Tuesday, July 31, 2018

I Think This Getting Needlessly Dialectical

If it is the intention to expose comprehensively the downside of recipients of statues in Bristol, why stop at Colston. To the equestrian statue of William of Orange in Queen's Square could be added "He complied with the invitation from a group of traitors to depose the rightful king, James 2nd." To Cary Grant's: "He was a serial adulterer." To Edward VII's "He was a frequenter of French brothels". To Queen Victoria's; "As Empress of India, she ruled over the oppression of millions of Indians. Of course this will not happen. 

We know our new masters.

Letter, Evening Post, 31/7


"In this country in 15 or 20 years' time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man."

Enoch Powell, April, 1968



intrigued but not surprised to find out that the Colston Cultists are Jacobites, incidentally. 








Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Last Days of Dangling Plot Thread Woman

After all, my erstwhile dear,
My no longer cherished,

Need we say it was not love,
Just because it perished?



How do you follow the most iconic scene in the history of comic books? 

Spider-Man has conquered his inner demons; exorcised his albatross; saved his Aunt and demanded fair pay from his boss. So what happens next? Steve Ditko needed to come up with something very special indeed if he was going to surpass the legendary Spider-Man-lifts-something-really-really-heavy sequence from #33. He needed something that would make our collective jaws drop; something which would change Spider-Man forever. He needed something which every previous issue had been building towards, and which would affect every issue to come.

And dammit if, just for a second, it doesn't look as if he is going to pull it off. 


It comes, as all great scenes do, from nowhere. After twenty seven issues of dancing around the question, Betty Brant asks Peter Parker directly: "I know you are keeping some terrible secret from me; you must tell me what it is." And after all the lies and hypocrisy, Peter Parker gives her a straight answer. He calmly climbs up the wall, hangs upside down from the ceiling and rips open his shirt. "Peter?" he says "That's just one of the names I'm known by. I also answer to another name. The name of Spider-Man." He pronounces the last word in blood red letters, Jessie Custer style, just in case Betty misses the point. 

And then she wakes up.


Betty Brant was never meant to be Lois Lane. She drifts through issues #2, #3 and #4 as a background character; only in #5 does Peter Parker notice that she's really pretty, and not until #6 does he ask her out. It isn't clear Peter and Betty ever go on what you would really call a date; but issue #7 ends with them chastely embracing behind Mr Jameson's desk. It's a lovely ending to one of my favourite Spider-Man tales. Geeky Peter has stopped whimpering and found someone he really gets on with.

But a happy relationship does not a story make: and an engagement would have spoiled Peter Parker's teenage appeal. So Stan and Steve set about making the path of true love as rough as they possibly can. First they turn Betty Brant into "the girl with the dark secret". She cryptically refers to a mysterious tragedy in her past; and she appears to be being blackmailed by the Mob. This is resolved in issue #12: it turns out that her brother Bennet was in debt to organized crime. When Bennet is murdered, Betty conceives an irrational hatred of Spider-Man. This defines Peter and Betty's relationship for the rest of the Ditko years. He can't ask her to marry him unless he first tells her who he really is, but if he tells her who he really is, she won't want to marry him. The nice girl who shared Peter's sense of humour has morphed into a tragically unattainable courtly heroine.

From issue #13 onward, Betty is redefined as "the jealous woman." She thinks that Peter is dating Liz (who he doesn't particularly like); she thinks he is dating Mary Jane (who he has never even met); she thinks he is dating the Human Torch's girlfriend (who he kindly returned a lost wallet to); and she thinks he is dating Hollywood starlets (because he is covering a movie for Mr Jameson.)  In fairness, Peter gets to play the role of "the jealous guy" from #18, when Betty's too-good-to-be-true boyfriend Ned Leeds appears on the scene and immediately leaves the country. Just when things seem to have settled down, Ned comes home (#29) and promptly asks Betty to marry him (#30).

When Peter finds out about the proposal, he and Betty have a shouting row, which ends with him telling her to go ahead and marry Ned and her shouting "It's you I love" through the slammed door. They break up all over again in #33, with Betty first running after Peter and then running away from him. In #30 her inner monologue is preoccupied by Peter Parker's mysterious secret; in #33, she is more concerned about his dangerous line of work and apparent hunger for action. 

