Salvatore Mondello

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Why did Spider-Man merit such a large, diverse, and enthusiastic audience, including many college students? From the start, Spider-Man was given unique characteristics for a superhero, human characteristics and problems with which readers could identify. He always finds it hard to make ends meet…. [As] Peter Parker, he must work for a pittance as a part-time photographer for The Daily Bugle. That newspaper's publisher, J. Jonah Jameson, pays him little for his action-filled photographs of Spider-Man in deadly combat with supervillains. And, to add insult to injury, Jameson detests Spider-Man, considering him a glory-hound and criminal.

The Amazing Spider-Man has found an enthusiastic young audience because it deals fundamentally with titanic battles between a teenage superhero and middle-aged supervillains—an impressive rogues' gallery which includes such memorable knaves and grotesques as the Vulture, Doc Ock, the Sandman, Kraven the Hunter, Electro, the Evil Enforcers, Mysterio, the Green Goblin, the Scorpion, the Rino, the Shocker, the Kingpin, the Lizard, Hammerhead, and the Jackal, names which shake the very soul of every True Believer. With each battle between Spider-Man and one of his tormentors, we enter the realm of high adventure, knowing full well that the hero's victory will only be temporary, for the villain will return time and again to haunt and pursue him.

Many of the supervillains degenerate into knaves as a result of scientific accidents. (p. 233)

Now Spider-Man himself is the result of a scientific mishap. But what is incontrovertible is that the accident brought out Peter's best attributes, including his willingness to question power and to assume public responsibilities, while the accidents which befell the others brought out their evil side. We must especially ask why the sensitive Dr. Connors becomes a misanthropic grotesque [the Chameleon] while the less sophisticated Peter Parker becomes a crusader for social justice.

The answer is found in the age of the protagonists. The Amazing Spider-Man appeals to the young. As Peter Parker, he must accept abuse from Jameson, must not miss any more classes or his teacher will fail him, must call his cloying Aunt May to assure her he will take his vitamin pills. And what has he gained from all this? An ulcer. But as Spider-Man, he is the superior of any middle-aged person. He can swing freely with his webbing from rooftop to rooftop without giving his aunt a second thought, or he can playfully suspend himself on his webbing outside Jameson's office window and taunt him mercilessly. Through Spider-Man, Stan Lee has brought redemption to America's Peter Parkers.

But Lee tried to do more than that, and The Amazing Spider-Man was used skillfully to bridge the generation gap which was tearing the nation apart in the late sixties and early seventies. He introduced Captain George Stacy, a retired policeman who understood teenagers, all this at a time when our more radical youth were calling cops "fascist pigs." He introduced Joe Robertson, a black journalist, who also tried to relate to young people and who fought for responsible reporting of the news at a time when many Americans believed our journalists were concerned only with sensational headlines calculated more to sell newspapers than to report events accurately. The Amazing Spider-Man was intended to find an irenic solution to the challenges facing America.

While many novelists have bemoaned the growing pervasiveness of urbanization and technology upon American society, The Amazing Spider-Man treats these as controllable forces. Spider-Man does not work in some fictionalized urban centers like Metropolis or Gotham City, but lives and goes to school in New York City. He is New York's Tarzan swinging from rooftop to...

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rooftop as the Lord of the Jungle swings from tree to tree. (p. 234)

Spider-Man deals with supervillains possessing considerable technological skills. He manages to more than hold his own against their mechanical devices. On occasion, he uses technology to fight technology. Discovering that the Vulture can fly because he has harnessed magnetic power, Spider-Man invents an anti-magnetic inverter. At other times, he relies on Yankee ingenuity or just plain common sense to thwart the nefarious designs of his enemies. He once defeated the mighty Electro by spraying him with a water hose. And when all else fails, Spider-Man, like John Wayne, still knows what to do with his fists. He once floored Doc Ock with a smashing right to the jaw. In this case, human, not super-human powers, triumphed over the mechanical tentacles of his opponent. Morally superior to his adversaries, Spider-Man can always beat them even when they match his scientific genius. Even the Shocker's two vibro-smashers are unequal to Spider-Man's powers, which are not artificial but an integral part of his very being.

Spider-Man has mastered his technology and crippled that of his opponents because he has learned to control his emotions. If this were not the case, Spider-Man would have long been driven to insanity by the diabolical Mysterio, who fights him by creating illusions. (pp. 234-35)

Spider-Man's greatness [is] his ability to control his emotions, his ability to dominate himself. Since Spider-Man has mastered himself, he can master the technology around him.

