Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Amazing Spider-Man #12

Unmasked by Doctor Octopus

Doctor Octopus, again

Supporting Cast: 
J. Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Betty Brant, Flash Thompson, Liz Allen + a chorus of policemen, firemen, and circus animals.


Peter has replaced the blue and white striped P.Js from Amazing Fantasy #15 with a red pair (which are slightly too short for him.)

Failure to Communicate: Page 6: The caption says that Octopus is at the top of a roller coaster, but the picture clearly shoes a Ferris wheel

Peter Parker's financial situation: If the comics are taking place in real time, the "One year's rent" which Peter paid in issue #2 ran out last month. He thinks J.J.J. will pay "plenty" for the pictures of Doctor Octopus. However, in issue #12 Peter and Aunt May will be bankrupt again, so I think we have to assume that Peter is being optimistic and J.J.J. doesn't pay up for the photos.

Why does J.J.J hate Spider-Man: Instead of accusing him of being a criminal, or blaming him for being a vigilante, J.J.J. this time blames Spider-Man for being an "overrated crime fighter" who carelessly let Doctor Octopus go!

Spins a web, any-size: Spider-Man escapes from the fire by making a "flame proof umbrella for his head" and (even more cleverly) to create web stepping stones to step on while he runs across the burning floor.

Back filling: Stan Lee says that he has fooled us by giving us an unexpected happy ending. But in fact 5 of the last 6 issues have ended on upbeat notes. Because last issue ended on an absolute downer, Stan Lee repositions Spider-Man as "that comic which always has unhappy endings".

"I'm beginning to sound like a teenaged Billy Graham!" The World Trades Fair which ran from April - October 1964 in Flushing Park, (a 20 minute walk from Peter Parker's high school) included a religious movie narrated by the famous preacher. 

"Boy! That Spider-Man is a poor man's Frank Buck!" Frank Buck, author of Bring 'Em Back Alive, was a legendary "collector" of wild animals for zoos and circuses. 

"Not a dream! Not an imaginary tale!" screams the cover. Well, no. Imaginary Tales were always much more of a DC thing than a Marvel thing. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with a story clearly labelled as being outside of normal continuity — one in which Superman can marry Lois Lane, produce a brood of Superkids, or become President of American without irrevocably changing or destroying the comic. They are only perceived as hoaxes and let-downs if the nature of the story is withheld until the last page. "Captain America dreams that he meets John Henry and Paul Bunyan" is a perfectly legitimate idea for a story. "Captain America marries Sharon Carter, but on the final page, wakes up and realizes it was all a dream", not so much.

Amazing Spider-Man #12 is certainly not a dream and definitely not an imaginary tale. It is, however, arguably a hoax.  

The cover is another masterpiece and for once Ditko and Lee are in agreement about the unique selling point of the issue. It's another of Ditko's iconic "crowds staring at Spider-Man" tableaux, except that this time the crowd is staring at Spider-Man having his mask torn off. So far this year, the Brain has nearly guessed Spider-Man's secret identity; Spider-Man has unmasked Electro (no-one special) and the Big Man (not who we expected). Last month, Peter Parker resolved to reveal his identity to Betty Brant, but changed his mind. So this month, almost to complete the cycle, we have Spider-Man being forcibly unmasked in front of his worst enemy. The title of the story is "Unmasked by Doctor Octopus", but Doctor Octopus is the smallest figure on the cover. It's clear from the picture that what the story is really about is "Unmasked In Front of J. Jonah Jameson!

Doctor Octopus escaped last issue, so it shouldn't come as any great surprise that he's back for a rematch. (It evidently did come as a surprise to Stan Lee, who finished last issue with Spider-Man "little dreaming of the new adventures and surprises that await him" — rather than by trailing Doc Ock's return.). It's a curious set-up: not a two part Doctor Octopus story; not even really a Doctor Octopus story and a sequel. It's more like two quite different Doctor Octopus stories, one after the other. Almost as if one creator — let's call him "Steve" — thought Doc Ock should be one of a number of players in a cops and robbers gangster story, and the other — let's call him "Stan" — thought he should be a Lex Luthor figure, brooding in jail about how he was going to get his revenge on Spider-Man if it was the last thing he did. The "Ditko" version springs gangsters out of jail in return for venture capital with which to become head of the Thieves Guild; the "Lee" version" commits crimes simply in order to attract Spider-Man's attention. "Beating Spider-Man" is now Doctor Octopus's only motivation. One might even say that he suffers from the same arachnophobia which afflicts Betty Brant and J. Jonah Jameson.

And why not? Superman needs his Moriarty, and it might as well be Octavius. 

Last time around, fate — or The Plot, or indeed the writer — had to work very hard to engineer a confrontation between Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus. This time around, Doctor Octopus has himself taken control of The Plot. He wants to fight Spider-Man because he wants to fight Spider-Man. He commits crimes in order to persuade Spider-Man to come and fight him — and he finally kidnaps Betty and tells Jameson to put out a message informing Spider-Man that he'll let her go if he'll come out and fight with him.

If anyone ever asks you what Stan Lee contributed to Spider-Man, point them towards page 5 of this issue. Octopus is holding Betty Brant in one arm, J.J.J. in a second and Peter in a third…and Jameson delivers the immortal line "Don't just dangle there Parker! Tell him who I am!" "Don't just dangle there, do something" would have been a cliché, reducing Jameson to a Dick Dastardly figure — but "tell him who I am" is a perfectly judged piece of characterization. Jameson is so arrogant that he thinks his name will intimidate a super criminal. It reminds one of Citizen Kane responding to a personal attack by shouting "I'M CHARLES FOSTER KANE!"

It's also very funny.

Rather unhelpfully, Peter Parker shouts "Don't be afraid! Spider-Man will save you!" after Betty as Doc Ock carries her away from her office. But Betty hates Spider-Man. She kinda thinks he sorta killed her brother. She's probably more terrified that the Spider will come and rescue her than that the Octopus will harm her. Don't you remember last issue?

This is the first issue in which the, ahem, web of coincidences is constructed like a farce (although there were comedic elements in issue #5.) Nearly all the plot movement comes from the fact that Jameson and Betty, and Doctor Octopus, and indeed Aunt May and Flash Thompson all know Peter Parker and Spider-Man but believe them to be two different people. The first big wrinkle comes on page 5: Doctor Octopus kidnaps Betty, says that she will be set free if Spider-Man comes to Coney Island alone, adding that Jameson may send one photographer. Immediately, in the same panel, Jameson says "I'll send you, Parker!" Just in case we missed the point, Peter thinks "How can I go as Spider-Man and as Peter Parker?" This is, of course, the solution to the conundrum set on the cover: Parker goes to face Doctor Octopus as Spider-Man, and when he pulls his mask off everyone — the villain, Jameson, Betty and the cops take it for granted that Peter Parker and Spider-Man are two different people — that Parker dressed up as Spider-Man to get a photo. Even better, because he is suffering from a viral infection ("the one thing even (my) spider-strength can't resist!") he has temporarily lost his power.

