Spidey Miscellanea Pt. 4: What’s So Special About Peter Parker?

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This post was born out of a passing comment in the pages of The Comics Journal all the way back in 1979. In Dwight R. Decker’s “Step into My Parlor…” from TCJ #52, Decker offered the following opinion:

 Back to Spider-Man. It occurs to me that the concept is a tad weak. I mean, I can accept a radioactive spider biting a kid and passing on spiderish powers. I can accept that because I don’t know much about radiation or what it can do. But I can’t accept the kid going home and immediately inventing a wizard web fluid and web shooters because I do know high school students, and they can’t do that! It might have been more credible if Peter Parker had grown natural web-shooting spinerets in his wrists as a result of the spider-bite. Of course, that shoots down all those stories about running out of web fluid at crucial moments… (TCJ #52, Dec. 1979, p. 82)

In 2014 I quoted Decker from this same article for my Gwen opus, but it was a different part of the article that pertained more to the death of Gwen Stacy (naturally). But I still took note of the particular quote above at the time, keeping it in my back pocket for nearly eight years. So here I am, finally just getting back to it here today.

As we know, Decker’s vision would come to pass in the first, live-action cinematic version of Spider-Man in 2002. And boy oh boy, did I ever hate it. I hated organic web-shooters. Why all the hate? I’m glad you asked.

Decker said, “I can’t accept the kid going home and immediately inventing a wizard web fluid and web shooters because I do know high school students, and they can’t do that!” But that’s the whole point—Peter Parker was never an ordinary high school student, he’s a scientific prodigy and an absolute genius. This is an important part of constructing a superhero character, a part that is all too often forgotten these days: if inborn or accidentally-obtained superpowers are the only thing that makes your character a hero, then how much of a hero can he or she really be?

The Peter Parker in Sam Raimi’s 2002 Spider-Man was just a dope who got lucky. Anyone could have been bitten by that spider and gotten all those same powers, it was just dumb luck that it happened to Tobey-Peter and he became Spider-Man. Take away those hated organic web-shooters though and a very interesting dimension is added. Without those organic web-shooters, anyone else could have still taken the spider bite and developed powers, yes, but only Peter Parker could have invented those web-shooters and truly made himself Spider-Man. This is important. It shows that Peter Parker was always an extraordinary person; that his role as a superhero was not a complete accident.

It was only in the most recent Spider-Man movie that the Tobey Maguire version of Peter demonstrated any scientific acumen at all. Even in Spider-Man 2, in that scene near the end when Doc Ock’s reactor is going to blow, Peter asks Ock what they can do to stop it, and I can vividly recall thinking to myself in the theater at the time, “What are you asking him for? You’re Peter Parker, boy genius, you should already know!” Heck, I was no nuclear scientist and even I knew they used water to cool nuclear reactor cores. (Meltdowns occur when something causes the water level in the core to dip, uncovering the core and causing it to overheat.)

Who’s That Spider?

All of this called to mind a What If? story, one that I was pretty sure came out in the mid-90s and featured an alternate reality wherein Flash Thompson became Spider-Man. When I tried to verify my memory with the appropriate research, I was more than a bit surprised, as I discovered (or perhaps more accurately, was reminded) that this premise has been the basis for several What If? stories—at least three, in fact, by my latest count.

The story that had originally came to my mind was What If? vol. 2, #76 (Aug. 1995). On the cover, it’s titled “What If Peter Parker Had to Destroy Spider-Man?” On the interior title page, it’s “What If Peter Parker Had to Invent Spider-Man?” The creators were Terry Austin (writer/inker) and Stuart Immonen (pencils). In this alternate reality, Flash shows up at the radiation experiment to beat up Peter after hearing that Pete asked out his girl, Sally. Flash ends up getting bitten by the radioactive spider and gains spider powers, and Pete encourages him to become a superhero and fight crime, even making web shooters for him. Almost immediately afterward, Flash (calling himself “the Spider”) starts using his powers for crime instead—and even tries to kill Pete!

After a chat with Uncle Ben and Aunt May, Pete realizes it’s his responsibility to stop Flash. “I can come up with technological devices to counter most of Flash’s spider powers… but to counter his great strength, I think I’m going to need some help.” He decides to get that help from the scientist with the metal arms who’s been making news recently: Otto Octavius.

