Showing posts with label Listen. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Listen. Show all posts

Monday, December 17, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #34

The Thrill of the Hunt

Villain:
Kraven the Hunter

Supporting Cast:
Betty Brant, Anna Watson, Gwen Stacy, Harry Osborn, J. Jonah Jameson, Frederick Foswell, J.J.J's new Secretary (un-named)


Chronology
The action takes place over about a week: 

Day 1 (Night): Peter Parker starts studying again. (page 4) 
Day 2: "The next day" Peter Parker visits Aunt May in hospital (p4) and goes back to college (p5). That evening he hears the report that Spider-Man has attacked JJJ (p6)
Day 3 -6: "In the days that follow" the false Spider-Man makes more attacks.  
Day 7: "Finally" Spider-Man decides to take action. 

Since the cuts and bruises on Peter Parker's face have healed, a few days must have elapsed since the end of The Final Chapter. If issue #33 took place in the early hours of Sunday, 29 August 1965, The Thrill of the Hunt probably takes place between 1st September and 8th September. 

The fight between Spidey and Kraven takes place after dark; Aunt May and Mrs Watson are having tea and think Peter is at the cinema. Aunt May thanks him for coming home early. 

6PM: Mrs Watson comes round for tea; Peter sets out
7PM  Fight between Spider-Man and Kraven
9PM  Foswell reports capture of Kraven to Bugle
10PM Peter gets home.

Note that Jameson's new secretary is still in the office at 9PM: he's expecting her to work a 12 hour shift, while protesting that he isn't running a sweat shop. 

Peter Parker's finances
Peter doesn't bother selling any pictures of Kraven to J.J.J: he has not spent the thousand dollars that he got at the end of last issue.


Observations:
p6: "It's the Chameleon's last hideout..the one he used when the two of us teamed up...I've got to trap Spider-Man before I myself am discovered...for I have been sentenced never to return to these shores."
In Amazing Spider-Man #15, the Chameleon brought Kraven to New York  to defeat Spider-Man. They were both deported at the end of the episode. Kraven was last seen in a prison cell with the rest of the Sinister Six, but was presumably put back on a boat immediately thereafter. (The Chameleon is currently concentrating on helping the Leader defeat the Hulk.)

p8 "The world's most amazing super-hero, contentedly munching a mcintosh apple..."
It is unclear why Stan Lee bothers to specify the brand of apple. Mcintosh were a popular red-coloured fruit grown near New York. Steve Jobs named a famous brand of computer after them.

p13 "It's him!"
"Tsk, tsk. You mean "It is he"! Nothing infuriates me as much as bad grammar!"
One would not say "Him is climbing the wall" (unless one were referring to Adam Warlock) so logically one should not say "It is him who is climbing the wall" and therefore not "It is him". Similarly, you wouldn't say "Me is climbing the wall" (unless you had been raised by Kala the she-ape.) But in practice, everyone says "It is him" and "It is me."(Germans say "Ich ben is!" but the French say "C'est moi!".) Most grammar experts recommend that one follows common usage in all but the most formal situations.




The follow-up to the Very Famous Master Planner Trilogy is not irredeemably bad: it is just a bit meh. The Scorpion story, which came straight after the End of Spider-Man triptych was also a bit meh. So it was possible to read this story and hope that Ditko and Lee were merely pausing for breath before embarking on their next epic.


Kraven the Hunter decides that it is time to have another go at killing Spidey. On page #1, he is treating it as a personal challenge ("the greatest prize of all is still denied me") but by page #7 he is thinking in terms of a personal feud ("it is worth the risk to destroy the one I loath most of all in all the world"). He brews up one of his jungle potions which gives him the power to stick to walls, puts on a Spider-Man suit, and threatens J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson redoubles his newspaper campaign against our hero.

Last time a baddie dressed up as Spider-Man, Peter Parker assumed that he had become a  somnambulant split personality and went running to a psychiatrist. This time, more reasonably, he thinks "Someone is impersonating me!'' As soon as he ventures out, he encounters the fake Spider-Man who reveals himself to be Kraven. They chase each other around an old building for a bit, and when Kraven catches up with him, they have a fight. Spider-Man wins, Kraven admits the ruse ("Whatever else I may be...I am a man of honour!") and Jameson is left feeling pretty stupid. Again.


