Sunday, June 05, 2016

Amazing Fantasy #15

Named Characters:

Flash Thompson, Sally, Aunt May, Uncle Ben, Crusher Hogan

Unnamed Characters:

TV Producer, Burglar, Police Officer, Mother and Child

First Appearance of:

Spider-Man costume


Peter Parker wears blue and white striped pyjamas in bed.

His favourite food is wheatcakes.

His Uncle and Aunt call him “Petey”.

Spider-Man’s mask is sewn into the shirt of the Spider-Man costume, like a hoodie.

Spider-Man’s shoes have ridged soles, like running shoes or trainers.

Peter Parker’s school is named Midtown High.

“Some day I’ll show them!” says Peter Parker before his encounter with the radioactive spider. “Some day they’ll be sorry! Sorry that they laughed at me!”

It’s the sort of thing a villain might say; the sort of thing you hear in diaries and videos produced by school shootists. On the cover of the Amazing Fantasy #15, he sounds more like a super-villain than a new hero;  more like Thor from Asgard than Petey from Queens.

“Though the world may mock Peter Parker, timid teenager… it will soon marvel at the awesome might of Spider-Man!”

Years later, John Byrne would translate the cover into English: “Everyone laughs at that loser, Peter Parker... but they won’t be laughing at Spider-Man.”

It’s laughter that Peter Parker is scared of. He first puts on a mask because he’s trying out his powers in a wrestling competition, and feels he’ll be a “laughing stock” if he fails. The mask is something to hide behind; somewhere safe from other people’s laughter. It releases a nastier, more arrogant side. His speech becomes more informal and slangy when he’s wearing it. Later on, when he puts on the mask, he’ll start obsessively cracking jokes. As if he wants to be laughed at, like he was in the old days, before…

Publisher Martin Goodman hated this story: hated it so much he cancelled Amazing Fantasy, despite having given Spider-Man a great big build up. It’s not that Spider-Man is too skinny to be a hero, or that Aunt May treats him like a baby, or even that he has boringly un-heroic private problems. Anti-heroes are one thing: the Hulk is an anti-hero; the Sub-Mariner is an anti-hero; even Johnny Storm is an anti-hero at this stage. But but Ditko and Lee have made Spider-Man a dislikable character with no redeeming features. Peter Parker has a great home life, brilliant school grades, a guaranteed college place, and an excellent future ahead of him. But he spends the first half of the book whining. True, his friends don’t ask him to the dance; but he’s no Cinderella: they don’t ask him because he can’t dance, wouldn’t want to go and wouldn’t join in if he did. He actually cries (*SOB*) when Sally would rather go to the disco than attend an extra-curricula science lecture with him.

That early Parker, with the monstrous Spider-ego bubbling up inside him, provided a terrible role-model for other anti-social nerds. It made more than one of us think that remarks like “there’s nothing wrong with being a dumb-head, you were just born that way” (Amazing Spider-Man #2) were clever things to say to the school football hero. But there’s an element of bully-enabling here too. Parker chooses to be an outsider: chooses to go to school in a jacket and tie while Flash Thompson is wearing a football shirt; advertises his book-worm status by carrying a pile of books around with him. (None of the other kids have taken their text books home. Can’t he even find a satchel?) Isn’t there a subliminal message here that if you are bullied, it’s probably your own fault?

It may very well be that, if the Spider-Man graphic novel had continued, Steve and Stan would have shown how Parker grew into a reasonable human being. It is equally possible that the plan was for him to turn into a monster or a recluse. There’s another great story about a man who turns into an insect by another great Czech story teller. That one doesn’t end too well.

That might have all worked well enough if Spider-Man had been a limited run feature in an oddball anthology comic. It wasn’t a great idea for Marvel’s planned move into the lucrative super-hero market. If you’d been in Martin Goodman’s shoes, you’d probably have killed Spider-Man after only one issue too.

Amazing Fantasy #15 is a sacred text; a foundational document. If you are at all interested in comics, you have read it, many times. Even if you are not interested in comics, you know the basic plot, and the final line about responsibility and power. It’s the hardest thing in the world to pretend that it’s just an old comic book and sit down and read it.

It’s a good story. It covers a lot of narrative ground; establishing Peter Parker; showing us the circumstances under which he acquired his amazing powers and how he misused them, in exactly twelve pages. The pacing is spot-on: page one starts with single-panel scenes (Ben dragging Peter out of bed; May giving him breakfast; the school science lesson) but the pace slows right down when we reach the museum. We get three whole panels of the spider getting irradiated and the fight with the wrestler lasts a whole page. There is a tremendous sense of place. This isn’t a New York of skyscrapers, but one of chimney pots, back streets, waterfronts and old acme buildings. Everyone has their own face and their own voice; even the policeman who calls out to Spider-Man and the little boy who accidentally sees him climbing up a wall.

It’s split into two fairly self-contained parts; it’s quite possible to imagine them split over two issues, as may have been the original plan. Part 1 starts with Parker the outsider, and ends with Spider-Man hanging from the ceiling of his bedroom, with a wrestling match as a centerpiece. Part 2 begins with Spider-Man as a successful TV star, ends with him walking off into the distance, a broken man. It has the fight with the burglar as a centerpiece. Both halves are character pieces rather than action adventures (which was a good fit to "the magazine that respects your intelligence"). In neither fight is Spider-Man in the slightest danger.

Everyone knows the story; everyone knows the twist. Peter Parker is bitten by a spider and due to Science finds he is super-strong and can climb walls. He uses Science to create wrist mounted web-shooters in his bedroom. He demonstrates his new powers on TV and becomes an overnight celebrity. On that first night of fame, a man runs past him, being chased by an elderly police officer. The policeman calls out “Stop him!” but Spider-Man does nothing. Behind the mask, the young man who couldn’t bear to be laughed at snarls “Sorry pal! That’s your job! I’m thru being pushed around — by anyone. From now on I just look out for number one — that means — me.”

It really is a beautifully constructed moment. No sooner have we seen Peter Parker being incredibly petty and selfish towards the policeman than we see Ben and May being incredibly thoughtful and generous to him: buying him a microscope that they’ve obviously had to save up for. (Peter Parker is the sort of young man who has “always wanted” a particular piece of scientific apparatus.) The final panel on page 8, while rather corny, is incredibly cool: a grinning Parker playing with his new toy, with two happy old people behind him.

Stan Lee piles on the irony “They’re the only ones who have ever been kind to me!” Not true, by the way. His science teacher is friendly and encouraging. “I’ll see to it that THEY’RE always happy.” But of course, because of what he’s just done, that’s the exact thing he won’t do.

That happy scene with the microscope is the last time we will ever see Uncle Ben. Peter comes home from a TV show and is told that Ben Parker has been murdered. We don’t need to worry very much about the officer who breaks the bad news to Peter Parker being the same one who called out to Spider-Man at the TV studio -- and the same one who makes the arrest at the warehouse, come to that. (Later exegesis even made up a name for him: Baxter Bigelow.) I am sure that in real life it’s different cops who investigate domestic burglaries and deal with armed siege situations. But Ditko thinks in terms of character types: so the “nice policeman” has white hair and a mustache regardless of what context you meet him in.

Ditko is a cartoonist. He tells stories in pictures: Lee’s words are often superfluous and occasionally miss the point. Peter Parker carries a pile of books to indicate that he is a bookworm. Spider-Man has a coat over his arm to show that he is just leaving. Rich people have cigars; you can generally tell if someone is a wrong‘un by their hat. You can tell precisely what is happening in the final scene simply by looking at the pictures; they are as perfect a piece of visual story telling as has ever been committed to newsprint.

