Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man 8 (V): In the Neighbourhood...

In the neighborhood...

"Neighbor" is, of course, a Biblical word (standing for the Greek pl─ôsion) meaning "a member of the community". Loving your neighbor as yourself was said by Jesus to be the whole heart of the Torah. The Old Testament arguably taught that "neighbor" meant only other Jewish people; the New Testament arguably teaches that everyone in the world is everyone else's neighbor.

The word "neighborhood" originally meant simply neighborliness or the state of being neighborly; but by the middle of 19th century it had acquired the present sense of "locality" "home" or "the part of the world where all your friends live".  It wasn't until the late 20th century that the abbreviation 'hood came to mean a specifically black neighborhood – a ghetto.

In 1964 the phrase "your friendly neighborhood" was already a well-worn cliche. Sam’s Market in Glenfield, Los Angeles was advertising itself as "your friendly neighborhood grocer" in 1958; the National Association of Retail Druggists was talking about "your friendly neighborhood drug store" in 1947. The earliest example I could find was a Methodist Church in Wisconsin which claimed to be "your friendly neighborhood church" as far back as 1935. Ed Wood's infamous movie Glen or Glenda refers ironically to "your friendly neighborhood milkman" (he's actually sleeping with the women of the neighborhood while their husbands are at work.)

Back in issue #4, Spider-Man sucked the Sandman into the vacuum cleaner with the words "Here’s the first part of your education courtesy of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man." I suppose the joke is that Spider-Man is unique; every neighborhood doesn’t have one; and that the Bugle still presents him as anything but friendly. Or perhaps "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man" just sound a little like "friendly neighborhood milkman". It's funny: but not very funny. 

On page 2 of the Torch story in issue 8. Spider-Man tries to scare the Human Torch’s guests with a giant bat. (Why a bat, for heaven’s sake? Why not a spider?) The Torch says that it’s made of threads, and Spider-Man replies "Not threads, sonny boy!…Webs! Gen-u-wine Spider-Man webs!…The kind your friendly neighborhood grocer doesn’t sell". "The kind your grocer doesn’t sell" sounds as if it ought to be a well-known advertising slogan, but I can’t track down any example of anyone using it.

Spider-Man’s web is, of course, a secret formula known only to himself. He has spent a lot of photo money developing it in his bedroom.  Obviously, they are completely unique. So it's funny, but not very funny, to claim that you couldn't by similar webs in your local supermarket.

But the joke will run and run. Spider-Man will increasingly use it as a catchphrase. It will be referenced in the lyrics of the Spider-Man TV theme song; and decades later it will be the title of a spin-off comic. And it still won't be very funny.

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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

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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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Amazing Spider-Man 8 (IV)

Spider-Man Tackles The Torch


Guest Stars: 
The Human Torch, plus Mr Fantastic, The Thing and the Invisible Girl

Named characters: 
Doris Evans

This is the first episode of Spider-Man in which none of the regular supporting cast, including Peter Parker, appears.

Spider-Man briefly met the Torch in issues #1 and #3 and has had an away fixture in the Torch's own comic (Strange Tales Annual #2)

Spins a web, any size: Spider-Man uses his web to a: a bat puppet b: two parachutes, which double as sand scoops; a hung glider; a web heart for the Invisible Girl.

Peter Parker has thrown away his specs, punched Flash Thompson, and resolved to be more like Spider-Man in his dealings with the world from now on. He’s had a mighty pleasant day having a fight with the scientific marvel of the age. So he thinks to himself: “What shall I do next? I know! I shall round the day off by picking a fight with the most famous celebrity on the planet.” He is so far gone that he not only spars with Torch (who is a near contemporary and who he knows a bit): he also tries to web Mr Fantastic’s arms and pick a fight with the Thing.

If you’ve ever wondered what would happen if Stan Lee were allowed to "dream up" a Spider-Man story on his own, without Steve Ditko to flesh it out for him...well, wonder no longer. Here it is. Kirby penciled this story, presumably in his sleep. Ditko is credited as inker. No Peter Parker. No supporting cast. No plot or set up of any kind. A nine page fight scene, without motivation or resolution. Spider-Man turns up at the Torch’s posh house and plays a stupid prank. Reed Richards turns up and tells them to stop. That’s literally it. 

One can't know, of course. But I can imagine Stan going to Jack and saying “Hey, Jack, what if Spider-Man and the Human Torch had a fight? Maybe Spider-Man gate-crashes one of Johnny's parties?” and Jack giving him precisely that: a nine page fight scene. Whereas if Stan had gone to Steve and said “Hey, Steve, what if Spider-Man had a fight with Doctor Doom? Maybe Doctor Doom kidnaps one of his school mates?” Steve would have produced a complicated and funny back story to set up the fight.

Spider-Man with Peter Parker doesn't work. Peter Parker is a wimp, a cry-baby and sometimes a jerk. Spider-Man is an arrogant braggart. And sometimes a jerk. But somewhere in the space between the two of them is a reasonable human being: a hero. Spider-Man’s bravado is bearable because it is offset by thought-balloons in Parker’s voice; Parker’s whining is bearable because the Gemini-mask reminds us that he is also Spider-Man. Take Parker away, and Spider-Man just comes across as an idiot. There is none of the wit and humour that he showed when fighting for his life against the Vulture. It’s just two alleged heroes sneering at each other. 

— Okay you animated insect! You asked for it! Here I come!

— Mercy me! I’d better prepared a little welcome for such a big, bad, blazing bird-brain.

It is just the sort of thing Flash Thompson might have said. 

Perhaps, like Peter’s bout with Flash, this needs to be looked at in terms of masculine ego; of two guys around 16 or 17 sorting out where they are in the pecking order. Spider-Man deliberately acts like a jerk to give the Torch an excuse to hit him, which gives him an excuse to hit him back. They are so near to being equals in the superhero world, they can’t be friends until they’ve had a fight. We don’t doubt that if a bad guy showed up they’d fight him alongside each other. Johnny and Ben scrap all the time, but Stan Lee assures us that they’d risk their lives for each other without question. Mr Fantastic intervenes before the fight is over, so neither Johnny nor Spider-Man are top dog. The feud continues.  

The fight itself is tolerably watchable, but it relies too heavily on gimmicks. The Torch creates objects with his flames, and Spider-Man creates objects out of web to counter them. It’s a lazy way of writing; too much like one of those Green Lantern stories when the goodie calls up a giant green rolled up newspaper to thwack the baddie, and the baddie calls up a giant green umbrella to shield himself. 

