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. 

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

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

I am sure all this is fascinating, but what did you think of Solo?

"From the moment I picked your book up, to the moment I put it down, I couldn't stop laughing. Someday I intend to read it." 
Groucho Marx, attrib.

"Warren J. B" wrote the following about my review of Solo: 

And the blogs, op-eds and so forth, that think the intrusion of current political themes into Star Wars is the best thing since sliced bread? What do they need? What about reviewers with no particular opinion on the matter, who think that specific inclusion is so ridiculous that they wonder it might actually be a parody? What about the creators and participants in the films who go on record not only to confirm these inserted themes, but to highlight them as reasons to see the film?

I could enjoy your rebuttals, Andrew, if there was much to them besides the reduction to ad hominem and dismissive refusal to unpack, just a little. (For another example: Sean Connery wasn't Bond for forty years. All those books and comics weren't written and drawn with Alden Erenreich in their mind's eye.) I could read about you picking apart the topic of 'leet' with points on why it's silly to worry about. But "seek help hurr" is a fourteen-year-old's comeback. It's sweeping the thing under the rug. It would be mere trolling if it was directed outside this blog. It's a childish kneejerk reaction - an "I'm right so there" - on a level with the people you're attempting to ridicule.

(I can't decide if tweeting it is much better or worse. Oh Mike. Mike Mike Mike...)

I've seen those complaints about L337. (among other things) I see what point they're trying to make, partly because they go into actual detail; but I can't go with them because they're too obstinate and obtuse. Imagine the frustration when 'the other side' - ostensibly the rational side - turns out to be practically the same.

I take this to be a criticism of the style rather than the content of my piece. Warren is one of the very good people who financially supports me via Patreon, so I think we can safely assume that he is familiar with my normal idiom. I think that he is making the point that I am a better literary critic than I am a journalist -- which is why I have recently, semi-seriously adopted "exegete" as a job description. The Solo review represented my first reaction to the movie: it was written more or less immediately I left the cinema. I think it is probably true that I don't do this kind of thing particularly well. Most of my exegesis is the result of a fairly long period of thinking and over-thinking -- six months in the case The Last Jedi; thirty-five years in the case of Spider-Man. Warren is perhaps correct to think that short, off-the-cuff reviews are a mistake. 

Warren is also, I think, correctly pointing out that my verbal fireworks can shade into flippancy and obscure the points which I am trying to make. I think that he thinks that, in the case of Solo at least, I should have written a more journalistic, academic piece. 

It is certainly true that I use tags and code works and assume that my readers will know what I am talking about. For example, I say "You can type this shit, George, but you can't..." when clarity would require me to say "Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Alec Guinness are known to have been openly critical of George Lucas's dialogue." 

Warren directly responds to some of my flourishes; so where I typed "it was ridiculous for anyone but Sean Connery to play James Bond until it wasn't", he types "Sean Connery wasn't Bond for forty years". I could of course riposte in kind: "No; but Connery was the central characters in six movies, where Ford was a secondary character in four; and indeed "How many actors have played the role of Indiana Jones?" But this would not, in fact be relevant: the correct response to Warren is "But I was not talking about Bond: the remark was a colourful way of saying 'It is sometimes possible to successfully recast a popular character, even when they seem to be indelibly associated with one actor.' " To which Warren might very well respond "In which case, why didn't you say that?" The substantive point about Solo is not "Can Han Solo, in principal, be played by someone other than Harrison Ford?" but "How successful, in fact, is Aiden Ehrenreich at playing the young Han Solo?" -- to which my answer, given in the original essay but possibly obscured by the one-liners is "only partially." 

The article contains one major flaw which Warren does not specifically highlight: namely, I ought not to make remarks about mental health for the sake of stylistic effect. I regret remarking that people who objected to the movie on ideological grounds "should seek professional help." (I don't regret making fun of them, but I shouldn't have made fun of them in those terms.)

So: as a public service and a penance — and actually as quite an interesting exercise — I am re-presenting my essay, this time translated into English. 

People writing comments beginning "I haven't seen the film, but..." are referred to the reply given by Private Eye magazine in the case of Arkell vs Pressdram. 

Solo: A Review 

by Andrew Rilstone

Solo is a highly successful adventure story, told with the trappings and hardware of science fiction. As such it is in the tradition of Doc Smith, Flash Gordon and the older Star Wars films. It contains a number of audacious and exciting action sequences; the one in which a group of heroes have to evade enemy space ships in an area of space which contains a gravity well and a giant alien is particularly memorable. People who enjoy those kinds of stories — which are often dubbed "space opera" — are likely to enjoy Solo. People who who do not enjoy "space opera" in general are not likely to find much to enjoy in this example of the form.

The present writer, who grew up reading this material, is still surprised that films of this kind have become so mainstream. He is also, incidentally, surprised that technology which once only existed in such films is now common place. He enjoyed himself very much indeed. 

The film is quite faithful to the visual style of the original Star Wars trilogy. Many of the scenes are based quite closely on scenes from those three films. For example, there is a desert planet that is quite similar to Luke Skywalker's home world in A New Hope; several bars and saloons which are reminiscent of the bar which Ben Kenobi and Luke visit in the same movie; and a villainous gangster who is a little like Jabba the Hutt, the evil slug in Return of the Jedi. However, in the opinion of the present writer, there was also enough variation that the film never felt derivative or like a pastiche. 

It could perhaps been argued that a wider variety of settings could be introduced into the Star Wars series, and indeed, that there could be a greater variation in the way alien life-forms are portrayed. However, in the opinion of the present writer, the film does well to stick to a generic look and feel which as been established in nine previous movies. 

