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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Friday, June 29, 2018

The Love You Take....

Pages 1-5 of Amazing Spider-Man #33 are so iconic that it is easy to forget that pages 6-20 exist. It is a little disconcerting to see Spider-Man limping away after his Big Moment, literally hugging the serum to his body. 

Ditko doesn't let him off the hook. He's swept away as water floods the base; he's attacked by two underwater Minions in scuba gear and ten more on dry land. It takes him as long to get out of the base as it did for him to lift the wreckage. But the atmosphere is different. These pages are exhilarating to read because we know now that Spidey will win through. 

The standard advice to a writer would be to wrap-up the story straight after the final crisis: and Ditko certainly could have shown Spider-Man swinging off into the sunset with the serum in his hand. But these pages are indispensable, in the same way that Spidey Strikes Back is an indispensable part of The End of Spider-Man. Spider-Man has passed the test, and we now see him claiming the reward. Perhaps because it is less famous, the final fight with the purple minions -- in which Spidey continues to punch empty air even after he has knocked out all his opponents -- strikes me as even more powerful than the great lifting scene. Tired and injured, he takes on a dozen men, clinging to his new found identity --

"I'm Spider-Man! And I'm not going to fail! I'm not! I'm not..."

Ditko makes us wait while Connors mixes his potions together; and makes us wait to find out if the alchemical potion really cures Aunt May; and makes us watch as Spider-Man goes back and photographs the crime scene. Embedded in Ditko's great moral climax is one of Stan Lee's all time great comedy one-liners. Look at J.J.J. grinning when he hears that Foswell has a got a big news story, and look at Betty Brant's reaction... 

"Mr Jameson! You're smiling! Is anything wrong?"

There is one loose end to tie off and it is what convinces me more than anything else that The Final Chapter was intended to be, well, the final chapter. Again, look at the pictures of Peter Parker at the Bugle and ignore the dialogue. Parker slouching, with his back to Betty, just like the last time he saw her, and the time before that. Betty sees him; she runs to him. He doesn't want to see her. We see the back of his head as it passes off panel. The camera spins round: now we're standing behind Betty; looking at her looking at Peter. This is the first time we've seen his face since the great ordeal; the first time in 30 pages he's taken his mask off. He's got bruises all over his face. And Betty freaks out. Of course she does.

Betty's situation hasn't changed. She has hated Peter Parker's dangerous work, which is connected in her mind with her brother Bennet's gang murder, since issue #13 at least. But this impressionistic panel crystallizes it. She remembers Bennet's shooting; and somehow his face morphs into Peter Parker's.

Three times before, Peter Parker has walked away from Betty, ending the relationship even though he wants it to continue; and each time Betty has come back, affecting to not quite understand what the problem is. This time she runs away from him.

Ned isn't mentioned. He was only ever an excuse. It's over.

One last thing. 

Peter Parker is Ditko's surrogate and Spider-Man is Stan Lee's surrogate and this story is all about Peter. But there is also a sense in which the relationship between the studious, bespectacled, talented freelancer and the mean, blustersome, cigar-chomping editor reflects that between Steve Ditko and his boss Stan Lee. And so before we go, Peter wins a small victory over Jonah. He finally has some good pictures, of the Purple Minions being arrested. "I want a hundred dollars each..." he says "Or I'll peddle them elsewhere." And Jameson pays him his money. I think on my first reading this moment pleased me more than all the others. 

And so we are back at the hospital, and Ditko continues to milk it; the young doctor seeing Peter's physical state and insisting on checking him out before Aunt May's results come through, and of course, it's good news. "With luck, we expect her to pull through." And for my money, that's the one panel which justifies The Master Planner Trilogy's reputation as the greatest comic book story of all time. Not Spider-Man listing the really heavy weight, but Peter Parker looking at Aunt May's bed. It doesn't just wind up the Very Famous Master Planner Trilogy, it winds up the whole story of Spider-Man. 

"I didn't let you down this time, Aunt May. I didn't fail you."

