Thursday, July 07, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man #5

Marked For Destruction By Doctor Doom

Doctor Doom

Guest Stars:
Fantastic Four

Named Characters:
J. Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Betty Brant, Flash Thompson, Liz Allan

First use of a pre-existing villain.

First time Flash Thompson is said to be a Spider-Man fan

First hint of a Peter Parker / Betty Brant romance

In issue #1 Jameson sincerely hated Spider-Man because he was stealing fame from his son John. But this issue, Jameson admits to being a hypocrite: he hates Spider-Man because hating Spider-Man sells papers. (Parker responds like the most famous teenager in literature, confronted by The Man: “you big, blustering phony”.)

On page 12 of Amazing Spider-Man #5 Stan Lee uses a caption to address the reader directly: 

You’ve struggled through one of the LONGEST INTRODUCTIONS you’ve ever read! But we think you’ll find it well worth it because now the fireworks begin in earnest!

In fact, Spider-Man spends another page and a swinging around the city, searching for Doctor Doom's base, but at the boom of page 13, Lee’s voice chips in again:

And now settle back and prepare to witness the gol-dangest, ding bustedest, rip-snoting’est super characters fight you’ve ever seen!

And there you have it: half way through the fifth issue of Spider-Man — arguably before the character is fully formed — we see the crack that three years from now will bring the first great era of the comic to its end. 

No, I don't know what gol-dangest means, either. (The caption sounds a little like Bound For Glory: "the singingest, square dancingest, drinkingest, yellingest, preachingest, walkingest, talkingest, laughingest, cryingest, shootingest, fist fightingest, bleedingest, gamblingest, gun, club and razor carryingest of our ranch towns...")

Even if you knew nothing about the off-stage disagreements between Lee and Ditko it would be obvious that there were two competing voices in this comic. The narrator-voice, the person who speaks the captions, is somehow outside the story: commenting on it as it unfolds, not creating it. And this narrator-voice is impatient with the back-story and wishes we could fast forward to the fight scene. The story-teller, on the other hand, wants to linger in the set-up and show us why the fight happened.

Put another way: the narrator is only interested in the Spider-Man part of the tale; the story teller is interested in Peter Parker as well.

Put a third way: the narrator thinks it's a fantasy book about super-villains; the story teller thinks it's a realistic book about an ordinary guy coping with his weird powers.

Now, this may be a calculated part of the act. Stan Lee takes the mickey our of Art Simek on nearly every credits page, but no-one seriously thinks there was a rift between the writer and the lettering department. But knowing what we know, I think that Stan Lee is editorializing. I think he really does think that Ditko has spent too long on the sub-plot about Peter Parker and Flash Thompson, and is actively criticizing him, right there, on the pages of the published comic. 

Whatever else he is, Stan Lee is caption-guy. Like him or loathe him (and I know some people think we should just erase the text and look the pictures) his voice is what the Fantastic Four has in common with Spider-Man. It's the unique selling point that makes Marvel a different proposition from D.C. Anyone can parody it; no-one can imitate it. One of the great strengths of that voice is its immediacy; Lee is honestly responding to the pictures he sees in front of him. The captions are sometimes more like commentaries than narratives. If we enjoy the moments when he says (sincerely) “OMG! Best. Cliffhanger. Ever!" we probably have to accept the moments when he says “Oh, for god’s sake Steve, get on with it!” 

But it’s still an odd thing to do. This is Spider-Man, the hero who could be you, the new, realistic hero, the guy we are supposed to care about, confronting Doctor Doom, Reed Richard's evil lab partner, the worst villain in the Marvel Universe. And Doom is actively threatening to murder one of Peter Parker’s classmates. Instead of talking up the melodrama, the narrator treats it as just another wrestling match. “Wohoo! Fight! Fight! Fight!” It’s as if George Lucas came on stage at the end of Empire Strikes Back and said “thank god! No-more rubbish about the Force! A sword fight! Finally!”

And this isn’t even the weirdest caption in the comic…


Stan Lee's complaint about the long build up isn't particularly valid. The comic is extremely well structured: a two page set up; four pages of Spider-Man’s first meeting with Doom; a four page interlude; a second, eight page fight; and a two page wrap up. I think most readers would take the opposite line: the set up is really well done and funny, but it doesn't go anywhere: instead of a payoff, we get an eight page wrestling match. 