*Parker runs away.

*Parker puts on his costume.

*Spider-Man runs up the wall (leaving his bedroom window open).

*Spider-Man squirts some web at a flagpole.

*Spider-Man swings over the docks.

*Spider-Man arrives at “the old acme building.”

*The burglar looks out of the window (with his back to us).

*The burglar (who still has his back to us) looks up at Spider-Man.

*Spider-Man looks down at the burglar (who has covered his face with his hand).

*The burglar runs away (covering his face with his hand).

*Spider-Man faces the burglar; Spider-Man has his back to us; the burglar’s face is in shadow.

*Spider-Man webs the burglar’s gun; the burglar covers his face.

*Spider-Man punches the burglar, knocking his hat off.

*Spider-Man holds the unconscious burglar and see his face…and it’s the face of the thief he wouldn’t help the old cop catch on his first night as a TV star.

The final panels show the burglar being handed over the police ("on a spider’s web"), and Parker, mask removed, looking stunned. On the first page Peter Parker was sobbing because girls prefer parties to radiation experiments. On this last page, he is crying actual tears: “My fault…all my fault.” On the splash page, Spider-Man was only a shadow behind Peter Parker; in the last panel, he is a tiny, barely discernible figure “fading into the gathering darkness.”

This scene, more than any other, defines Spider-Man. It’s been retold over and over again, in two different movies, in cartoons and in multiple comic books. Spider-Man failed to stop the criminal who subsequently killed his Uncle and learned that in this world with great power there must also come great responsibility.

But what does it actually mean?

To answer that question, we need to get slightly ahead of ourselves.

Amazing Spider-Man #1, though published 6 months later, follows on directly from Amazing Fantasy #15, and is written and drawn in a similar style. On my view, it was intended to appear in Amazing Fantasy #16 and contains three more chapters which make up all we have of Ditko’s original graphic novel.

So: anyone.

In the original text, what does Spider-Man do straight after learning that he caused, or at any rate failed to prevent, the death of his beloved Uncle Ben?

According to Amazing Spider-Man #1 he has a temper tantrum, throws his costume on the floor, and considers giving up being Spider-Man.

The second thing he does is contemplate turning to crime to raise some money: Aunt May is on the point of being turned out of her house by her cigar chomping capitalist landlord. 

The third thing he does is go back to his agent, and resume his TV career.

There is absolutely no sense that the death of Uncle Ben has motivated him to become a crime fighter, or even to live his life more generously from now on.

Over the next 28 issues, the matter of Uncle Ben’s death is hardly ever referred to again. In issue # 2,

Spider-Man is defeated by Doctor Octopus and considers giving up being Spider-Man. Uncle Ben is not mentioned: Spider-Man is turned around by a motivational speech from the Human Torch. In issue # 18, he is again ready to quit, but changes his mind when he sees how much gumption and determination Aunt May still has.

When Uncle Ben’s death is mentioned, it’s significance is down-played. In Spider-Man #1, Ben died because Peter was too late to save him; because he was showing off on TV when their house was burgled. In Spider-Man Annual #1, he is “partially to blame for Uncle Ben’s death” (which is a fair distance from “all my fault!”) and says that he let the thief escape because he didn’t want to waste his powers. In Spider-Man #33 he talks about “failing” Uncle Ben and “blaming himself” for what happened. If we were interested in psychoanalyzing fictitious characters, we might say that Peter repressed his memories of what happened on that terrible night. Presumably, it all comes back to him when he sees the security guard who resembles Ben Parker in issue #50. But that's way in the future.

The idea that “the one person I could have stopped but didn’t killed the one person I most cared about in the world” is very much the kind of O’Henry ending you'd have expected in Amazing Fantasy — not too far removed from “the man who warned us about the shapeshifting aliens is actually a shapeshifting alien with amnesia.” (I recall a post-Dahl episode of Tales of the Unexpected in which a sailor kills a man in a knife fight. An old flame directs him to a powerful gangster who owes her a favour and will get him out of town safely -- but it turns out that earlier in the day the gangster was a knife fight.) In one sense, it's meaningless. It’s true that if Peter Parker had stopped the burglar, the burglar could not have killed Uncle Ben, but thousands of us random events conspired to bring the burglar to that particular house on that particular day. (What was he stealing, by the way, if they are so poor they can hardly pay their rent? Microscopes?) It’s true, but it’s not usefully true.

Peter Parker has been forcibly shown the situation which everybody is in, every minute of every day. As a matter of fact, the bad guy he didn’t catch has murdered his uncle: but if it hadn’t been his uncle, it would have been someone else’s uncle -- or father or brother or husband or boyfriend. One thinks of J.B. Priestly’s An Inspector Calls: by a ghoulish coincidence, each member of the Brisley family mistreated the same woman and drove her to suicide; but the cruelties that the rich inflict on the poor ever day have the similar, if less visible, consequences. As the Inspector explains before leaving:

“We don't live alone. We are members of one body. We are responsible for each other. And I tell you that the time will soon come when, if men will not learn that lesson, then they will be taught in fire and blood and anguish.”

In the evil we have done, and in the good we have not done. In this world, with great power there must also come...great responsibility.

This is a socialist message: the very opposite of what Steve Ditko himself believed. Ditko was and is an objectivist. He thought honest self-interest was the only way forward; that looking after number one and not catching crooks unless you were a paid crook catcher was the only sane way to behave. Does this mean that the Uncle Ben motif originated with Stan Lee? If so, does it follow that Stan Lee must have given Ditko quite a detailed plot summary (much more than “what if a teenaged boy found he could stick to walls”); and that Steve Ditko, at that point in their relationship, was prepared to faithfully and brilliantly render story lines that weren’t to his personal taste?

By Stan Lee’s own account, Steve Ditko very rapidly became the driving creative force behind Amazing Spider-Man, creating plot-lines which Stan Lee had no input into. So we might imagine that while conservative Ditko controlled the book, the tragedy of Uncle Ben was quietly forgotten. But once liberal Stan Lee became the dominant force (in 1966) he lost no time in putting Ben Parker back at the center of his nephew’s psyche.

We might imagine that. But we might also imagine Ditko doing something stranger and cleverer and more subversive...

Amazing Fantasy #15 doesn’t contain, even in embryonic form, any of the things which made Spider-Man so great. There’s no Jameson, no action, no aerial acrobatics, no romantic misunderstandings, no super-villains and no jokes. All that it contains of the future Spider-Man was Stan Lee's name, and Ditko’s insane, iconic, un-improvable costume design.

Perhaps, as a point of origin, that was enough.

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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Wednesday, June 01, 2016

How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Create Spider-Man (3)

Stan Lee thought the name up. I did costume, web gimmick on wrist; spider signal.
Steve Ditko

There are two legends about the Origin of Spider-Man.

In one version, Stan Lee decides that he wants to create a character who is truly different and experimental, with an emphasis on realism. In some versions, he is on the point of quitting comics and turning his hand to novels or screenplays instead: his wife tells him that if he’s going to do that anyway, he might as well write one last comic book the way he wants to. In other versions, she just tells him out of the blue that he should put his heart and soul into his next comic book. In yet other versions, that conversation had nothing to do with Spider-Man -- instead his wife's advise brings about the creation of Fantastic Four.

