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. 

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Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copywriter holder.

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Mike Taylor said...

“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.

I'm not sure we need read that into it. I see it merely as a rather good piece of writing. Not everything Stan Lee did was an attempt to get at Steve Ditko. In an issue that I agree is pretty forgettable, that opening is about the most memorable part of it.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Perhaps I ought to have said "a friendly dig" or "a bit of joshing"; or even "a self-deprecating remark"?

It is a fact that the narrator's voice, when it comments on the story, tends to "talk up" action scenes (and especially fights) and deprecate or apologize for real world, soap opera sequences. My view is that these comments reflect pretty closely Stan's actual opinions. We know that Lee had no knowledge of what was going to be in the stories until Ditko's art landed on his desk. We can be pretty sure that he often leapt right in and wrote copy for Page 1 before he knew what was on page 2 (because there is so little foreshadowing, and some actual contradictions and errors). So I stick to my view that the captions represent Stan's actual reaction (often expressed in striking and witty language) to Ditko's art. But it is perfectly possible that his captions are a construct -- part of a role he is playing -- in which he pretends to be impatient with the latest J.J.J scene even though he knows the audience lap it up. (A bit like a comedian pretending his jokes aren't funny, or a musician telling a string of banjo jokes before picking the instrument up.)

Mike Taylor said...

A bit like a comedian pretending his jokes aren't funny

Yep, that's how I read it.

Oh, only Stan Lee could speak, what tales he could tell us!

Andrew Rilstone said...

I genuinely doubt that he remembers what actually happened (why should he?) and the stories he tells are a mixture of the "Smilin' Stan" character (which I love as much as anyone) and a necessary corporate line (Spider-Man was invented by the the Third Floor of 655 Madison Ave.)

It irks me that when people talk about Stan, they talk about the mythic and unrecoverable iconic Stan who dreamed up all the Marvel characters in six days and rested on the seventh; and seem relatively uninterested in the thing concrete thing he definitely left to posterity -- hundreds of thousands of words of clever and funny text.

Gavin Burrows said...

Yes, that’s it right there. The two myths clashing without ever meeting in the middle. In one myth, Kirby and Ditko did everything. But unfortunately before their grand narratives and great artwork reached us some corporate hack went and graffitied his hucksterish copywriting all over it, and Pablo Picasso never had that problem, you know. In the other… well, the Grand Creator is really a very good metaphor. The Man was the great originator and it’s testament to his achievement that his creations survive to this day, though of course every actual instance never lives up to the true Platonic ideal. The real thing is to hold up the icons again. The notion of actually collaboration (even in the consequences-game relay form of the Marvel method) fits neither agenda and so gets overlooked by both.

Andrew Rilstone said...

"Consequences game relay". I'm having, that, I am. :)