This is not the essay you were supposed to read today.
When I first heard that we were having a Spider-Man week at Sequart, I knew pretty quickly what I wanted to write about. While there are lots of memorable Spider-Man stories out there, my favorite is “Confessions” from Ultimate Spider-Man #13. So last week I re-read the story, took lots of notes, and began drafting a very detailed technical analysis that would explain why the story works so well. Even though it was limited to one issue of the series, my first draft was three times longer than most of my columns here. So I began whittling away, shaving off over 1500 words with still more to go.
And that’s when the whole thing fell apart. I just needed to do a simple fact check, so I Googled the title of the story. If there were such a thing as a Spidey sense, mine should have been tingling, because that’s when I saw it. Sequart. I didn’t want to click the link because I was pretty sure I knew what I would find, but I didn’t really have any choice. And there it was. Spread out on the computer screen, mocking me like one of those animated computer viruses you see in the movies, was an article by Logan Dalton. It did exactly what my column was trying to do, almost point by point. I’m ashamed to say that a small part of me was secretly hoping it was bad. It wasn’t.
So there I was. Twenty-four hours before deadline and I had no choice but to dump my entire piece. And I’m a slow writer. Notoriously slow. I sighed and slumped back in my chair, trying to clear my head, feeling like nothing ever seemed to work out for me. And that’s when it hit me.
This was my Spider-Man moment.
I’ve never had a Superman moment. Never rescued a cat from a tree, saved someone’s life, and stopped a building from collapsing—all before showing up for work in the morning. But a Spider-Man moment? Oh, I’ve had many of those. They usually come just when you think you’re about to do something great. Just when you’re starting to feel a little cocky. Just before you’re about to fall on your face.
Like most of you, I’ve always loved Spider-Man. From the first time I saw him on the original version of The Electric Company, I always thought he was cool. But when I read my first Spider-Man comic, I realized that “cool” might not be the most accurate description. Even though he’s been the flagship character for Marvel Comics for almost fifty years, Spider-Man has always been a “loser.”
Given his prominence in the tradition of heroic literature, that may seem a bit odd. Most pop culture heroes, from Sherlock Holmes to Superman to James Bond, are all known for their extraordinary skills and incomparable successes. But Spider-Man was always different. From those early days in the comics, with Steve Ditko’s cramped panels and angst-ridden Peter Parker with sweat beads popping off his face, Spider-Man always seemed a little like Harvey Pekar in tights.
In his world, nothing came easy. Bruce Wayne was a millionaire playboy; Peter Parker was poor. Clark Kent wrote for a major metropolitan newspaper; Peter Parker sold staged photos as a freelancer to an unethical editor. Sherlock Holmes could see through every possible disguise; Peter Parker never even realized who the Green Goblin really was. And then there was Gwen Stacy. And that notorious “SNAP!”
Of course lots of heroes have problems, but in the best Spider-Man stories his victories are never “clean.” His origin story not only invokes tragedy with the death of Uncle Ben, but it makes clear that Peter carries the weight of responsibility for what happens. Superman didn’t blow up Krypton. Bruce Wayne couldn’t have stopped Joe Chill. Hal Jordan didn’t kill Abin Sur. But Lee and Ditko made sure that before Spider-Man’s origin story was done, we knew why Uncle Ben was dead. Peter blew it.
And that sense of failure has stuck with the character ever since. Heroism in Spider-Man comes not from prowess or triumphalism, but rather from perseverance and self-sacrifice. Yes, by the end of a story, Spider-Man may survive and even catch the bad guy, but along the way, loved ones will be hurt or killed, property and lives will be destroyed, and the papers will blame him for it all. As an American hero, this is particularly unique. Unlike the Horatio Alger stories, the heart of the Spider-Man saga tells us that there will always be suffering and doing good has to be its own reward.
It’s a counter-cultural form of heroism, one fundamentally at odds both with the genre and the national temper. But as a counter-cultural tradition, it has its own unique roots. Take for instance, the poetry of Walt Whitman.
Whitman, in many ways, helped establish the modern tradition of American poetry. As the writer who introduced free verse, Whitman wrote poems that didn’t rhyme and didn’t follow any set pattern or format. But he was, more than anything else, a “democratic” poet. Like those who followed in his wake, from Carl Sandburg to Alan Ginsburg to Bruce Springsteen, Whitman made it a point to celebrate those people who normally don’t get celebrated.
In his most famous poem, “Song of Myself,” Whitman attempts to write about all types of people, but few are quite as surprising or subversive as the people he honors in section 18 of the poem:
With music strong I come, with my cornets and my drums,
I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquer’d and slain persons.
Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.
I beat and pound for the dead,
I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.
Vivas to those who have fail’d!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!
Part of what makes Whitman’s approach so profound is the sheer enthusiasm he displays for those who have lost. While some of what he does in other parts of the poem can be seen as the celebration of ordinary people and anti-heroes, in this passage he goes out of his way to cheerlead for those who have specifically failed.
That’s a step further than our culture tends to be comfortable with. It often feels like we live in the world David Mamet describes in the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross. First place earns you a brand new Cadillac, but as the Alec Baldwin character explains, “second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.” Whitman writes his poem for those who finish third or worse, and he forces us not only to respect the fallen, but to actually celebrate them—for their failures.
Nowhere is this philosophy of honoring defeat played out more consistently and uncompromisingly than in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts. Regular readers soon learn that Charlie Brown is always fated to lose. He will never kick the football, never meet the little red-haired girl, and never win the baseball game. He lives in a perennial Purgatory, and tempting as it might’ve been, Schulz ultimately never lets him out. Charlie Brown has no seat at the winner’s table. His is a walking tragedy, like the second half of a Greek play repeated day after day with no closure.
And for me, it’s this combination of Whitman’s reveling in failure and Charlie Brown’s ongoing good nature in the face of daily misery that fuels the best of the Spider-Man stories. Different heroic traditions appeal to us in different ways, but for sheer emotional connection, Spider-Man always wins.