Life & Culture

As Spider-man turns 60, just how Jewish is the ultimate neurotic superhero?

Created by New Yorkers Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the first teen superhero captured audiences from the start


This year isn’t just the 60th anniversary of Marvel’s God Of Thunder Thor — as featured in the JC a few weeks ago — but it is also the 60th birthday of a character even more significant. Marvel’s Amazing Spider-man debuted in the summer of 1962 in Amazing Fantasy 15 and soon spun off into his own title, Amazing Spider-man, just a few months later.

Created by New Yorkers Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the first teen superhero complete with his own set of personal neuroses captured audiences from the start.

The inspiration for Spider-man, Jewish New Yorker Lee admitted, came from something very simple.

In an interview with Larry King back in 2000 he said: “I saw a fly crawling on the wall, and I said, ‘Wow, suppose a person has the power to stick to a wall like an insect…So I was off and running, and I thought, ‘What do I call him?’ I tried Mosquito Man, but that didn’t have any glamour. Insect Man, that was even worse. I went down the line, and I got to Spider-Man.

It sounded mysterious and dramatic, and lo, a legend was born.”

Throughout the 1960s, Amazing Spider-man was Marvel’s top selling book and in the 1970s it became the company’s first creation to make it to television.

Even though unlike other Marvel characters like Thor and the Fantastic Four, Spider-man was only co-created by Jewish creator Stan Lee, arguably he still has a number of Jewish facets to his personality.

The young photographer Peter Parker who is bitten by a spider to become Spider-man was very similar to Stan Lee himself, according to writer Brian Michael Bendis, who wrote hit Spider-man title Ultimate Spider-man.

“I joked about this for years but I still think that Peter Parker is a Jewish character. After reading Danny Fingeroth’s excellent book on Stan Lee and hearing about his time working for his uncle in New York City in publishing at 16 it’s hard not to see Stanley Lieber [Stan Lee’s real name] writing himself as Peter Parker.

It’s a very specific personal viewpoint of the world. It’s one of the other reasons Spidey resonates so well and for so long. But whether Peter Parker is Jewish or not, his guilt 100 per cent is.”

"For Dan Slott, a writer who has written the character for over a decade now, it’s not so clearcut.“

Over the years a lot of Spidey’s creators have been Jewish (myself included).

But I think it’s important not to tie any one religion down to Spidey. Part of his appeal, like they say in Spider-Verse, is that ‘anyone can wear the mask’.

The moment you assign any one religion to Spidey, the moment you rob him of that and make him one, definitive religion, is the same moment you’re telling tons of kids that Spidey isn’t from their religion. And no kid needs to hear that.”

The fact that Peter Parker was the first teenaged super-hero in comics was also very significant for the industry, Bendis feels: “He completely informed it. It also created a dynamic in superhero comics that we never came back from. The characters that didn’t have a rich civilian life like Peter Parker’s were immediately seen as lesser and underwritten. Major works of art and breakthroughs in medium tend to create a situation where there’s no looking back.”

It took a number of decades after the TV show but Spider-man swung onto the big screen with Spider-man, which was released in 2002 and spawned two sequels. Tobey Maguire as the timid Peter Parker really engaged with audiences and the first film grossed an impressive $825m.

Maguire departed the film series after its second sequel and Marvel rebooted it with The Amazing Spider-man in 2012, with Andrew Garfield this time in the webbed pyjamas. That made $758m and led to just the one sequel. Then yet again Marvel recast Peter Parker, this time with Tom Holland as Peter Parker in Spider-man: Homecoming.
The film spun off into two sequels including 2021’s No Way Home, which grossed a very impressive $1.9bn

Spider-man also appeared in Marvel’s Avengers films, making him a household name next to characters like Iron Man, Captain America and Thor.

The character also featured in Marvel’s Spider-man: Into The Spider-verse, a hit animated film in 2018, which introduced the concepts of a multiverse with many different iterations of the webslinger and gave us a black hero for the franchise.

The ongoing appeal of Spider-man is obvious to Slott: “He’s the world’s most relatable super hero. Before Spider-Man, super heroes were paragons of humanity. They were epic.

They were the gods of a modern-day mythology.

“Spidey changed all of that. He was what you would be like if you were a super hero. He screwed up the way we all screw up. He had the kinds of problems we all had. He wasn’t a billionaire playboy with a secret lair. He was a guy who had trouble paying the rent, getting a date, and holding down a job.

“He didn’t get the standard super powers. He couldn’t fly. He stuck to walls and had spider-sense. He’s got the kind of weird, oddball powers we might get if we every became super-powered.”

With the last Spider-man film such a huge hit, it is very likely that we shall be seeing him again on the big screen very soon.

In 60 years Lee and Ditko’s creation has gone from strength to strength, a star of both comics and the big screen. Not bad for a nerdy teenager from New York, who has Jewish guilt at his core.

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