel universe (the series was replaced by the Web of Spider-Man monthly series, which started in April 1985; Marvel Team-Up had a second incarnation, an eleven-issue run that began in September 1997).
A new monthly series called Spidey Super Stories, intended for younger readers, began publication in October 1974 and lasted for fifty-seven issues. As the 1970s continued, Spider-Man's adventures expanded into a fourth ongoing comic series (a monthly intended for the mainstream Spidey audience) titled Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man (later shortened to The Spectacular Spider-Man), which debuted in December 1976 and ran for 263 issues. Marvel parodied the character in such series as Not Brand Echh (1967–1969) and Peter Porker, Spider-Ham (a bimonthly that began in May 1985 as part of Marvel's kid-oriented Star Comics line). Spider-Man even left the confines of the Marvel universe itself when he took part in the first crossover between the heroes of Marvel and DC Comics in the large-format (
treasury-sized) Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man (1976), which heralded several more eagerly-anticipated intercompany crossings during the next several years. By April 1978, an unrelated character (Jessica Drew) became the star of Marvel's monthly Spider-Woman series, which ran for fifty issues and spawned two more brief series in the 1990s.
Although Spider-Man's editorial teams blazed fewer new trails than did either the Lee-Ditko or Lee-Romita pairings as the hero gained increased exposure during the late 1970s and early 1980s, this era still enjoyed some high-quality stories. Roger Stern's
The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man (ASM vol. 1 #248, January 1984) is arguably the finest example. In this haunting, poignant tale, Spider-Man reveals his closely guarded secret identity to a young fan. It isn't until the last panel that readers discover the reason for this revelation—it is a gift to a child who is fated very soon to die from a terminal illness.
Spider-Man's most significant departure from tradition came more than two decades into his run. ASM vol. 1 #252 (May 1984) garbs Peter Parker in a new, black-and-white costume, which he acquires on a distant planet during the large-scale multi-hero/multi-villain twelve-issue Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars crossover miniseries (May 1984 through April 1985). This living costume, which supplies its own web-fluid and morphs itself into street clothes in response to Parker's thoughts, turns out to have its own evil, manipulative intellect. After Parker realizes that the symbiotic costume is controlling him rather than vice versa, he discards it; the jilted costume subsequently
possesses a former newspaper reporter named Eddie Brock. The costume and Brock—whose reputation was smeared after he had falsely accused Spider-Man of being the serial killer known as the Sin-Eater—join forces to settle their respective scores with the wall-crawler as Venom (ASM vol. 1 #300, May 1988). Venom resembles a supermuscular version of the black-and-white-clad Spider-Man, with the addition of hundreds of razor-sharp teeth and a long, prehensile tongue. This creature subsequently becomes one of Spider-Man's deadliest recurring villains. Venom also gives rise to the villain Carnage, who comes into existence when a piece of the symbiotic costume bonds with a deadly convicted killer named Cletus Kasady (ASM vol. 1 #361, April 1992). Carnage subsequently comes into conflict with both Venom and Spider-Man on several occasions.
Another significant, if temporary, change Spider-Man experiences occurs during what is popularly known as the
cosmic Spidey saga, which ran in Spectacular Spider-Man #158–#160 (December 1989 through January 1990, written by Gerry Conway and penciled by Sal Buscema), Web of Spider-Man #59–#61 (December 1989 through February 1990, written by Gerry Conway and penciled by Alex Saviuk), and ASM vol. 1 #328 (January 1990, written by David Michelinie and illustrated by Todd McFarlane). In this arc, Parker's accidental exposure to an unknown energy source at an Empire State University lab increases his power-level by orders of magnitude; Spider-Man soon discovers that he possesses hyperacute senses and can shoot devastating blasts of force from his fingertips. However, Spider-Man also learns that with this even greater power comes even greater responsibility. A cosmic struggle to prevent a superpowered robot called the Tri-Sentinel from causing a meltdown at a nuclear reactor ultimately bleeds off Spidey's excess power, restoring him to his
normal Spider-powered self.
The title that launched Spider-Man into the 1990s was called, simply enough, Spider-Man, and debuted in August 1990. Spider-Man showcased the writing and illustrations of fan-fave artist and Spawn originator Todd McFarlane, whose eye-grabbing, rococo style drew unprecedented fan attention to the character. Particularly noteworthy are the detailed renderings of
Ditko-esque poses and the ornately braided
spaghetti webbing that flow from Spidey's web-shooters. The first issue of Spider-Man also inaugurated Marvel's soon-to-be-ubiquitous practice of releasing a single comic book with multiple covers, a marketing maneuver that arguably appealed more to collector-speculators than to readers; nevertheless, that issue set a benchmark for sales, pumping more than 3 million copies into direct-market comics shops and newsstand venues around the world, a record that wouldn't be broken until the new X-Men title premiered the following year. November 1992 saw the release of the first issue of Spider-Man 2099, part of a group of titles set in the Marvel universe of the late twenty-first century. This future Spider-Man, whose real name was Miguel O'Hara, received his powers—which included a biologically extruded webbing that anticipated Sam Raimi's cinematic wall-crawler by a full decade—as a result of exposure to genetic-engineering treatments. Spider-Man 2099 was published monthly until August 1996 (issue #46). Spider-Man Unlimited began its quarterly, twenty-three-issue run in May 1993, part of an aggressive Spidey publishing program that lasted throughout the 1990s, even though comics sales in general softened greatly as the decade wore on. Numerous limited series, graphic novels, and reprint collections continued to appear throughout this period.
