Saturday, December 24, 2016

Happy Christmas To All Our Readers...




for those feeling less merry

Shooting In the Dark Too Long





People who believe what I believe sometimes get called Trotskyites. I used to say that I didn't really know what Trotskyite meant, but I think I have worked it out.

*

Andy Burnham’s essay in Saturday’s Guardian disturbed me. 

Let’s not put it any more strongly than that. I was disturbed by it. I found it disturbing.

Andy Burnham is a Labour Politician. He wanted to be leader of the Labour Party, but we Trotskyites stopped him. He is probably, understandably, still a bit cross with us over that.

Last June there was a Referendum. Every one in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was allowed to vote, except the ones who weren’t. A third of us said that Britain should withdraw from Europe; a third of us said that it shouldn’t; and a third said they didn’t care either way. As a result of this overwhelming vote, we have decided to spend the next 10 years arguing about the definition of “withdraw”. 




During the referendum, the position of the Labour Party was that although the E.U is in some ways a flawed organization, Britain should remain a member and work to improve it. Since the referendum, the position of the Labour Party has been that since withdrawal is now inevitable we should concentrate on finding a definition of “withdraw” that doesn’t involve crashing the country’s economy. Free trade — access to the single market — is regarded as the Biggie.

Andy Burnham takes a different view. He thinks that the Biggie is not free trade, but Immigrants. The party leadership thinks that we should maintain free trade with Europe, even if that means continuing to allow other Europeans to live and work in the UK. Burnham thinks that we should abolish the right of other Europeans to live and work in the UK, even if that means that we can no longer have free trade. 

He has, of course, a perfect right to his opinion. What bothered me was the way in which he chose to make his case. 

I put it no stronger than that. It bothered me. Here are some of things which bothered me about it. 

1: “We need a plan to bring this divided country back together again.” 

I agree. The referendum really only told us what everyone already knew: the country is split down the middle over the question of Europe. (So, by coincidence, are the Conservative party and the Labour party.) We need a way of going forward that the 37% of secessionists and the 35% of anti-secessionists would be equally happy with or  as is usually the case with compromises  which the 37% and 35% would be equally annoyed by. The 28% will be equally indifferent whatever happens. 

2: “We can all debate what the referendum vote meant beyond the decision to leave the EU. Above all, I am clear it was a majority vote for an end to the current system of free movement.”

It is a strange world where you have a referendum, and wait until after the votes are counted to decide what the referendum means. Like going off to hunt a snark and realizing that you have no idea at all what a snark is. The Prime Minister (who campaigned for us to Stay but now wants us to Go) says that “Brexit means Brexit”, which I think means that the snark was a boojum all along. 

The ballot paper I ticked looked like this:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
  • Remain a member of the European Union
  • Leave the European Union

I think that most of the people who ticked the “leave” box assumed that they were voting to tear up all the agreements which have been made over the last 40 years and wind the clock back to where the country was before it joined the Common Market. In status quo res erant ante anno MCMLXXII as it were. I think this is what a Texan would assume he was doing if he ever found himself ticking a box which said “leave the United States”. But everyone agrees that whatever “leave” means, it definitely doesn’t mean that. So we are left in the charming position where politicians can pick any position they like and claim a massive (37/35) popular mandate for it.

Andy Burnham “is clear” that the vote to secede from Europe was, in fact, a vote against European immigration. I am happy that he is clear, although I don't know what constitutional status his clarity has. But I don't think that being clear and being right are necessarily the same. 

It is clear to me that some of those who voted to leave did so because they had been promised that the £350,000,000 a week we currently spend on EU membership would be spent on public health instead. This turned out to be a lie — the figure is nothing like £350,000,000 and there is no chance of it all being spent on the health service. But it is one of those lies that was so bold and so barefaced that one feels reticent about even mentioning it. “Oh, yes, I know we lied about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction; isn’t it cute the way you funny little Trots keep going on about it.” 

It is clear to me that some of those who voted "leave" did so because they were sick of only being allowed to buy straight bananas and being forbidden from buying eggs in six packs. These were also lies, but they were lies on a level with the one told to the famous emperor about his famous cloak: the kind which becomes true if you believe it hard enough. Boris Johnson appeared to have some self-imposed cognitive dissonance that genuinely made him think that he hadn't seen any half-dozen boxes of eggs since 1972. It's very much the same kind of trick which allows a man to look at a huge Christmas tree in the town square and say "Of course, you and allowed to put up huge Christmas trees in the town square any more."  

And it is very clear to me that some of the people who voted “leave” did so because of a deep, religious belief in something called “sovereignty”. They didn’t necessarily have any problem with any specific “European” law, but they objected on spiritual grounds to people in Belgium having a say about what happens in England. Since June some of these people have been entertaining fantasies about abolishing metric measurements, restoring pre-decimal currency, playing God Save the Queen on the wireless and getting the Queen a smart new boat to play with.

(Some people have told me that the people who voted "leave" did so because they were jolly cross about everything in the world and nothing in particular and thought that a leave vote would jolly give politicians a kick up the backside, so it's my fault for not listening. I am not very clear about that one at all.)

It seems that the dirty campaign fought by some of the secessionists is deemed to affect the result retrospectively. It is true that fascist politicians stuck up posters depicting scary brown-skinned people flooding across our borders; this makes it clear to center left politicians that a vote to leave the EU was really a vote against scary brown people.

But even if it were clear that the 37% voted against immigration, wouldn’t it be equally clear that the 35% voted in favour of it? And wouldn’t it follow that if your objective were “to bring the divided country back together” you would be looking for a compromise position which the 37% who are nativists and the 35% who are multiculturalists would be equally happy with (or equally irritated by)?

3:  “For at least a decade, Labour activists have been hearing concerns on doorsteps about free movement and immigration.”

British parliamentary constituencies are sufficiently small that MPs get to meet a significant number of the people who voted for them face to face. This the only argument in favour of our voting system: it forces MPs to campaign at a local level, which gives voters a direct line to the center of government. If Mrs Miggins tells her MP that she is concerned about the state of paving stones on Stapleton Road, there is a chance that her MP might pass her concerns on to the Prime Minister — or, at any rate, the Minister With Responsibility for Paving Stones. 

