Spider-Man: Homecoming is finally upon us and with it a return to the character’s roots; namely, a teenage Peter Parker learning how to balance all that great responsibility with the treacherous rigors of high school. The formula created with the character is rich and one of the best in comics with a metaphor of how being a teenager sometimes feels like fighting the whole world while you’re just trying to figure out your true identity. The fantastical waltzes with the familiar and the result hammers home what responsibility and growing up is all about. It’s such a simple idea, but one that clearly rings true to this day.
Prior to 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15, teenage superheroes were largely sidekicks; jovial avatars for children’s wish fulfillment where you, yes you, would be side by side with your favorite hero doling out justice. Teenagers were there to learn from their costumed mentors and their primary challenges were the constant kidnappings or failing to grasp the issue’s important lesson prior to said kidnappings. You see, Robin, sidekicks served two important roles: comic-relief and to give the star hero someone to talk lest they continued to narrate their every action aloud to no one in particular. They kept doing that anyway, mind you, but at least they seemed slightly less bananas when doing so. Then came Spider-Man, a teenager who was the star hero of his own comic.
Peter Parker was a hero whose problems weren’t simply about which costumed madman was causing trouble; he had actual relatable teenage problems. He had bullies, academic obligations, crushes, and a kindly aunt who seemed to constantly be one missed dose of prescription meds away from death’s door. Most importantly, he had confidence issues like literally all teenagers do. Peter questioned himself every step of the way, even knowing full well he was going to do what was right. He learned a valuable lesson to understand what it means to be a hero and the heft of responsibility that comes with carrying that identity while also being in the throes of navigating his own teenage identity. Not only did this poor kid have to foil the schemes of some mad scientist with robot arms, but doing so meant that his chemistry project was going to be late and his crush was going to think he was a wuss and his best friend was going to be mad that he keeps flaking on their plans and his aunt was in danger of missing the mortgage payment and…look, my dude just couldn’t catch a break. That Parker luck, gotta love it.
Spider-Man was this beautiful distillation of what it meant to be a kid trying to figure out who they are, driven by a great moral compass that guaranteed nothing other than knowing you did the right thing. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s creation didn’t sugar coat it: just because you do the right thing, it doesn’t mean everything works out for you. In fact, more often than not it was pretty assured that things wouldn’t work out. You remember the horrors of your first high school dance? Yeah, well try surviving that while some maniac in a rhinoceros onesie is trying to murder you.
Spider-Man is the perfect modern superhero template: a hero that learns the lesson of personal sacrifice over and over while juggling that dichotomy of identity as both metaphor and reality. To that end, there’s been a litany of riffs on the teenage hero since Spidey’s introduction and the following stand out as some of the best.
Arguably the biggest breakout comic star of the past decade, Kamala Khan is nothing short of a superhero revelation. G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona took the classic Spider-Man template and built the perfect modern interpretation: a teenage Pakistani American Muslim girl from Jersey suddenly bestowed with superpowers. With Kamala, we have a teenager learning as she goes while dealing with problems that are literally world-ending and social life destroying. Beyond just struggling with her confidence as a hero, Wilson has had Kamala grapple with her own faith, her parents, her friends, and her heroes. Ms. Marvel doesn’t just update a tried and true template, it improves upon it in nearly every way.
Here’s the thing about Invincible: consequences are real. Unlike the perpetual second act of the Big Two superhero stories, Robert Kirkman’s 137-issue long run is littered with life-changing events with actual repercussions. Considering the series starts with 17-year-old Mark finding out his superhero dad is actually from an alien warrior race that conquer planets and was sent to prepare Earth for invasion by murdering its premiere superhero team, that’s a heck of a repercussion to be felt. While Invincible incorporates a plethora of superhero archetypes, it’s unquestionably a Peter Parker influence felt in the earliest parts of the run as Mark tries to figure out how to deal with finishing high school, dating, and teachers turning students into human bombs. You know, the usual. It’s Spider-Man taken to an extreme, for sure, but the basic formula is still there. Through it all, that quasi-Parker luck married with a level of stakes not seen in the majority of superhero makes Invincible deservedly popular.
Okay, Bart Allen is kind of a brat. You try being raised in a virtual reality machine because of your hyper-accelerated metabolism and being sent back in time to have your ancestor slyly challenge you to a race around the world to cure you and see how you turn out! A fast-talking smart aleck, Bart Allen wasn’t quite the charming Peter Parker type, but the temporal fish out of water was hard to dislike for too long as he worked his way through school in rural Alabama. The reckless youth, who just so happens to be the fastest kid alive, has a lot in common with the cocky pre-burglar Peter Parker and watching Bart adapt over the course of the series is a delight. Flipping the Spidey formula on its head, Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos delivered a superhero going undercover as a modern-day teenager as opposed to a modern-day teenager suddenly becoming, and trying to keep under wraps, their newfound super-identity. It’s a brilliant little deviation and one that delivers equal parts humor and heart.
Just like you and me, Faith Herbert is the best kind of nerd. Much like Peter, Faith’s parents were killed when she was young and she was raised by her grandmother. Obsessed with sci-fi and all things superhero, Faith understandably loses her collective mind in jubilation when Peter Stanchek unlocks her ability to fly. More than just being overjoyed at having a wish come true, Faith is every bit a true hero that proves herself time and again. Adhering to the same moral code as her fictional heroes, Faith uses her power in service to others as her occasional naivete is as admirable as it is inspiring. Finally starting her life over in Los Angeles, Faith finally begins to juggle the double life of a secret identity and just trying to figure out how exactly how adulting works while supervillain jerks are trying to screw it all up all the time.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Spider-Man is known for his quips, the result of his insecurities and fears manifesting in a motormouth during battle. Well, Buffy is basically Spider-Snark 5000 and thank goodness for that. High School might feel like a menagerie of monsters to most, but it’s a literal problem for this teenage girl who discovers she’s the latest in a lineage of vampire slayers. Buffy is all of the metaphor and then some, with a premise born from that Spider-Man template of trying to lead a normal teenage life while meeting the responsibilities thrust upon her. There’s heartbreak, adventure, wit, and magic in every day of this kid’s life and trying to keep it together is something that is surprisingly relatable. At the heart of the character is that same degree of doubt and want that Peter’s carried with him since the beginning, but neither of them ever let it cripple them from being the heroes they really are.