Sunday, September 10, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man #24 - 29 (Overview)

The Long 1965

Maybe Spidey Strikes Back had provided such a satisfactory conclusion to the story of Peter Parker, that neither Lee nor Ditko could quite be bothered to think up new adventures for him. The first four stories of 1965 (#19-#23) are by no means dreadful; but they have a "so what?" quality to them. 

But then, without warning, Lee and Ditko get their mojo back. Six terrific issues -- with perhaps a single off-note -- followed by valedictory tetralogy which is generally regarded as the best Spider-Man comic book (and therefore the best comic book) of all time.

What happened?

The glib answer would be “Stan handed the book over to Ditko, so we got an undiluted final year of Spider-Man as Steve had always wanted him to be.” It is, almost inevitably, more complicated than that.

It is certainly the case that, during that final year, Steve’s input was at it’s zenith. The credits of issue #25 still attribute the, er, swingin’ script to Stan Lee, and the, er, dazzlin’ drawings to Steve Ditko. But the Stan persona immediately cedes the spotlight to Steve:

“Sturdy Steve Ditko dreamed up the plot of this tantalizing tale and it’s full of unexpected surprises! So turn the page and see if you can guess what’s coming next…”

“Tantalizing” is a strange word to choose: a cover could be tantalizing, or a splash page, or a clue to the Green Goblin's secret identity — but in what way does this story dangle a treat in front of us without letting us enjoy it? And the story isn’t particularly characterized unexpected twists. (Once Smythe has presented his robot in the Bugle offices, it is obvious how things have to develop.) The word's Lee uses to describe the comics -- "tantalizing", "unexpected", "puzzle" -- gives a big clue to how he felt about his working relationship with Steve Ditko. 

During the final months of their collaboration the two men weren't talking to each other at all. Stan wasn't even providing one line story ideas. Ditko sent penciled pages to Lee by courier; Lee sent lettered pages back for Ditko to ink. Any interaction between them had to go through production editor Sol Brodsky. So Stan was scripting “blind”: writing captions and dialogue for stories into the creation of which he had no input. You only have to look at the letter columns to see that Stan Lee had no idea what Ditko was going to present him with from one month to the next:

“Our next issue is so utterly stupendous that we won’t even attempt to describe it here.”

“And now not a single word about next ish. We want every dizzy surprise you’ll find there to be completely unexpected”

“Instead of giving you a big pitch for our next ish, we’ll merely say that it’s written by Stan, drawn by Steve and produced in the usual Marvel manner”

“Here’s you chance to prove you loyal you are to ol’ Spidey. Without us telling you anything about next ish, let’s see if you’ll all be sure to buy it.”

It was a strange way of working. Stan Lee wasn’t some hack in a studio, being called on to ghost-write for the major talent: he was the face and voice of Marvel Comics, Ditko’s de facto boss. There were obvious communication breakdowns. Some can be written off as trivial continuity glitches – events which happened “yesterday” in one panel took place “weeks ago” in another; Spider-beams remain on rooftops even though Spider-Man has already retrieved them; major characters' names change. This stuff doesn't matter that much, and I probably wouldn't spot it if I wasn't repeatedly re-reading what both writer and artist regarded as ephemera. But some of the misunderstandings are so catastrophic that they amount to Lee sabotaging Ditko's work. Infamously, when some of the Master Planner’s goons turn up in issue #30 (to foreshadow the events of #31 - #33) Stan assumes that they work for the Cat Burglar. which makes. No. Sense. At. All.

So when Stan Lee describes Captured by J. Jonah Jameson! as “tantalizing”, “unexpected” and “surprising” and challenges us to “guess what’s coming up next” I think we are hearing the editor’s reaction to a pile of finished artwork which he didn’t commission, or even discuss. “OMG! What has Steve given me now!” Indeed, the caption might be regarded, not as Stan giving credit where credit is due, but as his desperately distancing himself from the material. “Just Steve’s idea, I promise you. Stan had nothing to do with this one.” 

For Stan Lee, the words “dreaming up” denote the primary creative act. The whole of creation is contained in the original thought: everything else is legwork. So it must have been a hell of a thing for him to admit that Ditko dreamed up the plot of Spider-Man #25. He is not merely saying that Ditko decided that Spider-Man’s escape should take place “off stage” or that the high drama of Spider-Man's pursuit should be interrupted by the social comedy of Aunt May’s impromptu tea-party. He had always done that. That’s what being a Marvel comic book artist meant.  But Lee is going further and acknowledging that the whole idea of robo-Jameson is Ditko’s. He is the onlie begatter of the tale.

