Friday, June 08, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #32

Man on a Rampage!

Villain:


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.

Chronology


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.


Observations

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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