Sunday, October 29, 2017

Bright College Days

Amazing Spider-Man #26, #28 and #29

Amazing Spider-Man #26 contains a very thin sub-plot in which Peter Parker finally loses his cool and attacks Flash Thompson. It’s rather a pointless vignette — it has no thematic connection to the Crime Master story line, and the two plots never become intertwined.

Peter is in a bad mood because he has lost his costume and had a silly row with Betty Brant: but that doesn’t really explain what sets him off. Flash mildly taunts him for running away from the fight in issue #25, and Peter over-reacts massively. 

“I’m not in the mood for your musclebound mirth today! And the same goes for your gang of grinning hyenas!” 

Since issue #8, Peter Parker has been trying to integrate the two sides of his personality; and since issue #18 he has been trying to silence the “whiny Peter” voice completely. This means that Peter Parker increasingly talks like Spider-Man: but the sarcasm which can seem heroic and endearing in the face of a much more powerful foe feels brash and insensitive when directed at his own peer group. Today the spider-snark doesn’t get much beyond infant school level: 

--Hey, who are you callin’ hyenas?

--Look in the mirror and find out!

“Hyenas”. In the days before he had superpowers, Parker whinged “Some day they’ll be sorry! Sorry they laughed at me!” He first hid behind a mask because he was afraid of being a laughing stock. He complained about people mocking him on the cover of his very first comic. After all this time, the poor baby is still fretting about people laughing at him. So, of course, they laugh even more. They compare him to Bob Hope.  And so he loses his temper completely. 

“Okay, you brainless baboons! You’ve laughed at me for the last time.”

And without further provocation, he dive bombs Flash Thompson, sending all the others flying.

The fight isn’t resolved. Liz tries to stop it, saying that Peter is just as bad as Flash and that she never wants to see either of them again; and the Principal (who we haven’t seen since issue #3) demands to see Peter in his office. (And don’t we all recognize the self-righteous schadenfreude of the kid who brings the message?) Peter — now very ashamed of himself for mis-using his spider-powers — tells Mr Davis that the fracas was entirely his fault. But Flash (who tells the others that he is going after Liz) goes straight to Mr Davis and admits that he started it. The whole thing is dried and dusted in ten panels.

And this is very last time we will see Peter, Flash Liz and their cohort in the schoolyard together. Only when we realize that does the scene begin to make any kind of sense. 

Although the other kids think he’s going to be expelled, Peter doesn’t seem particularly worried by the situation: a few hours later he is bantering with the man in the costume shop, and by the end of the day he is buying popcorn for Aunt May. Issue #27 begins with Mr Davis telling Peter that everything is sorted out and Peter trying to be nice to Flash, although Liz remains mad at both of them. 

Why did Flash go to Parker’s defense? Once again it comes down to honour. Flash issued a challenge (more or less) and Peter, by taking a swing at him, showed that he’d accepted it. Flash has been trying to get Peter to fight him for weeks: he can’t very well complain because Peter has finally agreed to one. Saying “hit me, hit me” and then going to the teacher and saying “he hit me!” is about as dishonorable as a schoolboy could be. We have seen before that Flash is inclined to respect other men more after they’ve shown that they are prepared to punch him. Honor is, for the time being, satisfied. 

I suppose this is what Flash told the Principal. It may have looked to you as if Parker attacked us for no reason; but in fact, I’ve been trying to get him to fight with me for days. What looked to you like a smaller boy picking on a group of six larger boys was actually an agreed fight between two consenting adults. The Principal treats this admission as an occasion to put his hand on Flash’s shoulder, call him “my boy” and have a little chat. Perhaps he also believes in Flash's honor-code. This is the kind of school which positively encourages supervised fights as a way of settling differences between young men, after all.  Or maybe he is just one of those grown-ups who is so moved when someone admits an otherwise undetectable wrongdoing that all his anger is assuaged? Honesty is the best policy, I can tell by your face you’ve been punished enough. 

Issue #24 ended with Peter and Liz walking off into the sunset, hand-in-hand, watched by montage of faces — Flash, Aunt May, Betty Brant and Jonah Jameson. Issue #25 opened with an abstract design of circles, each of which contains a face including, again, May, Betty, Liz, Flash and Jameson. We have described this set of five supporting characters — each of whom has contrasting feelings towards Peter Parker and Spider-Man — as “the story engine”. The best Spider-Man stories are the ones involving all five characters. When none of them appear (as in the Doctor Strange annual) what we are left with barely counts as a Spider-Man story at all. 

In the natural order of things, that story engine was always going to change and develop. Frederick Foswell is on the point of becoming a sixth cog in the wheel; Ned Leeds is waiting in the wings; and Ditko may have intended to weave “Norman Osborn”, J.J.J’s mysterious curly haired friend, into the web. And stuff was bound to happen: Peter was going to split up with Betty or propose to her; Aunt May would eventually have gone into an old folks home or even passed away. But issue #28 comes from nowhere. It feels like Ditko is taking a sledgehammer to his delicately calibrated machine. Without warning, Peter Parker graduates: suddenly, the hero who could be you isn't at high school any more. 

Did we miss something? That bit where Spider-Man nearly misses his final examination because he’s out superheroing? That confrontation with Flash about who gets to take Liz to the Prom? It was all very confusing for a primary schoolboy in England in the 1970s, I can tell you. We’ve never had a tradition of high school graduations — we were lucky if we got a “sixth form disco” — and I'd only ever come across academic dress as an ideogram for "teacher" in the kinds of comics I definitely didn’t read. ("But why are Peter and Flash dressed up as Beano headmasters?”)

The wedding of Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Girl was gatecrashed by every single character in the Marvel Universe, so it is greatly to Lee and Ditko's credit that nothing whatsoever happens at Peter Parker's graduation. No villains; no last minute angst; no anything. Ditko has a great time drawing the crowd scenes; J. Jonah Jameson makes a predictably awful speech, and Lee perfectly captures the after-show banter. Aunt May’s first meeting with J.J.J. is particularly charming.

--My, you’re such an important man! 

--Ah yes! Indeed I am!

Principal Davis announces that Peter Parker has won a scholarship to Empire State University and that Flash Thompson has won an athletic scholarship to the same institution. (Gosh! How ironic!) There was a reference to Flash playing football for the school back in issue #18, but he’s never particularly been represented as a top athlete before. The only hint we have had that Peter Parker is making college applications is a three frame cameo in, of all places, Fantastic Four #35 where he bumps into the Human Torch at State University (a different institution) and says that if Johnny is planning to study there he will apply somewhere else. It is nice to know he takes his academic career so seriously .

After the fight in issue #26, Liz had told Peter and Flash that she never wanted to see either of them again. On the first page of #28, she is distinctly stand-offish to Peter, and when asked by Flash if she’d like a soda replies “Not now! Not tomorrow! Not ever! Do I make myself clear?”

These are the last words that Liz will ever speak to Flash Thompson. You can almost hear the studio audience applauding. 

Not now. Not tomorrow. Not ever. 

After the graduation ceremony, there is a final moment of pathos. When we first met them, Peter was the nerd who longed to ask his glamorous and good-looking classmate on a date; Liz was the glamorous gal who always turned him down. Just recently, they have started going out, on the pretext of studying together. And now comes the final little twist of the knife. Liz always liked Peter, from the beginning, but she thought that he thought that she was just a dizzy blond. “And perhaps I am!” So everything could have been different.

And perhaps I am.