And Peter Parker walks off into the distance, and doctor pulls down the blind. The end.

We see the doctor's hands from off panel: Aunt May is in the foreground. It always feels awkward when speech bubbles come from off-panel: it makes the words seem at odds with the picture. Has Stan Lee missed the point again? Did Ditko, perchance, intend to give the last word to Peter Parker?

Still, like a Shakespearean chorus the doctor sums up and he is both right and wrong. Right that Peter is a nice guy; right that he's the real hero; right even that it's him, not Spider-Man who we should admire. We could even see his words as a riposte to the hacks on the letters page who want more Spidey and less Peter. Too bad they can't accept that it's Peter's comic. But the doctor is wrong to praise Peter at Spider-Man's expense and quite wrong to think of Spider-Man as a thrill seeker. 

Spider-Man, the TV star. Spider-Man the self-publicist. Spider-Man the boastful braggart. Spider-Man did his bravest ever deed at the bottom of the ocean at the dead of night. No-one will ever know. 

The end.

This has been the last part of "Listen Bud!", Andrew Rilstone's exposition of the first thirty three episodes of The Amazing Spider-Man by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, begun on 23 May 2016.

Thank you to the 40 readers who donated a total of $300 a month to keep this project happening. If you enjoy what I am doing, it would be great if you could join them.

I am going to be soliciting feedback from Patreon backers about what projects I embark on next, so now would be a great time to jump on board. You'll also get occasional little treats, like free e-book collections of my writing, and the right to by book versions at reduced rates. 

But whether you support me financially or not thanks to everyone for sticking around for this project; it's something I've wanted to do for years, and I don't think anything quite like it has been tried before. 

I am not completely done with Spidey: there a several supplementary essays in the pipeline.

As a very great man once said: Excelsior! 

It’s not just what you’re born with
It’s what you choose to bear
It’s not how big your share is
It’s how much you can share
It’s not the fights you dreamed of
It’s those you really fought
It’s not what you’ve been given
It’s what you do with what you’ve got

                                      Si Kahn

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Boy, You're Gonna Carry That Weight....

In issue #14, the Enforcers and the Green Goblin trapped Spider-Man in a cave by pushing a giant boulder in front of the entrance. Spider-Man has to enlist the aid of the Hulk to free himself. We therefore estimated that he must be able to lift about 750lbs: not quite as strong as four adult males. In issue #32 we saw him throwing a car without much effort, which suggests he is actually able to lift as a much as a ton (2000lb.) But if the wreckage he is trapped under at the end of #32 literally "outweighs a a locomotive" then it must weigh 200 tons (400,000lb; 180,000 kg) at the very least. Some spiders can lift 170 times their body weight, so if Spider-Man really has the proportional strength of a spider, he should be able to lift 30,000 lbs or 15 tons -- a lot more than a car but still a lot less than a loco.

Certainly a person can push themselves to lift maybe ten or twenty percent more than they are usually capable of. In crisis situations, they may be able to perform even more impressive feats. Jack Kirby claimed to have had the idea for the Incredible Hulk when he witnessed a young woman lift an auto-mobile to save a baby trapped underneath it. But if the wreckage really weighs as much as a train then Spider-Man is exceeding his normal capability by a factor of a hundred. How does he achieve this feat?

Simple answer: Because Doctor Octopus.

From the beginning, the main theme of Amazing Spider-Man has been perseverance. This is why he is Spider-Man and not Fly-Man or Beetle-Man. Spiders sit in caves with Scottish monarchs, failing to spin their webs but try, try, trying again. Spiders are not deterred when the rain comes down and washes them out. They simply wait for the sun to come out and dry up all the rain. Then they climb up the spout all over again. 

In opposition to this stands Otto Octavius. He is the accusatory voice which tells Peter Parker that he is a no-good impostor who needs to quit, externalized and given physical form. Every time Doctor Octopus appears, Peter Parker experiences a crisis of confidence and is ready to give up being a superhero. And on two previous occasions, an encounter with Doc Ock has coincided with Peter Parker losing his spider-powers.

