Does Whatever a Spider Can By Robert Chazz Chute
Before a wife, kids and responsibilities came along, I dropped $50 bucks a week on a massive comics collection in the late ’80s. I collected a little of everything. My favorites were Batman and Spider-Man, but Spider-Man was just a little bit better because Peter Parker was a young liberal, poor and, if Wikipedia is right, a “functioning neurotic.” Just like me!
Besides being able to lift ten tons, roll with the Hulk’s punches and swing from a thread, Peter Parker is just as interesting out of the costume as in it. He’s not a billionaire with infinite resources brooding in a cave or a nigh invulnerable God/Christ-metaphor who can fly and solve every problem by melting the villain’s face off with lasers from his eyes. Nothing comes easy to Peter Parker or Spider-Man, even if he does end up with a supermodel wife for a while.
Peter had real-world problems I could relate to: A jerk for a boss; dating troubles; juggling responsibilities; crushing guilt; shyness and a Green Goblin to overcome. Well, many real-world problems, anyway. On top of that, he lives with his old Aunt May and, though she’s sweet, living with an old lady can really put a dent in a player’s game. As if that’s not enough, Pete’s king of the nerds.
Spider-Man’s world is surprisingly complex, especially for a marvel comic. Everyone he knows somehow gets dragged into the action or becomes a bad guy. What set him apart was that Spider-Man was the first teenaged superhero who wasn’t a sidekick. Kids could relate to him and I, as a perennial man-child whose development is arrested, continue to relate to him.
Often the comic has tackled deep issues: Peter was sexually abused by a neighbor as a very young teen but Marvel managed to handle it well so it didn’t strike the discordant note of a very smarmy After-School Special. Early on in the run of the Spider-Man comics, Peter is submerged in the same late ’60s political, drug and social culture and confusion as his readers. For a mainstream comic book, the subtext and context is very rich and reflects the evolution of our times. (By contrast, Gotham and Metropolis never really change, do they?)
Peter Parker, as Spider-Man, deals with two issues that are burned into my mind. The first came immediately after September 11, 2001. Spider-Man stands amongst the ruins of the World Trade Center and he is too late. “Where were you when we needed you most?” he is asked by a tearful crowd. “Where were the superheroes?” The answer, of course, is the superheroes arrived in fire trucks that day.
But it goes even deeper. What follows in that book is a heartbreaking eulogy for the victims, a stirring call to a nation to live up to its ideals and an ominous warning to the attackers. It made me cry. I read it again years later and, if you read between the lines, you even see that the writers were so prescient, they predicted how terribly vengeance could go wrong. The same comic that made me cry the first several times I read it managed to make me angry for reasons elucidated only by history. That isn’t just brilliant writing. It’s perspicacious thinking that made me wish a comic book writer had moonlighted as President or at least Secretary of Defense.
The next ever-so-memorable Spider-man storyline pits the webslinger against an old ally: Iron Man. Representing an overreaching government, Iron Man convinces the webhead to reveal his secret identity. Clever and complex, the story arc veers into surprise territory and becomes a stunning indictment of the excesses of The Patriot Act. You don’t get this kind of depth from most superheroes in tight clothing and capes.
And let’s not forget the origin of the immortal line, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Batman’s parents were gunned down in front of him, thus spurring him on to become the world’s foremost detective when he’s not being a gadget-guy ninja and all round bad ass. But he was a kid of eight when his parents fell to bullets Joe Chill’s. Bruce Wayne was blameless, but Spider-Man’s origin is actually darker. He could have easily stopped the robber who killed his beloved Uncle Ben but, despite all his abilities, he couldn’t be bothered. Spider-Man’s spending the rest of his life catching bad guys, too, but he’s not on a psychotic mission. He’s powered by guilt and shame to make his sin fade, knowing it can never be erased.
Ultimately, it’s not the heavy stuff that keeps Spider-Man coming back as a peerless superhero. It’s his wit. Spider-Man is the superhero who, despite it all, has a sense of humor. Even that springs from a darker origin. He’s following the example of a young classmate who was bullied. The victim’s defense mechanism against his tormentors was to crack jokes. Peter adopted that for his alter ego’s persona. Sometimes, in confronting the forces of evil, a sense of humor is the only weapon we’ve got left to fight with, too.
Spider-Man can cling to any surface, his spidey sense warns him of danger and he moves like he’s on strings. The thing I admire most about Spider-Man is that he’s just as heroic stopping a mugger as confronting Galactus. In fact, I’d rather watch him knock out a bank robber because that’s what I fantasize about as I wait in line. If I were a superhero, sure, I’d prefer to have Batman’s riches and resources and the cool car, but I wouldn’t recognize myself when I took off the mask.
But Peter Parker? I went to university with Peter Parker! We had the same budget: no damn money and hustling while a boss barks at us! We had the same trouble juggling girlfriends and I’m sure we dreamed of revenge on the same moronic high school jocks.
And one night, briefly, I got to be Spider-Man. Just a few years ago, I had a rare lucid dream and, you guessed it, I was in New York, in costume (the red one, not the cooler black one, but okay) swinging among skyscrapers, flying through the air and patrolling the city. My city. High above the streets, watching for muggers and protecting innocent civilians? It’s not just about being a bad ass. Swinging from one building to the next at dizzying heights, you can outrun your guilt for a while and truly feel freedom. Action is his reward!
With the notable exception of that dream about a lonely and gorgeous Mika Tan showing up in my bedroom — in which action is also the reward — being Spider-Man?
Best. Dream. Ever.
~ Robert Chazz Chute is the author of Sex, Death & Mind Control, Self-help for Stoners and The Dangerous Kind. His crime thriller, Bigger Than Jesus, will be published this June. Learn more about Chazz’s books or listen to his weekly podcast at AllThatChazz.com.