Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man #2

Duel to Death With the Vulture 


Villain

The Vulture

Named Characters

Aunt May, J Jonah Jameson, "Moose" (Flash Thompson), Jameson's secretary

First Appearance of

Utility Belt, Automatic Camera

Observations

When Peter is at home doing Science he does not bother to wear his glasses.

We get a very brief look at Jameson's secretary/receptionist (who appears to wear scary librarian glasses at this point.) Next month she will become "Miss Brant", and "Betty Brant" thereafter.


And so, on the first page of the second issue of Amazing Spider-Man, the original Spider-Man concept is abandoned, and the character we are familiar with comes into focus. 

Jameson, the chauvinistic tabloid editor from the previous issue, wants photographs of the Vulture, a flying bank robber with wings powered by Science. Peter Parker realizes that he could provide them. Aunt May, very conveniently, finds an automatic camera that once belonged to Uncle Ben. At a stroke, all Spider-Man’s financial worries are wiped away; the previous episodes relegated to the status of prologue; and the question “what should I do with my powers?” resolved. Peter Parker becomes Clark Kent; Jonah Jameson becomes Perry White; very soon the secretary glimpsed on page 8 will become Lois Lane. 

This is, I think, an interim issue: intended for an anthology comic (it’s only 14 pages long); somewhat connected to Spider-Man #1 (Peter Parker’s main objective is still financial); but focusing more on heroic action and less on character. The "realistic" setting is dropped; for the first time, Spider-Man has an enemy — a flying bank-robber. The aerial duel with the Vulture isn’t as breath-taking as the rescue of the John Jameson in issue #1, but it’s vastly more exciting than the feeble helicopter sequence in the Chameleon story. The sheer visual charisma of the Vulture carries the day. Ditko’s art is sometimes said to be scratchy and cartoony, but the close up of the Vulture on page 5 is on a level with an art-house woodcut.

Peter Parker does not see it as his duty to capture or defeat the Vulture. In their first encounter Spider-Man is following the villain at distance and setting up his camera, thinking “If these pictures come out, the ought to be worth a small fortune”. The Vulture spots him, knocks him out, and leaves him for dead; and when he recovers, he takes the pictures to Jameson. When Parker witnesses the Vulture’s jewel heist, he thinks “If I can get some new pictures of him now, I’ll be able to name my own price for them.” After the fight (in which Spider-Man deactivates the Vultures wings with some Science that he made in his laboratory earlier) he immediately thinks “this is my chance to get some exclusive pix of the capture of the Vulture”; as the police arrest him, he think “these pictures should be prize winners”. Peter is not an altruist; he is not driven by a sense of duty. He becomes embroiled with the Vulture while trying to make an honest buck taking photos.

I will say that again: while trying to make an honest buck. Jameson wants photos; Parker can get photos; Jameson pays Parker what they are worth; and for the first time, everything ends well. 

Some of Stan Lee’s captions get ahead of themselves. Lee has a habit of “back-filling” stories. Once he thinks up a new plot element, he writes as if it was there from the beginning; which gives a new reader the impression that Spider-Man is a much more established character than he really is. “The most colorful superhero of all” cries the title page of Spider-Man #2 “His very name makes the underworld tremble.” So far as we know, in his entire career, Spider-Man has arrested one armed robber (without much publicity) and run out of a fight with one communist spy (also without anyone knowing). The last we saw of him, he was crying and threatening to quit being Spider-Man because he didn’t have any friends and no-one liked him. So what has the underworld got to tremble about? But Stan Lee has decided — I suspect after Ditko had completed the art — that Spider-Man is going to be a crime-fighting guy from now on, and therefore writes as if a crime-fighting guy is what he has always been. 

On page 7, Spider-Man is shown, at home in his bedroom, constructing a utility belt. I think that this is another example of words and pictures being “out of sync”. The pictures shows Spider-Man picking up his camera; looking at the front page of Now Magazine (with the camera still in his hand); making the belt; slipping it under his suit and then constructing a device out of mechanical components. The picture show that the suit can be used to store metal objects about the size and shape of cigarette lighters. They could be web shooters. They could be film canisters. The next sequence shows him selling his first photographs to J. Jonah Jameson.  But Stan Lee’s think-bubble reads “If I’m really going to be a secret adventurer I’ve got to make some changes”. Nothing in the pictures suggest that he is going to be a secret adventurer. What he is going to be is a freelance photographer. 

