Sunday, February 19, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man #19

Spidey Strikes Back! 


Sandman, the Enforcers 

Supporting Cast: 
Aunt May, Liz Allan, J.Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Flash Thompson, Ned Leeds, “Wormly” 

Guest Stars: 
The Human Torch, again. 


p6: “I couldn’t take a chance on ever having to eat someone else’s pancakes” 
“Wheatcakes” are simply pancakes made with buckwheat flour, so these are presumably the same breakfast food that Peter Parker liked so much in Amazing Fantasy # 15.

p9 “All hail the Spider, a hardy breed is he”. 
This sound like it should be a parody of a popular song, but I can’t work out what Stan has in mind: can anyone help? 

p9 “Hey, Amscray, you guys” 
More Pig Latin (Amscray = Scram = Scramble I.e “Everyone run away!”) 

p17 “You sure took your own sweet time about freeing me” 
“Count your blessings, mister.” 
These are both arguably references to hymns. (”Father, lead me day by day / ever in thy own sweet way” “Count your blessings, one by one.”) Perhaps part of the Spider-Man / Torch feud is a clash between their Jewish and Protestant heritages? 

Peter Parker’s Financial Position: 
Jameson thinks that the pictures of Spider-Man fighting the Enforcers are “sensational”; so he probably gets the same $2,000 he did for the pictures of the Vulture.

One of the wrongest things which has ever been said (by Andrew Garfield, among others) is that Spider-Man is a Christ figure. 

The Jesus-story is about a divine being who condescends to come down to earth from heaven to be our Saviour. That’s why characters like the Silver Surfer and Adam Warlock and Superman (who have supernatural origins and come from the sky) find it so hard to avoid being Christ-like. 

Spider-Man doesn’t descend from heaven; he pulls him self up from the earth. On webs. Which he made in his bedroom. His story is about an all-too-human Everyman who struggles to do what is right with the hand that life has dealt him. His situation isn’t fundamentally different from yours or mine. If it were, we wouldn’t be very interested in it. 

Throughout 1963 and 1964 one of the key themes of the comic has been perseverance. Spider-Man gets knocked down, but he gets back up again. Up until now, this has largely consisted of Spider-Man being beaten by a baddie but coming back and beating the baddie on the second attempt. But it is now going to take a slightly new — and much more inward looking — form. From now on the formula is going to be:
  • Spider-Man suffers a set-back
  • Spider-Man despairs
  • Spider-Man quits being Spider-Man
  • Spider-Man changes his mind and swears that he will remain Spider-Man forever. 
The story is there in embryo in Spider-Man Annual #1, when Peter wishes his powers away; and it forms the moral center of the triptych. It will crop up over and over again for the rest of the comic's history (most notably in Spider-Man #50, which forms the basis for the second and best Spider-Man movie. )

And most versions of the story do indeed contain a de profundis moment. 

Long before Joseph Campbell turned the whole thing into colossal bore, Northrop Frye (a proper literary critic, who was examined by C.S Lewis) had argued that heroic stories typically have a V shaped pattern of descent and ascent. This could be literal — a hero might go down and face an enemy in a cave, or a dungeon, or an undersea base, or a giant glass fish-bowl and then come up into the light. But it could also be metaphorical — a hero might descend to the depths of despair and then have his faith and confidence restored. That “V” movement of descent and ascent does have a structural resemblance to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection, even if the hero in question is very un-Christ-like indeed. Frye called these kinds of romances Secular Scriptures, although perhaps he would have been better off saying that the Gospels are sacred romances. 

Many of Spider-Man’s greatest adventures clearly do have that “V” shaped structure. And many of his finest moments do take place at the nadir of the “V”. It’s when he doesn’t have any powers and faces Electro anyway that he is most like Spider-Man; it is when he has chucked his Spider-Costume in the dustbin that he realizes who he irreducibly is. The Sinister Six story has a moment when he very nearly calls out "my powers, my powers, why have you forsaken me?"


Spider-Man #19 is not as highly regarded as the other two stories in the triptych: but it is essential, and a marvelous comic in its own right. Together, the three parts show us the fall and rise of Spider-Man in beautiful slow motion. Amazing Spider-Man #17 showed us Spider-Man humiliating himself in front of the biggest audience possible; #18 showed us him at the very depths of despair; so issue #19 has to show us a truly confident Spidey bouncing back, and showing the Human Torch a thing or two. 

Stan Lee’s claims about “non stop action” would normally presage an extended fight scene — but the truth is that this issue is more violent and kinetic than the comic has been in months. Ditko seems to be reveling in the Spider-Man-ness of Spider-Man. The character can too easily become merely a strong guy with a web-shooter-full of plot devices; but Ditko spends this issue thinking of new poses for Spider-Man to strike and new angles to look at him from. Instead of taking it for granted, we keep being surprised and delighted by the fact that Peter Parker can stick to walls.

Amazing Spider-Man 19
Ditko at his most kinetic
Look at pages 12 and 13: Spider-Man is in every panel, and every panel puts him in an imaginative pose: crouched on the wall outside Jameson’s office; hanging upside down to interrogate the hood; caught mid leap, letting go of a web at the apex of a swing and propelling himself forward, feet first. Panel 4 on page 13 has Spidey swinging straight at us: an iconic image that would be used over and over again both in the movies and the TV series. If you ever imagined that Spider-Man was just a hipper, younger version of Superman then you need to look at these pages, and see the uniqueness of the character. It’s all in the energy. There is a realism here that even Kirby would struggle to compete with. (An apparent realism, at any rate: a circus performer or a gymnast could tell us which of Spider-Man's manoeuvres are physically possible.) 

