I recently read the Stan Lee- Steve Ditko Spider-Man for the first time. It was an interesting exercise, to say the least. This is one of the revered hallmarks of comic books, the foundation of Marvel and the beginning of modern storytelling. At times, I caught glimpses of the greatness everyone else had seen at the time. I appreciated the way in which Peter Parker’s personal life and Spider-Man’s exploits intersected with each other. But, for the most part, I was underwhelmed. For every classic villain like Kraven the Hunter or the Green Goblin, there was a generic bad-guy like the Crime-Master or the Molten Man. Character motivation tended to be paper-thin.
However, my biggest problem was with Peter Parker himself.


Allow me to explain.


Years ago, I was assigned the task of mentoring a young man who was serving as a chaplain to several local high schools. I approved of his mandate, advocated on his behalf with local churches and looked in on his finances. Before our official relationship, I considered him a friend. I was happy to be the person he would turn to for encouragement and advice. But my estimation of him dwindled the more I became involved in his life.


This young man experienced a run of misfortune. At first, I was inclined to agree with him that he was the victim of bad luck. Yet as unfortunate events piled up, I had second thoughts about the original diagnosis. A lot of this misfortune was easily preventable. For example, he ran out of gas and had to pay for a tow truck to bring him back to town. Then he couldn’t afford groceries because he had spent his money on a tow truck. When someone gave him food, half of the groceries spoiled because he forgot to put them away.


We’ve all been in similar situations. When I was in college, I needed a tow truck after my car battery died. So I don’t want to sound unsympathetic. We’re forgetful people sometimes and accidents happen. But when the same kind of misfortune keeps happening to the same person, you begin to wonder if it’s not bad luck. Maybe, that person makes his own bad luck through a lack of planning or some other fault. In this case, I tried to be as encouraging as I could, to offer advice about planning ahead (and having insurance that offers free towing). But I was relieved when my term was over.

That’s kind of the way I felt about the infamous Parker luck. Sure, bad things happen to Peter Parker beyond his control. He’s late for dinner with Aunt May because a super-villain is tearing up midtown. He has to borrow a Spider-Man suit from a costume shop because his regular duds were ripped in a battle. However, a lot of the bad things that happen to Peter Parker are well within his control, especially in social situations.

Peter repeatedly complains about his money problems but he also admits that J. Jonah Jameson only pays him half of what his pictures are worth. Yet for some reason- his lack of initiative, his fear of inconvenience or some other issue- Peter never follows through on his threat to take his pictures elsewhere.

Peter is rude on a regular basis to people who are supposed to be his friends. He often has an ulterior motive that he considers altruistic. For example, he wants to get Betty out of the Daily Bugle building before a villain attacks. But there are other ways to achieve the same goal- methods that don’t involve browbeating and belittling the woman you supposedly love. Later, Peter is befuddled that Betty is mad at him and chalks it up to his typically bad Parker luck. Uh, no, Peter. That wasn’t bad luck. That was you being rude.

Peter also has problems with his classmates at Empire State University. They consider him standoffish, stuck-up and, once again, rude. Now, this is partially attributable to bad luck. Peter’s Aunt May is in the hospital when he starts a new semester and he’s consumed by his family concerns. That’s understandable. One of my college friends lost her father to cancer while we were in school and pretty much lost a semester out of the ordeal as well. But Peter compounds the problem of bad timing with his own bad manners. When Peter discovers his classmate’s poor impression of him, he doesn’t apologize or explain his personal situation. Instead, he lashes out at them, insulting them and accusing them of perfidy. Uh, Peter. That’s not the way to win friends and influence people. If you told them that you were distracted because your aunt was in the hospital, they would be a lot more sympathetic. They’d probably apologize and maybe even offer to help you out.

For a guy whose motto is “with great power comes great responsibility,” Peter regularly fails to take responsibility for his actions and their impact on other people.

I can understand how this wasn’t a problem at the time. For one thing, Peter Parker’s travails were a step forward from the bland personalities of prior superheroes. Despite his own flaws- and maybe even because of them- Peter’s travails are often as interesting as Spider-Man’s exploits. There’s a soap opera element to his home life that is as intriguing as any mystery villain. It’s a big reason why we come back issue after issue. We aren’t as concerned about Spider-Man beating the Scorpion as we are about Peter winning Betty back.

Secondly, Peter’s main audience at the time was made up of teenagers. They would typically share his self-centeredness, attributing misfortune to outside influences and bad luck rather than his own prickly personality and poor planning. Believe me, I’ve been there. I wince when I recall long rants to my friends about the problems caused by other people. Peter’s original audience might not have noticed this peculiar quirk or hold it against him.

Yet with the perspective of adulthood and of history, I found myself disappointed in Peter Parker. Sure, he’s the everyman of comics. But he’s not the heroic ideal that he’s often touted to be.

