With all the Spider-Verse stories we just lived through and now reliving the experience (because you demanded it!) in Secret Wars, one might wonder how many Spider-Men are there? We have Spider-Cowboy, Spider-Ham, Spider-Men from the future, Spider-Men from the past, a Spider-Man who fight bad guys with Hostess fruit pies – you name it.
And while you may find a few that didn’t get an appearance in the arc that promised every Spider-Man ever, at least we got most of them. In a nice moment of reflection, Paviitr Prabhakar wonders if he is the original Spider-Man, or just a knock off. Who was the copy and who is the inspiration? We all know that the 616 Spidey that we know and love is the original, so that begs the question, what was the inspiration for his character?
I’m talking about the pre-Spider-Man Spider-Men (yes, that phrase does make sense, try reading it again a few times). Not Spider-Man 1602 or Spider-Knight, I’m talking about spider-themed characters that may have indirectly inspired our favorite web slinger.
And no, I’m not going to discuss the whole Jack Kirby vs. Steve Ditko vs. Stan Lee who had the idea first argument. We’re going further back than that. This isn’t just Spider-History – it’s Spider-Prehistory. We’re going to that magical time that existed before Stan Lee re-created the comics world in his own image (a la Secret Wars Doctor Doom).
What? Didn’t know that Spider-Man existed in the Golden Age? Well strap on your trusty web shooters, true believers, and get ready for a spin through time!
In Spidey’s first appearance, Stan Lee gave his readers this promise for the new hero debut:
However, if we really want to see if Lee was correct in saying that Spider-Man was different, we need to go back a bit farther.
A long time ago in a spinner rack far, far away, there was a golden age. The Golden Age was as full of superheroes as much as it was full of companies trying to create them. Companies were throwing anything and everything against the wall to see if it stuck. It seems as if comic writers were in competition to see if they could come up with an idea so bad that the publishers would finally say no, only the publishers never did. From Lady Satan to Doll Man and Doctor Hormone to Rainbow Boy, these heroes were just plain bad.
Someone actually thought this was a good idea:
Of course, I guess someone had to fight the gnomes that stole eyes from little kids while everyone else was off fighting Nazis. On hindsight, maybe I shouldn’t have put this out where our current creative team will see this. I dread seeing her come into Spidey’s comic to rescue him.
However, even in the days when Nelvanna of the Northern Lights was beating justice into criminals, awesomeness was flirting with these creators from the past. The Golden Age gave the world several spider-themed characters, such as:
- Leonore Black (she could turn into a black widow spider and used her powers to kill men who hurt spiders),
- the Black Spider (used specially trained spiders to help him fight crime),
- Web (pretty generic crime fighter by night sort of deal),
- Spider Woman (the first of that name way back in 1943 – she could turn your blood into black widow spider venom),
- the Fox (O.K., not spider themed, but he did have a camera strapped to his belt to take pictures of the action), and
- the Black Widow (by Marvel (then called Timely), but not the Avenger we all know and love).
But they pale in comparison to the ones that follow.
Here is a run-down of the top three runner-up contenders for the inspiration of Spider-Man followed up by the grand champion:
Dr. Bio and his Spider-men – This reject villain from 1945 tried to take over America with his Spider-men. The Spider-men were giant spiders with human heads, because what’s more frightening than giant spiders? Giant spiders with human heads, of course. Actually, to me, the spider head would freak me out more, but then I’m not made of the same stuff as the greatest generation, because to them, the giant spiders were no longer scary when Captain Future discovered that the human heads were only masks. I only mention here for BD’s benefit, since it is the first time we see a hyphen in a spider name.
The Spider Widow – In 1942, criminals had horror coming their way when Diane Grayton put on a witch Halloween mask and used her powers to control black widow spiders (take that Ant Man fans!) to fight them. She often was seen with The Raven, a superhero that she saved from Nazis (that’s right, she unleashed hoards of black widows on them in their Nazi sub). You can read that particular comic here.
