Friday, July 28, 2017

The Strange Case of Steve Ditko's Foot

For those who may not have been paying attention: Steve Ditko drew the pictures, Stan Lee wrote the words.

But “writing the words” does not simply mean “deciding what each character should say” or “deciding what text should go in the caption box.” It means “deciding which characters should be speaking and which ones should be silent”; and “deciding whether a panel needs a caption box or not.” We have to imagine Stan looking at text-free page, and starting to bang out copy on his typewriter.  "I think Aunt May is talking in this scene, and Peter is sitting at the breakfast table in silence. I think all five of these character should have something to say. I think this panel needs a little yellow and black box to explain what is going on." 

He seems to complete his text for one page before going and looking at the art on the next; and he rarely checks to see what happened last month. He is poor at foreshadowing. On the cover of issues #22 he shouts “New thrills! New villains! New surprises!” But there are no new villains this issue; just some old villains under a new name. And on the splash page he tells us “take a good long look at the Ringmaster…he won’t be around very long.” In fact, the Ringmaster appears all the way through the comic (trying to make off with the stolen paintings on the last but one page) albeit separated from from his team-mates.

Page 5 of issue 22 is a good example of Stan Lee’s over-writing of Steve Ditko’s narrative. I have picked this page because of one very remarkable panel; but you could play the same game with almost any page in the canon. It is no part of my brief to say that what Stan Lee does is wrong. But an understanding of what Stan does, in fact, do is key to grasping the multi-dimensionality which makes the Amazing Spider-Man so unique.

Imagine the first 5 panels with no text printed on them at all. I submit that, if you had never read Spider-Man comic before, you would still have no difficulty in working out what is going on:

Panel 1: A blond girl helps a boy on with his coat. Two other girls are leaving. (It is clear from context that they are finishing a day at school.)

Panel 2: A brown haired girl stops the boy as he is walking home.

Panel 3: The girl, head bowed, apologizes or confesses to the boy about something. The boy, head cocked to one side, listens.

Panel 4: The girl looks up and smiles; the boy has evidently forgiven her

Panel 5: The girl and the boy walk off arm in arm.

As Spider-Man readers, we can understand, also without words, that Peter and Betty are making up after their row last issue. The plain sense of the five pictures could be conveyed as followed:

Panel 1:

Liz: Peter, will you walk me home tonight?

Peter: Sorry Liz, I can’t.


Panel 2:

Betty: Hey, Peter!

Peter: Hi Betty


Panel 3:

Betty: I apologize for jumping to conclusions about you and Dorrie yesterday.

Peter: I accept your apology.


Panel 4:

Betty: I am so happy you have accepted my apology!


Panel 5:

Peter: Now we’ve made it up, what she we do?

Betty: Let’s go and see Mr Jameson’s exhibition of modern art.


Of course, we would expect Lee, or any writer, to provide something much more dramatic and flowery than this. But Stan Lee’s adds far more than is necessary for explanation; he adds ideas which aren’t in the pictures, and and subtly changes the meaning of what Ditko has drawn. 

Panel 1. 

Liz asks Peter for a date; Peter turns her down. Liz is no respecter of personal space — remember her slicking back Peter’s hair in #17 or straightening his tie in #15. (Peter looks slightly irritated but this isn’t taken up in the text.) Lee likes every issue to be as self-contained as possible; new readers rarely feel they have missed anything. So it makes sense for Peter to add an explanation about why he won’t walk home with Liz: “Betty Brant is mad enough at me now! If Betty ever saw me walking Liz home, I’d be finished in her League!” Note that he intends never to be seen out with Liz again, but tells her that he’ll walk her home “some other time”. In two issues time, he will actually go to her house to help her with her homework. Stan can’t help presenting Parker as a bit of a hypocrite.

Panel 2. 

Quite clearly, Ditko intends this panel to represent Betty and Peter greeting each other, and the next panel to represent them settling their differences. But Lee gets ahead of him, and puts most of the substance of the conversation into this frame. Faced with a small panel containing two characters, most writers would add one, or at the most two, speech balloons: but Lee gives us four. This means that we have Betty waving to Peter and saying “But what about the rumours I hard that you were making a play for Johnny Storm’s girlfriend?” and a smiling Peter responding “I was hoping you’d give me the chance to explain about that, Betty!” This is just how he writes fight scenes: asking us to believe that characters are speaking 20 or 30 seconds worth of dialog over a frame which represents a fraction of a second’s worth of action.

If anyone follows up Stan Lee’s footnote they will find that Betty’s dialog clashes with what happened in issue #21. Betty didn’t hear rumours; she specifically saw Johnny accuse Peter of hitting on Dorris; refused to let him explain; stormed off in a huff; and leapt to the conclusion that Peter was on a date with Dorris when she is told by Aunt May that he has gone out.

Panel 3. 

Lee’s hazy memory of last issue, and his overwriting of panel 2 creates a clash between the words and the pictures in panel 3. Instead of apologizing for treating Peter badly, which is obviously what is meant to be happening, Betty has come to accuse him of two-timing her, or at any rate, appraise him of some gossip that she’s been privy to. While the panel clearly shows Betty talking and Peter listening, Lee gives most of the dialog to Peter — even though he has his back to the audience. Betty accepts his mansplanation immediately, and simpers “Oh Peter, you must think I’m just a jealous, foolish, female.” (This is, in fact, pretty much how she has been written since issue #13: a foolish, jealous female with no other personality traits.)

Peter’s explanation of the gossip — blaming the whole situation on Dorris Evans — is astonishingly ungentlemanly. The Torch came after Peter because he saw him coming out of Dorrie’s house — Peter had, in fact, been quite innocently returning a lost purse. Dorrie did, in fact, talk to Johnny about Peter, with the intention of making Johnny more of a gentleman, but Peter couldn’t possibly know anything about this. In fact, it was him who, as Spider-Man, went back to Dorrie’s with the intention of making the Torch jealous!


