Monday, November 28, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man #14

The Grotesque Adventure of the Green Goblin

The Green Goblin + The Enforcers

Supporting Cast:
J Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Flash Thompson, Liz Allen, Betty Brant, B.J Cosmo.

Guest Star:
The Hulk!

B.J Cosmo (or another director with the same initials) has previously appeared in Journey into Mystery #92, when he hires Thor to provide special effects for his Viking movie.

“Creature from the Black Lagoon” came out in 1954 and spawned two sequels “Revenge of the Creature” and “The Creature Walks Among us”. Unlike Cosmo’s “The Nameless Thing From the Black Lagoon in the Murky Swamp”, none of them won any awards.

Cosmo doesn’t seem to be aware that Spider-Man had a previous career as a TV performer.

It takes the three Enforcers and the Goblin to move the boulder over the cave entrance: Spider-Man can’t shift it himself, but tricks the Hulk into smashing it. This suggests that Spider-Man’s strength is a bit less than that of four reasonably fit grown men. (So maybe he can bench press 750lbs/340kg?)

The Hulk’s own comic was canceled in March 1963. After various away-fixtures in the Avengers and the Fantastic Four, he returns as Ant Man’s back up feature in Tales to Astonish #59 (September 64), where it is mentioned in passing that he was “last seen in New Mexico”.

Spins a web, any size: Spider-Man uses his web to catapult himself on the the Goblin’s broomstick. He attaches tumbleweed to the end of his web and “whips up a man made dust-storm.”

Peter Parker’s Financial Situation: It appears that both Cosmo and Jameson pay Parker expenses to fly from New York to L.A (about 5 hours), but he chooses to travel back by coach (more like 4 days) to save money. A one way Greyhound from Hollywood to New York would have cost about $50; a flight something around $70, so he’s probably only saving $20. It isn’t clear how he explains the 4 day absence to Jameson, or Aunt May, or Principal Davies; or indeed whether he actually turns in any pictures to J.J.J. 

$50,000 would have been a fairly small fee if B.J really thinks that Spider-Man is as big a star as Tony Curtis, who could command at last $150,000 per appearance.

“A Hollywood director, B.J Cosmo, offers Spider-Man $50,000 to star in a movie about his battle with the Enforcers. Spider-Man (still motivated by honest self-interest rather than altruism) agrees. Having traveled to New Mexico, he realizes that he has walked into a trap: he is not fighting actors playing the Enforcers, but the Enforcers themselves. During the fight, he tries to catch his breath in a cave, but the Enforcers roll a huge stone in front of the entrance to trap him inside. Just as the battle seems to be over, he disturbs an ancient Mayan sarcophagus, causing the mummified remains to come to life. He manages to escape from the cave, but the resurrected mummy, who has been christened The Green Goblin, also gets away, vowing vengeance on Spider-Man.”

This is not, of course, the plot of the Grotesque Adventure of the Green Goblin; it's my conjecture as to what Stan Lee's original pitch for the story might have looked like. In the published comic, the Green Goblin is involved from the beginning: it's him who persuades B.J. to makes 'The Spider-Man Story' and it's him who persuades Spider-Man to start in it. The Goblin isn't a demon, but a gadget powered criminal; and it's a Hulk, not a Goblin, who is discovered in the cave.

So why do we think that Stan Lee's original version was so different? It so happens we are able to compare and contrast two different accounts of the genesis of the story. First, we have Stan Lee’s version, from the opening page of Spider-Man #14:

“The gang at the bullpen said “Let’s give our fans the the greatest 12c worth we can! Let’s get a really different villain…a bunch of colorful henchmen for him…And even add a great guest star!! So we did!! And here’s the result… Another Marvel masterpiece…”

This is vintage Lee. We dreamed the story up in one go. What you have in front of you is what we always intended to put in front of you. The credits still use the despicable “written by Stan Lee, illustrated by Steve Ditko” formula, but this text comes much close to saying that the comic — the “dreaming up” process, at any rate — was a collaborative effort involving not just Stan, but the whole “gang at the bullpen”. (Who else was in that gang? Martin Goodman? Stan’s brother Larry? Kirby himself?) The dreaming up process can't have been all that onerous for the gang: their big idea is that the issue should involve, er, a new villain (like last issue did and next issue will) and that he should have some henchmen, and that there should be a guest star. I suppose that does pinpoint one unique selling point for the episode: the last three issues have had Spider-Man fighting a single bad guy; but this issue he has to fight five at once. 

Steve Ditko remembers things slightly differently:

“Stan's synopsis for the Green Goblin had a movie crew, on location, finding an Egyptian-like sarcophagus. Inside was an ancient, mythological demon, the Green Goblin. He naturally came to life. On my own, I changed Stan's mythological demon into a human villain… I rejected Stan's idea because a mythological demon made the whole Peter Parker/Spider-Man world a place where nothing is metaphysically impossible." 

