Friday, June 15, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #33

The Final Chapter!

Peter Parker's impostor syndrome

Supporting Cast: 
Curt Connors, Frederick Foswell, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Aunt May.

Peter Parker's Financial Situation

Peter clearly has 10 pictures. He sells them to Jameson for $100 each, which he says will be enough to buy back his scientific equipment and pay medical expenses. If he pawned his goods for about $250, this would leave $750 to pay Aunt May's medical bills. (This is broadly consistent with surgery costing $1,000 in issue #9.)

Jameson says that the pictures are really worth as much as $2,000 dollars. Since Peter has had to haggle to get him up to $1,000, Jameson must habitually pay Peter even less than 50% market value. Back in issue #2 we estimated that Jameson paid $2,000 for Peter's first pictures of the Vulture, which was perhaps close to their true value.


If Spider-Man confronts Doctor Octopus at midnight on Saturday August 28th, this story takes place during the early hours of Sunday 29th.

p1-11 Spider-Man's escape, and his fight with the remaining minions, can only take a few minutes.

p12 "A short time later" he returns to Dr Connors.

p13 "Seconds later" he arrives at the hospital.

p14  The doctor says it will be "about two hours" before he knows if the medicine has worked. 

pp15-18 During this two hour period, Spider-Man phones Foswell, photographs the arrest of the Master Planner's men, and sells the pictures to J.J.J. (Corollary: Betty Brant and Frederick Foswell all work past midnight on a Saturday to get the Sunday edition out. Foswell was not working when Parker visited the Bugle last issue: perhaps he "clocks off" at 6PM on Saturday and returns to work at 1AM on Sunday morning?) 

p18-20 Parker is back at the hospital and the doctor confirms May will recover. Note that the Doctor tells Peter "you should be in bed" which only makes sense if it is the middle of the night.

This gives us:

Sunday 29 August 1965

Midnight - Fight with Doctor Octopus

12.15 AM - Fight with Doc Ock's remaining men
12.30 AM - Takes serum to Connors
1.00 AM - Takes serum to hospital
1.15 AM - Photographs Master Planner’s base, tips off Foswell
2.15 AM - At Daily Bugle
3.00 AM - Doctors give Aunt May the all clear
3.30 AM - Returns home


p12 "I've got to take a sample of my Spider-Man blood"

This is very confused. In issue #32 Spider-Man stole a sample of Aunt May's blood and brought it to Connors. Here, Spider-Man takes a sample of his own blood, because if the serum "works" on it, it will probably work on May as well.

"The deterioration of the blood was instantly checked when the serum was applied.” 

But Spider-Man's blood is not deteriorating: the whole point is that the radiation that gave him super-powers is making May sick.

p14 "If this can stop the deterioration of the blood then we'll be able to perform a transfusion,and she'll have a fighting chance."

If they were going to perform a blood transfusion anyway, why was the magic serum so important?

p15 "Minutes later, at the offices of the Daily Bugle, crime reporter Frederick Foswell gets an urgent call."

One of the narrative dead-ends in issue #32 was Spider-Man abducting Foswell and asking him to help in find the Master Planner's lair. There was no pay-off to this: Foswell is now back at the Bugle and has to be summonsed by Spider-Man all over again. 

p16: "They'll be a lot of bare post-office walls when those characters are taken out of circulation."

i.e. Because their faces all appear on Wanted posters.

p16 "It'll be like old home week at Sing Sing when you cut-ups come marching in."

"Old Home Week" - a municipal festival where folk who have moved away are encouraged to revisit their old home town. 

"Cut-ups" - practical jokers. 

Sing-Sing - New York's most notorious jail.

Come marching in - A reference to the old hymn. Instead of the the saints marching through the Pearly Gate, the cop is imagining the crooks marching into jail. 

Lee is quite cleverly answering a question that hadn't occurred to any of us -- where did Doc Ock get all these minions from? 

p18 "Compared to you, even Scrooge was a reckless, devil-may-care spendthrift."

This is about as close as we get to Spider-Man's sarcastic repartee -- and Peter Parker is directing it at J.J.J

Here's the thing.

I remember, vividly, reading Man on a Rampage! at the age of 9. And I remember that for years, before I knew that it was famous or iconic or well-regarded, I always thought of it as "The good Spider-Man comic" and even, disloyally, "The last good Spider-Man comic." I really cared about Peter Parker; I really hated J.J.J and Flash Thompson and it really mattered to me what happened to Aunt May.

Children are completely uncritical. I also cared a great deal about a lot of zero-quality crap that crossed my path at the same time: the Wombles and the Tomorrow People and an interminable TV series called The Long Chase about a policeman's son trying to clear his father's name. I forget what his father had been accused of.

Children find stuff in comics and books and TV shows that just isn't there. They hear every word of A.A Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, while simultaneously daydreaming a parallel Winnie-the-Pooh in their heads. Both can seem equally real. 

This is the thing I miss most about being a child.

