(Note: I wrote the original version of this essay years ago, and have updated it for this series.)
The psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud are no longer central to the practive of modern psychological treatment. Yet in literary criticism, it’s nearly impossible to speak of the psychosexual concepts underlying fictional characters wthout addressing Freud, if only to refute him. The early Lee-Ditko SPIDER-MAN is an ambivalent example in this case, conforming to Freudian patterns in some respects but not in others.
The centerpiece of Freudian theory is the concept that the son’s dawning sexual desires become centered on the mother and inculcate in him a murderous jealousy of the father. Freud named this concatenation of love and resentment after Sophocles’ OEDIPUS REX, not because the play depicts such a relationship but because (Freud believed) Oedipus unknowingly performed the actions that such a jealous son would like to perform: killing his father and marrying his mother. Freud also claimed that this wish-fulfillment pattern could be displaced in devious ways, such as the son’s displacing his animosity onto some third party. Freud asserts that this occurs in HAMLET, where Hamlet’s uncle kills Hamlet’s father and sleeps with Hamlet’s mother, thus incurring Hamlet’s anger because these are supposedly things Hamlet wants to do.
In broad outline the early adventures of SPIDER-MAN conform to the displacement angle of Freud's theory, particularly in the classic origin tale in AMAZING FANTASY. High school student Peter Parker is valued by his teachers and by his elderly surrogate parents, Aunt May and Uncle Ben for being a “clean-cut, hard-working honor student.”
But the accomplishments of a "professional wallflower" count for nothing in the eyes of Parker's fellow students, particularly the female ones. Parker is embittered by his ill-treatment-- not unlike protagonists of many standalone horror-stories on which creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko collaborated prior to SPIDER-MAN. He dramatically swears that “someday they’ll be sorry!—sorry that they laughed at me!” In horror-stories, embittered protagonists usually sought to take revenge by appealing to supernatural forces. If the horror-protagonist devoted himself entirely to an unjust revenge, the narrative often levied upon him some terribly ironic punishment. If the protagonist came to his senses at the eleventh hour, he might be pulled back from the abyss with a new-found sense of guilt and responsibility.
Parker never makes any literal pact with the devil for supernatural powers. But from the point in the origin-story where he desires to make his peers “sorry,” the narrative evolves as if he had done so. His preoccupation with science leads him to a radiation exhibition, and, as most comics-fans know, an irradiated spider bites Parker and infuses the teen with spider-powers. Though he's initially bewildered as to what to do with these powers, he gets the idea of testing them against an opponent in the wrestling-ring. This is the story's first meaningful mention of Parker's desire for money, as opposed to sexual favors. His success in the bout brings Parker into contact with a promoter, and so Parker adopts the identity of Spider-Man not to pursue a destiny of selfless heroism, but to enrich himself and his surrogate parents. He declines to act the part of a good citizen by helping a policeman catch an unarmed robber, explaining to the frustrated cop that, "From now on, I just look out for Number One-- that means me!" A few panels later at his dwelling-place, one of Parker's thought-balloons makes clear that he will protect his aunt and uncle as well: "I'll see to it they're always happy, but the rest of the world can go hand for all I care."
But fate will demand its ironic pound of flesh. Because Parker ignores his societal obligations in the pursuit of filthy lucre, his Uncle Ben dies at the hand of the same burglar whom Parker allowed to escape days earlier. While the protagonist of an episodic horror-tale would simply be humbled by the experience of being hauled back from the hellmouth, Parker must assume a never-ending responsibility as payback for having “murdered” his uncle through neglect. For Parker, the costume of the superhero often becomes a hair-shirt, though not surprisingly, subsequent stories manage to find many ways for Spider-Man to have fun being a superhero, to say nothing of occasionally being able to humiliate old enemies. From then on both the triumphs and tribulations of being a superhero become so merged that one cannot say if Parker's fate is punishment or reward.
A doctrinaire Freudian reading of the origin-story might end up accusing Parker of having murdered his uncle through an "act of omission" in order to be closer to his surrogate mother, Aunt May. And this might be a reasonable suspicion if Parker’s aunt were given any aura of sexuality. Instead, Aunt May is always an icon of aged, sexless virtue. Rather than being a source of sexual temptation, she becomes the objective correlative of Parker’s implacable new sense of responsibility. Further, though she's in a position of relative authority over him, she functions in the series more like a child whose health and peace of mind Parker worries over. So a doctrinaire Freudian reading does not apply, particularly since Parker's sexual needs are still turned outward, toward women more or less his own age. One might make something of the fact that the character's first major girlfriend is a little older than he is: Betty Brant is a working woman, roughly of college-age, when she starts dating the high-schooler. Few stories treat the Betty character as significantly older than Parker, though. So despite the occasional reference to her age-- in one story, her rival Liz Allan makes Betty feel "a hundred years old" simply by addressing Betty as "Miss Brant"-- she doesn't work as a mother-substitute any better than does Aunt May.