We are dealing with a soap opera, so an ending is never quite an ending. Liz pops again in issue 30, trying to avoid Flash. (She seems to be working in a department store.) Peter actually starts college in #31, and Liz is never seen again. Well: not for a hundred issues.

Why did he do it? Had Ditko decided off his own back that he didn’t want Parker at school any more? Did everyone just take it for granted that Peter was aging in real time and had now turned 18? The fact that it falls like a bolt from the blue makes me think that it was an imposed editorial decision. Stan told Steve; or maybe Martin told Stan. 

So what we have in these sequences may be a very small attempt to wind up some of the plots which have been dangling since Amazing Fantasy #15. I don’t think it is a conclusion; but it is a hint of what Ditko might have wanted the conclusion to be. Every saga has a beginning: the saga of Spider-Man began with Flash and Liz laughing at Peter and Peter vowing to get even with them. So: what happens on the very last day of school is not a bad resolution. Flash and his pals laugh at Peter, like hyenas or baboons. Peter attacks them. Twenty seven issues of crawling are bottled up inside him. Nothing is resolved: but at the same time, everything is resolved. The Flash-Liz-Petey triangle comes to an end: Liz now hates both of them. The Peter/Flash conflict is resolved: honour is satisfied, and Flash turns out to be, deep down, quite a decent guy. Hey, even the promise on page 2 of Amazing Fantasy #15, that Peter is sure to get a scholarship when he graduates pays off: he does. And then school is over and everyone goes their separate ways. The end. 

The final frame on page #28 makes me wonder about what might be in the graphic novel section of Sandman’s library of unwritten books. Five panels; the fifth one screaming “ending” just about as loudly as anything could scream it. And then…a strange 1/3 page montage, showing Flash and Liz turning their backs on each other, while Stan’s voice rambles that “As with all of life, it isn’t really an ending, but a beginning, the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the world’s most amazing teenager…and of those whom fate as tossed into his web of destiny!” Was something else originally drawn in that space? Did Ditko's story come in three panels too short? Amazing Spider-Man #28 is such a muddle that I think we are allowed to speculate. Did Ditko put the “graduation” material into Spider-Man #28 only reluctantly? Were the “college” sequences in #30 - #33 only put there by editorial mandate? If Ditko had had his way, might Peter Parker’s final fight with Flash Thompson, his near expulsion and graduation, have somehow formed the background to “If This Be My Destiny”, allowing “The Final Chapter” to really be the final chapter?

In the event, Peter Parker goes off to Empire State University. Neither Stan nor Steve went to college (although Steve did go to art school) and neither of them have any real sense of how University is different from School. We are never told what Peter’s subject is, but the use of “test tubes” to signify “study” suggests that he is a chemist. 

Peter Parker’s high school class consisted of, at most, three characters: Flash Thompson, the jock; Liz Allan, the blond, and posh kid with a bow-tie who hangs out with Flash and is sometimes called Seymour. 

Within three pages of arriving at E.S.U, Peter has acquired a cast of three. Flash Thompson is still there, and still behaving exactly as he did at high school (”hey, Parker, c’mere I want to talk to you”.) The role of the dizzy blond who is nominally dating Flash but really prefers Peter has been taken over by someone called “Gwen Stacy”. And the posh kid in the bow-tie who is much more unpleasant than Flash — and not, in any sense whatsoever, Peter Parker’s best friend — is now called “Harry Osborn”. Eagle eyed readers might notice that he has the same haircut as the still un-named important person from J.J.J's businessmen’s club. And everything, for the time being at least, rattles on exactly as before. The carpet has been pulled away, but it’s been replaced by pretty much the same carpet. 

Later continuity reveals that Liz Allan is the Molten Man’s stepsister.

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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

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.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

The Leopard from Lime Street

You can sort-of picture the scene when, sometime in 1937, two kids from Ohio burst into the offices of DC Comics with their pitch for a new character. Alien news reporter. Secret identity. Red cape. Champion of the common man. You can't really imagine anything similar ever happening at DC Thompson.

“I’ve hud thes idea fur a freish comic strip. It’s abit a skale bairn aboot ages wi’ oor readers! N’ gie thes — he’s naughty! An’ gei thes — some weeks he gits aw’ wi’ it, and some weeks he gits intae trooble!”

“Brilliant jimmy, stoatin! It will rin fur sixty seven years!”

American comics were exciting, colorful, thrilling. British comics just existed: ephemeral, forgettable, disposable. And mostly black and white. If some American comics thought they were literature (pulp literature), British comics were more like daily newspapers. Part of the background of life. If some Americans dreamed of someday writing the great American novel, most Brits were craftsmen, artisans, dutifully bashing out the same tales of naughty kids, silly teachers and nasty Germans that they’d been telling for the past half a century. 

And yet kids read them; or, at any rate, parents bought them. Not just the Beano and the Dandy, but a seemingly endless parade of weekly anthology comics with names like Cheeky, Topper, Whizzer, Krazy and Buster.

There were exceptions. The Eagle had been started by a vicar, for goodness sake. In my day, swotty kids had a thing called Look and Learn, although we suspected that they were more interested in the Trigon Empire than the photo features about daily life in a Dutch fish refinery. But comics like that were supposed to be good for you. The whole point of the Dandy and Cheeky and Buster was that they were just a little bit naughty. 

Mike Taylor
recently wrote a piece about an early 2000AD strip called Harlem Heroes and said that he was still struck by the visceral power of the story and art. 2000AD was, by the standards of 1970s comics, very naughty indeed: the violence of it can still take your breath away. But how did an English comic strip by a white artist for mainly white kids come to be called Harlem Heroes? Basketball wasn’t very widely played in England although Globetrotters exhibition games had been shown in late night slots on BBC2. But 2000AD's target demographic would be more likely to have remembered a cut-and-paste Hannah-Barbara cartoon series which had been on children's TV a couple of years before. Harlem Heroes is simply the Harlem Globetrotters playing futuristic death basketball. It’s hard to say if Pat Mills was being shamelessly derivative, or producing a shockingly poor taste parody.

It wasn’t so much a question of cultural appropriation as of grabbing everything within arms reach and running away with it. If there had been a summer blockbuster about a shark them the English comic book artisans would scribble out a violent strip called Hookjaw and a silly strip called Gums in time for the Autumn specials. If that year's hit movie involved a marooned alien making friends with some American schoolkids, then some hack would rush out a comic about some English kids and a crashed flying saucer occupant. I don’t know if the kids noticed, or were supposed to notice. I don’t think we engaged with the material to that extent. Comics had always been, and cold only ever be, mildly diverting knock-offs of better books, or anachronistic little squibs about pea-shooters and canes and German spies. That was why the launch of American style superhero comics made such a massive impact on us. 

Buster was typical of the era. When it launched in 1960 the title character had been the son of Andy Capp, the outrageously un-PC Geordie who appeared (and still appears) every day in the Daily Mirror. But by 1976, he was just a generic Dennis the Menace character who played pranks and clashed with authority figures. A list of the other features in the comic is enough to generate feelings of suicidal ennui: Ivor Lott and Tony Broke (with Milly O’Naire and Penny Less); Kid Kong; Lucy Lastic; X-Ray Specs; James Pond... Adam Adman was “A young man obsessed by advertising”; Jack Pot was “a boy with exceptional luck” and Joker was “a boy obsessed with jokes”. This is how young people amused themselves before Minecraft was invented. 

