Saturday, December 22, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #35

The Molten Man Regrets...

The Molten Man (Mark Raxton)

Supporting Cast
J.J.J's new secretary

Spider-Man #35 must happen after Spider-Man #34, so the earliest the attempted robbery at the jewelry store can take place is September 6th. 

Not very much time has passed since #35 because Jonah's secretary is still new and hasn't learned everyone's names. The big fight with the Molten man cannot take place after September 20th. 

The opening scenes took place "months" ago. Raxton was arrested on Peter Parker's graduation day, June 25th, 1965. He must have been released very quickly indeed for "months" to have passed. Perhaps he spent only a week in prison: July 2 - Sep 6 could just about be called "months". 

Raxton robs the jewelry store "many days" after his release. July 2 - September 6th is 64 days, which certainly counts as "many". 

"As the days slowly pass, day after day" Spider-Man keeps tabs on the Molten Man (p8) "Finally..." he catches him committing a crime. If Spider-Man is keeping tabs on the Molten Man from Sep 7th—Sep 20th, then twelve days have passed.

With a bit of squeezing, that gives us:

June 25th 1965: Molten Man captured 
July 2: Molten Man released 
(September 5th): Spider-Man fights Kraven 
September 6th: Spider-Man foils jewelry heist
September 7th - September 20th: Spider-Man keeping tabs on Molten Man.
September 20th: Big fight with Molten Man

Peter Parker's financial situation 
Peter sells photos of the Molten Man to Jameson, but doesn't bother to haggle. 


Title: "The Molten Man Regrets..."

Nothing in the story suggests what it is which the Molten Man feels regretful about. There is a Cole Porter song called Miss Otis regrets (about a woman who is lynched for shooting her lover) but that doesn't seem especially relevant.

p4 "It's a heckuva place for a skeet-shooting set up" 

i.e. It's real gunfire, not a rifle range, that I can hear.

p6: "Iron! Iron's a metal!" 
It's nice to know that Peter is not letting his science scholarship go entirely to waste. 

p10: "Shucks. I hoped you'd think I was Yogi Berra" 
Yogi Berra was a former baseball star and current manager of the New York Yankees. His one-line gags and malapropisms would have appealed to both Stan Lee and Peter Parker. ("I am not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. They can walk to school like I did.")

"Minutes later, a scene which occurred a few months ago is repeated anew..."

The Molten Man Regrets is so obviously a re-run of The Coming of the Molten Man that Stan can't resist pointing it out. The cop who finds the defeated Molten Man can't resist pointing it out either. Last month's story was a little bit lackluster; but this month's gives the impression that everyone involved has just stopped trying. Indeed, it starts to look as if Stan and Steve are actively sabotaging each other's work.

Spider-Man's least interesting adversary, the Molten Man, is released from jail. He tries to rob a jewelry store, but Spider-Man stops him. Then he tries to rob a safe, but Spider-Man stops him again. They have a fight and Spider-Man wins.

And that's literally it. There is no sub-plot; barely any plot of any kind. None of the supporting cast appear. There is a fight, and some scaffolding to provide a reason for the fight. And the fight itself amounts to Spider-Man punching the Molten Man, the Molten Man punching Spider-Man, and Spider-Man finally tying the Molten Man up with some extra strength webbing, exactly as he did last time. 

Stan Lee knows that this is a lot different from the intricately assembled psycho-noir tales about the Master Planner, the Cat and the Crime Master. "It's change-of-pace time once again" he cries "so climb aboard for the action...!" It's clear enough what he really means: "The last few issues have been too slow moving, and they haven't had enough fight scenes."

In case we are in any doubt, he says it twice:

"This one is for the real old-fashioned dyed-in-the-wool Spidey fanatics who like to see ol'web-heard fighting as only he can."

"Old-fashioned." The comic has changed recently, but this issue is getting back to what it used to be in the early days.

"Real." The people who liked the recent issues aren't the true fans: their opinions don't really count.

"Fighting." The real fans are the ones who buy the comic to see a one-to-one sparring match between Spider-Man and a super-villain. From now on, that is what the comic will be about. Real fans will like this. The people who do not like this are not real fans.

Last issue's Kraven story followed the familiar 9-9-2 structure: nine pages of plot and subplot; nine pages of fight; and a two page wrap up. Peter Parker didn't put his Spider-Man costume on until page 10. Stan Lee felt the need to apologize for this. Twice

"We'll admit this has been a pretty long introduction, but once the action gets started we'll more than make up for it" 

"Okay, web-spinners. You've been patient with us till now and here's where it starts paying off."

Curiously enough, this issue's story follows pretty much the same structure. The first nine pages are plot exposition; Spidey confronts the baddie on page 10; the fight lasts until page 18; and pages 19 and 20 are about Peter Parker after the fight has ended.

