Peter Parker transformed comics because he was the first great everyman superhero.
Amazing Spider-Man #1 hit shelves 50 years ago, on March 10, 1963. Since then, Spider-Man has spawned four—soon to be five—big-budget movies, nine TV shows, a stage play, a radio drama partially masterminded by Brian Mays of Queen, a few dozen video games, and, of course, thousands of comic books and toys. He's a major figure, and he deserves to be: Spider-Man redefined our idea of a hero by making superheroes a lot more relatable than they were before.
To understand how revolutionary Spider-Man was, it helps to understand the most important hero who came before him: Superman. Created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1932, Superman debuted in Action Comics #1 in 1938 as more force of nature than fully fleshed-out character. Rather than fighting the colorful super-villains that would later define him, Superman attacked a wife beater and rescued a woman from being wrongfully executed by the government by storming a governor's mansion with proof of innocence. The creation of Superman led to plenty of direct imitations—Captain Marvel being the most popular off-brand Superman, I believe—and eventually the complete dominance of superhero comics over most other genres in comics, a status quo that survives to today.
In 1962, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee created Peter Parker, better known as Spider-Man. Spider-Man was something different. Instead of growing out of a pulp tradition like Superman, Spider-Man's forefathers were superheroes. He was a twist on a 20-year-old formula, but managed to become a paradigm shift at least as important as Superman.
Both Superman and Spider-Man are heroes, but the differences between them are profound. Where Superman was a grown man, Peter Parker was a bullied teenager. Where Superman enjoyed the adoration and trust of those he protected, Spider-Man was regularly vilified in the press. Where Superman was motivated by his innate goodness, Spider-Man had to work to be a hero, and often fell short of the mark.
Both characters have tragedy as part of their origin. Superman's home planet Krypton exploded when he was a baby, and his birth parents placed him in a rocket and aimed him at Earth. Superman's tragedy is set at a distance from his day-to-day life, but Spider-Man's is much more personal. After gaining powers from being bitten by a radioactive spider—a reflection of the atomic paranoia of the time on par with Godzilla—Peter Parker chose to become a wrestler and try to make some money with his powers. Instead of doing good deeds with his powers, he made a selfish decision that led directly to his Uncle Ben's death, leaving his Aunt May widowed and adrift.
The shift in approach there should not be ignored. Instead of being a self-assured man with functionally infinite resources for fighting crime, Spider-Man is a lonely and bitter teenager who struggles to help his aunt keep the lights on. He is indirectly responsible for the death of a loved one, and that tragedy provides the fuel for his crusade. Instead of fighting crime as a show of his own innate goodness, Spider-Man begins to fight crime as a way to atone for his own sins.
Spider-Man still struggles with his day-to-day life like the rest of us, and that fact serves to pull superheroes down to Earth. Parker is thrust into the role of man of the house after his uncle's murder, and he struggles under the weight of that burden. He works hard for next to no credit, often ends up rejecting profit in favor of doing right and honoring his uncle, and puts up with a hostile working environment to make ends meet.
He's still a teenager, however, and that counts for a lot. Underneath his mask, Parker is smart, but that smartness comes alongside the kind of bitterness that festers when someone feels underappreciated. He constantly thinks about showing up Flash Thompson, his primary bully, by humiliating or attacking him. This is less than heroic behavior by any definition, but you understand where he's coming from even as he's behaving poorly. He's a boy that's in over his head.
When he pulls the mask on, however, Parker becomes The Amazing Spider-Man. "Becomes" is the most important word in that sentence. He doesn't have the innate goodness of Superman, but he does have some idea of how superheroes are supposed to act. It's easy to miss, but the Spider-Man persona is an act. He's a teenage boy's swashbuckling, one-liner-tossing idea of what a hero is supposed to be like. He is suave, he is fearless, he is daring, he is cool, he is everything that Peter Parker wishes he was.
That performance element is vital to understanding Spider-Man, and an inversion of the relationship between Clark Kent and Superman. Superman plays Clark Kent as square and uncool as he can possibly be in an attempt to secure his secret identity, but Kent and Superman have the same righteous nature at their core. (Kent is often portrayed as an investigative journalist, after all.) Peter Parker, on the other hand, is a teenager first and a superhero last. He has to work for his heroism. He has to remind himself why he fights. When his faith cracks and he quits, he returns out of guilt. He eventually grows into his own righteous nature and to embody the phrase "with great power comes great responsibility," but it takes some time.
Spider-Man has failure at his roots, but he isn't defined by his tragedy. He's defined by the fact that he keeps struggling and striving to be the person his uncle knew he could one day become. Everyone knows what it feels like to have someone else's expectations sitting on their shoulders, and that's part of why Spider-Man works so well. Often times, Parker's personal drama seemed more dangerous and exciting than the cadre of villains who would do him harm. It's easy to figure out that Spider-Man isn't going to die, but disappointing his aunt, missing a date, or losing his job are all within the realm of possibility.
Spider-Man doesn't get the idealized life that most superheroes get to lead. He lives in Queens, not in a mansion or penthouse. Batman, the only other super hero with cultural clout that rivals Superman's and Spider-Man's, has secret identity that's among the one percent of the one percent. Bruce Wayne can build custom crime-fighting cars, rebuild destroyed mansions, and spend a seemingly infinite amount of money on gadgets. Parker, however, has to scrimp and save in order to buy the chemicals needed to make the web fluid he uses to swing around town. Money is nothing to Batman, but everything to Spider-Man. The stakes are different.
Things go wrong for Spider-Man, and that's why the concept works so well. He's closer to us than Superman or Batman could ever be. They have a safety net in the form of their superpowers or wealth that Spider-Man simply does not have. Without web fluid, Spider-Man has to run from place to place. When he gets hurt in a battle while saving the world, he has to take time off work. Spider-Man lives a life that is much, much closer to the real world than you may originally think.
Like Superman before him, Spider-Man has provided the blueprint for many superheroes since his creation. Nova, a character rumored to appear in next year's Guardians of the Galaxy film, was an implicit homage to Spider-Man, and became one of the standard bearers for young superheroes in the '90s, a little under 20 years after his creation. Static, created by John Paul Leon, Robert L. Washington III, and Dwayne McDuffie in 1993, was a new spin on the Spider-Man idea. Rather than a WASP from Queens, Static was a black youth from a fictional Midwestern city called Dakota. A comic-book fan, he was portrayed as drawing inspiration from his four-color forefathers.
Amazingly, even Superman himself has proven vulnerable to Spider-Man's influence. DC Comics has launched two different attempts to revamp the character for a modern audience in the past few years. In a relaunched Action Comics #1, writer Grant Morrison and artist Rags Morales present a Superman who is new on the job, wears jeans instead of tights, operates out of a studio apartment, and is wanted by the police. In the graphic novel Superman: Earth One, artist Shane Davis and writer J. Michael Straczynski explore a Superman who is young, bad with women, immature, and reckless.
These aren't major shifts to the Superman story, but they are notable when viewed in light of how foundational Spider-Man has become. Some of these traits were present in the earliest days of Superman, but were sanded down over the years in favor of a more purely heroic portrayal. But Ditko, Lee, and the other men and women who helped guide Spider-Man from his start to today made the rough edges just as compelling as pure heroism, and now the outcast youth is as much a potential hero as the stalwart, traditional, and squeaky-clean figure. It all happened because Spider-Man is a superhero who, even 50 years after the debut of his ongoing series, seems a lot like everyone who isn't a superhero.