VillainsDr Smythe and his robot
J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Liz Allan, Flash Thompson, Aunt May
Spins a web, any size:
Spider-Man somehow uses his web to turn an empty Spider-costume into a puppet. He sprays liquid webbing over the robot for no very clear reason.
Peter Parker's Financial Situation
Peter Parker sells some pictures of Spider-Man stopping a burglary at the beginning of the episode, the first successful sale he has made since #22. It doesn’t seem that J.J.J was very excited — maybe he paid as little as $500?
The story starts a few hours after last issue finished; with Peter Parker leaving Liz Allan’s home and returning to Aunt May, who has, as she promised, waited up for him. It appears to be a school day; which suggests that the events of issue #24 took place over a weekend; which further suggests that Betty works on Sundays.
P2 "I’d better retrieve the Spider-beam which I left on a roof ledge yesterday!”
P3 “There was the loveliest Joan Crawford movie on the late show”.
If Aunt May is over 70, she would remember Joan Crawford as the “quintessential flapper” from the 1920s and 30s, rather than the rather psychotic figure in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962). Which channel had a late-night silent movie slot in 1965?
p 3: “Must be someone important”.
This is the first time Spider-Man has clapped eyes on Norman Osborn. Did Ditko intend us to overhear something more important than that Norman was taking out an advert in the Bugle?
P4 “My name is Smythe”.
He won’t be identified as “Spencer Smythe” until issue #28
P6 “And Betty is mad at me now…”
Peter has forgotten that yesterday morning, he was the one who was mad at her for writing to Ned Leeds.
P5 The robot is set up to home in on spiders using a “Geiger-counter like" system; it homes in on Peter’s “greater Spider-Power”, on his “spider-impulses” and on his “aura”. This strongly confirms our theory that Spider-Man is attuned to something that I have called “the Spider-Force”.
P6 “Did I tell you chicks how I helped ol Spidey get the last laugh on that phony psychiatrist a few weeks ago?”
It has taken Smythe at least 21 days to work out why the robot grabbed Peter Parker rather than the spider, and for J.J.J's legal team to draw up a contract. During that time, Peter's dates with Liz have become a regular thing. (Connie tells Flash that Peter dated Liz "last night.) Or maybe Stan Lee just isn't paying attention.
P7 “ A fight?? Oh, Perish forbid! I just what to talk to my old buddy, that’s all!”
“Perish Forbid” — facetious combination of “Heaven forbid1” and “Perish the thought!”. It probably originated on a radio show called Easy Aces — which was mostly driven by Jane Ace’s malapropisms. (”I’m your awful wedded wife”; “He doesn’t drink, he’s a totalitarian”.) Easy Aces had been off air for 20 years by this point; it isn’t clear if Flash is trying to be funny, or mangling his cliches accidentally.
P10 “How did he get here so fast! I didn’t even have time to put my shoes and gloves on!”
Ditko has shown that Spider-Man is in a hurry, by illustrating him running across a roof while putting his socks on. Stan Lee tells us that Spider-Man is in such a hurry that he hasn't put his socks on. This is an example of a redundant caption -- one that adds nothing whatsoever to the picture.
P13 “I’ve never liked Spider-Man — or any silly costumed adventurers.”
Betty has calmed down a lot since issue #11 when she couldn’t bear to be near Spider-Man because of his connection with her brother's death.
Page 16 “Don’t you want to see you bookworm boyfriend eat crow…”
Eat crow = climb down, be humiliated. I assume that crow is one of the ingredients in "humble pie". Note that Flash has accepted that Liz has dumped him and is officially dating Peter.
“Well, hel-lo dere”
Catchphrase of comedian Marty Allan
p19 “We received a call about suspicious looking character hanging around”The other kind of Stan Lee caption. It is clear what is happening in the picture: a cop sees Flash loitering and moves him on. But Stan invents an unnecessary detail: someone has actually seen Flash hanging around and called the police on him.
