Thursday, November 23, 2017

The Last Star Wars Article

Where do we go when we watch Star Wars?

We know where we go when we watch Doctor Who. No such place ever actually existed, but everyone claims to have been there. It was a very long time ago: everything was black and white. We were very small: small enough to fit into the interstices between walls and furniture. TVs were very big. Pieces of furniture in shared family spaces, not electronic toys in our private rooms. “Putting on the TV” was a positive choice. The pictures were both real and not real. We wanted to look at them and hide from them at the same time. Middle-class. Suburban. Domestic. Ubiquitous. Safe.

Modern Doctor Who has written about that space almost obsessively, but it has never remotely taken us there. 

Yoda voice: That is why it fails.

Where do we go when we watch Star Wars?

There are AT-AT Walkers: new AT-AT Walkers that walk on their knuckles and something in the background that might be a floating galleon but might only be an Imperial Shuttle.

The Walkers arrived in Empire Strikes Back. They were a replacement for the Death Star. Never quite as magical. But magical just the same.

There are white alien goats on a snowy background. I suppose if there are Walkers there has to be Snow. First films have Sand and Second films have Snow. The third film will go back to Jakku, you mark my words.

The Millennium Falcon is being chased through a fiery red cave by TIE Fighters; which makes us think of the wrecked Star Destroyer from part VII and the Death Star superstructure from part VI and the space worm from part V and coming out of hyperspace near Alderaan in part IV. This will come very near the beginning of the film, as a warm up, to tell us that Star Wars has started again and the toys are all intact.

There is Chewbacca on the flight deck, as if he was escaping from Mos Eisley, except that Han has been replaced by a Penguin. Every saga has a Jar Jar. Every trilogy has an Ewok. We complained about George's silliness but we missed it when it wasn't there. The Penguin will have a very small part. He may only appear in this one scene. Everyone will always have heard of him and he will even eventually have his own comic, but all he will actually do is shout “It’s a trap!”

There is battle with big space ships and TIE fighters and X-Wings and a stirring speech about lighting the flame that will become the spark that will burn the fascists down although we all know that the fascists won’t burn down until the last ten minutes of Episode IX. There is Po Dameron looking resolute and Finn fighting the shiny gold lady Stormtrooper officer with a a big glowy laser-chainsaw. This will happen at the end. Po and Finn will be blowing things up resolutely while the Proper Plot happens somewhere else.

The Proper Plot will be about Rey turning to the Dark Side, and Ren turning back to the Light. Or perhaps about Ren resisting the light side and Rey resisting the Dark. That is the Proper Plot of every Star Wars movie except Star Wars. Someone is tempted by the Dark. Someone is tempted by the Light. Indeed, that is the plot of every possible movie. (I think Joseph Campbell said that.)


We always knew that this moment would come. Not when he lit the torch at his Father funeral pyre but from the very first moment in the cave. I-was-once-a-Jedi-knight-the-same-as-your-father. There would always come a moment when stroppy James Dean teenage Luke Skywalker would be old. We need him to be old because we need him to be a Jedi Knight and Jedi Knights are old. Alec Guinness is the only and all Jedi Knights just as happens Leonard Nimoy is the only and all Vulcans.

The moment we imagined, when Luke Skywalker is a Jedi like Obi Wan and he is teaching other Jedi (including me, me, please, including me) — the moment when the Jedi actually Returned — has already happened and is already over, somewhere in the space between VI and VII. I suppose we should never see it, in the same way we should never have seen the Old Republic, because Luke Skywalker and the New Order of Jedi, is part of the happy-ever-after which was implied during the fireworks and the Ewoks. And it was not a happy ending. Of course it wasn’t a happy ending because everyone living happily ever after is how a story ends and there have to be more stories. So we get to see old Luke, but we don’t get to see Jedi Luke. We get to see Luke the Last Jedi.  


Episode VII finishes with Rey holding Luke’s lightsaber out to Luke, and us not knowing is Luke takes it or not. (Spoiler: No.) The Trailer finishes with Ren holding his hand out to Rey and us not knowing if she takes it or not. And that makes us think of Daddy Vader holding his hand out to Luke, which is why Great Big Hologram Leader Guy (who has got smaller) bellows “FULL…FILL…YOUR…DES…TIN…EE” in the trailer. (He is probably saying it to Kylo Ren, but he could just as well be saying it to Rey. Of course he might not say it at all. That sometimes happens with trailers.) This will happen in the middle of the movie. Rey will face a difficult time in her training when she is tempted by the Dark Side. Maybe she will break off her Jedi training with Luke because she sees a vision of Kylo torturing Po and Finn. Maybe when she is on the point of  turning to the Dark Side, Ren will say "No, Rey, I am your half-brother."

Ren has a shiny black Tie Fighter, just like Grandpa’s. As he whizzes around he looks for all the world like Anakin Skywalker in the cartoons. (But Anakin in the Cartoons is now the Real Anakin. Anakin in the Cartoons very nearly makes up for Anakin in the prequels. He is a, waddyacall, Redemptive Reading.) But he, Ray, can hear Snoke’s voice, just like Luke Skywalker heard Ben’s voice and it goes boom boom boom FULFILL YOUR DENSITY boom boom boom BECOME WHO YOU WERE MEANT TO BE boom boom boom. All films are always about becoming who you were meant to be. (I think Joseph Campbell said that.)  Carrie, god bless her is on the big ship (the same kind of ship that Mon Motha had) and Kylo is aiming his weapon at her. Luke’s big moment was to blow up the Death Star. Kylo's big moment is to kill Mum. (SPOILER: He has already killed Dad.) 

Maybe he will kill his Mum and go totally over to the Dark Side. Maybe he will not kill her an come back to the light. Maybe the Millennium Falcon will come over the hill at the last possible moment. 

One thinks of Locutus of Borg, possibly.

Luke says “I’VE SEEN RAW STRENGTH LIKE THIS ONLY ONCE BEFORE IT DIDN’T SCARE ME ENOUGH THEN IT DOES NOW” and Big Hologram Gollum Guy says “When I found you I saw RAW UNTAMED POWER”. I suppose Luke is talking to Rey about Kylo Ren and I suppose Snoke is talking to Kylo Ren about Ben Solo. I suppose Luke is going to refuse to train Rey in case he buggers it up and sends her to the Dark Side as well. Which will send Rey into the arms of Ren for help. Which will result in Ren’s ultimate redemption. 

Or else something completely different will happen.

To summarize: Rey and Ren are powerful Jedi and are going to be tempted in various ways and there is going to be a battle involving X-Wings and capital ships and walkers and a chase involving the Millennium Falcon.

Which is, I suppose, only like saying that this cowboy film will definitely have horses, a criminal, a sheriff, some native Americans and a big gun fight in a frontier town. Star Wars isn’t a saga. It’s a genre. (I said that.)


Where do we go when we watch Star Wars?

A flea-pit olden days 1970s cinema with fizzy orange juice and ice-cream. Or maybe some nuts. Or a big London movie house with posters and programmes and people selling knock-off merchandise outside? 

Or am I misremembering? Was Star Wars always something that we were watching again on DVD. Or VHS. Or just ITV?

The movie called Star Wars (there is only one movie called Star Wars) was great, and we have all seen it forty or fifty times and will see it another twenty, thirty forty times before we die. (I have measured out my life in coffee spoons.) But before there was a movie called Star Wars there were Star Wars toys. The original dolls were almost comically badly done: no-one even tried to model Mark Hamil’s face and the white plastic smock molded onto his body has only the most passing connection to the greying desert gear he wears in the movie. I almost wonder if the appeal of the figures wasn’t in the packaging: the shiny card with the Star Wars logo and a big colour picture of the iconic twin suns scene printed on it? The closet you could get to putting your hands on a bit of the film and keeping it? No-one could afford to buy them, obviously. We went on pilgrimages to toy shops to gaze at them enviously.

Isn’t that what the word “iconic” literally means? 

