Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Amazing Spider-Man #13

The Menace of Mysterio


Supporting Cast: 
Flash Thompson, Liz Allan, Aunt May, Betty Brant, J. Jonah Jameson, A Psychiatrist and a chorus of police, newsmen and movie actors.  

Peter Parker is still wearing the slightly-too-short red PJs from last issue. 

This is the first time Spider-Man has been referred to as "Spidey" ("ol'Spidey") in the body of the comic, although the nickname was used on the letter page to issue #12. 

Spins a Web, Any Size: Spider-Man makes an “airtight web helmet” which enables him to hold his breath underwater. Apparently. 

Failure to Communicate: At the bottom of page #3, Peter Parker is soliloquizing in a school classroom. But at the top of page 4 ("minutes later") he is helping Aunt May with the washing up. Either Lee or Ditko has inadvertently conflated two separate scenes.

Peter Parker’s Financial Position: Aunt May’s savings account is almost used up. Jameson pays Peter “almost half” what the pictures of Mysterio are worth. Back in #9, he stated that the pictures of Spider-Man fighting Electro (which he paid $1,000 for) were really worth $20,000, so Peter must have got as much as $10,000 this time. This is a fortune: almost two years salary for the average working man, and enough to pay the rent for years to come. 

Real Estate: Back in issue #1 Aunt May was going to be turned out of her house by her landlord for not paying the rent: this time she is nagging Peter about the mortgage. While someone might use “rent” as a slang term for “mortgage” I don’t think that American banks send sinister men with cigars round to collect mortgage arrears. So we have to assume that at some point between issue #1 and issue #12 Peter and May moved home. The average price of a house in 1963 was about $10,000 so it is possible that Peter Parker decide against blowing that first paycheque on rent and instead put a 20% deposit on a property. (He could buy a house outright with this months cheque!)  

The Vulture, Doctor Octopus, Sandman, the Lizard, Electro, Mysterio, the Green Goblin, Kraven...the first 14 issues of Spider-Man introduce seven of his canonical villains. Ditko's final year would really only add two more characters — the Scorpion and the Molten Man — to the list. (The entire Romita era really only managed two more: — The Kingpin and the Rhino.)

Why did the flow of villains stop? Did Stan Lee think that eight recurring bad-guys were sufficient; or did his imagination simply run dry? One theory holds that it was actually Jack Kirby who was "dreaming up" the villains and passing them over to Stan and Steve to flesh out. This isn't inherently ridiculous: in later years Jack was paid by animation and toy companies as an ideas man, and the New Gods pantheon seem to have existed as a figures in a portfolio before he had any story to go with them. It would certainly explain why visually charismatic villains like the Green Goblin and Kraven the Hunter had such relatively lackluster debuts. But it's far more likely that Lee was still thinking in terms of providing Spider-Man with a menagerie of wrestling opponents; while Ditko saw antagonists — Brains and Spider-Slayers and Big Men and Crime Masters  — as merely one strand of a story, with little replay value. One can easily imagine Lee saying "Hey! What if Spider-Man's next villain were a great white game hunter...." and leaving Ditko to fill in the details. As Stan progressively handed the reins of the comic over to Steve the villains became less memorable but the actual stories improved.

It is striking that (having introduced Electro in #10 and given us a double helping of Octopus in #11 and #12), #13, #14 and #15 are each pitched to the reader as the “unveiling” of a new enemy. Stan Lee inserts himself onto the cover of all three issues, reminding the reader that the real creative impetus behind each issue was the guy who dreamed up the idea behind the enemy.  "We've created the greatest villain of all for ol'Spidey"; "Only the Merry Marvel Madmen could have dreamed him up.." "So you think there are no new types of villain for Spidey to battle, huh?" All three issues follow the same formula as #12: an eight page narrative set-up which leads into an extended 15 page fight scene. 

