In recent years, Marvel Comics has become a pop culture juggernaut. Thanks to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, their characters have reached new levels of popularity in the general public. Even more obscure heroes like the Guardians of the Galaxy have become household names. Though the success and prominence of the company has been a recent thing, there is one character of theirs whose popularity has been shining ever since his creation: Peter Parker, also known as the amazing Spider-Man. First debuting in the pages of the anthology comic Amazing Fantasy, Peter Parker was a high school student who found himself granted with spider-like abilities after being bitten by a radioactive spider (later iterations of his origin changing it to a genetically modified spider). Though he initially used his newfound powers for profit, the death of his Uncle Ben at the hands of a criminal he could have stopped taught Parker the hard lesson that with great power, comes great responsibility. How is it, then, that this one particular character would prove to be so popular? To me, Spider-Man is the hero who best exemplifies what the Marvel Universe is about: relatable characters.
Now, I will starts things off by explaining why that is what comes to mind when I think of the Marvel Universe. Back in the early days of the Silver Age of Comics, DC Comics had plenty of remarkable superheroes. They had interesting concepts or powers that could grab a reader’s attention. However, they were also written in a way that made them generically good. They were written as exemplars and examples of justice, but they lacked any flaws in personality. The result were heroes that seemed interesting, but could come across as dull. Then, Marvel Comics rocked the world with the release of issue #1 of The Fantastic Four. Within its pages as Reed Richard, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm gained their incredible powers and did battle with the villainous Mole Man, something striking was noticed. Our heroes would squabble with each other and hold grudges just as much as they appreciated and loved each other. They were not shown as utterly perfect heroes. They were shown as people. This new level of realism, along with Marvel exploring more relatable issues and treating comics as something that can be appreciated by all audiences, allowed the company to rise up and grab the world’s attention. Even as writing for superhero comics has changed and evolved for both of the Big Two, this difference has still held true. For me, DC Comics is about heroes who are icons and Marvel is about heroes who are people.
With that laid out, Spider-Man captures that ethos of relatability in the strongest fashion. Part of that comes from his circumstances, such as the fact that he is a teenager. At the time when Peter Parker was first created in comics, most other teen heroes were just sidekicks who served adult heroes. Parker, on the other hand, had his own life and carried on his own pursuit of justice. His comics showed not only his superheroics battling villains like Dr. Octopus or the Green Goblin, but also his day-to-day issues with things like high school bullies or first loves. These day-to-day moments are familiar ones, relatable for most everyone during their tumultuous teenage years. In addition, Parker’s working life is another relatable component. Most superheroes tend to have a profession that easily explains their life and ability to be a superhero, frequently in the form of scientists or reporters. Even Tony Stark, better known as Iron Man and one of Marvel’s currently popular heroes thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, spends his days as a billionaire playboy. Peter Parker does not have that luxury. When he’s not in class, he spends his time as a freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle and works for a boss who frequently does not show much appreciation for the good pictures that he takes. In fact, the struggle of having to pay bills comes up time and again. Having a hero deal with the sort of issues like bills or a rough employer adds another level of realism that can allow readers to connect. However, it is not only the aspects of Spider-Man that make him relatable. It is also what he does that matters.
In his day to day life, Peter Parker tries to do the best that he can. He is no jock, simply a really smart teen, so he is bullied at school. His boss, J. Jonah Jameson, has no appreciation for the great pictures he takes. In short, life can be frustrating for him. That is why being Spider-Man is a release for him. It allows him to step away from all the day-to-day frustrations and blow off some steam. In fact, an element that has been part of the character for ages has been his wisecracks. No matter how stressful the situation or supervillain, Spider-Man comes packing with quips that help to lighten the mood. Of course, the quips do more than just frustrate whatever supervillain he may be battling. It is another part of his release. He fires off the sort of witty retorts that he is not able to do in his normal life as Peter Parker. In fact, that is the core of what making Spider-Man so appealing: he is a normal guy whose double life as a hero resonates with us all. Life can get us down, wear us thin with the day-to-day annoyances and problems that can drain us. We dream of escaping that daily grind, to perhaps do more than we feel we are stuck with. Peter Parker has that escape. School and work may eat away with those problems and make him feel small, but as Spider-Man he is grand. He is able to be the sort of brave and clever hero that we dream of becoming. No matter how rough things may seem, he never stops trying to help others or falter in the face of adversity. It is that sentiment, one shared by all, that is so brilliantly captured by Spider-Man because his normal life is such an ordinary one. Any of us could be like him, caught in a sheer moment of chance that gives us great power and great responsibility.
We dream of being able to make a difference, to be able to fight for a better world. Spider-Man can take up that fight like many other heroes, but it is his familiar and relatable life as Peter Parker that has helped him to become one of Marvel Comics’s most popular superheroes.