Monday, December 31, 2018

A right gude-willie waught

How many words did you write in 2018?

Well, I published 115,632 on this blog.

Ah yes. Mainly about religion and folk music, I shouldn't wonder.

Actually it came out looking like this: 

COMICS : 42,332 words
DOCTOR WHO: 31,563 words
STAR WARS: 18,560 words
POLITICS: 14,479 words
BOOKS: 4,255  words

How long did that take you?

547 hours, apparently. 

And how much money did you make out of Patreon and booksales?

Around £2587.84

Are you any good at doing sums in your head?

That comes out at £4.73 and hour or £22.38 per thousand words.

It's a good job you don't do it for the money, isn't it.


Are you going to be writing about folk music in 2019?


Are you going to be writing about the Bible in 2019?


Are you going to be writing about the Wombles in 2019?


Are you going to be writing about Spider-Man in 2019?

I really intended to have it finished in 2018, but I have essays on #37. #38 and the Very Complicated Green Goblin Question to roll out in January. Then I'm done. 

Are you going to be writing about role-playing games in 2019?


Are you going to be writing about Brexit in 2019?

No. It would only upset you. 

Are you going to be writing about Doctor Who in 2019?

I still want to do the Capaldi mini-book when the Patreon reaches 50. 

Wouldn't it be great if you had some extra money coming in while you are working on all those projects?



Sunday, December 30, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #36

Where Falls The Meteor

The Looter [Meteor Man] Norton G. Fester

Supporting Cast: 
Gwen Stacy, "Sally", Flash Thompson

The story unfolds over nine or ten days.

Page 6/7 - The Looter robs a bank and "In the days that follow" he becomes a one man crime wave.

Page 10-12 - The Looter robs the museum, but is foiled by Spider-Man.

Page 15 = "The next day" he goes back to the scene of the crime to make a better plan.

Page 16: Four days later he tries to rob the Museum a second time: "But the Looter doesn't show up that night—not the next—nor even the next. However at the end end of the week when the exhibit is about to close..."

Assuming "the end of the week" is a Friday and working backwards, this give us something like:

Day 1: Bank robbery
Day 4: First museum robbery
Day 5: Returns to Museum
Day 9: Second museum robbery.

Only a small amount of time has passed since last issue (battles with Kraven and the Molten man are still "recent").

So if the fight with the Molten Man takes place on Monday September 20th 1965, we could place this one between Wednesday 22nd September and Friday 1st October. Peter Parker is about 6 weeks into his first term at college.
Peter Parker's Financial Situation
Peter mentions in passing that he hopes to sell pictures of the fight to Jameson, although he is not actually seen taking any.

page 1 "When I become as famous as Darwin — Galileo — Aristophenes — I'll pay you back with interest."
Darwin discovered evolution. Galileo proved the sun was the center of the Universe. Aristophenes may be related to Aristophanes, who wrote Ancient Greek comedies.

"With this I might solve the riddle of the universe."
Fester seems to regard "the riddle of the universe" and "the origins of life in the universe" as synonymous. The term "riddle of the universe" (which also troubles the Silver Surfer) seems to come from a nineteenth century biologist named Ernst Haeckel who thought "Die Weltr├Ątsel" ("world riddle") "was "how does matter give rise to consciousness?" 

"Maybe I'll accidentally stumble over something... like Isaac Newton."
The laws of motion were not an accidental discovery: according to folklore an apple fell on Newton's head which set him thinking about what made the apple fall. Alexander Fleming's discovery of antibiotics would be a better example of serendipity. Stan Lee, naturally, thinks that scientific discoveries leap fully formed into the minds of men of genius. 

p 4 "Everyone had a chance to get to know each other .. and to form close friendships...except Mrs Parker's bad luck nephew."
In issue #34, the other students have turned against Peter Parker because he was blanking them, and because he is too proud to explain the reason. Stan Lee seems to be overwriting issues #30 - #33, perhaps in order to make Peter Parker Less Of a Dick.

p5 "I'm in your English Lit class!"
Some colleges do require science majors to take additional courses in the humanities, but it is never again suggested that Peter has studied poetry or drama to graduate level. (And anyway, would Peter really have been missing lab work, but attending literature seminars?) Stan never went to college and imagines that universities are just like high schools. Eleven years on, in #185, it will turn out that E.S.U requires academic students to take a gym class.

p6 "Oh no! Not again! Will I always be thought of as nothing but an egghead??
"I don't want another Betty Brant situation developing again. She only liked me for my brains too."
There has been no suggestion that Peter and Betty broke up because Betty only cared about Peter's brains. Either Peter is chauvinistically shifting the blame onto Betty, or Lee is again overwriting the last few issues and replacing them with something simpler.

p8 "It has to be the night that the Looter is probably out playing pinochle"
A Rummy type card game with an element of bidding

p12 "Come back, little sheba"
This is the title of an undistinguished Burt Lancaster movie from 1952. 

p17 "Us Spider-Men are a hardy breed"
Spider-Man used this phrase back in issue 19. I still think it must be a quote and I still can't work out where it comes from.

Last month, Ditko trailed this issue with a picture of a new supervillain. Quite a striking pictures: a white body suit with purple collar and sleeves and a spooky mask that recalls the Ringmaster's Clown.  But he evidently declined to tell Stan Lee anything else about the character. So Stan was reduced to writing placeholder text. 

"A swingin' super-villain so different, so new, we can't even tell you his name yet." 

This turns out to have been an ironic choice of words. This month's villain is not characterized by novelty and uniqueness. Stan claims that there was a disagreement -- or at any rate, a last minute change of mind -- about what to call him. Possibly Stan wanted him to be The Meteor Man but Steve insisted on The Looter. ("Looter" is an Ayn Rand buzzword.) A better name might have been Generic Man.

A hiker finds a recently crashed meteor. Back at home, he smashes it with a mallet, and releases an undefined Alien Gas which gives him super strength and super agility. There are, of course, only two career paths available to super strong individuals: robbing banks, and stopping people from robbing banks. Our hero goes for the former, knits himself a silly costume and adopts The Looter as his sobriquet. After a brief crime wave, he starts to fret that his powers may only be temporary, and tries to steal another meteor from a museum. His first attempt is foiled by Spider-Man, but he escapes. On his second attempt, Spider-Man defeats him and hands him over to the police. 

This is so thin that it hardly counts as a plot. Spider-Man is purely reactive: the Looter tries to do a crime and Spider-Man tries to stop him. The elaborate origin sequence does little but set up a McGuffin. The Looter needs a Meteor to top up his powers, but it would have made no difference if he had needed some radioactive isotope or the One Eye of the Little Yellow God. The museum setting gives Ditko an excuse to show Spider-Man leaping through a mock-up of the solar-system, but that's about all. The fight itself is mildly diverting, at least compared with last issue's punch-fest; the denouement, with Spider-Man fighting one handed while the Looter tries to float away on a hot air balloon is very nearly exciting. In a few places, the in-fight repartee is a little bit funny

--You must be mad, talking that way while you battle for your life

--I must be mad to be in this line of endeavor in the first place

But most of the dialogue, like most of the story, is the most predictable kind of Spider-snark. ("Have you ever considered medical help because of your anti-social tendencies?") Nothing wrong with it, but we've heard it all before. 

