Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Doomsday Clock #1

Furthermore if you want to sell science fiction, your chances would be considerably greater if you tried to write a completely original story for one of the magazines, rather than basing your work on the characters and background of an already famous TV show. Originality is valued more highly in science fiction than in any other branch of literature. Hence, no matter what your affection for the Star Trek characters — which I share— you will in the long run be better off creating you own.
James Blish.

There is nothing wrong with writing a sequel to a long established, classic work. Many great works of literature have been created in that way, such as…

Including…

Well, for example…

I’ll get right back to you on this.




We are in an alternate America; 25 years in the past but somehow a dark reflection of 2017. There is an international crisis going on, but the President is playing golf; “the wall” has come down and people are fleeing from the USA into Mexico; someone is holding a placard saying “make America safe again”. In the foreground, a riot is going on, possibly between liberals and conservatives; in the background news reports talk of Russia invading Poland and the US preparing a nuclear strike. The narrator, a masked man, leaves the riot zone and breaks into a prison; he rescues a woman, claiming to be able to reunite her with her infant son; and then her husband, who is mute and communicates in mime. The narrator expects to be dead by the end of the day. They travel through forests and sewers to a secret base where another masked man is waiting for them. There is much talk about other masked characters, some of whom are dead and some of whom are in hiding. The two masked men have a scheme to save the world by “finding God”. There is a final cutaway to two other characters, sharing a bed, one of whom has just dreamed of the day his parents died in a car crash. There is no suggestion of how these two characters connect with the rest of the action, although the dream-father tells the dream-son that whatever happens is part of God’s plan. 

The thing is reasonably well-paced and quite pretty to look at but there is no real hint of what the story is going to be about; why we should care particularly about these characters; or how much we should be concerned about a wholly fictional America blowing itself out of existence 25 years ago. Granted, this is the first of an (oh god) twelve part series; but 32 pages is a long time to keep the reader wondering “what is this thing going to be about?” Although the story turned out to be about very many other things as well, the question “Who killed the Comedian?” was asked on almost the first page of Watchmen. 



But this is not a comic book. It is a piece of conceptual art. It’s content is unimportant; it says what it says by virtue of existing.

A continuation of Watchmen without Alan Moore or Dave Gibbons is a very, very bad idea. But the history of comic books is littered with very, very bad ideas. The New Gods without Kirby or Howard the Duck without Gerber come to mind. In some cases these very bad ideas yielded pretty good comics. But we are not talking about an inferior talent taking on some auteur’s characters and running with them. The comic book industry was built by people who took other people's characters and ran with them. The one thing I learned in my year of reading nothing but Captain America is that Cap is a folk hero. He isn’t a singular work of art created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon; he is the end result of a torch being passed from Kirby to Lee and from Lee to Englehart and from Englehart to Byrne and from Byrne to Brubaker. Captain America is who he is as a result of their cumulative efforts. Twenty years from now he will be someone else entirely.

That’s also the definition of folk music. As the musicians play, standing behind them is the ghost of the person they learnt the music from. Standing behind the ghost is the ghost of the player they learnt from, and so on, back to the beginning of music. You are only a folksinger when you understand that soon you will be one of the ghosts. 

There is no shame in being an inferior talent. When we are talking about Alan Moore or Jack Kirby or even Steve Gerber more or less everyone is an inferior talent.

Very stupid people have said that there is Nothing Wrong with inferior talents writing Watchmen fan fiction because Watchmen is nothing more than Charlton Comics fan fiction. This is nonsense, of course, the kind of nonsense spouted by the kind of fan who holds creators oddly in contempt. But it is undoubtedly true that Alan Moore’s first commission from DC comics was to pick up an existing character and run with it, as fast as he could. By the time he was done, there wasn’t very much of the original character left.

Swamp Thing was created by Len Wein. Len Wein also edited Watchmen as well as creating some character called Wolverine. The first issue of Doomsday clock is rather pointedly dedicated to him. 

If you haven’t held the thing in your hands, it is hard for me to convey the sheer horror of the Doomsday Clock artifact. The title is printed in yellow on black text down the left hand side of the cover. There is a little yellow doomsday clock under the title, and a big doomsday clock on the back page, which is otherwise black. There is four pages of diegetic text after the main comic strip. There are four pages of in-house adverts, black and white with a single quote from each character. 

Which is to say: the first issue of Doomsday Clock is trying to be as physically similar to the first issue of Watchmen as it is possible for two comics to be. The ubiquitous Watchmen graphic novel reproduced the comic book issues exactly (including text pages and front and back covers) so any collected edition of Doomsday Clock will match Watchmen on the shelf. Some years ago, Jeffery Archer wrote a feeble short story about Judas Iscariot and arranged for it to be published in double column text with verse numbering and fake leather covers suggesting to gullible readers that this was some how a new section of the Bible. Doomsday Clock is very nearly as absurd a piece of hubris.

But the really fiendish thing is this. The various doomsday clock devices all have a teeny tiny Superman “S” motif where the “XII” ought to be. The black and white adverts are illustrated, not with Watchmen characters but with characters from DC comics: a quote from the Comedian adorns a picture of the Joker and a quote from Ozymandias has Lex Luther staring out underneath it. 

If anyone truly believed that the Watchmen were just one more group of comic book characters — that it was as natural for Geoff Johns to have his turn on Doctor Manhattan now Alan Moore has finished with him as it is for Dan Slott to have a go at the Silver Surfer  —  then no-one would feel the need to produce a comic which is a pastiche of itself. No-one expects a 2017 issue of Captain America to look like a 1943 issue of Captain America, except maybe for some special anniversary edition. Everyone involved in constructing this artifact knows that Watchmen is a singular text; twelve issues created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and there can’t possibly be any more of it. The packaging of Doomsday Clock is, I suppose, intended to conceal the stupidity of the idea of adding more chapters to Watchmen. Instead it screams out its stupidity on every page. 



Watchmen, of course, ended on a big question mark. Ozymandias has forced America and Russia to bury their nuclear differences by staging a fake alien invasion, but Rorschach has discovered the plan and posted his diary through the mail box of a right-wing newspaper. We are left not knowing if this package will ever be opened. Many interesting questions are thus left hanging: was Rorschach right to never compromise even in the face of Armageddon? If the paper discovers the truth, should they reveal it? Is the killing of millions to avert nuclear annihilation at any level justified?

Alan Moore didn't foolishly forget to tell us if anyone ever read Rorschach's diary, any more than Ibsen carelessly omitted to tell us whether or not Mrs Alving administered the suicide pill to her dying son. The whole point of the book is that it asks a question and doesn't answer it -- that it leaves both outcomes suspended as eternal possibilities. No one reads the diary; nuclear war is averted; but it is based on a lie and Ozymandias gets away with a million murders. Someone reads the diary; Ozymandias is exposed; everyone knows the truth; the world has to face the very real possibility of annihilation. 

Within three panels of Doomsday Clock we have been told yes, the New Frontiersmen did publish the diary; yes, it was believed; and yes, nuclear war between America and Russia is very much back on the agenda. So pretty much the whole point of Watchmen is wiped out in a page. In place of the very specific question “Who killed the comedian?” we are offered the very general one “What, exactly, is Rorschach up to?”

There is a riot going on, and we pick up a few things from news stations: Ozymandias is wanted for genocide; Robert Redford really is president; America and Russia are gearing up for war; American politicians still use the term "Ruskies".
 
