Sunday, June 12, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man #1 (cont)

Spider-Man vs The Chameleon

The Chameleon

The Fantastic Four

Named characters: 

Un-named characters:
Cops, guards, spies etc

First Appearance of: 
Spider-Man’s spider-sense


Spider-Man’s mask is now separate from his shirt. 

Spider-Man refers to communists as “commies”.

For the first, but not the last time, Spider-Man runs out of web-fluid at an inopportune moment.

It is hardly possible to over-emphasize the importance of the Marvel Method when reading these ancient comics. It is debatable how detailed a brief Stan Lee gave to his artists: Steve Ditko talks in terms of two page synopses; Stan Lee admits that it was sometimes not more than a one-line summary. But what is not in question is that Ditko delivered completed artwork to Lee with no writing on it; and that Lee added the speech bubbles, the captions and the sound effects after the pictures had been completed. So it is always a good rule to look at what the pictures would be saying if there were no words, and see if that is in any way different from what the text is saying (or what the text and pictures say together.) When the writing and the art are "out of sync", it doesn’t follow that Stan has done a Bad Thing; or that we should ignore the words and just look at the pretty pictures. The slight clash — as when Steve provides a dark, scary villain and Stan adds an ironic, comical commentary — is probably the biggest single thing in the early years which made Spider-Man feel like Spider-Man. But occasionally, it does give a clue as to the textual archaeology of the piece.

One such case occurs in Spider-Man #1. In the final panel of page 5, Peter moans “I don’t get it. How do other superhuman guys like Ant Man and the Fantastic Four get away with it?” In the picture, he is standing by a news-stand, with a rack of papers saying “SPIDER MAN: MENACE”. The picture is reminding us the Jonah Jameson hates Spider-Man; the words are about the Fantastic Four and Ant Man being popular. If “Spider-Man wonders why the F.F are so popular” had been part of the brief that Lee gave to Ditko, then Ditko would surely have drawn a panel showing Spider-Man thinking about the other heroes; or at least put “FANTASTIC FOUR SAVE WORLD AGAIN” on some of the papers. He didn't. So it is a good bet that when Lee briefed Ditko, and when Ditko drew this story, they didn’t know that Spider-Man was going to start meeting other Marvel Superheroes. When Lee sat down to write the dialogue, they did.

The J Jonah Jameson story, which runs to 11 pages, was clearly intended for an anthology comic: Amazing Fantasy #16. This leaves Lee and Ditko with 10 pages to fill in Amazing Spider-Man #1. So Spider-Man vs the Chameleon is a filler, the first material written with a solo Spider book in mind. It’s been a long time since Lee wrote the first four and a bit episodes of his “realistic” hero — so long that he has forgotten Peter Parker’s name! This isn’t a lettering error: he’s Peter Palmer on every page. And in those months, Lee has rethought what Spider-Man is all about.

Amazing Fantasy #15 shows no signs of taking place in something called the Marvel Universe. People would hardly be breath taken and incredulous by a wall-crawling TV star if the Fantastic Four and the Hulk were already famous, and there is no hint that Uncle Ben has regaled Petey with stories about how he saw Captain America and the Human Torch during the war. The logic of the first four and a bit chapters is that Parker is in a unique situation and doesn’t know what to do with it. But in the months between the axing of Amazing Fantasy and the launch of Amazing Spider-Man, Lee had started to think of Marvel Comics as a shared world. In Fantastic Four #4, Johnny Storm still thinks of the Hulk as a comic book character; but by issue #12 General Ross is asking the F.F to help the army capture the big green bad tempered guy. Fantastic Four #12 and Spider-Man #1 came out in the same month. The Hulk is on the cover of the F.F's comic; the F.F are on the cover of Spider-Man's. Stan Lee is establishing a brand.

The filler strip is actually two unrelated stories: one, running to four pages, is about Spider-Man trying to join the Fantastic Four; the other, running to six, is about a communist traitor trying to frame him. There’s no attempt to integrate them, and the faces of the F.F (EXTRA BONUS EXTRA!) are rather incongruously stuck over a splash page depicting Spider-Man and the Chameleon. The story is called Spider-Man vs the Chameleon rather than Spider-Man Meets the Fantastic Four; but it’s a Kirby F.F on the cover. (So, yes: the cover of the first ever Spider-Man comic advertised a sub-plot in the back-up strip.)