Peter Parker has a Big Secret. Peter Parker gets himself into dangerous situations. Peter Parker sometimes gets beaten up. Peter Parker takes pictures of Spider-Man. But Betty Brant cannot draw the obvious conclusion even when her unconscious is screaming it in her face. "Oh thank heavens! It is not so! I merely dreamt it! Whatever Peter's secret is...it can't be that!"

*

When Doctor Octopus unmasked Spider-Man in issue #12, the cover copy screamed "Not a dream! Not an imaginary tale!" This is a little bit unfair to Marvel's Distinguished Competition: imaginary stories were invariably announced as such on page 1; they were never used as devices to trick the reader. (There is a philosophical, or at any rate grammatical difference between a story about what "may" happen in some hypothetical future, and a story about what "might have" happened in some alternate present. "What would happen if Lois Lane had Superbabies?" is a very different proposition from "What would have happened if Uncle Ben had survived.") 

But dream-endings certainly were used as a means of tricking the reader; and they were always very annoying. In this case the trick only last for a few panels, but it is still very irksome. It hurts to be told that something has happened, and then to be told  that actually, it hasn't happened after all. It hurts to be shown something as interesting as Spider-Man unmasking and not to be allowed to see what follows from it. And it hurts a great deal to realize that the only remaining avenue of character development has been closed off. Now that she has dreamed the bleedin' obvious fact that Peter is Spider-Man, there is zero chance that Betty is going to put two and two together in real life. And now that we have seen Peter Parker tell Betty the truth in a dream, there is zero chance that we will see him come clean in the waking world. We thought we were getting a resolution: what we actually got was a declaration that the story-line is never going to be resolved.

Betty is shunted off to the land where subplots go to die. Or at any rate, Chicago. She can't go back to sleep because she is thinking of Peter Parker, and realizes that she has to "make a decision about him...a decision which can't be put off any longer." And that's the last we see of her for seven issues. By the end of issue #34 Jonah Jameson has a new secretary, and Peter is having a good old whinge about the situation. ("She'd never accept me as Spider-Man...but Spider-Man I've been...and shall always be...for as long as I live.") In #35, he goes to the office, meets the new girl, and chucks a framed photo inscribed to Betty in the bin. As previously noted, Peter is childishly obsessed with chucking his toys in trash-cans. Since Ned Leeds is also out of town, Peter assumes that he and Betty left together: the following issue, he actually uses the term "eloped". By #36, he is very much treating Betty as an "ex-" ("I don't want another Betty Brant situation developing again".) Jameson has another new secretary in #37; another one quits in #38. ("That's the third one this week" quips Peter "and it's only Tuesday.")

In issue #38 Ned Leeds comes home. It turns out that he didn't elope with Betty: he went to California on private business and has no more idea than Peter where she went. Ned blames Peter for driving her away, and tells Peter that he has proposed to her, even though Peter knows, and Ned knows he knows. The two guys have a fully fledged shouting match. Peter's internal monologue is even more chauvinistic than usual: he is still banging on about how Betty would never accept him as Spider-Man, and then adds "But I can't be sure. No-one can predict a female's reaction!" He spends the rest of the issue worrying about Betty (patronizingly calling her "the kid") and then punches a shop window mannequin because it looks slightly like Ned Leeds. "You know Why I hate you, Leeds... Because you have the right to propose to Betty! The shadow of Spider-Man isn't standing between you." 


I think that Ditko was going somewhere with all this. Betty has gone somewhere to do a thing, and Ned Leeds is using his Investigative Reporter skills to find out where and what. But Steve leaves the building without giving Stan any clues as to how the story was going to develop; and within two issues Stan has allowed it to fizzle out like a second hand firework.

