To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first appearance of Spider-Man, we thought we’d rerun this recent piece, as it gets to the heart of why Spider-Man is such an enduring character for science fiction/fantasy readers.
The best part of an 8-year old’s perusal of the Sunday newspaper is certainly catching up on the funny comics, the gem of the entire lot often being the 3-panel Spider-Man by Stan Lee. Most of us don’t remember the action or the plots, no more than we remember the jokes in the other strips, but there is one thing a lot of us probably noticed: when Spider-Man/Peter Parker talked to himself, we saw ourselves.
Why does Peter Parker appeal to so many geeks? Because he’s one of us.
Arriving smack-dab in the middle of the Silver Age of comic books, Spider-Man represented a departure for superheroes that wasn’t limited just to the presence of a hyphen in the middle of his name. (Multiple interviews with Stan Lee indicate that the hyphen serves no real purpose other than to distinguish Spider-Man from other “men” like Batman and Superman.) Instead of having the superhero be someone kids and teenagers could aspire to be, Peter Parker was essentially the super-hero that they already were in their own minds.
It’s stated outright in Parker’s first appearance that he’s a wallflower, someone who keeps to himself and doesn’t engage in the social activities that Flash Thompson, Liz Allen, etc. consider to be normal. Some of that is just because Peter is far more comfortable exploring other things, focusing so intently on his interest in science that he just doesn’t pay attention to rote interactions or how he dresses. And in his own head, why should he? His aunt and uncle love him and he spends his brainpower pondering over equations and how to make web-like polymers that entire corporations full of scientists have never been able to produce. His high school peers are too mundane for the world Peter has created for himself.
Outwardly, Peter is an abberation and he is regarded with suspicion, pity, and violence. This pressure from without only serves to make Peter retreat further into the world he’s built, the world that accepts him. Which only serves to further baffle his peers. What is wrong with him? Why can’t he act normal?
Because he’s a geek. He’s a hobbyist who is actually really into science. Peter Parker isn’t just an awkward outcast; he’s smart to an extent that separates him from the kids around him. He’s capable of understanding the ramifications of the spider bite that changed him forever because of his specific scientific curiosity, which is in contrast to other similar heroes. As great as they are, Superman and Batman never seem all that interested in science. Their research and knowledge are simply a means to an end. This notion was woven into the origin of Spider-Man in all incarnations and it demonstrates why so many of Marvel Comics’ characters are so appealing; because they take something so specific, give it form, and show just how universal that experience is and just how one can use that experience in life to become something greater.
Further, the origin of Spider-Man doesn’t shy away from the negative aspects of being a geek. When you create your own worlds, when you study something so fiercely, plunge so deep into an expertise, that mastery becomes euphoric. It also becomes a defense mechanism. It’s easy to be ridiculed for clothes or some tiny behaviorial tick when your head is full of enormous thoughts. It’s easy, almost automatic, to consider yourself more exalted than others. Because the alternative, that you deserve the ridicule, that you are wrong, is too terrible to even contemplate.
So when Peter gains the ability to physically defend himself, that defensive sense of self-esteem becomes arrogance. He really is special now, he knows it, we know it, and suddenly a pressure that has formed him all throughout his life is gone. And what happens when you depressurize something? BOOM.
The consequences of that for Peter are well-known, and drive him to be the hero he is. This is where Peter Parker passes out of being a geek and becomes an icon: Spider-Man. Now, he’s something to aspire to.
A geek can see themselves in Peter Parker, and a geek can aspire to be a force for good like Spider-Man.
Chris Lough is the production manager at Tor.com and wrote the bits you liked about this article.
Ryan Britt is the Staff Writer at Tor.com and wrote the bits you liked about this article.