Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Amazing Spider-Man #6

Face to Face With the Lizard

The Lizard

Named Characters:
J. Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Betty Brant, Flash Thompson, Liz Allan
+ Curt Connors, Martha Connors, Billy Connors

Like the Hulk, the Lizard wears purple trousers after his transformation; although unlike the Hulk, this appears to be the sartorial choice of his human counterpart.

On the cover, the Lizard’s white lab coat is also purple — either due to an error, or because red/blue green/purple is a good combination in cheap four colour printing.

The Lizard appears to have no teeth.

Although he’s an iconic villain, this is the Lizard’s only appearance in the classic era. (Connors appears as a supporting character in #32.)

Connors’s son Billy definitely knows about his father's affliction; although when the Lizard returns in issues #44, he appears not to.

As a monster story, it’s kind of okay. As a Spider-Man story...

Amazing Spider-Man #4 (Sandman) seemed to have nailed the Spider-Man formula: it achieved a perfect equilibrium between The Writer (who wanted big fights between the Hero and a monthly Challenger) and The Artist (who wanted realistic stories of a guy saddled with weird powers). It interleaved the high-school story and the super-villain story and made the Fight Scene interesting by showing us the goodie and the baddie using their powers in a series of ingenious attacks, defenses and counter-attacks. But it appears that neither Lee nor Ditko quite realized they’d produced the definitive Spider-Man tale. Issue #5 and issue #6 represents a different conjectures about what a Spider-Man story ought to look like.  Neither of them quite work.

A Florida swamp is being terrorized by a lizard, known as The Lizard. Near the swamp lives Dr Curtis Connors, an expert on lizards. To no-one’s great surprise, it turns out that The Lizard and Connors are one and the same. Connors is an amputee and thinks it is unfair that human beings can’t just grow new limbs when they need them. He uses Science to brew a Potion which gives him a new right arm, but unfortunately it has the side-effect of turning him into a giant lizard. For reason which are not explained it also makes him talk like Thor. ("Begone! This swamp is mine!")

Comic book Science is a form of sympathetic magic, so the idea that a Potion brewed from lizards gives you new arms and legs but also turns you into an actual lizard makes a good deal of comic book sense. Harder to swallow is the alchemy of "powers". It seems that individual species — and indeed whole taxonomic categories — have irreducible essences which can be transubstantiated to other individuals. So the radioactive spider-bite transferred the "powers" of the Spiders to Peter Parker; and the lizard potion transferred the "powers" of all cold blooded creatures on earth to Curtis Connors.

On page 16 we see Spider-Man using his wall-crawling ability to run up the side of an old Spanish fort, and The Lizard climbing after him. It looks to me as if The Lizard is just scaling the wall (picking out foot and hand holes in the brick work) but in fact, it’s all to do with his Platonic essence. “Hah! He forgets there are thousands of different kinds of lizards on the earth, and I have the powers of ALL of them! Has he never seen a gecko lizard slither up a wall”. Similarly, the Scorpion is able to cut through spider-webbing with his fingers because he has the “powers” of a scorpion and scorpions have claws; the Sub-Mariner is able to electrify his body because he has the “powers” of all fish and they serve eels in sea-food restaurants.

The whole logic of the story depends on there being something unnatural or uncanny about The Lizard. Peter Parker has little difficulty in accepting the existence of space aliens, flaming teenagers or giant green monsters, but he finds the story of an intelligent lizard in a swamp a little too far-fetched. Jameson says outright that The Lizard doesn’t exist despite Parker having taken photos of it. Connors den is decked out with retort stands and test tubes; and he himself (even in his monster form) wears a long white lab coat. Spider-Man (being at least half way through his chemistry A level) is able to decode his notes and brew up a new Potion which turns The Lizard back into a human being. But no-one regards Connors as anything other than a black magician. “I tampered with forces of nature which must not be tampered with!” he exclaims, before burning his books and breaking his staff. Well, burning his books, anyway. It's not that his experiment had an unexpected result, or that he stupidly didn't think through the consequences: the idea of using Science to restore lost limbs was against the natural order of things. Like picking apples in Eden or trying to steal fire from the gods. Frankenstein was a necromancer.

The bulk of the episode — pages 6 - 20 — takes Spider-Man out of New York altogether, sending him to Florida to fight The Lizard. It’s hard not to see this as a last-ditch attempt by Lee to force Ditko to turn in a superhero comic. Lee probably reasoned that Ditko couldn't very well fill the comic with characterization and human interest if Liz Allen, Aunt May, Flash Thompson Betty Brant and Spider-Man are a thousand miles apart.