I am sure that some of the people who MPs meet do have "concerns" about immigration; and I am sure that some of those concerns are sensible. "When I am not standing on the doorstep talking to you, I am a school teacher," a concerned person might say "and I am concerned that we have had 37 children from immigrant families join our school this year. I am concerned because some of them do not speak English and none of their parents do. I am also concerned because some of them have been brought up to think that it is dirty to get changed for P.E and have no idea what Christmas is." And the MP might go away and talk to the Minister for Education, and come up a solution — a specialist ESOL teacher in the school, interpreters for parents evenings, a trained mediator to deal with cultural differences about decency and modesty and religious festivals. And that would pretty much deal with all the sensible concerns. Hooray for democracy!

But I do hope that my MP would only pay attention to sensible concerns. If I am concerned about foxes in the dustbins, I hope my MP might do something about it. If I am concerned about alligators in the sewers, not so much. If I am concerned about old people tripping over paving stones, my MP should probably pay attention to me. If I am concerned about immigrants coming out at the dead of night and tripping up old ladies, he probably shouldn't.

4: “There will be those who argue that any changes [to immigration] we make must be minimal so as to maximize access to the single market. They may well be right, and it could be that this is where the national interest lies. But the test will be whether the changes to free movement meet public concerns.”

Pause, for a moment, and take that in. 

Some people think that we should allow, or mostly allow, European immigration to continue in return for us being allowed to continue to trade with Europe. Some people think it is worth losing our free trade agreements with Europe in order to stop European immigrants coming here. 

Andy Burnham thinks that it doesn’t matter who is right and who is wrong. What matters is meeting public concerns whether or not those concerns are sensible.

Extremists tend to think that there is right and there is wrong; there is a black, and there is white; and there is nothing — nothing — in between,

[Insert Diagram]

Moderates, on the other hand, think that there is black and there is white but there are also at least fifty shades of grey ranging from “slightly less right” to “almost completely wrong”. There’s also a pretty big “we don’t know” space in the middle. 

[Insert diagram]

Extremists can’t compromise (even in the face of Armageddon) but moderates compromise all the time. If I agree to do something which I think is a bit wrong, and you agree to do something which you think is a bit wrong, then we’ll be doing something that we both think is at least a bit right, which is better than doing nothing at all. (Probably.)

Andy Burnham proposes a new model. 

[Insert diagram]

On one side is “right” and “wrong” (with gradations and don’t knows and the need for compromise taken for granted.) But on the other side is “public concerns” and “what the people on the doorstep say”. The latter always overrides the former. What matters is not what is right but what the man on the doorstep thinks is right. Vox populum super limen vox deus if I might put it like that.

This is what post-truth politics looks like. It doesn’t look like Donald Trump denying climate change and inventing millions of fraudulent votes. It doesn’t even look like the Sun doctoring an image to make it look like the leader of the opposition was dancing a jig on the cenotaphIt looks like a sensible, liberal politician saying “they may well be right…but…” 

The person on the doorstep is not stupid. But he is ignorant. So am I. So are you. So is everybody. 

I, for example, am almost entirely ignorant about Science. I don’t have a head for figures or logic or the patience to do something over and over again and make detailed notes of tiny changes. I have some general sense that Schrodinger had a cat that was in two states at once, and that this illustrates that there is something in Quantum Physics (some kind of particle, I suppose)  which can be in two states at once, and that this has something to do with why my I-Phone works, but that's honestly the best I can do. I could read a book, if I wanted to, but I can’t really be bothered. On the other hand, I can be bothered to work my way through text books that tell me, for example, roughly what page historians are on with regard to The Historical Jesus and laugh (ha!) when biologists say that everyone now agrees he’s a myth. Because that stuff does interest me. And it goes without saying that I have to send for a plumber to fix the simplest dripping tap or leaky washing machine. 

Why on earth would you ask me about physics or football or plumbling when there are people out there who know about this stuff? 

Experts, if you will.

O.K: knowledge isn't everything. Facts aren't everything. Evidence isn't everything. Many of our strongest beliefs come down to sentiment and aesthetics. It is often a good idea (and a powerful rhetorical tool) to admit this. It’s not a great idea to claim that history proves that tyrants are never defeated by armies if the real reason you don't like war is that your Uncle Ben was killed in the Falklands. I myself am very reluctant to allow evidence to intrude into any argument about capital punishment. Actually I think the evidence is mostly on my side, but that's a fortunate coincidence;  I'd be on the same side even if the evidence were mostly against me. There is no point in talking about whether your state has a higher murder rate than my state and how many innocent people your country executed last year and whether "deterrent" even means anything. The only reason I am against the death penalty is because I am emotionally and aesthetically against ritually asphyxiating helpless prisoners (irrespective of what they have probably done). To argue otherwise is to argue fraudulently

I imagine that many of the people on the doorstep know as little about economics as I do about Schrodinger’s cat, or washing machines, or, come to that, economics. I imagine many of them are concerned about immigration at an emotional, gut level. I imagine they aesthetically and sentimentally dislike hearing languages that they do not understand in the doctor’s waiting room. I imagine they sentimentally and aesthetically dislike shops selling food they don’t recognize on the high street. I imagine they sentimentally and aesthetically dislike it when people with a different word for God start saying their prayers in what used to be a cinema. I imagine they have a sentimental and aesthetic hankering for the days when nearly everyone they met looked the same as him and there were hardly any black or brown people in his part of town. 

Call this racism or nativism or perfectly understandable old-fogeyism. You don’t have to be old to be an old fogey. Call it alt-right or call it "genuine concerns". It's a faith position, a gut feeling, an intuition. Don't mistake it for an argument. 

As has been noted, Tony Blair thought that a state of mind he called “sincerity” (“just happening to believe”) was sufficient basis to start a war. David Cameron thought that a fairly technical question about voting reform depended on ineffable emotional feelings that could not be put into words. Michael Gove say that he doesn’t care about the opinions of experts — or, rather more subtly, that he doesn’t think that the populum super limen do. And Jacob Rees-Mogg has said, literally and in so many words that great political and economic questions could as well be settled by consulting horoscopes or the entrails of chickens as by consulting people who know about politics and economics. 

