My original plan was to re-watch all three of Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man movies, both of Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man movies and then re-watch Captain America: Civil War in preparation for Spider-Man: Homecoming. Then I was going to write this post about which film version I liked best. It was going to be a sort of who-really-embodied-my-Spidey-the-best kind of a thing. But a realization hit me. While I’ve loved each and every Spider-Man I’ve seen swing across the screen in their own way (yes, I even see a bright and enjoyable silver lining to Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2), not one of them have felt like my Spidey. However, this has nothing to do with writers, directors, or actors. Rather, it has everything to do with when I grew up.
I became a Spider-Man fan in the 80’s and 90’s. For me, Peter Parker is a man in his late 20’s or early 30’s who’s perpetually struggling to get by. He’s balancing his web-slinging alongside his relationship with Mary Jane and his graduate studies, all while trying to make ends meet as a photographer for the Daily Bugle. Peter Parker (and by extension Spider-Man of course) has always been an adult to me. A young adult, yes, but an adult nonetheless. When I think of Spider-Man in high school I think of Miles Morales, not Peter Parker. Sure, I read the reprints in Spider-Man: Classic when I was a kid but that was never how I saw or knew Peter Parker.
However, that’s the only Peter Parker we see on screen. Even though Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker graduated in the Spider-Man and Andrew Garfield did in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, they’re still high school/high school-adjacent. There’s been a great deal of excitement in Tom Holland’s casting too. Marvel’s given us a legitimately young-looking Spider-Man with plans to keep him in high school for a while this time around. I have no problem with this approach. This isn’t an angsty post about how “No one’s gotten Spider-Man right!” or anything ridiculous like that. I sincerely love all those Spidey movies. I’m especially thankful for Sam Raimi bringing back bright, colorful superhero costumes in the age when leather-clad X-Men ruled the cinema. But none of them felt like the Spider-Man I met in 1986 nor the one I read about until 1998 (when I first gave up comic collecting).
What I find so intriguing about the love of a high school Peter is, when you look at the comics, the overwhelming majority of his stories are out of high school. Peter Parker graduated high school in The Amazing Spider-Man #28 which came out in September 1965. His first appearance was in Amazing Fantasy #15, released in August of 1962. So, over the course of the fifty-five years he’s been a part of our popular culture, Peter was only in high school for three of those years. Anyway, I’m digressing. As I prepared to write this post I realized I shouldn’t write about Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield as I reflected on my favorite Spider-Man. Rather I should return to the comics that made me fall in love with Spider-Man in the first place!
In a very scientific approach, I opened some old comic boxes filled with Spidey books and flipped through them, grabbing comics with the covers that gave me the strongest nostalgic/emotional pull in that moment. As I revisited these comics I read dozens and dozens of times through my youth, I reflected on how the familiarity of the stories in no way diminished my enjoyment of them. It was like reconnecting with an old friend, reminiscing and laughing about old stories from high school or college. (Wow…I’m old enough to have old stories from college. When exactly did this happen?!?) I sat down with The Amazing Spider-Man KING SIZED Annual #13 (1979), Marvel Tales featuring The Sensational Spider-Man #199 (1987), Web Of Spider-Man #28 (1987), and the “Invasion Of The Spider-Slayer” storyline from The Amazing Spider-Man #368-373 (1991-1992). As I turned page after page of those beloved comics, I found the character who grabbed hold of my imagination thirty-one years ago and has never let go.
As soon as Spidey’s on the scene, he’s cracking jokes. I’ve always loved that about Spider-Man. I say it all the time here, but I like the art I enjoy to make me laugh. There’s few better or more enjoyable answers to the darkness that can surround us than laughter. And Spider-Man is always joking around (unless the current author is doing one of those angry, angsty-Spider-Man storylines that come along every few years) as he faces the evil the world has to offer. But he’s not just funny, he’s bantery. That, for me, is an important distinction. It’s a constant stream of witty retorts and snappy one liners as he fights. As someone who’s more than a little chatty himself, I’ve always connected with this part of Spider-Man :). Chattiness is something I appreciate in my superheroes!
The humor is the part of the Spidey I’ve always known that I see most attempted on screen. I’d say Tom Holland’s Spider-Man was probably the funniest in action with Andrew Garfield’s a close second and Tobey Maguire’s webhead seeming the most glum (at least by comparison). While Spider-Man’s as quick with his jokes as he is with his web-shooters, walking through these old comics reminded me of something else I loved about Spider-Man. While he absolutely gets things done…it also always kind of feels like he’s in just a wee bit over his head. The ol’ Parker Luck can lay a rough road for poor Peter to walk. I remember Spider-Man doing his hero thing but never able to truly be 100% on top of what’s going on. That’s pretty relatable too :).