There is the slightest hint of a sub-plot: Gwen Stacy (who has literally acquired devil's horns) meets Peter at the museum and tries to make a romantic pass at him. But when she sees him running away to turn into Spider-Man, she naturally assumes that he is a coward. A new plot-machine is beginning to coalesce: Peter outwardly looks down on Gwen because she has taken against him for no reason; Gwen outwardly looks down on Peter because he is a coward and snob; but both of them are secretly attracted to the other. This one could run and run.

From the very beginning of the comic we are invited to laugh at the Looter and not take him seriously as a villain. He has a silly name: Norton G Fester. He is selfish and egotistical: he thinks that the meteor will reveal the solution to the riddle of the universe but he mainly cares that it will make him rich and famous. When the meteor gifts him with superpowers he immediately decides to use them to steal money, but then adds, in passing, that given time he will probably also conquer the world. His idea of experimenting on the meteor is to attack it with a mallet. When he wants to test his agility, he is shown sticking his bum out like a chicken before awkwardly jumping in the air. Once he has acquired superpowers, he starts to use the most cliche-ridden villainous dialogue imaginable.  ("You should have realized that resistance would be completely futile against one as powerful as I!") But while most villains either try to come up with ripostes to Spider-Man's sarcasm, or else make melodramatic speeches at him, the Looter seems perpetually to be forgetting his lines -- "Huh? Who said that?" "Out of my way...I said out of my way!" "Again—what does it take to stop you?" It's as if we are watching someone cos-playing a Marvel super-villain, not very convincingly.

I wish I could save this story. I wish I could prove that it is not a very poor episode of Spider-Man but in fact a very sophisticated parody of a Spider-Man comic. If Spider-Man can renounce "with great power comes great responsibility" in issue #34 and crack jokes only Stan Lee understands in #35 then why shouldn't the whole concept of a super-villain origin story be the next edifice to come tumbling down? Once we have acknowledged the absurdity of bank robbers in white leotards, perhaps we can get back to what Spider-Man was originally meant to be -- a kid trying to deal with superpowers in an otherwise rational world, 

With a bit of stretching, Norton G Fester could even be read as a bizarro-world inversion of Peter Parker himself. Parker is a bona fide science genius: Norton thinks he is, or wishes he was. Like Parker, Fester has few friends and no-one takes him seriously. When he tries to borrow money from the bank or get investment from a science lab, he is pretty much laughed at. When he rants "They mock me because I am too smart to work...too clever to hold down a job!" we might hear echoes of the younger Peter Parker's fear of being laughed at. When the bank won't lend him money, he says "You'll be sorry! You'll all be sorry!" which is of course just what Peter Parker said to his classmates all those years ago. While Norton J Fester is ranting about being an unrecognized genius, Peter Parker is refusing to date Gwen's friend Sally because she is only interested in his brains! 

Fester's language after he inhales the magic gas is rather reminiscent of Peter Parker's after being bitten by the magic spider: 

Parker: "What is happening to me? I feel .. different as though my entire body is charged with some fantastic energy" 

Fester: "Why do I feel so different...As though some superhuman power is coursing through me." 

And like Spider-Man Fester has a weird belief in Fate which amounts to an awareness that he is a comic book character with a pre-set role to adhere to. Spider-Man famously performed an aria which concluded "I now know that a man can't change his destiny, and I was born to be...SPIDER-MAN." Fester announces: "Now I realize why I never made it as a scientist. I was never cut out to be a scientist..I was born to be a master criminal...A super-criminal...I was born to be... The Looter." 

This above all: to thine own self be true.

There may also be some conscious irony in the mechanics of Fester's origin. He hits the meteor with a hammer and chisel, in the hope that he will discover the secret of the universe by accident. It is certainly true that people in the Marvel Universe keep on acquiring amazing abilities as a result of being struck by lightening on top of pylons; exposed to gamma bombs and knocked down by trucks. So the idea that Fester deliberately tries to have accident in the hope of triggering an Origin makes a funny sort of sense. 

I would love this to be right. I would love the Looter to be consciously intended as an inverted shadow of Spider-Man. But while Stan Lee had many strengths as a writer, subtlety was not something he was known for. If he had spotted that Fester was the Anti-Parker I am sure he would have said so.

No: superhero comics have a very limited vocabulary. The Looter's origin resembles Spider-Man's origin because all characters' origins resemble all other characters' origins. Humble beginnings. Mocked and derided. Senseless accident. Powers. Decision.

Why can this kid climb up walls?

I don't know. Because science, I guess.

It's not the origin which defines a character; it's what comes afterwards. Peter was bitten by a radioactive Spider and became a hero. The Looter was bitten by a radioactive meteor and did absolutely nothing at all.

Maybe something better will come along next month.

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 copyright holder.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #35

The Molten Man Regrets...

The Molten Man (Mark Raxton)

Supporting Cast
J.J.J's new secretary

Spider-Man #35 must happen after Spider-Man #34, so the earliest the attempted robbery at the jewelry store can take place is September 6th. 

Not very much time has passed since #35 because Jonah's secretary is still new and hasn't learned everyone's names. The big fight with the Molten man cannot take place after September 20th. 

The opening scenes took place "months" ago. Raxton was arrested on Peter Parker's graduation day, June 25th, 1965. He must have been released very quickly indeed for "months" to have passed. Perhaps he spent only a week in prison: July 2 - Sep 6 could just about be called "months". 

Raxton robs the jewelry store "many days" after his release. July 2 - September 6th is 64 days, which certainly counts as "many". 

"As the days slowly pass, day after day" Spider-Man keeps tabs on the Molten Man (p8) "Finally..." he catches him committing a crime. If Spider-Man is keeping tabs on the Molten Man from Sep 7th—Sep 20th, then twelve days have passed.

With a bit of squeezing, that gives us:

June 25th 1965: Molten Man captured 
July 2: Molten Man released 
(September 5th): Spider-Man fights Kraven 
September 6th: Spider-Man foils jewelry heist
September 7th - September 20th: Spider-Man keeping tabs on Molten Man.
September 20th: Big fight with Molten Man

Peter Parker's financial situation 
Peter sells photos of the Molten Man to Jameson, but doesn't bother to haggle. 


Title: "The Molten Man Regrets..."

Nothing in the story suggests what it is which the Molten Man feels regretful about. There is a Cole Porter song called Miss Otis regrets (about a woman who is lynched for shooting her lover) but that doesn't seem especially relevant.

p4 "It's a heckuva place for a skeet-shooting set up" 

i.e. It's real gunfire, not a rifle range, that I can hear.

p6: "Iron! Iron's a metal!" 
It's nice to know that Peter is not letting his science scholarship go entirely to waste. 

p10: "Shucks. I hoped you'd think I was Yogi Berra" 
Yogi Berra was a former baseball star and current manager of the New York Yankees. His one-line gags and malapropisms would have appealed to both Stan Lee and Peter Parker. ("I am not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. They can walk to school like I did.")

"Minutes later, a scene which occurred a few months ago is repeated anew..."

The Molten Man Regrets is so obviously a re-run of The Coming of the Molten Man that Stan can't resist pointing it out. The cop who finds the defeated Molten Man can't resist pointing it out either. Last month's story was a little bit lackluster; but this month's gives the impression that everyone involved has just stopped trying. Indeed, it starts to look as if Stan and Steve are actively sabotaging each other's work.

