Saturday, September 13, 2014

Favorite Marvel Characters #1 - Spider-Man

Character: Spider-Man (Peter Parker)

Creators: Steve Ditko and Stan Lee.

First appearance: Amazing Fantasy #15

First encounter: Amazing Spider-Man #273. It would have been concurrent with Spectacular Spider-Man #111, but Amazing was the first issue in a two-parter that concluded in Spectacular. Maybe it should be Web of Spider-Man #12. I received all three simultaneously, but that comes first storywise, as it starts immediately after some punks torch Parker's apartment, and by the time we get to the other two, MJ is helping him repaint it. Somehow, though it's always Amazing #273 that takes prominence in my mind.

Definitive writer: Well, when you boil it down, it all comes back to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, doesn't it? Although the Spidey I'm familiar with is probably more Lee/Romita. But if we're going to stick to writers I've read much of, then it's either Roger Stern or David Micheline, maybe DeFalco after those two.

Definitive artist: Either Mark Bagley or John Romita Jr. There's a lot of others who draw him well, too, but those are the ones who've drawn him the most for me, and their the ones whose version I see in my head.

Favorite moment or story: That's tough, there's a lot of good ones. Spidey taking it to the X-Men in Secret Wars. Peter getting through to Harry Osborn in Spectacular Spider-Man #200. The Firelord fight, the first Morlun battle. Making Loki sit on a rooftop with him and eat hot dogs. The whole saga with the Captain Universe powers - who didn't enjoy watching him punch surly, Mr. Fix-it Hulk into orbit? But if I'm gonna pick one, it's gotta be the fight with the Juggernaut. Spidey tried everything: webbing, dazzling him with speed and agility, thousands of volts of electricity, steel girders, wrecking balls, tanker trucks full of fuel. Nothing worked. With no other recourse, he did the last thing he could - he covered the eye holes on Juggy's helmet. And then he held on. And held on. And held on.

I love those stories where Spidey has to punch out of his weight class. I especially like that Stern followed up that story by spending two issues on Spider-Man having to fight Mr. Hyde.

What I like about him: You cannot possibly be surprised by this. I can't remember a time when I didn't know who Spider-Man was, though that must have been the case at some point. I have a vague sense I watched Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends when I was young, but I don't know if that preceded those comics I listed. However it came about, for me, he is the superhero, the one I compare all others to. I don't know whether it's because of Spider-Man that red and blue were my favorite colors for a long time, or if those were already my favorite colors and Spider-Man wearing them was another point in his favor with me. It seems a silly idea he might be the source of that, but I can't rule it out. And when I was introduced to comics, he wasn't even using the classic costume, he wore the cloth version of the symbiote costume in all three of those comics I listed above. Lucky for Spidey, even his alternate costume is pretty awesome.

I know I liked his array of powers, and the way he didn't seem overpowered. He was strong, but lots of other heroes and villains are stronger. He's fast, but others are faster. He's smart, but others are smarter. He has a spider-sense, and I know I thought the ability to sense a threat and dodge it instinctively was cool, but it wasn't quite precognition or telepathy. He wasn't the best in any one area, but he was good in almost all of them, so he could face a wide array of problems and have some sort of solution, but it wouldn't necessarily be easy.

Visually he was interesting. He could be this bright, colorful figure swinging gracefully through the skyline of New York City. Or he could be an imposing figure, lurking from the shadows in the corner of the ceiling. Or they'd show him moving like a blur, dodging a dozen attacks at once, be they metal tentacles, pumpkin bombs, or plain old bullets. I have always been a fan of those panels with all the after images of Spidey, showing precisely how he's avoiding the threats with a remarkable grace. They're maybe one of my favorite things in comics.

It's hard to describe the things about his character I like because it's probably all of it. I think he's the template for most of the others in some way or another. I like his quick remarks and silly insults, because I'm a bit of a smart aleck myself (I might owe that more to Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes, but it'd be close). Peter Parker was a smart guy who liked to read and was interested in science, and I spent a lot of time with my nose in books, too. Peter got bullied as a teenager, and I had some trouble with that in elementary school. I said I thought a spider-sense sounded awesome, well yeah, the idea of being able to sense dangers and deftly avoid them held a lot of appeal to me.

