The Cat Burglar
Betty Brant, Ned Leeds, Mrs Watson, Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, Frederick Foswell, Liz Allen, Flash Thompson and a chorus of police, crooks and cab-drivers.
Peter Parker’s financial position:
Parker is still broke. (He moans that he can’t even afford to take the subway.)
Jameson offers $1,000 reward for catching the Cat Burglar. This is what he pays Peter for fair-to-middling pictures — maybe $7,000 or £5,000 in today's money.
Jameson underpays Peter for his pictures, while claiming that he’s being generous because he saved the reward money. This suggests that he is paying Peter a lot less than $1,000 — maybe as little as $250 this time?
The action of this story takes place over two consecutive days. Everyone has a rest on the day after the fight with the Scorpion, but Peter Parker goes into action the following evening.
Day 0: Fight with the Scorpion (issue #29)
Day 1: Spider-Man encounters the Master Planner's men; Cat Burglar robs J.J.J. (Page 1-6)
Day 2: Cat Burglar attempts another robbery and is captured by police. (page 6 - 20)
Day 3: (Morning) Peter Parker sells pictures to J.J.J. (page 20)
For details, see Appendix.
p3 “When the apartment’s tenant returns home…” Millionaire J.J.J rents an apartment in Manhattan. He has a home office set up in the flat, and Spider-Man knows its location.
“A truck carrying a dangerous but priceless load of uranium derivatives to the factory of Anthony Stark”
You might expect this to be setting up a guest appearance by Iron Man, but you would be wrong.
p4 “I eat my crunchies and brush after meals, I’m sure to win out in the end!”
This is a flippant comment: but it illustrates the way Spider-Man thinks. He deserves to beat the baddies because he is a good person, so every defeat is perceived as a cosmic injustice.
p5 “That’s music to my little shell-like ears!”
Spider-Man and Stan Lee get the banter about right this issue: lots of flowery little phrases, but nothing too irritating.
p5 “I’m gonna bring you that cat burglar before you can say ‘All the way with J.J.J.’”.
“All the way with L.B.J.” was President Johnson’s slogan during the 1964 election. (A confirmation that the comics are happening more or less in real time, incidentally.)
J.J.J’s dream sequence
This is the first time since Amazing Fantasy #15 that Spider-Man has been shown with pupils in his eyes.
p6 “This is Aunt May’s apple pie night! I don’t wanna miss it!”
Aunt May went to the movies with Mrs Watson shortly before Spider-Man went web-swinging. She must have started baking after the film (close to midnight) and left a piece out for Peter as a late night snack which he can hardly have eaten earlier than 1AM. (See Chronology)
In his 1965 song National Brotherhood Week, Tom Lehrer said that class hatred was “as American as apple pie.”
"Petey! As I live and breathe! I haven't seen you since graduation."
Liz last appeared in issue #28, which by our calculations was about three months ago. This will be her last appearance in the classic era: Gerry Conway exhumes her in issue #132.
p8 “Don’t try to answer me now, Betty!”This frame is problematic: we have to imagine that Ned drops in on Betty at 9AM on Monday morning, asks her to marry him, and then rushes off because he’s late for work. (See Chronology.)
p9 “Stay right there Betty, I’ll be over in two shakes.”
This frame also makes little sense: why should Peter phone Betty (presumably from a phone booth) after he has already set out to visit her?
p13 “Got any of that groovy apple pie left!!” “Yes dear, it’s in the fridge.”
The word “groovy” became a universal term of approval in the flower power era (usage peaks in 1972). In 1965 it still retained its older 1950s jazz club connotations -- so Peter is saying that his Aunt’s pie was “up to the minute” “fashionable” or “of the moment”. The word “fridge” was certainly in use by 1965, but it hadn’t fully replaced “icebox” as a synonym for refrigerator. So Peter Parker misuses a slightly unfashionable word; his aging Aunt responds with an up-to-the-minute one.
“A typical Parker day! I lost my girl — couldn’t find the Cat — and didn’t even have a token for the subway ride home!”
Presumably he couldn’t afford the subway because he had spent his last dime on the wholly unnecessary call to Betty from a public booth. Why he should want to take the subway when he can web-swing home in a quarter of the time is a matter for conjecture.
p16-18 “I’ll be back for more playtime before you know it!”