It is by no means impossible to successfully recast a popular character, even when they seem to be indelibly associated with one actor. But there are specific problems with recasting Han Solo, who has (with the single exception of a radio series) only ever been played by Harrison Ford. Ford brought a very specific charm to the character which wasn't necessarily present in the original scripts. (Ford, like Alec Guinness and Carey Fisher, was openly critical of the quality of Lucas's dialogue.) On the other hand, the Han Solo character has been successfully portrayed in comic books and novels with no input from Harrison Ford. In the opinion of the present writer Aiden Ehrenreich is an engaging protagonist, and creates a character who is stylistically very similar to the one in Star Wars and its sequels. But he is never completely convincing in the impossible task of being a younger Harrison Ford. 

Han Solo is sometimes erroneously described as a mercenary. In fact, in the original films, he is seeking a financial reward for rescuing the Princess only because he needs to pay off a debt to a gangster. The new film is quite consistent with this idea: circumstances force Solo to become involved criminal activity but it is made clear that under a different set of circumstances he might have chosen a different path. 

The present writer particularly enjoyed the sequence in which Han Solo first meets his future partner, Chewbacca. 

The Han Solo who appears in the first Star Wars film is presumably in his thirties, where Luke Skywalker is a teenager. He often alludes to previous adventures, while Luke has, up to this point, led an uninteresting life. In this respect he is like Ben Kenobi, who is also a veteran with a mysterious history. It could very well be argued that any attempt to actually show those histories on screen tends to diminish those characters. However, this is an argument against the whole project of creating stories which are placed chronologically before the first movie. Granted the existence of these "prequels", the present writer found Solo a good deal more convincing than, for example, The Phantom Menace. He found it relatively easy to believe that the event shown in this film — dramatic robberies, meetings and betrayals, desert gunfights and assignations in taverns and bars — were the kinds of things that might have happened to a younger Han Solo. He found it harder to connect the politics of tax disputes and the investigation of illicit clone facilities with a younger Ben Kenobi. 

At several points during the story, Solo is shown playing a poker-type card game called "sabaac". Interestingly, although this games has been alluded to in several role-playing games and novels, it has never before been represented in a movie. 

The present writer felt that the casino sequence in the Last Jedi, and the scenes involving public transportation in Attack of the Clones (to name only two examples) clashed with the look and feel of the original trilogy. Solo, on the other hand, remained very consistent with that imagery. 

The Star Wars movies consist of diverse elements including war stories, Arthurian mythology and the Wild West. The “Arthurian” element — that is to say the story of the Jedi Knights — has become increasingly central to recent movies; although the other stand alone film, Rogue One was primarily about warfare and espionage. Solo, on the other hand, relies extensively on Western imagery. There are no battles, and with the exception of one very brief scene, no Jedi Knights. In the opinion of the present writer, this meant that Solo evoked the "look and feel" of the original trilogy much more authentically than Attack of the Clones on one hand and The Last Jedi on the other. This may suggest that Star Wars ought to be re-conceptualized as a "space western" (as opposed to "space fantasy" or even "science fiction"). 

However, this "consistency" and "authenticity" is achieved by taking a conservative, even a derivative, approach to the material. A substantial core of the film involves a group of mismatched individuals struggling to work together on an unfamiliar spacecraft, which rather resembles the cartoon series Star Wars: Rebels (for the first series, at least) and could even have been a scenario for the Star Wars role-playing game. Although the individual plot twists are quite surprising, the over all shape of the movie is quite predictable. Part of the plot is left unresolved at the end, reinforcing the sense that we are watching the first episode of a TV show. 

This is an unresolvable and unsolvable dilemma for any film maker working with the Star Wars franchise. A film like Solo which sticks closely to established imagery and conventions may be accused of being unimaginative; but an experimental film like The Last Jedi which attempts to say something new about the saga may with equal validity be accused of not fitting into the saga. 

Finally: a few commentators have complained about the robot L337, who believes that droids should be free and have equal rights with humans. The same writers have also had a problem with a subplot about Han’s companion Chewbacca wanting to free his own people from slavery. They felt that this subplot politicizes the movie unnecessarily. 

While it is true that Star Wars deals with a simplistic and heroic conflict of Good versus Evil, it is also true that good and evil are represented primarily in political terms. If it can be taken for granted that freedom-fighters, rebels and revolutionaries are "good" and empires, imperialism, and military rule are "evil", then it is surely no great jump to say that "slavery" is evil and "equal rights" are good? In the opinion of the present writer, at any rate, the complaint that L337 uniquely politicize Star Wars cannot be taken remotely seriously. 

Corey Carrier
Sean Patrick Flannery
River Phoenix
Harrison Ford
George Hall

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

If you don't tell me what you thought about Solo in a minute, I'm going to get very, very cross.

Solo is a very good sci-fi skiffy fantasy wild west space opera movie.

No-one who grew up playing with toy space ships can fail to enjoy the big middle section in which a space ship bounces around a gravity well while almost being eaten by a giant space octopus while trying to rewire the dead robot's brain into the computer while trying to feed Plot Devisium into the Warp Drive while being chased by TIE fighters and Star Destroyers.

My mind is still slightly blown by the fact that I have lived to see this sort of old school Lensemen pulpery projected onto big huge screens in shopping centres and other people apart from me evidently want to watch it. (Outside the cinema in Bristol there is a giant video screen advertising a movie about a dog show and lady's shaving razors like in Blade Runner. I could have ordered noodles if I'd wanted to. Just saying.)