But there were other things, too. In the first few years I was reading Spider-Man comics, he had a lot of guest appearances by former foes who had turned away from crime to become heroes. Some of them were people who made a bad decision under pressure and just needed a nudge to get back on track. Others were long time foes he'd tangled with for years, like Sandman. And yet, Spider-Man was accepting of and encouraged their attempts to go straight. He might not always want help, but he at least appreciated the fact they were trying to do the right thing. Even when they thought the right thing was arresting Spider-Man (see Web of Spider-Man #50). In those early comics, the Puma was not too far removed from trying to kill Spider-Man, and yet, while he and Parker aren't friends by any stretch, Peter doesn't lash out the second he sees Thomas Fireheart. He hears what the guy has to say (that he wants Spider-Man's help in killing the Beyonder), and tries to explain why that's a ludicrous proposition, even if Spider-Man were inclined to kill his foes. Which he isn't, or Fireheart wouldn't be there asking for a partnership.

Parker understands people can make bad choices sometimes. They do the selfish thing, or turn a blind eye to the plight of others, because he did it himself. But he also knows not only the potential cost, but that people can change, and can use their gifts for the benefit of others. So he's willing to give others the chance as well, because I think he believes people are mostly good at heart. He always believed Harry Osborn would overcome his demons. He stood up to Dr. Doom to protect the aged thief the Black Fox. He even trusted Dr. Octopus to help save him from some lethal virus. It takes a person with a very positive (also very desperate) outlook to trust someone who has tried to kill them as often as Octavius had tried to kill Spider-Man. In Web of Spider-Man #12, the ending is that Peter decides not to press charges against the 3 teens who torched his apartment. Through a series of circumstances, they'd learned their lessons, and he didn't want to ruin their lives, when they could hopefully go forward being better people. I'm not as hopeful about people as Spidey, but I like to think people are capable of not making the selfish choice, given the chance.

In Spider-Girl #81, Electro shows up at the Avengers' Mansion. He has a daughter who inherited his powers, that he hasn't been there for much (because he was in prison), and since her mom died she's been out robbing armored cars and such. Max wants to get her out of that life, but has an added problem that his electrical aura and hers don't mix, and any contact between the two causes both pain. He didn't come to the Avengers for help, though, he just wanted them to get in touch with Spider-Man. Because he knows the webhead will give him a fair shake. And Spidey recognizes it's a genuine request to help a guy connect with his child, and he works to find a solution. I also like that issue because of how all the current Avengers, themselves not much older than Mayday, get really excited at the chance to meet the Spider-Man.

One of the other things I may have learned from Spider-Man is the idea of not expecting any thanks for doing the job, or even wanting any, really. I make a lot of cracks about the stupidity and general poor attitude of your average Marvel citizen, even before New York City was getting destroyed twice a year in big events, but it rarely seemed to stop Spidey, so I guess that told me if the job was worth doing, who cares if people appreciate it? Right off the bat in Amazing #273, Spider-Man has to stop two cars that sideswiped each other from crashing into a bunch of pedestrians. He does it by webbing the end of each car, and nearly gets torn apart for his trouble. As he's laying there recuperating, one of the pedestrians says, 'Look, Spider-Man tried to run us down with that car!', to which Spidey thinks, 'Oh great.' It's an incredibly stupid reading of the situation - if he wanted to hit you with the car, he'd just throw it - but it doesn't stop him from trying to save people later.

During that Web of Spider-Man story, Peter's built up by folks around the neighborhood as a hero, because he showed hewon't be intimidated. But when he explains at the end how he thinks the boys learned their lesson, the neighbors turn on him. They think he's wishy-washy, and they cancel the "Peter Parker Patrol' they were setting up, because none of them understand why he did it (Mary Jane understands, though, and these early comics, where MJ is both a lightening and steadying influence on Peter did a lot to make me a fan of hers). Again, while Peter questions the point of all that he's doing, I never thought he seriously considered that he should have gone ahead and had the boys sent to jail. He understood what he hoped to accomplish, and if others don't, and it causes them to look at him askance, or costs him some celebrity, oh well.

For a time, Thomas Fireheart owned the Daily Bugle, because he felt he owed Spider-Man a debt of honor for thinking Spidey was a criminal worth killing. So he turned the Bugle into a massively pro-Spidey paper. What's interesting was Peter seemed more uncomfortable with that than he had dealing with Jonah's mudslinging. Maybe because for all those years he could laugh to himself about how Jonah's tirades and slanted journalism were paying Spider-Man's rent and tuition bills, or because he trusted Robbie Robertson to balance Jonah's excesses and get the truth out there. But also, I thought it was because he didn't want accolades for what he was doing. Peter felt being Spider-Man and saving lives was the right thing to do, and so he did it. It's frustrating to be blamed when all you're trying to do is help, but he kept going in spite of it. He doesn't enjoy being called a menace or having rocks thrown at him, but he doesn't need the key to the city. Action is his reward, after all.

