Friday, January 18, 2019

Amazing Spider-Man #39/#40

How Green Was My Goblin?

Norman Osborn / Green Goblin

Supporting Cast:
Dr Bromwell, Gwen Stacey, Flash Thompson, Harry Osborn, Ned Leeds, J.Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Mrs Watson, Betty Brant.

Peter Parker's Financial Situation
Peter sells J.J.J. four pictures of Spider-Man fighting some crooks, and guesses that he is only getting half what they are worth.

In #33, he sold Jonah pictures of the Master Planner for $100 each, although Jonah admitted that they were worth twice that. So it appears that Peter Parker underestimates the value of his work, selling pictures for $50 a print, while believing them to be worth $100 even though their true value to Jonah is $200. If this is correct, he still gets $200 for the four pictures: not bad for an hour's work.

Peter has enough money to see a doctor with a simple cold; perhaps he has acquired comprehensive medical insurance as part of his college scholarship.

"A few weeks" have passed since Spider-Man's encounter with Prof. Stromm.

We have dated #38 to October 19th 1965; #37 (the Stromm story) took place only a few days earlier, which would place this #39
 in the second week of November 1965. 

However when Aunt May mistakes the smoke from the Goblin's glider for fog she says "It was a clear spring night not a few minutes ago!"

Amazing Spider-Man #39 has an August 1966 cover date, probably equating to June 1966 publication, in which case Lee was probably writing it in April of that year. (He announced Ditko's departure to a student audience in March 1966.) So although it will be published in the summer, and must logically be happening in the winter, Lee is writing it in the spring. 

The Goblin's Bag of Tricks
a: The Goblin glider produces a choking smoke screen
b: "Goblin blasts" in his gloves or fingers
c: Pumpkin shaped "stun bombs"
d: A bat that goes "whirr", function unknown.
e: Battery operated bats which disrupt Spidey's field of vision
f: A ghost shaped asphyxiation grenade; specifically said to be the same kind that put the Human Torch out of action in #14.



Title: How Green Was My Goblin 
A play on the 1941 John Ford movie How Green Was My Valley. The title has no bearing on the story apart from the colour "green": it could just as well have been called "There is a Green Goblin Far Away" or "The Green Green Goblin of Home". 

p2 "I've modified my rocket powered flying broomstick..." 
The Goblin's flying device has been referred to as a "glider" since the comics code ruled that broomsticks were a bit too witchy. 

p2 "If I didn't despise that miserable misanthrope so much, I'd almost pity him." 
A misanthrope is one who hates is fellow man. Spider-Man is if anything a philanthrope; he loves his fellow man and altruistically puts his life on the line for them. The Goblin is projecting his own feelings onto others -- accusing Spider-Man of being what he himself is. Or, possibly, Stan Lee has had another vocabulary malfunction. 

p3 "I'll leave my Spidey costume in my brief case."
The costume would quite easily fit into the little case he has been carrying on his back; but it is quite hard to see how it contained shirt, trousers, waistcoat, shoes, socks and (presumably) underwear.

p3 "Of course, it could just be an allergy"  
The idea that Marvel Heroes are so realistic they even suffer from allergies is something of a proverb: but this is one of the few occasions when it is literally referred to in a story. 

p4 "You've got a whopper of a cold, son..but some anti-histamine pills and a B12 shot will have you good as new again." 
Bromwell diagnoses Peter as having a cold, rather than an allergy, but then prescribes him anti-histamines (an allergy treatment) and vitamin B12 (usually a treatment for anemia or exhaustion.) 

p6 "You mean, you're an orphan? I didn't know that about you..." 
Harry seems to be using the word "orphan" in an old-fashioned sense of "fatherless", rather than in the more common sense of someone who has lost both his parents. Peter certainly hasn't told Harry that he has no living mother. 

p7 "Who's been giving you your boxing lessons lately — Woody Allen?" 
In 1966 Woody Allen was known primarily as a stand-up comic with a nerdy persona; his first movie came out in 1965. It isn't clear why he would instantly spring to mind as a bad boxing coach. 

p 9 "What would Soupy Sales say if he heard you." 
Soupy Sales was a children's entertainer and comedian; his regular kids TV show had just come to an end. 

p9 "There's something not kosher about all this..." 
"Kosher" was widely used to mean "OK" or "above board" and probably isn't a specifically Jewish reference — despite two Jewish comedians having just been mentioned.

p9 "What a sap I am" 
"Sap" = "fool". It may possibly be military slang for "sad and pathetic" or possibly even "sad-ass prick". 

p12 "I wonder if I'll get kicked out of the superhero union for not using a phone booth." 

