Peter Parker: The Relatable One

Peter Parker: The Relatable One
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From billboards in New York’s Times Square to toy stores, book shelves and even music stores, Marvel Comics’ flagship character seems to be everywhere as fans await the latest Spider-Man movie. However, Spider-Man’s enduring popularity has little to do with his ability to climb walls, his super-human strength, or his somewhat creepy-yet-cool costume.

Fans have loved Spider-Man because he has trouble paying his rent. He was not the most popular guy in school and does not always get the girl. Comic book readers have followed the web-slinger for so long because his very human alter-ego is Peter Parker, who struggles with the same everyday life issues as everyone else. He’s just like an everyman. Batman had his secret identity but Bruce Wayne was a millionaire. Superman had his alter-ego (Clark Kent), but he was still Superman.With Spider-Man, he had his aunt nagging him, he had to get through school, he had to deal with his life, he had to hold down a job. He almost seemed like a regular guy. Here’s a guy who, while swinging from building to building on his way to fight Doc Ock , is also thinking, “Oh man, how am I gonna pay the rent tomorrow?'”.

Before Spider-Man’s debut in 1962, the two most popular comic heroes at the time were Batman and Superman. Both heroes and their contemporaries were portrayed as godlike . There was a distinct line drawn between the heroes and the people they protected. Lee and original Spider-Man artist and co-creator Steve Ditko smudged that line when their human wall-crawler made his debut in Marvel Comics’ Amazing Fantasy No. 15. Lee, who had success in creating The Fantastic Four in 1961, had wanted to unveil an unlikely hero who did not fit in with the Supermen and Batmen of the comic book universe, and saw an opportunity in the fledgling Amazing Fantasy series.

Readers were introduced to Peter Parker, a shy, highly intelligent, bullied teenager who lives with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben. Peter is a high school outcast, the butt of many jokes perpetrated by popular jocks and an object of scorn among girls. A lonely orphan, Peter has only two friends: his aunt and uncle. Life changes for Peter when he goes on a school trip to a laboratory and is bitten by a radioactive spider. He finds that he has super strength and the abilities and senses of a spider. He soon embarks — secretly — on a part-time career in entertainment as “The Spider-Man,” making appearances on shows after school. However, after one of his appearances, “The Spider-Man” refuses to stop a robber eluding a police officer. This thief would later kill Peter’s Uncle Ben in a burglary, prompting the grief-stricken teenager to devote his life and his powers to the fight for justice. Spider-Man learned a lesson that his Uncle Ben tried to teach him shortly before Ben’s death:

“With great power comes great responsibility.” – Ben Parker

From the beginning, readers clearly saw Spider-Man’s humanity and vulnerability. Even with his powers, he could not protect his loved ones from harm and was not immune from the hardships of daily life — two long-running themes of the Spider-Man comic books. Readers saw a bit of themselves in Spider-Man. With Batman and Superman, both characters made a conscious choice to use their powers for good, to devote their lives to fighting evil. Superman was born with his powers and Batman devoted his life toward avenging the murder of his parents. Peter Parker became a superhero by accident. He’s 15 to 16 years old, unpopular in high school, he has acne, he’s got a lot of problems. To a certain extent, he had no choice in that his powers were a gift thrust upon him. We can all be Peter Parkers, it feeds into our typical fantasy of wanting to escape our characters. We’d all like to escape our characters sometime and be someone else.

Tony Stark, battled alcoholism in the 1970s. Bruce Banner was not only the victim of a gamma ray explosion who happened to always find himself in situations where his enemies would anger him and trigger his transformation into The Incredible Hulk. In stories written in the late 1990s and 2001, it was revealed that Banner was the victim of child abuse and had a lot of suppressed anger. Marvel Comics really gave birth to the idea of heroes with personal problems. It became a signature of the characters who came out of Marvel — The Fantastic Four, The Hulk … they all had personal problems. Even longtime characters became more human. In D.C. Comics, more stories found Clark Kent wondering whether Lois Lane loved the mild-mannered Daily Planet reporter or his Man of Steel secret identity. After Spider-Man, everyone recognized the formula that Stan Lee figured out, that to make the character in costume more compelling, you have to make the alter-ego as much, if not that much more interesting. You have to show the human side of the costumed character. You can’t have the character in costume always have the victory well in hand because that situation gets played out after a while.Spider-Man has shown that comic readers want their heroes superhuman, yet flawed. Readers turn to heroes for escapism, but they also want a dash of reality. Spider-Man reflects the longtime appeal of the flawed hero.

Much of the dash of realism in Spider-Man is rooted in its setting. Superman and Batman protected the fictional cities of Metropolis and Gotham, respectively. Peter Parker is a New Yorker who lived in Queens as a teenager and later moved to Hell’s Kitchen as a struggling freelance photographer in his adult years. Many readers can identify with the real-life situations he encounters in a real city. That is why Spider-Man was the first character who directly addressed the Sept. 11 terror attacks in a storyline, not a specific tribute comic that featured only art. That issue, Amazing Spider-Man No. 36 was one of Marvel Comics’ best sellers last year. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko made such a compelling cast of supporting characters and a prolific world for Peter Parker to live in. Spider-Man is set in the real city of New York, and he has to deal with a set of real problems you would encounter in a city. We’ve seen him grow from a teen to now in his late 20s. He’s had trouble finding an apartment, holding a job, getting a girlfriend and maintaining a relationship, getting married, and losing a wife, all the things everyone can identify with. Spider-Man also changed the way teenagers were portrayed in comics. Before his debut, teenagers were mainly sidekicks to stronger, more dominant heroes and they rarely had an entire book devoted to them. After Spider-Man, writers found that teenagers could be leading heroes, producing titles such as D.C. Comics’ Teen Titans, The New Mutants in Marvel, solo series for Robin and Batgirl. And they did not have to be built like Greek gods. Peter Parker’s newly acquired super strength did not translate into a super physique.

Spider-Man’s youth may have been part of his appeal to many young readers in the turbulent 1960s. The civil rights movement was in full swing, and television screens were bringing the horrors of the Vietnam War into America’s living rooms. Comic book readers both found an escape in — and empathized with — the web-slinger as he cracked jokes and talked trash while battling villains and worrying about how he could keep his extracurricular activities hidden from Aunt May. When Spider-Man came along in the ’60s, there were a lot of kids entering college who had a hard time finding their identities, what cause to get involved in. There were a lot of internal problems in this country, with the civil rights movement going on. A lot of kids continued reading comics after entering college, which is unusual since most teens stop at that time. Doesn’t angst take something away from a hero? Perhaps too much angst and humanity can turn a superhero into a super wimp. I think it makes them into bigger heroes. We live in a world where cynicism runs wild. You wouldn’t think a fireman was less of a hero because you see him going home to his wife and kids. It gives you a sense of what he’s fighting for when he’s out there.

Spiderman is the perfect superhero in my eyes. His combination of storytelling and real life situation are unmatched in comics. When you love a character as much as I do you may or may not have named your only son after him.

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