Comics/Graphic Novels

First Appearance Flashback: Spider-Man

Jessica Plummer

Contributing Editor

Jessica Plummer has lived her whole life in New York City, but she prefers to think of it as Metropolis. Her day job is in books, her side hustle is in books, and she writes books on the side (including a short story in Sword Stone Table from Vintage). She loves running, knitting, and thinking about superheroes, and knows an unnecessary amount of things about Donald Duck. Follow her on Twitter at @jess_plummer.

Superheroes have been around a long time, and most of the characters and genre conventions are pretty well established. But did every character always look and act the way we expect them to today? In this series, I’ll be looking at the first appearances of iconic superheroes to see what’s familiar, what’s fallen by the wayside, and what’s goofy as heck. Today: Spider-Man!

Everyone’s favorite nerd, Peter Parker, debuted 59 years ago in Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962) and was created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Today he is Marvel’s premiere character and arguably the most beloved, recognizable, and profitable superhero in the world, along with Batman. The third movie in the MCU’s Spider-Man trilogy, No Way Home, hits theaters this month and is likely to be another blockbuster despite, you know, the continuing pandemic. But what was our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man like when he first appeared?

The cover of Amazing Fantasy #15. Spider-Man swings through NYC, carrying a frightened-looking man and saying "Though the world may mock Peter Parker, the timid will soon marvel at the awesome might of...Spider-Man!"
If I know comics — and I do — there is definitely Lore for that dude Peter’s carrying, who absolutely does not appear in this issue.

Okay, so obviously this cover is extremely iconic, as any first cover featuring a character as important as Spider-Man would inevitably be. But what I love most about it is that it drills down so succinctly to the heart of what made Peter beloved among nerds. “Though the world may mock Peter Parker, the timid teenager…it will soon marvel at the awesome might of…Spider-Man!” That’s it, that’s the power fantasy. Who wouldn’t relate?

It’s also an interesting cover because it’s so…well, moody. You’d expect a superhero comic from the early ’60s to have a cover full of bright primary colors, but this is mostly brown and gray. Of course, it wasn’t really a superhero comic, as we’ll see. Still, it’s easy to see why preteens and teens outgrowing the child-friendly world of, say, Superman would be drawn to this.

A splash page from Amazing Fantasy #15. At the top is a Spider-Man logo and a drawing of Peter in costume. Below is Peter looking sad while a group of popular kids make fun of them. There is a silhouette of Spider-Man and a spider on the wall behind him.

Narration Box: 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!
Popular Boy #1: Say, gang, we need one more guy for the dance! How about Peter Parker over there?
Popular Boy #2: Are you kiddin'? That bookworm wouldn't know a cha-cha from a waltz!
Popular Girl: Peter Parker? He's Midtown High's only professional wallflower!
I feel like they weren’t actually doing the cha-cha and the waltz at school dances in the ’60s, but maybe they were in the Marvel universe.

We open with a splash page that’s pretty much what you’d expect: nerdy old Peter Parker being picked on by the cool kids. I’d like to draw your attention to three things:

1. “Spider-Man” is hyphenated (as it is today) in the logo but not the narration box, and not for the rest of the issue.

2. This comic never uses the word “superhero”; instead, they’re called “costume heroes” and “long underwear characters” and sort of dismissed as being common and boring, even in the pages of a story about one of them, which is very much in the Marvel voice — simultaneously braggy and self-deprecating while also a little sneery towards the Distinguished Competition.

3. The bright purple pants on the kid in the middle. Peter, why can’t you be stylish like that?

Two panels from Amazing Spider-Man #15.

Panel 1: Peter's bedroom. Uncle Ben ruffles a smiling Peter's hair as he wakes him up.

Narration Box: As you may have guessed, Peter Parker was far from being the biggest man on campus! But, his Uncle Ben thought he was a pretty special lad...
Ben: You're not foolin' me, Petey! I know you're awake - and it's time for school!
Peter: Gosh, Uncle Ben - you're worse than a room full of alarm clocks!

Panel 2: Aunt May serves Peter pancakes while Uncle Ben grips his bicep.