The Leopard from Lime Street appeared in Buster from 1976 to 85. (The first year's worth have just been reprinted by Rebellion.) He is often said to be “England’s first superhero” or “Britain’s answer to Spider-Man”. But reading these episodes 40 years later, it feels less like a British attempt to do Marvel Comics and more like a gag strip that accidentally got drawn in a serious style. Yes, the Leopard wears a costume and, on occasion, catches robbers. But he’s also a schoolboy who deals with bullies and outwits nasty grown ups and earns himself treats by means of a special gimmick. 

It all starts when Billy Farmer is, and I promise I’m not making this up, scratched by a radioactive leopard. (Not a lion or a tiger or even a wolf. A flippin’ leopard.) He decides to make himself a leopard costume, as you would, and uses his strength to thwart a crime wave that is going on in his town. He starts selling photos of himself in action to the local newspaper, the Selbridge Sun. But the editor — one Thaddeus (yes, Thaddeus) Clegg (yes, Clegg) takes against him, and twists all the news stories to make it seem as if the Leopard is a baddie. 

If British comics are a celebration of naughtiness, there is a joyful shamelessness in the way writer Tom Tully scrumps the good bits from his more famous American template. Peter Parker has the proportional strength of a spider; Billy Farmer is as strong as a fully grown jungle cat. Peter Parker has his spider-sense: Billy gets danger signals from his Leopard’s sixth sense. Spider-Man has his webbing; Billy has a grappling rope. In the early installments, artist Mike Western even makes use of a Gemini motif, showing Billy’s face as half-human and half-leopard. It’s all so outrageous that it sometimes feels less like swiping and more like dead-pan parody. Viz is still twelve years in the future. 

On the first page of the very first episode, one Ginger Moggs dangles Billy from the roof of the school cycle sheds on the the end of a rope. (Cycle sheds are an important part of British scholastic iconography: most early experiments with tobacco and heterosexuality take place behind them.) A friendly teacher extracts Billy from his predicament, but he, nobly refuses to “split” on the bullies. But a few episodes later, he gets his own back. “Mogsy” tries to climb the clock tower as a dare, and has to be rescued by Billy in his leopard persona. Mogsy ends up blindfolded, believing that he’s dangling off a high tower by his own belt — even though the Leopard has in fact left him only a few inches off the ground! This is very much the kind of thing that might have happened to Dennis the Menace: a massively exaggerated prank followed by equally far-fetched consequences. Mogsy is cured of being a bully, but there is a steady stream of louts with names like Stacey and Nogsy to torment Billy in subsequent installments.

When Billy starts selling photos to the Daily Bugle — I’m sorry, to the Selbridge Sun — he uses the money to purchase a colour television, still very much an aspirational item in 1976. When he rescues a kidnapped TV actress, he is rewarded with a ride back to school in a Rolls Royce; and when he wins £250 for surviving three rounds in the ring with the Masked Hangman, he uses the money to replace the vandalized basketball court at his youth club. This is a long way from Peter Parker pawning his microscope to pay for Aunt May’s heart surgery: it’s a lot more like that great big plate of sausages and mashed potato that has signified “reward” in English comics since the days of food rationing. He intends to use his very first pay check to buy a bag of groceries for his poor family, but when he steps into “Mason’s Magnificent Mart” he finds that he is the one millionth customer and can take home “all the goods that he can collect in exactly one minute”. Naturally, due to his superpowers, he manages to walk away with more or less the whole shop. The “one millionth customer” thing is a pretty standard cartoon trope.

It is the artwork which does the most to transpose the strip into a serious register. It’s consistently and impressively naturalistic. We have more of a sense of what Billy Farmer’s habitat looks like than we do of Peter Parker’s. There are PE lessons and supermarkets and TV showrooms. The Daily Bugle is based in a shiny Madison Avenue skyscraper; the Selbridge Sun seems to be published out of a dingy converted-shop front with offices to rent on the second floor. But inside there are filing cabinets and pots of ink and in-trays and actual members of staff. But at the same time Selbridge is a kind of dream-world. Billy's school is dreary collection of 1950s concrete boxes: clearly a Secondary Modern rather than a Comprehensive. But when there needs to be, there is an old fashioned castellated building with a flagpole and a clock tower for Mogsy to climb. The town is mostly a grim collection of terraced houses, labour exchanges and youth clubs — but there can be a ruined abbey and a stately home within striking distance when the plot calls for it.

There is a surprisingly consistent — logical, if not actually realistic — treatment of Billy’s life as

a super-hero. Billy makes his leopard suit by finding the costume he wore when he played the cat in a school production of Dick Whittington and painting spots on it. When he decides he needs a grappling rope, he conveniently find a “claw like ornament” on a set of old fire tongs and fixes it on the end of a rope. Peter Parker gets his powers due to, er, “fate”; but Billy is deliberately sent to Prof. Jarman’s experimental zoo to interview him for the school magazine. Jarman has deliberately injected the leopard which scratches Billy with a “radioactive serum”. The origin is followed up in several subsequent strips: Jarman wants to give Billy medical check ups to see if he is suffering any ill-effects from the scratch, and Billy and the leopard become good friends. The latter ends up living fairly happily ever after in the local safari park. 

Billy lives with a predictably kindly Aunt and an unexpectedly horrible Uncle — a bald, unemployed man with a mustache, rolled up sleeves, open topped shirt and braces. In the next decade unemployment would come to be indelibly associated with Mrs Thatcher: young people resigned to years on the dole, politicians urging them to get on their bikes, Youth training schemes and Enterprise Allowance culture. But in 1976, the stereotype of an unemployed person was still a lazy middle-aged man who wastes his dole money at the betting shop. That's why Billy uses his photo money to buy TVs and groceries: if he handed the cash over, his Uncle would put it on a horse. Eventually, as the Leopard, Billy scares Uncle Charlie into going to the labour exchange and looking for work. He seems to find a job quite easily once he starts looking.

We can see just how nasty Uncle Charlie is supposed to be from the tag line of the third episode: “Billy uses his new powers to avoid a beating from his guardian!” The gag strips notoriously represented corporal punishment as a rather funny occupational hazard of being a kid; but the straight ones equally consistently use it to indicate that an adult is bad parent, an impostor, and incidentally, lower class. While the various Menaces are amusingly spanked across their parents' knees Uncle Charlie strikes the side of Billy’s head with the back of his hand, so hard that he is said to go to bed with ringing ears and a headache; and threatens to flog him with a belt. But we are assured that Billy’s leopard strength means that Uncle Charlie can’t really hurt him any more (even though he muses about paying him back for all the “hidings” he’s had in past). So maybe we aren’t so far from Roger the Dodger slipping a book down the back of his trousers after all?

This is perhaps the biggest difference of outlook between Spider-Man and his British parody. Billy actually gets to do stuff: to make small, but positive and permanent improvements to his own life. The readership’s need to say “If I had amazing powers, I know what I would do…” is consistently indulged. Let me assure you: if, at the age of 13, I had gained the powers and abilities of a fully grown leopard “dangling the bully from the tree” and “getting a colour TV” would have been first and second on my to do list. Groceries, not so much. Billy not only gets his own back on the bullies: they actually lay off bullying him. He not only avoid being hit by his nasty uncle: he forces him to go and get a job. He goes from being the classroom pariah who doesn’t have a telly to being the lucky kid with a spiffy colour one. 

