Spider-Man has a tendency to hang around in the forefront of pop culture, but lately the friendly neighborhood wall-crawler has been particularly busy with the leap into the MCU in his standalone film, Spider-Man: Homecoming, as well as swinging onto the PS4 sometime next year with Insomniac’s Spider-Man. While the remarkable hero has made a permanent web in many of our hearts, and astoundingly maintained our interest since his debut in 1962, the man behind the mask is often (true to character) overlooked in his importance, not only in the comic world, but in pop culture in general. So here’s to you, Peter Parker, one of the most influential characters of our time.
Back in the sixties, there were notions of what it meant to be a super hero. Recounting in the introduction to the Marvel Masterworks The Amazing Spider-Man, the now legendary Stan Lee talks about how Spidey and his alter ego “violated every rule in comic-book-publishing history.” He generates a small list of these violations, the most notable being that Peter isn’t the devilishly handsome hero type. Look at heroes before the initiation of The Amazing Spider-Man; Superman, Batman, the Fantastic Four – all of these heroes (with the exception of the Thing) are attractive, in and out of costume. Peter Parker, on the other hand, is this super nerd type, complete with glasses he actually needs and an aptitude for science. Even in costume Spider-Man looks comparatively scrawny next to his muscle-bound peers. Contrary to publisher’s expectations, however, Peter’s presentation as a nerdy high schooler resonated with comic audiences, and has had a ripple effect in all of pop culture. Would an average, glasses-wearing, unremarkable character like Harry Potter exist if Peter hadn’t paved the way for a less-than-perfect character type? Maybe, but the notion of an average person becoming a staggering hero was greatly spurred by Spider-Man’s unimpressive alter ego.
Along with this comes Peter’s age. Before 1962, no central superhero had ever been so young – Peter was only a high schooler at his inception. The publishers argued with Lee that only sidekicks should be so young, but Lee, who detested the idea of young sidekicks, stood his ground. Now look how many young heroes we have; high school heroes have become the norm. From the aforementioned Harry Potter series to the Hunger Games to (dare I say it) Twilight, these series all feature child/teen protagonists, and no one thinks twice about it, all thanks to the web-slinger facing off against evil before he has to get home and finish his homework. Teen heroes, complete with their angst and issues, are now everywhere, both in and out of comics.
Outside of fighting crime, Peter is given an awful lot of issues to work through. From more minor ones, like bullying and unpopularity, to the more major types, like coping with the death of a loved one and facing the immense consequences of actions, Parker always has his plate full. This was another publishing reservation: the fear that people didn’t want to read about a troubled youth as he contends with making ends meet, responsibilites of school, the death of his uncle and several loved ones throughout the series, the public’s perception of Spider-Man, and assorted other issues with family and loved ones. With each victory and a villain ending up behind bars, Peter takes another loss on a different front. Being a super hero suddenly isn’t this grand day dream, but a more realistic perspective of the toll saving lives can take on a hero.
Again, these troubles on the home front endeared Peter to the readers, and reverberated in culture to the point that a simple battle between good and evil is now considered unmoving and inaccurate. The hero must also struggle with that which makes us human – our mistakes, our emotional pains, and our mental suffering. Consequently, we have films like The Dark Knight that largely focus on the sacrificial role Batman must take to preserve Gotham city, or just recently Logan, a movie about extremely human and vulnerable heroes trying to solve issues much larger than themselves. The Amazing Spider-Man never ceases to be engaging, but because of Peter’s day to day struggles, it also remains an emotional investment unlike any heroic story before it.
Without a doubt, Peter Parker is important. His struggles and the issues he continually grapples with rival and contend with the encounters and conflicts he faces in costume. His character has changed the face of comics and pop culture as well. Consequently, when Peter isn’t presented correctly, people take notice. Take the example of the recent Amazing Spider-Man film franchise, where Peter is smart, but not nerdy to the point of being off-putting. This couldn’t be more important, as Peter has always been an icon and symbol of hope for nerds and geeks everywhere. He is the aspect of Spider-Man that separates him from an over-sized arachnid. So let’s not forget Peter Parker, unpopular nerd but still adored, unremarkable but still amazing, and the heart and soul of Spider-Man.