The idea of Luke Skywalker, the blond guy in white with a utility belt and glowy sword can somehow be contracted to three inches of barely articulated plastic and have endless battles with the idea of Darth Vader, a black masked villain with a cheap cellophane cape. How many millions of battles did Luke Skywalker have with Darth Vader on how many thousands of bedroom floors between 1977 and 1980? 

At least until their lightsabers snapped off.

We can now see that the action figures were insufficiently iconic: that they contained too much of the real Mark Hamil and the real Alec Guinness. Forbidden Planet will sell you brilliantly authentic replicas of Darth Vader costing hundreds of pounds but those are not for children to play with, they are for adults to put on the shelf and forget about. The real Star Wars; Star Wars stripped of all particularity and specificity, the pure idea of the Dark Side and the Light, is now surely the Lego figurine? (I am serious. Every child has seen thousands of Lego Stormtroopers before the Star Destroyer swallows up the Blockade Runner, and every child knows that Vader is Luke's father before they know who Vader and Luke are.) 

We can't watch Doctor Who again. We wouldn't physically fit behind that damn sofa. But perhaps we can crouch down on the bedroom floor one last time. There can't ever really be a new Star Wars story, and we wouldn't want there to be. (George Lucas never really understood this.) But we can take the Lego minifigs out of the box and play out our favorite scenes in a slightly different order. I'm pretty sure Joseph Campbell said that. 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

White People's History, Update...

...A pub called The Colston Yard has changed its name to The Bristol Yard.....

...The snowflakes trying to obliterate the parts of history that they don't like.

....All the P C do gooders wanting the name Colston remove well you can not change history

....Pathetic - you can't erase history, you should learn from it and make sure it never happens again....And the Colston Hall will AlWAYS be the Colston Hall to me because it's part of my history!

''''Edward Colston did not start slavery. It was started by African tribes capturing and selling other Africans.

.....The PC Brigade win again. Pity some people have no guts to stick it out.

....This is the slow but sure erosion of white peoples' history in within the city and nation, the same thing is happening in America with their monuments, it won't ever be satisfied until it is completely erased....

....but Colston Girls School has decided to leave the name as it is.

....As we live in a democracy, why not let the people of Bristol decide whether we change the name of the Colston Hall,,,,no hold on a moment, the powers that be would realise that the vast majority of true Bristolians would want it to stay as it is,,,,THE COLSTON HALL

....Changing a name and trying to airbrush history is easy, righting modern day wrongs and the suffering of those currently living is much harder.

....Fantastic news!!! the Lefty in charge of the Colston Hall is still pressing ahead though, forcing their will on us like any true Libtard!

....Excellent news - should not be hiding the past - all this politically correct nonsense is highly frustrating. Colston Hall take note !!

.....These "do-gooders" trying to re-write history are getting into dangerous waters

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Tables Turned

Opening caption, Amazing Spider-Man #29

Stan Lee introduces Amazing Spider-Man #29 with the following words.

"On the surface, this may seem to be a super-hero action thriller! But if you probe down deep, if you analyse each subtle nuance, if you dissect each philosophical phrase, if you study each non-existentialist panel you’ll discover that it actually is… a super-hero action thriller!” 

What is the purpose of this panel? Why does Stan Lee introduce this particular superhero story with 50 words saying not much more than “this is a superhero story”? Why is this the superhero story into which he is particularly worried about people reading too much significance?

And what the heck does he mean by "non-existentialist"?

An existentialist thinks that human beings create their own meaning in an essentially meaningless universe. So I suppose a non-existentialist must believe the opposite: that life does have some kind of meaning and purpose if you are prepared to look for it. 

The Beatles’ German friends were described as “exis”, but this just seems to have meant that they thought you should challenge authority. Adrian Mole was a “nihilistic existentialist”, which meant he took “being bored” a stage further than everyone else. When I was at college a lot of people used “existentialist” to mean “gloomy”. The Christian Union took it to mean “all the bad things that people believe in this terrible modern world.” In this latter sense it has been largely replaced by “post-modernism”.

Peter Parker is a non-existentialist. He believes that his life has a meaning. He thinks that Someone or Something behind the scenes expects him to behave in a particular way. The name he gives to the Person Behind The Scenes is usually Fate or Destiny. But we know that its true name is Stan Lee. 

Parker’s belief in Luck and Fate is really the perception that he is a character in a comic book. It isn’t fickle fate that determined he would be at the science exhibition at the same moment the spider got irradiated. It isn’t blind luck that means that his life keeps getting tangled up with Doctor Octopus’s plans. And it isn’t destiny which forces him to carry on being Spider-Man even though the sensible thing to do would be quit. It’s all the fault of Stan and Steve who keep thinking up more and more far-fetched plot-devices to throw at him. Because if they didn’t there wouldn’t be a comic. 

In real life, the chances of the guy who is going to murder your uncle happening to run past you down a corridor is billions to one. The chance of it happening to Peter Parker is about one hundred percent. “With great power comes great responsibility” isn’t a moral statement so much as a description of the way stories work. This story, at any rate. The argument about the Green Goblin’s identity was an argument about whether Spider-Man’s life should be directed by the Fickle Finger of Fate or whether it should be just one thing after another. Between non-existentialist Lee (”Gosh, how ironic! My best friend’s father!”) and existentialist Ditko (“this guy I never saw before”.) 

“Yeah, well, that’s not the way it would be in real life.”

“Yeah, well, in real life, there’s nobody called The Green Goblin.’

Analogies between God and The Author have been a bit overdone, not least by me. I doubt if Stan Lee has read The Mind of the Maker or The Death of the Author. But he does talk about creating all the Marvel superheroes and resting on the seventh day. Being a writer and being God are sort of kind of the same. If you are a non-existentialist, then the universe has whatever meaning and purpose God intended it to have. So surely the Marvel Universe must mean whatever Stan Lee says it means. 

And what does the voice of Stan say? He says that every single panel has the quality of non-existentialism. It means something. But at the same time — in the same breath — he says that the comic has no deeper meaning. It’s just a comic. 

This comic means whatever I say it means. And what I say is that it doesn’t mean anything. 

How is that even worth saying? 

Amazing Spider-Man #28, #29, #30 and #31 were not published by Marvel Comics Group: they were published by Marvel Pop Art Productions. 

“Remember” enthused letter-col Stan “from now on, Brand X, Y, and Z are comic books, but when you ask for a Marvel mag, you ask for a pop art book.” 

This is, I assume, a joke. But a joke is only funny if the people hearing it share certain beliefs. They all know that “comic” is a bit of pejorative term. They all know that Marvel comics are qualitatively different from DC and Atlas. And they all know what Pop Art is. Or, at any rate, they know that there is a thing called Pop Art, even if they couldn’t state the difference between Andy Warhol’s screen prints and Roy Lichtenstein found panels in any form that could hold water for five minutes. 

But what does it mean for Stan to stick a “Marvel Pop Art Productions” logo on his cover? Is he  saying “Look! These really aren’t comics any more!”? Or is he saying “Isn’t it funny that some pretentious people think these aren’t comics any more!”?

Quod scripsi, scripsi. Pow, zap, comics aren’t just for kids.

Amazing Spider-Man #33 included a fan-letter from one Betty-Anne Lopate who asked “Have you ever considered the close ideological connection between your Spider-Man and the Dadaist-Pop Art Movement?” Whether you have or not, it’s a very good letter, nailing what makes Spider-Man tick and comparing Stan Lee with Hugh Heffner into the bargain: 

“Whether you realize it or not, your Spider-Man has become the Hipper Man’s Playboy Magazine. While Hefner has capitalized on the boyhood dreams of many men to consider themselves suave and sophisticated, Spider-Man calls up a different, much more realistic and subtle form of sophistication; it caters to the young thinking man’s need to consider himself also a man of action.” 

It takes Stan Lee three exclamation points to express how bemused he is by this letter: 

“How about THAT!!! Here’s a chick who spends her 12c and end up getting fodder for a psychological dissertation! Betty-Anne, we think you’re great - and let us know what you’ll charge to psychoanalyze the gang in the bullpen when you get the chance! Okay, pussycat!” 

