Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Continuing to Dangle

With reference to my essay on the non-resolution of the Betty Brant sub-plot in Spider-Man, JHW asked: 

For fans, do these sub-plots to nowhere in particular enrich or detract from the overall experience of being a fan? They seem pretty unsatisfying when considered in terms of the individual stories, but do they make the "comic book world" as a whole seem more real, with their roads not traveled?

I think the following almost entirely fails to answer that question.

Yes: I am reading Knausgaard at the moment. Why do you ask? 

Girls didn't read comics so much as Boys. Girls read Magazines.

Girls' magazines were almost entirely about Boys. Boys' comics barely acknowledged that such things as Girls existed. Girls' magazines presented Boys as fascinating aliens that you might pass on the way to school. Boys' adventure comics were set on football pitches and army barracks and other places where Girls weren't allowed. Girls with names like Minnie and Beryl were sometimes allowed into the funny comics, but they were pretty much the same as Boys, only with skirts. 

There were Girls comics too, about witches and ballet dancers and poor but honest Girls being locked in cupboards for giving too much gruel to the orphans, but the Girls in our sample didn't read them. The Girls in our sample read Disney comics with names like "Donald and Also Mickey", "Goofy and Also Pluto" and subsequently "Donald and Mickey And Also Goofy." The Boys in our sample sometimes sneaked into the bedrooms of the Girls in our sample and read them when the Girls in our sample weren't looking, but the Boys in our sample can't remember if they included any of the classic Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge strips.

While British Boys' comics were unashamedly for little Boys (or at any rate for big Boys who didn't mind admitting that they were little Boys on the inside); the Girls' magazines were for little Girls who wanted to be big Girls. They had names like "Just Seventeen" and "Sixteen Plus" although actual teenagers wouldn't have been seen dead with them. (They read "Smash Hits".) They were constructed to look a little like the Women's Magazines that Mum and Granny still read. Both the Girls' magazines and the Grown Up Lady magazines had recipes and sewing projects in them, although the Grown Up magazines never really went in for photo-strips. But what the Girls' magazines were mostly about was meeting Boys. 

The Girls liked to pretend that they were quite sophisticated and grown-up because they were reading publications that were meant for teenagers. They were no more likely to go out with Boys in real life than Boys were to score the winning goal at Wembley and defeat the Luftwaffe. They were probably more interested in ponies.

I don't know if any of this is true, but it sounds as if it should be. 

What is definitely true is that 100% of the Boys in my survey discovered Spider-Man way before they discovered Girls or dating or s*x. Before, indeed, they had any clear and distinct idea of how human reproduction worked, which was a closely guarded secret until 1978. Our parents' generation learned about s*x by observing farm animals and pets; ours learned about it by reverse-engineering Jimmy Tarbuck punchlines. (The Girls learned about it from the problem pages in Girls' magazines which were far dirtier than anything the Lady's magazines would have tolerated.) I suppose the current generation relies on pornographic YouTube videos which I think is on the whole an improvement. 

Spider-Man grew out of a comic called Amazing Adult Fantasy, although the fantasies it contained weren't adult in that sense. When Jack Kirby and Joe Simon arguably created the genre of "romance" comics in the 1950s, they claimed they were "designed for the more ADULT readers of comics." There was no sex, nor any suggestion of sex, but there were grown ups having relationships. (I recall one which turned on a middle class lady deciding to break off her relationship with a very decent church goin' fella because she has a criminal record for shoplifting. It turns out he knew from the beginning and didn't hold it against her. Awww...)

