Surveillance and Secret Identity in Spider-Man
Issue #62, December 2002
There's something about Spidey. Crawling across billboards all over America this past summer, he once again became one of the nation's favorite superheroes. I'm sure that market analysts are right to say that its record-breaking $114 million, which downed Harry Potter — like a bore on a broomstick, reflects new marketing and distribution tactics the Wall Street Journal calls "the wave of the future in filmmaking." But, hey, more than mere merchandising catapulted the wall crawler to silver screen success. It didn't hurt that the movie was gracefully executed, but somehow, beyond all the tricks, the story just clicks. Nobody's going to tell me that Peter Parker's fateful encounter with a radioactive spider (genetically engineered in the update) is anything less than comic book mythmaking at its finest. Spider-Man helped establish Marvel Comics in the 60s and, after almost 40 years, he's lost none of his Ka-Blam!
Anybody who's spent any time around a comic book shop knows that superheroes come and go. Only a few have ever had any real staying power: Superman was born, and arguably the whole genre with him, in 1938. Batman came alive in 1939. Until Spider-Man came along, these were the guys to beat. In fact, some say the reason for Spider-Man's success is his contrast from them. He has the same elements, superpowers and a secret identity, but Superman and Batman take themselves completely seriously. Spider-Man? Well, he's a goofball with a penchant for cracking idiotic quips during combat. And his alter-ego — a science nerd in school who ended up a freelance photographer — is the sort of underdog that you'd be hard pressed not to root for. To the best of my knowledge, Peter Parker remains the only secret identity to ever have his name on the cover, as in "Peter Parker the Spectacular Spider-Man." When critics say Peter is Spidey's real super power, the real reason that he's become such a popular supermyth, I'm inclined to agree. In fact, reading a Spider-Man comic book is almost like reading one of those celebrity columns where you don't just find out about the star's upcoming film, but you get to know all about his soap opera home life as well. Spider-Man is Peter Parker's fame, but Peter Parker is Spider-Man's juicy gossip.
Susan Faludi, in her book Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, discusses how that "handful of men plucked arbitrarily from the anonymous crowd and elevated onto the new pedestal of mass media and entertainment glamour" more and more affected the hopes and dream of Americans after WWII. This describes Peter Parker perfectly. Spider-Man's 'behind the music' story dovetails with Faludi's analysis of trends in the latter part of the Twentieth Century.
Superman and Batman were born in an era when nationalism raged worldwide. The birth of these two myth figures revolves quite clearly around the second of two world wars. That young men and boys might dream about superpowers in an age when bombers and tanks stormed the globe doesn't require a great deal of analysis to unravel. (For an excellent discussion of the time and the myth-makers, Michael Chabon's fictional account of The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay will more than suffice.) Faludi describes the America that emerged from this era as essentially masculine, "a team of anonymous, duty-bound young men successfully completing the mission their fathers and their father's fathers had laid out for them, defeating a vile enemy and laying claim to a contested frontier." She could be describing the heroic group which eventually brought Superman and Batman together, The Justice League of America. But the world had changed by the time Spider-Man made his entrance. As Faludi describes it, "The men of the [Baby Boom] generation had not simply lost a utilitarian world; they had been thrust into an ornamental realm, and the transformation had proved traumatic."
In part, having by then long devoured the exploits of costumed heroes, audiences were more sophisticated and discerning in their tastes. A comics 'underground' was forming and in the mainstream there was a call for more realism. Superheroes now had to be people too — anonymous exploits would not suffice. But perhaps more importantly, to quote Faludi, "the old model of masculinity showed men how to be part of a larger social system," and, like the Justice League, "it gave them a context and it promised their social contributions were the price of admission to the realm of adult manhood." Superman was always accepted in the comics, always lauded for his efforts. But that wasn't how audiences felt any more. Faludi argues that the new "ornamental culture has no such counterparts." Instead, it is "a quest in which every man is essentially on his own, a lone sales rep marketing his own image . . ." You may quibble with Susan Faludi's sweeping conclusion that this 'ornamental culture' has conquered America and betrayed its menfolk, but there is clearly a parallel between her analysis and Spider-Man's history.
Spider-Man fits, not only because he is an angst-ridden teenager, but because he has bills to pay and people to care for, mundane responsibilities in the service of which he isn't above using his amazing powers. Also, Spider-Man was branded as a vigilante by the police. The comic was one of the first in which a normal man granted amazing powers didn't immediately turn to fighting evil and wasn't universally loved when he did.
In the new film, it's through World Wrestling Federation-style theatrics that he attempts to market his powers; originally it was in an attempt to be a TV star. However it's represented, Peter Parker wants to use his gift to make money. Of course, he is immediately punished for this desire, when his surrogate father, Uncle Ben, is murdered by a criminal he himself failed to apprehend. Nevertheless, that element of exploiting his powers for personal financial gain never quite leaves the story. Spider-Man may understand that "with great power comes great responsibility," but he never doubts for a moment that part of that is paying his own way.
Peter Parker makes his living by photographing Spider-Man. In other words, he makes his living by photographing himself. He's his own press agent, his own sales rep, and if he doesn't want an embarrassing picture of the Green Goblin pushing his face through a brick wall in the paper, no problem! He doesn't turn that shot in to the Daily Bugle. No other superhero is so closely tied to his own public image.
The scheme works on the plot level, because Bugle editor Jonah Jameson hates and loathes Spider-Man. Hence, Peter Parker's toughest audience is in attendance at every editorial conference. With Jameson attempting to run a smear campaign, Peter has to be a cunning press agent to get in the right shots. It's a story full of humor, frustration, job satisfaction and an unambiguous lack of ennui. It is also at odds with the comic book superhero tradition. Clark Kent, the newspaper reporter, rarely if ever reports on himself; the idea seems almost offensive it is so out of character. Batman, meanwhile, is a rich playboy without such plebian needs. Superman and Batman, while always quite famous, could not be said to seek fame. They strive only for justice (or, perhaps in the case of Batman, revenge). Spider-Man on the other hand thrives off his fame like any modern celebrity.
So, not only did Spider-Man appear at exactly the moment that the transformation to 'ornamental culture' began in earnest, the 60s (read Tom Frank's history of advertising, The Conquest of Cool, for excellent context on this aspect of the era), but the story mines what Faludi argues had by then, and certainly by now, become a chief concern for nearly everyone: selling your image.
As if to hammer the point home, a recently published comic book parody, The Megalomaniacal Spider-Man, has Peter realize his great merchandizing potential and quit the Bugle to become the CEO of his own Fortune 500 corporation: Spider-Man, Inc. It's sort of like Martha Stewart, I guess. However, having, "sold out," to put it in the self-important idiom of the 90s, Peter grows lazy. Yet the show must go on and later he is forced to hire someone to take his place in a costume he has grown too fat to wear.
In our age of celebrity it seems that every public figure — and with everybody getting at least 15 minutes and surveillance cameras going up over the place we are all arguably public figures — could use a secret identity. Long before Martha Stewart's insider-trading troubles began, Spider-Man was teaching us to keep our public image and private reality as separate as possible.