Is it perhaps even possible that the Ned/Betty plot was supposed to be connected in some way with the Norman Osborn plot?  Steve was laying the groundwork for a Big Reveal about Norman Osborn in his final two issues, fueling the speculation that it was a disagreement about this plot line that caused the greatest partnership in the history of comics to come to an end. Of  course, we now take it for granted that the Mysterious Mr Osborn turns out to be [SPOILERS FOLLOW] the Green Goblin. But Romita's first two issues (#39 and #40) follow awkwardly from Ditko's last ones (#37 and #38). As late as 1974, Marvel's in-house magazine FOOM was claiming that Ditko intended Ned Leeds to be the Green Goblin, while Stan Lee was still wedded to the Aztec Mummy idea... Some people think that there is some significance in Ned Leeds' green tie, and in the fact that the tailor's dummy has a big grin on its face. This is a really big stretch. But I can't believe that two characters would have gone off on mysterious journeys if there wasn't supposed to be some revelation about their destination.

So, in Romita's first issue, Parker meets Ned again, and they mutually apologize for their row. Peter tells Ned that he's "out of the running" for Betty and tells himself that he will now "put her out of his mind" forever. (Peter may be turning into a hipster, but he still regards women as prizes which men compete for.) In issue #40, Betty gets to do some soliloquizing of her own. Apparently what happened was that she woke up from her bad dream and hopped on a train to Chicago (some 800 miles away) but is going to come home because "a girl can never run away from a decision". But...but...I thought the whole reason for her leaving town was to enable her to make a decision? She says that she still hates to hear Spider-Man's name; but is more worried about whether Mr Jameson will give her her old job back. "And if he does...what will it be like, seeing Peter Parker and Ned Leeds again? And what will they say when they see me? Will there still be a place in their lives...for Betty Brant?" 

Oh dear. 

This scene carries a Stan Lee qualifier: "As you've probably guessed by now, the pages you've just read are a typical Marvel device for bringing new readers up to date as painlessly as possible! We just didn't want you to think that you'd picked up a romance book by mistake." Stan's relationship with John Romita seems to have been much less Marvel methodical than the one with Ditko: there is a much greater sense that Stan tells John what to draw, and John draws it. But six panels is a lot of space to spend telling us stuff we already know; and Betty's soliloquy is more than usually replete with waffle. Did Romita turn in pictures of an enigmatic Betty on a railway station, as part of an ongoing romantic sub-plot, and did Stan then fill it with inconsequential thought bubbles because he was no longer interested in this particular thread? He certainly seems still to be sensitive to the complaints of fans who object to love, romance, drama and mystery....

Betty finally gets back to New York in issue #41, and the romance which has been coming to an end since issue #11 grinds to a resounding nothing. Betty tells Peter that she has had a nice time on the coast. It follows that her business in Chicago was so secret and mysterious that she is prepared to lie to both Peter and Ned about where she has been. Or that she went to Chicago via California, a detour of barely two thousand miles. Or else that Stan Lee has completely stopped paying attention. 

Peter and Betty have an awkward conversation until Ned turns up, and then Peter makes his excuses and leaves. On his way, he performs a short aria. "All these months I thought about her, dreamt about her, longed for her!! So now she's returned...and nothingsville. Whatever we had before, whatever there was between us...it's gone."


But so far as we know, Peter has not been thinking about, dreaming about, and longing for Betty. Rather the reverse: Betty has been standing on railway stations wondering why the figure of Spider-Man haunts her dreams; while Peter has been basically resigned to the fact that the relationship can't work and has even started flirting with Gwen. Stan Lee has gone for one of his soft-resets: the idea that Spider-Man has driven the two star-crossed lovers apart fades out; the idea that Betty even cares about Peter's secret evaporates. It turns out that they have just outgrown each other.

This doesn't stop Peter having a jolly good wallow, and like all adolescents on the rebound he denies that his feelings about Betty were ever real. "Once I thought I couldn't live without her. Now she's just another girl named Betty. Boy have I grown up in these past few months! I realize now we never had anything in common. It's just that she was the first girl I ever thought I loved!" 

And so, no more of Betty Brant. In #42 she is shown working for the Daily Bugle again; and in #43 she is showing off the engagement ring that Ned has bought her.  But by then, Aunt May has succeeded in introducing Peter Parker to his glamorous neighbor Mary Jane.

It would be a hundred issues before Ned Leeds and Betty Brant finally got married. A hundred issues after that, it turned out that although Ned was never the Green Goblin he was the Hobgoblin. Sort of.