There is a very small wrinkle. An angry mob follows Spider-Man into the building where he and Kraven are sparring. Not very much comes of this: Spidey ties up half of them in webbing and punches the other lot out. The script quite definitely says that the mob are criminals with a grudge against Spider-Man ("most of the nails Hogan gang") But I wonder if Ditko intended them to be a mob of angry citizens?  Page 9 panel 5 shows the General Public being whipped up into a state of mild annoyance by one of J.J.J's editorials ("someone should put that masked wall crawler out of circulation once and for all") and on page 11 we see three mean looking guys deciding to "get rid of him once and for all". (They look very mean indeed: some of them have picked up sticks and several of them do not seem to be able to afford shirts.) So isn't it more likely that Ditko intended them to be ordinary members of the public, fired up to take the law into their own hands by Jameson's incendiary writing? Without this, it is hard to see much point to the "fake Spider-Man" plot thread. On the other hand, Spider-Man is shown quite happily punching the mob, which is hard to credit if he thinks they are just angry proles.


And that is pretty much all that happens. Aunt May is all smiles after her silly old operation; by the end of the issue she is sitting down to a good old fashioned chat with Mrs Watson over tea and cookies. Betty Brant decides to leave town for good. Jonah gets a new secretary. And Peter Parker continues to sabotage his own social life. He tries to be nice to his fellow students who not unnaturally tell him to get lost, since he's been blanking them since the first day of term. Peter could easily have explained what happened. Flash may be a bastard, but Gwen and (as we will find out in a few issues) Harry are basically fair-minded people who would have given him the benefit of the doubt. Instead he blames a situation which he himself created on a malignant supernatural force -- "the old Parker luck" -- and slinks away to catch up on his lab work. "I guess I can't blame them for thinking I'm the prize crumb of the year!" he explains to a bell jar "But I sure don't intend to beg them for a chance to explain." 

Oh. Peter. Parker. Stop. Being. Such. A. Dick.

There is, however, one point of interest in the issue. It is only a clue to a road not taken but it is an interesting road and an interesting clue.

Amazing Spider-Man #34: For about three panels, Peter follows 
"rational self interest".

After seeing Aunt May and finishing school, Peter Parker hears police sirens. He is just about to jump into action as Spider-Man, but then he thinks "Aww, come to think of it, why bother?" He doesn't need the photo-money because of the rather generous fee he took from J.J.J. last issue; and he would rather visit Aunt May and study.

"Aww, come to think of it, why bother?" As slogans go, it's not quite up there with "With great power comes great responsibility."

You might expect that this would lead to some tragic conclusion or moral lesson: that something would teach him that he can never say "why bother?" when Spider-Man could be helping out. But nothing comes of it at all. He decides to let the world turn without him for one night, and it does.

Peter Parker really did cast of his albatross and exorcise the ghost of Uncle Ben last month. He no longer feels that his great power gives him responsibility for the whole of the rest of the world. He turns his back on a crime and looks happier than we have ever seen him in months. Maybe it has taken Ditko 34 issues to finally refute the ending of Amazing Fantasy #15. Peter Parker is going to pass by on the other side when he could have helped someone. And that's okay.

That was the message that Ditko tried to give us in The End of Spider-Man. If it comes to a straight choice between being Peter Parker and being Spider-Man, Peter Parker is much happier just being himself.

Of course, it doesn't come out like that. The fake Spider-Man forces him to go into action (perhaps that, in narrative terms, was the point of it) and the issue ends with him telling a passing tree that "Spider-Man I've always been...and shall always be...as long as I live."

But perhaps this was where Ditko wanted to take the story. Freed from his liberal guilt, Peter Parker no longer has to play the hero: from now on he's just a crime photographer making an honest living.







A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
by
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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.



Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip


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.

 Please do not feed the troll. 







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.

A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
by
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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.



Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip


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.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Last Days of Dangling Plot Thread Woman

After all, my erstwhile dear,
My no longer cherished,
Need we say it was not love,
Just because it perished?


How do you follow the most iconic scene in the history of comic books? 

Spider-Man has conquered his inner demons; exorcised his albatross; saved his Aunt and demanded fair pay from his boss. So what happens next? Steve Ditko needed to come up with something very special indeed if he was going to surpass the legendary Spider-Man-lifts-something-really-really-heavy sequence from #33. He needed something that would make our collective jaws drop; something which would change Spider-Man forever. He needed something which every previous issue had been building towards, and which would affect every issue to come.