I don’t think we should automatically accept that every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of Ditko is true and assume that everything Stan says is a fib. But Ditko’s claim here is very specific, not especially self-aggrandizing, and makes sense of what is frankly a very strange issue. Why does this dangerous new villain drag Spider-Man from New York to the West Coast simply to start a fight which could just as well have happened in New York? Does the story of B.J Cosmo and his Spider-Man film serve any purpose except as a lead in to yet another extended fight scene? And why is Spider-Man’s confrontation with the big, exciting new villain interrupted and upstaged by the unexpected appearance of the Incredible Hulk? If Stan's original version had Spider-Man's confrontation with the Enforcers interrupted and upstaged by the unexpected appearance of the Green Goblin everything starts to fit into place. Ditko left Stan's structure in place, but turned the sudden appearance of a green goblin-like mummy into an equally sudden appearance by the equally green Hulk. It is, I suppose, possible that Stan Lee dreamed up the idea of a science powered bad-guy whose gadgets had a supernatural flavour;  but it is much easier to believe that he pitched “a hobgoblin riding a broomstick” to Ditko, and Ditko reconfigured it as “a criminal dressed as a hobgoblin driving a jet pack in the shape of a broomstick.”

Stan Lee dreamed up the story; Steve Ditko pretty much ignored it and came up with a different story of his own; and the result was the most famous of all Spider-Man’s enemies.

That’s collaboration, folks.

The “broomstick” was a step too far for the Comics Code, which still prohibited “scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and were-wolfism”. Presumably they took it for granted that this included allusions to witchcraft; although there is nothing especially witchy about the Goblin. His flying device does have an array of twig like spikes on it, but you could easily fail to realize that they are meant to be the brush of a besom. (The spikes point forward, between the Goblin's legs, which is in line with traditional folklore depictions of witches, but not with popular fairy tale illustrations, or Mr Harry Potter, whose brushes generally point behind them.)

Amazing Spider-Man #14
Spidey remembers a new pow

A Barnum and Bailey circus strongman named Pierre Gasner performed a trick in which he broke break a chain across his own chest, seemingly by expanding his muscles. The back page of Superman #1 famously showed Superman performing the same stunt — an image which became the company trademark of DC comics. Page 10 of this issue contains a clear reference to this iconic image. Montana — the lasso wielding member of the Enforcers — entangles Spider-Man in his ropes, but the hero succeeds in breaking them across his chest. "One thing he didn't count on was my power of CHEST EXPANSION!!" thinks Spider-Man, in a frequently mocked panel. (The “Superdickery” website describes this as “Spider-Man acquiring Superman’s power of making up powers as I need them.”) Now, there is certainly a problem — which will get worse and worse as the years role on — of the heroes and villains feeling the need to provide a running commentary on their every move:

“Surrounding me and beating me are two different things! You can’t throw that lasso fast enough to snare me, Montana!”

“Maybe he can’t. But Fancy Dan can grab you while you’re dodging the rope.”

“And while you turn away to flip Dan over your head, I can follow up with a hay-maker.”

Superman logo: a similar trick. 
But this bit of Stanish silliness shouldn’t obscure just how well choreographed the fight scene is. Montana — the lasso guy — ensnares Spidery-Man in his rope; Spider-Man pauses, and physically breaks the ropes (taking Montana out of the fight); the super-strong Ox follows through and punches Spider-Man (knocking him down, but not out) while the other two fall on him. Spider-Man again pauses, thinking “I’ve got to summon all my spider-strength NOW…while they least expect it .. While they’re all confused!!” and then throws all three men off him fairly easily. He uses his web to whip up a dust-storm and runs away into a cave: he does not think he can defeat three bad guys at once. They follow him into the cave, and along with the Goblin, block the entrance with a boulder. (The idea of rolling a stone in front of the entrance to a cave calls to mind Don Blake finding Thor’s hammer in Journey into Mystery #83. And possibly other, even holier, stories.) He picks off Montana (who’s acquired a new lasso) and Fancy Dan (the judo guy) by trapping them from above with his webs; he takes the Ox by surprise and knocks him out with a single punch. Suddenly the Goblin reappears and starts throwing stun bombs at Spider-Man: just as we are expecting a final fight with the main villain, but instead, out of the smoke appears the Hulk.

So, it is fairly clear that when Spider-Man refers to "my power of chest expansion" he is simply saying that Montana hasn't realized that he is strong enough to break ropes with his chest muscles —  not that he has a specific, never-before mentioned ability to alter the size of his ribs and pecs. The interesting thing is that he seems to need to pause and focus his mind before doing the rope-breaking trick. Similarly, having been knocked down fairly easily by the Ox, he has to consciously “summons all of his Spider-Strength” before throwing the three guys off him. This appears to confirm that Spider-Man’s power is a supernatural or psychic force which he has to channel; not a physical enhancement. The Ox specifically says that he is surprised that "such a skinny runt" can be so strong.

