Thursday, June 17, 2021

There's Never Been A Hero Like Spider-Man


A few months after his introduction as a feature in Amazing Fantasy, the character of Spider-Man received his own series in March of 1963 and went on to become one of Marvel's most successful flagship super-heroes. Very different from the other heroes who had appeared on the scene, Peter Parker epitomized writer Stan Lee's efforts to establish the characters of Marvel Comics' titles as "the kind of characters I could personally relate to; they'd be flesh and blood, they'd have their faults and foibles, they'd be fallible and feisty, and--most important of all--...they'd still have feet of clay."

For Peter Parker in particular, the character was doubly hampered by real-life concerns and problems, as Lee explains in his conception of the character from his 1974 book Origins of Marvel Comics:

"...[H]e was probably the first superhero to wear his neuroses on his sleeve. The poor guy is far more troubled than most of the characters he has to battle. And how many other superheroes are there who have to worry about their dear old Aunt May dying of a heart attack? Come to think of it, have you ever heard of a superhero with continuing problems with his love life? ... We structured the series in the pattern of any daytime radio soap opera, and miraculously we seem to have made it stick."

The Amazing Fantasy story certainly gave readers a fair idea of what they were in for with this character, even if at the time the Spider-Man tale was only a one-shot in a mag which was scheduled to be cancelled with that issue. In high school, Peter was an honor student who excelled in aptitude and studying, yet always miserable at being excluded from get-togethers with his classmates, a "bookworm" labelled as the school's "only professional wallflower" and a washout when trying to score a date. The accident which gave him his amazing spider abilities offered him an exciting new direction for his life--eventually turning to show business to capitalize on his powers, while resolving to take care of his beloved aunt and uncle but turning his back on those in school who always mocked him.

Yet fate deals a tragic blow to his life when he doesn't lift a finger to stop a fleeing criminal, only to later discover the fugitive had broken into his family's home and killed his uncle. Fortunately, fate also smiled down on Lee and Marvel, as reader reaction indicated they had a hit on their hands--and so with Steve Ditko continuing as the character's artist, The Amazing Spider-Man is launched, which picks up on Peter's life sometime after his uncle has been laid to rest and Peter and his aunt must now fend for themselves. As for the fame and fortune which appeared to be coming Peter's way as Spider-Man, Page One of that first issue tells us that the rave headlines which Spider-Man had enjoyed as a new media sensation have become a thing of the past.

(And the pain Peter must be in from those bizarre leg contortions can't be helping, Mr. Ditko!)

It's interesting to note how J. Jonah Jameson, who was not present in the Amazing Fantasy feature, becomes a fixture of the Spider-Man series from Page One. As we can see, Spider-Man is no longer the "sensation" that the media had originally regarded him in his brief show business career; on the contrary, public opinion has turned 180° and becomes the complete opposite of enamored, though we're not aware yet that the only face in this crowd of fists and accusatory fingers is JJJ himself, the publisher of the Daily Bugle. Lee doesn't explain in his Origins book his motivation for turning Jameson so viciously against Spider-Man from the very beginning (something more light would be shed on around the series' tenth issue)--but at least for now, it appears his purpose is to deal Peter setbacks in order to keep him more grounded and less celebrated than other heroes who have come out of the gate.

With his uncle Ben deceased, it turns out that Peter and his Aunt May have been left penniless, with no money to draw on to pay their bills. (Astonishing, considering how much Ben Parker obviously cared for his family.) It's only natural, then, for Peter to want to continue his performances in front of paying crowds--though with his employer preferring to pay him by check for tax purposes*, Spider-Man discovers to his dismay that it won't be possible to earn a living in his costumed identity. It becomes a moot point, however, as Jameson makes his first appearance already gunning for Spider-Man's head, going all out to incite the masses against him--while Peter, understandably confused by the antipathy directed toward him, becomes more frustrated by the day.

*Granted, there were other options to explore here. Making the check out to Cash on the pay-to-order line, for instance, would have allowed Peter to cash it (preferably at the bank that issued it) without exposing his association with or identity as Spider-Man.

His money-making options as Spider-Man at a dead end, Peter then strikes out at trying to find part-time work for himself.  But the down-on-his-luck teenager nevertheless attempts to help as Spider-Man when an emergency arises involving test pilot John Jameson, the son of the very man who is crusading against him throughout the city--a crisis put into motion when the guidance unit of John's orbiting capsule is lost, forcing the capsule out of control and certain to crash to Earth. Unfortunately, Peter will discover to his shock that hearts and minds haven't been changed by his efforts to save Jameson--not even the heart and mind of Jameson Sr., who doubles down on his efforts to bring down Spider-Man at all costs.