Just for kicks I wanted to try something different…For quite a while I’d been toying with the idea of doing a strip that would violate all the conventions, break all the rules. A strip that would actually feature a teenager as the star, instead of making him (ugh!) the adult hero’s sidekick. A strip in which the main character would lose out as often as he’d win — in fact more often. A strip in which nothing would progress according to formula.
Origins Of Marvel Comics, 1974

We’ll call this the Version A: the one where the Big Idea is Realism. 

In another version, Lee is pacing up and down his room trying to come up with an idea for a superhero. Suddenly (SNAP) a fly crawls down the wall. He suddenly realizes that a wall-crawling superhero would be cool. He runs through some names — Fly-Man, Insect-Man, Mosquito-Man and decides that Spider-Man would be dramatic. He decides that Spider-Man should be a down-to-earth teenager almost as an after thought.

I’ve told this so often that for all I know it might even be true. I was trying to come up with an idea for a superhero, and while I was sitting at my desk I saw a fly crawling on the wall, and I said wow, would it be cool if we could have a guy stick to the wall like an insect. Okay, I needed a name. Insect-Man didn’t seem to do it for. Mosquito-Man, that wasn’t glamorous enough. I went down the list. Somehow when I came to Spider-Man it sent chills through me. So now you know how legends are born. 

We’ll call this Version B: the one where the Big Idea is Wall-Crawling.

In both versions, Lee places quite a lot of importance on the name. In Version A, he decides that his new, realistic character should be called Spider-Man because he remembers an old pulp character called The Spider. In Version B, he brain-storms lots of superhero names and think that Spider-Man is the most dramatic. Either way, Lee thinks that the name Spider-Man is a core and irreducible part of the characters fame and success. Steve Ditko thinks that that was practically all he contributed.

Version B sounds more believable than Version A. I can imagine a writer pitching “a teenage boy named Spider-Man who can climb up walls” to a publisher much more easily than I can “a strip that breaks the rules and doesn’t follow any formulas.” Of course, Spider-Man will develop into a ground-breaking, rules-avoiding, realistic strip, but I don't think that there was a moment in 1960 or 61 when Lee said "I know! I shall create a ground-breaking, rules-avoiding, realistic strip!” It's on a level with Martin Goodman dreaming up Captain America in his office in 1938. 

In both the A version and the B version Goodman hates Stan Lee’s pitch. There are three main reasons: people wouldn't buy a spider-themed comic, because people don't like spiders; it's impossible for the main character in a superhero comic to be under the age of 20; and no-one would like a character with personal problems.

“My publisher said, in his ultimate wisdom, 'Stan, that is the worst idea I have ever heard, first of all people hate spiders...secondly he can't be a teenager - teenagers can only be sidekicks and third, he can't have personal problems if he's supposed to be a superhero - don't you know who a superhero is?”
BBC Interview, 2015

This makes very little sense. It’s true that that there had been a tradition for superheroes to be man/boy pairings like Batman and Robin or Captain America and Bucky. But when Lee pitched his idea to Goodman, the Legion of Superheroes – who are all teenagers, albeit in the 31st century – had been around for three years. Superboy, the teenage version of Superman, had been in continuous publication since 1945. And Marvel’s own Fantastic Four were doing very well, with the teenaged Human Torch very much an equal partner in the team.  One month after Spider-Man’s debut he got his own solo feature. It would be very odd for Goodman to say that Stan couldn’t have a spider-themed character: there had been Golden Age character based on equally unpromising animals: the Silver Scorpion, the Black Widow and even the Ferret. And of course, DC had a moderately well-known character called the Batman.

But it’s important that Martin Goodman hated the idea of Spider-Man, because all versions of the legend agree that Spider-Man first appeared in a comic which Marvel had already decided to cancel.

We were about to discontinue our Amazing Fantasy series. That meant that nobody would care what stories I put into it, because it would be the last issue anyway. … You guessed it. It was a perfect opportunity to make sure the world would be Spidey-less no longer, and if the pundits were right and the strip failed, so what? It was the mag's last issue anyway.
Marvel Masterworks Introduction

The legend contains an undeniably True Fact: the first Spider-Man story certainly did appear in the final issue of Amazing Fantasy. And that kind of fits in with Spider-Man being a hard-luck character. And Stan Lee’s fable is terribly endearing. We'd like it to be true. His latest version has Martin bursting out “that is the worst idea I’ve ever heard!” when he pitches Spider-Man to him; only to say “remember that character we both loved so much?” after he has seen the sales figures.

But the story simply doesn't fit the facts.

Spider-Man wasn’t smuggled into Amazing Fantasy #15; he was launched with great fanfare. The first story ends with an exhortation “be sure to see the next issue of Amazing Fantasy, for the further amazing exploits of America’s most different new teen-age idol, Spider-Man.” A text page (the “important message to you from the editor about the new Amazing” that is advertised on the cover) says unequivocally “SPIDERMAN will appear every month in Amazing. Perhaps, if your letters request it, we will makes his stories even longer, or have two Spiderman stories per issues.”

Perhaps most tellingly, Amazing Fantasy #15 had a new title and a new logo. The previous 7 issues had been called Amazing Adult Fantasy "the magazine that respects your intelligence". Lee says that they dropped the word "adult" from issue 15 out of nostalgia -- they thought it would be nice for the final issue to revert to the original title. But this is just not true: Amazing Adult Fantasy took over the numbering of the boringly named Amazing Adventures. There never was an Amazing Fantasy #1 - #7. If you are going to kill off a comic, why go to the trouble of changing the title and drawing a new logo?

The first Spider-Man story (in Amazing Fantasy #15) runs to 11 pages: two chapters of 6 and 5 pages respectively. The second one, in Amazing Spider-Man #1 runs to 14 pages — two chapters running to 6 and 5 pages, and a short 3 page chapter that breaks off unfinished. Amazing Spider-Man #2 also contains a 14 page Spider-Man story. Those first two issues are rounded out with weak 10 pages fillers; issue #3 is the first time we get a full-length Spider-Man story. So Lee and Ditko must have produced the first episodes of Spider-Man in the full expectation that Spider-Man would continue for least 3 months as the lead feature in an anthology magazine.

We can never know what really happened. But perhaps it was something like this. Stan Lee pitches a new comic to Goodman: “What if we did a comic about a teenager named Spider-Man who can stick to walls like a fly?”. Goodman okays Spider-Man on the basis of that pitch. Ditko and Lee produced the first four and a bit chapters of what we would now call a graphic novel, to be serialized in Amazing Fantasy: a bleak, down-to-earth account of a young man with superpowers in a world without superheroes or supervillains. This wasn’t how Goodman imagined Stan's new superhero character at all, and when he saw it, he summarily cancelled the book.

Speculation, of course. But Mark Evanier is quite sure that Goodman took against Spider-Man after Amazing Fantasy #15 had been published. He wasn't there, but he was on very close terms with Jack Kirby, who was. And Will Murray has done very detailed work on Marvel's "job numbers" of the period, which enable him to reconstruct the sequence in which various strips were written. He is quite certain that the main strip in Amazing Spider-Man #1 was indeed intended for Amazing Fantasy #16.

Captain, Amazing Spider-Man #1
Caption, Amazing Spider-Man #1 

Some versions of the story say that Goodman was forced to eat his words when he saw Amazing Fantasy #15’s sales figures. If that is true, then why didn’t he go right ahead and release Amazing Fantasy #16 as originally planned? Some versions (including the very first page of Amazing Spider-Man #1) say that it was reader feedback which made Goodman give Spider-Man a second chance, which still doesn’t account for the seven month gap.