The last five pages of issue #32 take Spider-Man to the point of utter despair. ("I've failed! Just now, when it counted most! I've failed!") and the first five page of #33 take him to his ultimate moral victory ("I did it! I'm free!"). Freeing himself from the 200 tons of metal is not merely an act of physical strength: it is act of self-belief and moral courage. It is the supreme example of spidery perseverance. 

As we have shown, Spider-Man's powers must come from an external source, a psychic resource we have called the Spider-Force. Self-doubt inhibits Spider-Man's ability to channel the Spider-Force; and the proximity of Doctor Octopus induces self-doubt. 

In Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, shortly before fighting Doctor Octopus, Peter Parker wished that his spider-powers would go away. And, sure enough, they did. He faced Electro, believing himself to be powerless and expecting to die, because it was the right thing to do. His powers returned. He became Spider-Man again because he had shown that he was Spider-Man with or without the powers.

Amazing Spider-Man #33 invokes the same principle. He consciously channels the Spider-Force; invoking his Spider-Strength as if it were a patron deity. He has previously talked frivolously about how nice things ought to happen to nice people and that the universe is unfair because he brushes his teeth and eats his breakfast cereal but still isn't rich. Today he says the same thing in deadly earnest:

"And now I've got to call on all that strength...all the power...that I possess! I must prove equal to the task...I must be worthy of that strength..or else I don't deserve it!"

This is infant school morality scrawled across the heavens. It's only one step up from the Little Engine Who Could. You don't train for a football match so that you will be be fitter and more skillful than the opposition; you train because training is morally virtuous. You don't study for a test to improve your intelligence or learn the answers; you study because it is hard work and hard work is praiseworthy. God rewards the virtuous with trophies and good test results. (More darkly, it is morally virtuous to look both ways before crossing the road; and God will punish wicked children by killing them in car accidents. And serve them right!)

Spider-Man probably comes from a Jewish heritage, but he is also an American and this way of thinking is deeply Calvinistic. Trying to lift heavy weights, even when there is no hope, shows that you are one of the Elect. But there is no hint of Evangelicalism; no God who will forgive a young superhero for a single thoughtless act. The Spider-Force is a jealous God, punishing the aunts for the sins of their nephews.

The weight is not the problem. It is heavy, but well within Spider-Man's capacity to budge. The "more than a locomotive" thing is his despair talking. The problem is doubt. Once again, Doctor Octopus has cut Peter Parker off from the Spider-Force. What is trapped under the wreckage is not a superhero, just a not-particularly-fit seventeen year old boy.

And perhaps that teenager remembers what Johnny Storm, who he so dislikes, told him the very first time Doctor Octopus shattered his self-belief:

"Don't be discouraged if it sometimes seems tough! The important thing is never give up! Remember that..never give up!..."

He certainly seems to echo those words today:

"I'm not giving up! I'm not...I'm not! I'll keep fighting no matter what! I won't give up! I won't! I won't! I won't! Nobody can make me give up!"

It is a normal teenage boy who declares that he is Spider-Man and wants to be Spider-Man. And once that happens, his connection to the Spider-Force is re-established. His strength returns. Doctor Octopus vanishes from the story for years.

Of course, some people might say that the strength of a superhero is never all that consistent; that Spider-Man is as strong or as weak as the story needs him to be; that he can lift two hundred tons because its artistically right.

Aye. And that's true too.


There is currently on sale a children's book which retells the origins of Spider-Man and Iron Man. It presents Amazing Fantasy #15 as a simple moral parable.

"Through the haze of his grief, Peter realized something. He had not chosen these abilities but it was his obligation to use them for good. It was not about the money or fame or any of the other rewards his power could give him. He had finally realized that what his Uncle Ben had told him was true: with great power comes great responsibility. And that was the rule Peter Parker lived by from that day forward." 

This is utterly at odds with the story presented in Amazing Spider-Man #1 - #33.