And dammit if, just for a second, it doesn't look as if he is going to pull it off. 

Spider-Man 34

It comes, as all great scenes do, from nowhere. After twenty seven issues of dancing around the question, Betty Brant asks Peter Parker directly: "I know you are keeping some terrible secret from me; you must tell me what it is." And after all the lies and hypocrisy, Peter Parker gives her a straight answer. He calmly climbs up the wall, hangs upside down from the ceiling and rips open his shirt. "Peter?" he says "That's just one of the names I'm known by. I also answer to another name. The name of Spider-Man." He pronounces the last word in blood red letters, Jessie Custer style, just in case Betty misses the point. 

And then she wakes up.


Betty Brant was never meant to be Lois Lane. She drifts through issues #2, #3 and #4 as a background character; only in #5 does Peter Parker notice that she's really pretty, and not until #6 does he ask her out. It isn't clear Peter and Betty ever go on what you would really call a date; but issue #7 ends with them chastely embracing behind Mr Jameson's desk. It's a lovely ending to one of my favourite Spider-Man tales. Geeky Peter has stopped whimpering and found someone he really gets on with.

But a happy relationship does not a story make: and an engagement would have spoiled Peter Parker's teenage appeal. So Stan and Steve set about making the path of true love as rough as they possibly can. First they turn Betty Brant into "the girl with the dark secret". She cryptically refers to a mysterious tragedy in her past; and she appears to be being blackmailed by the Mob. This is resolved in issue #12: it turns out that her brother Bennet was in debt to organized crime. When Bennet is murdered, Betty conceives an irrational hatred of Spider-Man. This defines Peter and Betty's relationship for the rest of the Ditko years. He can't ask her to marry him unless he first tells her who he really is, but if he tells her who he really is, she won't want to marry him. The nice girl who shared Peter's sense of humour has morphed into a tragically unattainable courtly heroine.

From issue #13 onward, Betty is redefined as "the jealous woman." She thinks that Peter is dating Liz (who he doesn't particularly like); she thinks he is dating Mary Jane (who he has never even met); she thinks he is dating the Human Torch's girlfriend (who he kindly returned a lost wallet to); and she thinks he is dating Hollywood starlets (because he is covering a movie for Mr Jameson.)  In fairness, Peter gets to play the role of "the jealous guy" from #18, when Betty's too-good-to-be-true boyfriend Ned Leeds appears on the scene and immediately leaves the country. Just when things seem to have settled down, Ned comes home (#29) and promptly asks Betty to marry him (#30).

When Peter finds out about the proposal, he and Betty have a shouting row, which ends with him telling her to go ahead and marry Ned and her shouting "It's you I love" through the slammed door. They break up all over again in #33, with Betty first running after Peter and then running away from him. In #30 her inner monologue is preoccupied by Peter Parker's mysterious secret; in #33, she is more concerned about his dangerous line of work and apparent hunger for action. 

Peter Parker has a Big Secret. Peter Parker gets himself into dangerous situations. Peter Parker sometimes gets beaten up. Peter Parker takes pictures of Spider-Man. But Betty Brant cannot draw the obvious conclusion even when her unconscious is screaming it in her face. "Oh thank heavens! It is not so! I merely dreamt it! Whatever Peter's secret is...it can't be that!"


*

When Doctor Octopus unmasked Spider-Man in issue #12, the cover copy screamed "Not a dream! Not an imaginary tale!" This is a little bit unfair to Marvel's Distinguished Competition: imaginary stories were invariably announced as such on page 1; they were never used as devices to trick the reader. But Marvel never really went in for Imaginary Tales. In the 70s they had a magazine called "What If?", but there is a philosophical, or at any rate grammatical difference between a story about what "may" happen in some hypothetical future, and a story about what "might have" happened in some alternate present. "What would happen if Lois Lane had Superbabies?" is a very different proposition from "What would have happened if Uncle Ben had survived." 

