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. 

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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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