Saturday, January 12, 2019

Amazing Spider-Man #38

Just a Guy Named Joe

Villain:
Joe Smith

Supporting Cast:
Tommy Tomkins, J. Jonah Jameson, Jameson's Latest Secretary, Ned Leeds, Gwen Stacy, some student protesters, Flash Thompson, Harry Osborn, Aunt May.

Peter Parker's Financial Situation
Jameson has not paid Peter yet for the photos he sold him "last month". This probably refers to the pictures of the Molten Man from issue #35. (He left the pictures with the secretary and told her to mail him the cheque.)

Chronology
#38 must take place shortly after #37 because Norman Osborn is putting his plans to get to get rid of Spider-Man into operation.

If last month's story took place in the second week of October 1965, this probably takes place in the third week of the same month. Peter remarks that it is a Tuesday, which takes us to October 19th 1965.

By our calculation, Peter sold Jameson the pictures of the Molten Man on or about September 20th, which is certainly "last month".

Observations
p1 "Gowan, laugh at me now! You won't laugh later!"
p5 "I hate everyone! Everyone always laughed at me! But they won't laugh any more!"
Like the Looter two issues ago, Joe Smith looks at the world the way Peter Parker did in high school.

p3 "Holy smoke! Old Jameson has got another new secretary! She must be the third this week! And it's only Tuesday."
Making five altogether. This is the third secretary we've seen; two others must have been both hired and fired on Monday.

p 10 "Awww...Your cousin likes Lawrence Welks!"
Lawrence Welks was a singer and accordionist; he had a reputation for bland, "champagne" music. The Lawrence West Show was in its eleventh year. Why it is an insult to say that Peter has a relative who enjoys easy-listening music isn't quite clear: the implication is that Peter himself is old-fashioned ("squaresville").


It sometimes used to happen that Japanese cartoons were dubbed into English by writers who didn't themselves speak any Japanese. They just looked at the images, worked out what must be happening, and came up with appropriate dialogue. (This was also famously the case with the early English versions of Le Manege Enchante.) Sometimes a plot development, presumably explained in the original dialogue, would completely baffle the translators, leading to characters saying things like "Remind me, why are we fighting this giant robot?" "I have absolutely no idea!"

I was forcibly reminded of this while reading Amazing Spider-Man #38. Stan Lee is doing his best to translate from the original Ditko; but he seems to have no clue what is going on. He may be annotating the illustrations he has in front of him; but he has no more idea than the reader what is supposed to be occurring off-stage or beneath the surface.

Look at the political demonstration on page 10. Ditko was not likely to have been depicting radical student politics in a positive light but he must have intended the scene to be about something. The students must have been protesting for some reason; Harry, Flash and Gwen must be angry for some reason; and Peter must walk away for some reason. And we would expect it to have some narrative consequences; either in this issue, or in some future issues.

But Stan Lee apparently has no idea where Ditko is going with the scene or what it is doing in the middle of the comic. So he fills the panels with dialogue of almost Pinteresque inconsequentiality. We are told that the students are "protesting tonight's protest meeting". (There would, in fact, be nothing particularly odd or funny about there being a demonstration and a counter-demonstration.) When asked to join in Peter doesn't say "I actually think nuclear weapons help to keep the peace" or "I simply can't decide if I ought to be a hawk or a dove regarding Vietnam". He says "I have nothing to protest about". ("What are you" asks one of the students "Some kinda religious fanatic?") Another student claims that he wants to save the world — he doesn't say from what — but then admits that he is only on the demo because it gives him an excuse to miss his lectures. And finally a lady with red hair and heart shaped glasses says

"If you join our protest meeting, we'll join one of your sometime. And if you've nothing to protest, that won't stop us."

It's total nonsense. At a time when Dr King was organizing protests aimed at ending slums and segregation, Stan Lee imagines students protesting for the sake of protesting. But he can't be blamed. He had to fill the space around the pictures with something.

On page 14, Lee signals a scene shift with the words

"And at that exact, precise, self-same split-second (not that it would really make any difference if it was a bit earlier or a bit later)..." 

On the same page he writes a long, redundant caption stating that Spider-Man has just arrived in the boxing gym (over a clear picture of Spider-Man arriving in the boxing gym) and adds "Or, how wordy can you get!" On page 11, he actually types "Students! All together now! Switch scenes — switch!" where a simple "meanwhile" would have done fine. Pages 16 and 17 again depict a Big Fight with no dialogue but lots of sound effects: and once again, Stan Lee draws attention to the fact that this is not part of the story, but a practical choice by the guy controlling the typewriter.

"Okay, it's sound effects time again...And now we end our scintillating sound effects sections...as smiling Stan thanks you one and all for the brief breather you've allowed him!"

Lee's captions are no longer about scene-setting or exposition. And he isn't even (as sometimes happens, to great effect) telling a parallel story, a verbal countermelody to Ditko's visual one. The text has eaten itself. His captions are about the process of writing captions.

At his best, Stan Lee seems to talk directly to the reader and draw us into the action: we are excited by and care about what happens because Stan is watching alongside us and he cares about it too. But at his worst, Stan Lee deconstructs the comic; renders everything static and unimportant. If Story Teller Guy doesn't care any more, why should we?


Did Steve Ditko know he was leaving?

He left without bothering to draw a cover: that much is obvious. Some staffer has had to cut and paste the figure of Spider-Man from page 13 above panels from pages 7, 12 and 15 or there would have been nothing to print under the logo. And it looks very much as if he left without providing a splash page. Where we normally get a symbolic tableau which sums up the story; or a single panel that tantalizes us with the first big cliffhanger, issue #38 plunges us straight into the first four panels of the story. There is no fanfare from Stan Lee, no warning that this issue is trying out something a little bit different: just a perfectly standard caption on panel 1 about where this month's mildly terrific tale is going to begin. (But, curiously, the story runs to a full 20 pages: if there had been a splash page, it would have been a page too long.)

Did Ditko know he was leaving?