The adults in my survey all agreed that Spider-Man Comics Weekly was rather too old for the Boys in my survey. (It remained too old for them right up until they turned Twelve, when it became much too babyish.) I suspect that Stan Lee knew exactly what he was doing. Spider-Man was a comic for kids that was superficially designed to look like a comic for adults; just like the dating magazines were aimed at little Girls but designed to look as if they were for teenagers. The target audience for Spider-Man was people a little too young to read Spider-Man. Peter Parker was an eight-year-old's idea of a seventeen year old. He worries endlessly about a thing called "study" but there is no real sense of what he does at school or who his teachers are -- it's all just one mysterious grown up thing called Science. He worries about Gals but there are no clues as to why a superhero would want to spend time with one of these strange beings who stick life sized posters of David Cassidy on their doors and sit down to go to the toilet. Peter and Betty never actually go on a date. (He does on one occasion help Liz with her homework, and in fairness, that happens behind closed doors.) There is no sense of anyone being attracted to anyone else: literally not so much as a kiss. When Ned comes home and takes Betty for coffee, we realize it is all over. Coffee is about as close as we come to consummating a relationship. I suppose that is why the Coffee Bean Bar becomes important once Peter leaves High School. Girls mainly cause misery and complication. Boys fight for the ownership of particular females; females storm off in huffs if "their" guy so much as returns a lost handbag to another Woman. 

We can blame the Comics Code for some of this. There is a persistent oral tradition that the morality clause was so strict that writers were reluctant even to show married couples: if  there was a Mummy and a Daddy then it was hard to avoid the fact that there might also be a Bed. Peter Parker and Mary-Jane are both raised by their Aunts; Harry Osborn and Gwen Stacey were brought up by widowers; Johnny Storm was raised by his big sister. But even if the Comics Code was the proximate cause, the result was a comic that the Boys in our sample could easily make sense of: a pre-pubescent idea of what being grown up must be like. 

In 1974, a twenty page comic was incredibly long; and a seven day wait between episodes was an almost unimaginably long time. (Mary Whitehouse was kind of right about this: a little Boy's imagination can do a lot with the image of a drowning Tom Baker in a week.) This made it relatively easy to accept Stan Lee's confused approach to time and his fluctuating depiction of history. If Peter said "I have been longing for months for Betty to return" we were not inclined to say "Hang on, two issues ago you said you were over her." When you are eight, the week before last is somewhere in the last century, and for every twenty pages in the comic there are a hundred thousand pages in your mind. 

And anyway, if Spider-Man was in the category of grown-up things, I didn't expect to fully understand it. If there was a continuity error or an unresolved plot thread, I ignored it, or made up an explanation on the spot, or thought "I am sure all the Big Boys understand what happened there, and I had better pretend that I do as well or else the Big Boys will realize I am not one of them." Between the ages of eight and sixteen I believed that the word "albatross" simply meant "guilt", and rather suspected it of being a Stan Lee coinage. I was very confused when Monty Python based a whole sketch around people shouting the word for no reason. If anything, I was disappointed when I finally read the Ancient Mariner. I accepted without question that Marvel Comics were the highest form of literature. When Daddy said I could say up past my bedtime to watch The BBC Television Shakespeare (provided I was quiet) I was excited because Stan Lee said that if Shakespeare were alive today he would be writing Marvel Comics. So if Peter Parker's relationship with Betty Brant came to an end without any resolution, well, that was an example of how realistic and serious Marvel Comics were compared with those childish duck comics my sister read and especially compared with the TV Batman which I didn't watch, or if I did, only to remind myself of how much better Marvel was. 

"I think I am missing something here: I will probably understand when I am older" is by no means a bad way of approaching books.

(Church comes into it as well. Church was full of questions which the grown ups simply wouldn't answer.)

I wanted, very badly, for Peter and Betty to live happily ever after; and I wanted, very badly, for Gwen to stop being awful. I wanted equally badly for Dr Blake and Nurse Foster to get it together, because it was obviously what the nice doctor wanted. Yet Betty Brant is a fully realized character, and her relationship with Peter Parker has ups and downs, or at any rate, downs and ups. Jane Foster is not much more than a Barbie doll, a place holder for the love interest Stan Lee can't be bothered to write, a McGuffin for Thor to fall out with big daddy Odin over. Don Blake is barely a character either. But I honestly don't think that, in 1974, I could see the difference. Either I was missing something because I wasn't old enough or else I was filling in the gaps, or both. 