The story has two prongs. In Prong A, Doctor Doom becomes interested in Spider-Man. First of all, he decides to ask Spider-Man to help him defeat the Fantastic Four. (After all, if he nearly beat them by himself, he should be able to beat them easily with the help of a teenager who can stick to walls.) Doom makes no attempt to deceive Spider-Man (as he does with the Silver Surfer a couple of years later) but appeals directly to his vanity. As ever, fame is the bait, and being a superhero is a branch of showbiz. “And yet, right under your nose, the Fantastic Four bask in the limelight while you are shunned and hunted.” ("Limelight” is pretty much a synonym for Spotlight: it was the title of of Charlie Chaplin’s last film, about the tragedy of fame.) And astonishingly, Spider-Man is momentarily tempted by the idea: “Me team up with you, huh. Wouldn’t that be a gasser!” Spider-Man is still a morally ambiguous character: he does, in fact, make the right decisions, but maybe one day he won't. He doesn’t say “get thee behind me supervillain, for I have sworneth on my uncle’s grave always to support the forces of good”. He says “Sure, it’s an amusing thought to kick around…” Teaming up with Doctor Doom? Amusing? 

When he has turned down the idea of going into partnership with the world's worst supervillain, Doom decides to capture Spider-Man and hold him hostage — telling the Fantastic Four that Spider-Man will die if they don’t surrender to him. This makes literally no sense whatsoever. If Doom wants a hostage, why pick on someone who is difficult to capture and who the Fantastic Four have no particular commitment to? Why not just capture Will Lumpkin the postman? 

This brings us to Prong B. Flash Thompson decides to play a prank on Peter Parker — dressing up as Spider-Man and jumping out on him to scare him. In a rather brilliantly timed denouement, Peter Parker and Flash Thompson are walking on opposite sides of a fence while Doom is scanning the area with his Spider-Man Detector. So Doom thinks he has captured Spider-Man, but has actually captured Flash Thompson in a Spider-Man suit. This is an almost perfect example of the accommodation that the story-teller will reach with the narrator: in almost every episode from now on, some unlikely co-incidence will bring an incident from Peter Parker's life and a threat to Spider-Man crashing together. But on this occasion, not very much comes of the set up. I wish Doom had continued to believe, or pretend to believe, that Thompson was Spider-Man for much longer; or that there had been a funnier confrontation between the real Spider-Man and the fake one; or Thompson had somehow found the Master Control Switch and really saved the day.

When Peter hears that Doom has captured Thompson by mistake, our Responsibility Hero’s first reaction is…to do nothing: to let Doom kill him, and actually to gloat about it. He appears to have momentarily metamorphosed into Evil Genius Parker (with extra-large glasses) “What a break for me! All I have to do is keep out of it and Flash Thompson will never bother Peter Parker again! Finally, things are going my way!” (Flash certainly does call Peter bad names; but Peter calls Flash bad names in return. Wanting him to be murdered is a fairly extreme over-reaction.) But of course, the other side of Parker, the Spider-Man side, responds “Awww, what am I thinking? Who am I kidding?” Note that Peter Parker's better angels do not say that "just keeping out of it" is precisely what got Uncle Ben killed: they just say that letting Flash die is not the sort of thing Parker would ever do.

This is the third time that the split Parker / Spider-Man face has been used in the context of Parker’s relationship with Thompson. At the end of last issue, Parker momentarily morphed into a super-villain and threatened to punch Flash ("you have insulted me for the last time!”); but his Spider-Man half reminded him that if he had a fight with a non-superpowered person, he could easily kill them. At the beginning of this issue, Flash taunts Peter again ("this is a bowling alley, not a knitting parlour”) and the Spider-Man side of Peter's face thinks that one day, he will lose control and Flash won’t know what hit him. So Spider-Man is both the potential that Peter Parker might do a bad thing — he is so strong, that his strength must be kept in check at all times. But Spider-Man is also Peter Parker’s moral side: the side which tells him that he can’t stand by and let villains kill civilians — even footballers.

The idea that a strong man has to be a saint because he has so much potential to harm people recalls Sir Lancelot in the Once and Future King; it's one of the central moral ideas in Marvel Comics, eventually daubed across the universe in the Dark Phoenix saga. ("I’d have to stay completely in control of myself every second of every day for the rest of my immortal life. Maybe I could do it. But if slipped, even for an instant, if I… failed… if even one more person died at my hands…")I can't think of any occasion when Spider-Man does cause harm by losing control: his sins are invariably sins of omission.

