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. 

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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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