By the time I read the Fantastic Four, I had lost my innocence. There was never a time when I didn't know that F.F #48, #49 and #50 constituted the Very Famous Galactus Trilogy or that everyone thought This Man, This Monster! was the best things Stan and Jack ever did. (This Man, This Monster! always slightly disappoints me for precisely that reason.) By the time The Eternals came into my life, I was thinking in terms of Jack "King" Kirby, as opposed to "the Thor artist who isn't the shit one". And so on through Citizen Kane and Sgt. Pepper and Hamlet.

But Amazing Spider-Man #32 I discovered for myself.  For years afterwards I was surprised when I found that anyone else knew about it. "Oh, you remember The One With Spider-Man Trapped Under The Wreckage do you? I thought it was just me."

I can remember, so clearly, reading that last page; Spider-Man unable to lift the iron girders; Aunt May plaintively calling out his name. The canister of Serum right at the front of the picture, and a tiny figure of a Spider-Man hardly visible under the heavy weight.

And the caption -- let no-one ever say that Stan Lee can't do captions -- "...Spider-Man fumes in helpless rage as the drops of water fall ever faster...ever larger...faster...larger... faster...larger!!..." .

I think it was Walter B Gibson who said that he wrote The Shadow for people whose lips moved when they were reading. St Augustine, of course, was very surprised that he couldn't hear St Ambrose reading even if he was standing right next to him. I think that there is a moment, around the age of seven or eight, when you are a confident reader, but you have not quite mastered the skill of silent reading. You are no longer speaking the words out loud, but you are still speaking them in your head. I think that is why I was able to read the War of the Worlds and Frankenstein and the Hound of the Baskervilles when I was still of an age to enjoy A Bear Called Paddington, The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle and The Wandering Wombles. I sub-vocalized long passages of text without expecting to understand it; and as a result, sometimes came across passages which I could enjoy. 

That is how I read Man on a Rampage: performing the story in my head; hearing and speaking and pronouncing each word.

"I've failed. Just when it counted most. I've failed."

And straight on to the next panel:

"Wherever you go...whatever you do...whatever befalls...this we say to must not miss the next issue of Spider-Man!!!"


This is a serial story?

On the letters page, Stan Lee tells us that issue #33 will feature the return of Kraven the Hunter. This re-engagement doesn't actually occur until issue #34. So it looks like the cliffhanger ending surprised Stan Lee as much as it surprised us.

We use words like "decompression" nowadays, and Ditko certainly takes plenty of time to get where he is going. He could have wound the story up in two pages, and maybe Stan expected him to. Instead, he slowly pays off all the set ups over 20 gently paced pages. Lee claims that he whooped for joy when he saw the pencils for issue #33. He had expected the escape to take maybe a panel or two: it is actually spread out over five pages.

It is hardly necessary for me to laud those five pages all over again. They are, we can all agree, stunning. Peter tries to lift the heavy weight; he can't; he collapses again. The water pours in through the ceiling. He thinks of Aunt May and Uncle Ben. He pushes hard, putting his hands on the ground to brace himself. He has the weight on his back; he lifts it; one final push; he is free. As he struggles, the panels get bigger. The panel in which Spider-Man musters his strength takes up two thirds of page 4; and as everyone knows, page 5 is a full page spread of him throwing the weight off.

Ditko is exploiting the specific power of the comic book medium, doing stuff for which there is no cinematic equivalent. A comic splits linear time into a sequence of frozen moments and places them alongside each other. Almost the whole craft of being a comic book artist lies in deciding which moments to choose and how far apart they should be. Ditko's moments get shorter and shorter; we move from accelerated time to real time to slow motion. But the physical size of the panels gets larger and larger. Time is transmuted into space; but drama is transmuted into size.

We can't see Spider-Man's face. His agony is represented only in body language. The words which Stan Lee gives him to say are not irrelevant; but the entire drama of the scene can be inferred from the pictures alone. Spider-Man is trapped. He gives up. He thinks of Ben and May. He rallies. Shifts position. Braces himself. Makes one final effort. And is free.

No-one has ever drawn anything better.

So why do I have such a clear and vivid memory of the cliffhanger, and no-particular memory of Spider-Man's escape?

I read it, of course, over and over; but I have no memory of encountering it for the first time. If anything, I think I was slightly disappointed. I somehow felt that Stan (and I still took it for granted that everything came from the heart of Stan) was cheating. For a week, I had wondered how Spider-Man could escape being trapped underneath a weight that was far too heavy for him to lift. And the solution is....he lifts the unliftable lifting it.

Isn't that a little bit too much like "and with one bound he was free"?

In the quest for the historical Stan Lee it is a good idea to apply the Criterion of Embarrassment. If Stan Lee tells a story which supports the notion that he "dreamed up" the Marvel Universe without input from any other creator, then that story is very probably false. But if he recounts an anecdote in which an artist or some other writer has substantial creative input, then that anecdote is very likely to be true. We should doubt the story about Joan Lee encouraging Sam to create the Fantastic Four to get it out of his system, because that is the kind of thing Stan's disciples would like you to believe. But we should believe the story about Steve Ditko pitching the idea of a hipster wizard called Doctor Strange without any input from Lee, because Stan's followers would have had no reason to make that story up and every reason to suppress it. 

