Why do we love Spider-Man so much?

Image: Marvel Comics
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Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance.

This week, it is Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man #310. Written and drawn by Chip Zdarsky (Sex Criminals, Howard The Duck), this self-contained story concludes Zdarsky’s run on the title with an exploration of the hero’s role in his community. Note: This review reveals major plot points.

Spider-Man has always been a popular superhero, but he’s never been a more powerful pop culture force than right now. He’s a prominent part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, played by Tom Holland with the perfect balance of boyish angst and glee. Sony is releasing two new Spidey-related movies this year: this week’s Venom and December’s animated Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse. The Spider-Man video game for the PS4 broke records to become PlayStation’s fastest-selling title with 3.3 million copies sold in its first three days.

What’s especially notable about the current Spider-Craze is that it’s not focused entirely on Peter Parker. Miles Morales is the star of Into The Spider-Verse and features heavily in the Spider-Man game. Spider-Gwen also appears in Into The Spider-Verse, and she’s part of the current Marvel Rising cartoons, comics, and toy line. Marvel is making Spider-Man a more universal concept by spotlighting a woman and person of color in the role, enhancing its relatability, as people connect so strongly with the hero’s struggle, determination, and sense of humor.

Spider-Man is the everyman hero, a regular person gifted with extraordinary power and forced to accept the responsibility that comes with it through personal tragedy. His suffering creates a deeper sense of empathy for others, and he uses his powers to prevent strangers from having to endure the pain he has to live with forever. But he doesn’t let that pain turn him into a brooding loner. He’s not just the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, he’s your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. If you happen to live in his stomping grounds, you might end up making his acquaintance.

Chip Zdarsky’s 20-issue run on Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man (PP:TSM) concludes with a story that examines the hero’s relationship with his community via a documentary filmmaker interviewing people on the street, some of whom have directly interacted with Spidey and some who only know him by reputation. The documentary angle is nothing new, but creators use it because it gives them the opportunity to pack in a lot of perspectives on a specific idea without having to spend time establishing the character of each talking head. In PP:TSM #310, people are asked, “What do you think of Spider-Man?” Everyone has a different opinion, and Zdarsky does exceptional work creating a multidimensional depiction of the hero through these short snippets.

As Dan Slott’s run on Amazing Spider-Man turned the character into an international action hero, Zdarsky’s Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man brought the hero back to his local roots for a more down-to-earth approach. The series deals with fantastic superhero ideas like evil shadow organizations, alien invasions, and time travel, but it is at its best when it downplays the spectacular and prioritizes the human side of the character. Written and drawn by Zdarsky, PP: TSM #310 is the most personal, relaxed, and emotional story of this run, a self-contained celebration of the heart, the kind that has kept Spider-Man a significant cultural figure for decades.

While people like J. Jonah Jameson see Spider-Man’s mask as a way for him to distance himself from those around him, it actually does the opposite. The mask protects Peter’s identity so he can stop and make connections when he’s Spider-Man without fear that someone will come after him or the people he cares about in his civilian life. Spider-Man sticks around and talks to people. He talks to them for too long, and he’s actually pretty annoying. One of the flashbacks in this issue has Spider-Man monologuing about hot dogs to a street vendor who gives him free hot dogs for life after being saved during a supervillain attack. This leads to a great punchline from a different interview subject later, who says she knows Spider-Man doesn’t make a lot of money because she sees him eating free hot dogs everyday, which also presents Spider-Man as a part of citizens’ daily routines.

Like this issue, the new Spider-Man game for the PS4 illuminates the character by reinforcing how he interacts with the city, and not just its people, but also its architecture. He relies on the buildings around him to do his job, web-slinging off them to move quickly and using them to web up criminals and create giant web-nets to stop speeding cars and catch falling helicopters. There’s a randomness to how he travels because he’s still vulnerable to the laws of physics, which makes it more likely that people will have random encounters with him. The game cribs a lot from the Arkham franchise in terms of gameplay, but it’s more emotionally compelling because Spider-Man is established as this major presence within the community.

The best Spider-Man comics of the last few years haven’t come from Marvel, but from the fan comics of cartoonist Hannah Blumenreich. Spidey Zine features an adorably awkward and nerdy teenage Peter Parker whose Aunt May knows about and supports his superhero lifestyle. And there are no fight scenes. He swings through the city listening to Leonard Nimoy’s “The Ballad Of Bilbo Baggins,” watches Gilmore Girls, and plays basketball with neighborhood kids. When a woman is being followed and catcalled by two men, Spider-Man escorts her home and geeks out about Cowboy Bebop on the subway ride. He’s an ordinary person with incredible powers, and the plainness of his experience is what make these stories so gripping.

Spidey Zine has a silent four-page comic that encapsulates May’s grief over the loss of her husband better than any official Spider-Man story I’ve seen, but Blumenreich cuts through the tragedy with happy memories with Uncle Ben and affirmation of Peter’s love and support in the present. That idea of hope in the face of heartbreak makes Spider-Man an aspirational hero for anyone going through their own hard times, which Zdarsky also explores in the pages of PP: TSSM #310.

There’s one interview subject who appears throughout the book. Zdarsky cuts away at different points to show events the unnamed mother tells the documentarian about. Spider-Man brings her misguided but good-natured teenage son home instead of turning him into the police when he serves as lookout for a burglary, tutoring the kid so he can get his grades up. There are tragic consequences for Spider-Man’s actions, however: When the burglars are released from jail, they kill the boy because they think he was working with the police. In a textless sequence, Spider-Man comforts the mother, brings the killers to justice, and breaks down crying on a rooftop, showcasing Zdarsky’s talent for poignant emotional storytelling.

Spider-Man has to be strong for the people around him, but he’s living with his own trauma. He can’t stop every crime, and he can’t predict the consequences of his actions, but he refuses to let this prevent him from trying to be good in the moment. As part of its tribute to Spider-Man’s co-creator Steve Ditko, who died in June, Marvel reprinted the character-defining four-page sequence from Amazing Spider-Man #33 where the hero lifts tons of rubble off himself to get a serum that can save his aunt’s life. He’s being crushed under concrete, but it’s the weight of his guilt that Peter pushes against to realize his full strength. He won’t fail his Aunt May like he failed Uncle Ben, and he’ll prove himself worthy of the power he’s been given saving her life.

Zdarsky’s final issue not only channels the spirit of that iconic moment, but it also shows us a man who doesn’t feel the need to prove himself anymore. The final page reveals the documentary interview with Peter Parker, the only time he appears in this issue outside of his Spider-Man costume. He uses this rare opportunity to publicly open up about his alter ego and tell the world that Spider-Man is a human who makes mistakes and feels the weight of his failures. And yet, he’s content in his knowledge that at the end of the day, he’s helping people. Zdarsky’s initial take on Spider-Man in the pages of Howard The Duck was to treat him as a joke character incapacitated by his guilt. This final moment of his run on a Spidey solo book is a denouncement of that interpretation that instead draws attention to the resilience and compassion that stops him from wallowing and pushes him into action.

Perseverance through adversity is a defining element of Spider-Man, but when you’re dealing with a decades-long history of creators amplifying what adversity means, it becomes hard to top the past without losing Spider-Man’s street-level appeal. The Spider-Verse event was a big success because it featured a lot of fun alternate-universe takes on the hero, but putting these Spider-People at the center of a story about interdimensional vampires failed to take advantage of the qualities that make Spider-Man so popular. Those vampires are back for the Spider-Geddon event unfolding over the next few months, but books like PP: TSSM #310 show that the most effective adversity for Spider-Man to overcome is the kind that pops up every day.