Speculation again: I wonder if Stan Lee was as unhappy as Goodman with the very dark and realistic treatment that Ditko supplied. Certainly, as the relationship wore on, Ditko resisted Lee's more fantastic ideas – he made the Green Goblin a scientific gadget guy rather than a resurrected Egyptian mummy; he felt that the spider-sense was a dubious plot device and that even the space-capsule rescue in Spider-Man #1 was a step in the wrong direction. Isn’t it possible that Lee clung on to his belief that Spider-Man was a great name and wall-crawling was a great power;  reworked the feature into a  more conventional crime fighting saga, and nagged Goodman into giving it another try? Spider-Man #2 has Peter Parker consciously deciding to become a "secret adventurer"; and fighting his first supervillain. Even issue #1 shows some signs of having been worked over to make the character more like a superhero.
Caption, Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1

And now there is a very large elephant in the room. An elephant named Kirby.

The legendary account of Spider-Man’s creation has to account for the existence of a 5 page treatment of Spider-Man drawn by Jack Kirby. No-one has ever denied that this document existed: Jim Shooter says he had sight of it when he was Marvel editor in the 1980s. Stan Lee's story is that he described his realistic ground breaking hero to Kirby, but that Kirby’s artwork was too super-heroic for the character he had in mind and handed the existing pages to Ditko to rework.

I would be inclined to see this as another etiological myth. It is quite true that a Kirby Spider-Man would have been an heroic Spider-Man, a super-powered Spider-Man, a Spider-Man quite different from the one who became famous. So (in one sense) taking Kirby off the book and giving it to Ditko allowed the Spider-Man we know and love to come into being. So Lee tells us a fable in which the real Spider-Man was in his head all the time, and that when he fired Kirby, he knew exactly what he was doing.


But here is the thing. Until 1973, Marvel Comics officially took the line that Jack Kirby created, or had a hand in the creation of, Spider-Man. In a fanish history of Spider-Man in the third issue of Marvel’s internal fan-club magazine, FOOM, we read the following:

“It was only after Steve Ditko had left the strip that Kirby and Lee, in separate forums, claimed that Kirby had actually initiated the character. Kirby had earlier thought-up a character called Spider-Man for another company, and had gone as far as a cover mock-up. The company folded and the character seemingly died before he was born. However, Kirby later recalled the name, suggested it to Stan Lee, and designed a costume for Spider-Man.”
Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Spider-Man But Were Afraid To Ask - FOOM #3

Just to confuse things further, Joe Simon, Kirby’s former partner, says that he had suggested the name Spider-Man to Kirby.

In one sense, this doesn’t matter very much. The Kirby and Simon proto-spider-man characters didn’t have anything very much in common with the character that Ditko and Lee thrashed out over the first two or three issues of Amazing Spider-Man. But it matters in terms of Lee’s myth-making. He thinks that the person who dreams up the idea creates the character; and according to the more plausible B version, that "dreaming up" didn't amount to much more than spotting that Spider-Man would be a way cool name for a superhero. If you were Joe Simon, and you distinctly remember handing Kirby a sketch and a logo for a character called Spider-Man, and if Kirby had passed that sketch on to Lee years later, and Lee had used the name for a hugely popular character, and if you had to listen for decades afterwards to Stan Lee explaining how he dreamed up Spider-Man in a flash of fly-fueled inspiration.... Well, you can see how that might rankle.

But in the end, it’s a theological question. Even if Stan’s story about the fly on the wall is the literal truth, it's not what most people would understand “creating a character” to mean.

In 1999, Stan Lee wrote an actually pretty generous letter to Steve Ditko, acknowledging that Ditko’s input into Spider-Man amounted to co-creation, but insisting that the name and original idea was his own. He couldn’t have been expected to go any further.

“When I first told Steve my idea for a shy, teenaged high-school science student who’d be bitten by a radioactive spider...”


In neither Version A or Version B does Stan Lee claim that “bitten by a radio-active spider” was part of his original light-bulb moment. In fact, it couldn’t have been, because by all accounts Kirby’s rejected version was about a teen-aged boy who turned himself into Spider-Man by means of a magic ring. Lee is back projecting again. The final version of Spider-Man was about who boy who'd been bitten by a spider, so obviously, this was his original idea.

And what’s this:

“...thus gaining the ability to stick to walls and shoot webs, Steve took to it like a duck to water….”

But...but...but...Spider-Man doesn’t have the ability to shoot webs. He certainly didn’t gain that ability from the spider-bite. Ditko has him invent wrist-mounted web-shooters in his bedroom. Kirby would have given him a web gun. The web-shooters are one of the things Ditko is quite sure he thought up.

In his most recent public pronouncement on Spider-Man, Stan Lee said

“With Spider-Man I just wanted a character that could crawl up walls. We thought about Fly-Man, Insect-Man, Spider-Man just sounded the best.”

And isn’t that most likely to be the boring truth?

There was no eureka moment. Stan Lee’s big idea was a character called Spider-Man who could crawl up walls. That was the one line pitch he gave to Steve Ditko, which Steve Ditko turned into a work of art, better than Lee had any right to expect. Lee very likely got the idea from Jack Kirby, who very likely got it from Joe Simon.

It doesn't matter. Nothing in that rather boring idea gave the slightest hint as to what Spider-Man would become.

that concludes the introduction to my cosmic collection of esoteric essays about the worlds best loved wall-crawling super-character. Next week, we'll be effervescently embarking on a deservedly detailed issue by issue analysis of the yodel-filled year 1963. I have about 12,000 wunderkind words lined up (taking us as far as issue 4) but obviously there's a lot of woebegone work and radical research to go if I'm going to finish my caustic commentary on the devastating Ditko years, to say nothing of the rest of the swinging 1960s. so please go over to my proudly pontifical Patreon page and see how you can propel me into from being a humbly heroic hobbyiest to a sturdily sucesful semi-professional.

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.

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Sunday, May 29, 2016

How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Create Spider-Man (2)

An old peasant tells some children how he once saw a giant. No-one believes him. He swears that the giants call themselves “Humans” although “we leprechauns” have no word for them. 

A man reads the log book of a crashed flying saucer: shape-shifting aliens are plotting to invade the earth. He reports it to the authorities and is duly arrested: he is himself one of the aliens, suffering from memory loss.

A massive invasion fleet travels through the galaxy to invade earth. But Earth does not even notice, because the whole fleet is only a few inches wide.

A fortune teller tells a man he will die in a car accident on such-a-day. On that day, the man locks himself in his house, refuses to go outside — and breaks his neck falling down stairs after tripping on a child’s toy car.

If you have ever read comics, you will have read many one-off, twist-in-the-tale short stories of this kind. The notorious E.C horror comics were full of grotesque, blood-thirsty versions; Alan Moore and Grant Morrison cut their teeth writing Future Shocks for 2000AD; the Twilight Zone ploughed the same furrow on TV. 

They have often been treated as a journeyman exercise or a rite of passage for aspiring writers: if you can pull one off, a decent three page sucker-punch short story, you are probably ready to write something more substantial. Like a musical hook or a one-line gag, it is possible to learn the formula. A sudden change of scale (leprechauns and giants) or of perspective (the hero is the alien) or an ironic double meaning (none of woman born shall slay Macbeth.) Amazing Adult Fantasy was a vehicle for Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s take on the form. The logo was clearly intended to evoke the Twilight Zone.

Stories like this obviously stand or fall on their idea. A predictable twist; a twist you’ve heard before; a twist that is too obviously telegraphed and the whole exercise is pointless. If the twist is good, the reader will remember the story even if the artwork is poor. But the story isn’t reducible to the idea, as Lee himself happily acknowledges.