If you are inclined to accept my theory that Stan sees Spider-Man as a superhero comic in which the hero wrestles with fabulous villains, and Steve sees Spider-Man as a story about how Peter Parker copes with power and responsibility then these issues belong to Stan Lee. Action, jokes, motive-free villains, fights, fights and more fights. Peter Parker is relegated to a minor sub-plot. Once the rogues gallery is complete, Lee will reward himself with a double-length issues containing not less than six fight scenes. After which, it all goes terribly Ditko.

Despite my massive affection for it, Amazing Spider-Man #13 is one seriously flawed comic book. A fascinating set-up about a villain trying to gaslight Spider-Man into doubting his own sanity is drowned out, after only a few pages, by an extended fight with a gadgeteer in a kerr-azy suit.

The central idea is a fine one. A disgruntled film technician creates special effects which enable him to emulate Spider-Man’s powers, enabling him to frame our hero as a criminal. "I never thought he’d really turn to crime" exclaims a policeman, as "Spider-Man" floats away on a web-parachute after robbing the safe in an office building. 

J. Jonah Jameson is delighted, of course, thinking his hatred of Spider-Man has finally been vindicated. "I want you to find all the old editorials I wrote accusing Spider-Man of being a menace! I want to reprint them so people can see how right I was." It isn’t immediately clear how pictures which appear to show Spider-Man cracking open a safe vindicate Jameson's having printed demonstrable falsehoods about Spider-Man being Electro and the Big Man, but that’s the kind of guy Jameson is. (This is, by the way, the last time J.J.J. is said to be the editor of Now Magazine: from now on, only the Bugle is mentioned.) 

The school kids are shocked, but Flash Thompson continues to believe that Spider-Man is "one of the greatest guys around". This is really the first time Flash has gone from "quite admiring" Spider-Man to having the blind faith of a dedicated fan — a faith which is going to be tested quite severely in the coming months. Betty Brant "can’t believe this of Spider-Man" adding "I still remember how he once saved my life." Actually, he saved her life in two consecutive issues, but Stan Lee’s handling of time means that Turning Point (issue #11) is something which happened a very long time ago. Betty nags Peter about his dangerous job and Peter bites her head off in his usual chauvinistic way. "I don't tell you how to live your life...don't butt into mine."  "You never spoke to me that way before!" exclaims Better, to which the reader can only reply "Oh yes he did!" He seems to have forgotten that her brother was recently murdered; but in fairness, so does she. 

Parker is as sensible and level-headed about Spider-Man's crime-wave as we have come to expect: reading the reports of the robbery, he very naturally thinks "I must be becoming a split personality" as opposed to, say "Some villain must be impersonating me." 

This issue, more than any previous one, establishes Peter Parker as "the guy with a bunch of problems" and "the guy who worries about everything" — witness him dropping Aunt May’s plates and musing "I don’t know what to worry about first! Paying the mortgage or wondering if I’m a sleep walking criminal." 

But the "Spider-Man turns to crime" plot is over-and-done with in about 8 pages. As soon as Mysterio appears on the scene, it is clear to everyone — with the possible exception of Peter Parker and J. Jonah Jameson — that he’s the one criming in a Spider-Man suit. Mysterio challenges Spider-Man to a fight which, true to formula, Spider-Man loses. (Quite a lot is made of this tactical defeat with a morose Parker musing "This will keep me from ever getting too conceited".) But he places a spider-tracer ("small electronically treated Spider-pin") on Mysterio and tracks him down to a "TV movie studio building." There is another fight, which Spider-Man wins. The whole impostor plot is reduced to a set up to lure Spider-Man into a big fight in a movie studio.

It is easy enough to believe that a special effects guy could convince the general public that  he is Spider-Man. And a supervillain who uses misdirection and illusion to make people think that Spider-Man is a baddie (and to make Spider-Man himself think he is going mad) is a rather original idea. But the second half of his comic dispense with the idea of illusion and misdirection and decide that Mysterio has actually given himself the same powers as Spider-Man -- to the extent that he can hold is own against our hero in a fair fight.

