Since his debut in 1962, Spider-Man has inspired generations. His comic book adventures, alongside his countless animated, video game and live-action adaptations have sparked the imagination of people all around the world. His ability to inspire reaches far beyond just the imagination, however - It crosses over into the real-world.
One big example is the fact that a Spider-Man story served as partial inspiration for what would become the ankle monitor, arguably one of the most prominent devices in the U.S. criminal justice system. In fact, the origin of the device as it's known today can be traced back in part to a Marvel Comics newspaper strip that pitted the wall-crawler against Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. the Kingpin.
In collaboration with Scott Niswander from the YouTube channel NerdSync, here is the story of how Peter Parker and his longtime adversary partially inspired the ankle monitor.
Ankle Monitors Are Conceived (Sort Of)
Hawkeye's ankle monitor from the opening scene of Avengers: Endgame (2019)
To be able to understand this story, it’s necessary to hop into an Avengers-grade quantum time machine and travel back to the 1960s. In that decade, twins Robert and Kirkland Schwitzgebel (changed to "Gable" in 1983, according to Robert S. Gable's "The Ankle Bracelet Is History: An Informal Review of the Birth and Death of a Monitoring Technology," from The Journal of Offender Monitoring)—both psychology students at Harvard—came up with a concept to aid in the psychological betterment of juvenile offenders: Have them under supervision to potentially prompt their social improvement.
The idea specifically came to Kirkland Gable after watching 1961's West Side Story multiple times (via "The Ankle Bracelet Is History"):
"I would take dates to [see 'West Side Story']. [...] By the third time I saw the movie, I had a good understanding of the plot. [The] hero's girlfriend tries to get to him in time to warn him of the danger of a gang fight, but she is too late. I wondered how we could have helped him. I thought, 'If only we could have sent him a signal. If only we knew where he was, we could have saved his life.' Then, I had an idea: 'If he wore a transmitter, we would contact him and prevent his death.'"
As Kirkland Gable's son explained in a blog post following his father's passing, Gable was passionate about helping juvenile delinquents, which is what inspired him and his twin brother to focus on them for their tracking project, codenamed "Streetcorner Research":
"He was always imagining the potential of the young people he met, seeing things in them that they often did not see in themselves. He especially loved juvenile delinquents, whom he encouraged to think expansively and boldly. He recruited them from street corners, paying them to speak their hopes and stories into reel-to-reel tapes, and he recorded their declining rates of recidivism as they did this, week after week."
According to "The Ankle Bracelet Is History," Kirkland Gable joined forces with an electrical engineer named William Sprech. Together, using recycled military equipment, they developed an early version of the tracking technology that would become the Gable's monitoring belt. After that, Kirkland Gable's brother, Robert Gable, teamed up with engineer Richard Bird to design a belt that would serve as a tracking device.
The device was able to pinpoint the location of offenders, supervising them instead of incarcerating them, and rewarding them for non-criminal behavior. The device was bulky, though, somewhat visible even when hidden under a person's clothing (as shown in pictures posted by Robert Gable on his blog). Those who successfully refrained from criminal activities would receive enticing rewards like pizza and even tickets to concerts. As Robert Gable explained (via NPR.org):
"The purpose [was] to give rewards to the offenders when they were where they were supposed to be. That is, they were in drug treatment session, or went to school or a job. And then we would signal them that they were eligible for a reward."
Robert Gable offered more insight into his and his brother's thought process while speaking to Wired in 2007: "Our idea was, 'Gosh, if you can train pigeons to play Ping-Pong, you ought to be able to get kids to show up for therapy on time.'" However, the invention proved too costly given the limited technology available at the time (via Inverse). Thus, the project eventually ran out of money, and its concept went dormant. That is, until the 1970s, when a Marvel newspaper strip sparked an idea in another individual.
Spider-Man's Comic Strip Inspires A Judge
Spider-Man: Newspaper Strips Vol. 1, page 98
One day, State District Court Judge Jack Love, from Bernalillo County, New Mexico, read a 1977 issue of the Spider-Man newspaper strip (shown above), written by Stan Lee and illustrated by John Romita Sr. The story focused on Kingpin kidnapping Spider-Man and proposing an allegiance to rule New York City together. Soon after, it was revealed that Fisk intended to run for mayor through an anti-crime campaign, and needed Spider-Man's public support to achieve his goal.
Fisk gave the hero a one-hour time limit to make a decision, but strapped a monitoring device on his wrist so he could know where Spider-Man was at all times until his decision-making time ran out. Per Kingpin's description: "That oversized I.D. bracelet is an electronic radar device... which will allow me to zero in on your location whenever I wish!"
The story inspired Jack Love to develop a similar technology to serve as a lesser punishment for minor crime-offenders and to aid with the jail overcrowding occurring in his area at the time.
It's important to note that the wall-crawler's newspaper strip was not the judge's sole inspiration. Per Robert Gable's aforementioned "The Ankle Bracelet Is History: An Informal Review of the Birth and Death of a Monitoring Technology," Love partially got the idea from a newspaper story about livestock being implanted with subdermal devices to monitor their body temperature. The judge was also said to have been inspired by a library alarm for books that were taken out of the building without being checked out.
Love's concept, however, took some time to come to fruition. He took his idea to different companies, all of whom rejected it. According to "The Ankle Bracelet Is History," by the early '80s, the judge pitched his project to Michael Goss, a Honeywell Information Systems sales representative. Goss bought into Love's idea. He left Honeywell and secured a $100,000 investment to materialize their new business venture.
The former sales representative created a company named National Incarceration Monitor and Control Services, Inc. (NIMCOS, for short), after which he built the ankle monitor based on Love's idea. The device was dubbed "Goss-Link."
