Showing posts with label draft. Show all posts
Showing posts with label draft. Show all posts

Friday, January 25, 2019

Green, Green My Goblin Now

It is a fact that Steve Ditko stepped down as plotter, artist and co-writer of Amazing Spider-Man after issue #38. 

It is also a fact that the Green Goblin's long-concealed secret identity was revealed in Amazing Spider-Man #39. 

The conclusion is inescapable. Steve Ditko quit because Stan Lee had decided to reveal the arch villain's true identity. 

This idea has been in circulation for so long that it has become a received truth: here, for example, is the Guardian's obituary for Ditko: 

"But at his creative peak, Ditko abruptly left Marvel. The reasons may have included a creative battle over a storyline in which Lee wanted The Green Goblin to turn out to be Parker’s best friend’s father, while Ditko wanted him to be a random character. Lee’s instincts proved correct." 

But, as Captain Blackadder might have said, there is one tiny flaw in this version of events. It is bollocks. 

The Grotesque Adventure of the Green Goblin (Amazing Spider-Man #14) begins and ends with the villain in his civilian clothes, but with his face pointedly obscured. This is repeated in issue #17, #26 and #27: we readers see the Goblin plotting against Spider-Man, but we are not allowed to see his face. This is a clear signal that if his face were not hidden, it is one we readers would recognize. There would be no point in hiding a character's face if it was not a face the audience already knew.

In issue #37, Once Upon a Time There was a Robot, Ditko introduces a new mystery, ostensibly unrelated to the Green Goblin. A businessman, Norman Osborn, is engaged in a longstanding feud with a scientist, Prof. Stromm. Osborn swindled Stromm out of some inventions and caused him to be unjustly sent to prison; Stromm therefore sends a flock of robots to destroy his electronics factory. But Stromm knows something about Osborn, and Osborn is prepared to commit murder to silence him. 

In #39, as everyone in the world knows, Stan Lee resolved both these mysteries. The Goblin, having unmasked Peter Parker, rips off his own mask and reveals that he is...none other than....[SPOILERS FOLLOW] Norman Osborn. 

Most of us cannot conceive of a time when we did not know that Osborn was the Goblin, any more than we can conceive of a time when we did not know the name of Luke Skywalker's father. But as a piece of narrative I don't think the Osborn/Goblin story line is very satisfying. The mystery of Osborn's feud with Stromm is not brought to a particularly satisfying resolution by the discovery that he is the Goblin; and the long standing puzzle about the Green Goblin is not satisfactorily resolved by the revelation that he is Norman Osborn. We never find out what inventions Osborn stole from Stromm; we never find out what secret Stromm was going to reveal. (He never knew that Osborn was the Goblin.) And "some science blew up in my face and turned me evil" is not a great back-story. 

If we only had the comics to go on, I would guess that Stan Lee wanted to resolve all Ditko's dangling plot-lines as quickly as possible. So he chose the path of least resistance. What is Osborn's secret? He is the Green Goblin. What is the Green Goblin's identity? He is Norman Osborn. Onwards and upwards. 

But it is more complicated than that. 

You knew it would be.

The idea that Stan and Steve disagreed about the Goblin was in circulation as far back as 1974, when Marvel's house magazine, FOOM!, claimed that Lee was still clinging to the old idea of the Goblin being a resuscitated Egyptian Mummy and Ditko was going for the scarcely less far-fetched notion that he was Ned Leeds. But as the years rolled on, the "some random guy" theory gained traction. 

Here is Stan Lee talking in an interview in 2014: 

I never knew why he quit in the first place. It might have had to do with the fact that I was trying to tell him how to do the stories. With the Green Goblin we didn't know who the character really was. I wanted him to turn out to be Harry Osborn's father. 

Ditko said, "No, I don't want it to be. It should be somebody we don't know." 

So I said, "Steve, the readers have been following the series for the longest time, waiting to find out who he is. If it's somebody they've never seen they'll be frustrated." 

Anyway, I couldn't convince him and he certainly couldn't convince me, so that might have been what drove him away. 

But he never told me and we don't see each other anymore.

And here he is, telling the same story in 2017

I had a big argument with Steve Ditko, who was drawing the strip at the time. When we had to reveal the identity of the Green Goblin, I wanted him to turn out to be the father of Harry Osborn, and Steve didn’t like that idea, 

He said, ‘No, I don’t think he should be anybody we’ve seen before"’

 I said ‘Why?’ 

He said ‘Well, in real life, the bad guy doesn’t always turn out to be someone you’ve known.’

 And I said, ‘Steve, people have been reading this book for months, for years, waiting to see who the Green Goblin really is. If we make him somebody that they’ve never seen before, I think they’ll be disappointed — but if he turns out to be Harry’s father, I think that’s an unusual dramatic twist that we can play with in future stories.’ 

And Steve said ‘Yeah, well, that’s not the way it would be in real life.’

And I said ‘In real life, there’s nobody called The Green Goblin. 

And so Steve was never happy about that, but since I was the editor, we did it my way.” 

This story is so full of holes that it could be served up as a cheese course in a Swiss restaurant. 

The suggestion that Ditko might have walked away because Lee was "telling him how to write the stories" is mind-boggling. It corresponds to nothing we know about the two men's working relationship. In his infamous 2007 interview with Jonathan Ross, Lee was perfectly clear: in the early days, Steve worked from a brief plot summary which he could change and embellish at will. In the middle period, Steve worked from a one or two sentence plot seed from Stan Lee. And at the end -- certainly from issue #25 and perhaps as far back as #17  Lee had no input whatsoever into the creation of the plots. Steve "would just go away and do whatever story he wanted". In 1966 Lee told the Herald Tribune:

"I don’t plot Spider-Man any more. Steve Ditko, the artist, has been doing the stories....We were arguing so much over plot lines I told him to start making up his own stories." "

And according to the accounts of people who worked at Marvel at the time the two weren't even on speaking terms. Ditko mailed finished artwork to the Marvel offices, or handed it to secretary Flo Stienberg or office manager Sol Brodsky. 

So — when and how is this perfectly reasonable discussion about a plot point supposed to have taken place?

Lee says that he "wanted the Green Goblin to be the father of Harry Osborn". But in 1966, Harry Osborn barely existed: he was a minor character, a wingman and foil for Flash Thompson. In later years, Parker would indeed make friends with Harry and become his roommate; and Stan Lee would insert flashbacks in which Parker's first reaction on seeing the Goblin's true face was "My best friend's father!" But none of this was true in 1966. If Lee had really wanted to make the Goblin's identity have a personal resonance for Peter Parker, why wouldn't he have insisted on him being the father of Gwen Stacy or Flash Thompson? 

It makes little sense to say that "Since I was the editor, we did things my way." "We" didn't do anything at all. Steve walked outwithout completing a cover or a splash page for his final issueand Osborn storyline was wound up by John Romita.

Certainly, Ditko did like stories in which the villain turns out to be an anonymous nobody. Three previous bad-guysElectro, the Crime Master, and the Looterturned out to be no-one Spider-Man had ever heard of. Did Ditko really want to do it a fourth time? I suppose it is just possible that this might have been the hill Stan Lee chose to die on. But why would he say "readers will be frustrated" rather than "no, Steve, we've done that before"?

