Friday, June 29, 2018

The Love You Take....

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One last thing. 

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

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

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

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now.

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

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

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

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

The end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a very great man once said: Excelsior! 

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

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

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

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

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Boy, You're Gonna Carry That Weight....

In issue #14, the Enforcers and the Green Goblin trapped Spider-Man in a cave by pushing a giant boulder in front of the entrance. Spider-Man has to enlist the aid of the Hulk to free himself. We therefore estimated that he must be able to lift about 750lbs: not quite as strong as four adult males. In issue #32 we saw him throwing a car without much effort, which suggests he is actually able to lift as a much as a ton (2000lb.) But if the wreckage he is trapped under at the end of #32 literally "outweighs a a locomotive" then it must weigh 200 tons (400,000lb; 180,000 kg) at the very least. Some spiders can lift 170 times their body weight, so if Spider-Man really has the proportional strength of a spider, he should be able to lift 30,000 lbs or 15 tons -- a lot more than a car but still a lot less than a loco.

Certainly a person can push themselves to lift maybe ten or twenty percent more than they are usually capable of. In crisis situations, they may be able to perform even more impressive feats. Jack Kirby claimed to have had the idea for the Incredible Hulk when he witnessed a young woman lift an auto-mobile to save a baby trapped underneath it. But if the wreckage really weighs as much as a train then Spider-Man is exceeding his normal capability by a factor of a hundred. How does he achieve this feat?

Simple answer: Because Doctor Octopus.

From the beginning, the main theme of Amazing Spider-Man has been perseverance. This is why he is Spider-Man and not Fly-Man or Beetle-Man. Spiders sit in caves with Scottish monarchs, failing to spin their webs but try, try, trying again. Spiders are not deterred when the rain comes down and washes them out. They simply wait for the sun to come out and dry up all the rain. Then they climb up the spout all over again. 

In opposition to this stands Otto Octavius. He is the accusatory voice which tells Peter Parker that he is a no-good impostor who needs to quit, externalized and given physical form. Every time Doctor Octopus appears, Peter Parker experiences a crisis of confidence and is ready to give up being a superhero. And on two previous occasions, an encounter with Doc Ock has coincided with Peter Parker losing his spider-powers.

The last five pages of issue #32 take Spider-Man to the point of utter despair. ("I've failed! Just now, when it counted most! I've failed!") and the first five page of #33 take him to his ultimate moral victory ("I did it! I'm free!"). Freeing himself from the 200 tons of metal is not merely an act of physical strength: it is act of self-belief and moral courage. It is the supreme example of spidery perseverance. 

As we have shown, Spider-Man's powers must come from an external source, a psychic resource we have called the Spider-Force. Self-doubt inhibits Spider-Man's ability to channel the Spider-Force; and the proximity of Doctor Octopus induces self-doubt. 

In Amazing Spider-Man Annual #1, shortly before fighting Doctor Octopus, Peter Parker wished that his spider-powers would go away. And, sure enough, they did. He faced Electro, believing himself to be powerless and expecting to die, because it was the right thing to do. His powers returned. He became Spider-Man again because he had shown that he was Spider-Man with or without the powers.

Amazing Spider-Man #33 invokes the same principle. He consciously channels the Spider-Force; invoking his Spider-Strength as if it were a patron deity. He has previously talked frivolously about how nice things ought to happen to nice people and that the universe is unfair because he brushes his teeth and eats his breakfast cereal but still isn't rich. Today he says the same thing in deadly earnest:

"And now I've got to call on all that strength...all the power...that I possess! I must prove equal to the task...I must be worthy of that strength..or else I don't deserve it!"

This is infant school morality scrawled across the heavens. It's only one step up from the Little Engine Who Could. You don't train for a football match so that you will be be fitter and more skillful than the opposition; you train because training is morally virtuous. You don't study for a test to improve your intelligence or learn the answers; you study because it is hard work and hard work is praiseworthy. God rewards the virtuous with trophies and good test results. (More darkly, it is morally virtuous to look both ways before crossing the road; and God will punish wicked children by killing them in car accidents. And serve them right!)

Spider-Man probably comes from a Jewish heritage, but he is also an American and this way of thinking is deeply Calvinistic. Trying to lift heavy weights, even when there is no hope, shows that you are one of the Elect. But there is no hint of Evangelicalism; no God who will forgive a young superhero for a single thoughtless act. The Spider-Force is a jealous God, punishing the aunts for the sins of their nephews.

The weight is not the problem. It is heavy, but well within Spider-Man's capacity to budge. The "more than a locomotive" thing is his despair talking. The problem is doubt. Once again, Doctor Octopus has cut Peter Parker off from the Spider-Force. What is trapped under the wreckage is not a superhero, just a not-particularly-fit seventeen year old boy.

And perhaps that teenager remembers what Johnny Storm, who he so dislikes, told him the very first time Doctor Octopus shattered his self-belief:

"Don't be discouraged if it sometimes seems tough! The important thing is never give up! Remember that..never give up!..."