I've always preferred the idea that he isn't solely motivated by guilt over Uncle Ben's death, that he helps because he knows it's a way he can make a difference, and he likes helping people. It's the same reason I liked the Spider-Girl universe's idea that he would become a forensic police scientist after his web-slinging career ended. Peter's a smart guy in terms of science, and his years of crimefighting have probably given him some experience dealing with criminals methods, and especially with some of the weird stuff super-crooks would utilize, in a way your more standard CSI wouldn't. Not that he couldn't still help the old-fashioned way.

Also, I think having Peter driven by a desire to help more readily explains some of those times where he decides to chuck the whole thing. It does make sense that at times he would get fed up with all the fearful citizenry and with the complications it brings to his personal life, but it could also be as simple as him not feeling he's make a difference. There are times when so many things are going wrong for the people around him, it would be understandable if he wondered if he was actually helping like this. People struggle with that in their own way, whether they matter or make a difference, and there's no reason it can't happen to Spider-Man as well.

Of course, something always comes up, and Peter always decides to step up. That's something I really love, that if there's a problem, Spider-Man is going to get involved and try to do something, even if he's completely outclassed. It isn't that he enjoys getting beat up, or that he doesn't understand how overmatched he is. When Madame Web asked him to protect her from the Juggernaut, Spidey fairly quickly figured out the size of the gap between his power and Marko's, and advised her to call in more heroes. The X-Men, the Avengers, the FF, somebody. But they were all busy. Likewise, when he tangled with the Firelord, he managed to divert the guy and hauled webs for the Baxter Building, only to remember when he got there that the place had been destroyed recently, and he had no idea where the Fantastic Four were. Which just left him.

But if Spider-Man is all there is, he will hold the line as best he can. Over the years I've seen him tangle with the Juggernaut, the Firelord, the Silver Surfer, Dr. Doom, the Wrecking Crew, Graviton, the Hulk, the Tri-Sentinel. He didn't win all those fights - the Surfer nearly killed him, he only saved himself from Doom by playing to Doom's vanity, the Juggernaut reached Madame Web despite Spidey's best efforts - but reading the stories, you never doubted he gave it everything he had, even as he wonders what the heck he's thinking fighting these guys. But he kept swinging right to end. His diverse powers, smarts, and guts give him a puncher's chance against most any heavyweight.

But because he isn't overwhelmingly powerful in any one area, combined with his tendency to overexert himself and to get distracted by his personal life, he can lose to just about any lightweight chump if the conditions are right (or wrong, as the case may be). He can hold his own against an entire Sinister Six, then lose to just Electro later. I don't think he's ever beaten Daredevil (which is something I would immediately rectify if I somehow got writing duties on Amazing Spider-Man. First issue, 22, sorry, 20 pages of Spidey kicking Daredevil's butt. Explanation provided later, but rest assured Matt will deserve it somehow). He's lost to Stilt-Man. Twice! It makes it very interesting because you can't tell how things are going to go for him in any given fight.

Slightly related, there was an issue of New Excalibur, #13 I think, written by Frank Tieri, where the Wrecking Crew are beating up Cain Marko, who interrupted some crime of theirs. This is when he was trying to go straight and so Cyttorak was gradually taking back its power because Cain wasn't using it in accordance with Cyttorak's wishes. The Wrecker is sad about the whole thing, and mentions everyone loved Cain, because he was the one guy who could shut up Spider-Man. Someone else, Thunderball maybe, comments that he hates Spider-Man, and the Wrecker retorts that everyone hates Spider-Man. This might seem contradictory with that story I liked earlier about Electro, but I tend to think that even though Spidey irritates the hell out of all the villains he fights by making fun of them constantly, they know that if they went to him for help, he'd hear them out. You can recognize the good in someone while still being annoyed by him.

The flipside of his fighting everyone is he can't exactly be overconfident, but he can be used to the weird stuff that comes with superheroing. I know some people didn't like that bit from JMS' run where Spidey sat on a rooftop with Loki and ate hot dogs, but I did. If you figure Loki is just humoring Spidey because he's using him as bait for Morwen, it makes sense. What, Spider-Man is supposed to be impressed by the Asgardian God of Mischief, with his flashy light shows and stupid robes? Please. Spider-Man sees better effects when he fights a guy wearing a fishbowl on his head.

Spider-Man's had the Captain Universe powers. He's been dumped into weird Ditko dimensions while trying to help Dr. Strange, been shrunk to microscopic size alongside Ant-Man. He was nearly stepped on by Galactus during a battle on a patchwork planet created by a sentient universe. A sentient universe that later showed up at Peter's apartment with a jheri curl needing to learn how to use the bathroom. He has fought Thanos, not just on Thanos' ship for the fate of the Solar System, but alone in the realm of Death herself for the soul of a young child. And he did it without flinching. There is not much he hasn't seen at this point, and he's survived it all.

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