The costume was more exciting than any of the others. He was funny – equal parts heroic and hilarious. His powers came from this awesome mix of accidental mutation and his own ingenuity. He was the underdog, occasionally on the superhero/super villain battle scene but always struggling to make ends meet and balance his own life. He stood up for the little guy, protecting his neighborhood and leaving the world/cosmos saving exploits (most of the time) to the other guys. He experienced incredible loss…but let it teach him. He held tight to a moral code that was nonnegotiable – with great power, comes great responsibility. I’m not sure which of these first drew little four-year-old Michael to the amazing Spider-Man but I have loved him for over thirty years now. This is perhaps my most personal post yet, the story of why Spider-Man has always stood above all other superheroes for me.
As I wrote in my first post on this blog, Web of Spider-Man #12 (released in 1986) is the first comic book I remember owning. I’d sit on the couch and have Mom read it to me again and again. It’s much loved, if tattered, form still sits in one of my many comic book boxes. Spidey was always the core of my comic book collecting. Everything revolved around him and his titles. It’s true; I enjoyed a lot of comic books. But Spider-Man was always my favorite. I read The Amazing Spider-Man, Web of Spider-Man, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Spider-Man, The Sensational Spider-Man, Spider-Man: Classic, and Peter Parker: Spider-Man to name a few. If Spidey was a part of it, so was I.
Now, at thirty-three, I have no less than four posters of Spider-Man hanging in prominent places in my house. I also have at least twelve different (and well worn) Spider-Man t-shirts in my closet. He even holds a regular place of honor sitting on my couch, next to Yoda of course. He sits there for a touch of panache as well as protection when Kalie feels like binge watching horror movies. (It’s a genre she’s taught me to enjoy but I can still be a bit faint of heart with certain ones.) I am endlessly appreciative for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002. In my opinion, this was the first true superhero movie of the modern era, boldly embracing its comic roots. Yes, Bryan Singer gave us X-Men in 2000 and I give him credit for officially ushering in the present age…but his film didn’t feel like the comics I loved in the way Sam Raimi’s did. Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born, Spider-Man 2 was the most perfect comic book film I’d ever seen. Even today, it remains among my all-time favorites.
Reading Spider-Man in the late eighties and early nineties, he wasn’t a teenager to me. No, my Peter Parker was a man in his late twenties or early thirties struggling to make ends meet, care for his aunt, and figure out how to live a married life with Mary Jane while still being a costumed hero. I met him first, not as a kid, but as a young man looking for balance. Everything about Spider-Man seemed to resonate with my young self. He seemed to illustrate the life lessons I was already always learning from my family around me. In Peter I saw Dad’s dedication to our family and his work ethic. I saw Mom’s compassion and unceasing loving presence. So maybe part of the reason I connected with Spidey so early on was because Peter felt familiar to me. What he modeled, my family was already teaching me. If you were responsible, if you always sought to put others first, then you would become a good person. It would be hard but you couldn’t forsake those challenges for the easy path. How well I walk that path is a daily evaluation, but I try.
All the moral issues aside, Spider-Man was fun. That is what I look for most in my comics now as well. The world can often be a dark, tragic place. Kalie’s written beautifully on the power of the horror genre to help elevate us from the darkness around us. I can see the truth in her argument. But for me, I’ve always sought the light, first and foremost. Once as a child, and now as an adult, I want to surround myself with as much happiness and joy as I can. I think we have a responsibility to ourselves and to others to seek and share as much love as we possibly can.
If you think back to the opening monologue from the 2003 film Love, Actually (I know, right?? I bet you weren’t expecting this quote!), Hugh Grant’s character David says,
“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion you’ll find… love actually is all around.”
I love that line (no pun intended) and I believe it’s deeply true. It’s a truth that can help us as surely as heal us. And for me, I’ve always seen this in Spider-Man. Love is all around him, no matter how bleak his life gets, guiding him forward. His love for Aunt May, his love for Mary Jane, his love for his friends and family at the Daily Bugle, and (one could argue) his apparent agapic love for the people of New York City – these are the factors that motivate Spider-Man. Responsibility and love, the twin poles of Peter Parker’s personality.