Solo gets the visuals and tone and texture of Star Wars exactly right. It does this by a process of themes-and-variations: Han starts out working for a gangster who is quite obviously Jabba the Hutt without actually being Jabba the Hutt; and ends up on a desert planet full of picture postcard views that look almost exactly like Tatooine without actually being Tatooine. And there are three separate photocopies of The Cantina. I think maybe "sleazy Mexican bar full of aliens" is simply a Space Opera Trope of which the The Cantina is merely a particularly memorable example.

It's a big universe and probably there should be planets that look like Milton Keynes on a wet Friday afternoon and planets populated by sentient rocks and super-intelligent shades of the colour blue. But there is a kind of consensus about what Star Wars should look like and Solo looked like that. 

Of course it is ridiculous for anyone other than Harrison Ford to be Han Solo. It was ridiculous for anyone other than Sean Connery to be James Bond, until it wasn't; and ridiculous for anyone other than William Hartnell to be Doctor Who, until it wasn't. I don't know if I quite believed that the young lad who knocks about the universe getting in and out of scrapes is the same person as veteran smuggler who Luke bumps into in the second act of A New Hope. But he was an enraging enough hero for this kind of space opera. There is no doubt that much of Han Solo's charm came from Harrison Ford, not from the script. ("You can type this shit, George...") Perry King speaks many of the same lines in the Radio adaptation, and he comes across as a rather more mono-dimensional unsympathetic mercenary. But Han Solo isn't reducible to Ford. For every minute of screen time, there are ummpety-ump pages of printed text and umpety-ump comic book panels, all telling the Further Adventures of a figure who is identifiably Han Solo, none of which have any input from Harrison Ford.

It is Leia who called Han a mercenary and she wasn't being quite fair. Han wanted the reward money to pay off Jabba the Hutt, because if he doesn't, Jabba the Hutt will murder him. We never see any sign of him enjoying the trappings of wealth or wanting an indulgent life-style. That's followed through mostly in Solo. Han keeps having to do heists because he owes money to various galactic undesirables, but this isn't quite the life he would have chosen.

The "how Han first met Chewie" seen is funny, clever and retrospectively a bit obvious.

The Han Solo who we meet on Tatooine is older than Luke, a veteran, maybe 35 to Luke's 19 if we go by actor's ages. He obviously has a history, and the kinds of stuff he does in Solo is definitely the kind of stuff we would have imagined him doing. He gets involved in impossible heists, strikes arrogant poses in seedy space bars, falls out with nasty gangsters, is betrayed and counter-betrayed multiple times but usually turns out to have been one step ahead of them. I didn't believe in the Prequels because I didn't believe that the kind of adventures Ewan McGregor was having were the kinds of adventures that Alec Guinness would have had when he was young. Alden Ehrenreich has exactly the kinds of adventures that a young Harrison Ford ought to have had.

One of the cool things about a charming, veteran space pirate is that there is a history and a back story which he knows and you don't; and one of the specifically cool things about Han is that he keeps giving us tantalizing glimpses of his past. Arguably, we don't want to see Han playing cards with Lando, any more than we want to see Ben Kenobi and Luke's Mysterious Father fighting in the Clone Wars. But that is an argument against prequels in general, not a criticism of this film in particular.

It is interesting, is it not, how things that we all assumed were canon but have never actually been mentioned before slide into these movies and no-one bats an eyelid. I absolutely knew that the game on which Lando wagered the Millennium Falcon was called "sabac" but I am pretty sure I learned that from the RPG, not any movie.

Star Wars is a collision between three things. Star Wars is actually a collision between a lot more than three things, but three will do. It's first and foremost great big clashes of dreadnoughts and doughty little dog-fighters; a space ships and aliens space opera yarn. Star, in a very real sense, wars. But in the middle of the big star war there's a King Arthur fairy tale about the last quest of a magic Knight with a glowy sword. And somehow about two thirds of it takes place in a world of frontier towns, cactuses, and dodgy bars; space pirates and space gangsters. Space opera plus space fantasy plus space cowboys.

The main movies have increasingly focussed on the Jedi Knights to the exclusion of everything else; Rogue One was basically the Space Wars bit with everything else taken out. Solo is a space cowboy story with no Jedi at all. (Spoiler alert: Well, hardly any.) And what it proves is that the cowboys in space element was always what Star Wars was mostly about: if you had to define the saga in two words, "Space Western" does the job much better than "Science Fantasy." There are no casinos, coffee lounges, libraries, or idyllic romantic interludes in Solo: no moment at which I thought "I am sorry, but this is just not Star Wars."

But neither is there anything surprising or imaginative in the movie. There are good plot twists, but they are the kinds of good plot twists that you would expect in a movie of this kind; the kind of plot twists that anyone who had seen Empire Strikes Back would see coming at a distance of less than twelve parsecs. This is the kind of Han Solo movie you would have made if you had been asked to make a Han Solo movie. This is the kind of Star Wars adventure you would have made up when you were running the Star Wars RPG, and indeed did. Two thirds of the movie consists of a motley crew of mismatched individuals who get on okay, but quarrel a bit, in a spaceship that they kind of call home; which makes it feel not entirely unlike an episode of Star Wars: Rebels. Indeed, the ending, not quite a cliff hanger but with distinct loose ends left untied, felt very like the end of a TV pilot episode. I suppose that since everyone decided in advance that the film was not a success, we won't now get to see the follow up.