The episode is still all about fame. The Vulture is supplanting Spider-Man as the celeb who shifts copies of Jameson's papers. Spider-Man was a TV hit because he seemed to be more spider than human; today, the crowds are looking at the Vulture because he is “more bird of prey than human”. Jameson, who was obsessed with Spider-Man, now wants to fill whole issues of his magazine with pictures of the Vulture. The Vulture actively courts publicity, announcing in advance where his crimes are going to be committed. And so Parker makes a faustian pact to keep himself in the public eye. He is going to sell pictures of himself to Jameson, knowing full well what Jameson is will do with them.

Peter Parker is still a performer; Spider-Man is still a role he plays, but from now on, the Daily Bugle will be his stage, and his shows will consist of the dramatic capture of super villains. Jameson thinks Spider-Man is a publicity hound, but obligingly prints pictures of him on the front page of every newspaper he publishes. Parker is miserable because the Bugle tells a false story about him, but provides the very photos that ensure that story is the one that will be told. Parker can make a living only as long as he continue providing Jameson with material for his hate campaigns. Jameson can sell papers only as long as Peter Parker keeps providing photos of Spider-Man to fill them with. Jameson hates Spider-Man because he is famous; but it is Jameson who makes him famous. Spider-Man hates Jameson for making him look bad, but obliging provides the photos that allow Jameson to make him look bad. 

It’s a merry dance; a dance they both seem at some level to enjoy. They don’t seem to notice how many people — including themselves — the game is harming.

Amazing Fantasy # 15 ended with Parker slinking into the darkness, in shame. Spider-Man #1 ends with him cursing his powers and crying. But this story ends with a grinning Peter Parker telling an equally happy Aunt May that their financial troubles are over. There’s a trivial example of art and text being “out of sync” in this scene: we see Jameson looking at the photos; we see Peter leaving Jameson’s office with a huge pile of green dollar bills and we see a happy Peter and a happy Aunt May at home, each holding smaller piles of cash. We can clearly read what has happened: Peter Parker, like a nice little mummy’s boy, has split his first wage packet with his Auntie. But the text says something slightly different: Peter has kept the money, but is planning to spend it all on things Aunt May needs. “I paid the rent for a full year, and tomorrow I’m buying you the newest kitchen appliances you ever drooled over.”

At today's prices, a years rent on a two bedroom house wouldn’t leave you much change from $15,000, before you’ve counted in whatever a new washing machine and dishwasher costs. Parker has taken home practically a year's salary in one day. Jameson clearly doesn’t deserve his reputation as a skinflint.

In the end, the argument about who “created” Spider-Man is pointless. Ditko and Lee figured out for themselves what the comic was about, and those different idea became the first half-dozen issues of Spider-Man. This issue places a few more components into place; but we are some distance from the finished character.



The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer

Villain

Tinkerer

Named character

Dr Cobbwell, Flash Thompson

First Appearance of: 

The Parker/Spider-Man mask motif

Sarcasm. 

Observations:

Spider-Man thinks that the Tinkerer is “one of the greatest menaces I’ve ever faced” —the others, presumably, being the Chameleon and the Vulture.


The Beatles famously intended Sgt Pepper to be the world’s first concept album: a fictitious concert played by a fictitious band. After recording the introduction and the first song, they reportedly said “Oh, soddit. Let’s just do tracks.”

One is tempted to imagine Stan Lee, one issue into his rule-breaking game-changing realistic new super-hero, looking up from his typewriter and saying “Oh, soddit. Let’s just do monster stories.”

In a filler strip entirely without redeeming features, Peter Parker (having just trousered a year's wages for one afternoon’s work) takes a weekend job running errands for an electronics expert and…foils an alien invasion.

The plot has been phoned in from Amazing Adult Fantasy: a shop offers to fix radios for a dime; everyone takes them up on the offer; but the radios are being bugged by extraterrestrials to enable them to spy on the human race. The idea of a radio that listens to you while you listen to it could have been quite spooky, but isn’t. 