And wouldn’t you know it? When he shows up at Otto’s research lab, Pete notices a dangerous radiation build up and helps prevent the explosion that would have turned Otto into Doc Ock. For his pluck and his brilliance, Otto agrees to lend him a hand—four of ‘em, in fact. Meanwhile, one constant between this reality and the regular one we know and love is Jameson, who is going after the Flash-Spidey in his editorials as fiercely as he did the Pete-Spidey. When Flash crashes the Bugle offices as “The Spider” to shut JJJ up permanently, who should come to the rescue but Peter Parker… the Spectacular Spider-Man. Though not quite the Spider-Man one might have otherwise expected.

Pete’s got a harness with four metal arms, only these arms resemble spider limbs. Like the classic Doc Ock, this gives him eight limbs in total (four human and four metal), which is rather apropos as spiders, like octopi, are eight-limbed. He’s also got defenses for the Flash’s webs, which likewise makes sense, as Pete’s the one who created the web formula Flash is using. He’s also able to jam Flash’s spider-sense with sonic waves, causing him to pass out, leaving Pete the victor in their conflict.

As the tale ends, Reed Richards invites Peter (along with his aunt and uncle) to the Baxter Building, where he reveals he was able to “isolate the radioactive isotope in Flash’s bloodstream and remove it.” Peter initially thinks that this must be the reason Richards brought him here, to offer him the spider powers, but then Richards (rather shockingly) disposes of the liquid isotope. Pete is upset, arguing, “What about all the good I could have done with those super powers?!” Reed’s response: “You don’t need any artificially induced powers to do good—you’ve already proven that yourself.”

So Reed Richards himself, world’s greatest genius, supports the primary thesis of today’s blogpost.

For anyone curious as to how this issue of What If? concludes, the next day is “Peter Parker Day,” as organized by Jameson. Making a speech outside his school, Midtown High, Pete closes with, “Most especially, I’d like to thank my Aunt May and Uncle Ben, who taught me that with great power must come great responsibility.” The final panel is a collage of Pete with his spider-arms and web shooters fighting Sandman and Electro, once again reinforcing the notion that Pete would have always been Spider-Man, with or without that radioactive spider.

The Other Spiders

Of those other What If? stories, the earliest was What If? #7 (Feb. 1978), with the cover title, “What If Someone Else Besides Spider-Man Had Been Bitten by the Radioactive Spider?” The interior title was the far more concise, “What If Someone Else Had Become Spider-Man?” Written by Don Glut with art by Rick Hoberg, the issue features three alternate realities with three different spider-people: Flash Thompson (“Captain Spider”), Betty Brant (“Spider-Girl”), and John Jameson (“Spider Jameson, the Super-Astronaut”).

This one offers the most flattering presentation of Flash Thompson—which ain’t saying much. He still kills someone, specifically the wrestler Crusher Hogan, albeit accidentally. Even so, this puts him miles above the other versions, who come off as fairly monstrous. This issue’s Flash also redeems himself at least somewhat by becoming “Captain Spider” and thwarting the Chameleon and the Tinkerer. When he comes up against the Vulture, however, he winds up falling from a great height and, with no web shooters to save himself, loses his life. Peter Parker later observes that being a superhero “takes a lot more than being a jock with superhuman powers!”

Our two other replacement spider-people, Betty Brant and John Jameson, meet similar failures, after which we’re treated to a coda revealing that in all three of these alternate realities, Peter saved that radioactive spider in each case and was able to scientifically determine how its bite created spider powers. Thus, in all three realities, Peter Parker still ultimately winds up becoming—you guessed it—Spider-Man.

One additional note about this issue that might be of some interest: in the lettercol, they listed the most popular suggestions from fans for future What If? stories. And while they didn’t say they were listing the suggestions in order of popularity, the first idea listed was “What If… Gwen Stacy Hadn’t Died?” I can’t believe this was coincidence. In fact, I find this to be strong supporting evidence that the cover blurb for that Gwen Stacy What If? story—“At last! The most eagerly awaited What If? of all!”—was not hyperbole.

The third Flash-as-Spidey story was far more recent. “What If Flash Thompson Became Spider-Man?” by writer Gerry Conway and artist Diego Olortegui was released in 2018, as a one-shot…? Apparently? Based on cursory research, it would seem that all of the more modern What If? comics have been published as one-shots, but I’m not completely certain.

In any event, out of the three stories, this one probably least fits today’s theme, but still demonstrates that Flash Thompson would have made for an awful Spider-Man. Here he commits violent assault against every villain he fights and winds up committing manslaughter when he becomes enraged with Peter Parker and punches him in the head. Pretty dark stuff.

But the larger point of the two previous stories remains: the nobility and brilliance of Peter Parker abides in every reality. Regardless of that radioactive spider, Peter Parker would still always be a hero. From a character standpoint, it’s very important that the audience recognizes this.

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