As many of you reading this already know, one of the great titans and legends of the comics industry, Steve Ditko—co-creator of iconic characters like Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, and the Question—has passed away. Certainly, much could be written, and is being written and published on blogs as we speak, of his enormous influence. This being Hero Wisdom and Pop Mythology, we’re not going to take the traditional route of paying tribute by retroactively looking back on his body of work. Enough people are doing that. Instead, I’d like to take a single Steve Ditko moment from one of his most beloved creations, Spider-Man, and talk about the mythical implications of it and what it can teach us about ourselves and our society. It will be an indirect tribute of sorts, done Hero Wisdom style.
The moment, one of Ditko’s most celebrated (he co-wrote it as well as drew it), comes from The Amazing Spider-Man #33, the finale to the “If This Be My Destiny…!” story arc. In this arc, Aunt May has become gravely ill and Peter goes on a quest to find the means to her cure, a certain serum which, as it happens, has been stolen by a villain named the Master Planner (who turns out to be a certain familiar someone). While battling the Master Planner in an underground compound, Spidey becomes trapped under tons of heavy machinery. He can see the vial of healing serum in front of him but he can’t reach it. Compounding the situation is a leak in the ceiling above him—the ceiling is about to collapse and bring down a whole river running over the underground compound.
And here begins one of the most beautiful sequences ever to be put on paper in comics. Spidery tries to lift the rubble off himself but, having just been through an exhausting battle, finds that he is spent and just cannot do it:
“If I could only lift this weight off me–but I can’t budge it–! Not an inch! It’s no use! I’m too exhausted! Been on the go for days!” (Amazing Spider-Man #32)
What follows is something that may not necessarily have been consciously done on the part of Ditko and co-writer Stan Lee but echoes one of the simplest and yet most profound realizations of various philosophies and religions, expressed through various manifestations of myth over the centuries, and now increasingly supported by science and psychology. Let’s take a look.
The Strength of Many Men
“Within my body is the strength of many men…! And now, I’ve got to call on all that strength–all the power–that I possess!” —Spider-Man (The Amazing Spider-Man #33)
Trapped under the machinery, struggling with despondency over his apparent failure, Spidey starts thinking about Aunt May. And he remembers, also, Uncle Ben: how his refusal to act in the face of a need for action led to Ben’s death, how our fates are all intertwined, and how our actions (or inaction) affect each other for both better and worse. This internal process is portrayed by Ditko with breathtaking beauty. The ghostly visages of Aunt May and Uncle Ben hover over Peter like divine visitations as his focus shifts from self-pity, self-loathing, and rumination over his failure to the pressing needs of others—in this cases, his nearest and dearest. He is then able to reach deep within himself, find a hidden reservoir of strength, and lift the rubble off of himself.
The lesson here is so unglamorous and deceptively simple that it’s easy to overlook the profundity that lies beneath it. And what’s going on in society today is evidence plenty that as simple as the lesson may be, our society as a whole has not been able to apply it. In our modern society and culture, the emphasis is on me: my talents, my potential, exercised for the betterment of my life and my happiness. Now, in itself, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this. And there are certain times and situations in which this can certainly provide us with ample motivation and performance. But it is only one half of the equation. Sooner or later you may find yourself in situations when the me reasons just aren’t enough. Somehow, while operating on the level of me, you find that you just don’t have what it takes. You can’t seem to be able to improve or get out of a certain situation or problem.
One of the tragedies of modern American society is that in its sabotage of the individual’s sense of being deeply interconnected with others on all kinds of levels, we are effectively robbed of one half of our source of strength—strength on every level, physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual. “Come on!” urges the typical motivational speaker, feeding into the American fetish for the individual, “do it for you! For your dreams! Your success! Your happiness!”