"It isn't Spider-Man! It's that weakling brat, Peter Parker!"

"Peter!! Oh, he did it for me!! Oh he might have been killed!"

"The fool! I ordered him to take pictures of Octopus— not try to be a hero!"

So what we have her is indeed, not a dream, not an imaginary story — but something more like a shaggy dog story. Doctor Octopus does indeed unmask Spider-Man but everyone takes it for granted that Peter can't be Spider-Man and must be an impostor. It is so perfectly set up — and most readers must work out what is going to happen several frames before we get there — that no-one feels cheated or short-changed. It's a great punch line.

The big unmasking scene happens on page 8; the murder of Bennet Brant happened on page 13 last issue. In both cases there is a sense that the story has peaked too early; that the promise and question of the cover has been answered, and the rest of the episode has to be padded out with a fight scene. One wonders whether, in both cases, Lee dreamed up the premise. ("What if Dr Ock ripped Spider-Man's mask off?") leaving Ditko to spin it out to 21 pages? There is a definite sense that Ditko himself was clutching at straws: first showing Doc Ock, er, releasing all the animals from the zoo, leading to scenes of Spider-Man fighting a gorilla on a flagpole and catching a lion between his legs; and then giving us a prolonged fight in, er, a deserted artists studio, full of gigantic stone angels and 12 foot high faces which catch fire for no particular reason. ("We knocked over the sculptor's cleaning fluid! It's starting a fire!") This allows Spider-Man to demonstrate that he's a proper hero — risking his life to save his enemy when he gets trapped under a statue — and for Doctor Octopus to show that he's a sore loser ("Spider-Man didn't beat me! It was the fire!") And it's a good enough fight scene. But it feels anti-climactic after the set up and resolution of the unmasking.

Spider-Man has spent the last couple of issues being brave and noble; but in the final three frames, Peter Parker goes out of his way to remind us that he is still a total jerk. Bravado which is quite attractive from Spider-Man when he is putting his life on the line ("If all that boasting doesn't tire you out, nothing will!") is deeply unattractive and priggish when Peter uses it on Flash in the school playground. Since their fight, Flash Thompson has, in his awkward, locker-room way, been trying to reach out to Peter Parker. Liz, impressed at his bravery, and obviously trying to make amends for being cruel to him in the past, invites him to a party. Peter rudely turns her down, inventing a fictitious date with Betty Brant. He refers to the confident, successful career-woman who has just been through an utterly terrifying experience as "a certain little brunette" and implies he can take her on dates without asking her first. He goes on to call Flash far worse names than Flash ever called him. ("I know how boring it must be to have to use all those one syllable words when you talk to him! You deserve each other!") And finally — unbelievably — after a week which has seen his wonderful friend Betty tragically bereaved and terrifyingly kidnapped he announces that "things are finally looking up for my favourite couple of guys—namely, me!" This is clearly the voice of the Peter Parker who told the policeman that he was going to look out for number one from now on. 

I fear that no irony is intended. Stan Lee is telling us that being priggish and rude to the Flash Thompsons and Liz Allens of this world is an appropriate way for us geeks to behave. Being rude to them when they try to be nice to you counts as a happy ending. Because us nerdy comic book readers are better than football players, and should never forget it.

It wasn't a good lesson for Spider-Man fans to pick up from the comic, but pick it up many of us did.
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. 

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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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Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Amazing Spider-Man #11

Turning Point, Featuring the Return of Dr. Octopus!

Doctor Octopus

Supporting Cast:
Betty Brant, Bennet Brant, Blackie Gaxton, Aunt May,
+ a Prison Governor and a chorus of crooks and cops.

First appearance:
Spider-Man’s Spider-Tracers.


This is only the second issue which J. Jonah Jameson has not appeared in.

Most of the story, which is about Betty trying to help her brother, takes place in Philedelphia, “the city of brotherly love”.

Spins a web, any size: Web is used to block a doorway, blackout a searchlight, and as a bandage for a sprained ankle.

Marvel Time: Doctor Octopus has served 9 months in jail. His original sentence must have been around 310 days.

Failure to communicate: On page 6, Bennet visits his client “in jail”, and Blackie talks about being sprung “from jail”. But on page 9, Spider-Man soliloquizes that “Octopus is sure to try to spring Blackie while he’s still a prisoner in the courthouse. If he waits til they take him to the state pen, it will be a much tougher job.” In fact, the building is clearly shown as a castle-like prison with many barred windows. Lee spots that it Doc Ock gets Blackie out far too easily, but his retro-fit doesn’t match the illustrations.

Medieval moralists said that Fortune was like a huge wheel. As long as you were going up, you were fine: but once you reached the top, there was nowhere to go but down. Aristotle said that tragedy involved one particular moment when everything appeared to be going great for the hero and suddenly everything started to go wrong. This catastrophic change was known as a  perepiteia : a turning point.

Amazing Spider-Man #11 is not so much a turning point as a staying the same forever point.

As usual, The Writer and The Artist can’t quite agree on what the Selling Point of the issue should be. The cover shows us a rather stiff Dr Octopus fighting an equally un-dynamic Spider-Man, with the words "The Return of Doctor Octopus" in big white-on-red letters. But there’s a fifty word caption — I would guess the longest that has ever appeared on a cover — asking "What happens when Spider-Man decides to reveal his identity to someone else?" The interior splash page answers the question — rather daringly — by taking us right to the end of the story, and posing a new question: "How did it happen, and why?"

This is really not a bad compromise, and it is going to stay in place for most of the year. The covers  — the outward facing images — will show Spider-Man confronting a villain, with Stan Lee congratulating himself on dreaming up such a impressive adversary. ("We’ve created the greatest villain of all for ol’Spidey!" "Wow just wait til you see the Green Goblin!" "So you think there are no new types of villain for ol’Spidey to battle, eh?"). The internal splash page — directed at people who have, after all, already bought the comic — will promote the actual storyline, asking a question like "has Spider-Man really turned to crime?" (no) "has Spider-Man really gone mad?" (no) or  "has Spider-Man really lost his powers?" (no).

