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12 Elements of Spider-man (Part 1)

by  in Comic News Comment
12 Elements of Spider-man (Part 1)

When Spider-man works, when all the thematic and visual elements that have been used in the character’s past are used correctly, and together, he’s the greatest American super-hero ever.

Well, at least my Spider-man is. And this post is about my Spider-man, a list of elements of the Spider-man hero myth that are now or have been elements of the character, and the twelve elements that resonate with me most strongly the reasons I think Spidey’s the greatest.

So while this piece is purely opinion, I’m gonna try to lay the facts backin’ my case down clearly enough that it will, by the time I’m done with part two, also serve as a defense of Spider-man as the greatest hero ever.You’re free to disagree, of course. 😛 You’re even free to tell me about it. So let’s fire up our… um… web-shooters and our Spider-mobiles, and DAMMIT, Stan Lee makes these inspiring sounding introductions sound so easy!

Letsus just get started.

1) Spider-man Is An Everyman

It’s not just that Spider-man is beset on all sides by woes marital, financial, physical, and emotional. That’s part of it, certainly. And make no mistake, the pure variety and scope of the problems that Peter Parker encounters make for entertaining reading. And certainly this provides an instinctive empathic bond between the character and those members of an audience who are likewise beset with a constant stream of problems.

(IE damn near all of them.)

Spider-man has regular day-to-day hassles. (He can’t pay the rent.) Spider-man has soul-rendering angst type problems. (Usually current-girlfriend and Aunt May related.) Spider-man has problems unique to being Spider-man. (Ah! I need to change my costume without my roommate seeing me!) AND there’s the matter of that dude in a grizzly bear costume try’nto kill him dead. You might excuse the late, lamented Unca Cheeks analysis that Spider-man is the first superhero to really suffer. Maybe, but to concentrate solely on the suffering is to mss the point of the character by a wide margin. It’s certainly true that Spidey tends to write himself off as the Charlie Brown of superheroes, BUT, it’s equally true that he also has his fair share of triumphs and happy endings. Aunt May’s all right after all, he gets the girl and the Green Goblin’s dumped back in jail.

Well written Spider-man stories duplicate the rhythms of day to day life, full of both small triumphs and large tragedies and vice versa. Peter Parker’s fictional life has more has more variety, richness, and scope to his life than any other superhero. He has a job, he has girlfriends, he has family that he regularly interacts with… and more on all of those later in the 12, I guarantee ya.

Spider-man might not QUITE be the hero that could be you, but he’s the hero who’s life can be just as crazy-weird as yours. He’s never quite in control of any situation, and things don’t always turn out OK in the Spider-verse, but that just makes his perserverence in the face of little obstacles as well as big ones all the more admirable.

2) Spider-man Improvises:

Sure, there’s more super-hero types more powerful’n Spider-man. Most of them, in fact. And certainly some of them have a stronger knack for inventive genius or battlefield strategy. But none of ’em are quite as adroit at thinking on their feet in the middle of pitched combat as Spider-man. Ferinstance:

Amazing Spider-man # 29: Spider-man is faced for the second time with the Scorpion, an opponent comparable to Spider-man in speed, and demonstrably greater in sheer power, due to his mysteriously long, cybernetic appendage.

No, no, no you pervs. His TAIL.