Rorschach is still the main character, and still keeps a very wordy diary ("we split open the world’s belly, secrets came spilling out, an intestine full of truth and shit strangled us” etc etc.) He keeps making reference to “God” having turned his back on the world, and intends to somehow "call God down". Of course, at the end of Watchmen, Rorschach was inconveniently dead — atomized by Doctor Manhattan. This character insists that he is truly Rorschach, but he very definitely isn’t Kovacs — at one point he takes off his glove and reveals that he’s a black man.

(Please, god; please don't let him turn out to be the kid at the news-stand.) 

Most of the strip consists of fake-Rorschach rescuing someone called the Marionette and someone called the Mime from prison: the Marionette is absolutely essential to whatever it is fake-Rorschach is trying to do; but we are given no hint as to her background or her connection with him. They go along the sewer to Nite Owl's old base, but it turns out that the person Rorschach is working with isn’t Nite Owl but Ozymandias, who has cancer. (He also has a baby Bubastis, which made me want to hurl the comic through the window.) It transpires that the God who Rorschach wants to find is Doctor Manhattan. "This is our mission. All of us. We need to find Jon.” Doctor Manhattan presumably being the only person who can prevent this volume's nuclear holocaust. 

At which point we cut away to Lois Lane and Clark Kent in bed. (They have been legally married since 1996, although they would still have been single in 1992.) Clark is dreaming about the death of his earth-parents, in a car crash on the day of his high school prom. There have been many, many reboots since I last read a Superman comic, so I don’t know if this is how they currently canonically died, or if we are supposed to go “Gadzooks! That’s not right!” I assume that these final pages are taking place in the DC Universe while the rest of the comic takes place in a different Watchmen Universe, but that’s only because (the last time I looked) Superman and Rorschach didn’t share a continuity: nothing in the art or the captions makes this at all clear.

Ozymandias specifically recalls Doctor Manhattan saying “I’m leaving this galaxy for one less complicated” so I think we are supposed to infer that the regular DC Universe is the “less complicated” place he ended up, or possibly that DC Earth is the human civilization he threatened to create. I suppose that Ozymandias is going to find some way of hopping between universes and winding up on DC Earth. We can expect a big argument about whether Superman or Doctor Manhattan is the better God, with doubtless some meta-textual musings about whether comic books were better before or after Watchmen.

How they are going to spin this out to 360 pages I cannot imagine.





I have no doubt you could augment an earwig to the point where it understood nuclear physics, but it would still be a very stupid thing to do! 
The Second Doctor







Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Patreon Emergency


https://www.patreon.com/Rilstone

So. Patreon.

Until last week, if you pledged $1 an essay and I wrote 4 essays, you would have been charged $4, of which I would have got about $3.40. 

For reasons best know to themselves, Patreon have decided to start charging punters 35c and a 2.8% cover charge on each donation. So now, if you pledge $1 and I write 4 articles in a month, you will be charged $5.55 and I will recieve $3.80. Slightly better for me: much worse for you.

Brits who pledge $1 (US) will pay £4.15 (UK) of which I will see £2.84 (UK).

This seems specifically set up to harm small creators, discourage small donations, and break the crowdfunding / micropayments model which was the whole point of Patreon.

I currently have 44 followers giving me between 1 and 5 dollars per essay; I banked about 200 quids last month. I work part time in a library: this is a significant contribution to my income; and it is more than I could make in any other kind of freelancing. (I was getting about £40 a writing for geeky magazines; and only a matter of pence for local arts reviews.) 

The Patreon model gives me the freedom to write the kind of stuff that I want to write and that at least 44 people want to read. 

I did consider using Kickstarter to pre-sell the eventual Big Book Of Spider-Man essays -- which will consist of the 1963, 64 and 65 volumes, plus an fourth "after Ditko" section. Only backers and purchasers would get that additional material. But I concluded that it made more sense to continue to post everything on the blog: ten new essays would have bagged me $700 on Patreon; selling 140 books with a $5 mark up is pretty unthinkable.

What I propose to do for the moment is therefore: nothing.

If you are okay with paying an extra 35c per essay / $1.40 per month then you don't need to do anything, and we can carry on as before. Thank you for your support. 

If you don't want to pay the extra money to Patreon, I strongly suggest that you multiply your donation by 4 and set your "maximum" to the same amount. So if you pledge $1, change it to $4 with a maximun of $4, and you'll pay $4.35. at the end of the month. So you only pay for the first article and I get the same money I would have done anyway. Thank you for your support. 

So far only one person has cancelled their backing (and one person has already done the times four thing.) Thank you everyone else for sticking with me.

"But never mind all this commerce -- what are you going to write for us?"

The next thing I write will definitely be on Doomsday Clock. (Doomsday Clock? Doomsday Cock more like.) I suspect my short essay on That Tim Farron Column will see the light of day thereafter. (How can you have been leader of the liberal party and use the word "liberal" in four different senses in the same sentence?) Then the long overdue piece on Homecoming. (The best Spider-Man movie by virtue of not actually being a Spider-Man movie.) There may be something on TV on Christmas day I'll have words to say about, and I am going to the movies at midnight on Wednesday. And then it's back to Spider-Man 31 - 33. (I understand they have given general satisfaction, sir.)

So if you are already backing me, my continued thanks and hang in there. If you are not backing me and think any of the above sounds worth my time and effort, then please think about joining the happy band. If everyone reading this donated $1 a month, my monthly income would be, er, 75p times my current readership. 

If you haven't got a penny, a hapany will do. If you haven't got a hapany then God bless you. 

Other midwinter religious festivals are available. 

https://www.patreon.com/Rilstone

Monday, December 04, 2017




The first volume of my collected Spider-essays (Origins of Spider-Man, 1962-1963) is currently available to Patreon Supporters only. (All backers get the e-book version; super-generous backers get a hard copy.) 

Patreon supporters also get access to lost Rilstone texts, including his infamous commentary on Winnie-the-Pooh and the legendary Metaexegesis.

Plus, you'll be supporting and encouraging the best comics, music and religion blogger in Bristol.

I currently have at least 200 regular readers and on 45 supporters. :(





Milestones

$80 -- New Doctor Who Book
I will write the outstanding commentary on the Capaldi era (mainly his second season) and assemble the complete collection in a new Viewer's Tale volume.

$85 -- The New Doctor Who Book will also include commentary on the failed Doctor Who spin off Class.




Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man #30

The Claws of the Cat

Villain:

The Cat Burglar


Supporting Cast:
Betty Brant, Ned Leeds, Mrs Watson, Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Frederick Foswell, Liz Allen, Flash Thompson and a chorus of police, crooks and cab-drivers.

Peter Parker’s financial position:
Parker is still broke. (He moans that he can’t even afford to take the subway.)

Jameson offers $1,000 reward for catching the Cat Burglar. This is what he pays Peter for fair-to-middling pictures — maybe $7,000 or £5,000 in today's money.

Jameson underpays Peter for his pictures, while claiming that he’s being generous because he saved the reward money. This suggests that he is paying Peter a lot less than $1,000 — maybe as little as $250 this time?

Chronology
The action of this story takes place over two consecutive days. Everyone has a rest on the day after the fight with the Scorpion, but Peter Parker goes into action the following evening. 

