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Wednesday 19 August 2020

Slow Reviews | Comics | 1962

Amazing Fantasy #15

David Barnett on the origins of Spider-Man and the triumph of teen culture

Amazing Fantasy #15 was not the first Marvel comic – despite some other claimants, that particular honour is best bestowed on the first issue of Fantastic Four, two years earlier – but it could well be the most significant, not only for introducing Spider-Man to the world, but because it entirely changed the culture of comics in the 1960s. And perhaps not just comics.

Prior to Amazing Fantasy #15’s publication, with an August 1962 cover date, superheroes were slowly recovering from the worst battering in their history – dealt partly at the hands of the psychiatrist Fredric Wertham. His 1954 takedown of the comics industry, Seduction of the Innocent, had famously cast aspersions on the relationship between Batman and Robin, as well as making a broader attack on the violence and gore in comics, which he said were a bad influence for children.

But now, over at Marvel’s main rival DC Comics, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman were making a comeback. They had defined superheros in the 1930s and 1940s – and their example had stuck ever since. These were brightly plumed gods walking among us, living secretly as adults with marriages and jobs and grown-up concerns.

Meanwhile, teens in comic books had been relegated to the role of sidekicks. Robin, Kid Flash, Bucky, Speedy, Wonder Girl… they were all there to shore up their elders’ egos, get rescued, and provide grist for Wertham’s mill.

But with Amazing Fantasy #15 – and here’s the really amazing part – the hero is the kid. Not a reclusive billionaire, nor a Norse god, nor a playboy technical wizard, nor an alien. A kid from Queens, New York, who lived with his aunt and uncle and got beat up by the jocks and failed with the girls. Sure, Peter Parker – introduced as “Midtown High’s Only Professional Wallflower” – is soon bitten by a radioactive spider and gifted super-abilities, but he still has to struggle for cash and go to classes. His web-shooters are the result of science-book nerdiness. His costume is home-sewn.

It seems astonishing that, prior to Marvel publisher Martin Goodman’s decision to allow editor-writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko to use the final issue of an ailing anthology comic as a showcase for the new character, nobody had really ever thought about putting kids at the front and centre of newsstands. It’s little wonder that, as soon as they did, Amazing Fantasy #15 sold bucketloads. Lee might as well have waved it in the face of every kid in America and said, hey, this could be you.

There was also a wider cultural shift happening. The year Amazing Fantasy #15 was published, Marilyn Monroe sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to JFK – and then she died, messily and mysteriously and right in the public eye. The 52 million American households who owned television sets would switch them on not just for the news, but to see Walter Cronkite talking about it. The Beatles released their first single. The age of the modern celebrity had arrived.

Spider-Man tapped right into that. His raison d’etre – the killing of his beloved Uncle Ben by a thug whom Peter could have stopped earlier in the day, but didn’t because it wasn’t his problem – came while Spider-Man was making a TV appearance.

“With great power there must also come — great responsibility!” That’s what Peter Parker learns in the final panel of Amazing Fantasy #15, soon after his Uncle’s death. Were mint-condition copies of this comic not shifting for up to $1.1 million, they should be put on the desks of every elected world leader for their first day in office.  

Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill  

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David Barnett

David Barnett is a critic, novelist and comic-book writer. His next book is ‘The Handover’, published in 2021.