Swinging through skyscraper canyons in a red costume, Spider-Man has always been about spectacle. That simple radioactive spider bite does more than grant superpowers, it turns wheatcake-eating Peter Parker into a quippy ladies’ man in a mask. As the mod, pop Spider-Man, he defends the greatest city in the world against the most colorful rogues’ gallery in comics. The story of Spider-Man’s creation is just as much a spectacle of he said/he said, orphan sketches, and a tangle of stories and guesses. Others have covered the possible evolution of the character from an early Joe Simon and Jack Oleck idea, involvement by C.C. Beck, to the Simon/Kirby early The Fly. But in the end, it is just 1962’s Amazing Fantasy #15 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, with a cover by Jack Kirby. It is the Trinity site of Marvel Comics.
There are other strands: a scary pulp hero (who recently got a sharp Alex Ross makeover), a movie serial, and “Robby Reed’s” interesting, surreal reading of connections to Ditko’s own life. But why did Spider-Man catch? Actually, Spider-man’s world of acrobatics, soapy romance, overbearing bosses, and outlandish names and costumes should sound familiar already. When Peter first gets his powers, he tests his strength by webbing his face in a dark mask and going up against “Crusher” Hogan in an amateur wrestling match. This is no coincidence. Pro wrestling in the fifties and early sixties was enormously popular, mostly due to its presence on television and the nation’s love/hate relationship with the infuriating Gorgeous George. Everyone watched wrestling because there simply wasn’t much else on. And it was hard to look away. If you’ve ever been a fan, you know why. Even then, there was the lure of gripping storylines, physical batterings, and colorful people with names like Haystacks Calhoun, The Sheik of Araby, Killer Kowalski, and the Mighty Atlas. There was even a guy who wrestled as Dracula. So when Peter climbs into the squared circle to test his newfound powers against Crusher Hogan in Amazing Fantasy #15, readers knew exactly what was going on. “Crusher” himself was familiar to readers who were wrestling fans. “Crusher” Lisowski, was an AWA bad guy once the league went to TV syndication in 1960. He was a big-time heel known for his bolo punch.
There were a few spider-themed grapplers, too – some of them known, many of them masked (as animal-themed wrestlers often were), and some just names on a card. Al Galento had a bit, like many others, where he challenged anyone from the stands (allegedly) to come and wrestle him. They would be paid a dollar for every minute they survived; $100 if they won. Galento’s nickname was “The Spider.” There was also Tony Lanza, who among his other identities such as “King Kong The Gorilla Man,” was also briefly known as “The Masked Spider.” Lanza, a Canadian, was active in the fifties and a famous fitness photographer. He may also have been the inspiration for a comic strip. And, though too much later to count, there was the “Fabulous” Masked Spider Lady who pinned Wendi Richter in 1985 in one of the most controversial WWF matches of all time.
In Amazing #15, Crusher calls Peter “a little Masked Marvel,” which also meant something to readers. There was one story about a masked wrestler – maybe the first – that was apocryphal to New York fans. Pitchman Sam Rachmann ran a Greco-Roman wrestling tournament at the NY City Opera house in late 1915 that ran six nights a week. Rachmann did pretty well until audiences started to thin. But then, a strange man started attending the matches. He wore a mask. Finally, he could take no more and demanded to wrestle himself. He was granted a “special dispensation” and was billed as “The Masked Marvel” before wrestling to a draw with the great Wladek Zybszko. Crowds loved The Marvel and a career was born. The possible history behind the Marvel is also interesting, especially since the endgame of Rachmann’s tournament was a court case that revealed that wrestlers were getting paid “to take part in the wrestling performances, just as actors are engaged to perform.” Kayfabe dissolved in the papers but audiences didn’t care and “pro” wrestling started its long climb up. Incidentally, The Marvel would be revealed as Mort Henderson, a normal Joe who later became a real-life lawman. 1915 was obviously way too early for Stan and Steve and the others, but the bit had legs. Wrestlers continued to use the name and recreate the story for decades. More importantly, it became a pop culture phenomenon. There was a Masked Marvel in the Abbott and Costello short Oysters and Muscles (with Lon Chaney, Jr. as The Marvel) and the great Little Rascals episode Came the Brawn, (“gets this brand-new football . . . for keeps!”) among many other places. This space that Spider-Man occupies as wrestler is important because it establishes him as a heel – a jerk – which then allows for his famous face turn towards responsibility that sets up his entire professional career.
But big-time wrestling was not the only place for New Yorkers to experience spectacle. Further down the line, a young Stan or Steve would have – most certainly – been to Coney Island. Among the Steeplechase and beaches was The World Circus Sideshow on Surf Avenue, operated by “Professor” Samuel Wagner. Among his talent was Henry Bulson (sometimes Harry Bulsom) or, as he was better known, Spider Boy.
Bulson, the Spider-Boy, could only walk on all fours, but was said to be able to leap around with an uncanny agility. His backstory was even more marvelous. One had him being bullied at school and retreating to the wilds of New Jersey, where he swung on vines like Tarzan and set traps for local game. Another had him in jail before escaping through a narrow window with his abilities. All of the sideshow attractions had these weird, deep backstories; they all had bizarre secret origins. The Professor would also tell the story that Spider Boy was once in love with a showgirl and they were married. But it didn’t last and Henry searched the crowds for her face ever since. For “The Professor,” his Spider Boy had to be single to be interesting to crowds.
Did Stan Lee or Steve Ditko see Spider Boy or pro wrestling? I don’t know. They were old enough and everyone went to those things. Spider Boy continued to be written about in the papers, though usually in similar, unflattering carny farce, even after he left the show and began a career in trucking and uniform manufacture.Coney Island was the setting for Spider-Man #12 and Ditko went on to draw WWF characters in Valiant’s Battlemania in the early nineties.
But if even one friend of a friend went, tales of the Masked Marvel and of Spider-Boy would have traveled swiftly through the concrete alley network of childhood New York.