Day 0: Fight with the Scorpion (issue #29)

Day 1: Spider-Man encounters the Master Planner's men; Cat Burglar robs J.J.J. (Page 1-6)

Day 2: Cat Burglar attempts another robbery and is captured by police. (page 6 - 20)

Day 3: (Morning) Peter Parker sells pictures to J.J.J. (page 20)

For details, see Appendix. 

Observations
p3 “When the apartment’s tenant returns home…” Millionaire J.J.J rents an apartment in Manhattan. He has a home office set up in the flat, and Spider-Man knows its location.

“A truck carrying a dangerous but priceless load of uranium derivatives to the factory of Anthony Stark”
You might expect this to be setting up a guest appearance by Iron Man, but you would be wrong. 

p4 “I eat my crunchies and brush after meals, I’m sure to win out in the end!”
This is a flippant comment: but it illustrates the way Spider-Man thinks. He deserves to beat the baddies because he is a good person, so every defeat is perceived as a cosmic injustice.

p5 “That’s music to my little shell-like ears!”
Spider-Man and Stan Lee get the banter about right this issue: lots of flowery little phrases, but nothing too irritating. 

p5 “I’m gonna bring you that cat burglar before you can say ‘All the way with J.J.J.’”.
“All the way with L.B.J.” was President Johnson’s slogan during the 1964 election. (A confirmation that the comics are happening more or less in real time, incidentally.) 

J.J.J’s dream sequence
This is the first time since Amazing Fantasy #15 that Spider-Man has been shown with pupils in his eyes. 

p6 “This is Aunt May’s apple pie night! I don’t wanna miss it!”
Aunt May went to the movies with Mrs Watson shortly before Spider-Man went web-swinging. She must have started baking after the film (close to midnight) and left a piece out for Peter as a late night snack which he can hardly have eaten earlier than 1AM. (See Chronology)

In his 1965 song National Brotherhood Week, Tom Lehrer said that class hatred was “as American as apple pie.”

"Petey! As I live and breathe! I haven't seen you since graduation."
Liz last appeared in issue #28, which by our calculations was about three months ago. This will be her last appearance in the classic era: Gerry Conway exhumes her in issue #132. 

p8 “Don’t try to answer me now, Betty!”This frame is problematic: we have to imagine that Ned drops in on Betty at 9AM on Monday morning, asks her to marry him, and then rushes off because he’s late for work. (See Chronology.) 

p9 “Stay right there Betty, I’ll be over in two shakes.”

This frame also makes little sense: why should Peter phone Betty (presumably from a phone booth) after he has already set out to visit her?


p13 “Got any of that groovy apple pie left!!” “Yes dear, it’s in the fridge.”

The word “groovy” became a universal term of approval in the flower power era (usage peaks in 1972). In 1965 it still retained its older 1950s jazz club connotations -- so Peter is saying that his Aunt’s pie was “up to the minute” “fashionable” or “of the moment”. The word “fridge” was certainly in use by 1965, but it hadn’t fully replaced “icebox” as a synonym for refrigerator. So Peter Parker misuses a slightly unfashionable word; his aging Aunt responds with an up-to-the-minute one.


“A typical Parker day! I lost my girl — couldn’t find the Cat — and didn’t even have a token for the subway ride home!”
Presumably he couldn’t afford the subway because he had spent his last dime on the wholly unnecessary call to Betty from a public booth. Why he should want to take the subway when he can web-swing home in a quarter of the time is a matter for conjecture. 

p16-18 “I’ll be back for more playtime before you know it!”
“Ready or not, here I come!”
“Anyone around my base is it!”
“Holy smoke, what game are you playing?”
“If you are determined to play follow-the-leader…”
Peter Parker has been dumped by his one true love; but Spider-Man regards his fight with the Cat Burglar as a rather enjoyable game. 

p20 “So the good guys do win out in the end after all! Everything turned out fine for me at last! I guess its because I’m such a kindly lovable character!” 
J.J.J thinks in the same way that Peter Parker does. When things turn out well, it’s because he deserves it.





"Only the batty Marvel bullpen could present such a truly dazzling display of derring-do as The Claws of the Cat!" 

You could call  issue #30 of the Amazing Spider-Man a lot of things — a soap opera, a film noir, a slice of life — but “a truly dazzling display of derring-do” it really isn’t. Once again, one wonders if Stan Lee had actually read the comic before writing the cover copy.  Or is it the “batty Marvel bullpen” who are supposed to be engaging in swashbuckling courage by publishing something so odd? 

The Claws of the Cat is not really about anything. It is an orphan issue, winding up threads from last month, setting up plots for next month, but not really about anything itself. Like issue #9 it seems to plunge us into the stream of Peter Parker’s life and make no attempt to connect the threads together.

Even the cover is weird: our hero is so small you could easily overlook him. A tiny Spider-Man, a tiny man in a green boiler suit on a rope. Way, way down below, tiny police and tiny onlookers shine search lights at the building. We’re observing Spider-Man from a distance. A small figure involved in a small crime. You could be forgiven for thinking that this was the latest issue of The Amazing Collapsing Water Tower.

The splash page warns us that Spider-Man is going to “encounter a brand new foe”, but in truth the Cat barely rises to the level of foe-hood. We see him on page 1 running through a montage of faces -- Aunt May, Betty, Ned, Flash, Liz, Jonah Jameson and some guy in a purple mask. The message is clear. The Cat Burglar is simply one of many things which happen to Peter Parker this issue. He is a nobody, and he knows it:

“That was a close call! If Spider-Man had just turned his head, it could have been the end of the Cat Burglar’s career! But I’m just small potatoes to him! He’s only interested in super-powered world menaces!” 

It takes a serious nudge from our old friend "an inscrutable fate" for Spider-Man's life to become entwined with that of this criminal non-entity. The Cat Burglar just happens to burgle the New York apartment of one J. Jonah Jameson and J.J.J. offers $1,000 reward for the thief's capture. So naturally, Peter decides that he is going to capture the Cat and claim the reward --- partly because he could do with the money but mostly because it will annoy Jameson. "Jolting ol’ Jonah is fast becoming my favourite indoor sport”. There is no longer any doubt that the relationship between J.J.J. and Peter Parker is one of mutual bullying.

The first great cycle of Spider-Man stories is nearly at an end, and Peter Parker is still no altruist. He goes after the Cat for money, and for fun, and as a distraction from his personal troubles. When he accidentally stops a businessman from being murdered by a disgruntled former employee, he is positively disappointed. "Heck! It wasn't the Cat Burglar after all!" What was that you said about power and responsibility? 

But Spider-Man's attempt to catch the Cat and humiliate J.J.J (which fails) is only one of at least four subplots in the comic. Spider-Man also encounters a group of hoods with purple suits in a van; and stops a bank robbery. Peter Parker has one final meeting with Liz, and Ned Leeds pops the question to Betty Brant. And of course, Aunt May is still very poorly. 

There is a lot of violence: Spider-Man hits the men in purple suits on page 3; knocks out the guy threatening his boss on page 8; scuffles with Flash Thompson on page 7, and dispatches the four bank robbers in five panels on pages 11 and 12. But the climactic confrontation with the “new foe” takes the form of a chase -- a chase which pointedly fails to come to much of a point. After Spider-Man and the Cat Burglar have run around the rooftops for a few pages, the Cat hides down a chimney and is apprehended by the police.

