Friday, June 15, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #33

The Final Chapter!


Villain:
Peter Parker's impostor syndrome

Supporting Cast: 
Curt Connors, Frederick Foswell, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Aunt May.

Peter Parker's Financial Situation

Peter clearly has 10 pictures. He sells them to Jameson for $100 each, which he says will be enough to buy back his scientific equipment and pay medical expenses. If he pawned his goods for about $250, this would leave $750 to pay Aunt May's medical bills. (This is broadly consistent with surgery costing $1,000 in issue #9.)



Jameson says that the pictures are really worth as much as $2,000 dollars. Since Peter has had to haggle to get him up to $1,000, Jameson must habitually pay Peter even less than 50% market value. Back in issue #2 we estimated that Jameson paid $2,000 for Peter's first pictures of the Vulture, which was perhaps close to their true value.


Chronology

If Spider-Man confronts Doctor Octopus at midnight on Saturday August 28th, this story takes place during the early hours of Sunday 29th.


p1-11 Spider-Man's escape, and his fight with the remaining minions, can only take a few minutes.

p12 "A short time later" he returns to Dr Connors.


p13 "Seconds later" he arrives at the hospital.


p14  The doctor says it will be "about two hours" before he knows if the medicine has worked. 


pp15-18 During this two hour period, Spider-Man phones Foswell, photographs the arrest of the Master Planner's men, and sells the pictures to J.J.J. (Corollary: Betty Brant and Frederick Foswell all work past midnight on a Saturday to get the Sunday edition out. Foswell was not working when Parker visited the Bugle last issue: perhaps he "clocks off" at 6PM on Saturday and returns to work at 1AM on Sunday morning?) 


p18-20 Parker is back at the hospital and the doctor confirms May will recover. Note that the Doctor tells Peter "you should be in bed" which only makes sense if it is the middle of the night.

This gives us:


Sunday 29 August 1965


Midnight - Fight with Doctor Octopus

12.15 AM - Fight with Doc Ock's remaining men
12.30 AM - Takes serum to Connors
1.00 AM - Takes serum to hospital
1.15 AM - Photographs Master Planner’s base, tips off Foswell
2.15 AM - At Daily Bugle
3.00 AM - Doctors give Aunt May the all clear
3.30 AM - Returns home

Observations


p12 "I've got to take a sample of my Spider-Man blood"


This is very confused. In issue #32 Spider-Man stole a sample of Aunt May's blood and brought it to Connors. Here, Spider-Man takes a sample of his own blood, because if the serum "works" on it, it will probably work on May as well.

"The deterioration of the blood was instantly checked when the serum was applied.” 

But Spider-Man's blood is not deteriorating: the whole point is that the radiation that gave him super-powers is making May sick.

p14 "If this can stop the deterioration of the blood then we'll be able to perform a transfusion,and she'll have a fighting chance."

If they were going to perform a blood transfusion anyway, why was the magic serum so important?

p15 "Minutes later, at the offices of the Daily Bugle, crime reporter Frederick Foswell gets an urgent call."

One of the narrative dead-ends in issue #32 was Spider-Man abducting Foswell and asking him to help in find the Master Planner's lair. There was no pay-off to this: Foswell is now back at the Bugle and has to be summonsed by Spider-Man all over again. 

p16: "They'll be a lot of bare post-office walls when those characters are taken out of circulation."

i.e. Because their faces all appear on Wanted posters.

p16 "It'll be like old home week at Sing Sing when you cut-ups come marching in."

"Old Home Week" - a municipal festival where folk who have moved away are encouraged to revisit their old home town. 

"Cut-ups" - practical jokers. 

Sing-Sing - New York's most notorious jail.


Come marching in - A reference to the old hymn. Instead of the the saints marching through the Pearly Gate, the cop is imagining the crooks marching into jail. 

Lee is quite cleverly answering a question that hadn't occurred to any of us -- where did Doc Ock get all these minions from? 

p18 "Compared to you, even Scrooge was a reckless, devil-may-care spendthrift."


This is about as close as we get to Spider-Man's sarcastic repartee -- and Peter Parker is directing it at J.J.J



Here's the thing.

