[This is excerpted from It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Podcast — our superhero comics podcast. You can listen to the whole thing at the end of this article.]
In 1964, a young woman in Queens was returning to her apartment in the early hours of March, having worked late at her job. She was in her twenties, and pretty—with closely cropped hair and expressive eyes. As she walked towards her apartment building, she saw a man approaching her. She got nervous and started walking faster. He chased her, overtook her, and stabbed her twice in the back.
Reports vary on what exactly happened next, but what is certain is that the woman shouted “Oh my god, he stabbed me! Help me!” In response, a man in the apartment shouted at her attacker to “let that woman alone.” Her attacker fled, and the woman, seriously wounded, dragged herself towards her building. But the door was locked, and she was too weak to go any further.
The attacker, a man named Winston Moseley, returned about ten minutes later, stabbed the woman a few more times, took $49 out of her purse, and fled again. As the woman lay next to the locked door, a 70-year-old resident of the building finally exited and cradled her in her arms until the ambulance arrived. But it was too late. Kitty Genovese died on the way to the hospital.
The New York Times initially wrote that between 37 and 38 people heard Kitty’s cries for help, and did nothing. This number would later be contested, and just this year, the Times stated that only about a dozen people actually witnessed parts of the incident (a documentary about the case is dropping this year). Regardless, Kitty’s death gave birth to what is known today as the “Genovese Syndrome.” It’s what happens when multiple bystanders observe that something needs to happen, but nobody gets involved. It’s somebody else’s problem. Mind your own business. Let the police handle it. It’s not your responsibility.
Two years before Kitty’s death, a young man in Queens stood by while a crook ran by, with the police chasing him. “What’s the matter with you, mister?” accused a police officer, after the thief escaped. “All you had to do was trip him or hold him for just a minute!”
“Sorry, pal,” the teenager retorted. “That’s your job. I’m through being pushed around by anyone. From now on, I just look out for number one.”
This all took place in an issue of Amazing Fantasy #15, the final issue of a doomed line of romance comics. The young man who stood by was 15-year-old Peter Parker, whose radioactive spider bite had just given him an array of spider powers. And the thief who got away would, of course, go on to murder Peter’s beloved uncle and surrogate father figure, Ben Parker.
The ways in which Peter Parker represented a tectonic shift in pop culture are almost too many to mention, but one big one is just this moment: him realizing that the first thief he managed to track down and stop as Spider-Man was the criminal he had let escape. “My fault!” he weeps on the final page of the comic. “All my fault! If only I had stopped him when I could have!”
And in the final panel, as Spider-Man slowly walks off into a moonlit evening, the caption reads that Peter “is aware at last that in this world with great power, there must also come great responsibility.”
Before this, teenagers had appeared in superhero comics, but they had been like Robin and Superboy — sidekicks to the real hero, punching bad guys in one panel and getting a lecture about the importance of school in the next. From the very beginning, it was clear that Peter Parker was going to be something different. By allowing to operate him on his own, in secret from his doting Aunt May, Peter’s problems and upheavals felt immensely relatable to his multitudes of teenaged fans. Like them, he was going through things that he truly felt nobody else could understand. Like them, he was discovering strange new things about himself that he couldn’t fully hide but couldn’t fully share with anyone either. And most importantly, from 1962 onto today, Spider-Man set a new blueprint for a superhero, not faster than a speeding bullet, not vengeance and the night. He was just a kid who could no longer let the cries for help in the street be somebody else’s problem.
There’s a lot of bad blood around who came up with the idea of Spider-Man. Stan Lee has always maintained that the character was basically his idea, and an artist named Steve Ditko just sketched out the costume: a minimalistic onesie (Ditko figured a teenager would lack the resources for much more) and large, bug-y eyes—giving him both an air of mystery and an appealing cartoonishness.
Ditko maintained that Spider-Man was mostly his own idea — a reworking of an old idea he’d had years ago for a character called “The Silver Spider.” In fact, if you send Ditko $40 in the mail today, you can get a hand-typed manifesto explaining that Lee came up with the name “Spider-Man,” and Ditko himself came up with literally everything else. Further complicating matters, legendary Marvel artist Jack Kirby has also claimed responsibility for the character.
How Spider-Man came is a story now too convoluted to every really sort out, but the character’s popularity? That was an easy one. The story was intended to be a one-time tale but, by the end of the year, that issue of Amazing Fantasy #15 was a top seller. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko relaunched Amazing Fantasy as The Amazing Spider-Man, and the rest is history.
Throughout their run and in Spider-Man best iterations ever since, what’s most striking about Spider-Man is how unheroic he is. Before him, most superheroes were too busy saving the world and stopping the bad guys to really worry about anything else. Spider-Man worried about everything. He was worried about money. He was worried about grades. He was worried about his aunt. He was (and this was key) worried about girls. Before Peter Parker, superheroes didn’t worry about girls. On the contrary, every woman they encountered fainted right into their arms. The whole idea of superheroes as escapism was that these men (they were almost always men) were living dream lives — handsome, gainfully employed dreamboats by day; dashing, infallibly victorious crusaders by night.
Spider-Man wasn’t particularly handsome and was only technically employed as a photographer by day. And by night, well, he did whatever a spider could. It was a different kind of escapism because, for Spider-Man, it didn’t look much like escapism at all. He was going through the same adolescent turbulence his readers were, and his writers took his issues seriously. The very fact that they named him “Spider-Man” instead of “Spider-Kid” or “Spider-Boy” showed they weren’t interested in giving him less responsibility because of his age. If anything, his age made his responsibility all the more complicated.
He won some. He lost some. But he never gave up his almost obsessive sense of duty. Even when it cost him his job, or a date, or a test, or the trust of his aunt—Spider-Man still clung to the idea that the spider bite had put New York City under his protection and that his powers came at a cost.
And perhaps more than any other superhero, Spider-Man’s cost has been huge. He was too young to fully understand the cost when he started, and he’s gone too far to turn back now. If he had known what being Spider-Man would have ended up doing to his life, it’s an open question as to whether or not he would have gone through with it. That’s probably the case with all great things. If we’d known how hard it was, we wouldn’t have done it.
But if it weren’t for Spider-Man, there’d be a lot of people who would have never gotten rescued.
While most superheroes seem perpetually stuck in their early to mid-thirties, Spider-Man has grown up in the years since his creation. Over time, he’s lost friends — including his first true love Gwen Stacy; a decision that got Marvel death threats at the time — gotten married, joined the Avengers and even started a new company as a scientist and researcher.
In that time, the mantle of Spider-Man has even been taken on by a new teenager—a half-black, half-Hispanic teenager named Miles Morales, who finds himself gifted with the same spider powers as Spider-Man. Through Miles, Marvel has been able to explore anew the tensions between power and responsibility felt by teenagers who aren’t yet old enough to fully grapple with either.
And in the midst of all this, Spider-Man has become the face of Marvel Comics, its most recognizable figure. Wolverine may be cooler; Thor may be more handsome, and Captain America may be the one everyone looks to for marching orders. But Spider-Man is the truest iteration of what it means to be a Marvel superhero. Not always super. Not even always heroic. But always amazing.