Friday, June 29, 2018

The Love You Take....

Pages 1-5 of Amazing Spider-Man #33 are so iconic that it is easy to forget that pages 6-20 exist. It is a little disconcerting to see Spider-Man limping away after his Big Moment, literally hugging the serum to his body. 

Ditko doesn't let him off the hook. He's swept away as water floods the base; he's attacked by two underwater Minions in scuba gear and ten more on dry land. It takes him as long to get out of the base as it did for him to lift the wreckage. But the atmosphere is different. These pages are exhilarating to read because we know now that Spidey will win through. 

The standard advice to a writer would be to wrap-up the story straight after the final crisis: and Ditko certainly could have shown Spider-Man swinging off into the sunset with the serum in his hand. But these pages are indispensable, in the same way that Spidey Strikes Back is an indispensable part of The End of Spider-Man. Spider-Man has passed the test, and we now see him claiming the reward. Perhaps because it is less famous, the final fight with the purple minions -- in which Spidey continues to punch empty air even after he has knocked out all his opponents -- strikes me as even more powerful than the great lifting scene. Tired and injured, he takes on a dozen men, clinging to his new found identity --

"I'm Spider-Man! And I'm not going to fail! I'm not! I'm not..."

Ditko makes us wait while Connors mixes his potions together; and makes us wait to find out if the alchemical potion really cures Aunt May; and makes us watch as Spider-Man goes back and photographs the crime scene. Embedded in Ditko's great moral climax is one of Stan Lee's all time great comedy one-liners. Look at J.J.J. grinning when he hears that Foswell has a got a big news story, and look at Betty Brant's reaction... 

"Mr Jameson! You're smiling! Is anything wrong?"

There is one loose end to tie off and it is what convinces me more than anything else that The Final Chapter was intended to be, well, the final chapter. Again, look at the pictures of Peter Parker at the Bugle and ignore the dialogue. Parker slouching, with his back to Betty, just like the last time he saw her, and the time before that. Betty sees him; she runs to him. He doesn't want to see her. We see the back of his head as it passes off panel. The camera spins round: now we're standing behind Betty; looking at her looking at Peter. This is the first time we've seen his face since the great ordeal; the first time in 30 pages he's taken his mask off. He's got bruises all over his face. And Betty freaks out. Of course she does.

Betty's situation hasn't changed. She has hated Peter Parker's dangerous work, which is connected in her mind with her brother Bennet's gang murder, since issue #13 at least. But this impressionistic panel crystallizes it. She remembers Bennet's shooting; and somehow his face morphs into Peter Parker's.

Three times before, Peter Parker has walked away from Betty, ending the relationship even though he wants it to continue; and each time Betty has come back, affecting to not quite understand what the problem is. This time she runs away from him.

Ned isn't mentioned. He was only ever an excuse. It's over.

One last thing. 

Peter Parker is Ditko's surrogate and Spider-Man is Stan Lee's surrogate and this story is all about Peter. But there is also a sense in which the relationship between the studious, bespectacled, talented freelancer and the mean, blustersome, cigar-chomping editor reflects that between Steve Ditko and his boss Stan Lee. And so before we go, Peter wins a small victory over Jonah. He finally has some good pictures, of the Purple Minions being arrested. "I want a hundred dollars each..." he says "Or I'll peddle them elsewhere." And Jameson pays him his money. I think on my first reading this moment pleased me more than all the others. 

And so we are back at the hospital, and Ditko continues to milk it; the young doctor seeing Peter's physical state and insisting on checking him out before Aunt May's results come through, and of course, it's good news. "With luck, we expect her to pull through." And for my money, that's the one panel which justifies The Master Planner Trilogy's reputation as the greatest comic book story of all time. Not Spider-Man listing the really heavy weight, but Peter Parker looking at Aunt May's bed. It doesn't just wind up the Very Famous Master Planner Trilogy, it winds up the whole story of Spider-Man. 

"I didn't let you down this time, Aunt May. I didn't fail you."

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.

And Peter Parker walks off into the distance, and doctor pulls down the blind. The end.

We see the doctor's hands from off panel: Aunt May is in the foreground. It always feels awkward when speech bubbles come from off-panel: it makes the words seem at odds with the picture. Has Stan Lee missed the point again? Did Ditko, perchance, intend to give the last word to Peter Parker?

Still, like a Shakespearean chorus the doctor sums up and he is both right and wrong. Right that Peter is a nice guy; right that he's the real hero; right even that it's him, not Spider-Man who we should admire. We could even see his words as a riposte to the hacks on the letters page who want more Spidey and less Peter. Too bad they can't accept that it's Peter's comic. But the doctor is wrong to praise Peter at Spider-Man's expense and quite wrong to think of Spider-Man as a thrill seeker. 

Spider-Man, the TV star. Spider-Man the self-publicist. Spider-Man the boastful braggart. Spider-Man did his bravest ever deed at the bottom of the ocean at the dead of night. No-one will ever know. 

The end.

Final panels of Spider-Man #33.
Is this where Ditko intended the saga of Spider-Man to end?

It’s not just what you’re born with
It’s what you choose to bear
It’s not how big your share is
It’s how much you can share
It’s not the fights you dreamed of
It’s those you really fought
It’s not what you’ve been given
It’s what you do with what you’ve got
Si Kahn

This has been the last part of "Listen Bud!", Andrew Rilstone's exposition of the first thirty three episodes of The Amazing Spider-Man by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, begun on 23 May 2016.

Thank you to the 40 readers who donated a total of $300 a month to keep this project happening. If you enjoy what I am doing, it would be great if you could join them.

I am going to be soliciting feedback from Patreon backers about what projects I embark on next, so now would be a great time to jump on board. You'll also get occasional little treats, like free e-book collections of my writing, and the right to by book versions at reduced rates. 

But whether you support me financially or not thanks to everyone for sticking around for this project; it's something I've wanted to do for years, and I don't think anything quite like it has been tried before. 

I am not completely done with Spidey: there a several supplementary essays in the pipeline.

As a very great man once said: Excelsior! 

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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JAn said...

I may have said before that I like comics, but not necessarily old comics, and while I rarely go back and read anything pre-1970s, and that's being generous, I really enjoy your writings about these antecedents. Great series - as usual!

Andrew Rilstone said...

Thank you very much. But do try and read at least some of the classic era Spider-Man when you get the really does stand up.