Stan Lee has a reputation as a motor-mouth who can’t stop talking, but in fact, of the 30 or so captions which appear in Amazing Spider-Man #5 fully 1 in 3 are simple stage directions, in the manner of silent movie inter-titles: 

The next day, at the offices of J. Jonah Jameson… 

A short time later, in another part of town…

Not long afterwords…

Minutes later, after Peter has reached home… 

and even simply


A further half-dozen fill out the stage direction with a bit of description, but are still basically functional:

Meanwhile, at home, Peter Parker practices his agility with his web in the privacy of his room…

And at that very moment at the famous skyscraper headquarters of the Fantastic Four…”

These intertitles may seem redundant to the modern reader: if the last panel on page 3 shows Doctor Doom in his lair, and the first panel on page 4 shows Spider-Man in his bedroom, we can infer a shift of location without it being signaled by a "Meanwhile, at home..." But I don’t think that comic book writers could assume that level of visual literacy in 1963. Stan Lee felt the need to point out that Peter Parker didn't really have lines coming out of his head when he used his spider-sense, it was just a way of making the picture look more dramatic. TV shows of the period are very reluctant to cut from, say, the surface of the alien planet to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise without an establishing shot of the ship or the planet to tell the viewers where they are. 

At any rate “meanwhile…” and “suddenly…” were standard operating procedure in 60’s comic books. They are best thought of as beat markers: as if someone were standing just off stage saying "New Scene!" every few minutes. They rarely have any expository baring on the story. Amazing Spider-Man #5 flies past in a haze of action, but if we paid attention to the captions, it would actually unfold over 4 days: 

Pages 1 - 6: Peter Parker and the kids are hanging out at the bowling alley. Spider-Man’s first encounter with Doctor Doom. (Day 1) 

Page 7 “The next day, at the offices of the Daily Bugle…” Peter sells Jameson some pictures of a fire. (Day 2)

Page 8: “A short time later…” Flash plans his prank, and executes it “Not long afterwards…” This leads to Spider-Man’s big fight with Doctor Doom 

Page 21: “The next day, at the office of J. Jonah Jameson…” Peter admits that he didn’t get any pictures of Spider-Man fighting Doctor Doom. (Day 3) And “The next day…” he goes back to school to find that the other kids are treating Flash as a hero. (Day 4)

Now, the final scene pretty much has to happen on a Monday morning, which gives us the time-line:

Friday - Kids at bowling ally, first meeting with Doom

Saturday - Peter goes to Bugle. Flash’s prank, big fight with Doom

Sunday - Peter goes to Bugle

Monday - Peter goes back to school

But does Ditko really intend that Peter dropped into the Bugle on a Sunday to tell them that he doesn’t have anything to sell them; and that he found both the editor in chief and his PA in the building? In fact, panel 5 on page 21 clearly follows directly from panel 4: while he’s at the office, Betty says that Peter is wonderful, and he is still thinking “gosh, I never realised she felt that way about me” when he gets to school. (Note that he is wearing the same clothes in the two panels. Ditko cares about that sort of thing.: Peter is dressed informally in the bowling alley but in his normal yellow tie when he visits the Bugle the next morning.) We could treat this as a simple mistake, and replace “the next day…” with “later that day…” but that means that Peter has to go to school on a Sunday. We could say that the kids were at the bowling alley on a Saturday, but that means that Peter sold J.J.J. the pictures of the fire on a Sunday. It doesn’t help that Doom is surprised to see Spider-Man walking about "in broad daylight", but that “a short time later” Aunt May’s house is plunged into darkness when the fuses blow!

There are seven day a week newspapers, of course, and it is possible that Jameson never gives Betty any time off. It is possible that Peter Parker knows what hours Betty works and happens to drop in when he knows she'll be there. But Stan Lee doesn’t have any chronology in his head: “Next day…” is simply a bit of scene shifting noise. It would be an interesting exercise to change every time-based caption to “Immediately…” and see if it had any effect on the story.

A third category of caption is narrative description. 

And then, as the deadly bolts from the awesome machine flicker around them, the two mighty foes battle for their lives...

These seem to be almost entirely indefensible: why on earth would we need to be told that two mighty foes are battling for their lives over a picture of two mighty foes battling for their lives? It's almost as if Narrator Guy feels the need to pop up from time to time and say "Hello! I'm still here!"

But the strangest use of captions comes on page 18. If you aren't paying attention, you could easily miss what is happening: I did the first few times I read the comic. (I suspect I am not the only person who sometimes allows his eyes to glide over the text.) Narrator Guy goes beyond giving Story Teller Guy a scolding in front of all the readers. The caption actually describes a different story from the one in the pictures. And choice of story is fascinating...