Douglas Adams said that P.G Wodehouse is not regarded as a great writer because, while his prose is about as perfect as English prose can be, his subject-matter is relentlessly trivial. J. Evans Pritchard famously argued said that the greatness of a work of art was the product of two criteria: how artfully its objective has been rendered, and how important that objective was. Perfection multiplied by importance equals greatness. This is in fact a more prescriptive statement of Goethe’s famous critical criteria: “What is this work of art trying to do? How well does it succeed? And was it worth doing in the first place?” Pritchard assumes that there is some Platonic idea of a “great work” against which you can judge, say, one of Byron’s sonnets and find it wanting. Goethe asks you to attempt to be objective: to take the text on its own terms before making value judgments. Adams clearly felt that Wodehouse’s perfect prose was quite sufficient to make him unconditionally great, regardless of what he was writing about. For him, form trumps content every time.
It may be that Amazing Spider-Man #24 is a silly story. It may be that the very famous Master Planner trilogy outranks it on the importance axis. It may be that heavy, angsty tales – ones where Peter Parker quits being Spider-Man, or some member of the Stacey family bites the dust — are what Spider-Man is all about. (Sam Raimi evidently thought so, which is why Spider-Man II is so relentlessly depression.) But for my money, Captured by J. Jonah Jameson is the most perfect story Lee and Ditko ever produced. It’s full of joy and fun and thrills and exhilaration and giving the bully a bloody good kick up the arse. It’s a meticulously orchestrated farce in which every move sets up the punch line. It's ludicrous; but we never doubt that our hero is in serious danger. It is executed just about as well as a comic book can be.
Someone called Smythe turns up at the Daily Bugle with a robot which he says can defeat Spider-Man. For once Mr. Jameson isn’t crazy about the idea.
“I’m not getting mixed up with any more nutty mad scientists! Every time I listen to one of you nitwits I end up being a laughing stock!”
In point of fact, Jameson has only ever hooked up with one scientist, mad or otherwise — Dr Farley is issue #20, which resulted in the creation of the Scorpion. But it is literally only 12 hours since he facilitated a plot by known criminal Mysterio to discredit Spider-Man. It would make much more sense for him to say “I fell for Dr Rinehart; I’m not falling for you too.” Ditko’s artwork could in fact carry that meaning. But Lee prefers to refer back to a generic past: one in which Jameson is “that guy who’s always being fooled by mad scientists.”
The second panel on page 4 encapsulates the whole story: Smythe persuades Jameson; Jameson resists Smythe; Peter looks quizzically at the robot; Betty stands back and watches. It’s as if Ditko is squeezing as much information into one panel as he possibly can. Perhaps we should call it hyper-compression: the very opposite of the cinematic decompression so fashionable today.
Once Smythe has been introduced, we pause for about a page. (When you are telling a story over 20 pages, you can afford to pause for a page.) Ditko adds an additional layer to the story before it has even got off the ground. Spider-Man being chased by a silly robot would doubtless have been fun. The Terrible Threat of the Living Brain (#8) was great fun. (I always assumed that Smythe’s robot was green because the Brain was green and because it was coloured green on the cover of the UK reprint. It is actually gunmetal grey. There is a precedent for gun metal gray things turning out to be green. I like green better.) We can see that the robot is ridiculous; Jameson can see that the robot is ridiculous; Parker can see that the robot is ridiculous. So it is Peter Parker who persuades James to hire the obviously useless piece of hardware. So when the robot really does come after Spider-Man; and when it turns out to be very dangerous indeed, he has only himself to blame. Much has changed since Amazing Fantasy #15, but one thing remains constant: Peter Parker is a dick.
It may be, as Betty says, that Jameson has a reason to hate Spider-Man. But we have long forgotten what that reason was, and so has he. Jameson wants to capture or beat or defeat Spider-Man to get his revenge on him for making a fool of him the last time he tried to capture or beat or defeat him. And Peter, at some level, is getting off on this. He wants Jameson to hire the useless robot “to get even with him for all the trouble he’s caused me in the past."
