Mr. Parker first became a hero to a nation of comic fans in 1962, discovering his superpowers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. The original story, which introduced into the lexicon the phrase “with great power, comes great responsibility,” has served as the foundation for dozens of comic-book titles, television shows, movie franchises, and a Broadway musical featuring songs by members of the rock band U2.
Yet Parker takes his last breath in issue 700 of the original series title, which arrived in stores Wednesday – a decision meant both to deliver a sales kick to end-of-year revenue and to refresh a character who remains a flagship for the media powerhouse. Marvel Entertainment is owned by Walt Disney Co., which purchased the 73-year-old comics giant in 2009.
Rob Salkowitz, a Seattle-based author of “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture,” says Marvel probably knew Parker’s demise would become headline news this week because the character is an icon well known “outside the bubble of comic fans.” Comics publishers routinely look for ways to catch readers off guard in an effort to show that they are not neglecting their creative duties, adds Mr. Salkowitz.
“To keep those characters fresh, [publishers] have to churn through new ideas pretty quickly, and they have to give readers the impression [that] big changes are happening … [so] every so often they drop a boulder in the pond and create waves just to keep people interested,” he says.
The decision to kill off Parker is intended to renew interest in the character and to create new story lines for the future, Dan Slott, writer of the last 70 issues of “The Amazing Spider-Man,” told The Associated Press Thursday. In the final issue, Spider-Man finally falls to longtime nemesis Doctor Octopus, known as Otto Octavius to his mother.
“This is an epic turn.… Every now and then, you have to shake it up," Mr. Slott said. "The reason Spider-Man is one of the longest-running characters is they always find a way to keep it fresh. Something to shake up the mix.”
Parker’s story line involving his connection to his Aunt May, girlfriend Mary Jane Watson, and newspaper boss J. Jonah Jameson, plus his guilt over the death of his Uncle Ben, makes Parker more approachable than Bruce Wayne (aka Batman) and easier to relate to than Clark Kent (aka Superman). Those superheroes predate Spider-Man and his adventures. The Batman and Superman stories were connected to the plot-heavy pulp fiction of the time, whereas Spider-Man creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko concentrated more on character development, Salkowitz says.
Peter Parker's other distinction was that he was a teenager, not an adult. That not only created more possibilities for story lines, but it also made him more relatable to his readers.
“In the early '60s, comics were mostly simplistic stories for kids. Spider-Man began a more sophisticated kind of storytelling where the character arcs were developed over 10, 20 issues. People got emotionally attached, not just to this Spider-Man guy who spins webs, but to the personal life of Peter Parker and the relationships he had going,” Salkowitz says. “You can find yourself skipping over the fight scenes to get to what is going on in Peter Parker’s life. There is a deeper connection because he was set up from the onset as a character you were supposed to care about as a person.”
Parker is not the first comic-book character to get the ax – amid expectations he will emerge unscathed months later. Superman suffered the same fate in 1992. So did Captain America in 2007, Batman in 2008, and the Human Torch in 2011, to name a few resurrections.
Spider-Man’s adventures will be reset in “The Superior Spider-Man,” a new series title due early next year. He is currently the hero of other Marvel titles (“Avenging Spider-Man” and “Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man,” which are designed for different audiences).
Parker’s demise is unique because it gives readers something they don’t see everyday, says Terry Gant, owner of Third Coast Comics, a shop in Chicago. “Peter Parker is running out of time and he just can’t do it," he says. "As a way for him to go out, this is a fantastically done plot. The only thing different from any other comic-book story is that he loses.”
Social media are burning up with fans debating the ethics of killing Parker, especially so soon after the holidays. But in the comics world, Mr. Gant says, there is single truism that should put everyone’s mind at ease:
“Everybody comes back.”