**This is an excerpt from a larger essay. The link to the full post is at the bottom of this page**
by Nicholas Conley
There’s a fascinating duality to the character (Spiderman). Instead of simply being dark and gritty, there’s also something lovable—and almost cuddly, in a way—about Spider-Man. The playful sense of humor, his messed up personal life, the inherent optimism that the character maintains despite his painful lot in life…
It wasn’t just that he was likable to me as a kid, he was inspirational.
Of course, as a young boy, I loved superheroes because they were inspirational. Here I was, this scrawny and self-conscious little kid, and these guys were what I wanted to be. Strong, powerful, confident, able to do great things.
But what separated Spider-Man, I suppose, is that he was actually like me. Peter Parker
(Spiderman’s alter ego) was a weirdo, like I was. When trapped in his “real” identity as Peter Parker, he was a nerdy, shy, socially awkward, self-conscious misfit—but then, in one fell swoop, he could put on that wonderful, face-covering, Steve Ditko–designed mask and become the person he truly was on the inside: Spider-Man, the cocky, brave, wisecracking hero who always saved the day. Unlike most other heroes, Spidey could mess up sometimes. He got sick, didn’t always get the girl, wasn’t always celebrated by the general public, but he was free.
In the same way that I felt trapped within my own shy and fragile identity, Peter Parker was also trapped. But unlike me, Peter had an outlet. By becoming Spider-Man, he could cast aside his skin – the flawed and inaccurate perception that others had of him – and then, with the aid of that red mask, he could publicly reveal himself to the world.
Understanding the character better as an adult, I now see that as one of the fundamental keys to Peter Parker’s character development. Unlike most other superheroes, who assume a fictitious costumed identity in order to fight crime, Peter Parker did the reverse. By assuming that identity, by becoming another person, Peter actually sheds his worries, doubt and self-consciousness. By becoming Spider-Man, Peter Parker becomes himself. And by seeing Spider-Man’s example, the younger me was inspired to realize that hey, maybe I can be myself, too.
Instead of hiding behind my “mask” of indifference, I could bring myself out into the open and be who I was. I could be comfortable in myself, and be proud of myself.
On top of that, the example that superheroes gave me as a child – these selfless, heroic figures who sacrificed their lives for the good of others – has never ceased to inspire me. In my life, I’ve always been passionate about helping others in any way that I can. Giving blood, working at jobs that support the less fortunate, showing understanding to people when they need it the most, these are the things I care about the most deeply.
And today, as an adult, I’m no longer shy. I’m certainly introverted, which isn’t a bad thing, but there’s barely a trace of shyness or self-consciousness left in me. I’m extremely comfortable in my own skin.
On one hand, they (superheroes) are the contemporary equivalents of ancient mythological gods. Superheroes are larger than life figures, more powerful than we are, able to achieve the great things that we can’t. But on the other hand, since Stan Lee and his league of Marvel artists revolutionized the genre in the 1960s, superheroes are also flawed human beings, real people who must overcome their problems so that the world can remain safe from alien invasions, criminal masterminds and extra-dimensional demons.
Every major superhero holds a unique appeal. Sure, Spider-Man is the quiet, self-conscious outsider who opens up and dedicates himself to helping others. But Batman is the intense, focused intellectual with near-superhuman devotion toward a single goal. Iron Man is the inventor, the clever scientist, the mechanic who loves creating new things, taking them apart and seeing how they fit back together. Bruce Banner is the pent-up, repressed victim of a painful childhood who finally releases
himself in a torrential green wave of emotion. The X-Men are the repressed minorities of the world, the victims of prejudice and unfair judgment, people who instead of lashing out, fight for peaceful coexistence with the same ones who judge them so harshly. Daredevil is the victim of a disability, who instead of allowing that disability to rule his life, instead learns to accept it and uses it to make himself a better person. Idealistic heroes like Superman and Captain America are the good, pure, salt-of-the-earth people, the backbone of society, the people who instead of allowing the immoralities of the world to knock them out and pervert them, strive to make it better.
Superheroes have taken ahold of society because they hold a truly universal appeal. They appeal to the children they inspire, or the child inside us that thrills at their colorful adventures and hijinks. They appeal to adults, as their stories become a vehicle for the discussion of important social issues, problems and moral debates. Like the best escapism, the best superhero stories don’t just take us away from our problems. They also bring us back, make us think, and inspire us to lead better lives.
*For the full essay visit the post on Medium.com or visit www.nicholasconley.com and search “essays and articles.” Nicholas Conley is a writer, blogger, traveler, coffee addict and author of the science fiction novel Pale Highway.
Special thanks to Nicholas for allowing me to share this personal story.