The multiple plots keep interrupting each other and ostentatiously failing to come together. Peter rushes out of Aunt May's house because he wants to see Betty, and runs right into a gal who is coming round the corner...but it isn't Betty it’s, Liz from school. She is still trying to avoid Flash Thompson. This incident is itself interrupted when Peter Parker thinks he spots the Cat through an upstairs window, and stumbles on the murder-in-progress. It's a fun little scene, of course, but it has no bearing on the Cat, or on Betty or on Aunt May or on anything else.

Is Ditko thinking in larger narrative units than a single issue? The guys in the purple suits and Aunt May’s fainting spells are completely unconnected this month; but they are going to become very deeply intertwined by issue #33. It may be that Steve wanted the Amazing Spider-Man to develop into a soap opera, with multiple threads getting tangled up over a multiple issues. But it is equally possible that he is trying to make an, er, existentialist point. This is what life is like. You think everything ties up neatly? Well, it doesn’t. 

If this issue is about anything, it is about Peter Parker's relationship with Betty Brant. We are running towards the "final chapter" and there is a sense that Ditko is tying off long-dangling plot-threads. It is a shame that the iconic final panel, in which the ghost of Spider-Man pushes the lovers apart, could not have been the last word on Peter and Betty's relationship.

Ned Leeds drops in on the way to work and asks Betty Brant to marry him, as one does; Peter fortuitously drops by a few minutes later. Much of the rest of the issue is driven by humour and a sense of fun (Spider-Man seems to be thoroughly enjoying all the fight scenes). But the big confrontation between Peter and Betty is incredibly emotionally charged, borrowing its visual vocabulary from horror comics. Betty tells Peter the news; Peter loses it completely and storms out of the apartment, saying that he never cared about Betty to start with; Betty is left on the other side of the door, crying that Peter Parker is the only person she has ever loved,

It’s worth comparing this breakup scene with the reconciliation scene back in Amazing Spider-Man #22. That scene was told over four panels, with the “camera” held at a consistent distance — we get a waist-up view of Peter and Betty in panel 1, full length shots in 3 and 4, and a simple portrait of Betty in panel 3. Emotion was conveyed by simple body language — Betty hanging her head in panel 2 and smiling demurely in panel 3.

Compare that with the present confrontation, which takes twelve panels to unfold. The camera is much closer to the characters, making them seem physically larger. But the characters are fragmented: the top of Peter’s head is cut off by the frame on panels 4, 6 and 7, and only about a third of Betty's features are squashed into the close up on panel 5. When Betty tells Peter that Ned has proposed, her head is glowing white and there are shock lines around it — the kind usually reserved for the spider-sense. Peter looks stunned, and seems to be lit with an intense green light. We look down at Peter and Betty through an outside window — possibly to give us the sense that we are eavesdropping on a private moment, and then see two panels of Peter looking sadder and sadder, before he explodes, turns around and storms out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Both he and Betty have glowy heads and spider-sense lines. And finally we have Betty banging on one side of the door, wishing that Peter would come back and Peter slouched on the other thinking “I’ve lost her!”

Well, I warned them. Back in issue #11 I told Peter to have a look at Cyrano de Bergerac? Relationships based on masks never work. From Betty's point of view, she has done the decent thing, telling Peter of Ned's offer of marriage. From her point of view there is no reason for Peter to go berserk and storm out of the room. But while she thinks she is explaining why she likes Peter Parker ("you were so studious…so sincere! You were a good student… a hard worker!”) Peter hears her rejecting Spider-Man. He has neither the courage to admit the truth; nor the decency to let her down easily. He lashes out. “Go ahead and marry him! You probably deserve each other! What difference does it make to me!?!”

What difference does it make to me.

Peter is behaving appallingly. Since Bennet died, he has known that Betty will never accept him as Spider-Man, but he has continued to passively date her -- or at least flirt with her in the office. He knows that Betty and Spider-Man are mutually exclusive; but he somehow thinks the situation will magically resolve itself. When he thought he had lost his powers (in The Sinister Six) almost his first reaction was that he could now marry Betty; and when he was ready to give up his double life (in The End of Spider-Man) settling down with Betty and making a life as a scientist was one of the attractions. He cannot accept that Destiny -- Mr Stan Lee -- will force him to remain Spider-Man forever. At some level he still thinks that being Spider-Man is a phase he will grow out of. 

Nothing can excuse Peter’s mean-spirited rants. But Betty can’t have it both ways either — she can’t say that she wants a safe, stay-at-home guy with slippers and a pipe and in the same breath proclaim undying love for her great big hunky crime photographer. And the silly woman waits until after he has slammed the door in her face to tell him the she loves him.  

It’s sad. When they were just two kids laughing about grouchy Mr Jameson behind the desk they seemed so happy. But she can’t overcome her wholly irrational dislike of Spider-Man and he can’t just come out and tell her the truth. I'd like to give both of them a bloody good slap. 

“There’s no way out. She’d never have me as I am — and I just can’t give up being Spider-Man!”

On the splash page, Stan Lee talks about Peter Parker being “beset with the same old problems”. As we come to the end of the Lee-Ditko era, I fear that the Lee-Romita Spider-Man is beginning to show his irritating face. This is the received Peter Parker, the Peter Parker of the movies and the cartoons, the angsty Peter Parker who walks the streets with his hands in his pockets, vaguely blaming the universe for whatever harm he has inflicted on himself this month. Superheroes with super-problems, as the fellow said. 

“A typical Parker day! I lost my girl — couldn’t even find the Cat — and didn’t even have a token for the subway ride home!” 

Yes, Peter. A bad thing has happened. But it is the bad thing you have been setting yourself up for, every day, for months. You can't bring yourself to tell even a white lie to your Auntie but you are happy to tell the most blatant lies to the girl you think you love, every day, for years. You could have told her you were Spider-Man. You chose not to. So go ahead and tell yourself that every day is like this due to some metaphysical entity called "the Parker luck."

"Sure I've had my share of bad breaks!" said Peter back in issue #18 "Who hasn't? But I've been wasting too much time in self-pity!! Well, I'm done with that from now on!"

So. How's that going?

*

This issue contains one of the worst acts of sabotage Stan Lee ever perpetrated against a collaborator. 

As well as fighting the Cat, Spider-Man has two encounters with a group of bad guys in purple James Bond villain style jump suits. The first time they are stealing “uranium derivatives” from Tony Stark’s truck; the second time they are observing some common crooks robbing a bank. These purple men will show up again next issue when they will be robbing a “plant which produces radioactive devices.”

In issue #31, the purple men report back to someone they refer to simply as The Master Planner who will also be the Big Bad in issues #32 and #33. He resides in an underwater base, and his identity is a big secret. (Clue: It’s Doctor Octopus.)

However, in the current issue Stan Lee believes that the Purple Minions work for the Cat Burglar rather than the Master Planner. "Only the cat could have thought up a scheme like this!" they say, as they steal uranium from a moving vehicle. Stan has not remotely understood what is going on: the whole point of the Cat is that he is a skilled, but otherwise unimportant “second storey man”. The idea that he’d have secret agents stealing nuclear material from Iron Man is obviously bonkers.

When the Minions report back to base, their mysterious boss talks like a super-villain:

“Spider-Man is beginning to be a nuisance! It might be necessary for me to take steps to stop him before he becomes too dangerous to my future plans!” 

But the Cat talks like a gangster out of Central Casting: 

“Of all the crummy luck! I hadda pick the one building whose windows were just washed yesterday!” 