So also in this case. Stan Lee usually claims that whatever happened was what he always intended to happen; that artists are merely the conduit along which ideas flow from his head onto the page. Why should he tell an anecdote in which he asked for a simple escape scene and Ditko provided something far, far better -- unless it is actually true?

But if it is true it follows that, even at this late stage, Lee was still feeding Ditko basic plot outlines?

It is an interesting thought.

Suppose Lee had said to Ditko "What if Aunt May fell sick again? And what if Doc Ock stole the medicine that might just save her life? What if Spider-Man were trapped under a heavy weight, and the medicine were just out of reach?" (It would make sense that the double McGuffin was Lee's idea: he used a similar motif in Fantastic Four Annual #6.) Suppose Lee had said "...and then, with supreme effort, Spider-Man shifts the heavy weight..." and Ditko had thought "That is an incredibly weak solution... But if I dial the agony right up to 11, I think I can make it work."

Pure conjecture, of course.

I am no longer nine years old. I can now appreciate the metaphor and subtext that Ditko crams into the scene. Spider-Man isn't just trapped under the wreckage of Doctor Octopus's base: he is trapped under his guilt at allowing Uncle Ben to die and indirectly causing Aunt May's illness. He doesn't merely lift the physical weight; he finally learns how to carry, and cast off, that guilt.

The idea that Spider-Man is a Christ figure is one of the wrongest ideas that anyone has ever had. There is absolutely no sense in which Spider-Man suffers vicariously, or offers himself for anybody else. And equally, there is no sense that there is Anyone else who can bear the guilt on his behalf. Peter Parker is conventionally religious: he says that he is going to pray for Aunt May, but only after he has done everything physically possible to save her himself. (Similarly, the doctors say that she is in God's hands only after they have reached the limits of their medical knowledge.) But if anything, Spider-Man is an anti-Christ figure. He isn't acting out of cosmic self-giving love, but out of rational self-interest. He isn't bearing the sins of the world; but his own. The only one who benefits from his suffering is Aunt May -- and he wants her to stay alive because he couldn't stand the pain and guilt if she dies. True, he once shed his blood for Aunt May: but it's that very blood which is going to kill her. (I suppose that makes the serum an anti-eucharist.) If we are looking for mythological antecedents (and considering Ditko's enthusiasm for Ayn Rand) we would be better off comparing him with the mythical Titan who is condemned through his own egotism to carry the sky on his back.

But really, none of this is necessary. He isn't the messiah: he's just a very strong kid who'll do anything, literally anything, to stop his mummy from dying.


Friday, June 08, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #32

Man on a Rampage!


The Master Planner (Doctor Octopus)

Supporting Cast:

Betty Brant, Ned Leeds, Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Dr Bromwell, Curt Connors, Frederick Foswell

Peter Parker's financial position:

In order to pay for the ISO-36, Peter Parker pawns science equipment, including his microscope.

In 2018, Lidl will sell you a microscope for under £50. But the instrument which Uncle Ben gave Peter in Amazing Fantasy #15 was not a toy, but an aspirational gift for a scholarship candidate. In the corresponding scene in Ultimate Spider-Man, Peter gets a computer. So the microscope probably cost the equivalent of £500 in today's money: the sort of sum they'd have to save for, but not wildly beyond their means.

A pawnbroker buys goods at slightly less than market value, but charges you high interest if you want them back. If the microscope cost Uncle Ben $90 in 1963, it's hard to see how Peter could have pawned if for more than $70. The box he is carrying wouldn't hold more than 4 pieces of equipment, so he probably comes away with not more than $250.

He says he is combining this with the money he has in the bank, which is presumably the ?$250 he got for the photos of the Cat in issue #30, so he doesn't end up with more than $500, which would hardly cover hospital bills and an expensive new medicine. 

But he actually tells Connors that he is going to obtain "expense money"; and the courier who delivers the serum says that Connors is paying a "high premium price for its delivery". So, clearly, the West Coast lab has provided the serum free of charge, the hospital hasn't yet raised a bill, but Peter Parker has come up with $500 cash to charter a private jet to bring the medicine to New York.


The action follows directly on from issue #31. The serum is specifically located on the West Coast, so it can hardly take less than 5 hours to fly it to New York.

Spider-Man spends several hours roughing up random bad guys before he stumbles into Doc Ock's lair.

This gives us:

?9AM - Parker photographs a strike picket outside a department store.

?10AM - Parker goes to Bugle and tries to sell the pictures.

?11AM - Parker goes to hospital.

?12PM - Parker tracks down Connors and asks him to help. He spends the rest of the day as Spider-Man working with Connors in the lab.