He is killed off in in an issue of Wolverine.




Thursday, July 26, 2018

How many dog whistles can you fit into one letter?

So there's a plot afoot to rename the Colston Hall.

OK, he was a slave trader, but he did a lot for Bristol, building schools, alms houses and founding charities. Didn't Gladstone's father make his pile out of the slave trader in Liverpool? What about the Willis Memorial Building at the university, master piece that it is? Didn't the Willis family make their money out of tobacco...

Where do you start and stop this sort of logic. You can't judge the people of the past by today's standards or airbrush unpleasant things out of history.
Marc Hursfield, Bristol Post 25/4

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Kolston Kerfuffle Kontinues

There is a scheme to add an explanatory plaque to the statue of Edward Colston which stands in the center of Bristol. 

The current statue simply says that Colston was one of the "most virtuous and wise" sons of Bristol. The proposed text would read: 

"As a high official of the Royal African Company from 1680 to 1692, Edward Colston played an active role in the enslavement of over 84,000 Africans (including 12,000 children) of whom over 19,000 died en route to the Caribbean and America. Colston also invested in the Spanish slave trade and in slave-produced sugar. As Tory MP for Bristol (1710-1713), he defended the city’s ‘right’ to trade in enslaved Africans. Bristolians who did not subscribe to his religious and political beliefs were not permitted to benefit from his charities.”

Surely no-one could possibly have any objection to this wording?


This pathetic bid to mount a secondary revisionist plaque on Colston's Statue is historically-illiterate and a further stunt to try to reinvent Bristol's history

If it goes through, it will be a further slap-in-the-face for true Bristolians and our city's history delivered by ignorant, left-wing incomers

I have never been a believer in taking the law into one's own hands. However, if this partisan and nauseous plaque is approved, I can not find it in my heart to condemn anyone who damages or removes it.

Richard Eddy (Bristol Councilor)

I want to pull down and erase all mention of William the Conquer as he killed some English people at Hastings. 
andys rifles (via Mail Online) 

I take it these lefties also want Karl Marx gravestone and image removed too? 
Mark from Manchester, (via Mail Online)

Another example of someone from distant passed being judged by today's standards. Are these people thick or just mad?
Christian solider, (via Mail Online)

Why do those in authority always cave in to lefties instead of protecting our history
Time for revolution, (via Mail Online)




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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Curious Afterlife of Ben Parker




In Amazing Spider-Man #50 (July 1967), Peter Parker suffers one of his biannual crises of faith. He hears that J. Jonah Jameson has put a thousand dollar bounty on his head, and chucks his costume in a litter bin.  (He has a thing about bins. The last time but one he decided to quit, he stuffed his costume in one of Aunt May's waste paper baskets.) For the next few days he tries to abstain from superheroing, but then he witnesses a robbery and falls off the wagon. 

"And yet...how could I have done anything else? A man's very life was in danger." 

The nightwatchman whose life he has saved looks a little like Uncle Ben. This is so ironic that he wanders down to the waterfront and performs a soliloquy. He describes his Origin for the benefit of anyone listening, and explains that "one of the first victories in his crime busting career" was cornering an armed robber in a warehouse. He recalls that, once he had defeated him, he realized that it was the very same Burglar he had once selfishly allowed to escape. 

"I had a chance to stop him...when he ran past me that day...and I didn't...But if only I had done so...Uncle Ben would be alive today." 

Back in the present day, Peter Parker strikes an heroic pose on a waterfront wharf. 

"Now at last it is all crystal clear to me once more" he exposits "I can never renounce my Spider-Man identity! I can never fail to use the power which a mysterious destiny has seen fit to give me! No matter how unbearable the burden may be... no matter how great my personal sacrifice. I can never permit one innocent being to come to harm because Spider-Man failed to act... and I swear I never will." 

There is quite a lot we could say about this panel. Parker is still banging on about a faceless deity named "destiny"; he still regards being Spider-Man as a weight he has to carry -- an "unbearable" weight, at that. 

