Sunday, December 30, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #36

Where Falls The Meteor

The Looter [Meteor Man] Norton G. Fester

Supporting Cast: 
Gwen Stacy, "Sally", Flash Thompson

The story unfolds over nine or ten days.

Page 6/7 - The Looter robs a bank and "In the days that follow" he becomes a one man crime wave.

Page 10-12 - The Looter robs the museum, but is foiled by Spider-Man.

Page 15 = "The next day" he goes back to the scene of the crime to make a better plan.

Page 16: Four days later he tries to rob the Museum a second time: "But the Looter doesn't show up that night—not the next—nor even the next. However at the end end of the week when the exhibit is about to close..."

Assuming "the end of the week" is a Friday and working backwards, this give us something like:

Day 1: Bank robbery
Day 4: First museum robbery
Day 5: Returns to Museum
Day 9: Second museum robbery.

Only a small amount of time has passed since last issue (battles with Kraven and the Molten man are still "recent").

So if the fight with the Molten Man takes place on Monday September 20th 1965, we could place this one between Wednesday 22nd September and Friday 1st October. Peter Parker is about 6 weeks into his first term at college.
Peter Parker's Financial Situation
Peter mentions in passing that he hopes to sell pictures of the fight to Jameson, although he is not actually seen taking any.

page 1 "When I become as famous as Darwin — Galileo — Aristophenes — I'll pay you back with interest."
Darwin discovered evolution. Galileo proved the sun was the center of the Universe. Aristophenes may be related to Aristophanes, who wrote Ancient Greek comedies.

"With this I might solve the riddle of the universe."
Fester seems to regard "the riddle of the universe" and "the origins of life in the universe" as synonymous. The term "riddle of the universe" (which also troubles the Silver Surfer) seems to come from a nineteenth century biologist named Ernst Haeckel who thought "Die Welträtsel" ("world riddle") "was "how does matter give rise to consciousness?" 

"Maybe I'll accidentally stumble over something... like Isaac Newton."
The laws of motion were not an accidental discovery: according to folklore an apple fell on Newton's head which set him thinking about what made the apple fall. Alexander Fleming's discovery of antibiotics would be a better example of serendipity. Stan Lee, naturally, thinks that scientific discoveries leap fully formed into the minds of men of genius. 

p 4 "Everyone had a chance to get to know each other .. and to form close friendships...except Mrs Parker's bad luck nephew."
In issue #34, the other students have turned against Peter Parker because he was blanking them, and because he is too proud to explain the reason. Stan Lee seems to be overwriting issues #30 - #33, perhaps in order to make Peter Parker Less Of a Dick.

p5 "I'm in your English Lit class!"
Some colleges do require science majors to take additional courses in the humanities, but it is never again suggested that Peter has studied poetry or drama to graduate level. (And anyway, would Peter really have been missing lab work, but attending literature seminars?) Stan never went to college and imagines that universities are just like high schools. Eleven years on, in #185, it will turn out that E.S.U requires academic students to take a gym class.

p6 "Oh no! Not again! Will I always be thought of as nothing but an egghead??
"I don't want another Betty Brant situation developing again. She only liked me for my brains too."
There has been no suggestion that Peter and Betty broke up because Betty only cared about Peter's brains. Either Peter is chauvinistically shifting the blame onto Betty, or Lee is again overwriting the last few issues and replacing them with something simpler.

p8 "It has to be the night that the Looter is probably out playing pinochle"
A Rummy type card game with an element of bidding

p12 "Come back, little sheba"
This is the title of an undistinguished Burt Lancaster movie from 1952. 

p17 "Us Spider-Men are a hardy breed"
Spider-Man used this phrase back in issue 19. I still think it must be a quote and I still can't work out where it comes from.

Last month, Ditko trailed this issue with a picture of a new supervillain. Quite a striking pictures: a white body suit with purple collar and sleeves and a spooky mask that recalls the Ringmaster's Clown.  But he evidently declined to tell Stan Lee anything else about the character. So Stan was reduced to writing placeholder text. 

"A swingin' super-villain so different, so new, we can't even tell you his name yet." 

