In the year 2012, it’s hard to imagine Spider-Man as anything but your archetypal comic book character with the superpowers and iconic status that has seen him rated as the third greatest comic book character of all time by IGN. However, taking a look at Spider-Man’s first appearance in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15 shows a character unlike any other up until that point in comic book history.
Context is an important thing to consider when doing a litmus test on Lee and Ditko’s introduction of Spider-Man. Up until that point, Captain America’s sidekick Bucky Barnes and Batman’s boy wonder Robin were the two star teens of the comic scene. They were analogues for young readers to escape into the fantasy world of comics without having the pressure of daily life knocking on the door of reality.
Spider-Man came along and kicked down that door by being the first relatable everyman – a teenager that had everyday problems and questions about life that mirrored adolescent America. Stan Lee, always shrewd and able to recognize a cash cow, convinced Marvel Comics publisher Martin Goodman to give the character a chance in a market dominated by uber-confident super men who didn’t know the meaning of self-doubt or not getting the girl.
Lee, a great storyteller for his generation, made Spider-Man relatable with his conversational narrative technique that brought out the human side of Peter Parker, reminding readers that the heart of a teenager was beating underneath the costume – that Spider-Man was as much Peter Parker as he was masked super hero.
While it’s hard to say whether anyone was doing this sort of storytelling at the time, The Amazing Spider-Man defined this storytelling device by getting the reader inside the mind of the lead character better than any comic before it. This was a game changer in comic book storytelling that backed up Lee’s claim that Spider-Man was “the hero that could be you.”
That included being a bit self-absorbed because of his new powers and what they could do for him. Peter Parker was a good kid, but – like any teenager – was prone to poor decision making. For this, Peter paid the ultimate price for ego-tripping and not stopping the soon-to-be killer of his Uncle Ben.
The Amazing Spider-Man brought a cold, bracing shot of reality to the fantastical world of comic books at a time when the status quo saw the good guys invariably win. Here, Lee and Ditko brought readers a character with human failings that would create true emotions and feelings absent in comics.
This DNA, crafted by Lee and Ditko, remains in Spider-Man’s character to this day, despite the numerous writers that have come and gone over the fifty years readers have bonded with him. No matter who was writing Spider-Man, it has been almost impossible to stray from those strong fabrics woven into his make-up.
Consider issues #121-122 of The Amazing Spider-Man. A decade after Spider-Man’s creation, Gerry Conway, writer of the arc The Night Gwen Stacy Died, created another watershed moment for Spider-Man by showing the loss and tragedy that can befall super heroes. DC Comics caught up a decade or so later in a very ham-fisted way by offing Jason Todd, the second Robin.
The big difference between how the two story arcs were executed (no pun intended) goes back to the essential DNA and make-up of Spider-Man versus Batman, or any other super hero of the time for that matter. In Spider-Man, Lee created a character built for the realities of life that simply could not be duplicated in relatable, emotional ways with a character like Batman.
Getting back to the heart of this look at Spider-Man, it’s hard to argue with the sheer innovation and freshness of comic storytelling achieved by Lee and Ditko in creating Spider-Man. It’s difficult to see this in a comic landscape that often seems to become grittier and more realistic by the day, but take a trip back into 1962, and it’s easy to see how imaginative and daring Spider-Man was for comics.
One of the most fascinating aspects of arguing for the innovative impact of Spider-Man comes from Bradford W. Wright’s 2001 publication Comic Book Nation, where he cites a poll taken by Esquire magazine in 1965 of college students ranking Spider-Man alongside Bob Dylan and Che Guevara as revolutionary icons.
While Spider-Man may appear as part of the status quo in comic books today, a simple trip back in time with a little history lesson should convince even the most skeptical critic that Spider-Man’s iconic stature and popularity are because Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. They truly were ahead of the curve by throwing a real-life character into the fantastical world of comics and never letting the reader forget he was one of them.