Friday, January 27, 2017


I am in favor of using words correctly. I don’t think that you should say “depressed” if what you mean is “sad”; I don’t think you should say “bipolar” if what you mean is “moody”; and I definitely don’t think you should say “autistic” if what you mean is “shy.” It’s insulting and patronizing to people who are actually depressed or bipolar; and it’s also a kind of linguistic inflation. (If you say “depression” when you mean “sadness” you have to make up a new word for when “depression” is what you actually do mean.) It would have been better if we’d never started using “poxy” to mean “small” or “lame” to mean “inadequate” or “psychotic” to mean cross. In fact, you probably shouldn’t say “surreal” if what you mean “silly” or “existential” if what you mean is “gloomy” or “random” if what you mean is…whatever kids mean by “random” nowadays. 

But I don’t want to go too far in that direction. Otherwise I’ll turn into one of those boring people who says that “decimate” only ever means “divide by ten” and that “gay” only ever means “brightly colored” and that “literally” can never mean “figuratively”. And that’s literally the thin end of the wedge. 

I believe I am correct in saying that “mad” no longer has any medical meaning, but does retain a legal meaning. And it definitely has a lot of colloquial meanings. I’ll get mad if you are rude about Star Wars because I’m on mad on Star Wars. The original meaning of “crazy” was “cracked”: if I say that my garden has crazy paving, I’m using it in the older sense. It was applied to people by analogy. (I remember the original Star Wars craze: people went crazy about it.) 

If my friend tells me that he has met and spoken with a fairy (which, as previously mentioned, at least three of my friends have in fact done) there are basically three possibilities

1: There really are fairies, and I need to expand my view of reality to encompass such creatures or 

2: My friend is lying, or telling fairy stories, with or without the encouragement of Mr Conan Doyle. 

3: My friend is mad, crazy, delusional or hallucinating. 

If I went with 3, I don't think I would be providing an amateur diagnosis, or patronizing my other friends who have to cope with mental conditions every day. I think that mad, cracked, crazy, or two land cards short of a Magic deck is a word we use to describe people who see stuff which isn't actually there. 

"What do you think about the people you say claim to have really met fairies, Andrew?” 

“I think that one of them was describing a spiritual experience — ‘In a particular location, I felt something I cannot explain, and “fairies” is the name I am going to give to that experience’ If he’d come from a different background, he might have said that he’d encountered the Blessed Virgin. I think that one of them was talking about faith: I think that fairies form part of his neo-pagan belief system. I think the other one had done a lot of drugs.” 

It seems to me that there comes a point at which a person — a politician, say — denies facts — about vaccination, say, or climate change, or the number of people who attended an inauguration ceremony — to such an extend that the rest of us are entitled to say “Either you are lying, or your are crazy.” 


The famously sane Tony Blair used to claim that it didn’t matter whether a particular policy was “left wing”, “right wing”, “conservative” or “liberal”; as Prime Minister he would do “whatever worked”. 

This is, of course, bullshit.

You can only tell if something has "worked" if you know what result you wanted; and the result you want depends greatly on whether you are left wing, right wing, conservative or liberal.  Someone might think that a law and order policy worked because it resulted in lots of criminals being punished; someone else might think that it was a failure because there was no overall reduction in the amount of crime. You might think that schools sports policy worked because Team Little Britain won lots of medals in the Tokyo Olympics; I might think it was a failure because hardly any non-elite athletes were still taking exercise ten years after they left school.

But “whatever works” does admit the possibility that something might not work. In theory, we can look at what did happen, and say "I don't think that what you did worked".


The new American dictator said yesterday that he was in favour of torturing people because "torture works". It isn’t immediately clear what “works” means. Does it mean that if someone knows a secret they will definitely and automatically tell it to you provided you hurt them badly enough? Or does it just mean that if the goodies are doing some torturing, the baddies will stop doing so much terroristing? "If only we had been torturing people in the 1990s, the Twin Towers attack wouldn't have happened; once we started torturing people after 2001, the London bombing didn't happen. Or if it did, it would have been worse without the torture. Or it only happened because we weren't doing enough torturing. Or something."

Someone is said to have asked Auberon Waugh how a horrible person like him could possibly claim to be a Christian. "But if I wasn't a Christian" he replied "Think how much worse I would be."

A man who tells jokes for a living cited the famous “ticking bomb” thought experiment on twitter, in the following terms: 

Your baby is tied to a timebomb. 

You have the terrorist. 

He tells you you have 1 hour. 

Do you torture him to find your baby or let it die?

He got extremely cross when anyone suggested that this was a silly scenario: you wouldn’t have a single terrorist, there wouldn’t be a single piece of information that would save the victim, and you have no way of knowing if the person you are torturing is a coward (who will blurt out anything to avoid being hurt) or, a fanatic who positively wants to be hurt in order to be martyr.

I proposed a couple of alternative scenarios:

Your baby is tied to a bomb. 

The terrorist is a colossal pervert. 

Do you let him spend 1 hour with your 12 year old son or let the baby die?

Your baby is tied to a bomb. 

You have 99 innocent people and 1 terrorist.

Do you torture all 100 of them or let the baby die?

Your baby was tied to a bomb by a Jehovah's Witness. 

Do you arrest and torture all 226,000 Jehovah's Witnesses or let the baby die?

Of the 226,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses 1% give in and scream, "I'll tell you where the baby is." 

Which of the 2260 confessions do you follow up?

There is nothing wrong with asking purely hypothetical questions; there is nothing wrong with thought experiments. "Don't be silly, I'm not on the moon" is not a very good answer to the question "If you dropped a feather and a one kilogram weight on the moon, which would hit the ground first? I suppose the ticking bomb fantasy establishes whether your objection to torture is a moral one, or a practical one: do you say "No, I wouldn't torture the guy, even if it totally would save the little'un life?" or "Yes, if in some magic way, torturing the guy would get my baby back, then I would torture him.".

But it occurred to me that the scenario we really needed to consider would be something like:

Your baby is tied to a bomb. 

Would you sacrifice a white goat to Aphrodite in order to bring your baby home in a golden chariot pulled by winged horses?

To which the answer is: yes, if sacrificing the goat would summons up the magic chariot, yes I would. But it wouldn’t. So it’s a silly question. 

In these scenarios, it's always a Really Bad Guy who is getting tortured; not a basically pretty harmless guy who happens to know the codes. And one cannot escape the suspicion that when someone says "torture works" they are adding, under their breath "and even if it doesn't, the really bad guy had it coming to them." Torquemada, Matthew Hopkins and Donald Trump all know in advance that Jews, women and Muslims are "baddies", and the search for heretics, witches and terrorists provides a pretext to hurt bad people.

If your baby really was tied to a time bomb, and if you really did torture a terrorist, or a suspected terrorist, or a Brazilian electrician who looked as if he might be a terrorist, and if the guy holds out under torture; or tells you that they’re on Dantooine when they’re really on Yavin… and one way or another the bomb goes off and the baby dies…

Everyone who believed in torture would continue to believe that torture worked. 

Because the baby would quite definitely still be alive. The photos of the pathetic little corpse being taken out of the burning building is FAKE NEWS produced my MAINSTREAM MEDIA which is run BY cultural Marxists who yes want the terrorists TO win.

