Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Curious Afterlife of Ben Parker




In Amazing Spider-Man #50 (July 1967), Peter Parker suffers one of his biannual crises of faith. He hears that J. Jonah Jameson has put a thousand dollar bounty on his head, and chucks his costume in a litter bin.  (He has a thing about bins. The last time but one he decided to quit, he stuffed his costume in one of Aunt May's waste paper baskets.) For the next few days he tries to abstain from superheroing, but then he witnesses a robbery and falls off the wagon. 

"And yet...how could I have done anything else? A man's very life was in danger." 

The nightwatchman whose life he has saved looks a little like Uncle Ben. This is so ironic that he wanders down to the waterfront and performs a soliloquy. He describes his Origin for the benefit of anyone listening, and explains that "one of the first victories in his crime busting career" was cornering an armed robber in a warehouse. He recalls that, once he had defeated him, he realized that it was the very same Burglar he had once selfishly allowed to escape. 

"I had a chance to stop him...when he ran past me that day...and I didn't...But if only I had done so...Uncle Ben would be alive today." 

Back in the present day, Peter Parker strikes an heroic pose on a waterfront wharf. 

"Now at last it is all crystal clear to me once more" he exposits "I can never renounce my Spider-Man identity! I can never fail to use the power which a mysterious destiny has seen fit to give me! No matter how unbearable the burden may be... no matter how great my personal sacrifice. I can never permit one innocent being to come to harm because Spider-Man failed to act... and I swear I never will." 

There is quite a lot we could say about this panel. Parker is still banging on about a faceless deity named "destiny"; he still regards being Spider-Man as a weight he has to carry -- an "unbearable" weight, at that. 

But what concerns us here is that for the first time, Peter Parker consciously takes an oath that he won't let innocent people be killed if he can stop it. The oath itself is rather a tangle. It is phrased in negative terms: he promises to never not use his power; and never to fail to stop anyone from coming to harm. It's also a bit ambitious. If he was really serious about never allowing anyone to die as a result of something he didn't do,  I suppose he would have to give up his biochemistry degree and go into medicine or surgery, or at any rate focus entirely on finding cures for life-threatening diseases; and then spend his spare time manning a suicide hotline. (Twice as many Americans die by suicide than are shot by burglars each year.) But of course, he doesn't mean he is never going to let anyone come to any kind of harm. He only means "I am never going to let another person be harmed by a gangster or a super-villain." And he isn't even going to be particularly proactive. He isn't going to spend every waking moment checking suburban houses to make sure no Uncles are being shot. He is simply going to refrain from walking by on the other side when someone else's need presents itself. "Never permit one innocent being to come to harm because Spider-Man failed to act" boils down to "Spend some of my spare time catching thieves and super-villains."

But still: this is as close as Peter Parker has come to a Crime Fighter's Oath; as close as he has come to kneeling at his bedside promising to avenge his parents by spending the rest of his life warring on criminals. So it is very significant that it is not shown as part of the flashback to Amazing Fantasy #15, but as part of the stream of events of Amazing Spider-Man #50.

Stan Lee knows quite well what he is doing. He is rewriting the Spider-Man mythos: turning Peter Parker into a much more conventional crime-fighting superhero. But he isn't yet prepared to engage in retroactive continuity. He knows that Spider-Man didn't take a Crime Fighter's Oath in Amazing Fantasy #15, and he isn't prepared to claim that he did. So "I'll never fail to act" remains part of the four-years-later framing sequence.

The End of Spider-Man never quite worked its way into the received Spider-Man narrative. No-one retelling the History Of Spider-Man ever says "First he was a TV star; then he was a self-interested adventurer and photographer; but finally, after Jameson put a bounty on his head, he swore an oath to always fight crime when the opportunity presented itself." 



A year later, in the first issue of an ill-judged black and white magazine called Spectacular Spider-Man, Stan Lee offered a complete retelling of Spider-Man's origin, entitled "In the beginning..." (Poor Stan. He never really got over the fact that he wasn't God.) This time, the story opens at Uncle Ben' s funeral. Rather disappointingly, it appears to be a Christian ceremony. I think some Rabbis wear Anglican style dog-collars, but there are definitely cross-shaped gravestones in the cemetery. Uncle Ben's memorial is quite plain. But whether Jewish or Christian, God knows all about the Pathetic Fallacy: it is pouring with rain and everyone is carrying big black umbrellas. 

As Ben is being put in the ground, Peter Parker breaks out in another flashback. He recapitulates Amazing Fantasy #15 pretty closely: he remembers the radioactive spider-bite, punching the lamp post, and jumping onto the wall to avoid the car -- although he omits the Crusher Hogan incident. Oddly enough, Peter remembers refusing to stop the fleeing burglar while is on his way to an audition for a TV spot, rather than after a TV appearance. But the consequences are the same. Ben Parker is murdered, and Peter apprehends the killer, only to discover...

At the end of the flashback we find that Peter has wandered away from the funeral (leaving Aunt May to eat the cucumber sandwiches by herself) and ended up back on the waterfront. He adopts much the same heroic pose he struck / will strike in issue #50. 

"Yes... Uncle Ben is dead! And in a sense it is really I who killed him!..Because I didn't realize in time...that with great power...the must also always be... great responsibility! But I know it now... and so long as I live... Spider-Man will never shirk his duty again."

