With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: Spider-Man’s Legitimacy as Literature in the Hero Myth Tradition

images

I’ll keep fighting––no matter what! I won’t give up! I won’t! I won’t! I won’t! Nobody can make me give up! Not when there’s so much at stake!

—Peter Parker (Amazing Spider-Man # 33)

  A never-ending fight between good and evil exists in the pages of most superhero comic books. However, this struggle extends beyond the twenty-two pages of a standard comic, whether it is in high school hallways or the halls of academia. Four-color, serialized superhero comics have always been looked at as primarily low culture and not worthy of the same attention as or even the name “literature.” For example, Isaac Cates contends, “Typical superhero comics operate by standards of costume, motivation, plot, and character that can make Arthurian romance seem naturalistic,” and he concludes that “most contemporary superhero comics have a distinctly adolescent effect” (831).  Even those that claim to defend comic books as a legitimate form of literature treat superhero comics with a patronizing tone. Aaron Meskin correctly claims that some comics do exhibit the same traits as literature—good writing, depth of characterization, moral seriousness, and humanly interesting themes—and he believes that “The best comics develop their themes. That is, readers are not simply confronted with clichés—they are encouraged to work out themes, contemplate them, and make sense of the comics in light of them” (221).  However, Meskin, speaking out of both sides of his mouth, then says, “I do not believe that mainstream superhero comics typically possess much in the way of substantive literary value” (222). Not only is he wrong, but he also contradicts his own standards of what constitutes literature and shows his bias against superhero comics. This intercultural elitism proves how pervasive the prejudice towards superhero comics has been and continues to be.

However, despite his labeling of superhero comics as “adolescent,” Cates concedes exceptions: “Particular characters, especially those with decades of varied history in monthly comic books, seem to have taken on symbolic values almost like the avatars of allegorical abstraction” (832). He theorizes that because of Spider-Man’s long and varied history, writers have a wealth of themes to draw upon to tell nuanced stories. Indeed, Peter Parker (Spider-Man) represents all that makes superhero comics thematically universal. Spider-Man stories always have the moral of power and responsibility at their core.  By Cates’s own admission, “Worked into a larger story, he [Spider-Man] can represent a moral locus, a symbol for a certain sort of skepticism, or a more human perspective (despite his extraordinary abilities, he remains tied to the scrawny teenager of his origin)” (832). Based on this evidence, it is clear that if any superhero can prove the literary legitimacy of superhero comics, it is the colloquial Webhead, a nerdy kid named Peter Parker who lives with his aunt in Forest Hills, Queens—Spider-Man. Specifically, by examining Spider-Man through Joseph Campbell’s monomyth story structure, the hero’s journey, the struggles that Peter Parker endures become relatable to a literary audience. It is Peter Parker’s relatable nature and the hero’s journey structure used in the comic’s long-form storytelling that make Spider-Man comics worthy of being accepted as literature. Specifically, Campbell’s framework provides “thresholds,” not always easily visible in long-form fiction such as comic books, that the hero crosses during the course of his journey, and crossing each threshold involves grappling with a complex moral or ethical dilemma as embodied in “legitimate literature.”

American mythologist and psychoanalytic critic Joseph Campbell posits that all mythology follows the same structure, which he calls the hero’s journey. Campbell’s hero journey structure is divided into three sections: Separation or Departure, Initiation, and Return. Each contains specific subsections. In the first section of the narrative, the hero, due to a blunder of some kind, is set on a journey and ripped from his normal place in society. The hero refuses or misuses the power given him by extraordinary forces, but eventually accepts the burden, leading to a change in the hero’s mindset. The hero’s resolve to this new life is tested, and after surviving this test, he is deemed worthy of his hero title. He is one of the initiated.

The Initiation stage is where the hero makes his name and does daring deeds.  Proving himself worthy, he meets a “goddess” who may try to dissuade the hero from his purpose. Then, the hero must confront his old life or a father figure. In doing so, he realizes there is a larger world/responsibility, gains greater power, and ascends to a godlike state. This increased power helps the hero achieve his ultimate goal. Once the hero has finished his quest, he must reintegrate into normal society. This is the last leg of the journey: The hero must return.

The Return begins, fittingly, with the hero refusing to accept that his adventure is over. Due to this refusal, the world, in need of the hero, may have to go to him to roust him out of his comfort. The hero then realizes he must return with his boon, and a pursuit begins. Once the hero is safe and has successfully reintegrated into society, he must rectify the fantastical world with the mundane. Having found that balance, he has completed this final stage and is free.

Campbell’s structure is beneficial because although it is meant to analyze mythology and mythological heroes, it is applicable to any long-form fictional protagonist. The hero’s journey structure functions as a map for any journey or hero-based story. This, in turn, allows an audience to see the universality of that story. Campbell’s rules strip away any value judgments about the character or medium, specifically comics, because the hero’s journey is like a mathematical equation for fiction and any character searching for something can be placed into the equation as a variable. In Campbell’s estimation, “The standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero is a magnification of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation—initiation—return: which might be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth” (Campbell 23). At the core of the structure, Campbell makes it clear that in the course of the adventure, the hero must find himself.