All I had to do was give Steve a one-line description of the plot and he'd be off and running. He'd take those skeleton outlines I had given him and turn them into classic little works of art that ended up being far cooler than I had any right to expect.

This is what would become known as the Marvel Method. Lee elsewhere says that it was a unique way of working that he and Kirby had worked out, but it’s clear he was using it with Ditko as well. The writer comes up with the idea; the artist turns it into a four page, or twenty four page story; the writer puts the words in afterwards. Plot - art - dialogue. Idea - plot and art - dialogue. Clearly, an awful lot of the creative burden is on the artist’s shoulders. As Ditko himself put it :

Ten writers could take the same idea and come up with more than ten different valid creations. Such as in the idea of: Boy meets Girl, Boy loses Girl, Boy gets Girl back. The same goes for artists.

There’s a gem of a story in Amazing Adult Fantasy # 11 called For the Rest of Your Life. I must have read it in Weird Wonder Tales, which was reprinting a lot of the old twist-ending yarns when I was at school. It is set in the Future. A petty crook hears that the judges on the planet Jupiter are incredibly soft on crime, so he goes there, steals some cars, gets caught…and is given a life sentence! One of his cell mates tells him that there is a secret tunnel through which it is possible to escape from jail; he decides to risk it, and after encountering various Ditko-esque perils, gets to the other end: free. Suddenly, the perspective changes, and we see a prison doctor announcing that the criminal is completely hypnotized. He will spend his life in jail, where he can no longer harm society, but he will always believe himself to be free. “You can’t be more merciful than that.” 

“What if, in the future, criminals were put into quarantine but allowed to believe that they were free?” is certainly an idea. But there is more than one way to turn that idea into a work of art, classic or otherwise. 

It could have become something sinister, like the Prisoner: happy people, thinking they are free, occasionally getting hints that they are not. It could have been presented as a crazy liberal idea: the murderer gets to believe he is free, but who is going to hypnotize his victim into thinking he is still alive? Maybe it’s a platonic parable: if we imagine a criminal justice system with no element of retribution, we’ll be able to see how important we feel retribution is. I can imagine Captain Kirk having a few choice words to say if he ever visited Jupite. “Of course prison is barbaric and inhuman — how else would we understand that crime is evil?” The convict cries out “I’m free! I’m free!” — well is he, or isn’t he? Maybe all of us, who think we are free, are really in prison? Perhaps someone needs to wake us up so we can see the prison walls? And what about the liberal jailer. “You can’t be more merciful than that!” Well, can you, or can’t you?

But Lee dreamed up the idea and gave it to Ditko; if not for Lee's idea, Ditko would have had nothing to work on. It took two people to create the strip that I still remember forty years after first reading it.

Lee describes the “future shock” stories in Amazing Adult Fantasy as “Odd fantasy tales that I’d dream up with O’Henry type endings…” 

Now, that is a very interesting way of putting it. In his infamous 2007 interview with Jonathan Ross, Stan Lee said (under pressure from the interviewer) that although he was willing to credit Ditko, he sincerely believed himself to be the creator of Spider-Man because: 

“I really think the guy who dreams the thing up created it. You dream it up and then you give it to anybody to draw it.”

“Dreams it up.”

The fifteenth, and as it fell out, the final issue of Amazing Fantasy contained four stories. We can imagine the kind of one line summary Stan Lee must have given to Steve Ditko after he dreamed up the ideas for the first three: 

A fishermen has rung the church bell every day of his life. When the island is threatened by a volcano, he refuses to leave. He seems to be lifted off the island on a beam of light.

A criminal runs into a museum. A Mummy tell him to hide in a sarcophagus. The sarcophagus turns out to be a gate back to ancient Egypt. He escapes the police, but ends up as a slave

A married couple listen to news reports of a martian invasion. The woman slips out to buy milk. The man is furious with her. By leaving their homes, they may have revealed their whereabouts to the humans. 

But Stan Lee also "dreamed up" the idea of Spider-Man. And Ditko turned it into a classic work of art, far cooler than Stan Lee had any right to expect.

Is it possible to guess what one line summary Lee gave Ditko to work with?
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 copywriter holder.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Create Spider-Man

A shudder of the loins engenders there, 
the broken wall, the burning roof and tower, 
and Agamemnon dead.
W.B Yeats

It is 1938. Martin Goodman is pacing up and down in his office.“Something must be done!” he is thinking “The young American reading public must be made aware of the dangers of Nazism and Fascism! What can I do in my magazines to put young America on guard?”

The bespectacled publisher, with lines coming out of his head just like the ones Peter Parker gets when his Spider-Sense tingles, looks out of the panel and snaps his fingers. 

“I know! I’ll use stories in my magazines which have Nazis as the villains. I’ll take the stories from real life!”


This is a 1947 pamphlet, Secrets Behind the Comics, written by one Stan Lee. Two years after the war ended, with superhero comics in terminal decline, it’s not a completely unreasonable way of remembering things. Superman and Batman did a little bit of Nazi bashing; Wonder Woman a little bit more. But Captain America, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner — the flagship characters of Goodman’s Timley Comics — did indeed spend 1942-1945 fighting the Nazis. Once the war was over, they rather fizzled out. There was an attempt to revive them as cold warriors in the 50s, presumably to make the reading public aware of the dangers of Communism, but it didn’t take. It’s feasible to claim that “superheroes who fought the Nazis” was Timley comics Unique Selling Point.

But any suggestion that, four years before the war, the idea of anti-Nazi comics came to Goodman in a flash of inspiration doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Marvel Comics #1 came out in 1939: no-one fought any Nazis. In 1940, Jupiter, King of the Gods sent his only son Mercury to earth to defeat the evil Pluto, who was disguised as Rudolph Hendler, dictator of, er, Prussland. It wasn’t until 1941 that Captain America punched an undisguised Hitler on the jaw — eight months before Pearl Harbour, true, but three years after Goodman had his epiphany. And Captain America certainly wasn’t created by a publisher or a publishing house; he was created by two artists, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. They were Jewish Americans and presumably not big fans of the Nazis; but by their own account they made Hitler the villain because it was more fun to pit their hero against a real-life monster than a made-up one.

Timley Comics gradually became the publishing house in which Captain America, the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch fought Hitler, through a process -- a process which took a number of years. A decade later, Stan Lee imagined the whole process being conceived by one man in one single eureka moment. 


And there we have the paradox and the tragedy of Stan Lee: his conflict with his collaborators; his mainstream fame; his deteriorating reputation among comic book fans; the decades of failed post-Marvel projects; the increasingly bizarre Hitchcockian cameos in movies he had nothing to do with. 

Stan Lee believes in Origins.

He wasn’t the first person to use the term “Origin” to mean “the story of how a superhero acquired his amazing powers”. DC had published a comic called Secret Origins in 1961, and The Origin of the Superman/Batman team in 1958. But Lee made the word his own. A Marvel Superhero is defined by his Origin -- so much so that if you accidentally create a character whose beginnings are shrouded in mystery, someone else will step in and correct your amusing error a few weeks later.

It could only happen to the off-beat Marvel comics group” proclaims a scroll on the first page of a short 1963 strip called The Origin of Dr Strange. “With three published stories of Dr Strange under out belts we have been overwhelmed by a flood of letters reminding us that we forgot one little detail…we forgot to give you his origin!”

