Martin Mullaney discusses how the Amazing Spider-Man comic series represents many of the authentic struggles of university life.
I must confess that I don’t think I have ever read a novel that truly captured my student experience. I haven’t read one recently, and I certainly didn’t read one in school.
What I did read were Spider-Man comics – some might say too many Spider-Man comics. Now, looking back on those comics of which I read far too many, I realise that, between the goofy dialogue and the garish outfits and the onomatopoeia, lay a strikingly realistic story of a student trying to cope with the newfound pressures of university.
One of the elements that made the Amazing Spider-Man series so popular was how it often portrayed being a superhero as a burden rather than a blessing. It’s almost comical how many issues end with our hero soliloquising about how awful his life had been. Despite that, there was one thing readers like me could always rely on. No matter how many heart attacks his perpetually ailing aunt suffered, no matter how many times his cheapskate boss underpaid him for pictures of himself, Peter Parker was always a good student. Unlike the others, this aspect of his life never seemed to suffer for his costumed adventuring; so constant was it that his final exams aren’t even mentioned, and before the reader knows it, he’s been offered a full scholarship.
However, a strange thing happens when Peter leaves Midtown High for the slightly more creatively named Empire State University: he struggles. Suddenly, an element of the series that I took for granted was gone, and Spider-Man’s academic career was in just as much disarray as his personal life. It’s a crushingly relatable plot point for first years, as Peter realises that far more effort and work is expected of him.
Peter’s problems only mount. He can’t keep any appointments, he’s constantly exhausted, his grades are steadily declining, and all he gets in return is a broken arm – an uncomfortable reminder for the reader of the hardships he faces – and the distrust of the public. Naturally, he becomes slightly overwhelmed.
In a scene doubtlessly familiar to anyone who has had to write an interminably long essay with a deadline rapidly approaching, Peter Parker has a complete breakdown at 2am, and tosses his Spider-Man outfit in a dustbin. He gives up. For about 10 pages. This is a superhero comic, after all. Here we have another fundamentally relatable student experience: being torn between different parts of your life, old and new, competing for your time and attention. Peter thought that by sacrificing a fundamental part of himself he would be able to be a better student. At the end of the day, he was right; his grades improved. But what I feel these stories from 50 years ago remind us of is that some elements of yourself (even if that element is dressing up in a leotard and picking fights with similarly dressed individuals) are never worth sacrificing, no matter how hard starting university might seem.