Or, this time: "Why has Betty decided that, like her boss, she hates Spider-Man. For ever and ever?"

It doesn’t seem likely that either Lee or Ditko ever planned out a plot arc in advance. Background characters are fleshed out and become major supporting players, changes of direction are back-filled by Stan Lee. When Lee introduced nasty Mr Jameson in issue #1, he didn’t know he was going to become more-or-less the co-star of the comic, and certainly didn’t know that Spider-Man was going to fall in love with his secretary. But it was a canny move. Peter might have carried on dreaming about Liz and having fights with Flash over her: but that would have been obvious and boring. The idea that he has a close romantic friendship with a slightly older career gal is much less predictable and far more interesting. 

In Amazing Spider-Man #2, J. Jonah Jameson’s secretary briefly appears, but we don’t find out her name. Issue #4 marks the first appearance of "Miss Brant". In issue #5, Miss Brant tactfully tells her boss that he is too obsessed with Spider-Man and at that precise moment Peter Parker notices how pretty she is. Stan back fills the story, giving the impression that Peter Parker and Betty Brant have know each other for some time ("I never realized how pretty Betty Brant was!" "I never realized how I felt about her!”) In fact, they have barely exchanged twenty words. In issue #6 Peter tries to ask her out but is interrupted by J.J.J. Finally, in issue # 7, the two of them end up flirting behind Jameson’s desk after Spider-Man and the Vulture have trashed the office.

Their relationship isn’t classic romance comic fodder. Betty really gets on with Peter and Peter really gets on with her. We never see them on a date; but we do see them sitting together in the dark while Aunt May is having major surgery. "Maybe I haven't got many friends!" says Peter "But one wonderful one like Betty makes up for all I haven't got!" It’s one of the most believable relationships in comic books.

People married young in those days — so aren’t we running headlong towards a obvious conclusion: fire burning in the hearth and spider-babies on the rug? When Stan Lee thought he was writing a realistic convention-breaking graphic novel, that might have happened. But that idea is long buried. Spider-Man is a super-hero with a secret identity and a utility belt and an arch enemy. His comic now has a clear formula — a brilliant formula, a formula that allows for endless elaborations, but a formula nonetheless. There will always be a new villain, Aunt May will always be at death's door. Peter will always be dropping into the Bugle and Betty will always be waiting for him there. If he unmasks, gets married, leaves home — even, god forbid, gets a proper job or gets drafted into the army — Amazing Spider-Man as we know it comes to an end.

So something has to happen to make it impossible for Spider-Man to unmask: to freeze  Peter and Betty in a permanent impasse. Turning Point is an obligatory piece of plot machinery. At some point in the future, Flash Thompson is going to have to find out who Spider-Man really is: but that moment can be infinitely delayed. But the longer Peter goes without telling Betty the truth, the worse a cad he appears to be. When he thinks (in issue #7) "Betty can’t care for me if she won’t confide in me!" he comes across as a shocking hypocrite.

In issue #9, Betty is upset because Peter goes to photograph the prison riot after she had asked him not to. She speaks calmly to Peter and tries to explain her feelings. "Peter, I never told you why I left high school last year and took a job! I never told you about someone I once knew —  who reminded me of you! But I don’t want to be hurt again!" Peter responds angrily "I get the message! I’m not Mr Perfect!" But a page later he is claiming that it was how Betty who "flared up" at him, and Betty is the one doing the apologizing.

In issue #10, Betty is bullied by the Enforcers. Although she tells Peter that it is a case of mistaken identity, she confides to the reader that she has "foolishly borrowed money to a loan shark!"  It can’t have been very much — she has paid off the principal on her secretarial wage — but the Big Man has doubled the interest. She decides to leave town, because she doesn’t want Peter to know how silly she has been and certainly doesn’t want him to risk his life protecting her from the Thieve's Guild.

Two different secrets have been foreshadowed. A mysterious person in Betty’s past, strongly implied to be dead, who is somewhat like Peter and who worked in some dangerous occupation; and a foolish attempt to borrow money at high interest rates. If Steve knows where he is going with this, he doesn’t tell Stan, who trails issue #11 as "Spider-Man discovers the strange secret of Betty Brant…!"

It's not particularly strange. It seems that Betty's brother, Bennet Brant, is a lawyer who is either working for the mob, or has run up a huge gambling debt, or both. A gangster named Blackie Glaxon has agreed to cancel the debt if he, Bennet, springs him, Blackie, from prison, which Bennet facilitates by, er, arranging for Betty to drive Doctor Octopus from New York to Philadelphia.

Up to now, it has always been fairly plausible chains of events which have caused the two halves of Peter’s world to come crashing together: a science demonstration going wrong at his school; a criminal robbing his place of work. Betty’s involvement with the Enforcers was already a step too far, but this crosses a line. I could suspend my disbelief in a schoolboy who clings to walls and fights giant talking lizards; but when Spider-Man spotted Betty driving Doctor Octopus’s car I found myself thinking "No, I just can’t accept that."

Why is Betty driving the car, anyway? Even granted that crazy scientists with metal arms are the only people who can break through prison bars (and I can't help thinking an acetylene torch would have done the job just as well); why do you need to incriminate your sister to get him there? Doc Ock is a free man. He could have caught the bus.

It is possible to square "I gave Bennet all the money I had so that he could pay his debts to Blackie" with "I borrowed money from a shark". It is quite hard to square "I ran away to Philadelphia because I didn't want Peter to get involved with the Enforcers" with "I ran away to Philadelphia because I didn't want Peter to know I have a dishonest brother". But it's much harder to square "I don’t want you to be a photographer because I once had a friend who enjoyed danger" with "I don’t want you to be a photographer because I am still at this moment trying to help my crooked brother.” And very hard indeed to think that a gal would ever refer to her brother as "someone I once knew".

Very conveniently, Betty drops a map of Philadelphia as she is getting into the car, so Spider-Man knows roughly where she is going. Even more conveniently, he has just invented a wonderful new plot device: a "detailed model of a live spider" which  "sends coded messages" which he can "pick up with a small portable receiver." This is, of course, the prototype spider-tracer. The next time it appears it will be an "electrically treated spider-pin". It’s actually fairly pointless. If Spider-Man had simply followed Betty to Philly, swung around the city for a few panels, and then spotted her, I don’t think anyone would have complained. It’s the sort of coincidence which happens a lot: Spider-Man always swings past the exact person he most needs to find. And the new electronic spider-plot device is still coincidence-powered. The second time Spider-Man needs to track down Betty he remarks "A good job they used the car which had my gizmo on it!" Yes. A good job indeed.