Ben Parker is not Thomas Wayne and the Burglar is not Joe Chill. Uncle Ben's death is never represented as a transformative moment for Peter Parker. It is always represented as a burden which he must carry. He wants to save Aunt May so he will no longer be haunted by the death of Uncle Ben.

Haunted. Uncle Ben is a ghost and The Final Chapter is an exorcism.

Doctor Octopus represents and personifies Peter Parker's self-doubt. But Uncle Ben is the psychological Achilles heel which he exploits. When Spider-Man wished his powers away in the first annual, it was Uncle Ben he was thinking of. The first words of the first issue of Spider-Man make that connection very clear indeed: "Uncle Ben is dead, and it's all my fault...My Spider-Man costume. I wish there was no such thing." 

Uncle Ben is not Spider-Man's inspiration and moral compass. He is his albatross. His kryptonite. The memory of Uncle Ben is the thing which prevents Peter Parker from fully becoming Spider-Man.

Peter says that if Aunt May dies it will be his fault. It really, really won't be. He has done everything he could possibly do to get his hands on the serum, selling all his material possessions, losing his friends and his lover, putting his life on the line and struggling to the point of physical exhaustion.

But then, he was never really responsible for the death of Uncle Ben. A bad man made a bad choice to commit a bad act. How many thousands of other people are more responsible than Peter Parker for facilitating that one man's bad choice? The economic system which made him poor? The teachers who failed to teach him right from wrong? Uncle Ben himself for choosing not to stay late at the factory that night? And what if no matter how much the burglar wanted to commit an armed robbery he couldn't have laid hands on a gun?

Parker didn't have more responsibility to trip or hold the man he saw running from the policeman at the TV studio because he had feet which stick to walls. He had the same responsibility as everybody else. And if he had the responsibility to help that cop, he had the responsibility to help every other cop in New York.

But that idea of responsibility runs counter to everything Steve Ditko believed. To the Randian objectivist:

"Every man is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life."

The death of Uncle Ben has given Peter Parker a false sense of responsibility; a responsibility he can never live up to. He is trying to carry an unbearable weight. That is what makes him miserable. That his where what-he-calls "the Parker luck" comes from. That his why it sometimes seems to him that in becoming Spider-Man he lost the capacity to be happy.

Peter Parker did not kill his foster father. And if he did, no amount of freelance superheroing could atone for it. If you want a Christian message, there it is: good works can't save you.

Peter Parker says that he "can't bear the thought of failing Aunt May the way I once failed Uncle Ben." And then he says that the "the weight is unbearable". And the physical strain of lifting the unliftable weight: that's "unbearable" too.

Unbearable. Unbearable. Unbearable.

And yet he bears them.

Peter Parker brought the weight of the underwater base down on himself, by recklessly throwing heavy machinery at Doctor Octopus while he was trying to escape. The situation he is in is his own fault: he traps himself. But Parker is an egotist. He thinks he has the right to be happy. He thinks that things are supposed to go his way. When they do not, he thinks that the universe has singled him out for misfortune. Believing himself defeated, he attributes malignant agency to the serum itself.

And the language he uses is highly significant:

"It's lying there...just beyond reach...as though mocking me...taunting me..."

What was it he said, all those years ago, the very first thing we ever heard him say?

"Some day I'll show them. Some day they'll be sorry! Sorry they laughed at me!" 

And so the saga of Spider-Man has come full circle.

(to be concluded)

Friday, June 15, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #33

The Final Chapter!

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.


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


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!!!"


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.


Friday, June 08, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #32

Man on a Rampage!


The Master Planner (Doctor Octopus)

Supporting Cast:

Betty Brant, Ned Leeds, Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Dr Bromwell, Curt Connors, Frederick Foswell

Peter Parker's financial position:

In order to pay for the ISO-36, Peter Parker pawns science equipment, including his microscope.

In 2018, Lidl will sell you a microscope for under £50. But the instrument which Uncle Ben gave Peter in Amazing Fantasy #15 was not a toy, but an aspirational gift for a scholarship candidate. In the corresponding scene in Ultimate Spider-Man, Peter gets a computer. So the microscope probably cost the equivalent of £500 in today's money: the sort of sum they'd have to save for, but not wildly beyond their means.

