You’ve awoken one morning to find that things don’t feel quite right. You’re experiencing unusual feelings inside, something you can’t find the words to describe quiet yet. This sticky, white substance seems to be coming out of you. You just can’t explain it. You feel isolated and trapped, and yet you feel like you can’t talk to anyone about it. You feel like if you were to admit that something just isn’t right with you, then you’re putting yourself at risk. Exposing yourself somehow. Well, let me ask you this. Were you bitten by a radioactive spider recently? Because you might just be Spider-Man!
What? You though I was describing something else?
Spider-Man is a monumental figure in comic book history, and a pop culture icon the world over. First appearing in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962. The figure of Spider-Man was first introduced to us in the guise of Peter Parker. An outcast, described as “midtown high’s only professional wallflower” [Lee & Ditko.1962:01] by his classmates and peers. Living with his elderly Aunt and Uncle Ben. Peter’s life is forever altered when he is bitten by a radioactive spider. He suddenly develops unearthly abilities, his body is changing, and when his uncle is gunned down by a criminal Pete let get away. He adopts a red and blue costume, and the moniker of Spider-Man!
His creation in the 1960s is unique for the fact that the story starred a teenager in the role of hero, rather than just that of a side-kick. The resistance to such an idea can be seen, even in the fact that he was introduced in the final issue of a dying title. “The grand melodrama was offset by Lee’s snappy patter, Ditko’s stunning costume design, and, once again, the primary-colour palette choices of Stan Goldberg, who selected for Spider-Man’s costume a combination of cherry red and dark cobalt. None of these details mattered to Goodman, who cancelled Amazing Fantasy immediately” [Howe.2012:042]. Spider-Man’s status as a teenage superhero allowed him to connect incredibly easily with comic’s primary audience. Children and Teenagers. While other heroes, such as Batman, Superman, and Mr. Fantastic were heroes they could grow into, or look up to. Spider-Man was one of them. Perhaps for this reason, the origin of Spider-Man doubles as a very vivid, and descriptive metaphor for puberty. If an ordinary kid like Parker can get through it, so can they.
As described by Darren Hudson Hick in his essay, Horror in Long Underwear, “Stan Lee and Steve Ditko did the ‘50s horror movies one better, combining the horrors of radioactivity with the horrors of adolescence. In the event that you’ve sugar coated your memory of puberty, or simply forgotten what it’s like, for most teenagers every morning promises new horrors” [Hick.2006:09]. Prior to the inciting incident of the spider bite, Peter is considered the lowest of the low to his classmates. An ordinary, unremarkable, dorky kid, with a slight flair for science, but no real appeal to those around him. Particularly that of the opposite sex. He is essentially babied by his doting Aunt and Uncle at home, even dressed as though his clothes are picked out for him. A plain vest, shirt and tie, which is especially distinct compared to the more casual and colourful clothing of his classmates. Isolated from his peers even in appearance. The fateful event that lead to the spider bite, is even proceeded by a failed attempt to ask out, and being turned down by, his classmate Sally. Losing out to the clearly more mature and confident Flash Thompson. Basically, his transformation is triggered by an interest in the opposite sex.
The bite causes within him strange unearthly feelings. In the comics case, his Spider Sense. To others, he begins to appear in a somewhat more mature light. His clothing begins to slowly evolve. Showing more personality than parental constriction. Eventually, he develops a method of producing fluid through his own means. In the comics, this is mostly due to his own intellect, while in real life, this would be seen as the discovery of masturbation and self-pleasure. Both actions primarily involving the use of hand gestures. The Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy [Raimi.2002 – 2007] makes the metaphor far more explicit when the webbing becomes organically produced. The organic webbing was also briefly adopted by the comic books in the mid-2000s. It’s undeniably clear however that this was no accident on the part of Lee and Ditko.
The first in Raimi’s trilogy perhaps compounds this the most, by distilling the origin down to its most basic ingredients. With the addition of the organic webbing of course. Peter’s sense of self-gratification and satisfaction is undeniable. Gaye Birch of the Den of Geek draws particular attention to the first films primary romance. Particularly drawing attention to the first kiss shared by a semi-masked Peter, and a now safe from harm Mary Jane. “Whose first mid-puberty romances (if we can even call them that) were much more than flimsy, faltering attempts at something most of us had little skill at, and even less courage? That a first kiss was experienced upside down may not be the exciting atypical take some would take it for, but have a plainer explanation: that even that kiss was half-assed and backward. Intentional or not, the way Spider-Man the movie tackled romance captured that aspect of the half-assed crap of puberty pretty remarkably, when viewed through that particular peephole. At the very least, all this gives added meaning to tingly sensations and great responsibility being a necessary companion of great power, (or risk creating little companions of one’s own)” [Birch.2010].