But Ditko didn't have any absolute aversion to dramatic unmaskings and surprising revelations. In issue #31, he deliberately made us curious about the identity of the Master Planner (allowing us to eavesdrop on his monologues from outside his base, but not to see his face). In #32, the Master Planner turned out to be, not some random fella, but Doctor Octopus. In #19, Ditko had deliberately made us curious about the identity of the man-in-the-dressing-gown who was spying on Peter Parker. The following issue, the man-in-the-dressing-gown turned out to be, not John Doe, but J.Jonah Jameson. The last time we saw the Green Goblin, he was holding his mask aloft while his face was blacked out by shadow. That was how Steve Ditko chose to draw him. There is no way that this character was ever going to turn out to be Matt Dillon or Norman Fester or Lucky Louis.

If Lee's version of events is hard to swallow, Ditko's own account is not much more palatable. 

"I knew from Day One, from the first GG story, who the GG would be. I absolutely knew because I planted him in J. Jonah Jameson’s businessman's club, it was where JJJ and the GG could be seen together. I planted them together in other stories where the GG would not appear in costume, action. I planted the GG’s son (same distinctive hair style) in the college issues for more dramatic involvement and storyline consequences.”

It is perfectly true that Norman Osborn had already been shown as a background character at J. Jonah Jameson's club before his first "named" appearance in issue #37. But it is a bit of a stretch for Ditko to say that he knew that Jonah's club-friend was the Green Goblin on day 1. The Green Goblin first appeared in issue #14; the Norman Osborn figure doesn't appear until issue #23the Goblin's third appearance (of four). And it is not quite fair to say that he showed Jonah and Club Man together in "stories" which didn't have the Goblin in them. He did so exactly once, in issue #25. "From the first appearance of Club Man, I knew that he would be the Green Goblin" is a plausible claim "From the first appearance of the Green Goblin, I knew that he would be Club Man", not so much.

Things got very sour between Stan Lee and some of his ex-collaborators in the 80s and 90s. (Jack Kirby once claimed that Stan never wrote a word and was functionally illiterate!) But if Ditko says that he always intended Harry to be Club Man's son and Club Man to be the Goblin I am inclined to believe him. It would be a very odd thing to lie about. 

The only way I can make Stan Lee's story make sense is to engage in a flight of fantasy  almost a piece of fan meta-fiction. Perhaps Ditko did indeed intend that J Jonah Jameson's friend from the club would turn out to be the Green Goblin. But he intended that Club Man should be known to Jameson but unknown to Peter Parker. Ditko intended that when Spider-Man pulled the Goblin's mask off, he would exclaim "I have never seen this guy before" but us readers would exclaim "Aha...but we have." (This is what happen in the case of Electro and the Looter. Peter Parker has never heard of Max Dillon or Norman Fester, but we  readers have.) Very late in the day, Lee insisted that Club Man should also have a personal connection to Peter Parker: that he should be related to one of his class mates. Ditko revealed that Club Man was the father of Harry Osborn, in issue #37, reluctantly and against his better judgment. His intention had been for the Osborn/Goblin story to be a slow-burner; a new cog in the story machine. Imagine all the ironic confusion that could develop once it was established that Jonah, without realizing it, knew both Spider-Man and the Goblin in their civilian identities. But Lee misunderstood Ditko's objection: he thought that Ditko wanted the Goblin to be someone who had never appeared in the strip before; whereas in fact, he merely wanted him to be someone Spider-Man himself did not know. And what angered Steve Ditko was not Stan Lee's decision to reveal that Osborn and the Goblin were one and the sameit was his decision to allow Peter Parker to find out far too quickly and easily.

A second story could go like this: Ditko did not intend Norman Osborn to be the Green Goblin: he had a quite different storyline in mind. For issue #39 he submitted artwork which continued the story from #37 and #38perhaps revealing what Osborn's current plans were and what secret Stromm knew. But Lee was so wedded to the idea that Osborn was the Goblin that he rejected the finished artwork. Ditko was so furious that he walked out. 

The difficulty with these two hypothesis is that there is not one shred or scintilla of evidence for either of them. But the alternative is to call the much-beloved Stan Lee a liar.

If Ditko had always known that the Goblin was Club Man and Club Man was Harry's father, I don't think he ever told Lee. We know how Stan Lee wrote: how much his characters brood; and how happy he is to allow the readers to listen in on their soliloquies. If he had known that Osborn was the Goblin I don't think he could have resisted the temptation to give him a thought balloon saying "Good...they suspect nothing!" or "They are talking about the Crime Master, but they don't suspect my secret!" And those first college episodes would have been improved if Nasty Harry had shared some of his inner thoughts about his own father with the reader. ("Why is Puny Parker blanking us all...just like Dad keeps doing to me.") 

Indeedto engage in another leap into meta-fictionperhaps Ditko didn't tell Stan who Osborn was because he knew that Stan would give the game away too early?

And so we crash into a brick wall. Lee's claim that Ditko wanted the Goblin to be Nobody is silly; but Ditko's claim that he knew who the Goblin was from the very beginning is hard to credit. 

In 1991 Ditko wrote:

"I know why I left Marvel, but no one else in this universe knew or knows why. "

Probably, we should leave it there. No-one in the universe knows what caused the final rift between Lee and Ditko.

Except possibly Jonathan Ross, and he's not talking.

"Robbie Reed", over on the "Dial B For Blog" site, writes about Ditko with an even greater obsession with minutiae than yours truly. And I think that that his guess about why Ditko left is as close to the mark as we are going to get. It wasn't the money: Charlton paid much less than Marvel. It wasn't editorial interference; he went and worked for Atlas which was the company Stan Lee's boss Martin Goodman founded when he finally parted company with Timley/Marvel. And it certainly wasn't the origin of the Green Goblin. But it may, perhaps, have been a point of narrative principal. 

Steve Ditko believed that heroes should be paragons: people to whom we look up; people we aspire to be. They shouldn't be overly burdened by human weaknesses and foibles. After he left Marvel, Steve Ditko wrote and drew the reassuringly one dimensional Captain Atom for Charlton; and moved on to do The Question and Mr. A, whose only superpowers were their moral clarity. He could cope with Peter Parker's whinging and insecurities as long as he was a schoolboy. He was telling the story of how a boy became a man. But he couldn't stomach the idea of him remaining a neurotic nerd forever. The infamous Herald Tribune essay identified "superheroes with super-problems" as Marvel Comics' unique selling point; and Stan Lee pretty much took that up as a company motto. He said that Peter Parker was the Woody Allen of the superhero world (shy, nerdy, nebbish.) He said that Spider-Man appeals to us, not because he is a hero to aspire to, but because he makes us feel superior. (We feel sure that we could do a better job of being a superhero.) Ditko couldn't live with that: and so he walked away. 

I don't know if I buy the whole story. But it is clear that the first great graphic novel in American literature tells the story of how the weak and dislikable boy from Amazing Fantasy #15 turned into the admirable young man from Amazing Spider-Man #33. The Final Chapter was the final chapter: Ditko couldn't go on telling the story of Spider-Man because, so far as he was concerned, the story of Spider-Man was finished.

