Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
Why doesn’t Peter Parker work as an adult?
What are you talking about? Peter Parker has lots of jobs. He’s been a photojournalist, a teacher, a scientist, a CEO… lots of jobs. It’s just too bad that he winds up sucking at most of them.
In all seriousness though, I know exactly what you mean.
Before we get to why Peter Parker doesn’t work as an adult though, we have to look at why he works at all. That starts with examining the best Spider-Man stories, the ones that have transformed the figure into an icon across multiple forms of media and the world. The best place to start for that is the beginning, and that means looking at Steve Ditko’s Amazing Spider-Man.
Ditko and collaborator Stan Lee created the foundation of the Spider-Man mythos in Amazing Fantasy #15 and the first 38 issues and 2 annuals of the series itself. They gave the character one of the best collections of villains and supporting characters in all of superhero comics in just a few years. More importantly though, they gave him a reason to exist.
We’ve already had too many movies, cartoons, and comics repeat the Spider-Man origin to make it worth our time to go through it one more time here. Let’s leave it at this: Peter Parker makes mistakes and learns from them. It’s as simple as that. The reason that “With great power must also come great responsibility” stands the test of time is the context in which it is provided. It’s the sort of thing you don’t get when you’re a stupid teenager looking to make a buck or get the girl, but that is a necessary part of existing as an adult.
The key to Spider-Man isn’t being responsible. It’s learning to be responsible. He is a teenager who continually screws the pooch, whether it’s scheduling time with his Aunt May, making his grades, or keeping an eye out for a surprising number of animal-based foes. While he keeps getting better throughout the first few years of Amazing Spider-Man, he’s still always in over his head. Each victory comes with a price, although very few are as drastic as the one that comes with his first big lesson.
You can have as many cool looking fights with Doctor Octopus or impossible struggles as you may like, but without this central reason for existing you never get the genre defining “If This Be My Destiny.” Peter’s victories as Spider-Man are not merely feats of strength, they are lessons of maturation and adulthood. When Peter throws off those massive, metal girders in the climax of Ditko’s time with the character he created, he’s working to take care of his Aunt May, as well as save New York City.
That series of lessons continues after Ditko leaves the comic albeit to a lesser extent. When artist John Romita, Sr. comes aboard the characters all become more handsome and their lives get to be a bit more desirable. Lee continued to include plenty of pathos and subsequent writer Gerry Conway also packed in the morality plays. Consider the death of Gwen Stacy and Harry Osborn’s struggle with drugs as two examples of coming to terms with being responsible for the lives of those around you.
All of these themes are continued in the best adaptations of Spider-Man to the big screen or in alternate takes on the character. Perhaps the best examples of these scenarios would be Spider-Man 2 and Miles Morales, respectively. In the former Peter Parker is a college student who must discover that doing what is right might mean giving up what he loves in what I consider to be the best superhero genre film made to date. The latter rediscovers the best parts of Peter Parker’s story in an entirely new character, following Miles’ quest as a high school student to balance so many of the same problems Peter faced along with some new ones of his own.
So what ties all of these takes on the character and his defining attribute together? Peter Parker is never an adult in these stories. Sure, Tobey Maguire looks plenty old in Spider-Man 2, but he’s still textually a college student and is even referred to as being “just a kid” at one point. We’ve both been in college, and know better than to think of someone in that age range as being a fully matured adult. While you’re certainly responsible for your actions, you’ve still got a lot to learn about life at that age. Heck, as a 26-year-old, I’m just starting to view myself as a responsible, reliable adult and it’s not like I’ve been putting off trying to realize that part of my life. It just takes time to become the person you are going to be in the world.
Spider-Man is all about learning to become that person. Taking those hard knocks and not giving up. He’s the inspirational story of never surrendering in the face of your own failure, of learning to be the man you want to be.
And that’s exactly why Peter Parker doesn’t work as a grown-ass man.
Because when you leave the realm of childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood and cross into the world of being a grown ass-man, it’s time to stop learning how to be the hero and just be the goddamn hero. That’s not to say that you don’t continue to learn (or to fuck up) in adulthood, but the expectations become much higher. When you let a thief run by you as a child, you’re being childish. When you do the same thing as an adult, you’re officially a piece of shit.
Take a look at the last decade of Spider-Man comics written by Dan Slott for example. Peter Parker is a grown-ass man for all intents and purposes. He runs a multi-national company, has been married, and is regularly relied upon to save the world. Yet he is still characterized as being an airheaded jokester who continually has to learn the lessons of what it means to be Spider-Man. This is a Spider-Man who has to learn that death is an inevitability and it’s important to rely on others for help. It’s a Spider-man who has to be reminded that he’s responsible for the work safety and income of thousands of individuals. These are the lessons he was supposed to be learning while growing up, but here he is still learning them.
So why not simply realize Spider-Man as the great hero he is promised to be while growing into the role?
Well, that job has already been taken.
When Spider-Man first appeared, he was filling a hole in the superhero genre nobody even knew existed until that point. Peter Parker is the first great example of a teen superhero, someone who can reflect the lives of adolescent readers, and reflect their own struggles through a heightened lens. He is the absolute standard for teen superheroes.
The standard for adult superheroes had been set more than two decades before Spider-Man ever hit the scene though, in the pages of Action Comics #1. Superman is the perfect model for adult heroism. While he is not entirely without flaws, he always strives to do the right thing and provide the wisdom of lessons learned in becoming an adult. There’s a reason that Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster didn’t get around to detailing how Superman grew up for a very long time, and that’s because his teen years aren’t terribly important to who he is. They make for some enjoyable Legion of Super-Heroes stories, but all you need to know about Superman is that he already learned his lessons from Ma and Pa Kent and is now a grown-ass man.
Spider-Man and Superman reflect a balance on the superhero genre spectrum between maturity and immaturity. They are two of the greatest superheroes ever created and occupy two unique spaces providing a model for all characters to follow them. You can talk about how most adult and teen superheroes emulate these two, but they do not emulate one another. That’s because they flow into one another.
You know that Superman must have once been Spider-Man. No one is born perfect. Every great adult requires an adolescence to teach them the important lessons of responsibility and morality. He also had adoptive parents ready to show him the world and walk him through his mistakes. But at his best, Superman has already learned these lessons and can teach them by example.
By that same standard, we believe that Spider-Man will one day be Superman. He is in the process of learning the lessons of adulthood from his adoptive parents, struggling to comprehend what it means to be responsible and moral. He reflects our struggles as we grow and helps us to believe that we too can learn to be a great adult.
That’s the problem with an adult Peter Parker. If you meet Spider-Man as an adult and he is not Superman, then he has failed. If he is still having to learn the same lessons about responsibility that Uncle Ben taught him as a boy now as a grown-ass man, then something has gone horribly wrong. Rather than realizing his potential, an adult Peter Parker has become trapped in a holding pattern in which he must circle through the same villains, same romantic interests, and same moral lessons forever. He isn’t an adult, but a man-child. This may be a consequence of how superhero comics are published, but that doesn’t make the adult Peter Parker any less of a failure or any less depressing.
We don’t read superhero comics to show us how we fail, we read them to show us how we might succeed.