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.