So endeth this chronicle. It being strictly a history of a boy, it must stop here; the story could not go much further without becoming the history of a man. When one writes a novel about grown people, he knows exactly where to stop -- that is, with a marriage; but when he writes of juveniles, he must stop where he best can. Most of the characters that perform in this book still live, and are prosperous and happy. Some day it may seem worth while to take up the story of the younger ones again and see what sort of men and women they turned out to be; therefore it will be wisest not to reveal any of that part of their lives at present.  

Mark Twain.

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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Friday, January 18, 2019

Amazing Spider-Man #39/#40

How Green Was My Goblin?

Norman Osborn / Green Goblin

Supporting Cast:
Dr Bromwell, Gwen Stacey, Flash Thompson, Harry Osborn, Ned Leeds, J.Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Mrs Watson, Betty Brant.

Peter Parker's Financial Situation
Peter sells J.J.J. four pictures of Spider-Man fighting some crooks, and guesses that he is only getting half what they are worth.

In #33, he sold Jonah pictures of the Master Planner for $100 each, although Jonah admitted that they were worth twice that. So it appears that Peter Parker underestimates the value of his work, selling pictures for $50 a print, while believing them to be worth $100 even though their true value to Jonah is $200. If this is correct, he still gets $200 for the four pictures: not bad for an hour's work.

Peter has enough money to see a doctor with a simple cold; perhaps he has acquired comprehensive medical insurance as part of his college scholarship.

"A few weeks" have passed since Spider-Man's encounter with Prof. Stromm.

We have dated #38 to October 19th 1965; #37 (the Stromm story) took place only a few days earlier, which would place this #39
 in the second week of November 1965. 

However when Aunt May mistakes the smoke from the Goblin's glider for fog she says "It was a clear spring night not a few minutes ago!"

Amazing Spider-Man #39 has an August 1966 cover date, probably equating to June 1966 publication, in which case Lee was probably writing it in April of that year. (He announced Ditko's departure to a student audience in March 1966.) So although it will be published in the summer, and must logically be happening in the winter, Lee is writing it in the spring. 

The Goblin's Bag of Tricks
a: The Goblin glider produces a choking smoke screen
b: "Goblin blasts" in his gloves or fingers
c: Pumpkin shaped "stun bombs"
d: A bat that goes "whirr", function unknown.
e: Battery operated bats which disrupt Spidey's field of vision
f: A ghost shaped asphyxiation grenade; specifically said to be the same kind that put the Human Torch out of action in #14.



Title: How Green Was My Goblin 
A play on the 1941 John Ford movie How Green Was My Valley. The title has no bearing on the story apart from the colour "green": it could just as well have been called "There is a Green Goblin Far Away" or "The Green Green Goblin of Home". 

p2 "I've modified my rocket powered flying broomstick..." 
The Goblin's flying device has been referred to as a "glider" since the comics code ruled that broomsticks were a bit too witchy. 

p2 "If I didn't despise that miserable misanthrope so much, I'd almost pity him." 
A misanthrope is one who hates is fellow man. Spider-Man is if anything a philanthrope; he loves his fellow man and altruistically puts his life on the line for them. The Goblin is projecting his own feelings onto others -- accusing Spider-Man of being what he himself is. Or, possibly, Stan Lee has had another vocabulary malfunction. 

p3 "I'll leave my Spidey costume in my brief case."
The costume would quite easily fit into the little case he has been carrying on his back; but it is quite hard to see how it contained shirt, trousers, waistcoat, shoes, socks and (presumably) underwear.

p3 "Of course, it could just be an allergy"  
The idea that Marvel Heroes are so realistic they even suffer from allergies is something of a proverb: but this is one of the few occasions when it is literally referred to in a story. 

p4 "You've got a whopper of a cold, son..but some anti-histamine pills and a B12 shot will have you good as new again." 
Bromwell diagnoses Peter as having a cold, rather than an allergy, but then prescribes him anti-histamines (an allergy treatment) and vitamin B12 (usually a treatment for anemia or exhaustion.) 

p6 "You mean, you're an orphan? I didn't know that about you..." 
Harry seems to be using the word "orphan" in an old-fashioned sense of "fatherless", rather than in the more common sense of someone who has lost both his parents. Peter certainly hasn't told Harry that he has no living mother. 

p7 "Who's been giving you your boxing lessons lately — Woody Allen?" 
In 1966 Woody Allen was known primarily as a stand-up comic with a nerdy persona; his first movie came out in 1965. It isn't clear why he would instantly spring to mind as a bad boxing coach. 

p 9 "What would Soupy Sales say if he heard you." 
Soupy Sales was a children's entertainer and comedian; his regular kids TV show had just come to an end. 

p9 "There's something not kosher about all this..." 
"Kosher" was widely used to mean "OK" or "above board" and probably isn't a specifically Jewish reference — despite two Jewish comedians having just been mentioned.

p9 "What a sap I am" 
"Sap" = "fool". It may possibly be military slang for "sad and pathetic" or possibly even "sad-ass prick". 

p12 "I wonder if I'll get kicked out of the superhero union for not using a phone booth." 

Clark Kent proverbially changes to Superman in a public phone box, although examples of him doing so in actual comics are suspiciously hard to come by. Note that earlier this issue Peter Parker swapped clothes in a broom closet. 

p13 "My cold seems to have gotten better" 
On page 8 Spider-Man was still speaking wid a blocked up dose. ("I've a feel'g you looked id those glasses without payi'g your dime") but 4 pages later it is all clear. Powerful stuff, vitamin B12. 

p14 "Returning home from a late date" 
Not that late. Peter went into action as Spidey right after school; there were kids in the bank; and the Bugle offices were still open. If the fight really only took an hour, it can scarcely be later than 4.30pm 

p15 "The Green Goblin! You've found me!" 
Bad form, Peter. You could at least have said "My God! I knew that dressing up as Spidey for that costume party would land me in hot water" or "Where am I? Did that rat Spider-Man drug me" or "I was only rehearsing the lines for a play.." 


p3 "That's okay Dad, I understand" 
Harry told Peter that he and his Dad were great pals until a few years ago: but the flashback scenes show that Norman was a neglectful father long before he became the Green Goblin. 

p4 "Dad have you forgotten? It's parents night at school." 
Spider-Man first encountered the Goblin about two years ago, when he was in high school, presumably aged about 16. This is consistent with Harry Osborn looking about 15 when Norman becomes the Green Goblin. 

p5  "All sorts of scientific devices in my chemical company that I could use". 
In #37, he was said to run an electronics company. 

p6: "Now for my first victim..." 
Note that the Goblin is riding his bat-winged glider, even though the early Goblin rode a broomstick. 

p17 "I must see my son. I have to help him with his bio... "
Harry needed help with his biology homework months or years before Norman became the Goblin: it would have been more logical to say "where is Harry — I promised to go to his parents evening."

