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Spider-Man Became Popular by Breaking Superhero Mold, Says W&L Professor

The Amazing Spider-Man turns 50 this month, and Chris Gavaler believes the superhero’s abiding popularity can be traced to his origins as, well, a jerk.

Gavaler, visiting assistant professor of English at Washington and Lee University, not only conducts research on the superhero narratives but also teaches a course on the subject and writes a blog, “The Patron Saint of Superheroes.”

One of the assignments Gavaler gives students in his Spring Term superhero course is to disrupt the existing conventions that define a character.

That, he said, is what Spider-Man’s creators, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, did when they introduced the character in a 12-page story that ran, almost as an afterthought, in an August 1962 issue of a Marvel comic book titled “Amazing Fantasy.”


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For starters, Gavaler said, Spider-Man was a teenager, and teenagers had always been cast only as sidekicks to adult superheroes. In addition, Spider-Man’s origin story shows the character, teenager Peter Parker, as down on his luck.

“The idea that things might not go well for a superhero was a radical idea,” Gavaler said.

What really set Spider-Man apart, according to Gavaler, was something that has been erased from his character over time — the fact that he really wasn’t a sympathetic character.

“The story that introduces Spider-Man is a short morality tale,” said Gavaler. “You have this reasonably nice teenager who is given super powers, and the first thing he does is try to find a way to make money from them. He comes off as egotistical, a real jerk. That’s totally against the idea of superheroes.”

In that initial story, Spider-Man is responsible for his uncle’s murder when he refuses to intervene during a burglary.

“Readers had never seen anything like that before in the genre,” said Gavaler. “It became immediately popular because the superheroes were typically so boring. For instance, Superman is unbearably good. Suddenly, with Spider-Man, you had this idea of ‘Wait. You can have a superhero who actually makes mistakes, where things go bad for him?’ There was an instantly humanizing effect, and readers could relate to the character at the psychological level.

“Before Stan Lee, superheroes had no psychology. For no reason whatsoever, Superman decides to be the hero of the oppressed. Why? But here you have an origin story of this teenager who learned a lesson and now he has to make up for it the rest of his life. It’s a very different way of approaching the character type.”

Still, Spider-Man’s success at the Hollywood and Broadway box offices have not allowed the character to overtake Superman and Batman on surveys of superheroes’ popularity. If anything, Gavaler said, Spider-Man is probably neck and neck with Wonder Woman at No. 3.

With the wide distribution of weekly comic books a thing of the past, the movie franchise is what moves the dial on recognition and popularity.

“When I ask my students on the first day of class about their frame of reference for these characters, only a handful know them from comic books,” said Gavaler, who was a devotee of Marvel comics growing up. “Comic books are now a little sliver. They’re like the minor leagues that feed the big leagues of film, which is far more culturally pervasive.

“When a big Hollywood film comes out, it blankets everyone. That’s why Spider-Man in the last decade has had a much more significant cultural impact than previously. Hollywood is interested in name recognition. They’ve now got this character to sell, and it’s self-fulfilling once you have the character.”

Hollywood released its fourth Spider-Man movie, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” earlier this summer, but the official anniversary of the character will be observed when Marvel releases a special, oversize issue of the comic, #692, on Aug. 15.

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