So reading Spidey for me was to experience love, humor, excitement, joy, and the constant and reassuring message that right will always win out in the end. Also, he was a constant reminder of another lesson my family instilled in me – we must do the right thing, even when there’s a cost. Others need come first, always. Spider-Man taught me that every month too, in a fast, fun, and exciting way. My most treasured and exciting comic book memories as a child all revolve around Spider-Man. My final childhood comic book memory does too.
I’ve written before about how a growing need for gas money began to eat into my comic book budget as a kid. I knew the hobby was coming to an end. I couldn’t keep it going financially. But how did I walk away?? Every comic ends with some sort of a “To be continued…” message! The majority I could walk away from, at the end of whatever adventure they were on at the moment. But not Spider-Man. Peter Parker and I had been through too much together. How could I leave his story in the middle?? I like closure. And I was at a loss. I couldn’t keep buying all these comic books but I couldn’t walk away from Spider-Man either.
Then, in 1998, Marvel gave me my out. “The Gathering of Five” and “The Final Chapter” were two crossovers that ran back-to-back between all the Spider titles. Both The Spectacular Spider-Man and The Sensational Spider-Man would be cancelled at the close of these crossovers and The Amazing Spider-Man and Peter Parker: Spider-Man took two months off before being restarted with brand, spankin’ new #1’s. The titles were ending. Sure, they’d eventually go on…but I could see “the end” of Peter Parker’s story. (Remember, this was back before a new #1 for a title came out every year or two.) This was where I could walk away.
It was a perfect endnote too. Through “The Gathering of Five,” Norman Osborn was trying to obtain omnipotence (through dark magic and such) and laying the groundwork for his “final” battle with Spider-Man. And while Spidey was trying to figure out what Osborn was up to…he spent the majority of the story arc doing what Spider-Man always does best, protecting the little guy and defending the neighborhood. He stops a robbery at an ATM machine. He shows up some bullies picking on younger kids on a basketball court. He stops a man robbing a bodega and catches two ignorant cyclists who fled the scene of a huge car accident they caused. So we see Spider-Man doing what he was always meant to do from the beginning – protecting the “average” person whose injustice is often overlooked.
Then “The Final Chapter” sees Peter endure the most emotionally trying experience Osborn’s ever put him through. It’s fitting that the “final” battle would be against his greatest nemesis. As Mary Jane returns to the world of modeling, allowing them to get their lives back on track, Peter races madly to Norman Osborn’s wilderness estate where he expects to find their infant daughter May. They thought they lost her in childbirth (which, tragically, they did) but Peter believes Osborn’s been hiding her away. But upon his arrival Peter finds Aunt May (surprisingly alive) as opposed to his daughter May. Then he and Osborn engage in their bloody final battle. Peter not only triumphs over Norman, but the issues sees his most herculean effort ever, as he must support the Daily Bugle on his back after one of Osborn’s pumpkin bombs goes off, leveling the building. He holds the building up long enough for everyone inside to get to safety. It is a powerful and symbolic moment . Spider-Man is literally holding a part of New York City on his back, even as the very people he tries to save chastise him for his role in all of this. Unlike many of his counterparts, Spidey always seems to get as much rejection from the public as he does praise. But he doesn’t waiver. This scene remains one of my most vivid memories out of the hundreds and hundreds of Spider-Man comics I read. Then, and now, this moment is important.
In the end, there is a powerfully emotional moment where, with Mary Jane looking on and praying for his success, Peter looks inside and finds a strength he’s never had before. As he hoists the building up he vows to end the toxic and painful influence Osborn has always had over his life. The physical strength mirrors the emotional and spiritual strength he will need to truly move into this new phase. And as he lifts the building, we know he can do anything.
