Before the interconnected, multi-film franchise we all know (and many of us love), there were the standalone movies, and it was these that shattered box office records and helped make Geek a buzzword no longer to be feared; before the movies, there were decades of cartoons, constantly reinventing and reinterpreting characters and adventures that could only exist in motion via hand-drawn animation; before the cartoons, there were socially-derided and academically dismissed comic books, in which our 20th Century gods and goddesses were born of freelance writers and artists, whence ongoing mythologies unfolded in four-color epics that exploded across the cheap, disposable newsprint page; and within those pages, there was Spider-Man.*
One must often look behind in order to understand where they now stand, and how they got there. The past is prologue. Pop Culture is a term most commonly associated with shallow, transient fads, but Culture is the key word here, and often gets paved over by the Pop element. Indeed, costumed superheroes, whose provenance is often debated by scholars who cite THE SHADOW and THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL as precursors of the genre, burst onto the scene in ACTION COMICS #1; the crude cover art presented a now-familiar blue-and-red clad adventurer, looking like a cross between a circus strongman and a facist, holding a car over his head as he (illegally) doled out a new brand of justice. Thus began the reign of the Superman, and the construction of a new Mount Olympus for our modern world.
Our love of stories is as old as time, and the heroic myth endures. It is repackaged for contemporary audiences, but the tales themselves are the same, and from these tales are legends born. Ask someone on the street to tell you where Superman comes from, and chances are, they’ll tell you more than even they themselves thought they knew. Krypton. Baby. Kansas. Fortress. Costume. CHECK.
So much of this is owed to the movies. It’s no longer a source of embarrassment for an adult to wear a Captain America T-shirt; nerdy high school kids no longer have to spend recess in the media center talking about who would win in a fight between the Avengers and the Justice League. There’s a certain stamp of social approval that comes with a Motion Picture Adaptation, which makes a niche product safer to enjoy.
But Spider-man is different, because Spider-Man has existed free of the borders that make up his on-page panels, and the many restrictions of his specific medium. When we think of the character, we follow that timeline I provided, way up at the top of this page. We immediately jump to his three cinematic representations; then, for some of us, the many animated incarnations we saw during our childhood; and maybe, somewhere down the list – probably toward the bottom – a select number might casually remember that most primitive form of visual storytelling, the Comic Book.
All that we now take for granted, came later. Remember, if you can, that time before the movies. Before CGI. That long ago era in which Spider-Man existed everywhere but the Cineplex. Look back, and it’s almost remarkable to realize what ought to be obvious: he’s always been there.
For nearly as long as the character has existed, Spider-Man has been part of the Pop Culture discussion, an escapee of newsprint and the imaginary New York of Stan Lee’s Marvel Universe. Unlike so many of his peers, there’s always been a Spider-Man swinging right there above us, his balletic sky dance one that has moved through media even without need of a major motion picture to promote it. Spider-Man is, and his Pop Culture presence was established long before Sam Raimi made his earliest films, let alone the dazzling commercial juggernaut that represented the webslinger’s big screen debut in 2002. Only Superman and Batman can challenge this particular superhero’s universal recognition, and it’s notable that both DC icons I mentioned had the substantial boost of television and theatrical presentation to aid them. Spider-Man required neither, but he certainly swung to new heights as he used these very tools to slingshot himself into mainstream accessibility, studio crossover, and, ultimately, Oscar-winning status.
But make no mistake: while comics might have gained a certain begrudging respect in the press thanks to the double-punch of WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, these particular mini-magazines were largely considered lesser art forms, and immature in the extreme; but Spider-Man somehow avoided the negative association. He also inhabited the public consciousness in a way current fan-favorites like Iron Man never could, the latter struggling for relevance even within the very fanbase he catered to. But Spider-Man? Spider-Man is.
There have always been Spider-Man action figures. Spider-Man dolls for the younger set. Spider-Man Halloween costumes, including that shitty, yellow, plastic garbage bag thing they sold every year at the drugstore when I was a kid, and I knew it was shitty, but I wore anyway, every single year. So did all of my classmates. And when it was bedtime after a night of Trick or Treat-ing, there were the slightly more comics-accurate Spider-Man Underoos, which my mom kept buying for me as I grew out of the last set, because duh, Mom, it’s Spider-Man. Besides, they matched the Spider-Man bedspread, Spider-Man garbage can, Spider-Man sheets, and the Spider-Man poster hanging on the bedroom door. There was no upcoming summer blockbuster tie-in; the product was simply there, because Spider-Man, the character, was, too.
Spider-Man would come to aid our teachers and parents as we learned to read, whether it was on THE ELECTRIC COMPANY, or maybe the tie-in title (SPIDEY SUPER STORIES), or once we finished Kindergarten and moved on, slowly piecing together the dialogue and narration in the pages of multiple monthly comics that were simultaneously (and miraculously) geared for adults, teens, and kids, all at once. Maybe you grew out of Funny Books by the first grade, and that’s cool, but most of us read them, or leafed through them at one time. Maybe you forgot who Plastic Man was, or just decided you didn’t care, because he was stupid, and dressed like the lifeguard at a Swingers’ retreat. But Spider-Man was different. We all knew who he was immediately.
Was it the costume, with webs growing from a point between his vaguely sinister eyes, and trailing down a body of screeching primary colors? Maybe it was because he wore a mask? The fact that he could stick to walls, bench press a Buick, and dodge bullets? Was it his Spider Sense: both a concept and a phrase that became part of the lexicon purely by social osmosis? Or was it the fact that he couldn’t fly, and that it was fine that he couldn’t, because he could do something so much cooler: he could swing? He had every power you wanted, minus invisibility…and then later on, along came an Ultimate spider, who sat down beside her, and she didn’t notice because of his augmented abilities.