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Comment by Philip Portelli on September 1, 2012 at 9:07pm

Interesting take, Chris. But remember, Peter was a lonely, mocked, picked-on and frightened teenager who suddenly was stronger and faster than anyone he knew. He wanted fame, fortune and revenge. He never set out to be a super-hero and was only guilted into being one. So he was a tad bitter about the way his life was heading. Granted he could have just stopped or revealed his true identity as an entertainer but the shame of his uncle's murder and the blame he put on himself drove him to paths of abuse, self-incrimination and feelings of never being good enough.

There are several reasons why he worked for J. Jonah Jameson: he liked humiliating him, he had greater freedom if he took less money, he was closer to Betty and, most importantly, Peter felt that's what he deserved!

Comment by Doc Beechler (mod-MD) on September 2, 2012 at 8:53am

Pete didn't become the a finished product, the heroic ideal, until around issue 150.  That was the amazing thing about those early issues; for once, you got to see a really messed-up kid get superpowers and have to grow, almost in real time, into them.  The kid who picked up a very early Spider-Man saw a young man much like themselves and, hopefully, the reader and Peter took the journey to adulthood together.  

Comment by Doc Beechler (mod-MD) on September 2, 2012 at 8:54am

A great article about those early issues from Tom Spurgeon:

http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/spider_man_at_50_part_one_w...

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on September 2, 2012 at 1:42pm

I was able to read most of the Lee/Ditko run while still in elementary school (by trading for backissues of Marvel Tales), and by the tile I was in college, Marvel Tales again began to reprint the series from the beginning, so I was able to read the entire run including all of the issues I previously missed while still at a relatively young age. Like you, I was unimpressed. All my life I have preferred the Lee/Romita issues to the Lee/Ditko ones, but I have come to appreciate the Lee/Ditko ones for what they are.

 

I grew up reading comics, Marvels in particular, and although I had read about how innovative they were, they never really impressed me as being so because they were all I had ever known. In more recent years, though, I have been able to read more comics of the same period from different publishers and I can see just how inovative those early 1960s Marvels really were.

 

I last re-read the Lee/Ditko run in its entirety a few years ago when it was collected in an omnibus edition, and the same things that occurred to me then (that didn't necessarily occur to me when I was in my early 20s) are the things that have occurred to you now. So I think we've reached the same conclusions, you and I, but we've reached them in different order because we read the comics at different points in our respective lives. If you try reading some other comics from the same era but from different publishers, I suspect that you might find a new appreciation for how truly innovative those early Marvels were.

Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on September 2, 2012 at 2:04pm

I first started thing along the lines of Peter Parker being a kind of a jerk after reading a particular letter in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #80. (I think.) I was going to transcribe the letter verbatim here, but I just verified that that issue is no longer in my collection. If it's in yours, you may want to give it a read. And if anyone reading this does have ready access to it and a few minutes to spare, maybe you'd be so kind as to reproduce it here...?

Comment by Chris Fluit on September 2, 2012 at 6:05pm

Thanks for the comments, everyone.  I was worried that I was going to get reamed for this one but you've all been very respectful.

I can understand how someone's view at the time would be different.  I can only share my reaction years after the fact.  There are times when it's important to "grade on a curve" or give something "extra credit" for its place in history.  But there's also a place to say, "You know, in hindsight, Peter Parker was kind of a jerk who deserved a lot of his misfortune."

Like several of you, I preferred the Lee/Romita issues at the end of the volume and I'll most likely continue on with volumes 3, 4 and 5.  I thought the strongest stories were the ones in which the Pete and Spidey stories intersected- the Master Planner saga with Doctor Octopus, the Green Goblin/Norman Osborn story and the Mary Jane Watson/Rhino story.  I can see why those villains have become Spidey staples even if writers really have to stretch to make Doc Ock or the Rhino seem threatening nowadays.

Also, I have read plenty of other series from this time period.  Amazing Spider-Man is head and shoulders above Justice League of America which was even more simplistic.  But I think I'd take Lee's Avengers over his Spider-Man, especially during the Kooky Quartet era. 

Some day, I'll probably get around to reading Lee and Kirby's Fantastic Four as well (I've still never read the Galactus story or the introduction of Black Panther). 

