Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man #15

Kraven the Hunter

Kraven the Hunter + The Chameleon

Supporting Cast:
J Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Betty Brant, Flash Thompson, Liz Allan, Mrs Watson and a chorus of police officers and crooks.

Peter Parker still wearing those red jim-jams. He evidently prefers wet-shaving to electric razors (or else uses an awful lot of soap to wash his face with!)

Peter Parker hates it when Liz and Betty call him "Petey". I wonder if this is because it was the nickname Uncle Ben used for him? (May hasn't used it since Ben died.)

When Spider-Man sees the Chameleon impersonating Kraven he says "my spider sense feels different, as if it isn't sure". The spider-sense doesn't merely alert him to danger: he is consciously using it to track Kraven.

On page 13 Peter Parker says he is going to put a spider-tracer on Kraven, but this idea is never mentioned again.

Peter Parker used to read comic books about superheroes and "dream about how great it would be if he could become one." Marvel Comics were not publishing superhero titles between 1955 and 1959 (the "Atlas" revival having petered out in 1954); but DC's Silver Age revival had got under way in 1956. Marvel's most iconic hero probably grew up reading Flash and Green Lantern.

Kraven's potion makes Spider-Man's hands shake uncontrollably (meaning he can't shoot webbing) but leaves his strength and agility intact, again suggesting that the spider-strength is not a physical ability.

Kraven can lift a fully grown gorilla — which weighs about 300-400 lbs — making him about half as strong as Spider-Man…

Retroactive continuity has made the Chameleon and Kraven half-brothers. This doesn't help.

The Chameleon, a Russian spy, and Kraven, an African, are deported to South America. (In fact, they bribe their way off the boat and come back to America, where Kraven is immediately punched out by Iron Man.)

Peter Parker's Financial Situation: Peter sells Jameson two sets of photos: one of Spider-Man stopping a burglary, and one of the fight with Kraven. The first lot are "not bad"; and although the second lot "deserve a bounus" all Peter gets is one of Jameson's personal bars of chocolate! Shall we say $500 for the first lot and $1,000 for the second?

Another issue: another iconic villain, another lacklustre story-line.

Kraven is a white African with a silly moustache who dresses in lion-skins. He is a big-game hunter who has come to New York to hunt Spider-Man, because he regards him as the ultimate prey. This is an obvious lift from "The Most Dangerous Game". (The hunter in the movie is named Count Zarof: retroactive continuity will decide that Kraven is Count Kravinoff.) In this first episode, Kraven doesn't come across as a particularly noble or honourable adversary — he injects Spider-Man with a potion to weaken him; he lures him under a tree where he has already set up a net-trap and he puts magnetised shackles on his wrist and feet to make it harder for him to run away. Possibly J.Jonah Jameson, or the comics code, had insisted that he did not use more conventional crossbows or blowpipes?

The big hunt in the park is not without its tension or drama. Pages 20-22 are particularly fine: Spider-Man shorts out all the street lights; he can find his way in the dark with his spider sense and Kraven cannot. We get two pages of Kraven running from Spider-Man, with Spider-Man shining his spider signal on him, and eventually trapping him in a web. Rather unnecessarily, Stan Lee points out that the hunter has become the hunted. Spider-Man himself abandons his normal repartee to announce

"And like all those who flee in blind panic…in unreasoning fear and cowardice…the hunter at last is… CAUGHT!!"

Spider-Man thinks that Kraven is "the worst kind of enemy; a nut who fights you just for the sheer fun of it". The idea that a great-white-hunter should want to defeat Spider-Man because he presents a challenge makes a great deal more comic-book sense than Mysterio and the Green Goblin starting their careers by attacking Spider-Man because that's what criminals do. So the addition of a second villain, the Chameleon, seems unnecessary. In issue #1, he was specifically a Commie spy; but he has come back to America to "resume his crime career" and like the Goblin, takes it for granted that you have to kill Spider-Man before you can do any serious criming. So the Chameleon asks Kraven to come to New York and get rid of Spider-Man for him, arguably removing Kraven's Unique Selling Point. I wonder if it was felt that a Zarof figure — motivated by a misplaced sense of honour — was too sympathetic a villain for the Comics Code and some reason had to be found to make him unambiguously a Baddie?