He certainly seems to echo those words today:

"I'm not giving up! I'm not...I'm not! I'll keep fighting no matter what! I won't give up! I won't! I won't! I won't! Nobody can make me give up!"

It is a normal teenage boy who declares that he is Spider-Man and wants to be Spider-Man. And once that happens, his connection to the Spider-Force is re-established. His strength returns. Doctor Octopus vanishes from the story for years.

Of course, some people might say that the strength of a superhero is never all that consistent; that Spider-Man is as strong or as weak as the story needs him to be; that he can lift two hundred tons because its artistically right.

Aye. And that's true too.


There is currently on sale a children's book which retells the origins of Spider-Man and Iron Man. It presents Amazing Fantasy #15 as a simple moral parable.

"Through the haze of his grief, Peter realized something. He had not chosen these abilities but it was his obligation to use them for good. It was not about the money or fame or any of the other rewards his power could give him. He had finally realized that what his Uncle Ben had told him was true: with great power comes great responsibility. And that was the rule Peter Parker lived by from that day forward." 

This is utterly at odds with the story presented in Amazing Spider-Man #1 - #33.

Ben Parker is not Thomas Wayne and the Burglar is not Joe Chill. Uncle Ben's death is never represented as a transformative moment for Peter Parker. It is always represented as a burden which he must carry. He wants to save Aunt May so he will no longer be haunted by the death of Uncle Ben.

Haunted. Uncle Ben is a ghost and The Final Chapter is an exorcism.

Doctor Octopus represents and personifies Peter Parker's self-doubt. But Uncle Ben is the psychological Achilles heel which he exploits. When Spider-Man wished his powers away in the first annual, it was Uncle Ben he was thinking of. The first words of the first issue of Spider-Man make that connection very clear indeed: "Uncle Ben is dead, and it's all my fault...My Spider-Man costume. I wish there was no such thing." 

Uncle Ben is not Spider-Man's inspiration and moral compass. He is his albatross. His kryptonite. The memory of Uncle Ben is the thing which prevents Peter Parker from fully becoming Spider-Man.

Peter says that if Aunt May dies it will be his fault. It really, really won't be. He has done everything he could possibly do to get his hands on the serum, selling all his material possessions, losing his friends and his lover, putting his life on the line and struggling to the point of physical exhaustion.

But then, he was never really responsible for the death of Uncle Ben. A bad man made a bad choice to commit a bad act. How many thousands of other people are more responsible than Peter Parker for facilitating that one man's bad choice? The economic system which made him poor? The teachers who failed to teach him right from wrong? Uncle Ben himself for choosing not to stay late at the factory that night? And what if no matter how much the burglar wanted to commit an armed robbery he couldn't have laid hands on a gun?

Parker didn't have more responsibility to trip or hold the man he saw running from the policeman at the TV studio because he had feet which stick to walls. He had the same responsibility as everybody else. And if he had the responsibility to help that cop, he had the responsibility to help every other cop in New York.

But that idea of responsibility runs counter to everything Steve Ditko believed. To the Randian objectivist:

"Every man is an end in himself, not the means to the ends of others. He must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life."

The death of Uncle Ben has given Peter Parker a false sense of responsibility; a responsibility he can never live up to. He is trying to carry an unbearable weight. That is what makes him miserable. That his where what-he-calls "the Parker luck" comes from. That his why it sometimes seems to him that in becoming Spider-Man he lost the capacity to be happy.

Peter Parker did not kill his foster father. And if he did, no amount of freelance superheroing could atone for it. If you want a Christian message, there it is: good works can't save you.

Peter Parker says that he "can't bear the thought of failing Aunt May the way I once failed Uncle Ben." And then he says that the "the weight is unbearable". And the physical strain of lifting the unliftable weight: that's "unbearable" too.

Unbearable. Unbearable. Unbearable.

And yet he bears them.

Peter Parker brought the weight of the underwater base down on himself, by recklessly throwing heavy machinery at Doctor Octopus while he was trying to escape. The situation he is in is his own fault: he traps himself. But Parker is an egotist. He thinks he has the right to be happy. He thinks that things are supposed to go his way. When they do not, he thinks that the universe has singled him out for misfortune. Believing himself defeated, he attributes malignant agency to the serum itself.

And the language he uses is highly significant:

"It's lying there...just beyond though mocking me...taunting me..."

What was it he said, all those years ago, the very first thing we ever heard him say?

"Some day I'll show them. Some day they'll be sorry! Sorry they laughed at me!" 

And so the saga of Spider-Man has come full circle.

(to be concluded)

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

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

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

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

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #33

The Final Chapter!

Peter Parker's impostor syndrome

Supporting Cast: 
Curt Connors, Frederick Foswell, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Aunt May.

