Thursday, November 09, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man #29

Never Step on a Scorpion!


Villain: 
The Scorpion

Supporting cast: 
J. Jonah Jameson, Frederick Foswell, Betty Brant, Ned Leeds, Aunt May. 

Spins a Web, any size
Spider-Man makes web bolas to entangle the Scorpion.

Peter Parker’s financial position. 
Buying new clothes for college “practically cleans him out”. A suit would cost about $25 and a shirt about $3, so he can hardly have blown more than $50. He has spent through the $1,000 the Globe paid him in #27 in about 2 months. 

Chronology
Peter Parker graduated in issue #28, so that story almost certainly took place on June 25, 1965.

Peter Parker starts college in issue #31, so that story almost certainly takes place between 23 - 27 August 1965.

Amazing Spider-Man #29, #30 and #31 must be consecutive: Betty Brant gets an attack of the vapours in #29 and is still in bed in #30; Aunt May feels unwell in #29 and is hospitalized in #31. 

It follows that this issue takes place a few days before Peter starts college, say 20 Aug 1965; and that there has been a two month gap between the end of Spider-Man #28 and the opening of Spider-Man #29. This is consistent with Liz not having seen Peter “since graduation” in #30, and Peter not having seen Betty “for a long time” in #29. It also allows Ned and Betty a few Peter-free weeks to get to know each other.

The events of issue #28 comfortably take place in a few hours.

Observations

Page 2 "Last year's clothes are getting too tight on me!"
Guys can grow and inch or two between age 16 and 18, and Peter Parker is perpetually working out and presumably gaining muscle mass, so it's not surprising he needs new clothes. He withdraws some cash to go shopping with; but then changes his mind and goes to the Bugle instead.

That said, I find these panels baffling. Peter is generally shown wearing a blue suit, yellow waistcoat and red tie. From this issue he will largely abandon the jacket and tie and wear a much less formal non-buttoning yellow vest. It would not surprising for Ditko to flag this change of look with a trip to the shops. 

But Peter is clearly already wearing the new waistcoat in panel 2; and he doesn't get to the shops because they are too crowded. This is no Lee/Ditko miscommunication: the text accurately reflects the pictures -- Peter struggling to fit into a shirt, Peter going to the bank; Peter walking away from the crowded shops. But Peter definitely wears a new outfit from this point on.

Page 2 "I outsmarted them by pretending to crack up! They returned my costume to me in order to calm me down!"
Does Stan Lee think that the Scorpion's powers come from his suit? Or has he spotted a problem in Ditko's pictures (why on earth does the Scorpion have his costume on when he escapes from jail?) and hastily come up with an explanation? Is there an ironic contrast between the Scorpion getting his costume back and Peter Parker entirely failing to buy a new waistcoat? We know from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 that it was common practice to allow super-criminals to wear their costumes in jail.

Page 3 "It’s a long time since I’ve seen Betty”
Betty last appeared in issue #26.

Page 3 “Ned Leeds is back to stay” 
Nine issues ago, Ned stated that he was going away for 6 months.

Page 4 Ned is taking me to see Golden Boy tomorrow night!”
Golden Boy was a musical which ran on Broadway from 1964-65, starring Sammy Davies Jnr, about a boxer who accidentally kills an opponent and commits suicide. 

Page 7 “Spider-Man and Scorpion are Partners, says publisher”
Once again, Jameson seems to be able to write, typeset and print a new edition of the Bugle in a matter of seconds…

Page 9 “This is only a temporary respite.”
A respite is temporary by definition.

Page 9 "As for you, Scorpy, we've just got to get rid of your deep rooted-hostility complex."
A "hostility complex" isn't really a thing: psychologists do occasionally refer to someone having an "anger-hostility complex". Like "non-existentialist", it's a five buck word that doesn't really mean anything: Lee/Parker thinks that sticking the word "complex" on the end of another word makes him sound clever. Peter is a bookworm, but pretty ignorant about the humanities.

P15 - "Whither I go, you go!” 
The second time in two months Spider-Man has mangled this piece of scripture. (It is echoed in the cover copy this issue "Whatever you do...wherever you go..." and again in the final cliffhanger of issue #32.) 

P16 Say! I wonder what Ed Sullivan would pay for an act like this!”
Lee and/or Peter Parker has forgotten that Spider-Man started life as a TV entertainer. Indeed, his agent originally promised to get him a slot on the Ed Sullivan show.