This is not Spider-Man. This is not a tale of sheer fantasy so real you’ll feel it’s happening to you. This is Spider-Man the corporate symbol, wrenched from his context and forced to appear as guest star in a story where he doesn’t belong. One story like this doesn’t do much harm. Next month, the real Peter Parker will be back, fretting about Aunt May’s medical bills. But in a few years this kind of thing will become so prevalent that we'll barely be able to remember when Peter Parker was a character as opposed to a guest-star opportunity.

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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

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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.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man 8 (III): Peter Parker's Glasses as a Clue to the Meaning of the Marvel Universe

Peter Parker's Glasses As A Clue to the Meaning of the Marvel Universe.(*)

"I’ve had it!" thinks the Spider-Man side of the Gemini-Face on the first page of Spider-Man #8. "I’m through pretending to be a pantywaist to conceal my real identity! I don’t need those specs anyway."

This is an astonishing outburst. Parker now thinks of Spider-Man as his real self, and himself as the assumed identity. He sees his glasses as a disguise to make himself appear weak (using the borderline homophobic term "pantywaist"). And he is going to throw away the glasses and abandon the disguise.

But the Peter Parker we met in the first pages of Amazing Fantasy #15 was weak. At any rate, he was shy, studious and non-athletic. This wasn't an assumed role: it was who he was. The mask and the spider-powers may have enabled him to express a different (an not entirely likable) side to his personality. He may choose not to allow Aunt May or his school friends to see that side of himself. But Peter Parker is not a constructed identity, as Clark Kent arguably is. When he says that he is going to stop pretending to be weak, he means that he is going to start integrating the two roles.

That weak, studious Peter Parker certainly wore glasses, and if he wore them he must have needed them. They weren't reading glasses; he wore them all the time. None of his class mates have glasses, neither does Aunt May or Uncle Ben. The only person who does is the elderly Principal Davies. I'm afraid that Lee and Ditko are being rather lazy here; using "specs" as a visual shorthand for intelligence. There is, I think, a buried assumption that athletes can't be good students and good students can't be successful athletes -- an assumption which wouldn't have been understood by Rudyard Kipling or the Boy's Own Paper.

The newly empowered Spider-Man certainly starts leaving his glasses off. He manages without them in his first fight with Crusher Hogan and is several times shown without them when doing science projects in the privacy of his bedroom. It is possible that he wears contact lenses under his mask; or even that the white eye-pieces in the mask are corrective lenses. (A background piece in the first annual claims that they are two-way mirrors, way before mirror-shades were a fashion item.) But the normal line is that the radioactive spider-bite gave him enhanced eyesight as well as enhanced strength; that he initially kept his glasses as a disguise, but doesn’t bother to replace them when they get broken.

But hang on. That's not how eyes work. A non-spectacle-wearer doesn't have better eyes than shortsighted person in the way that a sprinter has better legs than a couch potato. Shortsightedness is a minor physical defect: the sufferer can't focus because his eyeball is slightly the wrong shape. If a normal-sighted person looked through my glasses, they wouldn't be able to see a thing: everything would look blurry and out of focus and they’d get a headache. So how is that Peter can get away with sometimes wearing glasses and sometimes not? Did he go to an optometrist and ask him to make up a set of specs with plain glass in the frames?

Flash Thompson continuously pokes fun at Peter Parker for being puny and skinny. Midtown High does have gymnasium but it appears that senior students don't have to take phys ed or sports classes. (They do have supervised volley ball practice during recess, but they don't change into sports kit for it.) So the last time Flash saw Peter undressed must have been some time before the spider-incident -- when "puny" would have been an accurate (though unkind) description of him. But when the boys strip down to their shorts for the boxing match, no-one says "hey, puny Parker's not so puny after all!" Coach Smith, who is presumably used to assessing young men’s physical condition doesn’t think Peter has any chance in the bout. A pin-up in the first Spider-Man annual has Liz thinking “Flash may be more muscular – but I'll take Peter Parker any day." Not “stronger": more muscular. Peter Parker still looks like the little guy.

Steve Rogers and Bruce Banner are both little guys. When they have their strength boosted, there is an immediate change to their physical shape. They can’t fit into their clothes any more. Peter Parker doesn't undergo any physical change when he becomes Spider-Man: he can jump huge distances and crush metal chimney pots with one hand, but he still fits into his geeky clothes.

So. Spider-Man is super strong even though his muscle mass hasn't altered; and has perfect vision whether he is wearing corrective lenses or not. What is going on?

Spider-Man’s powers must be derived from a psychic or supernatural source. Some external force is correcting his vision, irrespective of the state of his eyes or his glasses; and that same force is enabling him to lift objects far beyond the power of his actual muscles. This applies to other powers as well. An actual spider can climb a wall because it has millions of little pointy hairs on its eight little feet. This clearly isn't what Peter is doing: the wall-sticking works even when he is wearing gloves and shoes, but he never finds cups and pens and test tubes sticking to his hands in ordinary life. Some kind of magic or alchemy must be making his hands sticky when he needs them to be so.

I would conjecture that what gives a spider-man his power is an energy field created by all living spiders. What the spider-bite did was make Peter Parker sensitive to this force. The little lines around Peter's head are not only warning him of danger and allowing him to telepathically hear radio-transmissions: they are also channeling the spider-force. This explains why he felt that his body was "charged with some sort of fantastic energy" right after the spider-bite. It also explains how his gloopy webbing can magically take on the shape of a bat or a parachute or a boat or anything else that Peter Parker needs it to be at that particular moment.

And the existence of the spider-force explains one other crucial fact about Spider-Man.

When Spider-Man is in a particularly dire situation, he is sometimes able to increase his strength through sheer force of will. It is clear that what Spider-Man was doing, for example during the fight with Doctor Doom, was channeling the spider-force. This is going to become a key part of the story of Spider-Man. His physical strength is as its greatest when he needs it the most.

(*) Do you see what I did there?

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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

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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.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Amazing Spider-Man 8 (II): What is Flash Thompson's Problem With Peter Parker

What is Flash Thompson's Problem With Peter Parker?