In 1964, the Hulk was still as word as any other Stan Lee baddie, saying “My only defense against mankind is my strength and nothing will stop me from using it” rather than “Hulk smash!” It seems to me that Ditko is already drawing a savage, bestial Hulk, but Stan Lee hasn’t worked out what kind of dialogue he should have. This does lead to one of the best of Spider-Man’s one-liners

"Even deep in my hidden caves, you attack me! But no-one can capture the Hulk!"

"Capture you!? Brother, I don’t even wanna share the same planet with you!"

It is perhaps deliberate that we see two punches from the Ox knock Spider-Man down but fail to knock him out. When Spider-Man finally gets a good punch in against the Ox, he renders him instantly unconscious. (Spider-Man uses the rather dubious expression “love-tap”, implying he isn’t hitting him as hard as he could.) But when Spider-Man punches the Hulk, he hardly notices, and Spider-Man actually injures his fist!

The Green Goblin will eventually supplant Doctor Octopus as Spider-Man’s “arch-enemy”; and his whole persona will be subsumed into the single fact that he knows Spider-Man’s secret identity. And of course, everyone knows that the Goblin’s secret identity will turn out to be Norman “my best friend’s father” Osborne. Sam Rami positioned him as a literally Satanic figure, the opponent of Toby Maguire's Christ-in-spandex. But at this point, the Green Goblin isn’t any of these things. Stan Lee himself is a little unsure about the character, admitting on the cover that he may be too cute and funny looking to be a bad guy. And while the cover promises us that he’s “the most dangerous foe Spider-Man has ever fought” it isn’t exactly clear what makes him so threatening. He has a flying broomstick, shoots sparks from his fingers, and throws what are described as “stun bombs” at Spider-Man. The “stun bombs” still look like grenades. (They wont be re-themed as Jack O’Lanterns until the Goblin’s second appearance.)

This Goblin is simply a wannabee gangster. ("It just proves how hard it is to make a career of crime! You can never think of everything!) His ojbjective (revealed in a soliloquy on the final page) is to “organize a world-wide crime syndicate” with the Big Man’s old henchmen as his lieutenants. Why this involves defeating Spider-Man isn’t quite clear. Are we to suppose that Spider-Man is no so adept at catching thieves that there would be no point in setting yourself up as head of the newer, bigger Thieves Guild without first putting him out of action? Or is the idea that the Enforcers want their revenge on Spider-Man, because he sent the to prison for very nearly three months, and the Goblin has told them that he will deliver Spider-Man up to them if they will work for him thereafter? Either way, the Goblins plan is convoluted even by super-villain standards:

1: Persuade Cosmo to make a film about Spider-Man
2: Persuade Cosmo to hire Spider-Man himself to star in the film
3: Persuade Cosmo to hire him, the Green Goblin, to appear in the film as himself.
4: Persaude  Cosmo that the Enforcers are merely actors dressed up to look like the Enforcers.
5: Act as go-between to arrange a meeting between Spider-Man and Cosmo. (The usual method would be to put an advertisement in the Bugle, informing Spider-Man that an honest $50,000 is on offer.)
6: Travel back to Hollywood with Cosmo, Spider-Man and the Enforcers.
7: Wait until everyone has been driven out to New Mexico for the first days shooting.
8: Reveal that the whole thing has been a trick, and allow the Enforcer's to attack Spider-Man
9: Once Spider-Man has been defeated, become Top Criminal

And it would have worked, too, if not for that pesky Hulk...

But Lee and Ditko are clearly setting up the the Goblin as a villain of some importance. He is going to make four more appearances in the Ditko years, far more than any other super villain. A great deal is made of the fact that the Goblin is still at large at the end of the episode, and a great deal is made of the fact that no-one knows who he really is. The first panel of the comic shows the Goblin mask in the foreground, while a shadowy figure puts the finish touches to the code-baiting broomstick; the final panels show him pulling the mask off and, with his face obscured, announcing that “the world hasn’t heard the last of…the Green Goblin.”

It certainly hasn't.
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. 


Mike Taylor said...

"The back page of Superman #1 famously showed Superman performing the same stunt — an image which became the company trademark of DC comics."

DC?! How did that happen?

Mike Taylor said...

"Are we to suppose that Spider-Man is no so adept at catching thieves that there would be no point in setting yourself up as head of the newer, bigger Thieves Guild without first putting him out of action?"

According to one deuterocanonical text, he catches thieves in much the same way that flies do.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Well, technically it was National Periodical Publications until the 70s, but it was already calling it self "DC Comics" in the 1940s radio serial.