Comics Then: Amazing Fantasy #15
In 1962, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko-- along with some concepts from the inimitable Jack Kirby-- created a character who would change the comics landscape forever. Debuting in Amazing Fantasy #15, Spider-Man (or “Spiderman,” as he’s referred to in the story) was an immediate success. Combining elements of superheroic fantasy and even a bit of horror, Spider-Man’s origin is one of the most recognizable stories in popular culture. It immortalized the phrase “with great power there must come great responsibility” and its various derivations, and gave Marvel Comics a shot in the arm that it desperately needed.
By this point we all know the general story: Peter Parker, meek and awkward teenager, is bitten by a radioactive spider. From there he develops strange, amazing powers and uses them to become Spider-Man. Instead of using his powers for good, though, Peter becomes cocky and careless, neglecting to stop a crime that ultimately leads to the death of his beloved Uncle Ben. It’s a third act twist that would feel right at home in an episode of The Twilight Zone.
What’s most striking about the first Spider-Man story is how serious it is. There are moments of Stan Lee’s trademark bombast (the story ends with the caption “And so a legend is born and a new name is added to the roster of those who make the world of fantasy the most exciting realm of all!”), it’s an overall somber affair. Peter himself is surprisingly unlikable for large swaths of the story, using his powers to attain fame and notoriety. In turn, he’s a jerk to people who wronged him and selfish with who he chooses to protect.
The details are well known by this point, but even reading this familiar story today it packs a punch. The tragic irony of Peter’s power and hubris leading to him losing one of the few people who love him unconditionally is affecting to this day, thanks to the verisimilitude of Lee’s script and Ditko’s pencils. Seeing an unmasked Peter crying is genuinely moving, as we’re reminded that this powerful “man” is still no more than a boy.
There’s a sense of excitement and entertainment like you’d expect from an “amazing fantasy,” yet there’s also a gravity that makes the story feel real. Spider-Man could have easily been a one-off character, an obscure footnote in comics history, but the added stakes and emotional core of the story gave him depth enough to last.
Spider-Man works because, in a way, he is all of us: a normal, relatable kid who messes up. He gets more power than he ever imagined, and while he eventually uses it for good, he makes mistakes and learns from them. We would like to think that we would be like Superman, noble to a fault and doing what’s right precisely because it’s right.
And yes, we’re capable of being like Superman too. But with Spider-Man, his great power leads to his greatest tragedy. He messed up and had to learn and grow. That’s everyday life right there, in one way or another.
In 2018, we lost both men who were instrumental in the creation of Spider-Man. Steve Ditko died a few months back, and Stan Lee just this week. They lived long lives and had long careers, and while they may not be with us any longer, leaving a character like Spider-Man as their legacy is nothing less than… amazing.