Spider-Man's least interesting adversary, the Molten Man, is released from jail. He tries to rob a jewelry store, but Spider-Man stops him. Then he tries to rob a safe, but Spider-Man stops him again. They have a fight and Spider-Man wins.

And that's literally it. There is no sub-plot; barely any plot of any kind. None of the supporting cast appear. There is a fight, and some scaffolding to provide a reason for the fight. And the fight itself amounts to Spider-Man punching the Molten Man, the Molten Man punching Spider-Man, and Spider-Man finally tying the Molten Man up with some extra strength webbing, exactly as he did last time. 

Stan Lee knows that this is a lot different from the intricately assembled psycho-noir tales about the Master Planner, the Cat and the Crime Master. "It's change-of-pace time once again" he cries "so climb aboard for the action...!" It's clear enough what he really means: "The last few issues have been too slow moving, and they haven't had enough fight scenes."

In case we are in any doubt, he says it twice:

"This one is for the real old-fashioned dyed-in-the-wool Spidey fanatics who like to see ol'web-heard fighting as only he can."

"Old-fashioned." The comic has changed recently, but this issue is getting back to what it used to be in the early days.

"Real." The people who liked the recent issues aren't the true fans: their opinions don't really count.

"Fighting." The real fans are the ones who buy the comic to see a one-to-one sparring match between Spider-Man and a super-villain. From now on, that is what the comic will be about. Real fans will like this. The people who do not like this are not real fans.

Last issue's Kraven story followed the familiar 9-9-2 structure: nine pages of plot and subplot; nine pages of fight; and a two page wrap up. Peter Parker didn't put his Spider-Man costume on until page 10. Stan Lee felt the need to apologize for this. Twice

"We'll admit this has been a pretty long introduction, but once the action gets started we'll more than make up for it" 

"Okay, web-spinners. You've been patient with us till now and here's where it starts paying off."

Curiously enough, this issue's story follows pretty much the same structure. The first nine pages are plot exposition; Spidey confronts the baddie on page 10; the fight lasts until page 18; and pages 19 and 20 are about Peter Parker after the fight has ended.

So what was Stan Lee apologizing for? The nine page introduction to the Kraven story consisted of the villain formulating his Evil Scheme. But they also showed Peter Parker visiting Aunt May in hospital; Peter Parker trying to patch things up with his college mates; Betty Brant having a terrible dream and deciding to leave town; Peter worrying about the fake Spider-Man and Aunt May inviting Mrs Watson for tea. The introduction to the Molten Man story, on the other hand, shows Raxton planning his scheme; Raxton robbing a jewelry store; Peter Parker realizing that the thief must be the Raxtpm; Peter Parker planting the tracer on Raxton's suit; Peter Parker following several false trails... 

Stan Lee is not apologizing for the lack of fight scenes in #34. Stan Lee is apologizing for the existence of anything else. The true old fashioned dyed in the wool Spider-Man fanatic objects to scenes involving Aunt May, Gwen Stacey and J. Jonah Jameson. The true old fashioned dyed in the wool Spider-Man fanatic wants a fight with a villain and nothing to distract him from it. The true old fashioned dyed in the wool Spider-Man fanatic is, in fact, one of those letter hacks who wanted less romance, less drama, less mystery and less soap opera. 

And Stan is going to give them what they want. 

I hope they were satisfied. But from where I'm standing a fight without a subplot makes for pretty boring reading. The Molten Man punches Spider-Man and then punches him again and then punches him again. Then Spider-Man punches the Molten Man. And they provide a running commentary for anyone watching on the radio: 

--First, using the metallic power of my molten body I'll crush all the fight out of you with an unbreakable bear hug.

--You're just whistling in the dark, Moltey. You can't beat me that way! No bear hug can stop my webbing from zipping up to the ceiling and sticking there 

--What good'll that do you? 

--I was hoping you'd ask? 

--You're bluffing! 

--Think so? Just watch...

You end up wishing they would just shut up and kill each other quietly. 

And amazingly, for the first two pages of the dreadful fight scene, this is exactly what happens. Molten Man punches Spider-Man in the chest. And instead of going through the usual "I am punching you in the chest" "Oh, punching me in the chest now are you?" rigmarole we just get a big sound effect: "Thwop!" Then he punches Spider-Man on the jaw, and it goes "Puh...twee!". Then Spider-Man punches the Molten man and it says "Brrakkk!" And so on. (The Molten Man Regrets...was published in the same month that the Adam West Batman TV show debuted, complete with its infamous on-screen kapows and zaps. But since comics were written two or three months in advance, this has to be marked up as an "interesting coincidence".)

But of course, it isn't sufficient for Stan Lee to write two pages with nothing but sound effects. He has to tell us that he is going to write two pages with nothing but sound effects. And in telling us, he breaks the fourth wall in a particularly egregious way:

"And now, we promised Artie Simek we'd let him go wild with sound effects for a page or two, so here goes".

Artie Simek was the letterer on most Marvel Comics. Stan Lee had a slight tendency to make fun of him on the credits page, in the way that singers sometimes make fun of drummers. The hero and the villain are making dramatic "kapow" sounds as they punch each other; and Stan Lee chooses this moment to take us out of the story and remind us that someone is writing the sound effects in over the pictures. He shouldn't drawing our attention to the sound effects in the first place. Kapows and Kaks work best when you hardly notice they are there. If there is a Ka-bopp sound effect, that ought to be because it is the exact sound which Spider-Man's fist makes when it hits metal...not because the guy with the typewriter knows that the guy with the fountain pen likes writing in really big letters.

It gets worse. 

The fight rambles on. The pugilists start taunting each other. And Stan decides the moment has come to drive a fully fledged wreaking ball through what remains of the fourth wall.

--Once I've beaten you, there'll be nobody left to stop me!

--Don't kid yourself! There's always Irving Forbush!

--Who's he?

--Forget it! It's an in joke!

Any pretense that we are listening to words spoken by a character named Peter Parker has been abandoned. We are just looking at words being written onto a drawing by Stan Lee.

The very first comic I ever read included an advertisement for the FOOM magazine and fan club which introduced itself this way:

"FOOM is the whackiest most way out idea since Irving Forbush combed his hair in the pencil sharpener....Stan (the Man) Lee is head FOOMER, Jaunty Jim Steranko is minister of inFOOMation and rascally Roy Thomas and your other bullpen biggies will be sharing the fun..."

It also had a letter from Stan Lee—not called a soap box, but instead headed "Stan Lee sounds off!"

So face front frantic one, Marvel is on the move again...And now on behalf of the whole batty Bullpen to all you Titanic True believers everywhere....we'll never let you down, O Keeper of the Faith, 'cause we're nothing without you! Excelsior!

Marvel Comics have always worked at two levels: there is an inner world, the superhero comics themselves, and there is an outer world, the world of Bullpen Bulletins and letters pages and house ads. Of course, the pulse pounding pageantry of the stories are the reason we carry on reading: but the frame, where Stan Lee chomps his cigar and talks nonsense is a very large part of what gave Marvel Comics their unique ambiance. 

