Making Spidey Sense of Criminal Justice

By Brad G. Faye,

Fans familiar with the legend of Spider-Man are well aware that with great power, comes great responsibility; but what they may not always understand is how the most popular adage in comic book history might be applicable to their own lives. Fortunately, Dr. Cary Adkinson is stepping in and using his powers as a super professor to help bridge that divide.

The Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice‌ at Texas Wesleyan University, Adkinson is using his favorite childhood superhero to help demonstrate that great power isn’t only reserved for those who have experienced a bite from a radioactive spider. Particularly for students who have been “bit” in a more metaphorical sense to pursue a career in law enforcement, Adkinson reviews a wide range of topics through several stories starring the popular 1962 Stan Lee creation. As far as the origins of how Spider-Man began to be implemented in his criminal justice classes, Adkinson recalls it being the encouragement of a mentor to fuse two of his favorite worlds into one.

“I had a professor who gave us an assignment in a law class where we had to relate some aspect of the real world to the law, so I thought I would do it on comic books,” explains Adkinson. “As most comic book fans have experienced, throughout my life, I have dealt with a lot of judgment and people who didn’t understand why you would be so invested in these fictional characters. But for the first time in my professional life, I opened up about that, and this professor, instead of saying ‘that’s ridiculous, don’t do that’, he was incredibly supportive.”

For anybody who isn’t familiar with the origins of Spider-Man, after teenage wallflower Peter Parker is bit by a radioactive spider, he finds himself suddenly endowed with powers such as superhuman strength, the ability to climb walls, and a sixth sense that alerts him whenever trouble is near (AKA his “spider-sense”). But rather than pursue an immediate career in superheroism, Peter instead uses his powers for more selfish means. Choosing to look out for Peter and Peter only, it isn’t until while in the midst of a career as a professional wrestler that that the egghead-turned-athlete experiences a trauma that helps him learn the error of his self-centered ways. Allowing a criminal to escape the scene of a crime because it “isn’t his problem”, it would later be that same exact criminal who would go on to murder Peter’s beloved uncle. The ironic and unfortunate sequence of events help Peter more greatly understand what he meant when explaining that great power should be used responsibly, and the superhero we’ve come to grow and love as Spider-Man was soon born. Initially considered a throwaway story when introduced in the pages of the soon-to-be-canceled Amazing Fantasy #15, publisher Martin Goodman believed Stan Lee was out of his mind for thinking that a young outsider like Peter Parker might strike a chord with readers. The hero became a hit, however, finding popularity specifically amongst college students, who in a 1965 poll conducted for Esquire magazine listed Spider-Man amongst the most influential counterculture icons of their era alongside Bob Dylan and Che Guevara. Having broken the mold of what fans anticipated from superheroes and their alter egos, Spider-Man continued to be a revolutionary as far as comic book origins were concerned, eventually even going on to help eradicate the Comics Code Authority that had been censoring comic books and holding them back from maximizing their true potential.

“Spider-Man really tapped into this countercultural or revolutionary belief systems or ideologies that students in the 1960s were seeing,” says Adkinson. “I think that’s why readers tended to gravitate towards characters like Peter Parker, who metaphorically represents the idea of the trodden upon and put down person who has a good heart and wants to make the world a better place.

“I think it might be helpful to use an example like Spider-Man when attempting to create critical- thinking skills within students. One of the great things about comic books is that they allow us to have discussions in a relatively safe forum where people may not be as offended as they might in other scenarios.”

Adkinson doesn’t use his class time as an opportunity to stand on his Stan Lee Soapbox and preach about the value of comic books. Nor does he coerce students to lean a particular direction while discussing a particular subject. Instead it is apparent that the professor allows his students to decide for themselves what choices they might make in any number of particular circumstances, and weigh for themselves the positive and negative consequences that might follow. Spider-Man therefore functions as a mystical mode of transport for students, placing them in any number of scenarios which are not necessarily as outlandish as one might expect.

“There are cases where a superhero might be faced with a decision to save one person’s life or the lives of many people,” explains student Charlie Foster. “This can be something that officers can face in real life, so it’s a scenario in which we must weigh options and consider everything we can.”

During a time in which power, particularly that entrusted within the police, appears to be under more scrutiny than ever, the lectures of Adkinson could not be more pertinent. And just as the stories of Spider-Man resonated with readers right off the bat in the early 1960s, the webslinger continues to make an impact with young men and women, several of whom could be on their way to becoming the future police officers entrusted with the responsibility of defending our community.

“I love it,” says student Joshua Rivers of Dr. Adkinson’s class and format. “He found a way to make one of my favorite interests, comic books, meet with another one of my interests which is to protect people. This class was right up my alley as a criminal justice major and I really enjoy it.”

Topics such as the use of excessive force, racism, and movements emphasizing the value of black lives have become far too common on the nightly news, and as time goes on, it only appears that only more fuel is being added to the fire. Dr. Adkinson, however, believes he has found the greatest weapon to combat these flames and it isn’t a homemade webshooter.

“I think compassion or the lack of compassion plays a huge part in Spider-Man’s story,” Adkinson explains. “In the original Spider-Man storyline, he was insulted and talked down to by other people, and because of that, when he gets his powers, his first instinct is not to become a hero or use his powers for good, but to use his powers selfishly. I definitely think there’s something to this idea that your compassion can be closed off because other people have not been compassion towards you. I guess it’s what the Buddha would refer to as the type of karma that cuts you off from your own ability to be kind, thoughtful, and empathetic, and unfortunately, that in the long run ends up hurting ourselves more than anybody else.”

Although some may have been skeptical in the beginning about Adkinson’s usage of comic books in a college classroom, and while others may continue to be in spite of the successful response it’s received, it isn’t the first time Spider-Man has faced naysayers. And just as Stan Lee did when fighting to introduce the character, and just as Peter Parker continues to do in the comic, Dr. Cary Adkinson continues to fight the good fight in hopes it could inspire some real-life acts of superheroism in the future.

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