Lots of plot threads continue to develop and dangle. Peter and Gwen carry on being outwardly horrid but admit in their secret thought bubbles that they are falling in love. Ned Leeds comes home; but doesn't know where Betty Brant is any more than Peter does. Aunt May sets up another date with Mary Jane, and Peter Parker literally just misses finally meeting her. And the Mysterious Norman Osborn continues to act Mysteriously. This month he mysteriously puts a $20,000 bounty on Spider-Man's head. Before going to meet the Mob he mysteriously disguises himself — with a false beard and mustache and dark glasses. The dark glasses are green, to match his green suit. I wonder if this colour could possibly have any significance?

All these plot biscuits will be munched up by Stan Lee over the next few issues. This month, Peter Parker punches Ned Leeds in effigy; next month the two of them are mutually apologizing and acting like perfect gentlemen. This month, Harry Osborn is still "one of Peter's nastier classmates"; next month, they will be burying the hatchet and having a heart to heart about fathers, dead and absent. Betty's location is still a big mystery, but three issues from now she'll be back home showing off her engagement ring. This is the last time a convenient pot-plant will hide Mary-Jane Watson's face; a few months down the line she and Peter will be dating. And as to the mystery of Norman Osborn.... Let's just say Stan Lee will wind that up very quickly as well. It doesn't feel like Stan is continuing stories which Steve started. It feels much more as if he is pruning — not to say culling — all the dangling plot threads as quickly as he possibly can.

But why would Ditko seed the comic with so many set-ups if he wasn't expecting to be around to write the pay-offs? Was he deliberate mucking up Spider-Man's life's as a parting gift, setting up cliffhangers for Lee to sort out? Or is he planting seeds which he never got to harvest and which Lee was not interested in cultivating?

If he knew this was his last issue, why all the dangling threads? But if we are to imagine him flouncing out of the Bullpen after handing over 20 pages of a barely finished comic book, leaving Stan Lee to pick up the narrative pieces, then we are entitled to ask — what pushed him over the edge.

Did Ditko know he was leaving?


Just A Guy Named Joe is not a bad comic book: not as good as the robots issue which preceded it; but very much better than the pointless fights with which filled the three issues before that. It doesn't look or feel like an issue of Spider-Man, but then, how could it? At this point "Spider-Man" still meant Peter and Betty and Flash and J.J.J. and Aunt May — and they've mostly dropped out of the story. It will be some issues before Gwen and Harry and M.J emerge as a replacement story-machine.

"Spider-Man" also means the great canon of villains which have been established over the previous three years: the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus and all of the others. This issue manages to introduce one Joe Smith, a failed boxer turned movie extra who Spider-Man fights without knowing the reason.

Joe Smith isn't that far removed from poor Norman Fester from the issue before last. Both of them are losers. No-one took Fester seriously as a scientist, because, er, he wasn't one; and no-one takes Joe Smith seriously as a boxer because he's not very good at boxing. Both of them have an entirely pointless and arbitrary accident — the one getting sprayed with Science from the inside of a meteor the other getting an electric shock while standing in a pool of chemicals — and both end up with entirely uninteresting superpowers. Doctor Octopus has extra arms. The Vulture can fly. The Sandman can turn to sand. The Molten Man is very strong. The Looter is very strong and has a balloon. Joe Smith is just very strong

Should we conclude that Steve Ditko, left to himself, was great at drawing alleys and chimney pots but really crap at creating villains? Maybe Steve truly needed the "dreaming up" component of the  creative process which Stan provided. Perhaps Steve had just burned himself out after creating a run of ten fabulous enemies and the Molten Man? Or maybe he is at this point so cross with Stan Lee that he has stopped bothering. That's what was going to happen between Stan and Jack a few years further down the line. Jack turned around and said, in effect "Okay, if you aren't giving me the credits, I'm not giving you any more characters. You tell me what to draw and I'll draw it." The final year of the Fantastic Four wasn't very good.

Or is it possible that Steve is working out is frustrations? Just a Guy Named Joe is an angry comic, but it is hard to see quite what the anger is directed at. The moment when Spider-Man turns around and punches the waxwork takes us back to the End of Spider-Man and to the very first issue. There is a sense that the universe has thrown everything it has to throw at our hero, and then just twisted the knife just a little bit more. But it isn't news that criminals want to kill crime-fighters, and it isn't that surprising that a powerful mobster (in a completely insignificant green suit) might put up a big reward for the person who brings him Spider-Man's head on a silver platter. Next month, Spidey will be punching baddies three at a time and treating it as an enjoyable self-indulgence. He has every right to be sad that Ned is going to marry Betty; but it isn't quite clear why it bubbles up at that particular moment. Peter and Betty have been breaking up on a regular basis for at least nine issues. Somehow the fact that some crooks have tried to take him in for a reward; and the fact that Joe Smith has become a success without earning it; and the fact that he has broken up with his first love are condensed into a single angry punch. Peter Parker who does the right thing gets nothing. Joe Smith who happened to tread in some electrified chemicals and break a lot of furniture gets a movie career. 

Take that, Ned Leeds.

And perhaps this impotent Randian rage, this lashing out at inanimate objects explains the otherwise entirely pointless appearance of the campus political demonstration. They are also not protesting about anything in particular.

What are you rebelling against?

What have you got?

Spider-Man tracks Joe Smith down to his boxing gym, and has a big fight with him. Lots of the other guys in the boxing ring know about Norman Osborn's reward, so they attack Spider-Man as well. During the fight, Joe Smith's powers go away and he comes to his senses. The TV company he was working for when he got zapped with superpowers give him his job back, and pay for the damage he's done. Spider-Man leaves the scene and is pursued by another mob of bounty hunters. He sees the waxwork resembling Ned Leeds and takes out all his frustrations on it. He goes home, entering by the back door just as Mary-Jane Watson is leaving by the front. Peter watches a news report about Joe Smith's success and starts to whinge.

"That takes the cake! Not only will become a big star...but I'll seems worse than ever."

Aunt May advises him not to watch the news in case it gives him a nightmare, and Peter Parker turns his back on the audience and walks up the stairs.