Look at the choreography of the fight against the Enforcers and the thugs on page 8: Spider-Man on the ceiling, on all fours. Spider-Man spotted by the Enforcers, now sticking to the ceiling with just his feet. Ox throwing Montana at Spider-Man, knocking him down. Spider-Man landing in a handstand position; three thugs running at him from different directions; Spider-Man springing up again so the thugs knock each other out. Granted, the “jumping away from two guys who are running at you” motif has been used before: and it probably works better in slapstick than an actual fight. But quite brilliantly, Montana catches Spider-Man in his lasso as he jumps — so Spider-Man escapes from one peril (the thugs) and into another (Montana) in a single frame. 

It would be an interesting exercise for an artist to redraw these twelve panels (pages 8 and 9) in a more contemporary, decompressed style. I suspect that it would be impossible. The action probably wouldn’t make realistic or cinematic sense: Ditko thinks in terms of individual frames, and the whole thing would break down if you had to work out where everyone is standing. (What happens to the bodies of the thugs Spider-Man knocks out?) An 11 panel fight in which slightly more is happening than you can easily keep track of is precisely what is necessary to to create the sense of exhilaration which Ditko is aiming at. It's the sensation of being released, the feeling that Spider-Man is now free and can do anything he likes… 

Spider-Man’s dialogue reflects the pictures. It’s punchy, it’s funny, and it confirms that Spider-Man has embraced his identity and is having a good time. We sometimes criticize Stan Lee for being too wordy; we sometimes point out that dialogue which would take ten or fifteen seconds to speak is superimposed over a frame representing a fraction of a second of action. But it isn’t really possible to imagine a Spider-Man fight without a running commentary — 

“Ha! I thought that would rattle ya a little!” 
“You were right, meathead! It did rattle me..but just a little!” 

Lee and Ditko are delivering on the promise made at the end of last issue. Spider-Man really has dropped the self-pity. He’s kind and funny with Aunt May ("what’s a pretty young girl doing here in my Aunt May’s kitchen?") relaxed with Flash Thompson ("I heard the whole routine before, I could recite it by heart!") and only mildly unpleasant to J.J.J. ("Sometimes, I suspect that man just doesn’t like me!"). Betty remarks that “he seems to have a new confidence in himself”. 

As a story, though, there is not very much to it. The Sandman, who Spider-Man ran away from last issue, teams up with reliable division-two baddies the Enforcers to kidnap the Human Torch. They cleverly use asbestos rope to pull him down; chemical foam to douse his flame; before Sandman deposits him in a specially constructed glass jar – which lets in just enough air to keep Johnny alive, but not quite enough to let him 'Flame On'. (It would be interesting to know who constructed all this hardware — the Judo expert, the Big Strong Guy, the Rope Trick Guy, or the Habitual Thug Who Never Finished High School?) But of course, Spider-Man comes along and rescues the Torch — which is a kind of pay-back for all the times he's been upstaged by him.

Perhaps the highlight of the whole comic — of the whole trilogy — is Jameson falling on his arse one more time. He spent the whole of last issue with a terrible grin on his face, telling Betty to forgive Peter for apparently two-timing him, and telling his “loyal employees” they were welcome to ask their “tender-hearted employer” for help and advice. He hears that Spider-Man is back in action just before he is supposed to give a lecture entitled “How I proved that Spider-Man is a cowardly fraud.” The three-frame sequence in which the smile falls from his face — eyes drooping, frown lines appearing — is a little masterpiece. (It also reminds us that olden days arts could do decompression if they wanted to.) When we next see Jonah, he’s wondering if he’s “too old to join the foreign legion.” 

Amazing Spider-Man #19
Ditko does comedy. 
In January 1964, Spider-Man threw away his glasses and punched Flash Thompson. The Return of the Green Goblin, The End of Spider-Man and Spidey Strikes Back bring the year to a triumphant end. They tell us the tale of a hero who loses his confidence, regains his confidence and bounces back just about as well as it could be told. 

But we are left with a dangling question.

Has whiny Pete really quit the stage for good? Is this new, self-confident Peter going to be who the comic is about from now on? 

Or will we have to go through the whole thing again this time next year? 

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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Monday, February 13, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man #18

The End of Spider-Man!


Supporting Characters: 
J. Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Flash Thompson, Liz Allan, Betty Brant. 

+ the doctor, trading card staff, glue manufacturers and Betty Brant’s boy-friend

Guest Stars: 
the Human Torch

First Appearances of...
Ned Leeds (un-named)
Mrs Watson (referred to throughout as Watkins, said to be Mary Jane Watson's aunt. Note her red hair, incidentally.) 

The Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Kraven, the Vulture, Mr Fantastic, The Invisible Girl, the Thing, Iron Man, Thor, Giant Man, Captain America, the Wasp, Daredevil

P4; “There’s a new Peter Sellers movie at the drive-in tonight that I’ve been dying to see.” 
Doctor Strangelove came out in January 1964, so it is a stretch to call it “new”. And why is Liz asking Peter to the drive-in when, er, neither of them have cars? Had Peter Parker gone, he might have found the movie’s subtitle a little ironic. Amazing Spider-Man #18 could very well have been re-titled “How I learned to stop worrying and love being Spider-Man.” 

p12: “I never was the best loved guy in town…Khrushchev could beat me in a popularity contest” (Changed to “Dracula could beat me in a popularity contest” in the UK reprint.) 
Khrushchev was the leader of the Soviet Union when this comic was written: he had been succeeded by Brezhnev by the time it was published. 

