SPIDER-MAN at 50: It’s the 50th anniversary of Marvel’s greatest icon, and all year Hero Complex will talk to notable names about the character’s success and singular appeal. Today: A guest essay by Neal Adams, one of the most influential comic-book artists of the modern era and one of the industry’s leading voices for artists’ rights.
Spider-Man is the epitome of the difference between DC Comics and that eruption of creation that became Marvel Comics. It’s a difference that has been clouded by time.
Comics historians (of which there are too many — don’t ruin comics, comic historians, remember what happened to jazz and rock ‘n’ roll) will remember Jerry and Joe’s Superman was intended to be a bad guy. At first, that is. Then before he appeared, he became a good guy. That was the beginning of superhero comics; a guy gets super powers and “decides to help mankind” — for no apparent reason.
And so with Superman the concept of superhero was born and flourished … until the dark ages of comics showed up with the fanatical attacks of Fredric Wertham and Congress. Comics nearly shut down, except for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and a bevy of new sparkle-toothed-born do-gooders. Not one bad thought existed in the minds of these heroes, whose books shared the spinner-rack with DC’s Pat Boone comics (yes, I said Pat Boone comics) and Jerry Lewis.
I was there, and it was hell.
Then one mystical day, the incredible Jack “The King” Kirby showed up at a much-maligned company called Timely Comics, which had, a decade earlier, abandoned superheroes and put classic characters like Captain America and Bucky, Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch and Toro into mothballs.
Stan “The Man” Lee rode the razor blade of declining sales with a small handful of titles that featured six-page monster comics where the beasties and robots had names like Fin Fang Foom, Gruto, Bombu and Shagg. They were “soft” — these were more like Godzilla than the graveyard nightmares that had alarmed old Dr. Werthan — and when he and Jack teamed up they convinced each other that these soft monsters could be feature characters. Wait, a monster as a hero? Could that work? Of course not. But…well, maybe.
Four humans bombarded by cosmic rays become monsters — well, soft monsters — called the Human Torch, the Thing, Mister Fantastic and the Invisible Girl. Gamma rays bombard a weak scientist and turns him into the Hulk — think Frankenstein’s monster on steroids. A weakling kid is bitten by a radioactive spider and decides to become…a circus performer? Yes, that’s right, Peter Parker is more interested in using his “gift” to find a paycheck, not a damsel in distress.
Until, with all his power, his weaknesses cause him to fail to save his Uncle Ben. Soft monsters as superheroes. Not sparkly-toothed-born heroes…but flawed monster heroes. Then came the incredible Steve Ditko. Was this man born to draw Spider-Man? A multitude will say “Yes.” Marvel had found a third creator who got it, who totally understood the concept: Flawed monster heroes. It was a new idea, born out of a touch of coincidence, a touch of history, a massive amount of brilliance of some of the greatest comic book creators since Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
No longer pure as the driven snow, but dirtied, flawed, human characters, who, in our own imperfection, we could relate to. Thank you, Jack. Thank you, Stan. You’ve made my day! And, Steve, how could we ever forget you?
— Neal Adams
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