Clark Kent proverbially changes to Superman in a public phone box, although examples of him doing so in actual comics are suspiciously hard to come by. Note that earlier this issue Peter Parker swapped clothes in a broom closet. 

p13 "My cold seems to have gotten better" 
On page 8 Spider-Man was still speaking wid a blocked up dose. ("I've a feel'g you looked id those glasses without payi'g your dime") but 4 pages later it is all clear. Powerful stuff, vitamin B12. 

p14 "Returning home from a late date" 
Not that late. Peter went into action as Spidey right after school; there were kids in the bank; and the Bugle offices were still open. If the fight really only took an hour, it can scarcely be later than 4.30pm 

p15 "The Green Goblin! You've found me!" 
Bad form, Peter. You could at least have said "My God! I knew that dressing up as Spidey for that costume party would land me in hot water" or "Where am I? Did that rat Spider-Man drug me" or "I was only rehearsing the lines for a play.." 


p3 "That's okay Dad, I understand" 
Harry told Peter that he and his Dad were great pals until a few years ago: but the flashback scenes show that Norman was a neglectful father long before he became the Green Goblin. 

p4 "Dad have you forgotten? It's parents night at school." 
Spider-Man first encountered the Goblin about two years ago, when he was in high school, presumably aged about 16. This is consistent with Harry Osborn looking about 15 when Norman becomes the Green Goblin. 

p5  "All sorts of scientific devices in my chemical company that I could use". 
In #37, he was said to run an electronics company. 

p6: "Now for my first victim..." 
Note that the Goblin is riding his bat-winged glider, even though the early Goblin rode a broomstick. 

p17 "I must see my son. I have to help him with his bio... "
Harry needed help with his biology homework months or years before Norman became the Goblin: it would have been more logical to say "where is Harry — I promised to go to his parents evening."

Amazing Spider-Man #41 was something of a reboot. The long absent Betty Brant comes home, and promptly walks away into the sunset with Ned Leeds. Peter Parker sulks for a whole panel before falling head-over-heels in love with the still demon-horned Gwen Stacey and simultaneously agreeing to the long delayed blind date with Mary-Jane. He morphs into a hipster and buys a motorbike. ("Lady, there's a lot you don't know about me!"). A new villain, the Rhino, crashes into the story; and a new sub-plot is introduced concerning J.J.J's long-forgotten astronaut son. Stan is quite up-front about what is happening. 

"BEGINNING: A great NEW ERA in the ever-changing life of the world's most amazing web-spinner: 
SEE the return of Betty Brant and the startling result that follows! 
SEE the surprise appearance of J. Jonah Jameson's astronaut son! 
SEE the most exciting new purchase Peter Parker ever made!" 

And of course, SEE some kid called John Romita trying to draw as much like Ditko as possible. 

But Amazing Spider-Man #41 is two months in the future. John Romita arrived, with relatively little fanfare, in issue #39. Why did Stan Lee not herald that issue as the beginning of the exciting new era? 

Presumably, because Ditko had left unfinished business; business that Lee wanted to clear up as quickly and simply as possible. Amazing Spider-Man #39 and #40 are interim, transitional issues. #41 is the relaunch.

As has been noted previously: Steve Ditko nearly always put the "next issue" box at the bottom of the final panel; even if that panel was only one ninth of the page. This is also how Kirby did things; and it will be how Romita generally works. When the "next issue" box is placed on a quarter or half page spread -- as with Amazing Spider-Man #27 and #32, and indeed Fantastic Four #48 -- I will always suspect that this was not where the comic was originally supposed to end. When the first page of part 2 is simply the last panel of part 1 redrawn on a larger scale, I become even more suspicious. And when the "next issue" text partially covers the face of one of the main characters, my suspicions are totally confirmed. 

Amazing Spider-Man #39 and #40 must have been created as a single comic and then split in two. If you doubt me, read them consecutively, ignoring the "next issue" call out and skipping the splash page, and see how much more sense they make. 