So what was Stan Lee apologizing for? The nine page introduction to the Kraven story consisted of the villain formulating his Evil Scheme. But they also showed Peter Parker visiting Aunt May in hospital; Peter Parker trying to patch things up with his college mates; Betty Brant having a terrible dream and deciding to leave town; Peter worrying about the fake Spider-Man and Aunt May inviting Mrs Watson for tea. The introduction to the Molten Man story, on the other hand, shows Raxton planning his scheme; Raxton robbing a jewelry store; Peter Parker realizing that the thief must be the Raxtpm; Peter Parker planting the tracer on Raxton's suit; Peter Parker following several false trails... 

Stan Lee is not apologizing for the lack of fight scenes in #34. Stan Lee is apologizing for the existence of anything else. The true old fashioned dyed in the wool Spider-Man fanatic objects to scenes involving Aunt May, Gwen Stacey and J. Jonah Jameson. The true old fashioned dyed in the wool Spider-Man fanatic wants a fight with a villain and nothing to distract him from it. The true old fashioned dyed in the wool Spider-Man fanatic is, in fact, one of those letter hacks who wanted less romance, less drama, less mystery and less soap opera. 

And Stan is going to give them what they want. 

I hope they were satisfied. But from where I'm standing a fight without a subplot makes for pretty boring reading. The Molten Man punches Spider-Man and then punches him again and then punches him again. Then Spider-Man punches the Molten Man. And they provide a running commentary for anyone watching on the radio: 

--First, using the metallic power of my molten body I'll crush all the fight out of you with an unbreakable bear hug.

--You're just whistling in the dark, Moltey. You can't beat me that way! No bear hug can stop my webbing from zipping up to the ceiling and sticking there 

--What good'll that do you? 

--I was hoping you'd ask? 

--You're bluffing! 

--Think so? Just watch...

You end up wishing they would just shut up and kill each other quietly. 

And amazingly, for the first two pages of the dreadful fight scene, this is exactly what happens. Molten Man punches Spider-Man in the chest. And instead of going through the usual "I am punching you in the chest" "Oh, punching me in the chest now are you?" rigmarole we just get a big sound effect: "Thwop!" Then he punches Spider-Man on the jaw, and it goes "Puh...twee!". Then Spider-Man punches the Molten man and it says "Brrakkk!" And so on. (The Molten Man Regrets...was published in the same month that the Adam West Batman TV show debuted, complete with its infamous on-screen kapows and zaps. But since comics were written two or three months in advance, this has to be marked up as an "interesting coincidence".)

But of course, it isn't sufficient for Stan Lee to write two pages with nothing but sound effects. He has to tell us that he is going to write two pages with nothing but sound effects. And in telling us, he breaks the fourth wall in a particularly egregious way:

"And now, we promised Artie Simek we'd let him go wild with sound effects for a page or two, so here goes".

Artie Simek was the letterer on most Marvel Comics. Stan Lee had a slight tendency to make fun of him on the credits page, in the way that singers sometimes make fun of drummers. The hero and the villain are making dramatic "kapow" sounds as they punch each other; and Stan Lee chooses this moment to take us out of the story and remind us that someone is writing the sound effects in over the pictures. He shouldn't drawing our attention to the sound effects in the first place. Kapows and Kaks work best when you hardly notice they are there. If there is a Ka-bopp sound effect, that ought to be because it is the exact sound which Spider-Man's fist makes when it hits metal...not because the guy with the typewriter knows that the guy with the fountain pen likes writing in really big letters.

It gets worse. 

The fight rambles on. The pugilists start taunting each other. And Stan decides the moment has come to drive a fully fledged wreaking ball through what remains of the fourth wall.

--Once I've beaten you, there'll be nobody left to stop me!

--Don't kid yourself! There's always Irving Forbush!

--Who's he?

--Forget it! It's an in joke!

Any pretense that we are listening to words spoken by a character named Peter Parker has been abandoned. We are just looking at words being written onto a drawing by Stan Lee.

The very first comic I ever read included an advertisement for the FOOM magazine and fan club which introduced itself this way:

"FOOM is the whackiest most way out idea since Irving Forbush combed his hair in the pencil sharpener....Stan (the Man) Lee is head FOOMER, Jaunty Jim Steranko is minister of inFOOMation and rascally Roy Thomas and your other bullpen biggies will be sharing the fun..."

It also had a letter from Stan Lee—not called a soap box, but instead headed "Stan Lee sounds off!"

So face front frantic one, Marvel is on the move again...And now on behalf of the whole batty Bullpen to all you Titanic True believers everywhere....we'll never let you down, O Keeper of the Faith, 'cause we're nothing without you! Excelsior!

Marvel Comics have always worked at two levels: there is an inner world, the superhero comics themselves, and there is an outer world, the world of Bullpen Bulletins and letters pages and house ads. Of course, the pulse pounding pageantry of the stories are the reason we carry on reading: but the frame, where Stan Lee chomps his cigar and talks nonsense is a very large part of what gave Marvel Comics their unique ambiance. 

