"Though the world may mock Peter Parker, the timid teen-ager, it will soon marvel at the awesome might of... Spider-Man!"
Spider-Man is a comic book character, created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. He first appeared Amazing Fantasy #15 (August, 1962). The issue contained his origin story. Geeky Ordinary High School Student Peter Parker attends a scientific demonstration and is bitten by a spider made radioactive by the experimental device, passing on the proportionate strength, speed, agility, and senses of a spider. At first he uses his power for self gain. After his Uncle Ben is shot by a mugger that Peter could have stopped, he learns that with great power must also come great responsibility, and becomes the amazing Spider-Man!
At its debut, this Marvel Comics tale was a landmark in comic book characterization. He actually seemed like a real person, with day-to-day worries. Peter Parker was unpopular in his high school (though not without his supporting cast of friends). He and his aunt were poor, due to the death of their breadwinner. To get by, he had to sell pictures of his super-hero self to a man who only used them as a way to smear and tear down Spider-Man's reputation, in a nice inversion of the Clark Kent/Superman situation.
Of course, he persevered, and with his powers, his native intelligence, and his nifty web-shooters, he went on to battle a bevy of strange supervillains. One of the best parts of Spider-Man's clashes with villainy was his nonstop fight patter. Even in the most dire of straits, Spidey could be counted on to deflate the Mad Scientist's ego with a cutting remark, which made him everything from a Deadpan Snarker to a master of Lampshade Hanging. Spider-Man was in many ways Jack of All Stats of the Marvel Universe. While he wasn't the fastest, strongest, smartest or most skilled hero there was, Spidey possessed enough of all these qualities to be able to handle a wide variety of situations and villains.
Another storytelling element introduced and popularized for the comic book medium by the able Spider-Man authors is the sub-plot, a Story Arc related to his personal life woven into the arc of his troubles with a particular villain. Some ongoing sub-plots were the troubles of Spidey's love life -- at various times, Betty Brant, Mary Jane Watson, and Gwen Stacy were all in the running; the identity of the Green Goblin and the troubles it brought to Peter's friend Harry Osborn; and Spider-Man being distrusted by the Superhero community at large, leading to many Let's You and Him Fight sequences. As time went on, subplots were also used to develop the supporting cast members by giving them A Day in the Limelight.
Tropes regarding the series as a whole can be found here.
As time went on, the character got quite popular, guest-starring in nearly every title in the Marvel Universe, getting an extra title of his own, and having several adaptations including:
- Spider-Man from 1967 which introduced the now famous "Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can..." theme.
- Several less notable animated series including A Spider-Man cartoon in the early 80's that ran in syndication for 26 episodes
- Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends a Superfriends-like Spider-Man cartoon that had him teaming up with X-Men's Iceman and Firestar (a female pastiche for the Human Torch).
- Spider-Man: The Animated Series: A very popular '94-'98 series that aired on Fox Kids. Despite ridiculous Executive Meddling and poor animation quality, it managed to be one of the best Spider-Man cartoons of all time.
- Spider-Man: The New Animated Series: An All CGI Cartoon produced by Mainframe Entertainment and aired on MTV to catch the popularity of the live-action movies. It also lasted only a year.
- The Spectacular Spider-Man: A new series that goes back to the basics with Greg Weisman of Gargoyles fame leading the way. Despite major approval and praise by fans and critics alike, Sony lost the rights to the show and Marvel was unable to continue it without massive legal complications, forcing the series to end after two seasons.
- Ultimate Spider-Man: A new cartoon series which, despite the name, is not entirely based off the 2000 comic reboot. Done by Paul Dini of Batman: The Animated Series fame, the show follows a younger Spider-Man teaming up with Power Man, Iron Fist, White Tiger and Nova. It's use of cutaway gags has become something of a Base Breaker, and a lot of fans (including the PEOPLE WORKING ON IT) have come to despise it. It does have its fans though
- A 2000 pair of PlayStation games.
- The film series.
- A comic strip in newspapers.
- The Amazing Spider-Man: A live action TV series that ran from 1977 to 1979.
- Spider-Man: Web of Shadows: A video game based around free-roaming New York and fighting a symbiote invasion.
- Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions: Another video game, having Spidey team up with three of his Alternate Universe counterparts.
- Spider-Man Edge of Time: Spider-Man and his 2099 counterpart must work together to restore the timeline and prevent the original Spidey's death.
- And, of course, Alternate Continuity Spin-Off comic books:
- Spider-Girl, following Spider-Man's daughter. Launched the Marvel Comics 2 line that featured the next generation of heroes.
- Spider-Man 2099, part of the Marvel2099 series of future heroes.
- Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, following Love Interest Mary Jane Watson. More of a Teen Drama with some superhero stuff, where the original was the other way around.
- Ultimate Spider-Man, essentially the flagship title of the Ultimate Marvel line. Launched in 2000 as a Continuity Reboot, but as of 2011 will be replacing Peter Parker with someone else.
The big draw of Spider-Man is that he has problems -- problems as a hero, problems as a man -- and, despite weakness, despite adversity, overcomes them, because he knows he has to. Among Superheroes, he's the regular guy trying to get by in a world of those who can crush planets between thumb and forefinger. In his best moments, Spider-Man is heroic enough that you want to be him, yet human enough that you think you could be him.
There have been several seminal storylines, each of which defined the web-slinger during a certain era; these are the ones that are most often adapted into Derivative Works and referenced by later authors.
Green Goblin Reborn!: In 1971, the U.S. Department of Health approached Marvel and asked them to do an anti-drug storyline. But there was one little problem: the Comics Code forbade drugs anywhere, both good and bad. Marvel decided to write a three-parter where Harry Osborn was shown to be popping pills and ignore Comics Code approval for those three issues. Along with Green Lantern/Green Arrow doing a heroin storyline the same year, this was one of the first signs of transition to the socially- and politically-conscious Bronze Age of Comics.