She sometimes teamed up with Phantom Lady, but it was never a fun team up since Phantom Lady was always hitting on Raven. Her biggest connection to the Spider-Man mythos is one of her villains: Spider Man – a crazed lunatic that rode robotic spiders. Of course, riding a robotic spider doesn’t sound any crazier than a Spider-Mobile…
The Tarantula – this DC character from 1941 climbed walls (with suction cups) and webbed up villains with a web gun (much like the one The Chameleon used in Amazing Spider-Man #1 to steal Spider-Man’s identity and clean out his bank account). This guy was even called “a spider man” by someone in his first appearance (yep, the Distinguished Competition was the first to use the name). Sadly for him, although he lasted for 19 issues of Star Spangled Comics, nobody really cared enough about him to make him an ongoing character and he was replaced by Liberty Belle. Maybe because he wore ugly yellow and purple clothes. He did make a resurgence in the DC universe and lived in the same building as Nightwing for a while. He (supposedly) died in a building fire when the new Tarantula failed to save him.
O.K., before we go any further, what are some of the things you would say makes Spider-Man who he is? Red and blue suit? Tragic death of a loved one? Wrist web shooters that he created? Swinging from a thread? A hero that often uses his science mind to defeat bad guys just as much as his fists? Mistrusted by the police and public in general?
We get all that and more with our winner for the supreme spider-themed hero of the Golden Age in Shannon Kane, the Spider Queen.
Read her first appearance (after you’ve caught up on Crawlspace, of course) here. It’s pretty good.
She didn’t have a long run (would fit into Marvel’s current style) and she only existed as back up stories for The Eagle. However, in these three issues, we have all the basis for what will become later Spider-Man.
Red and blue suit? Check! Although she pulls off the skirt much better than Peter would.
Science? Check! Shannon was a research assistant who is brilliant in her own right.
Tragic death of a loved one? Check! Her husband gets killed by foreign agents which propels her into action.
Mistrusted by police? Check! She’s an outlaw hunted down by detective O’Bell, but he also secretly harbors some attraction for her, as evident from his clearly not sexist remarks like, “Gee that’s not a bad little doll,” and “I like that cute, fluffy type.”
Web fluid (and nifty wrist shooters)? Check!
Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that Lee or Ditko deliberately copied any of these stories. That seems rather unlikely to me. However, do you think any of these heroes get stuck somewhere in their subconscious to percolate into what became one of the most successful superheroes of all time? No one will ever know for sure, but it’s a fun thing to ponder.
More importantly, we get confirmation of what we already know. These other spider-themed heroes came and went and relatively few people remember their passing. It’s not the name, gadgets, or powers that makes Spider-Man our favorite hero. It’s as Steve Englehart said. “Comics is heroes, but it’s also characters.” So what separates Spidey from The Spider Queen? It’s Peter Parker. Peter Parker is what makes great Spidey stories great and not, well, the current animated series we’re stuck with. So when Stan touts that we will find Spider-Man “just a bit . . . different,” it turns out he wasn’t lying after all.
Grost, Michael E. “Tarantula.” Classic Comic Books. N.p. 22 June 2015. Web. 12 Aug. 2015.
Hick, Darren Hudson. “Horror in Long Underwear.” Webslingers.
Morris, Jon. The League of Regrettable Superheroes: The Loot Crate Edition. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2015. Print.
Thomas, John Rhett, and Dugan Trodglen. “The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Interview.” Avengers Magazine June 2015: 38-50. Print.
Saffel, Steve. Spider-Man the Icon. London: Titan Books, 2007. Print.
“Spider Themed Characters.” Public Domain Superheroes. Wikia, n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2015.
Ditko’s Amazing Fantasy Cover
Text Box (Marvel Unlimited screen shot)
Uncanny Tales #26
Chameleon as Spidey
Spider Queen Webbing