By Henry Hanks, CNN
(CNN) — The very first page set the tone.
“Amazing Fantasy” #15 presented an image of a bespectacled, oft-tormented high school science whiz named Peter Parker. As bully Flash Thompson poked fun, Peter’s shadow formed the silhouette of Spider-Man — a character who would use both his spider-powers and his intelligence to defeat larger opponents.
It was unheard of for a teenager, especially one with lots of personal problems, to be a superhero in comic books back in 1962.
“A teenager can’t be a superhero, he can only be a sidekick,” co-creator Stan Lee remembers being told by his publisher. And as for heroes with personal problems, forget it.
But this nerd almost immediately struck a chord with comic book readers.
“Peter was an outsider, and that was me in high school,” said artist Mark Bagley, who related to the hero of “The Amazing Spider-Man” and ended up working as the artist on that book years later.
At the start of his near-decade run on “Ultimate Spider-Man,” Bagley was dealing with the unsavory mandate of “beefing up” Peter Parker in “The Amazing Spider-Man” books. Determined to save Peter Parker’s nerd cred, he decided that “Ultimate’s” hero would always be skinny. He saw that physical trait as an important reminder of Peter’s underdog status, something key to the character’s popularity.
That was true for Brad Douglas of fansite SpiderManCrawlspace.com, too.
“He has problems just like you,” Douglas said of the classic version of Peter Parker. “He can’t pay his bills, he can’t get a girl, when he does he has to ditch her to go fight bad guys. His costume rips.”
Peter Parker puts on a mask and goes off on adventures to avoid bullies or other problems. What put-upon nerd wouldn’t daydream about that?
“He gets to put on those web shooters and swing through the sky like we get to escape and pick up a comic book,” current “Amazing Spider-Man” writer Dan Slott said.
“He’s so meta. He’s us.”
This identification is by design. Lee wanted to make Spider-Man the opposite of DC Comics “Superman” and “Batman,” where the costumed crime-fighter is the star of the book. In this superhero comic book, Peter Parker would be the star.
But despite the best of intentions, Peter Parker wasn’t always a nerd. Spidey historian Alan Kistler, author of “The Unofficial Spider-Man Trivia Challenge” pointed to Spider-Man publications of the 1990s, when it seemed like Spider-Man had no situation he couldn’t handle. Peter Parker also went through storylines that had him grow progressively more handsome or get macho jobs – like when he became a firefighter.
Now, 50 years after Lee’s nerdy inspiration, Spider-Man writers Slott and Brian Michael Bendis (“Ultimate Spider-Man”) keep Peter Parker’s nerdy roots top of mind.
Slott and Bendis were devoted to Spider-Man comics from a young age.
While Slott identified with Peter Parker – “I was always rooting for him. He was like me. He could screw up,” Slott said – Bendis “studied the comics the way you studied the Torah.” He even found religious significance in the fateful quote from Peter’s Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
Director Marc Webb is the latest to take on the challenge to reinterpreting the character for the big screen in “The Amazing Spider-Man,” starring an elegantly lean Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker.
Webb aims to emphasize Peter’s intelligence and outcast status in his telling of the story. “He’s an outsider, but he’s an outsider by choice. That gets him into a lot of tough situations,” he said.
But his brains don’t get overshadowed by all the ruckus, Webb said. For the first time on the big screen, Peter Parker’s web-shooters invention process will be shown. A key scene shows him developing a key algorithm to assist Dr. Curt Connors in his research.
“He’s got science going through his blood, sometimes literally,” Webb said.
Even so, Webb’s skateboarding Peter is not the same iteration of nerd we saw portrayed on that first page of “Amazing Fantasy.”
“Anybody who’s seen ‘The Social Network’ knows nerds are now running the world. Being a nerd is now something different,” he said.