Both segments are about Spider-Man trying to make some money. In the first half; Spider-Man arrogantly thinks he can get paying work with the Fantastic Four; in the second he naively follows up a job offer, which turns out to be from a Soviet spy. The F.F. tell Spider-Man (truthfully) that they are a non-profit organization and don’t pay wages — fairly politely considering he’s just broken into their building unannounced: but Spider-Man chooses to think that they have turned him down because they believe in J. Jonah Jameson’s editorials. He remains appalling, horribly arrogant, telling the most famous heroes in the world that he never wanted to join their club in the first place. Once again, a door has been closed off to Spider-Man: he can’t work as an entertainer and now he’s alienated himself from the other superheroes. Stan Lee could legitimately claim that a story in which Spider-Man visits the Fantastic Four and nothing comes of it is a fairly unconventional bit of story telling. 

The Chameleon section is entirely separate  — Peter “Palmer” is rediscovered studying spiders in a museum, having completely forgotten about his visit to the Baxter Building, or, indeed, his breakfast time plans to become a super-villain. The Chameleon sends out a message offering Spider-Man a job, and Spider-Man thinks “I can’t afford to pass up any chance for profit”. One wonders why no-one thought to call the comic Peter Parker: Hero For Hire.

The idea — that the Chameleon wants to lure Spider-Man to a particular roof-top, so that it will look like the latter stole the plans that the former is running away with — is quite cool; and the ending, in which the police continue to believe that Spider-Man is the traitor despite all evidence to the contrary fits in pretty well with the rest of the issue. In between is a fairly generic run-about. It’s quite depressing to look at the sketchy artwork in which a tiny figure of Spider-Man webs himself onto the Chameleon’s helicopter, and compare them with the thrilling space capsule sequences that Ditko produced ten pages, (or looked at another way, seven months) ago. It’s a bit crap to put the helicopter sequence and the space capsule sequence in the same issue, actually: if your main movie features an aerial rescue, then your B-feature should be a car chase or a gunfight.

The episode is most notable for introducing what is described as Spider-Man’s “spider instincts” “spider senses” or “spider’s sense”. It’s an odd idea: if you were trying to think of an additional power to give to a hero who could walk on walls and spin web, “telepathic radar” wouldn’t necessarily be the first thing that comes to mind. The spider sense is a generic bit of plot machinery, as multi-functional as a sonic screwdriver.  It warns “Palmer” that the Invisible Girl is behind him; it enables him to hear the Chameleon’s electronic message; it allows him to “tune in” on the Chameleon’s ship; it tells him that one of the police is the Chameleon in disguise; and it enables him to to find his way around a dark room. It is consistently represented, as it would be for years to come, by lines radiating from Spider-Man’s head.

When the fake Spider-Man steals the plans, the cop says “I can’t believe you have turned traitor”. The Fantastic Four seem only mildly concerned that he is wanted by the FBI. The cliffhanger at the end of the last story in which Spider-Man is a wanted felon on the point of turning bad has already been forgotten. Spider-Man is not an outlaw and a fugitive: he’s merely a do-gooder who people don’t quite trust. 
The second time the cops assume Spider-Man is a traitor he runs out of the fight ("in a fit of white hot fury”, apparently) crying “well, they can catch that spy themselves now.” So much for power and responsibility.

And in the final frame, we are right back where we started: Peter wishing for the second time in one issue that he could give up being Spider-Man. The final two frames echo the endings of Amazing Fantasy # 15 and the first strip in Spider-Man #1. In one “a lone figure looses himself in the shadows of the night” (compare with “a silent figure silently fades into the gathering darkness”) while in the other, the Invisible Girl wonders “what if Spider-Man ever turned his power against the law”? Clearly "Parker turns bad" is a storyline that Lee wants to trail, but nothing ever comes of it.

“Every time I try to help, I get into worse trouble!” whines cry-baby Peter in the final frame. “NOTHING turns out right... (SOB) I wish I had never GOTTEN my superpowers”

"Every time I try to help." Peter “Palmer” may just have inadvertently revealed the dark secret of Spider-Man.

A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
Andrew Rilstone

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

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Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copywriter holder.

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