The Amazing Way The Amazing-Spider-Man Connected With Its Young, 1960s Audience
Many years ago, I added an original copy of The Amazing Spider-Man #33 to my collection. Like others, I was intrigued by the classic Steve Ditko cover art.
What I did not pay attention to at the time was an intriguing quote from the script written by Stan Lee.
- "That Peter Parker certainly is a nice boy. He's sincere, well-mannered, and devoted to his aunt. Too bad there aren't many more young men like that. Too bad someone like him cannot be an idol to teenagers to imitate....instead of some mysterious, unknown, thrill-seeker like Spiderman."
-- A Nurse in The Amazing Spider-Man #33.
Someone else noticed the significance of these words.
- "These lines no doubt resonated with many of the book's the young readers who also felt misunderstood by parents, teachers, or friends who only saw their faults, and none of their virtues. It was fuel like this that primed the Spider-Man book and allowed it to become one of the most popular titles in comics' history."
-- Pierre Comtois, Marvel in the 1960s, Page 113.
You get the full scope of what truly made The Amazing Spider-Man such a unique and original comic within those words. It was not a comic book like Batman in which young people had to aspire to the hero's ethos upon becoming an adult. With Spider-Man, they already were the hero.
Who is The Amazing Spider-Man?
In D.C. Comics, there really was no Bruce Wayne, either. Batman was the real character. Bruce Wayne was the human disguise you saw every day, a made-up persona. You could say the same thing about Superman and Clark Kent. Kent purposefully acted in a nebbish manner to draw attention away from himself. With Superman, the real person, the strong, self-reliant young man of middle America made his presence known.
With Spider-Man, there is no separate identity. There was Peter Parker. He dressed up as Spider-Man because he had to. Yet, he was always the same young man with or without the costume.
He was the same person as the young man reading the comic book.
Spider-Man in the Role of Atlas
The alienated do not want to be disaffected. Outsiders want to be welcomed. Among the great fantasies of the outsider is to assume the role of the hero and become accepted.
Overcoming outrageous odds is one way to do this.
The classic cover of issue 33 was unique because it did not feature Spider-Man dealing with well-established super-villain. Instead, the wall-crawler was crushed under the wreckage while words blared out that the end may be near for our great hero.
A lot of symbolism exists in this cover. Just as Spider-Man is crushed under the wreckage, human beings are constantly carrying the world on their shoulders. The burden of their responsibilities can be a bit too much to bear.
Others could be dealing with a seemingly impossible task such as getting out of debt or finding a purpose or meaning in life.
In the text of the tale, Spider-Man is not so much defeated physically, he is defeated mentally. As he gives up under the weight of the wreckage, he is also giving up on life. He reaches deep within himself to overcome his physical limitations in true hero form. Yes, he lifts the wreckage off of him and survives. He even goes on to beat the bad guys. Those who only look at the physical side of lifting the burden are missing the primary point of the theme. You have to believe in yourself when no one else gives you much of a chance. Even under the worst of scenarios and most difficult of obstacles, you just might overcome your burdens and succeed.
Yes, this is all very much like the myth of Atlas carrying the world. It is also an effective vehicle for speaking directly to the audience that loved Marvel Comics and, honestly, loves the books in the modern landscape of sequential art publications.
Unfortunately, no audience cheers the outcome for the reader of the books. Nor is there a writer crafting the preferred ending. No artist or inker helps accentuate the struggle and present the hero in grand melodramatic fashion.
Upon putting the comic book down, the reader must re-enter the real world and all its discontents.
Tapping into Alienated Youth
To say that alienated youth soley comprised comic book audiences of the 1960s would be absurd. They have always been a part of the comics medium. (See more about this in my Sanctuary manga hub) We see the roots of attracting the alienated in the E.C. horror comics of the 1950s and 1940s crime comics.
Fans of anything counter-culture-related will feel somewhat alienated from the dominant culture at large. Someone who does not find traditional social circles easy to navigate or is turned inward due to personal pressures finds little solace in conventional pop culture. The dominant messages in the usual conventions of traditional pop culture do not connect.
Peter Parker was not a popular kid. He was not part of the "in-crowd," and the vast majority of teen-driven pop culture focuses on the in-crowd and those who want to be part of it. For the outsider, enjoyment is spent in the company of the like-minded and those in like situations. All the parties relate.
As such, it is no surprise a neglected segment of teens, pre-teens, young adults, and, yes, adults, all gravitated towards The Amazing Spider-Man during the 1960s. They still find their way to such works this very day. Back then, the one difference was a sense of the positive existed, and the books worked to uplift people. Today, sadly, comic books embrace alienation as a way of reinforcing a bleak vision of a world in despair.