In the first few pages of Spider-Man #8, Peter Parker calls Flash Thompson "loud mouth" "dumb clown", "clumsy meat-head", "ugly", and insinuates that he can’t read or write. Flash Thompson calls Peter Parker "puny", "weakling", "scarecrow", "teacher’s pet", and "worm". Parker arguably starts the altercation by priggishly telling Thompson off for calling the experimental computer a "gizmo" when it is actually "one of the scientific marvels of the age."

It is always tempting to see if the names of fictitious characters have any significance, but in these old Marvel Comics it isn’t often profitable. Peter is a rock, of course, but Parker is simply a man who looks after a park. Jameson is the son of James, and his son is John, which gives us a trio of apostles, but that doesn’t take us very far. Peter’s two girl-friends, Betty and Liz, are both presumably Elizabeths, which doesn’t take us much further. Brant is probably derived from Brand which probably means Sword; and Allan might mean little rock. Ben is a Jewish name, but May isn’t.

However, it is hard to believe that, when Stan Lee named Peter Parker’s high school adversary Flash he didn’t have Harry Flashman, the most notorious cad in scholastic fiction, at the back of his mind. Flashman was a pupil at Rugby school, which gave its name to Rugby football, from which American rules football (as opposed to soccer) is indirectly descended. Flash Thompson is a footballer although this never really comes into the story. 

Flash is often said to be a bully; but he never does anything really nasty. There is no stealing lunch money, hiding under-wear or physical cruelty. Flashman arranges to have Tom Brown flogged and tries to roast him alive; Flash merely plays practical jokes on Peter and takes the mickey out of his sprained arm. God knows, verbal bullying can be just as crippling as physical bullying, but the name-calling between Thompson and Parker is a two-way street.

Flash Thompson believes in an obsolescent code of masculine honour. According to this code, and according to his own lights, he generally does the right thing. He believes that, because of his strength and athletic prowess, he should be at the top of the pecking order — literally and figuratively the biggest man on campus. This may also be why he is such a big fan of Spider-Man; he positively wants to defer to any obviously stronger and more heroic male.

The boys treat Flash as leader; the girls regard him as a "he-man" and "dream-boat". He can date whichever one of them he chooses. But he respects the rules of dating as they stood at the time. He is surprised when Liz agrees to go on a sympathy date with Peter (which Peter breaks) but there is no question of him coercing either of them. Liz hasn’t agreed to go steady with him, so she is free to see whomever she chooses.

When I hear the term "school bully" I think of a big guy — or, more likely, a gang of big guys — waiting for a smaller guy in some secluded spot and "duffing them up", either in order to steal money, or, more likely, for simple sadism. Flash Thompson isn't a bully in that sense. I am pretty sure that if some Gripper Stebson had stolen Peter Parker’s lunch money, Flash would have intervened on Peter’s side (as indeed he does on the one occasion when Peter is in trouble with the Principal.) What Flash wants is to fight a duel of honour with Peter.

Flash is bound by a schoolboy version of the gunfighter’s code. He wants to fight Peter to establish that he is top dog. He is quite certain that he would win, and he would certainly respect the result, but first Peter has to agree to the fight. Honour prevents Flash Thompson from hitting a smaller man, hitting a man with glasses, or hitting first. That is what all the taunting is about: if Thompson could make Parker lose his temper, then he would be within his rights to hit back. (And this is why Peter taunts Flash so boldly: he knows that the code of honour means that Flash can’t hit him.) The other males in the pack are supposed to either voluntarily accept Flash’s dominance, or fight him for it. Peter Parker will do neither. Flash's problem with Peter is that he is outside the Code. He will neither kowtow to Flash nor challenge him. He’s basically laughing at the whole thing.

The staff of Midtown High side with Flash Thompson over the Code. When Flash attempts to take the computer print-out which may have Spider-Man’s secret identity on it, Peter, for the first time physically pushes Flash away. Which, according to the Code, gives Flash the right to punch Peter if he wants to; at which point Peter has to either continue the fight or accept Flash’s dominance. Mr Warren, the science teacher, steps in. He correctly identifies what is going on as a feud between two young men (as opposed to a case of big boy picking on a little one) and suggests they "settle it once and for all" in the gym. It seems utterly bizarre to us that a teacher would sanction a fight between two students. When I was at school, "fighting" was one of a small number of offences that could still result in corporal punishment. But the past, as someone once said, is a foreign country. They do thing very differently there.

Back in — oh 1999 was it? — Dave "Cerebus" Sim challenged Jeff "Bone" Smith to fight him in a boxing ring because he believed that Smith had told a lie about him. Smith declined. I never really understood what such a fight would have achieved. It always seemed to me eminently possible for someone to be weak but honest or strong but a liar. Is the idea that once you have established that you are the stronger man, you are free to tell lies if you want to? Or did Dave literally believe that it would take divine intervention to establish who had given the more accurate account of their house party to the Comics Journal?

But however strange the code of honour may look to us, Flash Thompson tries to obey his own precepts. Flash lost the fight. Peter proved he was a real man after all. So the next time they meet (in issue #9) Flash swallows his pride and tries to be pleasant to him -- and overture Peter entirely rebuffs. In issue #10, he tries again, actually turning up at the hospital to visit Aunt May. He blusters that Liz forced him to go, but Peter sees through this immediately.

Maybe a big man trying to persuade a small man to have a fight is still a form of bullying: like the expert swordsman wandering around taverns hoping that someone will besmirch his honour so he can kill them. Maybe a modern teacher might recognize what Peter is doing to Flash as a form of reverse bullying — the little guy perpetually sniping at the big guy, intending to cry "foul!" when the big guy eventually hits him. But then, one would hope that a modern teacher would also be aware of Peter Parker’s difficult situation — he's had a close family member murdered, for goodness sake! – and cut him some slack. But this honour and dominance scenario accounts for the relationships between Peter Parker and Flash Thompson far better than simply painting Flash as a bully and a sadist.

Later revisionist continuity revealed that Flash Thompson had an alcoholic father who thrashed him, and that his first name was Eugene.

He is now a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy.

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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

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.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man 8 (I)

The Terrible Threat of the Living Brain.

The Living Brain

Named Characters
Flash Thompson, Liz Allan, Mr Warren, Mr Petty,

The referee in the boxing match is presumably the aforementioned Coach Smith.

Mr Petty refers to the machine as an "electronic brain"; the term "computer" isn’t quite current.

This is the first issue in which neither Aunt May nor J. Jonah Jameson appear as characters.

Parker’s specialization: The representative from ICM is surprised how much Peter Parker knows about electronic brains.