The real punch behind Campbellian analysis is its use of Freudian and Jungian theories to demythologize mythological figures, bringing gods down to a human level where they are more relatable. He says, “The hero, therefore, is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms. Such a one’s visions, ideas, and inspirations come pristine from the primary springs of human life and thought”  (Campbell 14).  Campbell states that anyone can take the place of the hero in his structure because everyone is the hero of his or her own story. This distinction makes Campbell’s theory widely applicable rather than restricting the form to mythology only.

Jeffery S. Lang and Patrick Trimble offer an altered take on Campbell’s classic monomyth structure in their article “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An Examination of the American Monomyth and the Comic Book Superhero.” They cite Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence’s definition of the American Monomyth:

A community in a harmonious paradise is threatened by evil. Normal institutions fail to contend with this threat. A selfless hero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task, and, aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisal condition. The superhero then recedes into obscurity. (158)

The American Monomyth is beneficial when examining comics because comics often contain the theme of saving a city from catastrophe. However, this definition does not offer anything in terms of the Return stage of Campbell’s hero’s journey. In order to understand Spider-Man’s journey, we need to use a hybrid of these two forms. In the world of The Amazing Spider-Man, the Return portion of the classic monomyth is indicative of Peter Parker’s optimism in the face of a world that tries to keep him down. In the monomyth cycle, “The Return” is the most optimistic stage because it says that an extraordinary being can live among ordinary people. This optimistic nature is what has kept audiences coming back to Spider-Man for five decades, and without this optimism, we lose one of Spider-Man’s defining traits.

Lang and Trimble continue defining the differences between the American monomyth and its classic counterpart saying, “This supersavior replaces the Christ figure whose credibility has been eroded by scientific rationalism, but at the same time reflects a hope of divinity and redemption that science has never been able to eradicate” (158). It is this type of “science meets divinity” approach that made the Marvel superheroes, especially Spider-Man, unique at their inception because their powers were given to them by science, not by divine right. With Marvel’s shift to an episodic narrative, the move towards comics embodying a monomyth structure began.

This shift toward comic monomyth is especially evident when we consider the history of comics because to understand the changes that Spider-Man represents in the history of comics, we must first look at what comics were like pre-Spider-Man. According to The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America, the comic book’s origin stems from its short-form ancestor, the comic strip: “Magazine articles derided comic strips as infantile, brutal, unsophisticated, and subliterate; and the funnies were all that, though by design—a possibility lost to critics applying the standards of other forms of art and literature created for one class to a new form invented for another class” (Hajdu 12). This class distinction is flawed, ghettoizing comic books and saddling them with an unfair low culture stigma. This has limited comic readership and exposure of the stories, something that the medium is still fighting today.   

Low culture beginnings, along with the art form’s popularity with young people, led to persecution. For example, on May 8th 1940, Sterling North, a column writer for the Chicago Daily News, wrote in his “Books and Authors” column a piece entitled “A National Disgrace.” In it, he described comics using words like, “a poisonous mushroom growth, sex, [and] horror serials, and ‘labeled it’ a medium that takes millions of dollars from children in exchange for graphic insanity” (Hajdu 40).  North’s sentiments mirror those comic book fans still face today, dismissing an entire medium and excellent stories based solely on how they are presented.

A decade later, the persecution continued. Comics were a target in the communist witch-hunt in the 1950s. The House on Un-American Activities Committee and Joseph McCarthy thought, like North, that comics were too graphic for children because they glorified horror. The HUAC was able to crush the industry by putting into effect “The Comics Code Authority,” adopted in 1954. The code states in its preamble that “To make a positive contribution to contemporary life, the industry must seek new areas for developing sound, wholesome entertainment. The people responsible for writing, drawing, printing, publishing and selling comic books have done a commendable job in the past, and have been striving toward this goal” (Code 1954). This was the climate in which the idea of Spider-Man was conceived. Comics were gutted and sanitized by the restrictive rules of the code. The sensationalist tactics of the horror publishers would not work anymore. If a publishing house wanted to survive, it had to learn how to do business differently. The focus pre-Code was not on story, but on images intended to shock an audience and make them feel like they were transgressing. The Code forced a shift to a more story-based narrative.