But what concerns us here is that for the first time, Peter Parker consciously takes an oath that he won't let innocent people be killed if he can stop it. The oath itself is rather a tangle. It is phrased in negative terms: he promises to never not use his power; and never to fail to stop anyone from coming to harm. It's also a bit ambitious. If he was really serious about never allowing anyone to die as a result of something he didn't do,  I suppose he would have to give up his biochemistry degree and go into medicine or surgery, or at any rate focus entirely on finding cures for life-threatening diseases; and then spend his spare time manning a suicide hotline. (Twice as many Americans die by suicide than are shot by burglars each year.) But of course, he doesn't mean he is never going to let anyone come to any kind of harm. He only means "I am never going to let another person be harmed by a gangster or a super-villain." And he isn't even going to be particularly proactive. He isn't going to spend every waking moment checking suburban houses to make sure no Uncles are being shot. He is simply going to refrain from walking by on the other side when someone else's need presents itself. "Never permit one innocent being to come to harm because Spider-Man failed to act" boils down to "Spend some of my spare time catching thieves and super-villains."

But still: this is as close as Peter Parker has come to a Crime Fighter's Oath; as close as he has come to kneeling at his bedside promising to avenge his parents by spending the rest of his life warring on criminals. So it is very significant that it is not shown as part of the flashback to Amazing Fantasy #15, but as part of the stream of events of Amazing Spider-Man #50.

Stan Lee knows quite well what he is doing. He is rewriting the Spider-Man mythos: turning Peter Parker into a much more conventional crime-fighting superhero. But he isn't yet prepared to engage in retroactive continuity. He knows that Spider-Man didn't take a Crime Fighter's Oath in Amazing Fantasy #15, and he isn't prepared to claim that he did. So "I'll never fail to act" remains part of the four-years-later framing sequence.

The End of Spider-Man never quite worked its way into the received Spider-Man narrative. No-one retelling the History Of Spider-Man ever says "First he was a TV star; then he was a self-interested adventurer and photographer; but finally, after Jameson put a bounty on his head, he swore an oath to always fight crime when the opportunity presented itself." 



A year later, in the first issue of an ill-judged black and white magazine called Spectacular Spider-Man, Stan Lee offered a complete retelling of Spider-Man's origin, entitled "In the beginning..." (Poor Stan. He never really got over the fact that he wasn't God.) This time, the story opens at Uncle Ben' s funeral. Rather disappointingly, it appears to be a Christian ceremony. I think some Rabbis wear Anglican style dog-collars, but there are definitely cross-shaped gravestones in the cemetery. Uncle Ben's memorial is quite plain. But whether Jewish or Christian, God knows all about the Pathetic Fallacy: it is pouring with rain and everyone is carrying big black umbrellas. 

As Ben is being put in the ground, Peter Parker breaks out in another flashback. He recapitulates Amazing Fantasy #15 pretty closely: he remembers the radioactive spider-bite, punching the lamp post, and jumping onto the wall to avoid the car -- although he omits the Crusher Hogan incident. Oddly enough, Peter remembers refusing to stop the fleeing burglar while is on his way to an audition for a TV spot, rather than after a TV appearance. But the consequences are the same. Ben Parker is murdered, and Peter apprehends the killer, only to discover...

At the end of the flashback we find that Peter has wandered away from the funeral (leaving Aunt May to eat the cucumber sandwiches by herself) and ended up back on the waterfront. He adopts much the same heroic pose he struck / will strike in issue #50. 

"Yes... Uncle Ben is dead! And in a sense it is really I who killed him!..Because I didn't realize in time...that with great power...the must also always be... great responsibility! But I know it now... and so long as I live... Spider-Man will never shirk his duty again."

"With great power comes great responsibility" was an authorial comment in Amazing Fantasy #15, but here it is put into the mouth of Peter Parker, or at least, into his internal monologue. Again, the oath is phrased in negative terms: not what he is going to do, but what he is not going to not do. It doesn't say whether he thinks that Spider-Man has the same moral duties as everyone else; or whether he has acquired additional duties by virtue of being able to lift heavy objects and hang upside down from ceilings. But whatever his duties are, he is totally never going to shirk them.

