The Terrible Threat of the Living Brain.
The Living Brain
Flash Thompson, Liz Allan, Mr Warren, Mr Petty,
The referee in the boxing match is presumably the aforementioned
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
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
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
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
(*) 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 RilstoneAndrew 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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