How a super-powered comic book character received their abilities is important, and can often date them. We don’t have many modern reference points for comparison because the vast majority of our pantheon was formed from the pre-Second World War era to the end of the Cold War.
The oldest among them might be The Shadow, who was taught the power to cloud men’s minds in what was called East Asia. His earliest format was a radio program that premiered in 1930. During World War II heroes were born with strength and integrity to fight villainous Nazis—their powers the result of experiments, bloodline or alien origins. Later rules outlawed showing Nazis in comics, and thus Hydra was born. Even the Green Lantern began quite humbly in 1940, using his magic ring to fight organized crime in New York City (possibly inspired by the real-life growing mob).
In the nuclear age of the 60’s it seemed like many of our heroes were the product of radiation. From The Hulk (gamma rays) to The Fantastic Four (cosmic rays) and Captain Atom (nuclear rocket accident), it was pretty easy to suck down a few rads and then explode with unfathomable abilities. Even Superman (as of an explanation given in Superboy #113, dated 1961) gets his true power from the ultra solar rays of a yellow sun—or, more likely, the radiation of a yellow sun.
Growing up, Spider-Man was one of my favourite heroes. His powers of course came from a radioactive spider’s bite. When my allowance wasn’t being blown on bulk-bin candy I would regularly buy Spider-Man comics (mostly Mark Bagley’s initial run), and woke up early on Saturdays to catch his escapades in first the notoriously bad 1967 animated series (airing in the late 80’s), and then the much better 1994 series.
But in all that time spent idolizing the smart aleck web-head I never asked myself, and I’m sure few others have: What if biting Peter Parker had instead given the radioactive spider the powers of a lowly human? Why does the transferral give Peter senses and super strength, and not an exchange the other way around? What would such a transaction do to the tiny spider?
Let’s theorize together:
1. Less strength. Spiders have the ability to lift around 8 times their own weight. The average human would have difficulty with one-third to half their own weight in less than a balanced deadlift. So our new Man-Spider (named in reverse) would be substantially weaker, and wouldn’t be able to protect itself.
2. Crappy vision. Spiders have 6-8 eyes (more often 8). The central pair are their main eyes, and those around handle specialized tasks and senses (probably why Spider-Man has his spidey senses). Our Man-Spider would become partially blind, seeing only straight ahead. The real issue arises when you realize that spiders don’t have necks. They need to turn their entire bodies to see, so the lack of vision could prove extra detrimental.
3. No climbing. It’s a well-known fact that many of us aren’t terribly limber. We can have a hard time climbing out of bed, up stairs, and have nightmares about the rope-climb from gym class. Spiders don’t have that problem. They have hairs covered in even finer hairs, called setules, which let them grip and climb pretty much anything. So kiss scaling walls goodbye, Man-Spider.
4. Neediness. Spiders often keep to themselves. They like being alone, and they can be aggressively territorial. Aside from hermits, humans have a much different instinct. We need each other’s company for sanity’s sake. We don’t do good alone (see Tom Hanks and Wilson in Castaway). A spider that painstakingly seeks out the company of other spiders is in some kind of trouble.
5. Body shame. Aside from nudists, we’ve been pretty fond of covering up our nether-regions. It wasn’t always about fashion. But spiders obviously don’t give a damn about letting it all hang out. You can even loosely argue that Spider-Man’s suit resembles the nude colouring of the red spider that bit him—as if he was instinctively attempting to mimic the patterning. Our Man-Spider would now worry about folks seeing him indecent, and might try to make clothes. I can’t imagine that’d be an easy task with so many sleeves and pant-legs needed on an outfit.
What do we have left? That one ill-fated bite would have created a weak, spectacled, earthbound Man-Spider who whines that nobody likes him while lounging in a many-limbed tracksuit. Amazing? No. Spectacular? Hardly. His comic title might rather read: The Embarrassing Man-Spider. It doesn’t quite carry the same cool-factor as your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.
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