The Amazing Spider-Man is a historic document that reflects three periods from our recent past. From 1962 to 1967, Spider-Man mirrored an era still dominated by Cold War diplomacy and a citizenry still concerned more with personal gratification than public service. In 1963, Spider-Man foiled the Chameleon's attempt to turn over secret documents from an American defense installation to the Communists. In that same year, he fought the Vulture for personal gain—to pay his aunt's mortgage—not to rid society of a public menace. The July 1967, issue of The Amazing Spider-Man is an important historical document, for it marks a significant turning point in the development of the superhero and perhaps of his nation. Peter decides to abandon his career as a crime fighter…. When the Kingpin learns that Spider-Man has become inactive, he unleashes a reign of terror upon New York City. Peter, rescuing a security guard who is being manhandled by two thugs, realizes that he must continue as Spider-Man as long as people need his assistance.

From 1967 to 1973, Spider-Man addressed himself to every important issue confronting American society. He fought drug abuse and drug pushers, organized crime, pollution, and racial bigotry. It was in this period that superheroines made their appearance in the periodical, compelling Spider-Man to deal with the feminist movement. In 1970, he battled the glamorous Black Widow, who at first wanted to imitate his style as a superhero but finally decided against it, noting that she had her own special destiny to fullfill.

In an era demanding relevance, few magazines were more typical or current than Lee's comic book. It was in this period that The Amazing Spider-Man became popular on college campuses throughout the United States. Once contemporary issues were discussed, The Amazing Spider-Man became a subtle persuader, fashioning and reflecting public and popular attitudes under the rubric of entertainment. During World War II, comic book superheroes, such as Superman, Batman, and Captain America, to name only the most celebrated, had come to the assistance of our government and its armed forces as we engaged the Germans, Japanese, and Italians in combat. At that time, comics were doing more than simply entertaining the young. But our early superheroes were presiding over a united people, all intent upon defeating the Axis powers. Spider-Man's stand on crucial issues during the late sixties and early seventies could bring him not only supporters but critics, for America was divided on every public question. Superman came to us in a period of consensus; Spider-Man had to find consensus in an era of conflict.

In 1971, Stan Lee was quoted as saying that he was neither a hippie nor a conservative. The same may be said for Spider-Man. During the late sixties and early seventies, we learned that the young man behind the mask was a resolute defender of traditional American liberalism, especially the liberalism fashioned by Franklin D. Roosevelt and other New Dealers. (pp. 235-36)

Peter Parker believes in equal justice for black Americans, but he has never joined a protest movement to defend that principle. Like his fellow liberals, he feels that blacks will attain full social and political parity with whites by working in the system. (p. 236)

In the late sixties and early seventies, Spider-Man confronted the problem of drug abuse as energetically as Captain battled the Red Skull during World War II…. He became so enraged that as Peter Parker, he beat to a pulp three drug pushers. (p. 237)

[By] 1970, Spider-Man seemed worried about political extremism, especially from the right…. The danger from the extreme right to America's freedoms was as evident to Spider-Man as it was to Pogo.

Since 1973, Spider-Man has been locked in combat with such villains as the Jackal, Tarantula, the Cyclone, and the ever popular Doc Ock, among others. Occult themes have become popular. But, Spider-Man as an embattled defender of American liberalism, as a hero trying to update and revise that political ideology, ended with the termination of our involvement in the war in Southeast Asia. By the mid-1970's, Americans, Spider-Man included, had grown weary of crusades and crusaders.

Since 1962, The Amazing Spider-Man had helped to shape and reflect the American character and deserves special attention from students of American history because it has enjoyed a popularity and thus an influence second to no other comic book. Like the McGuffey readers and the New-England Primer of earlier times, The Amazing Spider-Man had helped to educate America's young people. During the 1960's, many older Americans feared the teenagers in their midst, stereotyping them as flag burners, pot smokers, and police baiters. By the mid-1970's, however, most of our young adults—former members of the so-called lost generation of the sixties—were responsible, moderate men and women, bringing up families, putting in a full day of work at the office, taking their children on patriotic pilgrimages to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., to celebrate their country's two-hundreth birthday. Such behavior was only natural from a generation that had been educated by superheroes like Spider-Man. During the late sixties and early seventies, Spider-Man had helped to keep alive American liberalism among the young, a tradition stressing cooperation among individuals and minorities rather than conflict, moderation in politics rather than extremism, and the right of each American to social recognition and economic opportunity.

After Watergate and Vietnam, Americans found themselves plagued by serious economic ills. Little wonder that they wanted Spider-Man to take them away from harsh social realities and transport them into the world of fantasy, circuses, and the occult. But a people and a superhero who had confronted the great social problems of the sixties with courage and decisiveness may have been so changed by that experience that they could hardly be expected to dwell in a fantasy world for very long. (pp. 237-38)

Salvatore Mondello, "Spider-Man: Superhero in the Liberal Tradition," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1976 by Ray B. Browne), Vol. X, No. 1, Summer, 1976, pp. 233-38.


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