Spins a web, any size: Spider-Man spins a huge spider-web that blocks a whole doorway.

This issue sticks out like a moderately sore thumb in the first run of Spider-Man stories; almost as if it were a pilot for a reboot that never happened, or a change of direction that never went anywhere. It's set entirely at Peter Parker's school; neither Aunt May nor Jonah Jameson appear. It's shorter than usual, leaving room for a 6 page filler which I suppose we’ll have to talk about in a moment. Lee says on the letter page that it was a "change of pace" and promises to be "back on track" next time.

I wonder if cancellation had been looming again, and Lee was preparing to re-launch Spider-Man in an anthology title? Or did he have the Torch strip lying around and think that it made economic sense to use it? Or was there a scheme for a Spider-Man-at-school spin-off title? I cannot believe that these stories were written with a “tribute to teenagers” special in mind. On the basis of this comic, teenagers mainly call one another names and have fights. Some tribute.

Think of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: objectively the greatest genre TV show which doesn’t have naked people and dragons in it of all time. Buffy spends her first four seasons slaying vampires mainly within the confines of her high school. The weekly battle with a supernatural monster generally ironically reflected whatever personal issue she was dealing with in the same episode, so if she was struggling to see the point of a history exam she might find herself dealing with a monster who was endlessly doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. This kind of thing almost never happens to Spider-Man: in fact, it is surprisingly rare for the threat which he is is facing to impact directly on Peter Parker at all. Certainly, this issue consists of two separate plots, rolling along in parallel, bumping into each other at key moments and leading to a farcical conclusion.

So: in the first plot, Dr Petty from the "International Computing Machine Corporation" demonstrates his "electronic brain" to Peter Parker’s science class. It’s a beautifully Ditkoesque creation, very much the sort of thing which would have appeared in Amazing Adult Fantasy — like a toy robot, but not quite like one. It runs around on ball bearings and has claws exactly like the ones on the end of Doctor Octopus’s arms. Two goons (and can’t Ditko draw a lovely bad guy, the fellow on the left looks more like one of the Mole-man’s troll creatures than an actual human) decide to steal the machine and use it to "figure out horse race winners, elections, anything". While they are trying to steal it they accidentally "bump into the control panel" causing it (and I hope you are keeping up with all the scientific jargon) to "short circuit". The machine runs amok, and there is a big fight, up and down the corridors of the school. The Brain, while not evil, is able to learn Spider-Man’s moves and avoid him. In the end, Spider-Man — or rather, Peter Parker — outwits the machine, removing the control panel and flipping the cut off switch.

In the second plot, Flash Thompson and Peter Parker are trading insults, as usual. When they very nearly come to blows, Mr Warren suggests they have an actual fight in the gym. Everybody else thinks that poor, weak Peter will be creamed by Flash Thompson, but Peter’s main worry is how to avoid killing Flash with his spider-strength. First, Peter pulls one of his punches but still knocks Flash through the wires; then, trying to give him just a little tap, he knocks him clean out. The kids, all routing for Flash, think that Peter cheated; but Flash knows better. Peter Parker is just pleased that he finally got the chance to "wallop" Flash (an oddly juvenile word when applied to two young men having a refereed fight in a boxing ring.)

Some of the world’s silliest jokes involve telling the listener something in the first line, leading them in a completely different direction, and then delivering a punchline which takes them back to where they started. (*). This story is structured exactly like one of those jokes.

Mr Petty wants to demonstrate the Brain’s problem solving ability, so the kids challenge it to work out Spider-Man’s real identity. This is set up as the big crisis of the story: Peter is really worried about what will about if the Brain works out that he's Spider-Man. Flash tries to take the print-out from Peter, which is the flash-point for their fight. But the boxing match, and the fight with the robot distracts the reader’s (and all the characters') attention away from the question. At the very end of the story, the two goons run into the locker room and trip over Flash (who is recovering from being punched by Peter) making it appear that Flash overpowered them both. This enables Peter to deliver the punch line — quite obviously, Flash Thompson is Spider-Man. ("If they keep it up, Flash’ll end up believing it himself" grins Peter Parker.)

Many reader’s think of this as a below par issue, but I’m rather a fan: I like the sense of fun and the relative lack of angst; Peter Parker in his natural environment, and the sense that despite the monster and the fight, this is pretty much just "a day in the life" for a superhero.

At the end of last issue, Peter had his arm chastely round Betty’s shoulder, flirting among the filing cabinets. This issue ends with him walking home thinking "All in all, it’s been a mighty pleasant day". Other issues have ended with him crying; this one shows him whistling. A pleasant day involves fighting a dangerous non-human foe and punching another boy, quite hard.

There have been two instances of the Gemini-face in this issue — when Parker decides not to replace his glasses, and when he is about to fight Flash and can’t work out how to avoid killing or injuring him. But this is, I think, the first time we have seen our hero’s whole body split in two, Spider-Man down the left side and Parker down the right. And the message is: Peter is fully at ease with being Spider-Man.

(*) So, a guy is driving down the fast lane of the motorway in his sports-car, when a three legged chicken cruises past him. Not quite able to believe this, the guy sticks his foot down on the accelerator, and chase the bird, which zooms along for a few miles, before exiting the motorway, running along several main roads, then turning off onto a B road, and eventually onto a winding single track country lane before coming to a halt in a the yard of a tiny little farm. “Ooo arr” says the farmer. “How can I be helping you, like?” (Did I mention he was Scottish?) “Well” says the man “I couldn't help noticing that your chicken has three legs.” “Ooo arr, we breeds em like that, me handsome” says the farmer. “You see, come Sunday lunch time, I likes a nice leg of chicken; and the missus, she's partial to a nice leg of chicken, and my strapping your song, he won't go without a leg of chicken either.” “And what does it taste like” says the man. “Dunno” says the farmer “Never caught one yet.”

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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

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.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016


So I went to my first ever political meeting on Tuesday, to decide who Bristol West Labour Party would nominate to be leader of the party. Local constituency nominations have no affect whatsoever on the actual result, but they are a way of boosting one or other candidate's campaign. 

(On Monday night, I heard The Man Himself speaking to a big rally outside "city hall".) 

I don't know what I expected a political meeting to be like: would there be a warm-up act; or would we start with a word of prayer or at the very least a few verses of the Internationales? Remember how Screwtape's patient unconsciously imagines Christians wearing sandals and togas and can't quite get past the fact that the people in his local church dress in normal 20th century clothes? I think I was probably hoping for flat caps and checked shirts and braces and maybe a couple of banners and a brass band. 