But Lee really thinks that the Cat has something to do with the Minions: on page 13 he is shown thinking "I'll grab a bundle and then think of a plan to get rid of Spider-Man!" even though he has never met Spider-Man and regards himself as beneath his notice. Even more oddly, Stan gives a random Purple Minion a thought balloon (while he is being knocked out by Spidey) that says: 

“My plan was perfect…except that I didn’t count on any interference from such an unexpected source.” 

...as if he thinks that either the Cat or the Master Planner is one of the goons carrying out the uranium heist. 

This is not a slip of the pen, like calling Liz Allan “Liz Hilton” or renaming Peter Parker “Peter Palmer” or saying that MJ is Mrs Watson's daughter when she is actually her niece. It represents Stan Lee completely misunderstanding what is going on in the story. In issue #29, J.J.J asks Foswell to find out about a series of scientific robberies in the city; in #30, the Purple Minions appear for the first time; in #31 we discover that they work for the Master Planner; and in #32 we find out who the Master Planner is. (Clue: Doctor Octopus.) It's a lovely way to roll out a big story event, and Stan Lee has ruined it.

It really is a massive cock up: and one Marvel were loath to admit to. The Merry Marvel Marching Society -- the official fan club — published an index of all Marvel Comics published up to 1969 still claiming that in this issue “Spider-Man fights a clever Cat Burglar and his men.”

All of which raises a further question. The Master Planner and the Cat Burglar are accurately foreshadowed (as two separate characters) in issue #29, but Lee has no idea what is meant to be going on in issue #30. Doesn't this suggest that communication between Lee and Ditko only irretrievably broke down after Never Step on a Scorpion was completed. (say, in May 1965). It would follow that the so-called Master Planner trilogy is our first specimen of what the Amazing Spider-Man would be like if it was created by Steve Ditko without input from Stan Lee. And, by an astonishing coincidence, those three episode are universally regarded as three of the very greatest comic books of all time.




Appendix: Chronology

Day 1: 

Mrs Watson invites Aunt May to go to the movies “tonight”. “Minutes later” Spider-Man is out web-swinging, and fails to see the Cat Burglar. The Cat Burglar is using a flashlight. 

J.J.J returns to his apartment “later” and calls the police; “at that very moment” Spider-Man encounters the Master Planner’s men. He hears that J.J.J has issued a reward and goes to taunt the publisher personally. He then returns to Aunt May’s house. 

It gets dark at about 9PM in New York in August, so the sequence of events must have looked a bit like this: 

2030 -- Aunt May and Mrs Watson go out
2115 -- J.J.Js house robbed
2215 -- J.J.J returns home; Master Planners men rob the Stark van
2245 -- J.J.J announces his $1000 reward, which is immediately reported on the radio
2315  -- Spider-Man visits J.J.J
2330 -- Spider-Man returns home


Day 2: 

Peter Parker goes looking for Betty “after a good night's sleep”. Aunt May specifically says he has started early. He runs into Liz (who is on her way to work). Ned is visiting Betty again; he is late for work but she is not going in until the afternoon. Peter must arrive almost as soon as Ned leaves (the phone is ringing as Ned walks through the door). 

The Cat says that it is “getting dark” on page 14, so a whole day has passed between Peter visiting Betty and him leaving the house as Spider-Man. 

Betty said that she was going into work for the afternoon, but she clearly phones Peter from her apartment (note the table lamp) so she must have worked from around 1AM to around 6PM and returned home. 

0800 -- Peter leaves house
0815 -- Peter encounters Liz and Flash
0830 -- Ned visits Betty
0915 -- Peter visits Betty
0900-1700 -- Ned at Bugle?
1300-1700 -- Betty at Bugle?
1000-1800 -- Peter wandering streets feeling sorry for himself, and stops bank robbery.
1830 -- Peter Parker back at Aunt Mays
2100 -- The Cat begins new robbery; Peter Parker leaves Aunt May’s house 
2130 -- Siege and capture of Cat.

Day 3

Stan Lee simply tells us that Peter Parker takes the “newly developed” photos to J. Jonah Jameson “later”. However, he could hardly return to Forest Hills, develop and print the pictures, and get back to Manhattan in less than two hours, which would make it well after midnight. We know that Betty worked at the Bugle in the afternoon and returned home in the early evening. And it is clear that she is wearing different clothes in the final frames. So I think the final frames take place early the following morning. There is no reason why this should not be the same day as Spider-Man's second meeting with the Purple Minions at the beginning of issue #31.


Dates

Next issue, Spider-Man will encounter the Master Planner's men again, and register for college the following day. If Empire State University is the same as New York University, then freshmen classes start in the final week of August. 

Our day 2 has to be a weekday since Liz, Ned and Betty are all at work. One possibility that very nearly makes sense looks like this:

Saturday 21 August
Fight with Scorpion (issue 29)

Sunday 22 August
Afternoon: Everyone recovers. 
Evening: Cat robs Jameson, Purple guys rob the van. 

Monday 23 August 
Morning: Betty and Peter have a row.
Afternoon: Peter mooches round feeling sorry for himself.
Evening: Cat Burglar caught

Tuesday 24 August 
Morning: Parker sells pictures (issue 30);
Evening: Spider-Man encounters Master Planner's men (issue 31)

Wednesday 25 August
College registration.

Thursday 26 August
Aunt May sick; Classes begin.


Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Last Star Wars Article


Where do we go when we watch Star Wars?

We know where we go when we watch Doctor Who. No such place ever actually existed, but everyone claims to have been there. It was a very long time ago: everything was black and white. We were very small: small enough to fit into the interstices between walls and furniture. TVs were very big. Pieces of furniture in shared family spaces, not electronic toys in our private rooms. “Putting on the TV” was a positive choice. The pictures were both real and not real. We wanted to look at them and hide from them at the same time. Middle-class. Suburban. Domestic. Ubiquitous. Safe.

Modern Doctor Who has written about that space almost obsessively, but it has never remotely taken us there. 

Yoda voice: That is why it fails.

Where do we go when we watch Star Wars?



There are AT-AT Walkers: new AT-AT Walkers that walk on their knuckles and something in the background that might be a floating galleon but might only be an Imperial Shuttle.

The Walkers arrived in Empire Strikes Back. They were a replacement for the Death Star. Never quite as magical. But magical just the same.

There are white alien goats on a snowy background. I suppose if there are Walkers there has to be Snow. First films have Sand and Second films have Snow. The third film will go back to Jakku, you mark my words.

The Millennium Falcon is being chased through a fiery red cave by TIE Fighters; which makes us think of the wrecked Star Destroyer from part VII and the Death Star superstructure from part VI and the space worm from part V and coming out of hyperspace near Alderaan in part IV. This will come very near the beginning of the film, as a warm up, to tell us that Star Wars has started again and the toys are all intact.

There is Chewbacca on the flight deck, as if he was escaping from Mos Eisley, except that Han has been replaced by a Penguin. Every saga has a Jar Jar. Every trilogy has an Ewok. We complained about George's silliness but we missed it when it wasn't there. The Penguin will have a very small part. He may only appear in this one scene. Everyone will always have heard of him and he will even eventually have his own comic, but all he will actually do is shout “It’s a trap!”

