At 60, Spider-Man’s appeal goes beyond all borders
NEW YORK — Spider-Man fandom is in Tyler Scott Hoover’s blood — but not because he was bitten by a radiation arachnid. His father had been collecting Marvel comics featuring the character since the 1970s.
“He passed on a ton of comics to me,” says Hoover, 32, of Glen Burnie, Maryland. “It almost makes it a religion. It would have been hard for me not to become a Spider-Man fan.
There are legions of fans of Spider-Man, who celebrates his 60th birthday in the vast imaginative world of comics, movies and merchandise this month. Among those fans are enthusiasts like Hoover, a professional Spider-Man cosplayer and model who doesn’t resemble the character’s long-running “canon” presentation. However, in the movie and comic book universes, a Black Spider-Man is now a reality.
Hoover is biracial – of black and white ancestry – and is 6ft 2in tall. And his fandom story illustrates an important point about New York’s favorite super-powered wall-crawler: The character’s appeal has long since transcended his original iteration as a white, unimposing, orphaned teenager.
Read more: Everyone is a superhero at Marvel
The Spider-Man character’s classic costume, complete with googly-eyed, web-patterned mask, is a key ingredient in the character’s appeal across race, gender and nationality. Almost everyone can imagine themselves behind him as this ordinary man – an underrated smartypants who, after a quick change in head-to-toe spandex, becomes a force for good.
“The slower but surely I got older, the more I saw how relatable the character was,” says Hoover. “He had to overcome his difficulties while maintaining a secret identity and doing good for the people. This kind of moral compass is powerful, especially for an impressionable mind.
More importantly, says Hoover, it’s Spider-Man’s struggle to protect his hometown that makes the character more believable than superheroes whose origin stories include wealth and influence. It’s no coincidence, surely, that he refers to himself as “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.”
Created by the late Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Spider-Man appeared in the comics as early as June 1962, although his canon debut date is August 10, 1962 in Marvel’s Amazing Fantasy #15. Peter Parker, a high school student bitten by a spider during a science experiment, has developed superhuman strength, the ability to cling to solid surfaces, and quick reflexes aided by the ability to sense and anticipate danger.
But on his journey to becoming a superhero, Parker fails to stop a burglar who kills his Uncle Ben, leaving his adoptive aunt a widow. The character then strives to honor the words engraved at the end of this first issue, later attributed to his uncle: “With great power, there must also come great responsibility.”
Professional Spider-Man cosplayer and model Tyler Scott Hoover.
Tyler Scott Hoover/AP
Racially and culturally diverse superheroes, typically absent from the mainstream comic book scene in its early decades, began to emerge in the years following Spider-Man’s debut, particularly at Marvel.
In 1966, Black Panther, also known as Prince T’Challa of the fictional, reclusive African nation of Wakanda, became the first Black Marvel comic book superhero. In the 1970s, characters such as Storm, the mutant goddess best known as a member of Marvel’s X-Men, debuted; Luke Cage, Marvel’s once-imprisoned black Harlemite with superhuman strength and nearly impenetrable skin; Shang-Chi, the master martial artist who is among Marvel’s first Asian superheroes; and Red Wolf, the expert archer and first Native American Marvel superhero.
“Sometimes when we think of superheroes, we think of billionaires in suits, brilliant scientists or Nordic gods”, explains Angélique Roché, host of the podcast The Voices of Marvel and co-author of the next book My superhero is black.
Spider-Man overturned the idea of mostly privileged humans using their wealth and power to become heroes, she says. Iterations of Spider-Man, in the comics and in the movies, have appeared in multiple universes, or the so-called “spiderverse”. Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teenage Spider-Man, became hugely popular and starred in his own animated feature film. Cindy Moon, a Korean-American known as Silk, was bitten by the same spider as Peter Parker.
“Because Spider-Man means so much to us, we should always be open to possibilities,” Roché says. “We must always hope and believe that there will never be a shortage of people who will stand up for what is right.”
In July, Spider-Man was inducted into the Comic-Con Hall of Fame at the annual convention in San Diego. Fans flooded the convention hall with costumes spanning various iterations of the character.
Read more: Here’s the definitive ranking of every Spider-Man movie
Because of the mask, Spider-Man has been a safer choice for cosplayers hoping to avoid staunch purists or those who criticize others for deviating from canonized depictions of superheroes. But cosplay doesn’t have to be canon, says book historian and author Andrew Liptak Cosplay is a story: the builders, fans and creators who bring your favorite stories to life.
“Ultimately it’s about your relationship with the character,” he says. “You literally wear your fandom on your sleeves.”
Liptak also says it’s unfair to expect fans of color to only dress as superheroes whose appearance or skin color matches their own.
In the recent movie Spider-Man: No Coming Home, Electro, the villain played by Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx, joked with Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man that he was surprised Spider-Man wasn’t black. Whether or not that opens the door for a live-action Black Spider-Man in future movies, Hoover says Spider-Man should never be locked into just one look.
“You’ll have those who argue, if you turn Spider-Man black, you can turn T’Challa white,” Hoover says. “Spider-Man was never really defined by his ethnicity, but more so by his social status and the struggles he’s been through. It’s even more relevant for people of color and different ethnicities, because there are many struggles in life that you must persevere with.
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