"Not much chance of that in my case!" he whines "I only have the when I'm awake."

And that's it. It's over. Forever.

Ditko has left the building.


Sunday, January 06, 2019

Amazing Spider-Man #37

Once Upon A Time, There Was a Robot...

Villain:
Professor Stromm and his robots

Supporting cast
Frederick Foswell, J. Jonah Jameson, Another New Secretary, Gwen Stacy, Flash Thompson, Harry Osborn, Norman Osborn.

Peter Parker's financial situation
Peter hasn't be paid for the last pictures he sold Jameson -- presumably the pictures of the Molten Man in issue #35. He is probably still living off the thousand bucks he earned in #33.

Chronology
This story appears to occur within a single 24 hour period: Stromm is released from prison early in the morning; attacks Osborn early that same evening; and dies late that night or early the following morning. Not very long has passed since the Looter story, because Peter is wondering if Gwen is still cross with him. So it probably takes place in the second week of October 1965.

Observations

p1: "You will always address me as Professor!"
Professor is a job title -- in Europe, someone who heads a university department, in the U.S.A, any academic with a teaching post. Surely Stromm lost his university position when he was sent to jail?

p4 "Gosh, every time I come up here, Jolly Jonah has a new secretary.."
This is literally true: in issue #33 Betty was still in her job; in issue #35 Jameson had hired a dark haired woman; and this time a blonde glasses-wearing lady has the job. But Lee is trying to retrospectively establish a running gag -- Jonah's staff keep quitting. In fact there have only been two new secretaries in four issues.



Stop the presses! Amazing Spider-Man #37 has an actual plot. There are car chases and burning buildings and people tailing each other through seedy parts of town. People get captured and escape and shot at through open windows; there are three, count them, three major plot twists and more fights than you can shake an extended metaphor at. Not only does the tale rattle along well enough on its own terms, but it is obviously putting the playing pieces in position for a big new plot arc which will (we assume) be developed over the next few issues.

A Scientist, Prof. Stromm, is released from prison. It isn't clear what he was in prison for, but now he wants to take revenge on the person who put him there -- and also cheated him out of his inventions. (I cannot imagine why Ditko would want to tell a story in which one person steals another person's ideas and takes the credit for them. It is inexplicable.) In no-time at all, he has knocked together a wonderful green octopus-shaped robot and sent it to destroy his enemy's electronics plant, which helpfully has the word "Electronics" written over the door. Spider-Man intervenes and defeats the robot, but the factory is left in ruins.

Now comes the first Big Twist. Over the last couple of issues, Stan Lee has been quite happy to chastise Steve Ditko in print when he thinks a plot development is a bit too obvious. ("Now that we have pretty well telegraphed what is going to happen next...") So it is rather significant that he takes the trouble to tell us readers how proud he is of this weeks twist. "And now we have a small scale surprise for you..."

The surprise is first, that Stromm's crooked partner is none other than Jameson's Important Friend from the businessman's club. (Today, he is wearing a green suit; but there is no reason to think that the colour green is of any particular significance.) And secondly, the Guy From The Club, who has distinctive red curly hair, is the father of Harry Osborn, who's hair is equally red and equally curly and equally distinctive. There are only so many ways to represent hair in a cheaply produced four-colour comic, but as John Byrne spotted thirty years later, Sandman is the only other character to whom Ditko gave a similar coiffure.

Fifty years later, it is really hard to get our collective heads around the fact that this was a surprise, a twist and a pay-off. Everyone knows that Norman Osborn is Harry's father; and everyone knows what secret The Mysterious Mr Osborn will ultimately turn out to have been hiding. And it is hard to remember that Harry Osborn was not, at this point, a particularly significant character -- certainly not Peter Parker's best friend. He appears, briefly, in a college scene on page 6 of the present issue, telling Gwen that Peter Parker "gives him a swift pain." But four pages later, Stan still feels the need to remind us who he is: "Remember Harry Osborn, one of Peter Parker's nastier school mates?" Our working hypothesis is that Stan doesn't read ahead: he writes the captions for page 2 before he has studied page 3. He probably didn't know that Club Guy was Stromm's adversary or that Harry was Club Guy's kid before he saw this panel. If he had known, why wouldn't he have foreshadowed the revelation in the school scene?

Peter's investigation of the case begins with an interesting little narrative dead-end. We are told that Stromm shared a cell with Foswell during the latter's brief incarceration. This allows Foswell to "feed" Peter information about the back-story -- a perfectly legitimate plot device. Peter puts one of his spider-tracers into Foswell's hat, so that Foswell will lead him to Stromm. But in fact, before going after Stromm, Foswell disguises himself as "Patch" the underworld informant, with a completely different hat. Patch is becoming quite a useful plot-cog: he bribes some hoods to tell him where Stromm's base is and Spider-Man follows him. But the spider-tracer was redundant -- Spidey just happens to bump into Patch at the appropriate moment. A technological homing device is insignificant next to the power of the Plot.

There is no comparison between the long-drawn out, not to say padded fight-scenes from issues #34, #35 and #36 and the very concentrated plot that Ditko gives us today. (I don't know what the old-fashioned, dyed in the wool Spider-fans made of it, but this new-fangled washable reader loved it.) In the space of three pages, Spider-Man follows Patch to Stromm's base; they are both captured; Spider-Man escapes through an air duct and puts a tracer on Stromm's newest robot; Stromm sends the robot to attack Norman Osborn, and Spider-Man bursts into Osborn's office and protects him. At first reading, I asked "How does Spider-Man even know where Osborn's office is?" And back came the answer "Because he put a tracer on the robot, 14 panels earlier." Ditko knows what he is doing.

But Osborn doesn't want to be rescued. Somehow, if Spidey beats the robot, it will mess up his "plan to get rid of Stromm forever". He feels that Spider-Man has "butted into something that doesn't concern him" and that he is "dangerous to my plans."

So: Osborn has plans (that we don't know about) history with Stromm (that we don't know about) but no particular history with Spider-Man (so far as we know.) 