Panel 4


Peter manages to out-talk Betty in this panel even though he is not in it. Clearly, Ditko meant it to contrast with the previous one; a long shot of Betty with her head bowed, looking sad, followed by a close up of her with her head up and looking happy. She is clearly meant to be saying she’s happy Peter has accepted her apology, or expressing pleasure that they are talking to each other again. But Peter still talks across her: Lee uses the clumsy device of a speech bubble coming from out of frame, telling Betty that she is the “prettiest, nicest, most wonderful gal I know”, leaving her to simper that she likes hearing him say so.









Panel 5

And off they trot, arm in arm, to J.J.J’s art show. It is, by the way, pretty tactless of Peter to describe their reconciliation as “signing a disarmament pact”, given that Betty’s friend Ned is off in Europe covering a peace conference.















Panels 6 and 7


The final two panels have been discussed a great deal, but I don’t think anyone has ever really grasped their oddness. It is too easy to jump into Stan Lee’s head an assume that if something happens on the page, it was always going to happen on the page, because Stan Lee meant it to. 

Lee gave Ditko, at most, a two sentence plot summary. It certainly won't have mentioned Mrs Van Der Twilliger. It’s unlikely to have said anything more than “The Circus of Crime come back. But this time they do an art heist…at an exhibition Jonah Jameson is sponsoring!” What Ditko has submitted is simply two establishing shots of an art exhibition — the robbery is going to happen on the very next page. Panel 6 is a long shot of Jameson talking to a lady in a red dress and lady with no neck in a green dress; panel 7 zooms in on J.J.J with his trademark tiger grin and reveals that Peter and Betty are in the crowd. Again, the natural sense of the pictures would be for one of the ladies to ask Jameson a question in the first panel, and for him to answer it in the second. In fact, Lee writes four separate speech balloons. Ditko left plenty of space for speech bubbles above the figures, but Lee writes so much text that Mrs Twilliger’s hat is obscured. (You can see from the next panel how tall Ditko intended it to be.)


As exposition, the two panels tell us what we need to know (it’s Jameson’s private collection of art, and he is very proud of it); they also give us a nice little character moment: Mrs Twilliger flatters Jameson for his good taste; Jameson hypocritically boasts that he wants to make art available to ordinary people, while inwardly admitting that he’s only in it for the money.

We can see three pieces of art in the exhibition: a childish drawing of a stick man; a sketch of what appears to be a finger with a sticking plaster on it; and a human foot, in a blue sock, with one toe sticking out. Peter remarks in panel 7 “If this stuff is art, I’m glad I’m a science major!”, which is consistent with the dismissive expression Ditko has drawn on his face. Last issue Dorrie praised Peter Parker for being cultured -- but he isn’t hip.

Note how caption overlaps Jameson's
head and Mrs Twilliger's hat!
The exhibition is supposed to be taking place “at a plush Madison Avenue Art Gallery”. (The Bugle offices are also on Madison Avenue.) In real life, the fashionable Bodley Gallery, associated with the “pop art” movements, was located at 787 Madison Ave It is unlikely that Ditko (with his Randian suspicion of intellectuals) would have had much time for modern art. His own panels were never appropriated by Roy Lichenstein, but some of John Romita’s were. Whether we are talking about Andy Warhol’s soup cans or last year’s Turner Prize nominees, there will always be a certain number of people who react to modern paintings like Peter Parker does -- by wondering if it is really art at all. 

In 1956, Andy Warhol had dedicated a whole exhibition to elaborate and unlikely designs for shoes; and feet feature prominently in his early work. Indeed, it is often insinuated that he was sexually interested in women's feet. It would be going too far to say that the picture in panel 6 is consciously a parody of an Andy Warhol drawing; but if you were trying to come up with a simple line image of “the sort of rubbish they show in Madison Avenue art galleries nowadays” a toe sticking out of a sock isn’t a bad attempt.

But then something very odd happens.

Stan Lee sticks in a completely unnecessary thought balloon “Boy! I wish I could draw feet like that!” The balloon partially covers the painting of the foot. And it isn’t coming from anywhere: the person thinking the thought is behind a pillar. This is a bizarre thing to do. Why have a figure who is not in the panel commenting on a painting, when there are two silent figure admiring the stick-man who don’t say anything at all? The most the thought contributes to the scene is to contrast the art-lover, who admires the foot-drawing, with the science student, in the next panel, who doesn't understand the band-aid. 

Way, way back in the letter column of Amazing Spider-Man #5, a fan named Dan Fleming inserted himself into comic book history by writing:

“One last thing about Ditko’s art: he just can’t draw feet right!! They look out of shape and flat. I don’t want to hear other collectors calling my favourite hero a flatfoot, do you?”

He probably has in mind things like the cover and splash page of #19, where Spider-Man’s stockinged feet are represented as rather abstract shapes, without toes or heels. It’s quite hard to find a picture of anyone going barefoot, but when Spider-Man is doing somersaults in his PJs in issue #12 his feet do look a little on the cartoony side. (Something about them said “Popeye” to me.) However “can’t draw feet” certainly isn’t a major hallmark of Ditko’s art in the way a complete lack of teeth and fingernails arguably characterizes Jack Kirby.

The received and unchallenged wisdom of Spider-Man fans is that “I wish I could draw feet like that” is a joke at the expense of Mr Fleming. Indeed, it has been said that Ditko inserted himself into his own comic to admire his own feet, but tactfully hid himself behind a pillar. This seems highly unlikely: I doubt that Ditko even read the lettercols; and I doubt if he would have left it a year from the original letter to make the riposte. But it is just possible that Stan Lee misunderstood the Warhol reference, remembered the “Ditko can’t draw feet” remark, and dropped the speech bubble in to explain the joke.

When we read Spider-Man it can feel as if we are looking down a tunnel. The pictures tell a story. The words, added afterwords, tell a different story. Characters in the panel do not speak; characters who are not in the panel deliver crucial lines. Cryptic jokes are made by characters hiding behind pillars. There are 24 blocks of text in a 7 panel page. We can never be sucked into the flow of the pictures, we are always made to pause and read the words. Spider-Man unfolds almost in slow motion, with a commentary over the top. Are we listening to a melody and a counter melody; variations on theme; an argument between two creators…or merely a movie where the lip sync is very slightly off?

For four issues in the summer of ‘65 — 28, 29, 30 and 31 — Stan Lee changed the name of Marvel Comics to “Marvel Pop Art Productions.”