Stan Lee famously defined the Marvel formula as "superheroes with super-problems": and one of his origin myths has Martin Goodman rejecting the Spider-Man character because he didn't think readers would go for a hero who had a lot of personal problems. Over the last few issues – what I am arbitrarily going to call the Villains Trilogy — the idea of "Peter Parker's Problems" as separate and distinct from the main plot line has come to the fore. Stories like "Nothing Can Stop the Sand Man" and "The Terrible Threat of the Living Brain" had skillfully entwined Peter's personal life with Spider-Man's adventures. "The Man Called Electro" had the Parker story and the spider-story as two equally important threads running in parallel. But in the Villains Trilogy it has increasingly felt as if we are cutting away from the main story to look at some scenes from Peter Parker's life. Peter's problems have only minimal impact on his fight with the villain, and the fight with the villain doesn't significantly affect his personal life.

Those "problem" scenes are structured far more like a situation comedy than like soap opera. We are never left wondering what the outcome of some Midtown High crisis is going to be be— who will Peter take to the prom, say, or will Flash make the Quidditch team? Rather, characters cycle through a series of more or less fixed moves. Jameson fumes; Liz flirts; Betty is jealous; Flash threatens and Aunt May nags. 

From issue #12 onward Betty Brant, the sensible office girl who Peter Parker really got on with, has been recast as the trophy female who Peter boasts about taking on dates without necessarily asking her first. Their relationship is permanently on the point of collapse. On page 5 of #13 she complains about Peter's risky job ("Oh, Peter, if only you'd find a different type of work!"). When Peter bites her head off in a typically chauvinistic way, she exclaims "you never spoke to me like that before". In fact, the fight is an almost exact replay of their near break-up in issue #9. ("I'm not Mr Perfect! Sorry to have bothered you" / "I don't tell you how to live your life, don't butt into mine!") She recalls seeing him with Liz and reprimands herself "Oh, stop it Betty Brant! You're becoming jealous" — and from that point on, "jealousy" becomes her only character trait. In #14 when Jonah sends Peter on a photo assignment to Hollywood, Betty makes up a story in her head about him flirting with aspiring actors — and accuses him of cheating before he has even left the room. "I don't claim to be be as glamorous as those starlets…or that blond Liz Allan you've been walking home from school with lately!"

Betty does have some grounds for concern. Since issue #12, virtually all the school scenes have involved Liz Allan — who used to gang up with Flash to bully Peter — flirting with him shamelessly. In issue #14, she goes so far as to call Peter a "dream boat" (which is what the proto-Liz character Sally called Flash in the very first Spider-Man story.) Liz is every bit as unpleasant to Flash as Flash was to Peter. "He's sensitive, intelligent, articulate! You probably don't know what those words mean!"  Her feud with Flash produces one of the funniest moments in the comics — in issue #13, after Peter has vaguely said that Liz's near hairdo is "real nice" Flash does a perfect Ditko double-take and announces "Gosh, Liz, I almost didn't recognize you! You're beautiful now!" to which Liz responds "Really Mister Thompson! And what was I before, pray tell?"

It is worth repeating and underlining once again that, whatever we may believe about the "dreaming up" process, all this great dialogue is written by Stan Lee.

Stan Lee mentions on the letters page that Betty is slightly younger than Peter, that she also went to Midtown High, and that she dropped out of school because she needed a job (and hopes to go back and graduate one of these days). However, it is clear that she doesn't particularly know Flash or Liz: Later Continuity was for once on the right track when it relocated her to Philadelphia. Betty and Liz finally meet in the current issue — Jonah has Betty send for Peter to photograph Kraven's arrival; Flash, Liz and some schoolkids have also come along to watch the celebrity arrive; and Betty Brant automatically assumes that Peter came with Liz.

Betty, Flash, Jonah and Liz in. single scene. 
Note Betty's sarcastic speech bubble
Spider-Man 15
This scene brings four of the five recurrent characters together (only Aunt May is missing) and Lee takes the opportunity to give us several crowded panels of the entire cast speaking their minds about Peter. Liz deliberately flirts with him in front of Betty; calling him "Petey" and straightening his tie (he's had to do a rapid clothes changes after Kraven's animals escape.) Back in the office, Betty calls him "Petey-wetey" and offers to fix his little "tiezy wiezy" leaving Peter wondering "if females were originally intended for another planet."