Not power. Not responsibility. Just a rather petty personal vendetta. Peter wants Jameson to cause him trouble, so that he can make a fool of Jameson, to punish him for causing him trouble. Jameson wants to cause Spider-Man trouble because he’s made a fool of him whenever he’s caused him trouble in the past. I don’t want to come over all Fifty Shades of Grey, but sometimes the victim really is asking for it. And it isn’t always clear who the victim is.
Peter Parker believes he is the most important person in the world. He acts as if he’s the star of the comic and everyone else merely the supporting cast. In issue #4 he was blaming God when he had a bad day, although he now prefers to blame someone called Fate. In the last few hours, he has experienced some good things (stopping a crime and making a sale) and some bad things (facilitating a new super-villain, and upsetting his girlfriend). When the good stuff happens, he puts it down to a “lucky break” and generalizes that the whole universe is on his side. ("Everything is going my way for a change!”) When the bad stuff happens, he thinks he has been singled out for “bad luck” and decides that everyone is against him. ("My luck runs the gamut from bad to hopeless!”) He may have a lot of power: but he is really not very good at taking responsibility.
There is a sub-plot. It is also about bullying. Flash knows that Peter has been dating Liz, and is furious. He wants to call Peter out; fight with him; settle the matter like gentlemen after school. Peter is not interested. He's more worried about the killer robot he has stupidly unleashed. By page 9, Peter Parker’s two worst enemies will be chasing him down the same street.
Has Peter Parker transgressed the Schoolboy Code by having a study date with Liz? It isn’t clear if Liz was ever officially going steady with Flash, or whether she ever officially dumped him, or whether that makes any difference. Liz certainly initiated last issue’s date, and as far back as issue #4 Flash accepted, although he didn’t like, that Liz had the right to go out with Peter if she really wanted to. Flash doesn’t behave very well — he makes himself look ridiculous, chasing Peter down the street with a mob of kids shouting, “yipee”, and hanging around outside Peter’s front door until he is actually moved on by the police. But he issues a challenge, more or less, telling Peter than he will wait for him after school. And when Peter avoids the fight — literally runs away — Flash is primarily interested, not in catching Peter and hurting him, but in getting him to admit that he is “chicken” or “yellow.” Flash’s dominance have been challenged. He needs either a duel or a submission. Peter gives him neither.
We complained last time that the plots and sub-plots were weakly pulled together: but this time it all runs like clockwork. Peter is jumpy because he knows Jonah’s robot is going to come after him; he leaves school in a hurry to change into Spider-Man. Flash and the other kids assume that he is running from the fight. This leads to one of the all time great farcical situations: a mob of boys are chasing Peter; the robot is also chasing Peter; and (just to make things more confusing) three bystanders are chasing the robot.
This isn't just a great gag: it's essential to the architecture of the story. The robot homes in on on the spider-force. So whenever Peter Parker is near the robot, his secret identity is compromised. Ditko needs a reason why the robot doesn’t simply home in on Parker and reveal his identity to the world. The solution — so brilliant we probably don’t even notice there is a problem — is that there is a gang of boys between the robot and Peter Parker.
The robot itself is a well-tempered plot device. It functions have been precisely defined in order to get us to the denouement that Ditko wants. If it were just a piece of hardware, then Spider-Man would fight with it and eventually beat it. But it has four unique characteristics.
1: It infallibly homes in on Spider-Man
2: It shoots out metal cables which are too strong for Spider-Man to break. Never mind that we have seen him bending steel and breaking chains: it is established from the get-go that the robot has special cables that Spider-Man can’t break.
3: It moves fairly slowly. Spider-Man can outrun it fairly easily. But that’s all he can do. If he stops, the robot will immobilize him.
4: It’s a robot. Spider-Man gets tired. The robot doesn’t.