To an extent, any Star Wars film maker is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. Do something experimental and different, use a Star Wars episode to say something about the Star Wars mythos, give us surprising takes on much-loved characters and fans (not all fans) will accuse you of violating the Sacred Saga. Fly close to the genre; do the kinds of things we expected and hoped you would do; show us the stuff we always wanted to see and fans (not all fans) will accuse you of making a redundant film that no-one asked for.

There is a very minor sub-plot about a robot. Some people have seen ten Star Wars movies and two TV shows but are still surprised that Star Wars movies often involve cute comic relief. The robot thinks of itself as female, and is very cross that robots are being used as slave labour on that planet that C3PO is concerned about being sent to the spice mines of. (Chewbacca is not wild about what they are doing to the wookies there, either.)

Some people think that this is an unwarranted intrusion of politics into what is basically just a series of adventure movies about plucky revolutionaries overthrowing a fascist regime. If you are one of these people, you need to seek professional help immediately.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Amazing Spider-Man #31

If This Be My Destiny....!

The Master Planner

Supporting Cast
Aunt May, Dr Bromwell, Flash Thompson, Harry Osborne, Gwen Stacey, Prof Warren, J. Jonah Jameson, Betty Brant, Ned Leeds

First Appearance of

Harry Osborne, Gwen Stacey, Prof Warren

Peter Parker's Financial Situation

Peter was paid ?$250 by J.J.J only a few hours ago, but now claims that his money is "almost gone".
His college scholarship pays all tuition fees, but not his living expenses.


The story opens with Spider-Man fighting the Master Planners' goons.

p6 "The next morning" he heads off to college registration.
p7: "Finally, as Peter prepares for a good night's sleep" May falls ill. "Half an hour later" the doctor arrives; "then after a swift ambulance ride" they arrive in hospital.
p8 "And finally as dawn slowly breaks" he gets up and goes to his first day at college
p11 "When the science class finally ends" he goes to the hospital
p13: He spends the night looking for crime and then goes to the second day of college.
p16: After college, he has another run-in with the Master Planners men, but doesn't get any photos.

Based on our guess that Empire State University enrolls in the last week of August, that gives us:

Tue, 24 August (night) - Fight with Minions
Wed, 25 August - College Registration, night spent with Aunt May in hospital
Thu 26 August - First day at College, night spent looking for crime
Fri 27 August - Second day at college, night spent fighting Minions


"If This Be My Destiny...!"
The title seems to have already been a cliche by the beginning of the 20th Century. One William L Nugent used the phrase in a letter to his wife in 1860: "It seems, I am doomed to disappointment, if this be my destiny I will have to endure it..." Blast Furnace and Steel Plant Magazine used the phrase in a poem in 1928: "Then I mourn my awful power / If this be my destiny / Loathe the magic of a science / That had ever set me free "

A 1939 prison movie was entitled If Dust Be My Destiny, and an obscure 1946 movie starring Robert Cummings was actually called If This Be My Destiny

p2: "Whatever those characters were up to it can't be anything good"
Spider-Man doesn't seem to remember that he encountered the Master Planner's men last issue. Maybe he and/or Stan are still under the impression they were working for the Cat?

p5 "If the world's most tempestuous teenager is nonplussed now..."
Possibly Peter Parker is characterized by conflicting emotions; but I suspect Lee has typed the word "tempestuous" for the sake of the alliteration. He is also "the world's most amazing teenager" on page 8.

p6 "He's just like his father..."

Almost the first reference to Peter's biological parents. Has May just noticed that Peter is like his father but relatively unlike Ben?

Page 7 Doc Bromwell
First time Aunt May's physician has been given a name. The name sticks, but the doctor is only ever a stock character.

First day at college: 

Stan Lee gives the students at E.S.U a lot of slang dialogue, possibly to indicate they are "hip" compared with the gang at high school.
  • "any other frosh" (p9) - i.e any other freshman, any other new student.
  • "how square a guy can be (p9)" - i.e how old fashioned 
  • "if there's one thing Harry Osborne doesn't dig" (p10) - i.e doesn't like or approve of
  • "I've got an idea for a gag to take him down a peg" (p10) i.e a practical joke that will humiliate him
  • "Aww, don't be a pill Gwen" (p10) - "a tough pill to swallow" i.e a party-pooper or spoilsport. 
  • "This'll take that swell-head down a peg (p11) / "Mr swelled head 1965" - i.e that conceited person
  • "Chicks always seem to go for these egg-headed skinny types" (p13) Chicks = Pretty girls (presumably "chicas") ; Egg head = clever person. 
  • "Peter Parker is the only boy I've ever met who hasn't given me a tumble" (p15) i.e Who won't pay attention to me (no indecent implication!)
All of these expressions would have been in common currency by the 1940s, when Lee was college age. The one exception is "egghead" which seems to have been popularized by Nixon during the 1952 election. Any slang from the post Beatles era has yet to reach E.S.U!

p11 "We'll invite him for a coke after class, how about that" / "The gang's going across the street for some soda". 

It would have been quite legal for college students to go to a bar -- the drinking age in New York wasn't raised to 21 until 1985. It will be some issues before the trendy Coffee Bean Bar becomes their preferred haunt.

p11 Prof Warren 

Peter Parker's high school science teacher was called Mr Warren. Subsequent continuity has declared that this college tutor, Miles Warren, was the brother of the school teacher, Raymond Warren.

p12 "But she mustn't be allowed to worry..."
From issue #39 onwards, this will become the primary reason for Peter keeping his Spider-Man identity a secret

"News! I want news!" explodes J. Jonah Jameson. "Something must be happening somewhere! I can't sell a newspaper without news! Why doesn't something happen!"