In the Amazing Spider-Man Annual for example, Peter is recruited by this mysterious man who’s somehow found out his secret identity to find the criminal Jimbo Ryan. This man wants to prove the recently deceased Kent Blake didn’t commit suicide, rather he was a secret agent who was murdered. Despite having no idea who his recruiter is, Peter has no choice but to help out as he knows his secret identity. Soon he finds himself going undercover in Ryan’s criminal gang and ultimately facing off against Doctor Octopus who also wants Ryan for stealing plans from him. Does Spidey ultimately catch Ryan and get him to agree to confess? Sure. But Doc Ock manages to get away and, at the end of the day, Peter still has no idea who all the players are, what their ties were, and why he was brought into it in the first place.
Web Of Spider-Man #28 is another classic example of this. This was one of my favorite Spider-Man comics as a kid. As soon as I saw this in the box I knew it was making the cut to be pulled and read. I’ve read this one sooooo many times! I’ve had it since I was five and the binding has begun to curve and fray a bit from so many re-reads. In the comic Peter tells MJ the story of how he would store his clothes in the Statue of Liberty’s torch from time to time. He came back to pick them up one night (along with a malfunctioning web-shooter he left behind) only to find the torch being taken away for restoration! The helicopter was out of range for his web-shooter so he was stuck trying to figure out where it was before his clothes, ID, and web-shooter could be found.
Robbie informs Peter the torch is being taken to California to be part of a parade. Obviously Peter can’t afford a plan ticket but Robbie suggests a story about the torch being on the West Coast. Peter jumps at the chance and ends up in SoCal. Life doesn’t get any easier for him in California but Peter always rolls with his bad luck (whether falling asleep in the sun and missing the chance to flirt with a California girl or getting sunburned and having to put his Spidey tights over painfully burnt skin) so it always ends up being funnier than it is sad. This too is another iconic part of my vision of Spider-Man – nothing ever gets him down for good.
It’s not like he doesn’t have his fair share of problems though. Every comic book I read talked about Peter’s financial struggles. The Annual showed him in his tiny, rundown Chelsea St. apartment. Marvel Tales featuring The Sensational Spider-Man #199 begins with Gloria Grant calling Peter and telling him not to come in to the Daily Bugle that day. Electro and Blizzard were there, trying to extort money from J. Jonah Jameson so she called him in an attempt to keep him safe. But Peter comes anyway, not noticing the fear in her voice on the phone because he was thinking about it being payday and needing the money to make his rent. The “Invasion Of The Spider-Slayers” storyline in The Amazing Spider-Man #368-373 is set right after the mysterious appearance of people claiming to be Peter’s parents. He offers to take them out for dinner at the Tavern on the Green…after checking with Mary Jane to make sure her latest acting check was already in their account. And when Robbie suggests Peter go to California to photograph the torch in Web #28, Peter tells Robbie he’d love to…but can’t afford the airfare. The Bugle covers it (and our adventure continued!) but, again, this was a big part of who Peter Parker was for me – someone always trying to get by, juuuust making it in the adult world. As a Catholic school theology teacher I appreciate this part of his character now more than I did as a kid too :).
Adding to both his money and time issues, The Amazing Spider-Man issue #369 shows Peter giving his reappeared parents a tour of Empire State University as he’s reenrolled to continue his post-graduate work. So he’s perpetually thinking about money, trying to find time to devote to his marriage with Mary Jane and his relationships with Aunt May and his friends, swinging around the city doing his superhero thing and he decides to go back to ESU for post-grad studies along with a teaching assistantship too. That is a lot to handle. But science and his education are important to Peter Parker so, no matter how many times he had to quit, he always went back to school. As a kid I appreciated Peter trying to manage higher education alongside work and superheroics. As an adult who’s done grad school himself while working full time (and is presently dating someone who’s working on getting her PhD in Literature and Criticism), I have a faaar better understanding of the struggle and sacrifice this would be for Peter. I remember looking at my calendar once and not seeing a free night for seventeen straight days when I was working on my Master’s and being a Youth Minister full time. I wasn’t even dating anyone at the time OR spending my nights fighting villains in elaborate tights!