Stan Lee in particular spoke his own lingo; simultaneously incredibly pretentious and comically self-deprecating. Some of it comes from the military ("Face Front!" is what a Sergeant tells a squaddie on parade); some of them have an Arabian Nights zing to them (Keeper of the Flame; Effendi) and some of them are the kinds of things that middle aged men might imagine hippies saying to each other (Hang loose! Stay cool! Whacky! Batty!). But you don't need to know what any of this stuff means; and even if you do, it's still pretty senseless. I now know what strange device Henry Wandsworth Longfellow had on his banner; and what is written on the Great Seal of the United States. (This is a useful thing to know if you are ever on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire). I know that Jim Steranko was an escapologist and stage magician who drew a small number of ground-breaking issues of Captain America and SHIELD in the early 70s. I know that Roy Thomas was one of Stan Lee's acolytes, the person to whom he was gradually handing most of the editing and scripting duties. I even know that a bullpen is a kind of baseball clubhouse, not an esoteric writing implement. But I didn't know any of those things in the olden days. "Excelsior" and "E Pluribus Marvel" were just words. Roy Thomas, Jim Steranko and Irving Forbush were just names. Magical words; magical names; part of Stan Lee's patter, part of the gift-wrap which Spider-Man came in. 

Irving Forbush turns out to have been a free-floating joke. A decade before the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee had tried to launch a funny magazine, called SNAFU, his answer to Mad. (He never completely abandoned the idea. The American comics I used to see carried adverts for a something called Crazy.) The magazine sometimes carried a byline "Founded by Irving Forbush, 1871" and "Losted by his brother, Melvin Forbush, the previous year." The slender joke came about because the Saturday Evening Post (home of all those wholesome Norman Rockwell covers) used to claim to have been "Founded by Benjamin Franklin".

Irving and Melvin are fairly generic American Jewish names. Irving Forbush was evidently intended to be a counterpart to Mad Magazine's Alfred Neuman mascot. When SNAFU folded, Stan Lee took the name with him, like Christopher Robin's swan. Some years later, when Marvel did an execrable self-parody comic called Not Brand Ecch! the Irving Forbush character morphed into a superhero called Forbush Man. He has continued to appear intermittently ever since. The Everything-2 website describes him very well as "an old fannish gag, a remnant of the original 60s era Marvel, a vision of the company which no longer exists."

"The best idea since Irving Forbush combed his hair in the pencil sharpener" is neither more nor less meaningless than most of what Stan Lee says. 

So: by having Spider-Man reference Irving Forbush, Stan Lee has literally crossed a line; the frame has bled into the picture. The frame is fun precisely because it is a contrast with the comics themselves. Inside the comic, it really matters to you that Aunt May is definitely, definitely going to die this time and Galactus is probably going to eat the whole world; but then you flip the page and find Stan and Steve shooting the breeze with you and your remember that it's not really real and everything is okay. 

I think we all understand the rules. Spider-Man can move upwards and appear in the frame: there is nothing at all odd about seeing a picture of Spider-Man on the letters page saying "Don't forget to order next week's issue from your newsagent". But of course, no-one would imagine that Peter Parker, while fighting Doctor Octopus, would suddenly remember that time he had to swing across a letter column and remind people to renew their subscription. It patently doesn't work like that. Stan Lee cannot flow downwards and become a character in one of his own comics: if he could, he really would be God. (There are one or two occasions when Jack Kirby and Stan Lee appear as characters in the Fantastic Four: but they are very much presented as jobbing artists of the previous generation; none of the "hang loose Irving Forbush Excelsior" Marvel-speak seeps through.) Lee's voice, the voice of the narrator is everywhere present; but only as an observer. He can hear the characters' thoughts, but they can't hear the captions. Indeed, it is an artefact of the Marvel Method that the Lee-Narrator is only ever an observer: he sees what the reader sees and hardly ever says "I know something you don't know." Last month, the Secretary With No Name wondered to herself why Betty Brant left so suddenly, and the Lee narrator chips in "And so do we, young lady. And so do we." That third person plural is a marker of Stan's meta-textual technique. 

So it is a sin of the first order to show Peter Parker referencing Stan Lee's most pointless in-joke in the middle of a fight. Yes: the mask has slipped before. We have noticed that when he is not wearing the mask, Peter Parker can seem a lot like Steve Ditko, but when he puts it on, he starts to talk like Stan Lee. And yes, once a narrative has been breached it is always possible for more narrative to patch it up. (Maybe Peter Parker saw a copy of SNAFU when he was eight years old, recalls the Irving Forbush character and is wildly wondering if Mark Raxton, who is slightly older than him, remembers it as well.)

But to me, it breaks the spell in a very fundamental way. Spider-Man is no longer my buddy who I could conceivably go and meet if I ever went to New York. He is just some pen and ink sketches. And around the sketches is white space which an aging hack is filling with whatever gibberish comes to mind. 

There is worse to come.

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 copyright holder.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Kolston Kult Komes Klean

During my visits to the Deep South I visited the old Colonial Mansions in Greenville, Savanna and Charleston also Georgia. 

Not all the so-called slaves had a rough time. They had a roof over their head and were fed. 

During the war we lost our house in the blitz. We lived in a village hall sleeping on the floor and in air raid shelters up to our knees in water. We would have swapped these conditions for what I saw of the conditions of the so-called slaves in the Deep South. 

My advise to those of you who are trying to get rid of the name Colston: if you do not like it, move home. 

Edward Colston's contribution to Bristol was immense.

Letter, Bristol Evening Post, 18/11/2018

Monday, December 17, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #34

The Thrill of the Hunt

Kraven the Hunter

Supporting Cast:
Betty Brant, Anna Watson, Gwen Stacy, Harry Osborn, J. Jonah Jameson, Frederick Foswell, J.J.J's new Secretary (un-named)

The action takes place over about a week: 

Day 1 (Night): Peter Parker starts studying again. (page 4) 
Day 2: "The next day" Peter Parker visits Aunt May in hospital (p4) and goes back to college (p5). That evening he hears the report that Spider-Man has attacked JJJ (p6)
Day 3 -6: "In the days that follow" the false Spider-Man makes more attacks.  
Day 7: "Finally" Spider-Man decides to take action. 

Since the cuts and bruises on Peter Parker's face have healed, a few days must have elapsed since the end of The Final Chapter. If issue #33 took place in the early hours of Sunday, 29 August 1965, The Thrill of the Hunt probably takes place between 1st September and 8th September. 

The fight between Spidey and Kraven takes place after dark; Aunt May and Mrs Watson are having tea and think Peter is at the cinema. Aunt May thanks him for coming home early. 

6PM: Mrs Watson comes round for tea; Peter sets out
7PM  Fight between Spider-Man and Kraven
9PM  Foswell reports capture of Kraven to Bugle
10PM Peter gets home.

Note that Jameson's new secretary is still in the office at 9PM: he's expecting her to work a 12 hour shift, while protesting that he isn't running a sweat shop. 