Which brings us to this issue's promotional feature: Spider-Man's purely financially-driven meeting with the Fantastic Four, which lasts barely over three pages but serves as the lead-in to his encounter with the disguise-shifting spy known as the Chameleon. As Peter mulls over approaching the FF (for all of five seconds), we still see a bit of the ego he was developing as a show business sensation, having had no exposure as yet in using his powers in heated battle situations which would in time season him and broaden his mind as far as using his powers to help others. Here, we find him grasping at his last straw in securing some sort of income for himself, though he fails to consider that the FF made their collective decision to "help mankind" for entirely different reasons than his own, while his hasty rationale in his appeal to them is flimsy at best: "They'll probably jump at the chance to have a teenager with super powers working with them!" Oh? Why would four super-powered people with an already full roster and on track to establishing a world-famous rep have reason to roll out the red carpet for him--to say nothing of subsidizing him?

As we can see, Spider-Man has inadvertently played into the hands of the Chameleon, who plots to steal more top secret defense plans and sell them to foreign countries. Luring Spider-Man to a prearranged location by the enticement of a profitable opportunity, the Chameleon has instead impersonated Spider-Man in order to set him up as the thief, while making a clean getaway with no one the wiser. But the same abilities in Spider-Man that allowed the Chameleon to make contact with him will now work against our spy.

The Chameleon's wily resourcefulness and his talent for shifting disguises at a moment's notice give Spider-Man a run for his money--but while he temporarily succeeds in discrediting his webbed adversary with the authorities, he manages to trip himself up in the end, and off to jail he goes. But the damage is done, with this story ending for Spider-Man in a way which will become a running theme for the character, a young man who feels dejected and a failure as he flees into the night.

With its combined page count of thirty pages, Lee and Ditko's story has done a fair job of fanning renewed interest in a character who had already premiered to receptive readers and was now on his way to becoming a bona fide hit--published bi-monthly at first, but christened in crossing the line to monthly status by that issue's guest-star, Doctor Doom. Yet it would be the Vulture, debuting in issue #2, who would bear the distinction of being this title's first "super-villain"--an appropriate choice, since it's apparent that the amazing Spider-Man is going nowhere but up from here.


Big Murr said...

In New Avengers #7 (2012), "Luke Cage's" Avengers discover they are getting pay cheques (courtesy of the newly-appointed Steve Rogers, Head of SHIELD)(I think).

It worked once, let's run with it again! (and who knows how many times in-between)

Spider-Man does not receive a cheque because he refuses to divulge his secret-identity. Compared to 1963, there are so many more options to get the man his money, but they're ignored or glossed over in the spirit of making Spidey a Schmuck With Lousy Luck.

For a double-twist, in the 1963 issue, the Fantastic Four are flabbergasted-outraged at the idea of earning a salary. The Thing scoffs that Spidey has rocks in his head. In New Avengers the Thing comments on his Avengers' cheque "This is better than my Fantastic Four pay."

Comicsfan said...

That brings back memories of the Thing's brief period of wealth, Murray (courtesy of J. Michael Straczynski, if memory serves)--something Ben was happy to experience at the time, but which he either relinquished or cut loose in some other way. (I really don't recall--it came and went with Straczynski's run on the book, probably.) I don't see Peter Parker inheriting anything anytime soon--I think the closest he got was during his marriage to Mary Jane when she was living the life of a supermodel.

Big Murr said...

Ah, never discount the wacky whirl of comic plotting, CF. About ten years ago in Amazing Spider-Man #648, Peter Parker finally gets a job using his genius brain. When he receives his first paycheque from Horizon Labs, Peter's eyes go wide and he whispers "Oh..sooo many zeros..."

I stopped collecting ASM at the end of the "Horizon Labs Arc". Spidey makes enough guest appearances and crossovers that I gleaned Peter had left Horizon to form "Parker Industries". Since the Fantastic Four were AWOL, he bought the Baxter Building for his corporate headquarters. And, further hints and snippets show Peter's time being a peer of Tony Stark is over and he's back to sharing a flat with two roommates.

Anonymous said...

I'd never considered it, but even superheroes need walking-around-money. Wasn't the standard line that brainiacs like Richards and Pym made cash off scientific patents? What about the rest of them? I imagine Stark and/or the government bankrolling the members of the Avengers. Otherwise, how was the Beast gonna hang out in clubs all night in a leisure suit without some folding money?
I would assume the F.F. all had their own bank accounts. The Thing's gotta have money for the deli. I can see that getting kinda spendy. The Torch was a car guy. That ain't cheap.
I seem to remember Kyle Richmond paying everybody's bills when he was (or so he considered himself) the leader of the Defenders, and complaining about it on a regular basis. But who can blame him.