Building The Ankle Monitor
Ant wearing an ankle monitor from Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
The Goss-Link was first tested on Jack Love, who reportedly wore the device for three weeks. Love publicly unveiled the monitor at a press conference in March 1983. One month after that, the state allowed him to officially use the anklet (via "The Ankle Monitor Is Dead"). Discussing his reaction to the monitor that year, the judge said (via Gizmodo): "It put me on a very, very short leash."
As Michael Goss explained (via The New York Times, 1984), the anklet would send out a signal in 30 to 90-second intervals. That was then sent to a receiver linked to the offender's home telephone outlet. That receiver would, in turn, send the signal to what The New York Times described as "a computer monitored by one of Mr. Goss' associates." The device also had failsafes in case offenders violated the terms of their in-home detention.
The monitoring computer would record whenever an offender stepped more than 150 feet (approximately 45 meters) away from their telephone. It would also flag any signs of tampering. This included tampering with the anklet itself as well as the offenders' phone being disconnected. Following Love's testing of the ankle monitor, a select few defendants were outfitted with the device.
Per the aforementioned February 1984 New York Times article, one of the first offenders to use the anklet appears to have been 23-year-old Cesario Romero. A truck driver at the time, Romero was convicted of "disobeying a police officer." He was given the option to carry out his sentence wearing the device 24 hours a day for 30 days by Metropolitan Court Judge Burt Cosgrove. Speaking to the Times, Romero gave insight into his life with the anklet:
"I wear it over my sock, and sometimes it gets loose and gets in my way, but otherwise it's [okay]. I think it's good, because otherwise I might have to go to jail and that would mess up my job.''
The device was met with some skepticism from the public, being likened to George Orwell's 1984 novel, which dealt with the concept of government surveillance. Love was aware of the criticisms, but, in an interview with the Albuquerque Tribune (via Gizmodo), he stated: "This pales in comparison with what we already have in the way of technology."
Michael Goss' NIMCOS did not last long, as it had run out of money by July 1983, only four months after the Goss-Link was unveiled. The company, however, did briefly find new life after being loaned $250,000 by another corporation, Boulder Industries (later renamed BI, Inc), which manufactured ID tags that worked via radio frequencies. Since 1983, different companies created their own ankle monitors. One such device was the On-Guard, a wristlet designed by a company known as Digital Products Corporation (via Time).
By 1985, two years after Love's device materialized, the monitor technology began to find popularity. The tech, for example, was used on Jeffrey Stafford, a 28-year-old man who served eight months in Florida's Palm Beach Stockade for aggravated assault. Stafford was given the option to serve out his sentence under house arrest through the use of the ankle monitor, which he accepted. According to Stafford, who spoke to Time in 1985: "I had been in the stockade long enough to know I didn't ever want to go back." The technology was also used to quarantine and monitor a sex worker with AIDS by Florida Judge Edward Garrison, who stated: "We needed to get her out of the jail because of real or imagined contagion."
The ankle monitor went on to become a staple in the U.S. criminal justice system. It has also seeped into pop culture, being featured as a prominent plot point in the likes of USA's White Collar starring Matt Bomer, and even in Marvel's own Ant-Man and the Wasp and Avengers: Endgame. The device played a particularly crucial role in the Ant-Man sequel, as Scott Lang was given an ankle monitor following his violation of the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War.
Spider-Man’s Newspaper Strip
Spider-Man: Newspaper Strips Vol. 1, page 103
Stan Lee and John Romita Sr. brought the beloved web-slinger into the funny pages. In a 2000 interview with Larry King (starting at the 7:54 mark), Lee discussed the origin of Spider-Man's newspaper adventures. After being asked by King if he had long wanted to do a comic strip, Lee replied he had, and said that Peter Parker finally gave him the opportunity to do so:
"All the time. I finally got the chance. I wanted to do 'Spider-Man.' In fact, the syndicates asked me to do 'Spider-Man,' but I couldn't figure out how to do it, because it's so different. In the paper, you only got three panels a day. [...] How do you get a fight scene in three panels and continue with the next? [...] How do you keep up the suspense? So, it took until I could figure out a way to do it. Years later, in 1977, we started 'Spider-Man' for King Features, and I'm happy to say he's still going."
After 42 years in circulation, the strip (which was not canon to the main Marvel Comics Universe) came to an end in 2019. Following the announcement, longtime writer of the strip Roy Thomas (The Avengers, Iron Man, The Amazing Spider-Man) spoke with SYFY WIRE about his role in the longevous series:
"As it turned out, although I never got a raise in the 18 years I basically ghost-wrote the strip (until recent years with [Stan Lee's] hands-on editing), it was a great gig. I spent maybe two days a month writing four weeks' worth of strips, and another day two or three times a year submitting outlines for upcoming storylines."
Regarding his relationship with Stan Lee, Thomas explained: "We got along fine. He liked what I did, accepted most (not all) of my ideas for stories, [...] and until a few years ago often 'suggested' (or insisted upon) alterations in them. For some years, he would rewrite a panel or balloon here and there, or [do] even more, [...] while other dailies or Sundays would sail through without a single word change."
Spider-Man may not have been the sole originator of the ankle monitor, but his contribution through his newspaper story serves as a testament to just how impactful superheroes can be—and often are.
We thank Scott Niswander from NerdSync for his contributions to this article. NerdSync covers comic book and pop-culture media as a whole through essays and short videos. For more content from him, you can subscribe to NerdSync on YouTube. You can also follow Scott Niswander on Twitter at @ScottNiswander and on Instagram at @scottniswander.
Spider-Man: Newspaper Strips is available to purchase digitally on Comixology.