Friday, May 11, 2018

I'm For No More Love

The letters page of Amazing Spider-Man #30 contained three surprisingly critical letters.

Richard McCabe says he used to think that Amazing Spider-Man was the best comic book on the market... 

"But now my faith is faltering. You have cluttered this mag up with insignificant hoods!...His fighting the Hulk, the Avengers, Dr Doom and his joining with Daredevil were excellent. To compare the crumb called the Crime Master or one of those Masters of Menace to these epics is futile."  

(As a matter of fact Spider-Man had never fought the Avengers. His first encounter with that group would not come until the 1966 Annual.)

Richard concludes:

"I would like to thank you for your past issues. I enjoyed them all but lately you've been giving us soap operas".

So... If a comic has an impressive super-villain and a guest-star from some other part of the Marvel Universe, it is superlatively excellent. But if it doesn't it is just a soap opera. Very interesting.

Next up is Carey Burt. He thinks that Marvel is "beginning to turn Spider-Man into a love mag..." He cites dialogue from Captured by J. Jonah Jameson! such as "Hello Liz, meet Betty Brant," and "Hello Miss Allen, yes, we've met" and exclaims simply "Yeesh."

"In Spider-man 25 the action didn't start until page 11. That's pretty far to read before you find some excitement. So I'm for no more love; I'm for action"

So.... Amazing Spider-Man # 25 didn't really get under way until Spider-Man physically confronted the Jonah robot. The farcical sub-plot that led up to that moment is simply a nauseating girly romance. I am beginning to detect a theme. 

Finally one Edward Fabrega says:

"After revealing the story behind Frederic Foswell in issue #27, get rid of this mystery jazz. In #26 there was not enough action, I almost dozed off."

Now, I happen to agree with Edward that issues #26 and #27 were lopsided. Most of the narrative occurs in the first half; and the second is dominated by an extended chase scene. But Mr Fabrega's complaint is much the same as the previous two contributors. He approves the second half of the story because it involved "action". The first half, which contains the bulk of the narrative, he writes off as soporific "mystery jazz". 

Tommy Hickman takes a contrary position. He thinks that there had been a sharp drop in quality around issues #20 - #24; but that #25 and #26 represented a return to form. Why does he think that the Man in the Crime Master's Mask! was such an improvement over, say, Duel With Daredevil! or Where Flies the Beetle...!? 

"The main reason I was truly overjoyed was the fact that the story had a plot to it. Issue #16 - #24 had no real plots, except for #17-#19. All there were in those issues were fights with Spider-Man winning." [*]

So he agrees with the first three writers that recent issues have been more plot-heavy, where previous issues were more focused on the Great Big Fight Scene. But while Richard, Carey and Edward mainly read Spider-Man for the battles, Tommy is mainly interested in the story.

Over the next few months, the letters pages will return to this subject over and over again. The correspondents become more and more hostile; the complaints, more and more specific. In issue #34 a fan named Alan Romananok complains that "you are giving too much of (the mag) to Peter Parker's private life", and goes so far as to count the panels to prove his point.

"Do you realize that in Spider-Man #30, Peter appeared in 39 panels while Spider-Man himself was only in 45? This means that "Peter Parker and group" is getting almost half of the mag. Please do something about this." 

And in #36 Kent Thomas goes completely over the top:

"There was a time when your magazines were enjoyable. Well, not any more. The trouble is you seem to think that drama, emotion and love can replace action. Well, let me tell you, I do not buy a comic for drama. I get enough of that from other places. I buy comics for action and if I don't get it from Marvel I'll go some other company." 

"I don't buy a comic for drama." No. No, I don't suppose you do.

It seems that the duality which we have observed was also obvious to the very first Spider-Man fans, more than half a century ago. They can see that there are two kinds of Spider-Man story. In Column A, there is Soap Opera, Love, Mystery, Plot, Emotion and Drama; in Column B there is Action and Fights. And they are clear that Type A stories focus more heavily on Peter Parker, where Type B stories focus more heavily on Spider-Man. What one fan deprecates as "all that mystery jazz" another may praise as a "proper plot". While one fan moans that he has to wade through 11 boring pages of story before he finally gets to the "action", another complains when a comic is "just one long fight". But they are all agreed that some of these issues are not like the other ones.

None of these writers make the logical inference: that there are two kinds of Spider-Man story because Spider-Man has two creators who disagree fundamentally on what the Amazing Spider-Man ought to be about. Not many of them knew about the Marvel Method; most of them probably thought that Stan Lee was the writer in a conventional sense. (Tommy Hickman, says magnanimously that he knows that the lack of plots "isn't Stan's fault - he has to write so many scripts each month that he's doing very well managing to get the stories out.") But it is clear to us that Column A is what Ditko excels at, and that Column B is Stan Lee's idea of a great comic. The issues which Tommy Hickman singles out for special praise and which Carey Burt and Richard McCabe particularly dislike are the ones where Ditko gets an explicit "plotter" credit.

I think that we can assume that these are all genuine letters -- for what it's worth they seem to come from real addresses -- but it is impossible to know whether they fairly represented the feedback Marvel had been getting. Is it possible that Stan is consciously stirring the readers up; deliberately trying to create the impression that there is a "drama" vs "action" controversy and the readers must pick a side? If so, was he consciously was preparing the ground for the inevitable moment when Steve Ditko would leave Spider-Man in the sole custody of Stan Lee.

Stan winds up issue #30's lettercol by hyping the next issue: 

"Here's your chance to prove how loyal you are to ol' Spidey. Without us telling you anything about next ish, let's see if you'll be sure to buy it."

It couldn't be any clearer than that. Lee doesn't know what is going into issue #31 because Ditko hasn't told him. At the very moment when Stan hands full control of the comic over to Steve; the fans start demanding more Spider-Man and less Parker; more action and less romance; more fisticuffs and less narrative -- more Stan Lee, in effect, and less Steve Ditko. Seven issues down the line, they will get their wish. But before he walks away, Ditko has one last opportunity to show everyone how wrong they are.

In issue #37 everyone will magically stop addressing their letters "Dear Stan and Steve" and start writing to "Dear Stan" instead.

(*) The letter is slightly confused: he writes "there was a sharp drop in quality between #6 [sic] and #24. The Man in the Crime Master's Mask was as good as #9 and #10, my favourites...#16-#24 had no real plots, except for #18-#20....For real Marvel Magic, #26 can't be topped." 

It would make a good deal more sense if he was say that #17-#19 were the ones which had plots, which would give us: 

This comes out as:

#9, Man Called Electro
#10 The Enforcers
#17 The Return of the Green Goblin
#18 The End of Spider-Man
#19 Spidey Strikes Back
#25 Captured By J. Jonah Jameson
#26 The Man in the Crime Master' Mask


#16 Duel with Daredevil
# 20 Coming of the Scorpion 
#21 Where Flies The Beetle
#22 Clown and His Masters of Menace
#23 Goblin and the Gangsters
#24 Spider-Man Goes Mad

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 used 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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