It’s a mystery. But it’s only a minor mystery: the evidence for that is how long it took any one to answer the question. On the occasion of Spider-Man’s 50th anniversary, do we get more than a minor footnote, little more than an errata, and the convenience of a short story in a long career? There’s something a little more disturbing than the average dramatic gesture at the inception of this mystery. Any Spider-Man fan should flinch a little seeing the Spider-Man suit draped over a grimy trashcan in issue #50. It’s extreme enough to mean something, to hit home as a resonant image, but to leave it there? Yes, that’s enough to haunt the back of one’s mind. For the same reason we don’t leave flags lying on the ground, someone needed to pick up that suit. Thankfully, that person was Dean Haspiel.
Spider-Man #692, celebrating 50 years of Spidey’s legacy in comics, was released this month with 3 stories, 3 writers (Dan Slott, Dean Haspiel, and Joshua Hale Fialkov), and a number of artists (Humberto Ramos, Dean Haspiel, Nuno Plati et al.) all making a team effort as tribute to the web-slinger. Haspiel’s story, both written and drawn by him, steps back in time to a missing night in the life of Spider-Man’s costume. In Spider-Man #50, an oppressed Peter Parker, worried about Aunt May’s deteriorating health, hounded by society under the influence of J. Jonah Jameson’s Daily Bugle campaign to malign him, and failing at school makes a radical choice: to walk away from his life as Spider-Man. Leaving his suit in a trashcan in the rain, Peter seems to make some headway in his personal life. Aunt May’s health improves, he and Gwen Stacy manage to finally spend some time hanging out, and he settles in for a night of being a good student when his Spidey instincts keep prompting him to leap to the aid of the innocent. He resists, but by the end of night, suit or not, he’s scaling a building on behalf of a threatened security guard. The time away from his suit teaches Peter something, perhaps that being Spider-Man isn’t about the suit. It’s not something he can just strip off and walk away from.
(Amazing Spider-Man #50, 1967)
Haspiel’s story intersects with the themes and ideas of issue #50 in some unpredictable ways. It’s not a rehashing or a retelling from the perspective of the suit in any literal sense. If anything, this is an opposite story told in a kind of bizarro perspective, homing in on the unexpected to illustrate to the reader just how unfamiliar this story can be. It delves a little deeper into the context of that night in Peter Parker’s life even though Peter is only present in the first panel of the story. Firstly, it’s a world where Spider-Man has become a hated figure. In that sense, it is already a world upside down for Peter, a reversal he can’t quite handle. That makes it the most unlucky time in super history for someone to wear the spider-suit. In an upside down world for one upside down night, the upside down version of Peter finds and puts on the suit for his own ends. Who exactly is the opposite of Peter? Not a savage teen with a devil-may-care attitude (we see that guy briefly in Spider-Man’s origin story in Amazing Fantasy #15), but someone who closely resembles in appearance and behavior the very robber who killed Uncle Ben. If the reader is unconvinced that he’s Peter’s opposite act, the story will convince you, and show the even more surprising ways in which the two are connected.
Our robber, fleeing from a crime in a somber, close fitting body suit and black ski-mask that bears more than a passing resemblance to a dark spidey-suit, comes upon Peter’s discarded hero costume and puts it on to evade capture. He doesn’t realize that he’s doing a rather unlucky thing, taking on a hated role. The persecution the robber faces from a policeman as Spidey hits home despite its comedic value: “Go home, ya freak”. It’s comedic because our robber deserves a little persecution. It’s painful because what we “see” is Spider-Man being rapped on the hand and treated like a lackey by a policeman. There’s something very wrong with that. What’s wrong centers around the suit.
When readers of Spider-Man #50 saw the suit hanging out of a garbage can, they felt the seriousness of that image. Things weren’t made right again until Peter scaled the Daily Bugle building to redeem the suit that a child has brought in to Jameson. In Haspiel’s story, we know we are dealing with an impersonator, but something still happens—for us—when the robber puts on that suit. We see Spider-Man. He’s not Peter, but in some sense, he’s still Spider-Man. And he’s being grossly mistreated by the society he has thus far protected. However hokey it may sound, the suit has magical properties in terms of storytelling and ideas, and, as we see by the end of Haspiel’s story, that’s a force to be reckoned with.