Hick compares Parker’s origin with that of Franz Kafka’s novella, The Metamorphosis [Kafka.1915]. In short, the story follows Gregor Samsa, as he finds himself transformed into a giant insect. His body changing, an inability to communicate, and falling into a deeper and deeper depression, until he eventually dies. His family feeling an overwhelming sense of relief at his passing. With Peter, his body does indeed change, though not as drastically or dramatically as Gregor. His inability to communicate stems from a lack of understanding as to what is happening to him, and a fear for what would happen if people were to find out. His resulting depression is that despite gaining these abilities and sensations, his overall life is going from bad to worse. A feeling that many teenagers going through puberty can heavily relate to.
When gaining these abilities, Peter takes on a whole new identity. That of Spider-Man. During this tumultuous change in his life, he reinvents himself as a quick witted, fast moving, colourful figure, who is above all, a MAN. He presents to the world an ideal version of himself, and his naming is a heavily conscious choice. As Danny Fingeroth states in Superman on the Couch: What Superheroes Really Tell Us about Ourselves and Our Society, “DC’s Legion of Super Heroes chose an adult name for themselves but most of its members has a ‘Boy’ or ‘Girl’, ‘Lad’ or ‘Lass’ suffix to their hero names. They were independently functioning, but always gave the sense of being an after-school club, officially sanctioned by some off-panel principal or the PTA. They were an adult’s fantasy of what well-behaved super teenagers would be like” [Fingeroth.2004:145]. This new, carefree face Peter puts on for the world, is undeniably that of a man. While he goes through his puberty, he puts on the face of someone who has already completed it. To those around him, or those he’s saving, he’s not just getting used to his abilities, he’s not untrained. He’s confident in them. Fully grown. Though if they could hear his inner monologue, they’d realise he was just as scared and confused as any other teenager. “A teenager who nonetheless still feels he has to disguise his youth completely with a full-face mask and to add the suffix ‘Man’ to his chosen public persona – his advent was truly a status quo shattering event” [Fingeroth.2004:140].
Semiotics, the practice of studying signs [Chandler.2017], tells us that by simply hearing the name ‘Spider-MAN’ we expect a fully-grown man to be in the position. Had Peter named himself ‘Spider-BOY’ or ‘Spider-LAD’, he would be forever tied with the idea of a child. One that still needs to grow, and still needs guidance. The very image of his classic red and blue costume would forever embody the idea of a child, even if his name changed in time. For example, the first Robin, Dick Grayson, decided to leave his old moniker behind, feeling that he had grown out of it. In Tales of the Teen Titans #44 [Wolfman & Perez.1984] during the Judas Contract storyline, Grayson reappears as Nightwing, a name inspired by a story told to him by Superman, of a Kryptonian legend known as Nightwing and Flamebird. With this new name, Dick also needed a new costume. To simply change one’s name was not enough. The red and green costume still carried the association of the name and child that is Robin. A role that has now been taken up by several other people, all sporting a similar costume. These new Robins have no need to hold a press conference, or send out a pamphlet declaring themselves the new Robin, the costume gives it away. If Spider-Man had established himself under a younger sounding name, he would find himself haunted by childhood. A reminder to himself at every turn that he’s still not an adult. The last thing you want to hear when your going through puberty. Or even as a full-grown adult, reminded of struggles you’ve already overcome.