In fact, the Scorpion has a whole suit designed to increase his power and pretty much eliminate his chances of getting hurt, even from a barrage of Spider-powered punches. Realizing that he’s outclassed in the whupass department Spider-man does what the title says. He uses his environment and keen observance of the green garbed meany’s weaknesses to beat him, wielding the twin Greek elements of sky and water. After getting smacked around by Scorp for nigh-on half the book, Spider-man hangs back and uses the greater range of his web-shooters to temporarily (but only temporarily) imprison his enemy. Now to the outside observer this might seem like putting a band-aid on a decapitation, but Spider-man improvises, dammit! Next, via web-shooters and some nearby buildings, Spidey takes to the air… Dragging the scorpion behind him. NOW if the Scorpion frees himself from the Spider-web he’s got a couple hundred foot drop to contend with. Still, this ain’t a permanent sort of affairs, and Spidey’s gotta land sometime. So both Spider (Willingly) and Scorpion (Quite unwillingly) head off towards the Hudson river, where an angry, confused, and above all dizzy Scorpion is unceremoniously dumped. Spider-man reasons (quite correctly) that the Scorpion suit ain’t built for aquatic mobility, and the dude IN the suit, bein’ just a regular joe*, can’t hold his breath for as long as Spidey, Spider-man lets the poor Scorpion wear himself out before webbing him up and hangin’ him out to dry. He wasn’t more powerful than his enemy. No-way, no-how. And he didn’t even have TIME to formulate a plan before bein’ Scorpioned upside the head. THis was a purely mental triumph. (And, hey, here’s another theme that we’ll be returning to in the future.)

*  Or, as it turns out, not.  Apparently, except for his tail, the Scorpion’s powers were all natural.

Want More? Here’s my very favorite example:

Spider-man # 45: Spider-man’s been fighting the Lizard for a few issues and has, quite simply, been getting his hinder handed to him, repeatedly. Not only is Lizzy a notch up on Spider-man in terms of sheer power, he’s the Lizard’s caught himself a case of the Spider-man equivalent of Werewolfism. Most of the time he’s regular, mild-mannered scientist Curt Connors, sometimes he’s scaly and green and out for world conquest. So, anyway, after being whumped around for a while Spider-man catches the Lizard on the East-Bound train, trying to free the reptile exhibit that’s being moved from the Brooklyn Zoo to Philly. Outclassed by an opponent he really doesn’t want to hurt and surrounded by slimy, slimy snakes, Spider-man lures his opponent into a refrigerator car… And BAM! Cold Blooded lizard bilology takes over, and the Lizard passes out to sleep. This also aptly demonstrates Spidey’s scientific knowledge, a point which’ll be quite relevant a little later.

(Note: Actually the cover to # 44, here, which (A) I like better than 45, (B) is part of the same storyline, and (C) the Grand Comic Database had a better scan.)

Superman has the powers to deal with any situation. Batman is prepared for any situation. The Thing perseveres against his enemies through sheer willpower and gumption. But Spider-man rarely has the time to plan, and he’s cursed with a rogues gallery that’s almost to a man more powerful than he. So, more’n any other major super-folk, Spider-man has to improvise.

3) Spider-man Is Funny:

You guys are so out of fashion. I mean, the whole evil twin thing went out of vogue years ago. Just be glad you’re not clones. Because I’m telling you right now, if I ever see a clone again, I’ll throw it off the nearest bridge. Thus making an obscene clone fall.

He’s not the first superhero to let loose a wisecrack whilst lambasting some unfortunate bank robber about the head, but until Spider-man came along, comic superheroes were Henry Youngman. (“Take My Wife. Please.”)

OX (Enforcers) Trying to crush SM: “Dis is da day DA OX makes a name for hisself!}
Spider-Man:
“What was wrong with the old one? Too hard to spell?”

Spidey is George Carlin, or Ricard Pryor. He unleashes whole routines, on his hapless adversaries. This is another example of Spidey’s improvisatory ability to adapt to any situation but, more importantly…

(To the Kingpin) You got any more henchmen or did you eat them already?

Ha! Bwahaha even! Most superhero fiction is routed in enjoyable escapism, and featuring a hero with a playful and easy way with words is simply fun, fun, fun for the audience. And I’d wager for the writers as well. A little later we’ll look at how his verbal nature defines how Spider-man is. But first, a bit of a counterpoint.