Stan is very proud that clever people are studying his comics, but nevertheless wants to be seen as a plain ol’ joe who doesn’t understand a word of it. Betty-Anne uses pop art and dadaism (which were not at all the same thing) to introduce a fairly transparent exposition of Spider-Man’s appeal, which Stan Lee immediately conflates with psychoanalysis. The humanities — art, lit-crit, Freud — are all equally impenetrable to us mere mortals. Peter Parker wrote off art after one glance at a modern painting, and can’t tell the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst. 

(Brief pause to acknowledge the sexist language.)

In Origins of Marvel Comics, Stan Lee he presents himself, less as the onlie begetter of an entire menagerie of super-people, more as a professional word-smith. It turns out that it's the dialogue, not the original concept, which defines a character: 

“The best stories of all… are the stories in which the characters seem to be real….And what makes them so? Mostly it’s their dialog. The well-written character is the one who is always verbally true to form…”

“When I began to write the strip (which means actually putting the words in all their little pink mouths) I decided that I wanted the hammer holder to speak more like a god…”

This is one hell of claim, if you think about it. "Writer" means “the guy who writes the dialogue”, and dialogue is what makes characters real. So regardless of who “dreamed up” Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four, Stan Lee is indubitably the one who makes the characters real. 

Stan Lee has admitted elsewhere that Steve Ditko “dreamed up” Doctor Strange without any input from him. But if anyone but Stan had been putting words into Doctor Strange’s – er – “little pink mouth” he might have said things like “Hocus pocus go to another dimension” or “Like, split to another dimension, man.” But as we all know, what he really says is things like “In the name of the dread Dormammu…” and “By the all-seeing eye of Agamatto…”. It is this vocabulary of authentic sounding magic words which makes Doctor Strange seem real. 

As Doctor Strange got more and more popular -- and what could be hipper than a Greenwich Village wizard -- some of the Betty-Anne's among his fan base started to wonder where Stan Lee had sourced all this magic vocabulary. 

“Suddenly, mail started pouring in — from colleges, if you will… And the pay off was, many of these explained, in detailed chapter and verse, how I had obviously borrowed from the ancient Druid writings, or from forbidden Egyptian hieroglyphics, or at least the writings of H.P Lovecraft.”

It isn’t clear how college students got their hands on these Egyptian texts if they were forbidden, or indeed who it was who was forbidding them. It’s even less clear where they found ancient druid writings, given that we only know about the druids from secondary sources. Stan Lee is, as usual riffing on a theme. But his response to these supposed letters is, again, to be flattered that people are taking his comics seriously, but bemused by the specifics of what they are saying: 

“After they had done all that research, all that probing and digging, how could I tell them that it wasn’t so — that I had made it all up?”

So he told a white lie: he’d read very widely, and doubtless filled Doctor Strange with references and allusions at a sub-conscious level. 

“No need to tell them I’d never studied Egyptian hieroglyphics and wouldn’t know any ancient Druid writings if they were tattooed on my dome.”

This is the standard Artist’s Plea. My ideas don’t come from anywhere. There is no hidden meaning or subtext. I just made it all up. Out of my head. All right, all right. If you insist, maybe I put some hidden meanings in there subconsciously. But I really really didn’t. It’s all – meaningless. 

“The first phrase I thought of was as totally meaningless as all the others that were to follow: “by the hoary hosts of hoggoth”. No matter what he said, no matter what he wanted, no matter what he said, it always seemed to sound more dramatic when preceded by “by the hoary hosts of hoggoth.” 

He’s riffing again. Hoggoth wasn’t the first magic word to be used in Doctor Strange, and it was never quite as ubiquitous as he suggests. No-one sensible – not even those imaginary college students – thinks that Lee had secret knowledge of occult forces and was hiding them in his comic book. But it doesn't quite follow that the phrase is “meaningless”. 

“Hoary” is a real word. It means ancient. It has connotations of whiteness and cold. It’s an old-fashioned word. We never use it accept as a conscious archaism. 

A “host” is an army, but we only ever use the word in a religious context. We probably have some vague sense that it has something to do with angels: “the heavenly host” and the “lord of hosts”. We might also possibly associate it with the “consecrated host” in a Catholic church. “Hoggoth” is a strange collection of sounds: nothing rhymes with it. H.P Lovecraft independently spotted its strangeness when he named one of his alien monsters a “shoggoth”

I suppose we could translate “hoary hosts of hoggoth” as “Hoggoth’s ancient army” or just possibly “Hoggoth’s ancient and holy bread”. But this isn’t what we hear. What we hear is more like “ancient-white-archaic-mysterious-religious-sacred-things”. We probably imagine Hoggoth as a venerable old man with white hair and a beard. It has echoes of Christian sanctity, but the lilting alliteration is the kind of thing a guru in an Arabian Nights market might say. Like Doctor Strange, it has one foot in a Western world of angels and devils, and one foot in an Eastern world of carpets and Turkish delight. 

You could doubtless play similar games with “agamatto” and “dormamu” and “vishanti”. Lee says that when he made the names up he relief entirely on phonetic: on what sounded mystical. But I don't think that there is any such thing as pure phonetics. Lee may never had read an occult text in his life, but his words mean things, however much he doth protest that they do not.

Stan Lee wrote Spider-Man’s dialogue. So by Stan Lee's arguments, it was Stan Lee who mainly made Spider-Man seem real. But Steve Ditko was making up the stories and Steve Ditko had some very specific, very idiosyncratic, very deeply held political beliefs. And they were increasingly finding their way into his stories. We are only four issues away from The Final Chapter: Spider-Man’s supreme act of self-conquest. No-one reading that iconic episode would dispute that it means something: that Steve Ditko meant something by it. The young people on the internet who say “all that happens is that Spider-Man lifts something really heavy” are simply wrong. 

Stan must have been able to see what was happening. Stan must have known that left to himself Steve would have turned Peter Parker into the poster-boy for his newfound Randian faith. Would Stan have been relaxed about that? Using comics to say that hatred was bad and love was good was one thing: but using them to proselytize a specific political position was something else. 

So this breezy little joke is part of the Lee vs Ditko struggle, which is part of the words vs pictures struggle, which is part of the Peter Parker vs Spider-Man struggle. Ditko wants his comics to say something. Stan smiles and says that if you look carefully enough you’ll find that there is nothing to see. They really are just superhero comics and nothing else.

A couple of issue later he admits that the “Pop Art” logo was a terrible, terrible mistake.

When a writer tells critics not to bother interpreting his story, what he really means is that his interpretation is the only true one – that you have to read the story his way, or not at all. Some writers find deeply threatening the idea that there might be truths in the story they created which they themselves are unaware of. “This story is meaningless” is the cry of a creator trying to keep control over his creation. 

There is a very well known story about this. About a creator who creates a Creature with the best of intentions only to watch the Creature run amok and destroy him and everything he loved. (The Creature even steals his Creator's name.) 

I assume that Lee had read Mary Shelly. He had certainly seen the Karloff movie. He quite explicitly evokes Frankenstein when recapitulating the story of the Scorpion. It isn’t mere a tale of science gone awry. It’s a tale of the Creation rising up against the Creator. Jameson created the Scorpion to destroy Spider-Man; the Scorpion wants to destroy Jameson; Spider-Man has to defend Jameson from the Scorpion. “I am doomed…” cries Jameson “Doomed by the very creature I myself unthinkingly helped to create.” The language can hardly be a coincidence. 

Ditko provided a splash page which encapsulates the super-hero action thriller side of the story very adequately. Jameson looks on helplessly as Spider-Man fights against the Scorpion (tearing up his office) in the process. Stan Lee could have underlined this, say by repeating the blurb from last issues letter page “A fighting mad Spider-Man battles to protect his worst enemy.” But instead he looks through the image and sees the deeper meaning. The Creation that the Creator has lost all control over. 

Lee’s 50 word introduction is one last attempt to take back control over the character he created. Helped to create. And he knows it won’t do any good. He is J. Jonah Jameson. His office has been flattened. Fifty years in the future people he has never met will be discovering new ways in which Spider-Man #29 is something more than a superhero action thriller.