But dream-endings certainly were used as a means of tricking the reader; and they were always very annoying. In this case the trick only lasts for a few panels, but it is still very irksome. It hurts to be told that something has happened, and then to be told  that actually, it hasn't happened after all. It hurts to be shown something as interesting as Spider-Man unmasking and not to be allowed to see what follows from it. And it hurts a great deal to realize that the only remaining avenue of character development has been closed off. Now that she has dreamed the bleedin' obvious fact that Peter is Spider-Man, there is zero chance that Betty is going to put two and two together in real life. And now that we have seen Peter Parker tell Betty the truth in a dream, there is zero chance that we will see him come clean in the waking world. We thought we were getting a resolution: what we actually got was a declaration that this story-line is never going to be resolved.

Betty is shunted off to the land where subplots go to die. Or at any rate, Chicago. She can't go back to sleep because she is thinking of Peter Parker, and realizes that she has to "make a decision about him...a decision which can't be put off any longer." And that's the last we see of her for seven issues. By the end of issue #34 Jonah Jameson has a new secretary, and Peter is having a good old whinge about the situation. ("She'd never accept me as Spider-Man...but Spider-Man I've been...and shall always be...for as long as I live.") In #35, he goes to the office, meets the new girl, and chucks a framed photo inscribed to Betty in the bin. As previously noted, Peter is childishly obsessed with chucking his toys in trash-cans. Since Ned Leeds is also out of town, Peter assumes that he and Betty left together: the following issue, he actually uses the term "eloped". By #36, he is very much treating Betty as an "ex-" ("I don't want another Betty Brant situation developing again".) Jameson has another new secretary in #37; another one quits in #38. ("That's the third one this week" quips Peter "and it's only Tuesday.")

In issue #38 Ned Leeds comes home. It turns out that he didn't elope with Betty: he went to California on private business and has no more idea than Peter where she went. Ned blames Peter for driving her away, and tells Peter that he has proposed to her, even though Peter knows, and Ned knows he knows. The two guys have a fully fledged shouting match. Peter's internal monologue is even more chauvinistic than usual: he is still banging on about how Betty would never accept him as Spider-Man, and then adds "But I can't be sure. No-one can predict a female's reaction!" He spends the rest of the issue worrying about Betty (patronizingly calling her "the kid") and then punches a shop window mannequin because it looks slightly like Ned Leeds. "You know Why I hate you, Leeds... Because you have the right to propose to Betty! The shadow of Spider-Man isn't standing between you." 



I think that Ditko was going somewhere with all this. Betty has gone somewhere to do a thing, and Ned Leeds is using his Investigative Reporter skills to find out where and what. But Steve leaves the building without giving Stan any clues as to how the story was going to develop; and within two issues Stan has allowed it to fizzle out like a second hand firework.

Is it perhaps even possible that the Ned/Betty plot was supposed to be connected in some way with the Norman Osborn plot?  Steve was laying the groundwork for a Big Reveal about Norman Osborn in his final two issues, fueling the speculation that it was a disagreement about this plot line that caused the greatest partnership in the history of comics to come to an end. Of  course, we now take it for granted that the Mysterious Mr Osborn turns out to be [SPOILERS FOLLOW] the Green Goblin. But Romita's first two issues (#39 and #40) follow awkwardly from Ditko's last ones (#37 and #38). As late as 1974, Marvel's in-house magazine FOOM was claiming that Ditko intended Ned Leeds to be the Green Goblin, while Stan Lee was still wedded to the Aztec Mummy idea... Some people think that there is some significance in Ned Leeds' green tie, and in the fact that the tailor's dummy has a big grin on its face. This is a really big stretch. But I can't believe that two characters would have gone off on mysterious journeys if there wasn't supposed to be some revelation about their destinations.

So, in Romita's first issue, Parker meets Ned again, and they mutually apologize for their row. Peter tells Ned that he's "out of the running" for Betty and tells himself that he will now "put her out of his mind" forever. (Peter may be turning into a hipster, but he still regards women as prizes which men compete for.) In issue #40, Betty gets to do some soliloquizing of her own. Apparently what happened was that she woke up from her bad dream and hopped on a train to Chicago (some 800 miles away) but is going to come home because "a girl can never run away from a decision". But...but...I thought the whole reason for her leaving town was to enable her to make a decision? She says that she still hates to hear Spider-Man's name; but is more worried about whether Mr Jameson will give her her old job back.

"And if he does...what will it be like, seeing Peter Parker and Ned Leeds again? And what will they say when they see me? Will there still be a place in their lives...for Betty Brant?" 


