Friday, May 18, 2018

The Very Famous Master Planner Trilogy


The Amazing Spider-Man #31, #32 and #33.

The first 30 issues of Spider-Man have enacted the conflict between Peter Parker and Spider-Man., which is also the conflict between Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, and more widely the conflict between pictures and words on the comic book page. 

The Very Famous Master Planner Trilogy represents the end-point of that conflict. Stan relinquishes the comic to Steve, and Steve shows us his vision of Spider-Man. The pictures eclipse the words: the dialogue is often simply a gloss on the artwork. And Peter Parker overshadows Spider-Man. The snarky repartee is almost completely absent; the two halves of Parker's consciousness come together. This isn't a story about a superhero with a secret identity: it's a story about a young man with superpowers who sometimes wears a garish costume. It is Peter Parker who finally stands up to J.J.J and demands a fair day's pay for an honest days work. It is Peter Parker who hits Ned Leeds and distances himself from his immature classmates. But it is also Peter Parker who lifts two hundred tons of wreckage. The Parker/Spider-Man Gemini face is absent. There is no need for it. Parker is Spider-Man and Spider-Man is Parker. 

I don't know if comic book readers in 1966 understood what had just happened. Fans on the letters page are generally positive about the trilogy, but they are hardly ecstatic. Ditko phoned in a few more issues and then unceremoniously departed. But in the end, his vision of Spider-Man was vindicated. When people talk about Amazing Spider-Man, it is issues #31, #32, and #33 they talk about. Especially #33. Especially page 5 of issue #33. Two movies (the second Toby McGuire film, and the recent Homecoming) directly quote the iconic Spider-Man Lifts Something Really Heavy sequence. None of them quote that bit from issue #1 where Peter Parker argues with a bank clerk.

There has already been a story called The End of Spider-Man which did, indeed, represent the end of Spider-Man, the logical end point of the narrative. Peter Parker came to his senses and realized that he didn't want or need to be Spider-Man any more. But Fate overruled him, and he realized that he had to carry on being Spider-Man whether he wanted to or not.

"I know now that a man can't change his destiny" said Peter Parker "And I was born to be...Spider-Man." 

Doctor Octopus talks about fate and luck and blind chance -- forces which always somehow bring him and Spider-Man together. But Peter Parker believes in destiny -- a force that knows where the story is going and what everyone's role has to be.

I suppose that is what the title means: "If This Be My Destiny...!". This means "being Spider-Man": so it comes out as "If being Spider-Man is my destiny..." or in plain English "If it is my destiny always to be Spider-Man dot dot dot." It isn't hard to finish the sentence: "If it is my destiny to be Spider-Man, then I should carry on being Spider-Man, and stop complaining about being Spider-Man."

But the sentence is unfinished. The ellipsis turns it into a question.

Is this my destiny? Do I really have to carry on being Spider-Man for ever and ever?

And the answer, obviously, is no. The final page makes that crystal clear. Peter Parker is Peter Parker, and Peter Parker is the hero. He walks away from us, as he has done so many times before; and the young doctor closes the curtain. The Final Chapter is the final chapter. It may not be the End of Spider-Man, but it is the end of Spider-Man.

Or, you could equally well say, it is the beginning of Spider-Man. From this issue onward, Steve Ditko's disagreeable ubernerd is going to fade away, and be replaced by John Romita's good-looking, motorcycle-riding hipster. And in every way that matters, John Romita's Spider-Man is the real Spider-Man: the Spider-Man of the Ralph Bakshi cartoon, the Nicholas Hammond TV show and the Toby Maguire movie; the Spider-Man that Ultimate Spider-Man is riffling on. 

It is no part of my brief to talk about canon and claim that nothing after Ditko exists. I am not even going to say that there were no good stories after The Final Chapter. The death of Gwen, obviously. The drug issues, no question. That one about the sick kid, probably. The Kraven one, possibly. Others too numerous to mention which just happen to have slipped my mind. If Stan Lee turned Steve Ditko's idiosyncratic anti-hero into a '70s Superman who would conquer the world, then so much the better for Stan Lee. That was his job. 

But just for today, I ask you to consider the Amazing Spider-Man #1 - #33 as a completed work of art: the first great graphic novel in American literature. A novel of which The Final Chapter is the final chapter.

If you read comics at all, you know the story. This is the one where Doctor Octopus steals Aunt May's life saving medicine; and Peter Parker pulls out all the stops to steal it back. It is the one where Parker is trapped under the wreckage of Doctor Octopus's base ("it must outweigh a locomotive") with the vial of serum a few feet away from him ("it might as well be on another planet"). In one of the most iconic scenes in comics -- dammit, in the most iconic scene -- Spider-Man lifts the massive weight by sheer force of will and goes on to save his Aunt's life. 

But it is a pity to reduce this 60 page story down to a single iconic panel at the end of a single iconic scene. We don't find out that Aunt May is terminally ill until the last page of #30; we don't find out that the Doctor Octopus is the villain until the opening scene of #31; and we don't find out that an inspired McGuffin is going to bring the Aunt May plot and Doctor Octopus plot crashing together until page 8 of the second installment. Where the End of Spider-Man (#16 - #18) was a closely linked trilogy; and The Man in the Crime Master's Mask (#26/#27) was a 40 page story chopped into two sections, The Master Planner Trilogy is very definitely a serial -- a single story in three distinct episodes, with each part leading up to a well-choreographed cliffhanger. Each episode has its own structure, theme and tone. If This Be My Destiny...! (#31) is characterized by stasis; Man on a Rampage! (#32) by headlong momentum; The Final Chapter! (#33) by real-time action. The first part shows Spider-Man in conflict with the Master Planner's minions. In the second part, he confronts the Master Planner face to face. The third episode is about his own internal triumph over guilt and self-doubt.

Issue #33 does indeed contain a single panel which perfectly encapsulates Spider-Man, and can still bring tears to a grown man's eyes forty years after the event. But it doesn't involve any heavy lifting.  

So let's try to blow some of the clouds of incense away, and try to re-read these fifty-year-old funny books for the very first time....


If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting my Patreon, for as as little as $1/£0.69 a month.

No comments: