Thursday, June 09, 2016

Coxcomb Watch (edited)

Everyone is going to tell me that I shouldn't do this kind of thing, but here goes:


Five times Hugo award loser John C Wright recently placed on his web log a piece of text, written in 1938 by Gene Autry, a country singer and actor now best remembered for Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It purports to be the moral code which Cowboys followed; it seems to have been sent out to children who sent him fan mail.

EDIT: Here is a link to the article:

One might have expected a devout and pious Catholic like Wright to put the Singing Cowboy’s grab-bag of secular morals alongside the Ten Commandments or even the Sermon on the Mount to demonstrate how inferior the one is to the other. One might have expected him to say that if you are still thinking up rules and codes you probably haven’t understood Christianity very well.

But if you are hammer, everything looks like a snail. If you see a well-meaning set of moral precepts written by a celebrity for the edification of kids nearly a century ago, then obviously the first thing that will occur to you is "Aren’t The Left awful." The Hugo award loser wants to know how many of the Singing Cowboy's moral precepts The Left break, or encourage others to break, on a regular basis.

EDIT: His precise words were: "A question for the reader: how many of these do mainstream Leftwing politicians, pundits and speakers, routinely call for all of us to violate? And I do not mean the Leftwing speakers and leader of ten or twenty years ago. I mean those who this year, this month, this week, or this hour? For the hour is late, and it is darker than you think." Yes, I am afraid he really does write like this.

I intend to tell him. 

I do not speak on behalf of The Left. I do not even regard myself as a Socialist. (As we've seen, a Socialist thinks everyone should have the same amount of money as everyone else; a Communist thinks we should get rid of money altogether. I am merely a Reformist: I think the Rich should be a little bit poorer and the Poor should be a little bit richer.) I am a member of the British Labour Party, and a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. I have been called an SJW, although not by anyone sensible.

So. Here is how The Singing Cowboy's Code struck this particular Leftie. Next month, I promise to start writing about Spider-Man.


The Cowboy Code goes thus:

1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.

3. He must always tell the truth.

4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly and animals.

5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.

6. He must help people in distress.

7. He must be a good worker.

8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits.

9. He must respect women, parents and his nation’s laws.

10. The Cowboy is a patriot

If I have counted correctly, these 10 precepts actually contain 23 different commandments; which can be grouped under eight general principles:

I: Be kind

II: Be honest

III: Be tolerant

IV: Be conscientious

V: Be polite

VI: Be chaste

VII: Be law abiding

VIII: Be patriotic

Eight out of Autry's ten rules I endorse unreservedly. One I would like to have a little more information about. One is, as it stands, positively misleading. Let's go through them one by one: 

Rules 1 and 4

I fully endorse both these rules, which are in fact, the same rule stated in different words. Don't start fights; don't fight weaker people; don't take advantage of anyone who is weak. I would call this "Kindness", and it’s a universal human virtue.

Insofar as these rules are specifically intended for the edification of Cowboys, the Singer may be thinking particularly about chivalry and honour: how men behave in fights. When soldiers are not actually fighting, they should go out of their way not to be macho and aggressive; even when they are fighting their mortal enemies, they should fight fair, accept his surrender; never kill or torture prisoners.

I have never come across anyone on The Left or The Right who was opposed to Kindness. The Left are on the whole more strongly in favour of it than The Right. It has tended to be The Left who have made laws against child beating, domestic abuse and the inhumane treatment of pets and animals: it has often been The Right who have called these rules silly and sentimental and said that if a man can’t beat his own wife and children in his own house then whose wife and children is he supposed to beat? When there are complaints about our soldiers not using Honour and Chivalry — there have been terrible allegations about the use of torture and the mistreatment of prisoners in recent wars— those complaints mainly come from The Left. It is The Right who are inclined to regard such concerns as soft, unmanly, treacherous or cowardly.

Rules 2 and 3

Rules 2 and 3 are also different wordings of the same rule. I fully endorse both of them. Keeping promises, keeping secrets and telling the truth are part of the universal human virtue called Honesty.

I have never come across anyone on The Left or The Right who is opposed to Honesty. It is always possible to come up with clever, exceptional cases where lying is the best thing to do, for example, when the Gestapo knock on your door and ask if you have a Jewish family hiding in your attic. But the fact that we can imagine exceptions doesn’t invalidate the general principal. The exception proves the rule, as the fellow probably didn’t say.

Rule 5

This rule is oddly worded. I don't have that much of a problem with someone "possessing intolerant ideas" or indeed "advocating intolerant ideas". I am not quite sure how you can possess and idea without advocating it. What I have a problem with is people who behave in an intolerant way.

But I think we all know what the Singing Cowboy was getting at. He wasn't saying that Unitarians (who think everybody goes to Heaven) made good Cowboys, but Baptists (who hold to the arguably less tolerant theory that only people who have been washed in the blood of the lamb can be saved) made bad ones. If anything, he probably thought that Religion and Party Politics were not the kinds of things which gentlemen ought to talk about  — certainly not when they were risking their lives together in hostile in’jun territory. I think that what he had in mind was saloons with "No Jews or Irish" written on the doors; and individual Cowboys who refused to associate with black people or who used horrible words about them behind their backs. I think he was telling the kids that they should treat everyone the same, even if they don’t look like you or use the same word for God.

I strongly endorse this rule. Tolerance is a universal human virtue. It tends to be emphasized more strongly by The Left than The Right. It is The Left who say that signs saying "No Jews" and certain kinds of bad-language shouldn’t be allowed. It is The Right who say that if a landlord wants to ban Jews from drinking in his pub, that's a matter for him. The Right have, indeed, invented a cuss-word, "Political Correctness" to refer to people who behave tolerantly. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that The Right are personally intolerant. It may simply mean that they have an unwritten eleventh commandment "A Cowboy thinks personal freedom is more important than any of these rules".