This turns out to have been an ironic choice of words. This month's villain is not characterized by novelty and uniqueness. Stan claims that there was a disagreement -- or at any rate, a last minute change of mind -- about what to call him. Possibly Stan wanted him to be The Meteor Man but Steve insisted on The Looter. ("Looter" is an Ayn Rand buzzword.) A better name might have been Generic Man.

A hiker finds a recently crashed meteor. Back at home, he smashes it with a mallet, and releases an undefined Alien Gas which gives him super strength and super agility. There are, of course, only two career paths available to super strong individuals: robbing banks, and stopping people from robbing banks. Our hero goes for the former, knits himself a silly costume and adopts The Looter as his sobriquet. After a brief crime wave, he starts to fret that his powers may only be temporary, and tries to steal another meteor from a museum. His first attempt is foiled by Spider-Man, but he escapes. On his second attempt, Spider-Man defeats him and hands him over to the police. 

This is so thin that it hardly counts as a plot. Spider-Man is purely reactive: the Looter tries to do a crime and Spider-Man tries to stop him. The elaborate origin sequence does little but set up a McGuffin. The Looter needs a Meteor to top up his powers, but it would have made no difference if he had needed some radioactive isotope or the One Eye of the Little Yellow God. The museum setting gives Ditko an excuse to show Spider-Man leaping through a mock-up of the solar-system, but that's about all. The fight itself is mildly diverting, at least compared with last issue's punch-fest; the denouement, with Spider-Man fighting one handed while the Looter tries to float away on a hot air balloon is very nearly exciting. In a few places, the in-fight repartee is a little bit funny

--You must be mad, talking that way while you battle for your life

--I must be mad to be in this line of endeavor in the first place

But most of the dialogue, like most of the story, is the most predictable kind of Spider-snark. ("Have you ever considered medical help because of your anti-social tendencies?") Nothing wrong with it, but we've heard it all before. 

There is the slightest hint of a sub-plot: Gwen Stacy (who has literally acquired devil's horns) meets Peter at the museum and tries to make a romantic pass at him. But when she sees him running away to turn into Spider-Man, she naturally assumes that he is a coward. A new plot-machine is beginning to coalesce: Peter outwardly looks down on Gwen because she has taken against him for no reason; Gwen outwardly looks down on Peter because he is a coward and snob; but both of them are secretly attracted to the other. This one could run and run.

From the very beginning of the comic we are invited to laugh at the Looter and not take him seriously as a villain. He has a silly name: Norton G Fester. He is selfish and egotistical: he thinks that the meteor will reveal the solution to the riddle of the universe but he mainly cares that it will make him rich and famous. When the meteor gifts him with superpowers he immediately decides to use them to steal money, but then adds, in passing, that given time he will probably also conquer the world. His idea of experimenting on the meteor is to attack it with a mallet. When he wants to test his agility, he is shown sticking his bum out like a chicken before awkwardly jumping in the air. Once he has acquired superpowers, he starts to use the most cliche-ridden villainous dialogue imaginable.  ("You should have realized that resistance would be completely futile against one as powerful as I!") But while most villains either try to come up with ripostes to Spider-Man's sarcasm, or else make melodramatic speeches at him, the Looter seems perpetually to be forgetting his lines -- "Huh? Who said that?" "Out of my way...I said out of my way!" "Again—what does it take to stop you?" It's as if we are watching someone cos-playing a Marvel super-villain, not very convincingly.

I wish I could save this story. I wish I could prove that it is not a very poor episode of Spider-Man but in fact a very sophisticated parody of a Spider-Man comic. If Spider-Man can renounce "with great power comes great responsibility" in issue #34 and crack jokes only Stan Lee understands in #35 then why shouldn't the whole concept of a super-villain origin story be the next edifice to come tumbling down? Once we have acknowledged the absurdity of bank robbers in white leotards, perhaps we can get back to what Spider-Man was originally meant to be -- a kid trying to deal with superpowers in an otherwise rational world, 

With a bit of stretching, Norton G Fester could even be read as a bizarro-world inversion of Peter Parker himself. Parker is a bona fide science genius: Norton thinks he is, or wishes he was. Like Parker, Fester has few friends and no-one takes him seriously. When he tries to borrow money from the bank or get investment from a science lab, he is pretty much laughed at. When he rants "They mock me because I am too smart to work...too clever to hold down a job!" we might hear echoes of the younger Peter Parker's fear of being laughed at. When the bank won't lend him money, he says "You'll be sorry! You'll all be sorry!" which is of course just what Peter Parker said to his classmates all those years ago. While Norton J Fester is ranting about being an unrecognized genius, Peter Parker is refusing to date Gwen's friend Sally because she is only interested in his brains! 