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Friday, July 21, 2017

Eyes Down...

...removing any traces of the slave trade from Bristol might require half the city to be pulled down, and not just the plaques of signs with Colston's name on it....
Nigel Currie

Until recently, until a lot of publicity was given by the Bristol Post to a very small but vociferous minority of mainly non-Bristolians, the majority was not even aware of Colston's link to slavery...
C Stephens


All these do-gooders who want to change the name of the Colston Hall should be more concerned what is happening in Bristol an other cities regarding girls that are groomed for prostitution and are usually under 18 years of age.
Wendy Fryer

If the name of Colston Hall has to change, the suggestion to change it to the "Corstan Hall" [after Jean Corstan MP] is a good one...It has absolutely no connection with the slave trade, so should not offend those minority groups who are trying to change it, whilst happily living here in this great city. These people should shut up or move somewhere else
P Collins

What a great idea...to suggest naming one of the new trains after Edward Colston. What a great way to remember a truly great Bristolian who, ok, was linked with the slave trade, but...
Mr G Briggs


Amazing Spider-Man #22

Preeeeeeesenting…the Clown, and his Masters of Menace!


Villains: 
The former Circus of Crime

Supporting Cast: 
Liz Allan, Flash Thompson, Betty Brant, J. Jonah Jameson, Aunt May (one panel only) + Mrs Van Der Twilliger and a chorus of police, doctors, schoolkids and art-lovers. 

Observations:
This is the first time Spider-Man fails to appear on the cover of his own comic; it won’t happen again till issue #58. (Issues #63 and #72 have symbolic covers in which only the villain and the spider-signal feature; issue #79 has Peter Parker in peril) 

The splash page is purely symbolic (we never see the Masters of Menace in a circus ring, and Spider-Man certainly doesn’t see the Ringmaster walking out on them.) The cover is more or less an enlargement of the first panel of the first page. 

In Duel With Daredevil the Circus of Crime appeared to consist of Samson, a strong man; two trapeze artists (unnamed) and a human cannonball (also unnamed). There are also figures on stilts, a figure in an “Arabian nights” costume, a bald uni-cyclist, and at least two clowns. (When the Ringmaster first appeared in Hulk #3, he had a clown, a cave-man, a midget human cannonball, and a grotesque with a long neck working for him.) The Clown and Princess Python appear here for the first time: but in a classic piece of Stan Lee "backfilling" everyone takes it for granted that they were in the team which Spider-Man defeated a few issues back.

p2 “In a sleazy hotel room in a shabby hotel, some sneaky sinners are startled by the sight of a sparkling spider-signal.” Lee doesn’t generally go in for this level of alliteration. (The Batman TV show, which loved it, is still a year in the future.)

p2With my little gizmo secretly stuck to his fedora… Obviously, the Ringmaster wears a top hat, not a fedora. It isn’t immediately clear why Parker gets this wrong. It’s an incredibly weak joke.

P4 “Some of these new biochemical discoveries of Dr Henry Pym are awfully interesting.” Dr Pym is, of course Gi/Ant Man. Why Peter Parker is reading his research in a high school science class is unclear. (There doesn't seem to be a teacher in the room, so maybe this is some kind of private study period?) 

p9 “Those crummy rat finks! I got them all together! Taught them all they know!” It is a good thing the Ringmaster literally recites his soliloquies out loud, so people hanging by the window can find out what is going on. 

“One things for sure! I’m not Tuesday Weld” Tuesday Weld was a child actor turned adult Broadway star. Interestingly enough, she had guest starred in two episodes of an entirely forgotten circus-themed TV drama/soap “The Greatest Show on Earth.” 

p9 He’s probably…using my old hideout…the warehouse where we stores all our circus equipment….on west 22nd Street.” West 22nd Street is between Grenwich Village and Times Square, in the Chelsea theater district, a by-no-means unlikely place to be storing circus gear. 

p11Boy! Didn’t any of you ever hear of the Good Neighbor Policy” The Good Neighbor Policy refers primarily to Roosevelt’s foreign policy towards South America in the 1930s. Again, this joke makes much more sense if Stan Lee, rather than Peter Parker, is making it. 

p17 “Before they can take it on the lam…”  i.e before they can run away with the loot. 

Peter Parker’s financial situation: Peter sells pictures to the Bugle for the first time since issue #19. Jameson says the pictures of the Circus of Crime being arrested are “wizard” and “front page stuff” so Peter probably takes $2,000, leaving $4,000 in the cookie jar.



I think Spider-Man fans may want to shout at me this month; because having been quite rude about the generally well-regarded Scorpion story, I am going to give a cautious thumbs up to the frequently overlooked second appearance of the Circus of Crime. 

It's a heist story -- specifically, a thieves-fall-out tale. A number of plot lines lead our hero on a moderately merry dance. The Circus of Crime are out of jail (after 6 months); Spider-Man tracks them down to their hotel room and intimidates them with his Spider-signal. (Unusually for Ditko, the cover is simply an embiggerment of the first frame of the story.) During the confrontation, he cleverly slips a spider-tracer into the band of the Ringmaster’s hypnotic hat. But after he has gone, the circus troupe turn against the Ringmaster, who has after all landed them in prison twice before, and kick him out of the band. The team, now led by the Clown, decide to rob an art gallery as their first solo gig. The Clown distracts everyone with his juggling unicycle act, while the rest of the gang make off with the paintings. But wouldn't you know it! The art exhibition they chose to rob is the one being sponsored by J. Jonah Jameson and the Daily Bugle -- they end up putting J.J.J. in hospital. 

The Clown doesn't do a great deal in the story -- Princess Python is the central baddie -- but he is a splendidly sinister Ditko creation, all painted on sad face and frown, who idly juggles and unicycles while planning daring crimes. 

Of course, when Spider-Man tries to track them down, his spider-tracer leads him to the hide-out of the Ringmaster, who is no longer part of the band. But Spider-Man hypnotizes the Ringmaster with his own hat and finds out where the gang is hiding out. Princess Python offers to turn the other members of the gang over to the police, and share the loot with Spider-Man. The Clown, realizing he’s going to be double-crossed, takes the paintings himself and makes off with them; only to intercepted by the Ringmaster, who decides he's going to have the artwork -- but he in turn has been trailed by the police. 