Cigar chomping J.J.J. sometimes serves as a dark reflection of Stan Lee; and it is hard not to hear Lee's own frustration in Jameson's rant. We've just gone eight pages without anything happening, and it's going to be another two or three before the action starts up again. You can just imagine Lee saying "I can't sell a comic without fight scenes! When is something going to happen?"

If This Be My Destiny....! is an odd comic; as odd in its own way as the villain-free End of Spider-Man! over a year ago. There are three distinct plot threads, and no particular hint as to when -- or indeed if -- they are going to come together. 

Peter Parker has finally started college on a science scholarship. We follow him quite closely through his first three days at school; we see more of him in the lab, in the library, and studying at home than we did in the whole of his high school career. 

Meanwhile, Aunt May, who came over all faint in issue #29 and had to go for a lie down in issue #30 actually keels over and has to be rushed to hospital -- her third major illness since the series started, if anyone is keeping score. 

Spider-Man has two unrelated encounters with the same Purple Minions who stole uranium derivatives from Tony Stark's van last issue. He fails to stop them stealing "radioactive atomic devices" from some kind of high-tech installation; but foils their attempt to nick "a cargo of nuclear devices" off a boat. Ditko seems to be deliberately turning Stan Lee's preferred formula on its head. Instead of a narrative preamble leading inexorably to a big fight, Ditko tops and tails the episode with two short action sequences, neither of which have any immediate consequences for our hero. We know -- but Spider-Man does not -- that the Minions work for someone called the Master Planner, but we don't really know what he is planning in such a masterly way. We only know that his plans are definitely the kinds of plans which, once complete, no-one will be able to stop.

In between the two heists, nothing happens, repeatedly. Aunt May is sick; the doctor isn't quite sure what is wrong. Peter Parker waits anxiously, and then phones the hospital: there is nothing more they can tell him. He goes back to the hospital: the doctor isn't certain what is wrong with her. Peter realizes that he needs money to pay the medical bills, so he goes out as Spider-Man looking for crimes to photograph, but he's never seen the city more quiet. He sits up all night worrying; he tries to study in the library; he falls asleep over his books. The action briefly shifts to the Daily Bugle, where we find that there have been no developments in the relationship between Betty Brant and Ned Leeds. ("I simply haven't been able to make up my mind".) Jameson fulminates about the lack of news.

With the benefit of hindsight, the big event for this issue is Peter Parker's meeting with two other college freshmen -- bow-tie wearing posh-boy Harry Osborn, and bitchy blonde Gwen Stacey. Both of them will become incredibly major figures in the post-Ditko years, but in this episode, they are little more than part of the Flash Thompson entourage. Peter Parker is too preoccupied with Aunt May to want to socialize with his new classmates, so they join Flash in playing infantile pranks on him in their first ever chemistry practical. (Why a football jock is on the same course as a science prodigy; and why Peter doesn't have a gang of a-social science nerds to hang out with, we never learn.) 

Peter Parker is acting more than usually self-destructively, sabotaging his chance of a fresh start at a new school by ignoring his peers. Would it really have killed him to say "I am sorry: my foster-mother is dangerously ill so I cannot drink coca cola with you tonight; I sure hope I can get to know you all later in the term." 

Marvel Comics have always been full of heroic outcasts. When I was nine, I felt that I was exactly like the Silver Surfer -- misunderstood and hated by the rest of the human race, just because I was better than everyone else. (Did I mention that I was a big fan of the original version of the Tomorrow People?) I now see that the Surfer was much less like Jesus Christ and much more like Eeyore, sitting alone in his gloomy place, wallowing in his own misery, complaining that no-one wants to be his friend but not actually willing to get up and talk to anyone. If I re-read If This Be My Destiny...! now, I think "Peter Parker: you are making an uncompromising dick of yourself". But when I read the comic in 1973, I thought "Flash Thompson; you are a complete bastard for being so horrid to Peter." It confirmed what I already knew to be true: that all the people who didn't want to be friends with me were small minded and horrible and I wouldn't want to be friends with them either. Which is a deeply comforting message, and goes a long way to explain why so many Marvel Comics fans remained so socially inept and priggish for so long.

I am fairly serious about this; I think these kinds of stories did real harm.

It is certainly true that Flash Thompson is an astonishingly immature figure. Back at high school, he used to call Peter Parker "wall flower" and "bookworm"; now they are in college, he calls him "square" and "egg head". But in high school, Peter whinged and whined and actually cried because his classmates would rather go to a party than a science lecture. In college, he literally doesn't notice them. In that first chapter, Peter Parker said that he would make them all sorry that they laughed at him. In this final chapter, they are still laughing. The difference is that Peter Parker doesn't give a shit.

This Peter Parker is declaring himself independent; rejecting false friends; and acting only out of rational self interest. He acts, not as a superhero, but as the professional adventurer he became in issue #2. He finds himself fighting the Master Planner's minions, not because he cares about the general good, nor because he feels the need to atone for Uncle Ben's death and not even because of a faith position that with great power comes great responsibility. He goes into action as Spider-Man only in order to take photos for J.J.J.

Some people have seen an objectivist message here, and I have no doubt that Ditko's philosophy of individualism caused him to present Spider-Man as an individualistic hero. But I don't think we need to see this story primarily as a Randian parable. A Christian can tell a story about a hero who is full of Christian virtues without directly intending to proselytize his faith. 