There is battle with big space ships and TIE fighters and X-Wings and a stirring speech about lighting the flame that will become the spark that will burn the fascists down although we all know that the fascists won’t burn down until the last ten minutes of Episode IX. There is Po Dameron looking resolute and Finn fighting the shiny gold lady Stormtrooper officer with a a big glowy laser-chainsaw. This will happen at the end. Po and Finn will be blowing things up resolutely while the Proper Plot happens somewhere else.

The Proper Plot will be about Rey turning to the Dark Side, and Ren turning back to the Light. Or perhaps about Ren resisting the light side and Rey resisting the Dark. That is the Proper Plot of every Star Wars movie except Star Wars. Someone is tempted by the Dark. Someone is tempted by the Light. Indeed, that is the plot of every possible movie. (I think Joseph Campbell said that.)



We always knew that this moment would come. Not when he lit the torch at his Father funeral pyre but from the very first moment in the cave. I-was-once-a-Jedi-knight-the-same-as-your-father. There would always come a moment when stroppy James Dean teenage Luke Skywalker would be old. We need him to be old because we need him to be a Jedi Knight and Jedi Knights are old. Alec Guinness is the only and all Jedi Knights just as happens Leonard Nimoy is the only and all Vulcans.


The moment we imagined, when Luke Skywalker is a Jedi like Obi Wan and he is teaching other Jedi (including me, me, please, including me) — the moment when the Jedi actually Returned — has already happened and is already over, somewhere in the space between VI and VII. I suppose we should never see it, in the same way we should never have seen the Old Republic, because Luke Skywalker and the New Order of Jedi, is part of the happy-ever-after which was implied during the fireworks and the Ewoks. And it was not a happy ending. Of course it wasn’t a happy ending because everyone living happily ever after is how a story ends and there have to be more stories. So we get to see old Luke, but we don’t get to see Jedi Luke. We get to see Luke the Last Jedi.  



Episode VII finishes with Rey holding Luke’s lightsaber out to Luke, and us not knowing is Luke takes it or not. (Spoiler: No.) The Trailer finishes with Ren holding his hand out to Rey and us not knowing if she takes it or not. And that makes us think of Daddy Vader holding his hand out to Luke, which is why Great Big Hologram Leader Guy (who has got smaller) bellows “FULL…FILL…YOUR…DES…TIN…EE” in the trailer. (He is probably saying it to Kylo Ren, but he could just as well be saying it to Rey. Of course he might not say it at all. That sometimes happens with trailers.) This will happen in the middle of the movie. Rey will face a difficult time in her training when she is tempted by the Dark Side. Maybe she will break off her Jedi training with Luke because she sees a vision of Kylo torturing Po and Finn. Maybe when she is on the point of  turning to the Dark Side, Ren will say "No, Rey, I am your half-brother."

Ren has a shiny black Tie Fighter, just like Grandpa’s. As he whizzes around he looks for all the world like Anakin Skywalker in the cartoons. (But Anakin in the Cartoons is now the Real Anakin. Anakin in the Cartoons very nearly makes up for Anakin in the prequels. He is a, waddyacall, Redemptive Reading.) But he, Ray, can hear Snoke’s voice, just like Luke Skywalker heard Ben’s voice and it goes boom boom boom FULFILL YOUR DENSITY boom boom boom BECOME WHO YOU WERE MEANT TO BE boom boom boom. All films are always about becoming who you were meant to be. (I think Joseph Campbell said that.)  Carrie, god bless her is on the big ship (the same kind of ship that Mon Motha had) and Kylo is aiming his weapon at her. Luke’s big moment was to blow up the Death Star. Kylo's big moment is to kill Mum. (SPOILER: He has already killed Dad.) 

Maybe he will kill his Mum and go totally over to the Dark Side. Maybe he will not kill her an come back to the light. Maybe the Millennium Falcon will come over the hill at the last possible moment. 

One thinks of Locutus of Borg, possibly.

Luke says “I’VE SEEN RAW STRENGTH LIKE THIS ONLY ONCE BEFORE IT DIDN’T SCARE ME ENOUGH THEN IT DOES NOW” and Big Hologram Gollum Guy says “When I found you I saw RAW UNTAMED POWER”. I suppose Luke is talking to Rey about Kylo Ren and I suppose Snoke is talking to Kylo Ren about Ben Solo. I suppose Luke is going to refuse to train Rey in case he buggers it up and sends her to the Dark Side as well. Which will send Rey into the arms of Ren for help. Which will result in Ren’s ultimate redemption. 

Or else something completely different will happen.

To summarize: Rey and Ren are powerful Jedi and are going to be tempted in various ways and there is going to be a battle involving X-Wings and capital ships and walkers and a chase involving the Millennium Falcon.

Which is, I suppose, only like saying that this cowboy film will definitely have horses, a criminal, a sheriff, some native Americans and a big gun fight in a frontier town. Star Wars isn’t a saga. It’s a genre. (I said that.)

*

Where do we go when we watch Star Wars?

A flea-pit olden days 1970s cinema with fizzy orange juice and ice-cream. Or maybe some nuts. Or a big London movie house with posters and programmes and people selling knock-off merchandise outside? 

Or am I misremembering? Was Star Wars always something that we were watching again on DVD. Or VHS. Or just ITV?



The movie called Star Wars (there is only one movie called Star Wars) was great, and we have all seen it forty or fifty times and will see it another twenty, thirty forty times before we die. (I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.) But before there was a movie called Star Wars there were Star Wars toys. The original dolls were almost comically badly done: no-one even tried to model Mark Hamil’s face and the white plastic smock molded onto his body has only the most passing connection to the greying desert gear he wears in the movie. I almost wonder if the appeal of the figures wasn’t in the packaging: the shiny card with the Star Wars logo and a big colour picture of the iconic twin suns scene printed on it? The closet you could get to putting your hands on a bit of the film and keeping it? No-one could afford to buy them, obviously. We went on pilgrimages to toy shops to gaze at them enviously.


Isn’t that what the word “iconic” literally means? 

The idea of Luke Skywalker, the blond guy in white with a utility belt and glowy sword can somehow be contracted to three inches of barely articulated plastic and have endless battles with the idea of Darth Vader, a black masked villain with a cheap cellophane cape. How many millions of battles did Luke Skywalker have with Darth Vader on how many thousands of bedroom floors between 1977 and 1980? 

At least until their lightsabers snapped off.


We can now see that the action figures were insufficiently iconic: that they contained too much of the real Mark Hamil and the real Alec Guinness. Forbidden Planet will sell you brilliantly authentic replicas of Darth Vader costing hundreds of pounds but those are not for children to play with, they are for adults to put on the shelf and forget about. The real Star Wars; Star Wars stripped of all particularity and specificity, the pure idea of the Dark Side and the Light, is now surely the Lego figurine? (I am serious. Every child has seen thousands of Lego Stormtroopers before the Star Destroyer swallows up the Blockade Runner, and every child knows that Vader is Luke's father before they know who Vader and Luke are.) 


We can't watch Doctor Who again. We wouldn't physically fit behind that damn sofa. But perhaps we can crouch down on the bedroom floor one last time. There can't ever really be a new Star Wars story, and we wouldn't want there to be. (George Lucas never really understood this.) But we can take the Lego minifigs out of the box and play out our favorite scenes in a slightly different order. I'm pretty sure Joseph Campbell said that. 


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

White People's History, Update...

...A pub called The Colston Yard has changed its name to The Bristol Yard.....