Peter Parker's Financial Situation

Peter clearly has 10 pictures. He sells them to Jameson for $100 each, which he says will be enough to buy back his scientific equipment and pay medical expenses. If he pawned his goods for about $250, this would leave $750 to pay Aunt May's medical bills. (This is broadly consistent with surgery costing $1,000 in issue #9.)

Jameson says that the pictures are really worth as much as $2,000 dollars. Since Peter has had to haggle to get him up to $1,000, Jameson must habitually pay Peter even less than 50% market value. Back in issue #2 we estimated that Jameson paid $2,000 for Peter's first pictures of the Vulture, which was perhaps close to their true value.


If Spider-Man confronts Doctor Octopus at midnight on Saturday August 28th, this story takes place during the early hours of Sunday 29th.

p1-11 Spider-Man's escape, and his fight with the remaining minions, can only take a few minutes.

p12 "A short time later" he returns to Dr Connors.

p13 "Seconds later" he arrives at the hospital.

p14  The doctor says it will be "about two hours" before he knows if the medicine has worked. 

pp15-18 During this two hour period, Spider-Man phones Foswell, photographs the arrest of the Master Planner's men, and sells the pictures to J.J.J. (Corollary: Betty Brant and Frederick Foswell all work past midnight on a Saturday to get the Sunday edition out. Foswell was not working when Parker visited the Bugle last issue: perhaps he "clocks off" at 6PM on Saturday and returns to work at 1AM on Sunday morning?) 

p18-20 Parker is back at the hospital and the doctor confirms May will recover. Note that the Doctor tells Peter "you should be in bed" which only makes sense if it is the middle of the night.

This gives us:

Sunday 29 August 1965

Midnight - Fight with Doctor Octopus

12.15 AM - Fight with Doc Ock's remaining men
12.30 AM - Takes serum to Connors
1.00 AM - Takes serum to hospital
1.15 AM - Photographs Master Planner’s base, tips off Foswell
2.15 AM - At Daily Bugle
3.00 AM - Doctors give Aunt May the all clear
3.30 AM - Returns home


p12 "I've got to take a sample of my Spider-Man blood"

This is very confused. In issue #32 Spider-Man stole a sample of Aunt May's blood and brought it to Connors. Here, Spider-Man takes a sample of his own blood, because if the serum "works" on it, it will probably work on May as well.

"The deterioration of the blood was instantly checked when the serum was applied.” 

But Spider-Man's blood is not deteriorating: the whole point is that the radiation that gave him super-powers is making May sick.

p14 "If this can stop the deterioration of the blood then we'll be able to perform a transfusion,and she'll have a fighting chance."

If they were going to perform a blood transfusion anyway, why was the magic serum so important?

p15 "Minutes later, at the offices of the Daily Bugle, crime reporter Frederick Foswell gets an urgent call."

One of the narrative dead-ends in issue #32 was Spider-Man abducting Foswell and asking him to help in find the Master Planner's lair. There was no pay-off to this: Foswell is now back at the Bugle and has to be summonsed by Spider-Man all over again. 

p16: "They'll be a lot of bare post-office walls when those characters are taken out of circulation."

i.e. Because their faces all appear on Wanted posters.

p16 "It'll be like old home week at Sing Sing when you cut-ups come marching in."

"Old Home Week" - a municipal festival where folk who have moved away are encouraged to revisit their old home town. 

"Cut-ups" - practical jokers. 

Sing-Sing - New York's most notorious jail.

Come marching in - A reference to the old hymn. Instead of the the saints marching through the Pearly Gate, the cop is imagining the crooks marching into jail. 

Lee is quite cleverly answering a question that hadn't occurred to any of us -- where did Doc Ock get all these minions from? 

p18 "Compared to you, even Scrooge was a reckless, devil-may-care spendthrift."

This is about as close as we get to Spider-Man's sarcastic repartee -- and Peter Parker is directing it at J.J.J

The most famous panel in the 
entire history of comic books

Here's the thing.

I remember, vividly, reading Man on a Rampage! at the age of 9. And I remember that for years, before I knew that it was famous or iconic or well-regarded, I always thought of it as "The good Spider-Man comic" and even, disloyally, "The last good Spider-Man comic." I really cared about Peter Parker; I really hated J.J.J and Flash Thompson and it really mattered to me what happened to Aunt May.

Children are completely uncritical. I also cared a great deal about a lot of zero-quality crap that crossed my path at the same time: the Wombles and the Tomorrow People and an interminable TV series called The Long Chase about a policeman's son trying to clear his father's name. I forget what his father had been accused of.

Children find stuff in comics and books and TV shows that just isn't there. They hear every word of A.A Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh, while simultaneously daydreaming a parallel Winnie-the-Pooh in their heads. Both can seem equally real. 

This is the thing I miss most about being a child.