Amazing Spider-Man #41 was something of a reboot. The long absent Betty Brant comes home, and promptly walks away into the sunset with Ned Leeds. Peter Parker sulks for a whole panel before falling head-over-heels in love with the still demon-horned Gwen Stacey and simultaneously agreeing to the long delayed blind date with Mary-Jane. He morphs into a hipster and buys a motorbike. ("Lady, there's a lot you don't know about me!"). A new villain, the Rhino, crashes into the story; and a new sub-plot is introduced concerning J.J.J's long-forgotten astronaut son. Stan is quite up-front about what is happening. 

"BEGINNING: A great NEW ERA in the ever-changing life of the world's most amazing web-spinner: 
SEE the return of Betty Brant and the startling result that follows! 
SEE the surprise appearance of J. Jonah Jameson's astronaut son! 
SEE the most exciting new purchase Peter Parker ever made!" 

And of course, SEE some kid called John Romita trying to draw as much like Ditko as possible. 

But Amazing Spider-Man #41 is two months in the future. John Romita arrived, with relatively little fanfare, in issue #39. Why did Stan Lee not herald that issue as the beginning of the exciting new era? 

Presumably, because Ditko had left unfinished business; business that Lee wanted to clear up as quickly and simply as possible. Amazing Spider-Man #39 and #40 are interim, transitional issues. #41 is the relaunch.

As has been noted previously: Steve Ditko nearly always put the "next issue" box at the bottom of the final panel; even if that panel was only one ninth of the page. This is also how Kirby did things; and it will be how Romita generally works. When the "next issue" box is placed on a quarter or half page spread -- as with Amazing Spider-Man #27 and #32, and indeed Fantastic Four #48 -- I will always suspect that this was not where the comic was originally supposed to end. When the first page of part 2 is simply the last panel of part 1 redrawn on a larger scale, I become even more suspicious. And when the "next issue" text partially covers the face of one of the main characters, my suspicions are totally confirmed. 

Amazing Spider-Man #39 and #40 must have been created as a single comic and then split in two. If you doubt me, read them consecutively, ignoring the "next issue" call out and skipping the splash page, and see how much more sense they make. 

"It's the real face of the Green Goblin...the face of Norman Osborn."

"Those features! That name! Of course -- you're related to one of my own classmates!! You're Harry Osborn's father!"

"You shouldn't have mentioned Harry! Why do you remind me of him?"

Did Stan Lee, at some point, intend to wrap up the dangling Ditko plot threads in an annual or a special; and introduce Romita with a big splash starting on #39? Is it even possible that Romita was brought in to redraw #39/#40 after Stan Lee rejected Ditko's version, and was asked to stay on as the regular illustrator when Ditko walked out?

We don't know. It is another part of the intractable enigma of Ditko's departure.

The ending of Spider-Man 39 and the opening of Spider-Man 40, placed side by side. Was this orginally mean as a double issue?

I will say this for Amazing Spider-Man #39: it has a wonderful cover. It hits us in the face with three sensational developments, and teases us with a fourth. The Green Goblin is back; the Green Goblin has defeated Spider-Man and the Green Goblin knows that Spider-Man is Peter Parker. A very small line of text, at the bottom of the page, promises us a fourth surprise: we are going to finally find out who the Green Goblin is. 

It is hard to convey just how shocking this cover is when your grandfather hands it to you on a Saturday evening, along with your weekly ration of mint humbugs. In latter days, quite a lot of people found out who Spider-Man really was -- in the movies he is happy to rip off his mask in front of anyone and everyone. But in those days it was still the ultimate taboo. In this single image the Goblin is transfigured from the one villain whose identity Spider-Man does not know to the one villain who knows Spider-Man's identity.

But, sadly, very little comes of this sensational set-up. The Green Goblin discovers Spider-Man's true identity but within a few pages he forgets it. And until 1968, there the matter rests.

There are three components to any Spider-Man story: the pictures, the dialog, and the plot.

No-one need have any complaint about John Romita's pictures. He does his best to invoke Steve Ditko's iconography. His college scenes and Daily Bugle scenes could pass for Ditko if you weren't paying close attention. But that particular New York back street noir that Ditko excelled at is gone for good: Romita's New York is pretty much just a collection of gray skyscrapers, a painted backdrop for a student production of West Side Story. Ditko's thrilling aerial ballets have also departed: Spidey nonchalantly dangles on his webs with no particular sense of momentum. On the other hand, Romita is pretty good at crowd scenes: the civilians who watch Spider-Man fight the bank robbers have consistent faces and definite personalities.

The dialog is quintessential Stan Lee. There is an awful lot of it, and it is nearly all snappy; swinging between the melodramatically tragic and the tragically hip. There isn't that much Spider-repartee: the stakes are so high that the Goblin mostly talks like a James Bond villain while Spider-Man has an internal monologue about how much trouble he is in. 

"My compliments, Spider-Man. Too bad your power is not the equal to your courage." 

"He's toying with me! He feels so confident that he's warning me advance!" 

Ditko used to draw stuff that wasn't in Stan Lee's plot synopsis; but we should remember that Stan Lee often writes stuff which isn't in the pictures. This issue feels exceptionally dense in that regard. Romita hasn't bothered to keep up the running joke of giving J.J.J. a new secretary every month, so Lee drops in a little speech bubble where he references an off-stage "Miss Brown". Romita shows a mother and child in the crowd during the bank robbery, and Lee uses text to create a tiny little sub-plot for them. 

"Don't look at them Selwyn... you're too young for such an awful sight."

"Aww Ma...that fight's tame next to the kiddie shows on TV"

And in the next panel

"Wait ma... lemmee stay! It's just starting to get good!" 

"Selwyn! What would Soupy Sales say if he heard you?" 

(There seems to be quite a laboured in-joke going on here. The first season of Adam West's Batman TV series, with its famously camp fight scenes, had just finished its first run; and Marvel was gearing up to release The Marvel Superheroes cartoon series in the autumn. There were inevitable complaints about TV violence -- the UK version of Batman had to carry warnings telling kids not to try and emulate Batman's stunts. Selwyn's Mum considers Soupy Sales -- and old fashioned pie-in-the-face children's comedian -- to be a much more wholesome TV star. But the previous year, Sales had himself been accused of being a bad influence on children when he jokingly suggested that they should steal money from their parents and send it to him.)

Perhaps the best example of words and pictures working in conjunction comes during the Goblin's long monologue in issue #40. As Osborn, he repeatedly insists that he was an excellent father to Harry, while the pictures tell a different story: he was a neglectful father even before he became the Goblin. (Stan Lee makes it quite clear that Osborn is an unreliable narrator: could we legitimately infer that Prof. Stromm's exploding green potion had nothing to do with the Goblin's genesis? Osborn was a bastard before the flask blew up in his face, and he remained a bastard afterwards.)

