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. 

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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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