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. 

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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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