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 used 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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Thursday, November 09, 2017

Amazing Spider-Man #29

Never Step on a Scorpion!

The Scorpion

Supporting cast: 
J. Jonah Jameson, Frederick Foswell, Betty Brant, Ned Leeds, Aunt May. 

Spins a Web, any size
Spider-Man makes web bolas to entangle the Scorpion.

Peter Parker’s financial position. 
Buying new clothes for college “practically cleans him out”. A suit would cost about $25 and a shirt about $3, so he can hardly have blown more than $50. He has spent through the $1,000 the Globe paid him in #27 in about 2 months. 

Peter Parker graduated in issue #28, so that story almost certainly took place on June 25, 1965.

Peter Parker starts college in issue #31, so that story almost certainly takes place between 23 - 27 August 1965.

Amazing Spider-Man #29, #30 and #31 must be consecutive: Betty Brant gets an attack of the vapours in #29 and is still in bed in #30; Aunt May feels unwell in #29 and is hospitalized in #31. 

It follows that this issue takes place a few days before Peter starts college, say 20 Aug 1965; and that there has been a two month gap between the end of Spider-Man #28 and the opening of Spider-Man #29. This is consistent with Liz not having seen Peter “since graduation” in #30, and Peter not having seen Betty “for a long time” in #29. It also allows Ned and Betty a few Peter-free weeks to get to know each other.

The events of issue #28 comfortably take place in a few hours.


Page 2 "Last year's clothes are getting too tight on me!"
Guys can grow and inch or two between age 16 and 18, and Peter Parker is perpetually working out and presumably gaining muscle mass, so it's not surprising he needs new clothes. He withdraws some cash to go shopping with; but then changes his mind and goes to the Bugle instead.

That said, I find these panels baffling. Peter is generally shown wearing a blue suit, yellow waistcoat and red tie. From this issue he will largely abandon the jacket and tie and wear a much less formal non-buttoning yellow vest. It would not surprising for Ditko to flag this change of look with a trip to the shops. 

But Peter is clearly already wearing the new waistcoat in panel 2; and he doesn't get to the shops because they are too crowded. This is no Lee/Ditko miscommunication: the text accurately reflects the pictures -- Peter struggling to fit into a shirt, Peter going to the bank; Peter walking away from the crowded shops. But Peter definitely wears a new outfit from this point on.

Page 2 "I outsmarted them by pretending to crack up! They returned my costume to me in order to calm me down!"
Does Stan Lee think that the Scorpion's powers come from his suit? Or has he spotted a problem in Ditko's pictures (why on earth does the Scorpion have his costume on when he escapes from jail?) and hastily come up with an explanation? Is there an ironic contrast between the Scorpion getting his costume back and Peter Parker entirely failing to buy a new waistcoat? We know from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1 that it was common practice to allow super-criminals to wear their costumes in jail.

Page 3 "It’s a long time since I’ve seen Betty”
Betty last appeared in issue #26.

Page 3 “Ned Leeds is back to stay” 
Nine issues ago, Ned stated that he was going away for 6 months.

Page 4 Ned is taking me to see Golden Boy tomorrow night!”
Golden Boy was a musical which ran on Broadway from 1964-65, starring Sammy Davies Jnr, about a boxer who accidentally kills an opponent and commits suicide. 

Page 7 “Spider-Man and Scorpion are Partners, says publisher”
Once again, Jameson seems to be able to write, typeset and print a new edition of the Bugle in a matter of seconds…

Page 9 “This is only a temporary respite.”
A respite is temporary by definition.

Page 9 "As for you, Scorpy, we've just got to get rid of your deep rooted-hostility complex."
A "hostility complex" isn't really a thing: psychologists do occasionally refer to someone having an "anger-hostility complex". Like "non-existentialist", it's a five buck word that doesn't really mean anything: Lee/Parker thinks that sticking the word "complex" on the end of another word makes him sound clever. Peter is a bookworm, but pretty ignorant about the humanities.

P15 - "Whither I go, you go!” 
The second time in two months Spider-Man has mangled this piece of scripture. (It is echoed in the cover copy this issue "Whatever you do...wherever you go..." and again in the final cliffhanger of issue #32.) 

P16 Say! I wonder what Ed Sullivan would pay for an act like this!”
Lee and/or Peter Parker has forgotten that Spider-Man started life as a TV entertainer. Indeed, his agent originally promised to get him a slot on the Ed Sullivan show.

P18 “To paraphrase an old cliche: this'll hurt you lots more than it does me!”
“This will hurt me more than it will hurt you” is proverbially said by a father or school-teacher to indicate that they are administering corporal punishment only reluctantly. Considering the way Aunt May scolds the adult Peter Parker in #22 and #25, it is quite possible that he heard the phrase from her once or twice when he was smaller. He isn’t paraphrasing the proverb (saying the same thing in different words) so much as reversing or parodying it. 

P18 "I've got him now! He can't hold his breath as long as I can!"
Why not? The Scorpion is meant to be Spidey's physical equal, and Spidey has never had a specific breath-holding power before. Ditko's pictures simply show Spider-Man knocking the Scorpion out with a punch: the breath-holding idea is added in the text, presumably because Stan Lee thought Spider-Man's victory required more explanation. 

This comic reminds us of just how good Stan and Steve could be when they were working together.

No: let’s try that again.

This issue shows us just how good Stan and Steve could be when they were banging their heads together, pulling a story in two different directions, openly at war with each other in the pages of their own comic book. This book has "creative tension" written all over it. And it's great. 

You need look no further than the first page to see what is going on. Steve Ditko opened last issue with a nice little school scene in which Principal Davies reassured Peter that he wasn’t mad at him after all; and Stan Lee poked fun at it. We can discuss the precise position of his tongue relative to his cheek, but fun at it he unquestionable poked. Is this any way to begin a superhero thriller? And so this issue Steve strikes back. This story actually begins with a jail break. The first panel could perfectly well have been the Scorpion bursting through the prison wall. But no: Steve opens the comic with Peter Parker in his bedroom putting on a shirt. And then he goes shopping. 

This dramatic enough for, you, Stan? Has the impact of a falling feather, does it?

The splash page points out that Stan – Stan Lee, me, me, me – came up with the title, Never Step On a Scorpion and was very, very clever to have done so. It also chastises uppity plotter-artists who think that comic books are about something. Because they’re totally not. This may look like a superhero comic. But if you study it carefully, you’ll find out that it really is only a superhero comic. 

Take that, Randian subtext! 

On the other hand, this issue is a bit of a counterpoint to our working hypothesis that Stan and Steve haven't been on speaking terms since issue #23 or thereabouts. Maybe they haven't. But if so, isn't it rather surprising that J Jonah Jameson so specifically asks Frederick Foswell about next month’s baddie (that Cat Burglar) and the month after next’s baddie (the very famous Master Planner)? How did heroic writer Stan know what homeric scripter Steve had lined up for issue #30 if they weren't talking to each other? I suppose it is just possible that Stan Lee plucked “Cat Burglar” and “science thief” out of thin air because J.J.J had to be saying something, and Ditko saw the copy and said “Cat Burglar, is it? Then I’ll damn well give you a Cat Burglar, see if I don’t.” But I think there must have been some kind of conference, if only through an intermediary in which Steve said “I think next month I’m going to do a Cat Burglar” and Stan said “Sure, Steve, I’ll foreshadow, shall I?” or Stan said "What about a story about a villain stealing scientific equipment?" and Steve said "Yeah, I can run with that idea." 

And if Ditko thought that a story was a skein of multiple threads that eventually tangled themselves into one big narrative knot, while Lee thought that a story was a kind of prelude which set up the fight scene then this issue is as pure a Stan Lee plot as was ever been committed to low grade pulp newsprint. Nine page set up; nine page fight scene (with a bit of an interlude at half-time) two page wind down.