Peter Parker's finances
Peter doesn't bother selling any pictures of Kraven to J.J.J: he has not spent the thousand dollars that he got at the end of last issue.

p6: "It's the Chameleon's last hideout..the one he used when the two of us teamed up...I've got to trap Spider-Man before I myself am discovered...for I have been sentenced never to return to these shores."
In Amazing Spider-Man #15, the Chameleon brought Kraven to New York  to defeat Spider-Man. They were both deported at the end of the episode. Kraven was last seen in a prison cell with the rest of the Sinister Six, but was presumably put back on a boat immediately thereafter. (The Chameleon is currently concentrating on helping the Leader defeat the Hulk.)

p8 "The world's most amazing super-hero, contentedly munching a mcintosh apple..."
It is unclear why Stan Lee bothers to specify the brand of apple. Mcintosh were a popular red-coloured fruit grown near New York. Steve Jobs named a famous brand of computer after them.

p13 "It's him!"
"Tsk, tsk. You mean "It is he"! Nothing infuriates me as much as bad grammar!"
One would not say "Him is climbing the wall" (unless one were referring to Adam Warlock) so logically one should not say "It is him who is climbing the wall" and therefore not "It is him". Similarly, you wouldn't say "Me is climbing the wall" (unless you had been raised by Kala the she-ape.) But in practice, everyone says "It is him" and "It is me."(Germans say "Ich ben is!" but the French say "C'est moi!".) Most grammar experts recommend that one follows common usage in all but the most formal situations.

The follow-up to the Very Famous Master Planner Trilogy is not irredeemably bad: it is just a bit meh. The Scorpion story, which came straight after the End of Spider-Man triptych was also a bit meh. So it was possible to read this story and hope that Ditko and Lee were merely pausing for breath before embarking on their next epic.

Kraven the Hunter decides that it is time to have another go at killing Spidey. On page #1, he is treating it as a personal challenge ("the greatest prize of all is still denied me") but by page #7 he is thinking in terms of a personal feud ("it is worth the risk to destroy the one I loath most of all in all the world"). He brews up one of his jungle potions which gives him the power to stick to walls, puts on a Spider-Man suit, and threatens J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson redoubles his newspaper campaign against our hero.

Last time a baddie dressed up as Spider-Man, Peter Parker assumed that he had become a  somnambulant split personality and went running to a psychiatrist. This time, more reasonably, he thinks "Someone is impersonating me!'' As soon as he ventures out, he encounters the fake Spider-Man who reveals himself to be Kraven. They chase each other around an old building for a bit, and when Kraven catches up with him, they have a fight. Spider-Man wins, Kraven admits the ruse ("Whatever else I may be...I am a man of honour!") and Jameson is left feeling pretty stupid. Again.

There is a very small wrinkle. An angry mob follows Spider-Man into the building where he and Kraven are sparring. Not very much comes of this: Spidey ties up half of them in webbing and punches the other lot out. The script quite definitely says that the mob are criminals with a grudge against Spider-Man ("most of the nails Hogan gang") But I wonder if Ditko intended them to be a mob of angry citizens?  Page 9 panel 5 shows the General Public being whipped up into a state of mild annoyance by one of J.J.J's editorials ("someone should put that masked wall crawler out of circulation once and for all") and on page 11 we see three mean looking guys deciding to "get rid of him once and for all". (They look very mean indeed: some of them have picked up sticks and several of them do not seem to be able to afford shirts.) So isn't it more likely that Ditko intended them to be ordinary members of the public, fired up to take the law into their own hands by Jameson's incendiary writing? Without this, it is hard to see much point to the "fake Spider-Man" plot thread. On the other hand, Spider-Man is shown quite happily punching the mob, which is hard to credit if he thinks they are just angry proles.

And that is pretty much all that happens. Aunt May is all smiles after her silly old operation; by the end of the issue she is sitting down to a good old fashioned chat with Mrs Watson over tea and cookies. Betty Brant decides to leave town for good. Jonah gets a new secretary. And Peter Parker continues to sabotage his own social life. He tries to be nice to his fellow students who not unnaturally tell him to get lost, since he's been blanking them since the first day of term. Peter could easily have explained what happened. Flash may be a bastard, but Gwen and (as we will find out in a few issues) Harry are basically fair-minded people who would have given him the benefit of the doubt. Instead he blames a situation which he himself created on a malignant supernatural force -- "the old Parker luck" -- and slinks away to catch up on his lab work. "I guess I can't blame them for thinking I'm the prize crumb of the year!" he explains to a bell jar "But I sure don't intend to beg them for a chance to explain." 

Oh. Peter. Parker. Stop. Being. Such. A. Dick.

There is, however, one point of interest in the issue. It is only a clue to a road not taken but it is an interesting road and an interesting clue.

Amazing Spider-Man #34: For about three panels, Peter follows 
"rational self interest".

After seeing Aunt May and finishing school, Peter Parker hears police sirens. He is just about to jump into action as Spider-Man, but then he thinks "Aww, come to think of it, why bother?" He doesn't need the photo-money because of the rather generous fee he took from J.J.J. last issue; and he would rather visit Aunt May and study.

"Aww, come to think of it, why bother?" As slogans go, it's not quite up there with "With great power comes great responsibility."

You might expect that this would lead to some tragic conclusion or moral lesson: that something would teach him that he can never say "why bother?" when Spider-Man could be helping out. But nothing comes of it at all. He decides to let the world turn without him for one night, and it does.

Peter Parker really did cast of his albatross and exorcise the ghost of Uncle Ben last month. He no longer feels that his great power gives him responsibility for the whole of the rest of the world. He turns his back on a crime and looks happier than we have ever seen him in months. Maybe it has taken Ditko 34 issues to finally refute the ending of Amazing Fantasy #15. Peter Parker is going to pass by on the other side when he could have helped someone. And that's okay.

That was the message that Ditko tried to give us in The End of Spider-Man. If it comes to a straight choice between being Peter Parker and being Spider-Man, Peter Parker is much happier just being himself.

Of course, it doesn't come out like that. The fake Spider-Man forces him to go into action (perhaps that, in narrative terms, was the point of it) and the issue ends with him telling a passing tree that "Spider-Man I've always been...and shall always long as I live."

But perhaps this was where Ditko wanted to take the story. Freed from his liberal guilt, Peter Parker no longer has to play the hero: from now on he's just a crime photographer making an honest living.

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 copyright holder.

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Friday, December 14, 2018

STAN LEE 1922-2018

Stan Lee is the most important cultural figure in my life. More important than Tolkien and C.S. Lewis; more important than George Lucas; far more important than John Lennon or Bob Dylan.

I do not remotely claim that Stan Lee is the literary equal of any of those figures, although some sort of comparison with his Bobness could probably be made. I do say that encountering Stan Lee at the age of eight was like getting drunk or taking drugs or discovering sex. Things which, admittedly, I shouldn't have been doing at that age.

More specifically it was like a conversion; like encountering God.

In the days and weeks since he died, comic book fans and movie fans have been queuing up to say the same thing. Stan Lee changed my life. Stan Lee changed the comic book industry. Stan Lee changed movies. Stan Lee changed popular culture. Stan Lee changed the world.

Everyone loves Stan Lee

Everyone loves Stan Lee so much that if anyone had whispered "Jack" or "Steve" or "co-creator" or "original art" or "royalty payment", we would have fallen on them, as if they had insulted our favorite uncle or made a coarse remark about the Virgin Mary.

We may not read so many Marvel Comics nowadays. Our tastes are broader and wider and deeper than they were when we were eight years old, as well they should be. But loving Stan Lee—having once loved Stan Lee—is part of our identity. Going to see the Marvel Movies is, I am sorry, a sacramental act. When we were very young, Grandad brought us a comic from the newsagent each week; and there on the middle pages was a letter from Stan Lee; Stan Lee, speaking to us, and us alone, directly. I am glad to say that I had never seen a soapbox. I certainly had no idea why anyone would use a soapbox to write a letter. I thought it was the box in which Stan stored his pens and notebooks. I understood less that a quarter of what he said. Excelsior! Hang loose! Bullpen! Irving Forbush! But still, it was Stan, talking to little Andy and to no-one else. And now we are fifty we go and see those very same characters having those very same adventures in 3D at the shopping mall multiplex and always, always, always, there is a moment when Stan Lee appears and does something slightly whacky and we know that we never really got old and everything is going to be the same for ever and ever and ever.

