Friday, May 25, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #31

If This Be My Destiny....!

The Master Planner

Supporting Cast
Aunt May, Dr Bromwell, Flash Thompson, Harry Osborne, Gwen Stacey, Prof Warren, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Ned Leeds

First Appearance of

Harry Osborne, Gwen Stacey, Prof Warren

Peter Parker's Financial Situation

Peter was paid ?$250 by J.J.J only a few hours ago, but now claims that his money is "almost gone".
His college scholarship pays all tuition fees, but not his living expenses.


The story opens with Spider-Man fighting the Master Planners' goons.

p6 "The next morning" he heads off to college registration.
p7: "Finally, as Peter prepares for a good night's sleep" May falls ill. "Half an hour later" the doctor arrives; "then after a swift ambulance ride" they arrive in hospital.
p8 "And finally as dawn slowly breaks" he gets up and goes to his first day at college
p11 "When the science class finally ends" he goes to the hospital
p13: He spends the night looking for crime and then goes to the second day of college.
p16: After college, he has another run-in with the Master Planners men, but doesn't get any photos.

Based on our guess that Empire State University enrolls in the last week of August, that gives us:

Tue, 24 August (night) - Fight with Minions
Wed, 25 August - College Registration, night spent with Aunt May in hospital
Thu 26 August - First day at College, night spent looking for crime
Fri 27 August - Second day at college, night spent fighting Minions


"If This Be My Destiny...!"
The title seems to have already been a cliche by the beginning of the 20th Century. One William L Nugent used the phrase in a letter to his wife in 1860: "It seems, I am doomed to disappointment, if this be my destiny I will have to endure it..." Blast Furnace and Steel Plant Magazine used the phrase in a poem in 1928: "Then I mourn my awful power / If this be my destiny / Loathe the magic of a science / That had ever set me free "

A 1939 prison movie was entitled If Dust Be My Destiny, and an obscure 1946 movie starring Robert Cummings was actually called If This Be My Destiny

p2: "Whatever those characters were up to it can't be anything good"
Spider-Man doesn't seem to remember that he encountered the Master Planner's men last issue. Maybe he and/or Stan are still under the impression they were working for the Cat?

p5 "If the world's most tempestuous teenager is nonplussed now..."
Possibly Peter Parker is characterized by conflicting emotions; but I suspect Lee has typed the word "tempestuous" for the sake of the alliteration. He is also "the world's most amazing teenager" on page 8.

p6 "He's just like his father..."

Almost the first reference to Peter's biological parents. Has May just noticed that Peter is like his father but relatively unlike Ben?

Page 7 Doc Bromwell
First time Aunt May's physician has been given a name. The name sticks, but the doctor is only ever a stock character.

First day at college: 

Stan Lee gives the students at E.S.U a lot of slang dialogue, possibly to indicate they are "hip" compared with the gang at high school.
  • "any other frosh" (p9) - i.e any other freshman, any other new student.
  • "how square a guy can be (p9)" - i.e how old fashioned 
  • "if there's one thing Harry Osborne doesn't dig" (p10) - i.e doesn't like or approve of
  • "I've got an idea for a gag to take him down a peg" (p10) i.e a practical joke that will humiliate him
  • "Aww, don't be a pill Gwen" (p10) - "a tough pill to swallow" i.e a party-pooper or spoilsport. 
  • "This'll take that swell-head down a peg (p11) / "Mr swelled head 1965" - i.e that conceited person
  • "Chicks always seem to go for these egg-headed skinny types" (p13) Chicks = Pretty girls (presumably "chicas") ; Egg head = clever person. 
  • "Peter Parker is the only boy I've ever met who hasn't given me a tumble" (p15) i.e Who won't pay attention to me (no indecent implication!)
All of these expressions would have been in common currency by the 1940s, when Lee was college age. The one exception is "egghead" which seems to have been popularized by Nixon during the 1952 election. Any slang from the post Beatles era has yet to reach E.S.U!

p11 "We'll invite him for a coke after class, how about that" / "The gang's going across the street for some soda". 

It would have been quite legal for college students to go to a bar -- the drinking age in New York wasn't raised to 21 until 1985. It will be some issues before the trendy Coffee Bean Bar becomes their preferred haunt.

p11 Prof Warren 

Peter Parker's high school science teacher was called Mr Warren. Subsequent continuity has declared that this college tutor, Miles Warren, was the brother of the school teacher, Raymond Warren.

p12 "But she mustn't be allowed to worry..."
From issue #39 onwards, this will become the primary reason for Peter keeping his Spider-Man identity a secret

"News! I want news!" explodes J. Jonah Jameson. "Something must be happening somewhere! I can't sell a newspaper without news! Why doesn't something happen!"