If I saw some very powerful people actually looking at the dead baby, and saying "the baby is still alive", I would say that they were either mad or liars, and you would say that things weren't always as black and white as we Trotskyites like to pretend. You would write long think pieces in the Guardian about the interesting controversy of the exploding baby.

And years later, the story about the baby chained to the time bomb who saved by the torturing would be one of those things which everybody knows, like Alfred and the Cakes and the school that sang baa baa green street and weapons of mass destruction. Everyone would say that horrible as torture is and obviously we’re not in favour of it and it’s a great shame that we inadvertently castrated that kid whose dad had a name quite similar to the person who almost definitely knew something about an outrage that hadn’t actually happened yet...but you have to admit, torture stopped the baby from exploding.

And I'll point to the pathetic little gravestone and the autopsy report, and you'll say “Ah, still  going on about the dead baby. It’s political correctness gone mad. Fake news, fake news. Social Justice Warriors always lie.” 


Fortunately, no-one has attached any bombs to any babies. But my country is about to sacrifice its place in the world on a Quixotic whim. And it will be impossible ever to ask the question "Did Brexit work? Did it do what it was supposed to do?" 

If as expected, Theresa May lights the blue touch paper next month, then for decades to come, every media outlet but one will contain nothing but stories about how everything is rosy and wonderful: stories about factories opening, stories about people with new jobs, stories about nasty Polish restaurants being replaced with proper 1950s English cafes that sell burned steak and blue nun wine. 

And if anyone says that this isn’t true — that inflation is high, the pound is sinking, people don’t have jobs, every media outlet but one will say That’s what you would expect the remoaners to say. Why do they run this country down? Why do they feel it necessary? Don’t quote statistics at me. You can prove anything you want with statistics. Anyone can SEE the country is doing brilliantly. Except Social Justice Warriors, who always lie.” 

And if, by some chance, sanity prevails, we will have another 50 years in which people stare at big, yellow, curved bananas and say “of course, you aren’t allowed to buy curved bananas any more. It’s political correctness gone mad."

(It is just about possible to imagine the Remain camp, ten years down the line saying "well, that wasn't nearly as bad as we feared." It is impossible to imagine the Leave camp, even in the face of Armageddon, saying "We're afraid that didn't work as well as we'd hoped.")

Which, in a sense, makes life a bit easier. 

We don’t, in fact, know whether the September 11th attacks would have been averted if some CIA officers had put some black guys balls in a vice in a camp in Cuba. To know what would have happened, child? No-one is ever told that. But we still know what is moral; what is right; what is wrong.

We don't know what works, because the crazy people will see whatever they choose to see. But we know what is moral. What is right and wrong. Big people don’t hit little people. You can’t have sex with anyone without their consent. The rich help the poor. You don’t hurt other people, however much you might sometimes want to.

In a “post truth” world, that may be all there is to hold on to. 


I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Donald Trump: I may not like his policies, but he’s no different from any other right wing politician. 

But a man who said the sorts of things that Donald Trump has said would not be merely a right-wing politician. He would either be a lunatic -- on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell. 

You must make your choice. Either this man is genetically superior to the rest of the human race, or else he is a madman or something worse. 

You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can believe everything he says because he’s such a smart guy. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being merely a right-wing politician. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sherlock, redux

Sherlock Holmes is about the idea that you can start with an absurd set of data and work backwards, through a series of logical steps, to a completely reasonable starting place. (Many people have spotted that Sigmund Freud had roughly the same idea at roughly the same time.) Neither Freudian nor Holmsian methods would work in real life: Sherlock admits as much, though Sigmund never does. The cases that Holmes solves (or at any rates the cases that Watson bothers to write up) are exclusively those cases which Holmes methodology happens to work for. Which generally means closed-systems with something weird — or as Holmes always says, singular — about them. Give him a guy whose been killed in a remote country house after swearing he saw the ghost of a hell hound, and Holmes has a fair chance of sorting things out. Pull John Doe’s body out of the Thames three months after it got there, and boring old forensics are a better bet. 

Deduction is where you start from a premise and work out what the conclusion will be. Starting from a conclusion and working back to the starting point is induction. You would have thought Holmes, or at any rate Watson, or at any rate Doyle, would have known that. 

Not all the stories work: but in the ones that do, there is a real joy in seeing Holmes impose order on chaos; in saying “Of course: the club which you can only join if you have a particular kind of hair; or the bedside drawer with the hair of two previous occupants in it now makes complete sense. Clever Sherlock.” There is a similar joy in reading Freud’s case histories. Who cares if he never actually cured anyone. 

Holmes is a remarkable chap, obviously; Watson calls him the best and wisest man he ever met, which is not insignificantly what Plato said about Socrates. But he isn’t a superhero. Part of the point of the stories is that his deductions are plausible; anyone could do it if they kept their wits about them. We are inclined to think that Watson is a bit of a twit for not keeping up. A detective story wouldn’t be worth reading if the detective were that good. Ideally, Gentle Reader should get to the conclusion just after Holmes and just before Watson.

Holmes often has information that we and Watson don’t have, which a classical Whodunnit writer would regard as cheating.

The Moffat / Gatiss  Sherlock TV series has always been a slightly odd confection. It uses the now-superhuman inductive skills of Holmes in much the same way that the now-infallible navigation of the TARDIS is used in Doctor Who: as a pretext for (on a good day) brilliant, non-linear narratives and (on a bad day) for just abandoning cause-and-effect storytelling as a lost cause. Cumberbatch plays a kind of parody or race-memory of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes, which was itself a parody of Holmes as he is in Study in Scarlet and hardly anywhere else: crazy, misanthropic and not yet humanized by the arrival of Robin the Boy Wonder. It correctly spots that the real fun in Sherlock was not the bobbies and the fog and the hansom cabs; or the funny pipe and the funny hat and the slippers. It was all about the logic and the mysteries. 

But convincing, Doylish mysteries — crazy end-points to which Holmes can provide convincing back-stories — are hard to write. Not impossible: the sub-plot about the dead son in the car in the Six Thatchers is the sort of thing I would like to have seen more of. But Moffat and Gatiss increasingly fall back on the lazy writers' worst cliche: the clever guy solving bizarre riddles which an even cleverer guy is consciously setting for him. 

Doyle’s Moriarty is a brilliant man turned into a brilliant criminal. Moffat's Moriarty is simply a lunatic. From Don Quixote to Hannibal Lecter, fictional lunatics can be the subjects of interesting stories. But they are a very lazy plot device. Why is he is doing this? Why is he going to all that trouble? How did he escape from the escape proof prison? He doesn’t have to have a reason. He’s a lunatic. Moffat’s Moriarty could very easily be imagined painting clown make up on his face and releasing poisoned balloons over Gotham City. 