The Scorpion gets out of jail; the Scorpion wants to kill J. Jonah Jameson; so Spider-Man has to defend J. Jonah Jameson — even though Jonah created the Scorpion to kill him. Gosh! How ironic! There is a little bit of waffle in which Jameson tries to goad Spider-Man into fighting the Scorpion (which he was obviously going to do anyway) and Spider-Man swings around the city trying to draw the Scorpion out (which leaves the Scorpion free to attack an unprotected Jameson), but basically “The Scorpion tries to kill J.J.J and Spider-Man tries to stop him” is as sophisticated as it gets. The Scorpion gets to the Bugle first and menaces J.J.J; Spider-Man arrives in the nick of time; they bash each other all round the office, then over the rooftops, and finally in the river. Spider-Man wins the day because he can hold his breath underwater for longer than the Scorpion can. (It’s okay for your ordinary decent superhero to half drown opponents, apparently.) J. Jonah Jameson claims that he defeated the Scorpion single handedly; Betty Brant goes into shock and is taken care of by her new boyfriend; and Aunt May has an attack of Aunt May disease but doesn’t tell Peter so as not to worry him. The end. 

Did Ditko comes up with this astonishingly un-Ditkoesque story out of his conservative head, or did Stan Lee send him one of his famous two line plots? Or must we think of Stan Lee expressing his displeasure at the lack of action in the last few episodes, and Ditko saying “A fight scene, is it? I’ll give you a damned fight scene….”

Artistically, Steve is at the top of his game, which is a pretty impressive place to be. The web swinging sequence on page 5 is one of the most perfect things he ever drew. We start up among the rooftops, on Spider-Man’s level; we swoop down to ground level with him; and end up on the sidewalk with the crowd, looking at Spider-Man swinging above us. We see him in mid-swing; then diving at the ground, and then swinging up again with the momentum, shooting a new web from his left hand as he does so. (And then we pull back, so we are watching the Scorpion watching Spider-Man.) If you want to understand how Spider-Man moves, this is the page to study.

The fight scene has an energy which the punch up with Molten Man was desperately lacking. Look at Spider-Man simultaneously falling and punching the Scorpion in panel 3 of page 9: neither of them appears to have a foot on the ground, but both of them are accidentally kicking J.J.J. whose limbs are flailing wildly. The pacing is perfect; we see the Scorpion chasing Jonah round the Daily Bugle building, and then cornering him against a well; at which moment Spider-Man swings in through the window. There is a neat one page interlude between Spider-Man and the Scorpion leaving the building and the fight resuming on the roof, in which Jonah surveys the wreckage of his office and realizes he can make a profit on the insurance.

But this is not a one man show. Stan Lee’s dialogue lifts a very good fight scene to a whole nother level. It is true that there are a lot of speech bubbles, and quite a lot of captions and it is true that not all of these speech bubbles are strictly necessary. If you are inclined to regard comic books as things that you look at rather than read than five speech bubbles on a single panel maybe be overdoing it a bit. But I submit that Stan Lee knows exactly what he is doing. The panels are crowded with dialogue; but J.J.Js offices are crowded with people. There is slightly too much to read; but Spider-Man feels that J.J.J and Ned and Jonah and Betty are all shouting at him, and he wishes they would keep it down and let him concentrate on the fight. Everyone has their own voice. The Scorpion sounds like a proper Republic Serial villain: “This is only a temporary respite! I’ll dispose of Spider-Man and then we’ll continue where we left off.” Ned Leeds is continually, infuriatingly, chivalrous “Don’t worry Betty. I’ll see that nothing happens to you.” Jameson is moronic, sell-centred, cowardly and very funny. “No! You can’t get me! Get Spider-Man instead!” And Spider-Man, of course, is an endless stream of sarcasm. 

Jameson: It’s Spider-Man’s job to fight killers like you!

Scorpion: Well, if he knows what’s good for him he’ll resign, real quick!

Spider: If I knew what was good for me, I wouldn’t be here in the first place, mister! 

I recently read through a couple of issues of Captain Atom, the comic Ditko did for DC after leaving Marvel in '66. The pictures are as pretty as ever, but I find the comic practically unreadable. Speech bubbles and captions have hardly evolved beyond silent movie intertitles or Rupert Bear rhyming couplets. When the villain appears, he says “I expected to meet you Captain Atom, but not this soon.” When the villain punches him, Captain A says “Just have to take the blows so they won’t suspect I have my powers back.” When he returns to HQ he says “Where is the general. I freed myself so he doesn’t have to pay the ransom.” Everyone sounds just like everyone else. These are not illuminations or embellishments: merely stage directions. Stan Lee really was taking comic book writing into places it hadn't been before.

Look at the first panel on page 12. We are following through on a punch. The previous panel showed the Scorpion hitting Spider-Man; this panel shows him flying through the air, past J.J.J and into a bookcase. If we were scripting the panel Captain Atom style, we wouldn't need anything more than “The Scorpion hit me pretty hard!” or “Look, the Scorpion has knocked Spider-Man into that piece of furniture!” or, simply “Ouch”.

Indeed, Stan Lee puts Spider-Man's reaction ("Uhhh!" rather than "Ouch!") into the previous panel. He notices that Jameson is in the panel, and realizes that the scene is not about Spider-Man getting clobbered, but about J.J.J’s reaction to Spider-Man getting clobbered. And he decides that, since J.J.J is an idiot, his reaction is to tell Spider-Man off: 

“You over-rated clown! You bumbling incompetent! He’s making you look like a bum!”

(Settle down at the back. It means “tramp”.) He puts Spider-Man’s reaction to Jonah's reaction into the same panel. 

“Think you can do better, buttercup? I’ll lend you my costume!”

Spidey flies across the room; Jonah scolds Spidey; Spidey snarks at Jonah. You might think that that was enough for one panel: but Stan has noticed that Spider-Man has been thrown against a desk, and adds a second round of conversion: 

“Look out for that desk!”

“Relax J.J.J,; I'm not hurt!”

“Who care about you!!? That furniture set me back a fortune?” 

A panel which by itself “means” one thing — “Spider-Man has been thrown across the room” — has had two additional “meanings” inscribed into it — Jameson is nasty (and Spider-Man gives as good as he gets); Jameson is a skinflint. I don’t think Jameson’s concern about the cost of his office furniture — or his plan to claim on the insurance — is implicit in any of the artwork, although Ditko sure does show a lot of stuff getting broken. Stan Lee's text does not merely draw out what is in the pictures; it adds new elements. 

This episode does have a structural purpose in the overall story arc: it transforms Ned Leeds from a plot device into an actual character. When Leeds first appeared he was little more than a stick to hit Peter Parker over the head with. When our hero was at his lowest ebb, he happened to see Betty Brant having a pleasant evening out with a charming, good looking journalist. Ned was almost immediately written out — dispatched to Europe to cover the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in #20. Since he learned that Betty has been corresponding with Ned in issue #23, Peter Parker has been incredibly jealous of him. This is a bit of a role-reversal -- from issue #13 to #22, pretty much Betty Brant's whole personality was reducible to "the jealous one". It is also typically unfair and sexist of Peter: he has openly dated Liz Allan, and specifically told Betty that he was okay with her seeing Ned. But this is the first time Ned has really appeared as a character. And it’s a skillful piece of characterization. He does nothing but nice things — he laughs at Peter’s weak jokes, he comforts Betty during the fight and takes her to the doctor when it all gets a bit much. But by the end of the episode both we and Spider-Man are sick to death of the great big goody two-shoes. Which is an important set up for next issue's Not Particularly Surprising twist.

On page 10, we see Ned hugging Betty (in a brotherly, comforting sort of way) while calling out “Hurry, Spider-Man…you’ve got to stop the Scorpion. I’ll look after Miss Brant…You concentrate on your fight…and watch out for that tail of his.” This, of course, antagonizes Spider-Man ("first he muscles in on my girl, and now he’s giving me advise on how to protect myself.”) He rushes in to attack the Scorpion (who isn’t even in panel) and is immediately thrown back against the wall with a dramatic Wham! 
Amazing Spider-Man #29:
perfect melding of words and pictures.

“I told you to watch out for his tail!” says Ned.