By the time I read the Fantastic Four, I had lost my innocence. There was never a time when I didn't know that F.F #48, #49 and #50 constituted the Very Famous Galactus Trilogy or that everyone thought This Man, This Monster! was the best things Stan and Jack ever did. (This Man, This Monster! always slightly disappoints me for precisely that reason.) By the time The Eternals came into my life, I was thinking in terms of Jack "King" Kirby, as opposed to "the Thor artist who isn't the shit one". And so on through Citizen Kane and Sgt. Pepper and Hamlet.

But Amazing Spider-Man #32 I discovered for myself.  For years afterwards I was surprised when I found that anyone else knew about it. "Oh, you remember The One With Spider-Man Trapped Under The Wreckage do you? I thought it was just me."

I can remember, so clearly, reading that last page; Spider-Man unable to lift the iron girders; Aunt May plaintively calling out his name. The canister of Serum right at the front of the picture, and a tiny figure of a Spider-Man hardly visible under the heavy weight.

And the caption -- let no-one ever say that Stan Lee can't do captions -- "...Spider-Man fumes in helpless rage as the drops of water fall ever faster...ever larger...faster...larger... faster...larger!!..." .

I think it was Walter B Gibson who said that he wrote The Shadow for people whose lips moved when they were reading. St Augustine, of course, was very surprised that he couldn't hear St Ambrose reading even if he was standing right next to him. I think that there is a moment, around the age of seven or eight, when you are a confident reader, but you have not quite mastered the skill of silent reading. You are no longer speaking the words out loud, but you are still speaking them in your head. I think that is why I was able to read the War of the Worlds and Frankenstein and the Hound of the Baskervilles when I was still of an age to enjoy A Bear Called Paddington, The Voyages of Doctor Doolittle and The Wandering Wombles. I sub-vocalized long passages of text without expecting to understand it; and as a result, sometimes came across passages which I could enjoy. 

That is how I read Man on a Rampage: performing the story in my head; hearing and speaking and pronouncing each word.

"I've failed. Just when it counted most. I've failed."

And straight on to the next panel:

"Wherever you go...whatever you do...whatever befalls...this we say to must not miss the next issue of Spider-Man!!!"


This is a serial story?

On the letters page, Stan Lee tells us that issue #33 will feature the return of Kraven the Hunter. This re-engagement doesn't actually occur until issue #34. So it looks like the cliffhanger ending surprised Stan Lee as much as it surprised us.

We use words like "decompression" nowadays, and Ditko certainly takes plenty of time to get where he is going. He could have wound the story up in two pages, and maybe Stan expected him to. Instead, he slowly pays off all the set ups over 20 gently paced pages. Lee claims that he whooped for joy when he saw the pencils for issue #33. He had expected the escape to take maybe a panel or two: it is actually spread out over five pages.

It is hardly necessary for me to laud those five pages all over again. They are, we can all agree, stunning. Peter tries to lift the heavy weight; he can't; he collapses again. The water pours in through the ceiling. He thinks of Aunt May and Uncle Ben. He pushes hard, putting his hands on the ground to brace himself. He has the weight on his back; he lifts it; one final push; he is free. As he struggles, the panels get bigger. The panel in which Spider-Man musters his strength takes up two thirds of page 4; and as everyone knows, page 5 is a full page spread of him throwing the weight off.

Ditko is exploiting the specific power of the comic book medium, doing stuff for which there is no cinematic equivalent. A comic splits linear time into a sequence of frozen moments and places them alongside each other. Almost the whole craft of being a comic book artist lies in deciding which moments to choose and how far apart they should be. Ditko's moments get shorter and shorter; we move from accelerated time to real time to slow motion. But the physical size of the panels gets larger and larger. Time is transmuted into space; but drama is transmuted into size.

We can't see Spider-Man's face. His agony is represented only in body language. The words which Stan Lee gives him to say are not irrelevant; but the entire drama of the scene can be inferred from the pictures alone. Spider-Man is trapped. He gives up. He thinks of Ben and May. He rallies. Shifts position. Braces himself. Makes one final effort. And is free.

No-one has ever drawn anything better.

So why do I have such a clear and vivid memory of the cliffhanger, and no-particular memory of Spider-Man's escape?

I read it, of course, over and over; but I have no memory of encountering it for the first time. If anything, I think I was slightly disappointed. I somehow felt that Stan (and I still took it for granted that everything came from the heart of Stan) was cheating. For a week, I had wondered how Spider-Man could escape being trapped underneath a weight that was far too heavy for him to lift. And the solution is....he lifts the unliftable lifting it.

Isn't that a little bit too much like "and with one bound he was free"?

In the quest for the historical Stan Lee it is a good idea to apply the Criterion of Embarrassment. If Stan Lee tells a story which supports the notion that he "dreamed up" the Marvel Universe without input from any other creator, then that story is very probably false. But if he recounts an anecdote in which an artist or some other writer has substantial creative input, then that anecdote is very likely to be true. We should doubt the story about Joan Lee encouraging Sam to create the Fantastic Four to get it out of his system, because that is the kind of thing Stan's disciples would like you to believe. But we should believe the story about Steve Ditko pitching the idea of a hipster wizard called Doctor Strange without any input from Lee, because Stan's followers would have had no reason to make that story up and every reason to suppress it. 