The Final Problem (TV episode) produced newspaper headlines about “How the TV phenomenon became an annoying self parody” and “Missing persons inquiry launched as Sherlock vanishes up own arse”. But it seemed to me to have very much the same strengths and weaknesses as all the other episodes. It sets up a very interesting villain whose only function turns out to be to set up problems for and experiment on Sherlock Holmes. In a proper story, some believable chain of events would lead to a situation where Holmes has to choose between killing his brother Mycroft and killing his best friend Watson. Having a super-villain put them in a room and say “You must now choose between killing your brother Mycroft and killing your best friend Watson” is barely a story at all. It’s more like a Dungeons & Dragons puzzle. (The solution is straight out of the Hunger Games.) The deductive power of Holmes and Moriarty and Mycroft and the Mysterious and Unexpected Villain Who is Even Cleverer Than Any Of Them is not something that any normal person could keep up with.

The cleverness of Holmes has become another manifestation of our old friend The Plot. Anything that the writers want to happen can happen because Holmes can make it happen because he is so clever. Add a non-player character who is as clever as he is, and then another one, and then a third one, and what you are watching is no longer detective fiction; it's a competition to see who has the biggest Sonic Screwdriver.

"Annoying self-parody" isn't a bad description of the whole project actually: maybe I'd have gone for "clever, engaging but annoying self-parody."

Most of us now expect a TV series to have some sort of forward momentum. Gone are the days when the BBC could put all three seasons of Star Trek tapes in box, shuffle them up, pick one out at random, show it on a Monday night and no-one would notice the difference. We now expect characters to die and get married and have babies (not necessarily in that order), partly because soap opera has replaced the novel as the dominant genre, and partly because verisimilitude. If our hero doesn't have the scars from the end of last week's thrilling adventure at the beginning of this week's thrilling adventure we won't be able to suspend our disbelief.   

Sherlock Holmes had a brother. He had an arch-enemy and a landlady. These characters are so peripheral to the canon that we could very nearly say that they don’t exist. Moffat and Gatiss create entirely new characters with similar names, and present us with something that superficially feels a good deal like classic Holmes: Mycroft is clever and mysterious, Moriarty is evil, Watson misses the point and writes it up on his blog, and Mrs Hudson makes them all a cup of tea. But once you have shouted “go” and allowed events to start happening they stop being clever 21st century takes on 19th century ciphers and end up as the sum total of the last thirteen episodes. Which gets us very quickly to a Sherlock which has nothing much to do with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. You may or may not have a problem with that. 

A similar process killed off the Marvel Comics “Ultimates” line. Issue #1 of Ultimate Spider-Man re-imagines Peter Parker as a 15 year old computer nerd from 2001; and we all said “wow, you’ve come up with a precise 21st century analogy for what made Spider-Man so great in the 1960s”. By issue #75, New York has been destroyed, J. Jonah Jameson is a goodie and Spider-Man is member of the X-Men, dating Kitty Pryde, on the run from SHIELD and dead. You can barely recognize him as Spider-Man any more; and the comic is just as hard to "jump aboard" as the fatally compromised Marvel Universe version. But the alternative is a 1950s sit-com where nothing ever happens and no-one ever gets any older.

I suppose that Sherlock was always going to be the kind of series that some people would over-love, and, therefore, when it started to disappoint, the kind of series that some people would over-hate. I never loved it that much (apart from the Victorian special, which was genuinely clever) but I never hated it that much, either. It is clear that Stephen Moffat can only write one character: you could swap the Cumberbatch Sherlock with the equally interchangeable Smith and Capaldi Doctors and no-one would really notice. But that one character is a lot off fun. Matt Smith was my favorite non-canonical Doctor Who, after all. The clash of Cumberbatch’s over-the-top theatricality with Martin Freeman’s toned down naturalism (so underdone it’s practically not there at all) makes for consistently good scenes. The two of them would be riveting in any context: apart, obviously, from the Hobbit. 

Kudos to Gatiss and Moffat for realizing that Holmes could be taken out of Victorian London and still be Holmes. But how typical that when the smog and the urchins and the rats were cleared away, what was found to be left was not a man who cleverly worked backwards from the end of the story to its beginning; nor even a man eschewing emotion but guided by rationality. No: what Sherlock Holmes turned out to really be about was the friendship between Sherlock and John.

It’s like one of those trailers where some Hollywood luvvie has been persuaded to appear in a low budget docudrama about William Ramsay and the discovery of the nobel gasses.

“Oh,  but it’s not about chemistry” they always say “It’s really about love.”

There is a thing which Moffat and Gatiss do: and Sherlock Season 4 is Moffat and Gatiss continuing to do that thing. Disappointment, or even anger, seems curiously misplaced. It is what it is.

Friday, January 20, 2017


Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.
      Robert E. Howard

So, anyway: people keep falling down holes.

"Okay", I said: "We’d better have some people standing by with ladders and ropes and pulleys, so when anyone falls down a hole they can pull them out. And everyone will pay two and sixpence a year old money to pay their wages and the upkeep on the ropes and the ladders."

"No", you said. "That’s unfair on the people who never fall down holes. And the whole process of collecting two and six from everyone is wasteful. What we’ll do is charge the people who actually fall down holes the actual cost of pulling them out. Although naturally, if someone falls down a hole and really can’t afford the fee, we’ll exempt him from the charge. Or let him pay it installments, or make him do a stint pulling other people out of holes, or something." 

Then my friend joined the conversation. "I have an even better idea", they said. "Instead of spending all this money pulling people out of holes, why don’t we spend it filling in the holes, and putting up fences and lights and warning signs round the holes and preventing people from digging holes in the first place?"

"Oh, no, no, no" you said: "We can’t molly coddle our citizens like nanny goats! People must be free to fall down holes on their own time."  

But then your friend joined in the discussion, and asked if he might play devil’s advocate for a moment. "If someone is weak enough and stupid enough to fall down a hole", he explored, "Then surely he should be left there? Where did this idea that anyone had any responsibility to help anyone else out of a hole come from? That just leads to people walking around, not looking where they are going, falling down holes and expecting the government to pull them out, like in Germany. And anyway, there aren’t any holes, or if there are, no-one falls down them, or if they do, they climb out by themselves…"

"I think you will find… " said I.

"No, I am not going to argue with you", said your friend. "You should help someone out of a hole is an obvious piece of nonsense, on the same level as why is a mouse when it spins? and feminism. People who believe in pulling other people out of holes always lie about everything. Surely we can all accept that as a starting point?"


Chivalry is the idea that a person whose job it is to brutally kill people should, when he isn’t brutally killing people, be exceptionally kind and gentle. 

This is obviously a silly idea. Left to themselves, a person who chooses “killing people” as his career path is likely to want to kill as many people as he possibly can — and rape their women, take their stuff, burn their land, and then swagger into the pub and brag about it, expecting everyone in the pub to defer to him because he’s got a bloody big sword and they haven’t.

The Parfit Gentil Knyght is a made up thing. But for hundreds of years, most of the real-life knights believed in it. They honestly thought that to be truly soldierly and truly macho you had to be incredibly soft and gentle and (if one can put it like that) girly towards civilians and kids and old people and your horse and the fat guy in the squad who isn’t much use as a soldier and (especially) enemies who surrender to you. 

It was a bit like the fine old British idea of being a good sport. Guys put so much of themselves into rugger matches, and care so much about winning, that we had to base our entire education system around the idea that the really good rugger player is the one who doesn’t mind (or at any rate, pretends not to mind) if he loses. Otherwise the whole thing would quickly turn into a bloodbath. 