...The snowflakes trying to obliterate the parts of history that they don't like.

....All the P C do gooders wanting the name Colston remove well you can not change history

....Pathetic - you can't erase history, you should learn from it and make sure it never happens again....And the Colston Hall will AlWAYS be the Colston Hall to me because it's part of my history!

''''Edward Colston did not start slavery. It was started by African tribes capturing and selling other Africans.

.....The PC Brigade win again. Pity some people have no guts to stick it out.

....This is the slow but sure erosion of white peoples' history in within the city and nation, the same thing is happening in America with their monuments, it won't ever be satisfied until it is completely erased....


....but Colston Girls School has decided to leave the name as it is.

....As we live in a democracy, why not let the people of Bristol decide whether we change the name of the Colston Hall,,,,no hold on a moment, the powers that be would realise that the vast majority of true Bristolians would want it to stay as it is,,,,THE COLSTON HALL

....Changing a name and trying to airbrush history is easy, righting modern day wrongs and the suffering of those currently living is much harder.

....Fantastic news!!! the Lefty in charge of the Colston Hall is still pressing ahead though, forcing their will on us like any true Libtard!

....Excellent news - should not be hiding the past - all this politically correct nonsense is highly frustrating. Colston Hall take note !!

.....These "do-gooders" trying to re-write history are getting into dangerous waters


Friday, November 17, 2017

The Tables Turned



Stan Lee introduces Amazing Spider-Man #29 with the following words.

"On the surface, this may seem to be a super-hero action thriller! But if you probe down deep, if you analyse each subtle nuance, if you dissect each philosophical phrase, if you study each non-existentialist panel you’ll discover that it actually is… a super-hero action thriller!” 


What is the purpose of this panel? Why does Stan Lee introduce this particular superhero story with 50 words saying not much more than “this is a superhero story”? Why is this the superhero story into which he is particularly worried about people reading too much significance?

And what the heck does he mean by "non-existentialist"?

An existentialist thinks that human beings create their own meaning in an essentially meaningless universe. So I suppose a non-existentialist must believe the opposite: that life does have some kind of meaning and purpose if you are prepared to look for it. 

The Beatles’ German friends were described as “exis”, but this just seems to have meant that they thought you should challenge authority. Adrian Mole was a “nihilistic existentialist”, which meant he took “being bored” a stage further than everyone else. When I was at college a lot of people used “existentialist” to mean “gloomy”. The Christian Union took it to mean “all the bad things that people believe in this terrible modern world.” In this latter sense it has been largely replaced by “post-modernism”.

Peter Parker is a non-existentialist. He believes that his life has a meaning. He thinks that Someone or Something behind the scenes expects him to behave in a particular way. The name he gives to the Person Behind The Scenes is usually Fate or Destiny. But we know that its true name is Stan Lee. 

Parker’s belief in Luck and Fate is really the perception that he is a character in a comic book. It isn’t fickle fate that determined he would be at the science exhibition at the same moment the spider got irradiated. It isn’t blind luck that means that his life keeps getting tangled up with Doctor Octopus’s plans. And it isn’t destiny which forces him to carry on being Spider-Man even though the sensible thing to do would be quit. It’s all the fault of Stan and Steve who keep thinking up more and more far-fetched plot-devices to throw at him. Because if they didn’t there wouldn’t be a comic. 

In real life, the chances of the guy who is going to murder your uncle happening to run past you down a corridor is billions to one. The chance of it happening to Peter Parker is about one hundred percent. “With great power comes great responsibility” isn’t a moral statement so much as a description of the way stories work. This story, at any rate. The argument about the Green Goblin’s identity was an argument about whether Spider-Man’s life should be directed by the Fickle Finger of Fate or whether it should be just one thing after another. Between non-existentialist Lee (”Gosh, how ironic! My best friend’s father!”) and existentialist Ditko (“this guy I never saw before”.) 


“Yeah, well, that’s not the way it would be in real life.”

“Yeah, well, in real life, there’s nobody called The Green Goblin.’



Analogies between God and The Author have been a bit overdone, not least by me. I doubt if Stan Lee has read The Mind of the Maker or The Death of the Author. But he does talk about creating all the Marvel superheroes and resting on the seventh day. Being a writer and being God are sort of kind of the same. If you are a non-existentialist, then the universe has whatever meaning and purpose God intended it to have. So surely the Marvel Universe must mean whatever Stan Lee says it means. 

And what does the voice of Stan say? He says that every single panel has the quality of non-existentialism. It means something. But at the same time — in the same breath — he says that the comic has no deeper meaning. It’s just a comic. 

This comic means whatever I say it means. And what I say is that it doesn’t mean anything. 

How is that even worth saying? 



Amazing Spider-Man #28, #29, #30 and #31 were not published by Marvel Comics Group: they were published by Marvel Pop Art Productions. 


“Remember” enthused letter-col Stan “from now on, Brand X, Y, and Z are comic books, but when you ask for a Marvel mag, you ask for a pop art book.” 


This is, I assume, a joke. But a joke is only funny if the people hearing it share certain beliefs. They all know that “comic” is a bit of pejorative term. They all know that Marvel comics are qualitatively different from DC and Atlas. And they all know what Pop Art is. Or, at any rate, they know that there is a thing called Pop Art, even if they couldn’t state the difference between Andy Warhol’s screen prints and Roy Lichtenstein found panels in any form that could hold water for five minutes. 

But what does it mean for Stan to stick a “Marvel Pop Art Productions” logo on his cover? Is he  saying “Look! These really aren’t comics any more!”? Or is he saying “Isn’t it funny that some pretentious people think these aren’t comics any more!”?


Quod scripsi, scripsi. Pow, zap, comics aren’t just for kids.



Amazing Spider-Man #33 included a fan-letter from one Betty-Anne Lopate who asked “Have you ever considered the close ideological connection between your Spider-Man and the Dadaist-Pop Art Movement?” Whether you have or not, it’s a very good letter, nailing what makes Spider-Man tick and comparing Stan Lee with Hugh Heffner into the bargain: 


“Whether you realize it or not, your Spider-Man has become the Hipper Man’s Playboy Magazine. While Hefner has capitalized on the boyhood dreams of many men to consider themselves suave and sophisticated, Spider-Man calls up a different, much more realistic and subtle form of sophistication; it caters to the young thinking man’s need to consider himself also a man of action.” 


It takes Stan Lee three exclamation points to express how bemused he is by this letter: 


“How about THAT!!! Here’s a chick who spends her 12c and end up getting fodder for a psychological dissertation! Betty-Anne, we think you’re great - and let us know what you’ll charge to psychoanalyze the gang in the bullpen when you get the chance! Okay, pussycat!” 


Stan is very proud that clever people are studying his comics, but nevertheless wants to be seen as a plain ol’ joe who doesn’t understand a word of it. Betty-Anne uses pop art and dadaism (which were not at all the same thing) to introduce a fairly transparent exposition of Spider-Man’s appeal, which Stan Lee immediately conflates with psychoanalysis. The humanities — art, lit-crit, Freud — are all equally impenetrable to us mere mortals. Peter Parker wrote off art after one glance at a modern painting, and can’t tell the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst. 

(Brief pause to acknowledge the sexist language.)