“Ready or not, here I come!”
“Anyone around my base is it!”
“Holy smoke, what game are you playing?”
“If you are determined to play follow-the-leader…”
Peter Parker has been dumped by his one true love; but Spider-Man regards his fight with the Cat Burglar as a rather enjoyable game.
p20 “So the good guys do win out in the end after all! Everything turned out fine for me at last! I guess its because I’m such a kindly lovable character!”
J.J.J thinks in the same way that Peter Parker does. When things turn out well, it’s because he deserves it.
"Only the batty Marvel bullpen could present such a truly dazzling display of derring-do as The Claws of the Cat!"
You could call issue #30 of the Amazing Spider-Man a lot of things — a soap opera, a film noir, a slice of life — but “a truly dazzling display of derring-do” it really isn’t. Once again, one wonders if Stan Lee had actually read the comic before writing the cover copy. Or is it the “batty Marvel bullpen” who are supposed to be engaging in swashbuckling courage by publishing something so odd?
The Claws of the Cat is not really about anything. It is an orphan issue, winding up threads from last month, setting up plots for next month, but not really about anything itself. Like issue #9 it seems to plunge us into the stream of Peter Parker’s life and make no attempt to connect the threads together.
Even the cover is weird: our hero is so small you could easily overlook him. A tiny Spider-Man, a tiny man in a green boiler suit on a rope. Way, way down below, tiny police and tiny onlookers shine search lights at the building. We’re observing Spider-Man from a distance. A small figure involved in a small crime. You could be forgiven for thinking that this was the latest issue of The Amazing Collapsing Water Tower.
The splash page warns us that Spider-Man is going to “encounter a brand new foe”, but in truth the Cat barely rises to the level of foe-hood. We see him on page 1 running through a montage of faces -- Aunt May, Betty, Ned, Flash, Liz, Jonah Jameson and some guy in a purple mask. The message is clear. The Cat Burglar is simply one of many things which happen to Peter Parker this issue. He is a nobody, and he knows it:
“That was a close call! If Spider-Man had just turned his head, it could have been the end of the Cat Burglar’s career! But I’m just small potatoes to him! He’s only interested in super-powered world menaces!”
It takes a serious nudge from our old friend "an inscrutable fate" for Spider-Man's life to become entwined with that of this criminal non-entity. The Cat Burglar just happens to burgle the New York apartment of one J. Jonah Jameson and J.J.J. offers $1,000 reward for the thief's capture. So naturally, Peter decides that he is going to capture the Cat and claim the reward --- partly because he could do with the money but mostly because it will annoy Jameson. "Jolting ol’ Jonah is fast becoming my favourite indoor sport”. There is no longer any doubt that the relationship between J.J.J. and Peter Parker is one of mutual bullying.
The first great cycle of Spider-Man stories is nearly at an end, and Peter Parker is still no altruist. He goes after the Cat for money, and for fun, and as a distraction from his personal troubles. When he accidentally stops a businessman from being murdered by a disgruntled former employee, he is positively disappointed. "Heck! It wasn't the Cat Burglar after all!" What was that you said about power and responsibility?
But Spider-Man's attempt to catch the Cat and humiliate J.J.J (which fails) is only one of at least four subplots in the comic. Spider-Man also encounters a group of hoods with purple suits in a van; and stops a bank robbery. Peter Parker has one final meeting with Liz, and Ned Leeds pops the question to Betty Brant. And of course, Aunt May is still very poorly.
There is a lot of violence: Spider-Man hits the men in purple suits on page 3; knocks out the guy threatening his boss on page 8; scuffles with Flash Thompson on page 7, and dispatches the four bank robbers in five panels on pages 11 and 12. But the climactic confrontation with the “new foe” takes the form of a chase -- a chase which pointedly fails to come to much of a point. After Spider-Man and the Cat Burglar have run around the rooftops for a few pages, the Cat hides down a chimney and is apprehended by the police.