Marvel comics rose to the challenge of the Code’s restrictions. In the early sixties, Marvel Comics was a second-rate publisher whose sales were flagging against National (DC). In the pages of the soon-to-be canceled book known as Amazing Adult Fantasy, the first Spider-Man story hit the shelves. Sean Howe says of Amazing Fantasy #15 (The Adult was dropped on the final issue):

It strayed far from superhero conventions, further even than The Fantastic Four had. Unlike Kirby [Fantastic Four artist], whose heroes had a stocky majesty, Ditko [Spider-Man artist], populated his stories with rail-thin, squinting malcontents, placing the protagonist, Peter Parker, in a constellation of sneers, jabbing fingers, and angry eyebrows. On the very first page, Parker—tie, vest, big round eyeglasses, and tightly combed hair—is ostracized by his sweater-letter classmates, a nightmare vision of high school social life. (Howe 87)

Comics were no longer a medium of flat heroes fighting moustache-twirling villains.  They possessed character and weight, and their writers were taking comics more seriously, something that had been a long time coming. Adding dimension to these characters made the audience want to follow their hero’s adventures from issue to issue and in order to give these characters their proper due, Marvel could not just do “one-off” stories (single issue stories with no attachment to past or future issues); they had to get the audience invested in their heroes and they did just that.

Marvel began to expect more of their readers. They tried to get the readers more engaged in the stories. The great comic book writer and artist Will Eisner says, “…I felt comic books were underrated—I felt they had untapped potential…I thought most of the guys in comics underestimated their readers” (qtd. in Hajdu 38). In an interview with The Philadelphia Recorder, Eisner continues, “The comic strip…is no longer a comic strip but, in reality, an illustrated novel. It is new and raw in form just now, but material for limitless intelligent development. And eventually and inevitably it will be a legitimate medium for the best of writers and artists” (qtd. in Hajdu 39). Eisner was anticipating a world where the term “graphic novel” would be a legitimate descriptor, looked at as another literary avenue for any writer rather than a profession to be ashamed of. Eisner’s dream was one step closer to being realized when Stan Lee created Spider-Man/Peter Parker, a scrawny teenager from Midtown High who goes to a science exhibition involving radiation, where a hero is born and a journey begins.

In the first words that appear on the opening page of Amazing Fantasy #15, Stan Lee makes it clear that Spider-Man is a unique character, saying, “Like costumed heroes? Confidentially we in the comic mag business refer to them as ‘long underwear characters’! And, as you know they’re a dime a dozen! But we think you may find our SPIDERMAN just a bit…different!” (Lee qtd. in Sommers 190). Stan Lee, referencing the myriad costumed heroes, acknowledges the genre he is about to change. He invites the reader to have higher expectations of Spider-Man, knowing that as Marvel’s first singular hero, Peter Parker has unlimited potential. By engaging the reader’s curiosity, Lee lets the audience know that Spider-Man is not just another hero. Rather, he is an arbiter of the changes to come in comics as he starts off on his hero’s journey.

Parker’s initiation into Campbell’s Separation/Departure phase begins when a radioactive arachnid bites him. Peter wakes that fateful morning not knowing what the world has in store for him. When we first see the Parker household in Amazing Fantasy #15, it is immediately apparent that Peter Parker is an intelligent only child who is the center of his Aunt May and Uncle Ben’s world. He leads a charmed, wheat-cake-eating life. Peter is an innocent, unaware of the harsh nature of the world. At school, he is every teacher’s dream student; therefore, he is an outcast of the Midtown High social scene. This socially ostracized existence leads to our hero attending an exhibition on radioactivity where he gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gains superpowers. In Campbell’s terms, this is Peter’s “Call to Adventure” and it begins with a blunder. Campbell uses Freudian thinking when he says, “A blunder—apparently the merest chance—reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood. As Freud has shown, blunders are not the merest chance. They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts” (42). Peter’s repressed desire is to be someone he is not—he wants to be popular, thinking that will make him happy. The misunderstood force, in his case, is radioactivity. Chance has given Peter Parker great power, and he does what any teen that is bequeathed amazing powers would do: use those powers for personal financial gain.  This blunder, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, establishes his journey.

After becoming a minor celebrity because of his new abilities—super strength and agility, and the ability crawl up vertical surfaces and to sense danger when near—Peter’s ego begins to obscure his true personality. When he sees a thief running away from a guard backstage at a television studio, he refuses to stop him, citing that he is tired of being pushed around. This is what Campbell calls the “Refusal of the Call,” saying, “…the call rings up the curtain, always, on a mystery of transfiguration—a rite, or moment, of spiritual passage, which, when complete, amounts to a dying and a birth” (42-43). This is definitely true in the case of Parker’s trauma; after obtaining his powers, he is no longer just Peter Parker, he is also Spider-Man. The old self is dead, and something new stands in place of the old life.  The mythologist continues, “Often in actual life, and not infrequently in the myths and popular tales, we encounter the dull case of the call unanswered; for it is always possible to turn the ear to other interests. Refusal of the summons converts the adventure into its negative” (49). The negative in Peter’s refusal is that the thief becomes the Burglar and kills Peter’s Uncle Ben when robbing the Parker home. Death is a very strong motivator for the hero, an ever-present reminder of his limitations despite his great power. On the final page of Amazing Fantasy #15, Peter becomes “Aware at last in this world, with great power there must also come– great responsibility” (Lee 11).  This becomes Spider-Man’s creed and his reason for being a hero. It is here that Peter Parker takes “Acceptance of the Call” and continues along the path of his hero’s journey. Peter’s initial refusal to get involved is human nature. As he realizes the larger implications his new powers carry, Peter is forced to acknowledge a new behavior model. Before, he was willing to blend into the background; he now knows he must stand out from the crowd. Peter Parker embraces the change represented by his becoming Spider-Man as most literary heroes do.