The story is structured as a sequence of two to three pages scenes, only a minority of which involve fighting: the robbery (page 5-7); Spidey tracks down the Ringmaster (page 7-9); Spidey fights the Clown, Cannonball and the acrobats (pages 11 - 13 and 15); Princess Python tries to seduce Spidey (page 16 - 17) ; Spidey's big fight with the python (page 18).  This makes for a very pacy read. By Stan Lee’s criteria, there is little “action” in the comic — no single extended fight. But more happens on each page, both in terms of plot movement and in terms of physical action than in many a 12 page battle sequence.


No-one would accuse Silver Age Marvel of having been a hotbed of feminism; but Amazing Spider-Man isn't usually the worst culprit. (Early Fantastic Four can be genuinely uncomfortable to read because of its casual sexism.) But the relationship between Spider-Man and Princess Python is downright weird. When the Princess initially tries to seduce him, Spidey remains as acerbic as ever: 

"Why don’t you and I team up? We could make beautiful music together!"
"Sorry ma’am. I happen to be tone deaf."

But when she confronts him physically we get this kind of thing: 

Spidey: "What can I do now? I can’t fight a female. I can’t use force against her…"
Princess: "My only chance is to take advantage of being female…"
Spidey: "I don’t want to have to get rough with a female…"

It's almost like Stan Lee himself feels uncomfortable with the idea of a lady baddie and keeps drawing attention to it. The very word "female" sounds clumsy, coming from someone who normally calls women "gals" or "chicks". (Note that at the beginning of the story, Betty admitted that she was a "foolish, jealous, female"). But the taboo against male on female fight scenes seems to have been taken out of all proportion. As far as it goes, it is sensible to bring up schoolboys  — who, by hypothesis, fight each other all the time to establish status — to think that it is not manly to start a fight with a woman, or with a smaller man, or with anyone wearing glasses. And you wouldn’t stage man vs woman wrestling bouts or prize fights for the same reason you don't have mixed tennis tournaments —  there is too much disparity in strength and stamina for the fight to be fair or interesting. But it seems that this playground honour code has been turned into an unbreakable moral principal. Is it really the case than a male can never hit a female? What does a male police officer do if a female criminal is resisting arrest? Don't male soldiers ever have to confront female warriors on the other side? What does a gentleman do if a lady hits him first? 

It will be a long time before Spider-Man has to confront this dilemma again: he doesn't have another female opponent until Medusa (#62) and the Black Widow (#86). 

There is a strong sense that this issue is trying to create a new, post-triptych format in which characters have comic foibles rather than personalities. When J.J.J threatens to fire Peter Parker (a freelancer) no-one even bother to pretend they think he means it. When he learns that Betty has kept a vigil by his hospital bed he exclaims “Too lazy to go to work, eh!” and Betty smiles ”He’s as nasty as ever — so I know he’s all right now!” The issue before last Jameson was paying masked supervillains to murder Spider-Man: now he is a Perry White style comic foil whose bark is worse than his bite. Similarly, Peter and Betty are repeatedly shown together during the art heist, giving the impression that they are now a couple in the way that Lois and Clark are. The final page, with Peter saying “Oh no! The painting have been recovered! We’ll have to look at them again!” and the three of them marching off together feels very much like the end of situation comedy. 

Which is far from being a criticism. If the Amazing Spider-Man is to continue as a monthly comic, it can't be in a state of permanent crisis: there needs to be a comfortable status quo which can be disrupted and reestablished each month.

This is a perfectly adequate story, with tons of plot movement, some dead ends, and some minor twists. Lee and Ditko could carry on giving us this kind of thing almost indefinitely. But three issues on from The End of Spider-Man, and there is still no real sense of direction for the new, self-confident Peter Parker.


Friday, July 14, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man # 21

Where Flies The Beetle...!

Villain: 
The Beetle

Guest Star: 
Johnny Storm, Dorrie Evans

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

Observations:

Spins a web, any size:  The Torch and Spidey do their usual routine in which the Torch shoots fireballs at Spidey and Spidey throws web balls at the Torch. (Spider-Man claims they are “asbestos web balls”, by which he presumably just means they are fire-proof. The Beetle claims to have "asbestos armour" on page 19).

Spider-Man also flips the fireballs with ping-pong bats made of web. 

p 6 “I couldn’t win a popularity contest even if I was the only one entered! Nuts!” It isn’t clear whether losing a popularity contest to Khrushchev is worse than losing one which you are the only entrant. “Nuts!” is a fairly mild swear-word to use when no-one is listening but it’s an improvement on “suffering spider-webs”.

p 6: “He’s so cultured and down to earth…” By “cultured” I think Dorrie means “good mannered”. Although he is a straight-A student and has presumably studied music and literature, Peter has never shown any particular interest in the arts before.

“It would be wonderful if some of his poise and polish were to rub off on you” This recalls Betty Brant’s comments about Peter’s new-found inner confidence a couple of issues back. We’ve come a long way from Peter the shy wallflower. 

p8 “Well, I’ll be spider-webbed string-bean.” A string-bean could be a vegetable, a banjo player, or a thin guy. Spider-Man doesn't seem to mean anything specific by it.




“You’re probably wondering where we go from here with Spidey!” writes Stan Lee on the letters page in Amazing Spider-Man #22 “Well, if it’ll make you feel better, we’re wondering too.” Hype, of course, albeit a sort of reverse psychological hype. But there is an overwhelming sense that after Ditko effectively brought the Story of Spider-Man to a satisfying conclusion in issue #18 and #19, the comic spends three or four issues marking time searching for a new direction. The action is fun, the villains are evil, but nothing very interesting can happen to this self-confident, self-assured Spider-Man.

Where Flies the Beetle is a distinct improvement over the The Coming of the Scorpion. It follows the characteristic Ditko pattern of interweaving a number of plot lines relating to Spider-Man and Peter Parker, rather than Lee’s characteristic build up to a fight. But it doesn’t make much use of the familiar Spider-Man plot engine. Liz and Flash are barely present; Aunt May appears for literally one panel. The main soap operatic impetus comes not from Spider-Man but from his guest-star. This is the Human Torch’s ninth appearance since Amazing Spider-Man started, but we won't see him again until #77. 