The catch is that people started to believe that sportsmanship and chivalry were the natural order of things. That if you gave a hormonal young man a rugby ball and told him that the whole honor of his school depended on his scoring a wicket with it, it would automatically follow that he would shake hands with the captain of the other team and say “Well done, old chap, you played much better than us, let me buy you a beer shandy” at the end of the game. And that if you were the sort of person who didn’t mind disemboweling Jerries with bayonets you would automatically also be the sort of person who helped old people across the road and never said "bloody" in front of a lady. That the bigger a psychopath you were on the battlefield, the more of a pussycat you would be in the dining room. 

The other catch is that teachers stopped thinking of sportsmanship as the only thing which made rugby bearable, and started to think of of rugby as the most important part of education because it taught young men about sportsmanship. And perhaps it did. Perhaps the best way to breed judges and politicians and policemen who mostly don’t take bribes or pick on the smaller guy is to bring them up to believe that things like that are "just not cricket". Or perhaps — as that great philosopher Captain Kirk pointed out — sportsmanship is a terrible idea precisely because it does take all the violence and brutality out of rugby. Maybe rugby ought to be violent and brutal: to ensure that civilized people only resort to rugby as a last resort. 

Once we started to believe that soldiers were automatically chivalrous we naturally stopped bothering to drum the idea of chivalry into soldiers, which more or less guaranteed that soldiers would stop trying to be chivalrous. (A similar problem arose when priests stopped thinking of Christianity as “this radical idea that it’s my job to convince people of” and started thinking of it as “what all English people are by default.”) And so you end up in a world where respectable newspapers columnists honestly don’t understand how one of Our Boys could have been court martialled for executing a prisoner of war. (But it was an enemy! A foreigner! Can’t you even execute foreign prisoners of war any more? It’s political correctness gone mad!) A world where a mainstream politician can wonder out loud whether it might be a good idea to torture people even suspected of being enemies.

And their wives.

And their children.

“Because we have to beat the savages.”


When I was born, men were still being sent to prison for going to bed with other men. In fact, men were still being sent to prison for sleeping with other men when I was in college. Homosexuality was only fully legalized in this country in 2001.

When my Mum was born, the British government still employed an official whose role it was to put ropes around people’s necks and push them through trap-doors. He was made redundant less than one year before I was born. The last neck-breaking session took place on 13 Aug 1964. A Thursday. Doctor Who was coming to the end of its first season. That Saturday’s episode was called Guests of Madam Guillotine. Before Google, it wouldn’t have been possible to find that kind of stuff out.

When my Grandmother was born, women were not allowed to vote in elections.

I cannot personally remember signs outside shops saying “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” but I can remember when the BBC showed black face minstrel shows as part of a normal Sunday afternoon entertainment -- and everyone, even nice people, thought this was perfectly normal. And I can remember when it was perfectly normal for children (including me)to have rag dolls called “Greedy-Yids” with cute hook noses, skull caps, yellow stars and little bags of money and no-one could see what the problem was. (Some people still can’t.) 

I was never personally hit by a teacher, but both my schools (like every school not actually run by hippies) had a special stick for smacking children with, and everyone, even nice people, thought this was perfectly normal and even slightly amusing. (I believe it still happens in America.)

I don’t remember the election where Tories said “If you want an N for a neighbor, vote Liberal or Labour”, but I do remember the one where they said we should run Labour out of office because they thought there should be, er, sex education in schools.

And obviously I remember when the Tories made a law that you could only talk about homosexuality in school if you made it clear that it was a Bad Thing. (That one was abolished in 2003.)

But, on the other hand. 

I grew up in a world where free medicine was taken for granted. I remember literally not understanding when Jarvis betrayed the Avengers to Ultron because he needed money to pay for his mother's operation. 

I grew up in a world where free education was taken absolutely for granted. I could wish that my bog standard comp had pressed me harder to try out for Oxbridge, but there was never any doubt that if I got good enough A levels I could go to university for free, and even get a small stipend to pay for books and food and lodging and Dungeons & Dragons supplements.

I grew up in a world where the trains and the gas company and the water company were run by the government: not always infallibly, but generally affordably. I grew up in a world where unemployment was a misfortune, but not a catastrophe — where you knew that if worst came to worst you could sign on at a Job Center and get a small but adequate giro cheque every couple of weeks and (provided you weren’t living anywhere too posh) a substantial chunk of your rent paid. 

I didn’t even particularly notice any of this. I assumed it was the way things were.


So. That is what I believe happened in 2016.

I believe that the Nice Party took its eye off the ball. [*]

I think that the Nice Party forgot that the essentially Nice society we lived in was an amazing thing; based on counter-intuitive ideas; painstakingly built up over generations; a fragile flower that would die if you forgot to water it or exposed it to a draft. I think that the Nice Party came to believe that the Nice Society was just the way things were.

I think that the Nice Party came to believe that the victories of the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century were part of an inevitable movement upwards and leftwards towards the Light, which would go on more or less forever. Not all the battles had been won, by any means, but the general trajectory was in the correct direction.

And that's a big part of the problem. When the Nice Party wins a victory, it is inclined to regard that victory as won. “Hooray!” we say “We have abolished slavery, done away with capital punishment, given women the right to vote and gay people the right to get married -- so now that’s over and done with. Onwards to the next victory!”

But when the Nasty Party suffers a loss, they are inclined to regard it as merely a temporary setback. They never give up. Every criminal sent to jail is a convict who has grievously escaped the noose; every penny paid in unemployment benefit is a penny stolen by a sturdy beggar who should be in the workhouse, or the stocks, or Australia. "Oh dear", they say: "We appear to have conceded the point that poor people should be allowed to go to the doctor when they are sick. Well; we may have to put up with that for a little while. But don’t for one moment think we have conceded the principal. The day will come again when anyone who can't pay for their own medical care will die. The day will come when no-one will be pulled out of a hole."

Partly, I think, it was down to a naive belief in progress. Yes, my parents and grandparents remembered the days when it was quite legal to pay a lady less than a gentleman and to refuse to employ a black person at all — they remembered July 1916 and September 1940 and October 1962 — but that was back when everything was in black and white and hardly anyone had broadband. All those really terrible things like hangings and concentration camps and grammar schools happened in the olden days, like pirates and highwaymen and the Tulpuddle Martyrs. There are good reasons why none of it could possibly ever happen again. Give me a minute and I’ll tell you what they are.

I think a lot of it was down to a naive trust in institutions; an assumption that even if Mum and Dad and Teacher and P.C Plod were sometimes mean to you, Families and Schools and Policemen were basically looking out for your interests. Prime Ministers could be wrong but they couldn’t be stupid and they certainly couldn’t be corrupt. I know I personally took it for granted that Members of Parliament, even Tories, were always going to be more sensible than the people who elected them; and even if they weren’t the constitution and the courts and the judges would prevent them doing anything completely mad; and even if they didn’t we had the court of Human Rights to fall back on. By all means let the Daily Mail call for criminals to be tortured and pork forced into the mouths of Jewish school children; no MP would ever vote for it; and even if they did, the Lords would overturn it; and even if they didn’t Strasburg would strike it down. It stopped being necessary to persuade people that racism was wrong: it was possible to tell them that racism was actually illegal. And we were right: right up until the Nasty Party seized its moment, and started to invoke Infallible Referenda (which you cannot speak against, because it is The People’s Will) to support it’s cause; and to call into question the whole notion of human rights and even independent judges.