The Crime Fighter's Oath from Spider-Man #50 has been folded back into the hero's origin. Lee is now telling us that it was a bespectacled Peter Parker who stood on the wharf and decided that it was his duty to be Spider-Man, a few days after Uncle Ben died. This is hard to square with the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, when Parker wishes that the Spider-Man costume did not exist; with the first appearance of Doctor Octopus, when he is ready to quit after one defeat; or with the first Vulture story, where he seemingly decides to be a "costumed adventurer" out of the blue. And it is hard to square with him quitting in #18 or being at the point of despair in #33. At none of those moments of crisis did he say "I have to carry on because I swore an oath to do so after Uncle Ben died." 

But once again, Stan Lee cannot quite bring himself to overwrite Amazing Fantasy #15. Stan Lee retells the origin story quite accurately -- even apologizing for accelerating the speed at which events unfold -- and Romita quite consciously recreates some of Ditko's panels. But Lee adds a framing sequence, Uncle Ben's funeral, and he embeds the oath in the frame. Peter Parker might have taken a Crime Fighter's Oath when he first discovers who the burglar is, or when he walks away from the scene of the crime with his head in his hands. But instead, he makes his promise down by the waterfront on the day of the funeral: after the end of Amazing Fantasy #15 but before the beginning of Amazing Spider-Man #1.

The story isn't told again until 1970, in issue #94. Peter has just broken up with Gwen Stacey, and Aunt May has been kidnapped by the Beetle. So Peter Parker spends two thirds of a comic wandering the streets feeling sorry for himself and retelling his origin yet again.

In this version, the Oath is pushed back still further. Peter Parker didn't walk down to the docks to talk to himself after all: he literally swore an oath on Uncle Ben's grave, while the funeral service was still taking place. (The celebrant is still Christian and it's still bucketing down.)

"Because I didn't lift a finger to help catch a criminal, I'll always fee partly responsible for what happened to Uncle Ben. I'll never again refuse to use my spider power whenever it can help the cause of justice. I'll spend the rest of my life making up for the death of Uncle Ben" 

"I'll always feel partly responsible" is a very much more moderate accusation than "In a sense it was I who killed him." And the death of Uncle Ben has nothing to do with Peter Parker refusing to use his spider-powers. Anyone could have tripped the Burglar up or grabbed him for a few seconds, and indeed, anyone should have done. That's rather the point of the story.

This time around, Peter Parker makes an oath that he has some hope of sticking to. "I'll fulfill whatever duties turn out to come with the ability to spin webs and climb walls" and "I'll never let a Bad Thing happen to anyone else in the whole wide world ever, ever, ever" are hopelessly over ambitious. "I'll help the cause of justice whenever I can" is quite achievable. And once again, Peter allows himself considerable wiggle-room: he isn't going to always help the cause of justice; he's going to never not use his spider-powers in that particular cause.

The second part of the oath is neurotic as hell. He isn't merely going to be a good citizen and never not help the police. He is going to spend the rest of his life "making up" for Uncle Ben's death. Peter Parker does not see himself as having learned a moral lesson; he sees himself as having incurred a debt. He could have said: "I fouled up, acted selfishly, and someone died. Well, I sure won't do that again."  With great power comes great responsibility, as the fellow may or may not have said. But he isn't interested in becoming sadder but wiser; he is interested in assuaging his own personal feelings of guilt. He's at a Christian burial, but he's thinking in terms of karmic debt. And the debt is unpayable. Never not helping the cause of justice will not make him feel less guilty about the death of Uncle Ben. He's be better off lightly whipping himself and walking barefoot to the holy site of his choice. He himself recognizes this. Having [SPOILER WARNING] rescued Aunt May from the Beetle he says "Even though I'll always feel guilty for the death of Uncle Ben... maybe tonight... in some small way... Spider-Man paid a part of that never-ending debt." 

But, once again: Stan Lee doesn't interpolate the oath-taking into Peter Parker's account of his "origin", which once again sticks very closely to Amazing Fantasy #15. Once again, the oath is part of a funeral scene which Stan Lee has added to the original story.

