Spider-Man: Every generation's favourite superhero

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The Independent Online

Spare a thought this weekend for Sir Peter Parker KBE, the Mitsubishi chairman and one-time head of British Rail; extend your sympathy likewise to Peter Parker, the writer and distinguished biographer of Christopher Isherwood. For, as far as a few million transatlantic consumers of graphic novels, Marvel Comic books and blockbuster movies are concerned, there's only one Peter Parker in this world - and that's Spider-Man.

Spare a thought this weekend for Sir Peter Parker KBE, the Mitsubishi chairman and one-time head of British Rail; extend your sympathy likewise to Peter Parker, the writer and distinguished biographer of Christopher Isherwood. For, as far as a few million transatlantic consumers of graphic novels, Marvel Comic books and blockbuster movies are concerned, there's only one Peter Parker in this world - and that's Spider-Man.

Mr Parker and his arachnid alter ego are in the news again, with the release of Spider-Man 2. In this latest bulletin of his adventures, the superhero saves New York City from destruction at the hands of a deranged quantum physicist called Doctor Octavius (christened "Doc Ock" by the tabloid goons at the Daily Bugle) - but Peter, the teen phenomenon behind the red mask, the blue tights and the sticky extremities, is giving his many fans cause for concern.

We've become used to a world where superheroes have successful ordinary lives. Behind Batman's cloak lurks a suave Gotham City millionaire socialite called Bruce Wayne. Behind the Superman tights is the mild, granite-jawed Clark Kent, ace reporter on the Daily Planet. Both are reasonably well-adjusted adults (with perhaps just a touch of unresolved Messiah complex). Peter Parker is different.

The news from Spider-Man 2 is alarming. His ability to shoot rubber cement spider webs at skyscrapers and dangle all over Manhattan is deserting him. His response to this tragic bout of impotence is to consult a therapist. (I mean, hello? a superhero going to a shrink?). He becomes bedridden with the flu. His courtship of Mary Jane Watson, the most beautiful girl at Empire State University, is fatally interrupted by his chronic need to scurry away and fight crime. (Mary Jane hangs up on him just as he's whining "My life's just really, really complicated right now...".)

His saintly Aunt May is declining in health and running out of money. To help her out, Peter works nights delivering pizzas (he's always late) and taking pictures of Spider-Man's crime-busting triumphs for the Daily Bugle. (He's always being bawled out by the paper's loutish publisher, J Jonah Jameson.) Life is going comprehensively avocado-shaped for the hapless PP. Which is why, in the most shocking episode in his long career, mid-way through the film he jacks it all in. He stuffs his spider-suit in a rubbish bin and tries to regain his quotidian life as a top science student and a hanger-out with pals in fashionable wine bars.

It doesn't last, but it provides an insight into why Spider-Man has been so popular for 42 years. For each new generation of teen inadequates, he is the hero-as-nerd, the shy, tongue-tied, non-jock ninny who nevertheless wastes the bad guys and gets into the bra of the top cheerleader. He is always stuck somewhere between 17 and 22. He is the Immortal Teen who, for brief periods, turns into the Urban Übermensch. For the mag-loving kid in the omniplex stalls, he could so easily be one of them. That's why fans, anoraks and commentators discuss his exploits as if he's a friend and call him by the matey diminutive "Spidey". No Batman fan ever dreamt of calling his hero "Batty".

He first appeared in 1962, designed by the genius of Stan Lee, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics, as a one-off counterblast to the popular image of the Marvel hero: this Spider-Man would be a screwed-up kid, endlessly worrying about doing the right thing, a natural-born sceptic and complainer, given to philosophising in windy, speech-bubble soliloquies. He nearly didn't get born at all. Drawn by Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, he featured on the cover of the ailing Amazing Fantasy magazine in March 1962. It was a sensation - one of the best selling comics in history - and earned the web-slinging acroballerino his own magazine, The Amazing Spiderman, which ran from March 1963 and is still running.

The 1962 Fantasy magazine established Peter Parker's back history with brisk economy. He was orphaned at six when his parents, Richard and Mary, were killed in a plane crash while "on government business", spying in Algeria. He was cared for by his elderly (and childless) aunt May and uncle Ben Parker. At school he was a gifted but uncool outsider, an oddball, a boff, a bit of a nerd. He was puny, bespectacled, and suffered attacks of vertigo. Not promising hero material.

What changed his life was a visit by the high school to an exhibition demonstrating nuclear waste disposal. An irradiated spider found its way on to Peter's hand and bit him. Outside the lab, he ran into the path of a car - and instinctively leapt out of the way on to the side of a wall, amazed to discover he'd acquired the strength, agility and - crucially - the stickiness to turn him into a 5'10" arachnid aranaea. He woke next day to find he was possessed of superhuman strength. His eyesight was 20/20. His muscles bulged. He developed a sixth sense that anticipated trouble lying in wait or sneaking up behind him.

Sadly, his first instinct was not to fight crime but to show off his strength as a champion wrestler. Incognito in a ridiculous mask, he defeated the frightening Crusher Hogan and was signed up by a talent scout. Galvanised by the prospect of fame, Parker designed a figure-hugging costume (red and blue, overlaid by a black cobweb effect) and produced, in the school science lab, a firearm that could blast adhesive into a villain's eyes or nail him to a wall; and could form sticky-spaghetti ropes by means of which he can swoop, swing and abseil down the mighty canyons of Manhattan.