But the actual story -- the plot -- is feeble, internally inconsistent, and padded. Peter Parker has a cold; the doctor gives him some pills; but warns him to protect Aunt May from any shocks or surprises. He goes to college: Harry Osborn is uncharacteristically pleasant and tells him how distant his father has become lately. Spider-Man fights some crooks, who turn out to be in the pay of the Green Goblin: they spray him with an incredibly contrived McGuffin (literally described as "The Gimmick") which deactivates his Spider-Sense. The Goblin follows him to the Daily Bugle and back to his house. At the Bugle, Ned Leeds is uncharacteristically pleasant, and Peter agrees to step aside and let Ned marry Betty if and when she comes home. There is a medium sized fight outside Aunt May's house, which ends with the Goblin knocking Spider-Man out with a special knocky-out-Spider-Man weapon. Why he didn't use it in the first place, no-one knows. Everything which has happened in the issue is a mechanical set up for the final page. The only reason that Peter Parker has a cold is to establish that Aunt May will die if she discovers Peter Parker's secret. ("Now, more than ever, I must see to it that she never learns my secret identity!") The cold magically goes away once Doc Bromwell has dispensed his plot point. The only reason for the college scene is to remind us that Harry has a father and that his father is not very nice. And the only reason for the bank robbery is so the thugs can use The Gimmick. There was a time when Spider-Man could beat up six criminals in a couple of panels; but this fight is padded out to five pages. It takes Peter another whole page to get out of his Spider-Man suit and into his street clothes. 

The reason for this is not hard to guess. For a year at the very least, Stan Lee has not been writing Spider-Plots; and from the very beginning, all the legwork was being done by Ditko. Romita is a perfectly fine illustrator, but he is not a writer. Lee has, I suppose, presented Romita with a Marvel Method outline and Romita has illustrated that outline. But he is not Ditko. He doesn't put stuff into the story which Stan hadn't even thought of. He just draws what Stan gives him. And Stan has given him so little that he has to take everything very slowly. A trip to the doctor's takes two pages and a routine fight with some thugs takes six. Stan Lee can see what everyone else can see: that it looks very pretty -- maybe prettier, in any conventional sense, than Ditko -- but it's very thin stuff. So he goes all out with the dialog; with adjectives and subplots and digressions. Look at the first panel on page 8: I make it four different NPCs who speak; on top of two bubbles worth of internal monologue from Spider-Man.

The Green Goblin's whole personality has been subsumed in his hatred for Spider-Man. Back in #28, he swore that he would never rest until Spider-Man was defeated; he is now ranting that "merely destroying him....simply crushing him like a worm...will not give me enough satisfaction." 

There is really no way to reconcile this with Norman Osborn's rather cold blooded monologue in issue #37: "Spider-Man almost ruined everything...Now his suspicions are aroused he must be disposed of" and again in #38 "I'm prepared to pay handsomely to insure that Spider-Man never interferes with me again." Osborn regarded killing Spider-Man as a means to an end; the Goblin regards defeating him as an end in itself. (In #38, Osborn was disguising himself with a false beard and dark glasses before meeting the mob; but sometime in the intervening period he has openly met with the bank robbers as the Goblin to give them the special Spider-Man-Defeating-Gimmick.)

I do not say that these different stories cannot be harmonized: any two contradictory stories can be harmonized. It helps that the Goblin is mad, maybe even schizophrenic. Perhaps the Osborn of Once Upon a Time There Was a Robot is not consciously aware of his Goblin persona. I do say that I wouldn't be trying to think up harmonizations if I wasn't looking at two texts which obviously contradict each other. 

In future installments Stan Lee will extract a large amount of suspense from the fact that Osborn knows who Parker is. But in this issue the Goblin, having discovered Peter Parker's name, his address, and his place of work follows him home and starts a fight with him. Think of all the horrid things he could have done. Gone to his friend Jonah and sold him the secret for a billion dollars. Told Spider-Man that if he didn't help him become Kingpin of Crime he'd tell Aunt May on him. Murdered one of his best friends. (Gwen Stacey, to take a random example.) But no. They have a fight.

Having captured Spider-Man, the Goblin goes full Republic Serial Villain. He decides that he might as well tell Spider-Man the whole story since he will never be able to share it with anyone else. The whole story is not very interesting: Norman Osborn was a nasty businessman; while working on an experiment some Green chemicals blew up in his face. He went mad and decided he might as well become a gangster. While he is talking, Spider-Man is trying to get free; but the Goblin decides to free him anyway. They have another fight. Parker is a bit stuck: he can't kill the Goblin in cold blood, particularly not now he knows he is Harry's dad; but if he doesn't kill him, he will reveal his identity to the police. Fortunately his adversary falls into a pile of chemicals which explode, and he forgets having been the Goblin altogether. 

Can you say "deus ex machina"

Romita spends a whole page showing us Spider-Man changing back to Peter Parker after the fight. Stan Lee has to give Peter Parker something to say during that clothes-change, and it can't very well be "Gotta grab my yellow shirt. Left arm, right arm, now the buttons..." So he starts to whinge. And whine. And waffle. 

"I've got to get to my room through the back window and change up there! Poor Aunt May! If..if anything HAPPENS I'll never FORGIVE myself! It will be because she was worried about ME! Why must I HURT everything I touch?? Uncle Ben! Betty Brant!! And now...Aunt May! Betty's female intuition must have made her leave me! She must have FELT that I'd bring nothing but HEARTACHE to those I love! The Amazing Spider-Man! ! Able to climb FIGHT, to RUN to THINK better and faster than any dozen ordinary men! Even those who HATE me envy my powers! My POWERS! What a JOKE! I sometimes think they've proven to be nothing but a CURSE! I'd change place with almost ANY normal everyday man! At least AUNT MAY wouldn't have to suffer for my secret!" 

This really makes no sense in terms of what has just happened. Peter Parker hasn't done anything wrong; he didn't phone home because he was unconscious and tied up by a psychopath who wanted to murder him. It might be that Doc Bromwell's warning about not giving Aunt May any shocks should have caused him to quit being Spider-Man (again) but if that isn't possible then there is no point in going off on a self-accusatory aria about a curse. Ditko ended the story of Spider-Man with him casting off his guilt, literally and metaphorically; but Stan Lee has redefined him as the character who whinges and whines and is guilty about anything everything. The Master Planner Trilogy basically never happened. 

In a sense, this isn't Stan Lee's fault. It was always going to be the case that the Master Planner trilogy would have been scribbled out, erased and overwritten. By 1966 Spider-Man was no-longer an experimental graphic novel: it was Marvel Comics biggest meal ticket, an ongoing saga that would clock up fifty, a hundred, five hundred more issues. And if there is one thing which an ongoing saga can never have, it's a Final Chapter.

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. 

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. 

And come back in a weeks time for the very, very final installment of the Spider-Project.

A Prolegomena To Any Future Discussion of the Green Goblin

Where were were on the morning Ditko quit?

Spider-Man #9

First appearance of Electro.

The reader is told in flashback that Electro is an electrical engineer named Max Dillon.

When Spider-Man unmasks Electro, he exclaims: "If this was a movie I'd gasp in horror and then I'd say 'Good heavens! The Butler! But this guy I never saw before.'"

Spider-Man #10

First appearance of the Big Man.

Both the reader and Spider-Man are encouraged to believe that the Big Man is J. Jonah Jameson; in a last minute twist, he is revealed to be Bugle reporter Frederick Foswell.

Spider-Man #14:

First appearance of the Green Goblin.

The reader sees the Goblin in his "shadowy, basement laboratory"; but his face is obscured (by a shadow and a piece of machinery) when he takes his mask off.