A pawnbroker buys goods at slightly less than market value, but charges you high interest if you want them back. If the microscope cost Uncle Ben $90 in 1963, it's hard to see how Peter could have pawned if for more than $70. The box he is carrying wouldn't hold more than 4 pieces of equipment, so he probably comes away with not more than $250.

He says he is combining this with the money he has in the bank, which is presumably the ?$250 he got for the photos of the Cat in issue #30, so he doesn't end up with more than $500, which would hardly cover hospital bills and an expensive new medicine. 

But he actually tells Connors that he is going to obtain "expense money"; and the courier who delivers the serum says that Connors is paying a "high premium price for its delivery". So, clearly, the West Coast lab has provided the serum free of charge, the hospital hasn't yet raised a bill, but Peter Parker has come up with $500 cash to charter a private jet to bring the medicine to New York.


The action follows directly on from issue #31. The serum is specifically located on the West Coast, so it can hardly take less than 5 hours to fly it to New York.

Spider-Man spends several hours roughing up random bad guys before he stumbles into Doc Ock's lair.

This gives us:

?9AM - Parker photographs a strike picket outside a department store.

?10AM - Parker goes to Bugle and tries to sell the pictures.

?11AM - Parker goes to hospital.

?12PM - Parker tracks down Connors and asks him to help. He spends the rest of the day as Spider-Man working with Connors in the lab.

?6PM - The serum arrives in New York and is stolen by the Master Planner. Spider-Man goes to the Bugle to try to enlist Foswell's help, but Foswell has finished work for the day.

?6PM - ?11PM - Spider-Man spends several hours interrogating hoods -- long enough for word to get round the underworld. 

?11PM - Spider-Man discovers entrance to base.

?12PM (Midnight) Spider-Man Confronts Doctor Octopus.


p 4 panel 7: "It must have happened that time she needed a blood transfusion..and I donated my blood!"

This happened in Spider-Man #9, A Man Called Electro. Spider-Man #9 was one of the first issues to bear all the hallmarks of Ditko plotting. It would be pleasing to think that he was setting up issue #32 that far in advance. I wonder if it is too late to claim my no-prize?

"Some of the very radioactivity which transformed me into Spider-Man must have gotten into her blood stream."

Readers of this column have on several occasions asked me whether or not Spider-Man is strong. Well, here is their answer.

p5 "Doctor Connors! He's a specialist in this field!"

"This field" apparently encompasses the study of reptiles, growing arms back on paraplegic servicemen, and radioactivity of the blood.  

p6 "I've read of a new serum, created on the west coast-called ISO-36"

Serum is a component of blood; blood serum is sometimes used as a medical vaccine or antidote. But in popular language, "serum" often means "universal cure" -- as when we talk about a "beauty serum" or a "truth serum".

p 7 "All the scientific equipment I've worked so hard to buy...!"

Ditko surely intends the microscope which Peter pawns to be the very same one that Uncle Ben gave him as a gift in Amazing Fantasy #15, but Lee doesn't pick up on this. (Peter must retrieve it from the broker, because he will leave it by Uncle Ben's grave in issue #281.) Parker says he has "worked hard" to buy the rest of his science stuff: since he doesn't have a job, this can only refer to money from selling photos. He must have made a lot of sales we don't know about.

p8: "ISO-36...could be the one vital key to my experiments."

Ditko has spent three episodes telling us that the Master Planner is interested in stealing "any and all atomic equipment". He goes to some lengths to establish that Aunt May is ill because there is a "radioactive particle" in her blood. This is clearly a set-up for the McGuffin. Of course the substance which the Master Planner needs for his radiation experiments is the same substance that Connors needs to remove the radiation from May Parker's blood. But Stan Lee spectacularly misses the point and makes the McGuffin a common-or-garden serum. Some readers think that the "ISO" bit implies that it is a radio-active isotope, but there is not a word of this in the text.

p9 "Even though I fought you, years ago, when you were a gang boss"...