Oh dear. 

This scene carries a Stan Lee qualifier:

"As you've probably guessed by now, the pages you've just read are a typical Marvel device for bringing new readers up to date as painlessly as possible! We just didn't want you to think that you'd picked up a romance book by mistake."

Stan's relationship with John Romita seems to have been much less Marvel methodical than the one with Ditko: there is a much greater sense that Stan tells John what to draw, and John draws it. But six panels is a lot of space to spend telling us stuff we already know; and Betty's soliloquy is more than usually replete with waffle. Did Romita turn in pictures of an enigmatic Betty on a railway station, as part of an ongoing romantic sub-plot, and did Stan then fill it with inconsequential thought bubbles because he was no longer interested in this particular thread? He certainly seems still to be sensitive to the complaints of fans who object to love, romance, drama and mystery....

Betty finally gets back to New York in issue #41, and the romance which has been coming to an end since issue #11 grinds to a resounding nothing. Betty tells Peter that she has had a nice time on the coast. It follows that her business in Chicago was so secret and mysterious that she is prepared to lie to both Peter and Ned about where she has been. Or that she went to Chicago via California, a detour of barely two thousand miles. Or else that Stan Lee has completely stopped paying attention. 

Peter and Betty have an awkward conversation until Ned turns up, and then Peter makes his excuses and leaves. On his way, he performs a short aria.

"All these months I thought about her, dreamt about her, longed for her!! So now she's returned...and nothingsville. Whatever we had before, whatever there was between us...it's gone."



But so far as we know, Peter has not been thinking about, dreaming about, and longing for Betty. Rather the reverse: Betty has been standing on railway stations wondering why the figure of Spider-Man haunts her dreams; while Peter has been basically resigned to the fact that the relationship can't work and has even started flirting with Gwen. Stan Lee has gone for one of his soft-resets: the idea that Spider-Man has driven the two star-crossed lovers apart fades out; the idea that Betty even cares about Peter's secret evaporates. It turns out that they have just outgrown each other.

This doesn't stop Peter having a jolly good wallow, and like all adolescents on the rebound he denies that his feelings about Betty were ever real. 

"Once I thought I couldn't live without her. Now she's just another girl named Betty. Boy have I grown up in these past few months! I realize now we never had anything in common. It's just that she was the first girl I ever thought I loved!" 

And so, no more of Betty Brant. In #42 she is shown working for the Daily Bugle again; and in #43 she is showing off the engagement ring that Ned has bought her. By then Peter is actively courting Gwen Stacey and Aunt May has succeeded in introducing him to his glamorous neighbor Mary Jane.

It would be a hundred issues before Ned Leeds and Betty Brant finally got married. A hundred issues after that, it turned out that although Ned was never the Green Goblin he was the Hobgoblin. Sort of.

He is killed off in in an issue of Wolverine.






A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
by
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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.



Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip


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.

 Please do not feed the troll. 




Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Curious Afterlife of Ben Parker


The death of Uncle Ben --
from Amazing Fantasy 15, Amazing Spider-Man 50,
Spectacular Spider-Man 1 and Amazing Spider-Man 94


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. 

first version of the crime fighter's oath;
from Amazing Spider-Man 50
"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." 

The moment of realisation
as depicted in Amazing Fantasy 15, Amazing Spider-Man 50,
Spectacular Spider-Man 1 and Amazing Spider-Man 94


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. 

The Crime Fighters Oath,
from Spectacular Spider-Man 1
"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.)
The Oath, again -
from Amazing Spider-Man 94

"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.

A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
by
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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.



Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip


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.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Steve Ditko 1927 - 2018

Most of the time now we settle for half and I like it better. But the truth is holy, and even as I know how wrong he was, and his death useless, I tremble, for I confess that something perversely pure calls to me from his memory – not purely good, but himself purely, for he allowed himself to be wholly known and for that I think I will love him more than all my sensible clients. And yet, it is better to settle for half, it must be! And so I mourn him – I admit it – with a certain . . . alarm.