Not that Jacob Rees-Mogg actually consults the entrails of chickens to decide on economic questions. At least, I assume he doesn't. Presumably he just follows his gut instinct; does the first thing which comes into his head. Or at least, the first thing which comes into the head of the person on the doorstep.

I suppose most of us voted in the referendum according to our hearts, rather than according to our heads. But the starting point of this discussion is that while the heads are more or less unanimous — leaving the European single market would be an act of reckless insanity — the hearts are deeply divided. 37% of our hearts hankered for mono-racial, mono-cultural, olde fashionede Englande; 34% of our hearts had an idealistic belief that there is only one race, the human race, and that countries made up of different kinds of people were nicer and more interesting places to live than countries where every one was the same. 37% of us want a land with a wall around it and 34% of us have a faith in our fellow man, as the bard said.

What happened to seeking a unity between those two positions? 

“The people on the doorstep” doesn’t just mean “people”, does it? Any more than “the real America” just means “Americans”? It means the people on the doorstep as opposed to the people anywhere else — in cafes or universities or at political meanings? And I am not on the doorstep. There I times when I sincerely doubt that I am person. I am one of the 35%. I am a metropolitian elite, an expert, a luvvie, a moaner, a Trot, a Guardianista. I am also a member of a trade union, and we learned this week that the Prime Minister does not regard members of trade unions as people. 

My shaky knowledge of science isn’t written into my genes. I picked it up somewhere; very possibly from Star Trek. The opinions of the people on the doorstep didn’t drop out of the sky, either. They picked them up from somewhere. Very possibly from a newspaper. And I sometimes suspect that some of the newspapers have a political agenda. I sometimes think that they are deliberately trying to create the impression that there are floods and hoards of terrifying immigrants who want to steal your job, take down your Union Jack, ban your Christmas tree and force you eat straight bananas and 5-packs of eggs. I sometimes think that this reflects what their editor sincerely believes in his heart, or more likely, what would be in the owner's economic interests. 

If we are going to make it a general rule that the opinions of the people on the doorstep are automatically right, then you might just as will cut out the middle-man and ask the two or three zillionaires who own the press directly. Which is what you might expect a Tory to believe; but rather a surprising position for a Labour man.

Vox populi super limen vox domini de ephemerides if you absolutely insist. 


*

I know, of course, what my Labour friends will say about this. They will say “It is the person on the doorstep (right or wrong) who votes in elections; if you want to win an election you have to meet their concerns (right or wrong); there is no point in a political party existing if it can’t win elections.”

So I think that is what Trotskyite must mean. The opposite of that. 









Saturday, December 10, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man #16


Duel With Daredevil


Villains:
The Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime

Supporting Cast:
Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant.

Guest Stars:
Matt Murdoch/Daredevil, Foggy Nelson, Karen Page

Observations:

This is the first issue since #12 that Flash and Liz have not appeared in.

Daredevil identifies Spider-Man as 17 years old; 5ft 10 “and in excellent health.”

Spider-Man says that Ringmaster makes “Thor sound like a teenager”, even though Spider-Man and Thor have never met.

Jameson announces that he is not going to spend so much time attacking Spider-Man from now on. Nothing follows from that in this issue, and next issue he is back to attacking him as usual.

Peter Parker’s financial position: Peter Parker hasn’t sold any pictures to Jameson “for days”




The Ringmaster has a science hat which enables him to mind-control large numbers of people. He refers to it as “hypnotism” but it actually “creates an electronic energy flow which magnifies all the thoughts of the one nearest the hat and projects them outward with irresistible impact.” However, anyone can resist the irresistible impact simply by shutting their eyes. He also has a Circus of Crime, including clowns and human cannonballs and a lady with a big snake. He once tried to capture and exhibit the Hulk, which went about a well as you’d expect. Someone called the Ringmaster of Death had an disagreement with Captain America during the war, but we’re assuming that was his dad. (He had a rather fetching swastika on his purple hat.)

Unlike Doctor Octopus, Mysterio, the Green Goblin and Kraven, the Ringmaster has no particular interest in Spider-Man. Having the power to command huge groups of people to do exactly what he wants, he has very reasonably decided to focus on small-time property crime, and come up with a very practical scheme. He gets lots of people to come to his circus; he uses the Science Hat to send them to sleep; and while they are asleep he steals their wallets. Simples.

Being naughty, the Ringmaster puts up posters saying that Spider-Man will be guest starring in his circus, to ensure a full house, and even claims that the proceeds are going to charity. But “he makes one small miscalculation! He didn’t stop to think what might happen if Spider-Man himself saw the ad”. Duh! Almost as silly as missing out on becoming Supreme Crimer because it didn’t occur to you that a cave in New Mexico might have a big green monster living in it.

Spider-Man does see the ad, and decides that he’ll surprise everyone by putting in an appearance at the charity gig. And who should be in the audience but newish hero Daredevil, still resplendent in his original yellow uniform. Daredevil is, like, blind. Did I mention what you had to do to avoid the power of the Ringmaster’s mind control spirals?

Stan Lee loves to have characters from one comic book appear in another comic book: partly because he wants to weave his titles together into a single Marvel Universe; partly because he wants to promote less popular titles in better selling ones; and partly because it’s fun. Up to now, the guest appearances in Amazing Spider-Man have largely been told from Spider-Man’s own point of view. The Human Torch and the Fantastic Four are less “special guest stars” as occasional members of his supporting cast. The Human Torch presents to us, as he does to Spider-Man, as an arrogant, entitled, rich kid — even if we readers know how brave and heroic he can be in the pages of his own comic. The Hulk is just a monster living in a cave. “You think I’m a brainless fool! If you only knew the truth!” he explains. If you don’t happen to be a reader of the Mighty World of Marvel, then you have no more idea that Spider-Man about what that “truth” might be.