P18 “To paraphrase an old cliche: this'll hurt you lots more than it does me!”
“This will hurt me more than it will hurt you” is proverbially said by a father or school-teacher to indicate that they are administering corporal punishment only reluctantly. Considering the way Aunt May scolds the adult Peter Parker in #22 and #25, it is quite possible that he heard the phrase from her once or twice when he was smaller. He isn’t paraphrasing the proverb (saying the same thing in different words) so much as reversing or parodying it. 

P18 "I've got him now! He can't hold his breath as long as I can!"
Why not? The Scorpion is meant to be Spidey's physical equal, and Spidey has never had a specific breath-holding power before. Ditko's pictures simply show Spider-Man knocking the Scorpion out with a punch: the breath-holding idea is added in the text, presumably because Stan Lee thought Spider-Man's victory required more explanation. 



This comic reminds us of just how good Stan and Steve could be when they were working together.

No: let’s try that again.

This issue shows us just how good Stan and Steve could be when they were banging their heads together, pulling a story in two different directions, openly at war with each other in the pages of their own comic book. This book has "creative tension" written all over it. And it's great. 

You need look no further than the first page to see what is going on. Steve Ditko opened last issue with a nice little school scene in which Principal Davies reassured Peter that he wasn’t mad at him after all; and Stan Lee poked fun at it. We can discuss the precise position of his tongue relative to his cheek, but fun at it he unquestionable poked. Is this any way to begin a superhero thriller? And so this issue Steve strikes back. This story actually begins with a jail break. The first panel could perfectly well have been the Scorpion bursting through the prison wall. But no: Steve opens the comic with Peter Parker in his bedroom putting on a shirt. And then he goes shopping. 

This dramatic enough for, you, Stan? Has the impact of a falling feather, does it?

The splash page points out that Stan – Stan Lee, me, me, me – came up with the title, Never Step On a Scorpion and was very, very clever to have done so. It also chastises uppity plotter-artists who think that comic books are about something. Because they’re totally not. This may look like a superhero comic. But if you study it carefully, you’ll find out that it really is only a superhero comic. 

Take that, Randian subtext! 

On the other hand, this issue is a bit of a counterpoint to our working hypothesis that Stan and Steve haven't been on speaking terms since issue #23 or thereabouts. Maybe they haven't. But if so, isn't it rather surprising that J Jonah Jameson so specifically asks Frederick Foswell about next month’s baddie (that Cat Burglar) and the month after next’s baddie (the very famous Master Planner)? How did heroic writer Stan no what homeric scripter Steve had lined up for issue #30 if they weren't talking to each other? I suppose it is just possible that Stan Lee plucked “Cat Burglar” and “science thief” out of thin air because J.J.J had to be saying something, and Ditko saw the copy and said “Cat Burglar, is it? Then I’ll damn well give you a Cat Burglar, see if I don’t.” But I think there must have been some kind of conference, if only through an intermediary in which Steve said “I think next month I’m going to do a Cat Burglar” and Stan said “Sure, Steve, I’ll foreshadow, shall I?” or Stan said "What about a story about a villain stealing scientific equipment?" and Steve said "Yeah, I can run with that idea." 

And if Ditko thought that a story was a skein of multiple threads that eventually tangled themselves into one big narrative knot, while Lee thought that a story was a kind of prelude which set up the fight scene then this issue is as pure a Stan Lee plot as was ever been committed to low grade pulp newsprint. Nine page set up; nine page fight scene (with a bit of an interlude at half-time) two page wind down.

The Scorpion gets out of jail; the Scorpion wants to kill J. Jonah Jameson; so Spider-Man has to defend J. Jonah Jameson — even though Jonah created the Scorpion to kill him. Gosh! How ironic! There is a little bit of waffle in which Jameson tries to goad Spider-Man into fighting the Scorpion (which he was obviously going to do anyway) and Spider-Man swings around the city trying to draw the Scorpion out (which leaves the Scorpion free to attack an unprotected Jameson), but basically “The Scorpion tries to kill J.J.J and Spider-Man tries to stop him” is as sophisticated as it gets. The Scorpion gets to the Bugle first and menaces J.J.J; Spider-Man arrives in the nick of time; they bash each other all round the office, then over the rooftops, and finally in the river. Spider-Man wins the day because he can hold his breath underwater for longer than the Scorpion can. (It’s okay for your ordinary decent superhero to half drown opponents, apparently.) J. Jonah Jameson claims that he defeated the Scorpion single handedly; Betty Brant goes into shock and is taken care of by her new boyfriend; and Aunt May has an attack of Aunt May disease but doesn’t tell Peter so as not to worry him. The end. 