Back to our movie versions of Spider-Man, while we’ve seen him working in high school and college, I’ve never seen the struggle juggling school alongside all the other facets of his adult life – husband, nephew, friend, photographer, and friendly neighborhood wall crawler – brings. His relationships were always an important part of his character too. In the movies we really only see Aunt May and his love interest (be it Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy) developed. And you can only do so much with those relationships when the hero’s nineteen. Naturally, as we grow-up our ability to develop more complex relationships grows too. The more we know about ourselves, the more we can share with another and the better we can be stewards of what others share with us. So, again, a high school Spider-Man is fun but we don’t ever see these rich relationships that come from years of growth. The relationships I have now at thirty-four are quite different from those I had at twenty-four and very different from those I had at fourteen. My Spider-Man was always operating at this level…but we never get this on screen.
Web #28 opens with Peter and Mary Jane on a ferry, leaving the Statue of Liberty. Right there, on the very first page, it illustrates two fundamental parts of who Spider-Man is to me. He is tied as tightly to New York City as the Statue of Liberty itself and, on the subject of relationships, he and Mary Jane are Marvel’s central power couple. To address the former first, he calls himself, “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” for a reason! He’s a New York guy who deals with the problems in New York’s streets. The Amazing Spider-Man Annual reinforces this too. All the action takes place in dark warehouses, side streets, and little apartments. This is clearly a local problem he’s dealing with, small in scope and scale. Neither the world nor the entire city is in jeopardy. The end-of-the-world stuff was always the prerogative of the Fantastic Four or the Avengers.
Turning to the latter, I can’t think of Peter Parker without thinking of him living with and loving Mary Jane. They got married so early into my comic reading that I only ever knew an MJ-less Peter through back issues or reprints. Something else I’ve always loved about Web Of Spider-Man #28 is we get to see Peter and MJ on a day off, enjoying a little date together. They are being a regular couple, laughing, bantering, playfully fighting. I love it! The Amazing Spider-Man #368-373 enforces and expands this point underscoring the importance of family to Peter. We see the strength of his relationship with Mary Jane. We see the love they both have for Aunt May. We see his tenuous steps towards his would-be parents, cautious but unwilling to just write them off. We also see his friendship with Felicia Hardy and Flash Thompson too.
With Felicia in this story, we also get the Black Cat! I’ve always loved Black Cat. While Peter and Mary Jane will remain married and in love in my mind until the day I die, I did enjoy the dynamic of Peter dating Felicia and having someone who shared the superheroic side of his lifestyle. And I was happy she joined his life after their relationship as a friend and ally. I love watching Spidey and the Black Cat fight side by side. Spider-Man’s almost always a solo act and he carries so much emotional weight and responsibility on his shoulders. It makes me happy to see those who love him fighting by his side to help and protect him too.
Really, given how consistently I’ve read Spider-Man comics, the team-up is something I associate entirely with him. I know it happens in comics all the time but Spidey’s the guy I think of when I think of a superhero team-up. There were sooooo many great ones. And the very first comic book team-up I ever read was between Spidey and Daredevil in Marvel Tales featuring The Sensational Spider-Man #199! As soon as I saw this cover I flashed back to my youth and the time I spent reading this comic again and again and again. For a five year old, this was a perfect example of the type of excitement comic book stories brought me. Everything about Electro and Blizzard was captivating – their power set, their costumes, their danger! Electro has always been one of my favorite villains (weird star on his head and all) and I’m sure I can trace it back to how much I loved this comic as a kid. I loved watching Spidey and Daredevil bounce around the Daily Bugle battling Electro and Blizzard too. This wasn’t just a superhero team-up but a super villain one as well!
I still love these comics as much now as when I was a kid, even if this was the first time I’ve read them in years. Reading them again, it’s easy to see why I’ve loved Spider-Man so much for so long. Peter Parker is a guy who’s struggling to make ends meet but refuses to give up on his education, the love he has for Mary Jane and Aunt May, or being the hero he knows he has to be. Despite the struggles, he still spends his time laughing at the face of darkness, danger, and despair. All these sacrifices, all these struggles, are something I knew were part of Peter Parker’s life as a kid and they’re facets of his character I’ve appreciated and understood more and more as I’ve grown up myself. These sacrifices and struggles are also something that can only fully take shape around an adult Peter Parker.
So yes, I’m super excited for Spider-Man: Homecoming on Thursday. (We already have our tickets!!!!) But, while I’m sure I’ll love it, I know it won’t be the Spider-Man I met as a child and have loved for thirty-one years. And that’s okay. Whenever I want my Spider-Man, all I have to do is pull these old boxes out of the closet and stop in to visit him. No matter how cool the special effects are, they can’t be Mark Bagley’s pencils :). As I’ve said before, whenever I imagine Spider-Man in my head it’s always Mark Bagley’s version of the webhead I see first. Nor could any movie version ever capture exactly what I feel about Spider-Man in my heart either. After all, you can find no more intimate an emotional connection to a character than the one you find reading a book.