Thwipp! The hiss of liquid silk squirting across the canyons of New York City to stick instantly to the side of a sky-scraper. Thwipp! The whisper of webbing masking the eyes, sealing the mouths and binding the wrists of gun-wielding evildoers. Thwipp! The last thing a dazed arch-villain hears – barring a wisecrack or two – before he finds himself trussed like a fly and left dangling to wait for the cops.
Spider-Man is back, bigger and more successful than ever, snapping box-office records and netting a new generation of fans via his movie debut. His triumphant return in the US, almost certain to be duplicated in cinemas here next weekend, seemed pre-ordained, but like the troubled life of his alter ego, Peter Parker, Spidey's career has swung both up and down. His celluloid appearance comes after a string of failed print relaunches and convoluted plot twists.
I first encountered Spider-Man when I was nine and fresh off the boat from England, a bookish, bespectacled Canadian immigrant. To prairie farm boys, toughened by the climate and ice hockey, I was too tempting a target. Captain Scarlet and Secret Agent 21 could have offered me no solace. Superman and Batman were oblivious to my torment. But Peter Parker knew exactly what I was going through. From his debut in Amazing Fantasy onwards, he had faced the taunts of his classmates. Like me, he was keen on science. Like me, he was mocked for it by the jocks. Spider-Man was the Revenge of the Nerds, and I revelled in it.
By the late Sixties, the wall-crawler had already left Midtown high school in Queens, NY, for Empire State University. His earlier exploits could only be found at garage sales and church bazaars, not preserved in polyethylene envelopes as they are today, but jumbled in with well-thumbed copies of The Fantastic Four, The X-Men and The Incredible Hulk. You could chart Parker's rise from friendless geek to "big man on campus", while his other self fought the forces of darkness, The Chameleon, Doctor Octopus, The Vulture, Kraven, Electro, Mysterio et al.
Millions of pre-pubescent boys across North America and, later, Britain identified with him. He made mistakes and his life was filled with worries, often romantic and financial, sometimes ethical. He was moody, confused and misunderstood, particularly by J Jonah Jameson, the proprietor of The Daily Bugle, and was as likely to be running from the law as assisting it. Yet he always did what he thought was right.
The idea for Spider-Man, says his co-creator, Stan Lee, came from watching a fly walk up a wall. Neither Fly-Man nor Insect-Man had the right ring to it, but Spider-Man sounded just right. His publisher, Martin Goodman, hated it, so he was introduced in the last, throwaway issue of a dying series, Amazing Fantasy, in 1962. In it, Parker gained his powers from the bite of a spider that had accidentally passed through a radioactive experiment. In the film, the spider is genetically modified, a sign of how the hopes and fears that surround science have evolved over 40 years.
It took nine months for the phenomenal sales of that first issue to be reported back to Marvel. Spidey got his own series three months later. From the start, Spider-Man was different from other super-heroes. Jack Kirby, Marvel Comics' top artist, tried to draw him, but was dropped because he made the character too muscle-bound. Instead, a horror comic artist, Steve Ditko, the other co-creator, was brought in to make Spidey look a bit weedy. A lot like the typical comic book reader.
The web-head's motivation for crime fighting was different too. Superman seemed naturally altruistic; Batman began by seeking revenge for the murder of his parents. But Spider-Man's first thought on discovering his powers was to turn them to profit; his costume was designed for a television career. Only after his Uncle Ben was killed by a thief, whom Spider-Man had earlier allowed to escape, was he driven by guilt and remorse to do the right thing. "With great power comes great responsibility" became Spider-Man's motto.
But what really made the web-slinger special was his background. He caught colds and worried about the fragile health of Aunt May, who raised him. He became caught in overlapping triangles of love and loyalty. Instead of solving all his problems, his super-powers only seemed to make them worse. And the frustration showed. "Everything's fine," he said in a recent episode while demolishing a condemned office block. "Everything's just ducky. Except that whenever I'm really bugged about something and I really need to go pound a bad guy there's never a bad guy around. But whenever I'm in a really good mood, there's always four or five bad guys, or a sinister six, or seven, or 19 waiting to bust my chops and ruin my day."
And that was the secret of Spider-Man's success. "Stan Lee's genius was to turn comics into soap operas," says Jan Wiacek of Forbidden Planet, a comic book shop on London's Oxford Street. Lee was born Stanley Lieber in 1922 and went to work for Marvel in 1939. He imagined dozens of super-heroes, from the Incredible Hulk to the Mighty Thor and many super-villains, yet it is for Spidey he is best remembered. His creations have sold more than two billion copies. But, like Peter Parker, Lee has had setbacks, most dramatically when his internet company, Stan Lee Media, collapsed amid allegations of fraud by two of his backers, Peter Paul and Stephen Gordon.
Spider-Man's peak of popularity came in the Seventies when tragedy was centre-stage. His girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, and her father, George, are killed, and Spidey feels responsible. Parker's best friend, Harry Osborn, is torn by jealousy and turns to drugs when his girlfriend, Mary Jane, dumps him. Osborn's father, Norman, loses his mind to become his enemy, the Green Goblin, again.
Parker and Spidey suffered other losses after Gwen Stacy's death, but most were reversed using one narrative device or another. Aunt May has died four times, twice by foul play. Parker's wife, Mary Jane, and their daughter, also May, died yet returned. Even Parker was briefly shunted off-stage into retirement, while his clone, Ben Reilly, took over. Reality was becoming strained.
Developments in previous issues, and often in other titles, influenced each story. Footnotes became commonplace. The plus was that dedicated fans had to buy every issue or they would lose track of what was going on, thus guaranteeing an audience for each new product. But potential new readers were too confused by the back-stories to buy in.
The difficulties accelerated in the late 1980s when Ron Perelman, a former chairman of Revlon, took over Marvel, sparking a junk-bond battle with corporate raider Carl Icahn and a management shake-up that brought the company into bankruptcy protection by 1996. "Overnight, two-thirds of comic shops went out of business," said Jan's brother, Win Wiacek, a Spider-Man artist and owner of a comics consultancy. The industry has still not recovered.
Realising the tremendous value tied up in old Marvel titles should have been easy. But the company managed to botch the job, selling the Spider-Man film rights to three different parties. Even now, argues Win Wiacek, the company is taking little advantage of the Spider-Man film hype to promote its comic books. Selling Spidey figures made in the Far East is more profitable in the short term. For Spider-Man, a successful future is more likely to be scripted in Hollywood than New York.
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