Narration Box: As for Pete's Aunt May, she thought the sun rose and set upon her nephew!
May: I cooked your favorite breakfast, Petey - wheatcakes!
Ben: Don't fatten him up too much, dear! I can hardly out-wrestle him now!
Don’t do what I did and stare at that first panel for ten minutes trying to figure out exactly how Peter is lying across that bed.

At least Peter has his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (approximate age: one trillion) to dote on him! This is extremely cute, I’m not gonna lie.

However, Peter’s attempts to socialize at school aren’t met with nearly as much warmth:

Three panels from Amazing Fantasy #15.

Panel 1: Peter approaches the popular kids.
Peter: Look, there's a great new exhibit at the Science Hall tonight! Would any of you like to go with me?
Popular Boy #1: Science Hall! Ha!
Popular Boy #2: You stick to science, son! We'll take the chicks!

Panel 2: The popular kids drive off in a car, leaving Peter behind.
Narration Box: Yes, for some, being a teenager has many heart-breaking moments!
Popular Boy: See you around, bookworm!
Popular Girl: Give our regards to the atom-smashers, Peter!

Panel 3: Peter arrives at the Science Hall. A sign on the wall says "Science Exhibit, Experiments in Radio-activity, Open to the Public, Room 30."
Peter: Some day I'll show them! *sob* Some day they'll be sorry! - Sorry that they laughed at me!
Wear your seatbelts, kids.

What fascinates me about these panels is Peter’s line in the last one. Like, that’s a supervillain comment. It feels like it should be followed with a maniacal laugh. Once again, we’re seeing that this isn’t really the kind of classic superhero fare DC was putting out — it’s notably darker, almost a different genre entirely.

Peter goes to the Science Hall himself, where he witnesses the most hilariously unsafe experiment I’ve ever seen:

Six panels from Amazing Fantasy #15.

Panel 1: A scientist lectures to a group that includes Peter while gesturing to a large machine that presumably shoots radiation.
Narration Box: And, a few minutes later, Peter Parker forgets the taunts of his classmates as he is transported to another world - the fascinating world of atomic science!
Scientist: And now for a demonstration of how we can control radioactive rays here in the laboratory...

Panel 2: A spider lowers itself on a thread between two red globes that the radiation is generated from.
Narration Box: But, as the experiment begins, no one notices a tiny spider, descending from the ceiling on an almost invisible strand of web...

Panel 3: The radiation turns on, hitting the spider.
Narration Box: A spider whom fate has given a starring, if brief, role to play in the drama we call life!

Panel 4: Peter recoils and clutches at his hand.
Narration Box: Accidentally absorbing a fantastic amount of radioactivity, the dying insect, in sudden shock, bites the nearest living thing, at the split second before life ebbs from its radioactive body!
Peter: Ow!

Panel 5: Peter stares at the squashed spider in his hand.
Peter: A - a spider! It bit me! But, why is it burning so! Why is it glowing that way??

Panel 6: Peter leaves the room while the scientists laugh.
Peter: My head - it feels strange! I - I need some air!
Scientist #1: Looks as though our experiment has unnerved young Parker!
Scientist #2: Too bad! He must have a weak stomach!
At least put on some goggles or something, geez!

I love that even the scientists are bullying him. “Haha, look at that sweater-vested loser! Can’t handle a little radiation being zapped all over the place with zero protective gear! Jim in R&D grew a second head last week and he was fine!”

Peter almost instantly discovers that he has superpowers when he steps outside, is nearly hit by a car, and launches himself ten feet up the side of a building to get away. (The driver of the car, naturally, is more concerned with bullying Peter than marveling at his impressive feat. The entire world’s commitment to making fun of Peter literally all the time is so funny to me. Sorry, Peter.)

Three panels from Amazing Fantasy #15.

Panel 1: Peter stares at his own glowing hand.
Peter: It's the spider! It has to be! Somehow - in some miraculous way, his bite has transferred his own power - to me!

Panel 2: Peter walks on all fours down a thin cable strung diagonally between buildings.
Peter: I can walk down this cable as effortlessly as the spider itself can glide along its web!