So, the issue seems to be heading for an inconclusive conclusion. Spider-Man has gone out with the intention of snapping photos to pay for Aunt May's medical bills; he has partially foiled a nuclear heist, but still hasn't got any newsworthy snaps. But Ditko pays off the long wait on the final page; indeed, in the final frame. 

The final six frames really are a masterpiece. We cut away from Spider-Man to the still unidentified Master Planner, who pumps up the jeopardy a couple of points. He is very cross that Spider-Man keeps interfering with his plans; and promises that he will be very severe with him if he does it again. He drops another non-specific hint as to what it is that he is planning so masterfully. He isn't merely a gangster: he is a proper super-villain who intends to "rule the world". Exactly what his world-ruling plan is, he doesn't disclose, but it has to do with "a ray" and "the hidden secrets of atomic radiation". (As opposed to the public secrets, presumably.) But then he drops the bombshell: the Master Planner is not merely a masterly guy with a plan, he is also a former enemy of Spider-Man. "Though he and I have met before if he crosses my path again our next encounter shall be our last". 

Straight after this unexpected revelation, we return to the hospital for the pay-off we have been dreading. Aunt May's test results have come through: she is going to die. "All the evidence points to the same, inescapable conclusion: the poor woman can't last much longer." And at that exact moment, Spider-Man swings past the hospital. Because of course he does.

Steve Ditko has made us wait and wait for this revelation; distracting us with relative trivia about Parker's college life, before hitting us with the double punch in the final page. The Master Planner is an old foe. Aunt May is going to die. He has upped the ante about as high as it can go. Next month the pressure will continue to build; the two plot threads will come crashing together; and Spider-Man will be literally brought to his breaking point.

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

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

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

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

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

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

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

In the tax year 2017-2018, I sold 9 books, at a total profit of USD $35.58. If only there was something you could do to cheer me up.

Author Spotlight

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Very Famous Master Planner Trilogy

The Amazing Spider-Man #31, #32 and #33.

The first 30 issues of Spider-Man have enacted the conflict between Peter Parker and Spider-Man., which is also the conflict between Steve Ditko and Stan Lee, and more widely the conflict between pictures and words on the comic book page. 

The Very Famous Master Planner Trilogy represents the end-point of that conflict. Stan relinquishes the comic to Steve, and Steve shows us his vision of Spider-Man. The pictures eclipse the words: the dialogue is often simply a gloss on the artwork. And Peter Parker overshadows Spider-Man. The snarky repartee is almost completely absent; the two halves of Parker's consciousness come together. This isn't a story about a superhero with a secret identity: it's a story about a young man with superpowers who sometimes wears a garish costume. It is Peter Parker who finally stands up to J.J.J and demands a fair day's pay for an honest days work. It is Peter Parker who hits Ned Leeds and distances himself from his immature classmates. But it is also Peter Parker who lifts two hundred tons of wreckage. The Parker/Spider-Man Gemini face is absent. There is no need for it. Parker is Spider-Man and Spider-Man is Parker. 

I don't know if comic book readers in 1966 understood what had just happened. Fans on the letters page are generally positive about the trilogy, but they are hardly ecstatic. Ditko phoned in a few more issues and then unceremoniously departed. But in the end, his vision of Spider-Man was vindicated. When people talk about Amazing Spider-Man, it is issues #31, #32, and #33 they talk about. Especially #33. Especially page 5 of issue #33. Two movies (the second Toby McGuire film, and the recent Homecoming) directly quote the iconic Spider-Man Lifts Something Really Heavy sequence. None of them quote that bit from issue #1 where Peter Parker argues with a bank clerk.

There has already been a story called The End of Spider-Man which did, indeed, represent the end of Spider-Man, the logical end point of the narrative. Peter Parker came to his senses and realized that he didn't want or need to be Spider-Man any more. But Fate overruled him, and he realized that he had to carry on being Spider-Man whether he wanted to or not.

"I know now that a man can't change his destiny" said Peter Parker "And I was born to be...Spider-Man." 

Doctor Octopus talks about fate and luck and blind chance -- forces which always somehow bring him and Spider-Man together. But Peter Parker believes in destiny -- a force that knows where the story is going and what everyone's role has to be.

I suppose that is what the title means: "If This Be My Destiny...!". This means "being Spider-Man": so it comes out as "If being Spider-Man is my destiny..." or in plain English "If it is my destiny always to be Spider-Man dot dot dot." It isn't hard to finish the sentence: "If it is my destiny to be Spider-Man, then I should carry on being Spider-Man, and stop complaining about being Spider-Man."

But the sentence is unfinished. The ellipsis turns it into a question.

Is this my destiny? Do I really have to carry on being Spider-Man for ever and ever?

And the answer, obviously, is no. The final page makes that crystal clear. Peter Parker is Peter Parker, and Peter Parker is the hero. He walks away from us, as he has done so many times before; and the young doctor closes the curtain. The Final Chapter is the final chapter. It may not be the End of Spider-Man, but it is the end of Spider-Man.

Or, you could equally well say, it is the beginning of Spider-Man. From this issue onward, Steve Ditko's disagreeable ubernerd is going to fade away, and be replaced by John Romita's good-looking, motorcycle-riding hipster. And in every way that matters, John Romita's Spider-Man is the real Spider-Man: the Spider-Man of the Ralph Bakshi cartoon, the Nicholas Hammond TV show and the Toby Maguire movie; the Spider-Man that Ultimate Spider-Man is riffling on. 