If your whole life is about gardening and writing books about gardening and making TV shows about gardening, then it must be very tempting to think that gardening is the only thing that really matters and that gardening would solve all the worlds problems if you’d let it. (Osama Bin Laden would never have become a terrorist if he’d had a nice rose bush to prune!)

If you have spent your whole life teaching P.E, you probably aren't going to say that rugby is a fine thing in its own way, on a level with collecting stamps and painting 25 mm Space Orks. You are much more likely to say that sport is a corner stone of civilization and the only thing that will save us from the Commies. 

So if you are a politician, of course you are going to say that the only things worth fixing are the kinds of things that politicians can fix — schools and hospitals and welfare and housing — and that once they’re fixed then everything else will be fixed too. If human beings are Nasty, they were made Nasty by poor health and slum housing and rotten schools; fix all that, and all the Nastiness will go away. Now we’ve rehoused the poor in Nice housing estates, they won’t want to steal from each other any more. Now we’ve made prisons humane, there won’t be any more crime. Now we have reproductive rights and no-fault divorces there won’t be any more domestic abuse. Now we have pot luck parties where the Asian mums bring curry and the Jamaican mums bring fried chicken the Christians will stop hating the Muslims and the Muslims will stop hating the Christians…

But what if there were no natural inclination among people to be Nice?

What if Nice values were, like chivalry and sportsmanship, a made up thing? What if people with black skins naturally think that people with white skins are aliens and people with white skins naturally think that people with black skins are aliens? What if straight people naturally think that gay people are weird and yucky? What if it is natural for big boys to beat up little boys and for little boys to form gangs to protect themselves from the big boys, and for the big boys to get knives and the little boys to get guns? What if people had to be persuaded to be Nice? And what if, having won all the victories, the Nice party didn't think they needed to do any more persuasion?

Since the Bad Thing happened the Nice Party has been told, over and over again, even on this page “You made all this happen! If you hadn’t spoken so stridently in favour of Nice things, the Nasty people would not have got so cross and voted for the Bad Thing. In fact, you were so strident that a good number of Nice People voted Nasty just to piss you off!”

There is a tiny, infinitesimally small, smidgen of a truth in this accusation. The great Peter Elbow pointed out that being right is a dangerous tactic since “sometimes being right makes you so insufferable that people are willing to stay wrong just for a chance to disagree with you.” Someone has suggested that the satirical song I linked to last month went a little bit too far in portraying people on the wrong side of the Referendum as yokels and morons. I agree: that kind of thing doesn't help. (It's still a very funny song.)

But let's also keep in mind Screwtape's warning: that preachers and politicians always admonish people about the exact sins which they are least like to commit. If you live at time when everyone goes to Church as a matter of course and doesn’t do much about it, then you can bet that you will hear stern sermons warning you of the dangers of religious fanaticism. But if you live at a time when everyone is gung-ho to go on a crusade and give Johnny Infidel a damn good thrashing, then expect to hear firey sermons warning you about the temptations of lukewarmness and nominal-ism. It was when the Nice Project was about to come tumbling down that Nice Leaders started to say "Well, I think actually the Nasty Party has a point. Maybe we are a bit snowflakey. Maybe we are a bit prone to political correctness. Maybe people sometimes use racist language and don’t mean anything by it, and even if they do, maybe it’s patronizing of us to tell them they shouldn’t?” Which pretty much amounts to surrender. You don't wait until the Knights are slitting the French prisoner's throats and then say "Well, to be honest, maybe some of what's been said about chivalry is a little bit unrealistic." You don't pick the Saturday afternoon when the team captain has kneed the referee in the bollocks to say "I am not at all sure that some of the posher schools haven't gone a bit overboard in preaching about sportsmanship."


It may be possible for the Nice Party to regain some ground. Some of the Nasty Party are still a bit ashamed of being Nasty. If you call them Racists or Fascists, they will still deny it -- because they have some residual sense that Racism and Fascism are bad thing. Like the guy who cheats at games, but will punch you if you say he is Unsportsmanlike, because he was raised to think that Sportsmanship was a good thing. But this won't last forever. Plenty of the Nasty Party's supporters are already openly saluting Swastikas.

But to do this, we are going to have to go right back to first principals and explain, until we are blue in the face, why we ever thought that multiculturalism and women's emancipation and gay equality and the welfare state and human rights were good ideas. Nice people are going to have to challenge Nasty assumptions whenever we hear them.

No, actually, I am pleased to pay my tax, it’s a way of sharing the important things between everyone.

Stop talking about “them” and “us”; so far as I am concerned, we’re all British, even if some of us dress differently and have a different word for God. 

There is no such thing as political correctness; it’s a lie made up to make people hate each other. 

Isn’t the Health Service brilliant. 

Isn’t it fantastic that we can all vote. 

Aren’t human rights a fantastic idea. 

Isn't multiculturalism wonderful? Isn't it depressing to look at one of those old movies and see only white faces (and everyone dressed the same.) Isn’t it brilliant how you only have to walk down the Gloucester Road and find Italian Pizza and Greek Kebabs and Jewish fish and chips and Indian curry and American coffee houses using Brazilian coffee beans selling French croissants and that's before we even get onto Greek tragedy and German opera and Danish thrillers.

Those of us who grew up before the Catastrophe are going to have to tell this story. No-one else will. We will be told that we are speaking against the Will of the People. I don't think that we will be treated as traitors and subversives, fun though that would be. I do think we will increasingly be regarded as weirdos and eccentrics, in much the way that people who thought that it was okay to be gay were regarded as weirdos and eccentrics in the 1970s.

"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that was given us." Our generation was handed Camelot as a gift. We couldn't be bothered to defend it. But we're going to have to keep the memory alive so the next generation can have another shot at rebuilding it. 


It is said that one Sunday morning in 1923 or 1924,  the U.S President returned to the White House having attended a church service.

“What did the pastor preach about?” asked the First Lady.

“Sin” replied the President.

“And what did he say?”

“He was against it.”

[*] Note: 

I am not here to argue that the British Labour Party or the American Democratic Party have the monopoly on goodness. I am not here to claim that Theresa May or David Cameron or George W Bush or Mitt Romney are simply evil. I think that most people on The Left and most people on The Right are mostly in agreement about most things. We all think it would be a good thing if everybody was well-fed, well-educated and could afford to see a doctor when they got ill; we all think it would be a Bad Thing if there were a nuclear war in the next few years. What we disagree about is which Good Things it should be the government’s job to do, and which Good Things should be left up to individuals, and who should pay for it all. And even that doesn’t necessarily split along neat party lines. 