That’s one of the beautiful things about Spider-Man. He shows us that even the little guy, the guy everyone else ignores, can do anything if he sets his mind to it. It may sound cliché but clichés are often born of truths frequently repeated. The issue ends with Peter burning his Spider-Man suit and committing to a normal life with Mary Jane and Aunt May. That was it. I FINALLY had my “The End” moment! That was the last new comic I ever bought (until I returned to comic collecting this past fall). In fact, when I recently reread the issue, I found I’d saved my final receipt from Books Galore that week in the back of the comic. It was a surprisingly emotional moment.
Yet now I’ve returned! However, as I’ve written before, I can’t bring myself to start picking up the Spider-Man titles again. I’ve met (and fallen in love with!) Miles Morales. I’ve been following his experiences wearing the webs. I obviously can’t read comic books without a little Spider-Man in my life; he’s too important to me.
But I can’t go back and pick up Peter’s story again. I can’t. I know there’s been an Iron Spider and a Civil War and an unmasking and a remasking and a marriage given up to Mephisto (for…convoluted storytelling resulting in a newly single Spider-Man) and a Doc Ock Spider-Man and on and on and now we have a Parker Industries and a worldwide corporation that makes Peter Parker the new Tony Stark. But I can’t bring myself to read any of those comics, at least not yet. I think I can get around all of that other stuff, but Peter and Mary Jane being driven apart just doesn’t sit well with me. It made me a little queasy when I read about the (in my opinion (not having read the story myself) contrived) reasons that led to their giving up their love. Because that’s part of what Spider-Man is to me. My earliest memories of Spider-Man are anchored around the triumph of Peter and Mary Jane’s love in spite of all the obstacles in their life. It is perhaps the most important thing I associate with Spider-Man.
You see, when I think back about Spider-Man, of course I remember his rogue’s gallery. The Green Goblin was always my favorite – with Venom and Carnage a close second. Hey, I was a child/adolescent of the nineties! There was nothing cooler than symbiotes. The craziness of the whole “Maximum Carnage” storyline is still one of my most vivid crossover memories (second, perhaps, only to the mind-blowingly amazing “Age of Apocalypse”).
But the villains could never be my most dominant memory of Spider-Man. Instead, when I think of Spider-Man I think of family, both his and mine. Obviously I associate Spider-Man with my family. I’ve written often of my memories of Mom reading me Spider-Man comics on the couch. I also have countless memories of the weekly trips I’d take with her and David to the comic book store. I remember playing with superhero figures and pretending to be superheroes with David and our cousins. I even remember strolling the Atlantic City boardwalk with Dad on a family vacation years after I’d given up comic collecting and finding several cool Spider-Man shirts that I took home with me.
But I also think of Peter’s family too. I think of Aunt May. I think of Mary Jane. I still mourn (and I am being 100% absolutely serious here) for Peter and Mary Jane’s loss of their little May before they even got to know her. I think of his supporting cast too; Robbie, Flash, Felicia, Betty, J. Jonah Jameson, and all the rest. And I even think of Ben Reilly. Okay, yeah, I’ll say it. I loved Ben Reilly. I still do. Judge if you will. I even loved Ben Reilly as Spider-Man (astute readers will note I cleverly hid a picture of Ben as Spider-Man above). I know, I know…the Clone Saga is one of the most derided storylines in Spider-Man’s history. But I don’t care. Even as a kid I knew there was no way Ben would always be “the real Peter Parker.” I didn’t mind the twist and the switch out because I knew Pete would eventually return to the webs. But I liked how Ben gave Peter and Mary Jane a chance at happily-ever-after. And I liked that Ben and Peter could connect as brothers. So yeah, I liked Ben Reilly. Because Ben, as the best of all Spider-Man characters, moments, and books, symbolized family.
Maybe that’s a good note to end on. Spider-Man has always seemed like family to me. The villains were great. The costume was cool. The comics were always visually extraordinary. But Peter Parker modeled the lessons I learned to be most important from my family growing up, lessons I now know to be true from my own experience. A responsibility to the other and a love for all are the only things worth building a life around. With great power comes great responsibility. And our greatest responsibility is to live in love and service to all those around us.