So: Lee has quite consciously re-positioned Spider-Man as a conventional superhero in the Batman or Superman mold, taking an oath to fight cowardly, superstitious criminals in the name of their parents. This idea becomes more and more dominant as the series goes on. Since at least 2001 the words "with great power comes great responsibility" have been attributed to Ben Parker himself.

Lee presents the Crime Fighters Oath as a new event in Spider-Man #50; places it shortly after Ben's funeral in Spectacular Spider-Man #1; and has it take place during the funeral itself in Spider-Man # 94. He knows full well that this is an addition to the mythos which to some extent overwrites the saga of #1 - #33; but he chooses to leave the origin story intact. The Spider-Man text is the site of a struggle between Lee and Ditko's artistic vision long after Ditko had departed.


Read my complete exposition of Amazing Spider-Man #1 - #33

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

Steve Ditko 1927 - 2018

Most of the time now we settle for half and I like it better. But the truth is holy, and even as I know how wrong he was, and his death useless, I tremble, for I confess that something perversely pure calls to me from his memory – not purely good, but himself purely, for he allowed himself to be wholly known and for that I think I will love him more than all my sensible clients. And yet, it is better to settle for half, it must be! And so I mourn him – I admit it – with a certain . . . alarm.

A View from the Bridge

I remember the '80s, when for a while it looked like a company called Pacific was going to break the Marvel vs DC duopoly. They launched with a comic called (and if there's any giggling there'll be trouble) Captain Victory and His Galactic Rangers: 25 pages of post-New Gods Jack Kirby and 5 or so pages of post Mr A Steve Ditko. A symbolic act: two of the three pillars of Marvel working for the new upstart imprint. Jack Kirby still looked and sounded exactly like Jack Kirby, although perhaps not quite as good. (As so often he was ill-served by his inkers.) There were spaceships and aliens and Galactus shaped space gods and no actual plot. The Ditko piece, Missing Man, I could make no sense of, and still can't. There were some gangsters, and a supporting cast who didn't seem to be properly introduced, and an awful lot of talking. And yet, somehow, the magic lingered.

It lingered in things like Machine Man and Captain Universe and Speedball and oh god he did a run on Rom Space Knight, a comic about an Action Man accessory. It felt strange. Magical but strange. Comics that were almost, but not quite, like the ones I first fell in love with. The man who drew Spider-Man, still drawing like the man who drew Spider-Man.

So why the hell wasn't he drawing Spider-Man?

The sad but simple answer was "because he didn't want to." Which is fair enough.

Ditko never did anything else as good as Spider-Man. But everything Ditko did reminded us of Spider-Man. Yes, he did Doctor Strange and if we hadn't had Doctor Strange we wouldn't have had Sandman, not in  quite the same way. And yes, he did The Question and Mr A and without the Question and Mr A we wouldn't have had Rorschach, and everyone has already quoted the anecdote about him saying that Rorschach is "Like Mr A, but insane." But it is those 33 issues he will be remembered for. Surely the best 33 issue run anyone ever did?

T.S Eliot talks about The Tradition. There are writers who are great, but outside the Tradition, not really influenced by anyone who came before, and not really exerting an influence on anyone who came after them. (William Blake, for example.) And there are writers who are influenced by the ones who came before them, and who influenced writers who come after them, but whose effect on the tradition is, on the whole, bad. (Milton, he says. Paradise Lost is great, but it subjected the world to decades of mediocre writers trying to sound like Paradise Lost.) And there are writers who are both influenced and influential and whose influence is entirely benign. I understand that Mr William Shakespeare has given general satisfaction in this respect. 

Jack Kirby was so central to the Tradition, so definitively influential on everything which followed, that it is very easy for young people to look at the Fantastic Four or the New Gods and ask "Why is this so great? It's just generic Marvel Comics superhero art." But I think that Ditko's star may eventually eclipse even Kirby's just because Ditko was such a maverick. No one else could do what Ditko did; no one ever tried. The people who stepped into Jack Kirby's shoes, Buscema and Byrne and whoever, all made more or less decent stabs and drawing like Kirby. The people who drew Spider-Man after Ditko bailed didn't even make a serious attempt to draw like Ditko. John Romita made a more or less decent stab at drawing Spider-Man as Kirby might have drawn him. Since folklore tells us that Ditko got the gig because Stan thought that Jack's style was too heroic this was a very courageous choice. John Byrne makes no attempt to emulate Ditko's art style even when he's literally redrawing Ditko comic books. And Todd McFarlane only ever drew like Todd McFarlane.