The story follows the formula that was established in the previous episode: Spider-Man fights the baddies; Spider-Man is defeated by the baddies; Spider-Man uses his brain and beats the baddie on the second attempt. This time he is zapped by a ray-gun and imprisoned in an unbreakable glass container, oddly like the one the Fantastic Four tried to trap him last issue. (Could that be because people who don’t like spiders sometimes trap them in glasses?) I have never thought that “escaping from the water tower by jumping” or “defeating the Vulture by rustling up a special anti-Vulture-wings-zapper” were very interesting ploys, but this one is actually quite clever. There must be air-holes in the container (because he isn’t suffocating) so all Spider-Man has to do to get free is fire a tiny thin strand of webbing through one of the holes and snag the “open unbreakable glass prison” button on the aliens' control panel.

Decades later it was decided that the Tinkerer wasn’t an alien after all, but was pretending to be because of Reasons. This doesn’t retrospectively make the story less awful.

The story does have two points of interest: 

On page 8, one of the aliens cries out “Look! It’s impossible! But he’s loose!” and Spider-Man, punching two aliens with one blow, retorts “Who do you think you are — the town crier?” This is, to the best of my reckoning, the first joke Spider-Man ever makes. Up to now, his dialogue has been melodramatic (”there’s no place on earth where you can hide from me”) boastful (”the sky is my element just as much as it is yours”) and arrogant (”ya big ape who do ya think you’re pushing around”) but this is the first actual wisecrack. By issue #7, telling jokes will be specifically mentioned on the cover as one of things Spider-Man is famous for. 

And on page 4, we get this first occurrence of the Parker/Spider-Man split face motif. Note that on this occasion, the Spider-Man mask is coloured in a lighter shade of red than usual, as if to emphasize that it’s not really there. It has been said that Lee wanted the comic to be primarily about Spider-Man whereas Ditko wanted to give Peter Parker equal space; and the half-mask was a compromise; reminding readers that Spider-Man was present, even in long Peter-centric sequences. Certainly, the half-face mask is going to become part of iconography of the strip, so intuitive that we hardly notice it is there. But this is the first time it's been used, so Lee writes in way too much exposition. Peter Parker is working in Prof. Cowbell’s workshop, but can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong. Suddenly, he thinks “Those electrical impulses. I sensed them in his shop! Now I sense them here! The part of me which is Spider-Man is reacting suspiciously to them! I’ve got to check this out!” This is a rather elaborate way of what would soon be expressed simply as “My spider-sense is tingling like crazy!” But Ditko’s visual motif has suggested to Lee that Peter Parker is not merely a kid who dresses up as Spider-Man for the benefit of the cameras, but at some level a split personality. The idea that there are two sides to Peter Parker — the side of him which is Peter Parker and the side of him which is Spider-Man —is going to be around for several issues to come; and it is by no means clear that Spider-Man is the good half.

Next issue, Lee will claim that the Doctor Octopus story is the first one to end without Parker selling pictures to Jonah Jameson; but in fact (despite a brief look at what might be a camera on panel 5 of page 2) there is no reference to photo-journalism in this episode. Stan Lee is obviously pretending it didn’t happen. I advise everyone to do the same.






1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I have to disagree WRT the water tower sequence. That's a minor classic, and deservedly so. Drowning in a water tower is a disturbing idea, and one that's familiar to millions of New York City kids. It's convincingly presented as a real threat -- deep cold water with slippery, unstickable walls. And it fits nicely with the "low level" atmosphere of these early issues, where Spider-Man could be seriously menaced by relatively simple threats. It's also helping to establish the idea that Spider-Man never gives up, which will grow in importance across the first 40 issues.

The Vulture was Spider-Man's first supervillain enemy, so it's worth pausing to consider him on that level. He's potentially interesting in that he could have been a foil to Peter Parker: a brilliant scientist who develops a cool device. Unfortunately, he's never expanded or explored in any way. The moment he comes up with an invention, he can only think of using it to steal. He has no backstory or motivations. He does nothing but steal and gloat. I'm inclined to blame Ditko for this -- Ditko has always loved mustache-twirling motiveless cartoon bad guys -- but Lee could at least have given him a sentence or two of personality. Next issue, with Doctor Octopus, he'd show some chops in this regard -- Octopus is pretty two-dimensional too, but there's the recognizable outline of a tragic figure there.

The aliens in the second part are obviously, as aliens in those days so often were, Communists. The further shores of anti-Communist paranoia provided vast material for the comics writers of the 1950s and early '60s: mind control! they look just like us, but they're really monsters. Or, in this case, that harmless old man is really A SPY; that deal is too good to be true; they're in the radios.


Doug M.