Let’s be clear about something: I am not against individualism per se. In fact, in many ways I am quite the individualist myself. I have my tastes, my preferences, my values, my beliefs, my talents, and the way I weave these all together in my work. All my life I’ve been considered “different,” and I honor that difference fiercely. I couldn’t have the courage to do what I do as the Pop Mythologist otherwise. Ultimately, I have to just not give a damn what people think. Or as Janelle Monae, in her song “I Like That” sings, “I don’t really give a f**k if I was just the only one.” And believe me, there have been (and still are) plenty of times when I have felt like one among a tiny handful of minority voices drowned out in the wilderness.
But when it comes to things like health, safety, basic rights, basic needs, well-being and human flourishing, to focus on these things as they pertain only to me limits me severely. Imagine if half of my muscles were to somehow atrophy the night before a planned workout. How strong would I be in the gym the next day? How well would I perform? Likewise, the hopes and dreams you carry serve as a source of strength. Carry only your own hopes and dreams and you have only the strength these hopes and dreams can provide. What happens when those dreams come crashing down? What happens to your source of strength? But carry the hopes and dreams of others as well as your own, and even if your own come crashing down, there is still the hopes and dreams of others to serve as your source of strength. You can call on “the strength of many men” (and I hope it’s obvious here that I mean “men” in a gender neutral way). Great humanitarians who have galvanized entire movements and carried them on their backs were able to do so—even in the face of great setbacks and discouragement—not because they are inherently stronger than the rest of us but because for them it was not about me. It was about we. I’m not suggesting that we must all become like such great individuals; merely that we can learn from the way they have drawn strength from sources outside of themselves.
This is more than just a nice-sounding platitude. It is real wisdom that is increasingly being supported by science in many ways. Now, unfortunately, this is just one article and the nature of the Internet is such that I can’t go into great detail of all the many ways in which this phenomenon actually occurs, physically and socially, without losing people’s attention. But I can quickly give a few examples.
We know, for instance, that oxytocin is the so-called “love hormone.” But, like all hormones, it is actually complex and serves a variety of functions aside from making social bonding possible. A UC Berekely study published in Nature Communications, for instance, showed that oxytocin can build and regenerate muscles, and may help keep you physically strong. It is even being looked at as a potential sports enhancer. Oxytocin is also associated with positive emotions which in themselves boost both mental performance and physical performance. And even just thinking about loved ones (a friend, a lover, an animal companion), the way Spidey thinks of Aunt May and Uncle Ben in the cited sequence, can increase oxytocin. So can acts of kindness. All this can lead to a positive, self-perpetuating cycle since higher levels of oxytocin make one more likely to engage in prosocial behavior in the first place.
And this is just one hormone, and just a few among many ways in which that one hormone works. Consider that there are numerous hormones associated with social behavior, each one multifaceted with multiple pathways. I haven’t even touched ones like adrenaline, noradrenaline, and beta-endorphin, fight-or-flight hormones that have produced legendary real-life stories of nearly inhuman acts of courage, heroism, and/or physical strength (we’ve all heard of at least a few of these stories). I believe the same dynamic occurs all the time in less dramatic, less visible ways but don’t make the local evening news. And it’s not just about physical strength. It’s mental and emotional as well. In fact, one of the most painful and difficult natural process that people go through every single day, giving birth, is a miracle made both physically and emotionally possible by a surge of multiple hormones, both “nurturing” hormones like oxytocin and prolactin and stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline. And what is giving birth but one of the quintessential activities in which it’s not just about me but about we? This, to me, suggests that in moments of acute stress the positive emotions of love and caring can coexist with the “negative” ones of fear and anxiety, both working together to give you heretofore untapped levels of focus, stamina, resilience, and strength. But for those nurturing hormones to kick in and provide the extra boost of mental and physical strength, there needs to be the factor of love, the ultimate we emotion, and there needs to be the factor of at least one other person besides yourself at stake.
