Spiderman turns 50

5:57 AM, Aug 22, 2012   |    comments
Marvel Comics unveils a new Ultimate Spider Man.
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Brian Michael Bendis was in a grocery store one day when he heard a child's cry.

"SPIDER-MAN!"

The comic-book writer turned around, and there was a 2-year-old boy endlessly excited by a little plush toy of Marvel Comics' famous wall-crawling, web-slinging superhero.

"He didn't know who Peter Parker was, he didn't know what Spider-Man was. But he just was attracted to it," says Bendis, who writes Marvel's Ultimate Spider-Man series.

That kind of enthusiasm has been shared for 50 years by everyone from toddlers to elders, who devour the adventures and misadventures of Peter Parker and his masked alter ego.

Stan Lee and Steve Ditko began the phenomenon in 1962 with Spidey's origin in Amazing Fantasy No. 15, the tale that introduced teen science nerd Peter Parker and gave him fantastic powers via the chomp of a radioactive spider. (A near-mint copy of the issue sold for $1.1 million last year. In 1962, it cost 12 cents.)

He also has spun out of comic books and into pop culture at large. U2's Bono and The Edge backed the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, which fought off bad press and accidents to become a box-office success. (It earned a record $2.9 million the first week of January, and this summer it has averaged $1.6 million a week.)

This year also marked the release of the film The Amazing Spider-Man, which has raked in more than $257 million since its opening July 3.

Then again, some folks simply like their Spider-fix daily with the Amazing Spider-Man comic strip, which premiered in 1977 and runs in 200 newspapers.

"He's become as popular as Mickey Mouse," Lee, 89, says. "He fights the bad guys, he has a sense of responsibility, he has a great sense of duty. It's an inspiring message.''

Comic fans have watched him get married, gain and lose jobs, battle crazy and dangerous villains, team up with President Obama and pretty much just struggle to make it in New York City both as a hero and as a normal dude. Plus, he has become the face of Marvel Comics.

Wednesday marks the release of the oversized Amazing Spider-Man Issue 692 in honor of the wise-cracking do-gooder's 50th anniversary. It hints at the many changes he's bound to see in his 51st year and beyond.

Over five decades of comics, cartoons and movies - plus Spider-Man toothbrushes, pajamas, yo-yos and everything in between - the character has become one of the most recognizable personalities on the planet.

To honor the milestone, here's a look at 10 ways Spider-Man has amazed the world.

1. He's flawed, not prim and proper

A year after he created the Fantastic Four with Jack Kirby in 1961, Lee was asked by his Marvel boss Martin Goodman to create another superhero.

He wanted to write a teenager but not a sidekick, endow him with the powers of a spider, and give him a personal life that fans could follow, from living as an orphan with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben to the never-ending bullying from Flash Thompson.

Up to that point, superheroes had been a little boring, says Todd McFarlane, who became a star artist when illustrating Amazing Spider-Man in the late 1980s. A guy such as Superman was like a polite Boy Scout, and Batman, a millionaire playboy who took on evil at night, was "basically Mitt Romney."

When Peter Parker became a hero, though, "he was still trying to lead his normal average life, and, oh, also make sure that New York City was safe and sound at night," McFarlane says. "He wasn't quite good at it."

But no matter what he faced, he lived by the edict that his late Uncle Ben - and Lee - gave him: "With great power comes great responsibility."

"I've joked online that you could probably start like a Scientology religion based on it. It really is like something you'd read in the Bible and live by it," Bendis says.

2. He makes science seem cool

From the beginning, Spider-Man has had a scientific bent. He created his own web shooters as a teen, and more recently, he has become a scientist in his day job.

That aspect inspired some of his fans when they were younger. Michael Dennin, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California-Irvine, found enough interest in the science of Spider-Man that for the past five years, he has taught a course that studies Spidey's powers.

"There are all students who think in their mind they don't like science, so having that fun element relaxes them."

3. He's the hero du jour to kids

Bendis believes there is a primordial attraction to the red-and-blue costume that attracts boys and girls alike and that has made it a Halloween favorite.

"It is an awkward, odd-looking thing," he says. "It could be perceived as creepy, even, at some angles because of the complete mystery, but there is a real attraction to it."