This issue, on the other hand, seems to be have been conceived mainly as a promotional tool: to appraise readers of the Amazing Spider-Man of the unique selling points of Daredevil: The Man Without Fear. We are introduced to Matt Murdoch, his alter-ego Daredevil, and we have his powers carefully explained to us. We get that Matt is blind, but that he can get by because of his super-enhanced other senses. Spider-Man never finds this out. We see quite a bit of Matt’s relationship with Foggy Nelson and Karen Page. But we see proportionately less of Peter Parker: Aunt May nags him for three frames about Mary Jane; Jonah huffs and puffs a bit, and Betty does her Jealous Lady turn. (“If you want to go to the circus without me that’s all right! But you could have told me! I don’t care if you’re taking some other girl…!!” Note that she still says “some other girl” when she met Liz last issue. And why, for flips sake, does Spider-Man have a ticket for the circus when he’s starring in it?)

The title of the episode is not Ruck With the Ringmaster but Duel With Daredevil. It is unthinkable that Daredevil should appear in Spider-Man's comic without the two of them having a fight. With some characters fights are easy to arrange: Spider-Man and the Human Torch are two school boys who scuffle every time they meet; and obviously the Hulk smashes anything he see on general principals. Sometimes, Stan has to work a bit harder to arrange a Big Misunderstanding. In Tales to Astonish #57, Egghead sends a message to Hank Pym via his Ants that Spider-Man is about to attack him. ”He won’t suspect the report is a trap — he’ll believe his ants!…The two them are sure to destroy each other…never dreaming that I am the real enemy!”

There is no problem in getting Spider-Man to tackle Daredevil: indeed one wonders if the reason for using a minor Hulk villain like the Ringmaster as the antagonist was precisely so that he could use his Science Hat to force the Man Without Fear to fight the Web Spinner. But mind control and amnesia are two of the most boring tools in the writerly trick basket. There is a certain amount of fun to be had in watching two heroes leap to the wrong conclusions about each other: but it’s not that much fun to watch Spider-Man hitting Daredevil because the Ringmaster's Hat has reduced him to a spider-zombie.

The two heroes fight for a page or two until Daredevil steals the Science Hat and makes Spider-Man snap out of it. Daredevil then beats a tactful retreat and leaves Spider-Man to fight the other members of the Ringmaster’s circus by himself — well, it is his comic. Neither the fight nor the repartee is as much fun as they usually are

”We’ll beat you! We’re the kings of the high trapeze”
“Well, here’s where you lose your crowns!”

At the beginning of the story, Spider-Man bumps into Matt Murdoch while stopping a burglary (Matt had been planning to stop it himself); Spider-Man notices Matt in the audience of the circus; and Matt even applauds, in Daredevil’s voice, when Spider-Man defeats the Ringmaster's friends. Spider-Man knows that Matt is blind; he knows that Daredevil is the only one unaffected by the mind control; and the only way he knows to remain unaffected is to shut his eyes.

“It all happened so suddenly that only a blind man could have been unaffected” lampshades Spider-Man “Well, naturally that can’t be the answer.”

Oh, deary dear me.

There is nothing actually dreadful about this story, but it feels awfully like a filler between the four “villains” issues and the magisterial triptych with which we are going to wind up our second spider-year.

“If you don't say this is one of the greatest issues you’ve ever read, we may never talk to you again” enthuses Stan on the splash page.

In that case, we’d all better shut up, hadn’t we.



Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man #15




Kraven the Hunter

Villain:
Kraven the Hunter + The Chameleon

Supporting Cast:
J Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Betty Brant, Flash Thompson, Liz Allan, Mrs Watson and a chorus of police officers and crooks.

Observations:
Peter Parker still wearing those red jim-jams. He evidently prefers wet-shaving to electric razors (or else uses an awful lot of soap to wash his face with!)

Peter Parker hates it when Liz and Betty call him "Petey". I wonder if this is because it was the nickname Uncle Ben used for him? (May hasn't used it since Ben died.)

When Spider-Man sees the Chameleon impersonating Kraven he says "my spider sense feels different, as if it isn't sure". The spider-sense doesn't merely alert him to danger: he is consciously using it to track Kraven.

On page 13 Peter Parker says he is going to put a spider-tracer on Kraven, but this idea is never mentioned again.

Peter Parker used to read comic books about superheroes and "dream about how great it would be if he could become one." Marvel Comics were not publishing superhero titles between 1955 and 1959 (the "Atlas" revival having petered out in 1954); but DC's Silver Age revival had got under way in 1956. Marvel's most iconic hero probably grew up reading Flash and Green Lantern.

Kraven's potion makes Spider-Man's hands shake uncontrollably (meaning he can't shoot webbing) but leaves his strength and agility intact, again suggesting that the spider-strength is not a physical ability.

Kraven can lift a fully grown gorilla — which weighs about 300-400 lbs — making him about half as strong as Spider-Man…

Retroactive continuity has made the Chameleon and Kraven half-brothers. This doesn't help.

The Chameleon, a Russian spy, and Kraven, an African, are deported to South America. (In fact, they bribe their way off the boat and come back to America, where Kraven is immediately punched out by Iron Man.)

Peter Parker's Financial Situation: Peter sells Jameson two sets of photos: one of Spider-Man stopping a burglary, and one of the fight with Kraven. The first lot are "not bad"; and although the second lot "deserve a bounus" all Peter gets is one of Jameson's personal bars of chocolate! Shall we say $500 for the first lot and $1,000 for the second?




Another issue: another iconic villain, another lacklustre story-line.

Kraven is a white African with a silly moustache who dresses in lion-skins. He is a big-game hunter who has come to New York to hunt Spider-Man, because he regards him as the ultimate prey. This is an obvious lift from "The Most Dangerous Game". (The hunter in the movie is named Count Zarof: retroactive continuity will decide that Kraven is Count Kravinoff.) In this first episode, Kraven doesn't come across as a particularly noble or honourable adversary — he injects Spider-Man with a potion to weaken him; he lures him under a tree where he has already set up a net-trap and he puts magnetised shackles on his wrist and feet to make it harder for him to run away. Possibly J.Jonah Jameson, or the comics code, had insisted that he did not use more conventional crossbows or blowpipes?

The big hunt in the park is not without its tension or drama. Pages 20-22 are particularly fine: Spider-Man shorts out all the street lights; he can find his way in the dark with his spider sense and Kraven cannot. We get two pages of Kraven running from Spider-Man, with Spider-Man shining his spider signal on him, and eventually trapping him in a web. Rather unnecessarily, Stan Lee points out that the hunter has become the hunted. Spider-Man himself abandons his normal repartee to announce

"And like all those who flee in blind panic…in unreasoning fear and cowardice…the hunter at last is… CAUGHT!!"