?6PM - The serum arrives in New York and is stolen by the Master Planner. Spider-Man goes to the Bugle to try to enlist Foswell's help, but Foswell has finished work for the day.

?6PM - ?11PM - Spider-Man spends several hours interrogating hoods -- long enough for word to get round the underworld. 

?11PM - Spider-Man discovers entrance to base.

?12PM (Midnight) Spider-Man Confronts Doctor Octopus.


p 4 panel 7: "It must have happened that time she needed a blood transfusion..and I donated my blood!"

This happened in Spider-Man #9, A Man Called Electro. Spider-Man #9 was one of the first issues to bear all the hallmarks of Ditko plotting. It would be pleasing to think that he was setting up issue #32 that far in advance. I wonder if it is too late to claim my no-prize?

"Some of the very radioactivity which transformed me into Spider-Man must have gotten into her blood stream."

Readers of this column have on several occasions asked me whether or not Spider-Man is strong. Well, here is their answer.

p5 "Doctor Connors! He's a specialist in this field!"

"This field" apparently encompasses the study of reptiles, growing arms back on paraplegic servicemen, and radioactivity of the blood.  

p6 "I've read of a new serum, created on the west coast-called ISO-36"

Serum is a component of blood; blood serum is sometimes used as a medical vaccine or antidote. But in popular language, "serum" often means "universal cure" -- as when we talk about a "beauty serum" or a "truth serum".

p 7 "All the scientific equipment I've worked so hard to buy...!"

Ditko surely intends the microscope which Peter pawns to be the very same one that Uncle Ben gave him as a gift in Amazing Fantasy #15, but Lee doesn't pick up on this. (Peter must retrieve it from the broker, because he will leave it by Uncle Ben's grave in issue #281.) Parker says he has "worked hard" to buy the rest of his science stuff: since he doesn't have a job, this can only refer to money from selling photos. He must have made a lot of sales we don't know about.

p8: "ISO-36...could be the one vital key to my experiments."

Ditko has spent three episodes telling us that the Master Planner is interested in stealing "any and all atomic equipment". He goes to some lengths to establish that Aunt May is ill because there is a "radioactive particle" in her blood. This is clearly a set-up for the McGuffin. Of course the substance which the Master Planner needs for his radiation experiments is the same substance that Connors needs to remove the radiation from May Parker's blood. But Stan Lee spectacularly misses the point and makes the McGuffin a common-or-garden serum. Some readers think that the "ISO" bit implies that it is a radio-active isotope, but there is not a word of this in the text.

p9 "Even though I fought you, years ago, when you were a gang boss"...

Spider-Man's one and only encounter with the Big Man occurred precisely 22 months ago.

p10 "But, as the hours wear on, the answer is always the same"

Ditko clearly intends panels 3-6 to make one single sequence, but Lee's caption suggest that panels 3 and 4 take place some hours apart.

p11 "A hot car ring" - i.e. dealers in stolen cars

p12 "There's no way of knowing if it will assimilate with my potion until we try it."

The use of the word "potion" tends to confirm our theory that the Lizard was an alchemist rather than a scientist. It would be clearly be over-interpreting to say that Doctor Connors and Doctor Bromwell therefore represented the union of magic and science. 

p14 "One of them just came out of that hidden door! That might be where they've stashed the serum!"

Indeed it might. Or, on the other hand, it might not. 

p15 "So, Spider-Man -- we meet again! But this time, alas, it will be our final encounter.!"

This is a colossal cliche. It is hard to find an example of a villain saying "So, we meet again..." which is
not a deliberate parody. In an 1855 novel called The Discarded Daughter a wronged maiden makes a speech beginning "So, Pirate, we meet again at last..." (Darth Vader says "We meet again at last.." to Obi-Wan in Star Wars: Lucas is obviously well aware of the cliche.) 

Other phrases from Doctor Octopus's handbook of super-villain cliches include:
  • "If he crosses my path again, our next encounter shall be his last" (#31, p20)
  • "Am I always to be plagued by that sniveling Spider-Man?" (#32, p1)
  • "The world will soon be menaced again by Doctor Octopus!" (p#32, p2)  
  • "You arrogant fool!...You haven't a chance here, against me!" (#32, p16)

p20 "I'm too exhausted. Been on the go for days"

Peter has missed at least three consecutive nights' sleep at this point.

Of course, it is Doctor Octopus. 

On page 15, we finally get some of the "action" that those guys on the letter column think is so important: Spider-Man has a fight with a super-villain. But the fight is so perfunctory and over so quickly that I can't help feeling that Ditko is making a point. Doctor Octopus marches in, spouting text taken directly from the Boys' Book of Super-villain Cliches. He spots that Spider-Man is far more committed and determined than during any of their previous encounters and immediately announces his intention to run away. Spider-Man recklessly throws a lump of machinery at him, Our hero has spent most of this issue breaking things: ripping down flights of stairs in villains' bases, throwing cars across courtyards, and even destroying one of Aunt May's tables. This time he "topples the main support beam" of Doctor Octopus's underwater base, causing the whole structure to collapse on top of him. 