The Night Gwen Stacy Died: By 1973, Peter Parker's life had settled down a bit. He was in a steady relationship with Gwen, and started getting some respect from the people around him... and then, they dropped the big one.
The Green Goblin, who had been revealed to be Harry's father Norman Osborn, kidnapped Gwen. Threatening her in the usual supervillain style, he dropped her off a bridge... and Peter couldn't quite save her. It was recently revealed that Spider-Man's web was the cause of her death, as it caused her neck to break.
Never before had a superhero failed to save their girlfriend from the villain's Death Trap. Unlike many supporting cast deaths, this one had actual consequences. Peter's next door neighbor, kind and feisty Party Girl Mary Jane Watson, who had been one of Gwen's best friends, became more serious and sensitive, and drifted toward a romance with Peter; (though it was later revealed she had always loved Peter from a distance before they even met) the Green Goblin was dead, having accidentally impaled himself as he fought the furious Spider-Man afterwards. For the comics industry as a whole, this was pretty much the sign that the Silver Age was over.
The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man: Unlike the other stories here, this isn't a big, world-changing storyline. It's just a single issue (Amazing #248), but it's well-loved as one of Spider-Man's biggest Crowning Moments of Heartwarming. The main story is a fight against a guy named Thunderball, but the memorable part is the backup story where Spidey visits one of his fans and just spends time chatting, even revealing himself as Peter Parker (the kid loves the irony of how Peter sells pictures of himself to Jameson) and explaining how his failure with Uncle Ben drove him to crimefighting. It's only at the end that we learn that the boy is a Littlest Cancer Patient with days left to live, wishing to meet his hero before he passed on.
The Alien Costume: In 1984, as part of the Crisis Crossover Secret Wars, Spider-Man got a new, alien costume that responded to his thoughts. Eventually, it was revealed that the costume was a symbiote who was attempting to permanently merge with Peter. He managed to drive it away by exploiting its Achilles' Heel, sonic attacks and loud noise in general, whereupon it merged with a reporter who felt Spider-Man had wronged him and became the recurring villain Venom.
The Death of Jean DeWolff: In 1986, Spider-Man's friend, police captain Jean DeWolff, was found murdered in her apartment. The hunt for DeWolff's murderer becomes the impetus for an exploration of moral relativism among superheroes, the flaws of the criminal justice system, the desire for vengeance, and the clash of values between the idealistic Daredevil and the pragmatic Spider-Man. This was Peter David's first professional Comic Book writing assignment, and is noted for brutally subverting the comic-book stereotype of Heroic Sacrifice in character deaths.
Kraven's Last Hunt: The first Spider-Man story to be collected in hardcover (or trade paperback, for that matter), and one of Marvel's first collections. Kraven the Hunter sets out to prove that he's a better man than Spidey, and starts by shooting him and burying him. A multi-title story, and written in a somewhat experimental style.
Maximum Carnage: A mostly-forgettable event from 1993; Carnage recruits C-list villains into a Legion of Doom, and Spidey recruits a number of heroes (and Venom) to stop them. Mainly of note for being the highest-selling multi-title comic series in History (displacing Crisis on Infinite Earths) until Civil War - the reason for such a large and overbearing mega-run was summarized by writer/E.I.C. Tom De Falco as being a test to see how a multi-title series would function in the Spidey-verse, something that was tried before, but with a much smaller cast. He has claimed it's possibly the WORST Spider-Man story ever written "...but it's an awesome Venom story..." It was also adapted into a surprisingly decent video game.
During the '90s, it was felt that Spider-Man had strayed too far from the original concept, gathering a bunch of unrelated cruft onto the premise. So, another Peter Parker showed up, and it was revealed that the Spider-Man we'd been following for the past twenty years was a clone. Through Executive Meddling, the storyline became more and more unwieldy, until the whole thing was undone through a series of retcons and quietly swept under the rug -- with the main consequence that the original Green Goblin was back among the living. (Oh, and providing a possibly-dead baby to become Spider Girl in an alternate timeline.)
After Aunt May takes a bullet meant for him, Peter becomes so distraught that he's willing to make a Deal with the Devil to fix things. But the price is amazingly steep... Editor Joe Quesada... Er, Mephisto wants to suck all the happiness out of Peter's life, and so demands his marriage to Mary Jane declared null and void. As side effects, Peter's identity (which was public since Civil War) is a secret once more and Harry Osborn is alive again. And of course, writers can start screwing with Peter's love life again.
A followup story, One Moment In Time (or OMIT, if you're so inclined), showed exactly what happened on what was supposed to be Peter and MJ's wedding day, as well as how things fell apart between them after One More Day. It continues the tradition of OMD by drawing a lot of criticism and doesn't explain anything very well. It may have surpassed the Clone Saga by now for being so disliked.
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- In The Physics of Superheroes by Professor James Kakalios, he explains that it really didn't matter whether or not Spidey had let her fall or caught her the way he did - if she'd hit the water she would still have broken her neck. However, later on in the comics and the first film, he's seen jumping off after a falling character and catching them mid-flight, then using a web to anchor himself. Assuming his arm's able to take more punishment because, hey, he's Spider-Man, this is entirely plausible (at least according to Kakalios), and so the angst may yet be justified. Considering that Pete's supposed to be some kind of wunderkind it's hard to see why he didn't understand that himself and spare the fanbase a lot of arguing - and the Green Goblin says something to the effect that she was already dead, which, considering HE'S supposed to be a genius too...