Spider-Man thinks that Kraven is "the worst kind of enemy; a nut who fights you just for the sheer fun of it". The idea that a great-white-hunter should want to defeat Spider-Man because he presents a challenge makes a great deal more comic-book sense than Mysterio and the Green Goblin starting their careers by attacking Spider-Man because that's what criminals do. So the addition of a second villain, the Chameleon, seems unnecessary. In issue #1, he was specifically a Commie spy; but he has come back to America to "resume his crime career" and like the Goblin, takes it for granted that you have to kill Spider-Man before you can do any serious criming. So the Chameleon asks Kraven to come to New York and get rid of Spider-Man for him, arguably removing Kraven's Unique Selling Point. I wonder if it was felt that a Zarof figure — motivated by a misplaced sense of honour — was too sympathetic a villain for the Comics Code and some reason had to be found to make him unambiguously a Baddie?


Stan Lee famously defined the Marvel formula as "superheroes with super-problems": and one of his origin myths has Martin Goodman rejecting the Spider-Man character because he didn't think readers would go for a hero who had a lot of personal problems. Over the last few issues – what I am arbitrarily going to call the Villains Trilogy — the idea of "Peter Parker's Problems" as separate and distinct from the main plot line has come to the fore. Stories like "Nothing Can Stop the Sand Man" and "The Terrible Threat of the Living Brain" had skillfully entwined Peter's personal life with Spider-Man's adventures. "The Man Called Electro" had the Parker story and the spider-story as two equally important threads running in parallel. But in the Villains Trilogy it has increasingly felt as if we are cutting away from the main story to look at some scenes from Peter Parker's life. Peter's problems have only minimal impact on his fight with the villain, and the fight with the villain doesn't significantly affect his personal life.

Those "problem" scenes are structured far more like a situation comedy than like soap opera. We are never left wondering what the outcome of some Midtown High crisis is going to be be— who will Peter take to the prom, say, or will Flash make the Quidditch team? Rather, characters cycle through a series of more or less fixed moves. Jameson fumes; Liz flirts; Betty is jealous; Flash threatens and Aunt May nags. 

From issue #12 onward Betty Brant, the sensible office girl who Peter Parker really got on with, has been recast as the trophy female who Peter boasts about taking on dates without necessarily asking her first. Their relationship is permanently on the point of collapse. On page 5 of #13 she complains about Peter's risky job ("Oh, Peter, if only you'd find a different type of work!"). When Peter bites her head off in a typically chauvinistic way, she exclaims "you never spoke to me like that before". In fact, the fight is an almost exact replay of their near break-up in issue #9. ("I'm not Mr Perfect! Sorry to have bothered you" / "I don't tell you how to live your life, don't butt into mine!") She recalls seeing him with Liz and reprimands herself "Oh, stop it Betty Brant! You're becoming jealous" — and from that point on, "jealousy" becomes her only character trait. In #14 when Jonah sends Peter on a photo assignment to Hollywood, Betty makes up a story in her head about him flirting with aspiring actors — and accuses him of cheating before he has even left the room. "I don't claim to be be as glamorous as those starlets…or that blond Liz Allan you've been walking home from school with lately!"

Betty does have some grounds for concern. Since issue #12, virtually all the school scenes have involved Liz Allan — who used to gang up with Flash to bully Peter — flirting with him shamelessly. In issue #14, she goes so far as to call Peter a "dream boat" (which is what the proto-Liz character Sally called Flash in the very first Spider-Man story.) Liz is every bit as unpleasant to Flash as Flash was to Peter. "He's sensitive, intelligent, articulate! You probably don't know what those words mean!"  Her feud with Flash produces one of the funniest moments in the comics — in issue #13, after Peter has vaguely said that Liz's near hairdo is "real nice" Flash does a perfect Ditko double-take and announces "Gosh, Liz, I almost didn't recognize you! You're beautiful now!" to which Liz responds "Really Mister Thompson! And what was I before, pray tell?"

It is worth repeating and underlining once again that, whatever we may believe about the "dreaming up" process, all this great dialogue is written by Stan Lee.

Stan Lee mentions on the letters page that Betty is slightly younger than Peter, that she also went to Midtown High, and that she dropped out of school because she needed a job (and hopes to go back and graduate one of these days). However, it is clear that she doesn't particularly know Flash or Liz: Later Continuity was for once on the right track when it relocated her to Philadelphia. Betty and Liz finally meet in the current issue — Jonah has Betty send for Peter to photograph Kraven's arrival; Flash, Liz and some schoolkids have also come along to watch the celebrity arrive; and Betty Brant automatically assumes that Peter came with Liz.

This scene brings four of the five recurrent characters together (only Aunt May is missing) and Lee takes the opportunity to give us several crowded panels of the entire cast speaking their minds about Peter. Liz deliberately flirts with him in front of Betty; calling him "Petey" and straightening his tie (he's had to do a rapid clothes changes after Kraven's animals escape.) Back in the office, Betty calls him "Petey-wetey" and offers to fix his little "tiezy wiezy" leaving Peter wondering "if females were originally intended for another planet."

The current issue adds a new element into the mixture.

Aunt May wants to introduce Peter to the niece of her neighbor. Peter automatically assumes that anyone Aunt May wants to set him up with will be ghastly, but allows her to pressure him into it. This is more fuel for Betty's jealousy: when Peter turns down a chance to go out with her (because he's promised May he'll see go on the blind date) she automatically assumes he's going out with Liz. Of course, the neighbor's niece stands Peter up (she "had a headache") and of course Betty is not amused when Peter phones to say that he does want to go out with her after all.

Aunt May's neighbor is, of course, Mrs Watston (or possibly Mrs Watkins). Her daughter is Mary-Jane. 

In years to come Mary-Jane Watson is going to become a central plank of the Spider-Man mythos. But (as with the Green Goblin) we should try not to read these issue in the light of stuff that is going to happen two decades in the future. At this point, Mary-Jane Watson is a running gag. May nags Peter to meet her; Peter eventually agrees; for some reason the date doesn't come off, leaving Peter looking like a cad in front of Betty or Liz. Repeat endlessly. The joke will come to an almost Wildean punchline in a dozen issues' time. 