Stan Lee in particular spoke his own lingo; simultaneously incredibly pretentious and comically self-deprecating. Some of it comes from the military ("Face Front!" is what a Sergeant tells a squaddie on parade); some of them have an Arabian Nights zing to them (Keeper of the Flame; Effendi) and some of them are the kinds of things that middle aged men might imagine hippies saying to each other (Hang loose! Stay cool! Whacky! Batty!). But you don't need to know what any of this stuff means; and even if you do, it's still pretty senseless. I now know what strange device Henry Wandsworth Longfellow had on his banner; and what is written on the Great Seal of the United States. (This is a useful thing to know if you are ever on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire). I know that Jim Steranko was an escapologist and stage magician who drew a small number of ground-breaking issues of Captain America and SHIELD in the early 70s. I know that Roy Thomas was one of Stan Lee's acolytes, the person to whom he was gradually handing most of the editing and scripting duties. I even know that a bullpen is a kind of baseball clubhouse, not an esoteric writing implement. But I didn't know any of those things in the olden days. "Excelsior" and "E Pluribus Marvel" were just words. Roy Thomas, Jim Steranko and Irving Forbush were just names. Magical words; magical names; part of Stan Lee's patter, part of the gift-wrap which Spider-Man came in. 

Irving Forbush turns out to have been a free-floating joke. A decade before the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee had tried to launch a funny magazine, called SNAFU, his answer to Mad. (He never completely abandoned the idea. The American comics I used to see carried adverts for a something called Crazy.) The magazine sometimes carried a byline "Founded by Irving Forbush, 1871" and "Losted by his brother, Melvin Forbush, the previous year." The slender joke came about because the Saturday Evening Post (home of all those wholesome Norman Rockwell covers) used to claim to have been "Founded by Benjamin Franklin".

Irving and Melvin are fairly generic American Jewish names. Irving Forbush was evidently intended to be a counterpart to Mad Magazine's Alfred Neuman mascot. When SNAFU folded, Stan Lee took the name with him, like Christopher Robin's swan. Some years later, when Marvel did an execrable self-parody comic called Not Brand Ecch! the Irving Forbush character morphed into a superhero called Forbush Man. He has continued to appear intermittently ever since. The Everything-2 website describes him very well as "an old fannish gag, a remnant of the original 60s era Marvel, a vision of the company which no longer exists."

"The best idea since Irving Forbush combed his hair in the pencil sharpener" is neither more nor less meaningless than most of what Stan Lee says. 

So: by having Spider-Man reference Irving Forbush, Stan Lee has literally crossed a line; the frame has bled into the picture. The frame is fun precisely because it is a contrast with the comics themselves. Inside the comic, it really matters to you that Aunt May is definitely, definitely going to die this time and Galactus is probably going to eat the whole world; but then you flip the page and find Stan and Steve shooting the breeze with you and your remember that it's not really real and everything is okay. 

I think we all understand the rules. Spider-Man can move upwards and appear in the frame: there is nothing at all odd about seeing a picture of Spider-Man on the letters page saying "Don't forget to order next week's issue from your newsagent". But of course, no-one would imagine that Peter Parker, while fighting Doctor Octopus, would suddenly remember that time he had to swing across a letter column and remind people to renew their subscription. It patently doesn't work like that. Stan Lee cannot flow downwards and become a character in one of his own comics: if he could, he really would be God. (There are one or two occasions when Jack Kirby and Stan Lee appear as characters in the Fantastic Four: but they are very much presented as jobbing artists of the previous generation; none of the "hang loose Irving Forbush Excelsior" Marvel-speak seeps through.) Lee's voice, the voice of the narrator is everywhere present; but only as an observer. He can hear the characters' thoughts, but they can't hear the captions. Indeed, it is an artefact of the Marvel Method that the Lee-Narrator is only ever an observer: he sees what the reader sees and hardly ever says "I know something you don't know." Last month, the Secretary With No Name wondered to herself why Betty Brant left so suddenly, and the Lee narrator chips in "And so do we, young lady. And so do we." That third person plural is a marker of Stan's meta-textual technique. 

So it is a sin of the first order to show Peter Parker referencing Stan Lee's most pointless in-joke in the middle of a fight. Yes: the mask has slipped before. We have noticed that when he is not wearing the mask, Peter Parker can seem a lot like Steve Ditko, but when he puts it on, he starts to talk like Stan Lee. And yes, once a narrative has been breached it is always possible for more narrative to patch it up. (Maybe Peter Parker saw a copy of SNAFU when he was eight years old, recalls the Irving Forbush character and is wildly wondering if Mark Raxton, who is slightly older than him, remembers it as well.)

But to me, it breaks the spell in a very fundamental way. Spider-Man is no longer my buddy who I could conceivably go and meet if I ever went to New York. He is just some pen and ink sketches. And around the sketches is white space which an aging hack is filling with whatever gibberish comes to mind. 

There is worse to come.

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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1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

That's all very well (in fact it's very interesting), but what did you think of Into the Spiderverse?