When the Torch appears in Amazing Spider-Man he is generally represented as an entitled, slightly arrogant, but very competent celebrity, who Spider-Man resents because of his own relative obscurity. In this final appearance, the Torch is much more as he is in his own solo-strip in Strange Tales: a teenage high school student who happens to have a superpower. (In the early Strange Tales appearances he even had a secret identity, kind of.) Flash and Peter regard him almost as "one of the guys"; Betty doesn’t have any idea who he is. You could easily run away with the idea that he’s a fellow student at Midtown High. (Actually, he lives in Long Island with his sister and commutes to the Baxter Building.)

Continuity is vague. Jameson hasn’t changed as a result of accidentally unleashing a super-villain last month; Betty, who was angry with Peter from two-timing her with Liz (which he wasn’t) is now angry with Peter for two-timing her with the Torch's girl-friend Dorrie Evans (which he obviously isn’t). Even the partial reconciliation between Spider-Man and the Torch in issue #19 is placed on hold. It’s like we’re slipping into superhero non-time: Betty is always surprised and shocked that Peter is dating someone else; the Torch and Spidey are always feuding…


The plot is pretty much a text book romance comic: you could substitute any other characters and it would come out much the same. Doris Evans is cross because her boyfriend Johnny Storm keeps running off to be a superhero during their dates. (This was somewhat foreshadowed in Amazing Spider-Man #17.) She extracts a promise from him that he won’t “flame on” during the next 24 hours. By an astonishing co-incidence, an old Strange Tales baddie called the Beetle has just got out of jail and hatches a plan to get his revenge on the Torch. By another astonishing coincidence, Peter Parker has an entirely innocent meeting with Dorrie; but Dorrie, being a minx (like all gurls) goes out of her way to tell Johnny what a nice boy that Peter Parker is. So Johnny storms off to to tell Peter Parker to lay off his gal. 

We have seen that the Spider-Man plot-machine relies on Flash, Liz, Betty and Jonah all knowing our hero as Spider-Man and also as Peter Parker. Rather implausibly, Dorrie Evans and Johnny Storm are also brought into this mechanic: Dorrie bumps into Parker in the street and thinks he is nice, but is terrified of Spider-Man; the Torch knows Spider-Man as a fellow crime-fighter and thinks of Parker as a nobody who is hitting on his girlfriend. (The Torch doesn’t remember Peter from when he came and gave a talk at his school; Dorrie doesn’t remember Spider-Man from when he gate-crashed her party.)

And so, the inevitable confrontation between the Johnnie Storm and Peter Parker. Peter and Betty are looking in the window of a pet-shop, which is what passes for a date, when along comes the Torch and starts berating Peter. (Peter’s response to Johnny’s “do you know who I am?” is one of the best ever bits of Spider-Snark. “Sure! Either you're the Human Torch or some jerk walkin’ around in his pyjamas! Or maybe both!”) As if by magic, Flash and his cronies appear. This gives Jealous Betty the impression that Peter has been dating Dorrie behind his back. (How does Johnny know where to find Peter? And would a big-league superhero really go after a high-school kid in that way?)

Parker promised himself two months ago that he was going to stop being so self-pitying from now on: and he initially reacts to the new situation with rage (crushing bricks with his bare hands) and then sensibly decides that he doesn’t really care what Johnny Storm thinks of him anyway. However where the Human Torch is concerned, Spider-Man hasn’t sworn off acting like a dick. “If he’s jealous of Peter Parker, how would he feel if Spider-Man made a play for his gal?” 

Although much is made of Marvel Comics' popularity with teenagers, I can't help thinking that this is romance as imagined by kids who are far too young to date. No-one is looking for sex, thank you Comics Code; no-one thinks about marriage; no-one even kisses. Romance is a kind of a game, in which the main object seems to be to make the other side jealous. Men compete for women; women sulk when it looks like the men are cheating on them. In fairness, the men are mostly schoolboys, with homework, detentions and playground fights to worry about: the women often have the grown-up jobs and responsibilities.

Implied sexism apart, this is an impressively put together piece. It’s in the same farcical vein as The Return of the Green Goblin (although without any of that story’s emotional impact). Parker meets Dorrie by accident; the Torch threatens Parker because he thinks he’s hitting on her; Spider-Man goes back to Dorrie’s to needle the Torch and finds the Beetle already there; the Beetle and Spider-Man have a fight; the Beetle runs away with Dorrie; the Torch turns up, finds the place trashed, and assumes Spider-Man did it; Spider-Man chases the Beetle, the Torch chases Spider-Man, eventually the two of them join together and defeat the Beetle. It is not a vintage fight, but Ditko has some fun with the three pronged brawl: at one point the Torch flames the Beetle, the Beetle brings the ceiling down to squash the torch; and Spider-Man fall through right in between them. (Interestingly, the cover shows Spider-Man caught in the crossfire between the Torch and the Beetle, where issue #17 showed the Torch caught in the crossfire between Spider-Man and the Goblin.) 


As ever, the payoff to the fight is a bit of a let-down. It rather feels as if everyone spars and then Stan Lee declares Spider-Man the winner on points. Spider-Man catches the Beetle in his web, the Torch makes a cage out of flame, and then somehow, off stage, Spider-Man puts him into a web cocoon. The obvious moral — that Spidey and the Torch work better as a team than as opponents — is not drawn. 

In the final panels the new, non-whiny Peter Parker has a moment of insight which establishes the foundations of a “new normal” for the character. “I wonder if the world will ever acclaim me as it does others? Or am I always to go through life shunned and loathed! If only I could reveal my secret identity…if I could let people realize who I am…! …But I just don’t dare!” This is a call back to last issue when he wished he could share his secret with Aunt May, but felt that he “couldn’t take that chance”. This is going to become a major strand of the story-machine from now on: Peter Parker’s life is full of problems because of his double identity; but he cannot go public because the shock could kill Aunt May. It’s a bit of a hand-wave, but it will do.