We never see Peter and Betty in a social situation — not sharing a coffee or a milk-shake, not going to the movies, nothing. (We see Peter taking Aunt May to the pictures, for goodness sake!) But several episodes end with him saying that he is going on a date with her, or trying to set one up. I wonder if the comics code would have required any dating scene to be so chaste, and so marriage-focused that Lee and Ditko decided it would be better to leave the whole thing to the readers' imaginations?

Actually, in this reader's imagination, Peter's relationship with Betty would have been pretty chaste and pretty marriage-focused. That's the kinds of kids they are.

The whole etiquette of "dating" is pretty weird by today's standards. When Mary-Jane cancels the blind date, Peter calls up Betty and says he can see her after all; when she rebuffs him ("Which Peter?") he calls Liz, who he doesn't even like, to see if she will go out with him instead. He did the same thing in issue #6. This actually veers towards self-destructiveness: if Betty can't bear to see Peter talking to a female school friend, what the hell would she think if she saw them sharing a coffee together? Was there some rule which said that a guy couldn't go to any social event — not to a drugstore or a coffee bar or a skittles alley — without a female escort; so that any lady was better than none, and that just because you were going out with a girl it didn't necessarily follow that you were, so to speak, going out with her? (But if that's the rule, wouldn't Liz and Betty both understand it?)

Astonishingly, Liz can't date Peter either because, a few pages after calling him a "muscle bound goop" she is out dancing with Flash Thompson. Which makes one wonder if the whole crush-on-Peter is a double-bluff to get Flash to notice her. Which in turn makes one wonder if Liz is a bigger shit than Flash ever was.

Peter blames the whole situation on a malevolent force he calls "luck". In the early issues, Peter was apt to physically break down and say "It's not fair; I wish I'd never gotten my powers". Since issue #8, Parker has acquired some of Spider-Man's bravado; but he has internalized the cry-baby. He begins this issue moaning "it's not my day" (when he stupidly goes to a photo shoot and forgets to take any pictures) and "wishes he had stayed in bed" when it turns out that it's Spider-Man who Kraven the Hunter is going to hunt. After Liz flirts with him and Betty storms out in a huff, he sits on the kerb brooding that being a superhero isn't as much fun as he expected; worries that he's become a "walking jinx" and beats up some housebreakers to cheer himself up. He repeats "just my luck" when he can't date Betty because he's promised to see Mary-Jane; and when he has to spend the night at home because neither Liz nor Betty want to see him he asks "who is sticking pins in a Peter Parker doll?" The episode ends with him wishing he was on the same boat as Kraven and the Chameleon, but adding "I am just not that lucky."

It is very unhealthy and unattractive to perceive the ordinary ups and downs of life as personal affronts. None of this month's disappointments have anything to do with his powers or his double life: he's caused them all by his own moral cowardice. He could have said to Aunt May "I am already dating Betty. If I go out with Mary, it will look like cheating, and you raised me to be too much of a gentleman to do that." He could have said to Betty "I am really sorry, but my Aunt has forced me to go on a blind date with a neighbor. Please can I take you for a soda tomorrow and we can have a laugh about how awful it was." He choses not to. As will become clearer and clearer in the next few months, the only person sticking pins into the Peter Parker voodoo doll is Peter Parker.

Next month, everything will be back to normal. May will be nagging Peter to date Mary Jane; Betty will ask Peter out to dinner (as if nothing has happened); and Peter will be forced to turn her down. And the month after that, Peter will be walking Betty home (as if nothing had happened) and they will bump into Liz... It is as if all the characters have been frozen in time, and won't really be defrosted until The Writer and the Artist finally part company.  



Saturday, December 03, 2016

I’m going tell you right wing authoritarian nativists; you may be surprised
The people in this world are getting organized
You're bound to lose: you right wing authoritarian nativists are bound to lose.

All of you right wing authoritarian nativists are bound to lose!
All of you right wing authoritarian nativists are bound to lose!
All of you right wing authoritarian nativists are bound to lose!
You’re bound to lose; you right wing authoritarian nativists are bound to lose!

Race hatred cannot stop us: this one thing we know
Your poll tax and Jim Crow and greed has got to go
You're bound to lose: you right wing authoritarian nativists are bound to lose.

All of you right wing authoritarian nativists are bound to lose!
All of you right wing authoritarian nativists are bound to lose!
All of you right wing authoritarian nativists are bound to lose!
You’re bound to lose: you right wing authoritarian nativists are bound to lose!

People of every color are marching side to side
Marching across the fields where a million right wing authoritarian nativists died
You’re bound to lose; you right wing authoritarian nativistss bound to lose!


All of you right wing authoritarian nativists are bound to lose!
All of you right wing authoritarian nativists are bound to lose!
All of you right wing authoritarian nativists are bound to lose!

You’re bound to lose; you right wing authoritarian nativists are bound to lose!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man #14

The Grotesque Adventure of the Green Goblin


Villain:
The Green Goblin + The Enforcers

Supporting Cast:
J Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Flash Thompson, Liz Allen, Betty Brant, B.J Cosmo.

Guest Star:
The Hulk!

Observations:
B.J Cosmo (or another director with the same initials) has previously appeared in Journey into Mystery #92, when he hires Thor to provide special effects for his Viking movie.

“Creature from the Black Lagoon” came out in 1954 and spawned two sequels “Revenge of the Creature” and “The Creature Walks Among us”. Unlike Cosmo’s “The Nameless Thing From the Black Lagoon in the Murky Swamp”, none of them won any awards.

Cosmo doesn’t seem to be aware that Spider-Man had a previous career as a TV performer.

It takes the three Enforcers and the Goblin to move the boulder over the cave entrance: Spider-Man can’t shift it himself, but tricks the Hulk into smashing it. This suggests that Spider-Man’s strength is a bit less than that of four reasonably fit grown men. (So maybe he can bench press 750lbs/340kg?)

The Hulk’s own comic was canceled in March 1963. After various away-fixtures in the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, he returns as Ant Man’s back up feature in Tales to Astonish #59 (September 64), where it is mentioned in passing that he was “last seen in New Mexico”.