Spider-Man's one and only encounter with the Big Man occurred precisely 22 months ago.

p10 "But, as the hours wear on, the answer is always the same"

Ditko clearly intends panels 3-6 to make one single sequence, but Lee's caption suggest that panels 3 and 4 take place some hours apart.

p11 "A hot car ring" - i.e. dealers in stolen cars

p12 "There's no way of knowing if it will assimilate with my potion until we try it."

The use of the word "potion" tends to confirm our theory that the Lizard was an alchemist rather than a scientist. It would be clearly be over-interpreting to say that Doctor Connors and Doctor Bromwell therefore represented the union of magic and science. 

p14 "One of them just came out of that hidden door! That might be where they've stashed the serum!"

Indeed it might. Or, on the other hand, it might not. 

p15 "So, Spider-Man -- we meet again! But this time, alas, it will be our final encounter.!"

This is a colossal cliche. It is hard to find an example of a villain saying "So, we meet again..." which is
not a deliberate parody. In an 1855 novel called The Discarded Daughter a wronged maiden makes a speech beginning "So, Pirate, we meet again at last..." (Darth Vader says "We meet again at last.." to Obi-Wan in Star Wars: Lucas is obviously well aware of the cliche.) 

Other phrases from Doctor Octopus's handbook of super-villain cliches include:
  • "If he crosses my path again, our next encounter shall be his last" (#31, p20)
  • "Am I always to be plagued by that sniveling Spider-Man?" (#32, p1)
  • "The world will soon be menaced again by Doctor Octopus!" (p#32, p2)  
  • "You arrogant fool!...You haven't a chance here, against me!" (#32, p16)

p20 "I'm too exhausted. Been on the go for days"

Peter has missed at least three consecutive nights' sleep at this point.

Of course, it is Doctor Octopus. 

On page 15, we finally get some of the "action" that those guys on the letter column think is so important: Spider-Man has a fight with a super-villain. But the fight is so perfunctory and over so quickly that I can't help feeling that Ditko is making a point. Doctor Octopus marches in, spouting text taken directly from the Boys' Book of Super-villain Cliches. He spots that Spider-Man is far more committed and determined than during any of their previous encounters and immediately announces his intention to run away. Spider-Man recklessly throws a lump of machinery at him, Our hero has spent most of this issue breaking things: ripping down flights of stairs in villains' bases, throwing cars across courtyards, and even destroying one of Aunt May's tables. This time he "topples the main support beam" of Doctor Octopus's underwater base, causing the whole structure to collapse on top of him. 

We never find out what happens to Doctor Octopus. (He won't be heard from again until issue #53.) But we don't really care. Any more than we really care what kind of atomic ray he was planning to make. Doctor Octopus is, by this stage, not a character, but a plot device. He is there to answer all the unanswered questions and solve all the remaining mysteries. Why is the base underwater? Why is he only stealing atomic equipment? What is the connection between the IS0-35 and Tony Stark's uranium derivatives? What, in fact, is the Master Planner's master plan? The answer to all the questions, and to any others which may occur to you, is "Because he's Doctor Octopus, that's why."

When he hears that an experimental serum called ISO-36 is being flown into New York, Doctor Octopus exclaims: "What a stroke of luck!...It could be the one vital key to my experiments! And fate is placing it within my grasp!"

When Spider-Man breaks into his Secret Underwater Base to retrieve the serum, he monologues: "A stroke of blind luck has given me the chance to dispose of Spider-Man forever."

And Last issue, after Spider-Man tried to stop the nuclear heist, he soliloquized "Spider-Man!...By the purest accident, he almost ruined my plan again". 

Purest accident. Fate. Stroke of luck. Blind luck. It's almost like some force is pulling them together.