J. Jonah Jameson, on the other hand, flies all the way to Florida with Peter Parker ("It’s such a big story that I’m going with you”), confirming our sense that Amazing Spider-Man has become the Peter and Jonah Show. This is the third consecutive episode which has begun with J.J.J bad-mouthing our hero. It's a potentially good set-up for a story:  how many sit-com episodes have involved sending two characters who don’t like each other away on a field trip? But, as so often in these early issues, nothing really comes of it. We ought to have seen Parker and Jameson forced to make conversation in a hotel room during a power cut, or Spider-Man and J.J.J. forced to cooperate to escape from the Lizard. In fact, Jameson might just as well have stayed at home: Peter gives him the slip as soon as they arrive in Florida, and the remaining 12 pages is a monster story in which Spider-Man doesn't get out of costume once.

Ditko does manages to smuggle a bit of soap-opera in, a 4 page sequence in which Peter Parker goes to the museum to find out about lizards and finds Flash and Liz already there. (Museums are a sort of olden days version of Google.) Wouldn’t you know it, though: some thieves try to rob the museum and briefly take Liz hostage. Peter has to change to Spider-Man to rescue her. This sequence has no actual connection with the main plot, and it’s very hard not to think that Ditko dropped it in as a pretext for reminding us readers that the supporting cast still exist. 

As we've seen, Stan Lee’s dialogue and captions sometimes get out of sync with Steve Ditko’s art. There is a minor example of that in the museum sequence: we see two hoods walking through the dinosaur exhibition; Peter Parker clocking them with his spider-sense; the crooks spotting that he’s spotted them and grabbing Liz at gunpoint; and Spider-Man knocking them both out with a single punch. (”Ugh! Oof!”). Nothing in the pictures indicates what they are doing in the museum: for that, we have to read the speech bubbles. The crooks say “No-one saw us take the idol’s ruby”; a few panels later Spider-Man says “It’s the guard! He’s chasing those two! He saw them steal something!” and the crooks say “Okay, so you saw us grab that ruby…”. It’s very odd that we don’t see the idol or the theft; and very odd that Ditko doesn’t show us the crooks trying to conceal a gem. It’s very odd indeed that Spider-Man says that he sees guardS chasing them, even though there is no guard in the picture. It is pretty clear that Stan Lee looked at the pictures, didn’t think it was clear what was going on (which, indeed, it isn’t) and made up the story about the jewel heist after the event.

But this is as nothing to the counter melody that Lee plays during Spider-Man's big fight with The Lizard.

The plot, as expressed in the pictures, is simple and satisfactory. The Lizard is terrorizing the Swamp. Spider-Man realizes that The Lizard and Curt Connors are the same person; and uses Science to make a potion that will turn him back to his human form. The challenge is how to get The Lizard to drink the potion, which Spider-Man ingeniously solves by grabbing The Lizard and forcing it down his throat. Spider-Man doesn’t hand Connors over to the authorities because he hasn’t broken any laws. Breaking the law is a big thing for Stan Lee. He keeps saying Doctor Doom isn’t really a baddie because there is no law against trying to conquer the universe. Surely the real point is that Spider-Man lets Connors go because he isn’t responsible for what he did when he was in his lizardy form?

This doesn’t seem to be exciting enough for Lee so he adds a sub plot. During the big fight, The Lizard is shown to be being followed around by three big alligators. I don't think that you or I, just looking at the picture, would have thought that needed much explanation: of course a big intelligent humanoid lizard would have alligators as minions. But Lee feels the need to explain that the Lizard Potion not only turned Connors into a Lizard; not only gave him the Powers of every kind of Lizard;  but also gave him  mental control over Lizards. Even better, he is going to spill his Potion into the swamp, which will turn every lizard in the world into a super-lizard under his mental command which will enable him to (Evil Laughter) RULE THE WORLD!

I suppose this follows on a bit from the “alchemical” idea that Connors' has transferred some kind of distilled essence of lizardyness to himself. I suppose that Stan Lee thinks that increasing the “hazard” automatically makes the story more exciting, so he upgrades “I have to defeat the monster and return the nice scientist to his right mind” to “I have to defeat the monster and return Connors to his right mind or else he will conquer the world.” I think it is unnecessary, and confuses a simple story. None of the pictures remotely suggest the conquer-the-world angle. Ditko shows us Spider-Man physically snapping photos with his camera; and clearly shows Spider-Man holding a flask with the antidote Potion in it. But at no point do we see The Lizard's conquer-the-world Potion. Surely if Ditko had known about it, there would have been a dramatic scene with the Lizard holding a flask over the swamp and Spider-Man grabbing it in the nick of time?

