Despite the success of the Avengers, when most people think of Marvel comics, I’m sure that Spider-Man would be near if not at the forefront of their mind. Having consistently been their flagship character for so long, it’s no surprise that Spidey has been through many changes since his inception way back in 1962. The character remains a firm fan favourite, and is indeed my favourite Marvel character without a doubt.
In my first ever Spotlight, to celebrate Spidey’s 50th anniversary, I am going to look at some of the biggest changes that our webbed wonder has been through, and perhaps touch on why he continues to be the go-to character for Marvel and comic readers alike.
The Sixties – Who Is That Masked Man?
When Peter Parker first debuted in Amazing Fantasy #15 in 1962, no one would have believed that the character would survive 50 years of comics and continue to be one of Marvel’s strongest selling characters. Whereas all of Stan Lee’s prior character creations such as the Incredible Hulk and the Fantastic Four were more outlandish and fantastical (pun intended), this new character was much more down-to-earth and easy to relate to for teenagers. Peter faced problems that they too would face, such as girlfriend troubles, grades, and part-time jobs, so when they picked up a comic book, they would be able to see themselves reflected in the pages.
Guided by the death of his Uncle Ben and the mantra that “With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility,” Peter fought villains as well as his own problems. He graduated high school and began attending college, causing new friends to appear alongside his new foes. With the introduction of both Gwen Stacy and Mary Jane Watson, Peter faced multiple love interests who would compete for his affections for years to come.
Of course, the Spider-Man side of Peter’s life was more than a big presence in the book, as he battled crazed scientists like Doctor Octopus, and more colourful foes such as the Green Goblin and Mysterio. The variation in villains was another great draw for the book, with a new surprise almost every issue, and some characters quickly becoming staples by returning numerous times. Some of his villains even banded together as the Sinister Six to cause even more problems for our hero. Spidey’s villains were almost as big a star in his book as his supporting characters, each with their own unique motivations and personalities.
The Seventies – Double The Titles, Double The Trouble
Heading into the next decade, Spider-Man faced further challenges in the form of returning villains and the death of some of his supporting characters. In the space of three years, Spidey lost Captain Stacy, the father of his then-girlfriend Gwen, to falling debris during a battle with Doctor Octopus, and then Gwen herself when the Green Goblin returned and threw her from the George Washington Bridge. This was the first time a superhero had been shown to fail so badly, and the effects of these ground-breaking storylines are still felt today, driving Spidey to be the best that he can be. In the absence of Gwen, Peter moved towards Mary Jane Watson for comfort, sparking a romance for the ages.
With his increasing popularity, Spidey was also given a second title, which would begin a wave of titles in the coming years. Spectacular Spider-Man debuted in 1976, and would go on to cross over with the main Amazing Spider-Man title to give readers incentive to buy both titles, and causing Spidey to be the first Marvel hero to be given two series in which he had the starring role. This would be followed by Web of Spider-Man in the late 80s, and a number of mini-series and ongoing series across the next twenty years.
Another highlight of the decade was the introduction of the Black Cat, another potential love interest for Spidey, and the revelation that one of his college professors was also the villainous Jackal, who would go on to cause many problems for our hero in twenty years time.
The Eighties – All Change for Spider-Man
The winds of change blew all at once during the next decade, with Spidey being a part of the first big Marvel crossover, the Secret Wars. Involving pretty much every ongoing series and characters from across the Marvel Universe, it was also the site of the first big costume change for our hero, debuting the infamous black costume. Changing something as iconic as the red and blue tights was a big gamble for Marvel, but the costume continued in both an organic and cloth form until the end of the decade when the classic suit returned.
Later in the decade, a gruelling ordeal came Spidey’s way when he was forced to endure Kraven’s Last Hunt, a storyline that crossed through all three of his then-ongoing titles and saw his long-time foe defeat and imprison him, whilst taking his place as the hero of the city before ultimately committing suicide. This traumatic experience was then compounded by the appearance of Venom, a combination of the symbiotic suit from the Secret Wars and Eddie Brock, a disgruntled ex-reporter. This dark mirror of the wall-crawler soon became a rogues gallery mainstay and gained his own fan following, reappearing throughout the following years and gaining numerous mini-series for himself.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom however. In 1987, Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson tied the knot in a high-profile wedding after two proposals and some soul searching on Mary Jane’s part. With many of the fans having grown up alongside Peter, this next step in his life was logical and added some brand new dynamics to Spidey’s life as Mary Jane revealed that she knew Peter’s secret identity, finally giving him a much needed confidant.
