Spider-Man, Superman, and the Craft of Character

When comic book writers found creative freedom in the 1960s, their visions became more fantastic and at the same time, more real

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When I was in sixth grade a new friend introduced me to a door to an amazing world:

The comic book.

And while he wanted to go exploring in a neighboring field, something I did all the time at home, I wanted to hunker down and plow through his deep, dog-eared collection.  With wide eyes I dug into a realm of characters I never knew existed.  X-Men.  Fantastic Four.  The Hulk.  The Justice League.

I had discovered a greater purpose for my 50-cents-per-week allowance than an occasional NuGrape soda and Baby Ruth bar.

At that time comics were under a quarter, which still limited my weekly comic consumption to a couple of titles.  I discovered that Marvel Comics’ Incredible Hulk and Amazing Spider-Man were my favorites.  The X-Men, Fantastic Four, Avengers and Iron Man saw purchases as well.

I really identified with Spider-Man.  Like his unsuited persona, Peter Parker, I was a nearsighted science nerd with dreams of greatness and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility.  The curse of the eccentric oldest child.  I was as much drawn to Peter Parker’s failures and fiascoes as I was Spider-Man’s enviable physical might and mastery of the ad hoc witticism.

The Hulk’s Bruce Banner was a full-fledged scientist, whose intellectual pursuits led him down a tangent path to darkness.  Suckered into developing a gamma bomb for the US military, he fell victim to his own device while protecting the life of a teenager who strayed onto military proving grounds.  Just as a radioactive spider’s bite imparted appropriate arachnoid gifts to Peter Parker, radioactive gamma rays miraculously endowed/cursed Bruce Banner with astounding superhuman abilities.  But the power came at great cost; when Banner’s anger transformed him into the Hulk, he lost the restraints of reason and imperiled everyone around him.  As “puny Banner”, he was at constant risk from the terrifying enemies his more powerful alter ego attracted.  The resulting drama kept me glued to page after page.

I wasn’t the only one enamored of these powerful-yet-flawed characters.  In a burst of inspiration, Marvel’s Stan Lee had realized in the 1960s that a new breed of superhero would resonate with an America at war with itself.  The turbulent 60s and subsequently far-out 70s introduced massive, rapid societal change that resulted in a collective identity crisis.  Superheros who led dichotomous dual lives, one straight and one well off the Establishment path, gained instant empathic traction with self-seeking American youth.  And as science grew in discovery and importance, largely fueled by the Space Race, smart, conflicted characters like Banner/Hulk and Parker/Spider-Man came to offer a curiously new ideal.

On the DC side of things, Clark Kent’s Superman represented the post World War past.  Straight-laced Kent shed geeky glasses to become… straighter-laced Superman.  His only real weakness was an allergy to certain forms of Kryptonite.  Not the sort of thing that troubled the average human.  And as the era bloomed into an intellectual renaissance, Establishment heroes like Superman lost popularity to exotic, rebellious newcomers like the X-Men.

Comic readers were struck en masse by a stunning revelation: characters need not be muscle-bound simpletons with a Boy Scout’s inflated sense of duty.  They could be truly three-dimensional, suffering the same fears and foibles as every day people and in fact often having to live as ordinary citizens.  These Lee-envisioned demigods frequently fell victim to their own shortcomings; writers were no longer bound to finding new ways of introducing Kryptonite-class obstacles.  They were free to intelligently and honestly tackle topics that had formerly been rare or even taboo in the comic Golden Age.  Alcoholism.  Mental illness.  Even homosexuality.

With some exceptions, movie screenwriters have understood this well.  As long as the Superman movies were a bit campy, as were those starring the late Christopher Reeve, audiences were willing to buy into the almost-infallible hero.  To my delight, even the use of Kryptonite got creative.  But years later when the Superman movie franchise was rebooted with a darker, more serious tone, it didn’t receive the same degree of audience acceptance.  There just wasn’t enough tension.  Enough danger for us mortal viewers to also feel.  Once you go dark and serious, writers, be prepared to make your superhuman a little more human.

Whereas the Spider-Man movies, complaints about the overwrought third one notwithstanding, hit on all cylinders.  Same for Christopher Nolan’s heavy Batman retooling.  And the deliciously irreverent Iron Man.  No hint of camp in sight, but the characters’ weaknesses and trepidations were laid starkly bare.  These were humans rising to extraordinary heights when need be and plunging to inscrutable depths when their false bravado failed.

Marvel and DC once had Spider-Man and Superman square off in a rare, intriguing cross-comic collaboration.  Their super-scuffle was actually a minor part of the story, and rendered rather silly by another torturous Kryptonite-like drain on Superman’s powers.  Once Superman regained those abilities, he was right back to the invulnerable clod Kent with whom I could never connect.

Personally I always felt that writers missed the boat with Superman.  With great invulnerability, one would think, would come great arrogance.  The case could be made that Ma and Pa Kent’s gentle farm-fed ways made the necessary humbling impressions on young Clark, but I don’t buy it.  Once he hit his hormone-fueled teens, and discovered the extent of his capabilities, he would naturally grow a pair of brass– make that steel– balls.  He would be super insufferable.

As a more world-weary adult now I still emphasize the most with Hulk and Spider-Man.  The often-tragic characters have gone through amazing transformations over the years, seldom growing stale, yet remaining ever close to the core concepts.  This is the hallmark of great vision supported by fine writing.  Stupendous characters that don’t make us feel stupid for sympathizing.  Mighty beings that we could be.

Thank you, Stan Lee and others, for providing us writers these examples of superhumans that are indeed mostly human.

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