Spider-Man At 50 Part Three: Kiel Phegley On Spider-Man's Existence Outside Of The Comic Books
By Kiel Phegley
In the summer of 2007, my girlfriend Jami and I were living in New York. One night, we're riding the subway back uptown when she starts nudging me with her elbow. I look across the empty car and see two little boys -- maybe six and eight -- passed out across their parents laps on the way back from Coney Island. Both of them had their faces painted bright red, black rings around their eyes and thin lines radiating from their noses in an approximation of Spider-Man's mask.
I turn and give Jami the "Aw, isn't that cute?" smile, and she jabs me again, nudging back to the family. That's when I realized their dad was Michael Imperioli. I'm kind of an idiot like that.
Still, that summer it was kind of hard to look anywhere and not see Spider-Man first. We were weeks out from the release of Spider-Man 3, and before anyone knew about the dance scene, the excitement for the film and Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's character in general was at an all-time high. The corners of the dollar store down the street from me in Washington Heights hung with beachball-ish Spidey blow up dolls. The junk stores that lined the streets of Chinatown had knock-off Spidey action figures wrapped up with crudely painted Power Rangers. Every t-shirt stand around Times Square had 17 varieties of Spider-Man shirts in their windows, and every kid on the street had a Spider-Man backpack or lunchbox or sneakers or squirt gun.
Of course, maybe lowest down the list of Spidey-themed tchotchkes on sale around the city -- somewhere in between Spider-Man Pez Dispensers and Pop-Tarts -- were comic books. I think there may have been a few non-comic shop magazines weaseling their way into the nearby drug stores, but they were outnumbered by waves of candy, hand soap, sunglasses and motorized toothbrushes.
Some comics readers, then and now, will look at that unimaginable wave of popularity -- that wholesale embracing by the city of a superhero tailor-made to represent its most admirable features -- and respond with rage that there wasn't a better place for Spider-Man comics. What a travesty, they say, that the medium and the stories that birthed this character get so little respect! What a demonstrable fuck up by Marvel that they can't place their comics in the hands of every child riding the subway with their face painted like Christopher Moltisanti's two boys! They charge it on any message board or comment thread you can name.
Not me. I don't think there's a crime or a sadness that Spider-Man comics don't make it as big a splash as Spider-Man merchandise. I don't even think it's possible.
My first memory of Spider-Man was as product. As a little kid, I had a preternatural attraction to all things comics, including superheroes. But while I always identified Calvin & Hobbes or Batman with stories told in pictures, Spider-Man seemed like another action figure. He was a rubber man affixed to a plastic motorcycle, not a human character I could identify with. He was no different than He-Man or Hulk Hogan.
Even when it came to stories about Spider-Man, all that fabled pretense of Marvel's masked men being more relatable flew right past me. I got that Spidey was "more important" than some of the other characters, but that was mostly because he had a cartoon show. But there were little clues in his mainstream media figure that synched up to the highest qualities brought to the character by [Stan] Lee or [Steve] Ditko or John Romita or Gil Kane.
Spider-Man was an action hero. A brightly colored flash on Saturday morning who frequently punched out old men in unitards. I filled in his features in coloring books where he presented mazes and puzzles. I had a coverless picture book where he went to a circus and wrestled a lion. Some of these stories mentioned a radioactive spider bite. None of them mentioned Uncle Ben or power and responsibility.
Even when I made it to my teenage years and had read enough articles extolling the virtues of Marvel's best Spider-Man comics, the only issues I ever bought came because an artist caught my eye. I picked up an Amazing Spider-Man arc because Moon Knight and Night Thrasher guest-starred and kept buying for Mark Bagley's sinewy take on the star and his smooth linework. I followed Peter Parker, Spider-Man during some grim years around the Clone Saga because I loved the way John Romita, Jr. and Scott Hanna made Spidey's webbing look brittle and angular. It's an all-time great costume that's been drawn by some all-time great talent. That was always the attraction. I could care less if Peter Parker was broke or married or tortured.
And that's the prism that most Americans have viewed Spider-Man through for the better part of five decades -- a grade-A, muscle-bound spokesmodel. As a visual, as a concept, as a brand, Spider-Man works better than any character in Marvel's stable, and the company knows it. He appears on the checks it pays out to freelancers. He gets a balloon in the Macy's parade. A decade ago when they were on the brink of death, merchandising of Ultimate Spider-Man art led the charge of Marvel's reinvention into a licensing powerhouse. One time when I worked at Wizard, a colleague asked Bagley what the oddest product carrying his art was, and he replied without a moment's hesitation, "Little girl's panties." I wouldn't call that a product targeted towards people who knew that Peter let the thief go after the wrestling match.
And this isn't to say that the great Spider-Man comics don't wear those heartfelt, admirable qualities right out on their sleeve or communicate them to the readers in the Wednesday crowd. They certainly do. And it isn't even to say that the Spider-Man comics marketed to kids don't get the job done in message or availability. Because I think the publisher has put the work in over the past five decades to spread that material as far as it can go. Hell, when my friend Sean T. Collins improbably wrote an issue of the kids Spidey comic last year, I picked it up at Toys R Us.
But even with all that charm and pathos and theme running through the comics -- even with four massively popular movies full of quivering lips and graveyard skulking -- the draw Spider-Man has as a cultural totem comes first and foremost from his status as power fantasy.
About 25 years ago, Superman turned 50, and DC celebrated the milestone with a particularly synergistic cover on Time Magazine. I remember reading somewhere that John Byrne was peeved that the cover copy referred to his powers as "supernatural" -- as if there was a massive slight against the character and the medium in that minute inaccuracy. But at that point, an accurate view of Superman didn't come with a set of stories or a set of principals or even a set of artists anymore. A generation of Americans had grown up watching George Reeves tumble through plaster walls, and as a result, they tied towels around their necks and jumped off their garages. Even in the wake of Christopher Reeve, Superman was a potent image of power first and a (not-so) subtle set of characteristics second.
Today, Spider-Man has surpassed the Man of Steel as America's most reproduced image of what a superhero is supposed to be. Today's kids leave the towels in the laundry and instead run around pressing middle and ring fingers to their palms. Meanwhile Superman grows more nostalgic, relying on a memory of his baby boomer potency to sell his latest movie (I mean, who is little Clark Kent pretending to be in that Zack Snyder trailer anyway?)
And ultimately, I don't think Spider-Man's 50-year climb to the top of America's mass produced art heap detracts from the qualities comic readers love in him. He hasn't been watered down by popular culture. He's ascended beyond it. When people see Spider-Man today, they see him with joy and admiration. His status gives him a power with the public, with children, that I think is felt in a real way. Whether any responsibility comes along with it is something we can only hope for, or maybe fight for.