Strips like this have to sustain themselves on simple ideas — hence the plethora of “young lad with a toy soliders than comes to life” and “young girl whose best friend is a ghost” strips elsewhere. Two pages is not very long to develop a story: no-one is characterised beyond their basic function of cruel uncle, kind aunt, understanding teacher, bully, crook, copper. Even Billy himself is more internal monologue than human being. The only thing that will make the reader come back is a wish to find out what happens next; so every two pages, something has to happen. If the school is going on a coach trip to a safari park then of course one of the Dads is going to use the excursion as a pretext to steal silver from the stately home, and of course his bully of a son is going to push Billy into an empty lion cage and of course the cage is going to turn out to have a leopard in it and of course that leopard is going to be the very one loaned to the zoo by a certain scientist. The whole thing will be dried and dusted in 16 pages, but eked out over two months.

Spider-Man is a timeless classic. The Leopard of Lime Street seems like a dispatch from a different world. But as a piece of archive material, it’s worth acquainting oneself with.


Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

All quotes and illustrations are uses for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copywriter holder.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Which Side Are You On?

Alas, Colston is now in disrepute in this crazy time of asinine politically correctness…for being a successful slave trader. People forget that in his day slave trading was perfectly respectable like buying and selling motor cars today! However, Colston was also a philanthropist who helped a lot of people, and gave great sums of money to the city of Bristol. How about Jardine Matheson of Hong Kong selling Opium to China in the days of “gunboat diplomacy” then??? Do you want to close down Jardine Matheson???

.....The asinine politically correct Libtards fail to take into account that Colston Hall was built almost 150 years after Colton’s death, and was actually named after its address, which is Colston Street. I for one, to be brutally frank am not into political correctness aka hypocrisy. To me it is a load of Balderdash! I digress…so..

.... I decided to make an enquiry to Bristol Cathedral and got a reply from their very politically correct Press Officer…Wendy Matthews (*)

....Mark [owner of a coffee shop in Bristol] please make the Colston Bun! It will be a best seller! You can call it Bristol Bun to be politically correct…wahahahah!

All quotes from "The Search For The Colston Bun" by The Travelling Gourmet

(*)i.e female

Friday, October 13, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man #28

The Menace of the Molten Man

The Molten Man / Mark Raxton

Supporting Cast

Flash Thompson, Liz Allan, Aunt May, J.Jonah Jameson, Spencer Smythe, Principal Davis, Mrs Watson, Mr and Mrs Allan, and a chorus of teachers, parents and schoolkids. Betty Brant does not appear. 

Spins a web, Any Size

Spider-Man makes a thick rope out of webbing to tie Raxton’s wrists together. He has to wait several minutes for it to harden, which is not a characteristic it has had before.


Peter Parker has still not retrieved his Spider-Man costume. He has not seen Flash Thompson or Principal Davis since the fight in issue #26. The Principal says the fight happened “the other day”, but Peter tells Liz it happened “last week”. If Amazing Spider-Man 26/27 took place on a single Friday, it is reasonable to think that this one begins the following Monday morning. 

There are no serious continuity problems:

9.30 - Peter arrives at school

12.00 (”a few hours later”) Class dismissed to prepare for graduation

1300 (”later”) Peter visits Spencer Smythe’s lab

1500 (”a short time later”) Pete goes to Aunt Mays house

1530 Graduation ceremony


P2 “Our story begins with the savage impact of a falling feather…”

A very clear dig at Steve Ditko for leading with a “soap opera” thread rather than a "super-villain" thread. 

P2 “There’s Liz Hilton..”

Peter is so pleased that he has sorted things out with the Principal; so worried about his row with Betty; and such a lady’s man that he has forgotten Liz Allan’s name. (Or else it’s a typo.)

“I bet she has something to do with Flash getting me off the hook.”

Peter has no understanding of Flash Thompson’s sense of honour; and no conception that Liz might really be disappointed in him because he tried to out-macho Flash.  

P10: “You should have told me sooner…I’d have baked a cake.”
“If I’d have known you were coming I’d have baked a cake” was a hit song for Eileen Baker in 1950.

P11 “You’re not exactly fighting a Maypole Dancer.”

Some American schools do keep the English tradition of a dance on the first of May. While Morris dancing is associated with adult men, Maypole dancing is mostly done by little girls. 

“I hope your blue cross is all paid up…”

i.e I hope you have medical insurance

P12 “Since you’re in costume, I’ll create a similar effect.”

From 1961, all U.S Army personnel were issued with special purple underwear made from Reed Richard’s unstable molecules. This ensured that they could retain a modicum of decency in the event of their being exposed to gamma radiation. Fortunately, Raxton's body size doesn't change after his exposure to the metal alloy, so his clothes still fit him. However he deliberately rips his pants above the knee, leaving himself in ragged brown shorts. It isn't clear why he does this: it is highly probable that Smythe’s molten alloy would have covered up Raxton's genitals, in the same way that Galactus’s “silvery substance” covered up Norrin Radd’s. (I assume that's the first thing a gentleman would check.) The next time we meet Raxton, he will be wearing a fashionable pair of molten Speedos. 

P17 “Betty Brant isn’t here! She must be more angry than I thought”

Students at the present day Forest Hills high school get five tickets for their graduation (which they may share with friends if they choose). Peter has only invited three guests: his Aunt, one of his Aunt's friends, and his girlfriend, who doesn't show up.

P19 “I can’t wait to dash home and tell my daughter, Mary Jane, about it!”

Although we have met Mrs Watson's niece, this is the first time we learn that she has a daughter of her own. It is relatively unusual for cousins to both have the same name: perhaps Mrs Watson and her sister both named their daughter after some recently deceased relative? You can see why Peter is panicky at the thought of having two different women named Mary Jane Watson in his life. (Or else it’s another typo! Stan really wasn’t paying attention this month!) 

I warned you that the magisterial ten issue run from Amazing Spider-Man #24 - #33 had one low-point, and this is it. After half a dozen issues of in which multiple sub-plots are carefully woven together, this issue reverts to the tired “big fight with a bad-guy” format — a nine page intro and a seven page fight scene. And sadly, neither the villain, nor the fight is particularly interesting. 

One Mark Raxton, who seems to be either a scientist or a lab assistant, accidentally gets coated with a “liquid metal alloy”. (This presumably means “a mixture of metals which becomes liquid at very low temperature”. Such alloys do exist and are used as cooling agents.) As a result he becomes “an actual molten man”. You might have hoped that a “molten” man would be someone who could somehow dissolve into a puddle of liquid, but in this case it just means “with metal skin”. When Spider-Man turns out the lights (which is literally the most interesting thing which happens in the whole issue) Raxton’s copper skin seems to be visible, which may suggest that the “liquid metal alloy” is supposed to be red-hot in some way? As a result of becoming an “actual molten man” Raxton acquires the interesting power of, er, being really, really strong. He’s more or less impervious to Spider-Man’s fists; but he’s not strong enough to break Spider-Man’s webbing (once it has had a chance to get hard). 

In fairness; the set-up to the story is quite well done. We are still in the realms of soap-opera, with each story following on directly from the previous one, and the reader being expected to remember characters from two or three months ago. So it’s quite cool that Peter Parker uses his common sense and goes to Spencer Smythe’s lab to try to retrieve the Spider-Man costume that he left in the tentacles of the robot; and it’s great fun when the robot tries to entangle Peter Parker because it is programmed to attack when there is anything “spidery” nearby. Raxton’s initial transformation is relatively dramatic. (Maybe because of the Science and the Glowing, I kept thinking of Captain Atom.) But once he leaves the lab, everything becomes very pedestrian. Raxton finds he is strong — strong enough the toss cars around and crush them with his fists — and that he is also very cross and very mad. “I’ve been given power! Power beyond my wildest dreams!” he rants, presumably deciding that his best course of action is to role-play a parody of a super villain. He goes back to his apartment and tries to think up a “really big crime” so as not to waste his power. 