“Aw, shuddup!” replies Spider-Man. 

Lee spots that “Shuddup” is funnier than “Shut up” and “Aw shuddup” is funnier still. The icing on the gag is that the balloon is printed upside down. It’s the most perfectly judged moment in one of the  most perfectly judged of all Spider-Man stories. It may appear to be about Spider-Man fighting the Scorpion. But if you study it more closely, and analyze ever panel and nuance etc etc etc it’s actually about J.J.J and Ned Leeds watching Spider-Man fight the Scorpion; or, in fact, about Spider-Man reacting to being watched by Ned and Jonah.  

The Sinister Six may be the perfect example of a Stan Lee's vision of Spider-Man, and next month's Cat Burglar may be the perfect example of Steve Ditko's. But Never Step on a Scorpion is the perfect example of what the two men could produce when they were in sync — or creatively out of sync. 

Light, funny, witty, with a sting in the tale: this is my Spider-Man.

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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Sunday, October 29, 2017

Bright College Days

Amazing Spider-Man #26, #28 and #29

Amazing Spider-Man #26 contains a very thin sub-plot in which Peter Parker finally loses his cool and attacks Flash Thompson. It’s rather a pointless vignette — it has no thematic connection to the Crime Master story line, and the two plots never become intertwined.

Peter is in a bad mood because he has lost his costume and had a silly row with Betty Brant: but that doesn’t really explain what sets him off. Flash mildly taunts him for running away from the fight in issue #25, and Peter over-reacts massively. 

“I’m not in the mood for your musclebound mirth today! And the same goes for your gang of grinning hyenas!” 

Since issue #8, Peter Parker has been trying to integrate the two sides of his personality; and since issue #18 he has been trying to silence the “whiny Peter” voice completely. This means that Peter Parker increasingly talks like Spider-Man: but the sarcasm which can seem heroic and endearing in the face of a much more powerful foe feels brash and insensitive when directed at his own peer group. Today the spider-snark doesn’t get much beyond infant school level: 

--Hey, who are you callin’ hyenas?

--Look in the mirror and find out!

“Hyenas”. In the days before he had superpowers, Parker whinged “Some day they’ll be sorry! Sorry they laughed at me!” He first hid behind a mask because he was afraid of being a laughing stock. He complained about people mocking him on the cover of his very first comic. After all this time, the poor baby is still fretting about people laughing at him. So, of course, they laugh even more. They compare him to Bob Hope.  And so he loses his temper completely. 

“Okay, you brainless baboons! You’ve laughed at me for the last time.”

And without further provocation, he dive bombs Flash Thompson, sending all the others flying.

The fight isn’t resolved. Liz tries to stop it, saying that Peter is just as bad as Flash and that she never wants to see either of them again; and the Principal (who we haven’t seen since issue #3) demands to see Peter in his office. (And don’t we all recognize the self-righteous schadenfreude of the kid who brings the message?) Peter — now very ashamed of himself for mis-using his spider-powers — tells Mr Davis that the fracas was entirely his fault. But Flash (who tells the others that he is going after Liz) goes straight to Mr Davis and admits that he started it. The whole thing is dried and dusted in ten panels.

And this is very last time we will see Peter, Flash Liz and their cohort in the schoolyard together. Only when we realize that does the scene begin to make any kind of sense. 

Although the other kids think he’s going to be expelled, Peter doesn’t seem particularly worried by the situation: a few hours later he is bantering with the man in the costume shop, and by the end of the day he is buying popcorn for Aunt May. Issue #27 begins with Mr Davis telling Peter that everything is sorted out and Peter trying to be nice to Flash, although Liz remains mad at both of them. 

Why did Flash go to Parker’s defense? Once again it comes down to honour. Flash issued a challenge (more or less) and Peter, by taking a swing at him, showed that he’d accepted it. Flash has been trying to get Peter to fight him for weeks: he can’t very well complain because Peter has finally agreed to one. Saying “hit me, hit me” and then going to the teacher and saying “he hit me!” is about as dishonorable as a schoolboy could be. We have seen before that Flash is inclined to respect other men more after they’ve shown that they are prepared to punch him. Honor is, for the time being, satisfied. 

I suppose this is what Flash told the Principal. It may have looked to you as if Parker attacked us for no reason; but in fact, I’ve been trying to get him to fight with me for days. What looked to you like a smaller boy picking on a group of six larger boys was actually an agreed fight between two consenting adults. The Principal treats this admission as an occasion to put his hand on Flash’s shoulder, call him “my boy” and have a little chat. Perhaps he also believes in Flash's honor-code. This is the kind of school which positively encourages supervised fights as a way of settling differences between young men, after all.  Or maybe he is just one of those grown-ups who is so moved when someone admits an otherwise undetectable wrongdoing that all his anger is assuaged? Honesty is the best policy, I can tell by your face you’ve been punished enough. 

Issue #24 ended with Peter and Liz walking off into the sunset, hand-in-hand, watched by montage of faces — Flash, Aunt May, Betty Brant and Jonah Jameson. Issue #25 opened with an abstract design of circles, each of which contains a face including, again, May, Betty, Liz, Flash and Jameson. We have described this set of five supporting characters — each of whom has contrasting feelings towards Peter Parker and Spider-Man — as “the story engine”. The best Spider-Man stories are the ones involving all five characters. When none of them appear (as in the Doctor Strange annual) what we are left with barely counts as a Spider-Man story at all. 

In the natural order of things, that story engine was always going to change and develop. Frederick Foswell is on the point of becoming a sixth cog in the wheel; Ned Leeds is waiting in the wings; and Ditko may have intended to weave “Norman Osborn”, J.J.J’s mysterious curly haired friend, into the web. And stuff was bound to happen: Peter was going to split up with Betty or propose to her; Aunt May would eventually have gone into an old folks home or even passed away. But issue #28 comes from nowhere. It feels like Ditko is taking a sledgehammer to his delicately calibrated machine. Without warning, Peter Parker graduates: suddenly, the hero who could be you isn't at high school any more. 

Did we miss something? That bit where Spider-Man nearly misses his final examination because he’s out superheroing? That confrontation with Flash about who gets to take Liz to the Prom? It was all very confusing for a primary schoolboy in England in the 1970s, I can tell you. We’ve never had a tradition of high school graduations — we were lucky if we got a “sixth form disco” — and I'd only ever come across academic dress as an ideogram for "teacher" in the kinds of comics I definitely didn’t read. ("But why are Peter and Flash dressed up as Beano headmasters?”)

The wedding of Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Girl was gatecrashed by every single character in the Marvel Universe, so it is greatly to Lee and Ditko's credit that nothing whatsoever happens at Peter Parker's graduation. No villains; no last minute angst; no anything. Ditko has a great time drawing the crowd scenes; J. Jonah Jameson makes a predictably awful speech, and Lee perfectly captures the after-show banter. Aunt May’s first meeting with J.J.J. is particularly charming.

--My, you’re such an important man! 

--Ah yes! Indeed I am!

Principal Davis announces that Peter Parker has won a scholarship to Empire State University and that Flash Thompson has won an athletic scholarship to the same institution. (Gosh! How ironic!) There was a reference to Flash playing football for the school back in issue #18, but he’s never particularly been represented as a top athlete before. The only hint we have had that Peter Parker is making college applications is a three frame cameo in, of all places, Fantastic Four #35 where he bumps into the Human Torch at State University (a different institution) and says that if Johnny is planning to study there he will apply somewhere else. It is nice to know he takes his academic career so seriously .

After the fight in issue #26, Liz had told Peter and Flash that she never wanted to see either of them again. On the first page of #28, she is distinctly stand-offish to Peter, and when asked by Flash if she’d like a soda replies “Not now! Not tomorrow! Not ever! Do I make myself clear?”

These are the last words that Liz will ever speak to Flash Thompson. You can almost hear the studio audience applauding. 

Not now. Not tomorrow. Not ever. 