There follows a small fight between Spider-Man and the robot which is ended when Osborn -- you'll like this -- hits Spider-Man across the head from behind and knocks him out. (Spider-Man assumes he has been hit by a lump of debris.)

Over the last three issues, one has had a sense of Stan Lee desperately typing out verbiage to paste into artwork that doesn't really need any exposition at all. (This may be the real reason he resorted to the sound-effects-only sequence in issue #35.) But this issue he is skillfully using thought bubbles and captions to enable us to keep track of a very dense plot. "I wonder why the robot didn't follow up his advantage?" asks Spidey when he comes round "The answer must be that he thought I was dead!"

Spidey catches up with the robot and smashes it. And then we all get hit by a massive lump of Plot. Stromm, realizing the game is up, performs a classic piece of villainous exposition "Even though you've caught me, I'll still have my revenge! There is something I must tell you! Something no body else knows about..."

At which point of course he conveniently drops dead.

There is a major discrepancy between the artwork and the annotations at this point. It is clear from the pictures what is supposed to have happened. We see Stromm about to reveal a big secret. We see a gun pointing through an aperture, half way up a high wall. We see Stromm, dropping dead before he can finish his sentence. And we see Spider-Man leaping up to apprehend the assassin at the window...and finding that there is no-one there. ("It makes no sense. How could he have vanished so soon? How did he get up there in the first place? There was no rope, no ladder, and no sound of a helicopter.") But for no reason that I can see, Lee's script tells us that Spider-Man spots the danger in the nick of time, pushes Stromm out of the way, leaps up to apprehend the would-be assassin -- only to find that Stromm has died from a heart attack. I do not understand why Stan thought his version was an improvement.

But there is still one more twist to come. On the final page, after everyone has said thank you and
good night to everyone else, the gunman is revealed to have been...Norman Osborn! The "next issue" box and the letters page are in full agreement that we will find out more about the "mysteriously sinister" Mr Osborn next month.

What is the solution to the mystery? What is Norman Osborn's secret? Can anybody guess?

Although this story does not carry anything like the emotional punch of The Man in the Crime Master's Mask or The Return of the Green Goblin, it does represents a distinct return to form. It is a dense, complicated story with plenty of action, rather than a single big gladiatorial combat. Spider-Man has agency throughout; but he is caught in the middle of a two or three sided conflict that he doesn't see the whole of. There are jokes ("Look out! He's getting away!" "Thanks for the bulletin - but I sorta noticed it myself!") but the endless running commentary never becomes tiresome.

Should we say that when Ditko delivers below-par work, Stan Lee's typewriter starts to waffle; but when Ditko turns in something as good as this, Lee raises his game? Or would it be fairer to say that when Ditko hands in a story with no substance, Lee (quite correctly) tries to embellish it with verbal fireworks; but that when Ditko hands in a great piece of work, Lee is equally happy to fade into the background and use his text to cast Ditko's work in the best possible light? One way or the other, we have every reason to believe that this is the first in a new run of Lee-Ditko classics.

But on the letters page, fan-mail which up to now had always been addressed to "Dear Stan and Steve..." is suddenly headed "Dear Stan..." "Dear Stan...", "Dear Stan...", "Dear Stan..."

No-one realized it at the time; but the game was up.



Photo:


Monday, December 31, 2018

A right gude-willie waught

How many words did you write in 2018?

Well, I published 115,632 on this blog.

Ah yes. Mainly about religion and folk music, I shouldn't wonder.

Actually it came out looking like this: 

COMICS : 42,332 words
DOCTOR WHO: 31,563 words
STAR WARS: 18,560 words
POLITICS: 14,479 words
BOOKS: 4,255  words



How long did that take you?

547 hours, apparently. 

And how much money did you make out of Patreon and booksales?

Around £2587.84

Are you any good at doing sums in your head?

That comes out at £4.73 and hour or £22.38 per thousand words.

It's a good job you don't do it for the money, isn't it.

Indeed.

Are you going to be writing about folk music in 2019?

Maybe.

Are you going to be writing about the Bible in 2019?

Maybe

Are you going to be writing about the Wombles in 2019?

Maybe

Are you going to be writing about Spider-Man in 2019?

I really intended to have it finished in 2018, but I have essays on #37. #38 and the Very Complicated Green Goblin Question to roll out in January. Then I'm done. 

Are you going to be writing about role-playing games in 2019?

Maybe

Are you going to be writing about Brexit in 2019?

No. It would only upset you. 

Are you going to be writing about Doctor Who in 2019?

I still want to do the Capaldi mini-book when the Patreon reaches 50. 

Wouldn't it be great if you had some extra money coming in while you are working on all those projects?

Yes. 







 



Sunday, December 30, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #36

Where Falls The Meteor

Villain:
The Looter [Meteor Man] Norton G. Fester

Supporting Cast: 
Gwen Stacy, "Sally", Flash Thompson

Chronology
The story unfolds over nine or ten days.

Page 6/7 - The Looter robs a bank and "In the days that follow" he becomes a one man crime wave.

Page 10-12 - The Looter robs the museum, but is foiled by Spider-Man.


Page 15 = "The next day" he goes back to the scene of the crime to make a better plan.

Page 16: Four days later he tries to rob the Museum a second time: "But the Looter doesn't show up that night—not the next—nor even the next. However at the end end of the week when the exhibit is about to close..."


Assuming "the end of the week" is a Friday and working backwards, this give us something like:

Day 1: Bank robbery
Day 4: First museum robbery
Day 5: Returns to Museum
Day 9: Second museum robbery.

Only a small amount of time has passed since last issue (battles with Kraven and the Molten man are still "recent").

So if the fight with the Molten Man takes place on Monday September 20th 1965, we could place this one between Wednesday 22nd September and Friday 1st October. Peter Parker is about 6 weeks into his first term at college.
 
Peter Parker's Financial Situation
Peter mentions in passing that he hopes to sell pictures of the fight to Jameson, although he is not actually seen taking any.