Which doesn’t, incidentally, sit particularly well with the theory that Ditko wanted Spider-Man to remain realistic and objected to Stan putting magic, aliens, space-rockets and South American mummies into his saga.

We have argued that there are two kinds of Spider-Man tale: the one where an eight page build up is followed by a ten page battle; and the one where a skein of plot threads come together into a tragic or ironic knot. We’ve speculated that the former is typically a Stan Lee plot and the latter is typically a Steve Ditko plot. And certainly issues #24 - #27 all follow the "Ditko" model. It has also been said that Ditko wanted to maintain the focus on Peter Parker's life, while Lee wanted continuous Spider-action. And indeed, Parker features heavily in the whole sequence from #24 - #33. Remarkably, his high school graduation runs for a full 6 pages without being gate-crashed by a single supervillain!

These issues start to feel much more like a soap opera than a situation comedy: for the first time the comic has an issue to issue continuity. Parker finds a letter from Ned to Betty in issue #23, and one from Betty to Ned in issue #24. Ned returns from Europe in #29 and asks Betty a fairly important question in #30. Spider-Man washes his costume in issue #23, loses it in #25, disastrously wears a shop-bought one in #26 and #27 and tries to get the missing one back in #28. The scientist who designed the Jameson robot in #25 accidentally creates the Molten Man #28.

Stan Lee doesn't seem to be completely comfortable with this approach. Several times, what Ditko clearly intends to be a specific reference to a previous event becomes a generic reference to an unspecified past. So Peter doesn’t say “This must be Betty’s reply to the letter from Ned I stumbled on two issues ago”, he just says “I didn’t know she was still writing to him.” He doesn’t say “I need a new costume because I couldn’t follow Foswell two issues ago because I had washed it and it was still damp”; he says “I remember that time my Spider-suit got dripping wet and I couldn’t wear it when I wanted to.” It’s almost like Lee sees the story of Spider-Man happening in an eternal present tense (more characteristic of Superman and the Distinguished Competition) and Ditko sees it as an arrow thrusting forward to a definite conclusion. Perhaps he doesn’t want to make the comics too impenetrable to new readers; perhaps he just doesn’t reread old issues and doesn't always remember what happened last month. The final caption of issue #24 feels a lot like Stan Lee apologizing to the reader for Steve Ditko's unwillingness to wind up any sub-plots -- or maybe like an editor throwing his hands up in despair. "Nothing conclusive has been settled between Peter and Betty..or indeed between anyone. And yet, isn't that just the way of life? We never know what surprises are around the corner..."  

So. It is tempting to see these classic stories — the bogus psychiatrist, the anti-Spider-Man robot, the two part gangster tale, and of course the Very Famous Master Planner Saga — as being great precisely because Lee as got out of the damn way and ceded the stage to Dikto. But Stan Lee’s voice is as loud and as emphatic — maybe louder — in this final year as it had been in the previous two. The dialogue is bigger, punchier and funnier than ever before. The Scorpion issue, in particular, is sustained almost entirely by the three-way sparring between Spider-Man, Jameson and Ned Leeds. Perhaps J. Jonah Jameson is increasingly reduced to a comic foil: but no comic foil was ever funnier or sharper. Perhaps, having admitted that Ditko dreamed up the stories, Lee feels the need to shout “Me, me, me!” on every page. Or maybe he merely raised his game. And, in fairness, there are a number of panels where he impresses us by knowing when to shut the hell up. When it turns out that Ned Leeds and an unspecified female friend are taking care of the sick Betty, the crestfallen Peter says nothing more than “Tell her I called.”

"The narrator" remains a very distinct voices in all these stories; almost an invisible presence, as much a character as J.J.J or Flash. He keeps reminding us that this is a story which someone made up -- there is not the slightest attempt to present it as pseudo-history. ("Do you think it's easy to think up titles like this?"). But he never engages in meta-fiction. There is no sense of the characters being puppets who's strings "the narrator" can yank. When Flash Thompson fortuitously bumps into J. Jonah Jameson  he assures us that it's the mysterious workings of Fate, not a clever twist by the Writer.  If anything, "the narrator" is the avatar for the reader — the archetypal Marvel fan — in the front row, as breathlessly awaiting the next plot twist as we are. Which makes perfect sense if Ditko really did create all these stories without input from Lee. "The narrator" talks as if he doesn't know what is going to happen next...because he really doesn't. He presents the identity of the Crime Master as an unfathomable mystery...because Steve really hasn't told Lee yet. No other Marvel comic ever achieved quite this level of ironic detachment; because no writer and artist were ever crazy enough to work in this way again.

