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.

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? 


Mike Taylor said...

"It’s actually irrelevant that Revolver and the White Album are better records and indeed better Beatles records. Sgt Pepper is the special one."

Compare and contrast:

"If you learn to trust your feelings, write down what comes into your head and then polish it, improve it, and listen to criticisms, you may end up with "Sgt. Pepper". If you run away with the idea that you can publish your first drafts, then you are only ever going to produce the White album."

Andrew Rilstone said...

Well...irrelevant that some people might think, or irrelevant to raise the point. Possibly one day I will write some proper evaluative criticism of the Beatles. I definitely think Revolver is the best. Probably.

Mike Taylor said...

For what it's worth, I would love to read your take on the Beatles albums. Yes, it's been done a hundred times before (not least by Andrew Hickey, and indeed Ian MacDonald) but that doesn't matter: everyone's take is different.

(And you may already have read this, but my position is that it's impossible to pick between Pepper and Revolver, with Abbey Road a close third.

Mike Taylor said...

Then there's this ...

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”.

I don't think it's a negation at all -- more the field against which we see the figure of Great Responsibility. Peter using his power is no great moral achievement if it's fundamentally what he wants to do anyway. What marks him out is that he doesn't want to use his Spider-powers -- but does so anyway, because he recognises that WGPCGR.