Before there was a Spider-Man, there was The Spider—an icon of the pulp era, whose adventures thrilled readers both young and old throughout the 1930s and into the 40s. When Stan Lee’s Origins of Marvel Comics was published in 1974, Lee openly discussed his love for the character and role that love played in the creation of Spider-Man:
What about the name? Why Spider-Man? Simple. In the long-dead, practically Paleolithic era when I had been on the verge of approaching teenagerhood, one of my favorite pulp magazine heroes was a stalwart named The Spider. He wore a slouch hat and a finger ring with the image of an arachnid—a ring which, when he punched a foe fearlessly in the face, would leave its mark, an impression of a spider. It was The Spider’s calling card, and it sent goose pimples up and down my ten-year-old spine. More than that, I can still remember how the magazine’s subtitle grabbed me. It was called The Spider— but after his name were the never-to-be-forgotten words: Master of Men. Just play with that for a moment—roll it around on your tongue, savor the fateful, fascinating flavor—The Spider, Master of Men. My mind was made up, the stage was set, the cards had been dealt. I was no more than a puppet in the shadow show of destiny.
Now, as far as I can remember, The Spider had no superhuman powers. It seems to me he was just a good guy who fought the bad guys. It was his name that grabbed me. But that was enough.
I can still remember discussing my sinister little scheme with Martin Goodman. I told him I’d try to do the whole new strip in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Everybody knew about Superman—so the time had come for a competitor to make the scene; and what fun it would be to call him Spider-Man.
Stan Lee, “The World’s Best-Selling Swinger,” Origins of Marvel Comics, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974, pp. 133-134.
With Origins having been published forty-eight years ago, the influence of The Spider on Spider-Man is not exactly fresh news. But within the last six months, it was my good fortune that a random issue of TwoMorrow’s Retro Fan had somehow found its way into my hands, as this particular issue had a great deal of fresh insight on The Spider and Spider-Man. Not only was the character an inspiration to Lee, but it would seem he was a big influence on artist Steve Ditko as well. As the article recounts, the many similarities between the two characters included:
- Both characters were vigilantes who caught a great deal of flack from the police (though Spidey was nowhere near as violent or lethal as his pulp predecessor).
- The Spider did not shoot webs, but did carry a cord in his cloak that he sometimes referred to as his web.
- The Spider also had a sixth sense, much like Spidey’s spider sense, and it was even described at times as a “tingling.”
- In one story, The Spider painted a spider symbol on the lens of a flashlight, which he then used to scare some criminals. Very much like the spider signal, obviously.
- On several occasions The Spider lamented his double life, much like Spider-Man has so often done.
In addition to fighting villains named The Octopus and Crime-Master, the article’s author Will Murray also tries to make a case for the pulp story The Spider and the Slaves from Hell inspiring the classic scene from Amazing Spider-Man #33 (Feb. 1966), where Spider-Man lifts a massive pile of metal debris to save himself from certain doom. (Speaking just for myself, I remain unconvinced that the classic ASM #33 took any inspiration from that Spider story; it felt like a fairly big reach on Murray’s part.)
Murray also revealed that he once interviewed Steve Ditko, and that the reclusive artist “admitted to reading at least one of the paperback reprints. And he remembered the Spider serials from the thirties and forties.” (Will Murray, “The Secret Origin of Spider-Man,” Retro Fan #10, Sept. 2020, pp. 27-28.)
There were two movie serials featuring The Spider, the first being released in 1938 (“The Spider’s Web”) and the second in 1941 (“The Spider Returns”). Like almost all those other old, B&W serials, they are readily found on YouTube today. Naturally, I gave that first serial a watch and made a pleasant discovery in the form of Blinky McQuade. This was an alias The Spider used to infiltrate the criminal underworld—take a peek for yourself (and hopefully my bookmark works):
(…If the bookmark didn’t work, fast forward manually to the 22:11 mark.)
As you can see, the disguise includes a patch over the left eye. Where have we seen this before?
Yep. That Patch alias used by Frederick Foswell was clearly inspired by The Spider’s alias of Blinky McQuade.
You’ll also notice that while the pulp version wore the standard hat and domino mask, the serial version had a far more unique disguise:
One way or another, this design must have had some degree of influence on the design of Spider-Man’s mask/costume. In fact, maybe this was why Jack Kirby had a penchant for drawing Spidey with a criss-cross pattern instead of the proper web pattern—maybe the King was thinking of the costume of the serial Spider instead of the Ditko Spidey.
Sidebar: There has also been speculation that an old, Halloween-costume design from Ben Cooper may have influenced Ditko (with it seeming likely that this Ben Cooper costume may itself have been influenced by the design of the serial Spider). More info here.
Any way you slice it, it would seem there’s an awful lot of The Spider to be found in Spider-Man.