The “we” is disingenuous. The first episode of Doctor Strange was created by Steve Ditko entirely without input from Stan Lee. He was a wizard. He lived in modern-day New York: hipster Greenwich Village, in fact. He helped out people who were in trouble. What more did anyone need to know? The caption is a public reprimand from Lee to Ditko for starting a story in media res rather than ab initio. The Origin of Doctor Strange is Lee taking over Ditko’s character and putting his own mark on it. 

Lee’s retrofit turns Ditko’s mysterious wizard into an arrogant surgeon who studied magic in Tibet after his hands were shattered in a car accident. It adds nothing to the character, except telling us why he is Doctor Strange. Ditko had wanted him to be Mister Strange, but that was too much like Mister Fantastic. (I thought medical etiquette was that surgeons were addressed as "Mr" rather than "Dr"? Couldn’t he just have had a PhD in occult studies?) Dr Strange never mentions his medical background again. There was a pilot for a TV series in which he would have been a medical student who cast spells in his spare time. John Mills was his teacher, the Ancient One. He called Steven Strange “grasshopper”; very nearly.

Introducing a character without a back story certainly wasn’t the sort of thing that could only have happened at Marvel. Batman first appeared in Detective Comics #27. For the next five issues, everyone just accepted that Bruce Wayne's hobby was dressing up as a flying mammal and arresting criminals. The Bat Man - Who He Is And How He Came To Be finally appeared in Detective Comics #33. Bruce Wayne is famously shown trying to think of a name for his vigilante identity, when he has a eureka moment of his very own: "As if in answer a bat flies in through the open window".

Evangelical Christianity places very great emphasis on The Testimony -- an oral performance in which the Convert narrates the story of their Conversion. If you do not have a narrative about how you were once a Sinner, but at a particular moment chose to turn your life around and follow Jesus, you are probably no Christian, however pious you happen to be right now. A superhero's Origin is a little like his Testimony: the defining story of his life, to be revisited in endless recitations and flashbacks. The Origin recounts how at one time the hero was a normal person (very possibly disabled or disadvantaged in some way) but that at a particular moment they acquired supernatural powers. Since those powers almost always come through accident or blind chance, there is usually some subsequent moment at which the empowered person positively decides to use their powers to do good. Paternal deaths are particularly good value.

Books about writing often tell us that a good story involves some change in the main character: they should be a different person at the end of the story from the one they were at the beginning. The Origin is the only point in most super-lives where this kind of character development happens. The episodes which follow are generally about protecting or restoring the status quo. That is why movie makers endlessly boot and reboot characters Origins. It's the only thing they can really recognize as a story. 

A superhero is defined by his Origin: everything else flows from it. It follows that the person who dreams up the Origin winds up the spring that sets the comic book in motion. The hundreds of issues which come afterwards are inevitable: preordained.

Stan Lee seems to believe that something very like an Origin happens in real life. Just as there is one simple story which tells you why Peter Parker is Spider-Man, so there is one simple story which tells you why Stan Lee dreamt up Spider-Man. If Timely comics were about superheroes fighting World War II then there must have been a moment at which someone said “Hey! Let’s do a series of comics about superheroes fighting world War II.” If Spider-Man was young, and if he had realistic dialogue, and an annoying old Aunty, well, there must have been a single moment when the idea of a realistic young superhero with an annoying old Aunty leaped into someone’s head.

Wherever we ended up; that was where we were always heading; and we knew where we were heading when we set out. The acorn really is the oak tree.


Stan Lee is a story teller, and 60 years on, he has turned what were doubtless messy, vague, contingent brain-storming sessions into a series of creation myths. Creation myths which sound awfully like...well...superhero origin stories. 

“I was trying to think ‘what power could I give a superhero that no-one had seen before’ — and I saw a fly, walking up the wall, and I thought ‘hey, that would be great, to have a character who could stick to walls like an insect.”

"And I saw a fly, walking up the wall."

A bat! That's it! An omen! I shall become a BAT.

to be continued....

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. 

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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.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Spider-Man 1962 - 1966

Spider-Man was different. He was a teenager, in a genre where teenagers were only allowed to be partners and sidekicks. He was named after an insect which people just don’t like. He suffered from colds and allergies and dandruff and realistic personal problems. He was defeated as often as he won; maybe more often. His enemies were three-dimensional human beings rather than just snarling bad guys. His publisher expected him to fail, so his creator snuck his origin story into the final issue of a comic that was earmarked for cancellation. But that one issue sold so well that Spider-Man was relaunched in his very own comic, and went on to become Marvel Comics’ most iconic super-hero.

None of this is true.

We all know the myth of Spider-Man – dandruff, allergies, cancellation and all – far too well. What we don’t know so well are the comics themselves – the strange, surreal, funny, rambling incoherent comics that emerged from the Stan Lee and Steve Ditko gestalt between 1962 and 1966.

Because those comics were different. Different from what came before; different from anything Marvel was doing at the time; different to everything that came afterwards. Different enough that when a black-and-white reprint of Spider-Man #13 came into the hands of a little English boy in in February 1972, he read it; and read it again; and read it twice a day for the next week, until the black-and-white reprint of Spider-Man #14 was published. That one had the incredible Hulk in it. English comics at the time were still about spitfires, custard pies and misbehaving school-boys.

What, if we reject the easy clich├ęs about antihistamines and scalp-complaint, made those comics so different? What was Spider-Man about?

Here is an unfinished list. 

Spider-Man is a situation comedy.

Spider-Man is about fame.

Spider-Man is about the press and the media.

Spider-Man is about the codependent relationship between the paparazzi and the celebrity.

Spider-Man is about the difference between the person we are and the person we show to the world.

Spider-Man is about masks.

Spider-Man is about whether there is any point in being good if everyone thinks you are bad.

Spider-Man is about what being good even means if no-one knows about it.

Spider-Man is about the corrosive power of guilt.

Spider-Man is about an arrogant, self-destructive, outsider who systematically sabotages his own life and blames it on “bad luck” and “a curse”.

Spider-Man is a story engine in which one protagonist and five supporting characters are embroiled farcical knots of confusion and misunderstanding.

Spider-Man is a soap-opera into which a monthly super-villain is shoe-horned.

Spider-Man is a monthly wrestling match between the hero and a series of ever more absurd super-villain opponents.

Above all, Spider-Man is about the parasitic, mutually self-destructive relationship between Spider-Man and his co-star J Jonah Jameson, a vicious circle which ruins both of their lives.

Spider-Man #33 was called The Final Chapter. It was not, however, the final chapter. The comic continued long after Ditko had walked away. There was a pretty lady under a bridge, a dippy redhead who eventually grew up, a little boy with leukemia, an evil black costume.

But no other comic has ever remotely captured the special magic of Ditko and Lee’s original Spider-Man: and I would like to try to explain why.

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 copywriter holder.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Sunday Bible Study

A not very nice man from a not very nice political party has reportedly "invaded" a meat production plant and harangued the staff because he does not think that halal meat ought to be available in this country.

"In ths country" seems to be the crux of his argument: if the newspaper reports are to be believed, he basically shouted "this is the United Kingdom, this is the United Kingdom" over and over again as if that settled matters.

One of my co-workers once told me that they wouldn't buy a sandwich from Subway. In fairness, this is a pretty sound moral principal. Only a barbarian would toast a tuna mayo sandwich, and why do you have to go through the ritual of choosing between six different kinds of bread roll when they all taste identical, although I must admit I like the cookies. When I went to America, Subway seemed exciting and exotic, but then so did Starbucks.

My colleague's objection to Subway is that they serve halal food. Certainly the branch near us does: given that there are quire a lot of Muslim people in the area, this seems to make sound commercial sense. (I do not know if Subway is kosher in majority Jewish areas: perhaps there aren't enough majority Jewish areas for that to be a question.) 