Mysterio’s notes about Spider-Man are quite interesting. By a sketch of Spider-Man’s mask he has written "two way mirror — cannot see in, can see out". (In a few months time, the first Spider-Man Annual will reveal that this is indeed how Spider-Man’s mask works.) When Mysterio sticks to the side of the Brooklyn Bridge, Spider-Man guesses that his boots are magnetized: an interesting hypothesis, considering that the bridge is a stone structure. In fact, Mysterio says that he uses "suction cups" to duplicate Spider-Man's wall-crawling power. It isn’t exactly clear what a "magnetic plate spring" is, but they are what enable him to duplicate Spider-Man’s leaps. Similarly, he dissolves Spider-Man’s web using "specially treated acid" whatever special treatment of an acid amounts to. The one thing, interesting, that Mysterio says he "can’t duplicate" and will have to "imitate" is Spider-Man’s webbing -- does he assume that Spider-Man's web-shooting is a natural ability?

Spider-Man has supernatural strength (next issue, he will come a very strong second in a fight with the Incredible Hulk) but we are asked to believe that Mysterio can fight him on equal terms because -- er -- he has been trained as a stunt-man. (He "knows how to role with a punch" and can outwit Spider-Man by "tossing him over my back through a sudden move.") This obviously makes no sense at all. I think that Spider-Man must rely more heavily on his spider-sense than he lets on: so once Mysterio has worked out how to jam it (with "sonar", obviously) his fighting ability is severely curtailed.

But if Mysterio’s impersonation of Spider-Man is sufficiently good that he can rob banks and jewelry stores with complete impunity why on earth would he walk into Jameson's office in his own identity? 

"My plan seemed perfect! I could commit all sorts of crimes, and you would get the blame! But then I got a still greater idea! I would create a separate identity for myself! And then I’d battle you!! When I defeated you, I’d be a national hero — for no-one would know that Mysterio is both the criminal and the conqueror"

Oh dear. I think Stan Lee just kind of assume that if you are a villain, your job is to fight Spider-Man, and no further explanation is really necessary. 

And that, pretty much, is the story. (Spider-Man punches out the eye-piece which contains the anti-spider-sense sonar, and the punches Mysterio and hands him over to the police.) A weird, atmospheric villain and a nice fight but the story doesn’t live up to its premise.

Just one more thing. 

When the fake Spider-Man is out criming, Peter Parker concludes that he must be going mad — and goes to a psychiatrist. Stan Lee is very proud of this, promoting it on the cover as one of the issues main selling points — but nothing comes of it. A psychiatrist might have been able to deal with a sleep-walking problem by prescribing medication but Spider-Man has actually gone to a psychoanalyst who wants Spider-Man to lie on the coach and say anything which comes into his head classic Freudian free-association. Spider-Man sensibly realizes that he’s in danger of blabbing his secret identity, and swings off. The whole incident is over in four panels.

Wouldn’t it have been far more interesting if this subplot had been developed instead of the fight? If the psychiatrist had told Spider-Man that he was indeed turning into a sleep walking criminal; if getting Spider-Man onto the couch and discovering his secret identity was the whole point of the fake Spider-Man robbery spree...

This is precisely the plot of Amazing Spider-Man #24, Spider-Man Goes Mad. A psychiatrist uses a variety of tricks and illusions to convince Spider-Man that he is going mad and very nearly learns his secret identity. The fake psychiatrist is eventually revealed to be none other than....Mysterio. 

Is it possible that Ditko’s idea for the first Mysterio story was that the fake Spider-Man gambit would drive our hero into the arms of a fake psychiatrist — that Stan Lee vetoed that plot and replaced it with a Big Fight — and that Ditko told his own, more interesting, but less iconic version of the story a year later?

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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