It was clear from his first appearance in 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15 that Spider-Man was a very different character than any of the other super-heroes battling for justice on the newsstands at the time. Unlike those adult characters, the teenaged Peter Parker found the pressures and difficulties of his personal life more daunting than any super-villain. Those personal problems clearly resonated with readers and have become a defining element of the character: even though Spider-Man is the one fighting to save the day, we’re really rooting for Peter Parker. Although that essential tension between the lovable loser Parker and the heroic Spider-Man is obvious in those early stories, it is really Steve Ditko’s portrayal of the character that captures what makes Spider-Man unique. Unfortunately, Ditko’s contributions are often overshadowed by Stan Lee’s — mainly due to Lee’s grandstanding persona and Ditko’s own reclusiveness. That said, Ditko’s influence on the character is undeniable and obvious, especially in the greatest Spider-Man story ever published: “The Final Chapter!” from Amazing Spider-Man #33.
Not only is ASM #33 a perfect Spider-Man story, the issue’s opening pages are among the best in comic book history. The image of Spider-Man trapped underneath a piece of impossibly heavy-looking machinery in Dr. Octopus’s underwater lab while an increasingly steady drip of water slowly fills the room is a classic. (In fact, it’s so influential that Jaime Hernandez references it in his decidedly un-super-heroic Love and Rockets story “Chester Square”.) What makes the sequence stand out is the way Ditko portrays Spider-Man struggling — both physically and mentally — to break free. Over the course of five pages, Ditko shows Spider-Man’s self-doubt, desperation, defeat, steely determination, and finally — in a stunning splash-page — victory. Of course, the fact that Ditko is able to do all this without showing Peter Parker’s face is what is so impressive: using only his posture and hand-gestures to show a variety of emotions. The artwork here does such a thorough job showing Spider-Man’s struggles that the monologue — supplied by Stan Lee in his characteristically over-the-top verbosity — feels largely unnecessary: all of the narrative information is communicated succinctly in Ditko’s art.
This five-page opening sequence is not only a testament to Ditko’s skill at visual storytelling, it also perfectly summarizes the character and his motivations. While he’s trapped, Peter thinks of his Aunt May, who is gravely ill at the hospital and whose only hope of recovery is a special serum that is just out of Peter’s reach. All he has to do is break free and deliver the serum to the hospital, and it’s the memory of his Uncle Ben — whose lesson of “With great power comes great responsibility” had driven Peter to become Spider-Man — that finally gives him the strength to free himself. Uncle Ben’s prophetic words remind Peter of his responsibility, and more importantly, the guilt he still feels about Uncle Ben’s death.
Unlike other super-heroes, Spider-Man’s motivation is a deeply personal one, which was unique at the time. Superman, Batman, and the other DC characters were driven by a sense of altruism as they toed the establishment line. While both Superman and Batman dealt with loss, their commitment to society was based on a more general desire to help others (which might be why more recent interpretations of the characters’ origins focus on revenge: it’s an easier — if, sadly, more cynical — way of explaining their motivations). Even the tragic Marvel characters like the Hulk and the Fantastic Four had a more mythic, larger-than-life quality due to Jack Kirby’s powerful artwork. Spider-Man, however, is driven by a sense of guilt: he blames himself for Uncle Ben’s death, and he is trying to repay that debt by protecting others. In fact, while he is struggling to free himself, Peter even says, “No matter what the odds — no matter what the cost — I’ll get that serum to Aunt May! And maybe then I’ll no longer be haunted by the memory — of Uncle Ben!” Perhaps the great responsibility that comes with great power cuts both ways: not only is Spider-Man responsible for the safety of New York City, but he’s also responsible for the personal tragedies that result from his double-life. That responsibility is a burden much heavier than any piece of machinery.
As thrilling as Spider-Man’s escape is, it is only a minor victory, since he still needs to escape Dr. Octopus’s lair and get to the hospital in time to save Aunt May. It’s another reminder that no matter how often he succeeds, Spider-Man is still struggling with his personal life. Again, Ditko’s art is what sells the story as he shows a battered and fatigued Spider-Man fighting off Dr. Octopus’s goons: his posture is slumped and his movements feel sluggish and labored. It’s a fantastic example of visual storytelling that indicates that Spider-Man’s victory — should it come — will be a hard-fought and well-earned one. That’s really what makes “The Final Chapter!” a perfect Spider-Man story: even though Spider-Man may win in the end, it’s not without loss. He sacrifices his own health and well-being to save someone important to him, and his personal relationships suffer as he is constantly focused on his great responsibilities. Even when Peter finally selling photos to J. Jonah Jameson feels like a minor victory; the money will eventually run out and he’ll once again have to beg the publisher for more. And yet, that’s why we keep cheering for Peter Parker: he keeps struggling to do the right thing — to shoulder the responsibility — despite all of the sacrifices he has to make.
“The Final Chapter!” is a fitting title for this story since it really does feel like a summary of everything the character has been through. It’s Ditko’s masterpiece with the character, and he would end up leaving the title, and Marvel, just five issues later. When Ditko left, John Romita Sr. took over art duties, and the nerdy Peter Parker turned into a more muscular figure with male model good looks. That doesn’t mean that the character suddenly changed, but that subtle difference indicated a shift in how the character was portrayed. Peter was no longer a scrawny outcast, which might have been a reflection of Ditko himself as he grew more uncomfortable at Marvel. Regardless, Ditko’s influence remains essential to the character, and all of the great Spider-Man stories that followed over the years have been the ones that show Peter Parker’s strength of conviction and determination in the face of incredible struggle. It turns out that, even though Spider-Man’s name is on the cover, Peter Parker has always been the real hero.