In Origins of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee he presents himself, less as the onlie begetter of an entire menagerie of super-people, more as a professional word-smith. It turns out that it's the dialogue, not the original concept, which defines a character: 

“The best stories of all… are the stories in which the characters seem to be real….And what makes them so? Mostly it’s their dialog. The well-written character is the one who is always verbally true to form…”


“When I began to write the strip (which means actually putting the words in all their little pink mouths) I decided that I wanted the hammer holder to speak more like a god…”


This is one hell of claim, if you think about it. "Writer" means “the guy who writes the dialogue”, and dialogue is what makes characters real. So regardless of who “dreamed up” Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee is indubitably the one who makes the characters real. 

Stan Lee has admitted elsewhere that Steve Ditko “dreamed up” Doctor Strange without any input from him. But if anyone but Stan had been putting words into Doctor Strange’s – er – “little pink mouth” he might have said things like “Hocus pocus go to another dimension” or “Like, split to another dimension, man.” But as we all know, what he really says is things like “In the name of the dread Dormammu…” and “By the all-seeing eye of Agamatto…”. It is this vocabulary of authentic sounding magic words which makes Doctor Strange seem real. 

As Doctor Strange got more and more popular -- and what could be hipper than a Greenwich Village wizard -- some of the Betty-Anne's among his fan base started to wonder where Stan Lee had sourced all this magic vocabulary. 


“Suddenly, mail started pouring in — from colleges, if you will… And the pay off was, many of these explained, in detailed chapter and verse, how I had obviously borrowed from the ancient Druid writings, or from forbidden Egyptian hieroglyphics, or at least the writings of H.P Lovecraft.”


It isn’t clear how college students got their hands on these Egyptian texts if they were forbidden, or indeed who it was who was forbidding them. It’s even less clear where they found ancient druid writings, given that we only know about the druids from secondary sources. Stan Lee is, as usual riffing on a theme. But his response to these supposed letters is, again, to be flattered that people are taking his comics seriously, but bemused by the specifics of what they are saying: 


“After they had done all that research, all that probing and digging, how could I tell them that it wasn’t so — that I had made it all up?”


So he told a white lie: he’d read very widely, and doubtless filled Doctor Strange with references and allusions at a sub-conscious level. 


“No need to tell them I’d never studied Egyptian hieroglyphics and wouldn’t know any ancient Druid writings if they were tattooed on my dome.”


This is the standard Artist’s Plea. My ideas don’t come from anywhere. There is no hidden meaning or subtext. I just made it all up. Out of my head. All right, all right. If you insist, maybe I put some hidden meanings in there subconsciously. But I really really didn’t. It’s all – meaningless. 


“The first phrase I thought of was as totally meaningless as all the others that were to follow: “by the hoary hosts of hoggoth”. No matter what he said, no matter what he wanted, no matter what he said, it always seemed to sound more dramatic when preceded by “by the hoary hosts of hoggoth.” 


He’s riffing again. Hoggoth wasn’t the first magic word to be used in Doctor Strange, and it was never quite as ubiquitous as he suggests. No-one sensible – not even those imaginary college students – thinks that Lee had secret knowledge of occult forces and was hiding them in his comic book. But it doesn't quite follow that the phrase is “meaningless”. 

“Hoary” is a real word. It means ancient. It has connotations of whiteness and cold. It’s an old-fashioned word. We never use it accept as a conscious archaism. 

A “host” is an army, but we only ever use the word in a religious context. We probably have some vague sense that it has something to do with angels: “the heavenly host” and the “lord of hosts”. We might also possibly associate it with the “consecrated host” in a Catholic church. “Hoggoth” is a strange collection of sounds: nothing rhymes with it. H.P Lovecraft independently spotted its strangeness when he named one of his alien monsters a “shoggoth”

I suppose we could translate “hoary hosts of hoggoth” as “Hoggoth’s ancient army” or just possibly “Hoggoth’s ancient and holy bread”. But this isn’t what we hear. What we hear is more like “ancient-white-archaic-mysterious-religious-sacred-things”. We probably imagine Hoggoth as a venerable old man with white hair and a beard. It has echoes of Christian sanctity, but the lilting alliteration is the kind of thing a guru in an Arabian Nights market might say. Like Doctor Strange, it has one foot in a Western world of angels and devils, and one foot in an Eastern world of carpets and Turkish delight. 

You could doubtless play similar games with “agamatto” and “dormamu” and “vishanti”. Lee says that when he made the names up he relief entirely on phonetic: on what sounded mystical. But I don't think that there is any such thing as pure phonetics. Lee may never had read an occult text in his life, but his words mean things, however much he doth protest that they do not.


Stan Lee wrote Spider-Man’s dialogue. So by Stan Lee's arguments, it was Stan Lee who mainly made Spider-Man seem real. But Steve Ditko was making up the stories and Steve Ditko had some very specific, very idiosyncratic, very deeply held political beliefs. And they were increasingly finding their way into his stories. We are only four issues away from The Final Chapter: Spider-Man’s supreme act of self-conquest. No-one reading that iconic episode would dispute that it means something: that Steve Ditko meant something by it. The young people on the internet who say “all that happens is that Spider-Man lifts something really heavy” are simply wrong. 

Stan must have been able to see what was happening. Stan must have known that left to himself Steve would have turned Peter Parker into the poster-boy for his newfound Randian faith. Would Stan have been relaxed about that? Using comics to say that hatred was bad and love was good was one thing: but using them to proselytize a specific political position was something else. 

So this breezy little joke is part of the Lee vs Ditko struggle, which is part of the words vs pictures struggle, which is part of the Peter Parker vs Spider-Man struggle. Ditko wants his comics to say something. Stan smiles and says that if you look carefully enough you’ll find that there is nothing to see. They really are just superhero comics and nothing else.

A couple of issue later he admits that the “Pop Art” logo was a terrible, terrible mistake.


When a writer tells critics not to bother interpreting his story, what he really means is that his interpretation is the only true one – that you have to read the story his way, or not at all. Some writers find deeply threatening the idea that there might be truths in the story they created which they themselves are unaware of. “This story is meaningless” is the cry of a creator trying to keep control over his creation. 

There is a very well known story about this. About a creator who creates a Creature with the best of intentions only to watch the Creature run amok and destroy him and everything he loved. (The Creature even steals his Creator's name.) 

I assume that Lee had read Mary Shelly. He had certainly seen the Karloff movie. He quite explicitly evokes Frankenstein when recapitulating the story of the Scorpion. It isn’t mere a tale of science gone awry. It’s a tale of the Creation rising up against the Creator. Jameson created the Scorpion to destroy Spider-Man; the Scorpion wants to destroy Jameson; Spider-Man has to defend Jameson from the Scorpion. “I am doomed…” cries Jameson “Doomed by the very creature I myself unthinkingly helped to create.” The language can hardly be a coincidence. 

Ditko provided a splash page which encapsulates the super-hero action thriller side of the story very adequately. Jameson looks on helplessly as Spider-Man fights against the Scorpion (tearing up his office) in the process. Stan Lee could have underlined this, say by repeating the blurb from last issues letter page “A fighting mad Spider-Man battles to protect his worst enemy.” But instead he looks through the image and sees the deeper meaning. The Creation that the Creator has lost all control over. 

Lee’s 50 word introduction is one last attempt to take back control over the character he created. Helped to create. And he knows it won’t do any good. He is J. Jonah Jameson. His office has been flattened. Fifty years in the future people he has never met will be discovering new ways in which Spider-Man #29 is something more than a superhero action thriller.