Doctor Octopus has no identity or motivation beyond being Spider-Man's worst enemy. Once he knows that Spider-Man is looking for the serum, he literally hangs it on a wire at the end of a corridor and shines a spotlight on it. It's like he consciously knows that it's his job to set up traps for Spider-Man to blunder into. (Last time they met, he set up a treasure hunt with Aunt May as the prize.) Doctor Octopus is a mechanism for removing the McGuffin from Spider-Man's hands. He is the diabolos ex machina who sets Spider-Man up for his supreme test.

He is Doctor Octopus. He does villaining. That's all we need to know. 

That is why Ditko reveals that the Master Planner is Doctor Octopus on the very first page of this second installment. Some fans think that the revelation comes too early; that we should have been kept in suspense for a few more pages. Perhaps we should have learned that Doc Ock is the Master Planner at the same moment Spider-Man does, on page 15? But that only makes sense if you think that anyone particularly cares about the Master Planner, and that we are waiting with baited breath to discover his identity. Which may be how Stan Lee thinks, but it's not how Steve Ditko thinks and it's not how this story works. Ditko gets the big reveal out of the way because the big reveal does't make any difference. Now if the Master Planner had turned out to be J. Jonah Jameson or Ned Leeds or Peter Parker's dad, it would have been a different matter. 

If all of Spider-Man's villains were "just villains" things would get very boring very quickly. But having one place-holder villain on hand allows Stan and Steve to facilitate stories like this one. 

Having brought Doctor Octopus onto the stage, Ditko directs our attention away from him for five pages. Five pages which the pro Stan Lee faction would doubtless have written off as "love" or "soap" or "drama" or "mystery jazz". We don't care that Doctor Octopus is going to "control radiation" in order to "gain additional powers"; but we do care that Aunt May is going to die. We care that it is kind of Peter Parker's fault. And we care very much that there is possibly some medicine that might do her some good. We are so gripped by these scenes, by this interlude, that we arguably forget about Dr Villain in his Secret Undersea Base. 

So page 8, when we get to it, is a genuinely brilliant coup de bandes dessinées. There is one thing in the whole world that might save Aunt May, and -- whoops --- Dr Plot Device wants it too. (He needs the serum to complete his experiments. He needs to complete the experiment to discover the secret of radiation. He needs to know the secret of radiation to keep his ray operating. He needs to keep the ray operating in order to give himself more powers. He needs to give himself more powers so he can conquer the world. I don't know why he needs to conquer the world. Perhaps he'll die.)

And so the two halves of the story, the Spider-Man half and the Peter Parker half, have crashed together. Spider-Man leaps out of the window (in one of Ditko's truly great action shots) and for five pages he's punching gangsters, punching minions, smashing staircases, throwing cars around and finally coming face to face with the guy with all the arms. And this is all, arguably, only a set-up for the Great Big Cliffhanger. 

In the 1968 Fantastic Four Annual, it turns out that the only thing which will prevent Mrs Fantastic dying in childbirth is "negative energy" and it also turns out that the only source of "negative energy" is a Cosmic Control Rod and it turns out that Annihilus has set his little green heart on using the Cosmic Control Rod to conquer the universe. This is the same set-up as Man on a Rampage! -- what the hero needs to save his loved one's life if what the villain needs to conquer the universe and world. But in the Fantastic Four, it's presented as a starting point -- a premise -- and as a result it seems dreadfully contrived. Because it takes 28 pages for the ISO-35 to get into Doc Ock's hands, we accept it as a natural plot development. 

If This Be My Destiny...! was static -- as if we were holding our breaths before the big dive. Man On a Rampage! proceeds at break-neck speed. Last issue, Spider-Man swung around a silent city, hoping to find a crime to photograph. This issue he smashes things and beats people up. Last issue we saw Spider-Man looking out over new York and yawning; this issue he has so much energy that we several times feel that he is going to burst out of the page. 

