Is there no more iconic pop-culture symbol than the head of Spider-Man? This theoretically arachnid visage, coupled with the Superman “S” logo, has practically defined the superhero genre.
But: what archetype is the Spider-Man head design supposed to evoke? Because surely, it looks nothing like that of an actual spider:
Well, funny thing. There is one archetypal symbol that ol’ Webhead does resemble:
Did the Spider-Man design catch the imagination of the public because it tapped in to the same deeply primal image as the “alien” face?
Well, given that the character was invented in the early 1960s, the same time people started to report a number of “alien” sightings…maybe artist Steve Ditko sort of accessed the zeitgeist?
As author Jeffrey Kripal notes in his must-read book Mutants and Mystics:
…in countless cases, the aliens are described as either super-evolved humanoids or as instectoid, or combining these two themes now, as humanlike insects. Hence the last century’s most famous and eloquent abductee, Whitley Streiber, who consistently described the “visitors” whom he encountered as insectlike, hivelike, or, in one scene, a “terrible insect” that “rose up beside the bed like some huge, predatory spider.”
and when describing famous alien abductee Barney Hill’s eyewitness description:
Barney drew these eyes from within a hypnotic trance state: the sketch looks like a child’s drawing of Spider-Man’s head (with pupils now).
But the origin story of Spider-Man would seem to not really address this connection, as it concerns teenager Peter Parker getting bit by a radioactive spider and gaining incredible powers. It’s far more a tale fit for an “atomic age superhero” than anything else.
However, the alien/Spider-Man connection suddenly becomes a lot more clear during the latter’s “black costume saga” during the 1980s—when Peter Parker literally “bonds” with an “alien symbiote” that can transform itself into his new costume.
The red web-pattern replaced with pure black, the resemblance with the “classic” alien design suddenly becomes a whole lot more noticeable.
Themes of alien “possession” also become paramount in the “black costume saga,” coming to a head with the creation of the villain Venom. Interestingly, Venom could be compared to the “evil alien” archetype established by the “Alien” movie franchise:
And consider the iconography for the trailer of the upcoming Venom movie—most of which focuses on Tom Hardy being examined in a medical gown & then eventually screaming. If we include, as well, the apparent aerial crash aftermath & evil scientists/military keeping a secret scenes in the trailer…these are all elements of the alien abduction trope.
Going back to the “classic” Spider-Man/alien design…my point is not that one “aped” the other (that Spidey was taken verbatim from alien witness descriptions, or that the witness descriptions were taken from the Spider-Man comic), but rather that they both seemed to access the same archetypal “well.” Further, that sometimes the most successful character designs are the ones that do tap into that well—driving people to be “attracted” to the image without quite understanding why.
These figurines I got from a local dollar store “get it”—the molds are from earlier alien figures (you can still see the nose and mouth in the sculpt), but re-colored to resemble Spider-Men:
And while the alien face from the cover of the book Communion might be somewhat disturbing…how many children (and adults) have Spider-Man’s face emblazoned on a piece of clothing?
The primal image finds a way.