The Alexandrian

Spider-Man - John Romita, Sr.

The core of it is that he’s a geeky teenage Everyman that the core reading audience of comics can either identify with, dream about being in 5 years, or can reflect upon with fond nostalgia.

But that’s not enough.

Steve Ditko gifted him with one of the Top 3 rogue’s galleries in the biz. (Batman and Flash are the only ones to give him competition.)

Stan Lee gave him the wisecracking wit that makes him beloved.

Still not enough.

The core philosophical principle of, “With great power comes great responsibility.” carries a lot of weight here. Very few heroes come packaged with a core thematic element which can be used in so many deep and meaningful ways. (Superman used to have this with “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”, but those values don’t lend themselves easily to resonant storytelling and they’ve mostly been turned into a joke over the past couple or three decades.)

The importance of the tragic element can’t be understated. It provides a persistent emotional weight that counterbalances the wisecracking. (It’s not coincidental that the three most popular superheroes — Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman — all have dead parental figures.) The death of Gwen Stacy was a major thing, too. It was a unique angle on the superhero tragedy that nobody else would get until, arguably, Batman lost a Robin.

The fantastic supporting cast from Ditko, Lee, and Romita in the ’60s also can’t be undervalued. Simply richer and larger than any other superhero at the time (and most since). And, as with Gwen Stacy, they’re essential for emphasizing both the central theme and the tragic losses.

But what really pushes him over the top?

It’s the webslinging. It’s so goddamn cool. But, more importantly, it’s so utterly unique: There’s a bajillion Batman-esque and Superman-esque characters. There’s exactly one superhero who can do the webslinging thing.

It’s your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man.

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7 Responses to “Thought of the Day – Why is Spider-Man So Popular?”

  1. Baquies says:

    The full body costume and mask means that it is easier for anyone to Identify with the character.

  2. Wyvern says:

    This reminds me of something that was pointed out by movie critic Steven Greydanus: Superman was born great, Batman achieved greatness, and Spider-man had greatness thrust upon him.

    I never read superhero comic books as a kid, but I did grow up reading “The Amazing Spider-man” in the Sunday funnies. I also liked the fact that Spider-man was (at the time) one of the few superheroes who actually “got the girl”.

    I’m curious what you mean about the Flash’s rogue’s gallery. Again, I never read the Flash comic book, nor have I seen the new series; my main exposure to the character was the 90s TV series, which I barely remember. The only Flash villain I can name off the top of my head is Gorilla Grodd, who I agree is very cool. I would think that Superman’s enemies (Brainiac, Lex Luthor, Zod, Bizarro) are more well-known to the general public. So what am I missing?

  3. Justin Alexander says:

    Superman has some really cool villains, but the roster lacks depth. Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Doomsday, and maybe Darkseid are your A-listers. Then you get Bizarro and maybe Mr. Mxylalmene3k (I’m not even going to try). And then you’re already down to the C- and D-listers.

    A high quality rogue lets you tell a lot of different stories with them. Having deep gallery of high quality rogues allows you to keep your storytelling perpetually fresh.

    (This is why I’m not counting Zod in Superman’s rogues gallery. Although iconic and well known due to film appearances, in each continuity he seems to get used once and then never seen again. Although some googling suggests they may be positioning him for recurring status in the new 52 universe, so that might change.)

    I recently did a read through of the last 150 or so issues of Fantastic Four that really highlighted the problem with having a small rogues gallery: Every time a new writer would pick up the book, they would tell a Doctor Doom story, a Frightful Four story, a Galactus story, a story about the kids being in peril, and a story about Sue and Reed’s marriage being in trouble. And then a new writer would come onboard and they would tell a Doctor Doom story, a Frightful Four story, a Galactus story, a story about the kids being in peril, and a story about Sue and Reed’s marriage being in trouble. (Lightly season with Mole Man and Annihilus to taste.)

    (FF’s shallow rogues gallery comes from an odd direction: Kirby created a tremendous number of villains during the first 100 issues of the book. But they tended to be so awesome and so well-rounded as characters that they all ended up not being FF villains any more. Black Panther, the Inhumans, and even Namor — albeit not created as an FF villain — are all prominent examples. BID.)

    Re: Flash’s gallery. The individual characters don’t have a lot of mainstream recognition because Flash himself has never really gained mainstream recognition (particularly prior to his current TV run). In terms of the comics, though, his gallery is large, developed with a lot of personal depth, and fairly unique in that they can all naturally work together in various combinations. (And not in the weird, forced way that you get with, for example, Jeph Loeb’s mega-Batman stories.) This allows for a lot of fresh storytelling as they pair up in various combinations within their overlapping spheres of interest. They also tend to have powers which are gimmicky, but with the gimmicks being flexible enough that you can tell a lot of different stories with them (i.e., all the different mirror themes you can play with Mirror Master).

    The term “rogues gallery” was literally coined to describe Flash’s awesome array of supervillains.

    None of which is to say Superman has a bad rogues gallery. It’s just not as good as the Top 3.

  4. Wyvern says:

    As long as we’re on the topic: how would you rank Batman’s foes? (I like analyzing and categorizing things, and coincidentally this was on my mind recently.) Again, I haven’t really read any of the comics, but based on the various movies and TV series, I would tend to rate them as follows:

    A-list: Joker, Catwoman, Penguin, *maybe* Riddler
    B-list: Two-Face, Mr Freeze, Scarecrow, Bane
    C-list: Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Clayface, R’as Al-Ghul
    D-list: everyone else

    What do you think? Are there any that you would place higher or lower? Where would the Court of Owls fit in?

  5. Tad says:

    Todd McFarland’s penciling work for Spidey in the late 80’s and early 90’s certainly didn’t hurt either.

  6. Noumenon72 says:

    The web slinging does make for amazing video games, but it’s not that much cooler than say, being able to slide on a bridge of ice and shoot ice blasts everywhere. But Iceman isn’t funny. Spider-Man is funny. Batman and Superman can’t say that.

    Funny has a broad appeal starting with little kids and extending to tired adults who are not always in the mood for deep drama and punching. When Robert Downey Jr started making Iron Man funny and sarcastic, his popularity boomed as well. I don’t care about the rogue’s gallery as much as I want to see Spider-Man making fun of his rogue’s gallery.

    I suppose this means you get the power fantasy of having awesome powers and being wittier than everybody, which is even better than just beating them up.

  7. Jules VO says:

    I’d say Spidey’s deepest appeal lies in having relatable difficulties: familial, financial, professional, romantic; but when he puts on his mask to fight crime he can forget all that for a while. It makes him a really good mirror for the audience, who have their own personal troubles which they can forget for a while, by picking up a comic.

    The webslinging is something I’ve found very useful in terms of superhero gaming, though. Every superhero needs a way to get around town quickly, but unvarnished flight (or worse, teleportation) is kind of boring. Webslinging is a great example of a movement mode which is useful enough to be effective, but also limited enough to be interesting (ice slides being a close second).

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