Spider-Man was, and is, the complete package. He’s perfect, and a child knows it as instinctively as if they had a precognitive ability of their own. It’s right there on the schoolyard, or on playgrounds. The kids are playing on the monkey bars. They aren’t pretending to be Mr. Fantastic, or Ghost Rider, or even Wolverine. Listen closely and you’ll hear it, that sound they’re making: it sounds like Thwip thwip.
Maybe you got older. Maybe you didn’t. But Spider-Man was always there.
He was the unofficial Marvel mascot, and that early-CGI animation of his crouched form, posing on the company logo, was the reason to pop into the living room when your kid sister was watching MUPPET BABIES. You waited for the credits to end, for those two seconds that hinted at possibilities a future comics fan – or any child, for that matter -- could scarcely imagine. It was a movie we wanted to see and never thought possible. In the meantime, we settled for watching his televised nuptials, and we bought all five versions of Todd McFarlane’s SPIDER-MAN #1, and considered ourselves lucky to live in a world where the Ramones covered his iconic theme song.
He had terrible webbed shaped cereal, and we ate it anyway during his Saturday morning cartoons. Sometimes he was swinging across a psychedelic Ralph Bakshi landscape to the jazzy sound of that theme song I mentioned; sometimes he was hanging out with Firestar, Iceman, and Ms. Lion. We (maybe) watched the opening credits of his live-action television show and then quickly turned it off because it was barely Spider-Man. The Japanese had their own version, and it had a giant robot, at least, but again: it wasn’t Spider-Man. How could it be that hard to get right…?
We listened to him battle the Man-Wolf courtesy of Power Records, because there was no way to see him battle the Man-Wolf. Maybe your grandparents bought you that record, or your aunt got you a Spider-Man wallet for your birthday, because they went to the store, saw Spider-Man, and thought, He’s six, and he’ll like this, because it’s Spider-Man. And they were right, even if they knew nothing about the character beyond the fact that he was Spider-Man, and kids like Spider-Man. It’s treated like a given, because it is.
He existed in video games going back to the first home console, and it was a platformer so frustrating you wanted to grab your Atari and put it through the television set; but it didn’t stop you from playing, because you were Spider-Man, and you were battling the Green Goblin. You kept playing because you had the chance to be Spider-Man, and to be more like Spider-Man as the interactive capabilities grew up alongside us on the Sega Genesis, on the Super Nintendo, the Playstation, and on and on until we sit here now as grown adults, glued to our PS4s and grinning like lunatics. We joyously swing through a three-dimensional cityscape and know how it must feel to fly without flying, and battle villains we love to hate with all of Spider-Man’s powers assessable through our fingertips. And as we fire our impact webbing at Electro and evade the Rhino’s charge, we realize that Spider-Man’s greatest superhuman accomplishment is having a rogues gallery that remains the best of all four-color characters, and that he’s never overshadowed by them.
He battled Dr. Octopus to prevent the theft of Hostess Fruit Pies, and when you flipped to the last page of the comic, there he was, advertising mail order subscriptions to your favorite Marvel titles, or maybe even his very own rock album. Sandwiched between was the letters page, where the fan debate raged after his costume changed from goofy red and blue underwear to a sleek, black alien symbiote; the switch was either declared brilliance, or a reprehensible wardrobe malfunction. He made TIME MAGAZINE when he unmasked for the world in 2006; two years later, the writer of the character’s flagship title angrily quit when forced to dramatize Spider-Man making literal deals with the Devil, in order to undo the news-making story (as well as a highly controversial and long-running marriage). The less said about that time we were told the character who’d been around for decades was actually a clone of the original (and later turned out not to be), the better.
In the days before Facebook and Twitter, these stories were Stories. You didn’t have to be a fan, and there didn’t have to be movies, Because.
Adults see a man struggling with employment and a complicated love life; teenagers see a disenfranchised youth, shunned by his peers; kids see The Superhero Who Might Be You. The cross-generational aspect is such a large part of his appeal, and cannot be overestimated. Set me down with my almost-seven-year-old, and put on THE DARK KNIGHT, and I’ll lose him almost immediately. Try it with your own progeny, and the results are largely the same. Then put on a less Grown Up-Specific Superhero Flick (preferably one that isn’t embarrassed by its source material), and the kid might like it, but you’ll have to explain who everyone is, and why they can do what they do. Put on a Spider-Man movie, any Spider-Man movie**, and they’re in, and they know what’s up, because it’s Spider-Man. And unlike movies about other costumed adventurers, you can then invite your teenager, your Grandfather, and your eye-rolling spouse, and everyone will sit together, and be entertained, together.
Spider-Man’s not simply the most recognizable super hero on the planet -- he’s easily the most assessable. We’ve all been picked on. We’ve all felt left out. We’ve all experienced the pain and grief that comes with the death of a loved one. We’ve all been torn between responsibility to ourselves, and responsibility to others. And because we now have those movies we never thought possible, we can all enjoy Spider-Man, together. And we do. The world might not change because of it; but if so many people, in this time of division, can buy into a heroic concept regardless of gender, race, age, or status, then maybe the world does change, even if it’s just a little. Corny? Maybe. True? Yes.
We know Spidey. We love Spidey. We want to be Spidey. And we are Spidey.
*Please hyphenate the name, because the name has a fucking hyphen, people.
**We hold these truths to be self-evident, that not all Spider-Man movies are created equal, that they are endowed by Sony with certain alienating Wrongs, that among these are Pissing Off Sam Raimi, Unnecessary Rebooting, and the Premature Pursuit of Marvel Entertainment’s Franchise Model.
Erik Kristopher Myers (aka ekm)