After the graduation ceremony, there is a final moment of pathos. When we first met them, Peter was the nerd who longed to ask his glamorous and good-looking classmate on a date; Liz was the glamorous gal who always turned him down. Just recently, they have started going out, on the pretext of studying together. And now comes the final little twist of the knife. Liz always liked Peter, from the beginning, but she thought that he thought that she was just a dizzy blond. “And perhaps I am!” So everything could have been different.

And perhaps I am.

We are dealing with a soap opera, so an ending is never quite an ending. Liz pops again in issue 30, trying to avoid Flash. (She seems to be working in a department store.) Peter actually starts college in #31, and Liz is never seen again. Well: not for a hundred issues.

Why did he do it? Had Ditko decided off his own back that he didn’t want Parker at school any more? Did everyone just take it for granted that Peter was aging in real time and had now turned 18? The fact that it falls like a bolt from the blue makes me think that it was an imposed editorial decision. Stan told Steve; or maybe Martin told Stan. 

So what we have in these sequences may be a very small attempt to wind up some of the plots which have been dangling since Amazing Fantasy #15. I don’t think it is a conclusion; but it is a hint of what Ditko might have wanted the conclusion to be. Every saga has a beginning: the saga of Spider-Man began with Flash and Liz laughing at Peter and Peter vowing to get even with them. So: what happens on the very last day of school is not a bad resolution. Flash and his pals laugh at Peter, like hyenas or baboons. Peter attacks them. Twenty seven issues of crawling are bottled up inside him. Nothing is resolved: but at the same time, everything is resolved. The Flash-Liz-Petey triangle comes to an end: Liz now hates both of them. The Peter/Flash conflict is resolved: honour is satisfied, and Flash turns out to be, deep down, quite a decent guy. Hey, even the promise on page 2 of Amazing Fantasy #15, that Peter is sure to get a scholarship when he graduates pays off: he does. And then school is over and everyone goes their separate ways. The end. 

The final frame on page #28 makes me wonder about what might be in the graphic novel section of Sandman’s library of unwritten books. Five panels; the fifth one screaming “ending” just about as loudly as anything could scream it. And then…a strange 1/3 page montage, showing Flash and Liz turning their backs on each other, while Stan’s voice rambles that “As with all of life, it isn’t really an ending, but a beginning, the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the world’s most amazing teenager…and of those whom fate as tossed into his web of destiny!” Was something else originally drawn in that space? Did Ditko's story come in three panels too short? Amazing Spider-Man #28 is such a muddle that I think we are allowed to speculate. Did Ditko put the “graduation” material into Spider-Man #28 only reluctantly? Were the “college” sequences in #30 - #33 only put there by editorial mandate? If Ditko had had his way, might Peter Parker’s final fight with Flash Thompson, his near expulsion and graduation, have somehow formed the background to “If This Be My Destiny”, allowing “The Final Chapter” to really be the final chapter?

In the event, Peter Parker goes off to Empire State University. Neither Stan nor Steve went to college (although Steve did go to art school) and neither of them have any real sense of how University is different from School. We are never told what Peter’s subject is, but the use of “test tubes” to signify “study” suggests that he is a chemist. 

Peter Parker’s high school class consisted of, at most, three characters: Flash Thompson, the jock; Liz Allan, the blond, and posh kid with a bow-tie who hangs out with Flash and is sometimes called Seymour. 

Within three pages of arriving at E.S.U, Peter has acquired a cast of three. Flash Thompson is still there, and still behaving exactly as he did at high school (”hey, Parker, c’mere I want to talk to you”.) The role of the dizzy blond who is nominally dating Flash but really prefers Peter has been taken over by someone called “Gwen Stacy”. And the posh kid in the bow-tie who is much more unpleasant than Flash — and not, in any sense whatsoever, Peter Parker’s best friend — is now called “Harry Osborn”. Eagle eyed readers might notice that he has the same haircut as the still un-named important person from J.J.J's businessmen’s club. And everything, for the time being at least, rattles on exactly as before. The carpet has been pulled away, but it’s been replaced by pretty much the same carpet. 

Later continuity reveals that Liz Allan is the Molten Man’s stepsister.

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. 

The Leopard from Lime Street

You can sort-of picture the scene when, sometime in 1937, two kids from Ohio burst into the offices of DC Comics with their pitch for a new character. Alien news reporter. Secret identity. Red cape. Champion of the common man. You can't really imagine anything similar ever happening at DC Thompson.

“I’ve hud thes idea fur a freish comic strip. It’s abit a skale bairn aboot ages wi’ oor readers! N’ gie thes — he’s naughty! An’ gei thes — some weeks he gits aw’ wi’ it, and some weeks he gits intae trooble!”

“Brilliant jimmy, stoatin! It will rin fur sixty seven years!”

American comics were exciting, colorful, thrilling. British comics just existed: ephemeral, forgettable, disposable. And mostly black and white. If some American comics thought they were literature (pulp literature), British comics were more like daily newspapers. Part of the background of life. If some Americans dreamed of someday writing the great American novel, most Brits were craftsmen, artisans, dutifully bashing out the same tales of naughty kids, silly teachers and nasty Germans that they’d been telling for the past half a century. 

And yet kids read them; or, at any rate, parents bought them. Not just the Beano and the Dandy, but a seemingly endless parade of weekly anthology comics with names like Cheeky, Topper, Whizzer, Krazy and Buster.

There were exceptions. The Eagle had been started by a vicar, for goodness sake. In my day, swotty kids had a thing called Look and Learn, although we suspected that they were more interested in the Trigon Empire than the photo features about daily life in a Dutch fish refinery. But comics like that were supposed to be good for you. The whole point of the Dandy and Cheeky and Buster was that they were just a little bit naughty. 

Mike Taylor
recently wrote a piece about an early 2000AD strip called Harlem Heroes and said that he was still struck by the visceral power of the story and art. 2000AD was, by the standards of 1970s comics, very naughty indeed: the violence of it can still take your breath away. But how did an English comic strip by a white artist for mainly white kids come to be called Harlem Heroes? Basketball wasn’t very widely played in England although Globetrotters exhibition games had been shown in late night slots on BBC2. But 2000AD's target demographic would be more likely to have remembered a cut-and-paste Hannah-Barbara cartoon series which had been on children's TV a couple of years before. Harlem Heroes is simply the Harlem Globetrotters playing futuristic death basketball. It’s hard to say if Pat Mills was being shamelessly derivative, or producing a shockingly poor taste parody.

It wasn’t so much a question of cultural appropriation as of grabbing everything within arms reach and running away with it. If there had been a summer blockbuster about a shark them the English comic book artisans would scribble out a violent strip called Hookjaw and a silly strip called Gums in time for the Autumn specials. If that year's hit movie involved a marooned alien making friends with some American schoolkids, then some hack would rush out a comic about some English kids and a crashed flying saucer occupant. I don’t know if the kids noticed, or were supposed to notice. I don’t think we engaged with the material to that extent. Comics had always been, and cold only ever be, mildly diverting knock-offs of better books, or anachronistic little squibs about pea-shooters and canes and German spies. That was why the launch of American style superhero comics made such a massive impact on us. 

Buster was typical of the era. When it launched in 1960 the title character had been the son of Andy Capp, the outrageously un-PC Geordie who appeared (and still appears) every day in the Daily Mirror. But by 1976, he was just a generic Dennis the Menace character who played pranks and clashed with authority figures. A list of the other features in the comic is enough to generate feelings of suicidal ennui: Ivor Lott and Tony Broke (with Milly O’Naire and Penny Less); Kid Kong; Lucy Lastic; X-Ray Specs; James Pond... Adam Adman was “A young man obsessed by advertising”; Jack Pot was “a boy with exceptional luck” and Joker was “a boy obsessed with jokes”. This is how young people amused themselves before Minecraft was invented. 

The Leopard from Lime Street appeared in Buster from 1976 to 85. (The first year's worth have just been reprinted by Rebellion.) He is often said to be “England’s first superhero” or “Britain’s answer to Spider-Man”. But reading these episodes 40 years later, it feels less like a British attempt to do Marvel Comics and more like a gag strip that accidentally got drawn in a serious style. Yes, the Leopard wears a costume and, on occasion, catches robbers. But he’s also a schoolboy who deals with bullies and outwits nasty grown ups and earns himself treats by means of a special gimmick. 