So the issue turns into a chase. Spider-Man runs from the robot; the robot chases Spider-Man. (In a way, this is yet another issue without a proper fight.)
And while this is happening, a few blocks away, a separate plot -- one which has been building up for no less than ten issues -- finally comes to the point. Again, we can easily overlook how intricately this has been constructed. The Flash mob, along with Liz Allan, having lost Peter Parker, decide to go and wait for him outside Aunt May’s house. Meanwhile, Betty Brant tries to help Spider-Man (by pulling the plug on the robot's remote control panel) with the result that J.J.J sends her home from work — freeing her up to go round to Peter’s house and seek his aid. Naturally, she arrives just as Liz is about to knock on Peter’s door.
This is the first time Liz and Betty have been in one place without Peter present, and they don’t even pretend to be polite. ("Sometimes it's hard to get rid of all my admirers! Although I'm sure you don't have that problem!") And just as things are about as awkward as they could possibly be, Ditko makes matters worse. It turns out that Aunt May has another guest…
Ditko’s timing is quite brilliant here. We see Liz and Betty walk up the garden path. We see them in Aunt May’s doorway. We see them, back to back, the eyebrows positively vampiric with bitchiness. (Is it just me, or have their breasts got larger and more pointed in this scene?) We flip round and see Aunt May, all smiles. And then, face obscured by a strategically placed pot-plant is…the long expected Mary Jane Watson. Stan Lee’s annotations are perfectly judged. “Girls, I’d like you to meet Mary Jane Watson" says Aunt May. Pause. “She just dropped in to visit my nephew.” And then, the final frame: Liz and Betty, eyebrows flaccid, looking stunned. Betty thinks Peter is dating Liz; Liz wishes she could be dating Peter; and both of them now think that Peter is dating M.J. Peter has refused to meet M.J. because (chauvinistically) he assumes that anyone Aunt May approves of will be old-fashioned and plain. In fact, she’s a looker. It’s a situation worthy of Wodehouse, if not Oscar Wilde.
Note that Mary Jane has traveled some distance to see Aunt May. She may be the niece of Aunt May’s neighbour, Anna Watson, but she evidently lives in another part of town. Any suggestion that she was literally the girl next door while Peter Parker was growing up is a later accretion.
In this episode, J. Jonah Jameson is either reduced to a cartoon character, or else revealed to be actually insane. His dialogue gets madder and madder as the issue goes on, “Today I feel like a man of destiny…” “I’ll probably be asked to join the Avengers…” “This is a day the poets will write ballads about…” Spider-Man, on the other hand, is uncharacteristically silent. A typical Spider-Man fight scene involves our hero trading wise-cracks with the villain: but this time we stay almost entirely inside Peter Parker’s head:
How do you like being on the run, you costumed freak? How does it feel to be up against your superior?
I've got to get some rest soon! But how?? He won’t let up for a second!
There are several reasons for this. Spider-Man is losing. He doesn’t have time to think up jokes because he’s running from the robot. Jameson is not only Spider-Man’s nemesis: he’s also Peter Parker’s boss. The thought bubbles keep Peter Parker present throughout the fight, just as the janus-face keeps Spider-Man present in Midtown High or Aunt May’s kitchen. It isn't Spider-Man the iconic superhero who is on the run: it is Peter Parker, the school kid with the crazy powers, wearing the silly costume. And the more maniacal Jonah sounds, the funnier it will be when Spider-Man finally beats him. If Parker were responding with both barrels of Spider-snark, we might even feel a little bit sorry for J.J.J.
“Did I sound that corny when the boot was on the other foot” thinks Peter Parker, as J.J.J childishly chants “he flies though the air with the greatest of ease”, the old circus standard. Yes, Peter: yes, you did. (It was back in issue #8 when you invited yourself to Johnny Storm’s party.)
