Spider-Man at 60: Learning from comic book history

Beyond Amazing: Learning From 60 Years of Spider-Man

Exploring comic book art and pop culture history through the lens of Marvel’s iconic superhero, English teacher Ben Saunders is curating a 2022 exhibit at the Comic-Con Museum in San Diego.

Story By Jason stone | Original art and graphics by Wonder

Spiderman hanging upside down

It’s really unbelievable ! Marvel’s Spider-Man turns 60 this year.

The wall-crawling crime fighter was introduced to the world in August 1962, making his anthology comic book debut amazing fantasy #15. Created by the collaborative team of writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man was an instant hit with readers. Marvel quickly made him the star of its own title, establishing a classic character from the Silver Age of comics. Featured for decades in movies, TV, toys, video games, apparel, and countless other media, the iconic web-slinger’s final stop is a grand museum exhibit.

Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing – the exhibit opened earlier this month at the new Comic-Con Museum in San Diego.

According to Ben Saunders, director of the University of Oregon’s Comics and Cartoon Studies program, gallery walls are an appropriate stop not just because of the character’s status in popular culture, but also from the genius of the creators of Spider-Man.

“Some of the best commercial artists in history have worked at Marvel, from the 1950s to the present day. And Marvel’s real-world narrative is just as compelling as the fictional superhero worlds they created.

Editor of the new historical Marvel anthology series Penguin Classics, Saunders also served as co-curator of the new exhibition, which features original artwork drawn for comic books from all eras, as well as thousands of unique artifacts covering all facets of the hero’s life in media.

“When you get to see the original artwork, traditional distinctions between fine art and commercial art break down,” he says.

Ben Saunders, English teacher, in a comic book store
Ben Saunders, co-curator of Beyond Amazing—The Exhibition and director of comics studies at the University of Oregon
Patrick A. Reed, co-curator of Beyond Amazing—The Exhibition

A lifelong comic book reader, English teacher and expert on the works of Shakespeare, Saunders brought to the exhibition project not only his literary and historical knowledge, but also significant elbow grease. He estimates he has digitized over 300 images from his personal comic book collection for use in the show. For the many original works exhibited, however, he acknowledges the exhibitors’ trust in generous collectors who have agreed to lend them the materials. Marvel Comics divested its production art archive during the 1980s, Saunders explains — most of those pieces ended up in private hands, making full exhibits like this a particular challenge to curate.

“For several years, my goal in curation has been to bring this production art, which most of the public has never seen, to gallery walls where it can be enjoyed. A well-drawn and inked comic book page is, I think, one of the most beautiful works of art you can find.

Saunders’ collaborator in the creation of the show, Patrick A. Reed is an events professional and independent pop culture historian. It promises that visitors will not only be immersed in the world of classic and contemporary comics, but can anticipate a large-scale multimedia experience encompassing Spider-Man’s entire journey through popular imagination: cinema, animation , games, collectibles, and many more.

“Our exhibition is rooted in the classic structure of the museum – the power and resonance of the artifacts on display,” he says.

“But we also used modern digital technologies and brought something like a world-building theme park construction. It is a hybrid concept. People will experience bits and pieces of Spider-Man’s fictional worlds and also learn the real story behind them.

collage of Spider-Man art from different comic eras

Timeless themes; Lasting popularity

An exhibit Saunders and Reed have previously worked on together, Marvel: Universe of Superheroes debuted at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture in 2018 and was successful enough to tour the country. Organizers predict that tens of thousands of people could also attend their new single-character show. What can explain the immediate success and enduring appeal of Spider-Man? According to these experts, it has to come down to a variety of factors, but perhaps the most important is Spider-Man’s underlying psychology and his impressive roster of enemies.

“Comic fanatics like to argue over which title produced the best rogues gallery,” Saunders confesses. “To me, it really comes down to Batman or Spider-Man.”

From Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin to Kingpin and Kraven the Hunter, early issues of The Amazing Spider-Man featured over a dozen villains that proved almost as popular as the hero himself. They would continue to plague Spidey and reappear frequently in other Marvel titles over the decades.

Color and B&W illustrations of Spider-Man and famous super-villains.  Marvel credit.

“There’s no other brief, intense burst of creativity in comics quite like it,” says Reed. “It’s like the Beach Boys or the Beatles or the Rolling Stones in popular music at the same time – artists who were releasing two or three albums a year and not just high quality, but growing by leaps and bounds at each new release.”