Cigar chomping J.J.J. sometimes serves as a dark reflection of Stan Lee; and it is hard not to hear Lee's own frustration in Jameson's rant. We've just gone eight pages without anything happening, and it's going to be another two or three before the action starts up again. You can just imagine Lee saying "I can't sell a comic without fight scenes! When is something going to happen?"

If This Be My Destiny....! is an odd comic; as odd in its own way as the villain-free End of Spider-Man! over a year ago. There are three distinct plot threads, and no particular hint as to when -- or indeed if -- they are going to come together. 

Peter Parker has finally started college on a science scholarship. We follow him quite closely through his first three days at school; we see more of him in the lab, in the library, and studying at home than we did in the whole of his high school career. 

Meanwhile, Aunt May, who came over all faint in issue #29 and had to go for a lie down in issue #30 actually keels over and has to be rushed to hospital -- her third major illness since the series started, if anyone is keeping score. 

Spider-Man has two unrelated encounters with the same Purple Minions who stole uranium derivatives from Tony Stark's van last issue. He fails to stop them stealing "radioactive atomic devices" from some kind of high-tech installation; but foils their attempt to nick "a cargo of nuclear devices" off a boat. Ditko seems to be deliberately turning Stan Lee's preferred formula on its head. Instead of a narrative preamble leading inexorably to a big fight, Ditko tops and tails the episode with two short action sequences, neither of which have any immediate consequences for our hero. We know -- but Spider-Man does not -- that the Minions work for someone called the Master Planner, but we don't really know what he is planning in such a masterly way. We only know that his plans are definitely the kinds of plans which, once complete, no-one will be able to stop.

In between the two heists, nothing happens, repeatedly. Aunt May is sick; the doctor isn't quite sure what is wrong. Peter Parker waits anxiously, and then phones the hospital: there is nothing more they can tell him. He goes back to the hospital: the doctor isn't certain what is wrong with her. Peter realizes that he needs money to pay the medical bills, so he goes out as Spider-Man looking for crimes to photograph, but he's never seen the city more quiet. He sits up all night worrying; he tries to study in the library; he falls asleep over his books. The action briefly shifts to the Daily Bugle, where we find that there have been no developments in the relationship between Betty Brant and Ned Leeds. ("I simply haven't been able to make up my mind".) Jameson fulminates about the lack of news.

With the benefit of hindsight, the big event for this issue is Peter Parker's meeting with two other college freshmen -- bow-tie wearing posh-boy Harry Osborn, and bitchy blonde Gwen Stacey. Both of them will become incredibly major figures in the post-Ditko years, but in this episode, they are little more than part of the Flash Thompson entourage. Peter Parker is too preoccupied with Aunt May to want to socialize with his new classmates, so they join Flash in playing infantile pranks on him in their first ever chemistry practical. (Why a football jock is on the same course as a science prodigy; and why Peter doesn't have a gang of a-social science nerds to hang out with, we never learn.) 

Peter Parker is acting more than usually self-destructively, sabotaging his chance of a fresh start at a new school by ignoring his peers. Would it really have killed him to say "I am sorry: my foster-mother is dangerously ill so I cannot drink coca cola with you tonight; I sure hope I can get to know you all later in the term." 

Marvel Comics have always been full of heroic outcasts. When I was nine, I felt that I was exactly like the Silver Surfer -- misunderstood and hated by the rest of the human race, just because I was better than everyone else. (Did I mention that I was a big fan of the original version of the Tomorrow People?) I now see that the Surfer was much less like Jesus Christ and much more like Eeyore, sitting alone in his gloomy place, wallowing in his own misery, complaining that no-one wants to be his friend but not actually willing to get up and talk to anyone. If I re-read If This Be My Destiny...! now, I think "Peter Parker: you are making an uncompromising dick of yourself". But when I read the comic in 1973, I thought "Flash Thompson; you are a complete bastard for being so horrid to Peter." It confirmed what I already knew to be true: that all the people who didn't want to be friends with me were small minded and horrible and I wouldn't want to be friends with them either. Which is a deeply comforting message, and goes a long way to explain why so many Marvel Comics fans remained so socially inept and priggish for so long.