The next step on the journey, according to Campbell, is “Supernatural Aid.”  He says, “For those who have not refused the call, the first encounter of the hero journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass” (57). “Supernatural Aid” in Spider-Man’s case are his powers. The young man thinks that now that he has gained these powers, they will give him the opportunity to conquer his “dragon forces,” to use Campbell’s phrase, but his powers only invite further problems.  He is now aware of the evil going on around him and that his powers must be used to combat that evil. Campbell says, “What such a figure represents is the benign, protecting power of destiny” (59). He means that “Supernatural Aid” is a placebo, and the act of receiving aid merely brings out the hero’s innate ability. This is the case with Spider-Man; he has great academic skill and his new powers allow him to realize all his potential. For example, when Peter first becomes Spider-Man, he has to design and make his own costume. Later, he uses his knowledge of chemistry to create the web-fluid he uses in his web-shooters. Then, he makes an electronic tracker so he can follow fleeing criminals through the busy streets of New York.

Then, once Peter gets his own series, Amazing Spider-Man, his universe becomes deeper. His peers at school ostracize Peter because of his intelligence; Flash Thompson refers to Peter as “Puny Parker” and “bookworm.” Spider-Man is not greeted as a hero by everyone. In issue number 1 of Amazing Spider-Man, we meet Peter’s boss at The Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jamison, who rails against Spider-Man at every opportunity, calling him a menace to society. Peter carries on a pattern of helping those around him while he tries to figure out who he is and who Spider-Man is. Because of their episodic nature, the majority of these early Lee/Ditko issues follow a common plot progression: Aunt May needs money; Peter goes to take photos of Spider-Man to give to The Daily Bugle (this part usually involves looking for a crime); the crime snowballs into something bigger that puts Peter’s loved ones in danger; Peter has final clash with the villain of the month; Peter pays his bills with the photos of said clash. This type of plotting was standard for superhero books at the time.

What made Marvel different was writer and editor Stan Lee’s choice to use continuity, meaning that there were some overarching plot lines that went on for several issues. For example, in issue 10, Betty Brant is seen arguing with “The Enforcers” about money she owes to a loan shark. She quits her job and disappears. In the next issue, Peter sees her driving Doctor Octopus away from the prison. In issue 12, Doctor Octopus contacts Betty to use her as bait in a trap for Spider-Man. Similarly, there are a number of issues where a character named the Master Planner is mentioned in passing, but it takes a few issues for him to be revealed. Stan Lee used this device to build an ongoing continuity in the books; he would even include small notes referencing earlier issues. This long-form plotting shows comics moving toward a more literary nature, one in line with the monomyth structure. Continuity links events together in an ongoing structure that makes monthly comics resemble epic poems like Beowulf and The Odyssey.

  Also, the fact that a good portion of these early adventures, twenty-six issues to be exact, take place while our hero is juggling both his responsibilities as a hero and his high school angst, demonstrate how strong Peter Parker is; he has lost the man who was his father figure, making him the de-facto bread winner in the house at age sixteen. Peter has to worry about supporting himself and his aunt, paying bills, buying food and maintaining the house, all while he is risking his life on a daily basis as Spider-Man. Peter learns how to balance the duality of his life, upholding his identity as Peter Parker and trying to save the city as Spider-Man. During a particularly stressful episode in issue 18, Peter turns down a date with Betty Brant (to go to a meeting of the Spider-Man fan club no less), then he shows up with another girl Liz Allan, only to have the Green Goblin attack the meeting. In the midst of all this, he hears that his Aunt May has had a heart attack, leading him to break off the fight with Green Goblin to go be with his ailing aunt. At the end of the issue, our hero wonders, “Why don’t things ever seem to turn out right for me? Why do I seem to hurt people no matter how hard I try not to? Is this the price I must always pay for being… Spider-Man??!” (Lee 232). This is one of many examples in the books of Peter grappling with ethical complexities. Peter, with his constant struggles, has entered the stage that Campbell calls “The Belly of the Whale.” In describing the “Belly of the Whale,” Campbell says, “The idea that the passage of the magical threshold is a transit into a sphere of rebirth is symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale. The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown, and would appear to have died” (74).  Spider-Man, and comics in general, being an episodic medium meet Campbell’s description of the womb in the monthly battles and happenings contained within their pages. In issue 32 of Amazing Spider-Man, we see Peter looking for something to help cure Aunt May. At the end of this issue, Spider-Man is trapped under tons of machinery with the curative element item just out of his reach and the river slowly rising to drown him. It appears as if Spider-Man is hopelessly trapped. This is an often-repeated type of cliffhanger ending that symbolizes the “Belly of the Whale.”

