Saturday, January 12, 2019

Amazing Spider-Man #38

Just a Guy Named Joe

Joe Smith

Supporting Cast:
Tommy Tomkins, J. Jonah Jameson, Jameson's Latest Secretary, Ned Leeds, Gwen Stacy, some student protesters, Flash Thompson, Harry Osborn, Aunt May.

Peter Parker's Financial Situation
Jameson has not paid Peter yet for the photos he sold him "last month". This probably refers to the pictures of the Molten Man from issue #35. (He left the pictures with the secretary and told her to mail him the cheque.)

#38 must take place shortly after #37 because Norman Osborn is putting his plans to get to get rid of Spider-Man into operation.

If last month's story took place in the second week of October 1965, this probably takes place in the third week of the same month. Peter remarks that it is a Tuesday, which takes us to October 19th 1965.

By our calculation, Peter sold Jameson the pictures of the Molten Man on or about September 20th, which is certainly "last month".

p1 "Gowan, laugh at me now! You won't laugh later!"
p5 "I hate everyone! Everyone always laughed at me! But they won't laugh any more!"
Like the Looter two issues ago, Joe Smith looks at the world the way Peter Parker did in high school.

p3 "Holy smoke! Old Jameson has got another new secretary! She must be the third this week! And it's only Tuesday."
Making five altogether. This is the third secretary we've seen; two others must have been both hired and fired on Monday.

p 10 "Awww...Your cousin likes Lawrence Welks!"
Lawrence Welks was a singer and accordionist; he had a reputation for bland, "champagne" music. The Lawrence West Show was in its eleventh year. Why it is an insult to say that Peter has a relative who enjoys easy-listening music isn't quite clear: the implication is that Peter himself is old-fashioned ("squaresville").

It sometimes used to happen that Japanese cartoons were dubbed into English by writers who didn't themselves speak any Japanese. They just looked at the images, worked out what must be happening, and came up with appropriate dialogue. (This was also famously the case with the early English versions of Le Manege Enchante.) Sometimes a plot development, presumably explained in the original dialogue, would completely baffle the translators, leading to characters saying things like "Remind me, why are we fighting this giant robot?" "I have absolutely no idea!"

I was forcibly reminded of this while reading Amazing Spider-Man #38. Stan Lee is doing his best to translate from the original Ditko; but he seems to have no clue what is going on. He may be annotating the illustrations he has in front of him; but he has no more idea than the reader what is supposed to be occurring off-stage or beneath the surface.

Look at the political demonstration on page 10. Ditko was not likely to have been depicting radical student politics in a positive light but he must have intended the scene to be about something. The students must have been protesting for some reason; Harry, Flash and Gwen must be angry for some reason; and Peter must walk away for some reason. And we would expect it to have some narrative consequences; either in this issue, or in some future issues.

But Stan Lee apparently has no idea where Ditko is going with the scene or what it is doing in the middle of the comic. So he fills the panels with dialogue of almost Pinteresque inconsequentiality. We are told that the students are "protesting tonight's protest meeting". (There would, in fact, be nothing particularly odd or funny about there being a demonstration and a counter-demonstration.) When asked to join in Peter doesn't say "I actually think nuclear weapons help to keep the peace" or "I simply can't decide if I ought to be a hawk or a dove regarding Vietnam". He says "I have nothing to protest about". ("What are you" asks one of the students "Some kinda religious fanatic?") Another student claims that he wants to save the world — he doesn't say from what — but then admits that he is only on the demo because it gives him an excuse to miss his lectures. And finally a lady with red hair and heart shaped glasses says

"If you join our protest meeting, we'll join one of your sometime. And if you've nothing to protest, that won't stop us."

It's total nonsense. At a time when Dr King was organizing protests aimed at ending slums and segregation, Stan Lee imagines students protesting for the sake of protesting. But he can't be blamed. He had to fill the space around the pictures with something.

On page 14, Lee signals a scene shift with the words

"And at that exact, precise, self-same split-second (not that it would really make any difference if it was a bit earlier or a bit later)..." 