"It's the real face of the Green Goblin...the face of Norman Osborn."

"Those features! That name! Of course -- you're related to one of my own classmates!! You're Harry Osborn's father!"

"You shouldn't have mentioned Harry! Why do you remind me of him?"

Did Stan Lee, at some point, intend to wrap up the dangling Ditko plot threads in an annual or a special; and introduce Romita with a big splash starting on #39? Is it even possible that Romita was brought in to redraw #39/#40 after Stan Lee rejected Ditko's version, and was asked to stay on as the regular illustrator when Ditko walked out?

We don't know. It is another part of the intractable enigma of Ditko's departure.

I will say this for Amazing Spider-Man #39: it has a wonderful cover. It hits us in the face with three sensational developments, and teases us with a fourth. The Green Goblin is back; the Green Goblin has defeated Spider-Man and the Green Goblin knows that Spider-Man is Peter Parker. A very small line of text, at the bottom of the page, promises us a fourth surprise: we are going to finally find out who the Green Goblin is. 

It is hard to convey just how shocking this cover is when your grandfather hands it to you on a Saturday evening, along with your weekly ration of mint humbugs. In latter days, quite a lot of people found out who Spider-Man really was -- in the movies he is happy to rip off his mask in front of anyone and everyone. But in those days it was still the ultimate taboo. In this single image the Goblin is transfigured from the one villain whose identity Spider-Man does not know to the one villain who knows Spider-Man's identity.

But, sadly, very little comes of this sensational set-up. The Green Goblin discovers Spider-Man's true identity but within a few pages he forgets it. And until 1968, there the matter rests.

There are three components to any Spider-Man story: the pictures, the dialog, and the plot.

No-one need have any complaint about John Romita's pictures. He does his best to invoke Steve Ditko's iconography. His college scenes and Daily Bugle scenes could pass for Ditko if you weren't paying close attention. But that particular New York back street noir that Ditko excelled at is gone for good: Romita's New York is pretty much just a collection of gray skyscrapers, a painted backdrop for a student production of West Side Story. Ditko's thrilling aerial ballets have also departed: Spidey nonchalantly dangles on his webs with no particular sense of momentum. On the other hand, Romita is pretty good at crowd scenes: the civilians who watch Spider-Man fight the bank robbers have consistent faces and definite personalities.

The dialog is quintessential Stan Lee. There is an awful lot of it, and it is nearly all snappy; swinging between the melodramatically tragic and the tragically hip. There isn't that much Spider-repartee: the stakes are so high that the Goblin mostly talks like a James Bond villain while Spider-Man has an internal monologue about how much trouble he is in. 

"My compliments, Spider-Man. Too bad your power is not the equal to your courage." 

"He's toying with me! He feels so confident that he's warning me advance!" 

Ditko used to draw stuff that wasn't in Stan Lee's plot synopsis; but we should remember that Stan Lee often writes stuff which isn't in the pictures. This issue feels exceptionally dense in that regard. Romita hasn't bothered to keep up the running joke of giving J.J.J. a new secretary every month, so Lee drops in a little speech bubble where he references an off-stage "Miss Brown". Romita shows a mother and child in the crowd during the bank robbery, and Lee uses text to create a tiny little sub-plot for them. 

"Don't look at them Selwyn... you're too young for such an awful sight."

"Aww Ma...that fight's tame next to the kiddie shows on TV"

And in the next panel

"Wait ma... lemmee stay! It's just starting to get good!" 

"Selwyn! What would Soupy Sales say if he heard you?" 

(There seems to be quite a laboured in-joke going on here. The first season of Adam West's Batman TV series, with its famously camp fight scenes, had just finished its first run; and Marvel was gearing up to release The Marvel Superheroes cartoon series in the autumn. There were inevitable complaints about TV violence -- the UK version of Batman had to carry warnings telling kids not to try and emulate Batman's stunts. Selwyn's Mum considers Soupy Sales -- and old fashioned pie-in-the-face children's comedian -- to be a much more wholesome TV star. But the previous year, Sales had himself been accused of being a bad influence on children when he jokingly suggested that they should steal money from their parents and send it to him.)