We never find out to what “really big crime” a man who is strong enough to lift actual cars might be suited, because Spider-Man turns up and after a brief attempt at talking to him ("there aren’t any real serious charges against you yet”) they settle down to punching each other for a bit. 

It is possible to make a decent episode of Spider-Man out of a big fight scene and not much else. (Next month's Scorpion story will demonstrate that very nicely.) But for a fight scene to work, there need to be dramatic stunts; clever dialogue; an ingenious denouement; and something riding on the outcome. This fight seems largely to consist of two characters hitting each other, for no more reason than that one guy is a hero and one guy is a villain and villains and heroes are meant to have fights. There’s a bit where they crash through the wall and fall downstairs; that’s okay. And there’s the bit where Spider-Man switches off the lights and relies on his Spider-sense to fight Raxton: that's okay too. There are some frames showing Spider-Man’s red and blue costume and the Molten Man’s yellow skin against a black background: they are quite pretty. On the cover, all we can see of Spider-Man is the web markings on his suit and the spider-insignia. That's very pretty indeed: it must have looked incredibly distinctive alongside all the other comics books on the newsstand that month. There was a fashion in the 70s for “black light” posters, which this cover rather resembles. 

We know that Stan Lee worked by looking at Steve Ditko’s finished artwork and thinking up captions and speech bubbles that fitted in with what had already been drawn. When both men are fired up, this can create a sense of melody and counter melody, of Stan’s words pasting and extra layer on top of Steve’s imagery. When neither of them is really trying, you get a painful sense that the characters are standing around telling each other things that the artwork has already showed us perfectly well.

In the old time radio serials, characters would often tell each other what was going on, to make up for the lack of visuals. “That girl. Tied up on that rickety old chair in the corner of this sleazy bar-room. It’s Lois Lane. Well, that shady looking guy will talk when I lift him off the ground with one hand. Like this!” (That is where you get catch phrases like "Up, up and away..." and "Hi-ho silver, away...." from.) Reading this issue, you could almost believe that Stan Lee thought he was writing a radio script:

—He’s not just chompin’ his gums. I’d better use my webbing!

—So! You’re forced to resort to your artificial Spider web, eh! Well, this is what I think of your webbing…and of you!”

—It wouldn’t stick to his slick molten skin! Now what do I do?

According to Origins of Marvel Comics, before Stan Lee came down from heaven and saved us, “So, you wanna play, huh?” was regarded as a fairly good piece of hero/villain banter. The above seems to be of about the same caliber.

In some panels, Lee goes to the other extreme — he lets his pen run away with itself to such an extent that he forgets he’s scripting two adversaries having a fight. 

— Must you be such an eager beaver?? Even Doc Ock used to stop to catch his breath now and then!!

— When I’m through with you, you’ll wish you were fighting one of your old-time pushover enemies!

— Now wait a minute! I feel real sentimental about my old sparring partners! So let’s hear you speak a little more respectfully about them!

—I knew it! You’re nothing but a full time nut! 

The final quip from the Molten Man suggest that Lee himself realizes that the exchange has gone completely over the top. 

We are warned that Spider-Man’s webbing won’t stick to the Molten Man, and that his punches don’t get through his metal skin, so the solution — to make a web rope and tie him up with it — is at least logical. Spider-Man leaves Raxton for the police to deal with, although it isn’t clear what they are going to do once the webbing dissolves. (Won’t the Molten Man just punch his way out of any jail cell?) Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about that, and we can toss this comic to one side, without further thought. Perhaps “The Jeopardy of Generic Man” would have been a better title?
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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

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.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What of Magna Carter? Did she die in vain?

"(Bristol Music Trust) acknowledge that not everybody agrees with (changing the name of Colston Hall). Well that's very magnanimous of them, isn't it? But it doesn't begin to remotely acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of Bristolians are totally and completely against any name change. I know of literally nobody who is in favour of it. 

The trust is insulting generations of Bristolians by instructing us to begin viewing Colston in a totally different way from the one we have all grown up with. 

The Colston Hall is part of Bristol's historic fabric. We've lived happily with it for centuries. We have no problem with it. The tiny majority that do, presumably not Bristolians should obviously clear off and go and live somewhere else...

There is therefore only one that the decision to change the name of the Colston Hall can be reversed, and that's by replacing the present Bristol Music Trust with a board of true blue Bristolians who value their city's heritage and will forbid any change...#

Bristol, speak up! Make your voices heard by the council and put a stop to this preposterous nonsense once and for all. 

if you don't then I'm afraid you deserve everything you get." 


Edward Colston did much to improve the lives of those living in Bristol in those very different times (no welfare state) and...he shouldn't be judged by today's standards.... 

No reasonable person could condone slavery, but you can't change history by changing a name....

(Slaves) were captured by their fellow countrymen and sold in chains, hundreds at a time, for money or trade goods. Without these slavemasters as they were called, there would have been no slave trade. So who was to blame?

P Collins

Saturday, October 07, 2017

The Biggest Surprise of the Season...

There is a persistent oral tradition that Stan Lee and Steve Ditko disagreed about the identity of the Green Goblin, and that it was this artistic disagreement, rather than any dispute over wages or credits, that  ended their partnership.

How well does Stan Lee's version of events, half a century after the fact, match what we know about what was going on at the time?

I had a big argument (1) with Steve Ditko, who was drawing the strip at the time. (2) When we had to reveal the identity of the Green Goblin, I wanted him to turn out to be the father of Harry Osborn, and Steve didn’t like that idea. (3)  He said, ‘no, I don’t think he should be anybody we’ve seen before.’ (4)  I said ‘Why?’ He said ‘Well, in real life, the bad guy doesn’t always turn out to be someone you’ve known.’ And I said, ‘Steve, people have been reading this book for months, for years, waiting to see who the Green Goblin really is. (5) If we make him somebody that they’ve never seen before, I think they’ll be disappointed — but if he turns out to be Harry’s father (6), I think that’s an unusual dramatic twist that we can play with in future stories.’ And Steve said ‘Yeah, well, that’s not the way it would be in real life.’ And I said ‘In real life, there’s nobody called The Green Goblin.’ And so Steve was never happy about that (7) but since I was the editor, we did it my way. (8)” 

(1) When is this conversation supposed to have taken place, given that, for the final months of his tenure on Spider-Man, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee were not speaking to one another?

(2) Ditko is relegated to illustrator of Stan Lee’s work; even though he was at this time credited as “plotter” and even though Lee says he is happy to regard him as co-creator. Anyone who is not well versed in comic lore would take “drawing the strip at the time” to mean that Ditko was one of a number of hired hands who had illustrated Stan's words. And in any case... Ditko was not drawing the strip at the time the Green Goblin’s identity was revealed. John Romita was. 

(3) Stan Lee presents himself as putting forward plot ideas, and Ditko as challenging them. But by Lee’s own account, Ditko was by this point coming up with plots completely without input from Lee. And any way...under the Marvel Method, Ditko wouldn't have needed to argue with Stan. Artists could and did simply ignore plot ideas which they didn't like. 