P 18: The police officer who finds Flash is the first person of colour to appear in Amazing Spider-Man! He’s fairly obviously been drawn as a Caucasian and given a Hulk-like slate-grey complexion by the colourist, but it’s a small move in the right direction. 

P20: Peter Parker drops his Spider-Man costume into the waste-bin in his bedroom. When Stan Lee rehashes this story in Spider-Man #50, Parker leaves the costume in a trash-can on the street. It’s fairly petulant to keep throwing your toys in the bin. 

P21 “He’s calling me the biggest phony since the Cardiff giant”  The Cardiff Giant was a supposedly fossilized human, “discovered” in Cardiff New York in 1869 and exhibited by P.K Barnum. So “biggest fraud since the Cardiff giant” means “biggest fraud of the century”.

P22 “So far as we know, this is the first time in history that an adventure hero had no actual fight with any foe.”
This is sheer bloody nonsense. One looks in vain for fight scenes in silver age Supergirl stories; issues of golden age Superman fly past without fight scenes, because there was no-one strong enough to challenge the Man of Steel. (Action Comics #4 is about Superman rescuing Lois from an out-of-control train.) And in any case, Spider-Man’s confrontation with Sandman is to all intents and purposes a fight scene (albeit a very unusual one): Sandman is shown throwing punches at Spider-Man and Spider-Man is shown dramatically dodging them.

Failure to Communicate
Page 20: Peter Parker finds Aunt May in a wheelchair (in a purple bathrobe and pink nightshirt) at the bottom of the stairs. He goes upstairs, and throws his Spider-Man costume away. According to the caption “The next morning...” he comes downstairs, finds the wheelchair empty, and is surprised that May is walking around by herself (in the same dressing gown).

This means that either 

a: He expected her to sit in the wheelchair all night 

b: He expected her to push herself to her bedroom, put herself to bed, get up the next morning, push the wheel chair back to the hall, but didn’t know she could walk

c: They are paying a full time night nurse, not otherwise mentioned. 

and also 

d: Her bedroom is downstairs. 

It seems clear that Ditko intended Peter Parker to come home, go upstairs for a few minutes, and come down to find Aunt May testing her legs. If not for Stan's illogical “The next morning...” caption, we would take it that the costume remained in the bin for literally only a few minutes. 

NOTE: Peter Parker leaves Flash berating Seymour in the schoolyard, and walks right into Betty and her new boyfriend, leaving the movie house. Granted, the boy says it is “still early”, but isn’t 3.30pm on a weekday a funny time for a date to finish? (But if it’s much later than that, why is the doctor still making routine house calls when Peter gets home?)

Peter Parker’s financial position. 
Peter appears not to have sold any pictures since the huge $10,000 payout he struck in issue #13. Assuming he pays the rent/mortgage a year in advance, that left him with $8,000 in the kitty; but now he says he can’t afford to pay for Aunt May’s medication. 

In 2016, American medical costs were so high that a simple procedure like fixing a broken bone could run to a year’s wages; so presumably the Parkers have run through the $8,0000 paying for May’s stay in hospital. (Although this happens “off stage” it appears that she had to have surgery again, which cost $1,000 by itself the last time she was ill.) 

What is wrong with Aunt May?
In #17 we hear that May has had “another heart attack”. The doctors tell Peter that she is a “very sick woman”. In #18 she is “recovering from a serious operation”. She has spent some time in hospital and spent several weeks recovering, but still feels tired, has dizzy spells (which Mrs Watson/Watkins treats with, er, cups of tea) and is not supposed to be left alone. The main treatment appears to be rest and medication.

Old Aunt May Fine. How you?
Aunt May jokes that she is “feeling like a sprightly 60 year old”, which only makes sense if she is really a great deal older than that. Why not arbitrarily say she adopted Peter when she was 60, making her 77 in the current stories? 

Are Aunt May and Peter Parker blood relations?
At the end of this story, Aunt May tells Peter “You mustn’t worry about me so much. We Parkers are tougher than people think.”

This remark strongly implies that Peter Parker and May are both Parkers. which would only be possible if Peter were the child of one of May’s brothers. It would be highly unusual in the 1960s for a married woman to retain her birth-name; but Peter might very well have retained his — especially if Ben and May fostered him without legally adopting him. 

Uncle Ben is never explicitly called “Ben Parker”, but May is consistently referred to — by doctors, school secretaries, Betty Brant, J. Jonah Jameson and Doctor Octopus — as Mrs Parker. This makes it as certain as can be that she is May Parker by virtue of being married to Ben Parker. Peter Parker therefore has to be the child of one of Ben Parker’s male siblings. (Admittedly, Jewish tradition and the laws of New York State permit marriages between first cousins, but that would be a bit of a stretch.) 

I think our best bet is to say that May has been married to Ben for perhaps as much as 60 years; that she has come to think of herself as part of his clan; and therefore thinks nothing of referring to her and Peter as “we Parkers”. 

It’s still an odd line; but any alternative explanation is odder.

Stan Lee will eventually write a feeble story, “The Parents of Peter Parker” which establishes that Peter is the son of Richard (brother of Ben) and Mary Parker. Much, much later, May Parker’s birth-name will be given as “Reiley”.