I have to say it was a very well organized meeting and an excellent advertisement for local politics. It started ten minutes late to allow everyone to get through the door and have their membership checked; but other than that it was well-chaired, smoothly organized and above all, short. A union man gave a five minute talk in favour of Jeremy Corbyn, an MP gave a five minute talk in favour of the other fella; there was 30 minutes of discussion from the floor (with no-one allowed to speak for more than 2 minutes). The whole thing was dried and dusted in an hour and a half. Everyone was polite and pleasant and there were some very good and fair points made on both sides. People applauded points they agreed with but there wasn't the slightest hint of booing, bullying or name-calling. One chap said "Good speech, by the way" to the previous speaker before putting the contrary point of view. I was, in short, very disappointed indeed. 

I felt that the real split on the floor was between the Hearts and the Heads. The fans of Jeremy Corbyn talked about how they had felt alienated from the Labour Party or from politics in general but had been brought back to the fold because Corbyn seems like a normal human being who says what he means and means what he says. The fans of the other guy claimed that he had more of a clue about leadership and management and had actually thought his proposals through. The union guy talked about values; the MP ran through specific proposals. 

Well. Political engagement, like any other kind of engagement, has to start with, but can't end with, emotion. No-one gets fired up and excited by fiscal prudence and income tax bands: they get fired up by a wish for a better society and the faith that their candidate believes in it too. But then someone has to work out what practical steps they are going to take to move us in that direction. What a pity that we're being faced with an either / or choice; what a pity that Head and Heart are gong to spent the next month beating each other up -- a fight that we already know that Head cannot possibly win --- when Head could have said "Heart, old chap; I want what you want and you want what I want but I think I could suggest four or five practical ways for you to improve your spreadsheet." 

Twelve months ago, Hattersley and Campbell and Blair were lined up to say that Labour must not elect a left-wing leader under any circumstances. (I don't really think that the idea of unionized workplaces and free education and house building programes count as left-wing, particularly, but let's go with the jargon.) Blair went so far as to say that he wouldn't want a left-wing Labour Party to win an election, even if that were possible: ironic, since the argument most frequently thrown at Corbyn is that he cares more about ideological purity than electoral success. Last year's election was between the guy who wanted to nationalize the railways, and the guy who wanted to appeal to the kind of aspirational voter who wished they could afford to buy their groceries at Waitrose.  This year's election is about whether your guy's scheme to re-nationalize the railways is better costed than our guy's scheme to re-nationalize the railways. 

Whatever happens next, Jeremy Corbyn has already won the argument.

The meeting voted by 267 to 64 to nominate Jeremy Corbyn but in a real sense the winner was etc etc etc

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Appendix: Peter Parker's Financial Position

$1 in 1963 would be worth about $7.78 (£5.93) in today's money.

*sum specificed in text
? ball park figure

Amazing Fantasy #15: 

Income: *$100

Aunt May and Uncle Ben are both old; there is no indication as to what Uncle Ben's job was, if he is retired, or whether he has a pension.

We are never shown May claiming welfare. (In a British comic of the same period, we might have seen her going to the Post Office to collect her pension.)

Peter Parker makes several appearances as Spider-Man over some days or weeks, but we are not told what he paid for them.

Spider-Man earns $100 dollars for wrestling Crusher Hogan.

Left in kitty: *$100

Amazing Spider-Man #1 

Income - 0
Borrowed (by Aunt May)   ?$300 (two month's rent)

Peter and Aunt May are sufficiently short of money that they are in danger of losing their rented home, and May has to pawn her jewelry to pay rent.

I think Stan Lee intends us to infer that the cheque that Spider-Man cannot cash is for all his TV appearances.

A modest house costs between £800 and £1000 to rent in my city right now, so I am going to assume that May's rent in 1963 was about $150.

Left in kitty  ? $200 in debt

Amazing Spider-Man # 2

Income: ?$2,000
Expenses: All spent on rent

Jameson pays Peter Parker a sufficient amount of money that he can pay 12 months rents (plus, presumably, pay the backlog and get Aunt May's jewelry back) and have enough left for a kitchen make over.

There are clearly 8 pictures, so if we called this $2000 it would work out at $250 per picture.

Peter blows the whole cheque in one go, without putting anything by for living expenses.

It's hard to determine if Jameson is paying fairly or not. In real life, photographers are usually paid by the assignment, not the shot: the British NUJ suggests that photojournalists don't work for less than £250 per day (maybe $50 in Parker's time.) Paparazzi make much more than that. but generally by building up portfolios and libraries of shots that can be licensed over and over. Particularly exclusive shots can go for fortunes -- paps told Princess Di that if she would look up and smile, they'd be able to send their children to private school. The scumbag who photographed John Lennon's body was reportedly paid $5,00 for his trouble. 

Left in kitty: Nil

Amazing Spider-Man #3

Income - Nil

Parker doesn't make any sales, but "couldn't care less." This suggests that Aunt May does have some income, however meager, because there is nothing in the kitty.

Left in kitty: Nil

Amazing Spider-Man #4

Income ?$500

Expenditure: Web Ingredients. .

Parker asks Jameson for an advance (!) which he needs to buy science equipment to finance improvements to his webbing: him and his Aunt must be surviving quite happily now that the rent is paid.

The pictures are valuable (although they are actually faked) and Peter is pleased with the money; but I don't think it can be as huge a sum as he got in #3. 

Left in kitty: Nil

Amazing Spider-Man #5

Income ?$500

Parker sells Jameson photos of the fire at Doom's hide out, but Jameson doesn't think they are worth very much. 

Kitty: ?$500

Amazing Spider-Man #6

Income - Expenses only

Parker  makes nothing out of his trip to Florida to photograph the Lizard. (NOTE: Jameson destroys the prints: Parker must still have the negatives. Why didn't he try to sell them elsewhere?)

Kitty: ?$500

Amazing Spider-Man #7 

Income *$12.50
Expenses: ?$12.50 (Treatment for sprained arm.)

Jameson pays Peter $12.50 for one "fine" picture of the Vulture: about a twentieth of what he paid him in issue #3, about $100 / £70

Aunt May insists that Peter goes and gets his sprained arm looked at by a doctor. Amusingly, BUPA would charge about £70 for a 15 minute GP appointment in today's money, which is almost exactly equivalent to the $12.50 Peter got for the photo.