The multiple plots keep interrupting each other and ostentatiously failing to come together. Peter rushes out of Aunt May's house because he wants to see Betty, and runs right into a gal who is coming round the corner...but it isn't Betty it’s, Liz from school. She is still trying to avoid Flash Thompson. This incident is itself interrupted when Peter Parker thinks he spots the Cat through an upstairs window, and stumbles on the murder-in-progress. It's a fun little scene, of course, but it has no bearing on the Cat, or on Betty or on Aunt May or on anything else.
Is Ditko thinking in larger narrative units than a single issue? The guys in the purple suits and Aunt May’s fainting spells are completely unconnected this month; but they are going to become very deeply intertwined by issue #33. It may be that Steve wanted the Amazing Spider-Man to develop into a soap opera, with multiple threads getting tangled up over a multiple issues. But it is equally possible that he is trying to make an, er, existentialist point. This is what life is like. You think everything ties up neatly? Well, it doesn’t.
If this issue is about anything, it is about Peter Parker's relationship with Betty Brant. We are running towards the "final chapter" and there is a sense that Ditko is tying off long-dangling plot-threads. It is a shame that the iconic final panel, in which the ghost of Spider-Man pushes the lovers apart, could not have been the last word on Peter and Betty's relationship.
Ned Leeds drops in on the way to work and asks Betty Brant to marry him, as one does; Peter fortuitously drops by a few minutes later. Much of the rest of the issue is driven by humour and a sense of fun (Spider-Man seems to be thoroughly enjoying all the fight scenes). But the big confrontation between Peter and Betty is incredibly emotionally charged, borrowing its visual vocabulary from horror comics. Betty tells Peter the news; Peter loses it completely and storms out of the apartment, saying that he never cared about Betty to start with; Betty is left on the other side of the door, crying that Peter Parker is the only person she has ever loved,
It’s worth comparing this breakup scene with the reconciliation scene back in Amazing Spider-Man #22. That scene was told over four panels, with the “camera” held at a consistent distance — we get a waist-up view of Peter and Betty in panel 1, full length shots in 3 and 4, and a simple portrait of Betty in panel 3. Emotion was conveyed by simple body language — Betty hanging her head in panel 2 and smiling demurely in panel 3.
Compare that with the present confrontation, which takes twelve panels to unfold. The camera is much closer to the characters, making them seem physically larger. But the characters are fragmented: the top of Peter’s head is cut off by the frame on panels 4, 6 and 7, and only about a third of Betty's features are squashed into the close up on panel 5. When Betty tells Peter that Ned has proposed, her head is glowing white and there are shock lines around it — the kind usually reserved for the spider-sense. Peter looks stunned, and seems to be lit with an intense green light. We look down at Peter and Betty through an outside window — possibly to give us the sense that we are eavesdropping on a private moment, and then see two panels of Peter looking sadder and sadder, before he explodes, turns around and storms out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Both he and Betty have glowy heads and spider-sense lines. And finally we have Betty banging on one side of the door, wishing that Peter would come back and Peter slouched on the other thinking “I’ve lost her!”
Well, I warned them. Back in issue #11 I told Peter to have a look at Cyrano de Bergerac? Relationships based on masks never work. From Betty's point of view, she has done the decent thing, telling Peter of Ned's offer of marriage. From her point of view there is no reason for Peter to go berserk and storm out of the room. But while she thinks she is explaining why she likes Peter Parker ("you were so studious…so sincere! You were a good student… a hard worker!”) Peter hears her rejecting Spider-Man. He has neither the courage to admit the truth; nor the decency to let her down easily. He lashes out. “Go ahead and marry him! You probably deserve each other! What difference does it make to me!?!”
What difference does it make to me.
Peter is behaving appallingly. Since Bennet died, he has known that Betty will never accept him as Spider-Man, but he has continued to passively date her -- or at least flirt with her in the office. He knows that Betty and Spider-Man are mutually exclusive; but he somehow thinks the situation will magically resolve itself. When he thought he had lost his powers (in The Sinister Six) almost his first reaction was that he could now marry Betty; and when he was ready to give up his double life (in The End of Spider-Man) settling down with Betty and making a life as a scientist was one of the attractions. He cannot accept that Destiny -- Mr Stan Lee -- will force him to remain Spider-Man forever. At some level he still thinks that being Spider-Man is a phase he will grow out of.