Panel 3: Peter walks out of an alley. There is a spider on a web in the foreground.
Peter: I - I've got to have time to think! I've got to plan what to do with this unbelievable ability which fate has given me!
That third panel is pretty fantastic.

A classic DC superhero would use his newfound powers to help mankind. But that’s not what Peter’s about. No, Peter decides to fight a giant naked man made out of Play-Doh, for money:

Five panels from Amazing Fantasy #15.

Panel 1: Crusher Creel, an enormous man in briefs, stands triumphantly in a wrestling ring while a crowd watches. Peter, with a cloth tied over his face to disguise himself, points at him.

Narration Box: A few minutes later...
Peter: I'll try for that hundred dollars, Crusher!
Crusher: Well, well! If it ain't a little masked marvel! Step up, sucker!

Panel 2: Peter is now in the ring.
Crusher: Now just relax, shorty! I'll try to make this as painless as possible!

Panel 3: Crusher rushes Peter, who leapfrogs over him easily.

Panel 4: Peter slings Crusher over his shoulder and climbs up a pole at the corner of the ring.
Peter: It works! I have the speed, the agility, the very strength of a gigantic spider!
Crusher: Hey!

Panel 5: Crusher is terrified.
Crusher: Put me down! You win! You win!
I don’t think this is what spiders do, but sure.

The guy running the fights sees an opportunity for profit here and offers to get Peter on TV. Peter is all in, and puts together the classic Spider-Man costume, plus his iconic web shooters. The TV special goes well, and Peter is riding high on his success, when he has a fateful encounter:

Five panels from Amazing Fantasy #15.

Panel 1: Peter, wearing the Spider-Man costume, leaves behind an adoring crowd at a TV studio.
Narration Box: As his first TV spectacular ends, Peter Parker breathes the first sweet scent of fame and success!
Man #1: I'm from Life! We'll pay any price for a picture spread!
Man #2: Sign with me! I'll put you in the movies!
Man #3: Wait! We want an interview!
Peter: See my agent, boys! I'm busy!

Panel 2: Peter stands in the hallway. A man runs past him, with a cop in pusuit.
Peter: Whew! Rid of 'em at last! Hey! What's goin' on??
Cop: Stop! Thief! Stop him! If he makes it to the elevator, he'll get away!

Panel 2: The thief reaches the elevator.
Thief: Made it!

Panel 3: Inside the elevator.
Thief: I'm safe now! That cop can never get down to the lobby as fast as I can in this high-speed express elevator! Lucky that goon in a costume didn't stop me!

Panel 5: The cop accosts Peter.
Cop: What's with you, mister??? All you hadda do was trip him, or hold him just for a minute!
Peter: Sorry, pal! That's your job! I'm thru being pushed around - by anyone! From now on I just look out for number one - that means - me!
I’m glad Peter got rid of the armpit wings. And, uh, the reprehensible personality.

Once again, we’re seeing that Peter isn’t…uh, a very nice person. But of course, he’s about to learn a valuable lesson.

Three panels from Amazing Fantasy #15.

Panel 1: Peter returns home to find a cop car parked outside of his house.
Narration Box: And, one evening as Peter Parker returns home from a personal appearance...
Peter: A police car! In front of our house! What can be wrong??

Panel 2: A cop breaks the news to a dismayed Peter.
Cop: Bad news, son - your uncle has been shot - murdered!
Peter: Uncle Ben - dead! No! No, it can't be!

Panel 3: Peter flies into a rage as the cop tries to calm him.
Peter: Who did it?? Who shot him??
Cop: It was a burglar - your uncle surprised him! But don't worry, lad! We've got him trapped! He's in the old Acme warehouse at the waterfront! We'll get him!
Get ready for this to be committed to film 937 times.

A devastated Peter, worried the cops won’t be able to apprehend Uncle Ben’s murderer, changes into his Spider-Man costume and heads to the warehouse. It’s child’s play for him to overpower the killer, but then:

Five panels from Amazing Fantasy #15.

Panel 1: Peter holds the unconscious killer by his lapels and stares in horror. It's the thief from the TV studio.
Peter: That - that face! It's - oh no, it can't be! It's the fugitive who ran past me! The one I didn't stop when I had the chance!