There is nothing wrong with this issue. It’s a lot more fun than a lot of what Marvel put out in the same month. (Gregory Gideon, anyone?) and streets ahead of the Distinguished Competition. Spider-Man could have rolled along happily for decades in this format: the snarky teenager, the jealous girl-friend, endless sparring and rescuing and thief-catching. But there is no question that the temporary exorcism of whiny Peter has made Spider-Man a less complex and therefore less interesting character.


Friday, July 07, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man #20


The Coming of the Scorpion

Villain

The Scorpion / Mac Gargan


Supporting Cast

Flash Thompson, Liz Allen, Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Ned Leeds, Dr Farley Stillwell

Observations
The page count of the story drops from 22 to 20 from this issue.

Spins A Web, Any SizeSpider-Man uses a giant web bat to distract the guy tailing him (the same kind he used to disrupt the Torch’s party in #8.)

Why does Jameson hate Spider-Man? The fact that the villain he created to destroy Spider-Man turns evil proves that it is his duty to destroy Spider-Man. 


Aunt May's Condition: For the first time, Aunt May is said to be too frail to stand the shock of finding out Peter Parker is Spider-Man. If only she were younger…if she could stand the shock…I’d reveal my other identity! But I dare not take a chance!” This will the main rationale behind Spider-Man's dual identity for years to come. 

Peter Parker's Financial Position Peter Parker hasn't sold Jameson any photos "lately" or "for days". 

P2 “It’s no trick to follow someone silently when you’ve got the power of a thousand spiders” 

A thousand spiders is quite a lot less than the "countless spiders" he had the power of in issue #10. I don’t know why a thousand spiders are quieter than, say, one.


P3 Spider-Man is shown running along telegraph wires near his home — Ditko has realized that web-swinging in Forest Hills makes no sense.


P5 “Mr Jameson is sending me to Europe to cover the disarmament conferences.”

There was indeed an Eighteen Nation Disarmament Conference going on in Geneva at this time. (It went into recess in September '64 and started up again in July '65.) 

P5 “JFK is less than an hour away.” 

It would currently take 25 - 40 minutes to drive from Madison Ave to JFK Airport; more like 80 minutes by bus. (Neither Peter, Ned or Betty appear to have their own car.) Note that New York Central Airport had been renamed after President Kennedy as recently as December 1963.

P6 “Mutated is not the exact scientific word”. 

According to the X-Men, a mutant is by definition born with superpowers Gargan is turned into a Scorpion my means of a "serum".

P9 “I’m at the peak of my power”  

p11 “His potent Spider-strength temporally dormant.”  
“His awesome energy which is slowly returning” 

Some of the clearest confirmations that Spider-Man channels his strength from outside himself — it isn’t a physical enhancement.


P17 Note that Jameson is so worried about the Scorpion that he has changed his green tie for a red one.





“It's time to dream up another great new Spider-Man villain. But how can we possibly follow someone as awesome as Kraven?”

“How about a strong guy in a green suit that makes him look like Tigger!”

“Brilliant…but it needs that little bit extra…!!”

“A strong guy in a suit....with a robotic tale coming out of his butt!!!"

“Who got his powers because....??"

“...a mad scientist gave him a potion, because...???"

"....J.J. Jonah Jameson paid him a lot of money!!!!"

"And the twist is that a side effect of the potion is that the strong guy in the green suit with the tail coming out of his butt....????"

"....turns evil!!!!"

There are not many issues from the Lee/Ditko run that I would happily strike from the canon, but this is one of them. (*) The art and the dialogue feel perfunctory; the villain is unimaginative; no-one seems quite to be acting in character; and plot-lines introduced in the last issue are hurriedly closed off. It is hard to resist the idea that the story originally intended for #20 was shelved at the last minute, and that this is a hastily-conceived filler.


If you attempt to treat the end of issue #19 and the opening of issue #20 as a continuous narrative, the problems are obvious. Peter Parker sells J. Jonah Jameson a full photographic record of Spider-Man’s fight with the Enforcers. Jameson declares them sensational, and adds “I don’t know how you got them…and I don’t care.” He cares so little that as soon as Peter leaves the room he calls up two investigative reporters and tells them to find out how Peter Parker got the photos. The first of the reporters (who smokes and wears a nicely inconspicuous purple suit) is on the job by 3.30 PM. He trails Peter Parker from school to Aunt May’s house and waits there until both Peter and May have gone to bed. He calls up Jameson, who has gone home and changed into a green bathrobe, to report that he has nothing to report.

Jameson appears to already (in the last twelve hours) have worked out a theory about the source of Peter Parker's photos, and has formed a very definite plan about what he will do if the reporter's evidence confirms it: 

"I’ve got to know for certain! And then…when I’m sure…I’ll act!”

He tells Purple Suit Guy to carry on watching the Parker house until he is relieved, which must happen early the next morning. A second reporter (who doesn’t smoke and who wears a green suit) follows Peter to school, but Peter spots him on the way home. (Presumably Green Suit Guy is less careful than Purple Suit Guy.) Quite late in the evening — after Aunt May is in bed — Parker briefly distracts him with a web-bat so he can get into the house as Spider-Man. The next day, Green Suit Guy (now identified as Mac Gargan) follows Peter to school and then to the Daily Bugle offices. (Note that Parker, knowing his is being followed, must make the journey from Queens to Madison Ave on foot or by subway: Gargan can't see him web-swinging, or the game would be up.) At the Bugle offices, Gargan, reports back to Jameson. But Jameson has changed his mind again. He doesn't care where Peter Parker’s photos come from after all!  He has decided to turn his employee into a giant scorpion instead!


Now, I think we can all agree that this is nonsense of the highest order. Jameson is a millionaire, but he isn’t a green-silk-bathrobe millionaire. And he’s definitely a “get back on the job whaddayathink I pay you for?” kind of boss, not the “Get back to your post until you are relieved” kind. And the idea that Jameson would go from “I don’t care where he gets the pictures” to “I am going to send two reporters to find out where he gets the pictures” to “I don’t care where he gets the pictures, I’m going to hire a mad scientist to turn one of my staff into a supervillain instead” in few hours doesn’t fit in with the character of J.J.J. as he’s been developed over the last couple of years.