Before we start, I’d like you to pull your copy of the Silver Surfer #18 (first run) off the shelf.  

Page 17 sets us up for a big fight with Black Bolt, but on page 18 the Surfer backs away from the battle, and delivers a monologue instead. Are you ready? This is Stan Lee at his most…like Stan Lee. 
Silver Surfer 18 (1970)
A set up for a new comic which
never happened?

“In a world of madness…I tried to practice reason...
But all I won was hatred…and everlasting strife!
So I have done with reason..and with love or mercy! 
To men they’re only words to be uttered and ignored! 
Since a fiendish fate has trapped me here with a hostile race in a nightmare world! 
I’ll forget my heritage..blot out my space-born ethic! 
No longer will I resist this earthly madness! 
No longer mine a lonely voice, pleading peace in a world of strife!
From this time forth the Silver Surfer will battle them on their own savage terms! 
Let mankind beware! 
From this time forth the Surfer will be the deadliest one of all!” 

In case we miss the point, the bottom of the page promises: “NEXT: The Savagely Sensational New Silver Surfer!”

As a piece of characterization, this is makes no sense at all. The whole point of Stan Lee’s version of the Surfer is that he is moralistic to the point of being pious: how can he suddenly decide to give up morality in the way someone might decide to give up smoking? 

But this isn’t really about characterization. The speech is a statement of editorial intention, tagged arbitrarily onto the end of a comic. The readers are tired of the Silver Surfer’s endless sermons. Stan Lee’s re-imagining of Kirby’s amoral cosmic agent as a preachy jesus-freak has not worked out. So Lee gives notice that he is going to completely change the character. In fact, he’s going to hand him back to Jack Kirby in the same condition he borrowed him in: alien, amoral, prone to declare war on the human race at a moment's notice.  

Nothing comes of it. When we next see him, the Savagely Sensational New Silver Surfer casually mentions that he as “forsworn my vow to revenge myself on (humanity) for their reckless attacks on me”, and everything carries on much as before. 

Now: far be it from me to spoil a classic but isn’t this precisely what happens in Spider-Man # 18? 
Amazing Spider-Man 18
Spider-Man's soliloquy.

Amazing Spider-Man #18 is the nexus-point of the conflict between Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. By this point, the two are barely on speaking terms. By Stan’s own account, they had argued so much about Spider-Man plots that he told Steve to go away and make up whatever stories he wanted from now on. But it’s not a happy arrangement. Stan Lee used to hype his own stories into the stratosphere, but he can’t resist gently stabbing Steve’s in the back. 

“The whole plot was dreamed up by Sunny Steve… A lot of readers are sure to hate it so if you want to know what all the criticism is about, be sure to buy a copy!" 

I suppose this is still hype, albeit hype of a slightly different kind. But it’s a strange judgement to pass on one of the most universally admired stories of the Silver Age. “A lot of readers are sure to hate it.” 

Our working hypothesis has been that shy bespectacled Steve Ditko thinks that the Amazing Spider-Man should be mostly about shy, bespectacled Peter Parker, and that arrogant, boastful Stan Lee thinks that the Amazing Spider-Man should be mostly about arrogant, boastful Spider-Man. Last issue, Ditko made it as clear as can be what the comic was going to be about from now on. When our hero has to chose between being the Spider or the Man, he has no doubt about the answer: he is Peter Parker.

This issue we discover Peter Parker pushing Aunt May around the house in a wheelchair — and looking perfectly content with the situation. Peter Parker’s path to happiness — his enlightened self interest — is as Peter Parker. In the Annual, when his powers went away, he felt nothing but relief. This issue, he announces that he’s going forget all about being Spider-Man, be a good student, become a scientist, get married.

And this is a not un-sensible plan. You aren’t morally obliged to fight crime just because you can stick to walls; any more than you are morally obliged to shoot balls through hoops just because you are 7ft tall. Even if we are thinking in terms of power and responsibility, then surely Peter Parker — who can whip up a set of web shooters in two panels and understand Curt Connors' lizard formula at a glance — can do much more good as a scientist than as a vigilante? It may be true that every time Spider-Man fails to catch a burglar, somewhere in the world an Uncle gets shot. But isn’t it equally true that every minute a brilliant science student doesn't spend in Prof Warren’s biochemistry class, someone’s Uncle dies of cancer?

Ditko has written himself into a narrative hole. The logical conclusion of the story is for Peter Parker to recommit to being himself. But that would truly be the end of Spider-Man.

Amazing Spider-Man #17 ended with Peter Parker childishly throwing his costume across the room and wishing his powers would go away: the same place where Amazing Spider-Man #1 began. Amazing Spider-Man #18 could almost be seen as a recapitulation of that first story. Peter Parker tries various honest way of making money to pay for Aunt May’s medication. He can’t sell photos, because he is not willing to put his life on the line as long as Aunt May needs him as a carer. He tries to trade on his celebrity – selling his image for bubble gum cards — but since he apparently ran away from the fight, the Spider-Man brand is worthless. He tries to sell the formula for his web-fluid to the Peerless Paste Company, but his invention is of no value to anyone but himself. (Both these scenes are very like, and very much cleverer than, the cheque-cashing scene in issue #1 which Stan Lee is so proud of.) 

A whole series of events make him lose confidence: Jameson spends the whole issue gloating; Betty won’t even discuss what happened at the night club; he ends up phoning the police rather than catching some thieves; he is chased across Forest Hills by Sandman, resulting in little kids booing him.