Panel 2: Cop #1 ponders their next move. Cop #2 points upwards.
Cop #1: I hate to do it, but we'll have to rush him now! Can't take a chance of him slipping by in the dark!
Cop #2: Captain - look!

Panel 3: The cops stare at the killer, trussed up in Peter's webs.
Cop #1: It's him!
Cop #2: On a - spider's web!

Panel 4: Peter pulls his mask off. He's crying.
Narration Box: And, a short distance away...
Peter: My fault - all my fault! If only I had stopped him when I could have! But I didn't - and now - Uncle Ben is dead...

Panel 5: Peter walks sadly into the night.
Narration Box: And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come - great responsibility! And so a legend is born and a new name is added to the roster of those who make the world of fantasy the most exciting realm of all!

At the bottom of the page there is one final caption: "Be sure to see the next issue of Amazing Fantasy - for the further amazing exploits of America's most different new teen-age idol - Spiderman! The End."
I love the way they unmask Peter at the end and remind you that, oh yeah, he’s just a kid. Well played, Lee and Ditko, well played.

And that’s how the very first Spider-Man story ends: with a whimper rather than a bang, although that whimper also includes one of the most famous quotes in all of comics.

Spider-Man adaptations have adhered pretty religiously to the plot of this first issue, so the actual events of the story aren’t really a surprise for anyone even passingly familiar with the character. What is a bit unexpected is the tone. Like I’ve mentioned a couple of times, Peter doesn’t come off as heroic…basically ever? He sounds much more like a resentful budding supervillain throughout, and even though he learns a lesson about selfishness at the end, the only indication that he plans to, you know, do anything about it is a pretty vague narration box about a legend being born, and a promise that “Spiderman” [sic] will return in the next issue of Amazing Fantasy.

(This promise was a lie, by the way — this was the final issue of Amazing Fantasy. In fact, it was the only issue of Amazing Fantasy, since the series had been called Amazing Adventures for issues #1–6 and Amazing Adult Fantasy for issues #7–14, which absolutely sounds like an SFF erotica mag. By all accounts, Amazing Fantasy had already been canceled when this issue was being put together, hence publisher Martin Goodman’s willingness to take a chance on this weird new hero, meaning they knew that caption was a lie when they published it. Even Marvel Editorial is bullying Peter! Luckily, this issue sold so well that seven months later, Marvel launched Peter’s first solo series, The Amazing Spider-Man. They’ll see! They’ll all see!)

Flipping through the rest of the stories in Amazing Fantasy #15 puts the odd tone of this story into context. There are three of them, all very short — a bell ringer who refuses to abandon his post when a volcano threatens his town, a criminal who hides in a sarcophagus to escape the police, a couple who panics when the news alerts them to the presence of Martians in their area. None of them end happily, and two of the three end on an ironic twist (the couple are Martians and their cover’s been blown, etc.).

Peter, laced with bitterness as he is and with his own tragic and ironic ending, is not so much a cousin to Superman and his brethren as to the horror and crime comics that were so popular at the time. Many Silver Age Marvel characters are tinged with horror in this way, especially where radiation and its accompanying Atomic Age fears are invoked — the Hulk! the Thing! the very concept of mutants and the X-Men! — but at least the Fantastic Four are like “Okay, we’ve been turned into monsters, but let’s do something productive with that.” Peter stays dark all the way through.

Of course, that wouldn’t last, and as superheroes became the dominating genre of the medium — helped in no small part by the exciting new characters Marvel was pumping out — Peter’s adventures became more clear-cut superheroic ones, even as he stayed a mopey sad sack who everyone picks on. But it’s fascinating to see what we know as one of the world’s most iconic superheroes emerge from something that is decidedly not a superhero comic in so many ways.

I don’t expect any of this to be in No Way Home except for, you know, the existence of Aunt May and Flash Thompson. But it’s fun to see how far Peter has come — and how capable he clearly still is of screwing things up big-time, according to the trailers. What a loser.

…Oh, hey! Bullying Peter is fun! I totally get it now.

Catch previous First Appearance Flashbacks, including SupermanCaptain AmericaHarley Quinn, Archie Andrews, Wonder Woman, and Hawkeye.