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 3, 2012 at 8:21am

Any sort of criticism about the heroism of Spider-Man is bound to ruffle a few feathers as he is the figurehead of the Marvel Universe. The phrase "With great power, comes great responsibility" defines him but let's compare him to two other Marvel teens with great power.

Johnny Storm, the Human Torch: a walking inferno who could maim or kill anyone easily or destroy a city. He was responsible enough not to but he was still immature and obnoxious. But he had no guilt and felt a great deal of entitlement. He had grown-ups to handle the serious aspects of life. He was brave and heroic but hardly a hero. But that changed somewhat when Crystal entered his life and the birth of his nephew Franklin.

Scott Summers, Cyclops who could kill or destroy with a glance. His power was great but he could not turn it off. He was on guard every moment and became very introverted. He was pushed into responsibilty by his mentor, Charles Xavier, who made him leader of the X-Men which made him more morose. It was only through the love of Jean Grey, Marvel Girl, that allowed him to become more assured and independent.

With Peter, it was his relationship with Gwen Stacy to helped him grow into a more rounded person and shake the phobias and neoroses that plagued him. Until she was murdered, of course. 

Comment by John Dunbar on September 4, 2012 at 9:50am

As noted by others, there is an interesting take on the Lee/Ditko era. While I do agree with some of it, I have to say that I disagree with a lot of it. Before I get into that, let me say I can relate to being underwhelmed by something that seems to be universally loved. You've been a comics fan for many years Chris, and I believe you've mentioned on a number of occasions that you've read and enjoyed many Spider-Man comics. So if you're reading the comics from this era for the first time, you go into it with all of the hype it gets as one of the Holy Grails of comics running through your mind ... and I can see why for some, it just doesn't live up to the hype.

First, I agree with the notion that Peter was too quick to blame "the Parker luck" on all of his misfortunes. It's easy for anyone (and hey, not just teenagers) to blame outside forces seemingly beyond our control - or other people - when really we sometimes just need to take a look in the mirror first. Sometimes it was valid, and sometimes it was a crutch.

I was a little surprised at your take on the villains. Sure, there's a few clunkers and losers there, but you can say that about any rogues gallery. Imo, Spidey has one of the best of all time, and Ditko and Lee deserve about 85% of the credit as far as I'm concerned. Sure, there's a noticeable drop off in quality after the Scorpion debuts in ASM 20, but that's after they gave the readers the Vulture, Dr. Octopus, the Sandman, the Lizard, Electro, Mysterio, the Green Goblin, and Kraven beforehand.  Imo, other rogues galleries at Marvel, especially in this era, don't even come close to Spidey's.  One further thing I'll note; most of the second raters - like Crime-Master and Molten Man, as you mention - show up in Ditko's last year, and he and Lee were supposedly barely speaking at that point.  I hate to say it, but aside from the classic Master Planner story in #31-33, it shows.

Commander Benson already addressed the point about taking photos to a rival paper.  I'm certain the scene with Bushkin exists because fans of the day wrote in with the same concern you express.  Also, I think Peter took a lot of satisfaction out of the fact that Jonah hated Spider-Man and unknowingly had Spidey on the payroll.  And JJJ was the first of his tormentors he could actually get back at - not physically of course, but there were times when Spidey webbed his mouth shut, webbed him to his chair, etc.  At school, he was bullied because he was "Puny Parker", so he (presumably) wasn't able to fight back, and once he became Spider-Man, he didn't dare, because he would have easily injured the other kids!  Remember, Jonah tried to turn the public against Spider-Man from the beginning, calling him a threat, menace, etc. and at last, here was a tormentor he could (verbally) turn the tables on and do the other things I mentioned.

I won't say you're wrong about Peter being rude to others or having ulterior motives only he thinks are altruistic.  I don't remember too many scenes like that, but it's been a few years since I re-read the Ditko era.  I do recall the scene you mentioned, and maybe I'm wrong but I think that was played for laughs, as in, "here's Peter Parker, Boy Genius, who is completely clueless when it comes to women."  It's not typical of how he treated Betty Brant 95% of the time.  He mooned over her, and bemoaned the fact, just like many Silver Age heroes, "I don't dare tell her I'm Spider-Man", but again (and here's another thing that made ASM stand out) at no time was Betty in love with Spidey and in fact blamed him for her brother's death (ASM 12).  As for Peter being rude to his other friends, I have to ask, which friends?  Because he didn't seem to have any in high school.  These were kids who were pretty rotten to him before his uncle was murdered, and they didn't let up after that.  Think about that for a second.

As for being rude to the other students at ESU, you left out who they were: new characters named Harry Osborn and Gwen Stacy, and their new BFF Flash Thompson.  Considering that Flash was his chief tormentor from high school and he didn't know Harry and Gwen, no one could blame him for not giving them the time of day.  He probably figured if no one cared when Uncle Ben was murdered, why would they care that his aunt was ill?

Peter was at times all the things you said, and more.  Rude, standoffish, irresponsible, immature.  He also had a quick temper during the Ditko era that seemed to ease up later on.  He did have some genuine bad luck, and he also threw himself a lot of pity parties.  But on balance I think he was pretty heroic even in the early days.  He risked his life night after night fighting crime.  He soldiered on after his Uncle died, after Doc Ock handed him his first defeat, after the brother of the woman he loved died and she blamed Spider-Man, after briefly losing his powers and still was ready to fight the Sinister Six.  He frankly had more motivation to turn bad than several villains did - his parents died when he was young, he gains superpowers thru a freak accident, his Uncle was murdered by a man he could have stopped, the publisher of a major newspaper has an unending campaign to turn the public against while other heroes are loved by the public, he is bullied at school all the time and the only thing we ever saw a teacher do was put him in a boxing ring with Flash Thompson, when he works up the nerve to ask a girl on a date they laugh in his face.  On the face of it, he was on paper about one "Bwah hah hah" away from being a super-villain (to steal a line from Big Bang Theory).  Just facing off against muggers, bank robbers, and regular crooks was plenty heroic if you ask me.

Whew!  Sorry to be so long winded!

Comment by ClarkKent_DC on September 4, 2012 at 10:47am

Like you, Chris, I didn't read any of the Ditko stories, nor for that matter, the Romita stories, when they were "live"; I've seen them only in reprints. So your analysis rings very true to me. 

The whole thing about Peter Parker selling his photos to the Daily Bugle only always struck me as a little thin; it was always too hard for me to believe there's no other place where he could take his wares, not in New York City, the media capital of the world! And the episode Commander Benson helpfully points out, where Peter goes to the Daily Globe for once, only to face more questions than he was willing to answer, doesn't solve the problem for me. There's still The New York Times, the Daily News, the New York Post, Newsday, the Associated Press, Reuters, UPI, ABC, CBS, NBC, etc., etc., and so forth.

In this day and age, when anybody can establish a website or a Facebook page or a blog, it really doesn't fly at all. I'm glad they left that entirely out of the recent Amazing Spider-Man movie.

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