A Hero Who Could Be You

Desiring Spider-Man, the countercultural icon for the rest of us.
arts
The Amazing Spider-Man #96 (1971). Stan Lee script with art by Gil Kane and John Romita Sr.

A life-sized, 3D-printed Spider-Man rips through the Ben-Day dots of a colorful, blown-up comic book wallpapering the entrance to the Comic-Con Museum in San Diego. Having come to see the institution’s first major exhibition, “Spider-Man: Beyond Amazing,” I am of course amazed at Spidey in his trademark, swinging squat! Open thighs popping, he greets the world crotch-first. I want a selfie next to his blue bulge bathed in theatrical lighting. But I’m feeling shy next to a family posing beside Doctor Octopus’s tentacles, aware my very presence erodes the plausible deniability of the obvious truth that Spider-Man, like so many superheroes, is queer.

Inside the exhibition, which closed on January 3rd, 2023, informatively dense wall texts and an extensive archive of original drawings and first editions situated the origins of Spider-Man within the countercultural context of the 1960s. Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Stan Lee, who co-created Spider-Man with artist and writer Steve Ditko, was a frequent speaker on college campuses; he pursued a young adult readership interested in seeing their heroes rebel against the status quo. In that revolutionary decade, Lee also created zeitgeisty series like the psychedelic Fantastic Four and misfit X-Men. In the first Spider-Man comics from the early ’60s, Spidey appears as a teen who’s been granted wall-crawling powers by a radioactive bug bite; by 1969, he was in college. Mirroring his generation and audience, Spider-Man found himself navigating the Vietnam War, civil rights, social unrest, political corruption, the sexual revolution, and drug addiction.

I have tried, but failed, to feel unashamed of my commitment to studying this childish genre of print culture, which theatricalizes the struggle to create, and accept, one’s identity in adolescence.

In the exhibition, a blow-up of the cover of 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15, in which Spider-Man makes his debut, glowed in a lightbox. Swinging over the city, the hero declares, in Lee’s overblown scripting style: “Though the world may mock Peter Parker, the timid teenager…It will soon marvel at the awesome might of…Spider-Man!” If one were to open the issue, a downcast Peter Parker would overhear classmates refer to him as “bookworm” and “wallflower”—pathetic chimeras monstrous in their banality. Taking up space on a yellow wall behind him would be an enlarged, inky silhouette with web patterns emanating from its head, teasing the emergence of Peter’s transgressive alter ego. A first edition of the same comic floated in a nearby vitrine, bathed in beatific light. Across from it, Ditko’s original artwork from Amazing Spider-Man #10 (1963) hung in a row of black-framed pages. In a panel on the last page, delicate ink lines traced the young man’s troubled face as he peels off his mask. I saw my reflection in the glass; I was making the same expression.

Like many other aging Gen X “daddies,” I find myself unable to leave my teenage fixations behind. I have tried, but failed, to feel unashamed of my commitment to studying this childish genre of print culture, which theatricalizes the struggle to create, and accept, one’s identity in adolescence. Superheroes spring from that hyperactive void: rivals, idols, crushes, they all offer alter egos to put on and kill off, pliable figures shooting across an empty sky. Nostalgia isn’t the right word for reliving the daily horrors of puberty. Spider-Man offers a convenient screen to project my own persecution fantasies onto, tormented as I am by a world that, in Lee’s phrasing, “mocks” nerds, artists, gays, minorities—conflicting identities that don’t even like each other. Spider-Man is an outcast who, like my generation’s tendency toward self-hate over self-care, has internalized his status as an underdog.

At once proud and broken, Ditko’s sensitive, framed rendering of Spider-Man in India ink on white paper, pencil lines showing through, was described in the show’s didactics as resembling the artist’s own slight appearance. A nearby photograph of Ditko was helpfully provided for reference. This drawing, then, was a self-portrait, as superhero comics tend to be, romantically embellished into a wish-fulfilling, ideal self—one extending from artist to readers, who in turn shape a collective self-image. Writing about superhero cosplayers, Ellen Kirkpatrick calls them “empowered meaning In a queer sense, then, the superhero offers not only a desirable self to be, but also an object of desire, and promises that these can be the same thing.