(4) Lee was perfectly happy for Electro and the Crime Master to turn out to be “no-one we’ve seen before”. (On both occasions, Spider-Man remarks on how different real life is from from whodunit stories in which the Butler always turns out to have Done It.)  Why would Lee have put his foot down over the Goblin, particularly if he knew it was likely to be a deal breaker when he had relented on two previous occasions?  

(5) The history of Spider-Man printed in Marvel Comics' in-house FOOM magazine in 1974 (less than a decade after the events) concurs that Lee and Ditko disagreed about the identity of the Green Goblin, but states that Lee still wanted him to be an Egyptian mummy, and Ditko wanted him to be, not an anonymous figure, but Peter Parker’s love-rival Ned Leeds. 

(6) As we have seen, a figure who looks like Norman Osborn is introduced in issue #23, and appears several times thereafter, always as a member of J.Jonah Jameson's businessman's' club.  Harry Osborn is introduced (as an antagonistic character and wing-man for Flash Thompson) in issue #30. Norman Osborn is only introduced by name, and revealed to be Harry’s father in #37. Jonah refers to him as "my fellow club member" in issue #37, so he is clearly meant to be the same guy. In #37 and #38 Norman Osborn is specifically trailed as character with a secret -- #37 signs off with the promise of ”more on the mysterious Mr Osborn " in a future issue. In issue #39, Ditko quits Marvel (seemingly without even finishing his last cover). The very next issue confirms that Osborn is the Goblin. Either we are to believe that Ditko obeyed Stan Lee’s instructions to foreshadow the big reveal but walked out in preference to drawing the unmasking scene itself; or else the argument must have been about whether Norman Osborn should turn out to be the Goblin, or have some entirely different secret. (If we can spend three issues foreshadowing Foswell as the Goblin and then reveal that he’s Patch the informer, there is no reason why we couldn’t have spent thirteen issues foreshadowing Osborn as the Goblin only to reveal that he’s Baddie McBaddieface.) 

(7) Again, a casual reader would think this meant that Steve stayed on the book for some years, grumbling about the Goblin; in fact, in left before the revelation happened and never spoke to Stan again

(8) It is hard to see how Stan’s editorial fiat could have been implemented, since (by his own account) all he was doing at this point was adding words to finished artwork. I suppose he might have demanded that Ditko redrew certain pages (although it isn’t clear how he could even have done this if they weren’t talking).  

I can only see one scenario which makes sense of Stan Lee's claim. Let's suppose that Steve Ditko always knew that The Man From The Club was the Green Goblin. But let's suppose that Ditko intended him to remain known to J.J.J. but unknown to Peter Parker. On this view, Ditko might have intended Spider-Man to have ripped the Goblin's mask off and said "Not again! I was sure this time it really would be the Butler, but I have never seen this guy before". Ar which point J. Jonah Jameson, and us readers, would be able to look smug and say "Aha! But we have...!"  What Ditko objected to was not the revelation that the Goblin was Osborn, but the revelation that Osborn was Harry's father.

Put another way:  when Stan Lee says “I wanted the Goblin to be Harry’s father” he doesn’t mean “I decided that an established character, the father of Harry Osborn, should turn out to be the Goblin.” He means “I decided that the man-from-the-club, who we already knew was the Goblin, should turn out to be Harry’s father. But Ditko felt that this was a coincidence too far."  

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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

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.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man #26 and #27

The Man in The Crime Master's Mask
+ Bring Back My Goblin To Me


The Crime Master and the Green Goblin

Supporting Cast:

Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Flash Thompson, Liz Allan, Frederick Foswell, Principal Davies, Patch, Mr Bush Bushkin, Norman Osborn (un-named)and a chorus of policemen, gangsters and storekeepers.

Spins a Web, Any Size

Peter uses his web as adhesive to hold his store-bought Spider-Man suit together. 

He uses his webbing to create a make-shift gas mask to get through the Crime Master's poison gas.


The story follows directly after last issue: Aunt May hasn't had time to put the costume in the trash can. Peter eats breakfast and heads straight to the Bugle before school; he must go to the costume shop after school has finished. (Either Jameson works very long hours, or Parker gets to the office after the night shift is coming to an end.) All the other events are said to happen "minutes" after each other. Peter tells Aunt May he has no school the next day. The action of the story must take place between 3.30PM and early evening on the last Friday before graduation.

2.00 Parker searches for the lost Spider-Man suit.
7.00 Breakfast with Aunt May
7.45 At daily Bugle 
8.30 Arrives at school
15.30 Visits costume shop
16:00 Fights villains, captured, escapes etc. 
20.00 Takes Aunt May to the cinema.

Peter Parker’s financial situation

The Daily Globe thinks that Peter Parker’s pictures are “terrific”; there is no suggestion that they are short-changing Peter, so he probably gets $2,000. 

A movie ticket probably only costs $1, and a bag of popcorn would only have been a quarter, so it’s hard to see how his treating Aunt May set him back more than $3.00.


26/1 Is the title The Man in the Crime Master's Mask supposed to recall the Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask?

26/2 Parker has ditched his red pajamas, and now seems to be sleeping in his trousers and a white t-shirt. 

26/2 “A Spider-Man without his costume is like a Beatle without his hair.” 
The Beatles were touring the USA in the summer of ‘65, still sporting their “mop top” haircuts.

26/2 “It could only happen to me!” 
Having cleverly sacrificed one costume and stupidly allowed Aunt May to find another one, Peter nevertheless regards his costumelessness as a trick of malignant fate. 

26/5 “Come home by bus if it rains”. 
Is Aunt May under the impression that Peter is going to walk all the way to Madison Avenue, or does she think that buses are drier than subways? 

26/9 “Just what I need - in the window of this costume store.”
In 1954 a Brooklyn Halloween costume company is known to have been selling costumes which looked a little bit like Ditko’s iconic Spider-suit. In 1964, Marvel licensed the same company to make official Spider-Man Halloween costumes - the first piece of Marvel Comics merchandising. Was Ditko obliquely referencing this by showing Spidey suits on sale in a costume shop? 

There is also a Green Goblin mask on display.

“Why don’t you take that Frankenstein suit? They’re selling like hot-cakes!”
Actually, Frankenstein is the name of the scientist who created the monster, not the monster itself. 

“I want it give it to my den mother as a house warming gift!”
A den mother is the adult female leader of a Boy Scout group — roughly equivalent to the English “akela”. Parker’s joke is more than usually meaningless.

“It sure feels good to be back in action again! I feel like an eagle that’s been let out of a cage! I might as well face it… Being Spider-Man is just plain habit forming! It’s like going out with girls…I can’t give it up!”
It is no more than twelve hours -- or nine pages -- since Peter Parker last went into action, but from the reader’s perspective a whole month has past. In issue #18 being Spider-Man was a matter of fate, or destiny; here it is an addiction. Parker comes close to admitting that there is something sexual about it — at any rate, that it’s to do with adulthood and manliness.

26/19 “Now, while you are still groggy, I’ll finish you with one carefully thrown stun-bomb!” 
A stun bomb would presumably disorientate its target with a loud bang and a flash; both Spider-Man and the Goblin expect a direct hit with one of these weapons to be fatal. 

27/2 “The gas which knocked me out is finally wearing off!”
Spider-Man was not knocked out with gas, but with the Green Goblin's stun-bomb.