The current issue adds a new element into the mixture.

Aunt May wants to introduce Peter to the niece of her neighbor. Peter automatically assumes that anyone Aunt May wants to set him up with will be ghastly, but allows her to pressure him into it. This is more fuel for Betty's jealousy: when Peter turns down a chance to go out with her (because he's promised May he'll see go on the blind date) she automatically assumes he's going out with Liz. Of course, the neighbor's niece stands Peter up (she "had a headache") and of course Betty is not amused when Peter phones to say that he does want to go out with her after all.

Aunt May's neighbor is, of course, Mrs Watston (or possibly Mrs Watkins). Her daughter is Mary-Jane. 

In years to come Mary-Jane Watson is going to become a central plank of the Spider-Man mythos. But (as with the Green Goblin) we should try not to read these issue in the light of stuff that is going to happen two decades in the future. At this point, Mary-Jane Watson is a running gag. May nags Peter to meet her; Peter eventually agrees; for some reason the date doesn't come off, leaving Peter looking like a cad in front of Betty or Liz. Repeat endlessly. The joke will come to an almost Wildean punchline in a dozen issues' time. 

We never see Peter and Betty in a social situation — not sharing a coffee or a milk-shake, not going to the movies, nothing. (We see Peter taking Aunt May to the pictures, for goodness sake!) But several episodes end with him saying that he is going on a date with her, or trying to set one up. I wonder if the comics code would have required any dating scene to be so chaste, and so marriage-focused that Lee and Ditko decided it would be better to leave the whole thing to the readers' imaginations?

Actually, in this reader's imagination, Peter's relationship with Betty would have been pretty chaste and pretty marriage-focused. That's the kinds of kids they are.

The whole etiquette of "dating" is pretty weird by today's standards. When Mary-Jane cancels the blind date, Peter calls up Betty and says he can see her after all; when she rebuffs him ("Which Peter?") he calls Liz, who he doesn't even like, to see if she will go out with him instead. He did the same thing in issue #6. This actually veers towards self-destructiveness: if Betty can't bear to see Peter talking to a female school friend, what the hell would she think if she saw them sharing a coffee together? Was there some rule which said that a guy couldn't go to any social event — not to a drugstore or a coffee bar or a skittles alley — without a female escort; so that any lady was better than none, and that just because you were going out with a girl it didn't necessarily follow that you were, so to speak, going out with her? (But if that's the rule, wouldn't Liz and Betty both understand it?)

Astonishingly, Liz can't date Peter either because, a few pages after calling him a "muscle bound goop" she is out dancing with Flash Thompson. Which makes one wonder if the whole crush-on-Peter is a double-bluff to get Flash to notice her. Which in turn makes one wonder if Liz is a bigger shit than Flash ever was.

Peter blames the whole situation on a malevolent force he calls "luck". In the early issues, Peter was apt to physically break down and say "It's not fair; I wish I'd never gotten my powers". Since issue #8, Parker has acquired some of Spider-Man's bravado; but he has internalized the cry-baby. He begins this issue moaning "it's not my day" (when he stupidly goes to a photo shoot and forgets to take any pictures) and "wishes he had stayed in bed" when it turns out that it's Spider-Man who Kraven the Hunter is going to hunt. After Liz flirts with him and Betty storms out in a huff, he sits on the kerb brooding that being a superhero isn't as much fun as he expected; worries that he's become a "walking jinx" and beats up some housebreakers to cheer himself up. He repeats "just my luck" when he can't date Betty because he's promised to see Mary-Jane; and when he has to spend the night at home because neither Liz nor Betty want to see him he asks "who is sticking pins in a Peter Parker doll?" The episode ends with him wishing he was on the same boat as Kraven and the Chameleon, but adding "I am just not that lucky."