Consequently, Peter Parker starts his “Initiation” phase with “The Road of Trials.” This stage is contained within any group of monthly issues. The types of “trials” faced in issues are Spider-Man’s fights with various evildoers. For example, in issues 6 through 12, we see Spider-Man fight the Lizard, Vulture, Human Torch, Electro, The Enforcers and Doctor Octopus. These battles meet Campbell’s description: “Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials” (81). Along this road, Peter becomes more familiar with his new abilities, and as a result, he changes and becomes cockier. Spider-Man develops a style of disarming, self-deprecating banter during this progression of fights. He seems to be talking to himself or his opponent in a way that makes people not take him seriously and often causes his opponents to underestimate Spider-Man’s abilities. Sometimes in this banter, he questions his own motivations and the worth of continuing as Spider-Man. This shows an ethical progression and his complexity of character. These early issues are filled with these small changes for our hero as he develops his hero persona, coming out of his shell behind his mask as Spider-Man and progressing on his journey.

Peter’s first major change occurs in issue 30 when he becomes a student at Empire State University (ESU). At university, he meets Gwen Stacy, his first fully fleshed-out love interest, and Harry Osborn, who becomes his closest friend. Gwen is different from the other girls in Peter’s life because in the early ESU issues, she chides him about his aloof attitude towards everyone around him, not knowing that he is preoccupied with being Spider-Man. What Gwen sees as an aloof attitude is actually a defense mechanism Peter developed in high school to combat bullying and to avoid questions about the time he spent as Spider-Man. Peter thus possesses the same complexities and depth of character as many respected literary figures such as Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet, and Odysseus. Therefore, this human character flaw shows that comics have as much depth and literary value as standard literature.

Gwen is the second most important character in the Spider-Man mythos due to the circumstances of her death. In issue 121 of Amazing Spider-Man, Gwen is abducted by Green Goblin and is taken atop the George Washington Bridge. As Peter engages Green Goblin, Gwen is thrown from the bridge. Spider-Man saves his girlfriend and allows the Goblin to escape. However, when our hero pulls Gwen up to safety, he finds that she is dead.  As Blumberg says of the emotional impact of Gwen’s death:

For Spider-fans in particular, this was the most jarring moment in the history of the series. Here was the quip-happy hero, always so light-hearted in the face of evil, vowing bloody revenge to the heavens as he cradled the lifeless form of Gwen Stacy… Every expected motif in superhero comics was turned on its ear in a few simple panels, irrevocably transforming the world of comics and its readers. (200)

The death of Gwen Stacy represents Spider-Man’s “Crossing of the First Threshold” again in Campbell’s monomyth structure. Due to the ongoing nature of comics, it is possible for Spider-Man to go on the hero’s journey multiple times throughout his fifty-year career. Campbell describes the thresholds as “the limits of the hero’s present sphere” (64). Gwen’s death is a turning point for Spider-Man as much as Uncle Ben’s death in Amazing Fantasy #15 represents the start of Spider-Man’s journey; it is a moment where Peter Parker is forced to face the realities of the world in which he lives. Jose Alaniz says, “…the death of a loved one…proved an emotionally powerful and authentic means to relate the high-risk stakes of superhero experience in a realistic fashion…Readers could more easily relate to their heroes, not because they could die, but because, like the rest of us, they could experience a tragic loss” (239). This loss, often seen in works of literature, forces Peter to confront the mortality of those around him. While he survives battle, pain, and injury, the loss of someone he loves forces him to confront life’s tenuous nature.

In a final bit of tragedy, it is later revealed that it was not Green Goblin who killed Gwen, but rather Peter himself; Gwen’s neck snapped from the whiplash of being caught by one of Spider-Man’s webs. In his heroic attempt to save Gwen’s life, Spider-Man inadvertently causes her death.  Therefore, Peter Parker caused the two most tragic deaths in his life, one by not acting, the other by acting. He uses that pain as a focus to resist the human urge to be less than heroic. While still believing the Green Goblin caused Gwen’s death, Peter makes the hero’s choice, putting aside his own pain and anger and not killing the Goblin, once again showing his depth of character and his strong sense of morality.  He knows ethically this is the right thing to do, but in his heart, he wants the Goblin dead. Ultimately, the villain is impaled on his own glider and disappears while the hero mourns Gwen’s death.  Had these events befallen a character not in the pages of a comic book, they would have been considered great tragedies, but because the form is “low culture,” it remains largely ignored.

Spider-Man 121 represented a shift in plot structure for the book. On a structural level, Abraham Kawa says, “…the storyline upset the even mixture of spectacular adventure, soap-operatic developments, and subplot foreshadowing that were Spider-Man’s trademark narrative features, offering, instead, a frenetic variation on the above elements that went for maximum shock value” (212-13). This change in form is extremely important because it shows that comics, as form, had evolved to a point where authors felt the form needed to be broken, a type of evolution that all major art forms must go through.