Left in kitty ?$500

Amazing Spider-Man #8

No pictures sold at all.

Amazing Spider-Man # 9

Income - *$1,000

Expenses - ?$500 (misc medical bills)
*$1,000 (cost of operation) 

Aunt May is sick. They are paying for her care out of their savings, which have nearly run out. (These savings can only be the $512.50 that Peter has made from photos: they don't have any other money to fall back on.)

Aunt May needs an operation costing $1000. Parker sells (fake) pictures to Jameson for $1000, although Jameson says that they were really worth as much as $20,000!

It isn't clear what May's condition actually is: I would have thought you would have been talking more like $10 - 15K for heart surgery.

Left in kitty - Nil

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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

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.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2016


Penguin have just published the first unexpurgated edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Please Please Me has not yet hit the record shops. 

Camelot has not quite fallen. 
A new issue of the Daily Bugle has just come out.

The headline says that Spider-Man is a menace to society; the headline always says that Spider-Man is a menace to society.

A group of crooks are robbing a jewelry store: a group of crooks are always robbing a jewelry store.

The light of the spider-signal illuminates a wall.

The robbery is disposed of in literally one blow; and the crooks are left hanging on the end of a spiders-web, to be found by the police who always arrive a moment too late.

These are the moments when there are no problems and you can just revel in being a superhero. Punishing property crime with physical violence. Sport and performance art and public service. Joy through strength.

The next scene is in the offices of the Daily Bugle. 

Peter Parker is flirting gently with Betty Brant. J. Jonah Jameson is coming out of his office and yelling at them that is a newspaper not a lonely hearts club. Peter offers him photographs of Spider-Man stopping the jewelry heist. J.J.J says that they are worthless, but takes the pictures. Peter knows he’s being robbed, but takes the money.

The next scene is at school. 

Liz, who Peter doesn’t care about, flirts with him, to annoy Flash. Flash tells Peter to stop hitting on his gal. Flash calls Peter a bookworm. Peter calls Flash a bonehead. The rest of the day is mostly test-tubes.

The next bit is mostly web-slinging.

Peter swings around the city on his spider-web, partly to clear his head after school, partly in the hope he might find some more criminals to assault. Near Lady Liberty, he bumps into the Torch and they scrap like schoolboys for a bit. Thor whooshes over head. 

Finally, he goes home.

Aunt May is worried that he has been doing something dangerous. Peter reassures her that he has just been studying but she makes him go to bed with a glass of warm milk anyway.

And next issue will be exactly the same.

There are worlds that you carry around in your head and revisit whenever you like. Going to them is less like memory or nostalgia: more like prayer or meditation. I don’t think that they are ever real places, although they might possibly be memories of real places: granny's house; the grass bank at the end of the play-ground; your first big-boy bed. I don't think that they are usually well realized secondary worlds like Middle-earth, either. You have to do at least half the building yourself. They are usually very small. Small enough to hold in your hand and see the whole of.

The first one was the Hundred Acre Wood, obviously, and the last one was that very specific box where the man with the very specific scarf played chess with a robot dog while a pretty lady didn't quite approve. The ones I have forgotten or grew out of (the Bandstand, the Common, the Lab and the Moon) do not count, because the point of these worlds is that you never forget them and never grow out of them. 

I suppose that if I lived in New York I wouldn't know I lived in New York. I lived in London for 20 years without realizing it. You probably imagine me being woken up by the chimes of Big Ben and me taking a morning walk around Hyde Park and passing the Queen on her way to buy butter for the royal slice of bread.  But the supermarket and the high street and the park and the school are much the same as they would have been anywhere else. The buses really were red and I really did see businessmen with rolled up umbrellas and bowler hats getting off the tube at Blackfriars. 

Are there Christians in Bethlehem? Are they surprised each year at Christmas that the big story is happening in their town? Or do they just kind of assume that everywhere is Bethlehem? Or do they think of Christmas as their own local thing and feel surprised when they find out that people sing Oh Little Town of Bethlehem in East Barnet and Gotham City and Forest Hills? 

Children in Czech republic have never heard of Good King Wenceslas.

There was an English comic called Buster aimed at people who found the Beano too sophisticated. It had an item called the Leopard of Lime Street about an English boy who had been bitten by (no, honestly) a radioactive leopard. The editor of the school magazine tried to make Leopardboy out to be a villain even though he was a hero. 

And in a way, isn't that more like Spider-Man than Spider-Man itself?

New York is a village. The Daily Bugle is the local news-sheet. Spider-Man is a small time local celebrity. There is one school and one police officer. Nothing in the outside world matters very much. 

Your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.

Forest Hills is a real place. I looked it up. It is about as far from the Statue of Liberty as my house was from Nelson's Column.

When I say that I lived in London I mean that I used to walk up the hill to the train station, and change onto the tube, and walk down Oxford Street, past the theater which had always been showing Jesus Christ Superstar right up until it had always been showing Les Miserables past mucky cinemas and swish film industry offices and find myself in Dark They Were and Golden Eyed, the first comic shop in London, and if I shut my eyes and breath I can almost smell the joss-sticks, and taste Japanese mecha construction kits and hear the rows and rows of perfect shiny American comics in plastic bags....

But that was later. The first comics didn't come in bags and weren't priced in cents, they came in tabloid sized English black and white reprints and cost five pence. Five new pence, in fact. Which was, we were always being told, one shilling in real money. The Mighty World of Marvel had Hulk and the Fantastic Four; Spider-Man Comics Weekly had Spider-Man and Thor; the Avengers had the Avengers and Doctor Strange. Those were the golden years when you got a whole 20 pages of Spider-Man every week. (Later, they added Iron Man and cut Spider-Man's page count.) There were adverts for FOOM and an intelligent letters page and a Bullpen Bulletin with a photo of Stan the Man, the whole peritext of 60s Marvel flowering again in England in the swinging 70s.  It turns out that they were being edited in America by Stan Lee's brother Larry.

And before that, the story persists that boxes of unsold American comics were sometimes used as ship’s ballast and dumped in the UK. It is certainly true that American comics arrived in the UK randomly, unpredictably, non-sequentially; and you found more of them in sea-side towns than in cities. I once found a copy of Teen Titans #1 in a bucket and spade shop, six or seven years after it had come out. It had a yellow price sticker stuck on it by the shop keeper, over the dollar price, as if it was a tin of baked beans. The comics that you could buy in respectable shops had a UK prince printed on them, 25p, maybe, four for a quid.