4) Spider-man Is Creepy:

He’s funny and happy go lucky, sure, but there’s something that just ain’t quite about a dude who crawls up and down sheer surfaces on all fours. And, heck, there’s plenty of people who are none to fond of Spider’s anyway, a fact duly noted by Spider co-creator Steve Ditko. Happily, the inherent creepiness of Spider-man’s ppowers played to Ditko’s greatest strength as an artist, an ability to conjure subtle menace and eerie disquiet t. And while this aspect of Spider-man has been lost at times, even by artists all-’round apt as Ross Andru and Gil Kane, there’s been several who GOT it, too. Todd Macfarlane did a fine job of recapturing the “Not quite human” aspect of the character, and John Romita Jr. aptly delineates a shadowy and darker Spider-man. Spidey’s a comedian, sure, but isn’t just the whacky, web-swingin’ wall crawler, he’s also two impossibly wide inhuman eyes starting out of the darkness, and the repetitive “Shuck…. Shuck…. Shuck….” Of his feet on the wall. Makes you identify with J. Jonah Jameson a little bit, and definitely makes you forgive any pickpocket who ends up in Spidey’s web a speedy and unexpected bowel movement.

5) Spider-man Is a Scientist:

Toldja we’d get back to this. Spidey’s a scientist, and, in fact, Spider-man’s whole milieu is defined by science, albeit science derived from the pulp version of same. (Read: Contains precious little ACTUAL science.) Heck, you could re-title the original Spidey comic “Mad Scientists at War” and you’d be tituarily correct 99% of the time. His origin is based in science. His best friends are often scientists, and most of his enemies have held a beaker in one hand and shouted “It’s ALIVE!” during an electrical storm in AT LEAST one point in their lives. seems like the This gives Spider-man an interesting and unique power dynamic, separate from virtually all other Marvel heroes. Power, in Spider-man’s world, is more mental than physical, and mental power dominates physical might. If we take a look at Spidey’s rouges gallery, muscled up thugs like the Rhino are considered relatively minor threats when compared to the self made geniuses like the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus. And, as we saw before, brain power can also net you a Lizard! On a similar note, I was quite impressed by Ultimate Spider-man scribe Brian Bendis’ integration of the “Mad Scientists at War” theme with the origin of Venom, replacing the, well, completely-UNSPIDEY magic costume from outer space origin. Nice t’see someone get it.

6) Spider-man Is a Social Construct

Now, I’ve heard certain unfortunately misguided Spider-fans argue that “Spider-man is, by nature, a loner.” “Horsefeathers,” sez I, followed by a hearty guffaw. In fact, how ’bout you go back and re-glance at number two above, ’cause this bit is almost a direct continuation of what we talked ’bout up there. Now it’s POSSIBLE that you could argue that Peter Parker is by nature a loner and not be too far off the bullseye, factual accuracy-wise, although I’ve got even that argument in my rhetorical sights for next time.

But Spider-man? Naw. Spidey’s only REALLY Spidey when he’s got someone to talk to. And he talks with a completely different voice than Peter Parker. Spidey’s the laughing, happy go lucky one and Peter’s the mopey angsty one, and neither are the “real” man and neither is an act. They’re two seperate aspects of Peter Parker’s personality, an’ he feels most comfortable expressing one of those aspects when he’s Spider-man. However, when Spider-man is alone he most often goes back to his worrisome Peter Parker voice, as we used to be able to tell before Marvel decided to ditch the thought balloons. Spidey, by his nature, is kind of a ham and needs someone around to laugh at his jokes, be they friend or foe.
Or, from a storytelling standpoint, Spider-man is jes’ about the most purely VERBAL hero around, and as well over 200 issues of Marvel Team-up (First through Third Series), Giant Sized Spider-man, Marvel Team-up annual, Spider-man Team-up, Ultimate Spider-man Team-up, and Marvel Age Spider-man Team-up demonstrate, his verbal nature works spectacularly well when he’s given other heroes to play off of.

So Spider-man isn’t a loner, folks. In fact he’s got more friends than…. But nah. Gotta save something for next time, when we look at Spidey and the Media, Spider-man and free will, and Spidey and Joseph Cambell.

*MarkAndrew Clears his throat*

So we’ll see y’all next time, and in the immortal words of the Man

Ex-Cel-Si *HICCUP*

Dang. Stan makes it look so EASY!

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