So, just how is the robber Peter’s opposite act? The reader gets that sense, firstly, when the robber appears in a dark body-suit, and secondly when, once wearing the Spidey-suit, he picks up a gun. Haspiel gives that moment full visual attention because it should be arresting. The image is familiar—it’s Spider-Man—but unfamiliar: he’s holding a gun. Not only that, but he also picks up a bag of stolen cash. Violence and personal gain are two things that Peter vanquished early-on in the trials he faced becoming Spider-Man. Could it be that the suit is leading its new inhabitant through the same processes? It’s not a true heroic origin story for our burglar, but a mock version with some points to make.
Let’s note one strange connection between Peter and the burglar, though: motivation. Peter has given up being Spider-Man partly out of concern for the sickly Aunt May, who he can’t really help with his spider-powers, but he can help through simply being her nephew and standing by her. We learn that our burglar is motivated by “Olivia”, later revealed to be his granddaughter, another suffering invalid. He desires the power to help her, and money seems the only way to do that. He may even have been driven to this criminal lifestyle to pay for her “treatments”.
Our burglar attempts to knock over a pawn shop to pay for Olivia’s “treatments”, and again, the reader is faced with the shocking image of Spider-Man leveling a gun at someone. There are no innocent people in this panel, or on the page, for that matter. With real vitriol the shopkeeper and a female customer insult Spidey. Sure, he deserves it as the burglar, but they are not just insulting his current behavior. There’s a strong sense that they had already made up their mind about him. There’s a certain degree of sympathy for the burglar because of their unwarranted bitterness. When the shopkeeper gains the burglar’s gun and, firing it (another alarming image of real violence) finds that it either doesn’t work or isn’t loaded, we’re left with the possibility that the burglar was carrying a dummy gun all along. In some ways, it’s all an act to carefully divide our absent hero from our present criminal in a superficial way that’s then stripped away to reveal similarities.
(Amazing Fantasy #15)
But this breaks down an old dynamic at the heart of the Spider-Man origin story. Couldn’t the shopkeeper have just as easily been Uncle Ben and the robber the very robber who shot Peter’s uncle? It’s a loaded scene in many ways, a retelling, and re-shaping of possibilities. In this case, the robber isn’t evil, just inept, and the potential victim isn’t a saintly mentor, but an easily led hater. Spider-Man’s origin story, however, also contains some of these ambiguities. Isn’t it Peter who has to learn “great responsibility”? He’s hardly heroic in his early decision-making. If Peter’s no saint then the robber who kills Uncle Ben is no super-villain. There will be others to fill that role later on in the Spider-Man narrative.
(Amazing Fantasy #15)
To backtrack, in Haspiel’s story, when the robber puts on the Spider-Man suit, he says, “If I look like a super hero, then I am a super hero”. He’s not commenting on a desire to become a virtuous man. Instead, he means that he expects to be recognized as a hero by society if he puts on the costume. It’s a pre-packaged role that he simply needs to step into to take advantage of. The suit is like an expensive sports car left in an alley, engine running. No wonder he thinks he’s hit the jackpot. But of course his words become a haunting meditation and a question. To what extent do the clothes make the man? In Spider-Man #50, we learn that the clothes do not at all make the man; Peter finds that the heroism is inside of him, and inescapable. His “power” is still with him, and so also therefore is his sense of “responsibility”. But what power does this opportunist have, and to what degree does he have any responsibility to uphold?
Haspiel’s most humorously rendered scene in a comic with quite a few humorous scenes, depicts pseudo-Spidey (whose age and paunchiness by the way may well suggest the hero himself 50 years on), fleeing from a hail of golf clubs. The irony of course is that, the “menace to society” that Jameson has declared Spidey to be has become a fact when a criminal dons the Spidey outfit. Our burglar has proven that he can be a menace to society (though society seems at least equally mendacious), but can he be anything else?