Observations
page 1 "When I become as famous as Darwin — Galileo — Aristophenes — I'll pay you back with interest."
Darwin discovered evolution. Galileo proved the sun was the center of the Universe. Aristophenes may be related to Aristophanes, who wrote Ancient Greek comedies.

"With this I might solve the riddle of the universe."
Fester seems to regard "the riddle of the universe" and "the origins of life in the universe" as synonymous. The term "riddle of the universe" (which also troubles the Silver Surfer) seems to come from a nineteenth century biologist named Ernst Welträthsel who thought the big question was "how does matter give rise to consciousness?" 

"Maybe I'll accidentally stumble over something... like Isaac Newton."
The laws of motion were not an accidental discovery: according to folklore an apple fell on Newton's head which set him thinking about what made the apple fall. Alexander Fleming's discovery of antibiotics would be a better example of serendipity. Stan Lee, naturally, thinks that scientific discoveries leap fully formed into the minds of men of genius. 

p 4 "Everyone had a chance to get to know each other .. and to form close friendships...except Mrs Parker's bad luck nephew."
In issue #34, the other students have turned against Peter Parker because he was blanking them, and because he is too proud to explain the reason. Stan Lee seems to be overwriting issues #30 - #33, perhaps in order to make Peter Parker Less Of a Dick.

p5 "I'm in your English Lit class!"
Some colleges do require science majors to take additional courses in the humanities, but it is never again suggested that Peter has studied poetry or drama to graduate level. (And anyway, would Peter really have been missing lab work, but attending literature seminars?) Stan never went to college and imagines that universities are just like high schools. Eleven years on, in #185, it will turn out that E.S.U requires academic students to take a gym class.

p6 "Oh no! Not again! Will I always be thought of as nothing but an egghead??
"I don't want another Betty Brant situation developing again. She only liked me for my brains too."
There has been no suggestion that Peter and Betty broke up because Betty only cared about Peter's brains. Either Peter is chauvinistically shifting the blame onto Betty, or Lee is again overwriting the last few issues and replacing them with something simpler.

p8 "It has to be the night that the Looter is probably out playing pinochle"
A Rummy type card game with an element of bidding

p12 "Come back, little sheba"
This is the title of an undistinguished Burt Lancaster movie from 1952. 


p17 "Us Spider-Men are a hardy breed"
Spider-Man used this phrase back in issue 19. I still think it must be a quote and I still can't work out where it comes from.



Last month, Ditko trailed this issue with a picture of a new supervillain. Quite a striking pictures: a white body suit with purple collar and sleeves and a spooky mask that recalls the Ringmaster's Clown.  But he evidently declined to tell Stan Lee anything else about the character. So Stan was reduced to writing placeholder text. 

"A swingin' super-villain so different, so new, we can't even tell you his name yet." 

This turns out to have been an ironic choice of words. This month's villain is not characterized by novelty and uniqueness. Stan claims that there was a disagreement -- or at any rate, a last minute change of mind -- about what to call him. Possibly Stan wanted him to be The Meteor Man but Steve insisted on The Looter. ("Looter" is an Ayn Rand buzzword.) A better name might have been Generic Man.

A hiker finds a recently crashed meteor. Back at home, he smashes it with a mallet, and releases an undefined Alien Gas which gives him super strength and super agility. There are, of course, only two career paths available to super strong individuals: robbing banks, and stopping people from robbing banks. Our hero goes for the former, knits himself a silly costume and adopts The Looter as his sobriquet. After a brief crime wave, he starts to fret that his powers may only be temporary, and tries to steal another meteor from a museum. His first attempt is foiled by Spider-Man, but he escapes. On his second attempt, Spider-Man defeats him and hands him over to the police. 

This is so thin that it hardly counts as a plot. Spider-Man is purely reactive: the Looter tries to do a crime and Spider-Man tries to stop him. The elaborate origin sequence does little but set up a McGuffin. The Looter needs a Meteor to top up his powers, but it would have made no difference if he had needed some radioactive isotope or the One Eye of the Little Yellow God. The museum setting gives Ditko an excuse to show Spider-Man leaping through a mock-up of the solar-system, but that's about all. The fight itself is mildly diverting, at least compared with last issue's punch-fest; the denouement, with Spider-Man fighting one handed while the Looter tries to float away on a hot air balloon is very nearly exciting. In a few places, the in-fight repartee is a little bit funny

--You must be mad, talking that way while you battle for your life

--I must be mad to be in this line of endeavor in the first place

But most of the dialogue, like most of the story, is the most predictable kind of Spider-snark. ("Have you ever considered medical help because of your anti-social tendencies?") Nothing wrong with it, but we've heard it all before. 

There is the slightest hint of a sub-plot: Gwen Stacy (who has literally acquired devil's horns) meets Peter at the museum and tries to make a romantic pass at him. But when she sees him running away to turn into Spider-Man, she naturally assumes that he is a coward. A new plot-machine is beginning to coalesce: Peter outwardly looks down on Gwen because she has taken against him for no reason; Gwen outwardly looks down on Peter because he is a coward and snob; but both of them are secretly attracted to the other. This one could run and run.

From the very beginning of the comic we are invited to laugh at the Looter and not take him seriously as a villain. He has a silly name: Norton G Fester. He is selfish and egotistical: he thinks that the meteor will reveal the solution to the riddle of the universe but he mainly cares that it will make him rich and famous. When the meteor gifts him with superpowers he immediately decides to use them to steal money, but then adds, in passing, that given time he will probably also conquer the world. His idea of experimenting on the meteor is to attack it with a mallet. When he wants to test his agility, he is shown sticking his bum out like a chicken before awkwardly jumping in the air. Once he has acquired superpowers, he starts to use the most cliche-ridden villainous dialogue imaginable.  ("You should have realized that resistance would be completely futile against one as powerful as I!") But while most villains either try to come up with ripostes to Spider-Man's sarcasm, or else make melodramatic speeches at him, the Looter seems perpetually to be forgetting his lines -- "Huh? Who said that?" "Out of my way...I said out of my way!" "Again—what does it take to stop you?" It's as if we are watching someone cos-playing a Marvel super-villain, not very convincingly.