Spins a web, any size: Spider-Man uses his web to catapult himself on the the Goblin’s broomstick. He attaches tumbleweed to the end of his web and “whips up a man made dust-storm.”

Peter Parker’s Financial Situation: It appears that both Cosmo and Jameson pay Parker expenses to fly from New York to L.A (about 5 hours), but he chooses to travel back by coach (more like 4 days) to save money. A one way Greyhound from Hollywood to New York would have cost about $50; a flight something around $70, so he’s probably only saving $20. It isn’t clear how he explains the 4 day absence to Jameson, or Aunt May, or Principal Davies; or indeed whether he actually turns in any pictures to J.J.J. 

$50,000 would have been a fairly small fee if B.J really thinks that Spider-Man is as big a star as Tony Curtis, who could command at last $150,000 per appearance.


“A Hollywood director, B.J Cosmo, offers Spider-Man $50,000 to star in a movie about his battle with the Enforcers. Spider-Man (still motivated by honest self-interest rather than altruism) agrees. Having traveled to New Mexico, he realizes that he has walked into a trap: he is not fighting actors playing the Enforcers, but the Enforcers themselves. During the fight, he tries to catch his breath in a cave, but the Enforcers roll a huge stone in front of the entrance to trap him inside. Just as the battle seems to be over, he disturbs an ancient Mayan sarcophagus, causing the mummified remains to come to life. He manages to escape from the cave, but the resurrected mummy, who has been christened The Green Goblin, also gets away, vowing vengeance on Spider-Man.”

This is not, of course, the plot of the Grotesque Adventure of the Green Goblin; it's my conjecture as to what Stan Lee's original pitch for the story might have looked like. In the published comic, the Green Goblin is involved from the beginning: it's him who persuades B.J. to makes 'The Spider-Man Story' and it's him who persuades Spider-Man to start in it. The Goblin isn't a demon, but a gadget powered criminal; and it's a Hulk, not a Goblin, who is discovered in the cave.

So why do we think that Stan Lee's original version was so different? It so happens we are able to compare and contrast two different accounts of the genesis of the story. First, we have Stan Lee’s version, from the opening page of Spider-Man #14:

“The gang at the bullpen said “Let’s give our fans the the greatest 12c worth we can! Let’s get a really different villain…a bunch of colorful henchmen for him…And even add a great guest star!! So we did!! And here’s the result… Another Marvel masterpiece…”

This is vintage Lee. We dreamed the story up in one go. What you have in front of you is what we always intended to put in front of you. The credits still use the despicable “written by Stan Lee, illustrated by Steve Ditko” formula, but this text comes much close to saying that the comic — the “dreaming up” process, at any rate — was a collaborative effort involving not just Stan, but the whole “gang at the bullpen”. (Who else was in that gang? Martin Goodman? Stan’s brother Larry? Kirby himself?) The dreaming up process can't have been all that onerous for the gang: their big idea is that the issue should involve, er, a new villain (like last issue did and next issue will) and that he should have some henchmen, and that there should be a guest star. I suppose that does pinpoint one unique selling point for the episode: the last three issues have had Spider-Man fighting a single bad guy; but this issue he has to fight five at once. 

Steve Ditko remembers things slightly differently:

“Stan's synopsis for the Green Goblin had a movie crew, on location, finding an Egyptian-like sarcophagus. Inside was an ancient, mythological demon, the Green Goblin. He naturally came to life. On my own, I changed Stan's mythological demon into a human villain… I rejected Stan's idea because a mythological demon made the whole Peter Parker/Spider-Man world a place where nothing is metaphysically impossible." 

I don’t think we should automatically accept that every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of Ditko is true and assume that everything Stan says is a fib. But Ditko’s claim here is very specific, not especially self-aggrandizing, and makes sense of what is frankly a very strange issue. Why does this dangerous new villain drag Spider-Man from New York to the West Coast simply to start a fight which could just as well have happened in New York? Does the story of B.J Cosmo and his Spider-Man film serve any purpose except as a lead in to yet another extended fight scene? And why is Spider-Man’s confrontation with the big, exciting new villain interrupted and upstaged by the unexpected appearance of the Incredible Hulk? If Stan's original version had Spider-Man's confrontation with the Enforcers interrupted and upstaged by the unexpected appearance of the Green Goblin everything starts to fit into place. Ditko left Stan's structure in place, but turned the sudden appearance of a green goblin-like mummy into an equally sudden appearance by the equally green Hulk. It is, I suppose, possible that Stan Lee dreamed up the idea of a science powered bad-guy whose gadgets had a supernatural flavour;  but it is much easier to believe that he pitched “a hobgoblin riding a broomstick” to Ditko, and Ditko reconfigured it as “a criminal dressed as a hobgoblin driving a jet pack in the shape of a broomstick.”

Stan Lee dreamed up the story; Steve Ditko pretty much ignored it and came up with a different story of his own; and the result was the most famous of all Spider-Man’s enemies.

That’s collaboration, folks.

The “broomstick” was a step too far for the Comics Code, which still prohibited “scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and were-wolfism”. Presumably they took it for granted that this included allusions to witchcraft; although there is nothing especially witchy about the Goblin. His flying device does have an array of twig like spikes on it, but you could easily fail to realize that they are meant to be the brush of a besom. (The spikes point forward, between the Goblin's legs, which is in line with traditional folklore depictions of witches, but not with popular fairy tale illustrations, or Mr Harry Potter, whose brushes generally point behind them.)


A Barnum and Bailey circus strongman named Pierre Gasner performed a trick in which he broke break a chain across his own chest, seemingly by expanding his muscles. The back page of Superman #1 famously showed Superman performing the same stunt — an image which became the company trademark of DC comics. Page 10 of this issue contains a clear reference to this iconic image. Montana — the lasso wielding member of the Enforcers — entangles Spider-Man in his ropes, but the hero succeeds in breaking them across his chest. "One thing he didn't count on was my power of CHEST EXPANSION!!" thinks Spider-Man, in a frequently mocked panel. (The “Superdickery” website describes this as “Spider-Man acquiring Superman’s power of making up powers as I need them.”) Now, there is certainly a problem — which will get worse and worse as the years role on — of the heroes and villains feeling the need to provide a running commentary on their every move:

“Surrounding me and beating me are two different things! You can’t throw that lasso fast enough to snare me, Montana!”