Nothing can excuse Peter’s mean-spirited rants. But Betty can’t have it both ways either — she can’t say that she wants a safe, stay-at-home guy with slippers and a pipe and in the same breath proclaim undying love for her great big hunky crime photographer. And the silly woman waits until after he has slammed the door in her face to tell him the she loves him.
It’s sad. When they were just two kids laughing about grouchy Mr Jameson behind the desk they seemed so happy. But she can’t overcome her wholly irrational dislike of Spider-Man and he can’t just come out and tell her the truth. I'd like to give both of them a bloody good slap.
“There’s no way out. She’d never have me as I am — and I just can’t give up being Spider-Man!”
On the splash page, Stan Lee talks about Peter Parker being “beset with the same old problems”. As we come to the end of the Lee-Ditko era, I fear that the Lee-Romita Spider-Man is beginning to show his irritating face. This is the received Peter Parker, the Peter Parker of the movies and the cartoons, the angsty Peter Parker who walks the streets with his hands in his pockets, vaguely blaming the universe for whatever harm he has inflicted on himself this month. Superheroes with super-problems, as the fellow said.
“A typical Parker day! I lost my girl — couldn’t even find the Cat — and didn’t even have a token for the subway ride home!”
Yes, Peter. A bad thing has happened. But it is the bad thing you have been setting yourself up for, every day, for months. You can't bring yourself to tell even a white lie to your Auntie but you are happy to tell the most blatant lies to the girl you think you love, every day, for years. You could have told her you were Spider-Man. You chose not to. So go ahead and tell yourself that every day is like this due to some metaphysical entity called "the Parker luck."
"Sure I've had my share of bad breaks!" said Peter back in issue #18 "Who hasn't? But I've been wasting too much time in self-pity!! Well, I'm done with that from now on!"
So. How's that going?
This issue contains one of the worst acts of sabotage Stan Lee ever perpetrated against a collaborator.
As well as fighting the Cat, Spider-Man has two encounters with a group of bad guys in purple James Bond villain style jump suits. The first time they are stealing “uranium derivatives” from Tony Stark’s truck; the second time they are observing some common crooks robbing a bank. These purple men will show up again next issue when they will be robbing a “plant which produces radioactive devices.”
In issue #31, the purple men report back to someone they refer to simply as The Master Planner who will also be the Big Bad in issues #32 and #33. He resides in an underwater base, and his identity is a big secret. (Clue: It’s Doctor Octopus.)
However, in the current issue Stan Lee believes that the Purple Minions work for the Cat Burglar rather than the Master Planner. "Only the cat could have thought up a scheme like this!" they say, as they steal uranium from a moving vehicle. Stan has not remotely understood what is going on: the whole point of the Cat is that he is a skilled, but otherwise unimportant “second storey man”. The idea that he’d have secret agents stealing nuclear material from Iron Man is obviously bonkers.
When the Minions report back to base, their mysterious boss talks like a super-villain:
“Spider-Man is beginning to be a nuisance! It might be necessary for me to take steps to stop him before he becomes too dangerous to my future plans!”
But the Cat talks like a gangster out of Central Casting:
“Of all the crummy luck! I hadda pick the one building whose windows were just washed yesterday!”
But Lee really thinks that the Cat has something to do with the Minions: on page 13 he is shown thinking "I'll grab a bundle and then think of a plan to get rid of Spider-Man!" even though he has never met Spider-Man and regards himself as beneath his notice. Even more oddly, Stan gives a random Purple Minion a thought balloon (while he is being knocked out by Spidey) that says:
“My plan was perfect…except that I didn’t count on any interference from such an unexpected source.”
...as if he thinks that either the Cat or the Master Planner is one of the goons carrying out the uranium heist.
This is not a slip of the pen, like calling Liz Allan “Liz Hilton” or renaming Peter Parker “Peter Palmer” or saying that MJ is Mrs Watson's daughter when she is actually her niece. It represents Stan Lee completely misunderstanding what is going on in the story. In issue #29, J.J.J asks Foswell to find out about a series of scientific robberies in the city; in #30, the Purple Minions appear for the first time; in #31 we discover that they work for the Master Planner; and in #32 we find out who the Master Planner is. (Clue: Doctor Octopus.) It's a lovely way to roll out a big story event, and Stan Lee has ruined it.
