HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SPIDEY: Steve Wacker Discusses What Drives the Spider-Man

In the summer of 1962, the world was quietly introduced to a character who would go on to become one of the greatest pop culture heroes of all time. The pages of Marvel Comics' "Amazing Fantasy" #15 featured a story by the now legendary creative team of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko who told the tale of Peter Parker, a shy and bookish teenager endowed with super powers by the bite of a radioactive spider. Peter's selfish reaction to his newfound abilities led to him experiencing a tragic lesson about power and responsibility in the form of the death of his beloved Uncle Ben, and from that tragedy a new super hero was born: the Amazing Spider-Man.
Spidey's tragic origin resonated with readers, as did his everyman demeanor and experiences with both superheroic and real world problems. The wall-crawling hero would go on to become Marvel's flagship character, a success which continues to this day with the hero regularly appearing in several of the publisher's top selling titles. On top of that, Spidey has become a multi-media sensation, starring in blockbuster feature films, hit animated television series and a number of highly-acclaimed video games.

Simply put, Spidey is Marvel's most high profile character, and this year he's celebrating his 50th birthday in style with the release of a new feature film, the debut of a new show on Cartoon Network and several big comic storylines like the current "Ends of the Earth," the subsequent "No Going Back" storyline and the mysterious multi-universe spanning "Spider-Men."

Today CBR News does its part to honor Spidey's 50th birthday by kicking off a new feature where editor Steve Wacker joins us for a look at the various aspects of Peter Parker's life. We begin with a talk about what drives Spider-Man and the moments that have shaped Peter PArker into the hero he is today.

CBR News: Steve, Peter Parker became Spider-Man when he was bitten by a radioactive spider, but Spider-Man didn't become a hero until his Uncle Ben was tragically murdered by a burglar Peter let escape a previous crime he witnessed but didn't involve himself in preventing. Since then, guilt has been a strong force in Peter's life, but he has come a long way since then. So, is Spider-Man still primarily driven by guilt? Or does it not have as a big a hold on him as it used to?

Steve Wacker: I think it's his defining characteristic, overall. That's the big bang for Spider-Man -- the moment he lets his Uncle Ben down. It sort of defines the whole book. The reason the book was successful was because, arguably for the first time, we saw a character whose life as a hero put a cost on their regular life. They paid a price for the gift that they were given. To me, that's the whole ball game. The minute that goes away you've got a different character.

In terms of the status quo of the ongoing book, I don't think it's a good idea to have Peter get completely over that guilt that he feels about letting his Uncle Ben down. I think what makes him a great hero is that he's trying to make up for that fatal flaw every day. It's Greek drama.

It doesn't have the same grip on him that guilt does, but anger is another pretty powerful emotion in the life of Peter Parker. We've seen him driven by it during his encounters with characters like Norman Osborn/Green Goblin, Venom and others. How big is Spidey's temper and what triggers it?

I think injustice triggers Pete's temper. I think he has an immense sense of honor that is both aspirational and inspirational. It's probably impossible to achieve as completely as he'd like.

In terms of what part anger plays; it's a storytelling device. We need him to get angry sometimes when we're telling these stories. I don't think anger is one of the core elements of the character, and because of that when we do see him get angry -- it counts.

Right, it doesn't happen often, but when Spidey gets angry, he really loses his cool.

I think most people are like that. I think it's one of those universal characteristics that Stan and Steve tapped into. In real life, for the most part, I think it's unusual when people start yelling. That's why if you're on a train or in public and you hear yelling, your head turns. Because it's a shocking thing to hear, and that's why I think it's such an effective tool as a storytelling device for Peter Parker. When he does get angry, you know something is up. He's not like a Wolverine or a Hulk where it's like, "Oh it's page four. He's angry again." [Laughs]

While we're on the topic of anger and guilt let's touch on Spider-Man's "Nobody Dies" rule, which he adopted last year in the wake of a death of J. Jonah Jameson's wife, Marla. Was it guilt and anger that drove Spidey to adopt this personal code?