(And Star Wars, of course. Star Wars above all.)

So: in Spider-Man #40 we cut away from Spider-Man's big and long awaited confrontation with the Green Goblin, and listen in on Betty Brant, talking to herself on a railway station. How did that strike me in 1974? Was it a digression; a boring bit of chat which interrupted the Origin of the Green Goblin. But come to that, was the Green Goblin's long, and completely uninformative monologue just something that you had to plough through to get to the fight?

I have a memory of a memory of reading those pages for the first time. I can hear the incidental music that was playing in the background while Betty waited for her train. (I cannot possibly have been aware of Brief Encounter?) I do not know that I was consciously aware that a new artist had taken over Spider-Man, but I do think that I was aware that Betty looked different -- more glamorous, more posed, more like a lady in a film and less like a character in a comic. But overwhelmingly I remember feeling that these scenes referred to something that I had missed, or forgotten; oh yes, there has been a storyline about Betty's travels, how could I have forgotten that, I don't suppose all the Big Boys forgot about it. And almost immediately the issues which I read Long, Long Ago last month shuffled around in my head and it became that they had contained pages and pages about Betty's travels; so that when I came back to the post-Master-Planner issues recently I was surprised, shocked even. Was there really so little of Betty Brant? Did those few frames "stand in" for the whole period when she was travelling round America on a train, like a screen-memory? 

Yes, I did find those parts boring. No, I didn't always understand them. Yes, I liked the fact that my comic had boring Grown Up bits about love and pay cheques and graduation and science because it showed it was superior to those Other comics that had nothing to them but bombing raids and football matches and slipperings. 

And yes, when I say "it was superior" I do of course mean "I was superior". You don't actually have to be Jewish or a Mutant to understand that you are one of the Chosen People and the rest of the world can't really be expected to understand you. We may come onto the Tomorrow People next year.

So. That is what I thought about the Betty Brant subplot when I was a little Boy. But what do I think about the subplot now I am, arguably, a grown-up? 

I think that the treatment of Betty Brant is quite a serious problem. Steve Ditko thinks he is writing a soap opera; but Stan Lee hankers for the endless status-quo of conventional comics. Stan loves melodrama; he loves dramatic break ups, Peter running off, Betty banging on the door, the orchestra swelling as they break into a torch song. But he really wants to put everything back in its place for the next issue, so we can go through the whole thing all over again. He certainly doesn't have any sense of the chronology of his own titles. In #41, Peter and Betty have a tongue tied-cup of coffee. If Stan Lee remembers that this is the first time they have spoken in eight issues (and that they last time they met, they had a shouting row) he doesn't let on. 

Betty could have been written out of the story after the death of Bennet in issue #11. The story tied up all her plot-threads, and it nixed any chance of her and Peter living happily ever after. (I sometimes like to imagine that "beehive haircut Betty" and "brown bob haircut Betty" are two different people.) But then, she could also have been written out after the big symbolic ending of issue #30, when Spider-Man's ghost pushes the lovers apart. And certainly she could have been written out after the big row at the very end of Spider-Man #33. Indeed, I wonder if Ditko had intended #34 to be her last ever appearance? He was writing the stories and drawing the pictures, but Stan Lee was still adding the words. In Stan's dialogue she denies that Peter could possibly be Spider-Man, and decides to leave town for a bit. But what if she had woken up from her nightmare and said "Oh no...oh no... It's true! It must be true! Peter is Spider-Man... It all makes sense now! I must leave New York forever. And I will return Peter's picture so he understands..." Certainly, Ditko didn't ever draw Betty again: and once Ditko has left, almost the first thing that Lee does is re-introduce her to the story. 

The problem is not that subplots are left dangling. The problem is that under Stan Lee's stewardship, Spider-Man increasingly becomes the kind of comic where subplots can't be resolved -- where Peter and Gwen are always on the brink of breaking up; where Flash is always on the brink of realizing that Peter is not the weak sister he always took him for; where Aunt May has an infinite series of almost, but not quite, fatal heart attacks. 