Perhaps the best example of words and pictures working in conjunction comes during the Goblin's long monologue in issue #40. As Osborn, he repeatedly insists that he was an excellent father to Harry, while the pictures tell a different story: he was a neglectful father even before he became the Goblin. (Stan Lee makes it quite clear that Osborn is an unreliable narrator: could we legitimately infer that Prof. Stromm's exploding green potion had nothing to do with the Goblin's genesis? Osborn was a bastard before the flask blew up in his face, and he remained a bastard afterwards.)

But the actual story -- the plot -- is feeble, internally inconsistent, and padded. Peter Parker has a cold; the doctor gives him some pills; but warns him to protect Aunt May from any shocks or surprises. He goes to college: Harry Osborn is uncharacteristically pleasant and tells him how distant his father has become lately. Spider-Man fights some crooks, who turn out to be in the pay of the Green Goblin: they spray him with an incredibly contrived McGuffin (literally described as "The Gimmick") which deactivates his Spider-Sense. The Goblin follows him to the Daily Bugle and back to his house. At the Bugle, Ned Leeds is uncharacteristically pleasant, and Peter agrees to step aside and let Ned marry Betty if and when she comes home. There is a medium sized fight outside Aunt May's house, which ends with the Goblin knocking Spider-Man out with a special knocky-out-Spider-Man weapon. Why he didn't use it in the first place, no-one knows. Everything which has happened in the issue is a mechanical set up for the final page. The only reason that Peter Parker has a cold is to establish that Aunt May will die if she discovers Peter Parker's secret. ("Now, more than ever, I must see to it that she never learns my secret identity!") The cold magically goes away once Doc Bromwell has dispensed his plot point. The only reason for the college scene is to remind us that Harry has a father and that his father is not very nice. And the only reason for the bank robbery is so the thugs can use The Gimmick. There was a time when Spider-Man could beat up six criminals in a couple of panels; but this fight is padded out to five pages. It takes Peter another whole page to get out of his Spider-Man suit and into his street clothes. 

The reason for this is not hard to guess. For a year at the very least, Stan Lee has not been writing Spider-Plots; and from the very beginning, all the legwork was being done by Ditko. Romita is a perfectly fine illustrator, but he is not a writer. Lee has, I suppose, presented Romita with a Marvel Method outline and Romita has illustrated that outline. But he is not Ditko. He doesn't put stuff into the story which Stan hadn't even thought of. He just draws what Stan gives him. And Stan has given him so little that he has to take everything very slowly. A trip to the doctor's takes two pages and a routine fight with some thugs takes six. Stan Lee can see what everyone else can see: that it looks very pretty -- maybe prettier, in any conventional sense, than Ditko -- but it's very thin stuff. So he goes all out with the dialog; with adjectives and subplots and digressions. Look at the first panel on page 8: I make it four different NPCs who speak; on top of two bubbles worth of internal monologue from Spider-Man.

The Green Goblin's whole personality has been subsumed in his hatred for Spider-Man. Back in #28, he swore that he would never rest until Spider-Man was defeated; he is now ranting that "merely destroying him....simply crushing him like a worm...will not give me enough satisfaction." 

There is really no way to reconcile this with Norman Osborn's rather cold blooded monologue in issue #37: "Spider-Man almost ruined everything...Now his suspicions are aroused he must be disposed of" and again in #38 "I'm prepared to pay handsomely to insure that Spider-Man never interferes with me again." Osborn regarded killing Spider-Man as a means to an end; the Goblin regards defeating him as an end in itself. (In #38, Osborn was disguising himself with a false beard and dark glasses before meeting the mob; but sometime in the intervening period he has openly met with the bank robbers as the Goblin to give them the special Spider-Man-Defeating-Gimmick.)

I do not say that these different stories cannot be harmonized: any two contradictory stories can be harmonized. It helps that the Goblin is mad, maybe even schizophrenic. Perhaps the Osborn of Once Upon a Time There Was a Robot is not consciously aware of his Goblin persona. I do say that I wouldn't be trying to think up harmonizations if I wasn't looking at two texts which obviously contradict each other. 