It sometimes seems that when he puts on the mask, Peter Parker disappears and a comedic spider-persona takes over. And this spider-personality sounds a lot like Stan Lee. It makes remarks which make no sense coming from a high school senior, but perfect sense coming from a forty five year old comics hack. (In issue #35, it will go so far as to refer to Irving Forbush, an un-funny in-joke that Stan Lee has been milking since 1955.) Lee was well aware of this, and happily had photos and drawings commissioned in which he, Stan Lee, was the one in the Spider suit. But J. Jonah Jameson, with his cigar and is ‘tache and his typewriter....and his Madison Avenue office and his habit of underpaying his freelancers and hogging the credit for himself, is unquestionably an affectionate parody of Stan Lee. (Betty Brant has more than a passing resemblance to his secretary Flo Steinberg. It’s been said that the unctuous editor of the Daily Globe in issue #27 is meant to be D.C. boss Carmine Infantino). Perhaps Lee was consciously sending himself up; perhaps Ditko was slyly cocking a snook at his boss. But what’s clear is that the Jameson voice and the Spider-Man voice are both exaggerated versions of Stan Lee’s own voice. They are far too similar to be able to trade one lines with each other.
And anyway: it’s funny for Spider-Man, who normally dishes out a barrage of not very funny sarcasm, to be on the receiving end for once. For this issue at least J. Jonah Jameson has become Spider-Man’s evil mirror image.
Once again, this story takes Spider-Man to the point of apparent defeat, and flips things round at the very last moment. Everything has been perfectly set up. The very first scene established that Jonah would be operating the robot by remote control. So, once the robot has caught Spider-Man, Smythe and Jameson have to rush from Madison Avenue to Forest Hills in a taxi, giving our hero maybe half an hour to turn the situation round.
Mr Jameson! What have you done to his head??!
I didn’t do anything. He hasn’t got a head!!
I have never been exactly sure what Spidey is supposed to have done. He’s uses his wall crawling powers to remove and access panel from the robot, and then uses Science to reprogram it. He travels half way across town to retrieve his clothes, and somehow uses his webbing to stiffen his costume, so that he can operate it like a marionette with thin strands of web. (“By using my web, anyone can make life like, instant puppets" he explains. Er..okay.) But this doesn’t matter. The joke is the absolute deflation of J. Jonah Jameson. It isn’t just that Spider-Man gets away. Jonah is allowed think he is caught him right up until the last second, when he tries to unmask him.
Of course, to pull this off, Peter Parker has to sacrifice a costume. But Ditko has that covered as well. In the opening scene, remembering that time he couldn’t follow Frederick Foswell because his costume was in the wash, Peter Parker sews up a spare.
But in the final scene, oh no — Aunt May finds the new costume! (Bad Aunt May, snooping around behind her grown up nephew's bookshelf! But equally, bad Peter, leaving his room in a mess for his old Aunt to tidy!) Next issue will start out with Peter Parker not having any costumes at all.
Back in issue #22, we found that Peter Parker applied the same school-boy code that governs his relationship with Flash Thompson to fighting crime as Spider-Man: he couldn’t hit a woman under any circumstances whatsoever. This issue, we find that a similarly childish morality governs his relationship with Aunt May. He can mislead her and deceive her and keep things from her provided he doesn’t tell her a direct lie. “I can’t believe that you suspect me of being Spider-Man” doesn’t count as “an actual untruth” whereas presumably “I am not Spider-Man” would do. He’s a terribly bad witness: Aunt May assumes that he’s going to wear the costume to a fancy dress party, but he immediately starts burbling about his secret identity (”look under my coat sleeves….no costume! Now would he ever go out without it?”) If May didn’t think her nephew was Spider-Man before this conversation, she almost certainly does afterwards.
This issue is how I will always remember Spider-Man. Exhilarating. Clever. Smart. Funny. Shooting off into subplots you weren’t expecting. And that makes this, in a way, a sad comic to read. Is there any real reason why these capers and shenanigans couldn’t have continued for another 50 or 100 issues? But the clock is ticking. The Final Chapter is only eight issues away.