He changed his mind about crime when his uncle Ben was killed by a burglar - one that Peter had failed to stop in mid-flight only days earlier. This was Parker's big epiphany ("With great power comes great responsibility") and henceforth he became a grudgingly dedicated crimefighter. Not everyone understood the purity of his motives. Jameson of the Daily Bugle ran stories abusing "that masked psycho" as a menace to society. Elsewhere, cheap pop psychologists have wondered if Spiderman is not so much a hero as an embodiment of the adolescent id unloosed on the world.

His muscle-flexing, his wall-crawling, his playground swinging - all bear the hallmarks of a teenage boy throwing himself manically around in a frenzy of hormonal energy. Discovering that you possess a device that can shoot great globs of sticky gloop from your wrist area right across the room is also a common phenomenon in young adults. But whatever the reason, Spiderman became a big hit with the Marvel Comics audience. How could he not? Behind the skin-tight costume and the translucent eyepatches, the triumph of Spiderman was the Revenge of the Geek.

He is now 42, but, in the time-bending, Marvel-Comics universe, is still a young student, still trying to make out with Mary Jane, and save her from marrying boringly, mundanely heroic jocks and astronauts. Over four years he has grown up ve-ry-slow-ly: a teen in 1962, he graduated from high school in 1965, and from university in October 1978 (that must have been some degree course) but was still doing postgraduate work in the 1990s. He encountered the voluptuous Felicia Hardy - also known as Black Cat, a bosomy burglar in a black, zip-fronted Catwoman outfit - in July 1979, and their raging affair, and crime-fighting partnership, lasted until March 1985. With her voluptuous rival out of the way, Mary Jane Watson, back from extended leave in Florida, linked up with her university sweetheart; they were married in October 1987.

As the roster of Spider-Man's foes and super-villains grew and grew - they include the Tinkerer, the Sandman, Doctor Doom, the Lizard, the Jackal, the Scorpion, the Sin Eater, Electro, Mysterio, Venom, the Enforcers, the Green Goblin (as seen in the first Spider-Man movie), the Chameleon and Kraven the Hunter as well as the quadropodal Dr Octopus - Peter Parker's family life became increasingly problematic. His Aunt May, for instance, was a sweet septuagenarian when we first met her in 1962. She is always being abducted and held to ransom by terrible villains - by Doctor Octopus and the Sinister Six, by the Beetle, later by the Green Goblin. When she inherits an island in Canada, it's found to be radioactive. She is always going into hospital, or convalescing in nursing homes or giving Peter and Mary Jane a blessing on her death-bed. Frankly, it was no surprise to discover her suffering a heart attack in the early 1990s and dying (aged about 110) in April 1995. But we spoke too soon - it turned out she wasn't dead at all. Her death had been faked by a "genetically modified actress" supplied by Harry Osborn, the Green Goblin.

Peter must have been used to such family shocks by the return from the dead of his parents in August 1992. They hadn't died in a plane crash but had been held abroad as political prisoners. No, OK then, they weren't actually his parents but robotic associates of a heartless bad-ass called the Chameleon.

His creators, meanwhile, have become dynastic: the early artists Steve Ditko, John Romita and Jack Kirby gave way to a new generation of Spider-Stylists, such as Todd McFarlane, Gil Kane, Paul Jenkins and John Romita Jnr, while former teen-geek readers in the 1960s spawned an army of mini-Peter Parkers who are now in turn 17-year-old Spidey clones. And so the world's most enterprising arachnid goes scuttling onwards, leaping from 80-storey Manhattan towers, battling New York's giveaway-named villains, sitting broodily on the top of the Chrysler building - but then fighting at ground level to keep his girlfriend sweet, his auntie compos mentis, and his bank balance solvent. He's always been the most flawed and user-friendly of Marvel characters. He's a minor superman, sure, but one with whom you empathise entirely - a down-home swinger, a local hero, a one-man web-site.

A LIFE IN BRIEF

Born: Peter Benjamin Parker, in March 1948, to Richard and Mary Parker. Orphaned at six.

Family: Married Mary Jane Watson, October 1987. One child, May (stillborn but lives on, on alternative earth, as Spider-Girl).

Education: Midtown High School, Empire State University

Career: Photographer, Daily Bugle; delivery boy, Joe's Pizza; freelance super-hero.

Media: The Amazing Spider-Man magazine (1963-2004); Spider-Man TV cartoon (1967-68); syndicated newspaper cartoon strips (from 1977); TV movie The Amazing Spider-Man (1977); CBS TV series (1978); NBC animated series Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (from 1981). Fox TV series Spider-Man: the Animated Series (1995). Feature films: Spider-Man (2002). Spider-Man 2 (2004).

He says... "With great power comes great responsibility."

They say... "Spider-Man. Spider-Man. Does whatever a spider can. Spins a web, any size. Catches thieves just like flies. Look out! Here comes the Spider-Man! Is he strong? Listen, bud, he's got radio-active blood." - TV jingle

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