The Nineties – Send In The Clones
Upheaval rocked the Spider-Man titles in the following decade, with the notorious Clone Saga storyline taking up most of the time span. With the return of his clone from the 1970s, now calling himself Ben Reilly with an alter ego of the Scarlet Spider, Peter went through an identity crisis that had him doubting whether he was a real human being or an artificial clone. The mystery persisted for years, with Peter eventually deciding that, since Ben was perfectly capable of being a hero on his own, that it was time to move on.
With Mary Jane pregnant and his spider-powers on the fritz after a near-fatal adventure, Peter Parker hung up the Spider-Man tights seemingly forever. Donning a new costume and taking the name of Spider-Man for himself, Ben was the star of all five of the Spider-Man titles. Yet again proving to be the relatable hero, Peter Parker’s fans would now be finding themselves in similar positions, whilst new fans would still be able to join in the action with Ben’s new outlook and approach being similar to Peter’s when he began. This was in fact the time when I myself became a comic fan, and Ben Reilly will always have a special place in my memory as a result.
However, editorial disagreements and mandates caused this potential new beginning to soon revert back to type, with Ben Reilly being killed, Mary Jane’s baby being stillborn, and Peter’s powers returning to allow him to regain the mantle of Spider-Man. Always taking everything in his stride, Peter’s resilience as a man and as a superhero continued through this tough period to put him back on top despite his numerous setbacks.
The Noughties – JMS, Take The Wheel
After a fairly unsuccessful relaunch attempt in 1999, Spidey’s series stagnated a little for a few years, without much of interest apart from gimmicky storylines like the return of Venom to try and resurrect interest in the series. These were largely unsuccessful and the series continued to decline until the arrival of J. Michael Straczynski, who took over the reins of the Amazing Spider-Man series and breathed new life into the character and series.
Straczynski took the series to different levels, introducing a new mythos to Spidey’s character by having his powers linked to a mystical totem, which brought with it its own problems. JMS continued in this vein for a long time, having Spidey join the New Avengers, as well as through the superhero Civil War, a darker period known as Back in Black in which he donned the black costume once again, and then up through One More Day.
Having written themselves into a corner, the Marvel writers ended up writing one of the biggest retcons in comic history, having the demon Mephisto rewrite history so that Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson were never married, prompting a huge fan-backlash. This launched Spidey into a Brand New Day – now single so that he would once again be more identifiable by readers (though most fled as a result of the One More Day fiasco).
The Present Day – Big Time And Beyond
After two years of his Brand New Day in the late 2000’s, Spidey found himself battling through a Gauntlet of his old foes, including a newly resurrected Kraven the Hunter. After being dragged further down than he had ever been before, it was time for another change in our hero’s life – it was now that Spidey hit the Big Time.
With new writer Dan Slott at the helm, Amazing Spider-Man has once again changed for the better. A new supporting cast, job for Peter, and even a new girlfriend has revitalized the character once again and launched him into some of the best storylines that the book has seen for many years.
With his 50th anniversary this year, Spidey has much to look forward to. A huge issue #692 is out soon to celebrate the occasion, as well as a milestone issue #700 at the end of the year. A crossover with the Ultimate Universe has just begun, and then there’s the little matter of a blockbuster movie set to release within the next few weeks too.
So 50 years have passed, and Spider-Man has gone through many changes. From different costumes to different loves, a different foe to different titles, but despite all of these changes, one thing has remained constant throughout: Peter Parker has been a character that fans can look up to for the past 50 years, and continues to be. You can change whatever you want about him and his world, but this will not change.
It’s not just about which bad guy he punches this week when you read his comic series – it’s about the heart and soul of the character underneath, the man who makes awkward decisions, whose selflessness always gets him in trouble despite the best of intentions. Peter Parker is and will remain the most likeable and identifiable hero in the Marvel Universe for 50 more years, and beyond.