I am pretty sure that a Spicy Italian contains salami; and I am pretty sure that salami is made from pork; and I am pretty sure that pork is not halal. Maybe you can make convincing salami out of fish? Maybe the lamb and beef is halal but they take it for granted that observant Muslims wouldn't order pork to start with? They put cheese into all their sandwiches unless you beg them not to, so presumably Islam doesn't have the meat/dairy restriction that Judaism does?

Halal simply means "permitted", as opposed to haram which means "forbidden". And jihad means "struggle", and hijab means modesty and shariah means "law" and Allah means "God". (Arabic speaking Christians call God "Allah".) But I suppose most people take halal to mean "filthy foreign food" and shariah to mean "chopping peoples heads off" and jihad to mean "terrorism". Up to 10th September 2001 it was common enough to hear boring men in pubs and the leader column of the Daily Telegraph explaining that you can say what you like about Johnny Foreigner but criminals who have had their heads chopped off hardly ever go out and do it again, which is more than you can say for this country. There seems to be a widespread belief that you can catch Islam off a halal foot-long pepperoni with salad but no olives and conversely, that you can cure someone of Islam by throwing bacon butties at them.

This article covers the inconsistencies in the not-very-nice man's approach quite comprehensively. Why was he singling out halal slaughter houses for his animal welfare initiative, when kosher butchers use pretty much the same methods: indeed, the one sometimes supplies the other? If the objection is that Muslim baa-lambs are not stunned before having their throats cut, then actually they usually are. Hard, in any case, to suppose that the religious slaughter of chickens is a bigger welfare concern than your average bootiful factory farm.

But what interests me is the specifically religious question.

The not-very-nice-man is alleged to have asked "Don’t you realise you’re in Great Britain?.....Why are you offering these animal up to Allah, a fake god, Satan. Do any of you have any morals?....You are in Great Britain....This is a Christian country and the Bible says no Christian should eat meat offered to a false god."

Quite a lot of questions are raised here. 

I am not sure if any good Christian has ever believed that other monotheistic faiths are indistinguishable from Satanism. I think that he may be falling into Dawkins Seventh Fallacy, which states:

a: The gods of Christianity, Muslim and Judaism are separate and distinct non-existant entities, in the way that Captain Ahab; David Copperfield and the Tooth Fairy are separate and distinct non-existent entities

b: When a Christian says that he disbelieves in the Jewish and Muslim deities, he means the same thing by "disbelieve" that an atheist does when he says he disbelieves in all deities whatsoever

c: Christians are therefore the same as atheists with respect to two out of the three major monotheistic faiths, and might as well go the whole hog and disbelieve in all of them. 

In the real world, people who believe in God invariably say that other people who believe in God believe in the same God they believe in, although they very frequently say that they've got special inside knowledge that the others haven't got, or that the others have picked up some wrong ideas along the way. 

But even if you do think that Dio is a false God invented by the evil Italians, "this is Great Britain" seems to me to be a bit of a non sequitur. People In Great Britain have been perfectly free to worship Satan since 1735: certainly since 1951. Religious tolerances is one of the things which makes us Great and British. David Cameron says so. 

But the bit which really intrigued me was the bit about the Bible saying that no Christian should eat meat offered to a false God. 

Where does it say that, exactly?

The Christian Bible contains the complete text of the Jewish Bible and therefore contains a lot of passage about which kinds of food are kosher and which kinds are terefah. (I looked it up.) No pork, no shellfish, no lamb cooked in its mother's milk, wash your hands carefully, put the toilet a long way from the kitchen, and so on. But the Christian "New" Testament contains a number of passages in which Jesus permits his followers to apply those rules with leniency, or to set them aside altogether. Sometimes he seems to be saying that his own presence puts the rules on hold temporarily; sometimes he seems to be saying that the rules, as practiced at that time, went way beyond what God had intended or that they were being applied in an unspiritual, rules-lawyering way. But some of his clearest and least equivocal statements say that eating the wrong kind of food doesn't affect your spiritual status one way or the other: 

There is nothing from without a man, that entering into him can defile him: but the things which come out of him, those are they that defile the man....Do ye not perceive, that whatsoever thing from without entereth into the man it cannot defile him. Because it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught, purging all meats?

Naturally, the gentile converts to Christianity found it much easier to accept this idea than the Jewish ones; and it was a point of contention in the early Church. About the only thing we know about Paul's personal relationship with Peter is that they had a public falling out over whether Christians needed to keep kosher. 

The not very nice man seems to have had one of Paul's letters in mind: 

Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake: "For the earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof." If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.But if any man say unto you, "This is offered in sacrifice unto idols", eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: "for the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof" Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man's conscience? For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?

Whatever is sold in the market, just eat it, and don't ask questions, because everything in the world belongs to God. It is hard to see how you can read that as saying "the Bible forbids us from eating mean offered to false gods". It actually seems to be saying the very opposite. 

Obviously, Paul isn't talking about halal meat, but he is talking about meat which has been offered to the gods of the Greek pantheon. He is quite clear that it doesn't make any difference if an animal was killed in the temple of Jupiter or in front of a statue of Hercules because Jupiter and Hercules don't actually exist.

But there's a problem. Monotheists have always said "There is no other God but God, so whatever you do, don't worship any of the other Gods" and "Idols are totally meaningless, so whatever you do, don't worship them." Paul seems to be saying that idol-worship is, so to speak, a subjective sin: if you think of a statue of a pagan god as just being a lump of dead marble, then it is; but if at some level you think of it as a rival deity, then you'd be cheating on God by worshiping it. People who converted to Christianity from Greek polytheism might well still think of the statues as potentially being gods of some kind; so if they had a sandwich which they thought might have been used in the worship of one of the Greek deities then they might be committing idol worship in their head. 

C.S Lewis said that the generalization of this principal was "on non-essential matters the person without scruples should always give way to the person with scruples." It leads to all sorts of uncomfortable conclusions. If my weaker brother honestly believes that playing Dungeons & Dragons is a kind of devil worship then I (knowing very well that it is not) should never play Dungeons & Dragons again for fear of leading him into subjective sin. I suppose we all accept that we shouldn't have a drink in front of a former alcoholic; should we refrain from eating meat around vegans because meat is murder to them even though to sensible people it isn't?

The not-very-nice-man asserts that the Christian Bible teaches that Subway sell demonic sandwiches. It does not. Even on the assumption (that I am very far from accepting) that the God of Islam is, from the point of view of a good Christian, a false god on a level with Baal, then the Christian Bible is perfectly fine with me eating halal because false gods are precisely that: false. The Christian Bible says that when I go into a sandwich bar, I shouldn't ask questions about the religious affiliation of the sandwiches. It doesn't matter either way. However, if someone tells you that the food is halal and if that person honestly believes that eating a big hearty Italian is pretty much the same thing as drawing a pentacle on the ground and sacrificing a goat to it, then I shouldn't eat sandwiches in their presence. Or maybe at all. If they think it's wrong, then it's wrong for them.

Nothing remotely suggests that Paul thought that the Greeks shouldn't be allowed to carry on performing their own ceremonies in their own ways. The idea that there is a continuity between "I will not eat halal meat"; "No Christian should eat halal meant" and "Muslims living in the UK should not be permitted to eat halal meat" is clearly nonsense. It might be that the not-very-nice-man thinks that there should be no mosques, temples or synagogues in England and that all the Jews, Muslims and Hindus should be rehoused in the American mid-west. But in modern times, countries with Christian majorities have always permitted other religions to be practiced in their borders. There have been Mosques and Temples in the the UK since Victorian times and Synagogues since the the time of Oliver Cromwell. 