On a monomythic level, the change in form is as much a literary tool as an indication of the threshold the hero has crossed. When writing about “The Crossing of the First Threshold,” Campbell says, “The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown; the powers that watch at the boundary are dangerous; to deal with them is risky yet for anyone with the competence and courage the danger fades” (67-68). With Gwen Stacy’s death, Spider-Man has crossed that threshold. With a new awareness of the risks inherent in his career, he continues with his dual-purposed life.

Although Gwen Stacy was an important person in Peter’s life and development, she did not represent the “Goddess” Campbell says the hero must encounter. That role belongs to Mary Jane Watson. After Gwen’s death, Mary Jane and Peter’s relationship changes and eventually they begin dating. From her first appearance in issue 42 and her utterance of the line, “Face it, Tiger… You just hit the jackpot!,” she becomes a major force in Peter’s life, even to the point of discovering for herself his identity as Spider-Man. Mary Jane thus becomes the figure Campbell refers to as “The Goddess” because she is Peter’s ideal woman. She is his best friend, and she loves and understands both sides of his duality. “The Goddess,” in Campbell’s estimation, is representative of a higher plane. In Spider-Man’s universe, the plane is inverted and Mary Jane represents normalcy. Spider-Man lives on the higher plane while Peter, whose dream is to have a normal life, lives on the lower plane with the woman who best represents that dream, establishing Mary Jane as ‘The Goddess” to Peter/Spider-Man’s hero.

Peter falls in love with Mary Jane Watson and eventually marries her. C.M. Stephens, in his article “Spider-Man An Enduring Legend,” says, “While Mary Jane becomes a highly attractive and successful television star, Peter remains deliberately boyish and not especially ‘sexy.’ She becomes progressively more glamorous and her admirers press heavily around her but his emotional vulnerability and his open adoration of her are rewarded by her fidelity” (259).

Of the relationships that define Peter’s life, the longest and most enduring is his relationship with Mary Jane Watson.  She is the first person to know about Peter’s secret identity and is his emotional rock and wife for nineteen years (our time). MJ provides Peter with stability in his life. When he is hurt, as Spider-Man, she takes care of him. As frustrated as she gets with Peter for frequently being late, disappearing for days sometimes, and putting his responsibilities as Spider-Man ahead of his wife, she remains by his side in her role as “Goddess,” providing the normalcy he craves.

The one major relationship Peter lacks is a solid father figure. Campbell’s “Atonement with the Father” is the promise of infinite wrath on the one hand and infinite mercy on the other, a balance meant to direct yet still allow for forgiveness. Failed father figures surround Peter: Norman Osborn tells his son Harry that he is a failure on a regular basis, Flash Thompson’s father is an alcoholic who beats Flash and his mother, and J. Jonah Jamison, Peter’s boss, treats everyone with contempt and is a crusader against Spider-Man. The only positive father figure he has is Uncle Ben, whose death is the impetus for Peter’s career as Spider-Man. In issue 600, a short story by Mark Waid shows Uncle Ben continually telling a young Peter that his father would be proud of him. When this results in an obviously upset Peter, Ben asks, “What? What is it? I’m trying really hard here, but I just can’t…,” and Peter replies, “I just want you to be proud of me” (Waid 11). This firmly establishes Ben Parker as Peter’s de facto father. In his article “The Marvel Comics Group’s Spider-Man is an Existentialist Super-Hero; or ‘Life Has No Meaning Without My Latest Marvels!,’”  Donald Palumbo writes:

… Spider-Man does choose to create a limited meaning out of the senselessness of death—and out of that catalytic death that is most crucial to his life and destiny, that of his Uncle Ben—while simultaneously expressing the idea that we must not only accept the absurd but must also fight against it to make the world as much more consonant with our image of it as is in our power. On the anniversary of his Uncle’s murder Spider-Man visits the gravesite and silently vows, ‘… You didn’t die in vain, Uncle Ben! You died that Spider-Man might be born! It’s not the way I would have chosen it to happen but if your death is to have meaning—then I must rededicate myself to your faith…’ (69-70)

Campbell says, “For the son who has grown to really know the father, the agonies of the ordeal are readily borne; the world is no longer a vale of tears but a bliss-yielding perpetual manifestation of the Presence” (126). This presence can be seen in Peter’s unyielding drive to do what is right because that is what Uncle Ben taught him, and Uncle Ben will always be with him reminding him that there is work to be done and Peter is the person who has to do it. Uncle Ben’s death is Peter Parker’s greatest failure, and his whole career as Spider-Man is devoted to making Uncle Ben proud as atonement for the one time he let Uncle Ben down. Peter dedicates himself to his mission for many years until he encounters a problem his great powers cannot solve, and he must make a deal with the devil.