The episode feels like a whole sequence of closed off plot paths. There is a 3 page narrative dead end about the Fantastic Four. The Human Torch really doesn’t like Spider-Man — they feud like little kids — but he’s fair-minded enough to see that he can’t be a coward. 

“Why would a fella whose risked his life a dozen times against the toughest odds suddenly turn yellow?? Remember…I’ve seen him in action…and he’s one of the best.” 

“I’m inclined to agree with you, Johnny!” muses Mr Fantastic, wisely. “People don’t change their basic nature without good cause!”

I love this scene so much! It’s like a superhero locker room after a match: celebrities talking about other celebrities. (Oh dah-ling, you got simply marvelous notices!) The Torch uses his sky-writing shtick again, “Spider-Man, meet me at our last meeting place” But nothing happens; nothing comes of it. The Torch waits all night, but Spider-Man doesn’t show. 

Page 18 is a classic bit of Lee/Ditko melodrama. The panels are crowded, but Stan Lee’s overwriting is just what the episode requires. The page may be crowded with text, but you get double and triple viewpoints and multiple levels of irony. While Parker soliloquizes “Things are getting worse, Aunt May needs more medicine by tomorrow, and I’m still broke” we overhear, in the background, Flash threatening another lad (very possibly Seymour) “Are you the wise-guy who said that even puny Parker could lick Spider-Man? Well?? Are you?”. 

And then along comes the sucker-punch. It’s a bit like the phone call at the end of last issue, in that it comes from nowhere. It’s also a bit like the moment when Aunt May pawns her jewelry in issue #1 — a final twist of the knife. Peter sees Betty Brant on a date with another boy.

Next month, he will be named “Ned Leeds”; the month after that, he will be written out; a year after that, he and Betty will get engaged. Many years in the future, he will become a super villain. But right now he’s just a very charming and good looking fella whose only purpose in the story is to make Peter Parker feel even worse than he does already.

And the child-voice kicks in. It’s almost like an accusing devil: “Face it boy! You’ve lost her! How did all this happen? Everything seems to be tumbling down around your ears! All your problems..all your tough breaks..are due to your being Spider-Man!! If you were just an ordinary Joe, Betty would still be your girl, and all the other worries you’ve got would just melt away!” 

It’s not quite true. Peter effectively lost Betty in issue #11, because he didn’t have the moral courage to tell her he was Spider-Man. Aunt May isn’t sick because her nephew is Spider-Man: she sick because she’s very old. As Spider-Man, he can earn up to $10,000 in a single days work – how much could he make if he dropped out of school and became an intern in a science lab? (It isn't generally the case that expensive pharmaceuticals drop out of the sky and into the hands of “ordinary Joes”). If anything, the opposite is true: all of Spider-Man’s bad breaks are due to him being Peter Parker.

But it feels close enough to the truth to destroy Peter Parker’s self-confidence. He ought to give up being Spider-Man, which he’s not very good at, and concentrate on being Peter Parker, which will make him happy. Head hung low, body slouched, he walks off into the distance. It’s the same image that wound up issue #12; the same image that John Romita will swipe for the iconic cover of Amazing Spider-Man #50. It’s the final frame of the comic: a clear signal that the story is over. 

Except, obviously, it can’t be. 

I think if you asked most comic book fans what happens in The End of Spider-Man they would say “Peter Parker quits being Spider-Man because everyone thinks he’s a coward; but Aunt May’s courage at dealing with her illness makes him recommit to the role.” But this is in fact only a description of of the last three pages. Peter puts his Spider-Man costume in the trash half way down page 20, but retrieves it on page 22, partly as a result of Aunt May giving him a Human Torch style pep-talk about perseverance and never giving up. 

This results in a vintage Stan Lee monologue: 

“Well..maybe he’s right! 
Maybe it took Aunt may to teach me something I should have known! 
Only a weakling quits when the going gets tough!
Sure I’ve had my share of bad breaks! Who hasn’t?? 
But I’ve been wasting too much time in self-pity!! 
Well, I’m done with that from now on!! 
Now, there’s nothing to stop me from being Spider-Man again!! 
Aunt May has enough gumption for both us us! 
I won’t have to worry about her any more!! 
As for J. Jonah Jameson, before I’m through he’ll be eating his words about me!!
Fate gave me some terrific super-powers, and I realize now that it’s my duty to use them…without doubt…without hesitation...!!
And that means Spider-Man is going into action again! 
I’ll fight as I’ve never fought before!! 
Nothing will stop me now!! 
For I know at last that a man can’t change his destiny…and I was born to be…Spider-Man!!!”

The speech doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Peter Parker hasn’t quit out of weakness; he’s made a positive, informed decision to be a scientist rather than a superhero. If it was only Aunt May’s sickness keeping him from being Spider-Man, then he hasn’t made any kind of moral decision at all: he was simply having a sabbatical until she recovered or (god forbid) died: now she's better he can go back to work. And what difference the medicine makes, I couldn't say idea: it wasn’t his dual identity that was stopping him from paying prescription charges. 

But the really striking thing is how amoral the speech is. He doesn’t say that as Spider-Man, he can help people, or fight crime — and he certainly doesn’t mention Uncle Ben. He talks about impersonal forces: “FATE gave some terrific is my DUTY to use them… A man can’t change his DESTINY” 

What is "fate"? It probably just means “whatever happens to you”; how your life was going to come out anyway, regardless of what you do. In classical mythology, the Fates wove the stories of people’s lives: Oedipus married his mother because his Fate said that he had to. But Stan Lee uses it to mean “the personification of dumb luck”. Fate kept drawing Peter Parker, Betty Brant and Doctor Octopus together in Philadelphia; fate gave the radioactive spider “a starring role in the drama we call life”. (The Silver Surfer blames “fiendish fate” for trapping him on Earth.) 