I wish I could save this story. I wish I could prove that it is not a very poor episode of Spider-Man but in fact a very sophisticated parody of a Spider-Man comic. If Spider-Man can renounce "with great power comes great responsibility" in issue #34 and crack jokes only Stan Lee understands in #35 then why shouldn't the whole concept of a super-villain origin story be the next edifice to come tumbling down? Once we have acknowledged the absurdity of bank robbers in white leotards, perhaps we can get back to what Spider-Man was originally meant to be -- a kid trying to deal with superpowers in an otherwise rational world, 

With a bit of stretching, Norton G Fester could even be read as a bizarro-world inversion of Peter Parker himself. Parker is a bona fide science genius: Norton thinks he is, or wishes he was. Like Parker, Fester has few friends and no-one takes him seriously. When he tries to borrow money from the bank or get investment from a science lab, he is pretty much laughed at. When he rants "They mock me because I am too smart to work...too clever to hold down a job!" we might hear echoes of the younger Peter Parker's fear of being laughed at. When the bank won't lend him money, he says "You'll be sorry! You'll all be sorry!" which is of course just what Peter Parker said to his classmates all those years ago. While Norton J Fester is ranting about being an unrecognized genius, Peter Parker is refusing to date Gwen's friend Sally because she is only interested in his brains! 

Fester's language after he inhales the magic gas is rather reminiscent of Peter Parker's after being bitten by the magic spider: 

Parker: "What is happening to me? I feel .. different as though my entire body is charged with some fantastic energy" 

Fester: "Why do I feel so strange..so different...As though some superhuman power is coursing through me." 

And like Spider-Man Fester has a weird belief in Fate which amounts to an awareness that he is a comic book character with a pre-set role to adhere to. Spider-Man famously performed an aria which concluded "I now know that a man can't change his destiny, and I was born to be...SPIDER-MAN." Fester announces: "Now I realize why I never made it as a scientist. I was never cut out to be a scientist..I was born to be a master criminal...A super-criminal...I was born to be... The Looter." 

This above all: to thine own self be true.

There may also be some conscious irony in the mechanics of Fester's origin. He hits the meteor with a hammer and chisel, in the hope that he will discover the secret of the universe by accident. It is certainly true that people in the Marvel Universe keep on acquiring amazing abilities as a result of being struck by lightening on top of pylons; exposed to gamma bombs and knocked down by trucks. So the idea that Fester deliberately tries to have accident in the hope of triggering an Origin makes a funny sort of sense. 

I would love this to be right. I would love the Looter to be consciously intended as an inverted shadow of Spider-Man. But while Stan Lee had many strengths as a writer, subtlety was not something he was known for. If he had spotted that Fester was the Anti-Parker I am sure he would have said so.

No: superhero comics have a very limited vocabulary. The Looter's origin resembles Spider-Man's origin because all characters' origins resemble all other characters' origins. Humble beginnings. Mocked and derided. Senseless accident. Powers. Decision.

Why can this kid climb up walls?

I don't know. Because science, I guess.

It's not the origin which defines a character; it's what comes afterwards. Peter was bitten by a radioactive Spider and became a hero. The Looter was bitten by a radioactive meteor and did absolutely nothing at all.

Maybe something better will come along next months.



Photo:

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #35

The Molten Man Regrets...

Villain
The Molten Man (Mark Raxton)

Supporting Cast
J.J.J's new secretary

Chronology: 
Spider-Man #35 must happen after Spider-Man #34, so the earliest the attempted robbery at the jewelry store can take place is September 6th. 

Not very much time has passed since #35 because Jonah's secretary is still new and hasn't learned everyone's names. The big fight with the Molten man cannot take place after September 20th. 

The opening scenes took place "months" ago. Raxton was arrested on Peter Parker's graduation day, June 25th, 1965. He must have been released very quickly indeed for "months" to have passed. Perhaps he spent only a week in prison: July 2 - Sep 6 could just about be called "months". 

Raxton robs the jewelry store "many days" after his release. July 2 - September 6th is 64 days, which certainly counts as "many". 

"As the days slowly pass, day after day" Spider-Man keeps tabs on the Molten Man (p8) "Finally..." he catches him committing a crime. If Spider-Man is keeping tabs on the Molten Man from Sep 7th—Sep 20th, then twelve days have passed.

With a bit of squeezing, that gives us:

June 25th 1965: Molten Man captured 
July 2: Molten Man released 
(September 5th): Spider-Man fights Kraven 
September 6th: Spider-Man foils jewelry heist
September 7th - September 20th: Spider-Man keeping tabs on Molten Man.
September 20th: Big fight with Molten Man

Peter Parker's financial situation 
Peter sells photos of the Molten Man to Jameson, but doesn't bother to haggle. 

Observations

Title: "The Molten Man Regrets..."

Nothing in the story suggests what it is which the Molten Man feels regretful about. There is a Cole Porter song called Miss Otis regrets (about a woman who is lynched for shooting her lover) but that doesn't seem especially relevant.

p4 "It's a heckuva place for a skeet-shooting set up" 

i.e. It's real gunfire, not a rifle range, that I can hear.


p6: "Iron! Iron's a metal!" 
It's nice to know that Peter is not letting his science scholarship go entirely to waste. 

p10: "Shucks. I hoped you'd think I was Yogi Berra" 
Yogi Berra was a former baseball star and current manager of the New York Yankees. His one-line gags and malapropisms would have appealed to both Stan Lee and Peter Parker. ("I am not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. They can walk to school like I did.")




"Minutes later, a scene which occurred a few months ago is repeated anew..."

The Molten Man Regrets is so obviously a re-run of The Coming of the Molten Man that Stan can't resist pointing it out. The cop who finds the defeated Molten Man can't resist pointing it out either. Last month's story was a little bit lackluster; but this month's gives the impression that everyone involved has just stopped trying. Indeed, it starts to look as if Stan and Steve are actively sabotaging each other's work.

