Maybe it’s because so many of the era’s best writers lived and worked there during the comic industry’s so-called Golden Age, but for whatever reason, New York City is undoubtedly a prominent fixture in American superhero mythology. It’s more recognized than any other metropolis — even Metropolis.
A number of heroes within the Marvel Universe call New York home: Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, Jessica Jones, Iron Fist, and even Captain America, who grew up in Brooklyn and definitely wouldn’t recognize the borough today. But none of those characters have as definitive a claim to New York as Spider-Man. Despite the efforts of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their recent movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Spidey is the real hero New York deserves.
The irremovable relationship Spider-Man has with New York goes beyond his patriotic red and blue costume and the New York shorthand for Americana. It goes beyond his roots in Queens.
Spidey missed out on the Golden Age (1938-1950), debuting in the more ambitious Silver Age, a creative renaissance for comics amidst the ‘60s revolution. Into the ‘70s, Spidey brought forth changes to the doomed Comics Code Authority, when the Nixon Administration asked Stan Lee to write a comic about the consequences of drugs. Marvel’s Generalissimo used the publisher’s top-seller, The Amazing Spider-Man in this endeavor, writing a story arc about Pete’s best friend and son of the Green Goblin, Harry Osborn, who was addicted to pills. The self-censoring Comics Code didn’t approve, since it broke the rules — no drugs in these stories, even in a story that was supposed to discourage drug use — but the arc’s significance led it to wise up and change its rules. Marvel abandoned the code in 2001, and eventually the whole industry followed in January 2011.
It was only the beginning for Spider-Man acting as the industry’s avatar and its changing identity. While DC Comics defined ‘80s grit with The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, and countless more, Marvel let Spidey embrace darkness, literally, with his black symbiote costume after 1988’s Secret Wars. Fans hated it and thought it sacrilegious.
While most of Spidey’s stories didn’t reach critical highs in this period — in contrast to Watchmen, Marvel had Spidey and Mary Jane in a stunt wedding that caught national attention — there were books written about Spidey’s arc, like J.M. DeMatteis’s Kraven’s Last Hunt and Peter David’s The Death of Jean DeWolff. For better or worse, in the ‘90s, Spidey would define comic books as a complicated medium in Clone Saga.
New York had its own shifting identities going into the new millennium: Its residents moved out into suburbs in the ‘50s, leading to inner city migration and unrest in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. Times Square, which today is played up as a beacon of western civilization, was a rotten, porno wasteland until the 1990s, when MTV would attract hordes of screaming teenagers outside its doors on Broadway. At the turn of the 21st century, Times Square would be a much different place, just as comic books and the world would be after 2001.
To many, The Amazing Spider-Man #36 (Vol. 2), where Spidey and the Marvel heroes are present on 9/11, is a complicated book. Nobody can deny its encouraging sentiment of “Stand Tall” when the nation felt most helpless. But it’s also confusingly exploitative and borderline insulting — there were no caped heroes at Ground Zero, only badges, loss, and gas masks.
But it was important that the company tried to address the tragedy in Spider-Man’s book, specifically. (For an in-depth look at how much 9/11 and New York resonates in Sam Raimi’s superb Spider-Man movies, watch Bob Chipman’s analysis on his YouTube series Really That Good.)
Imagining Spidey swinging around Los Angeles, Paris, Cape Town, or even Sydney feels off. It’s not that Spidey hasn’t been around the block — in Dan Slott’s current run on The Amazing Spider-Man, Peter has been to Africa, Hong Kong, and London hunting for a terrorist group called Zodiac — but even then those stories feel less like Spidey’s and more like Spider-Man substituting for another hero, like Batman or James Bond.
There’s something romantic and picturesque about Spidey swinging through New York’s skyscrapers. New York enables this: Its built-in history of immigration, dense populations, and city planning makes it uniquely suited for a young superhero who can climb up the Chrysler Building and swing from it for miles. He can do that anywhere, but it matters when it’s in New York. He grew up in Queens, after all.