Yeah, I think writer Dan Slott was playing with the clay of the character; the same sort of guilt that's in the original big bang of the character with Uncle Ben. Dan played that with Marla Jameson, Jonah's wife, who died last year in a super villain attack. Spider-Man felt guilty, and because he's Spider-Man he felt guilty about something that really wasn't his fault. It's not the same as Uncle Ben, but he feels these things so deeply. He has such empathy for his fellow human beings and it led him to make a decision that, as long as he was around, no more people would die. Throughout the book's 50 year history, there have been a lot of people that have died around Peter Parker and he carries each death with him.

Thankfully, comic books are a fantasy because if as many people had died in your life as they have in Peter Parker's, you'd probably jump off a bridge yourself. I think "Nobody Dies" is Dan trying to bring that core of the character back to the forefront.

How rigid is Pete's "Nobody Dies" code? Is he setting himself up for failure?

The reason comic books and countless other stories exist is because characters set themselves up for failure. [Laughs] So this is part of a story. "Nobody Dies" is such a dramatic, impossible to achieve statement that it's going to come with a cost. That's what I think makes for a good Spider-Man story. You're always questioning, how long can this go on?

Being a costumed hero allows Peter Parker to protect people, but it also means he has to protect his identity. For a while, a spell cast by Doctor Strange helped protect his identity, but that spell stopped working because of the events of "Spider-Island." So how important is it these days for Spidey to protect his identity?

Pete's choice to put on that costume comes with an implicit risk. That risk is that everyone could find out [his secret identity] and the people he cares about would be in danger. Sometimes events move too fast for Pete, and that catches up with him. Ultimately, if he were worried about it that much, he wouldn't act as Spider-Man, but the push-and-pull is he needs to use his gifts to help people selflessly.

Right now, his identity as Spider-Man is sort of a self-fulfilling problem. He can't stop doing it because so many people count on Spider-Man, so he has to maintain his identity because if it gets out again, it's going to hurt everyone he loves. Spider-Man has done so much at this point to so many different people and they all would try and get revenge on him. However, if he feels like he has a duty and responsibility, he has to follow through on it. There's always a risk that he will be discovered and his life will come apart.

And that risk is the reason we read...

One of the reasons Pete lost his most recent girlfriend, Carlie Cooper, was he tried to keep his identity from her and she figured out. Did Pete take his relationship with Carlie for granted? Could he have trusted her with his secret?

I don't know if he took her for granted. He might not have taken into account her feelings as much as he should have. As for why that is, I just think that's sort of who Pete is. He can be scatterbrained. He can be somewhat myopic when he's got other things on his mind, and I think he underestimated the trouble she had gone through in her life.

The path she had gone through was that she was someone who had been betrayed by people close to her in life. Be it her father, or her best friend who ended up being a super villain. Then she finds out that her boyfriend also had this giant secret. It wasn't a little secret like a stack of "Playboys" underneath his bed. It was a huge, Avengers-level secret and I think Carlie is not a person who can look past her trust being broken.
In that sense, she's probably the sanest person in the book. Also, Slott didn't want to break them up just to get her out of the book. They just have a different relationship, now. She's a part of his life, helping him as Spider-Man. Somewhat reluctantly, but she's there. And we're going to see Carlie again in some of my other books like "The Punisher," where she's already made some appearances...and is even dating again. So she's not going anywhere.

Carlie may not be going anywhere, but Peter's Aunt May has. At the beginning of "Spider-Island," May and her new husband J. Jonah Jameson, Sr. relocated to Boston. In the past, when Pete was feeling down in the dumps he could go visit his Aunt and she would do her best to cheer him up. With Aunt May no longer a short web-swing away, who will Pete rely on now?

I think we're going to see more of Pete not knowing who to turn to. He doesn't have a ton of close people in his life. Harry is gone. Flash is Venom, which he doesn't know but it keeps him busy. Like you mentioned, Aunt May is gone. He does have this job at Horizon Labs with new people, and we haven't seen whether or not these people will become friends with Peter.

With anyone who Pete becomes friends with, there's going to be a natural distance because he can't talk about who he is completely. I think you hit on something in your question. I think there's a lack of "personal" life for Peter Parker as opposed to the very full life for Spider-Man, and that's going to have a cost. That goes back to what I said about the core of the strip. Spider-Man works because it's about the toll that being Spider-Man plays on Peter Parker's personal life. That's the mythology we're playing with.