Spider-Man's least interesting adversary, the Molten Man, is released from jail. He tries to rob a jewelry store, but Spider-Man stops him. Then he tries to rob a safe, but Spider-Man stops him again. They have a fight and Spider-Man wins.

And that's literally it. There is no sub-plot; barely any plot of any kind. None of the supporting cast appear. There is a fight, and some scaffolding to provide a reason for the fight. And the fight itself amounts to Spider-Man punching the Molten Man, the Molten Man punching Spider-Man, and Spider-Man finally tying the Molten Man up with some extra strength webbing, exactly as he did last time. 

Stan Lee knows that this is a lot different from the intricately assembled psycho-noir tales about the Master Planner, the Cat and the Crime Master. "It's change-of-pace time once again" he cries "so climb aboard for the action...!" It's clear enough what he really means: "The last few issues have been too slow moving, and they haven't had enough fight scenes."

In case we are in any doubt, he says it twice:



"This one is for the real old-fashioned dyed-in-the-wool Spidey fanatics who like to see ol'web-heard fighting as only he can."

"Old-fashioned." The comic has changed recently, but this issue is getting back to what it used to be in the early days.

"Real." The people who liked the recent issues aren't the true fans: their opinions don't really count.

"Fighting." The real fans are the ones who buy the comic to see a one-to-one sparring match between Spider-Man and a super-villain. From now on, that is what the comic will be about. Real fans will like this. The people who do not like this are not real fans.

Last issue's Kraven story followed the familiar 9-9-2 structure: nine pages of plot and subplot; nine pages of fight; and a two page wrap up. Peter Parker didn't put his Spider-Man costume on until page 10. Stan Lee felt the need to apologize for this. Twice

"We'll admit this has been a pretty long introduction, but once the action gets started we'll more than make up for it" 

"Okay, web-spinners. You've been patient with us till now and here's where it starts paying off."

Curiously enough, this issue's story follows pretty much the same structure. The first nine pages are plot exposition; Spidey confronts the baddie on page 10; the fight lasts until page 18; and pages 19 and 20 are about Peter Parker after the fight has ended.

So what was Stan Lee apologizing for? The nine page introduction to the Kraven story consisted of the villain formulating his Evil Scheme. But they also showed Peter Parker visiting Aunt May in hospital; Peter Parker trying to patch things up with his college mates; Betty Brant having a terrible dream and deciding to leave town; Peter worrying about the fake Spider-Man and Aunt May inviting Mrs Watson for tea. The introduction to the Molten Man story, on the other hand, shows Raxton planning his scheme; Raxton robbing a jewelry store; Peter Parker realizing that the thief must be the Raxtpm; Peter Parker planting the tracer on Raxton's suit; Peter Parker following several false trails... 

Stan Lee is not apologizing for the lack of fight scenes in #34. Stan Lee is apologizing for the existence of anything else. The true old fashioned dyed in the wool Spider-Man fanatic objects to scenes involving Aunt May, Gwen Stacey and J. Jonah Jameson. The true old fashioned dyed in the wool Spider-Man fanatic wants a fight with a villain and nothing to distract him from it. The true old fashioned dyed in the wool Spider-Man fanatic is, in fact, one of those letter hacks who wanted less romance, less drama, less mystery and less soap opera. 

And Stan is going to give them what they want. 

I hope they were satisfied. But from where I'm standing a fight without a subplot makes for pretty boring reading. The Molten Man punches Spider-Man and then punches him again and then punches him again. Then Spider-Man punches the Molten Man. And they provide a running commentary for anyone watching on the radio: 



--First, using the metallic power of my molten body I'll crush all the fight out of you with an unbreakable bear hug.

--You're just whistling in the dark, Moltey. You can't beat me that way! No bear hug can stop my webbing from zipping up to the ceiling and sticking there 

--What good'll that do you? 

--I was hoping you'd ask? 

--You're bluffing! 

--Think so? Just watch...

You end up wishing they would just shut up and kill each other quietly. 

And amazingly, for the first two pages of the dreadful fight scene, this is exactly what happens. Molten Man punches Spider-Man in the chest. And instead of going through the usual "I am punching you in the chest" "Oh, punching me in the chest now are you?" rigmarole we just get a big sound effect: "Thwop!" Then he punches Spider-Man on the jaw, and it goes "Puh...twee!". Then Spider-Man punches the Molten man and it says "Brrakkk!" And so on. (The Molten Man Regrets...was published in the same month that the Adam West Batman TV show debuted, complete with its infamous on-screen kapows and zaps. But since comics were written two or three months in advance, this has to be marked up as an "interesting coincidence".)

But of course, it isn't sufficient for Stan Lee to write two pages with nothing but sound effects. He has to tell us that he is going to write two pages with nothing but sound effects. And in telling us, he breaks the fourth wall in a particularly egregious way:

"And now, we promised Artie Simek we'd let him go wild with sound effects for a page or two, so here goes".

Artie Simek was the letterer on most Marvel Comics. Stan Lee had a slight tendency to make fun of him on the credits page, in the way that singers sometimes make fun of drummers. The hero and the villain are making dramatic "kapow" sounds as they punch each other; and Stan Lee chooses this moment to take us out of the story and remind us that someone is writing the sound effects in over the pictures. He shouldn't drawing our attention to the sound effects in the first place. Kapows and Kaks work best when you hardly notice they are there. If there is a Ka-bopp sound effect, that ought to be because it is the exact sound which Spider-Man's fist makes when it hits metal...not because the guy with the typewriter knows that the guy with the fountain pen likes writing in really big letters.


It gets worse. 

The fight rambles on. The pugilists start taunting each other. And Stan decides the moment has come to drive a fully fledged wreaking ball through what remains of the fourth wall.

--Once I've beaten you, there'll be nobody left to stop me!

--Don't kid yourself! There's always Irving Forbush!


--Who's he?



--Forget it! It's an in joke!


Any pretense that we are listening to words spoken by a character named Peter Parker has been abandoned. We are just looking at words being written onto a drawing by Stan Lee.