I remember, vividly, reading Man on a Rampage! at the age of 9. And I remember that for years, before I knew that it was famous or iconic or well-regarded, I always thought of it as "The good Spider-Man comic" and even, disloyally, "The last good Spider-Man comic." I really cared about Peter Parker; I really hated J.J.J and Flash Thompson and it really mattered to me what happened to Aunt May.

Children are completely uncritical. I also cared a great deal about a lot of zero-quality crap that crossed my path at the same time: the Wombles and the Tomorrow People and an interminable TV series called The Long Chase about a policeman's son trying to clear his father's name. I forget what his father had been accused of.

Children find stuff in comics and books and TV shows that just isn't there. They hear every word of A.A Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, while simultaneously daydreaming a parallel Winnie-the-Pooh in their heads. Both can seem equally real. 

This is the thing I miss most about being a child.

By the time I read the Fantastic Four, I had lost my innocence. There was never a time when I didn't know that F.F #48, #49 and #50 constituted the Very Famous Galactus Trilogy or that everyone thought This Man, This Monster! was the best things Stan and Jack ever did. (This Man, This Monster! always slightly disappoints me for precisely that reason.) By the time The Eternals came into my life, I was thinking in terms of Jack "King" Kirby, as opposed to "the Thor artist who isn't the shit one". And so on through Citizen Kane and Sgt. Pepper and Hamlet.

But Amazing Spider-Man #32 I discovered for myself.  For years afterwards I was surprised when I found that anyone else knew about it. "Oh, you remember The One With Spider-Man Trapped Under The Wreckage do you? I thought it was just me."

I can remember, so clearly, reading that last page; Spider-Man unable to lift the iron girders; Aunt May plaintively calling out his name. The canister of Serum right at the front of the picture, and a tiny figure of a Spider-Man hardly visible under the heavy weight.

And the caption -- let no-one ever say that Stan Lee can't do captions -- "...Spider-Man fumes in helpless rage as the drops of water fall ever faster...ever larger...faster...larger... faster...larger!!..." .

I think it was Walter B Gibson who said that he wrote The Shadow for people whose lips moved when they were reading. St Augustine, of course, was very surprised that he couldn't hear St Ambrose reading even if he was standing right next to him. I think that there is a moment, around the age of seven or eight, when you are a confident reader, but you have not quite mastered the skill of silent reading. You are no longer speaking the words out loud, but you are still speaking them in your head. I think that is why I was able to read the War of the Worlds and Frankenstein and the Hound of the Baskervilles when I was still of an age to enjoy A Bear Called Paddington, The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle and The Wandering Wombles. I sub-vocalized long passages of text without expecting to understand it; and as a result, sometimes came across passages which I could enjoy. 

That is how I read Man on a Rampage: performing the story in my head; hearing and speaking and pronouncing each word.

"I've failed. Just when it counted most. I've failed."

And straight on to the next panel:

"Wherever you go...whatever you do...whatever befalls...this we say to you...you must not miss the next issue of Spider-Man!!!"

What?

This is a serial story?


On the letters page, Stan Lee tells us that issue #33 will feature the return of Kraven the Hunter. This re-engagement doesn't actually occur until issue #34. So it looks like the cliffhanger ending surprised Stan Lee as much as it surprised us.

We use words like "decompression" nowadays, and Ditko certainly takes plenty of time to get where he is going. He could have wound the story up in two pages, and maybe Stan expected him to. Instead, he slowly pays off all the set ups over 20 gently paced pages. Lee claims that he whooped for joy when he saw the pencils for issue #33. He had expected the escape to take maybe a panel or two: it is actually spread out over five pages.

It is hardly necessary for me to laud those five pages all over again. They are, we can all agree, stunning. Peter tries to lift the heavy weight; he can't; he collapses again. The water pours in through the ceiling. He thinks of Aunt May and Uncle Ben. He pushes hard, putting his hands on the ground to brace himself. He has the weight on his back; he lifts it; one final push; he is free. As he struggles, the panels get bigger. The panel in which Spider-Man musters his strength takes up two thirds of page 4; and as everyone knows, page 5 is a full page spread of him throwing the weight off.

Ditko is exploiting the specific power of the comic book medium, doing stuff for which there is no cinematic equivalent. A comic splits linear time into a sequence of frozen moments and places them alongside each other. Almost the whole craft of being a comic book artist lies in deciding which moments to choose and how far apart they should be. Ditko's moments get shorter and shorter; we move from accelerated time to real time to slow motion. But the physical size of the panels gets larger and larger. Time is transmuted into space; but drama is transmuted into size.