Doc Ock springs Blackie from jail, but Blackie breaks his promise to Bennet and ends up taking him and Betty hostages, and Spider-Man comes along and there’s a big gun fight, and…

Somewhere, buried deeply in Peter Parker — so deeply that he never mentions it or thinks about it — is an overwhelming guilt that he caused the death of his beloved Uncle because he did not act. But today, Betty Brant’s beloved brother dies because Spider-Man did act. (I have often wondered if Bennet's friends called him "Ben" as well.) He dies "like a man" trying to protect his sister, but if Spider-Man had not been there, he might very well have survived. Betty’s initial reaction mirrors Peter’s reaction in Amazing Fantasy #15: "(He) is dead..because of Spider-Man!” (Spider-Man tells Gaxon "There’s no place on earth you can hide from me!" which is exactly what he said to the uncle-slaying burglar.)

Stan Lee piles the irony on as only he can "I hate you Spider-Man .. If only Peter were here!" cries Betty. Oh what a tangled web we weave...! When Betty has calmed down, she modifies her accusation, instead damning Spider-Man with the most terrible kind of faint praise. "It wasn’t his fault! He was trying to help us!". And she replaces her hatred of Spider-Man with something worse: an irrational revulsion. The girl who didn’t want Peter Parker to take photos because it reminded her that her brother had a gambling debt (or something) announces "I still never want to see Spider-Man again! I couldn’t bear being reminded…of Bennet!" Her hatred of Spider-Man is irrational. Like J. Jonah Jameson, she is an arachnophobe.

Guilt is not a helpful emotion. If you act, sometimes, good people may die. If you do not act, sometimes, good people may also die. It’s an unjust world and virtue is victorious only in theatrical performances. But Peter Parker will increasingly come to feel that the deck is stacked and the universe hates him personally.

The final three panels are as good as anything Ditko ever drew and (once again) as good as anything Lee ever wrote. Note the big candle in the foreground: is the scene taking place in a funeral home, or at a wake? Peter can’t now tell Betty who he is, and he is trapped in another lie, albeit a very white one. “Of course I understand! And I’m sure Spider-Man would too, if he knew!”

If he knew. Peter Parker destroys his relationship with Betty Brant there and then and he must know that is what he is doing. Can you imagine, four or five years hence, Spider-Man unmasking to the girl he loves and her saying "You stood there — hours after my brother had been shot — literally over his dead body — and you lied to me?"

One month and three panels later, Betty will be back in New York; working for Mr. Jameson again. She has a new haircut — which covers up her ear-rings — a new style of clothes (rather stylish purple) and a new handbag. She’s lost her whacky eyebrows. But this is the end for Betty Brant as a character. The new Betty is little more than a girl-shaped golden snitch for Doctor Octopus to bait his spider-trap with.

The final frame of the comic has a tiny figure of Peter Parker walking away from us. It’s an image we’ve seen several times before. But instead of the the split face motif, a giant figure of Spider-Man is walking in front of Peter Parker. I am sure this panel must have suggested the iconic Spider-Man #50 cover to John Romita.
It makes me wonder. Did Steve Ditko originally envisage entirely different words in those speech bubbles? Was Peter Parker originally going to say, not "I understand why you hate Spider-Man" but "I understand why you are staying in Philadelphia". So the perepiteia would have been Betty leaving the story altogether, clearing the way for a relationship with Liz Allen (who becomes unexpectedly a Peter Parker fan in the very next episode.)  But Lee overruled him, leaving Betty as a lose cog in the story engine, a relic of a previous story-line, a dangling plot threat which can never be tied up.


Later continuity reveals that Bennet Brant did not die from the gunshot, but survived to become the Crime Master. Later continuity can fuck off.

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, October 15, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man #10 (II): Why does J Jonah Jameson hate Spider-Man

Why does J. Jonah Jameson hate Spider-Man?

Amazing Spider-Man #10
 A rare moment of self-knowledge
A Randian monster?

In 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales died in a car accident. 

She had been by far the most high profile celebrity of the 1980s, and had she lived, might still have become titular queen of England. Attractive and well-meaning, she had been arbitrarily selected as a symbol of female beauty and British patriotism, a role which engulfed her until she seemed to believe in it herself. Pretty much her only public function was to be photographed at public events; yet she came to regard photographers as her implacable enemies. An inquest eventually decided that she had been unlawfully killed by those photographers. The media obsession with her has never really died down. 

At her funeral her brother delivered an astonishing eulogy in front of what is still the highest UK TV audience of all time. Why, he asked, did the press and the paparazzi pursue his sister so relentlessly? What explanation could there possibly be for the fact that professional photographers wanted to take photographs of the most glamourous woman of her age?

She talked endlessly of getting away from England, mainly because of the treatment she received at the hands of the newspapers. I don’t think she ever understood why her genuinely good intentions were sneered at by the media; why there seemed to be a permanent quest on their behalf to bring her down. It is baffling. My own and only explanation is that genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the spectrum. 

This is an absolutely fascinating remark. Earl Spencer believes that his sister was “genuinely good” and that press photographers were the opposite – genuinely evil. And he thinks that genuinely evil people want to destroy – "bring down" – genuinely good ones. Not for any reason. Destroying goodies is just what baddies do. 

And the way they do it is by printing photos of them in the newspaper. 

At the end of Amazing Spider-Man #10, after Foswell has been unmasked as the Big Man, J. Jonah Jameson speaks directly to the reader, and reveals for the first time why he hates Spider-Man so much.

"Heaven help me," he says "I'm jealous of him."

In Amazing Spider-Man #5 Betty Brant confronted her boss about his obsession with the superhero using the fine old journalistic technique of telling him what "some people might say". 

“Some of our readers are starting to think that you are jealous of him.” 

Jameson admits that his motives are entirely cynical “I have only ONE real motive - to make money. The more I attack Spider-Man, the more people read my papers….Spider-Man sells papers, understand?” 

Would it be too much to imagine that he has been pondering Betty’s words deeply in his heart for the last six months? Some people might think I was jealous. Some people might think I was jealous. And that, after making a complete idiot of himself two months running (accusing Spider-Man of being Electro, and then accusing him of being the Big Man) he suddenly has a moment of self-knowledge. Betty with the dangly ear-rings and the silly hair-cut has hit the nail precisely on the head. 

“Heaven help me. I am jealous of him!”

J.J.J. must really value Betty as a P.A, incidentally: he wouldn't put up with even indirect criticism from anyone else. 

