Saturday, 11 April 2009
Is Peter Parker really an everyman?
One of Peter Parker's principal characteristics is his status as an everyman. Indeed, this was one of things that made Amazing Fantasy #15 such a breakout success back in the 60's. While the likes of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark were billionare playboys who lived in mansions, Peter was a shy, nerdy, orphaned teen who lived with his frail aunt May and got picked on at school. This, and his subsequent troubles with girls, money and the health of his Aunt have led to him being dubbed the archetypal everyman, and this has often been seen as the key to his success as a character. One of Marvel's excuses for repeatedly attempting to jettison his and Mary-Jane's relationship has been that they want to get back to the root of his character, and that being married to a supermodel does not allow readers to relate to him. However, has this ever been the case? And if it isn't then does such a character exist?
Obviously your definition of 'everyman' depends a lot on who you are. For example people from a working class background may find it difficult to relate to a character from a middle class background and vice versa. So for the purpose of this article I am trying to be as general as possible. Peter's status as an orphan is one shared by many fictional characters, to name but a few; Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Bruce Wayne and Superman. There are many reasons for this, parents can tie the character down and having them dead before their adventures even start creates instant dramatic tension. While this obviously an effect storytelling device, proven by the fact that it has been used for so many fictional characters over the years, it cannot be argued that this makes the character an everyman. Now I have no actual figures to back this up, but surely the vast majority of teenagers are not orphaned, and I would guess that even fewer live with elderly relatives. However, the notion of an older relative incessantly fussing and worrying about you is definitely something that will ring true with many people, and so I suppose this makes Peter a more relatable character.
Socially, Peter is initally presented as an outcast, awkward looking, shy and picked on by his classmates. Bullying is something that has probably been experienced by most people in one way or another, just as most people will have felt like an outsider at one time or another. This feeling is particularly emphasised during the early Steve Ditko stories, where Peter is drawn as skinny, not particularly handsome, and is relentlessley picked on, first by Flash Thompson, then later by Harry Osborn and Gwen Stacy when he starts college. Despite the romantic attentions of Liz Allen and Betty Brant he is shown as unlucky in love, eventually losing Betty Brant to Ned Leeds, and often ends the stories with monologues depicting his misery and isolation. This is something I am sure most young people will be able to relate to, however melodramatic it might sound.
This all changed with the departure of Ditko as penciller, and the arrival of John Romita Sr as his replacement. Romita's background came in romance comics, and one of the most initially striking things about his artwork is how beautiful everyone is. Even Peter himself was giving something of a makeover, appearing as much more muscular and handsome. It could be argued that this led to a change in Lee's stories, particularly as it has since become clear that Ditko played a big part in plotting as well as pencilling. Peter became more popular, making friends with Harry Osborn and Gwen Stacy, and even managing to get Flash Thompson on his side. The introduction of Mary-Jane also meant that Peter had two beautiful young women vying for his attention. Who can honestly say they can relate to that?
This for me is where Peter lost his everyman status. Although the quality of the stories is undeniable, Peter had gone from being a socially awkward nerd to a popular, handsome ladies man. This trend continued over the years. Although Peter had his fair share of unluckiness in love, it was often self inflicted, caused by his sense of responsibility and need to play hero. I can only recall a few, very rare occasions when Peter Parker has had romantic advances rejected, most notably the two marriage proposals he had rejected by Mary-Jane. However even these are not shown as being due to any lack of desirability on Peter's part, merely poor timing and MJ's fear of commitment. I am going to try not to comment on their eventual union, as Marvel has ridiculously blamed this for making the character relatable, when it really could be argued that this has not been the case since Amazing Spider-Man #38, 30 or so years ago.
In fact the current state of the character is perhaps less relatable than ever before. Again I am not going into any depth about this as the Brand New Day debate has been done to death, my only comment is that Marvel's alleged reasons for the One More Day/Brand New Day debacle were in no way valid. An example of this is one of the frequent ways that Marvel has often tried to return the character to his 'roots' as an everyman; by giving him money troubles, a ridiculously overplayed and misguided scenario. Yes everyone worries about money. Yes a lot of people are unemployed and struggle to find jobs, but this doesn't mean that having Peter routinely lose all his money or his apartment in bizzare circumstances is in any way realistic or enjoyable for the reader. I agree that it is another way of creating dramatic tension, but surely there must be more imaginative ways than the same old money troubles scenario? Are people who are capable of managing their money really that unusual? This isn't a dig at people who have at any time had financial difficulties, I am trying to say that lumbering Peter Parker with them is not a way of making him an everyman.
NEXT: If Peter Parker is not the archetypal everyman...who is?