And before that, an inconceivably long time ago 1968 or 1969 Spider-Man and the X-Men and the Fantastic Four had been reprinted in comics with names like Smash! and Pow! Where the British Marvel of my visionary gleam had played on the hipness and exoticism and sheer bloody American-ness of the comics Smash! and Pow! packaged the Yank characters in the style of an English comic book. 

Imagine me, nine or ten years old, devoted fan of Spider-Man Comics Weekly but without anything like a complete run, in one of those indoor markets where there are butchers shops, fabric shops and shops that sell misshapen biscuits and shops that sell second hand paperback books and then buy them back off you thumbing through a box of comics and coming across, as if from a parallel universe, a copy of Pow! or as it may be Smash! with a reprint of a Spider-Man story in it. 

A Spider-Man story I had never seen before. A story of Spider-Man before I knew him. A story so ancient that Peter Parker still wore glasses, and Betty Brant still had that frankly ridiculous hairstyle. 

We came in in the middle: Jameson already having a tantrum; Betty already hiding behind her desk; Spider-Man already having the time of his life fighting the Vulture, even if he was risking it.

This was how Spider-Man was before I came in. This is how Spider-Man will always be. This is where Spider-Man starts. This is how Spider-Man always was. 

New York is a village; Jonah is a monster, but we can laugh with him; Flash is a bully, but he does no harm; Peter and Betty are happy...for a while. 

We have finally reached the first issue of the Amazing 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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

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.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Saturday, August 06, 2016

The Amazing Spider-Man #7

The Return of the Vulture

The Vulture

Named Characters: 
Flash Thompson, Aunt May, Liz Allan (non-speaking); Betty Brant, J. Jonah Jameson

Peter Parker’s school sports coach is called, er, Smith. (He is mentioned but doesn’t appear.)

Failure to communicate: Ditko draws the school kids tossing a ball around dressed in sweaters, collars and ties. Lee describes this as “volley ball practice” and has Peter “asking the coach to be excused”. Although Peter tells Aunt May and Betty that he sprained his arm playing volley ball; Lee has missed the point that the Flash thinks the he's got his arm in a sling because he caught the ball awkwardly.

Peter Parker’s finances: Jameson offers Spider-Man $12.50 for his photos of the Vulture (rather a pay-cut compared with the years rent he got for similar pictures in issue #2).

Aunt May’s Medical Insurance: May can afford to take Peter to the doctor to have his arm checked out.

Spins a Web, Any Size:  Spider-Man is able to create a full size web parachute, in mid air, capable of supporting him and the Vulture. 

The iconic image of the Ditko / Lee Spider-Man is the Gemini face: half Peter Parker and half Spider-Man. Sometimes, it is just there to remind us that Parker is Spider-Man. But sometimes, more subtly, it represents the conflict between Parker and Spider-Man: the times when Peter would like to do one thing, but Spider-Man has to something else.

It may be that the divided face came about because of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s divided vision. Lee wanted a book that was mostly about Spider-Man; Ditko wanted to give equal time to Parker’s academic and domestic life. The Gemini mask was Steve's sop to Stan: these scenes are about Spider-Man, even if he isn't physically present. We have seen that the published texts display a very visible tension between the guy who is only interested in the fight scenes and the guy who is more interested in the set up and the consequences. The split mask embodies this creative conflict: the conflict out of which Spider-Man was born.

In the very beginning, Parker and Spider-Man are pretty much the same guy; Spider-Man is simply Parker in pyjamas. But very rapidly, they become divided. When Peter Parker puts on the mask, he becomes confident to the point of arrogance; but when he takes it off he is full of angst and self doubt. He removes the mask before despairing that he's been defeated by Doctor Octopus in #3; he actually puts his glasses back on before delivering his "Oh, God, what is the point!" soliloquy at the end of #4.

But here, at the end of the first full year of Spider-Man comics, Spider-Man and Peter Parker seem to have reached some kind of an accommodation. The young man who takes the trouble to notice Betty’s perfume is a wholly different character from the one who sulked because Sally preferred dances to physics talks. The hero who goes up against the Vulture with his arm in a sling is a different person from the one who quit because Doctor Octopus pushed him through a window. Even the jokes have improved. He says that he is sledging the Vulture; but they come across, less as arrogant taunts, more like laughing in the face of danger. They are even quite funny.

- You forget, I have wings!
- You'll need a harp, too, by the time I'm done with you.

He is not done being a jerk: far from it. His two worst moments are still to come. Is he growing up? Did he basically just need a girl-friend? Or is "Bugle Peter" a compromise between Peter Parker and Spider-Man; in the way that "Smallville Clark" combines the best attributes of Superman and Kent? We’ve seen Peter Parker reach the lowest point imaginable after the death of Uncle Ben; we’ve seen him weeping and crying out to God because life is not far and no-one understands him. But today, he muses to himself about the problems have having a double identity, and decides that the worst thing is not loved ones being murdered or the media printing lies about you: it is in fact...having to change clothes several times a day. (Maybe he should ditch the waistcoat-and-tie look?)

But if Spider-Man and Peter Parker have made their peace, or at least politely agreed to differ, so too have The Writer and The Artist. This issue is a testament to their truce. If Writer Guy wants the comic to be all fight, fight, fight and Artist Guy wants the comic to be about poor Peter Parker’s tortuous life, then hey, why not smash the two worlds together and have Spider-Man fight the Vulture in the offices of the Daily Bugle, right under the noses of Jonah and Betty?

Amazing Spider-Man #7
Almost the whole Spidey myth, in a single image.

Ask a comic fan to tell you which page sums up the golden years of Spider-Man and I guess most of them would show you Spider-Man lifting the heavy machinery in issue # 33; or one of the big spreads from the first annual; or perhaps Peter Parker realizing who the Burglar is in the very first episode.

But it seems to me that if you want to know what made Spider-Man great, you have to look no further panel 4 on the final page of this issue. Peter and Betty in profile. Peter, in his nerdy blue suit and (for the very last time) in his nerdy specs. Betty’s weird, alien eye-brows and bee-hive hairstyle (which won't much outlast the specs.) Her colour co-ordinated shocking pink dress, lipstick and ear-rings. (Ditko never managed to make Spider-Man's costume consistent, but he remembers to draw in the ear-rings in every panel.) It could be a scene out of a romance comic: but Betty and Pete aren't film-star glamorous as they would have been had Kirby been drawing them. And for once, the dialogue is perfectly in tune with the picture. 

