Spider-Man might be the most popular superhero in the world. Certainly a far cry from the nebbish bookworm whose own ’60s theme song explained, “Wealth and fame, he’s ignored.” And yet I believe it’s the character’s signature outsider status that endears him to the public at large. It’s a hard thing to achieve, a simultaneous marketing behemoth and cult favorite all in one. That contradiction probably presents one of the biggest challenges on the comics side of the character; publishing as much Spider-Man as possible while somehow satisfying the fans who read it.
My first Spider-Man comic was The Spectacular Spider-Man#172 by writer Gerry Conway and artist Sal Buscema. It was the second part in a two-part story featuring Spider-Man battling an oft-ignored villain The Puma. When you think about the hallmarks of a classic Spider-Man story, this features few to none; the setting features predominantly New Mexico rather than New York, large swaths of the story involve vision quests with shadow animal totems representing the primary characters, and Spider-Man’s wife is back home humiliating a sleazy would-be adulterer. And yet, by the end of this uncollected two-part tale, I was hooked. I imagine hundreds, possibly thousands, of Spider-Man fans have a very similar story. At some young age, Spider-Man swung into our lives and ensnared our attention, at least for a time. But whether one fell in love with the character thanks to the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man, a live-action movie, an animated series, or some McDonald’s Happy Meal toy, each origin point is equally valid and precious to that person. And through that entry point, the burgeoning fan develops a sense of ownership over that character.
Spider-Man fans have a fierce loyalty to the character (or, indeed, their perceptions of the character). Every criticism I’ve seen of any particular creative run on the title is rooted in one’s desire to preserve basic tenets of what defines Spider-Man as a character. This kind of criticism is par for the course in comics, as I’m sure everyone has heard “This is something [titular character] would never do,” about practically every character in the toy box. In an increasingly connected world, this kind of criticism is practically inescapable for the creative teams involved and must make for trying times when delivering serial narratives about a perpetual twenty-something for the past sixty years. It’s probably why some creators like Chip Zdarsky want nothing to do with the main title Amazing Spider-Man. On one hand, I imagine the oversight and editorial involvement must be twice as stringent, limiting the amount of creative freedom one might have on the title. And on the other hand, I’d be willing to bet he simply doesn’t want to deal with the amount of crap he’d inevitably take from the fans.
I believe the chief culprit for his fandom’s aggressive fidelity to the character is owed to another, admittedly more popular, literary convention: Spider-Man is a Young Adult Fantasy character.
Look at the basic characteristics of your typical protagonist in a Young Adult novel. They start out as meek, good-natured teenagers whose parents are either absent or dead and just outside their mundane life is a larger fantastical world full of mystery and adventure. Suddenly they discover they possess a power few understand, they reject the responsibility thrust upon them, pay a terrible price, and inevitably embrace their new role and accept their destiny. Now I ask you: am I describing Spider-Man or Harry Potter? Incidentally, the literary term “Young Adult” was coined in the 1960s, right around the same time as Spider-Man’s first appearance.
Young Adult fiction is one of the fastest growing literary genres in its category, selling about eight million units last year, alone. But even ignoring the upward trend of YA Fantasy today, those successful outliers over the last few decades resulted in massive financial and media success for their creators: Twilight, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Divergent, etc. Spider-Man not only fits the YA protagonist mold perfectly but also within the demographics of YA literature. According to Publisher’s Weekly, 55% of YA books are bought by adults. Not too dissimilar from the purchasing habits in the comic book industry (as of 2017, 57% of comics and graphic novels are bought by 13-29 year olds).
Readers form a very intimate connection with their protagonists, and in YA I think it’s especially fervid. But apply that to the cyclical nature of the modern superhero comic book industry, and I think you have a recipe for ongoing outrage. Imagine if Harry Potter went on for sixty years, and readers didn’t have to start with Sorcerers Stone. I’d wager you’d have generations of fans with completely different ideas of who Harry Potter was as a character because their entry point was somewhere along an artificially expanded timeline of a perpetually teenage boy. And every decade, a whole new generation of fans grow up with their own expectations about who Harry Potter is, only to find that his story about him started fifty years before they were born, and his story about him will continue long after they’re born. dead.
I’d imagine many might unconsciously inflate the value of stories dedicated to their favorite character. And of course, we don’t have time to talk about another contributing factor to comic book fandom, which is the amount of time and effort dedicated to learning the character’s rich history, only to find a new creative team isn’t nearly as invested in preserving that character’s narrative as they are.
Fandom, by definition, carries the expectation of enthusiasm from its devotees. As such, one should expect stronger reactions to more popular characters. And when it comes to genre-bending, cross-platform, fan-favorite icons like Spider-Man, that fandom can get a little out of hand sometimes. But understanding and education can go a long way towards tempering that enthusiasm from borderline fanaticism to something a lot more healthy and copacetic. In the case of Spider-Man, it should help to remind ourselves that the character is simply too big to belong to any one person and recognize that, by design, he’s meant to appeal to a vast majority of audiences (despite his “street level ”status). As such, instead of expecting the comics to return to some artificial sense of normalcy, we can either choose to buy or pass on stories that do or don’t appeal to us. At best, this approach will rally us to discover new stories and characters to enrapture us the same way Spidey did and will continue to do, until the heat-death of the universe.
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