"With great power comes great responsibility" was an authorial comment in Amazing Fantasy #15, but here it is put into the mouth of Peter Parker, or at least, into his internal monologue. Again, the oath is phrased in negative terms: not what he is going to do, but what he is not going to not do. It doesn't say whether he thinks that Spider-Man has the same moral duties as everyone else; or whether he has acquired additional duties by virtue of being able to lift heavy objects and hang upside down from ceilings. But whatever his duties are, he is totally never going to shirk them.

The Crime Fighter's Oath from Spider-Man #50 has been folded back into the hero's origin. Lee is now telling us that it was a bespectacled Peter Parker who stood on the wharf and decided that it was his duty to be Spider-Man, a few days after Uncle Ben died. This is hard to square with the first issue of Amazing Spider-Man, when Parker wishes that the Spider-Man costume did not exist; with the first appearance of Doctor Octopus, when he is ready to quit after one defeat; or with the first Vulture story, where he seemingly decides to be a "costumed adventurer" out of the blue. And it is hard to square with him quitting in #18 or being at the point of despair in #33. At none of those moments of crisis did he say "I have to carry on because I swore an oath to do so after Uncle Ben died." 

But once again, Stan Lee cannot quite bring himself to overwrite Amazing Fantasy #15. Stan Lee retells the origin story quite accurately -- even apologizing for accelerating the speed at which events unfold -- and Romita quite consciously recreates some of Ditko's panels. But Lee adds a framing sequence, Uncle Ben's funeral, and he embeds the oath in the frame. Peter Parker might have taken a Crime Fighter's Oath when he first discovers who the burglar is, or when he walks away from the scene of the crime with his head in his hands. But instead, he makes his promise down by the waterfront on the day of the funeral: after the end of Amazing Fantasy #15 but before the beginning of Amazing Spider-Man #1.

The story isn't told again until 1970, in issue #94. Peter has just broken up with Gwen Stacey, and Aunt May has been kidnapped by the Beetle. So Peter Parker spends two thirds of a comic wandering the streets feeling sorry for himself and retelling his origin yet again.

In this version, the Oath is pushed back still further. Peter Parker didn't walk down to the docks to talk to himself after all: he literally swore an oath on Uncle Ben's grave, while the funeral service was still taking place. (The celebrant is still Christian and it's still bucketing down.)

"Because I didn't lift a finger to help catch a criminal, I'll always fee partly responsible for what happened to Uncle Ben. I'll never again refuse to use my spider power whenever it can help the cause of justice. I'll spend the rest of my life making up for the death of Uncle Ben" 

"I'll always feel partly responsible" is a very much more moderate accusation than "In a sense it was I who killed him." And the death of Uncle Ben has nothing to do with Peter Parker refusing to use his spider-powers. Anyone could have tripped the Burglar up or grabbed him for a few seconds, and indeed, anyone should have done. That's rather the point of the story.

This time around, Peter Parker makes an oath that he has some hope of sticking to. "I'll fulfill whatever duties turn out to come with the ability to spin webs and climb walls" and "I'll never let a Bad Thing happen to anyone else in the whole wide world ever, ever, ever" are hopelessly over ambitious. "I'll help the cause of justice whenever I can" is quite achievable. And once again, Peter allows himself considerable wiggle-room: he isn't going to always help the cause of justice; he's going to never not use his spider-powers in that particular cause.

The second part of the oath is neurotic as hell. He isn't merely going to be a good citizen and never not help the police. He is going to spend the rest of his life "making up" for Uncle Ben's death. Peter Parker does not see himself as having learned a moral lesson; he sees himself as having incurred a debt. He could have said: "I fouled up, acted selfishly, and someone died. Well, I sure won't do that again."  With great power comes great responsibility, as the fellow may or may not have said. But he isn't interested in becoming sadder but wiser; he is interested in assuaging his own personal feelings of guilt. He's at a Christian burial, but he's thinking in terms of karmic debt. And the debt is unpayable. Never not helping the cause of justice will not make him feel less guilty about the death of Uncle Ben. He's be better off lightly whipping himself and walking barefoot to the holy site of his choice. He himself recognizes this. Having [SPOILER WARNING] rescued Aunt May from the Beetle he says "Even though I'll always feel guilty for the death of Uncle Ben... maybe tonight... in some small way... Spider-Man paid a part of that never-ending debt." 

But, once again: Stan Lee doesn't interpolate the oath-taking into Peter Parker's account of his "origin", which once again sticks very closely to Amazing Fantasy #15. Once again, the oath is part of a funeral scene which Stan Lee has added to the original story.

So: Lee has quite consciously re-positioned Spider-Man as a conventional superhero in the Batman or Superman mold, taking an oath to fight cowardly, superstitious criminals in the name of their parents. This idea becomes more and more dominant as the series goes on. Since at least 2001 the words "with great power comes great responsibility" have been attributed to Ben Parker himself.

Lee presents the Crime Fighters Oath as a new event in Spider-Man #50; places it shortly after Ben's funeral in Spectacular Spider-Man #1; and has it take place during the funeral itself in Spider-Man # 94. He knows full well that this is an addition to the mythos which to some extent overwrites the saga of #1 - #33; but he chooses to leave the origin story intact. The Spider-Man text is the site of a struggle between Lee and Ditko's artistic vision long after Ditko had departed.


Read my complete exposition of Amazing Spider-Man #1 - #33

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