I was eight or nine years old when someone—I don’t recall who—showed me an early issue of Amazing Spider-Man by the now-legendary team of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. I was a massive comic book fan—I became addicted to comics as soon as I could read—but my focus was primarily on the pristine, shiny heroes of DC Comics. One look at Ditko’s art and I knew that this book wasn’t for me: To my young eyes the style was weird, dark, disturbing—and the alleged hero of the book, with his eerie mask and bizarre, insectoid postures, seemed more like a monster than a man. In the name of my own mental health, I avoided Spider-Man, and Marvel Comics, for a few more years.
(Contemporary comic book readers can’t possibly understand how different the Marvel books were in the 1960’s. DC’s comics—for all their imagination and artistic flair—were squeaky clean: no rough edges, no raw emotions, nothing messy at all. If you looked at the early Marvels—spearheaded by Lee, Ditko and the brilliant Jack Kirby—it was all mess: lurid colors. Captions screaming for your attention. Artwork so powerful and primitive it was frightening. Marvel Comics were dangerous.)
In Junior High School, as Marvel exploded across the newsstands—and as my friends began to rave about this new company that was changing the face of comics—I took my first tentative steps into the Marvel Universe. I remember standing in the local Brooklyn candy store where I bought all my comics and seeing the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #39, which featured the Green Goblin dragging a bound Peter Parker through the skies above New York: not the costumed hero but his alter ego, his Spider-Man costume exposed beneath his torn street clothes. I’d never seen anything like it.
I resisted picking it up then—perhaps some residual fear from my first encounter with Spidey stayed my hand—but jumped in the following month for the story’s conclusion: I was floored. Stan Lee’s story was so exciting, so nakedly emotional. And John Romita, Sr’s art—with his dynamic layouts and impeccable storytelling—was irresistible.
Peter Parker entered my life then and, I’m happy to say, he’s never left.
As much as I loved Spider-Man as a reader—those Lee-Romita days
especially—it was as a writer that I really fell in love with the character. Peter Parker, as I’ve said many times before, is perhaps the most emotionally and psychologically authentic protagonist in any superhero universe. Underneath that mask, he’s as confused, as flawed, as touchingly human, as the people who read, and write, about him. The book may be called Spider-Man, but, mask on or off, it’s all about Peter Parker. Most of us who have written the character for any length of time completely identify with Peter: He’s just a regular guy who happens to have these extraordinary powers. He’s always struggling to do the right thing—and sometimes failing spectacularly. Take away the wall-crawling and you have a pretty good description of what it is to be human.
In my experience, the vast majority of people are decent and compassionate at heart: we want to be kind, to do what’s right, to treat others fairly and be treated fairly in return. And, like Spider-Man, we do our share of failing, of not living up to our own ideals. What’s wonderful about Peter Parker is that, no matter how discouraged he may be, he always picks himself up and tries again; and every time Peter triumphs, it’s a triumph for the human spirit, because he’s such a wonderful example of that spirit at its best. Spider-Man both mirrors our human weaknesses and inspires us to reach for our highest ideals—and that makes for a truly timeless character.
If I could travel back to the 1960s and tell the kid standing in that Brooklyn candy store that one day he’d be writing Spider-Man in both comic books and animation, building on the classic stories created by Lee, Ditko and Romita, Sr., I’m pretty sure that twelve year old boy would faint dead away from sheer delight.
It’s a delight I think you’ll share as you read this book and take a journey through the web-head’s amazing history.
©copyright 2019 J.M. DeMatteis