In future installments Stan Lee will extract a large amount of suspense from the fact that Osborn knows who Parker is. But in this issue the Goblin, having discovered Peter Parker's name, his address, and his place of work follows him home and starts a fight with him. Think of all the horrid things he could have done. Gone to his friend Jonah and sold him the secret for a billion dollars. Told Spider-Man that if he didn't help him become Kingpin of Crime he'd tell Aunt May on him. Murdered one of his best friends. (Gwen Stacey, to take a random example.) But no. They have a fight.

Having captured Spider-Man, the Goblin goes full Republic Serial Villain. He decides that he might as well tell Spider-Man the whole story since he will never be able to share it with anyone else. The whole story is not very interesting: Norman Osborn was a nasty businessman; while working on an experiment some Green chemicals blew up in his face. He went mad and decided he might as well become a gangster. While he is talking, Spider-Man is trying to get free; but the Goblin decides to free him anyway. They have another fight. Parker is a bit stuck: he can't kill the Goblin in cold blood, particularly not now he knows he is Harry's dad; but if he doesn't kill him, he will reveal his identity to the police. Fortunately his adversary falls into a pile of chemicals which explode, and he forgets having been the Goblin altogether. 

Can you say "deus ex machina"

Romita spends a whole page showing us Spider-Man changing back to Peter Parker after the fight. Stan Lee has to give Peter Parker something to say during that clothes-change, and it can't very well be "Gotta grab my yellow shirt. Left arm, right arm, now the buttons..." So he starts to whinge. And whine. And waffle. 

"I've got to get to my room through the back window and change up there! Poor Aunt May! If..if anything HAPPENS I'll never FORGIVE myself! It will be because she was worried about ME! Why must I HURT everything I touch?? Uncle Ben! Betty Brant!! And now...Aunt May! Betty's female intuition must have made her leave me! She must have FELT that I'd bring nothing but HEARTACHE to those I love! The Amazing Spider-Man! ! Able to climb FIGHT, to RUN to THINK better and faster than any dozen ordinary men! Even those who HATE me envy my powers! My POWERS! What a JOKE! I sometimes think they've proven to be nothing but a CURSE! I'd change place with almost ANY normal everyday man! At least AUNT MAY wouldn't have to suffer for my secret!" 

This really makes no sense in terms of what has just happened. Peter Parker hasn't done anything wrong; he didn't phone home because he was unconscious and tied up by a psychopath who wanted to murder him. It might be that Doc Bromwell's warning about not giving Aunt May any shocks should have caused him to quit being Spider-Man (again) but if that isn't possible then there is no point in going off on a self-accusatory aria about a curse. Ditko ended the story of Spider-Man with him casting off his guilt, literally and metaphorically; but Stan Lee has redefined him as the character who whinges and whines and is guilty about anything everything. The Master Planner Trilogy basically never happened. 

In a sense, this isn't Stan Lee's fault. It was always going to be the case that the Master Planner trilogy would have been scribbled out, erased and overwritten. By 1966 Spider-Man was no-longer an experimental graphic novel: it was Marvel Comics biggest meal ticket, an ongoing saga that would clock up fifty, a hundred, five hundred more issues. And if there is one thing which an ongoing saga can never have, it's a Final Chapter.

And come back in a weeks time for the very, very final installment of the Spider-Project.

A Prolegomena To Any Future Discussion of the Green Goblin

Where were were on the morning Ditko quit?

Spider-Man #9

First appearance of Electro.

The reader is told in flashback that Electro is an electrical engineer named Max Dillon.

When Spider-Man unmasks Electro, he exclaims: "If this was a movie I'd gasp in horror and then I'd say 'Good heavens! The Butler! But this guy I never saw before.'"

Spider-Man #10

First appearance of the Big Man.

Both the reader and Spider-Man are encouraged to believe that the Big Man is J. Jonah Jameson; in a last minute twist, he is revealed to be Bugle report Frederick Foswell.

Spider-Man #14:

First appearance of the Green Goblin.

The reader sees the Goblin in his "shadowy, basement laboratory"; but his face is obscured (by a shadow and a piece of machinery) when he takes his mask off.

Spider-Man Annual #1

The Goblin is featured in a portfolio of Spider-Man villains. His anonymity is treated as his Unique Selling Point: "Unlike most of Spidey's other foes, the true identity of the Green Goblin is still unknown." 

Spider-Man #17

Second appearance of the Green Goblin.