Anyone can see (although I think I am the first person in the last half a century to come right out and say it) that Spider-Man #19 sets up one plot  — a mysterious figure in green sending agents to follow Peter Parker around the city — and Spider-Man #20 abandons the plot immediately and substitutes a lackluster “Spidey vs Some Villain” story instead. I don’t believe that Stan Lee would end one issue literally on a big question mark ("Who is the new and different menace about to enter the life of Peter Parker?”) only to reveal that he’s the not at all new and not particularly different J. Jonah Jameson 5 pages into the next one. I don’t believe that Stan or Steve would introduce the idea that Jameson had started to suspect that Parker is Spider-Man if the only resolution they could think of was “He gets bored and doesn’t pursue it.” And would Stan really have penned that “I don’t care how he does it!” bubble for Jonah if he was about to reveal that he really does care, quite a lot.  (He could comfortably have fitted: “How does he do it…! I’ve got to know…?? And I know just how to find out..!!!” in the same space.) 

Was Steve going somewhere with the Mysterious Following Guy, and did Stan veto his idea, forcing him to produce a fill-in villain in a hurry? Is it even possible that the full panel question mark — a motif which never occurs in any other Ditko/Lee comic — was drawn in after the fact to cover up a panel which hinted at the vetoed plot development? Who knows, perhaps if we could get our hands on that original artwork and steam-off the question mark, we would discover a panel in which which Bathrobe Guy turned to the reader and announced "...And so the Green Goblin will have his revenge at last!!!!!!"


So much for the inept segue. But to be honest, there isn't much else to say about this story. Farely Stillway is clearly an alchemist like Curt Connors: he makes potions that enable fish to climb trees and rats to breath underwater. (Some people say that the picture of his lab is so spooky that it makes up for the rest of the issue by itself. They are wrong.) But unlike Connors, Gargan doesn't become half-man / half-beast monster; he simply becomes really, really strong. Realizing that this isn't scorpioid enough, Stillway also magics up a prosthetic tale that Gargan can control telepathically and the single least imaginative costume of any Spider-Man enemy to date. (Credit to Ditko for drawing in a mechanism that runs from Gargan's neck to the base of his spine, largely avoiding the sense that this month’s candidate for the supervillains' hall of fame is attacking Spider-Man with a prosthetic backside.) Like the Lizard, the Scorpion somehow has "all the powers" of his totem-animal: so although his hands look exactly like anyone else’s hands, they can cut through Spider-Man’s web like a scorpion’s pincers. 

Stillway warns Gargan that the experiment may affect his brain, but Gargan doesn’t mind, because he never uses it anyway. (I paraphrase.) But the intriguing idea that we are going to end up with a thug with an insectoid mind is rapidly replaced by boiler-plate Stan Lee waffle. “His body has attained the maximum degree of superpower! His brain as been subtly altered until is standards are those of a predatory beast! He has become the living embodiment of evil!!” The Code wouldn't have allowed Satan to appear in a comic, but it is still a bit of a let down when the living embodiment of evil talks and acts very much like every other Spider-Man bad guy. ("Jameson is the only one living who knows by secret identity! With him out of the way, my secret will be safe forever! It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes!”)

The sense that no-one's heart is quite in this tale is underlined by the rather pedestrian feel of the fight scenes themselves. Spider-Man’s costume gets ripped to shreds and he is seen rather dramatically lying in a pile of wreckage, but there is no sense of there being anything particularly impressive or savage about the fight. In the first round, the Scorpion punches Spider-Man repeatedly and pushes him off the roof. In the second, Spider-Man rips the Scorpion’s tail off; and then punches him until he falls over. Even the dialogue is less sparking than usual:

“Being you’re such a glutton for punishment, I’ll make it worth your while!”

“It won't be so easy this time… now I’m ready for you!”

“A fat lot of good that’ll do you! I’m stronger than ever now…as you're gonna find out.”

“Jameson tries to find out where Parker gets his pictures from” is a good idea for a story. “Jameson sponsors the creation of a new super-villain who beats Spider-Man on the first go but loses on the second go”, not so much. The idea of J.J.J. sponsoring a villain will be handled much more interestingly in issue 25, which very sensibly pretends this one didn’t exist.


Appendix: Conjectural Timeline

Monday

? 07.30 Peter sells photos to Jameson (#19)
? 09.00 Jameson instructs reporters to trail Peter 
*15.30 First reporter (Purple Suit) at Midtown High (#19)
*1600  First reporter watching Parkers' house. (#19)
? 2100 Jameson returns home
? 22:30 (After Peter and May are in bed)  First reporter calls Jameson (#19)

Tuesday 

? 06.30 First reporter replaced by Gargan (Green suit)
? 0830 Gargan trails Peter to school.
*15:30  Parker spots Gargan outside school (#20)
?16:00 Gargan follows Parker home (#20)
? 21:00 Parker as Spider-Man trails Gargan (#20)
?22:30 Gargan calls Jameson (#20)
?23:00 Spider-Man distracts Gargan and returns home (#20)

Wed

?8.30 Gargan trails Parker to school
* 15.30 Gargan follows Parker to Bugle Offices (by public transit?)
? 16:00 Jameson reads report of Stillwell's experiments and decides to turn Gargan into a scorpion.
? 16.30 Gargan and Parker arrive at Bugle officers 
? 1700 ("A short time later") Gargan and Jameson arrive at Stillwell's lab.
? 1703 ("Moments later") Gargan drinks serum. 


(*) "The Terrible Threat of the Uncanny Tinkerer" and "Spidey Tackles The Torch", obviously. 






Sunday, July 02, 2017

10:12 The Doctor Falls

Oh Steven Moffat.

Oh, Steven Moffat.

You were so nearly there. So nearly there.

I watched The Doctor Falls with my Doctor Who watching head on, I promise. Not with my “I have to make smart remarks about this on the blog” head on. But within ten minutes, the little voice inside my head was saying: "This. This is what New Who was meant to have been like. Always."

It was clear from the beginning that I was watching a piece of television that fundamentally took itself seriously. A bit of television in which the actors were were playing characters and no-one had got around to saying “but you can ham it up if you like because it’s only some shit about robots on a spaceship.” If you were one of those hypothetical people who didn’t know what Doctor Who was, you wouldn’t have definitely known your weren’t watching a new Scandinavian police drama, or Daphne Du Maurier adaptation. Not until the robots came on. It was just TV drama, like any other TV drama, telling a story, as well as it could. 