We all talk about Stan Lee’s print persona, the fake hipster voice, the self deprecating irony, the hype, the endless insertion of himself into the narrative. But his dialogue is so damn good that we almost forget it exists. Peter Parker says something in Peter Parker’s voice and Flash Thompson snaps back in Flash Thompson’s voice and we almost forget that Stan Lee put those words into their mouths as well.

Jonah’s soliloquy is a little masterpiece. 

"Am I always to be thwarted, embarrassed, frustrated by Spider-Man?"

Jameson made up the idea that Spider-Man was Electro, and feels embarrassed because he was exposed as a liar.  Jameson made up the idea that Spider-Man was the Big Man, and feels embarrassed because he was exposed as a liar. Yet somehow, he thinks his repeated public humiliations are Spider-Man's fault. Jameson hates Spider-Man because he thwarts and embarrasses him; but if he'd quit hating him there would be nothing for him to be thwarted and embarrassed about. 

“I hate that costumed freak more than I’ve ever hated anyone before!”

The “costumed freak” bit is a major problem: he doesn’t hate Daredevil or Captain America, and before long he’ll be making alliances with the freakishly costumed Scorpion and the equally freakishly costumed Mysterio to destroy Spider-Man. 

“I’ll never be contented while he’s free!” 

As long as Jameson thinks in terms of locking Spider-Man up, his hatred has a veneer of justice. He can see that Spider-Man is a crook, even if no-one else can, and if he could get him arrested, he'd be doing the world a favour. But isn't one of the things he blames Spider-Man for taking the law into his own hands?

“All my life I’ve been interested in only one thing — making money!”

When J.J.J. told Betty he was only interested in making money, he was boasting – at the very least, admitting a manly flaw. He's a businessman. The bottom line is more important than the truth. When Jameson orders Foswell to print obvious lies about Spider-Man, Foswell reflects this line back at him. “I’ll do it. I’ve gotten into the habit of eating three squares a day.” 

Money isn't really the only thing which Jameson is interested in, incidentally: he cares about his family, his personal reputation, the other members of his club, and very probably his supply of good cigars.

“And yet Spider-Man risks his life day after day, with no thought of reward!”

Jameson is entirely wrong here. Peter Parker may not be quite the dickhead we met back in issue #1, but he is not purely altruistic. He care about fame; his whole life is a performance. And he thinks about his reward all the bloody time.

  • “Luckily I had the automatic shutter of my camera working, so old tight-wad Jameson paid me a bundle for the pix!”
  • “I’ve got to raise some money fast! I’ll scout the city until I find some sort of crime that I can photograph, then I’ll sell it to Jameson for as much as he’ll pay!”
  • “What a fool I am! There’s a reward for Electro’s capture! If I can nab him, I won’t have to beg the money from anyone!” 
  • “I’ll snap a few pix of the burning building, old skinflint Jameson may be willing to pay Pete Parker for them!”
  • “What a picture this will make! Jameson will pay me a fortune!”

Spider-Man is no longer the young man who only cares about Number One. He goes into action for many reasons: to pay his family's medical bills; to help people he personally cares about, like Betty; because he's found himself in a situation where he can help and no-one else can. And he does have a sense that preventing property crime contributes to the public good. But he doesn't yet think of himself as having a professional obligation to catch bad guys. 

Jameson doesn't know any of this. Jameson hates Spider-Man's public image. Jameson hates Spider-Man for fighting crime without any reward, never knowing that he, personally, is the one who rewards him. 

“If a man like him is good — is a hero — then what am I?”

Does Jameson sincerely believe Spider-Man is a criminal (even though it is obviously not true) because the alternative is to believe that he, Jameson, is a bad guy? People can and do engage in doublethink of this kind, altering the facts to fit their views. Newspaper men are particularly vulnerable to this kind of cognitive dissonance. It is possible to believe so strongly that the E.U. has banned Christmas that you literally cannot see the giant neon baby Jesus in the high street. 

“I can never respect myself while he lives!” 

A minute ago the only thing that would make him happy was sending Spider-Man to jail. Now the only thing that will restore self-respect is actually killing him. But if you feel bad about yourself because you are a selfish businessman, why on earth would you feel better about being a murderer?

“Spider-Man represents everything that I’m not! He’s brave, powerful and unselfish!”

Hold your horses. Spider-Man is certainly brave; although we have no particular reason to think that Jameson is a coward. Jameson believes Spider-Man to be unselfish, although a lot of the time, he's mistaken. But how can J.J.J. possibly think that Spider-Man is powerful and he is weak? J. Jonah Jameson is the person who can wind public opinion round his little finger. J. Jonah Jameson is the one who gets visits from all the most important people. J. Jonah Jameson is the one with a huge workforce he can hire and fire at will. J. Jonah Jameson orders bankers to attend to his account after hours. Spider-Man can’t even cash a cheque. There is a warrant for Spider-Man’s arrest, because Jameson campaigned for there to be one. Spider-Man can’t appear in public, because Jameson has turned public opinion against him. Spider-Man has to beg and plead and compromise his moral principles in order to get life saving medical care for his loved ones; Jameson, is, presumably, insured up to the hilt. 

Spider-Man certainly has one thing which Jameson does not have: physical strength. Is it possible that Jameson seeks power and wealth because he believes himself to physically puny? (It will be remembered that Charles Foster Kane's sought power and wealth as a substitute for motherly love.) Or perhaps, when Jameson says that Spider-Man has great power at some deeper level he understands that with great power must also come… something else. 

“The truth is, I envy him! I J. Jonah Jameson — millionaire, man of the world, civic leader — I’d give anything to be the man that he is!"

What do we think about heroes and gods and stars and celebrities? Do we try to live our lives on a higher level because we want to be like Jesus or Princess Di or Spider-Man? Or do we give up and stop trying altogether because whatever happens we will never be as great as Jesus or Princess Di or Spider-Man? Would Jonah really give anything (anything?) to be Spider-Man? Then why doesn't he?

"I can never climb to his level!" 

Can’t you Jonah? Can't you really?

The difference between you and Spider-Man is not that he can climb walls and you cannot. The difference between you and Spider-Man is not how much power you have. The difference between you and Spider-Man is about how you have chosen to use your power. Why not use your vast wealth to start the J. Jonah Jameson foundation for the victims of crime? Why not use your paper to campaign against slum landlords and drug-money launderers? Why not pay for bullet proof jackets for cops? Why not take a sabbatical and become a human rights lawyer?

If you could change one thing about yourself, why haven't you?

“So all that remains is — for me to try to tear him down!"