A View from the Bridge

I remember the '80s, when for a while it looked like a company called Pacific was going to break the Marvel vs DC duopoly. They launched with a comic called (and if there's any giggling there'll be trouble) Captain Victory and His Galactic Rangers: 25 pages of post-New Gods Jack Kirby and 5 or so pages of post Mr A Steve Ditko. A symbolic act: two of the three pillars of Marvel working for the new upstart imprint. Jack Kirby still looked and sounded exactly like Jack Kirby, although perhaps not quite as good. (As so often he was ill-served by his inkers.) There were spaceships and aliens and Galactus shaped space gods and no actual plot. The Ditko piece, Missing Man, I could make no sense of, and still can't. There were some gangsters, and a supporting cast who didn't seem to be properly introduced, and an awful lot of talking. And yet, somehow, the magic lingered.

It lingered in things like Machine Man and Captain Universe and Speedball and oh god he did a run on Rom Space Knight, a comic about an Action Man accessory. It felt strange. Magical but strange. Comics that were almost, but not quite, like the ones I first fell in love with. The man who drew Spider-Man, still drawing like the man who drew Spider-Man.

So why the hell wasn't he drawing Spider-Man?

The sad but simple answer was "because he didn't want to." Which is fair enough.

Ditko never did anything else as good as Spider-Man. But everything Ditko did reminded us of Spider-Man. Yes, he did Doctor Strange and if we hadn't had Doctor Strange we wouldn't have had Sandman, not in  quite the same way. And yes, he did The Question and Mr A and without the Question and Mr A we wouldn't have had Rorschach, and everyone has already quoted the anecdote about him saying that Rorschach is "Like Mr A, but insane." But it is those 33 issues he will be remembered for. Surely the best 33 issue run anyone ever did?

T.S Eliot talks about The Tradition. There are writers who are great, but outside the Tradition, not really influenced by anyone who came before, and not really exerting an influence on anyone who came after them. (William Blake, for example.) And there are writers who are influenced by the ones who came before them, and who influenced writers who come after them, but whose effect on the tradition is, on the whole, bad. (Milton, he says. Paradise Lost is great, but it subjected the world to decades of mediocre writers trying to sound like Paradise Lost.) And there are writers who are both influenced and influential and whose influence is entirely benign. I understand that Mr William Shakespeare has given general satisfaction in this respect. 

Jack Kirby was so central to the Tradition, so definitively influential on everything which followed, that it is very easy for young people to look at the Fantastic Four or the New Gods and ask "Why is this so great? It's just generic Marvel Comics superhero art." But I think that Ditko's star may eventually eclipse even Kirby's just because Ditko was such a maverick. No one else could do what Ditko did; no one ever tried. The people who stepped into Jack Kirby's shoes, Buscema and Byrne and whoever, all made more or less decent stabs and drawing like Kirby. The people who drew Spider-Man after Ditko bailed didn't even make a serious attempt to draw like Ditko. John Romita made a more or less decent stab at drawing Spider-Man as Kirby might have drawn him. Since folklore tells us that Ditko got the gig because Stan thought that Jack's style was too heroic this was a very courageous choice. John Byrne makes no attempt to emulate Ditko's art style even when he's literally redrawing Ditko comic books. And Todd McFarlane only ever drew like Todd McFarlane.

So anyone can pick up The End of Spider-Man  or The Sinister Six and still be blown away by its idiosyncrasy and its weirdness and its distance from anything else there has ever been. There could never be anything else like The Amazing Spider-Man because there was no-one else like Steve Ditko.

Ditko's politics were not my politics. What I have read of Ayn Rand strikes me simply as nonsense. But Ditko's politics was never toxic in the way that Dave Sim's and Frank Miller's are arguably toxic. Not in the glory years, anyway. His recent pamphlets remind me of latter Alan Moore, trying to explain a private religion which is obvious to himself and hopelessly obscure to everyone else. But I have not read them at all closely because I find them hopelessly abstruse. Cruel people have compared them with Jack Chick's tracts; but then kind people have admitted that they admired Chick's single mindedness and directness and ability to put his beliefs across in impactful images, despite deploring those beliefs. 

Objectivism is not a political philosophy so much as a set of propositions. "I owe no one anything, and no one owes anything to me." "My only right is a fair day's pay for an honest day's work." "Fair exchange, honestly entered into by both parties, is the only basis for human relationships." "Your only duty is to be the best version of yourself you can possibly be." "Rational self-interest is the only true morality." Little of interest seems to follow: but I think I can see how the core credo would appeal to a man like Ditko. And the religion of individualism is obviously a compelling basis for heroic narrative.