I spotted no smirk; no “don’t worry kids they are only silly robots” moment. 

The episode was fundamentally interested in Bill’s predicament at having been turned into a cyborg; and the Doctor’s need to do the right thing. If you had Never Watched Doctor Who Before then the horror of the human who has been turned into a robot was absolutely clear from context. And you could tell that the old, wise man had really loved the young woman who had been cyborgized, and was trying to let her down gently. 

But no-one has really never watched Doctor Who before; everyone in the world knows that the Doctor and the Cybermen are old enemies, almost as old as television itself. That's one of the bits of raw material that the story has to work with, just like, I don't know "rich people are moving into the lower class areas of London" is one of the bits of raw material that Eastenders has to work with. Jokes and in-references were there for those of who have watched the old episodes, but they were funny in themselves and not (I suppose) confusing or distracting to people who didn’t get them. When the Doctor shouts "Voga", you can tell that he is (like a soldier) shouting the name of a previous battle against the Cybermen. But I happen to know that it's a reference to Revenge of the Cybermen. That's as it should be. 

The resolution of 50 years of continuity angst about whether Cybermen come from Mondas, or Telos or a parallel earth and why the design keeps changing is genuinely clever. Wherever there are humans, they eventually evolve into Cybermen; parallel evolution. 

Of course, there is a problem with treating the Master as a serious character in a serious drama. Fairly obviously, he isn't. We first met him in the days of Adam West and John Steed. The Radio Times explicitly presented him as a comic book villain. Depth is one thing he can't ever have. He believes in a cruel God who made him in his own image: evil for the sake of being evil. John Simm plays it with camp self knowledge but never descends into camp absurdity. (The ludicrousness of Last of the Time Lords is entirely avoided.) I suppose, in a sense, he and Missy are the “comic relief”, the boo-hiss pantomime villain to be set against the existential horror of the Cybermen. But you can really feel the evil. The Evil Capitalist in the One With the Fish says that the Doctor’s speeches would inspire anyone with a shred of human decency. Here, the Doctor makes a genuinely inspirational speech and the Master casually says that he wasn’t listening. It’s the kind of moment where you actually want to punch him. 

I am not sure whether the handling of Bill’s transformation was very brave or very cowardly: I would like to have had more scenes embracing the absurdity of Bill’s lines coming from the Cybermouth. I suppose this was the whole reason that the Hartnell-era Cybermen were brought back: because we can believe that there is some of Bill left under the gauze mask better than we could believe there was some of Bill left under the silver CGI cyber-helmet. The conceit that we see BIll as herself, while everyone else sees her as a Cyberman is not entirely original. I kpet thinking of that episode of Frasier where the attractive young gym teacher he is dating turns into the abusive coach from his childhood. But it works. And it assumes that the audience is intelligent enough to discern what is going on.

Most of us probably thought that Missy had not reformed, but was pretending to be good to fool the Doctor. A few of us may have thought that she had genuinely stopped being evil, and that she was going to be the Doctor's friend or companion for a few seasons — at least until some future producer comes up with “What if Missy turned evil?” as an idea. The actual resolution — Missy kills her previous incarnation, to ensure that she comes into being, but he kills her, because she really has turned good — was not one I had predicted. Comic books have mostly stopped pretending that a this months story is the definitive, final, one-lives-one-dies confrontation between Batman and the Joker or Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus. Readers know that however thoroughly the villain is killed, a few months down the line, the status quo will have to be restored. If Harold Saxon didn’t stay dead after the funeral pyre ending of Last of the Time Lords, she is not going to stay dead after being zapped by her past self. But for the minute I’ll pretend that I believe she's dead and enjoy the elegant finality of the scene. 

The Doctor’s last stand, farewell to Nardole, dozens of exploding Cybermen. I liked absolutely everything about the first fifty three minutes and seven seconds of the episode. 

And then, as exclusively predicted in this channel, someone activates the My Little Pony magic lilac love ray and makes Bill becoming a Cyberman didn’t happen. 

If at the very last moment the Water Nymph had popped up and held Bill’s cyberhand, just for a second, dropping a teeny weeny little hint that Billy Potts body is a rusting in the grave but maybe her soul is going to go dripping on  I wouldn’t have minded. Not that much. But Moffat doesn't know when to stop. He can't leave things alone. Never have one good bye seen if six will do. We had to go through definitely revivified ethereal Bill and a definitely physically present Heather physically moving the Doc back to the TARDIS and floating off round the universe with silly music playing much too loudly in the background and although it only lasted for a few minutes I. Just. Wanted. It. To. Stop. 

The puddle monster absorbed Heather’s physical body; Bill’s physical shape has somehow been extracted from the dead Cyberman and turned into magic lilac pony water — despite that fact that most of her remains have been long-since destroyed. What is the magic puddle meant to have done? (Moffat is a little vague about minds and bodies and hardware and software: we found out in Death and Heaven that it if you upload someone's mind to a computer it becomes possible to retrieve their physical form.) 

I hope that this is the last we see of Bill and that we won’t have to  see her corpse endlessly violated in the way that  Wonderful Clara's was — killed and unkilled on a weekly basis. Clara was never really a character, so it didn’t matter so much, but Bill was enough of a person that I’d like her to be allowed to rest in peace and not be reincarnated as an onion to make us cry over and over again. 

I didn’t properly get the coda about the Doctor. I understood that he was prepared to die to save the Mondasian colonists because it was the right thing to do, but I don’t know where the not wanting to regenerate idea suddenly came from. David Bradley was good enough at doing Hartnell’s lines in the docudrama but I could honestly have missed that fact that the person who shambles on at the end was meant to be the First Doctor. 

Maybe there’s a fabulous idea for a two-Doctor Christmas special with a light touch and witty repartee between the First and Last Doctors, just like there was between the Two Masters. Or maybe Moffat is going to bow out with a terribly ill-judged attempt to overwrite Doctor Who mythology from the ground up. 

“How did you find me?”

“I left you my tears, remember.”

Oh, Steven, Steven, Steven. What were you thinking of?











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