Did Ditko comes up with this astonishingly un-Ditkoesque story out of his conservative head, or did Stan Lee send him one of his famous two line plots? Or must we think of Stan Lee expressing his displeasure at the lack of action in the last few episodes, and Ditko saying “A fight scene, is it? I’ll give you a damned fight scene….”



Artistically, Steve is at the top of his game, which is a pretty impressive place to be. The web swinging sequence on page 5 is one of the most perfect things he ever drew. We start up among the rooftops, on Spider-Man’s level; we swoop down to ground level with him; and end up on the sidewalk with the crowd, looking at Spider-Man swinging above us. We see him in mid-swing; then diving at the ground, and then swinging up again with the momentum, shooting a new web from his left hand as he does so. (And then we pull back, so we are watching the Scorpion watching Spider-Man.) If you want to understand how Spider-Man moves, this is the page to study.

The fight scene has an energy which the punch up with Molten Man was desperately lacking. Look at Spider-Man simultaneously falling and punching the Scorpion in panel 3 of page 9: neither of them appears to have a foot on the ground, but both of them are accidentally kicking J.J.J. whose limbs are flailing wildly. The pacing is perfect; we see the Scorpion chasing Jonah round the Daily Bugle building, and then cornering him against a well; at which moment Spider-Man swings in through the window. There is a neat one page interlude between Spider-Man and the Scorpion leaving the building and the fight resuming on the roof, in which Jonah surveys the wreckage of his office and realizes he can make a profit on the insurance.


But this is not a one man show. Stan Lee’s dialogue lifts a very good fight scene to a whole nother level. It is true that there are a lot of speech bubbles, and quite a lot of captions and it is true that not all of these speech bubbles are strictly necessary. If you are inclined to regard comic books as things that you look at rather than read than five speech bubbles on a single panel maybe be overdoing it a bit. But I submit that Stan Lee knows exactly what he is doing. The panels are crowded with dialogue; but J.J.Js offices are crowded with people. There is slightly too much to read; but Spider-Man feels that J.J.J and Ned and Jonah and Betty are all shouting at him, and he wishes they would keep it down and let him concentrate on the fight. Everyone has their own voice. The Scorpion sounds like a proper Republic Serial villain: “This is only a temporary respite! I’ll dispose of Spider-Man and then we’ll continue where we left off.” Ned Leeds is continually, infuriatingly, chivalrous “Don’t worry Betty. I’ll see that nothing happens to you.” Jameson is moronic, sell-centred, cowardly and very funny. “No! You can’t get me! Get Spider-Man instead!” And Spider-Man, of course, is an endless stream of sarcasm. 

Jameson: It’s Spider-Man’s job to fight killers like you!

Scorpion: Well, if he knows what’s good for him he’ll resign, real quick!

Spider: If I knew what was good for me, I wouldn’t be here in the first place, mister! 

I recently read through a couple of issues of Captain Atom, the comic Ditko did for DC after leaving Marvel in '66. The pictures are as pretty as ever, but I find the comic practically unreadable. Speech bubbles and captions have hardly evolved beyond silent movie intertitles or Rupert Bear rhyming couplets. When the villain appears, he says “I expected to meet you Captain Atom, but not this soon.” When the villain punches him, Captain A says “Just have to take the blows so they won’t suspect I have my powers back.” When he returns to HQ he says “Where is the general. I freed myself so he doesn’t have to pay the ransom.” Everyone sounds just like everyone else. These are not illuminations or embellishments: merely stage directions. Stan Lee really was taking comic book writing into places it hadn't been before.


Look at the first panel on page 12. We are following through on a punch. The previous panel showed the Scorpion hitting Spider-Man; this panel shows him flying through the air, past J.J.J and into a bookcase. If we were scripting the panel Captain Atom style, we wouldn't need anything more than “The Scorpion hit me pretty hard!” or “Look, the Scorpion has knocked Spider-Man into that piece of furniture!” or, simply “Ouch”.