On the same page he writes a long, redundant caption stating that Spider-Man has just arrived in the boxing gym (over a clear picture of Spider-Man arriving in the boxing gym) and adds "Or, how wordy can you get!" On page 11, he actually types "Students! All together now! Switch scenes — switch!" where a simple "meanwhile" would have done fine. Pages 16 and 17 again depict a Big Fight with no dialogue but lots of sound effects: and once again, Stan Lee draws attention to the fact that this is not part of the story, but a practical choice by the guy controlling the typewriter.

"Okay, it's sound effects time again...And now we end our scintillating sound effects smiling Stan thanks you one and all for the brief breather you've allowed him!"

Lee's captions are no longer about scene-setting or exposition. And he isn't even (as sometimes happens, to great effect) telling a parallel story, a verbal countermelody to Ditko's visual one. The text has eaten itself. His captions are about the process of writing captions.

At his best, Stan Lee seems to talk directly to the reader and draw us into the action: we are excited by and care about what happens because Stan is watching alongside us and he cares about it too. But at his worst, Stan Lee deconstructs the comic; renders everything static and unimportant. If Story Teller Guy doesn't care any more, why should we?

Did Steve Ditko know he was leaving?

He left without bothering to draw a cover: that much is obvious. Some staffer has had to cut and paste the figure of Spider-Man from page 13 above panels from pages 7, 12 and 15 or there would have been nothing to print under the logo. And it looks very much as if he left without providing a splash page. Where we normally get a symbolic tableau which sums up the story; or a single panel that tantalizes us with the first big cliffhanger, issue #38 plunges us straight into the first four panels of the story. There is no fanfare from Stan Lee, no warning that this issue is trying out something a little bit different: just a perfectly standard caption on panel 1 about where this month's mildly terrific tale is going to begin. (But, curiously, the story runs to a full 20 pages: if there had been a splash page, it would have been a page too long.)

Did Ditko know he was leaving?

Lots of plot threads continue to develop and dangle. Peter and Gwen carry on being outwardly horrid but admit in their secret thought bubbles that they are falling in love. Ned Leeds comes home; but doesn't know where Betty Brant is any more than Peter does. Aunt May sets up another date with Mary Jane, and Peter Parker literally just misses finally meeting her. And the Mysterious Norman Osborn continues to act Mysteriously. This month he mysteriously puts a $20,000 bounty on Spider-Man's head. Before going to meet the Mob he mysteriously disguises himself — with a false beard and mustache and dark glasses. The dark glasses are green, to match his green suit. I wonder if this colour could possibly have any significance?

All these plot biscuits will be munched up by Stan Lee over the next few issues. This month, Peter Parker punches Ned Leeds in effigy; next month the two of them are mutually apologizing and acting like perfect gentlemen. This month, Harry Osborn is still "one of Peter's nastier classmates"; next month, they will be burying the hatchet and having a heart to heart about fathers, dead and absent. Betty's location is still a big mystery, but three issues from now she'll be back home showing off her engagement ring. This is the last time a convenient pot-plant will hide Mary-Jane Watson's face; a few months down the line she and Peter will be dating. And as to the mystery of Norman Osborn.... Let's just say Stan Lee will wind that up very quickly as well. It doesn't feel like Stan is continuing stories which Steve started. It feels much more as if he is pruning — not to say culling — all the dangling plot threads as quickly as he possibly can.

But why would Ditko seed the comic with so many set-ups if he wasn't expecting to be around to write the pay-offs? Was he deliberate mucking up Spider-Man's life's as a parting gift, setting up cliffhangers for Lee to sort out? Or is he planting seeds which he never got to harvest and which Lee was not interested in cultivating?

If he knew this was his last issue, why all the dangling threads? But if we are to imagine him flouncing out of the Bullpen after handing over 20 pages of a barely finished comic book, leaving Stan Lee to pick up the narrative pieces, then we are entitled to ask — what pushed him over the edge.

Did Ditko know he was leaving?