If someone says “I think that we could get rid of the National Health Service and replace it with a German model of subsidized private health insurance, which would provide better hospitals for less money” then I would call him a Conservative. I would disagree with him politically. I think “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” is basically a good principal, but I wouldn’t think that he was stupid or evil.

But if someone said “I don’t think that one penny should be taken from the rich to pay the medical bills of the poor; if the poor can’t afford to pay their own hospital bills, then they should be allowed to die; you have no more right to free health care at the point of need than you do to free chocolate cake or free motor cars, then I would happily say that that person was both stupid and evil. (One such person writes to the Bristol Evening Post at least once a week.) 

I don’t think that all Conservatives are stupid and evil, and I don’t even think that all stupid and evil people are Conservatives. (That is a pleasing paradox, but I don’t set very high store by it as an axiom.) 

Hence, I am reduced to calling the people who believe in sharing the “Nice” party, and the people who believe in keeping all the good stuff for themselves the “Nasty” party. I have to say that the idea that we are all basically human and should be treated the same is a “Nice” idea and the idea that Our Lot are better than Your Lot and definitely better than The Other Lot is a “Nasty” idea. 

Regular readers will be amused, but not surprised, to hear that in an earlier draft of this piece I tried referring to them as “The Light Side” and “The Dark Side.” 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Why Is Doctor Octopus Spider-Man's Greatest Foe?

The Sinister Six establishes a canonical list of Spider-Man foes. These six baddies will continue to oppose our hero for as long as the series lasts. Only the Lizard (who is sort of kind of not really a villain at all) and the Green Goblin (who has only appeared once at this point, and is too mysterious to be part of a team) are absent. The Execrable Eight would have been a rotten name for a team, in any case.

Although the Vulture declares himself to be Spider-Man’s most dangerous foe, there is never any question that Doctor Octopus is the leader of the gang. The Vulture, Sandman and Electro are bank robbers and thugs. Mysterio is much cleverer, but even he only used his powers of illusion and misdirection in the service of a safe-cracking career. Kraven, the only one who is not a crook; is a crazy man who hunts Spider-Man for the challenge. But Doctor Octopus is a proper super-villain. He is a brilliant scientist. He lives in a gothic castle and has giant fishbowls lying around in case he ever needs to drown anyone. Granted, in issue #12 he was springing gangsters out of jail in order to raise venture capital to become King of Crime, but he is still in a different class to the other five. Clearly, he is being positioned as Spider-Man's worst enemy, or indeed, Arch-foe. (He will eventually be replaced in that role by the Green Goblin, who is at this point still only a gangster with a gimmick.)

What makes him such a dangerous antagonist? He is simply a normal human being with four extra arms. The arms are very strong; strong enough to lift three adult human beings off the ground at once. But he himself is of normal strength:  Spider-Man can easily take him out with a single punch if the arms will let him get close enough.

But he has an effect on Spider-Man out of all proportion to his actual powers. Doctor Octopus won their very first fight, and this defeat demoralized Parker sufficiently that he seriously considered giving up being Spider-Man. Spider-Man tried to prevent Doc Ock being released from prison at the end of his first sentence, which he didn't do (so far as we know) for the Enforcers or Mysterio. The second time they meet, Spider-Man weirdly under-performs due to a sprained ankle, causing the Bugle to mock him as an over-rated hero. The third and fourth times, Spider-Man inexplicably loses his powers -- due to a virus in #13, and "psychosomatically" in the annual.

The “sprained ankle” thing is a little weak. Spider-Man jumps from great heights all the time; would a coil of rope on a ship really put him out of action if he tripped over it? (And if the injury is so bad, why isn’t he still limping when he gets back to New York?) And the virus thing is obviously nonsense. How does a cold stop you sticking to walls? We might say that a virus “left you weak for a few days” but that’s not literally true. If I had to spar with [insert name of famous boxer here] while the latter had ‘flu, it is just barely possible that I would win — because my opponent fainted or threw up during the fight. If he actually punched me, well, it probably be a below par punch for him, but it would easily knock me flat. If I punched him it would be just as ineffectual as if I punched him when we were both perfectly germ free. The ghost of Spider-Man pops up in Pete Parker's dream to warn him that "virus" is to Spider-Man as Kryptonite is to Superman, a plot device which has thankfully never been mentioned again.

The explanation for the power-loss in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 is hardly any better: “it was psychosomatic, brought on by a deep rooted feeling of guilt due to Uncle Ben’s death”. What? It is possible for psychological states to have physical symptoms — a patient with severe stress might find themselves unable to see, even though there is nothing wrong with his eyes. But the idea that you can psychsomatically trip up, psychosomatically dangle from a flag poll, and then psychosomatically get better and dodge a lightening bolt doesn't even make comic book sense. 

So what is really going on?

Doctor Octopus was a Scientist. There was an explosion in his laboratory, during which he absorbed a great deal of Science. This is, of course, a lot like what happened to Peter Parker, although his exposure was indirect: he got bitten by a spider that had previously been exposed to Science. The medic at the hospital says that the Science has permanently damaged Doctor Octopus's mind. He is certainly paranoid and megalomaniacal; his first thought on waking up is "they are jealous of me" and his second is "I am stronger than any of them." Once he realizes that he can now control his mechanical arms directly he thinks “I’m the supreme human being on earth” which doesn't seem to follow. Sure, he can do some cool things with his arms: which of us has not wished he had an extra arm when lighting a cigarette or pouring tea for the old lady we have kidnapped? -- but this hardly puts him in the Galactus league.

Doctor Octopus is not a cyborg: the arms are attached to a metal harness, not welded to his body. He says after his accident that they are almost a part of him; and that “just a suggestion of a thought” causes them to move “as though they have a will of their own.” In the Sinister Six story, he is still able to control the arms after they have been detached from his body; indeed, when he confronts Spider-Man in the castle, he voluntarily removes them so he can attack his enemy from behind. That is: his power over his arms is telepathic or telekinetic. It's the power of Doctor Octopus's mind that makes them so strong.

Some of Spider-Man's other enemies -- the Green Goblin, for example -- are very probably insane. Some of them -- the Lizard, perhaps -- are powered by Magic as much as by Science. But Spider-Man's Arch-Foe is the one who was simultaneously driven mad and given telepathic powers as a result of the same kind of accident that made Spider-Man Spider-Man. 

In Turning Point, Spider-Man’s meeting with Doctor Octopus depends on a fairly improbable chain of events; and Stan Lee specifically speaks as if an external force is drawing them together…

“Our cast of characters come closer to a date with destiny…” 

“…but sometimes fate has other plans” 

“…but once again capricious fate has made the teen-aged crusader minutes too late.”

In The Sinister Six story Sandman and Electro accidentally kidnap Aunt May while intending to kidnap Betty Brant. If it hadn't occurred to Aunt May to go into town to call on Betty at Peter's workplace -- if she had, for the sake of argument, made a telephone call instead -- she wouldn't have ended up as Doctor Octopus's guest. A year from now, the evil Master Planner will suddenly realize that the one bit of Science he needs for his evil Master Plan will be the exact same bit of Science that Curt Connors needs to brew a potion that will save Aunt May's life. (As the years go past, Aunt May and Doctor Octopus will get increasingly closely entwined: the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #131, which we mercifully don't have to consider, depicts them apparently getting married.) It almost starts to looks as if what Doctor Octopus controls is the power of coincidence. Not only do his and Spider-Man's paths keep crossing, but something always causes him to hurt someone Spider-Man loves, whether he consciously intends to or not. 