I am fairly serious about this; I think these kinds of stories did real harm.

It is certainly true that Flash Thompson is an astonishingly immature figure. Back at high school, he used to call Peter Parker "wall flower" and "bookworm"; now they are in college, he calls him "square" and "egg head". But in high school, Peter whinged and whined and actually cried because his classmates would rather go to a party than a science lecture. In college, he literally doesn't notice them. In that first chapter, Peter Parker said that he would make them all sorry that they laughed at him. In this final chapter, they are still laughing. The difference is that Peter Parker doesn't give a shit.

This Peter Parker is declaring himself independent; rejecting false friends; and acting only out of rational self interest. He acts, not as a superhero, but as the professional adventurer he became in issue #2. He finds himself fighting the Master Planner's minions, not because he cares about the general good, nor because he feels the need to atone for Uncle Ben's death and not even because of a faith position that with great power comes great responsibility. He goes into action as Spider-Man only in order to take photos for J.J.J.

Some people have seen an objectivist message here, and I have no doubt that Ditko's philosophy of individualism caused him to present Spider-Man as an individualistic hero. But I don't think we need to see this story primarily as a Randian parable. A Christian can tell a story about a hero who is full of Christian virtues without directly intending to proselytize his faith. 

So, the issue seems to be heading for an inconclusive conclusion. Spider-Man has gone out with the intention of snapping photos to pay for Aunt May's medical bills; he has partially foiled a nuclear heist, but still hasn't got any newsworthy snaps. But Ditko pays off the long wait on the final page; indeed, in the final frame. 

The final six frames really are a masterpiece. We cut away from Spider-Man to the still unidentified Master Planner, who pumps up the jeopardy a couple of points. He is very cross that Spider-Man keeps interfering with his plans; and promises that he will be very severe with him if he does it again. He drops another non-specific hint as to what it is that he is planning so masterfully. He isn't merely a gangster: he is a proper super-villain who intends to "rule the world". Exactly what his world-ruling plan is, he doesn't disclose, but it has to do with "a ray" and "the hidden secrets of atomic radiation". (As opposed to the public secrets, presumably.) But then he drops the bombshell: the Master Planner is not merely a masterly guy with a plan, he is also a former enemy of Spider-Man. "Though he and I have met before if he crosses my path again our next encounter shall be our last". 

Straight after this unexpected revelation, we return to the hospital for the pay-off we have been dreading. Aunt May's test results have come through: she is going to die. "All the evidence points to the same, inescapable conclusion: the poor woman can't last much longer." And at that exact moment, Spider-Man swings past the hospital. Because of course he does.

Steve Ditko has made us wait and wait for this revelation; distracting us with relative trivia about Parker's college life, before hitting us with the double punch in the final page. The Master Planner is an old foe. Aunt May is going to die. He has upped the ante about as high as it can go. Next month the pressure will continue to build; the two plot threads will come crashing together; and Spider-Man will be literally brought to his breaking point.

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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Mike Taylor said...

Keep up the great work on these. I don't often comment because I have nothing to add, but I'm really enjoying them.

An oddity here: in the panel of J. Jonah Jameson ranting about the lack of news, he's clearly been coloured incorrectly, presumably by someone who's not familiar with the character: the white parts of his hair, to the side of his head, are drawn well enough, but they've been coloured the same flesh colour as his face.

Warren JB said...

"Which is a deeply comforting message, and goes a long way to explain why so many Marvel Comics fans remained so socially inept and priggish for so long."

Reminds me of Philip K. Dick's notes to 'The Golden Man'.

"We are persecuted now," the message ran, "and despised and rejected. But later on, boy oh boy, we will show them!"

Gavin Burrows said...

"Marvel Comics have always been full of heroic outcasts. When I was nine, I felt that I was exactly like the Silver Surfer -- misunderstood and hated by the rest of the human race, just because I was better than everyone else. ... I now see that the Surfer was much less like Jesus Christ and much more like Eeyore, sitting alone in his gloomy place, wallowing in his own misery, complaining that no-one wants to be his friend but not actually willing to get up and talk to anyone'

I think we may have hit peak Rilstone with that passage!

Andrew Rilstone said...

"I think we may have hit peak Rilstone with that passage!"

In a good way or a bad way?

Gavin Burrows said...

Good way, natch!