So also in this case. Stan Lee usually claims that whatever happened was what he always intended to happen; that artists are merely the conduit along which ideas flow from his head onto the page. Why should he tell an anecdote in which he asked for a simple escape scene and Ditko provided something far, far better -- unless it is actually true?

But if it is true it follows that, even at this late stage, Lee was still feeding Ditko basic plot outlines?

It is an interesting thought.

Suppose Lee had said to Ditko "What if Aunt May fell sick again? And what if Doc Ock stole the medicine that might just save her life? What if Spider-Man were trapped under a heavy weight, and the medicine were just out of reach?" (It would make sense that the double McGuffin was Lee's idea: he used a similar motif in Fantastic Four Annual #6.) Suppose Lee had said "...and then, with supreme effort, Spider-Man shifts the heavy weight..." and Ditko had thought "That is an incredibly weak solution... But if I dial the agony right up to 11, I think I can make it work."

Pure conjecture, of course.

I am no longer nine years old. I can now appreciate the metaphor and subtext that Ditko crams into the scene. Spider-Man isn't just trapped under the wreckage of Doctor Octopus's base: he is trapped under his guilt at allowing Uncle Ben to die and indirectly causing Aunt May's illness. He doesn't merely lift the physical weight; he finally learns how to carry, and cast off, that guilt.

The idea that Spider-Man is a Christ figure is one of the wrongest ideas that anyone has ever had. There is absolutely no sense in which Spider-Man suffers vicariously, or offers himself for anybody else. And equally, there is no sense that there is Anyone else who can bear the guilt on his behalf. Peter Parker is conventionally religious: he says that he is going to pray for Aunt May, but only after he has done everything physically possible to save her himself. (Similarly, the doctors say that she is in God's hands only after they have reached the limits of their medical knowledge.) But if anything, Spider-Man is an anti-Christ figure. He isn't acting out of cosmic self-giving love, but out of rational self-interest. He isn't bearing the sins of the world; but his own. The only one who benefits from his suffering is Aunt May -- and he wants her to stay alive because he couldn't stand the pain and guilt if she dies. True, he once shed his blood for Aunt May: but it's that very blood which is going to kill her. (I suppose that makes the serum an anti-eucharist.) If we are looking for mythological antecedents (and considering Ditko's enthusiasm for Ayn Rand) we would be better off comparing him with the mythical Titan who is condemned through his own egotism to carry the sky on his back.

But really, none of this is necessary. He isn't the messiah: he's just a very strong kid who'll do anything, literally anything, to stop his mummy from dying.


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

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

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

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

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Friday, June 08, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #32

Man on a Rampage!


The Master Planner (Doctor Octopus)

Supporting Cast:

Betty Brant, Ned Leeds, Jonah Jameson, Aunt May, Dr Bromwell, Curt Connors, Frederick Foswell

Peter Parker's financial position:

In order to pay for the ISO-36, Peter Parker pawns science equipment, including his microscope.

In 2018, Lidl will sell you a microscope for under £50. But the instrument which Uncle Ben gave Peter in Amazing Fantasy #15 was not a toy, but an aspirational gift for a scholarship candidate. In the corresponding scene in Ultimate Spider-Man, Peter gets a computer. So the microscope probably cost the equivalent of £500 in today's money: the sort of sum they'd have to save for, but not wildly beyond their means.

A pawnbroker buys goods at slightly less than market value, but charges you high interest if you want them back. If the microscope cost Uncle Ben $90 in 1963, it's hard to see how Peter could have pawned if for more than $70. The box he is carrying wouldn't hold more than 4 pieces of equipment, so he probably comes away with not more than $250.

He says he is combining this with the money he has in the bank, which is presumably the ?$250 he got for the photos of the Cat in issue #30, so he doesn't end up with more than $500, which would hardly cover hospital bills and an expensive new medicine. 

But he actually tells Connors that he is going to obtain "expense money"; and the courier who delivers the serum says that Connors is paying a "high premium price for its delivery". So, clearly, the West Coast lab has provided the serum free of charge, the hospital hasn't yet raised a bill, but Peter Parker has come up with $500 cash to charter a private jet to bring the medicine to New York.


The action follows directly on from issue #31. The serum is specifically located on the West Coast, so it can hardly take less than 5 hours to fly it to New York.

Spider-Man spends several hours roughing up random bad guys before he stumbles into Doc Ock's lair.

This gives us:

?9AM - Parker photographs a strike picket outside a department store.

?10AM - Parker goes to Bugle and tries to sell the pictures.

?11AM - Parker goes to hospital.

?12PM - Parker tracks down Connors and asks him to help. He spends the rest of the day as Spider-Man working with Connors in the lab.

