Spider-Man is perhaps the most popular superhero in the world. Certainly a far cry from the nebbish bookworm whose own 60s theme song explained, “Wealth and fame, it’s ignored.” And yet, I think it’s the character’s outsider status that makes him dear to the general public. It’s a hard thing to pull off, a simultaneous marketing giant and a cult favorite all rolled into one. This contradiction probably presents one of the biggest challenges to the comic book side of the character; release as much Spider-Man as possible while somehow satisfying the fans who read it.
My first Spider-Man comic was The Spectacular Spider-Man #172 by writer Gerry Conway and artist Sal Buscema. It was part two of a two-part story featuring Spider-Man battling an oft-overlooked villain, The Puma. When you think of the hallmarks of a classic Spider-Man story, there are few if any; the setting mostly features New Mexico rather than New York, large swathes of the story involve vision quests with ghost animal totems representing the main characters, and Spider-Man’s wife has returned home humiliating sordid adultery. And yet, by the end of this uncollected two-part tale, I was hooked. I imagine hundreds if not thousands of Spider-Man fans have a very similar story. At a young age, Spider-Man came into our lives and caught our attention, at least for a while. But whether one fell in love with the character through the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man, a live-action movie, an animated series, or a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy, every point of origin is also valid and valuable for that person. And through this entry point, the burgeoning fan develops a sense of belonging to this character.
Spider-Man fans have a fierce loyalty to the character (or, indeed, their perception of the character). Every criticism I’ve seen of a particular creative run on the title is rooted in a desire to preserve the core tenets of what defines Spider-Man as a character. This kind of criticism is part of the course of comics, because I’m sure everyone’s heard “That’s something [titular character] would never do,” about virtually every character in the Toy Box. In an increasingly connected world, this type of criticism is practically unavoidable for the creative teams involved and must create difficult times when delivering serial narratives over a perpetual twenty sixty years. This is probably why some creators like Chip Zdarsky want nothing to do with the main title. amazing spider man. On the one hand, I imagine the oversight and editorial involvement must be twice as strict, limiting the amount of creative freedom one can have over the title. And on the other hand, I’d bet he just didn’t want to deal with the amount of bullshit he would inevitably take from the fans.
I believe the main culprit for his fandom’s aggressive loyalty to the character is due to another, admittedly more popular, literary convention: Spider-Man is a Young Adult Fantasy character.
Look at the basic characteristics of your typical protagonist in a young adult novel. They start out as sweet, good-natured teenagers whose parents are away or dead and just outside of their mundane life is a larger fantasy world full of mystery and adventure. Suddenly, they discover they possess a power few understand, they reject the responsibility thrust upon them, pay a terrible price, and inevitably embrace their new role and accept their fate. Now I ask you: am I describing Spider-Man or Harry Potter? Incidentally, the literary term “Young Adult” was coined in the 1960s, around the same time as Spider-Man’s first appearance.
Young adult fiction is one of the fastest growing literary genres in its category, selling around eight million units alone last year. But even ignoring the rising trend of YA Fantasy today, these successful outliers over the past few decades have resulted in huge financial and media success for their creators: Twilight, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Divergent, and more. The YA protagonist fits perfectly but also into the demographics of YA literature. According to Publisher’s Weekly, 55% of YA books are purchased by adults. Not too different from buying habits in the comics industry (in 2017, 57% of comics and graphic novels were purchased by 13-29 year olds).
Readers form a very intimate bond with their protagonists, and in YA I think that’s especially fervent. But apply that to the cyclical nature of the modern superhero comics industry, and I think you have a recipe for continued outrage. Imagine if Harry Potter had spanned sixty years and readers didn’t have to start with Sorcerer’s Stone. I’d bet you’d have generations of fans with completely different ideas of who Harry Potter was as a character, as their entry point was somewhere along an artificially extended timeline of a perpetual teenager. And every decade a whole new generation of fans grows up with their own expectations of who Harry Potter is, only to discover that his story began fifty years before they were born and will continue long after their death.
I imagine that many might unknowingly inflate the value of stories dedicated to their favorite character. And of course, we don’t have time to talk about another contributing factor to comic book fandom, namely the time and effort spent learning about the character’s rich history, only to discover that a new creative team is not as committed. preserving the story of this character as it is.
Fandom, by definition, carries the expectation of enthusiasm from its followers. As such, one should expect stronger reactions towards more popular characters. And when it comes to cross-platform fan-favorite icons, like Spider-Man, that fandom can sometimes get a little out of hand. But understanding and education can go a long way in tempering that enthusiasm of borderline fanaticism to something much healthier and copacetic. In the case of Spider-Man, it should help us remember that the character is just too big to be owned by one person, and recognize that by design he’s meant to appeal to a large majority of audiences. (despite its “street level” status). As such, instead of expecting comics to regain an artificial sense of normality, we can choose to buy or pass on stories we like or don’t like. At best, this approach will rally us to discover new stories and characters to delight us in the same way Spidey did and will continue to do so, until the heat death of the universe.
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