Speaking of costumes, the fact that he does indeed wear a mask helps to compound his own feelings towards his age and status. As mentioned in The Superhero Costume: Identity and Disguise in Fact and Fiction by Barbara Brownie and Danny Graydon. “As Peter, his concerns are emotional and intellectual (family, friends, relationships), but as Spider-Man he is devoted to his physicality” [Brownie & Graydon.2016:034]. The literal and figurative face he presents to the world, hides his fears and insecurities, while bold and heroic. Battling through this time in his life as though it was just another day, when in reality, he could very well be losing his mind, without anyone seeing it. Further explored by Hick, “an adolescent’s body is an out-of-control thing – changing shapes, sprouting hair, and forever breaking out in pimples. The mirror is rarely the teenager’s friend: just when he’s most concerned about looking his best, the teenager is cursed to look his absolute worst” [Hick.2006:09]. The mask not only allows him to hide his pain and struggle, but even the natural imperfections of simply going through puberty. A secondary benefit it seems. To Peter, his mask is also a way for him to channel his anger and frustration during this confusing time, as a hero in the eyes of others. A much-needed ego boost at a fragile point in time. “Through time and across civilizations, the mask has had much power and magic associated with it. African and South American shamans and priests wore ceremonial garb to perform their rituals, often with a mask as part of their costume. Clearly, the mask in such cases is not intended to fool anyone as to the identity of the wearer. It is simultaneously intended to make the wearer special and nondescript, the Everyman raised to the level of interlocutor with the holy. The mask is recognized as bestower of power as well as disguiser of identity” [Fingeroth.2004:051]. This is perhaps most evident in the film The Amazing Spider-Man by Marc Webb [Webb.2012]. In which during a scene where Spider-Man is attempting to rescue people on a bridge, he uses the majority of his strength to pull a falling car back up to safety. The only person left inside, is a young, frightened child. However, Spider-Man can’t reach him without letting the car fall. He tells the kid to climb up, but he’s too afraid to move. In the moment, Peter removes his mask, revealing to the boy that he himself is just a scared kid underneath. A little older, but still very much afraid. He throws down his mask to the boy, and tells him to put it on. Telling him, “it will make you strong” [Webb.2012].
Peter’s struggle to cope with the hardships of growing up, and his tales of navigating everyday life, resonates deeply with his audience. Through reading Spider-Man and following his struggles across multiple titles, the reader essentially experiences a form of catharsis. “Catharsis is a form of emotional cleansing, brought about by an indirect exposure to one’s fears and anxieties. Catharsis is not a matter of soothing fears, but of engaging them so that we can look them in the eye and walk away unscathed. Readers experienced through Spider-Man what they feared experiencing themselves” [Hick.2006:14]. This catharsis is particularly strong with teenagers going through these struggles, or children preparing themselves for it. As well as bringing back memories for the adults retroactively reliving their own experiences through the stories. In Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Spider-Man series [Bendis.2000-2011], he takes full advantage of this by focusing primarily on Peter in his high school days through almost the entirety of the series run. Making clear allusions to the parallels of puberty, particularly when it comes to Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane, Gwen, and the other women in his life. Including his female clone. During the second issue of the book, aptly named ‘Growing Pains’. In the middle of class, Peter finds himself overcome by strange urges and feelings. Not helped by the fact that the art clearly shows his fixation on the lovely red head, Mary Jane. In a moment, his strength freaks out as his body unconsciously reacts, breaking his desk. Despite the knowledge that he has super strength, and could inevitably take down all of his class bullies, the moment still leads him to be the butt of their jokes, and an overall sense of embarrassment. In Transforming English with Graphic Novels: Moving toward Our ‘Optimus Prime’ [Carter.2007], J. Carter explains conversations with his own students about the book in question. “Ultimate Spider-Man Volume 1: Power and Responsibility (Bendis) is a variable metaphor for puberty and teenage angst as Peter Parker undergoes rapid changes in attitude, appearance, and social status. […] The older students often experience a time warp back to their middle school and high school days, which they say the book accurately portrays, and my sixth graders have been more than willing to enter into long discussions about how they empathize with Peter now that they have left the comfort of elementary school and have entered the “big time” middle school universe” [Carter.2007:50].
Spider-Man as a character has endured due to his ability to connect with his readers. His origin resonates with us on a compelling level, and while he’s moved on from his high school day. Now the head of Parker Industries. We still read through Peter’s everyday struggles with life. For a teenage perspective, we now have Miles Morales, the half Black, half Latino, Ultimate Spider-Man [Bendis & Marquez.2014 – Present]. As well as the alternate reality Spider-Gwen [Latour & Rodriguez.2015 – Present]. Even through 50 plus years of adventures, at the end of it all, Spider-Man is still an ordinary kid, trying to navigate the confusing feelings, and unusual biology of life.
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