And yet, the question hovers, in the background. It scarcely seems decent to ask it.

For what, apart from being Stan Lee, is Stan Lee famous?

What, if it isn't a rude or silly question, did he do?

Stan Lee ceased to be a comic book creator more than 40 years ago. In the 1970s and 1980s he held the titles of Publisher and President of Marvel Comics, and he continued to act as a kind of brand-ambassador or company mascot right up until his death. But his last issues of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four were published in 1972.

Some of the people eulogizing Stan Lee are baby boomers in their seventh decade: people who actually bought Spider-Man #33 and Fantastic Four #48 off the news-stands; people for whom The Coming of Galactus and If This Be My Destiny are as emblematic of the summer of '66 as Revolver and Blonde on Blonde. The younger ones, like me, may have been lucky enough to have lived in England in the years before 2000AD swept all before it: when Lee-era Marvel comics were being reprinted in black and white 5p editions, in roughly chronological order, surrounded by all the obsolescent paraphernalia of the Marvel Age. And, of course, it is easier to read old comics than it has ever been. Some of the supplicants at the shrine of Stan have presumably worked their way through his oeuvre via Essentials and Omnibuses and Masterworks and Marvel Unlimited and Comixology. I myself have listened to the records of popular 1960s guitar bands like the Beatles. I even had a youthful infatuation with Flash Gordon.

But I do wonder.

How many of the people filing past Stan Lee's coffin are fans of his actual work? And how many of them love Dan Slott's Spider-Man or Greg Pak's Hulk and have some unexamined faith that everything which carries the Marvel trademark proceeds from the heart of Stan? How many of them buy into the corporate myth that Stan Lee is the indirect creator of Moon Girl and Jessica Jones just as surely as Uncle Walt is the presiding spirit which gives life to Frozen and Pirates of The Caribbean IV?

Is Stan Lee a man who worked on comic books? Or is he the symbol of our loyalty to a particular brand?

Is he Carlos Ezquerra—or the Mighty Tharg?

Is he Ray Kroc—or Ronald McDonald?

Theologians distinguish the Jesus of History from the Christ of Faith. There are facts about an ancient Jewish holy man which could in principal be known and proven and agreed; but there are beliefs and credal confessions which no amount of historical research could ever verify or debunk.

Or, in another sphere altogether: is it permissible to feel nostalgic affection for Uncle Walt and the Mickey Mouse club while admitting that, as a film-maker and a businessman, Walter Elias Disney was actually a bit of a shit?

There are facts.

In 1939, at the age of 17, one Stanley Martin Lieber took a job as an office boy at what was then called Timely Comics. His cousin was married to the publisher; but that's just how kids from immigrant families found work during the depression. The years passed. Timely became Marvel: Stanley Lieber became Stan Lee.

He later claimed, with a flippant wink, that he wanted to save his real name for when he wrote the Great American Novel. But his greatest collaborator, Jacob Kurtzburg, is known to the world as Jack Kirby. If you were doing stories about square jawed American heroes in '40s it was probably a good idea not to sound too Jewish. In latter years, Kirby pointedly referred to Lee as "Stanley". It was a very long time ago.

With a brief break for military service, "Lee" continued to work for "Marvel" for half a century, ending up with a million-dollar salary and the title of Chairman Emeritus. During that half-century, he was credited as "writer" on many thousands of individual comic books. Marvel Unlimited throws up 1575 hits if you search for his name. That's a respectable body of work; a fine career; an all-American success story. But it is not what we remember him for.

It is indubitably a fact that in November 1961 "Stan Lee" was credited as "writer" of the first issue of The Fantastic Four. It is indubitably a fact that he continued to be titular writer of that comic, and dozens of others, until March 1972, when he effectively retired from active comic-wrangling.

Some of us may have taken the trouble to read endless 1950s twist-in-the-backside monster stories with titles like Monstro: the Menace From the Murky Depths! But Stan Lee's reputation rests entirely on those final 11 years; the culmination of forty years in the funny book trade.

So. In those crucial years, what did Stan Lee actually do?

"Surely everyone knows the answer to that question. Stan Lee wrote comic books, hundreds of them: Ant-Man and the Wasp, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Iron Man, Nick Fury, the Silver Surfer, Spider-Man, Thor, the X-Men."

Well, yes. But when we say that Neil Gaiman wrote Sandman, we mean that he developed the characters, worked out the plot, wrote the dialogue, and then handed a very detailed typescript to an artist. Lee wrote no such typescripts, and rarely worked out plots in any detail. By his own account creating a story often meant pitching a one sentence idea, like "Maybe in the next issue Doctor Octopus kidnaps Mary Jane": the sort of thing which any fan fiction writer can come up with in their sleep. Plot, subplot, structure, character, supporting cast—everything that would normally come under the heading of "writing"—all that was down to the artists, who didn't necessarily stick at all closely even to these minimal briefs.

"OK: so Stan Lee didn't write most of the stories he is credited with. But the artists wouldn't have had stories to tell if he hadn't come up with all those great characters to begin with. Anyone can make up a Spider-Man story: the genius is in thinking up Spider-Man in the first place."

The idea of Stan Lee as the Creator of the Marvel Universe dies very hard. The cover of his 1974 book, The Origins of Marvel Comics, shows Thor, the Human Torch, the Submariner, the Hulk, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and the Thing leaping from Lee's typewriter, as if he is calling them into being. Yet by Lee's own account, the idea for Doctor Strange came from artist Steve Ditko; Lee did not write the first episodes of Thor; and the Human Torch and the Submariner were created by Carl Burgoss and Bill Everett, respectively, years before Stan got that first job filling Jack Kirby's inkwell. 

For Lee, creation is a singular mental act in which a person conceives—"dreams up"—the germ of an idea. That is the hard part: everything else is leg-work. The historical Stan Lee "created" Spider-Man only in so far as he thought "I would like to do a comic about a teenager who can stick to walls like a spider". The iconic costume; the web-shooters; the radioactive spider; and very many of the stories came from Steve Ditko.

Of course Lee was not being serious when he compared himself with God. But he did honestly believe in Spider-Man as a pre-existent logos; and that once he had said "Let there be Spider-Man" his work was essentially done.

"Okay: so he was an ideas man, coming up with high concepts that artists worked up into full characters, and then full stories, which later became the basis for successful movies."

After Jack Kirby quit Marvel Comics he worked for animation studios and toy manufacturers. He could sit at an art table and sketch characters and hardware that could be turned into exciting product. Super Powers and Thundarr the Barbarian and Captain Victory are not his greatest works; but they exist; they are out there; people remember them. And they are undeniably Kirbyesque.

There are undoubtedly such things as "ideas men". Modern screen-writing, we are told, relies on the "elevator pitch": if you can't tell the studio what's great about your movie in two minutes, it isn't a great idea. Terry Nation, who "created" the Daleks for Doctor Who, seems to have had a knack for coming up with one-line pitches for successful formats off the top of his head. Say what you like about Blakes' Seven and Survivors, they are great ideas for TV shows.