Spider-Man Annual #1

The Goblin is featured in a portfolio of Spider-Man villains. His anonymity is treated as his Unique Selling Point: "Unlike most of Spidey's other foes, the true identity of the Green Goblin is still unknown." 

Spider-Man #17

Second appearance of the Green Goblin.

The reader once again sees the Green Goblin in his lair, plotting his revenge on Spider-Man. Again, his face his obscured (behind the same piece of hi-tech as before.)

We also get a back view of the Goblin in an ordinary brown suit and purple hat but his hair is blacked out, so we don't know what colour or style it is.

Spider-Man #19 

The reader sees a rich figure in a green dressing grown plotting against Spider-Man. His face is concealed from the reader by a shadow.

Spider-Man #20

The mysterious figure in a dressing gown is revealed to be J. Jonah Jameson.

Spider-Man #23

Third appearance of the Green Goblin (we do not see him with his mask off).

First appearance of The Important Man At J.J.J's club. He wears a purple suit, has distinct reddish curled hair, and doesn't get any lines.
Spider-Man #25

Second appearance of Curly Haired Club Man.

Peter Parker sees him leaving J.J.J's office (having just taken out an advert in the paper). J.J.J says "See you at the club tonight" and Peter Parker identifies him as "someone important."

Spider-Man #26/#27

Final appearance of the Green Goblin during the Ditko era.

The Green Goblin is said to have revealed his secret identity to the Crime Master; but the Crime Master dies before revealing it to anyone else.

At the end of the story the reader sees the Goblin holding his mask in the air, vowing revenge on Spider-Man. His face is obscured by shadow.

A false trail is laid suggesting to both Spider-Man and the reader that the Crime Master is Frederick Foswell. He turns out to be a gangster known to the police and Jameson but not to Peter Parker.

Parker says:

"It's kinda funny: in real life when a villain is unmasked he isn't always the butler or the one you  suspected! Sometimes he's a man you didn't even know." 

Third appearance of Important Curly Haired Club Man.

Spider-Man #31

First appearance of Harry Osborn.

Harry is a minor character who replaced "Seymour" as Flash Thompson's accomplice. He wears a bow tie and has Curly Red Hair.

First appearance of The Master Planner.

The reader hears the Master Planner making masterful plans. The reader does not discover the Master Planner's identity -- we appear to hear his monologues from outside his secret base.

Spider-Man #32

The Master Planner's identity is revealed: he is Doctor Octopus.

Spider-Man #36

First and hopefully only appearance of The Looter.

The reader sees Norman Fester acquiring super strength and taking on the identity of the Looter.

When Spider-Man unmasks the Looter, he has no idea who Fester is, exclaiming "I never saw him before in my life...The police will know how to identify him."

Spider-Man #37

First appearance and death of Prof. Stromm.

Important Red Haired Man From Club identified as Norman Osborn, former business partner of Prof. Stromm.

Important Red Haired Man From Club also identified as Father of Harry Osborn.

Prof. Stromm has a secret which no-one else knows, but is murdered by Norman Osborn before he can reveal it.

Spider-Man #38

Norman Osborn places a bounty on Spider-Man's head. He disguises himself in a green business suit, dark glasses and false beard before doing so.

On the morning Ditko quit, the question of the origin and identity of the Green Goblin stood as follows:
  • No-one knows who the Green Goblin is. The one person who ever knew, the Crime Master, is dead. 
  • The Green Goblin is someone whose face is worth hiding from the reader.
  • The colour of the Green Goblin's hair might give us a clue about who he really his. 
  • Norman Osborn is the father of a minor character, Flash Thompson's wing-man, Harry. 
  • Norman Osborn is a close friend of J. Jonah Jameson.
  • Norman Osborn is Not Very Nice. 
  • Norman Osborn has some means of silently escaping from upper windows without a ladder or rope. 
  • Norman Osborn is strong enough to knock out Spider-Man.
  • Norman Osborn stole unspecificed inventions from Prof. Stromm, and then framed him for an unspecified crime. 
  • Norman Osborn has unspecified "plans" which he feels both Prof. Stromm and Spider-Man could interfere with.
  • Norman Osborn does not mention any previous history with Spider-Man, even in his internal monologues.
  • Norman Osborn has a big secret, one which he was prepared to murder Stromm in order to conceal.

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. 

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, September 15, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man #24

Spider-Man goes Mad


Dr Ludwig Rinehart, aka Mysterio

Supporting Cast: 

J. Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Betty Brant, Liz Allan, Flash Thompson, Frederick Foswell


P1 “more action, thrills and surprise villains than you can shake a web at”

"More X than you can shake a stick at” is a pretty common expression; possibly derived from shepherds pointing staffs at their sheep. “Shake a web” doesn’t mean very much, but Stan thinks it is real funny to substitute a “Marvel” word for an ordinary one in a well-known expression. (On the letters page, he claims that Amazing Spider-Man #25 has "more subplots than you can shake a Daily Bugle at"). 
In addition to Dr Rinehart, Spider-Man encounters hallucinations of Doctor Octopus, the Vulture and the Sandman, suggesting that the maximum number of villains you can shake a web at is three.

P2: “COD for May Parker…$6.75”

“Cash on delivery” was a system where customers could order items from a mail order catalogue and pay the delivery man when the goods arrived. It was popular with customers because it meant they could keep their money in a cookie jar rather than opening a cheque account; and with vendors, because it tended to encourage impulse purchases. A nice pillbox hat was being advertised in 1965 for $3.98, so $6.95 — about $50 in today's money — is a considerable extravagance.

P2 “I haven’t sold any news photos to Jonah Jameson in weeks”

The last time we saw Peter selling any pictures was two months ago (issue #22), so either Marvel Time is running quite a bit slower than Real Time, or he has been having undocumented “off stage” adventures between issues.

p2 "I'm gonna find some hot news scoop to photograph just like a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man should"

Peter Parker's motivation for being a superhero is still at least partly mercenary. He's spent several weeks or months allowing burglars to kill uncles without let or hindrance, because he’s been revising for his exams. (He’s going to graduate in two issues time.) What gets him off his webbed backside and onto the streets isn’t a sense of responsibility, but the need to pay for Aunt Mays extravagant tastes in millinery. 

P4 “Oh (Jameson’s) bark is worse than his bite” 

This is just what Lois Lane says about Perry White in That Other Comic. Another move re-positioning J.J.J. as a comic foil who shouts a lot but doesn’t really mean it? 

P5 “Hoke it up” 

Make it more hokey; presumably by adding hokum, a mixture of hocus-pocus and bunkum. 

P4 “Let one of the sob sisters rewrite your story and put some schmaltz in it.”

“Sob sisters” - Although still mainly a male profession, newspapers employed female staff to write “will no-one think of the children” human interest stories”.

“Schmaltz” - Excessive sentimentality (a specialized kind of hokum). Originally Yiddish for “goose fat”.

P6 “The only tape you’ll need will be adhesive tape to put on the fat lip I’ll give you”  

A fairly clumsy insult from Flash. It’s hard to see how you would treat a swollen lip with tape of any kind; but if you did need to stop it bleeding, you’d use sticking plaster, not adhesive tape. But “the only tape you’ll need is a band-aid” wouldn’t have worked. (Apparently “sellotape” is not yet a generic term.)

p7: "It is only a matter of time before his id and his ego get so confused that he forgets who he really is ...and then he will suffer a severe nervous breakdown!"