It is no part of my brief to talk about canon and claim that nothing after Ditko exists. I am not even going to say that there were no good stories after The Final Chapter. The death of Gwen, obviously. The drug issues, no question. That one about the sick kid, probably. The Kraven one, possibly. Others too numerous to mention which just happen to have slipped my mind. If Stan Lee turned Steve Ditko's idiosyncratic anti-hero into a '70s Superman who would conquer the world, then so much the better for Stan Lee. That was his job. 

But just for today, I ask you to consider the Amazing Spider-Man #1 - #33 as a completed work of art: the first great graphic novel in American literature. A novel of which The Final Chapter is the final chapter.

If you read comics at all, you know the story. This is the one where Doctor Octopus steals Aunt May's life saving medicine; and Peter Parker pulls out all the stops to steal it back. It is the one where Parker is trapped under the wreckage of Doctor Octopus's base ("it must outweigh a locomotive") with the vial of serum a few feet away from him ("it might as well be on another planet"). In one of the most iconic scenes in comics -- dammit, in the most iconic scene -- Spider-Man lifts the massive weight by sheer force of will and goes on to save his Aunt's life. 

But it is a pity to reduce this 60 page story down to a single iconic panel at the end of a single iconic scene. We don't find out that Aunt May is terminally ill until the last page of #30; we don't find out that the Doctor Octopus is the villain until the opening scene of #31; and we don't find out that an inspired McGuffin is going to bring the Aunt May plot and Doctor Octopus plot crashing together until page 8 of the second installment. Where the End of Spider-Man (#16 - #18) was a closely linked trilogy; and The Man in the Crime Master's Mask (#26/#27) was a 40 page story chopped into two sections, The Master Planner Trilogy is very definitely a serial -- a single story in three distinct episodes, with each part leading up to a well-choreographed cliffhanger. Each episode has its own structure, theme and tone. If This Be My Destiny...! (#31) is characterized by stasis; Man on a Rampage! (#32) by headlong momentum; The Final Chapter! (#33) by real-time action. The first part shows Spider-Man in conflict with the Master Planner's minions. In the second part, he confronts the Master Planner face to face. The third episode is about his own internal triumph over guilt and self-doubt.

Issue #33 does indeed contain a single panel which perfectly encapsulates Spider-Man, and can still bring tears to a grown man's eyes forty years after the event. But it doesn't involve any heavy lifting.  

So let's try to blow some of the clouds of incense away, and try to re-read these fifty-year-old funny books for the very first time....

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, May 11, 2018

I'm For No More Love

The letters page of Amazing Spider-Man #30 contained three surprisingly critical letters.

Richard McCabe says he used to think that Amazing Spider-Man was the best comic book on the market... 

"But now my faith is faltering. You have cluttered this mag up with insignificant hoods!...His fighting the Hulk, the Avengers, Dr Doom and his joining with Daredevil were excellent. To compare the crumb called the Crime Master or one of those Masters of Menace to these epics is futile."  

(As a matter of fact Spider-Man had never fought the Avengers. His first encounter with that group would not come until the 1966 Annual.)

Richard concludes:

"I would like to thank you for your past issues. I enjoyed them all but lately you've been giving us soap operas".

So... If a comic has an impressive super-villain and a guest-star from some other part of the Marvel Universe, it is superlatively excellent. But if it doesn't it is just a soap opera. Very interesting.

Next up is Carey Burt. He thinks that Marvel is "beginning to turn Spider-Man into a love mag..." He cites dialogue from Captured by J. Jonah Jameson! such as "Hello Liz, meet Betty Brant," and "Hello Miss Allen, yes, we've met" and exclaims simply "Yeesh."

"In Spider-man 25 the action didn't start until page 11. That's pretty far to read before you find some excitement. So I'm for no more love; I'm for action"

So.... Amazing Spider-Man # 25 didn't really get under way until Spider-Man physically confronted the Jonah robot. The farcical sub-plot that led up to that moment is simply a nauseating girly romance. I am beginning to detect a theme. 

Finally one Edward Fabrega says:

"After revealing the story behind Frederic Foswell in issue #27, get rid of this mystery jazz. In #26 there was not enough action, I almost dozed off."

Now, I happen to agree with Edward that issues #26 and #27 were lopsided. Most of the narrative occurs in the first half; and the second is dominated by an extended chase scene. But Mr Fabrega's complaint is much the same as the previous two contributors. He approves the second half of the story because it involved "action". The first half, which contains the bulk of the narrative, he writes off as soporific "mystery jazz". 

Tommy Hickman takes a contrary position. He thinks that there had been a sharp drop in quality around issues #20 - #24; but that #25 and #26 represented a return to form. Why does he think that the Man in the Crime Master's Mask! was such an improvement over, say, Duel With Daredevil! or Where Flies the Beetle...!? 

"The main reason I was truly overjoyed was the fact that the story had a plot to it. Issue #16 - #24 had no real plots, except for #17-#19. All there were in those issues were fights with Spider-Man winning." [*]

So he agrees with the first three writers that recent issues have been more plot-heavy, where previous issues were more focused on the Great Big Fight Scene. But while Richard, Carey and Edward mainly read Spider-Man for the battles, Tommy is mainly interested in the story.

Over the next few months, the letters pages will return to this subject over and over again. The correspondents become more and more hostile; the complaints, more and more specific. In issue #34 a fan named Alan Romananok complains that "you are giving too much of (the mag) to Peter Parker's private life", and goes so far as to count the panels to prove his point.