In the years after his collaboration with Ditko and Kirby, Lee spent decades "dreaming up" new characters and pitching them for films and TV series. Not one of them got picked up. The supposed creator of the Marvel Universe was being sold to the studios as an endless source of sure-fire ideas. In fact, he didn't offer them anything a competent amateur couldn't have done.
So what is left?

Stan Lee wrote the words which appeared in the speech bubbles and in the captions. Very frequently—in some of the best issues of the Fantastic Four, all of the good issues of Spider-Man—he wrote those words for stories into the creation of which he had had no input whatsoever. Where the artists were storytellers like Ditko and Kirby, it worked great. When they got replaced by Buscema and Romita—fine illustrators but not storytellers—then the stories slowed down and the imagination drained away.

But still, Stan Lee put the words into the speech bubbles and the text into the captions.

But that doesn't put it nearly strongly enough. We should rather say: for that defining decade, Stan lee provided Marvel Comics with its voice. 

Here is the full text of one of Stan Lee's fondly remembered "Soap Box" columns, from the 1980s:

Any decent copywriter could have conveyed this snippet of information in 25 words:

"Michael Levine, vice President of New World Television, today revealed that a new episode of the Incredible Hulk, provisionally entitled "The Death of the Incredible Hulk" will be released in 1990"

If we wanted to translate Stan Lee's text into plain English, we would come up with something like this: 
  • The point of this column is to bring you news.
  • I have some news.
  • Do not tell anyone this news.
  • This news was told me by a TV executive.
  • There is going to be a new episode of the Hulk TV show.
  • He also told me the title
  • You will be surprised when I tell you the title.
  • The title is The Death of the Incredible Hulk.
  • Although it may not be.
  • That is my news.
  • You should tell everyone my news.
Into this structure he chucks every literary device in the book. He uses hyperbole as an ironic cover for self-deprecation. The news that the Hulk TV series has run its course and the main character is going to be killed off is hardly "top priority" and no-one's senses are likely to be shattered by it.

"What's the point of having me at your beck and call with these sense-shattering Soapboxes if they don't give you some top priority news"

is a purely ironic piece of writing. What he is actually saying is: "I know these columns are increasingly trivial and I have nothing much to report again this month."

He uses suspense to build up to the non-announcement. Having told us that he has an interesting tidbit to pass on, he makes us wait for it for ten lines, while he raps out some nonsense about us not being allowed to tell anyone. Again; there is an obvious inversion hereif the news really were secret, then obviously, he wouldn't print it in every copy of every Marvel magazine. But it also plays into the conceit that he is speaking to each reader individually. "I, Stan the Man, am prepared to confide in you, Andrew Rilstone from London, England, but not with anyone else."

When he comes to share the actual news, he doesn't just tell us: he embeds it in a narrative. The historical Stan Lee, as president of Marvel comics, presumably had short and well-planned business meetings with the staff of film companies who held licences to the company's characters. But in his story, he just happened to be in a TV studio, he just happened to have lost his way, and he just happened to bump into one of the VPs who just happened to have just had a phone call telling him that a new episode of the Hulk was in the pipe line.

It would hardly be worth calling this "a lie": no-one could remotely suppose it to be true. It's a jazzy way of passing on a snippet. But much of Stan Lee's life takes the form of neat little stories which are almost certainly not true. Perhaps in 25 years time "The tale of Stan Lee getting lost in the TV studio" will be as established an historical fact as "The tale of how Joan Lee persuaded Stan not to quit the comic business."

But he is still not done. Having started the letter by warning us that we are not allowed to share what he is about to tell us, he winds it up by telling us to spread the news:

"Think of how you'll impress your friends and confound your foes with this priceless piece of tantalizing trivia".

Hype and self deprecation in the same breath. Of course the information isn't priceless: everybody now knows about it. And how can it be trivial when a few minutes ago it was top-priority and sense-shattering?

This is banter: this is riffing. This is a 25 word press release spread out to a 350 word column. This is a man who loves the sound of his own voice and will fill empty air and blank spaces with pages of it. 

This is, in fact, genius.

Here is the complete text of a soliloquy from a 1967 Silver Surfer comic ("perhaps the greatest fantasy saga of all time.")

"Amongst the mightiest—the most supposedly savage of all earth's creatures—I sit in peace—I dwell in safety!

For food has been plentiful—and no longer do they hunger!

Unlike the humans—who call you beast—there is no violence in your heart!

No hint of avarice—no smouldering hate!

Yet man who has won dominion over all this a stranger to peace—a prisoner caught in the web of his own nameless fears!

And here stand I—hopelessly trapped in a world of madness!

Where reason is shunned while violence prevails!

But no longer shall the Silver Surfer be a part of man's insanity!

Let humanity do what it willas for me, I shall dwell among the beasts!"

This monologue has no particular bearing on the story. On one page, the Silver Surfer is alone in the jungle; on the next page, Loki comes along to engineer a big set-piece fight with Thor. There could have been a story about Norrin Radd making friends with the jungle beasts, but this isn't it. Like the infinitely extended news item, it feels like a Beckettian game to fill blank space with words.

Elevated, godly beings have to talk in elevated godly language; and for Stan Lee, this means they have to talk Old Fashioned. Unlike Thor and Loki, the Silver Surfer never lapses into full scale cod archaisms ("Thou does behold Loki...whom fate hath decreed thou shalt serve.") But he talks about himself in the third person, and reverses the natural word-order. ("No longer shall the Surfer be a part of man's insanity.") He seems to consciously echo Biblical phraseology ("Let man do what he will, as for me, I shall dwell among the beasts") And he cannot resist repeating himself; he feels a strong need to say the same thing twice. "I sit in peace/ I dwell in safety" "Food as been plentiful/ no longer do they hunger."  This technique is taken directly from the book of Psalms. The sounds, as we were taught in Sunday School, do not rhyme: but the meanings do.

Stan Lee cares about what his characters sound like. His first thought on seeing Kirby's pictures of the Silver Surfer was "what would that character sound like: how should he talk." But he also cares about words themselves; their sounds, their rhythms; their allusiveness: the way they can just sit on the page, talking to each other, not quite making sense. He doesn't always get it right. He was as capable as anyone of saying "pedagogue" when he meant "demagogue" or thinking that "enfant terrible" literally meant "terrible child". And he never sorted out the difference between "thou art" and "you are". But he had spent 20 years hammering away at an essentially low-brow medium, and came out the other side with a patois all of his own. (That is the analogy I would draw between him and Bob Dylan.)

C.S Lewis said (admittedly not entirely seriously) that a good reader is one who will read the same book ten or twenty times and would know and care if a single word were altered; and that a good book is one that can sustain a good reading. Stan Lee was, in that sense, the first good writer I ever encountered. I was a bookish child: but the idea that anyone could love the words of Willard Price or Hugh Lofting in the way that one loved the words of Stan Lee was obviously absurd. Without Stan Lee, I would never have known that it was possible to love writing, as such, for its own sake.