27/3 “Even chains can’t take away my ever-lovin’ spider-strength!”
Everloving is a generic intensifier (c.f “Ever-lovin’ blue-eye Thing!”) It may originally have been a circumlocution for God (”the Ever Loving Father”) or more vulgarly a euphemism for motherfucking

27/3 “The way my luck has been running lately, someone would think I spend all my time walkin’ under ladders and breaking mirrors!”
Once again, Spider-Man regards a very specific situation as evidence that the universe is out to get him. On the next page, when the police arrive (because they have been tipped off by Patch) the narrator tells us that this is “the stroke of luck that Spider-Man had hoped for". 

27/4 “I feel like Steve Reeves in one of those Italian Costume movies!” 
One of the iconic scenes in Hercules (1958) has the hero tying chains around the pillars of the temple and pulling them down (suggesting that someone had him confused the Romano-Greek Hercules with the Biblical Samson.) The sequel was entitled Hercules Unchained (1959).  

27/8 “That joker’s too much of a dead-eye dick to take any chances with!”
Dead-eye is a common expression for marksman; Dead Eyed Dick may have been the name of a wild west pulp hero. (Dick Deadeye is a villainous character in Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S Pinafore.) 

“Well, where he goest, Spidey will goest!!”
The Old Testament Ruth famously remains loyal to her kinswoman Naomi, saying “Whither thou goest I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge”. Perry Como recorded a popular song quoting the Bible passage in 1959. 

(”Oh, but Andrew: if Peter is Jewish, as you keep saying, why would he quote the King James version of the Bible?" 

"Because the standard Jewish Publication Society English translation of the Tankah followed the American Standard Bible very closely, which in turn generally followed the Authorized version.") 

27/11 “That reminds me! I haven’t had time to call Betty Brant for days! I wonder if she’s angry!”
As a matter of fact, Peter saw Betty only this morning, and they shouted at each other.

27/14 “I’ll leap up to the wood! Like a Spider-Man should!”
A very weak reference to a TV cigarette advert: “Winston taste good like a cigarette should.” (It was castigated by grammar pedants for not saying "tastes good as a cigarette should".)

27/17 “Copy boy! Bring this article on the M.M.M.S to the feature editor!” 
The M.M.M.S — the Merry Marvel Marching Society — was a fan club that Stan Lee was plugging in the letter columns. In the 1970s UK edition this line was changed to “bring this article on FOOM..”

27/20 “I simply adore a movie that makes me cry!” 
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's Sandpiper came out in the spring of 1965, so maybe that's what May and Peter go and see. It could conceivably have made Aunt May cry, but it is by no means a remake. 

Peter Parker takes Aunt May to the movies by bus. There must have been movie theaters in Forest Hills, so perhaps he has taken her to one of the larger cinemas in central New York? If so, it's a little stingy of him not to pay for a taxi home. 

The 1964 Amazing Spider-Man Annual consisted of a 40 page story with six villains and dozens of guest stars, rounded out with some features and posters. It was so big and bold and long and loud that it still stands as the definitive Spider-Man story, if not the definitive Marvel Comic. 

The 1965 Amazing Spider-Man annual consisted of a 20 page Doctor Strange story and some reprints. 

Final page, Amazing Spider-Man 26:
note awkward placement of caption.
But at the same time that this lacklustre annual was hitting the stands, the very first two part Spider-Man story was appearing in the regular monthly comic. There had previously been stories with immediate sequels and a thematically linked trilogy, but issue #26 is the first to end on a continued-next-month cliffhanger.

The story is structurally lopsided. Part 1 ends with a mighty cliffhanger as the Green Goblin presents the defeated Spider-Man to the assembled gangsters of New York. But part 2 consists of the police turning up and arresting everyone, Spider-Man failing to catch two different villains, and an extended wrap up. It’s been called a nine-page fight with an eleven page denouement. 

The ending of issue #26 feels awkward. The natural position for the “next issue” box would be the bottom right of the page but it is stuck awkwardly on the left, to avoid covering up the figures of Spidey and the Goblin. If Ditko had intended the issue to break at this point he surely would have left room for a caption running along the bottom of the page? A gangster in the background asking “what’s gonna happen next?” makes the whole thing feel even more forced.

This final panel is pretty much redrawn as the splash page to issue #27. But the figures of Spider-Man and the Green Goblin look stiff. Ditko normally revels in crowd scenes, but the thugs in the audience look sketchy and hastily drawn. Stan Lee makes no real attempt to orientate new readers into the story, and the title Bring Back My Goblin To Me is entirely meaningless. (It could just as well have been called Jack and Jill Went Up the Goblin or By Dawn’s Early Goblin.). 

First page of Amazing Spider-Man #27:
note stiff poses.

If The Man in the Crime Master’s Mask was intended to be a 40 page annual everything falls into place. We have a 9 page set-up about Peter Parker’s costume, his last days at school, and about the Crime Master taking over the mobs; 21 pages of Spider-led action; and a 9 page wind down. Note how gently Ditko takes it at the end. The Crime Master gets his comeuppance on page 12; Foswell is cleared on page 14; but the promised revelation about his “strange secret” is held back till page 20. A full six pages is taken up with Peter ditching his wet costume, retrieving his camera, selling his photos, and deciding to give Aunt May a little treat. This is not how you pace a 20 page comic. But as a single 40 page story it all hangs together beautifully. The day starts with Peter Parker snooping around Aunt May’s room trying to find his Spider-Man costume, and ends with them coming home on the bus after going to the pictures together. 

Maybe Stan Lee felt the Crime Master story was unsuitable for an annual and hastily commissioned the Doctor Strange story as a filler. Maybe Ditko had the Doctor Strange story lying around and Stan felt he might as well use it. But what is undeniably true is that The Man in the Crime Master’s Mask makes sense as, and should always be read as, a single 40 page epic.

Splash page,
Amazing Spider-Man #24
The splash page to issue #26 — one of Ditko’s simplest and most effective — shows Spider-Man sitting in a giant question mark, surrounded by smaller question marks. But what is the question that he is trying to answer? 

Behind him, is man in a brown suit and a full face mask. (“Ah, it’s Rorschach” says anyone who started reading comics after 1985.) Next to him, hands on hips, laughing at Spider-Man is our old friend the Green Goblin. In between the two of them is Frederick Foswell, who grows more dandyish on each appearance. When we first met him, he was one of those weasily thin newsmen with a little yellow dicky bow but no jacket. Now he seems to have a velvet suit and frilly shirt to match the tie. He may even have acquired a ‘tach. And what colour is that suit? 

Ah yes. Green.

Three issues ago, we were invited to suspect that Foswell was the Green Goblin. This month's splash repeats the suggestion. All the way through the story, we are encouraged to think that Foswell – with his criminal background and his false-backed wardrobe – is the Goblin. Misquoting Winston Churchill, Stan Lee asks us “Can Spider-Man solve this dark riddle. cloaked within a grim puzzle hidden beneath the shadows of a deadly enigma??" The answer turns out to be “No, he can’t.” Spider-Man completely fails to work out who the man in the Crime Master’s mask is: the cops turn up in the final reel and tell him. And neither the police, nor Jameson, nor Spider-Man ever discover the strange secret known only to Frederick Foswell, although Stan and Steve share it with us on the final page. 

The Green Goblin and the Crime Master have made a pact to make themselves bosses – kingpins – of all the criminal gangs of New York. This is a very similar set up to The Goblin and the Gangsters, only three issues ago, when the Goblin tried to set himself up as sole king of crime. The former story suffered slightly because Spider-Man did not have enough to do: the Green Goblin’s plan fell apart due to his own hubris, and would have done so even if our hero had not been involved. The Man in the Crime Master’s Mask also places Spider-Man at the edge of the action. The villains fall out; the Crime Master decides to make himself kingpin without the Goblin’s help. Just as the mobs are about to acknowledge the Crime Master as their leader, the Goblin shows up and challenges him… But they have all been betrayed by one of their own number! The police show up on the basis of a tip off from an informer and everyone is arrested. The Goblin gets away; the Crime Master is shot by the police a short time later. The day has been saved, but not by Spider-Man. 

