Ask Chris #206: Spider-Man And The Rise Of The Teenage Superhero
Q: Just watched the latest Here’s The Thing. I’d love to hear you expound on some of the attempts at re-creating Spider-Man. — @stophatinisbad
A: In case you missed it, this week’s episode of Here’s The Thing was focused on the idea of legacy and how it shaped the Green Lantern franchise — and how it ultimately failed to really take hold in the way that it did in books like Flash and — but one of the things I mentioned was that Kyle Rayner was one of many attempts to create a character in the mold of Spider-Man. It happens like clockwork, not just at DC and Marvel but across the board, and it’s one of the most important aspects of how superhero comics developed.
So really, I’m glad you asked, because the reason behind this gives me a chance to dive into some of my favorite subjects, like the socioeconomic impact of the rise of the teenager as a social construct, and how that led directly to the creation of Darkhawk.
Before we really get into this, there are a couple of things that we have to establish up front, and the first is that outside of Superman, who launched the superhero genre and either invented or codified most of the conventions we associate with it, Spider-Man is unquestionably the most influential superhero of all time. Even Batman, who’s been pretty enduringly popular both on the page and in mass media for 75 years now hasn’t had the kind of impact in shaping how superheroes work in the way that Spider-Man has, and when you look just specifically at the Marvel Universe? It’s not even close. Fantastic Four may have been the book that started things off and formed the core of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s collaborations that would grow to become that universe, but Spider-Man was the book where all those formulas were refined and sent out to hook a truly massive audience.
So the question, then, is why, and I think it has everything to do with not just what happened in those comics, but when they were created.
It’s a pretty obvious thing to say, but all superheroes are a product of their time. As universal as he might’ve become, the Superman that we have is a Superman that could only have been created in the ’30s — this power fantasy that springs out of the Great Depression and the rise of Nazi Germany and asks what the world would be like if the most powerful person in the world was fighting for the common man. Or just look at Batman, a character whose most enduring attribute is how adaptable he is, and how he moved from the pulp-inspired ’40s to the sci-fi ’50s to the Pop Art ’60s and beyond, adapting to reflect the era that he’s in. It’s the same with Spider-Man, but the core difference is that he’s created in a time when the Teenager was reaching its peak as a social and economic force.
Now, I’m definitely not a sociologist or a historian — I am, in fact, pretty much just a dude who reads a lot of comics and listens to a lot of pop music — so take all this with a grain of salt. That said, it seems to me that before the middle of the 20th century, “Teenagers” didn’t really exist, at least not in the form that we know them today. You were either a child or an adult, which is kind of a side effect of most people dying in their thirties for the majority of human history.
After World War II, however, there’s a huge cultural shift that comes entirely from classifying adolescents as a distinct group. There are a ton of factors that lead to this, but the most important is unquestionably how a bunch of people came back from fighting a war and decided that they basically just wanted to bone down and have as many children as they possibly could. Sheer numbers tip the scales in favor of creating this new social construct, and there are a ton of effects that feed off of and into it, from the rise of American suburbia to just the way music changed. I mean, if you want to get technical about it, the appeal to #teens starts with the crooners in the ’40s, but it wasn’t adults that made the Beatles a worldwide phenomenon, you know?
The interesting thing about all this is that you can actually see it all happening in comics as it happens. Even though they burst onto the scene as a popular medium that spanned demographics, it wasn’t long before comics — especially superhero comics — started being directed towards kids. Even before Wertham and the Comics Code, superhero publishers had already decided that kids were where the money was, and that’s the audience they were trying to serve. Even books that skewed older, like the famously lurid EC horror titles, probably had a lot of appeal to kids, in the same way that I knew kids in fifth grade who were obsessed with hyperviolent horror movies.
Believe it or not, Archie is actually a really interesting comic to look at to see how rapid pop culture is changing back then. Archie is clearly a teenager from the beginning, but the stories themselves are directed at kids, and use a bunch of awkward phrasing (like the above panel that calls him “America’s newest boy friend”) to get that idea across. Even once they get the term and start referring to him as “America’s Typical Teenager” — which, let’s be real here, is possibly the worst tagline of all time — the stories are very clearly for kids.
By the time you get to the ’60s, though, teenagers are too economically and socially powerful for pop culture to ignore, and that’s where Spider-Man hits. That’s the environment that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko — who were way past their own teenage years, which makes their creation that much more remarkable — are in when they create him, and that’s what makes all the difference.