Umberto Eco's great essay The Myth of Superman correctly identifies this kind of narrative stasis as an intrinsic part of the aesthetic of Superman -- of what we would now call the Silver Age, Earth-1, Pre-Crisis Superman. Lois Lane discovers Clark Kent's true identity on a monthly basis; but by the end of each issue, everything has returned to the starting point. It often feels as if the characters have their memories wiped on the final page of each episode. We meet Superman as an adult, who never ages: stories about Superman when he was a college student and a schoolboy and a baby are retrospectively added to the narrative as flashbacks and prequels. Spider-Man, on the other hand, starts out as a school boy of maybe 15 and grows into a college student more or less in real time.

But after #33, his life pretty much just freezes: for a hundred issues at least, nothing happens. Until the Very Bad Thing On The Bridge, Peter will be caught in a love triangle with Gwen and Mary-Jane; he will just barely achieve a balance between college and crime-fighting and Aunt May will have so many heart attacks we won't know what to do with them all. 

But Superman is never presented as anything other than a fairy tale or a sequence of children's stories: of course all the toys are put back in their proper places when we have finished playing with them. Spider-Man exists in a world of contemporary slang, where hippies go on non-specific demonstrations, and Flash Thompson is drafted to Vietnam. Time ought to move forward: but Stan Lee needs Spider-Man to remain a constant brand.

The endless un-resolvable cycle of Peter and Betty's break-up is an early symptom of this disease. 

From the late 70s into the mid 90s, Chris Claremont's X-Men was by far the most popular and beloved Marvel Comic. It was unashamedly a soap opera: stuff happened, but nothing happened; there was change -- characters, good guys even, died -- but it was still definitely the X-Men. One month the huge nothing-will ever-be-the-same-again plot development would be that Evil Magneto realizes the error of his ways, turns himself in, and ends up helping Prof X run the school. We are just barely given long enough to accept this as a status quo before we are told that in the most amazing and shocking nothing-will-ever-be-the-same-again plot development of all time, Magneto is going to become a villain. 

And so on, forever. 

Len Wein who created the New X-Men said that fans do not want change. Fans only want the illusion of change. And I am not saying that he is wrong.


JWH said...

Great post. Two comments/questions:

Do you think that this "status quo ante bellum" worked better when there was a long time between stories, like in weekly/monthly comics or TV before video collections, re-runs and the internet? I don't think I minded that series did that kind of thing when it felt like ages between episodes/stories, especially as 'life' would ensure that I would miss some of the episodes/stories anyway. But this kind of thing drives me up the wall in recent decades because I never have to miss anything and can often watch/read things back-to-back, where these re-sets are just annoying.

As a parent, I can confirm that the heirs to Stan Lee do him proud in the marketing: films are made (and rated) for 12+ or more, the brand and merchandise are marketed for those in the 6-12 age range. So they really do go from "too old" to "a bit baby-ish" without interruption.

Gavin Burrows said...

In days of old when men were bold, American comics were rarer than hen’s teeth to find. This left the odds of finding two consecutive issues very much against you. A friend once told me this pushed him towards DC comics,. As the stories were self-contained this was less of an issue.

But I think that perversely the same thing propelled me towards Marvel. The way you saw merely fragments of a bigger picture only made it more fascinating. I don’t think this was down to treating the gaps as an invitation. I didn’t, to pick up on an earlier example, wonder very much just how Spider-man would be getting out from under that big machine if it had been up to me. It was just appealing that things were borderless, that there was always more out there.

However, this may be more to do with Kirby’s writing style than Ditko’s. His world was chaotic and volatile, where characters and concepts would just crash in and out as they came to him. This could have had something to do with the unfortunate tendency for later writers to continue extrapolating from Kirby forevermore. But at the time I was all part of the appeal. For me, anyway.

Jacob said...

It's well-documented that sexual intercourse began in 1963, so if it was kept as a closely guarded secret until 1978, I'm intrigued to know what was going on, and where, in government research facilities in the intervening 15 years.