Stan Lee is trying hard to rationalize Jameson's hatred. But in the end, he can't get much beyond what the bitter Earl Spencer said about the photographers who killed his beloved sister. Spider-Man is good. Jameson is not good. Bad people will always try to bring down good people. 

"...because, heaven help me — I’m jealous of him.”

Jealousy is an irrational emotion. A writer who is very nearly as famous as Stan Lee once said that there was no reason for it: 

"They are not ever jealous for the cause. 

But jealous that they are jealous. 

It is a monster, begot upon itself, born of itself…” 

If Stan Lee had been leafing through the Bard for inspiration he might also have lighted on an aside in the same play. The evil Iago is plotting to kill the harmless Cassio. His explanation brings us about as close to J.J.J's mindset as we can come. 

“He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly.”

Bad people hate good people because good people make bad people look bad. And that's that.

If you are terrified of traveling by plane then no amount of evidence that plane accidents are infinitesimally rare is likely to overcome that fear. You’re not scared for any reason: you’re just scared. It’s why we’ve coined words like "Islamaphobia" and "Homophobia". Boring people may say “ha ha it really means fear of things being the same” or “ha ha Islam is not a race”, but most of us see the point. The belief that children shouldn’t go into a swimming pool that has had homosexuals in it in case they catch gay, and the belief that you can cure Islam by throwing sausages at it don’t really count as opinions. They are irrational fears; like being afraid of mice. Or elevators. Or walking under ladders. Or...

And that’s the third reason why Spider-Man couldn’t have been Fly-Man or Mosquito-Man. J. Jonah Jameson –  and also Aunt May and Betty Brant and many of the people in Ditko’s man-in-the-street tableux – has a wholly unjustified fear of Spider-Man. A phobia. 

What was it Martin Goodman said when Stan Lee told him his idea for a new superhero character? 

People. Don’t. Like. Spiders. 

So that’s what the comic is all about. Snap!


Later continuity has revealed that Jameson had an alcoholic father who beat him.

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.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Friday, October 14, 2016

"What are your songs about?"
"Some of them are about four minutes, some are about five minutes and some, believe it or not are about eleven or twelve minutes." 

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Saturday, October 08, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man #10

The Enforcers 


The Big Man, Fancy Dan, The Ox, Montana


J.Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Flash Thompson, Liz Allen, Betty Brant, Frederick Foswell, Mr and Mrs Abbot, (plus a chorus of doctors, gangsters and hoods.)


Aunt May’s next door neighbor is called Mrs Abbott (and not, for example, Mrs Watson.)

Stan Lee doesn't re-read old issues, but relies on his memory: he references issue #9 but says it is called The Wrath of Electro, rather than A Man Called Electro.

Following the fight in issue #8, Flash makes two more attempts to be nice to Peter: visiting Aunt May in hospital, and warning him to be careful about speaking of the Big Man in public.

He's got radioactive blood! Peter gives Aunt May a person-to-person blood transfusion, which is massively anachronistic in 1964. Peter has the same blood type as Aunt May, even though they are not blood relatives. This will become hugely significant the next time but one May is at death's door.

On the splash page, Spider-Man "possesses the strength of countless spiders"; on page 21, he "has the proportionate strength of a spider". 

Spins a Web: Any Size: Spider-Man makes a web parachute and (briefly channeling his inner Bruce Wayne) a giant web spider to terrify a bad guy.

If Amazing Spider-Man #9  is a slice of spider-life; then Amazing Spider-Man #10 is as conventional a piece of story-telling as we've seen.  Indeed, it is hardly a Spider-Man story at all: if Parker had just been a photojournalist and the Enforcers had been more conventional hoods, everything would have unfolded in pretty much the same way. And this is no criticism. There is something gloriously surrealist about the way in which a small number of outlandish super-characters wander around a downbeat, realistic urban world and no-one pays much attention to them. 

A big man named the Big Man has taken control of the Syndicate which controls all the Crime in New York. Or possibly America. Or maybe just Forest Hills. Taking over the Syndicate is a pretty simple operation. He just tells his three mildly super-powered hench-people to intimidate seven gang leaders who have kindly assembled in his office in order to be intimidated. They immediately hand The Mob over to him. 

Traditionally, Organized Crime makes its money from illegal gambling, extortion, bootleg booze, ladies of ill repute and even drugs. But Ditko gives us a montage of The Big Man’s men cracking safes, robbing banks at gunpoint and hijacking security vans. Spider-Man's main job is arresting jewel thieves, so it makes sense that one tall man in a mask is in charge of all the jewel thieves in the country. The universe is Manichean conflict between Goodies (Cops) and Baddies (Robbers) and The Big Man has taken over the Thieves Guild. Over the next few months, the Green Goblin and the Crime Master are going to be pretenders to the same throne. One of Stan Lee’s first acts after Ditko’s departure will be to install the Kingpin as Top Crimer.

So: who is the Big Man really? J. Jonah Jameson thinks it is Spider-Man and Spider-Man thinks it is J. Jonah Jameson. If you approach the story as a puzzle, then the solution is almost painfully transparent. Out of the blue, Jameson has acquired a columnist named Frederick Foswell who writes editorials about how awful Spider-Man is at his bosses behest. He is a rather a little man. This is the first time any Bugle Employee, apart from Betty, has been given a name. I suspect I was typical of first-time readers in assuming that he had been mentioned before. Lee’s habit of back-filling means that when we are told that Jameson's top columnist is called Foswell (or that Aunt May's neighbor is called Abbot) we are inclined to say "oh, yes, and he always has been."

It shouldn’t be a great surprise that a brand new character, introduced on page 7 of a “whodunit”— the only person who isn’t part of the regular cast — should turn out to be the masked villain. It works a lot better than it ought. For one thing, it isn’t presented as a riddle-story: there is too much else going on for us to spend much time trying to guess the Big Man’s identity. We are fairly cunningly misdirected — or at any rate watch Peter being misdirected — into thinking that the Big Man is Jameson. We don’t ever get an explanation as to why Jameson is walking past the Big Man’s hide out right after Spider-Man’s first fight with Enforcers: in a proper whodunit, that would count as Cheating, but here we hardly notice. When it comes to the big revelation, we are more interested in Peter — and Jameson’s — reaction then we are with the trick about how Foswell was the Big Man all along. (He was wearing special high heels to make himself look taller. Duh!) 

It really is a very elegant little tale.