Now, just to cover the bases, here’s another obvious point: Spider-Man wasn’t the first “teenage” character in superhero comics. There are kid sidekicks almost from the start that certainly fit the bill, and while it’s easy to argue that the distinction was that Spider-Man was a lead character in his own right, which is certainly a big factor in what sets him apart, Robin was headlining solo stories in the Golden Age. The difference wasn’t just that they were sidekicks, it’s that they were kid sidekicks. They were children — even Superboy was, well, a boy that existed in contrast to the (Super)man that he’d grow up to be, once again hitting that child-adult dichotomy.
Speaking of Superboy, it’s worth noting that DC almost managed to get there first in 1958, when Otto Binder and Al Plastino introduce the Legion of Super-Heroes. It’s an entire team of teenage characters that, because of their isolation from the rest of the DC Universe, would eventually evolve into something that feels fittingly ahead of its time in terms of crafting those soap operatic relationships and adventures that you’d get from later, post-Marvel books. At the time, though, it was just a little too early to really capture it, and the Legion starts off reading pretty clearly as “children” rather than “teens.” Which, to be fair, is actually what I like about them — a team of superheroes who are complete jerks because they operate on the completely accurate logic of children who have formed a club to exclude others.
This is something I’ve written about before, but the genius of those early Marvel comics, or at least one of the things that was truly brilliant about them, was that they skewed slightly older than the other superhero comics of the time. They were still accessible to kids and featured the bright colors and high adventure of the superhero genre, but the themes that they dealt with that informed the stories were built for that massive, brand-new economic powerhouse that was the Teenager. It started in Fantastic Four, which mixed monster comics and love triangles into the superhero formula, but it hadn’t quite been refined yet.
So in 1962, Spider-Man comes along, and there’s an immediate tectonic shift in comics. I mentioned before that part of it is because Spider-Man wasn’t a sidekick, but the other part of it, the bigger part of it, is right there in the name: Spider-Man. Peter Parker’s a high school student who lives with his aunt, he’s still a kid, but when it comes time to suit up and go fight crooks and take selfies, he’s not Spider-Boy or Spider-Lad. He refers to himself as an adult — and that, in a single decision of what to call their new young hero, is exactly what being a teenager is like.
Once they hit their stride, that entire initial run of Amazing Spider-Man is one amazing metaphor for being a teenager and all of the emotions that go along with it after another. Lee and Ditko front-load Spider-Man’s adventures with self-doubt, angst and isolation, full of adults you can’t trust and friendships that go sour. And when John Romita Sr. comes on to replace Ditko — shortly after he and Lee produce “The Final Chapter,” still the single greatest Marvel comic ever printed — the change in art styles is basically Peter Parker going through puberty between issues. And it works perfectly.
Spider-Man becomes a massive, massive hit — FF may have been the one that started everything, but Spider-Man’s the guy they put on their checks. And it’s so successful, both creatively and commercially, that it forms a template that’s recycled and built on over and over again for the next fifty years.
I joked that Marvel themselves try to reinvent Spider-Man every ten years with varying degrees of success, and there’s a reason for that. Spider-Man himself has already been through those stories and come out the other side — no matter how many marriages you sell to Mephisto, you’re never quite going to get Peter Parker back to that point where you can explore the same themes again. So they tweak the formula and try it again, and maybe this time it’s in space, maybe this time we leave out a little bit of the angst, maybe this time he has weird alien armor and a magic amulet and a weird face that grosses everyone out if you take off his helmet.
And that is how the rise of the teenager as a socioeconomic force led to the creation of Darkhawk.
There are a few other things to consider here, and the first is that Spider-Man is by no means unique in inspiring other takes on the same core formula. Superman’s the obvious candidate, of course, but it happens with everything that’s successful. There was a recent interview with Rob Liefeld where he was talking about the creation of Cable, and he said that since Marvel’s most popular characters in 1990 were a guy who used a bunch of guns and a guy who had six knives for hands, he created a character who carried even bigger guns and always had more than six knives. That, my friends, is amazing, but it’s also the way superhero comics work in one ’90s nutshell. The thing is, Spider-Man is one of the most successful comics of all time, working with themes so universal that the template can be used and updated an almost infinite number of times.
The second is that for the post-Crisis DC Universe, the Spider-Man template was mixed into the foundations right from the start, particularly with how it led to the relaunch of Flash and Green Lantern, but that’s not the limit of its impact. You can see bits and pieces of Spider-Man and the themes of super-powers as a metaphor for adolescence showing up everywhere. Invincible, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Batman Beyond, none of those would exist without Spider-Man laying down the trail that they’d use to build their own stories.
All things considered, it’s not bad for some nerd from Queens.