Comment by Richard Willis on September 2, 2012 at 9:51pm

Chris, I can see where you’re coming from on Peter Parker. If you think about it, Peter starts out as a jerk if only because he’s un-athletic, highly intelligent, and  therefore unpopular. Being a jerk is his reaction to his ostracism. This angry reaction leads directly to his failure to stop the thief that kills his surrogate father, Uncle Ben. Think about it: Bruce Wayne becomes Batman after watching his parents killed when he was helpless to save them. Peter, on the other hand, already had super-powers and CHOOSES not to stop the criminal who went on to kill Uncle Ben. If he had gone on to kill someone OTHER THAN Uncle Ben, Peter may never have realized his (great) responsibility and may have continued to try to make money from his powers. Peter didn’t instantly become a great hero. He had a long way to go, which is one of the things that makes  him interesting. Also, it was pointed out somewhere along the way that working for Jameson was mainly due to his not caring how Peter always was able to get the Spidey pictures. Peter couldn’t afford a lot of questions.   

Comment by Richard Willis on September 2, 2012 at 10:09pm

Also, when you get around to reading the early Fantastic Four I hope you enjoy them. The early "damsel in distress" role of the then-under-powered Sue Storm is a little strange to modern sensibilities, but the introductions of Doctor Doom (#5 was my first Marvel superhero book), Mole Man, Puppet Master, and the reintroduction of Submariner are very well-written.  

Comment by Commander Benson on September 3, 2012 at 1:06am

You aren't tarnishing any stirling Spider-Man silver for me, either.  I was never drawn toward Spider-Man.

 

There's much validity in your critique of Peter Parker's "hard luck" and it's nice to see someone raise the point.  However, on one of your criticisms . . .

 

Peter repeatedly complains about his money problems but he also admits that J. Jonah Jameson only pays him half of what his pictures are worth. Yet for some reason---his lack of initiative, his fear of inconvenience or some other issue- Peter never follows through on his threat to take his pictures elsewhere.

 

. . . the series finally addressed.

 

In "Bring Back My Goblin to Me", from The Amazing Spider-Man # 27 (Aug., 1965), Parker---as usual, strapped for cash---decides to take his photos of Spidey's lastest crime-busting effort to the Daily Globe, the Bugle's biggest rival.  Globe editor Barney Bushkin pays Parker top dollar for the pics.  That's the good news for our boy Petey.

 

The bad news is---unlike Jonah Jameson, who never asked questions as to how Parker obtained his photos of Spider-Man in action---Barney Bushkin presses Peter to reveal how he does it.  There is a heavy implication that Bushkin will keep at it until he learns the answer.

 

Reluctantly, Peter decides that Bushkin is too much an inadvertent threat to his secret identity and takes his business back to the Daily Bugle, where Jameson, at least, won't stick his nose in how Peter does it.

Comment by Figserello on September 3, 2012 at 1:45am

I don't disagree with a word you write, Chris.  As a young reader, I was often frustrated at Peter's 'two steps forward, one step back' progress in his life, and it was clear to me even then that it was the decisions Peter made that caused what he called the 'ol Parker luck'.  It's frustrating reading a comic where you want to reach into it and give the 'hero' a good shake.

 

However, I'm not sure I get what you are criticising these issues for.  I don't think Lee and Ditko were saying 'this is a real hero', and thus we were expected to admire him at every turn.  Rather they were presenting someone pretty much broken, who was trying to go forward despite that.

 

Peter was an outsider and nerd to begin with, locked out of the cool kids' group.  He never knew his real parents.  I think that would cause all kinds of problems with someone's developing personality right there.  Then he becomes basically a freak overnight, and all of this is before the mind-bogglingly guilt-inducing episode with the guy who would go on to murder his beloved uncle and father-figure.

 

Peter would have to be deeply neurotic going forward from all that.  Ditko and Lee thus provide a very 'truthful' acount of how a deeply hurting and self-loathing individual would try to go forward from that.  His heroism is in doing the good he does and making the sacrifices he does despite coming from such an unenviable position.

 

The Spider-man persona is part of how Peter punishes himself for his failings with the cat-burglar.  (Wearing the costume every night in petere's case, is like the Ancient Mariner being forced to wear the albatross around his neck for his sins)  Screwing up his relationships is another way Peter unconsciously punishes himself.

 

I'm sure pointing out to your mentee that he was (for some reason) snaffing up his own life, wouldn't have done much to improve the situation.  Whatever was causing him to behave as he did, it was as much unconscious as conscious.  Likewise, when we see Peter repeatedly torpedoing his own happiness, it's not just that he is making bad dcisions because he is stupid.  There's some kind of partly unconscious rationalising going on in his head.  He himself doesn't even know that he's punishing himself.

 

Yes, I feel/have felt frustrated when reading early Spider-man comics, and was relieved when he started to catch a few breaks in the Romita era.  I'm in agreement with you there.  Maybe its the reason I wasn't a huge fan of Spider-man until I came back to the comics as an adult. Still, I can't help but think that the neurotic, psychologically complex and deeply flawed portrait of Peter Parker lifts the first 100 or so issues of Amazing Spider-man towards something like art. It's hard to call such depth and richness a fault in the series.

 

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