I wonder if it was from Stan Lee that I picked up the idea that creative writing was something that I could be good at myself? You pick up more grown-up words from the Fantastic Four than you do from the Famous Five and it isn't too hard to copy his style when you are told to walk round the field and write a description of what you see. ("Autumn trees! Standing sentry-like over the grass. And their leaves, like copper, like red metal—what a mighty shape do they carve"!) And once you have committed The Silver Surfer to memory, it is relatively easy to transition to the classics. My first reaction on seeing a Shakespeare play or being taken to the opera was "Oh, I get it: this is like a Marvel Comic".

I have been writing for the last two and a half years about my deep love for Amazing Spider-Man #1 - #33: comics which I read in reprint between my eighth and tenth birthdays. I can still recite large chunks of The Menace of Mysterio, the first comic I ever read, by heart:

" 'I never thought this would happen. I'm afraid to shut my eyes and go to sleep.' But eventually, sleep does come to the stricken Peter Parker, and when he awakes....!"

When Peter Parker puts on that red and black mask he speaks with Stan Lee's voice. And it was that voice which we loved; that voice which defined Spider-Man. A deep, New York Jewish, Groucho Marx twang, every-other line a wise-crack.

"Spider-Man! I might have known!"

"No you mightn't! You're not smart enough!"

These are not comics which I once read and fondly remember. They are comics which I have read and reread and will never stop rereading; stories and characters who have accompanied me through my whole life. If anything, their impact was greater, coming back to them at the age of 50, than when I first read them at the age of eight.

"I didn't let you down this time, Aunt May. I didn't fail you."

There was also Thor. Thor was the back up strip in Spider-Man's British comic. (The letters page was called "The Web and the Hammer": how cool is that?) Thor was a bit of a bore to start with, but it gradually became less and less about gangsters and commie dictators and more and more about space gods and sentient planets and the Colonisers of Rigel and Mangog, who had the strength of a Billion Billion Beings. Thor stopped talking like Superman and beganst to speaketh as doth befitteth the only begatten son of Odin. Lee made no bones about Thor's daddy being a thinly veiled stand-in for Jehovah.

"Yea, beyond description...even as he who rules the fabled land is beyond description...for he doth surpass all understanding! Let it suffice to know that he be Odin...the all-wise...the truly omnipotent!! Odin...maker of the law...speaker of the word...keeper of the faith!! Odin! The lasting power...the lightning wrath...the living judgement!! Verily he be Asgard incarnate!! And to the God of Thunder he be one thing more—he be flesh of my flesh...blood of my blood...for Him, do I call..FATHER."

This is heady stuff when you are a Methodist Sunday School boy and the closest you have come to a spiritual experience is making a doll out of pipe cleaners and a house out of a shoe-box to represent the father of the prodigal son. It would be an interesting exercise to try to identify all the Biblical and hymnal allusions in that one paragraph.

Then there was the "Avengers" comic. I never liked the Avengers all that much, particularly when it became mostly about Hawkeye and Quicksilver quarrelling and Captain America trying to keep them in order. But the second feature in the British Avengers comic was Doctor Strange, with his distinct vocabulary of spells and incantations and general weirdness. 

"You don't know me, but..." 


I rapidly came to understand that real magicians said "By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth", while pretend magicians said "Abracadabra." I assumed that Ali Bongo and David Nixen would know this, and was annoyed when they seemed not to.

I came late to the Fantastic Four. There was a little digest comic, published in the Summer of '78 off the back of Star Wars, which reprinted hundreds of pages of late '60s FF, starting with the wedding of Sue and Reed and ploughing on through the Kree and the Inhumans and the one where Doctor Doom steals the Silver Surfer's Power Cosmic. The original Galactus Trilogy (which introduces the Surfer) is more famous; but Doom Stealing The Surfer's Power is bigger, sillier, more over the top and much more like the Fantastic Four. And it contains the best caption that Stan Lee ever wrote:

"Like some predatory winged monster from another age...another universe...the incredible arch-fiend zooms a speed which virtually defies belief...!

DOOM: "Nothing can stop me now!"

FOOTNOTE: Who says this isn't the Marvel Age of cliches?- Shamefaced Stan."

And there, in a panel, is everything you need to know about Stan Lee. He turns the volume up to 11. He allows the most evil villain to steal the power of the most powerful superhero. He allows the villain to rant and rave like villains do. And then he inserts himself in to the comic, in his own voice, the voice of the soapboxes and the letter columns, and admits that the whole thing is a bit of a cliche. He isn't really ashamed of what he has written, not even a little bit. He is loving it, and so are we. But there is a half wink. "The Marvel Age of cliches." He knows perfectly well what he is doing, and so do we. 

People have called it "camp". Camp means different things to different people; but this isn't the camp of the De Laurentiis Flash Gordon movie or the Adam West Batman TV show-—the camp of positioning yourself as superior to the material. It is much more like the reassuring voice of Grandpa. "She does not get eaten by the eels at this time." It gives you permission to love the story, by reminding you that it is only a story.

I could go on. The death of Gwen Stacy's father, in Spider-Man's arms.

"It's Gwen. After I'm gone, they'll be no-one to look after her. No-one, Peter, except you. Be good to her, son. She loves you so very, very much."

Captain America's spirited defence of his generation, Stan's generation, the generation of his readers' parents and increasingly grandparents:

"So I belong to the establishment! I'm not going to knock it! It was that same establishment that gave them a Martin Luther King—a Tolkien—A McLuhan  and a couple of brothers—named Kennedy!”

And the scene that Lee himself would single out as his favourite, a few issues later, when the Silver Surfer, bruised from his encounter with Doctor Doom, decides he is going to try out being evil, The Watcher, a supporting deity who lives on the Moon and never interferes in human affairs fudges his cosmic non intervention policy to warn Mr Fantastic about the situation.

"What can he do against the all powerful Silver Surfer!?" whines the Invisible Girl.

"All-powerful?" replies the Watcher "There is only one who deserves that name! And His only weapon is love."

Irony; religious allusions; meta-textuality; lyricism; the love of language for its own sake.

And if you insist, superheroes with acne who spoke like neurotic, down-to-earth people, but truly, if that's all you see when you look at the Stan Lee age of comics, you are reading them wrong.

And yes. More than half of what I loved about Spider-Man—the ludicrous webby waistcoat, the aerial ballet, the web shooters, the whacky villains, and the farcical soap opera came from Steve Ditko. And more than half of what I loved about Doctor Strange—the strange, non-euclidean alien dimensions, the psychedelic clashes between Eternity and Dormamu—that all came from Ditko as well. And more than half of what made the Fantastic Four truly the world's greatest comic magazine came from Jack Kirby. The page on which Doom steals the Silver Surfer's powers may be the most impressive panel of any comic book ever. If we had not got that image in our heads, then Lee's wise-crack would have fallen flat.

Sometimes embellishing the pictures, sometimes drowning them out, sometimes providing a secondary theme. Stan Lee's voice was what all the comics I loved and all the comics I still love had in common.

Stan Lee did not create Spider-Man in a single divine act. He did not come up with the idea of realistic dialogue in a unique light bulb moment. 

Stan Lee was a word-smith. Stan Lee slogged away at a typewriter, bashing out text, for thirty years. He took the characters of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby and he gave them voices. Or if we want to be melodramatic about it: he gave them souls. And he left us perhaps 10,000 pages of comic books to read. 

It is time we abandoned the myth, snuffed out the incense, and started to read them.

The Marvel Age of Comics.


With words by Stan Lee.

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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