McFarlane feels it's more about Spidey's weird powers and a certain wish fulfillment to crawl on walls and stick on stuff.

"Flying might be a concept that's a little bit beyond them, but they can understand, 'So you mean when I'm jumping off the back of the couch and Mom gets mad at me, I can be on the roof and I can jump to the neighbors?!' " McFarlane says.

4. He's a nerd who gets the girl

For a geeky kid with a spider bite, Peter Parker's done OK in terms of romantic interests. First there was Daily Bugle secretary Betty Brant, who would flirt with him when he dropped off pictures of himself as Spidey, then classmate Gwen Stacy and later Mary Jane Watson, a model he ended up marrying.

"There were a lot of women in his life," Bendis says, "and he'd just sit there and go, 'Why doesn't anyone like me?' They like you! You're nuts!"

5. He made Marvel a movie superpower

Before The Avengers rocked big screens this year, Spider-Man was the major face of Marvel movies - just as he is on Marvel Comics letterhead and checks.

Director Sam Raimi's 2002 Spider-Man film, with Tobey Maguire as the title hero, was the most successful comic-book movie ever at the time. It and the next two sequels grossed more than $1.1 billion combined in the USA alone and got Marvel "to a place where they could bankroll their own studio," Bendis says.

"That was really the start of Marvel's dominance in the marketplace," says Jeff Bock, senior box-office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. "It really did take a whole Avengers team to surpass Spider-Man as Marvel's highest-grossing film.

6. He's the icon of a city

Instead of hatching a fictional town such as Gotham City or Metropolis, Lee had Spider-Man fight evil and live in the place where he walked to work every day: New York City. "I could feel comfortable with them being in the subway or in Central Park."

Spidey and the Big Apple found a longtime synergy. A giant balloon of the hero became a part of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and the first Marvel comic to tackle the events of 9/11 was an issue of Amazing Spider-Man in December 2001 with an all-black cover.

7. He's universal

"Adults will tell me the story about how when they were little, they couldn't play Batman or Superman, but their friends said they could be Spider-Man," Bendis says. "Anybody could be under that mask. I don't think Stan planned that, but it became part of it. He's everybody's superhero because he could be anybody."

8. He breaks down racial barriers

Bendis could have put anybody behind that mask when a story line last year featured the death of the Ultimate Universe Peter Parker. The writer decided to put the familiar togs on young Miles Morales, a half-black, half-Hispanic kid from Brooklyn, and made him the new hero of the relaunched Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man title.

It's the book about which Bendis gets the most mail. "I don't think we could do it 100 times. I don't think we could do it one more time."

9. He commands loyalty

The past 50 years have seen Peter Parker toss his costume in the garbage and quit, warn of the dangers of drug addiction at the request of the government, get cloned and unmask himself to the world, among other things. That created a deep emotional connection.

"Even if (readers) wander away from him at some point - they go to college, or they graduate and go to the job market, or they get married and have kids - the sight of Spider-Man or an opportunity to read Spider-Man or see a film or a TV show brings it all back," says Marvel executive editor Tom Brevoort.

Writer Dan Slott teases that there is something coming in Amazing Spider-Man Issue 700 that will again test that loyalty.

"I've been writing comics for 20 years. I have never done something this big of a change-up for a character in my career," he says. "I am fully prepared, once 700 hits, to go into Salman Rushdie hiding."

10. He's you - yes, you

Chances are, most people can identify with at least one aspect of Spider-Man's history, whether it's dealing with a boss from hell, struggling to pay the rent or having an alien try to take over your entire existence.

And it's that Everyman quality that will keep him around for another 50 years, Bendis says. "He was Harry Potter before Harry Potter."

Slott feels the magic that Lee and Ditko conjured when they created a nebbishy kid we care about, who's fighting to get good grades and looking after Aunt May when he's not fighting Doctor Octopus.

"There are times when you read a story and go, 'Boy, if I had those powers, I could do this better than this guy,' " Brevoort says. "And the flip side of that is he's indomitable. He always struggles and strives to do the right thing and perseveres Job-like under this enormous weight of guilt and responsibility he feels. Those are the times where you go, 'No, I couldn't.' "

Says Lee: "He's not just a cardboard figure with a lot of muscles. You feel you know him."

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