We never find out what happens to Doctor Octopus. (He won't be heard from again until issue #53.) But we don't really care. Any more than we really care what kind of atomic ray he was planning to make. Doctor Octopus is, by this stage, not a character, but a plot device. He is there to answer all the unanswered questions and solve all the remaining mysteries. Why is the base underwater? Why is he only stealing atomic equipment? What is the connection between the IS0-35 and Tony Stark's uranium derivatives? What, in fact, is the Master Planner's master plan? The answer to all the questions, and to any others which may occur to you, is "Because he's Doctor Octopus, that's why."

When he hears that an experimental serum called ISO-36 is being flown into New York, Doctor Octopus exclaims: "What a stroke of luck!...It could be the one vital key to my experiments! And fate is placing it within my grasp!"

When Spider-Man breaks into his Secret Underwater Base to retrieve the serum, he monologues: "A stroke of blind luck has given me the chance to dispose of Spider-Man forever."

And Last issue, after Spider-Man tried to stop the nuclear heist, he soliloquized "Spider-Man!...By the purest accident, he almost ruined my plan again". 

Purest accident. Fate. Stroke of luck. Blind luck. It's almost like some force is pulling them together.

Doctor Octopus has no identity or motivation beyond being Spider-Man's worst enemy. Once he knows that Spider-Man is looking for the serum, he literally hangs it on a wire at the end of a corridor and shines a spotlight on it. It's like he consciously knows that it's his job to set up traps for Spider-Man to blunder into. (Last time they met, he set up a treasure hunt with Aunt May as the prize.) Doctor Octopus is a mechanism for removing the McGuffin from Spider-Man's hands. He is the diabolos ex machina who sets Spider-Man up for his supreme test.

He is Doctor Octopus. He does villaining. That's all we need to know. 

That is why Ditko reveals that the Master Planner is Doctor Octopus on the very first page of this second installment. Some fans think that the revelation comes too early; that we should have been kept in suspense for a few more pages. Perhaps we should have learned that Doc Ock is the Master Planner at the same moment Spider-Man does, on page 15? But that only makes sense if you think that anyone particularly cares about the Master Planner, and that we are waiting with baited breath to discover his identity. Which may be how Stan Lee thinks, but it's not how Steve Ditko thinks and it's not how this story works. Ditko gets the big reveal out of the way because the big reveal does't make any difference. Now if the Master Planner had turned out to be J. Jonah Jameson or Ned Leeds or Peter Parker's dad, it would have been a different matter. 

If all of Spider-Man's villains were "just villains" things would get very boring very quickly. But having one place-holder villain on hand allows Stan and Steve to facilitate stories like this one. 

Having brought Doctor Octopus onto the stage, Ditko directs our attention away from him for five pages. Five pages which the pro Stan Lee faction would doubtless have written off as "love" or "soap" or "drama" or "mystery jazz". We don't care that Doctor Octopus is going to "control radiation" in order to "gain additional powers"; but we do care that Aunt May is going to die. We care that it is kind of Peter Parker's fault. And we care very much that there is possibly some medicine that might do her some good. We are so gripped by these scenes, by this interlude, that we arguably forget about Dr Villain in his Secret Undersea Base. 

So page 8, when we get to it, is a genuinely brilliant coup de bandes dessinées. There is one thing in the whole world that might save Aunt May, and -- whoops --- Dr Plot Device wants it too. (He needs the serum to complete his experiments. He needs to complete the experiment to discover the secret of radiation. He needs to know the secret of radiation to keep his ray operating. He needs to keep the ray operating in order to give himself more powers. He needs to give himself more powers so he can conquer the world. I don't know why he needs to conquer the world. Perhaps he'll die.)

And so the two halves of the story, the Spider-Man half and the Peter Parker half, have crashed together. Spider-Man leaps out of the window (in one of Ditko's truly great action shots) and for five pages he's punching gangsters, punching minions, smashing staircases, throwing cars around and finally coming face to face with the guy with all the arms. And this is all, arguably, only a set-up for the Great Big Cliffhanger. 

In the 1968 Fantastic Four Annual, it turns out that the only thing which will prevent Mrs Fantastic dying in childbirth is "negative energy" and it also turns out that the only source of "negative energy" is a Cosmic Control Rod and it turns out that Annihilus has set his little green heart on using the Cosmic Control Rod to conquer the universe. This is the same set-up as Man on a Rampage! -- what the hero needs to save his loved one's life if what the villain needs to conquer the universe and world. But in the Fantastic Four, it's presented as a starting point -- a premise -- and as a result it seems dreadfully contrived. Because it takes 28 pages for the ISO-35 to get into Doc Ock's hands, we accept it as a natural plot development. 