They guy who has just single-handedly defeated the most dangerous super-villain of them all (this month) with a broken arm: “I’m afraid I’m just not the heroic type.”

The girl, who’s been flirting with him for three months “Neither am I! Maybe that’s why I like you so much, Peter! At least you don’t pretend to be what you’re not.”

I was a little tempted to say that the think bubble “Boy! If she only knew!” is redundant. God knows, Stan Lee sometimes drops in redundant speech bubbles. But in this case, it’s necessary. It turns the panel into a single work of art, all ready to be blown up and screen-printed and made sense of by someone who has never even heard of Spider-Man. It’s the verbal equivalent of the Gemini-face; the invitation to enjoy being in on the secret; the little whisper saying “this is ironic”.

And the next frame is even better: it made me want to stand up and cheer when I read it. Peter has hardly moved, Betty had turned round and is looking at us, as well as at him.

Amazing Spider-Man #7: 
Betty's reaction: note scary vampire eyebrows!

“Peter, sometimes I get the feeling that you’re laughing at a secret little joke that’s all your own.”

On the cover, Stan identifies the selling points of the issue: “Spider-Man. As you like him. Fighting! Joking! Daring!” Spider-Man, joking. Some of his one-liners aren't too bad. But Betty has correctly spotted that his whole life is a joke.

What was it he said, all those years ago? “Some day they’ll be sorry. Sorry they laughed at me.”

The story itself is a game of two halves. Lee obviously thinks that bringing back the Vulture is a selling point — he trails it in the previous issue, which is more than he does for Doctor Octopus — but I doubt if anyone was really that excited. The Vulture can fly, and he steals things, which isn’t that interesting a modus operandi for a baddie, although it does allow Ditko to have some fun with tall vertical panels. But I’m inclined to think that the slightly lackluster villain is just what makes this issue work. We don't want an ultimate foe with ultimate jeopardy in a story which is creating a new status quo for the character. We want to see Spider-Man enjoying himself. Fighting villains is fun. Fighting villains is performance art. Fighting villains is a game. A dangerous game, of course, but still basically a game. 

The story follows the by-now established formula: a preliminary fight in which Spider-Man is over-confident and loses; a second, more prolonged confrontation, in which Spider-Man keeps his wits about him and wins. Vulture breaks out of jail and steals some jewelry; Spider-Man assume he can use his Anti-Magnet-Inverter to defeat him again; but the Vulture has fitted an Anti-Anti-Magnet-Inverter to his wings, and literally knocks Spider-Man out of the sky. The onlookers think he’s dead; but actually, he’s only sprained his arm. Spider-Man goes back against the Vulture with his arm in a sling, and after a big fight, literally pins his wings together with his web.

The wrinkle is that Parker has gone to sell Jameson photos of the first battle with Vulture just as the Vulture has decided to diversify out of the jewelry business and instead and rob J.J.J’s pay-roll. So while Spider-Man is fighting for his life, Jameson is crying out “My files! My ledgers!” and Betty is complaining that her workplace has turned into mad-house and hidden behind a desk. Peter Parker's life is no longer a distraction from the fight scene: it is where the fight scene happens. And this is the formula from now on: Spider-Man's battles and perils will always in some way be about Peter Parker's life.

Which is how we get to the final scene. 

Go and read the last two pages and tell me that they aren't two of the most perfect comic book pages ever produced. Look at the "camerawork" on page 20: how we go from looking at Jameson and Spider-Man in profile; to a back view of Spider-Man to a close-up of the heroes face. And then the punch line: a back view of Jameson, crying "no, you wouldn't dare" (while we can't see what Spider-Man is doing) and a 180 degree flip, so we can see Jameson's face and understand the joke: Spider-Man has webbed his mouth shut.

Once he’s changed clothes, Parker finds Betty still hiding behind the desk, and sits down with her. They look at each other. They look at each other in close up. They both turn their heads and look at Mr Jameson. And the camera pulls right back, and we are left with the boy with his arm in a sling and the girl with the weird haircut bantering to one another. This is much more effective than the first-pangs-of-the-mysterious-emotion-we-call-love guff that Lee is going to subject us to next month. It’s two kids who really like each other. 

We probably didn’t need the closing caption ("We admit it! This isn't a typical ending for a typical super-hero tale!"). I don't know whether Lee is saying "Look how clever we've been" or "I'm sorry, I really couldn't prevent Steve from doing this". But it hardly matters. I have a sense that when Peter says "Mind if I join you?" to Betty, Stan is saying "Mind if I join you?" to Steve. For a while, the split is resolved. This is what Spider-Man is going to be from now on.

But this isn't a happy ending. This is the very opposite of a happy ending. Peter is lying to Betty: not merely lying by omission, like he does to Aunt May, but actually directly misleading her. Betty is being naive -- she knows that Peter Parker is a paparazzo who specializes in photographing dangerous criminals. But still. When she tells Peter that she likes him so much because he’s so unheroic, don’t any warning bells go off? Has he never read Cyrano de Bergarac?

I have said some harsh things about Stan Lee, which he fully deserves. But Stan Lee is the voice of Marvel comics. When he stopped being actively involved in Marvel, around 1970 Marvel lost its distinct voice. To be a fan of the Marvel Comics of the 1960s is to be a fan of Stan Lee. Steve Ditko, while never a good an artist or as great a visionary, was a better story-teller than Jack Kirby ever was. His stories have structure and pace and foreshadowing and ends which actually get tied up. And his pictures have atmosphere and a sense of place and a twisted imagination which holds everything together. 

Sometimes, when Lee is pulling one way and Ditko is pulling the other, you end up in a place which neither of them could have reached alone. But there are days — pretty much every day from Amazing Spider-Man # 7 to Amazing Spider-Man #33; the whole extended summer of my ninth and tenth years — when they are pulling in exactly the same direction; a single, gestalt creator. And then what you have is not just Lee plus Ditko, it’s Lee to the power of Ditko. Lee plus Dikto, squared. There will be better issues of Spider-Man than this one: but never, I think, one that is more perfect. 

What was it Bob Dylan said about Strawberry Fields Forever? “It’s greater than the sum of it’s parts. And the parts are pretty good!”

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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

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.

 Please do not feed the troll.