The Amazing Way The Amazing-Spider-Man Connected With Its Young, 1960s Audience
I added an original copy of The Amazing Spider-Man #33 to my collection many years ago. Like others, I was intrigued by the classic Steve Ditko cover art.
What I did not pay attention to, at the time, was a very interesting quote from 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 did notice 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.
Within those words, you get the full scope of what truly made The Amazing Spider-Man such a unique and original comic. It was not a comic book like Batman in which young person's had to aspire to the ethos of the hero 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 everyday, 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 simply was Peter Parker. He dressed up as Spider-Man because he had to. Yet, with or without the costume, he was always the same young man.
He was the same person as the young man who was reading the comic book.
Spider-Man in the Role of Atlas
The alienated do not want to be disaffected. They 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 in the sense that it did not feature Spider-Man dealing with well-established super-villain. Instead, the wall-crawler was crushed under wreckage while words blared out that the end may be near for our great hero.
A lot of symbolism is found in this cover. Just as Spider-Man is crushed under the weight of 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. In true hero form, he reaches deep within himself to overcome his physical limitations. 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 major point of the theme. You really do have to believe in yourself when no one else is giving 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 at the time and, honestly, loves the books in the modern landscape of sequential art publications.
Unfortunately, for the reader of the books, there is no audience who cheers the outcome. 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.
Once the comic book is put down, the reader must re-enter the real world and all its discontents.
Tapping into Alienated Youth
To say that alienated youth only comprised comic book audiences of the 1960s would be absurd. They have always been a part of 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 even in the crime comics of the 1940s.
Fans of anything counter-culture related are going to feel somewhat alienated from the dominant culture at large. Someone who just does not find traditional social circles easy to navigate or is turned inward due to personal pressures finds little solace in traditional 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. The one difference back then was a sense of the positive existed and the books worked to uplift people. Today, sadly, comics books embrace alienation as a way of reinforcing a bleak vision of a world in despair.