I'd imagine that these days, Spider-Man affects Peter Parker's personal life even more now that he's gone from being strictly a solo hero to being part of both the Avengers and the Future Foundation. Why has Spidey become such a team player in recent years?

The real reason is because he's our biggest character. Putting Spider-Man in a book helps sell that book. We then had to find the in story reason to do it. I think most people now think of Spider-Man as an Avenger. Everyone was skeptical when Brian Bendis put him in "New Avengers." I wasn't here, but I'm sure there were several arguments about it, but the proof is in the execution. I think Brian made Spider-Man feel like an Avenger.

I also think he can be on a team and still be a loner. I think there are plenty of us who are somewhat apart from the world we live in, either as part of a family or work environment. We don't feel like we're part of a team, yet we go into work every day. We're around people. We might be part of a "club," yet still feel like we're individuals.

In the grand scheme of Spidey's life, I don't know if the Avengers or the FF really take up much of it. They might be what he does on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. As far as I know, he's not joining the Defenders, the Guardians of the Galaxy or Power Pack. Right now, it's just the Avengers and FF.

Spidey has a pretty tight relationship with two New York based super teams, but what about his relationship to the city in general? What does New York mean to Spider-Man? How important is the city in the overall Spider-Man mythos?

I think Pete feels like a New Yorker, and again, going back to the origins of the strip, Spider-Man couldn't really exist in any other city in the United States. The architecture of New York is perfect for Spider-Man. It lends itself to the character perfectly, he's so fitted to his place.

I can't move Spider-Man to St.Louis because there's nothing for him to swing on aside from the Arch. [Laughs] New York is a small island that you could walk down in the course of a day. Add tall buildings to that, and now you can just swing down, from top to bottom. If you've played any of the recent Spider-Man video games, you can get that sense of sheer joy that comes with swinging through the city.

Also, I think in terms of personality he's sort of the ultimate New Yorker. Maybe a little nicer version, but he can be brusque. He can be hurried and he's got a bit of a snarky sense of humor. It's a classic match up of character and setting.

We've talked a lot about what drives Peter Parker while he's in costume; let's start to wrap this first installment up by talking about one of Peter's motivations outside of his costumed life -- inventing things for Horizon Labs. What do you feel Pete's job adds to the book?

Dan wanted to bring what became Horizon into the book because over the years, Pete's genius was part of the character that had been sort of been cast aside. Not for nefarious reasons; it was just that there were other things going on in the book. This was a fresh take that Dan could bring to the book. It gave us a new setting for the Marvel Universe, and it's always helpful to create new places for our characters to go. It gave us a new, colorful cast to put around Pete, which allowed us to build up the supporting cast instead of just showing the same people all the time.

It also gave us outlets for different kinds of stories, more science fiction style stories. Pete is a genius, as we saw when we first met the character way back in his first appearance. He created the web shooters and the other tools that Spider-Man uses. He's got a pretty good head on his shoulders and a pretty big brain. [His job at Horizon] gave him a chance to use it and flip the paradigm of the book and have Pete be successful for a little while. He's living in a real nice apartment in Tribeca right now. He's got a fantastic job with a ton of benefits, which gives him a chance to create some new technology to use as Spider-Man, which you'll see a lot of during "Ends of the Earth."

Personally, I liked that it flipped the paradigm of the book. It gave us something that we hadn't seen much of before: a successful Peter Parker

We've talked about the things that drive Peter Parker and the events that shaped him into the hero he is today. To close things out, are you able to offer up any hints or teases about some of the upcoming moments in the "Amazing" and "Avenging" Spider-Man titles that will affect Pete in a big way?

There was a recent moment with Mary Jane at the end of "Spider-Island" that will end up being pretty huge. They're sitting together on the Empire State Building and she's pointing out just how much the city loves him. We see them getting close, and I think that will be huge once you see what we have coming up. Also, there are bits coming up in "Ends of the Earth" that are going to lay the ground work for the rest of the year. As Pete goes up against Doc Ock, you might just be wondering if Pete has gone as far as he can go as Spider-Man!

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