A strong visual link brings us around to the idea of a “broken” Spider-Man, and it might well remind the reader of Peter’s own psychological struggles walking away from the suit, when our burglar steps on and breaks a Spidey action figure in his granddaughter’s bedroom. If there hasn’t been enough refraction and multiplication of the Spider-Man role in the story from the broken toy and stolen suit, there are also the large Spidey posters, dolls, and memorabilia owned by the adoring Olivia. Spider-Man seems to be everywhere, to the point that the robber externalizes and talks to the ideal of Spidey in doll form, saying, “She loves you”. For her grandfather, that’s enough motivation to try to actually—act—like a hero rather than just look like one. But Olivia’s reaction to her grandfather’s impersonation of Spider-Man is ambiguous, and leaves the reader with some room for interpretation. She assures him that there are “only so many people a super hero can save in one day”. Does this mean that she doesn’t expect to be saved, and yet loves Spidey anyway? If so, this suggests that she loves him for who he is—a hero—not for what he could do for her. She values his character above his actions. Spider-Man means something to her as an idea.
That obviously has an impact on the robber, who returns the suit to the trashcan where he found it, presumably so that Spider-Man can find it again, but at least in some kind of gesture of reverence for its symbolic value. His words also leave plenty of room for interpretation “It takes more to be a superhero than just dressing like one”. This isn’t a simple gloss on what Olivia said to her grandfather, but a statement about the whole story arc. Even Olivia, who loves Spider-Man, acknowledges a limitation in the super hero role, that Spidey can’t save everyone, and she’s ok with that. It doesn’t diminish her sense of what a super hero is. For her grandfather, this seems to increase his sense of reverence. Spider-Man might just be a guy in some way. It humanizes the hero. Once the robber realizes that, it seems to dawn on him just what Spidey has managed to accomplish. He knows that the suit can’t turn him into a hero. Peter Parker, learning his own lesson that night, learns that taking off the suit can’t “un-turn” him into a hero, either. The suit’s a symbol, of course, for something, a hero, and not the thing in itself.
(Amazing Spider-Man #50)
So, does it really matter what happened to the suit that night? On Spider-Man’s 50th anniversary as a hero, is a minor mystery worth exploring? Why not take on a bigger gap in his long history? Depending on the details and what the story of the suit contained, it could have just been an amusing anecdote, and a particularly satisfying one, especially if it was clever, as this story is. But the story that Haspiel creates opens up the can of worms that Spider-Man #50 opened and carefully resealed about the nature of heroism, and the convoluted and ambiguous relationship between symbols and actions. As a character, part of Spider-Man’s appeal is that he does not always dish out simple paradigms for heroism. In this story, even Olivia’s aware of that. There’s little doubt that, in Spider-Man #50, Peter Parker is actually quantifiably more heroic when he leaps into action out of costume. It’s equally true that, in Haspiel’s story, the robber becomes potentially heroic when he takes that costume off, too. Does that mean that the costume’s unnecessary, something that should be discarded? No. It means that the costume actually does mean something beyond itself. It’s transcendent, and that’s a hard lesson for both Peter and the burglar. It’s a crushing, overpowering thing that can’t be expelled, eliminated, or thrown out, and it’ll change those who get in its path.
One final stroke of genius from Haspiel is the solemn truth that even in absentia, Spider-Man has stopped another criminal from future violent deeds, thereby safeguarding the innocent. Just the idea of Spider-Man converts the burglar toward some higher form of understanding. At a point in Spidey’s story where he is considered little better than a criminal by society, why not let a criminal take the role for a spin? Why does it matter what happened to the suit during the time Peter tried to escape the role? Because Spider-Man #50 may show us that Peter can’t escape the role in costume or not, but Haspiel’s story shows us that no one can escape the role and impact of heroism. Even the burglar acknowledges that is a big, big responsibility.
(Amazing Spider-Man 50th Anniversary cover, issue #692)