I mean, he’s got character traits, certainly. Loves science, strong sense of responsibility, protective of his aunt, young(ish), prone to self-pity and paranoia, an outsider, an underdog, ability to banter with super-villains, etc. etc.
But is there much in the way of depth? Does he have those idiosyncrasies that make us who we are? Does Peter feel like a really real person, the kind you’d meet walking down the street or share a cubicle with?
I would argue, in most cases, no. (Although if anyone disagrees, I bid you, let us have a stirring conversation about it in the comments.)
Most A-list superheroes are not, partially by virtue of being the subjects of ongoing narratives by different writers and artists spanning decades, owned by media conglomerates, having to straddle the line between art and commerce, taking licensing into accommodation, and so on. But perhaps more importantly, I’d liken them to what I described in the Friends post as “aspirational figures” – you find a superhero you can kind of relate to, and you can aspire to being as super as them. Science enthusiasts have Reed Richards and a bunch of others, engineers (and I am thinking of one in particular, Daine!) have Tony Stark, guys who spend their lives training their bodies have Batman. Marvel’s unglamorous misfits of the Silver Age are just as aspirational because they’re heroes despite their problems: if you’ve got anger management issues, Bruce Banner is someone who understands you, and the Thing is every guy who got dealt a bad hand, who was ever written off for seeming low-class or not having a pretty face.
They’re relatively vague because they are meant to be, because you have to identify with them. It’s been said (maybe it was Scott McCloud – I’ve never sat down and read Understanding Comics from cover to cover, I’ve just gone through sections of it here and there over the years, so I'm a bit patchy on it) that in cartooning, the more stylized a face is, the more identifiable it becomes. You could say that Bruce Timm’s Bruce Wayne reminds you of any number of big beefy dark-haired white guys, but Bryan Hitch’s Nick Fury is quite obviously (and in this case quite intentionally) one guy. The characters on Friends are cartoony for a similar effect – with more subtle, fully realized characters, you couldn’t quite as easily (imagine yourself/aspire to be) Chandler or Rachel or whoever. And so it is with the A-list superheroes.
Spider-Man’s got it harder, though, because he’s got to be an aspirational figure for everybody. He can’t even be a character type like Tony Stark or the Human Torch because Peter Parker has to be all things to all comics fans. He’s the part in all of us that screws up, feels alienated, feels alone and always on the outside of things. He represents youth, and if we're not still as young as he's supposed to be, we can at least remember when we were. Because he’s so universal, he’s got to be extremely broad, and indeed, as is often pointed out, because of the full face mask you can very easily imagine your own face under there.
But Spider-Man’s greatest asset as a character is also therefore his greatest liability. He can’t progress or become an individual if he has to be relatable to everybody, but once you outgrow the aspirational aspect of Spider-Man, there’s not a lot to the character you can hang on to. Much of the audience reading the “in-continuity” “616” version of the character’s passed Peter Parker up in age, and now it’s gotta be him aspiring to be us at this point, right? “Why doesn’t he grow up already, get a steady job? He’s been at this superhero thing as long as anybody now, shouldn’t he have gotten good at this at some point?” I’ve offered a solution before, but it’s a somewhat cynical one, and not satisfying for everyone.
Quite frankly, I think the reason why Spider-Man is considered to have been in a creative malaise for over 20 years now isn’t because he was married or too old or anything like that – it’s that the fanbase is increasingly invested in the writing of superhero comics over the art, and from a writing standpoint, Peter Parker can be a pretty thankless character.
But in the Bronze Age of Comics, it wasn’t always quite so.
Stan Lee was 49 (if I have done the math right) when he stepped away from writing Amazing Spider-Man in 1972, but his successors were much younger (most notably, 19-year-old Gerry Conway). Lee was a guy aiming for authenticity as best he could in depicting teenage life, and pulled off a slick soap opera approach pretty well, but these new guys had recently been or were actually still livin’ la vida Parker.
So for whatever reason, whether that these comics were being produced by people the same age as the character, or that the writers and artists were young and brash and ambitious and serious…for whatever reason, Peter Parker occasionally got a few moments of real humanity in the Bronze Age. Where he’s more than just the aspirational everyman, “the super-hero who could be…YOU!”, but something approaching an individual person. Not all the time, because he for the most part remained that carefully maintained combination of heroic and neurotic that is the formula for Spider-Man we all love so dearly. But he got a couple. And I would like to share three here with you.
Now, I really wish I had panel scans so I don’t have to describe these, but if anything it emphasizes what I’m talking about. I do not have any of the issues I’m going to talk about, but I have read them, each only maybe once or twice, but they stayed with me. They’re fairly small moments, of varying weights and importances, but they stick in my head because they hint at a depth you rarely see in Peter Parker as a character. Perhaps it makes him slightly less relatable to a mass audience, and yet…I feel as if I know him better, I feel as if those moments are able to surprise me. And that’s something you don’t get all that often.
1.) SPIDER-MAN SINGS ELVIS COSTELLO (Marvel Team-Up Annual #4, 1981, written by Frank Miller)
Okay, so if I remember how this goes, Spider-Man interferes in some scheme of the Purple Man’s, so Purple Man uses his mind control powers to get Spidey out of his hair. He tells Spidey to hang on a lamppost and recite some Shakespeare. Spider-Man says he doesn’t know any (ah, you see? Less relatable to me, in theory!). Purple Man asks him what he does know, and as a result, you get Spider-Man singing the lyrics to “Oliver’s Army” for a couple panels (I forget why, but he never does make it to the unprintable lyric on-panel).
