Spider-Man: The Greatest Story Ever Told about Growing Up in Queens
July 17, 2014
The “Queens is the Future” handball court mural in Jackson Heights recently got a makeover. Here’s the before and after:
In all the times that I’ve thought and written about Queens, I don’t think I’ve ever had a single, unconditionally positive post about all the things that have happened in our fair borough. But this time Flushing Exceptionalism gives its unqualified endorsement to this piece of urban renewal.
People are interested in Queens now, and they are looking for things to grasp onto, cultural tidbits by which to brand the borough and make it understandable to them, and they’ve gravitated toward the diversity and authenticity of the borough. Okay, sure, whatever. But people here have responded in kind, and we’ve completely obliged this kind of branding, and so the stories we tell about ourselves these days generally fall along tired, contrived cultural and ethnic lines. It’s unfortunate because in all this grubbing for community pride and solidarity and native storytelling we don’t ever think about Spider-Man anymore.
Since FE trucks exclusively in hyperbole and speaking as if our personal experiences represent the vast swaths of people in Queens, we’ll come out and say it: the story of Spider-Man is the work of art that best embodies the singular experience of growing up in Queens.
Of course I’ve always liked Spider-Man, but it only hit home when I was about to graduate college and I found myself binge-watching a cartoon for preteens. When all the seemingly beyond-my-age, beyond-my-means schoolwork was done, and adolescence as I experienced it bumped up against young adulthood as it was dictated, I sat around in my packed-up apartment and watched The Spectacular Spider-Man. And it all started making so much sense.
We know he’s from Queens – Forest Hills, to be exact – but geography is always subtle and hazy in Spider-Man. There are few references to the places here, or to what counts for icons and landmarks in our borough. We see his house in a row of houses, but it mostly serve as a break in the action; it’s treated as background information, not just by the narrative but by the characters themselves. The house is important, and Queens is important, but you should have the tact and the self-awareness to not talk about it too much. That’s the way kids of ambition grow up in these neighborhoods. The main story still lingers between the tall buildings of Manhattan. You live two lives, and you have two identities, and you inhabit two different cities. Like any real work of art about Queens, it’s necessarily also a work about Manhattan.
You see Manhattan and the extremes of everything that could be done in life, heroism to be earned and villains to be overcome, and an arena in which you can unleash your talents and hard work and ingenuity. And because you’re so close to it you feel it in yourself too. You always have the clanking of the subway and you go into the city everyday and you leave it looking back at it the whole time.
Yet the city also makes you aware of all the things you don’t know, all the things you have to learn, and all the ways you seem to be behind everyone else even before the race had started. And you’re told that your background and upbringing have their own value, that they hold hidden but powerful lessons if only you could bring yourself to see them. Unfortunately, they are not so obvious, and usually all you see are your disadvantages relative to everyone else.
Of course, deep down, you feel you’re just as good as they are, and maybe even stronger, smarter, more deserving. With time, you think you can do all the things that they do, but better. So you throw yourself into that world, and you actually do pretty well. You make some progress, you convince some people, and maybe you even start to feel that your narrative has attained a certain sense of heroism. Look at how far you’ve come. Look at all the responsibilities you’re shouldering.
But the funny thing is the more you succeed in one life, the more it messes up your other one. Being Spider-Man makes Peter Parker’s life worse on basically every level – that’s the central conflict of the entire story. He is distracted in front of his family and friends, he misses his obligations, he is no more popular at school, and he has no way of really communicating what he’s doing and why he’s doing it, even to those he cares about the most. Don’t they see what sort of heroism it takes to do this, to lead these two lives? To earnestly strive for greatness while staying loyal and grounded? But your real life doesn’t cut you any slack because of your wild and precious ambitions, and your ambitions don’t care about your heartrending tales of overcoming. This is a lesson that you will never stop learning.
And behind all of this is the hard and unchangeable fact that you’re just a kid from Queens, no matter your ambitions and talent and powers. The city is full of people and things far beyond your comprehension. Every once in a while, Spider-Man gets a glimpse of how the city really works, and how the good that he does means so little in the big, scheming, momentum of things. Sometimes he labors to save people who turn out to be dirtbags and cowards and sub-humans. Sometimes he finds that he’s unwittingly done the work of his enemies. More often than not, I think, he becomes aware of himself as the fool that he is, a naïve, melodramatic, self-sacrificing rube.
But there is such a thing as living by a code, and the dual lives he leads hold each other together, precariously, and he is a better man because of them.
Peter Parker is a good kid, with genuine interests and desires and friends, and an inner life, and he deserves to be happy and do dumb things as is his right as a teenager in this America. But because of vague morals and restrictions and personal codes that’ve been placed on you, you don’t do those things, from day to day, for years on years. And then you realize you were different from them all along. Spider-Man is about these joys and tragedies of growing up within boundaries, of being buoyed by Manhattan and the world of excitement it promises while being constrained by home, curfews, values, piety and exigencies. It takes real imagination and a sense of heroism to capture this story of so much self-restraint and so much freedom.
And finally: Spider-Man is known for wisecracking all the time when he’s fighting. He’s seen as a kid superhero, and people often compare him unfavorably with far inferior superhero characters, because I guess they don’t take him as seriously.
Really? Well, who do you think he is wisecracking for? It isn’t for you.
Eventually you come to understand that Spider-Man is joking around for himself. He is cracking jokes about the life he’s chosen to lead, just so he can get through the day. He’s mocking himself for his own amusement, as someone so smart yet so dumb, operating in a city he doesn’t understand, continuing to play fair and shoulder his responsibilities even as his personal life threatens to crumble around him.
Here’s hoping for more monuments in our borough to our hero, and for kids in Queens to forever grow up in this way: irreverent, determined, imaginative, and with a real appreciation of the tragicomic.