Spider-Man’s monster appeal: A guest essay by Neal Adams

Feb. 22, 2012 | 8:32 a.m.

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.

amazing fantasy page 12 Spider Mans monster appeal: A guest essay by Neal Adams

A panel from the first Spider-Man story. (Marvel Comics)

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.

amazibg fantasy Spider Mans monster appeal: A guest essay by Neal Adams

The first Spider-Man comic book..(Marvel Comics)

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.

neal adams Spider Mans monster appeal: A guest essay by Neal Adams

Neal Adams (NealAdams.com)

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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20 Responses to Spider-Man’s monster appeal: A guest essay by Neal Adams

  1. monoceros4 says:

    Yup, Spider-Man epitomizes the difference: instead of an iconic, almost mythic figure, he's a one-note whiner forever locked into angst about his dead uncle. That's Marvel in a nutshell.

    I remember when I finally read the superb KINGDOM COME of Mark Waid and Alex Ross, I thought–correctly, I believe–that it could only be done with DC characters. Marvel characters are too small, too limited, too defined by personal issues that they will never, ever overcome.

    • Andrew says:

      Ah, but they do overcome the tragedies that made them who they are. That's what makes them so inspiring and relateable. Despite their origins, and their inner conflicts, they rise above. Marvel heroes (as Neal wisely points out) actually address real injustices and personal tragedy and give you a reason to care about seeing them succeed. In comparison, one-dimensional characters like Superman, the Flash, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, etc, do good because, well, they just do. Maybe today they are more interesting now that writers have Marvel-ized them, but they weren't always that way.

      If you want a character who can't actually seem to ever overcome personal issues go read a Batman comic.

    • derrickferguson says:

      High Five

    • @xeno000 says:

      By the late 50s, DC Comics' characters had very little that was iconic or mythic left in them. Under Weisinger's regime they had become parodies of themselves, locked into a universe dominated by imaginary stories, ludicrous plots, lack of continuity and very little characterization. None of DC's characters were the least bit human, no matter what their origin. It was a world of ciphers and ghosts.

      All the kids I knew shunned DC and its empty suits, preferring the weightier, angstier, realer world of Marvel. There we found heroes who weren't so perfect and pristine, but who were as human under their spandex costumes as the rest of us. Instead of being set apart from the reader, or above, Marvel's flawed pantheon were relatable. When Peter Parker worried about paying the rent, when Tony Stark fought his weak body and weaker will, when The Avengers fought with each other as often as they fought their enemies, we could see something of our lives reflected back from the four-color pages. Lee, Kirby, Ditko, et al., realized, as the the best writers have from the time of Greek tragedy onward, that it is often a character's flaws that make him or her great. THAT is the creative revolution wrought by Marvel of which Mr. Adams writes.

  2. Sean says:

    Well said, Neal! These fellows deserve as much credit as the heroes that they've created. Thank you for honoring them all…

  3. Winston says:

    Thank you, Neal Adams. Kirby, Ditko, and Stan (let's not forget John Romita) were all involved in the development of Spider-man

  4. Thomas says:

    DC was the only thing that kept comics alive during those dark years. Bearing in mind that originally, before the dark times, Batman was a dark, deeply flawed hero- with all the most terrifying foes. I like Spidey very much…as I enjoy a lot of Marvel heroes…but DC, with Batman, Watchmen etc is in my mind the more serious minded. marvel often revels in silliness and, yes, fun ('fun' not being a dirty word you dark minded 21st century-geek-snobs types out there). Think about it…Dr Doom? Oh, I wonder how his parent thought he was going to turn out… 'Baron Von Doom'…Jeez. Like I said, I do love marvel but don't slight DC…As you yourself said, they started the whole thing.

    • SolitaireRose says:

      DC was NOT the only thing keeping comics alive. Dell was still selling millions of copies of their books into the 60's, Fawcett was moving a LOT of "Dennis the Menace" comics and so on. And in the early 60's, Batman was FAR from dark. He traveled in time, fought aliens, wore silly costumes and made the coming TV show seem like Dark Knight by comparison.

  5. Dave Rest says:

    Neal Adams: " … 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, a bevy of new sparkle-toothed-born do-gooders. "

    Err, just those 3 comics, eh?
    Nah. There were loads of comics coming out in the late 1950s, just not so many superhero ones.
    It's like saying only a handful of films came out in the 80s, because it wasn't a boom-time for Westerns.
    Superheroes stopped being popular when WWII ended and didn't really pick up sales again until the early 60s, but many, many comics were published in other genres.

    • Stephen Ely says:

      Neal was obviously referring to the popular superhero comics that were left, not all the Comics Code Approved comics published at the time. Of course there was comedy comics like Pat Boone, Jerry Lewis (which Neal pointed out), Bob Hope, Archie, western comics and romance comics. Superman was the biggest selling comic at the time while George Reeves' Adventures of Superman was a TV hit.

  6. Dave rest says:

    Thomas: "DC was the only thing that kept comics alive during those dark years. "

    Why is it that some people use the word "comics," when what they actually mean is comics that have super-heroes in them? It seems to suggest that we superhero fans are all extremely blinkered people.
    I know the during late 50s comics were selling less than the years immediately than before and after, but there were many titles that did OK in many different genres. The period between 1950 and 1954 wasn't too shabby at all, and that was mainly driven by horror comics. In the late 50s you still had the toned down version of those, plus sci-fi titles, westerns, war comics, teenagers' comics, kids' stuff, Dell kept going strong, most of the Atlas titles that originally hosted the 60s heroes started as scifi and suspense titles in the 50s. There were a lot of comics around.

    The word "comics" refers to a medium, not a genre.
    Let's not make fools of ourselves.

  7. Don says:

    Being a teenager in the 60's was more bearable because of Mr. Lee, Kirby, Romita,Ditkc, Adams and the rest of the Marvel crew. I could'nt wait to ride my bike down to the local drug store and sit there among the monthly treasure of Marvel Gold. Then the Vietnam war came along and not only could I not wait for my wife's love letters to come, but she always sent along my Marvel mags. God, that woman loved me. She still does.

  8. Doc T says:

    GREAT tribute, Neal, and thanks for your crusading to keep such creators in our minds. For a few academicish thoughts on these "SuperAntihero Monstrosities," my college course explores similar themes! http://rhetoricsuperhero.wordpress.com/2010/03/18

  9. Chris says:

    Adams hits the mark with his essay. Maybe he's riffing a bit too much on the Marvel vs. DC thing, but he ought to know having so much experience in both camps. For me, though, the Lee-Ditko Spideys of the 60s are hard to beat so many years later. Kirby and others (including Adams and Romita) were better artists but no one captured the awkward but well-meaning dorkiness of Peter Parker, the bombast of J Jonah and the arachnid acrobatics of Spidey like Ditko did. go back and read the Spideys from about issues 20 to 40 and their wit and energy still resonate. Much has been said about how teens and pre-teens related to Peter Parker but not enough credit is given to Ditko for making Spidey come alive with his unique visual style. Kudos to Neal Adams for hoisting a toast to Ditko!

  10. Winchester says:


  11. How To Write And Play Great Music says:

    Still one of the greatest superheroes of all time !

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