So to bring this back to Spidey and Steve Ditko’s magnificent sequence in “If This Be My Destiny…!” in that moment, while trapped under the rubble, Spidey is able to do the impossible when he meditates on the nature of his predicament. There is more at stake than just himself here. He is carrying not just his own fears, hopes, and dreams but that of the ones he loves (and, by extension, the world at large). And it is this realization that allows him, somewhat paradoxically, to both literally and symbolically free himself from his predicament. So too, can we free ourselves from our own respective predicaments by shifting the focus of our problems. We must free ourselves from our private torments and challenges for the precise reason that it’s not just our own lives that’s on the line if we don’t get our s**t together. It’s everyone linked to us (and there are many more of them than you might think).
Evoking Something Larger Than Yourself (Which is Actually Yourself)
Steve Ditko’s sequence in Amazing Spider-Man #33 is so iconic that the MCU film Spider-Man: Homecoming paid beautiful homage to it. Watch this clip. Even if you’ve seen the movie a million times, watch it again with me right now.
Tom Holland makes Peter’s fear and panic here so palpable and real that it’s hard not to be deeply moved. Homecoming plays this sequence differently from Ditko’s classic portrayal at yet, at the same time, it does so wonderfully in a way that perfectly complements the mythical lesson of Ditko’s sequence, and also lies at the heart of one of the core messages that I have written about in this Hero Wisdom column.
Here, Peter is also trapped and unable to free himself. But rather than think about Aunt May and Uncle Ben, he sees his mask lying before him—his alternate identity, his totemic symbol which represent himself and yet at the same time also represents something much larger than himself. There is actually no such thing as Spider-Man, even within the context of the fictional Marvel universe. There is no objective existence of an entity known as Spider-Man. It is a creative invention. There is only the human being, Peter Parker, with his innate talents and abilities and his desire to do good. Spider-Man is an invented myth that allows him to be something more than just himself so that he can overcome the many obstacles that stand in the way of that desire to do good.
Outside of this fiction, in our own real world, Spider-Man and other fictional characters are also, albeit in a different way, just invented creations. But they are creations that, for many different reasons and through many different psychological pathways, helps us be more than just ourselves. The paradox is that the deeper strength that we can tap into through invented stories and identities does not actually lie outside of ourselves. It is always within us. It is always us. But through socialization and a lifetime of assimilating false, destructive myths we struggle with extremely limited concepts of the self, both in the abstract sense of what a “self” conceptually is and in the everyday, practical sense of what our selves are capable of. Sometimes it takes a lie to break down lies, just like the feather that Dumbo believes allows him to fly is a lie that helps him realize it was himself all along. It also belies what is sometimes a false dichotomy of external and internal, of self and other, because Dumbo would not have discovered the truth about himself without something that was external to himself, the feather. Just like Peter Parker would not have discovered the full extent of his own power without the invented, external creation that is his alter ego, Spider-Man.
Although this is not something that has been extensively studied yet (at least not in the particular way I’ve presented it here), there are some interesting and promising connections. Psychologists Ethan Kross and Özlem Ayduk at UC Berkeley have looked at what happens when people ruminate about their difficult experiences. The result is, not surprisingly, that they feel worse. So what’s the answer? Just don’t think about your problems at all? How could you find solutions for them, then? Their findings suggest that one answer may be to ponder your problems while imagining that you are someone else. They call this self-distancing, and it is something I’ve been writing about on this blog, using more mythical language, from its very inception.
So we have, here, two mechanisms by which we can become capable of more than we might otherwise believe we are capable of.
(1) Think we, not me. (“If This Be My Destiny…!” The Amazing Spider-Man #31-33)
(2) Draw from external tools, symbols, stories, characters, and myths to unlock power that is actually, has always been, and always will be, internal. When times get hard for you, try not being “you” but something… other. Something bigger (Spider-Man: Homecoming).
In both cases, the true Self is revealed to us as something more than just the bag of skin and bones that we call “I.” In both cases, something outside of the limited conception of self holds the key to unlocking a richer experience of self.
To Steve Ditko, for this magnificent sequence that captures such age-old wisdom in a way that speaks to modern sensibilities, I say thank you.
And to you, the reader, I say:
Come on, Spider-Man…
Come on, Spider-Man….
COME ON, SPIDER-MAN!!!