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In 2011 I met a stuntman on Grindr who was working on previews for the musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, soaring above test audiences while attached to computerized cables—a double for the guy who sang the part. Naked one night in my LA apartment, he showed me his handstands and his injuries. A little older than me, the fine lines on his face belied a youthful musculature. I had recently begun weightlifting for the first time and was amazed by my own transformation. However far I was from the Hellenic ideal, I had used my new body to attract someone who was as close to a superhero as I’d ever gotten. Naked together, we looked like the dueling combatants I had learned to draw when I was 11, using Lee’s instructional book How to Draw Comics the Marvel On the cover, a full-color Spider-Man straddled an inkwell while watching an artist’s hand sketch another Spider-Man with a pencil, legs splayed as he shot his web toward the viewer. Internalizing the techniques and sublimated sexuality of the “Marvel Method,” I would eventually become a contemporary artist, starting a project in which I drew, inked, lettered, and colored what would become a 98-page graphic novel introducing my own comic book universe. In it, queer superheroes were named after concepts from psychoanalysis and political These comics wouldn’t be published until ten years after my affair with this Spider-Man; it was an encounter which informed my belief that fight scenes between skintight adversaries best expressed my own experience as a gay man living in hyper-capitalist megalopolises during the transitional period from late-stage safe sex to PrEP.

That’s how New York felt to me in the early 2010s: I’d never been around more men, or tall buildings, and I’d look up and see Spider-Man swinging around, ass in the air, just like me and everyone I knew.

The second time I fucked a Spider-Man was on a couch in Brooklyn, in 2013, and he was in costume. “Come over. Signed, Spider-Man,” read the text, and I was there. Entering his apartment through the kitchen, I was met by an awkward pose worthy of Ditko: shifting his weight, uneasy with his splendor, fingers wiggling, itching to crawl. There was a zipper in the crack of his Lycra body suit. Straddling me, thighs open, like he was swinging through the air, his mask took on an expression of ecstasy as his head tilted back. That’s how New York felt to me in the early 2010s: I’d never been around more men, or tall buildings, and I’d look up and see Spider-Man swinging around, ass in the air, just like me and everyone I knew. And Spider-Man’s ass is good. He crouches, crawls, squats, and leaps. He doesn’t stand up straight when in action. And as a result of this low center of gravity, his butt sticks out. This ass is available to the viewer in compositions which center its volumetric muscularity in the panels or frame it with metallic tentacles manipulated by villains who are totally obsessed with him, like Doctor Octopus and the robot Spider-Slayer. While Ditko uses the spider as a source of inspiration for the crawly movements, he also references the lithe bodies of acrobats, whose muscular glutes propel them through the air. I can’t claim that Ditko was a closeted homosexual or anything, but I can discuss how his drawings of Spider-Man’s ass offer a space for a desiring gaze to land. His butt cheeks are visible from almost any position in that impossibly tight second skin. Spider-Man’s ass is what you want, it’s an ass you want to be.

*

Young, misunderstood, rebellious, what Spider-Man initially promises his real-life audience is real-life difference. An editorial note introducing the superhero directly addresses the reader: “Like costume heroes? Confidentially, we in the comic mag business refer to them as ‘long underwear characters’! And, as you know, they’re a dime a dozen! But we think you may find our Spiderman just a bit…different!” The “you” in Lee’s note promises a more truthful reflection of comic books’ diverse readership, not only by including boisterous fan letters in the back of each issue, starting with #3, but also by the Spider-Man costume’s more formal components. As author Grant Morrison notes, “He had no The noseless and mouthless mask is all eyes—expressive voids moving as his head tilts, the web-grid pattern replacing the face with decorative branding. Over the 60 years since Amazing Fantasy #15, the mask has become merchandise for consumers of all ages and body types. But there is something else: while Peter’s whiteness is both fundamental and inescapable, under the mask specificity disappears. When Spider-Man is described in the comics as “a hero who could be you,” the mask makes the contention plausible. In Amazing Spider-Man #87, from 1970, when Peter needs someone else to play Spider-Man in order to maintain his dual identity gambit, he enlists Hobie Brown, a Black teenager who, like Peter, is also a secret science genius and acrobatic super-type known as the Prowler. The concept of the Spider-Verse—created by Marvel in 2014 to allow for the coexistence of multiple versions of Spider-Man—is rooted in the adaptability of the shared mask and its power to confer main character status to anyone, regardless of race or The mask has always offered a means through which Spider-Man’s whiteness and maleness could be veiled, deferred, de-centered. 