As ever "psychiatrist" is taken to be synonymous with "psychoanalyst". A nervous breakdown is a temporary bout of very severe depression, and probably not the kind of thing a Freudian would treat. "Going mad" is something quite different, implying some kind of violent insanity that would require hospitalization.

Page 9: “Glad I didn’t forget to grab my Spider-beam again” 

The lettering in this text is slightly different from the rest of the panel (note the wider than usual margin). Perhaps Stan only noticed that Spidey had left his Spider-signal behind at the last moment and asked the letterer to hurriedly add an additional balloon? But Ditko was already on top of the problem: Spider-Man doesn't use the beam again this issue, and #25 begins with him retrieving it.

Page 11: “One of my first, my most dangerous super-powered foes”

The Vulture was quite specifically the first super-villain Spider-Man ever met

p13: "Luckily, this newspaper mentioned Rinehart's home address in its article".

Rinehart had told Jameson that he was visiting New York "on vacation from Europe", so it's odd that he has a home address, complete with consulting room, in Queens. Perhaps this is what tips Foswell off that he's a fraud?

P13 “He’s got one of those new automatic door answering devices”

Door entry intercoms were not that much of an innovation in 1964, particularly in apartment blocks, although they might have been a bit pretentious in a private house. 

P13: “I’ve always feared seeing psychiatrists before, lest they discover my true identity”

Spider-Man did in fact visit a psychiatrist in issue #13, but left without treatment for precisely this reason. 

P17 “It won’t do me any good being Spider-Man if I lose my mind in the process”. 

Note that he doesn’t say “It won’t do any good…” or “I won’t do any good…”: he says “It won’t do ME any good.” Under the circumstances I think we can call this a Freudian slip. 

P19: “I’ve wanted revenge on Spider-Man for years…” 

Mysterio first appeared eleven months ago, in Amazing Spider-Man #13. When we last saw him, in the summer of 1964 he was sharing a cell with Doctor Octopus.

And finally... 

In Amazing Spider-Man #196, Peter Parker will receive a telegram from Restwell Nursing Home informing him that Aunt May has died. However, in issue #200, he will discover that she is alive and well. Well, as well as she ever is. The report of her death is a ruse by the guy who ran the old folks' home: one Dr Ludwig Rinehart. I didn't spot it. 

Peter Parker’s financial situation

Parker has made at least two recent sales to Jameson — some “wizard” pictures in #22 and some “sensational” ones in #19, so why is there less than $10 in the cookie jar? 

We know that Spider-Man paid a years rent — around $2000 — in advance in issue #2 (May 63) and assume that he paid a further years mortgage in issue #13 (June 64); so a further years rent must have fallen due about now (May 65). This should still leave him with $2,000 in hand. Maybe web fluid is more expensive than we thought? [Or maybe we overestimated Jameson’s generosity for the pictures sold #19 and #22?]

Six months ago, Stan Lee was getting very excited because he’d published a comic (Amazing Spider-Man #18) in which the hero didn't have a fight with a villain. The present issue is similarly conflict- free: Spider-Man lashes out at hallucinatory projections of Doctor Octopus, Sandman and the Vulture, but it’s otherwise a purely psychological tale. Spider-Man has an oddly passive role: falling hook, line and sinker for the villain’s ploy, and only being saved from disaster by dumb luck and coincidence.

The Bugle publishes an interview with a psychiatrist, one Ludwig Rinehart, who thinks that Spider-Man is about to go mad. Peter Parker reads the interview and immediately starts to doubt his own sanity. He sees hallucinations of his old foes, and imagines that ordinary rooms have turned upside down. So he goes to Rinehart’s surgery, and lets him put him on the couch. But at the very last moment — when Spider-Man is on the point of revealing his secret identity — Rinehart is revealed to be a fraud. He’s none other than Mysterio “the master of mystic effects and startling illusions.” The hallucinations were 3D projections and the upside down rooms were stage sets.

This is not the first time that Spider-Man has visited a psychiatrist. He sought medical help in issue #13 when he believed he was becoming schizophrenic.

  • The un-named shrink in that story felt that “if I can make a patient out of him, I’ll make medical history”; the fake one in this story says “a case like yours will make medical history”.
  • The real psychiatrist set out to “probe into his subconscious”, hoping to establish that he’s “a mysterious super-hero who's also a mental case”; this one is excited because “never before has a trained analyst probed into the sub-conscious of super-powered celebrity like you!”
  • Spider-Man had second thoughts about being treated by the real psychiatrist because he realized that if he spoke freely he would give his identity away; he is on the point of revealing his identity to the fake psychiatrist when the ruse is revealed. 
Of course Spider-Man wasn’t really suffering from schizophrenia in issue #13, any more than he is really having a nervous breakdown this time around. He believed he was committing crimes in his sleep, but they were actually being committed by a fake Spider-Man. The fake Spider-Man was, of course, Mysterio.

Two stories where Spider-Man doubts his sanity; two psychiatrists; two sets of illusions done by Mysterio. Did Lee and Ditko think of Mysterio as “that villain who sends people mad” (in the way that Doctor Octopus was fast becoming “that villain who kidnaps aunts”)? Did they look back on the “psychiatrist” episode in issue #13 and think “we could have done more with that, let’s revisit it”? Or had Ditko always intended the Menace of Mysterio to have been mostly about a villain gaslighting Spider-Man, and been forced by Lee to put in a big fight scene? Is Spider-Man Goes Mad essentially just The Menace of Mysterio rewritten according to Ditko’s original intentions?

This is one of those comics which I have a vivid memory of reading when I was a child. I recall reading out the title to my Mother, and her replying “Well, don’t you go mad!”. I must have read it may times, because my copy (of the British Spider-Man Comics Weekly) is on the point of disintegration. I remember being very proud that I had noticed the cat on page 10 and the bat on page 11, which are of course Clues: they turn out to be robots that Rinehart was using to spy on Spider-Man. I remember being delighted when Rinehart was unmasked. Mysterio was the villain in the first comic that I ever read, and therefore one of my favourites. Even at the age of 8, I think I felt that Mysterio’s appearance in the Sinister Six had been a little underwhelming. This time, we got to Mysterio really being Mysterio, albeit without his silly costume.

I still think the story holds up very well. Page 12 is one of Ditko’s very finest: the fatigued Spider-Man, leaning against a wall, with his head in his hands; Parker looking at himself in the mirror; the splendid horror-comic panel as he realizes that he really is losing his mind. The denouement is also one of the best. Spider-Man is on Dr Rinehart’s couch. Rinehart assures him that the only way to avoid going completely mad is to make his secret identity public and give up being Spider-Man altogether “I…I guess you’re right.” replies our hero, who was feeling perfectly fine when he got up this morning. The sequence calls to mind both The End of Spider-Man and Spider-Man - Public Menace in the very first issue. We’ve watched all hope being stripped away from our hero, and he is at his lowest ebb. It would be nice to say “and, at this low-point, we discover how truly heroic he is” but in fact, he is entirely prepared to throw in the towel. He may have promised in issue #18 to stop whingeing, but there is no shortage of self-doubt for Mysterio to exploit. It's at precisely that moment — just when he’s about to unmask — that J. Jonah Jameson bursts in (with Flash Thompson tagging along behind) — to reveal that Rinehart is an impostor.