If This Be My Destiny...! was static -- as if we were holding our breaths before the big dive. Man On a Rampage! proceeds at break-neck speed. Last issue, Spider-Man swung around a silent city, hoping to find a crime to photograph. This issue he smashes things and beats people up. Last issue we saw Spider-Man looking out over new York and yawning; this issue he has so much energy that we several times feel that he is going to burst out of the page. 

Plot developments fly out more quickly than we can keep up with them; each one exerting more pressure on our hero. Peter Parker breaks up with Betty -- again -- and actually hits Ned Leeds. He finds out that Aunt May's illness is terminal and that he is indirectly to blame. Having spent several pages last month entirely failing to find a single crime in the whole of New York, he is able to track down former swamp-dwelling psychopath turned all-around nice guy Curt Connors in one single panel. We don't pause long enough to notice how incredibly convenient it is that the Former Lizard has moved back to New York or indeed wonder in what sense a reptile specialist is the "one man" who might help remove a radioactive particle from an old lady's blood stream. Half a page later, Connors is telling Spider-Man about a new McGuffin called ISO-36 which "might help us greatly", and a page later the McGuffin has been stolen by the Master Planner's minions. Spider-Man spends the next three pages hitting gangsters for no terribly good reason before being led directly to the Master Planner's lair by his Spider-Sense. He starts punching minions and runs through a secret door, straight into the arms, the arms, the arms, the arms the arms of Doctor Octopus.

And we're still only on page 15. 

There are quite a lot of narrative dead ends: Spider-Man asks Frederick Foswell to help him find the Master Planner's base, but he doesn't; Spider-Man roughs up random crooks in the hope some of them know where the Master Planner lives, but they don't. In a sense, it is a narrative cop-out that his Spider Sense tells him where the secret entrance is just when all hope seems lost. Perhaps Ditko himself had better explanations for some of these developments (and, indeed, a better explanation of the Master Planner's master plan) but never bothered to tell Stan Lee about them, leaving the writer to make stuff up as best he could. But it hardly matters. The narrative thrust comes from the pictures. Anger. Action. Confrontation. Failure. 

This is also true of some of the "love jazz" scenes. Try to imagine the brief scene in the Daily Bugle offices with no input from Lee at all: the story just told in Ditko's mute imagery. It would be very clear what was going on. We would see Peter arriving at the Bugle; Betty running to him; Ned joining them; Peter speaking harshly to Ned; Ned trying to calm him down; and Peter pushing Ned across the room -- delightfully, right into the path of J. Jonah Jameson. A brief, tearful scene between Peter and Betty, and Peter slouches off. The situation in the final panel is almost identical to the final panel of issue #30. 

Stan Lee's text makes the confrontation with Leeds a piece of play-acting on Parker's part: he is deliberately trying to make Betty angry with him, and indeed, make her hate him, because "a clean break is the best thing for all of us." I think Lee intends to soften the situation; to make it appear that Peter is being noble by breaking up with Betty. But it actually tends to reinforce the feeling that Peter Parker is a self-destructive dick. It certainly seems to follow on from the college scenes last issue. Peter is further isolating himself from other humans; declaring himself independent. He needs no-one else. 

"Betty must despise me now! Never knowing how much I really love her or how much tougher this is for me!" 

Me, me, me, me, me.

The more one scratches the surface, the more compelling becomes the idea that Ditko is book-ending his graphic novel, gathering themes together, saying goodbye. In Amazing Fantasy #15, Peter Parker had no friends and whinged about it; in Amazing Spider-Man #32 he actively drives his friends away and couldn't give a damn. In the first story, Uncle Ben gave Peter a microscope; in this final one, he pawns a microscope to save Aunt May's life. In Amazing Spider-Man #1 it was Aunt May pawning her jewelry for Pete's sake. But overall, overwhelmingly, the whole energy of the trilogy comes from a single fact. When he first became Spider-Man, Peter Parker failed to act, and as a result, Uncle Ben died. In this final story he acts obsessively, fanatically, almost insanely in order to keep Aunt May alive. "It can't happen again! It mustn't! It mustn't! There must be some way to save her! There must be!"

The last time Aunt May was ill, Peter Parker quit being Spider-Man to care for her. Last issue, before he realized how poorly she was, he moaned that "with all my power, with all my spider-strength, there is nothing that I can do for her." With great power there sometimes comes great helplessness. But from the moment he hears the terminal diagnosis, the energy, the violence of Spider-Man takes over the comic. He is going to do stuff. He is going to break things until Aunt May gets better. 

This is why he breaks the table. Because he is angry, of course: but also to send us readers a very clear message. Peter Parker is Spider-Man. No two identities, no Gemini face. Just a teenage boy with the strength of many men.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2018

I am sure all this is fascinating, but what did you think of Solo?

"From the moment I picked your book up, to the moment I put it down, I couldn't stop laughing. Someday I intend to read it." 
Groucho Marx, attrib.