?6PM - The serum arrives in New York and is stolen by the Master Planner. Spider-Man goes to the Bugle to try to enlist Foswell's help, but Foswell has finished work for the day.

?6PM - ?11PM - Spider-Man spends several hours interrogating hoods -- long enough for word to get round the underworld. 

?11PM - Spider-Man discovers entrance to base.

?12PM (Midnight) Spider-Man Confronts Doctor Octopus.


p 4 panel 7: "It must have happened that time she needed a blood transfusion..and I donated my blood!"

This happened in Spider-Man #9, A Man Called Electro. Spider-Man #9 was one of the first issues to bear all the hallmarks of Ditko plotting. It would be pleasing to think that he was setting up issue #32 that far in advance. I wonder if it is too late to claim my no-prize?

"Some of the very radioactivity which transformed me into Spider-Man must have gotten into her blood stream."

Readers of this column have on several occasions asked me whether or not Spider-Man is strong. Well, here is their answer.

p5 "Doctor Connors! He's a specialist in this field!"

"This field" apparently encompasses the study of reptiles, growing arms back on paraplegic servicemen, and radioactivity of the blood.  

p6 "I've read of a new serum, created on the west coast-called ISO-36"

Serum is a component of blood; blood serum is sometimes used as a medical vaccine or antidote. But in popular language, "serum" often means "universal cure" -- as when we talk about a "beauty serum" or a "truth serum".

p 7 "All the scientific equipment I've worked so hard to buy...!"

Ditko surely intends the microscope which Peter pawns to be the very same one that Uncle Ben gave him as a gift in Amazing Fantasy #15, but Lee doesn't pick up on this. (Peter must retrieve it from the broker, because he will leave it by Uncle Ben's grave in issue #281.) Parker says he has "worked hard" to buy the rest of his science stuff: since he doesn't have a job, this can only refer to money from selling photos. He must have made a lot of sales we don't know about.

p8: "ISO-36...could be the one vital key to my experiments."

Ditko has spent three episodes telling us that the Master Planner is interested in stealing "any and all atomic equipment". He goes to some lengths to establish that Aunt May is ill because there is a "radioactive particle" in her blood. This is clearly a set-up for the McGuffin. Of course the substance which the Master Planner needs for his radiation experiments is the same substance that Connors needs to remove the radiation from May Parker's blood. But Stan Lee spectacularly misses the point and makes the McGuffin a common-or-garden serum. Some readers think that the "ISO" bit implies that it is a radio-active isotope, but there is not a word of this in the text.

p9 "Even though I fought you, years ago, when you were a gang boss"...

Spider-Man's one and only encounter with the Big Man occurred precisely 22 months ago.

p10 "But, as the hours wear on, the answer is always the same"

Ditko clearly intends panels 3-6 to make one single sequence, but Lee's caption suggest that panels 3 and 4 take place some hours apart.

p11 "A hot car ring" - i.e. dealers in stolen cars

p12 "There's no way of knowing if it will assimilate with my potion until we try it."

The use of the word "potion" tends to confirm our theory that the Lizard was an alchemist rather than a scientist. It would be clearly be over-interpreting to say that Doctor Connors and Doctor Bromwell therefore represented the union of magic and science. 

p14 "One of them just came out of that hidden door! That might be where they've stashed the serum!"

Indeed it might. Or, on the other hand, it might not. 

p15 "So, Spider-Man -- we meet again! But this time, alas, it will be our final encounter.!"

This is a colossal cliche. It is hard to find an example of a villain saying "So, we meet again..." which is
not a deliberate parody. In an 1855 novel called The Discarded Daughter a wronged maiden makes a speech beginning "So, Pirate, we meet again at last..." (Darth Vader says "We meet again at last.." to Obi-Wan in Star Wars: Lucas is obviously well aware of the cliche.) 

Other phrases from Doctor Octopus's handbook of super-villain cliches include:
  • "If he crosses my path again, our next encounter shall be his last" (#31, p20)
  • "Am I always to be plagued by that sniveling Spider-Man?" (#32, p1)
  • "The world will soon be menaced again by Doctor Octopus!" (p#32, p2)  
  • "You arrogant fool!...You haven't a chance here, against me!" (#32, p16)

p20 "I'm too exhausted. Been on the go for days"

Peter has missed at least three consecutive nights' sleep at this point.

Of course, it is Doctor Octopus. 

On page 15, we finally get some of the "action" that those guys on the letter column think is so important: Spider-Man has a fight with a super-villain. But the fight is so perfunctory and over so quickly that I can't help feeling that Ditko is making a point. Doctor Octopus marches in, spouting text taken directly from the Boys' Book of Super-villain Cliches. He spots that Spider-Man is far more committed and determined than during any of their previous encounters and immediately announces his intention to run away. Spider-Man recklessly throws a lump of machinery at him, Our hero has spent most of this issue breaking things: ripping down flights of stairs in villains' bases, throwing cars across courtyards, and even destroying one of Aunt May's tables. This time he "topples the main support beam" of Doctor Octopus's underwater base, causing the whole structure to collapse on top of him. 