It all starts when Billy Farmer is, and I promise I’m not making this up, scratched by a radioactive leopard. (Not a lion or a tiger or even a wolf. A flippin’ leopard.) He decides to make himself a leopard costume, as you would, and uses his strength to thwart a crime wave that is going on in his town. He starts selling photos of himself in action to the local newspaper, the Selbridge Sun. But the editor — one Thaddeus (yes, Thaddeus) Clegg (yes, Clegg) takes against him, and twists all the news stories to make it seem as if the Leopard is a baddie. 

If British comics are a celebration of naughtiness, there is a joyful shamelessness in the way writer Tom Tully scrumps the good bits from his more famous American template. Peter Parker has the proportional strength of a spider; Billy Farmer is as strong as a fully grown jungle cat. Peter Parker has his spider-sense: Billy gets danger signals from his Leopard’s sixth sense. Spider-Man has his webbing; Billy has a grappling rope. In the early installments, artist Mike Western even makes use of a Gemini motif, showing Billy’s face as half-human and half-leopard. It’s all so outrageous that it sometimes feels less like swiping and more like dead-pan parody. Viz is still twelve years in the future. 

On the first page of the very first episode, one Ginger Moggs dangles Billy from the roof of the school cycle sheds on the the end of a rope. (Cycle sheds are an important part of British scholastic iconography: most early experiments with tobacco and heterosexuality take place behind them.) A friendly teacher extracts Billy from his predicament, but he, nobly refuses to “split” on the bullies. But a few episodes later, he gets his own back. “Mogsy” tries to climb the clock tower as a dare, and has to be rescued by Billy in his leopard persona. Mogsy ends up blindfolded, believing that he’s dangling off a high tower by his own belt — even though the Leopard has in fact left him only a few inches off the ground! This is very much the kind of thing that might have happened to Dennis the Menace: a massively exaggerated prank followed by equally far-fetched consequences. Mogsy is cured of being a bully, but there is a steady stream of louts with names like Stacey and Nogsy to torment Billy in subsequent installments.

When Billy starts selling photos to the Daily Bugle — I’m sorry, to the Selbridge Sun — he uses the money to purchase a colour television, still very much an aspirational item in 1976. When he rescues a kidnapped TV actress, he is rewarded with a ride back to school in a Rolls Royce; and when he wins £250 for surviving three rounds in the ring with the Masked Hangman, he uses the money to replace the vandalized basketball court at his youth club. This is a long way from Peter Parker pawning his microscope to pay for Aunt May’s heart surgery: it’s a lot more like that great big plate of sausages and mashed potato that has signified “reward” in English comics since the days of food rationing. He intends to use his very first pay check to buy a bag of groceries for his poor family, but when he steps into “Mason’s Magnificent Mart” he finds that he is the one millionth customer and can take home “all the goods that he can collect in exactly one minute”. Naturally, due to his superpowers, he manages to walk away with more or less the whole shop. The “one millionth customer” thing is a pretty standard cartoon trope.

It is the artwork which does the most to transpose the strip into a serious register. It’s consistently and impressively naturalistic. We have more of a sense of what Billy Farmer’s habitat looks like than we do of Peter Parker’s. There are PE lessons and supermarkets and TV showrooms. The Daily Bugle is based in a shiny Madison Avenue skyscraper; the Selbridge Sun seems to be published out of a dingy converted-shop front with offices to rent on the second floor. But inside there are filing cabinets and pots of ink and in-trays and actual members of staff. But at the same time Selbridge is a kind of dream-world. Billy's school is dreary collection of 1950s concrete boxes: clearly a Secondary Modern rather than a Comprehensive. But when there needs to be, there is an old fashioned castellated building with a flagpole and a clock tower for Mogsy to climb. The town is mostly a grim collection of terraced houses, labour exchanges and youth clubs — but there can be a ruined abbey and a stately home within striking distance when the plot calls for it.

There is a surprisingly consistent — logical, if not actually realistic — treatment of Billy’s life as

a super-hero. Billy makes his leopard suit by finding the costume he wore when he played the cat in a school production of Dick Whittington and painting spots on it. When he decides he needs a grappling rope, he conveniently find a “claw like ornament” on a set of old fire tongs and fixes it on the end of a rope. Peter Parker gets his powers due to, er, “fate”; but Billy is deliberately sent to Prof. Jarman’s experimental zoo to interview him for the school magazine. Jarman has deliberately injected the leopard which scratches Billy with a “radioactive serum”. The origin is followed up in several subsequent strips: Jarman wants to give Billy medical check ups to see if he is suffering any ill-effects from the scratch, and Billy and the leopard become good friends. The latter ends up living fairly happily ever after in the local safari park. 

Billy lives with a predictably kindly Aunt and an unexpectedly horrible Uncle — a bald, unemployed man with a mustache, rolled up sleeves, open topped shirt and braces. In the next decade unemployment would come to be indelibly associated with Mrs Thatcher: young people resigned to years on the dole, politicians urging them to get on their bikes, Youth training schemes and Enterprise Allowance culture. But in 1976, the stereotype of an unemployed person was still a lazy middle-aged man who wastes his dole money at the betting shop. That's why Billy uses his photo money to buy TVs and groceries: if he handed the cash over, his Uncle would put it on a horse. Eventually, as the Leopard, Billy scares Uncle Charlie into going to the labour exchange and looking for work. He seems to find a job quite easily once he starts looking.

We can see just how nasty Uncle Charlie is supposed to be from the tag line of the third episode: “Billy uses his new powers to avoid a beating from his guardian!” The gag strips notoriously represented corporal punishment as a rather funny occupational hazard of being a kid; but the straight ones equally consistently use it to indicate that an adult is bad parent, an impostor, and incidentally, lower class. While the various Menaces are amusingly spanked across their parents' knees Uncle Charlie strikes the side of Billy’s head with the back of his hand, so hard that he is said to go to bed with ringing ears and a headache; and threatens to flog him with a belt. But we are assured that Billy’s leopard strength means that Uncle Charlie can’t really hurt him any more (even though he muses about paying him back for all the “hidings” he’s had in past). So maybe we aren’t so far from Roger the Dodger slipping a book down the back of his trousers after all?

This is perhaps the biggest difference of outlook between Spider-Man and his British parody. Billy actually gets to do stuff: to make small, but positive and permanent improvements to his own life. The readership’s need to say “If I had amazing powers, I know what I would do…” is consistently indulged. Let me assure you: if, at the age of 13, I had gained the powers and abilities of a fully grown leopard “dangling the bully from the tree” and “getting a colour TV” would have been first and second on my to do list. Groceries, not so much. Billy not only gets his own back on the bullies: they actually lay off bullying him. He not only avoid being hit by his nasty uncle: he forces him to go and get a job. He goes from being the classroom pariah who doesn’t have a telly to being the lucky kid with a spiffy colour one. 

Strips like this have to sustain themselves on simple ideas — hence the plethora of “young lad with a toy soliders than comes to life” and “young girl whose best friend is a ghost” strips elsewhere. Two pages is not very long to develop a story: no-one is characterised beyond their basic function of cruel uncle, kind aunt, understanding teacher, bully, crook, copper. Even Billy himself is more internal monologue than human being. The only thing that will make the reader come back is a wish to find out what happens next; so every two pages, something has to happen. If the school is going on a coach trip to a safari park then of course one of the Dads is going to use the excursion as a pretext to steal silver from the stately home, and of course his bully of a son is going to push Billy into an empty lion cage and of course the cage is going to turn out to have a leopard in it and of course that leopard is going to be the very one loaned to the zoo by a certain scientist. The whole thing will be dried and dusted in 16 pages, but eked out over two months.

Spider-Man is a timeless classic. The Leopard of Lime Street seems like a dispatch from a different world. But as a piece of archive material, it’s worth acquainting oneself with.


Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. 

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