We can't see Spider-Man's face. His agony is represented only in body language. The words which Stan Lee gives him to say are not irrelevant; but the entire drama of the scene can be inferred from the pictures alone. Spider-Man is trapped. He gives up. He thinks of Ben and May. He rallies. Shifts position. Braces himself. Makes one final effort. And is free.

No-one has ever drawn anything better.

So why do I have such a clear and vivid memory of the cliffhanger, and no-particular memory of Spider-Man's escape?

I read it, of course, over and over; but I have no memory of encountering it for the first time. If anything, I think I was slightly disappointed. I somehow felt that Stan (and I still took it for granted that everything came from the heart of Stan) was cheating. For a week, I had wondered how Spider-Man could escape being trapped underneath a weight that was far too heavy for him to lift. And the solution is....he lifts the unliftable weight....by lifting it.

Isn't that a little bit too much like "and with one bound he was free"?

In the quest for the historical Stan Lee it is a good idea to apply the Criterion of Embarrassment. If Stan Lee tells a story which supports the notion that he "dreamed up" the Marvel Universe without input from any other creator, then that story is very probably false. But if he recounts an anecdote in which an artist or some other writer has substantial creative input, then that anecdote is very likely to be true. We should doubt the story about Joan Lee encouraging Sam to create the Fantastic Four to get it out of his system, because that is the kind of thing Stan's disciples would like you to believe. But we should believe the story about Steve Ditko pitching the idea of a hipster wizard called Doctor Strange without any input from Lee, because Stan's followers would have had no reason to make that story up and every reason to suppress it. 

So also in this case. Stan Lee usually claims that whatever happened was what he always intended to happen; that artists are merely the conduit along which ideas flow from his head onto the page. Why should he tell an anecdote in which he asked for a simple escape scene and Ditko provided something far, far better -- unless it is actually true?

But if it is true it follows that, even at this late stage, Lee was still feeding Ditko basic plot outlines?

It is an interesting thought.

Suppose Lee had said to Ditko "What if Aunt May fell sick again? And what if Doc Ock stole the medicine that might just save her life? What if Spider-Man were trapped under a heavy weight, and the medicine were just out of reach?" (It would make sense that the double McGuffin was Lee's idea: he used a similar motif in Fantastic Four Annual #6.) Suppose Lee had said "...and then, with supreme effort, Spider-Man shifts the heavy weight..." and Ditko had thought "That is an incredibly weak solution... But if I dial the agony right up to 11, I think I can make it work."

Pure conjecture, of course.

I am no longer nine years old. I can now appreciate the metaphor and subtext that Ditko crams into the scene. Spider-Man isn't just trapped under the wreckage of Doctor Octopus's base: he is trapped under his guilt at allowing Uncle Ben to die and indirectly causing Aunt May's illness. He doesn't merely lift the physical weight; he finally learns how to carry, and cast off, that guilt.

The idea that Spider-Man is a Christ figure is one of the wrongest ideas that anyone has ever had. There is absolutely no sense in which Spider-Man suffers vicariously, or offers himself for anybody else. And equally, there is no sense that there is Anyone else who can bear the guilt on his behalf. Peter Parker is conventionally religious: he says that he is going to pray for Aunt May, but only after he has done everything physically possible to save her himself. (Similarly, the doctors say that she is in God's hands only after they have reached the limits of their medical knowledge.) But if anything, Spider-Man is an anti-Christ figure. He isn't acting out of cosmic self-giving love, but out of rational self-interest. He isn't bearing the sins of the world; but his own. The only one who benefits from his suffering is Aunt May -- and he wants her to stay alive because he couldn't stand the pain and guilt if she dies. True, he once shed his blood for Aunt May: but it's that very blood which is going to kill her. (I suppose that makes the serum an anti-eucharist.) If we are looking for mythological antecedents (and considering Ditko's enthusiasm for Ayn Rand) we would be better off comparing him with the mythical Titan who is condemned through his own egotism to carry the sky on his back.

But really, none of this is necessary. He isn't the messiah: he's just a very strong kid who'll do anything, literally anything, to stop his mummy from dying.

(continues)