Over three panels, Doom tries to push Spider-Man into the path of the death ray; Spider-Man pushes Doom back ("I did it!") but Doom punches him ("Oof"). It is not a particularly inspired sequence; and it isn’t clear from the pictures what happens to the death-ray device. 

 But the caption says: 

"Exerting every last bit of power...."
Amazing Spider-Man #5

Exerting every last bit of power contained in a super-human body, the Amazing Spider-Man, executing one last maneuver, manages to twist suddenly so that both figures sprawl against the control panel, halting the deadly, disintegrating bolts! 

"But on the verge of exhaustion"
Amazing Spider-Man #5

But on the verge of exhaustion due to his herculean effort, Spider-Man cannot prevent his older, more experienced adversary from regaining his balance first and striking the initial blow!

A lot of this is empty verbiage. Stan is putting words on the page to force you to linger on this particular panel: it’s the writerly equivalent of a full-page art spread. The piece of information which Lee feels (correctly) is not clear in the picture could have been conveyed in a quarter of the words: 

Spider-Man twists suddenly so that he and Doom fall against the control panel. 

Ditko has just given us 12 panels of Doom and Spider-Man hitting each other, with a weird “war of the worlds” floaty-thing firing death rays at Spider-Man. A page later, the fight just peters out: the Fantastic Four arrive and Doctor Doom runs away. This isn't a very satisfactory way for a wrestling match to end. So Lee creates a climax for the fight, using many words to convince us something important has happened. Nothing in the pictures suggest that Spider-Man is making a big effort. Nothing in the pictures suggests that he pushes Doom against the control panel. And nothing in the rest of the story suggests that Spider-Man is particularly exhausted. The words are, if anything, a counter-melody to the pictures. 

Up to now, Spider-Man has beaten villains with Science; because Peter Parker has thought up devices to stop their arms or their wings working. But this time Spider-Man wins because he tries super hard and doesn't give up. (Maybe he's remembering the Human Torch's motivational talk!) He has super-strength; but he is operating at the very limit of that strength. So it doesn’t matter that the F.F turn up and Doom escapes, or even that Flash Thompson will take the credit for scaring Doom away. Spider-Man has won a moral victory by continuing to push when he was practically exhausted.

And it is astonishing to see this happening in the space between the panels. Because there is going to come another day on which Spider-Man will have to exert an herculean effort; and another time when he will cry out “I did it!” And that will also be the day when the crack between the Story Teller and the Narrator brings the whole edifice crashing down.

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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Mike Taylor said...

I had a stange feeling while reading this one that it just wasn't right. Spider-Man doesn't fight Doctor Doom. The Fantastic Four do that. It feels like Luke Skywalker being confronted with Daleks.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Yeah. I think the Flash Thompson thing was intended to facilitate it -- "What if Spider-Man fought Doctor Doom: maybe Doom kidnaps one of Parker's classmates???" -- but that's obscured by the idea of Doom initially wanting Spider-Man's help. I don't know if you agree with me that the Sandman story is the first one which nails the Spider-Man formula, but I find it interesting that the next two (Doom and Lizard) both feel a little like mis-steps. Not terrible by any means, but not what Spider-Man is going to be about...

Andrew Rilstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Taylor said...

Well, I've not been reading nearly as analytically as you have; and I'm past the Ditko-to-Romita transition(*), so a lot's happened since I read these stories. But that said, I agree that the first Sandman story works well and this Doctor Doom one doesn't. But I really liked thr Lizard debut. I think it's the first story that resolves with Spidey helping the villain rather than defeating him and leaving him for the police. (But maybe I am unduly partial to that story being a scientist myself, and one who specialises in reptiles for that matter.)

(*) Side note: I think Romita's art is significantly better than Ditko's.)

Anonymous said...

As a kid reading this in reprint form in the 1970s, I automatically processed it as "Spider-Man is in a fight that's a bit out of his league". Some of that was because fifteen or twenty years of Marvel history had built Doom up as a major, major villain, but he was A-list almost from his first appearance. Even in 1963, it made sense that a guy who was roughly a match for the entire Fantastic Four should be able to take Spider-Man down without too much effort. Back then, I interpreted the arrival of the Fantastic Four as a way to get both Spider-Man and the writer off the hook: without them, the fight was almost over, and it would inevitably have ended with Spider-Man in a jar.

So perhaps what's happening here is, Ditko's drawing a fight between two combatants who are more or less evenly matched, and Stan Lee felt the need to add captions "clarifying" just how desperate Spider-Man's situation is.

Doug M.

Andrew Rilstone said...


Can I immediately say "thank you very much for taking the trouble to write feedback on these essays".