With his newfound spider abilities, Peter’s first impulse is to become a performer, the opposite of a wallflower bookworm. “But what if I fail?” he asks himself, alone in his Queens bedroom. “I don’t want to be a laughingstock.” Cloth wrapped around his face, Peter heads to the ring, winning $100 by using arachnid agility against a hairless, shoeless, muscle-bound wrestler in tiny purple trunks. The contrast between this fleshy, near-nude behemoth and the veiled little trickster titillates the audience: “Sensational! Fantastic! And that mask gimmick gives him just the right touch of mystery!” Another onlooker thinks, “Hmmm. That masked character may be just what I was looking for!” He offers Peter a slot on Ed Sullivan. “And keep the mask angle,” he advises the faceless youth, busy counting cash. “It’s great showmanship!” In the next panel, Peter surreptitiously holds the iconic mask for the first time. “Showmanship? He hasn’t seen anything! ... I’ll design myself a spider costume!” Two panels later, Spider-Man admires himself in the mirror: “Looks pretty good if I do say so myself!”

Amazing Spider-Man #111 (1972). Script by Gerry Conway, Art by John Romita Jr.
Amazing Spider-Man #111 (1972). Script by Gerry Conway, Art by John Romita Jr.

At first, vanity and greed motivate him. “I just look out for number one—that means—me!” Spider-Man refuses to help a policeman stop an escaping criminal. “Sorry, pal! That’s your job!” Getting home from a gig, he finds that the same criminal has killed his uncle. “With great power, there must also come—great responsibility,” admonishes Stan Lee’s narration. After avenging his uncle, Peter sells pictures of himself in his Spidey outfit, cavorting on city rooftops with other flamboyantly costumed types like The Lizard, The Scorpion, Electro, and Mysterio. The newspaper uses those pictures to proclaim Spider-Man a “public menace.” But while Spider-Man develops a persecution complex to complement his guilty conscience about his uncle, showmanship—a desire to be seen and admired—remains his primary motivation despite, or perhaps because of, the ambivalence of the public, his audience. As Scott Bukatman writes, “Superheroes don’t wear costumes in order to fight crime, they fight crime in order to wear the

Spider-Man’s outfit is imbued with what theorist Mel Y. Chen describes as queer animacy, subverting distinctions between inert matter and living things. Constructed out of sight of Aunt May, who raised Peter, the costume is cared for like a drag queen’s drag or a leather daddy’s gear, hidden in Peter’s bedroom. Its materiality is a theme throughout the early years: in a fight with the Sandman, the mask is ripped and Peter has to stay up all night to fix it in secret. When it gets dirty from a fight in a sewer, he has to clean it without anyone seeing, and the difficulty of this task delays his ability to stop a bad guy. Sometimes, when he’s feeling particularly conflicted, Peter throws the suit across the room, and it takes on a floppy liveliness. Alone in his bedroom, Peter is often depicted changing clothes, half-dressed—a trope that maintains continuity between alter egos while also offering what would become a kink. In Spider-Man themed gay porn, the mask might be the only thing worn; more commonly, the costume covers everything but the ass. Hard Heroes, a lycra-fetish gay porn site, has videos that spend 15 minutes showing performers pulling colorful “stretch” onto their naked bodies. What all this messy cathexis shows is the tangle of commodity and sexual fetish that forms desire, and thus identification, in what theorist Guy Debord would term our “spectacle-commodity Gay men are not the only ones with Spidey fixations, but the character’s status as a perpetually boyish metropolitan swinger, his conflicted impulse to be out, and his butt-focused sensuality create an available avatar for gay men, who have a penchant for queering anything campy enough to catch their attention. It is notable, then, that the first canonically gay Spider-Man variant has only just appeared in 2022, in Spider-Verse #5: a young fashion student named Web-Weaver.