"Do you realize that in Spider-Man #30, Peter appeared in 39 panels while Spider-Man himself was only in 45? This means that "Peter Parker and group" is getting almost half of the mag. Please do something about this." 

And in #36 Kent Thomas goes completely over the top:

"There was a time when your magazines were enjoyable. Well, not any more. The trouble is you seem to think that drama, emotion and love can replace action. Well, let me tell you, I do not buy a comic for drama. I get enough of that from other places. I buy comics for action and if I don't get it from Marvel I'll go some other company." 

"I don't buy a comic for drama." No. No, I don't suppose you do.

It seems that the duality which we have observed was also obvious to the very first Spider-Man fans, more than half a century ago. They can see that there are two kinds of Spider-Man story. In Column A, there is Soap Opera, Love, Mystery, Plot, Emotion and Drama; in Column B there is Action and Fights. And they are clear that Type A stories focus more heavily on Peter Parker, where Type B stories focus more heavily on Spider-Man. What one fan deprecates as "all that mystery jazz" another may praise as a "proper plot". While one fan moans that he has to wade through 11 boring pages of story before he finally gets to the "action", another complains when a comic is "just one long fight". But they are all agreed that some of these issues are not like the other ones.

None of these writers make the logical inference: that there are two kinds of Spider-Man story because Spider-Man has two creators who disagree fundamentally on what the Amazing Spider-Man ought to be about. Not many of them knew about the Marvel Method; most of them probably thought that Stan Lee was the writer in a conventional sense. (Tommy Hickman, says magnanimously that he knows that the lack of plots "isn't Stan's fault - he has to write so many scripts each month that he's doing very well managing to get the stories out.") But it is clear to us that Column A is what Ditko excels at, and that Column B is Stan Lee's idea of a great comic. The issues which Tommy Hickman singles out for special praise and which Carey Burt and Richard McCabe particularly dislike are the ones where Ditko gets an explicit "plotter" credit.

I think that we can assume that these are all genuine letters -- for what it's worth they seem to come from real addresses -- but it is impossible to know whether they fairly represented the feedback Marvel had been getting. Is it possible that Stan is consciously stirring the readers up; deliberately trying to create the impression that there is a "drama" vs "action" controversy and the readers must pick a side? If so, was he consciously was preparing the ground for the inevitable moment when Steve Ditko would leave Spider-Man in the sole custody of Stan Lee.

Stan winds up issue #30's lettercol by hyping the next issue: 

"Here's your chance to prove how loyal you are to ol' Spidey. Without us telling you anything about next ish, let's see if you'll be sure to buy it."

It couldn't be any clearer than that. Lee doesn't know what is going into issue #31 because Ditko hasn't told him. At the very moment when Stan hands full control of the comic over to Steve; the fans start demanding more Spider-Man and less Parker; more action and less romance; more fisticuffs and less narrative -- more Stan Lee, in effect, and less Steve Ditko. Seven issues down the line, they will get their wish. But before he walks away, Ditko has one last opportunity to show everyone how wrong they are.

In issue #37 everyone will magically stop addressing their letters "Dear Stan and Steve" and start writing to "Dear Stan" instead.

(*) The letter is slightly confused: he writes "there was a sharp drop in quality between #6 [sic] and #24. The Man in the Crime Master's Mask was as good as #9 and #10, my favourites...#16-#24 had no real plots, except for #18-#20....For real Marvel Magic, #26 can't be topped." 

It would make a good deal more sense if he was say that #17-#19 were the ones which had plots, which would give us: 

This comes out as:

#9, Man Called Electro
#10 The Enforcers
#17 The Return of the Green Goblin
#18 The End of Spider-Man
#19 Spidey Strikes Back
#25 Captured By J. Jonah Jameson
#26 The Man in the Crime Master' Mask


#16 Duel with Daredevil
# 20 Coming of the Scorpion 
#21 Where Flies The Beetle
#22 Clown and His Masters of Menace
#23 Goblin and the Gangsters
#24 Spider-Man Goes Mad

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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Saturday, April 14, 2018

Kolston Kerfuffle Kontinues

Nobody in their right mind would regard the slave trade as anything other than hideous and barbaric but this suggestion smacks of political correctness out of control once more. -- Gavin Chandler

Would it be no surprise to find that when the revisionists have been successful in purging Colston from Bristol, we will see a new campaign to rename Cabot Circus. -- John Cudmore

Whilst in my mind and as a true Bristolian , I will always associate the currently named Colston Hall with this name simply because I have, and continue to have, memories that link the name to the building that I have supported for many years and continue to do so. -- Bob Farmer

...whatever name is chosen it will still be known as and called THE COLSTON HALL....It is not possible to judge the standards of 300 years ago by today's. -- C Derrick

Notwithstanding his connections with the slave trade, my recent letters on the subject have always supported keeping Colston's name (warts and all!) as an integral facet of what it means to be a dyed-in-the-Bristolian. [sic] - RL Smith

Although we now condemn him for his connection to the slave trade, times were very different then and he shouldn't be judged by us who are living comfortably today with the protection of the Welfare State when we are ill or can't support ourselves -- P Collins

[Meanwhile, someone is demolishing a pub]

I was devastated by the recent news that the Council have decided to demolish the old Cattle Market tavern just to make way for a bus-stop. What are these sacrifices being made for? A faceless fortress for foreign students that could be sited anywhere? If the plans are to create an enhanced medical faculty for the good of us all, then this bitter pill could  be better swallowed, but even then there is no need to erase our past. - Mark Steeds