This balance between punishment and forgiveness can also be seen in Peter’s relationship with Mary Jane when in the story-line “One More Day”/“One Moment in Time,” they talk about the problems in their relationship and the dangers to their families caused by Peter’s life as Spider-Man. The demon Mephisto comes to Peter and offers to save Aunt May’s life in exchange for Peter’s marriage. Mary Jane, knowing Peter will never quit being Spider-Man, agrees to make a Faustian bargain with the demon. Aunt May will be saved from being shot, everyone will forget knowing Peter is Spider-Man, and in return, Peter and Mary Jane’s wedding will have never happened. She is willing to sacrifice their marriage to save Aunt May. This revision of Peter’s history gives the Spider-Man series a fresh start and a new status quo. This new status quo puts the core characteristics of Spider-Man back at the forefront of the narrative.

At the start of this new storyline entitled “Brand New Day,” Peter is directionless and simply going though the motions of his daily life. All the characters who first appear in the original Lee/Ditko issues (J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brandt, and, of course, Aunt May) are still in his life.  This is a life that Peter Parker is comfortable with, but he knows his potential has been squandered because of his life as Spider-Man. Thus, after being fired from The Daily Bugle and being told by Aunt May that it is time to stop living with her like a teenager, Peter is forced to move on. He is experiencing a case of arrested development. This is the beginning of the “Return” stage of Campbell’s hero’s journey, putting the emphasis back on Peter Parker as a character rather than on Spider-Man.

Parker decides to leave the safety of his aunt’s house and find something worthwhile to do with his life besides being Spider-Man.  In Campbell’s terms, this is Parker “Crossing the Return Threshold.” Campbell says, “The hero adventures out of the land we know into darkness; there he accomplishes his adventure, or again is simply lost to us, imprisoned, or in danger; and his return is described as a coming back out of that yonder zone” (188). Peter Parker’s ultimate goal is normalcy and peace. Barriers to that life include not having enough money because he is always buying materials for the web fluid used for his nighttime job, a job that, in itself, is a barrier. As B.J.Oropeza states, “Through Peter Parker we see ourselves at that awkward stage in life during teen years and young adulthood. The reader is able to empathize with him—life can be very complicated and confusing. Like the parentless Peter we struggle for a sense of belonging to some community…” (129). Peter Parker’s everyday struggles make him more understandably human than other superheroes whose powers offer them an easy way out of difficult situations.  For example, Superman is a demigod who has enough power to take down any financial obstacle. Peter Parker is a genius who could be using his innate, non-superheroic talent to make himself a small fortune (his inventive nature can be seen in his Web Shooters and Spider Tracer inventions), but instead, he uses his time to protect New York City. This distinction once again shows the complex choices he must make in service of his dual life.

The idea of establishing the new normal for Spider-Man means coming up with new villains for Peter to face, bad guys that Spider-Man has no history with. This puts more emphasis on the Peter Parker side of the narrative, making the everyday, mundane activities of his life engrossing, as many pieces of literature do. Throughout the majority of “Brand New Day,” more time is spent on Peter’s search for a new job than any of the fights against new villains such as Overdrive or Mr. Negative.  Because the Parker portions of the narrative are actually the meat of these new issues, the Spider-Man component takes a back seat and simply provides the narrative tension needed for an entertaining superhero comic.

Thus, putting more emphasis on the Parker site of the narrative exposes the final stage of the Initiation portion of Campbell’s monomyth, “The Ultimate Boon.” Campbell defines the boon as something the hero receives after “…the hero-quest has been accomplished, through penetration to the source, or through the grace of some male or female, human or animal, personification, the adventurer still must return with his life-transmuting trophy” (167). The “life-transmuting trophy” is something the hero is in constant search of; for Spider-Man, this is always the search for balance between his life as Peter Parker and his responsibilities as Spider-Man.  Putting this in the context of “Brand New Day,” a story designed to give Spider-Man a fresh start, showcases it well. This want of normalcy can be seen on the last page of the storyline’s introductory issue where Peter and all his friends toast to a brand-new day. Yes, this may be the beginning of a new status quo in Peter’s life, but he can never, as he is often reminded, stop being Spider-Man. And though “Brand New Day” represents a fresh start for the book and Peter’s friends are toasting to new beginnings, Peter’s job is unchanged and he must continue his heroic journey.

The next stage of the “Return” portion of Campbell’s journey that Spider-Man addresses explicitly is “The Rescue from Without,” which Campbell describes as follows: “The hero may have to be brought back from his supernatural adventure by assistance from without. That is to say, the world may have to come and get him. For the bliss of the deep abode is not lightly abandoned in favor of the self-scattering of the wakened state”  (178).  Peter’s unceremonious firing from his longtime job at The Daily Bugle, a place where he has become comfortable, is representative of this stage. When longtime editor J. Jonah Jamison is forced to step down from his position as the head of the newspaper, Peter finds he cannot deal with the editorial changes to his longtime employer. He finds the paper’s shift toward yellow journalism and his new boss’s bias regarding a mayoral race unethical.  Therefore, he refuses to take unflattering photos of a politician as requested by his boss and gets fired. Standing up for what he believes is right shows the moral and ethical complexities inherent in Spider-Man stories and moves Peter along in his monomythic travels.