Plot developments fly out more quickly than we can keep up with them; each one exerting more pressure on our hero. Peter Parker breaks up with Betty -- again -- and actually hits Ned Leeds. He finds out that Aunt May's illness is terminal and that he is indirectly to blame. Having spent several pages last month entirely failing to find a single crime in the whole of New York, he is able to track down former swamp-dwelling psychopath turned all-around nice guy Curt Connors in one single panel. We don't pause long enough to notice how incredibly convenient it is that the Former Lizard has moved back to New York or indeed wonder in what sense a reptile specialist is the "one man" who might help remove a radioactive particle from an old lady's blood stream. Half a page later, Connors is telling Spider-Man about a new McGuffin called ISO-36 which "might help us greatly", and a page later the McGuffin has been stolen by the Master Planner's minions. Spider-Man spends the next three pages hitting gangsters for no terribly good reason before being led directly to the Master Planner's lair by his Spider-Sense. He starts punching minions and runs through a secret door, straight into the arms, the arms, the arms, the arms the arms of Doctor Octopus.

And we're still only on page 15. 

There are quite a lot of narrative dead ends: Spider-Man asks Frederick Foswell to help him find the Master Planner's base, but he doesn't; Spider-Man roughs up random crooks in the hope some of them know where the Master Planner lives, but they don't. In a sense, it is a narrative cop-out that his Spider Sense tells him where the secret entrance is just when all hope seems lost. Perhaps Ditko himself had better explanations for some of these developments (and, indeed, a better explanation of the Master Planner's master plan) but never bothered to tell Stan Lee about them, leaving the writer to make stuff up as best he could. But it hardly matters. The narrative thrust comes from the pictures. Anger. Action. Confrontation. Failure. 

This is also true of some of the "love jazz" scenes. Try to imagine the brief scene in the Daily Bugle offices with no input from Lee at all: the story just told in Ditko's mute imagery. It would be very clear what was going on. We would see Peter arriving at the Bugle; Betty running to him; Ned joining them; Peter speaking harshly to Ned; Ned trying to calm him down; and Peter pushing Ned across the room -- delightfully, right into the path of J. Jonah Jameson. A brief, tearful scene between Peter and Betty, and Peter slouches off. The situation in the final panel is almost identical to the final panel of issue #30. 

Stan Lee's text makes the confrontation with Leeds a piece of play-acting on Parker's part: he is deliberately trying to make Betty angry with him, and indeed, make her hate him, because "a clean break is the best thing for all of us." I think Lee intends to soften the situation; to make it appear that Peter is being noble by breaking up with Betty. But it actually tends to reinforce the feeling that Peter Parker is a self-destructive dick. It certainly seems to follow on from the college scenes last issue. Peter is further isolating himself from other humans; declaring himself independent. He needs no-one else. 

"Betty must despise me now! Never knowing how much I really love her or how much tougher this is for me!" 

Me, me, me, me, me.

The more one scratches the surface, the more compelling becomes the idea that Ditko is book-ending his graphic novel, gathering themes together, saying goodbye. In Amazing Fantasy #15, Peter Parker had no friends and whinged about it; in Amazing Spider-Man #32 he actively drives his friends away and couldn't give a damn. In the first story, Uncle Ben gave Peter a microscope; in this final one, he pawns a microscope to save Aunt May's life. In Amazing Spider-Man #1 it was Aunt May pawning her jewelry for Pete's sake. But overall, overwhelmingly, the whole energy of the trilogy comes from a single fact. When he first became Spider-Man, Peter Parker failed to act, and as a result, Uncle Ben died. In this final story he acts obsessively, fanatically, almost insanely in order to keep Aunt May alive. "It can't happen again! It mustn't! It mustn't! There must be some way to save her! There must be!"

The last time Aunt May was ill, Peter Parker quit being Spider-Man to care for her. Last issue, before he realized how poorly she was, he moaned that "with all my power, with all my spider-strength, there is nothing that I can do for her." With great power there sometimes comes great helplessness. But from the moment he hears the terminal diagnosis, the energy, the violence of Spider-Man takes over the comic. He is going to do stuff. He is going to break things until Aunt May gets better. 

This is why he breaks the table. Because he is angry, of course: but also to send us readers a very clear message. Peter Parker is Spider-Man. No two identities, no Gemini face. Just a teenage boy with the strength of many men.

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