"Warren J. B" wrote the following about my review of Solo: 

And the blogs, op-eds and so forth, that think the intrusion of current political themes into Star Wars is the best thing since sliced bread? What do they need? What about reviewers with no particular opinion on the matter, who think that specific inclusion is so ridiculous that they wonder it might actually be a parody? What about the creators and participants in the films who go on record not only to confirm these inserted themes, but to highlight them as reasons to see the film?

I could enjoy your rebuttals, Andrew, if there was much to them besides the reduction to ad hominem and dismissive refusal to unpack, just a little. (For another example: Sean Connery wasn't Bond for forty years. All those books and comics weren't written and drawn with Alden Erenreich in their mind's eye.) I could read about you picking apart the topic of 'leet' with points on why it's silly to worry about. But "seek help hurr" is a fourteen-year-old's comeback. It's sweeping the thing under the rug. It would be mere trolling if it was directed outside this blog. It's a childish kneejerk reaction - an "I'm right so there" - on a level with the people you're attempting to ridicule.

(I can't decide if tweeting it is much better or worse. Oh Mike. Mike Mike Mike...)

I've seen those complaints about L337. (among other things) I see what point they're trying to make, partly because they go into actual detail; but I can't go with them because they're too obstinate and obtuse. Imagine the frustration when 'the other side' - ostensibly the rational side - turns out to be practically the same.

I take this to be a criticism of the style rather than the content of my piece. Warren is one of the very good people who financially supports me via Patreon, so I think we can safely assume that he is familiar with my normal idiom. I think that he is making the point that I am a better literary critic than I am a journalist -- which is why I have recently, semi-seriously adopted "exegete" as a job description. The Solo review represented my first reaction to the movie: it was written more or less immediately I left the cinema. I think it is probably true that I don't do this kind of thing particularly well. Most of my exegesis is the result of a fairly long period of thinking and over-thinking -- six months in the case The Last Jedi; thirty-five years in the case of Spider-Man. Warren is perhaps correct to think that short, off-the-cuff reviews are a mistake. 

Warren is also, I think, correctly pointing out that my verbal fireworks can shade into flippancy and obscure the points which I am trying to make. I think that he thinks that, in the case of Solo at least, I should have written a more journalistic, academic piece. 

It is certainly true that I use tags and code works and assume that my readers will know what I am talking about. For example, I say "You can type this shit, George, but you can't..." when clarity would require me to say "Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Alec Guinness are known to have been openly critical of George Lucas's dialogue." 

Warren directly responds to some of my flourishes; so where I typed "it was ridiculous for anyone but Sean Connery to play James Bond until it wasn't", he types "Sean Connery wasn't Bond for forty years". I could of course riposte in kind: "No; but Connery was the central characters in six movies, where Ford was a secondary character in four; and indeed "How many actors have played the role of Indiana Jones?" But this would not, in fact be relevant: the correct response to Warren is "But I was not talking about Bond: the remark was a colourful way of saying 'It is sometimes possible to successfully recast a popular character, even when they seem to be indelibly associated with one actor.' " To which Warren might very well respond "In which case, why didn't you say that?" The substantive point about Solo is not "Can Han Solo, in principal, be played by someone other than Harrison Ford?" but "How successful, in fact, is Aiden Ehrenreich at playing the young Han Solo?" -- to which my answer, given in the original essay but possibly obscured by the one-liners is "only partially." 

The article contains one major flaw which Warren does not specifically highlight: namely, I ought not to make remarks about mental health for the sake of stylistic effect. I regret remarking that people who objected to the movie on ideological grounds "should seek professional help." (I don't regret making fun of them, but I shouldn't have made fun of them in those terms.)

So: as a public service and a penance — and actually as quite an interesting exercise — I am re-presenting my essay, this time translated into English. 

People writing comments beginning "I haven't seen the film, but..." are referred to the reply given by Private Eye magazine in the case of Arkell vs Pressdram. 

Solo: A Review 

by Andrew Rilstone

Solo is a highly successful adventure story, told with the trappings and hardware of science fiction. As such it is in the tradition of Doc Smith, Flash Gordon and the older Star Wars films. It contains a number of audacious and exciting action sequences; the one in which a group of heroes have to evade enemy space ships in an area of space which contains a gravity well and a giant alien is particularly memorable. People who enjoy those kinds of stories — which are often dubbed "space opera" — are likely to enjoy Solo. People who who do not enjoy "space opera" in general are not likely to find much to enjoy in this example of the form.

The present writer, who grew up reading this material, is still surprised that films of this kind have become so mainstream. He is also, incidentally, surprised that technology which once only existed in such films is now common place. He enjoyed himself very much indeed. 

The film is quite faithful to the visual style of the original Star Wars trilogy. Many of the scenes are based quite closely on scenes from those three films. For example, there is a desert planet that is quite similar to Luke Skywalker's home world in A New Hope; several bars and saloons which are reminiscent of the bar which Ben Kenobi and Luke visit in the same movie; and a villainous gangster who is a little like Jabba the Hutt, the evil slug in Return of the Jedi. However, in the opinion of the present writer, there was also enough variation that the film never felt derivative or like a pastiche. 