If Fate is the winding path your life is going to take, Destiny is where that path is going to end up: your ultimate destination. Some people will be kings and some people will be beggars, and that can’t be changed. Fate made the spider bite Peter Parker: that bite made it his Destiny to be Spider-Man.

Spider-Man also thinks that it is his duty to be Spider-Man; or rather, that it is his duty to use his powers, and to use them non-reflectively “without doubt or hesitation”. Duty is rather a different thing from responsibility, I should say. Everyone has a responsibility to use whatever powers they have wisely; but duty implies a particular obligation that one has incurred. But this is blindly circular. Peter thinks that he has to reimburse Fate for making him Spider-Man by, er, being Spider-Man.

Why doesn’t Hamlet kill the King when the Ghost tells him to? Because if he did, the play would be very short. Why doesn’t Peter Parker quit being Spider-Man when that would obviously be the right thing for him to do? Because if he did, this would be the final issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. Fate and destiny and duty are simply three more manifestations of The Plot. Ditko has written himself into a narrative dead end in which Spider-Man ceases to be Spider-Man. So the voice of The Plot intervenes, and says “Spider-Man must carry on being Spider-Man, because it is inevitable that he should carry on being Spider-Man.”

Spider-Man’s speech is, like the Silver Surfer’s rant, a statement of editorial intent. It is the voice of Stan Lee over-ruling Ditko’s proposed new direction. The readers are tired of Spider-Man’s self-pity: Stan Lee promises to give them more of what they really want, namely – fight scenes.

It really is as simple and amoral as that.

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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Monday, February 06, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man #17

The Return of the Green Goblin!

The Green Goblin

Supporting cast:
J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Flash Thompson, Liz Allan
+ Liz Allan’s Dad, “Seymour”, “Charlie”, and night club staff.

Guest Stars:
Human Torch, Dorrie Evans


Page 3 “Ixnay! Here comes puny Parker”
This is Pig-Latin; a game where you put the first letter or consonant sound at the end of the word and add a meaningless syllable. (Iderspay-anmay iderspay-anmay, oesday atwhay erevay away iderspay ancay.) As with rhyming slang, certain Pig-Latin words seem to have become slang in their own right. Seymour is simply saying “Nix!” — stop talking everyone! It’s a fairly childish thing for high school seniors to be doing.

P 10 “If the club’s a success that web-spinning clown could become as popular as the Beatles.”
This comic came out in or about August 1964 — just before the Beatles completed their second US tour with a two-night engagement at (where else?) Forest Hills Stadium,

Page 11: Avenue Dinner Club
Liz Allan’s father owns a “dinner club” — a restaurant with an a cabaret stage. Liz has not previously been represented as particularly wealthy.

Perhaps the “Avenue Club” is on 71st Ave?

Flash refers to Liz’s dad as “Mr Brant”, but this is a simple lettering error.

Page 11 — “Bite your tongue, Seymour”
A boy in a bow-tie has been a fairly consistent member of Flash Thompson’s entourage since the comic started, but this is the first time he has been named. The name Seymour, in conjunction with the habit of wearing a bow-tie to school, suggests that he is a little bit posh and preppy. (Hold on to that thought for few more issues.) Later continuity has given him the name Seymour O’Reilly.

The Goblin’s Bag of Tricks
The Green Goblin is substantially re-invented this issue, with a more explicitly Halloween themed arsenal:

  • Electrically charged frog — Breaks Spider-Man’s webbing 
  • Goblin sparks — We don’t find out exactly what they do, but Spider-Man thinks they are “pretty dangerous” 
  • An electrically activated mechanical bat — Gives out black smoke to blind Spider-Man 
  • Jack o’lanterns — Low yield explosives 
  • Ghost — Creates an airtight seal around the Human Torch 
  • Crescent Moon — We see him load this up, but don’t find out what it does. 
  • Exhaust from glider – Creates black smoke which stops the Torch from breathing. 
  • The Goblin’s flying machine is said to be a bat glider on page 18 a goblin glider on page 14, and a jet powered goblin glider on page 2. It’s definitely nothing to do with witches, though.

The “thought balloon” is one of the unique features of the comic book. Prose novelists are generally advised to only look inside one character’s head at a time. If the reader is allowed to know what Harry thinks about Hermione, she shouldn’t — certainly not in the same chapter — be told what Hermione thinks of Harry. But comic book readers find it perfectly natural to have a window into their heroes’ minds; to eavesdrop on everyone’s internal monologues at once. 

Perhaps comic book writers find themselves using internal monologue and soliloquy because so many stories involve secret identities and dual personalities. Or perhaps superheroes keep on having secret identities because the thought balloon lends itself so well to ironic clashes between public actions and private thoughts?

It is hardly possible to think of Spider-Man without thought balloons. Take away his worry, his self-pity, the celebrated “problems of Peter Parker” — all expressed entirely through thought balloons — and all you’ve got left is a strong kid who likes to go out in his nightwear. It is the visual grammar of comics which allows his conflicted personality to express itself. 