So. It's quite awkward. It's none of the unpleasant man's business whether I go to Subway or not; and it's certainly none of his business whether Muslims do. But what does his conscience tell him? If he feels that he is eating the devil every time he worships a sandwich then I should not encourage him.

So: tell me, Mr England First. 

Do you consider your own faith to be a bit on the weak side? 

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Sunday Politics

I wrote this a couple of months ago. (I really wrote it a couple of months ago. I found it on my Scrivener while looking for something else.) I didn't publish it at the time, because I didn't think it was very interesting:

Our own beloved Ken Livingstone has been accused of a faux pas.

Apparently, he felt that a Labour MP accepting a donation from a hedge fun manager was “like Jimmy Savile funding a children's group”.

The press can be awfully innocent about this kind of thing. The Sun prints the words SEX and BOTTOMS in capital letters, as if they can hardly believe such things exist; anything stronger is blocked out with asterisks. It is okay to print photographs of ladies with no bra on page three of a family newspaper, but god forbid a child should see the word T*TS. They go pale and start to tremble, like your maiden aunt, if anyone uses the F-word. No news reporter has even heard it before.

The formulation like putting X in charge of a Y is so common that it barely reaches the dignity of being a cliche. Like putting Herod in charge of an orphanage barely counts as a simile: it's proverbial. As popular as a pork chop at a Passover; as useful as a one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest. You might have thought that Blackadder’s as cunning as a fox who had been awarded a degree in Cunning from the University of Cunning (or merely as cunning as a cunning thing) would have killed it off.

Jimmy Savile has a special and strange status which is probably not comprehensible to anyone outside of England or under the age of 45. He isn’t the only entertainer to have been retrospectively exposed as a sex offender; but I think most of our reaction to Rolf Harris’s conviction was “that’s really sad — he seemed so nice”. And Harris was famous for something: it is possible to think that he deserved his jail sentence and that Sun Arise is a terrific song. But so far as anyone can tell, Jimmy Savile never did anything apart from sit around being Jimmy Saville. He played records on the radio, but no-one tells us that he was a master of the craft (like Terry Wogan) or that he championed bands that no-one else cared about (like John Peel). He somehow just existed; being vaguely flamboyant; fronting shows he had nothing to do with; universally present.

I have said elsewhere that in the 1970s the BBC was a genre, almost a place, in a way that can hardly be understood today. More than one of us felt that Basil Brush must be a friend and neighbor of Tom Baker because their shows were on straight after each other. Savile wasn't the guy who fronts that make-a-wish show (“Dear Jimmy, Please could you fix it for me to play the drums with Gary Glitter”); he was more like that weird neighbor you keep bumping into. So the discovery that he was not merely a children’s entertainer who was also a child molester (though God knows that would have been bad enough) but a child molester who appears to have become a children’s entertainer in order to gain access to hundreds and possibly thousands of children genuinely feels like a bomb has gone off through our collective memories. You are thinking about that nice show where the young boy got to star in his own episode of Doctor Who, and then you remember whose show it was. There was that day when Boy George visited my school (true story) after some girls had written to complain that morning assembly was too boring. But who had they written to? Oh yes. Better stop telling that story.

The press love a villain. They compete with each other to see who can condemn the villain in the strongest terms: never mind “disgraced entertainer Jimmy Savile”, not even “evil Jimmy Savile” it needs to be “vile pervert Jimmy Savile”. But what they love even more is a stick to beat the BBC with. (The same journalists who shake when they hear the word “fuck” still regard the idea of showing pictures on the radio as a peculiar fad which will pass before the days of fleet street and hot metal come to an end; their masters hate anything state run because they can’t buy it.) Never mind that Savile was courted by Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles; never mind that Norman Tebbit was one of the few people prepared to defend him when the child rape allegations came out; never mind that he was lauded by anti-sex campaigner Mary Whitehouse. He was a BBC man to the core, and therefore the BBC is infected by his evil.

(The BBC did, in fact, behave reprehensibly, failing to respond to complaints and allegations and evidence because Savile was high profile and rich and could afford the best lawyers in the land. But so did everybody else.)

But what has happened as a result of this is that Savile has been invested with a peculiar kind of anti-sanctity. There is a weird process by which a tiny minority of celebrities become untouchable. You aren’t allowed to say anything against Diana; you aren’t allowed to speak against dead soldiers or appear without a poppy between Halloween and New Years Eve. (When I say “you aren’t allowed to” I mean “if you do, the papers will attack you, not for what you said, but for daring to take the name of our beloved royal family or our brave servicemen in vain”. There's no actual law against it.)

Savile seems to have achieved a level of anti-sanctity in a way that hardly anyone else ever has. When the serial killer Myra Hindley died, she was cremated in private, her ashes scattered in secret and the hospital room she had died in was repainted. That kind of fear of contamination, which features in no actual religion, is the true faith of the Englishman and woman. Someone isn’t a criminal at one time of their lives and not at another; people who murder children without motivation aren’t mentally ill. They have a disease called evil which is communicable — through bed sheets; through white emulsion; through saying their name. Jimmy Savile is like a Weeping Angel; his evil somehow transmissible through his image. We’re allowed to see bad 1970s pop music shows, but his face has to be pixellated, like when someone takes their clothes off on Big Brother and the viewers would be struck blind if they saw a willy. The tabloids got cross because they found there was still an interview with him on a no-longer updated BBC website.

In real life, most of us don’t think that way. Most of us think of the Queen as a somewhat anachronistic feature of the British constitution that we are nevertheless vaguely affectionate towards; that fuck is quite useful as an exclamation mark but shouldn’t be used as a comma; and that Jimmy Savile was a nasty sex criminal who they should have caught earlier. There are other nasty sex criminals; it’s a truism that most kids who are abused are abused by members of their own family. I shall forebear from telling the P.E teacher story again.

It would have been better if Ken Livingstone had said like putting Herod in charge of a children’s home rather than like putting Savile in charge of a children's charity. It would have been better if he'd thought it through a bit and realized that, er, one of the nasty things about Savile was that he actually did support children's charities. Quite likely the tabloids were simply looking for someone from The Left at whom to direct mock outrage but Ken should have thought it through and not offered them an open goal.

But ultimately, he has misused a holy name. The drawing of a line of sanctity around something is never good; it always prevents thinking. The question to ask about a sex offender is how he got that way, how he got away with it for so long, what we should do if this situation arose again, and whether bleating about "elf and safety” necessarily helps. The anti-sanctification of this figure means he is merely a symbol of evil in general and the evil of public service broadcasting in particular.

And it neatly distracts us all from Ken’s point. What is a Labour MP doing taking money from a hedge fun?

Isn’t that like the Resistance being financed by Kylo Renn?

Anyway. That was the essay. Can anyone think of any other profane figures of proverbial evil that Ken should avoid make glib remarks about?

* Ken Livingstone is a politician, former Mayor of London, and sometime Labour MP. In the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council specifically in order to stop him being leader of it. The press called him “Red Ken” because he held extreme views such as children should be taught about homosexuality in school sex ed lessons and Sinn Fien would have to be brought into the mainstream political process. If not for his policy of cheap travel on the London Tube, putting 1 Dalling Road and Denmark Street within easy reach of suburban schoolboys, it is most unlikely that I would have become a Dungeons & Dragons player or a comic book collector.