Fester's language after he inhales the magic gas is rather reminiscent of Peter Parker's after being bitten by the magic spider: 

Parker: "What is happening to me? I feel .. different as though my entire body is charged with some fantastic energy" 

Fester: "Why do I feel so different...As though some superhuman power is coursing through me." 

And like Spider-Man Fester has a weird belief in Fate which amounts to an awareness that he is a comic book character with a pre-set role to adhere to. Spider-Man famously performed an aria which concluded "I now know that a man can't change his destiny, and I was born to be...SPIDER-MAN." Fester announces: "Now I realize why I never made it as a scientist. I was never cut out to be a scientist..I was born to be a master criminal...A super-criminal...I was born to be... The Looter." 

This above all: to thine own self be true.

There may also be some conscious irony in the mechanics of Fester's origin. He hits the meteor with a hammer and chisel, in the hope that he will discover the secret of the universe by accident. It is certainly true that people in the Marvel Universe keep on acquiring amazing abilities as a result of being struck by lightening on top of pylons; exposed to gamma bombs and knocked down by trucks. So the idea that Fester deliberately tries to have accident in the hope of triggering an Origin makes a funny sort of sense. 

I would love this to be right. I would love the Looter to be consciously intended as an inverted shadow of Spider-Man. But while Stan Lee had many strengths as a writer, subtlety was not something he was known for. If he had spotted that Fester was the Anti-Parker I am sure he would have said so.

No: superhero comics have a very limited vocabulary. The Looter's origin resembles Spider-Man's origin because all characters' origins resemble all other characters' origins. Humble beginnings. Mocked and derided. Senseless accident. Powers. Decision.

Why can this kid climb up walls?

I don't know. Because science, I guess.

It's not the origin which defines a character; it's what comes afterwards. Peter was bitten by a radioactive Spider and became a hero. The Looter was bitten by a radioactive meteor and did absolutely nothing at all.

Maybe something better will come along next month.

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...

“Spider-Man used this phrase back in issue 19.” —Reviewed on this very site in February 2017, True Believers! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Thank you for an entertaining 2018, Andrew, looking forward to the next 12 months.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Thank you very much...glad you have enjoyed my witterings.

JWH said...

I wonder why Steve Ditko made such an issue of the baddie being called "The Looter" but then didn't seem to do anything particularly Randian with it?

Mike Taylor said...

I love the notion of this instantly forgettable villain (who I had, indeed, completely forgotten) being a deliberate parody. I wonderL if you'd led this article with that as a straight-up claim, would we all have bought it? I like to think so.

JWH said...

"I wonder why Steve Ditko made such an issue of the baddie being called "The Looter" but then didn't seem to do anything particularly Randian with it? " - unless it was a straight-up dig at Stan Lee "I cannot imagine why Ditko would want to tell a story in which one person steals another person's ideas and takes the credit for them. It is inexplicable"-?

Autolenaphilia said...

"The term "riddle of the universe" (which also troubles the Silver Surfer) seems to come from a nineteenth century biologist named Ernst Welträthsel who thought the big question was "how does matter give rise to consciousness?" "

Forgive me for nitpicking, but this is not correct. The German biologist you're thinking of was named Ernst Haeckel. And he wrote about "Die Welträtsel" (no "h"), which is the German word for "the world riddle".

Otherwise, this is a wonderful essay.

Andrew Rilstone said...

That's not nickpicking, that's being helpful. Will fix.

Glad you enjoyed the essay! ("Wonderful". "Wonderful." Because he's THAT kind of bear.)