Spider-Man is not just two people; he is three people. He is shy, nerdy, Peter Parker; and he is also boastful, arrogant Spider-Man. (Peter Parker looks an awful lot like Steve Ditko and Spider-Man sounds more like Stan Lee with every issue.) Over the past year — ever since Parker stopped wearing his glasses — he has started to reach a golden mean between the two sides. Peter has become a good deal less anti-social, and much less whiny. Spider-Man has become less of swaggering braggart; his playground sarcasm has evolved into genuine wit. There have been scenes — when Aunt May and Betty Brant are teasing him at the end of the Annual — in which Peter Parker actually comes across as a decent human being. 

But however cool Peter Parker mostly pretends to be; and however funny Spider-Man usually is; beneath the surface is a third voice which only we readers hear. It's the real voice of Spider-Man which speaks through thought balloons and asides. “It’s not fair.” “Everything I do goes wrong.” “Why don’t I have any friends?” “Why is everyone against me?” It’s this nagging voice which hates being Spider-Man, which wants to throw the costume away, and which, in the Sinister Six story literally wished Peter Parker’s powers away and rendered Spider-Man physically helpless.  

The more consciously you repress an emotion, the more unconscious power that emotion will have over you. The more determined Spider-Man is not to be the kid from Amazing Fantasy #15 the more the voice of Puny Parker will nag him. “I wish I’d never gotten my powers.” “I wish there were no such thing as my costume.” “I wish I was a normal teenager.” “Some day they’ll be sorry”. 

So: there is only one story which could ever bring the tragedy of Spider-Man to an end. It would be the story of how the Spider-Man/Parker gestalt finally silenced the child Peter. At which point, The Amazing Spider-Man would stop being strictly the history of a boy and become the history of a man. 

The Amazing Spider-Man issues #16, #17 and #18 sets out to be that story. Individually, they are three of the best episodes of the original run. Considered as a triptych, they are are the definitive Spider-Man tale. In the remaining months of their collaboration, Lee and Ditko will produce at least six bona fide classics, and the single most iconic page in the history of superhero comics., but they will never do anything quite this good again. And neither will anybody else.

The first part of the triptych, The Return of the Green Goblin is very nearly a farce, built around a mounting series of misunderstandings between Peter Parker, Spider-Man and the five characters who know him in both roles. Each lie or misunderstanding creates a worse one, until, at the moment of maximum confusion, an out-of-the-blue denouement cuts the Gordian knot. 

As a piece of plotting, it is very nearly perfect. 

Flash Thompson, who hates and despises Peter Parker, is Spider-Man’s biggest fan. This has been a given almost since the comic started: this issue, he actually starts a Spider-Man Fan Club. Liz Allan wants Peter to go to the club meeting, because she like him, and also because it will annoy Flash. Flash wants Peter to stay away, because he's a nobody from dullsville. Although it’s a proper meeting in a proper night-club with tuxedos and press reporters, Flash persists in acting as if it’s a schoolboy pow-wow in a tree house. (“This is my fan club. I didn’t invite puny Parker to come.”) But he is desperately hoping Spider-Man will attend. Only we and Peter see the joke. 

Betty wants Peter to take her to the meeting: although quite why she wants to go to a fan-event when she can’t bear thinking about Spider-Man is never tackled. J. Jonah Jameson also wants Peter Parker to go and take photos; and poor Aunt May wants him to take the mysterious Mary Jane Watson. (It seems that M.J “just loves Spider-Man”, which, in the light of what is going to happen over the next few years, is just as well.) But Peter can’t go with Betty or Liz or Jonah or Mary because he has decided that he will indeed be there as Spider-Man. So Betty — who by this point has no discernible personality left apart from her jealousy — assumes that he is standing her up for Liz.

Just to add to the fun, Spider-Man’s arch rival Johnny Storm turns up. Johnny, whose identity is not a secret, can openly take his girlfriend Dorrie Evans, and chat to her about being the Human Torch, which is slightly rubbing salt in Spider-Man’s hang-ups. Finally, Spider-Man’s newest enemy, The Green Goblin, decides to gatecrash the party to fight Spider-Man. The Goblin has no particular motivation: he’s coming to the club to fight Spider-Man because, as a super-villain, that’s what he does. 

The cover is a subtle variation on Ditko’s favourite motif: the crowd looking up at the hero. At the top of the page the Torch, the Goblin and Spider-Man are engaged in a chaotic melee; while at the bottom Jameson, Liz, Betty, Flash and some less familiar faces look up with various levels of shock. This is a story about a fight: but it's also a story about how the people in Spider-Man’s life react to the fight. At no point in the story is Peter allowed to put on the mask and simply become Spider-Man: in every panel we are reminded that he is Peter Parker as well. This is nicely underlined on the first page: Peter Parker sits at his school desk, with a huge thought-balloon above his head, showing him battling the Green Goblin as Spider-Man three issues ago. He is Peter Parker on the outside; but he is Spider-Man on the inside. Peter Parker’s life literally encloses Spider-Man’s. 

Amazing Spider-Man #17 is probably the first story plotted wholly by Ditko without input from Lee. We complained that stories like Marked for Destruction by Doctor Doom and Unmasked by Doctor Octopus were spoiled by Stan Lee’s tendency to regard the “plot” as something you gallop through to get to the “action”. Very good ideas like Flash Thompson pretending to be Spider-Man and Mysterio making Spider-Man doubt his sanity were wound up in the first ten or eleven pages, so that the second half of the comic could be wholly given over to a fight. The Return of the Green Goblin does to some extent follow the Stan Lee formula — a lot of the plot does happen in the first half, and the fight does break out on page 12. But Ditko — assuming he is indeed the onlie begatter of the episode — continues to ratchet up the Parker-centric confusion all the way through the Spider-centric fight. All the set-ups in the first half have pay-offs in the second; several of them have consequences over the next few issues. 

