My dad has, for many years, collected classic Eagle, Lion and Tiger annuals going right back to the late 1950’s. These feature many memorable and still enjoyable characters, even for a modern audience, such as Dan Dare, Heros the Spartan and many others. However there is always one which will stick in my mind more than any other and that is the amoral super “hero” known as the Spider. Although he began his career as a criminal he eventually joined the forces of good. With a huge range of fiendish gadgets, weapons and transportation he battled myriad evil-doers between 1965 and 1969.
What makes the character so interesting is that he is what we would today call an “archetypal” anti-hero. Afflicted by greed, envy, pride and any other sins you care to mention and possessed by an all-consuming obsession with his public image he was often motivated to fight threats to the world simply to prove he was superior to anyone else. Yet this was the 1960’s, 20 years before the “iron age” of comics would bring such anti-heroes as the Punisher to the fore. He was, perhaps, the first comic book anti-hero, years ahead of his time in showing superheroes to not be the whiter than white chivalrous beings of the golden age but instead as real, flawed humans. In many ways he is almost “Holmesian”, only taking on super-villains and criminals he feels will test him and stimulate his all peerless mind. Indeed the only reason he switched from law-breaking to law enforcement was because he considered fighting villains to be more of a challenge than fighting heroes.
The Spider’s costume, for a British created character, was also very forward featuring the combination of spandex style jumpsuits and gadgetry that would become the norm for superheroes right up until the present day but was practically unprecedented in British comics at the time. Another aid to the Spider’s own distinctive persona was the unique look of the character with upswept “Spock-like” eyebrows and Elvish pointed ears. Here was a character with an appearance very different to the standard image of a superhero at the time as some sort of “Western Ideal”, not handsome and ripped like a Superman clone but unusual and almost freakish, especially when contorted into that arrogant smirk which so often played across the Spider’s face as he put an end to a criminal’s career or berated his two long suffering accomplices.
A case in point is my favourite Spider story featured in the 1969 Lion annual, The Spider vs the Red Baron. Not only is the artwork on top form showing him in his best looking black jumpsuit as opposed to the very peculiar yellow colour scheme occasionally used on reprint covers (I mean come on Fleetway this is the King of Crooks were talking about here not rip-off “Mr Zero”) but the writing is so tight and centred on the storyline. The simple reason for this is the storyline has to be crammed into 8 black and white pages so there isn’t exactly much room for unnecessary extra side-line plots. We have one classic member of the Spider’s rogues gallery, a Luftwaffe reject with an airship, jets, bombs and deadly missiles galore, the titular Red Baron, plenty of Pulpy goodness with gadgets that somehow feel both crazy and real at the same time. This is probably the best Spider story to get started with if you can track down a copy of the annual over on Ebay or as a lucky find in a second hand book store.
Something else I should mention is that the writer of the bulk of Spider stories were written by, well, only the creator of SUPERMAN! That’s right Jerry Siegel, co-creator of the Last Kryptonite was primary writer for stories featuring the Spider and his flair for extraordinary villains such as the Automaton King and the Executioner can be seen throughout.
And this perhaps is the secret to the success of The Spider, the British Comic industry of the 60’s with its penchant for realistic war stories full of heroism but very much grounded in a factual world, smashed together with American comics featuring extraordinary characters, villains and settings. This mixture created something very modern and very original. All this of course goes towards making The Spider a whole lot of fun, something too many comics miss these days…