Beyond Amazing: Learning from 60 Years of Spider-Man
English Professor Ben Saunders explores comic art and pop culture history through the lens of Marvel’s iconic superhero and is curating a 2022 exhibit at San Diego’s Comic-Con Museum.
Story by Jason Stein | Original art and graphics by Marvel
It’s really amazing! Marvel’s Spider-Man turns 60 this year.
The wall-crawling crime fighter was introduced to the world in August 1962 and made his debut in the comic book anthology Amazing imagination #fifteen. Developed by the collaborative team of writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, Spider-Man was an instant sensation with readers. Marvel quickly made him the star of his own title and established a classic character of the Silver Age of comics. Featured in films, television, toys, video games, apparel, and countless other media for decades, the iconic web-slinger’s final stop is a major museum exhibit.
Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing 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 cartoons program, gallery walls are an appropriate stage not only because of the character’s status in popular culture, but also because of the genius of Spider-Man’s creators.
“Some of the best commercial artists in history have worked at Marvel from the 1950s through today. And Marvel’s real-world narrative is just as compelling as the fictional superhero worlds they created.”
Saunders, editor of Penguin Classics’ historic new series of Marvel anthologies, also served as co-curator of the new exhibit, which features original artwork for comics across all eras, as well as thousands of unique artifacts from every facet of the hero’s life and media.
“When you see the original artworks, the traditional distinctions between fine art and commercial art break down,” he says.
A lifelong comics reader, English professor, and expert on the works of Shakespeare, Saunders brought not only his literary and historical insight, but also brawn to the exhibition project. He estimates he scanned more than 300 images from his personal comic book collection to use on the show. However, for the many original works on display, he recognizes the exhibitors’ trust in generous collectors who have agreed to lend them the materials. Marvel Comics expropriated its production art archives in the 1980s, Saunders explains — most of those pieces ended up in private ownership, making organizing large-scale exhibitions like this one particularly challenging.
“For several years, my focus in curating has been to bring this production art, which most of the public has never seen, to gallery walls where it can be appreciated. A well-drawn and colored comic page is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful works of art you can find.”
Patrick A. Reed, Saunders associate on the show’s creation, is a professional events expert and independent pop culture historian. He promises that visitors will not only be immersed in the world of classic and contemporary comics, but can look forward to a large-scale multimedia experience that encompasses Spider-Man’s entire journey through popular imagination: cinema, animation, games , collectibles, and much more.
“Our exhibition is rooted in the classic museum structure—the power and resonance of the artifacts on display,” he says.
“But we also used modern, digital technologies and brought in something like a theme park construct of world building. It’s a hybrid concept. People will experience parts of Spider-Man’s fictional worlds as well as the true story behind them.”
Timeless themes; Lasting Popularity
Marvel: Universe of Superheroes, an exhibit Saunders and Reed previously collaborated on, debuted at Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture in 2018 and garnered enough critical acclaim to subsequently tour the country. Organizers expect tens of thousands to attend their new one-character show as well. What can account for Spider-Man’s paramount success and enduring appeal? According to these experts, it must come down to a variety of factors – but perhaps the most important is Spider-Man’s underlying psychology and his impressive roster of enemies.
“Hardcore comic book nerds like to argue about which title produced the best rogues’ gallery,” admits Saunders. “For me, it really depends on Batman or Spider-Man.”
From Doctor Octopus and the Green Goblin to Kingpin and Kraven the Hunter, early editions of The Incredible Spiderman introduced more than a dozen supervillains who proved almost as popular as the hero himself. They would continue to torment Spidey, reappearing frequently in other Marvel titles over the decades.
“There’s no comparable short, intense burst of creativity in comics,” says Reed. “It’s like the Beach Boys, Beatles or Rolling Stones in popular music at the same time – artists who put out two or three albums a year and not only maintained a high quality but grew by leaps and bounds with each new release. ”
As for Spider-Man’s unique inner workings – most of it has been explored through his secret identity. Peter Parker, a somewhat introverted Queens high school student who was raised by his elderly aunt and uncle, gained his powers from the painful bite of a radioactive spider. Unlike previous superhero youth who had always been relegated to the sidekick role by comic book writers, Parker had no overpowering adults to guide him. All alone, he had to learn to control his strange new powers and use them “with great responsibility.”
“They broke new ground by making Peter Parker’s youth the emotional center of their stories,” says Saunders. “The inwardness of the sidekick didn’t interest the comic artists of the 1940s and 50s. For example, how Robin feels about being an orphan boy who finds himself with the strangest stepdad ever plays no part in the narrative machinery of previous Batman stories. When Spider-Man came along, he expanded the emotional scope of the entire superhero genre.”
Spider-Man and Peter Parker were a great metaphor for the angst, excitement, and transitions of puberty itself, and the 1960s teenagers – a brand new category of people who evolved rather suddenly from the older concept of “kids” – were easy to identify. Unlike previous generations of teenagers, baby boomers also had disposable incomes that could make Spider-Man a bestseller.
While it bears some resemblance to an “overnight sensation,” the web-slinger’s success was actually carefully planned by its creators, Saunders explains.
“Stan Lee and his staff at Marvel weren’t young upstarts. They were accomplished mid-career professionals by this point. Surely her first concern was selling comics. But they knew they were playing with a new sociological and commercial category and how it could expand the genre’s full range of expression.”
The heroic look of success
To help him envision this new breed of hero, Lee turned to Marvel’s most idiosyncratic artists. Unlike most of his peers, Steve Ditko had little interest in anatomical accuracy or “realistic” drawing. However, he was a master of gesture and character design, and his unique style brought a kinetic flair to the pages. Perhaps most impressively, Ditko invented Spider-Man’s iconic threads.
“There’s something appealing about the Spider-Man costume,” enthuses Reed. “Kids react to it immediately, before they are old enough to really understand the character. Just Spider-Man looks Cold.”
In a comic book era 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 style of Spider-Man’s suit for giving readers , regardless of race, helped connect with the character by introducing themselves in his costume. It’s probably no coincidence that Spider-Man is a staple of Halloween masks and children’s pajamas. And the character’s universal appearance has undoubtedly contributed to his appeal across cultures and generations.
In recent years, as the Marvel Universe has exploded in print and across multiple media, this inclusive aura has expanded to include depictions of the character behind the mask.
“In fact,” Reed notes, “Spider-Man is for a younger generation of fans Not Peter Parker – he’s Miles Morales.”
Morales, a multiracial teenager, made his comic book debut in 2011. Ultimate Fallout #4 introduced readers to this new generation hero who took the mantle of Spider-Man after Peter Parker’s death. Back in 1977, Marvel also introduced their first Spider-Woman—a literally empowered female role model. Her character has evolved, with Parker’s original lover Gwen Stacy most recently taking the mantle in the expanding Spider-Verse.
Reed explains that a challenge in running a show like Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing is recognizing and appealing to the many different viewers who have forged personal connections with these beloved characters over time.
“As curators, we always strive to perceive and include all different perspectives,” he says. “There are many ways to see the resonances of core creation. We hope that people will leave the exhibition with a greater awareness not only of the work itself but also of its cultural impact.”
In the words of its creator, the great Stan Lee: “Excelsior” for Spider-Man! A 60-year-old hero to millions, Spidey continues to weave huge webs of influence.
Jason Stone is a staff writer at University Communications. All Spider-Man graphics and artwork © 2022 Marvel.
Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing – The Exhibition
Developed by Semmel Exhibitions in collaboration with Marvel and the Comic-Con Museum.
Opens July 1, 2022 at the Comic-Con Museum, Balboa Park, San Diego.
Tickets & more information