We might have expected that, once the Green Goblin arrived on the scene, the Human Torch would have joined the fight on Spider-Man’s side. But Ditko chooses to make the situation more complicated. The Torch rushes through the fight to stop a separate crime (three burglars are trying to rob the safe). As a result, he gets webbed by Spider-Man, who was aiming at the Goblin. 

Two consecutive panels from Spider-Man 17...
Note how Ditko pulls the "camera"
 back to show the scene from
Jonah and Betty's view point.

Then, Spider-Man hears Liz Allan uttering the immortal words “I wonder why Peter Parker is never around when Spider-Man appears” and realizes that he will have to make a quick change back to Peter Parker to allay her suspicions. Peter’s hair is mussed up (because of the fight) and Liz (who we know isn’t much of a respecter of personal space) slicks it back for him, producing the expected fireworks between her and Flash. But then Ditko (in a single panel) pulls off an audacious change of perspective; pulling the “camera” back so we see Jonah and Betty looking at Liz and Peter — from which point of view it appears that Liz is romantically running her hands through Peter’s hair. (“Oh, no!” thinks Jealous Betty.) 

So: the Torch is put out of action by the Goblin’s anti-Human-Torch smoke; Betty is crying; Jonah is mad with Peter for not bringing a camera; Flash is mad with Liz for flirting with Peter; Spider-Man is getting the worst of the fight with Gobby… And completely out of the blue comes the overheard phone call. And what a good job that the maitre d’ narrates the call for our benefit as well as Spider-Man’s. “His Aunt? Suffered another heart attack? Asking for him at the hospital?”

This could have come across as a bit of a cop-out. The romantic entanglement around Betty and Peter and Liz and Flash, to say nothing about J.J.J’s annoyance that his favourite photographer has once again turned up without a camera, are left unresolved. Spider-Man simply walks away. But in fact, it is the perfect ending to a perfect episode. Every single complication has arisen because Spider-Man is also Peter Parker; so at the final moment, Spider-Man leaves the fight because Peter Parker has to be somewhere else. 

Possibly my favourite panel in possibly my favourite comic-book comes straight after Spider-Man has left the building. Jameson is rushing back to the Bugle offices

“We’re putting out an extra!” he tells Betty Brant “I’ll tell the whole world what a coward Spider-Man really turned out to be.”

“And I feel like telling the world what a fool I am…for thinking Peter Parker ever cared about me!” thinks Betty Brant. 

A lot of narrative is crammed into that one tiny panel. Jameson is going to tell the world Spider-Man is a coward; Betty wants to tell the world that Peter Parker is a cad. The readers can see the irony: that they have both leaped to the wrong conclusion — about the same guy. Jameson is happy — with a ridiculous grin; Betty is sad — wiping her eye with a handkerchief. Jameson is all motion, Betty is still. And the frame defines what the next two issues will be about. The combined bad opinions of Betty and Jonah will bring Peter Parker to the brink of quitting.

The famous theme tune of the 1960s Spider-Man TV show contained the line:

“Wealth and fame he’s ignored: 
Action is his reward”

This is just about the wrongest thing anyone has ever said. Peter Parker’s relationship with J. Jonah Jameson indicates that he is at least somewhat interested in wealth. And he is intensely concerned about fame. He goes to the fan-club meeting to please Flash; and because the irony of the situation appeals to him; but mostly, he goes because he wants to be popular. “This is my big chance! If I make a good impression in there maybe people will stop distrusting me and start liking me the way they like the Torch.” For him, life is a great big performance: he markets his image to newspapers, he began his career as a variety act; in the last few months he has tried to break into movies and the circus. Doing the right thing is not it’s own reward; neither is action. What Peter Parker wants is for people to like him.

But when it comes to it, and he has to choose between doing the right thing and doing the heroic thing, it’s a literal no-brainer. He doesn’t agonize or soliloquize: he acts. He would rather be a nephew than a superhero. It barely even amounts to a choice. Spider-Man runs out on a fight so Peter Parker can be with Aunt May. 

But having done the right thing, the whining child-voice immediately starts to accuse him. Whining-Peter doesn’t care that Spider-Man has done what is morally right: he is concerned about his public standing. “Everyone thinks I’m yellow and I’ve probably lost any fans I might have had.” He asks not what good Spider-Man has done for the world, but what profit the role has brought to him “A lot of GOOD it does me to be Spider-Man!” And he petulantly throws the costume across the room. “Spider-Man…sometimes I wish I had never heard that name!”

And so, we are right back where we started. The very first panel of Amazing Spider-Man #1 showed Peter Parker throwing his costume across the room, crying “My Spider-Man costume! I wish there was no such thing!”  And now he's doing it again. "Why don't things ever seem to turn out right for me? Why do I seem to hurt people now matter how I try not to? Is this prince I must alway pay for being...Spider-Man?"

Costume thrown on floor; head in hands; dark shadow: 
the end of Spider-Man?
from Amazing Spider-Man #17

Stan Lee has only handed the reins to Steve Ditko for one issue, and Ditko has come very close to destroying the character. Is there any way of moving forward with a hero who quite clearly doesn’t want to be a hero any more?