Every week, the world gets a brief reprieve from being a chaotic mess when a fresh crop of comics enters the world. Most call it Wednesday. Others, like myself, call it New Comic Day. It’s like a weekly holiday, minus the decorations, gift giving, and crowded airports. On this unique day, I pick one particular comic to single out as worthy of making this day feel extra festive.
This week brings us a special gem from everyone’s third favorite friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, after Spider-Ham and Spider-Gwen. It comes courtesy of one of Marvel’s top scribes in Chip Zdarsky and one of their top artists in Mark Bagley. While there has always been an abundance of Spider-Man comics, “Spider-Man: Life Story #1” stands out in a uniquely charming way.
For much of Spider-Man’s contemporary history, there has been an ongoing challenge, of sorts, when it comes to keeping him relevant. Writers, artists, and movie producers keep having to update Spider-Man’s story, somewhat, so that he feels modern. That’s not easy for a character who first debuted in 1962, courtesy of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.
Over the years, Peter Parker has found himself reinvented into many eras, from disco to social media. Marvel has always been somewhat coy about how characters like Spider-Man can show up in these eras and not seem to age, but that’s exactly what makes “Spider-Man: Life Story #1” so unique.
It doesn’t try to put Peter Parker in a more modern context. It doesn’t try to radically change who he is so that he fits into a more familiar world. Instead, Zdarsky and Bagley do the complete opposite and just let his story unfold within the era that first created him.
There’s no sliding timescale here. The year is 1966. Peter has had his Spider-Man powers for four years. He’s in college, the Vietnam War is ongoing, hippies are starting to grow in population, and cigarette’s are still advertised for their health benefits. This is the world in which Spider-Man was initially birthed and this is the world in which his story unfolds.
It’s a familiar story, one that frequently relies on Peter trying to balance his life as a college student with his superhero life as Spider-Man. However, that familiarity is exactly what helps “Spider-Man: Life Story #1” work so well as a concept and a setting. While it isn’t bound by the same 50-plus years of comic book continuity, it is bound by the circumstances of the mid-1960s.
This is a very different time for superheroes and non-superheroes alike. It’s not just that soda costs a quarter and the idea of alternative facts can be attributed to bad acid trips. This is a time of major social upheaval, especially in places like New York. Issues surrounding the Vietnam War aren’t just affecting Peter. They’re affecting his friends and other heroes, like Captain America.
It’s a world in which Peter struggles with choices that don’t just involve being on time for class. He’s seeing friends/bullies like Flash Thompson get drafted into a war that is just starting to go poorly. He’s watching other superheroes who don’t have to deal with J. Jonah Jameson make difficult choices about whether to get involved. What does an aspiring superhero do in that kind of world?
It makes for an interesting and dramatic backdrop for “Spider-Man: Life Story #1.” Peter still deals with typical Spider-Man issues, like getting to class on time and pursuing a blossoming relationship with Gwen Stacy. There are also a few battles with familiar enemies, namely the Green Goblin, who’s an asshole in any era. However, neither Peter Parker nor Spider-Man are bigger than the issues of the world around them.
In many respects, it brings out a more balanced Spider-Man. His struggles in dealing with the times and circumstances around him makes Peter Parker feel more real. It has always been part of his appeal, going back to the era of Lee and Ditko. He’s not some billionaire playboy or legendary soldier. He’s just a nerdy kid who got super-powers by accident.
This is a Peter Parker who isn’t bound by the old Comic Code Authority or aversions to political undertones. Zdarsky and Bagley let him live and react to the world of 1966 in a way that’s both believable and engaging. Essentially, they let him be the character that Lee and Ditko created within the times of his creation.
Those turbulent times set up even more drama as issues like the Vietnam War and the growing mistrust between people and authority start to grow. Peter’s youth puts him in the front row of the emerging chaos while the adults around him, including other superheroes, find themselves affected in ways that would’ve abhorred 1960s censors.
In a sense, the times and the larger world of “Spider-Man: Life Story #1” is the biggest appeal of the story. It allows complexity and drama that isn’t typical of a modern Spider-Man comic, but somehow brings out the best in Peter Parker and those around him, even if J. Jonah Jameson is still an annoying blowhard.