It could perhaps been argued that a wider variety of settings could be introduced into the Star Wars series, and indeed, that there could be a greater variation in the way alien life-forms are portrayed. However, in the opinion of the present writer, the film does well to stick to a generic look and feel which as been established in nine previous movies. 

It is by no means impossible to successfully recast a popular character, even when they seem to be indelibly associated with one actor. But there are specific problems with recasting Han Solo, who has (with the single exception of a radio series) only ever been played by Harrison Ford. Ford brought a very specific charm to the character which wasn't necessarily present in the original scripts. (Ford, like Alec Guinness and Carey Fisher, was openly critical of the quality of Lucas's dialogue.) On the other hand, the Han Solo character has been successfully portrayed in comic books and novels with no input from Harrison Ford. In the opinion of the present writer Aiden Ehrenreich is an engaging protagonist, and creates a character who is stylistically very similar to the one in Star Wars and its sequels. But he is never completely convincing in the impossible task of being a younger Harrison Ford. 

Han Solo is sometimes erroneously described as a mercenary. In fact, in the original films, he is seeking a financial reward for rescuing the Princess only because he needs to pay off a debt to a gangster. The new film is quite consistent with this idea: circumstances force Solo to become involved criminal activity but it is made clear that under a different set of circumstances he might have chosen a different path. 

The present writer particularly enjoyed the sequence in which Han Solo first meets his future partner, Chewbacca. 

The Han Solo who appears in the first Star Wars film is presumably in his thirties, where Luke Skywalker is a teenager. He often alludes to previous adventures, while Luke has, up to this point, led an uninteresting life. In this respect he is like Ben Kenobi, who is also a veteran with a mysterious history. It could very well be argued that any attempt to actually show those histories on screen tends to diminish those characters. However, this is an argument against the whole project of creating stories which are placed chronologically before the first movie. Granted the existence of these "prequels", the present writer found Solo a good deal more convincing than, for example, The Phantom Menace. He found it relatively easy to believe that the event shown in this film — dramatic robberies, meetings and betrayals, desert gunfights and assignations in taverns and bars — were the kinds of things that might have happened to a younger Han Solo. He found it harder to connect the politics of tax disputes and the investigation of illicit clone facilities with a younger Ben Kenobi. 

At several points during the story, Solo is shown playing a poker-type card game called "sabaac". Interestingly, although this games has been alluded to in several role-playing games and novels, it has never before been represented in a movie. 

The present writer felt that the casino sequence in the Last Jedi, and the scenes involving public transportation in Attack of the Clones (to name only two examples) clashed with the look and feel of the original trilogy. Solo, on the other hand, remained very consistent with that imagery. 

The Star Wars movies consist of diverse elements including war stories, Arthurian mythology and the Wild West. The “Arthurian” element — that is to say the story of the Jedi Knights — has become increasingly central to recent movies; although the other stand alone film, Rogue One was primarily about warfare and espionage. Solo, on the other hand, relies extensively on Western imagery. There are no battles, and with the exception of one very brief scene, no Jedi Knights. In the opinion of the present writer, this meant that Solo evoked the "look and feel" of the original trilogy much more authentically than Attack of the Clones on one hand and The Last Jedi on the other. This may suggest that Star Wars ought to be re-conceptualized as a "space western" (as opposed to "space fantasy" or even "science fiction"). 

However, this "consistency" and "authenticity" is achieved by taking a conservative, even a derivative, approach to the material. A substantial core of the film involves a group of mismatched individuals struggling to work together on an unfamiliar spacecraft, which rather resembles the cartoon series Star Wars: Rebels (for the first series, at least) and could even have been a scenario for the Star Wars role-playing game. Although the individual plot twists are quite surprising, the over all shape of the movie is quite predictable. Part of the plot is left unresolved at the end, reinforcing the sense that we are watching the first episode of a TV show. 

This is an unresolvable and unsolvable dilemma for any film maker working with the Star Wars franchise. A film like Solo which sticks closely to established imagery and conventions may be accused of being unimaginative; but an experimental film like The Last Jedi which attempts to say something new about the saga may with equal validity be accused of not fitting into the saga. 

Finally: a few commentators have complained about the robot L337, who believes that droids should be free and have equal rights with humans. The same writers have also had a problem with a subplot about Han’s companion Chewbacca wanting to free his own people from slavery. They felt that this subplot politicizes the movie unnecessarily. 

While it is true that Star Wars deals with a simplistic and heroic conflict of Good versus Evil, it is also true that good and evil are represented primarily in political terms. If it can be taken for granted that freedom-fighters, rebels and revolutionaries are "good" and empires, imperialism, and military rule are "evil", then it is surely no great jump to say that "slavery" is evil and "equal rights" are good? In the opinion of the present writer, at any rate, the complaint that L337 uniquely politicize Star Wars cannot be taken remotely seriously. 

Corey Carrier
Sean Patrick Flannery
River Phoenix
Harrison Ford
George Hall