So anyone can pick up The End of Spider-Man  or The Sinister Six and still be blown away by its idiosyncrasy and its weirdness and its distance from anything else there has ever been. There could never be anything else like The Amazing Spider-Man because there was no-one else like Steve Ditko.

Ditko's politics were not my politics. What I have read of Ayn Rand strikes me simply as nonsense. But Ditko's politics was never toxic in the way that Dave Sim's and Frank Miller's are arguably toxic. Not in the glory years, anyway. His recent pamphlets remind me of latter Alan Moore, trying to explain a private religion which is obvious to himself and hopelessly obscure to everyone else. But I have not read them at all closely because I find them hopelessly abstruse. Cruel people have compared them with Jack Chick's tracts; but then kind people have admitted that they admired Chick's single mindedness and directness and ability to put his beliefs across in impactful images, despite deploring those beliefs. 

Objectivism is not a political philosophy so much as a set of propositions. "I owe no one anything, and no one owes anything to me." "My only right is a fair day's pay for an honest day's work." "Fair exchange, honestly entered into by both parties, is the only basis for human relationships." "Your only duty is to be the best version of yourself you can possibly be." "Rational self-interest is the only true morality." Little of interest seems to follow: but I think I can see how the core credo would appeal to a man like Ditko. And the religion of individualism is obviously a compelling basis for heroic narrative.

And yet... Ayn Rand taught us that no man has any duty to any other man; but Spider-Man believes that with great power comes great responsibility. Why did the arch disciple of the rational conservative create a character who was, if anything, a Christian Socialist? (A Jewish Christian Socialist but let's not go there today) I am convinced that this contradiction is what makes the Very Early Spider-Man so un-repeatably, so quintessentially great. Perhaps there are two contradictory creative visions, two creators battling for the soul of Spider-Man in the actual pages of the comic book. Perhaps we are literally watching Ditko's belief that to be true to yourself is the only law colliding with Stan Lee's belief that you are responsible for every good deed at you fail to do. But perhaps Ditko intended that Peter Parker should start out believing that with great power came great responsibility so that he could spend the next 30 issues realizing what a foolish, unlivable creed that was. Perhaps Ditko created a miserable, neurotic liberal crushed by the impossible demands of liberalism so he could finally show him throwing off that unbearable burden and becoming his own man.

I work in a kids library, and the other day I saw a young lad glued to some old Spider-Man cartoons on his tablet. He didn't know about objectivism or Marvel Method or even that Aunt May had a weak heart, but he did know that Spider-Man had a red and blue costume with webbing over it, and slanty white eye pieces and swung on skyscrapers with his web and had a big red spider on his chest and stuck to walls and captured thieves just like flies. Not Galactus. Not the Shadow, Not Tarzan. Not Cerebus the Aardvark: Spider-Man.

There are not many characters who have persisted for 50 years and who we can be fully certain will persist for another 50, but Spider-Man is one of them. (So is the alien with the red cloak and the problem with his underwear; so is the guy from Baker Street with the pipe and the attitude problem. The person in the blue box with the screwdriver is reaching the end of their natural life. I will be proved right about this.)

I don't know if Ditko would have taken comfort from that. Probably not. I think his attitude was that he did a job of work 50 years ago to the best of his ability at the time, and got paid the going rate, and that's all anyone has any right to. He would have certainly been pleased that his obituarists, without exception, and in the face of decades of corporate Stanology, took it for granted that Steve Ditko was the creator, if not quite the onlie begatter of one of the most famous fictional characters in the world.

Ditko died; Spider-Man will live forever.




Please read my critical study of Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man graphic novel.

Listen, Bud....!


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Monday, July 02, 2018



Episode VIII - A Review -   

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The complete text of Andrew Rilstone's review of The Last Jedi, is now available as a handsome 64 page saddle stitched pamphlet.

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