This is not the only occasion that Bronze Age Peter Parker has been shown to dig Elvis Costello (you have to scroll down to "Spiderman" on the link). And it’s a risky thing, in its way, to pin down. Defining a fictional character’s musical tastes always threatens to alienate readers, as much or possibly even more so than politics or religion. The line in High Fidelity is that it’s what you like, not what you are like (granted, John Cusack’s character is not meant to be a great judge of interpersonal relationships, but still). If I tell you a character (or a real live human being) is into U2, or into Ben Folds, or Phish or Lady Gaga, it probably suggests something to you. Such is the power of pop music that if you tell me you like XTC, you can show up at my house uninvited, eat all my chips, drink all my booze, crash on my couch and then make a mess in the bathroom in the morning; but tell me you think the Stones are better than the Beatles, and we have to fight bareknuckled in a back alley in the pouring rain.
Maybe I’m biased because I really like Elvis Costello, but what I take away from this is a different sort of Peter Parker than we saw before or since. In the early Silver Age, Peter Parker was a nerd and a social outcast; today Peter is cast more as a geek and lovable loser – both pretty broad characterizations. But in the Bronze Age, I feel like Peter’s deal was a little more nuanced. Parker’s kind of a hip guy who remains straight laced. He’s tuned into pop culture but doesn’t get wrapped up in it; notably, it doesn’t define his life in the way that geeky things rule your thoughts and mine. He’s uncomfortable at a disco, but not a total square either. He can get a first date but has trouble getting a second.
He’s a guy who’s got a Trust poster on his wall but who doesn’t talk your ear off about how great it is every time you see him.
2.) PETER TRIES TO BRUSH OFF MARY JANE (Amazing Spider-Man #122, 1973, written by Gerry Conway)
The last one was a lightweight scene, and this one’s about as heavy as Spider-Man gets. This is the issue after the Green Goblin kills Gwen Stacy, and then in this issue gets impaled on his own glider in a fight with Spider-Man. You know.
After the battle, Peter wanders back to his apartment and finds Mary Jane there. At this time she’s still played at best as a carefree party girl, at worst as superficial, capricious, self-absorbed. She tries to comfort him, but Peter, all torn up with grief and rage and a million other things, isn’t having any of it. Here’s what he says (secondhand, courtesy of a Google search, so I can’t vouch for it being 100% accurate):
“Don’t make me laugh, Mary Jane – you wouldn’t be sorry if your own mother died. What do you care about straights like me and Gwen? Go on…get out of here! I know how you hate sick beds, and believe me, I wouldn’t want to spoil your fun.”This sticks with me because it’s such an ugly moment – lashing out at someone trying to reach out to you. It’s somewhat understandable, given the state of mind he’s in, but there’s no denying it’s really ugly. And that’s what I love about this moment.
See, Peter is usually portrayed as being in the right all the time because he’s both aspirational and a reader identification figure, and most of us don’t often think of ourselves as being wrong, nor do we wish to be. He can make mistakes, misjudge things, but it’s a rare occasion when you could actually call him out for a lapse in morals or, in this case, just being a colossal ass. You’re not supposed to think the character you’re supposed to relate to is being a jerk, so most of the time Peter isn’t one. It’s why people got bent out of shape about him making a deal with Mephisto (well, rightly I might say) and, previously, joining up with the pro-registration movement in Civil War.
But one of the drawbacks to a character who is always right and always good is that they’re flat. So this nasty little scene at least supplies slightly more depth than we’re accustomed to from Peter Parker. He’s not May Parker’s perfect nephew on these pages, but a guy who is just not in the mood for you right now. On the surface it’s alienating – “I would never say what Peter just said!” But how do you know? Your girlfriend just gets murdered by someone trying to get to you – maybe you’d say exactly what Peter said. Maybe you’d say worse. Or maybe you wouldn’t. In any event, here is a rare occasion where you can judge Peter Parker, where he’s not above reproach, where he’s not trying to be liked by you.
3.) PETER’S LAST WISHES (Amazing Spider-Man #151, December 1975, written by Len Wein)
Not as heavy as the aftermath of Gwen’s death but not as frivolous as singing “Oliver’s Army,” this moment is one that I find the most poignant, and it’s also one of the more obscure.
So this is the wrapup of the “original Clone Saga,” where Spider-Man fights his own clone (the one that would go on to become Ben Reilly), who supposedly dies. Peter takes the “body” to a factory smoke stack and says wistfully to his clone something to the effect of, “Well, since it’s my wish to be cremated, this is probably what you would’ve wanted too.”
I’ll repeat that: Peter Parker knows what he wants done with his remains when he dies, and it’s cremation. Unusual for a superhero! Whenever you see a superhero funeral – whether a “real” one, or a symbolic one that just happens on the cover for effect – it’s a casket burial with a big ol’ tombstone. Makes sense, I suppose; you’ve got the ceremony, the pallbearers, the lowering of the casket – it’s visual, it’s a spectacle, which makes for good comics iconography.
But that is perhaps exactly why Peter Parker isn’t planning on having a casket burial. It’s a little detail, fairly insignificant, never really brought up again so far as I know, and to be honest, the whole thing is probably motivated by the plot – Peter has to get rid of the clone body somehow. But still, you hear “it’s my wish to be cremated,” and you start of thinking of the young man who’s made that decision, and he’s made it as a man, and not as a superhero. Spider-Man won’t have a big stone monument with an eagle perched heroically on his arm to mark his grave; Peter Parker will just get himself taken care of in a low-key manner…don’t want to bother anybody, don’t want to make a fuss, it’s only me for heaven’s sake...! What’s to be done with the ashes? At this point in his life, he’s probably thinking scatter them off the Brooklyn Bridge, hm? Aw.
It’s one line, and yet I feel it suggests so much about Peter Parker that we never even knew.
(I know, all that build up for the Bronze Age Spider-Man post for that? Still, this was important to me for whatever reason.)