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Spider-Man is turning 50

By Jeffrey Peterson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, June 28 2012 4:47 p.m. MDT

Andrew Garfield stars as Spider-Man in Columbia Pictures' "The Amazing Spider-Man."

Columbia Pictures

On July 3, a brand new Spider-Man played by Andrew Garfield (“The Social Network”) swings into movie theaters in Sony’s reboot of the beloved Marvel Comics character.

Although it probably won’t be on most audience members’ minds, this year also marks the 50th anniversary since Spider-Man first appeared in print back in August of 1962.

Over the past 50 years, the wall-crawling hero has spun a web that stretches from comic books to TV shows, movies, video games, toys and even a Broadway musical. Along the way, he has become one of the most recognizable and influential characters in pop culture.

Here’s a look back at the history of Spider-Man.

Origin and early years

The creation of Spider-Man is a subject of more than a little debate for comic book historians thanks to some conflicting claims of authorship.

Most would agree, however, that like so many of Marvel’s characters, Spider-Man was the product of a collaborative process — what was famously called the “Marvel Method.” Writer/editor Stanley Lieber — or “Stan Lee,” as he called himself — would pitch a rough character or story idea to an artist, oftentimes borrowing from pre-existing material or recycling unused Marvel concepts. The artist would then add details and flesh the idea out enough for the always-busy Lee to come in and crank out a quick issue. Thus, in many cases, no single person could claim sole responsibility for a character.

In the case of Spider-Man, Lee partnered with artist Steve Ditko, providing him the basic outline of a teenager named Peter Parker who is bitten by a spider and endowed with superhuman abilities. Ditko then created the character’s look, including most of the details that make him so unique. Wrist-mounted web shooters, for example, gave Spider-Man the ability to swing through the New York streets, and in a time when half-masks were all the rage, Ditko opted for a full facemask so Peter Parker could hide the fact that he was still just a teenager. Pretty remarkably, Ditko’s original character design — easily one of the most iconic in comic book history — has remained almost completely unchanged to this day.

When Spider-Man made his comic debut in 1962, however, he was just part of the sci-fi anthology “Amazing Fantasy” No. 15, appearing alongside stories ranging in subject from Martians to mummies. At the time, superheroes were just beginning to experience a revival after nearly two decades of weak public interest. But after “Amazing Fantasy” No. 15 became one of Marvel’s top-selling issues, Lee and Ditko were given the go-ahead to create a spinoff series, which they titled “The Amazing Spider-Man.” The first issue hit comic stands a few months later at the beginning of 1963.

Spider-Man immediately stood out as a different kind of superhero. Unlike Superman or Captain America, for instance, Spider-Man — especially his alter ego, Peter Parker, the nerdy kid from Queens — was a character young readers could identify with. As Stan Lee related in an interview with the Detroit Free Press, “I wanted the character to be a very human guy, someone who makes mistakes, who worries, who gets acne, has trouble with his girlfriend, things like that.”

Peter Parker’s everyday struggles balanced the larger-than-life situations he found himself in as a costumed crime-fighter. Over the years, this mix of fantasy and relatability has made the Spider-Man comics an ideal place to explore relevant social issues.

In the early ’70s, for example, a story line written at the behest of the government’s Department of Health, Education and Welfare paved new ground by tackling the issue of drug addiction — even though, at the time, any depiction of drug use was considered a violation of the Comics Code.

A big part of Spider-Man’s popularity likely has to do with the nearly unrivaled rogues gallery created by Lee and Ditko in the comic’s early years, including characters like the Green Goblin, Chameleon, Doctor Octopus, Mysterio and, of course, the Lizard. A cast of post-Atomic Age freaks of science and Cold War villains, they helped ground the sensationalism of comic books in real-world fears having to do with the spread of Communism, the bomb and the Vietnam War.

Outside the comics

After quickly becoming one of Marvel’s most successful properties, it didn’t take long for Spider-Man to expand into new forms of media. As early as 1967, Lee and Ditko’s character was given his own animated TV show, which introduced the ever-popular Spider-Man theme song with lyrics by three-time Oscar winner Paul Francis Webster.

Although the original cartoon ended in 1970, Spider-Man has had a pretty consistent presence on TV in a variety of animated forms, including, notably, Fox Kids’ “Spider-Man” in the mid-1990s and “The Spectacular Spider-Man” from 2008-09.

Spider-Man transitioned to newspapers, as well, in 1977, with early story and art by the creative duo also responsible at that time for the character’s comic incarnation, Lee and John Romita Sr.

In 1978, two live-action Spider-Man series ran simultaneously on two separate continents: in the United States, a CBS-produced series starring Nicholas Hammond, and in Japan, Toei’s “Supaida-Man.” Aside from the main character’s costume, though, the Japanese Spider-Man had virtually nothing to do with the Marvel character. Instead, he used a giant robot named Leopardon to do battle with similarly scaled monsters.

Both the American and Japanese TV series were mercifully canceled in 1979, and after years of anticipation and a who’s-who of Hollywood directors courting, but eventually abandoning, the property, it wasn’t until Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” in 2002 that fans at last got to see a live-action version of the character on the big screen that was faithful to the spirit of the comics. Raimi and star Tobey Maguire followed up the success of the first film with two sequels. One (“Spider-Man 2”) is widely regarded as a high point of the superhero movie genre, the other as a train wreck.

In January of 2010, Deadline broke the news (to the dismay of many) that Sony had plans to forego a fourth “Spider-Man” film with Raimi and Maguire, choosing instead to reboot the franchise. This decision was met with criticism by fans of the original films who saw Sony’s move as just a way to avoid paying the director and cast’s increased salaries.

With the upcoming release of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” however, hopes are once again high among fans that Sony’s reboot of the franchise will be a real step forward for a character who has endured for 50 years and across multiple forms of media.

As is so often the case with comic book characters, a lot has changed for Spider-Man during his long history — even though Peter Parker himself has barely aged past 30 in the comics. The one thing that has remained constant for Spider-Man, though, is his popularity.

Sources: "An Insider's Part of Comics History: Jack Kirby's Spider-Man," by Steve Ditko, collected in "Alter Ego, the Comic Book Artist Collection," edited by Roy Thomas; "Stan Lee," by Sue L. Hamilton; "Comic Books: How the Industry Works" by Shirrel Rhoades

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