If you accept my theory that Spider-Man has no physical strength of his own, but is channeling some external power-source — and I think you have to accept my theory for the stories to make any sense at all — than everything falls into place. 

Doctor Octopus has been consumed by the Dark Side of the Spider-Force. He can channel the Spider-Force to give his flimsy metal arms incredible power. It may be that he is consumed with hubris and paranoia due to brain damage; but it may be that at some level he sees that his link to the Force does potentially make him the most powerful human being on earth. And if that is correct -- well, it is at all surprising that the Spider-Force keeps drawing the two of them together? And is it surprising that the Dark Side of the Spider Force draws Octopus to places and circumstances that will hurt Peter Parker? And is it in any way surprising that Doctor Octopus is completely obsessed with Spider-Man, and Spidey is equally obsessed with Doc Ock?

And it seems clear that the mere proximity of Doctor Octopus somehow disrupts or interferes with Parker’s ability to channel the Spider-Force. So that when Spider-Man is about to fight Doc Ock his powers are radically reduced, or go away altogether.

In his seminal 1982 essay “The Well Tempered Plot Device”, Nick Lowe memorably argued that coincidence, destiny and capricious fate are all devices which The Author uses to nudge the Plot in the direction he wants it to go without all that tedious mucking up with logical chains of cause and effect. He points out that Star Wars makes a good deal more sense if every time someone mentions the Force you mentally substitute the Plot. ("The Plot is what gave the Jedi their power." "I sense a great disturbance in the Plot." "You must learn about the Plot if you are to come with me to Alderaan.")

Aye: and that’s true too. 

Later continuity revealed that Doctor Octopus had an alcoholic father who beat him.

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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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 (II)

Please Please Me is an accomplished piece of a work; a carefully crafted collection of pop songs from a band to watch out for — but not, in itself, a game-changing album. If you’d bought it from Woolworths in 1963 you would not necessarily have known you were holding a piece of history in your hands. If you'd have picked up Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band six years later, you'd have known you were holding something special. It looks like nothing that came before; it sounds like nothing that came before; it would influence everything that came after it. Of course it is possible to go overboard in praising it (decisive moment in the history of western civilization, was it?) but it’s actually irrelevant that Revolver and the White Album are better records and indeed better Beatles records. Sgt Pepper is the special one.

The first Spider-Man Annual must have been like that, is what I am saying.

Imagine buying it in a newsstand or a drugstore in the summer of '64. Imagine holding it in your hands. Amazing Fantasy #15 was a new comic. Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 is a new kind of comic.

For us in the UK, it was split over two issues (Spider-Man Comics Weekly #9 and #10) and it was still devastating. But if you were fortunate enough to have been an American kid in 1964, you’d have had something that cost twice as much as a normal comic (one quarter, two bits, 25 cents) but which contained not only a double-length story, but also 15, count them, 15 pages of pin-ups, another 15 pages of background features and a (frankly not all that funny) skit about How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Create Spider-Man.

And no ads.

The Sinister Six is the Spider-Man formula writ large: indeed, it is the Spider-Man formula shouted from the rooftops and written in letters of fire above the Statue of Liberty. It follows the “Stan Lee” pattern rather than the “Steve Ditko” pattern: a 13 page set-up, followed by an extended 24 page fight scene. Indeed, the plot is substantially a retread of Amazing Spider-Man #12. Doctor Octopus kidnaps Betty Brant in order to force Spider-Man to participate in a staged fight scene, and puts an advert in the Daily Bugle to tell him the time and the place of the showdown. ("…I can’t even swear that Spider-Man knows how to read…" blusters Jonah.) But the volume is turned up to the Nth degree. While kidnapping Betty, Doctor Octopus accidentally captures Aunt May as well. (She’s dropped in at the Bugle to see if Betty knows what’s ailing Peter.) And Spider-Man doesn't just have to fight one of his old enemies: he has to fight all of them.

This is Stan Lee is setting out his stall: offering a summa of the Spider-Man myth to date and offering a primer for new readers. It establishes the canonical baddies; it reintroduces the supporting cast; it offers a visual F.A.Q about how Spider-Man’s powers work. In the same month, Marvel published the first Marvel Tales annual, which put the the origins of Spider-Man, Ant-Man/Giant-Man, Thor, the Hulk, Sgt Fury and Iron-Man (twice) between two covers. When Spider-Man has a flashback about his origin, it is this, not the long out of print Amazing Fantasy #15 which readers are directed to. There are no less than 10 cameo appearances by other super-heroes each one of which is hyper-linked to another comic ("Doctor Strange appears each month in Strange Tales magazine”). Did I say there were no adverts? The whole comic is one massive advertisement for itself!

Take a look at page 12 and 13 — just before the big fight starts. The Vulture (flapping outside the window) tells Jameson to print Doctor Octopus’s challenge in the next issue of the Daily Bugle. Jameson telephones the Fantastic Four to see if they know how to contact Spider-man; and Reed Richards calls up the Avengers. (“Sorry” says Captain America “I never even met Spider-Man.”) There’s still a real magic to these scenes. A DC comic of the time might have featured a Superman/Batman crossover; and a Disney comic might well feature Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse — or even Mickey Mouse, Peter Pan and the Seven Dwarfs — in a single story. But there could never be any sense of them sharing a world, living in a real city, having a life that goes on outside the confines of the issue we’re currently reading. Jonah phones Reed, Reed phones Cap and nothing whatsoever comes from it. We could reasonably date the origin of the Marvel Universe from this panel.

Truthfully, the idea of an alliance of Spider-Man’s enemies is fairly lame. There is too much of a sense that the baddies know they are baddies and are forming a baddies’ club. The Vulture actually refers to the group as The Sinister Six, which is only one up from Magneto calling his club The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Perhaps they should have gone with GROSS (Get Rid of Slimy Spiders) or else followed the splash page and called themselves the Sinister, Deadly and Undefeatable Six. (I have of course spent some time studying each panel to find out if any of the group are left-handed. Sadly not.)

You might think that a pair of bank robbers like the Vulture and Electro would want to use this unprecedented coalition of criminals to pull off a really massive jewels heist. But they all agree with Doctor Octopus that the best use of their time would be to, er, organize a treasure hunt for Spider-Man.

Doctor Octopus’s scheme is simplicity itself. He will kidnap Betty Brant and imprison her in his castle; and he will give the Vulture a card with the castle’s address on it. So to rescue Betty, Spider-Man will have to fight the Vulture. But the Vulture’s address is printed on another card, and to get hold of that, he will have to fight Sandman. But to find out where Sandman is, he will have to take a card from Mysterio...and so on. Spider-Man lampshades the silliness of this idea at the end — if the villains had simply jumped him all at once, they could have beaten him easily. But the round-robin format means that Lee and Ditko don’t have to attempt a single, 25 page battle scene (which would almost certainly have been unreadable) and can instead do six little mini-fights running to about 3 pages each, with breaks in between, giving this 42 page story a really breathless pace. Some of the individual fights end up feeling a little anti-climactic — the rematch with Kraven in particular seems to be over before it has started — and we have to swallow some extreme silliness in the set-ups. The Vulture makes Spider-Man fight him at the top of a very tall tower without any web-shooters. Doctor Octopus jumps into a giant glass goldfish bowl because he wants to beat him “just as a real octopus would”. But some fabulous full page Ditko spreads lend it gravitas, as well as padding out the page count.