Once again, Spider-Man is not primarily motivated by a sense of duty or altruism. He goes to Florida because Jameson challenges him to fight the Lizard (as Spider-Man) and because he needs the money for the photo-assignment (as Peter Parker). Once again, he starts out acting from honest self-interest and only gradually becomes entwined in situation in which he has to a good thing.

Spider-Man initially thinks that The Lizard is “publicity mad”; where Jameson thinks that Spider-Man will not challenge him because he is more interested in “making a rep” for himself in New York. But when Peter Parker comes up with the pictures, Jameson (having traveled all the way to Florida to get them) declares that the whole thing is “some sort of publicity stunt” and refuses to pay for them. Once again, we appear to be talking about competing sports stars or TV personalities, not heroes and deadly menaces.


On page 6, Parker nervously tells Betty Brant “I’ve been wanting to ASK you something.” We can guess what he wants to ask her: after all, only last issue he suddenly realized how he felt about her. On his return from Florida, he phones her up -- at some point in the last year, he has grown into the kind of guy who confidently asks girls to go out with him. But when he finds out she’s working late, he immediately asks Liz to go out with him instead. Which, if he’s honestly just realized that Betty is seriously interested in him and he’s seriously interested in her is a fairly caddish thing to do.

The Sandman story ended with Peter Parker carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, declaiming to God about the curse of his powers. Issues #5 and #6 have lightened up considerably; with mildly ironic sit-com style endings. #5 ended with Flash Thompson having become a hero to the other school kids, despite having made a complete idiot of himself. This issue ends with Peter half-smiling when he finds out that Liz doesn’t want to go out with him...because she thinks Spider-Man is going to call her. (Spider-Man called her "blue eyes" when he rescued her in the museum.) Parker still thinks that it's not fair when everything doesn't go exactly his own way, but instead of God, he now blames a phenomenon he calls luck. “I’ve got nothing but luck, and it’s all bad”; “Only a guy with my nutty luck could end up being his own competition.”

Believing in “bad luck” is a way of reading malice into the ordinary process of stuff happening; it can also be a form of self-sabotage. Some pop psychology suggests that people who believe that they are lucky are the ones who are good at grasping opportunities when they come their way. People who believe in bad luck think they are helpless in the face of set-backs. But it isn't a very serious explanation. People mainly invoke luck when they are throwing dice or betting on horses. You could, perfectly reasonably, say that it was “bad luck” that meant that a crook who had once passed Parker in a corridor just happened to murder the person he loved most in the world; but it would be a trivial way of talking about a serious event. Amazing Fantasy #15 would have been a very different comic if it had ended with Parker winking into camera and saying “My luck’s running true to form…”

The grim tragedy of Stan Lee’s groundbreaking character has become a comic tick. You can almost hear the waa-waa-waa sound effect in the background. We have four or five months of happy endings to look forward to before everything turns depressing again. 

Summary of Peter Parker's Photo Career, So Far:

Issue #2 - Sells pictures of Vulture for tens of thousands of dollars

Issue #3 - Doesn’t bother to photograph Doc Ock

Issue #4 - Sells (fake) pictures of Sandman for an undisclosed amount

Issue #5 - Sells pictures of a fire in Doom’s base for an undisclosed amount

Issue #6 - Fails to sell pictures of Lizard.

Does Aunt May have an independent source of income? What, indeed, was Uncle Ben’s job? Did he have a pension? May has no savings, having to pawn her jewelry to pay the rent in issue #2. Having spent all the money from issue #2 on rent and kitchen equipment, are May and Peter wholly reliant on the Sandman pictures to pay general living expenses? If so, how can Parker even contemplate college?

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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Mike Taylor said...

"This is the Lizard’s only appearance in the classic era."

By "classic era", I assume you mean with Ditko?

(If you get as far as #39 in this series, I will be very interested to see what you have to say about Romita.)

Mike Taylor said...

"Issue #2 - Sells pictures of Vulture for tens of thousands of vultures"

This is an arresting image indeed.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Ha. Fixed. Bah!

Yes, I meant the Ditko years as the "classic" era. I do hope to say something about Romita eventually.