The excellent wrinkle is that, just before the meeting, the Goblin encounters Spider-Man and knocks him out with a stun bomb: he proves himself worthy to be king of crime by presenting the mob with the unconscious hero. “Anyone who can capture Spider-Man can boss me around any day!” says one of the mobsters. So while Spider-Man isn’t at the center of the story, he is intimately and dangerously mixed up in it. 

Amazing Spider-Man 26 (panel 7 page 2)
note use of fore, middle and background
The story is full of good stuff: Spider-Man caught in the cross fire as the Goblin and the Crime Master shoot at each other; Spider-Man plummeting from a building, suffocating from the Crime Master’s smoke bombs; the Crime Master evading Spider-Man in a chase through the New York sewers. And, of course, no-one does piers and warehouses and back-streets and grotesques like Ditko. Look at panel 7 on page 2: constructed like a 3D stage set, with the mooring posts in the foreground; the tiny figures of the Goblin and the Crime Master on the pier; and the skyscrapers of New York in the distance. Artwork like this makes me feel homesick for New York, although I have never been there. And look at Ditko’s “camera” work: the longshot of the two villains; the second shot from slightly above them and the close up for the Crime Master leaving the scene as the Goblin flies away.

While the story doesn’t weave multiple plot threads together as intricately as last month's did, it does contain the pay-off to a subplot which has been bubbling away for five issues. Spider-Man now has no costume…so he buys one from a costume shop. But the cheap material instantly shrinks, so he sticks his mask, his gloves, and his socks onto the main suit with webbing. So when the Goblin tries to remove his mask…he can’t. Because it is stuck. An element of farce in the middle of a rather serious story; and a very logical answer to the question “Why don’t the bad guys rip off Parker’s mask when they capture him.” 

But we're not really interested in the Goblin's latest attempt to become head of the Thieves Guild. What we're interested in his his secret identity, the secret identity of the Crime Master, and the (wink!) strange secret of Frederick Foswell. This part of the plot is a structural reworking of The Enforcers, from issue #10. In that story a man in a mask and a hat tried to take over the mobs: all the clues pointed to him being J. Jonah Jameson. A last minute twist revealed that he was Frederick Foswell. This time around, a man in a mask and a hat tries to take over all the mobs and all the clues point to him being Frederick Foswell. A last minute twist reveals that he is – er – nobody very interesting at all. 

The story is less like a whodunit and more like a conjuring trick. A proper mystery lays out all the clues, presents all the information, and challenges the reader to come up with a solution. But this depends much more on misdirection, on fooling the reader. We see the Crime Master threatening the other bosses; we see a shadowy figure in a dingy apartment, removing a disguise; we hear him say “The game I am playing is a very dangerous one” and then we see that it is Foswell. Very well: Foswell is the Crime Master. A bit later, Spider-Man checks out the apartment (having hidden a tracer plot-device in Foswell’s hat) and finds the false backed wardrobe where he keeps his disguise. Suddenly, a shot is fired through the the Crime Master. Which fairly positively confirms that Foswell is the Goblin. After both the Goblin and the Crime Master have escaped from the big fight,  Spider-Man presents the results of his careful investigation to J. Jonah Jameson: “I want to warn you about Frederick Foswell! I’m sure he’s either the Green Goblin or the Crime Master… I’ve no proof yet – but I know he’s mixed up in this somehow!” And, of course, he is right. Foswell has always known that the Crime Master is Lucky Lewis, a gangster apparently well known to Jonah Jameson and the police, but who Peter Parker and we readers have never heard of before. Lewis shot at Spider-Man thinking he was Foswell. Only on the very last page do we find out that Foswell was....the informer who betrayed the Crime Master to the police. That's the disguise he was hiding in his wardrobe. 

No ground work has been laid; nothing has been foreshadowed. Right up until Foswell reveals his secret, Stan and Steve are pointing in the wrong direction and saying “look over there!” If anyone dares say “Cheat! The Crime Master was no-one we’d ever heard of, and we still don’t know who the Goblin is!” Lee can smile one of his creator smiles and say “We never said we’d tell you who the Goblin is. We said we’d reveal the secret of Frederick Foswell...”

Stan Lee has a very ambivalent relationship with “real life”. At the top of page 13, the Crime Master is shot by the police while resisting arrest. (Foswell has kindly acted as bait, to draw him out.) He decides that he will “have the last laugh” and reveal the Green Goblin’s identity. “His real identity” he explains, and then expires. One of the police helpfully points out that this is ever so slightly an incredible cliché “Boy! If I saw that happen in a mystery move I’d laugh at how corny it was!” But at the bottom of the same page, after the disappointing revelation that the Crime Master is Lucky Lewis, Spider-Man thinks: “In real life, when a villain is unmasked, he isn’t always the butler or the one you suspected! Sometimes he’s a man you didn’t even know!” 

In the space of a single page, Lee has expressed the view that the denouement is too much like a story and that it is not story-like enough. I am always inclined to take meta-textual remarks of this kind as not-so-subtle digs at Steve Ditko.

There is a persistent oral tradition which says that Stan and Steve disagreed about who the Green Goblin would eventually turn out to be. According to some versions, it was this artistic difference, rather than a dispute about pay or credits, which led to the dissolution of the partnership. There are a number of reasons for thinking that the story is not literally true but the essence of the tradition is that the two men differed over whether the Amazing Spider-Man should follow story-logic or real-life logic. Lee wanted the Goblin to be someone Spider-Man already knew because that would surprise and delight the readers. Ditko wanted the Goblin to be an unknown, because that is how it would probably be in real life. Lee’s response (50 years after the event) is unanswerable. In real life, super-villains like the Green Goblin don’t exist. But isn't it strange to hear Stan Lee -- so proud of having "dreamed up" a realistic superhero -- now blaming Steve Ditko for wanting to make Spider-Man too realistic.

The unmasking of the Crime Master is done according to Ditko’s model. It isn't quite true to say that he is “no-one important” or “just some guy”. We are told that Lucky Lewis is a powerful and infamous gangster. It’s just that neither Lee nor Ditko has bothered to put him in the story up to now. It would have been a much bigger cheat, and a much bigger disappointment, if Spider-Man had pulled off the Crime Master's mask and discovered that he was, say, Liz Allan. That kind of thing is just a cheap way of creating the appearance of a clever twist without going to the trouble of setting up a clever puzzle; of giving your villain an importance he hasn't earned. (A decade later, Gerry Conway "revealed" that the Jackal was in fact Peter Parker's old science teacher Prof. Warren. It didn't make him any more interesting.)

If Peter Parker is the center of the universe and everything revolves around him, then it makes excellent sense for people from his private life to keep turning out to be super villains. But the entire point of the Man in the Crime Master’s Mask is that he isn't and it doesn't. Spider-Man doesn’t solve the mystery; Spider-Man doesn't catch any of the bad guys. If anything, he's a background character in the story of Frederick Foswell's. So of course the Crime Master is someone who Foswell knows and Parker doesn't. For this month at least, life really is like that. 
A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
Andrew Rilstone

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

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.

 Please do not feed the troll.