Ditko pin up of the Burglar:
note rat in foreground,
and Amazing Fantasy logo.
Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1
Is it at all possible that Ditko drew the 6 spreads first, intending them for a portfolio or back up feature, and Lee liked them so much that he span a story around them? The comic is rounded out with a 15 page “gallery of Spider-Man’s most famous foes”, giving profiles of every villain to have appeared in the comic, even no-hopers like the Tinkerer and the Living Brain. The pin-ups of the Burglar, the Chameleon and the Lizard (who do not appear in the main story) are beautiful Ditko vignettes. (Look at the Burglar, clearly located in the old warehouse, with a broken bottle and scrap of newspaper on the floor, and a pair of rats in the foreground.) But the pin-ups of Electro, Doc Ock and Kraven are relatively simple character sketches with no background at all. Is it possible that Stan Lee purloined Ditko's detailed, kinetic spread of Kraven leaping at Spider-Man with two cheetahs leaving him to hastily trot out a stiff, one dimensional sketch of the same character for the pin-up section? Unknowable, of course. But I can believe that that Ditko drew an underwater scene as a standalone gallery entry much more easily that I can believe that the idea of the giant fish-bowl occurred to Stan Lee off the top of his head. (The next time we encounter him, Doc Ock will have a secret underwater base, like all cool villains do.)

But the emotional punch of the issue doesn’t depend on the extended fight with the bad-guys, and Stan knows it. Look at the splash page. A small panel tells us that Spider-Man is going to have to rescue his loved ones from the Deadly Sinister Six, and a large one tells us that he is going to have to find a way to defeat the Undefeatable Sinister Six. But the biggest panel asks the biggest question. “What happens now? Just when needs them most, Peter Parker seems to have mysteriously lost his amazing spider-powers.”

If one wished to be very nasty, one could say that the answer to this question is "Nothing very much" or "Spider-Man bunks off school and wanders round down being morose for a bit." Spider-Man’s powers go away, and then Spider-Man’s powers come back again, a bit like a BT Broadband connection. But Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 could easily have been a gladiatorial contest with a pretty lady as first prize. This plot device raises it to the level of a morality play.

Parker (as Spider-Man) spots Aunt May, tearfully reading Uncle Ben’s old letters. “I guess she never really got over Uncle Ben’s death at the hands of that burglar, months ago” he thinks. (What, die two years ago and not forgotten yet? Then there’s hope a sidekick’s memory might outlive his life half a decade!) This brings on an evasive flashback to Amazing Fantasy #15 — the first time we’ve revisited the story since issue Amazing Spider-Man #1. Anyone who had also purchased the Marvel Tales Annual had the original text before them: they know that Spider-Man is being economical with the truth. Back in Amazing Spider-Man #1, Peter claimed that his uncle had died because he, as Spider-Man, was showing off on a TV show when he should have been at home looking after his family. Here, he admits that he refused to help the police officer but claims that it was because he “didn’t want to waste his powers” — whatever that means. “Why should I butt in?” is a considerable softening of “From now on, I look out for number one, and that means, me!” And “I can never forget that I’m partially to blame for Uncle Ben’s death” is quite a lot different from “My fault! All my fault!” Either Stan Lee, or Peter Parker, can’t actually admit to themselves what happened on that fateful night.

This flashback brings Spider-Man out in a full-blown aria.

“No matter
what I do…
No matter
how great my spider-powers are...
I can never
undo that tragic mistake!
I can never
completely forgive myself!
I hate my Spider-Man powers!
I wish I were just like any normal teenager!
If only it had never happened!”

If only it had never happened. We are back to the voice of cry-baby Peter: “My Spider-Man costume! I wish there were no such thing!” “Everything I do as Spider-Man seems to turn out wrong!” “I wish I had never gotten my superpowers.” If only it had never happened. This speech is a negation of “with great power comes great responsibility”. Because of his power, cry-baby Peter feels responsible for the death of Uncle Ben; if he didn’t have those powers, he wouldn’t feel responsible. He wishes his power would go away.

And, at that exact moment, they do.

And, as if to underline the point, Spider-Man’s first reaction is to be relieved. It’s literally his first thought. “I never believed it could happen—but it has. Somehow, without warning…I’ve lost my spider powers!! Perhaps it’s all for the best! Now I can never hurt anyone again! I won’t have a secret I must always protect! I’ll be able to live a normal life!” Only then does it occur to him that he’s hanging on a flagpole with no way of getting down.

The moral hazard of the issue doesn’t depend on Spider-Man spotting that he can tangle up Doctor Octopus if he spurts out all his webbing at once; on him remembering to ground himself before fighting Electro, or on Sandman accidentally suffocating himself. It depends on Peter Parker doing the right thing.

He goes and confronts Electro (the first clue in the treasure hunt) even though he is powerless and can’t possibly win. I think he is banking on Doctor Octopus being a villain but not a psychopath: once Spider-Man is dead or helpless, he would release Aunt May and Betty as being of no further use to him. Peter is literally giving his life to save theirs. Fully expecting to die, his voice is no longer that of boastful Spider-Man or whinging Peter. It’s the voice of an adult hero: “If this is to be my finish, at least I’ll face it like a man.”

Once again, he is being moral, but not altruistic. He is going to lay down his life to save the two people he loves most in the world; not to fight evil in any generalized way. For the last half-dozen issues, he’s been involved in battles he has some personal stake in — walking into the Goblin’s trap because a film director offered him $50,000; fighting Mysterio to clear his own name. True, last month he volunteered his services for a charity gig, but that didn’t turn out too well.

There is a certain amount of waffle on page 21, in which Spider-Man says that he actually never lost his powers “I just imagined he did”. This reminds me a little of the faith healer "who said, although pain is not real/ when I sit on a pin / and it punctures my skin / I dislike what I fancy I feel". It isn’t obvious how “dangling from a flagpole on the side of a skyscraper and being unable to get down” is to be distinguished from “actually losing my powers”. But this is Stan trying to scribble in a rational explanation for something which makes perfect narrative sense. Spider-Man's powers come back because he courageously stands in front of Electro and lets him fire a deadly lightening bolt at him

Spider-Man’s powers go away because he wishes them to do so. He gets to resume the role of Spider-Man because he has proved himself worthy of it.

If Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 is Stan Lee's recapitulation of the Spider-Man myth to date, it is also a kind of valediction.  From now on, Lee is going to more or less hand control of the character over to Ditko; simple gladitorial contests will be replaced by soap opera, farce, character interplay and film noir. And it also points the character down a narrative cul de sac. If Peter Parker has proved himself worth of being Spider-Man, what else of importance can ever happen to him? 

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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