One of the biggest shakeups in Parker's 1990s adventures was a story arc commonly known as
the clone saga, which began in the Spidey comics that bore October and November 1994 cover dates. This arc reveals that Peter Parker is actually a clone of Spider-Man made way back in ASM vol. 1 #149 (October 1975) by the Jackal (Miles Warren, one of Parker's college professors), while the real Peter Parker—who had been mistaken for a clone thought killed in an explosion along with the Jackal—returns in the guise of Ben Reilly (a combination of Ben Parker's first name and May Parker's maiden name). (ASM vol. 1 #150 [November 1975] had established that the
Peter Parker left standing had never definitively learned whether he was the clone or the original.) After Reilly (a.k.a. Parker) returns to New York, the clone Peter Parker decides to leave behind his Spider-Man identity, allowing Reilly to take over as Spider-Man. This controversial development is regarded by many critics as one of the most significant editorial missteps in Spider-Man's checkered history because it was confusing and repudiated two decades of settled continuity. The story arc was finally undone by the later revelation that Reilly was, in fact, not the original Peter Parker; the entire situation had been engineered by Norman Osborn, the original Green Goblin, who was back from the dead (Spider-Man #75, December 1996). Rather than committing wholesale revisionism on the Spidey milieu as the
clone saga had, Untold Tales of Spider-Man (a twenty-five-issue series, beginning in September 1995) instead embroidered the existing web-slinging legend. Written with obvious respect and affection by acclaimed comics scribe Kurt Busiek, these stories were set very early in Spider-Man's timeline,
between the panels of the earliest Lee-Ditko stories.
Every superheroic icon that endures for several decades is bound to accrete an unwieldy amount of backstory, and Spider-Man is no exception. In an effort to
scrape off the barnacles, Marvel broke with tradition yet again by ending The Amazing Spider-Man's run with issue #441 (November 1998), as part of the
Final Chapter Arc, which continued in Spider-Man #97, Spectacular Spider-Man #263, and Spider-Man #98 (the final issues of those venerable series as well), preparatory to a controversial
reboot of the character. In Spider-Man: Chapter One (which began in December 1998), writer-artist John Byrne—renowned for his complete rewrite of the history, origin, and powers of DC's Superman a dozen years earlier—updated Spider-Man's origin story, as well as his first year as a spandex-clad crime fighter, to mixed reactions. January 1999 saw the start of Peter Parker, Spider-Man, a new ongoing series, as well as the first issue of volume 2 of The Amazing Spider-Man, the revival of Spider-Man's flagship title. This series has run parallel to a reboot in Ultimate Spider-Man (which debuted in October 2000), in which writer Brian Michael Bendis retells the entire Spidey saga from a beginning moved up to the 2000s.
The Amazing Spider-Man vol. 2 #36 (December 2001), written by J. Michael Straczynski (the creator of the Babylon 5 television series) and drawn by John Romita Jr., dealt with Spider-Man's reactions to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center, thereby gaining national media attention. Consistent with his
everyman viewpoint, Spider-Man sees the non-superpowered police and fire personnel who risked—and lost—their lives during the catastrophe as the real heroes of the day. The carnage of September 11 forces Spider-Man to honestly confront the limits of his ability to thwart evil.
Now more than four decades into his existence, Spider-Man is still going strong, both as a storytelling vehicle and as one of the enduring icons of American popular culture. The principle new storylines can be found today in Amazing Spider-Man (vol. 2) and Peter Parker: Spider-Man. Reacting to the glutted, depressed comics market of the late 1990s, Marvel's editorial staff has taken great pains to ensure the quality of these titles, as well as producing several well-executed ancillary ones, including Ultimate Spider-Man (the previously referenced retelling of older tales from the Spidey canon); Tangled Web, whose stories emphasize offbeat perspective on various events and characters from Spider-Man's lengthy past; and a second Spider-Man Unlimited comic, which essentially replaced Tangled Web in 2004 and spotlights talents new to producing Spidey stories. High-profile writers who have signed exclusive contracts with Marvel to write about the enduring superhero include Straczynski and Kevin Smith, writer, producer, and director of such cult-classic films as Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy. With ASM highly popular and Ultimate Spider-Man releasing eighteen issues annually as of 2004, the wondrous wall-crawler clearly shows no sign of slowing down. And thanks to the mass exposure achieved by Raimi's 2002 megahit film Spider-Man and its many merchandising tie-ins, there is now no dearth of highly motivated Spidey readers. Although today's Spider-Man titles sell at nowhere near the multimillion-copy levels that characterized McFarlane's 1990 Spider-Man premiere, Marvel's friendly neighborhood forty-something arachnid is clearly not about to hang up his webs any time soon, nor lose sight of the awesome responsibilities his powers bring.