Indeed, Stan Lee puts Spider-Man's reaction ("Uhhh!" rather than "Ouch!") into the previous panel. He notices that Jameson is in the panel, and realizes that the scene is not about Spider-Man getting clobbered, but about J.J.J’s reaction to Spider-Man getting clobbered. And he decides that, since J.J.J is an idiot, his reaction is to tell Spider-Man off: 

“You over-rated clown! You bumbling incompetent! He’s making you look like a bum!”

(Settle down at the back. It means “tramp”.) He puts Spider-Man’s reaction to Jonah's reaction into the same panel. 

“Think you can do better, buttercup? I’ll lend you my costume!”

Spidey flies across the room; Jonah scolds Spidey; Spidey snarks at Jonah. You might think that that was enough for one panel: but Stan has noticed that Spider-Man has been thrown against a desk, and adds a second round of conversion: 

“Look out for that desk!”

“Relax J.J.J,; I'm not hurt!”

“Who care about you!!? That furniture set me back a fortune?” 

A panel which by itself “means” one thing — “Spider-Man has been thrown across the room” — has had two additional “meanings” inscribed into it — Jameson is nasty (and Spider-Man gives as good as he gets); Jameson is a skinflint. I don’t think Jameson’s concern about the cost of his office furniture — or his plan to claim on the insurance — is implicit in any of the artwork, although Ditko sure does show a lot of stuff getting broken. Stan Lee's text does not merely draw out what is in the pictures; it adds new elements. 

This episode does have a structural purpose in the overall story arc: it transforms Ned Leeds from a plot device into an actual character. When Leeds first appeared he was little more than a stick to hit Peter Parker over the head with. When our hero was at his lowest ebb, he happened to see Betty Brant having a pleasant evening out with a charming, good looking journalist. Ned was almost immediately written out — dispatched to Europe to cover the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in #20. Since he learned that Betty has been corresponding with Ned in issue #23, Peter Parker has been incredibly jealous of him. This is a bit of a role-reversal -- from issue #13 to #22, pretty much Betty Brant's whole personality was reducible to "the jealous one". It is also typically unfair and sexist of Peter: he has openly dated Liz Allan, and specifically told Betty that he was okay with her seeing both Ned. But this is the first time Ned has really appeared as a character. And it’s a skillful piece of characterization. He does nothing but nice things — he laughs at Peter’s weak jokes, he comforts Betty during the fight and takes her to the doctor when it all gets a bit much. But by the end of the episode both we and Spider-Man are sick to death of the great big goody two-shoes. Which is an important set up for next issue's Not Particularly Surprising twist.

On page 10, we see Ned hugging Betty (in a brotherly, comforting sort of way) while calling out “Hurry, Spider-Man…you’ve got to stop the Scorpion. I’ll look after Miss Brant…You concentrate on your fight…and watch out for that tail of his.” This, of course, antagonizes Spider-Man ("first he muscles in on my girl, and now he’s giving me advise on how to protect myself.”) He rushes in to attack the Scorpion (who isn’t even in panel) and is immediately thrown back against the wall with a dramatic Wham! 

“I told you to watch out for his tail!” says Ned.

“Aw, shuddup!” replies Spider-Man. 

Lee spots that “Shuddup” is funnier than “Shut up” and “Aw shuddup” is funnier still. The icing on the gag is that the balloon is printed upside down. It’s the most perfectly judged moment in one of the  most perfectly judged of all Spider-Man stories. It may appear to be about Spider-Man fighting the Scorpion. But if you study it more closely, and analyze ever panel and nuance etc etc etc it’s actually about J.J.J and Ned Leeds watching Spider-Man fight the Scorpion; or, in fact, about Spider-Man reacting to being watched by Ned and Jonah.  

The Sinister Six may be the perfect example of a Stan Lee's vision of Spider-Man, and next month's Cat Burglar may be the perfect example of Steve Ditko's. But Never Step on a Scorpion is the perfect example of what the two men could produce when they were in sync — or creatively out of sync. 

Light, funny, witty, with a sting in the tale: this is my Spider-Man.


1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

"Look at Spider-Man simultaneously falling and punching the Scorpion in panel 3 of page 9: neither of them appears to have a foot on the ground."

Also, the Scorpion's tail is for some reason attached between his shoulders.