And yet... Ayn Rand taught us that no man has any duty to any other man; but Spider-Man believes that with great power comes great responsibility. Why did the arch disciple of the rational conservative create a character who was, if anything, a Christian Socialist? (A Jewish Christian Socialist but let's not go there today) I am convinced that this contradiction is what makes the Very Early Spider-Man so un-repeatably, so quintessentially great. Perhaps there are two contradictory creative visions, two creators battling for the soul of Spider-Man in the actual pages of the comic book. Perhaps we are literally watching Ditko's belief that to be true to yourself is the only law colliding with Stan Lee's belief that you are responsible for every good deed at you fail to do. But perhaps Ditko intended that Peter Parker should start out believing that with great power came great responsibility so that he could spend the next 30 issues realizing what a foolish, unlivable creed that was. Perhaps Ditko created a miserable, neurotic liberal crushed by the impossible demands of liberalism so he could finally show him throwing off that unbearable burden and becoming his own man.

I work in a kids library, and the other day I saw a young lad glued to some old Spider-Man cartoons on his tablet. He didn't know about objectivism or Marvel Method or even that Aunt May had a weak heart, but he did know that Spider-Man had a red and blue costume with webbing over it, and slanty white eye pieces and swung on skyscrapers with his web and had a big red spider on his chest and stuck to walls and captured thieves just like flies. Not Galactus. Not the Shadow, Not Tarzan. Not Cerebus the Aardvark: Spider-Man.

There are not many characters who have persisted for 50 years and who we can be fully certain will persist for another 50, but Spider-Man is one of them. (So is the alien with the red cloak and the problem with his underwear; so is the guy from Baker Street with the pipe and the attitude problem. The person in the blue box with the screwdriver is reaching the end of their natural life. I will be proved right about this.)

I don't know if Ditko would have taken comfort from that. Probably not. I think his attitude was that he did a job of work 50 years ago to the best of his ability at the time, and got paid the going rate, and that's all anyone has any right to. He would have certainly been pleased that his obituarists, without exception, and in the face of decades of corporate Stanology, took it for granted that Steve Ditko was the creator, if not quite the onlie begatter of one of the most famous fictional characters in the world.

Ditko died; Spider-Man will live forever.





A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
by
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. 

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting Andrew on Patreon. 

if you do not want to commit to paying on a monthly basis, please consider leaving a tip via Ko-Fi.



Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip


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.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Friday, June 29, 2018

The Love You Take....

Pages 1-5 of Amazing Spider-Man #33 are so iconic that it is easy to forget that pages 6-20 exist. It is a little disconcerting to see Spider-Man limping away after his Big Moment, literally hugging the serum to his body. 

Ditko doesn't let him off the hook. He's swept away as water floods the base; he's attacked by two underwater Minions in scuba gear and ten more on dry land. It takes him as long to get out of the base as it did for him to lift the wreckage. But the atmosphere is different. These pages are exhilarating to read because we know now that Spidey will win through. 

The standard advice to a writer would be to wrap-up the story straight after the final crisis: and Ditko certainly could have shown Spider-Man swinging off into the sunset with the serum in his hand. But these pages are indispensable, in the same way that Spidey Strikes Back is an indispensable part of The End of Spider-Man. Spider-Man has passed the test, and we now see him claiming the reward. Perhaps because it is less famous, the final fight with the purple minions -- in which Spidey continues to punch empty air even after he has knocked out all his opponents -- strikes me as even more powerful than the great lifting scene. Tired and injured, he takes on a dozen men, clinging to his new found identity --

"I'm Spider-Man! And I'm not going to fail! I'm not! I'm not..."

Ditko makes us wait while Connors mixes his potions together; and makes us wait to find out if the alchemical potion really cures Aunt May; and makes us watch as Spider-Man goes back and photographs the crime scene. Embedded in Ditko's great moral climax is one of Stan Lee's all time great comedy one-liners. Look at J.J.J. grinning when he hears that Foswell has a got a big news story, and look at Betty Brant's reaction... 

"Mr Jameson! You're smiling! Is anything wrong?"