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Fan fiction and fan art offer ways to create fantasies about Marvel “properties.” But it’s striking how many artists working outside the intertwined spaces of corporate commerce and its fandom appropriate these characters to tell us about the larger world in which they circulate. DC Comics characters Superman and Wonder Woman have been used by well-known contemporary artists like Mike Kelley, Dara Birnbaum, William Pope.L, and Nicole Eisenman to critique conservative American values, and they continue to interest a new generation inspired by cosplay culture, including Haleigh Nickerson and Dulce Pinzon. As the 2019 Crystal Bridges exhibition “Men of Steel, Women of argued, Superman and Wonder Woman provide convenient armatures on which to hang critiques of hyper-gendered and ultra-racialized traditions, because they first appeared during the patriotic fervor—and strident homogeneity—of World War II. By contrast, big-city kid Spider-Man, a product of the ’60s, is younger, more urban, less nationalistic, and less tied to the mainstream, affording artists an alter ego upon which to project super-powered versions of themselves. Spider-Man appeared as a wire-frame mannequin in a paint-splattered studio in Martin Kippenberger’s 1996 installation, Spider-Man Atelier. A 2015 series by Kumasi J. Bennet featured hoodies painted on old covers of Amazing Spider-Man, with Bennet re-titling them “The Amazing Black-Man” to reframe the character as a true social justice warrior. It’s a haunting conjuring of Trayvon Martin as avenging angel.

A fabric work combines imagery from different cartoons and comic books.
Nicholas Moufarrege, Narcissix of One and Nick’s of the Other (1983), thread, pigment, glitter, beads, minerals, and adhesive on needlepoint canvas, 45 × 213 cm.Photo: Diana Pfammatter/CCA Berlin

But perhaps no artist’s embrace of Spider-Man has so moved me like that of the Egyptian-born, Lebanese artist Nicolas Moufarrege. In the 1980s, Moufarrege used Spider-Man in a series of large-scale, mixed media panels combining references from Picasso, Hokusai, and Arabic calligraphy, horizontally mixing high and low by putting them alongside images by Ditko and his successor, John Romita Sr. In Mission Impossible (1983), Moufarrege took his Spider-Man, well-muscled legs coming at the viewer, from the cover of Romita’s Amazing Spider-Man #68 (1969), in which a white Peter Parker initially refuses to join his black classmates in a protest over affordable student housing before eventually relenting. In Narcissix of One and Micks of the Other (c.1983), which was featured in a recent exhibition of Moufarrege’s work at CCA Berlin titled “Mutant International,” Moufarrege placed another Romita image, of multiple Spider-Mans reflected in a hall of mirrors, at the center of the composition. Or was it multiple men in Spidey’s garb, checking each other out in a labyrinth? This mirror staging echoes the push and pull of gay clones confronting their shared desires in the corridors of a sex club. In The Love Potion (c.1983), Moufarrege again placed Spider-Man at the center—but this time, using a Ditko drawing from Amazing Spider-Man #9 (1964). The image was split down the middle, half-Spidey, half-Peter, caught in a web of his own making. In Moufarrege’s works, literary and visual, he patchworks others into what he imagines as himself.

On a recent web search, I came across a picture of what appeared to be an empty frame, possibly a mirror, threads pulled across it in a criss-crossing composition, with a plastic Halloween Spider-Man mask affixed to its top. The caption read, “Nicolas Moufarrege, Self-Portrait, date unknown (1980s).” I’d never seen it before. The object was not included in the 2019 survey exhibition “Recognize My Sign,” organized by Dean Daderko for the Contemporary Art Museum, Houston. It didn‘t appear in the exhibition’s 64-page catalog, either. I wrote to both Daderko and Negar Azimi of Bidoun magazine, who organized a symposium at CCA Berlin on the late artist’s work, to verify its provenance. But neither expert had seen it before. Having contacted the website’s administrator, who did not know where the photo came from, I have since found that the page has been taken down. The humble JPEG and its erstwhile metatext was vexing.

This unverified “self-portrait” contains no verifiable “self” to portray. We are offered instead a space, open if a bit tight, like Spidey’s empty suit when Peter flings it across the room. To identify as anything is to be caught in a web of identifications outside our own making that are, nonetheless, available. Gay men like myself fashion ourselves from images of our own desires, mended together from castoff skins of hollowed-out masculinities. Moufarrege’s maybe-not self-portrait is a haphazard pattern placing the body in perilous proximity to his, my, our, queerest fantasies. Outside, a chorus of voices chant “Bookworm! Wallflower! Freak! Menace!” Inside, we work on our masks. ♦

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