The distinctly lackluster cover pitches the story as a straight fight between Spider-Man and the Enforcers. It oversells it quite heavily: apparently, they aren’t merely the most merciless foes Spider-Man has ever come up against, but the most merciless foes that anyone has ever encountered. Doctor Doom might have a word or two to say about that. So might Hitler. The splash page (as well as being a nicer piece of art) sells the story much better, with the main question not being "how can one lone crime-fighter hope to defeat the Enforcers" but “Who is the Big Man?????????????????” (17 question marks in original.) So once again, Ditko offers up a plot heavy, film noir suspense mystery tale, and Stan Lee promotes it as a wrestling match.

The Enforcers are, simply, the Big Man’s enforcers: three heavies who he uses to intimidate all the crime lords of New York and collect unpaid interest from teen-aged secretaries. Teams of villains are a tempting plot device for writers — rather than come up with a single, strong concept (a villain with wings, a villain with robot arms) you can bung three or more mediocre concepts together, and let them spend the issue trading wise cracks. So we have Very Strong Guy; Little Guy Who Knows Judo; and Guy With A Gimmick (a lasso). This leads to some very un-focussed scenes in which the villains take it in turns to describe their powers to Spider-Man. There is a big fight, but no distinct moment when the baddies get defeated. The Enforcers have not yet descended into bickering among themselves (as the Masters of Evil and the Frightful Four do incessantly). Stan Lee must have thought they were a good idea, because they make three return visits (although only as generic crooks to pad out another story.)  At least they aren't as irritating as the Circus of Crime.

The Amazing Spider-Man is supposed to be set in New York; but it really happens on a very small stage. Peter Parker brags about knowing the Big Man’s identity, and sure enough the Enforcers come along and kidnap him. Betty Brant owes money to a loan shark, and sure enough the Enforcers turn up at the Bugle and bully her — at the exact moment while Peter Parker is in the office. Last time around we learned that J.J.J. had a personal account in a Forest Hills bank, right near where Peter Parker lives — which was, of course, the first bank which Electro robbed! This could be seen as a Dickensian level of coincidence, or just very lazy plotting. But I think that we have to read Spider-Man with a kind of double-vision. At one level, yes, this is Noo Yawk, and Spider-Man’s enemies are the worst enemies in the whole wide world. But at another level, Spider-Man is a local hero who lives in a village, and his enemies, though threatening and scary, are not terribly important in the grand scheme of things. Jameson is editor of a local newspaper and there is a local school and a local college and doubtless a friendly neighborhood grocery store as well. That’s why Jameson cares so much about Spider-Man and so little about, say, Ant Man. Spider-Man is making a big noise in his village and Jameson would like him to get off his lawn. 

Last time, Spider-Man removed Electro’s mask and didn’t find anyone very interesting underneath. "Who is Electro?" was one of the big questions that no-one was really asking.  This time, the question “Who is the Big Man?????????????????” (seventeen question marks) is shouted out on the first page, and to some extent drives the action. We are misdirected into thinking that he is a regular member of the supporting cast; but (in a sort of kind of twist) find out that he is the guy we only met this issue. But if anything, the big twist — the kind of thing that Stan Lee means when he talks about the realism of the comic — is that the hero completely fails to solve the mystery. "Some big brain I am." says Spider-Man "I not only have the proportionate strength of a Spider — I'm just about as dumb too!" 

As we've seen, this was to become a point of contention between Lee and Ditko. Ditko thought that in real life the bad guy never turns out to be old Mr McGrath who runs the funfair. Lee thought that stories needed better payoffs than real life. The same kind of thing will happen in issues 26 and 27. And then... Well, on one account, then there will be a big argument and the partnership will come to and end.

We are getting ahead of ourselves. But spiderphiles who know what I am talking about should take a long hard look at Frederick Foswell’s haircut.  

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, October 01, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man #9

A Man Called Electro

Matt Dillon (Electro)

Named Characters:
Flash Thompson, Liz Allan, Aunt May, Betty Brant, J. Jonah Jameson


“Although we know so little about Spider-Man, he’s always been on the side of the law”. The idea that there was a federal warrant for his arrest has been completely forgotten.

”I know it’s bad manners to drop in without an invitation, but I’m sure you’ll forgive me this once”. Spider-Man’s banter is notably less irritating this time around.

Spider-Man's red socks are separate from his blue tights. (And they are light enough to slip rubber shoes over!)

If Betty left high school "last year" then she must be around 17. Editorial comments on the letters page suggest that she is slightly younger than Peter.

Aunt May’s first illness! Up to this point, she has been represented as elderly, but not especially sick or infirm.

Guess Aunt May’s Illness! 1: It’s only symptom is fatigue. 2: It is rare  3: It requires medication, and the slightest delay in administering medication might be fatal. 5: It requires a major blood transfusion 6: Surgery returns the patient to full health in a matter of days.

Peter Parker’s Financial Position: Parker sells fake pictures of Spider-Man for $1,000: Jameson says they are really worth $20,000. The $1,000 pays for the specialist surgeon. No other medical fees are mentioned.

He can climb up walls; he has a spider-insignia on his costume; he'll soon have little spider-shaped tracking devices. But there is nothing particularly spidery about Spider-Man. He can indeed spin a web (any size) but real spiders mostly use their webs for trapping flies rather than making swamp shoes and canoes. Spiders aren't know for being strong and agile, and certainly not for having a telepathic radar sense.  If Stan Lee had chosen a different name, most of the stories would have panned out very similarly. Fly-Man or Cockroach-Man might still have spotted that if you are going to touch a villain called Electro, some heavy duty rubber gloves are probably in order.

But at a deeper, thematic level, "spiders" pull these comics together in a way that flies or cockroaches could not have.

We’ve already noted one example. In almost every episode, Spider-Man is defeated in his first confrontation with the bad guy, but comes back and beats the baddie on the second attempt (usually by thinking the situation through more carefully). Sometimes, it's a huge defeat; sometimes, a mere tactical withdrawal: but it always happens. So this month, Spider-Man is knocked out the first time he touches Electro's. The cover screams "the defeat of Spider-Man" but it isn’t that big a deal — he gets a bad shock from the electrically powered bad guy, but he recovers, and before the next battle he nips into a hardware store for some insulation. The moral — the one that the Human Torch hammered home in that school assembly — is "if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again." 

British school kids, at any rate, would instantly associate this maxim with the story of Robert the Bruce who is said to have been hiding out in a dour Scottish cave after having lost a couple of battles. According to the tale, he sees a spider trying to spin a web across the cave. The little arachnid fails twice, but succeeds on the third attempt, inspiring the Scottish King to have one last go at sending proud Edward's army homeward tae think again. 

Amazing Spider-Man #9
The best thing Ditko has contributed to date...
The whole of Spider-Man in a single image?