In Campbell’s structure, “The Magic Flight” comes before, not after, the rescue.  However, because Spider-Man is full of smaller “flights,” this portion of the monomyth structure occurs at this point in Spider-Man’s journey. Campbell states that “… if the trophy has been attained against the opposition of its guardian, or if the hero’s wish to return to the world has been resented by the gods or demons, then the last stage of the mythological round becomes a lively, often comical, pursuit. This flight may be complicated by marvels of magical obstruction and evasion” (170). After our hero loses his job at the newspaper, he buries himself in his work as Spider-Man. This leads to an epic clash with his old foe Norman Osborn, who is now the head of the Marvel universe equivalent to Homeland Security. In the final chapters of this prolonged clash, it is revealed that Mr. Osborn has impregnated a woman, Lilly Hollister, who happens to share Norman’s unique physiology because she, like him, chose to play mad scientist. After the child is born during the “Origin of the Species” story arc, several super villains are in pursuit of

the baby, leading the infant and a confused Spider-Man on a chase through New York City. This best represents “The Magic Flight” idea because Peter is holding a newborn life in his hands while dodging attacks from bad guys. The fact that he is holding a newborn is what is important, as the newborn is symbolic of humanity in its purest state. Humanity is the one thing Peter Parker craves more than anything in the world, and as he tries to get the baby to safety, he is forced to confront the fragile, unspoiled nature of newly-born human life. The more comedic parts of Spider-Man that are showcased during the chase sequence help drive Campbell’s point home concerning the pursuit’s humorous aspects. This sequence forces Peter to confront the absurd nature of his job as a hero and propels him towards the end of his hero’s journey.

The final two stages of Campbell’s hero’s journey as applied to Spider-Man are the “Crossing of the Return Threshold” and “Master of The Two Worlds.” These two major events are defined in Spider-Man’s story by the same action. Of “Crossing of the Return Threshold,” Campbell says, “The hero adventures out of the land we know into darkness; there he accomplishes his adventure, or again is simply lost to us, imprisoned, or in danger; and his return is described as a coming back out of that yonder zone” (188). For Peter, the darkness is the directionless nature of not living up to his potential since being fired from his job at the newspaper. He is ashamed when he stoops to using his photography skills by working as a paparazzo for a short time. “The Master of the Two Worlds” is someone, according to Campbell, with the “Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back—not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other—is the talent of the master” (196). Peter Parker travels both these legs of Campbell’s hero’s journey when he gets a job at Horizon Labs, a prestigious think tank and research laboratory. By crossing these thresholds, he finally has some stability in his life: he has a good job now.  Plus, he fulfills Uncle Ben’s dream for Peter because he is finally able to use his genius science skills and be recognized for them. Peter becomes the master of his two worlds because at this job, he can develop technologies to help him in his work as Spider-Man. For example, he gets the idea to work on Spider-Man-based inventions after losing his Spider Sense in a fight and having to come up with a way to compensate for this disadvantage. It is at this point where Spider-Man’s progression through the hero’s journey ends because the constraints of the comic book genre will never allow him the to have the experience of Campbell’s final stage, the “Freedom to Live.”  Due to the ongoing nature of comics, it is possible for Spider-Man to go on the hero’s journey multiple times throughout his fifty–year career without ever reaching the final stage. His fight must continue on until there are no more stories to be told.

Because he follows Campbell’s monomyth structure, Peter Parker is a flawed and ethically-complex character worthy of a seat alongside other great heroes in the canon of literature. As Stephens says, throughout all the changes in comics and the larger world, “Peter Parker/Spider-Man has remained constant” (263). He is the quintessential Marvel superhero, a character who in the face of overwhelming absurd odds never gives up. Everybody needs a hero, and comics provide that. The fight for comics to be seen as literature will undoubtedly continue, and there will always be doubters who see Spider-Man as non-literary. They could not be more wrong. In his article “Marvel Language: The Comic Book and Reality,” Arthur Berger puts a portion of a Spider-Man comic into the form of a play and finds:

…there is a good deal more prose to comics than we might expect. There are approximately 250 words on each of the two pages I have turned into script, which means a twenty-two page adventure story would run about five thousand words, the size of a respectable short-story. There are also 160 panels in this adventure… In one-eighth of the panels we find actual hand to hand fighting… but in no way could one say that the fighting or battling “dominates” the book. (175)

Thus, he shows that the manner of story presentation and people’s prejudice towards it are what keep comics from being considered literature. By not reevaluating these prejudices, most people are missing out on epic stories the likes of which have not been seen since the Greeks. Spider-Man comics present a relatable, ethically-complex, but easily-understood hero. However, because he lacks critical acclaim in a literary sense, the audience is able to focus on what matters most in literature…the story. Taking Peter Parker’s journey to heart gives readers hope that they too will overcome odds faced in their own lives. It is a simple message—one that often gets lost in stories that are labeled “literature.”    

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s