Just A Guy Named Joe is not a bad comic book: not as good as the robots issue which preceded it; but very much better than the pointless fights with which filled the three issues before that. It doesn't look or feel like an issue of Spider-Man, but then, how could it? At this point "Spider-Man" still meant Peter and Betty and Flash and J.J.J. and Aunt May — and they've mostly dropped out of the story. It will be some issues before Gwen and Harry and M.J emerge as a replacement story-machine.

"Spider-Man" also means the great canon of villains which have been established over the previous three years: the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus and all of the others. This issue manages to introduce one Joe Smith, a failed boxer turned movie extra who Spider-Man fights without knowing the reason.

Joe Smith isn't that far removed from poor Norman Fester from the issue before last. Both of them are losers. No-one took Fester seriously as a scientist, because, er, he wasn't one; and no-one takes Joe Smith seriously as a boxer because he's not very good at boxing. Both of them have an entirely pointless and arbitrary accident — the one getting sprayed with Science from the inside of a meteor the other getting an electric shock while standing in a pool of chemicals — and both end up with entirely uninteresting superpowers. Doctor Octopus has extra arms. The Vulture can fly. The Sandman can turn to sand. The Molten Man is very strong. The Looter is very strong and has a balloon. Joe Smith is just very strong

Should we conclude that Steve Ditko, left to himself, was great at drawing alleys and chimney pots but really crap at creating villains? Maybe Steve truly needed the "dreaming up" component of the  creative process which Stan provided. Perhaps Steve had just burned himself out after creating a run of ten fabulous enemies and the Molten Man? Or maybe he is at this point so cross with Stan Lee that he has stopped bothering. That's what was going to happen between Stan and Jack a few years further down the line. Jack turned around and said, in effect "Okay, if you aren't giving me the credits, I'm not giving you any more characters. You tell me what to draw and I'll draw it." The final year of the Fantastic Four wasn't very good.

Or is it possible that Steve is working out is frustrations? Just a Guy Named Joe is an angry comic, but it is hard to see quite what the anger is directed at. The moment when Spider-Man turns around and punches the waxwork takes us back to the End of Spider-Man and to the very first issue. There is a sense that the universe has thrown everything it has to throw at our hero, and then just twisted the knife just a little bit more. But it isn't news that criminals want to kill crime-fighters, and it isn't that surprising that a powerful mobster (in a completely insignificant green suit) might put up a big reward for the person who brings him Spider-Man's head on a silver platter. Next month, Spidey will be punching baddies three at a time and treating it as an enjoyable self-indulgence. He has every right to be sad that Ned is going to marry Betty; but it isn't quite clear why it bubbles up at that particular moment. Peter and Betty have been breaking up on a regular basis for at least nine issues. Somehow the fact that some crooks have tried to take him in for a reward; and the fact that Joe Smith has become a success without earning it; and the fact that he has broken up with his first love are condensed into a single angry punch. Peter Parker who does the right thing gets nothing. Joe Smith who happened to tread in some electrified chemicals and break a lot of furniture gets a movie career. 

Take that, Ned Leeds.

And perhaps this impotent Randian rage, this lashing out at inanimate objects explains the otherwise entirely pointless appearance of the campus political demonstration. They are also not protesting about anything in particular.

What are you rebelling against?

What have you got?

Spider-Man tracks Joe Smith down to his boxing gym, and has a big fight with him. Lots of the other guys in the boxing ring know about Norman Osborn's reward, so they attack Spider-Man as well. During the fight, Joe Smith's powers go away and he comes to his senses. The TV company he was working for when he got zapped with superpowers give him his job back, and pay for the damage he's done. Spider-Man leaves the scene and is pursued by another mob of bounty hunters. He sees the waxwork resembling Ned Leeds and takes out all his frustrations on it. He goes home, entering by the back door just as Mary-Jane Watson is leaving by the front. Peter watches a news report about Joe Smith's success and starts to whinge.

"That takes the cake! Not only will become a big star...but I'll seems worse than ever."

Aunt May advises him not to watch the news in case it gives him a nightmare, and Peter Parker turns his back on the audience and walks up the stairs.

"Not much chance of that in my case!" he whines "I only have the when I'm awake."

And that's it. It's over. Forever.

Ditko has left the building.

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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