It really is a massive cock up: and one Marvel were loath to admit to. The Merry Marvel Marching Society -- the official fan club — published an index of all Marvel Comics published up to 1969 still claiming that in this issue “Spider-Man fights a clever Cat Burglar and his men.”
All of which raises a further question. The Master Planner and the Cat Burglar are accurately foreshadowed (as two separate characters) in issue #29, but Lee has no idea what is meant to be going on in issue #30. Doesn't this suggest that communication between Lee and Ditko only irretrievably broke down after Never Step on a Scorpion was completed. (say, in May 1965). It would follow that the so-called Master Planner trilogy is our first specimen of what the Amazing Spider-Man would be like if it was created by Steve Ditko without input from Stan Lee. And, by an astonishing coincidence, those three episode are universally regarded as three of the very greatest comic books of all time.
Mrs Watson invites Aunt May to go to the movies “tonight”. “Minutes later” Spider-Man is out web-swinging, and fails to see the Cat Burglar. The Cat Burglar is using a flashlight.
J.J.J returns to his apartment “later” and calls the police; “at that very moment” Spider-Man encounters the Master Planner’s men. He hears that J.J.J has issued a reward and goes to taunt the publisher personally. He then returns to Aunt May’s house.
It gets dark at about 9PM in New York in August, so the sequence of events must have looked a bit like this:
2030 -- Aunt May and Mrs Watson go out
2115 -- J.J.Js house robbed
2215 -- J.J.J returns home; Master Planners men rob the Stark van
2245 -- J.J.J announces his $1000 reward, which is immediately reported on the radio
2315 -- Spider-Man visits J.J.J
2330 -- Spider-Man returns home
Peter Parker goes looking for Betty “after a good night's sleep”. Aunt May specifically says he has started early. He runs into Liz (who is on her way to work). Ned is visiting Betty again; he is late for work but she is not going in until the afternoon. Peter must arrive almost as soon as Ned leaves (the phone is ringing as Ned walks through the door).
The Cat says that it is “getting dark” on page 14, so a whole day has passed between Peter visiting Betty and him leaving the house as Spider-Man.
Betty said that she was going into work for the afternoon, but she clearly phones Peter from her apartment (note the table lamp) so she must have worked from around 1AM to around 6PM and returned home.
0800 -- Peter leaves house
0815 -- Peter encounters Liz and Flash
0915 -- Peter visits Betty
0900-1700 -- Ned at Bugle?
1300-1700 -- Betty at Bugle?
1000-1800 -- Peter wandering streets feeling sorry for himself, and stops bank robbery.
1830 -- Peter Parker back at Aunt Mays
2100 -- The Cat begins new robbery; Peter Parker leaves Aunt May’s house
2130 -- Siege and capture of Cat.
Stan Lee simply tells us that Peter Parker takes the “newly developed” photos to J. Jonah Jameson “later”. However, he could hardly return to Forest Hills, develop and print the pictures, and get back to Manhattan in less than two hours, which would make it well after midnight. We know that Betty worked at the Bugle in the afternoon and returned home in the early evening. And it is clear that she is wearing different clothes in the final frames. So I think the final frames take place early the following morning. There is no reason why this should not be the same day as Spider-Man's second meeting with the Purple Minions at the beginning of issue #31.
Next issue, Spider-Man will encounter the Master Planner's men again, and register for college the following day. If Empire State University is the same as New York University, then freshmen classes start in the final week of August.
Our day 2 has to be a weekday since Liz, Ned and Betty are all at work. One possibility that very nearly makes sense looks like this:
Saturday 21 August
Fight with Scorpion (issue 29)
Sunday 22 August
Afternoon: Everyone recovers.
Evening: Cat robs Jameson, Purple guys rob the van.
Monday 23 August
Morning: Betty and Peter have a row.
Afternoon: Peter mooches round feeling sorry for himself.
Evening: Cat Burglar caught
Tuesday 24 August
Morning: Parker sells pictures (issue 30);
Evening: Spider-Man encounters Master Planner's men (issue 31)
Wednesday 25 August
Thursday 26 August
Aunt May sick; Classes begin.
A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
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 used for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.
Please do not feed the troll.