The very first comic I ever read included an advertisement for the FOOM magazine and fan club which introduced itself this way:

"FOOM is the whackiest most way out idea since Irving Forbush combed his hair in the pencil sharpener....Stan (the Man) Lee is head FOOMER, Jaunty Jim Steranko is minister of inFOOMation and rascally Roy Thomas and your other bullpen biggies will be sharing the fun..."

It also had a letter from Stan Lee—not called a soap box, but instead headed "Stan Lee sounds off!"

So face front frantic one, Marvel is on the move again...And now on behalf of the whole batty Bullpen to all you Titanic True believers everywhere....we'll never let you down, O Keeper of the Faith, 'cause we're nothing without you! Excelsior!

Marvel Comics have always worked at two levels: there is an inner world, the superhero comics themselves, and there is an outer world, the world of Bullpen Bulletins and letters pages and house ads. Of course, the pulse pounding pageantry of the stories are the reason we carry on reading: but the frame, where Stan Lee chomps his cigar and talks nonsense is a very large part of what gave Marvel Comics their unique ambiance. 

Stan Lee in particular spoke his own lingo; simultaneously incredibly pretentious and comically self-deprecating. Some of it comes from the military ("Face Front!" is what a Sergeant tells a squaddie on parade); some of them have an Arabian Nights zing to them (Keeper of the Flame; Effendi) and some of them are the kinds of things that middle aged men might imagine hippies saying to each other (Hang loose! Stay cool! Whacky! Batty!). But you don't need to know what any of this stuff means; and even if you do, it's still pretty senseless. I now know what strange device Henry Wandsworth Longfellow had on his banner; and what is written on the Great Seal of the United States. (This is a useful thing to know if you are ever on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire). I know that Jim Steranko was an escapologist and stage magician who drew a small number of ground-breaking issues of Captain America and SHIELD in the early 70s. I know that Roy Thomas was one of Stan Lee's acolytes, the person to whom he was gradually handing most of the editing and scripting duties. I even know that a bullpen is a kind of baseball clubhouse, not an esoteric writing implement. But I didn't know any of those things in the olden days. "Excelsior" and "E Pluribus Marvel" were just words. Roy Thomas, Jim Steranko and Irving Forbush were just names. Magical words; magical names; part of Stan Lee's patter, part of the gift-wrap which Spider-Man came in. 

Forbush
Irving Forbush turns out to have been a free-floating joke. A decade before the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee had tried to launch a funny magazine, his answer to Mad. (He never completely abandoned the idea. The American comics I used to see carried adverts for a something called Crazy.) The magazine sometimes carried a byline "Founded by Irving Forbush, 1871" and "Losted by his brother, Melvin Forbush, the previous year." The slender joke came about because the Saturday Evening Post (home of all those wholesome Norman Rockwell covers) used to claim to have been "Founded by Benjamin Franklin".

Irving and Melvin are fairly generic American Jewish names. Irving Forbush was evidently intended to be a counterpart to Mad Magazine's Alfred Neuman mascot. When SNAFU folded, Stan Lee took the name with him, like Christopher Robin's swan. Some years later, when Marvel did an execrable self-parody comic called Not Brand Ecch! the Irving Forbush character morphed into a superhero called Forbush Man. He has continued to appear intermittently ever since. The Everything-2 website describes him very well as "an old fannish gag, a remnant of the original 60s era Marvel, a vision of the company which no longer exists."

Neuman
"The best idea since Irving Forbush combed his hair in the pencil sharpener" is neither more nor less meaningless than most of what Stan Lee says. 

So: by having Spider-Man reference Irving Forbush, Stan Lee has literally crossed a line; the frame has bled into the picture. The frame is fun precisely because it is a contrast with the comics themselves. Inside the comic, it really matters to you that Aunt May is definitely, definitely going to die this time and Galactus is probably going to eat the whole world; but then you flip the page and find Stan and Steve shooting the breeze with you and your remember that it's not really real and everything is okay. 
I think we all understand the rules. Spider-Man can move upwards and appear in the frame: there is nothing at all odd about seeing a picture of Spider-Man on the letters page saying "Don't forget to order next week's issue from your newsagent". But of course, no-one would imagine that Peter Parker, while fighting Doctor Octopus, would suddenly remember that time he had to swing across a letter column and remind people to renew their subscription. It patently doesn't work like that. Stan Lee cannot flow downwards and become a character in one of his own comics: if he could, he really would be God. (There are one or two occasions when Jack Kirby and Stan Lee appear as characters in the Fantastic Four: but they are very much presented as jobbing artists of the previous generation; none of the "hang loose Irving Forbush Excelsior" Marvel-speak seeps through.) Lee's voice, the voice of the narrator is everywhere present; but only as an observer. He can hear the characters' thoughts, but they can't hear the captions. Indeed, it is an artifact of the Marvel Method that the Lee-Narrator is only ever an observer: he sees what the reader sees and hardly ever says "I know something you don't know." Last month, the Secretary With No Name wondered to herself why Betty Brant left so suddenly, and the Lee narrator chips in "And so do we, young lady. And so do we." That third person plural is a marker of Stan's meta-textual technique. 

So it is a sin of the first order to show Peter Parker referencing Stan Lee's most pointless in-joke in the middle of a fight. Yes: the mask has slipped before. We have noticed that when he is not wearing the mask, Peter Parker can seem a lot like Steve Ditko, but when he puts it on, he starts to talk like Stan Lee. And yes, once a narrative has been breached it is always possible for more narrative to patch it up. (Maybe Peter Parker saw a copy of SNAFU when he was eight years old, recalls the Irving Forbush character and is wildly wondering if Mark Raxton, who is slightly older than him, remembers it as well.)

But to me, it breaks the spell in a very fundamental way. Spider-Man is no longer my buddy who I could conceivably go and meet if I ever went to New York. He is just some pen and ink sketches. And around the sketches is white space which an aging hack is filling with whatever gibberish comes to mind. 

There is worse to come.