“Maybe he can’t. But Fancy Dan can grab you while you’re dodging the rope.”

“And while you turn away to flip Dan over your head, I can follow up with a hay-maker.”

But this bit of Stanish silliness shouldn’t obscure just how well choreographed the fight scene is. Montana — the lasso guy — ensnares Spidery-Man in his rope; Spider-Man pauses, and physically breaks the ropes (taking Montana out of the fight); the super-strong Ox follows through and punches Spider-Man (knocking him down, but not out) while the other two fall on him. Spider-Man again pauses, thinking “I’ve got to summon all my spider-strength NOW…while they least expect it .. While they’re all confused!!” and then throws all three men off him fairly easily. He uses his web to whip up a dust-storm and runs away into a cave: he does not think he can defeat three bad guys at once. They follow him into the cave, and along with the Goblin, block the entrance with a boulder. (The idea of rolling a stone in front of the entrance to a cave calls to mind Don Blake finding Thor’s hammer in Journey into Mystery #83. And possibly other, even holier, stories.) He picks off Montana (who’s acquired a new lasso) and Fancy Dan (the judo guy) by trapping them from above with his webs; he takes the Ox by surprise and knocks him out with a single punch. Suddenly the Goblin reappears and starts throwing stun bombs at Spider-Man: just as we are expecting a final fight with the main villain, but instead, out of the smoke appears the Hulk.

So, it is fairly clear that when Spider-Man refers to "my power of chest expansion" he is simply saying that Montana hasn't realized that he is strong enough to break ropes with his chest muscles —  not that he has a specific, never-before mentioned ability to alter the size of his ribs and pecs. The interesting thing is that he seems to need to pause and focus his mind before doing the rope-breaking trick. Similarly, having been knocked down fairly easily by the Ox, he has to consciously “summons all of his Spider-Strength” before throwing the three guys off him. This appears to confirm that Spider-Man’s power is a supernatural or psychic force which he has to channel; not a physical enhancement. The Ox specifically says that he is surprised that "such a skinny runt" can be so strong.


In 1964, the Hulk was still as word as any other Stan Lee baddie, saying “My only defense against mankind is my strength and nothing will stop me from using it” rather than “Hulk smash!” It seems to me that Ditko is already drawing a savage, bestial Hulk, but Stan Lee hasn’t worked out what kind of dialogue he should have. This does lead to one of the best of Spider-Man’s one-liners

"Even deep in my hidden caves, you attack me! But no-one can capture the Hulk!"

"Capture you!? Brother, I don’t even wanna share the same planet with you!"

It is perhaps deliberate that we see two punches from the Ox knock Spider-Man down but fail to knock him out. When Spider-Man finally gets a good punch in against the Ox, he renders him instantly unconscious. (Spider-Man uses the rather dubious expression “love-tap”, implying he isn’t hitting him as hard as he could.) But when Spider-Man punches the Hulk, he hardly notices, and Spider-Man actually injures his fist!


The Green Goblin will eventually supplant Doctor Octopus as Spider-Man’s “arch-enemy”; and his whole persona will be subsumed into the single fact that he knows Spider-Man’s secret identity. And of course, everyone knows that the Goblin’s secret identity will turn out to be Norman “my best friend’s father” Osborne. Sam Rami positioned him as a literally Satanic figure, the opponent of Toby Maguire's Christ-in-spandex. But at this point, the Green Goblin isn’t any of these things. Stan Lee himself is a little unsure about the character, admitting on the cover that he may be too cute and funny looking to be a bad guy. And while the cover promises us that he’s “the most dangerous foe Spider-Man has ever fought” it isn’t exactly clear what makes him so threatening. He has a flying broomstick, shoots sparks from his fingers, and throws what are described as “stun bombs” at Spider-Man. The “stun bombs” still look like grenades. (They wont be re-themed as Jack O’Lanterns until the Goblin’s second appearance.)

This Goblin is simply a wannabee gangster. ("It just proves how hard it is to make a career of crime! You can never think of everything!) His ojbjective (revealed in a soliloquy on the final page) is to “organize a world-wide crime syndicate” with the Big Man’s old henchmen as his lieutenants. Why this involves defeating Spider-Man isn’t quite clear. Are we to suppose that Spider-Man is no so adept at catching thieves that there would be no point in setting yourself up as head of the newer, bigger Thieves Guild without first putting him out of action? Or is the idea that the Enforcers want their revenge on Spider-Man, because he sent the to prison for very nearly three months, and the Goblin has told them that he will deliver Spider-Man up to them if they will work for him thereafter? Either way, the Goblins plan is convoluted even by super-villain standards:

1: Persuade Cosmo to make a film about Spider-Man
2: Persuade Cosmo to hire Spider-Man himself to star in the film
3: Persuade Cosmo to hire him, the Green Goblin, to appear in the film as himself.
4: Persaude  Cosmo that the Enforcers are merely actors dressed up to look like the Enforcers.
5: Act as go-between to arrange a meeting between Spider-Man and Cosmo. (The usual method would be to put an advertisement in the Bugle, informing Spider-Man that an honest $50,000 is on offer.)
6: Travel back to Hollywood with Cosmo, Spider-Man and the Enforcers.
7: Wait until everyone has been driven out to New Mexico for the first days shooting.
8: Reveal that the whole thing has been a trick, and allow the Enforcer's to attack Spider-Man
9: Once Spider-Man has been defeated, become Top Criminal

And it would have worked, too, if not for that pesky Hulk...

But Lee and Ditko are clearly setting up the the Goblin as a villain of some importance. He is going to make four more appearances in the Ditko years, far more than any other super villain. A great deal is made of the fact that the Goblin is still at large at the end of the episode, and a great deal is made of the fact that no-one knows who he really is. The first panel of the comic shows the Goblin mask in the foreground, while a shadowy figure puts the finish touches to the code-baiting broomstick; the final panels show him pulling the mask off and, with his face obscured, announcing that “the world hasn’t heard the last of…the Green Goblin.”

It certainly hasn't.