We never find out what happens to Doctor Octopus. (He won't be heard from again until issue #53.) But we don't really care. Any more than we really care what kind of atomic ray he was planning to make. Doctor Octopus is, by this stage, not a character, but a plot device. He is there to answer all the unanswered questions and solve all the remaining mysteries. Why is the base underwater? Why is he only stealing atomic equipment? What is the connection between the IS0-35 and Tony Stark's uranium derivatives? What, in fact, is the Master Planner's master plan? The answer to all the questions, and to any others which may occur to you, is "Because he's Doctor Octopus, that's why."

When he hears that an experimental serum called ISO-36 is being flown into New York, Doctor Octopus exclaims: "What a stroke of luck!...It could be the one vital key to my experiments! And fate is placing it within my grasp!"

When Spider-Man breaks into his Secret Underwater Base to retrieve the serum, he monologues: "A stroke of blind luck has given me the chance to dispose of Spider-Man forever."

And Last issue, after Spider-Man tried to stop the nuclear heist, he soliloquized "Spider-Man!...By the purest accident, he almost ruined my plan again". 

Purest accident. Fate. Stroke of luck. Blind luck. It's almost like some force is pulling them together.

Doctor Octopus has no identity or motivation beyond being Spider-Man's worst enemy. Once he knows that Spider-Man is looking for the serum, he literally hangs it on a wire at the end of a corridor and shines a spotlight on it. It's like he consciously knows that it's his job to set up traps for Spider-Man to blunder into. (Last time they met, he set up a treasure hunt with Aunt May as the prize.) Doctor Octopus is a mechanism for removing the McGuffin from Spider-Man's hands. He is the diabolos ex machina who sets Spider-Man up for his supreme test.

He is Doctor Octopus. He does villaining. That's all we need to know. 

That is why Ditko reveals that the Master Planner is Doctor Octopus on the very first page of this second installment. Some fans think that the revelation comes too early; that we should have been kept in suspense for a few more pages. Perhaps we should have learned that Doc Ock is the Master Planner at the same moment Spider-Man does, on page 15? But that only makes sense if you think that anyone particularly cares about the Master Planner, and that we are waiting with baited breath to discover his identity. Which may be how Stan Lee thinks, but it's not how Steve Ditko thinks and it's not how this story works. Ditko gets the big reveal out of the way because the big reveal does't make any difference. Now if the Master Planner had turned out to be J. Jonah Jameson or Ned Leeds or Peter Parker's dad, it would have been a different matter. 

If all of Spider-Man's villains were "just villains" things would get very boring very quickly. But having one place-holder villain on hand allows Stan and Steve to facilitate stories like this one. 

Having brought Doctor Octopus onto the stage, Ditko directs our attention away from him for five pages. Five pages which the pro Stan Lee faction would doubtless have written off as "love" or "soap" or "drama" or "mystery jazz". We don't care that Doctor Octopus is going to "control radiation" in order to "gain additional powers"; but we do care that Aunt May is going to die. We care that it is kind of Peter Parker's fault. And we care very much that there is possibly some medicine that might do her some good. We are so gripped by these scenes, by this interlude, that we arguably forget about Dr Villain in his Secret Undersea Base. 

So page 8, when we get to it, is a genuinely brilliant coup de bandes dessinées. There is one thing in the whole world that might save Aunt May, and -- whoops --- Dr Plot Device wants it too. (He needs the serum to complete his experiments. He needs to complete the experiment to discover the secret of radiation. He needs to know the secret of radiation to keep his ray operating. He needs to keep the ray operating in order to give himself more powers. He needs to give himself more powers so he can conquer the world. I don't know why he needs to conquer the world. Perhaps he'll die.)

And so the two halves of the story, the Spider-Man half and the Peter Parker half, have crashed together. Spider-Man leaps out of the window (in one of Ditko's truly great action shots) and for five pages he's punching gangsters, punching minions, smashing staircases, throwing cars around and finally coming face to face with the guy with all the arms. And this is all, arguably, only a set-up for the Great Big Cliffhanger. 

In the 1968 Fantastic Four Annual, it turns out that the only thing which will prevent Mrs Fantastic dying in childbirth is "negative energy" and it also turns out that the only source of "negative energy" is a Cosmic Control Rod and it turns out that Annihilus has set his little green heart on using the Cosmic Control Rod to conquer the universe. This is the same set-up as Man on a Rampage! -- what the hero needs to save his loved one's life if what the villain needs to conquer the universe and world. But in the Fantastic Four, it's presented as a starting point -- a premise -- and as a result it seems dreadfully contrived. Because it takes 28 pages for the ISO-35 to get into Doc Ock's hands, we accept it as a natural plot development. 