The reader once again sees the Green Goblin in his lair, plotting his revenge on Spider-Man. Again, his face his obscured (behind the same piece of hi-tech as before.)

We also get a back view of the Goblin in an ordinary brown suit and purple hat but his hair is blacked out, so we don't know what colour or style it is.

Spider-Man #19 

The reader sees a rich figure in a green dressing grown plotting against Spider-Man. His face is concealed from the reader by a shadow.

Spider-Man #20

The mysterious figure in a dressing gown is revealed to be J. Jonah Jameson.

Spider-Man #23

Third appearance of the Green Goblin (we do not see him with his mask off).

First appearance of The Important Man At J.J.J's club. He wears a purple suit, has distinct reddish curled hair, and doesn't get any lines.
Spider-Man #25

Second appearance of Curly Haired Club Man.

Peter Parker sees him leaving J.J.J's office (having just taken out an advert in the paper). J.J.J says "See you at the club tonight" and Peter Parker identifies him as "someone important."

Spider-Man #26/#27

Final appearance of the Green Goblin during the Ditko era.

The Green Goblin is said to have revealed is secret identity to the Crime Master; but the Crime Master dies before revealing it.

At the end of the story the reader sees the Goblin holding his mask in the air, vowing revenge on Spider-Man. His face is obscured by shadow.

A false trail is laid suggesting to both Spider-Man and the reader that the Crime Master is Frederick Foswell. He turns out to be a gangster known to the police and Jameson but not to Peter Parker.

Parker says:

"It's kinda funny: in real life when a villain is unmasked he isn't always the butler or the one you  suspected! sometimes he's a man you didn't even know." 

Third apperance of Important Curly Haired Club Man.

Spider-Man #31

First appearance of Harry Osborn.

Harry is a minor character who replaced "Seymour" as Flash Thompson's accomplice. He wears a bow tie and has Curly Red Hair.

First appearance of The Master Planner.

The reader hears the Master Planner making masterful plans. The reader does not discover the Master Planner's identity -- we appear to hear his monologues from outside his secret base.

Spider-Man #32

The Master Planner's identity is revealed: he is Doctor Octopus.

Spider-Man #36

First and hopefully only appearance of The Looter.

The reader sees Norman Fester acquiring super strength and taking on the identity of the Looter.

When Spider-Man unmasks the Looter, he has no idea who Fester is, exclaiming "I never saw him before in my life...The police will know how to identify him."

Spider-Man #37

First appearance and death of Prof. Stromm.

Important Red Haired Man From Club identified as Norman Osborn, former business partner of Prof. Stromm.

Important Red Haired Man From Club also identified as Father of Harry Osborn.

Prof. Stromm has a secret which no-one else knows, but is murdered by Norman Osborn before he can reveal it.

Spider-Man #38

Norman Osborn places a bounty on Spider-Man's head. He disguises himself in a green business suit, dark glasses and false beard before doing so.

On the morning Ditko quit, the question of the origin and identity of the Green Goblin stood as follows:
  • No-one knows who the Green Goblin is. The one person who ever knew, the Crime Master, is dead. 
  • The Green Goblin is someone who's face is worth hiding from the reader. 
  • Norman Osborn is the father of a minor character, Flash Thompson's wing-man, Harry. 
  • Norman Osborn is a close friend of J. Jonah Jameson.
  • Norman Osborn is Not Very Nice. 
  • Norman Osborn has some means of silently escaping from upper windows without a ladder or rope. 
  • Norman Osborn is strong enough to knock out Spider-Man.
  • Norman Osborn stole unspecificed inventions from Prof. Stromm, and then framed him for an unspecified crime. 
  • Norman Osborn has unspecified "plans" which he feels both Prof. Stromm and Spider-Man could interfere with.
  • Norman Osborn does not mention any previous history with Spider-Man, even in his internal monologues.
  • Norman Osborn has a big secret, one which he was prepared to murder Stromm in order to conceal.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Amazing Spider-Man #38

Just a Guy Named Joe

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.)

#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".

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 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...

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.

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.


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.


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.


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


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


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


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?


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?



Sunday, December 30, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #36

Where Falls The Meteor

The Looter [Meteor Man] Norton G. Fester

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

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.

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 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.