The splash page of Amazing Spider-Man #9 is more or less the best thing that Steve Ditko has contributed to date, which is to say, more or less as good as comic-book artwork gets. Some Ditko splashes are simply the first frame of the story; some are teasers – showing you a scene that will come later in the story. But what he does best is symbolic splash pages like this; abstract visualizations of the entire episode.

At the center of the picture are Peter Parker and Spider-Man: another full-body Gemini-split. This was how we left our hero at the end of issue #8, walking home after his mighty pleasant day. But here he looks panicked, scared. He’s definitely not whistling. He's surrounded by 20 or so faces: like one of those crowd reaction scenes which Ditko was so fond of. But there are not everyman faces but people we recognize: Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Flash Thompson, Betty Brant.

And (although I think I missed this fact for thirty five years) some of them appear twice

That’s the genius of the scene. The faces on the left are looking at the Peter Parker side of the equation: Jameson looking indifferent; Betty smiling; Aunt May reaching out to him; the school kids looking hostile. The faces on the right are looking at the Spider-Man half: J.J.J. angrily denouncing him and (very sad and subtle this) Betty turning her back. There is a rather ambivalent collection of Ditko "men in the street": a woman in a ridiculous hat, obviously disapproving; a kid, obviously excited and an absolutely delightful cop who is stroking his chin, not quite able to make up his mind. In the bottom left (opposite poor Aunt May) shadowy figures representing the underworld are shooting at him. It would be over-egging the pudding to say that the fellow in the hat, who seems to be about 100 year old, more like a goblin than criminal, looks a lot like the Burglar, transformed into a bogeyman in Spider-Man’s imagination.

This isn't merely a symbolic representation of issue nine: it's a visual manifesto for the next dozen episodes of Amazing Spider-Man. Up until now, the Gemini Face has represented an internally divided self: the fact that one guy has somehow to be both shy Peter and arrogant Spider-Man. But Peter has chucked his glasses away and unified the two sides of the face; the stories, from now on, will be less about Parker's state of mind and more about the social world he inhabits; how presenting as two different people affects his human relationships.

I should be inclined to call Amazing Spider-Man #1 - #7 "the celebrity arc"; nearly every story is concerned, to some degree, with fame or notoriety. Amazing Spider-Man #8 - #19 might equally be labelled "the secret identity arc". Virtually every story has double-identities and disguises as a major theme.

Spider-Man now has a fixed supporting cast of five characters: J. Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Betty Brant, Liz Allan and Flash Thompson. These five characters are increasingly going to form the matrix of the stories — a sophisticated plot-generating engine. Although I don’t think that Ditko ever went quite this far, you could easily imagine the splash from Spider-Man #9 redrawn, with each of the quintet having a different reaction to Parker and Spider-Man. 

J. JONAH JAMESON: Provides meal tickets for Peter. Prints editorials denouncing Spider-Man

AUNT MAY: Coddles Peter. Recoils from Spider-Man

BETTY: Loves Peter. Fears Spider-Man.

LIZ: Looks down on Peter. Has crush on Spider-Man.

FLASH: Despises Peter. Worships Spider-Man. 

"Very probably, Andrew" I can hear you saying "But what does any of this have to with spiders." 

Simply this. If the first moral lesson that school children learn from spiders is perseverance – "if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again", the second is certainly honesty. "Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." 

Which also comes from a story about Scotsmen, oddly enough. 

Matt Dillon is struck by lightening while fixing electrical cables and finds that the two charges have canceled each other out. As you do. He discovers that he can throw sparks when he puts his hand through a wire coat hanger (what?) and makes himself a mesh suit which he wears under his costume (shades of 50 Shades of Grey!) His body is now a "living electrical generator" but he also seems to use some kind of electrical generator to charge himself up. The Science of all this is more than usually confused.

Despite making himself a natty little yellow and green costume, and imaginatively calling himself "Electro" hes doesn't engage in any electricity themed naughtiness. He robs a bank, and then decides (for no reason at all) to free some criminals from what is quaintly described as the House of Correction in order to "get them to be my flunkies". Stan Lee just takes it for granted that if you get superpowers, then naturally, what you will do is rob banks. Unless you are one of those ones who think it’s your duty to stop other people robbing banks. 

But Electro is really only a sub-plot to this issue. Or, more accurately: Electro is one of three plot threads running side-by-side. Aunt May’s illness is one plot; Peter’s relationship with Betty is another; Electro’s attack on the house of correction is a third. The threads get tangled up, of course — Betty kindly supports Peter during May’s operation; Peter has to go and fight Electro to raise money for May’s operation; Betty is angry that Peter went to photograph the prison riot after she'd asked him not to. But there is no big unifying moment. Electro entirely refrains from causing any power-cuts while Aunt May is plugged into life-support.

I think more than anything else this is what made me fall in love with Spider-Man. There is a six panel sequence (pages 5 - 6) in which Spider-Man goes out looking for criminals (to photograph). He gets caught in the rain; rinses out his wet costume in the sink; and nearly gets spotted by his neighbors when he hangs it out to dry. Nothing comes of this scene: it doesn't lead anywhere – it's just there. I suppose you could summarize the plot if you really wanted to: "Jameson is convinced that Spider-Man is Electro. Peter fakes incriminating pictures to pay for Aunt May’s surgery. Jameson is angry, but forgives him when he supplies better, genuine pictures, but now Betty is angry that he went on such a dangerous assignment." But that doesn’t really convey the tone of the episode at all. It just feels like a mesh or network of events. 

What’s another word for a mesh or a network? Ah yes. A web. 

"Life sure is funny!" say Spider-Man, after spraying Electro with a fire hose because, quote, electricty and water don't mix. "One of the most powerful criminals of all time! And what finally beat him! Just a dousing from a plain, ordinary, water hose.” In the very next panel, he unmasks Electro and complains “If this were a movie, I’d gasp in shock and then I’d say 'good heavens! The butler!'  But this guy I never saw before.” It's never clear whether moments like this should be seen as Stan Lee congratulating himself for being so clever, or Stan Lee ticking off Steve Ditko for being so boring; but it's certainly true that A Man Called Electro doesn't have a big pay-off. 

The question of whether Amazing Spider-Man should be more like a movie ("good heavens! My best friend’s father!") or more like real life ("this guy I never saw before!") is one that Writer Guy and Artist Guy were never going to agree on. But for the next year or so, to read Amazing Spider-Man is to fall into the flow of Peter Parker's life and stay there for a few hours.

Not stories. Life. One thing after another.

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.