It is very unhealthy and unattractive to perceive the ordinary ups and downs of life as personal affronts. None of this month's disappointments have anything to do with his powers or his double life: he's caused them all by his own moral cowardice. He could have said to Aunt May "I am already dating Betty. If I go out with Mary, it will look like cheating, and you raised me to be too much of a gentleman to do that." He could have said to Betty "I am really sorry, but my Aunt has forced me to go on a blind date with a neighbor. Please can I take you for a soda tomorrow and we can have a laugh about how awful it was." He choses not to. As will become clearer and clearer in the next few months, the only person sticking pins into the Peter Parker voodoo doll is Peter Parker.

Next month, everything will be back to normal. May will be nagging Peter to date Mary Jane; Betty will ask Peter out to dinner (as if nothing has happened); and Peter will be forced to turn her down. And the month after that, Peter will be walking Betty home (as if nothing had happened) and they will bump into Liz... It is as if all the characters have been frozen in time, and won't really be defrosted until The Writer and the Artist finally part company.  

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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Gavin Burrows said...

”I wonder if the comics code would have required any dating scene to be so chaste, and so marriage-focused that Lee and Ditko decided it would be better to leave the whole thing to the readers' imaginations?”

Weren't Marvel still doing Romance comics in this era which featured dating? Pretty chaste dating, yes, but dating.

”The whole etiquette of "dating" is pretty weird by today's standards... just because you were going out with a girl it didn't necessarily follow that you were, so to speak, going out with her?”

One thing that foxed me about 'Happy Days' as a teen was the way 'dates' were one off-affairs, that going out with a girl meant going to a single place on a single night and then all bets were off again. If that was how it worked how come you saw couples in the street?

I suspect the idea was all the humour was wrung out of the anxieties and social awkardness of asking the girl out in the first place, and “shall we meet in the milkshake bar on Thursday like we always do?” didn't sound like it would maximise the yucks.

...so I suppose I'm saying in a longwinded way you're right with the 'sitcom more than soap' assessment.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think that in the 50s, boys and girls socialized in separate groups (even at co-ed schools) and that a "date" was just that - a one off meeting between a boy and girl to get to know one another without anyone else around. Go back another generation, and they might have been expected to have an older chaperon with them.

Dating several different people on different nights would have been quite normal. When asked if Johnny Storm has a "girl friend", Stan Lee writes that he is still "playing the field". And since decent people didn't have sex on a first date, exclusivity was less of an issue. It might be taken for granted that after two or three dates, a couple were "going steady" or "being exclusive", or you might have been expected to tell your friends. Again, in the Olden Days people seem to talk about "being engaged" fairly casually -- with no serious expectation that they are going to get married: it doesn't seem to be much stronger than "we're going out" or "we're together." Obviously sex didn't come into it because sex only began in 1963.

I wonder if it would be fruitful to read Spider-Man in terms of a generational change of attitudes: May would have been dating Ben Parker before World War I, when everything was that much more formal and ceremonial; and she still thinks that "going for a date" with MJ means "meeting up with her, probably at her Aunt's home, to see if you get on." Liz and Flash are following high school dating mores where you can go out with more than one person until you've exchanged ID rings or something; but Betty, whose more grown-up than Peter even if she isn't actually any older than him, takes it that having had several dates with Peter, they are (in the older sense) engaged .

I'm probably wrong to say that we never see them "on a date": Peter meeting up with Betty to walk home with her constitutes a date -- an arranged meeting between a man and a woman with no-one else present. In the Daredevil issue, she -- rather sensibly -- invites both Peter and Aunt May to come to her house for an informal dinner. Not "romantic", but from her point of view, probably taking the relationship to the next level (meeting the folks.)

So Betty probably sees Peter and Liz walking home together as a "date", where it's probably just something that two people in the same class who live in the same part of town do. Not that Peter isn't being stupid, knowing how Betty feels (and how Liz feels, for that matter) to then agree to go to Liz's house to help her with her homework! (Which Liz and Flash undoubtedly see as a date, but Peter may not.)

It's complicated.

I think that the emphasis on chastity and marriage in the code-approved romance comics often makes the stories more interesting and mature than the "My Guy" photo-strips my sister used to read in the 70s.

Gavin Burrows said...

You're probably right.

It's no good asking me about this sort of thing.

I'm a comic fan.