Marvel Historian Bob Batchelor Breaks Down 'Spider-Man: Homecoming' Characters [Interview]
Miles Marshall Lewis sits down with Marvel historian Bob Batchelor to talk about the historical significance of Spider-Man: Homecoming's major characters.
On the auspicious occasion of Spider-Man: Homecoming’s release (July 7), we asked Stan Lee: The Man Behind Marvel biographer Bob Batchelor for some background on the movie’s major characters, Spidey’s eternal teenagedom and more. Aside from a name that sounds ripped straight from The Spectacular Spider-Man itself, Batchelor knows more about the Marvel Universe than any two cos-playing comic-con geeks put together.
Enter the web-headed mind of an expert and get your primer for the movie of the weekend early. Excelsior!
Source: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg via Getty Images.Okayplayer: Let’s start with some character breakdowns. Who exactly is Liz Allan?
Bob Batchelor: Well, Liz Allan is an interesting character, a classmate of Peter Parker. Back in the day, Peter Parker was a lot more geeky and nerdy than his later iterations. So Liz Allan was kind of the “it girl,” and also a love interest of Flash Thompson, who was in the early days of Spider-Man sort of Peter’s number-one nemesis. In a nice little fan twist, Flash Thompson really loved Spider-Man, was a fan of Spider-Man, but was kind of the main bully of Peter Parker. Interesting little love triangle there with Liz Allan, Flash Thompson and poor Peter.
OKP: Tell us all about Flash Thompson then.
BB: If you’re going to have a comic book based around a nerdy high school student, then you have to have the class bully, the class star. Flash Thompson is a big-time football star, the high school hero that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko used to [put] in comparison to the nebbish Peter Parker.
Flash was the one who everybody loved. Had the flashy sports car, all the girls hanging on him. Kind of not the brightest guy in the pack, but the king of his neighborhood in Forest Hills. Kind of everybody’s all-American. One of the reasons I think Spider-Man caught on with readers in ’63 was, every high school in America had a Flash Thompson. It was easy to put yourself in those shoes of the anti-Flash, a guy who was looking up to Flash as a hero.
We all know when we go back to the earliest comic books, Flash kind of calls him a nerd, turns him away, and laughs at Peter Parker. And when he gets his powers, he basically says, “You’re never gonna laugh at me again.” That leads to the whole development of his uncle dying. Flash then remains an important character kind of countering Peter Parker all these years.
OKP: Spider-Man: Homecoming says Aunt May is Italian. Was that ever true?
BB: I don’t know about her ethnicity. She’s definitely a native New Yorker. She lives in Queens with Uncle Ben. She’s so nondescript in the early comic books. I don’t recall Lee and Ditko giving her any kind of ethnicity. She seemed more like a stereotypical grandmother kind of figure more than anything else.
Aunt May is incredibly important because she’s the primary reason that Peter had to keep his identity secret, and of course she’s a paragon of all things good in the world for Peter, just a good person. She’s a key character. Marvel’s been trying to update her for years and I guess they’ve finally done it. She’ll probably become an internet meme of some sort: now Aunt May’s hot. They play on that in the trailer to make you wanna go see the movie [laughs].
OKP: Tell us about the Vulture, the baddie this go-round, played by Michael Keaton.
BB: The Vulture is one of Spider-Man’s early villains, a weird villain back in the early comic books because he’s so old and strange—very interesting look with the bald head and the weird side hair. He’s powerful and interesting and smart, but very strange. Like a breaking and entering kind of guy. Liked to rob banks, those kinds of things. It’s kind of a young/old thing in the early comic books. Big aspirations, but certainly not a Doctor Doom who could create spacecrafts and time travel.
OKP: The movie has remixed Ganke Lee, the bestie of the “black Spider-Man” Miles Morales, renaming him Ned and casting him as Peter’s best friend. What gives?
BB: Marvel is facing some interesting times. They kind of have to play off nostalgia. They want Gen X’ers buying comic books, so they’ve got to play up to the nostalgia and the old stories. But they’ve got to also adapt to the times. Miles’s sidekick is a diverse character, because that’s part of what we need in comic books now.
People have to remember publishing is a hapless enterprise. [Laughs] Marvel is trying to balance—at least it seems—that line between making money and doing the right thing culturally. At the same time, kids aren’t really gravitating towards reading all that much. I think the more diversity in comics, the better. How do you get kids to buy the books? That’s the challenge I guess. They mention YouTube a lot. You can tell the writers are really trying to be as hip or up-to-date as they can, dropping that kind of stuff.
OKP: Have you got an interesting Stan Lee story related to Spider-Man?
BB: Stan Lee does not like to be asked who his favorite character is. It irritates him that people ask him to try to decide, and he’s been asked it a million times. At a comic convention, 75 percent of the fans don’t say anything to him because they’re too star-struck. But those who actually can kind of eke out a question always ask him, “Who’s your favorite character?”
If you look over the years, Stan has quite frequently answered “Spider-Man,” and in some cases, he talks more about the relationship between his own past and why that enabled him to kind of voice Spider-Man the way he was. Stan graduated from high school early, because his family was so poor. His mom went and got him a job because they were desperately poor during The Great Depression. Stan Lee was a really good looking guy when he was younger. But he was small. And he was younger than the rest of his class. He didn’t play sports, he wasn’t involved in school as much. He was never anything like Flash Thompson.
I don’t think most people really know that much about Stan Lee’s past, but there are interesting parallels between Stan’s life, the Peter Parker character, and then how Stan voiced Peter Parker. I think it’s an interesting twist. When most people see Stan Lee, they think he’s ultra rich. He’s well off, but they see him in the movies. Most people, they wouldn’t even recognize a picture of Stan Lee when he was 20 or 25 or 30.
OKP: Does Spidey work if he’s not young? Do sales of his books drop when they grow him up?
BB: I don’t think Spider-Man’s popularity has really dipped significantly, because he became iconic so fast. He became such an important part of people’s young lives. I had Spider-Man action figures, I had a Spider-Man lunchbox which I treasured. But again, they return the story to the heyday, which was when he was created by Lee and Ditko. Everybody kind of wants to go back to that. When [writer] Brian Michael Bendis brings out the Ultimate Spider-Man, [it was] back to being a sassy teen again, because you want to go back to that heyday.
And from a capitalistic perspective or a selling comic books perspective, you appeal to that younger demographic who is your natural readership. Twenty years ago, people weren’t as enthusiastic about the Marvel Universe or buying comics once you got past your early teen years. So part of it is because new writers wanna take on this character when he’s most iconic, which is in the beginning when he’s a teen. At the same time, it’s appealing to the next generation of readers.
I think it’d be great to see an adult Spider-Man. I kinda like where Peter Parker’s at in comics now: the head of Parker Industries. He’s certainly not a grown-up, he’s not in his 40s. But he’s certainly in his 20s and he’s an interesting character. I think he’s the one Marvel character that’s eternally a teenager, eternally young. It allows the company to continue to come back to that demographic over and over again.
Miles Marshall Lewis is a popular cultural critic and author. Follow him (and us!) on social media @MMLunlimited.