There is one loose end to tie off and it is what convinces me more than anything else that The Final Chapter was intended to be, well, the final chapter. Again, look at the pictures of Peter Parker at the Bugle and ignore the dialogue. Parker slouching, with his back to Betty, just like the last time he saw her, and the time before that. Betty sees him; she runs to him. He doesn't want to see her. We see the back of his head as it passes off panel. The camera spins round: now we're standing behind Betty; looking at her looking at Peter. This is the first time we've seen his face since the great ordeal; the first time in 30 pages he's taken his mask off. He's got bruises all over his face. And Betty freaks out. Of course she does.

Betty's situation hasn't changed. She has hated Peter Parker's dangerous work, which is connected in her mind with her brother Bennet's gang murder, since issue #13 at least. But this impressionistic panel crystallizes it. She remembers Bennet's shooting; and somehow his face morphs into Peter Parker's.

Three times before, Peter Parker has walked away from Betty, ending the relationship even though he wants it to continue; and each time Betty has come back, affecting to not quite understand what the problem is. This time she runs away from him.

Ned isn't mentioned. He was only ever an excuse. It's over.



One last thing. 

Peter Parker is Ditko's surrogate and Spider-Man is Stan Lee's surrogate and this story is all about Peter. But there is also a sense in which the relationship between the studious, bespectacled, talented freelancer and the mean, blustersome, cigar-chomping editor reflects that between Steve Ditko and his boss Stan Lee. And so before we go, Peter wins a small victory over Jonah. He finally has some good pictures, of the Purple Minions being arrested. "I want a hundred dollars each..." he says "Or I'll peddle them elsewhere." And Jameson pays him his money. I think on my first reading this moment pleased me more than all the others. 

And so we are back at the hospital, and Ditko continues to milk it; the young doctor seeing Peter's physical state and insisting on checking him out before Aunt May's results come through, and of course, it's good news. "With luck, we expect her to pull through." And for my money, that's the one panel which justifies The Master Planner Trilogy's reputation as the greatest comic book story of all time. Not Spider-Man listing the really heavy weight, but Peter Parker looking at Aunt May's bed. It doesn't just wind up the Very Famous Master Planner Trilogy, it winds up the whole story of Spider-Man. 


"I didn't let you down this time, Aunt May. I didn't fail you."

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.

And Peter Parker walks off into the distance, and doctor pulls down the blind. The end.

We see the doctor's hands from off panel: Aunt May is in the foreground. It always feels awkward when speech bubbles come from off-panel: it makes the words seem at odds with the picture. Has Stan Lee missed the point again? Did Ditko, perchance, intend to give the last word to Peter Parker?

Still, like a Shakespearean chorus the doctor sums up and he is both right and wrong. Right that Peter is a nice guy; right that he's the real hero; right even that it's him, not Spider-Man who we should admire. We could even see his words as a riposte to the hacks on the letters page who want more Spidey and less Peter. Too bad they can't accept that it's Peter's comic. But the doctor is wrong to praise Peter at Spider-Man's expense and quite wrong to think of Spider-Man as a thrill seeker. 

Spider-Man, the TV star. Spider-Man the self-publicist. Spider-Man the boastful braggart. Spider-Man did his bravest ever deed at the bottom of the ocean at the dead of night. No-one will ever know. 

The end.

Final panels of Spider-Man #33.
Is this where Ditko intended the saga of Spider-Man to end?





It’s not just what you’re born with
It’s what you choose to bear
It’s not how big your share is
It’s how much you can share
It’s not the fights you dreamed of
It’s those you really fought
It’s not what you’ve been given
It’s what you do with what you’ve got
Si Kahn




This has been the last part of "Listen Bud!", Andrew Rilstone's exposition of the first thirty three episodes of The Amazing Spider-Man by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, begun on 23 May 2016.

Thank you to the 40 readers who donated a total of $300 a month to keep this project happening. If you enjoy what I am doing, it would be great if you could join them.


I am going to be soliciting feedback from Patreon backers about what projects I embark on next, so now would be a great time to jump on board. You'll also get occasional little treats, like free e-book collections of my writing, and the right to by book versions at reduced rates. 

But whether you support me financially or not thanks to everyone for sticking around for this project; it's something I've wanted to do for years, and I don't think anything quite like it has been tried before. 

I am not completely done with Spidey: there a several supplementary essays in the pipeline.

As a very great man once said: Excelsior! 








A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
by
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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