In the years and decades which followed, Spider-Man the publishing phenomenon would go from strength to strength. Ditko began his celebrated half-century sulk, and Lee settled into being a full time celebrity. Roy Thomas and John Buscema — and John Byrne and Mark Waid — did a pretty good job at producing second and third rate Stan Lee and Jack Kirby pastiches for the Fantastic Four and The Mighty Thor. But no-one ever recreated the magic of these issues of Spider-Man. No-one even tried. Lee without Ditko tended towards pure melodrama. And Ditko without Lee... Well, I am afraid we all know what Ditko without Lee tended towards. But somehow in these ten issues the barely disguised antagonism between Ditko the Dreamer-Upper and Stan Lee the Annotator gave us a year’s worth of the finest  comics the industry has ever seen.
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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Loke said...

Just want to say that I've never read Spider-man but I've been really enjoying your analyses.

Andrew Rilstone said...

That's the second most gratifying thing you could have said, thank you. (The most gratifying thing, of course, would be "your analyses have made be go and read the early issues of Spider-Man. :))

Oliver Townshend said...

I've always loved the Ditko Spider-man, ever since I read them in Marvel Tales as a kid. Loving your analysis, and I think this'll make a great book when you pull it all together. Are you going to do each issue and this is the intro?

Andrew Rilstone said...

I am definitely covering every issue up to #33. (Part of my thesis is that 1 - 33 make a "graphic novel" with "The Final Chapter" as the final chapter. Yes, I will pull it together as a book. (A work-in-progress collection of the 1963 essays is available as an e-book and physical copy to Patreon backers. ( This will be the into to the 1965 volume. It came out of order simply because I found I needed to talk generally about the 24 - 29 issues. I have a long piece on #24 (Spidey Goes Mad) lined up for this weekend, and who knows, I might get #25 (Captured by JJJ) done this afternoon.

I'm taking my time over these because I don't think anyone has studied the comics in quite this way before, and I'm trying to chase up angles like chronology, insider references etc as thoroughly as I can.

This is what I've done so far:

Thanks for being interested.

SK said...

If one were to be inspired to read the original strips, are they available in some kind of recommended definitive archive form?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Spider-Man Omnibus - the whole lot for £50

Spider Man epic edition - about a year per volume, £22 (Or about £8 is you don't mind reading comics on kindle.)

Or if you like e-comics, Comixology will sell you the run at £1.50 a pop.

Some shops might still have Marvel's old "essential" volumes, which are black and white but cheap.

Hope this helps.

SK said...

Thanks; that's quite pricey, but it's good to know what to look out for in case I can get a bargain (or find it in a library).

AndrewSshi said...

Since you're doing a lot of new criticism of the Ditko/Lee run as literature, do you think that you might look around and see if a conventional publisher could pick up your book? I love your self-published books (a few of which sit on my bookcase or in my tablet), but I think that a regular publisher could, by dint of their marketing budget and greater resources, get your writing out to more people.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Do you know any publishers who would touch this kind of thing? Or, indeed, any agent? Or (and this isn't actually a joke) any college which would consider this kind of thing as a research project?

I am fairly good at sitting in my room going tap tap tap on a computer. I am astonishingly bad (basically, too cripplingly shy) to promote myself to publishers or agents. And when I have tried to go down "professional" paths -- Games Man, Interactive Fantasy, Cut-Throats, the Bollington Episode -- it has rarely ended well. If someone who knows about this stuff says "Give us your book when its down, and we can make sure 1,000 people read it instead of 100, and pay you £5,000 rather than £500" then that would make me happy. Provided of course they don't add under their breaths "but, of course, you'll have to make a few changes -- lose the Spider-Man angle for a start."

I tend to think that Lulu and Patreon were pretty much made for the likes of me.

But thank you for showing an interest; I really would listen to any good advice about getting my stuff out there.

(And we may need to have this discussion again in probably six months time if I decide to go forward with the Much Ruminated Over Big RPG Project.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

SK: An alternative is subscribing to Marvel Unlimited at $10 a month or $70 a year, which gets you access to every single Marvel Comic in the whole world since time began.