As for Spider-Man’s unique inner life, most of it has been explored through his secret identity. Peter Parker, a somewhat introverted high school student from Queens raised by his elderly aunt and uncle, gained his powers from the painful bite of a radioactive spider. Unlike young superheroes who had always been relegated to sidekick roles by comic book writers, Parker didn’t have superpowered adults to guide him. On his own, he had to learn to control his strange new powers and apply them “with great responsibility”.

Original production art from the Spider-Man comic, credit Marvel

“They were breaking new ground by making Peter Parker’s teenage years the emotional center of their stories,” Saunders says. “The interiority of the sidekick hadn’t interested the creators of comics of the 1940s and 1950s. How Robin, for example, feels about being an orphan boy who ends up with the strangest stepfather of all the times play no part in the narrative machinery of previous Batman stories. When Spider-Man appeared, he expanded the emotional reach of the entire superhero genre.

Spider-Man and Peter Parker were a great metaphor for the angst, excitement and transitions of adolescence itself, and 1960s teenagers – a whole new class of people who rather suddenly evolved from of the older concept of “children” – easily identified. Unlike previous generations of teenagers, baby boomers also had disposable income that could make Spider-Man a bestseller.

Although it sounds like an “overnight sensation,” the web-slinger’s success was actually carefully planned by its creators, Saunders says.

“Stan Lee and his co-workers at Marvel weren’t young upstarts. They were mid-career, seasoned professionals in those days. Sure, their primary concern was selling comics. But they knew they were playing with a new sociological and commercial category and recognized how this could broaden the entire bandwidth of expression in the genre.

The heroic gaze of success

To help imagine this new kind of hero, Lee reached out to Marvel’s most idiosyncratic artist. Unlike most of his peers, Steve Ditko had little interest in anatomical precision or drawing with “realism”. He was, however, a master of gesture and character design, and his unique style brought a kinetic feel to the pages. Perhaps most impactful, Ditko invented Spider-Man’s iconic threads.

“There’s something inherently appealing about the Spider-Man suit,” Reed enthused. “Children react immediately, even before they are old enough to really understand the character. Just Spider-Man looks cool.”

Beyond the Amazing Spider-Man Exhibit Logo, credit Marvel

Beyond the Amazing Spider-Man Exhibit Logo, credit Marvel

At a time in comics when the vast majority of characters were still white — and most wore masks that partially revealed their faces — Lee also credited the head-to-toe styling of Spider-Man’s costume with helping readers of all races connect. with the character by imagining himself inside his costume. It’s probably no coincidence that Spider-Man is an ever-popular subject for Halloween masks and children’s pajamas. And the universal nature of the character’s appearance has undoubtedly contributed to his appeal across cultures and generations.

In recent years, with the growth of the Marvel Universe in print and explosion across various media, this inclusive aura has expanded to also include depictions of the character behind the mask.

“In fact,” Reed notes, “to a younger generation of fans, Spider-Man is not Peter Parker is Miles Morales.

A biracial teenager, Morales made his comic book debut in 2011. Ultimate Fallout #4 introduced readers to this next-gen hero who took over the mantle of Spider-Man after the death of Peter Parker. In 1977, Marvel also introduced its first Spider-Woman, a literally self-contained female model. Her character continued to evolve, with Parker’s original lover Gwen Stacy recently taking on the role of the expanding Spider-Verse.

Reed explains that one of the challenges of putting together a show like Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing stems from their need to recognize and engage the many diverse audiences that have forged personal bonds with these much-loved characters over time.

Gwen Stacy or Spider-Woman exhibition, credit Marvel

“As curators, we always strive to be aware and to include all the different perspectives,” he says. “There are many ways to recognize the resonances of central creation. Our hope is that people will leave the exhibition with a greater awareness not only of the work itself, but of its cultural impact.

In the words of its creator, the great Stan Lee: “Excelsior” to Spider-Man! A 60-year-old hero to millions, Spidey continues to weave vast networks of influence.

Jason Stone is a writer at University Communications. All Spider-Man graphics and artwork © 2022 Marvel.

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Spider-Man exhibition poster, credit Marvel

Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing – The Exhibition

Developed by Semmel Exhibitions in association with Marvel and the Comic-Con Museum.

Open July 1, 2022 at Comic-Con Museum, Balboa Park, San Diego.

Tickets and more information

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