Jameson has inadvertently rescued Spider-Man’s career. Gosh! How ironic!

This is all splendid: the key scene in which Thompson tries to rugby tackle Jameson, blocking Spider-Man’s path to Rinehart is embellished by a perfectly judged Stan Lee caption: “Just when it seems that things can’t get any more confusing…” The sudden shift from angsty melodrama to farce has a fairy tale quality to it -- what Mr Tolkien would have called a eucatastrophe. The completely demoralized Jameson sharing a frame with the ecstatic Flash Thompson (”I actually saw my idol in action! He even spoke to me! Even if he did call me a fool! He spoke to me!”) is icing on the cake.

But the more I think about this story, the more problems I find with it.

As is usually the case with Ditko-led episodes, the main “madness of Spider-Man” plot is accompanied by two or three major subplots. The first of these involves J. Jonah Jameson launching a new campaign against Spider-Man. Instead of telling everyone what he thinks about our hero, he is going to print a series of vox-pops asking members of the public what they think. I don’t know whether Stan or Steve had been to see The Front Page that month, but this is one of very few occasions when the Daily Bugle actually feels like a newspaper — Jameson shouting for the copy boy; bringing in subs ("so sisters) to rewrite Foswell’s crime report ("We can say Spider-Man was brutal to those misguided crooks”). It’s a wonderfully cynical couple of panels. The press, the public and the publisher get equally trounced. A nice lady says “But I never said I do hate Spider-Man” and the reporter replies “Do you want your name and picture in the paper or don’t you?"? Stan’s wryly comment that “under the right kind of questioning it isn’t long before the Daily Bugle reporters have the answers that Jameson wants…”. And Jameson is at his hypocritical best “All I’m doing is publishing the results of an absolutely impartial, unbiased newspaper survey.” I truly think it was this comic that first taught me to be skeptical about the press.

But none of this has any particular point of intersection with anything else in the story. Jameson is prepared to talk to Rinehart because he’s in a good mood after the success of the interviews; but when wouldn’t he have talked to someone with a scheme to discredit Spidey? Mysterio has been planning to drive Spider-Man mad for years and says that the interviews tell him that the right moment has come. But how many moments have there been when Jameson wasn’t publishing nasty stories about Spider-Man? Flash Thompson is cross with Jameson because his reporters are collecting anti-Spider-Man quotes near his school; but surely he’s known for years that Jameson hates his idol?

The second sub-plot is about Peter, Flash and Liz. Liz Allan asks Peter to help her with her science homework. Neither of them make the slightest effort to pretend that this is anything other than a date: Liz does her tie-straightening and “Petey, dear” routine and thinks that Peter is “so much more interesting then that empty headed Flash.”  The final frame is literally them walking off into the sunset hand in hand. Peter is more than usually dickish about it. He’s cross with Betty because he found another letter to Ned Leeds under her desk, and sees going out with Liz as a way of punishing her. (“If she’s going to write to Ned Leeds behind my back, I’ll show her!”) Honestly, it’s a complete enigma why Peter and Betty’s relationship never got off the ground! When Flash sees Peter and Liz together, he’s furious, and starts following Peter around. But again: has there been an episode when Flash wasn’t mad at Peter?

The crunch comes on page 16. In panel 2, Foswell rushes in and tells Jameson that he’s discovered that Rinehart isn’t really a doctor at all. This comes from nowhere — it’s a pure deus ex machina. Five panels later, Jameson leaps out of a taxi outside Rinehart’s home….and Flash Thompson just happens to be passing and follows him in. Stan Lee clearly thinks that this is a bit of a stretch, and makes his usual excuse “As so often happens in life, the long arm of coincidence reaches out…” So the Peter/Liz subplot has also taken us precisely nowhere. Flash might have been walking past Rinehart’s home (which seems to be in Forest Hills,) whether he had been mad at Peter or not.

For a comic — or tragic — denouement to work, we have to feel that it is inevitable — a group of characters, all acting logically and in character, come together in a ridiculous or disastrous way. If we feel that The Author has arbitrarily forced them together, the amusement or horror is greatly reduced. I think we can just about buy Foswell finding out that Rinehart is phony – he is a reporter, after all, and Mysterio hasn’t been doing a very good job of covering his tracks. But Flash Thompson just happening to be there at the opportune moment is a step too far.

"Well, then, Andrew. If you basically love this story, but find that it breaks down when you start to think about it, then obviously you are thinking about it too much. Remember the old joke? 'Doctor, doctor, it hurts when I do that.' 'Well, don't to that then.'"

There is something to this. The breakneck pace of the story, and the sheer number of incidents squashed into a few pages, means that the reader isn’t paying that much attention to the exact chronology or chain of events. As we race through the comic, we get a general sense that Peter and Flash and Jonah are all running around and all end up in the same place at the same time. Flash is chasing Peter, or possibly Jameson; Jameson is chasing Rinehart; and Spider-Man swings all the way from Forest Hills to Madison Avenue and back again to find out where Rinehart’s lives even though he already has his address.

It’s a mistake to over-think it.

And one of the people who over-thought was none other than Stan Lee. I think there were some genuine issues with the chronology and continuity of the comic which Ditko presented him with. I think he made a valiant effort to make sense of it; but in doing so, I think he created a new set of problems which weren't there before.

On page 7, Ditko drew Flash with clenched fists, watching Peter Parker walk away from him. On page 8, he drew Flash again, still with his fist clenched, ducking behind a tree as Peter Parker purposefully headed off somewhere. The clear meaning is: “Flash has followed Peter home from school.” On page 9, Flash’s head sticks out from behind a corner, before Peter gives him the slip. The message is "Flash is still following Peter." A few pages later, Flash is still pounding the pavement, when Jameson turns up. Again, it is clear that only a few minutes have passed and he is still trying to figure out where Peter went. Flash’s strand in the story takes only a few minutes: however long it takes to walk from the school to Aunt May’s house and from there to Rinehart’s surgery. Lee identifies an obvious problem: clearly, Jameson can’t have commissioned and published a vox-pop, conducted an interview with Rinehart, published it, and discovered he’s been fooled, all in the time it takes Peter Parker to walk home from school. So he adds some captions, making it clear that Liz asking Peter for a date and Flash following Peter home happened on different days; and establishing that Spider-Man’s encounter with the ghost villains took place in Manhattan, near the Bugle offices, rather than in Forest Hills, even though nothing in the artwork requires this.

In one sense, Stan Lee is right: some time has to elapse for the story to make sense. But in another, more important sense, Steve Ditko is right: a comic book story should unfold in comic book time. The amount of time it takes for something to happen is the amount of time it takes for the reader to read it. You can publish a newspaper in one panel; crossing town might take you six. And if the captions are flashy enough and the denouement is funny enough, it really shouldn’t matter.

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. It’s not only Mysterio who deals in illusion.

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 copywriter holder.

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