When, as a child, I was given my first chemistry set for Christmas, I started by mixing all of the chemicals together, dropped a small spider into the mixture and popped it on my arm, willing it to bite me. It didn’t – or if it did, I didn’t get any superpowers.
Devotion like that illustrates Spider-Man’s enduring appeal. According to Go Compare’s Comic Gains, the comic-book character whose average value has appreciated most is none other than our friendly neighbourhood arachnid, shooting up by 278%. An issue of his first appearance, from 1962, sold in 2016 for $275,000 (£211,000). His latest comic, Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man, is doing, well, spectacularly: the first issue, out last month, went straight to No 1, with sales of almost 225,000, almost double the second bestseller (DC’s Dark Days: The Forge).
Why? Well, Spidey has had the benefit of the latest movie in his franchise – Spider-Man: Homecoming – to boost interests. But in the current comics he’s not doing anything really new, just what he does best: swinging through the concrete canyons of New York, cracking wise and taking on humourless, grotesque villains.
It is pretty much what he’s done since his debut in Marvel Comics’ Amazing Fantasy No 15, which is 55 years old next month. But those years have seen Spidey go through a lot of changes. Peter Parker, who began as a geeky teen trying to find redemption as a crime-fighter after his arrogance got his beloved Uncle Ben killed, has become a sprawling, almost unmanageable legend as his story motors on through its sixth decade. In 1984, Spidey’s red-and-blue costume changed to all-black duds, which took on a life of their own as alien symbiote Venom. In 1987, the wall-crawler’s alter ego hit the jackpot when he married his childhood sweetheart Mary Jane Watson. He was cloned (at least twice), and both doppelgangers went on to have super-powered careers of their own. In 2007, his wedding was warped out of existence by the evil Mephisto, which saved his Aunt May’s life. Then there was the bizarre Spider-Verse storyline, which brought together umpteen Spider types from across the multiverse – including a Spidey from a reality where Peter’s one-time girlfriend Gwen Stacy was the resident web-slinger.
Phew. For all the shenanigans thrown at the character, I’ve always loved Spider-Man because he was the superhero you could conceivably become. All you needed was a school trip and a well-placed radioactive – later a genetically modified – spider and you were transformed from weedy nerd into the idol of millions. You didn’t have to be a billionaire, or an alien orphan, or a princess from a hidden island. With Spider-Man, Marvel democratised the superhero.
Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-Man is a timely reminder of what made the character so fresh and so interesting. The 1980s begat the tortured, grim-faced incarnations of heroes like Batman and Superman that are now on our movie screens; since then it has been easy to forget comics used to be what Spider-Man still embodies: bags of fun. Familiarity has not bred contempt for Spidey, but boredom. For years prior to the unstoppable box-office conquest by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Spider-Man was the only instantly and globally recognisable Marvel comic character. These days, everybody is scooping up comics from Guardians of the Galaxy to Black Widow.
If a character is to last six decades, they must to evolve, lest they become boring old fodder only for the boring old fuddy-duddies who complain that their childhood has been ruined if their favourite character so much as changes his socks. And Spider-Man has, with recent variations of Parker’s story including black and Hispanic teenager Miles Morales popping on the Spidey suit, and Spider-Gwen giving us a female webslinger. These are welcome changes as Marvel tries to make its comics world – and its readership – more diverse. And, in comics, anything is possible.
So with Spider-Man’s stock at a respectable high, both at the box office and among collectors, is it time to cash in? If you have copies of Amazing Fantasy No 15 lying around the attic, go for it. Otherwise, hang on to your collection. Just as Uncle Ben opined before he died, with great power comes great responsibility. Those old Spider-Man comics are bursting with fun and wisdom – commodities we could do with more of right now.