However, Uncle Ben does continue to throw his shadow over Spider-Man's destiny, in a manner analogous to both Laius in the Sophocles play and Hamlet's father in Shakespeare. But Hamlet, according to Freud, is plagued not only with desire for the forbidden mother but also with a new "older male rival," in the form of his uncle Claudius. SPIDER-MAN #1 not only features the hero's debut in his own title, but also appearance of a "bad father" in the hero's life. There’s no causal relationship between the death of Uncle Ben and the “birth” of newspaper publisher J. Jonah Jameson, but from issue #1 on, Jameson becomes a second shadow in the hero's life. Whereas the spectre of Uncle Ben continues to chastise Parker for his sin of omission, Jameson comes at the hero from the other direction: publicly castigating the figure of Spider-Man, deeming the hero a vigilante who "takes the law into his own hands" and accusing him of being a bad role model for children. (It's not hard to imagine that aspects of the comics-critic Frederic Wertham found their way into the figure of Jameson the irresponsible pundit.) Further, it's clear from Jameson"s first appearance in issue #1's lead story that the publisher's real grievance is that the real heroism of his own son, astronaut John Jameson, may be overshadowed by the superhero’s deeds.
Usually supporting characters in superhero comics-features were one-dimensional in their opposition or their advocacy of the hero's goals, but Jameson was something of a breakthrough: a character who "knew himself but slenderly." By the end of this story Spider-Man saves the life of John Jameson during his space-capsule's malfunction. Despite this, the publisher regards the hero as a menace, accusing him of causing the malfunction. Because Lee and Ditko did not choose to keep the character of John Jameson as a regular-- though the astronaut did return much later, after Ditko's departure from the feature-- Jonah Jameson's motivation was soon re-interpreted as the jealousy of an older, essentially selfish man for the courage and fearlessness of a young hero.
So if there is an Oedipal conflict in the early SPIDER-MAN of Lee and Ditko, it might be glossed less by Freud than by Leslie Fiedler’s remarks about the father/son conflict of DON JUAN: that “[Don Juan’s] legend projects the naked encounter of father and son (the women mere occasions), of the alienated individual and the society he defies.” By these terms SPIDER-MAN might be an even more “naked” encounter, insofar as there are no women at all standing between Parker and Jameson. It's true that since Betty Brant works as a secretary at Jameson’s newspaper, she could have taken on the connotations of a "daughter-figure" to a "heavy father," which would conform not only to DON JUAN but also to ARCHIE comics. But no such relationship develops: Jameson does not care whether or not Parker dates his secretary.
The Parker-Jameson relationship is defined by the conflicts of money and fame. Jameson has some degree of public prominence because of his wealth, and uses his position to suppress the superhero’s growing popularity with the public. But Spider-Man’s selfless actions in themselves don't put any money in Parker's bank account. Though Parker frets over money all through SPIDER-MAN #1, only in the first tale of SPIDER-MAN #2 does he find a way of making heroics pay, without neglecting the mantle of responsibility. He elects to start using his powers to go around town taking photographs that no ordinary journalist could get-- in particular, photos of a new super-criminal, the Vulture. In fact, nowhere in "Duel to the Death with the Vulture" does Parker assert that he plans to round up the super-crook for the benefit of the law. When some classmate tosses Parker a copy of a magazine Jameson publishes, this gives the hero the idea of photographing the Vulture-- and when the flying villain next appears, all Spider-Man does is to follow him, snapping pictures. The Vulture tries to kill his pesky shadow, fails, and on their next encounter Spidey beats him and delivers the Vulture to the cops-- although not before the hero gets more pictures to sell to the new "parental authority" in his life.
From then on, this becomes the new status quo: to make money Parker must continue selling photos to an older man who hates Parker's alter ego, while Jameson, who hates Spider-Man, must continue feeding the fame of "the menace" or face losing the interest of the paper-buying public. (One later tale even asserts that the paper's newsstand sales go down whenever Jameson writes another of his many anti-Spider-Man editorials.) For the young hero, there's no final duel with the older authority. The alienated individual simply goes on jousting against the older man and the conservative society he represents-- on and on, world without end.