If This Be My Destiny...! was static -- as if we were holding our breaths before the big dive. Man On a Rampage! proceeds at break-neck speed. Last issue, Spider-Man swung around a silent city, hoping to find a crime to photograph. This issue he smashes things and beats people up. Last issue we saw Spider-Man looking out over new York and yawning; this issue he has so much energy that we several times feel that he is going to burst out of the page. 

Plot developments fly out more quickly than we can keep up with them; each one exerting more pressure on our hero. Peter Parker breaks up with Betty -- again -- and actually hits Ned Leeds. He finds out that Aunt May's illness is terminal and that he is indirectly to blame. Having spent several pages last month entirely failing to find a single crime in the whole of New York, he is able to track down former swamp-dwelling psychopath turned all-around nice guy Curt Connors in one single panel. We don't pause long enough to notice how incredibly convenient it is that the Former Lizard has moved back to New York or indeed wonder in what sense a reptile specialist is the "one man" who might help remove a radioactive particle from an old lady's blood stream. Half a page later, Connors is telling Spider-Man about a new McGuffin called ISO-36 which "might help us greatly", and a page later the McGuffin has been stolen by the Master Planner's minions. Spider-Man spends the next three pages hitting gangsters for no terribly good reason before being led directly to the Master Planner's lair by his Spider-Sense. He starts punching minions and runs through a secret door, straight into the arms, the arms, the arms, the arms the arms of Doctor Octopus.

And we're still only on page 15. 

There are quite a lot of narrative dead ends: Spider-Man asks Frederick Foswell to help him find the Master Planner's base, but he doesn't; Spider-Man roughs up random crooks in the hope some of them know where the Master Planner lives, but they don't. In a sense, it is a narrative cop-out that his Spider Sense tells him where the secret entrance is just when all hope seems lost. Perhaps Ditko himself had better explanations for some of these developments (and, indeed, a better explanation of the Master Planner's master plan) but never bothered to tell Stan Lee about them, leaving the writer to make stuff up as best he could. But it hardly matters. The narrative thrust comes from the pictures. Anger. Action. Confrontation. Failure. 

This is also true of some of the "love jazz" scenes. Try to imagine the brief scene in the Daily Bugle offices with no input from Lee at all: the story just told in Ditko's mute imagery. It would be very clear what was going on. We would see Peter arriving at the Bugle; Betty running to him; Ned joining them; Peter speaking harshly to Ned; Ned trying to calm him down; and Peter pushing Ned across the room -- delightfully, right into the path of J. Jonah Jameson. A brief, tearful scene between Peter and Betty, and Peter slouches off. The situation in the final panel is almost identical to the final panel of issue #30. 

Stan Lee's text makes the confrontation with Leeds a piece of play-acting on Parker's part: he is deliberately trying to make Betty angry with him, and indeed, make her hate him, because "a clean break is the best thing for all of us." I think Lee intends to soften the situation; to make it appear that Peter is being noble by breaking up with Betty. But it actually tends to reinforce the feeling that Peter Parker is a self-destructive dick. It certainly seems to follow on from the college scenes last issue. Peter is further isolating himself from other humans; declaring himself independent. He needs no-one else. 

"Betty must despise me now! Never knowing how much I really love her or how much tougher this is for me!" 

Me, me, me, me, me.

The more one scratches the surface, the more compelling becomes the idea that Ditko is book-ending his graphic novel, gathering themes together, saying goodbye. In Amazing Fantasy #15, Peter Parker had no friends and whinged about it; in Amazing Spider-Man #32 he actively drives his friends away and couldn't give a damn. In the first story, Uncle Ben gave Peter a microscope; in this final one, he pawns a microscope to save Aunt May's life. In Amazing Spider-Man #1 it was Aunt May pawning her jewelry for Pete's sake. But overall, overwhelmingly, the whole energy of the trilogy comes from a single fact. When he first became Spider-Man, Peter Parker failed to act, and as a result, Uncle Ben died. In this final story he acts obsessively, fanatically, almost insanely in order to keep Aunt May alive. "It can't happen again! It mustn't! It mustn't! There must be some way to save her! There must be!"

The last time Aunt May was ill, Peter Parker quit being Spider-Man to care for her. Last issue, before he realized how poorly she was, he moaned that "with all my power, with all my spider-strength, there is nothing that I can do for her." With great power there sometimes comes great helplessness. But from the moment he hears the terminal diagnosis, the energy, the violence of Spider-Man takes over the comic. He is going to do stuff. He is going to break things until Aunt May gets better. 

This is why he breaks the table. Because he is angry, of course: but also to send us readers a very clear message. Peter Parker is Spider-Man. No two identities, no Gemini face. Just a teenage boy with the strength of many men.

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

Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. This essay forms part of his critical study of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's original Spider-Man comic book. 

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

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

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

Amazing Spider-Man was written and drawn by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko and is copyright Marvel Comics. All quotes and illustrations are use for the purpose of criticism under the principle of fair dealing and fair use, and remain the property of the copyright holder.

 Please do not feed the troll.