Rule 6

Rule 6, "help people in distress" is simply another way of phrasing rules 1 and 4. The former say "Don't hurt people if you can possibly help it"; this one says "Help people if you possibly can." Of course, the Singing Cowboy is thinking mainly of the rugged, manly outdoor life. When he says "people in distress" he is thinking of people who are trapped in quicksand and being menaced by hungry wildebeests. But I am sure he means us to apply it to other kinds of distress as well. If someone is sick or hurt, you should do whatever you can do make them better; if someone is broke, you should share your dosh with them. Many of us think that Jesus Christ was an even better role-model than Gene Autry, and he said that everything turned on this point: "For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in, naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me."

I have never heard anyone on The Left or The Right who is against helping people. If there is a difference of opinion, here, it is usually between people on the The Left who say that we need to provide ropes, pulleys and ladders to help people out of holes; and people on The Right who say that if people fall down holes then it’s their own fault and if we keep fishing them out then no-one will ever look where they are going.

Rule 7

I strongly agree that one should be a "good worker". I think that whatever you do; you should do it to the best of your ability; and I think that everyone should do their fair share of whatever needs doing and not leave it to other people.

I have never heard anyone on either The Left or The Right say that laziness and incompetence are virtues. If anything, The Left is more inclined than The Right to say that everyone should lend a hand, and to object to rich freeloaders who sit on their trust funds and watch the money role in. That is what the "according to his ability" part means.

Rule 9

Rule 9 is confused. "Respect" means both "be polite to" and "pay attention to".

To Respect your parents and the opposite sex means to be polite to them; to use good manners and social etiquette in your interactions. I think that good manners are a good thing. I think hurting people with words is as ungentlemanly as hitting a smaller man or a man with glasses or indeed anybody. I would even go so far as to say that the old fashioned rules of etiquette were quite a good idea. If everyone agrees that the younger person should let the older person pass through the door first; and that the man should let the woman do so, then we avoid unnecessary pushing and shoving. Etiquette and manners change over time; but knowing about this is part and parcel of good manners. If Granny has good manners, then she understands that the young folk use words that she would never have used and don’t mean anything by them; if the young folk have good manners they try not to use those words in front of Granny because they hurt her feelings. (Idiots on The Left and The Right sometimes say that it is impossible to hurt people with words, or that hurting people with words doesn't matter, and that there is literally no such thing as giving offence. Cowboys know better.)

"Respect" in the sense of "Respect your nations laws" means something quite different. Calling a lady "Miss Jones" until she invites you to use her first name and refraining from parking on a double yellow even if you are in a big hurry are both good things, but they are not the same good thing. I strongly support rule 9.2. I think that you should obey laws, even silly laws, particularly in a democracy where you have the power to change them.

Sadly, the Singing Cowboy does not tell us if a Cowboys first loyalty is to the Cowboy Code or to the laws and constitution of the United States. Does the Cowboy follow the Code except where it would be against the law, or does he follow the law, except where it conflicts with the Code? If the Government says that citizens are no longer to put Bibles on the wall or flags on the table; or if the Government says that cowboys are no longer allowed to carry six-guns, does a good Cowboy cheerfully and uncomplainingly follow the law, at least until the next election? If not, what was the point of putting "respect the law" in the Code to begin with?

I think that in this case, The Right make more of manners and obedience to the law than The Left do. The Left is more likely to say that old fashioned, ceremonial codes of politeness can be dispensed with. The Left is more likely than the Right to endorse the breaking of immoral laws; or the breaking of any laws in pursuit of a laudable goal. The Left is more likely to say that the Suffragettes, for example, were heroes and martyrs; The Right is more likely to see them as a bunch of vandals. 

Rule 10

I like the country I grew up in; I think that England has good laws and a sensible constitution; I am proud of the BBC, the National Health Service and the Welfare State. With all my faults, I love my House of Peers. I feel that the Lord of the Rings, the Beatles and the Two Ronnies are mine in a way that Moby Dick, Woody Guthrie and the Marx Brothers are not.

I think that I am in some sense a good person because I don’t punch smaller men, am polite to my elders and have (so far as I remember) never shot first in a duel. I don’t think that I am in any sense a good person because I love England; any more than I think that I am a good person because I love jaffa cakes. That is to say: I am a Patriot, but I do not think being a patriot is a moral virtue. Some of my friends on The Left would certainly say that patriotism is a vice or a temptation; that Loving England can too easily turn into Hating France and even Being Nasty To French People. Some of them would say that we should stop thinking of ourselves as English and see everyone as citizens of the world and members of the human race. A very great man once assured me that it isn’t hard to do.

I am not exactly sure how the Patriotism of the Cowboy Code is meant to play out in practice. Does a Cowboy simply go around thinking that the Yosemite valley is the most beautiful place on earth? Or is obliged to love the Constitution as well? Does he have to love it with "a love that asks no questions", or can he patriotically acknowledge its faults? He is entitled to think that the present, democratically elected Commander in Chief is an idiot, or does he have to say "my President, right or wrong." Or are we going to smuggle in some idea that Patriotism involves loving "the real America", and that certain places, people, institutions and points of view don't count?

A brief survey of Gene Autry’s music suggests that he was one of those who conflated Christianity with America and who had an instrumental attitude to religion. The Bible on the table and the flag on the wall are the backbone of our nation. Rely on both God and bullets. Pray to God, not because it's a good thing in itself, but because otherwise Santa might not bring you any presents. 

Rule 8

Rule 8 is about cleanliness, which is, it will be recalled, next to godliness. (*)  I do not think that the Singing Cowboy is telling me that I should take a shower every day and make sure that I have a supply of lavatory paper in my saddle bag. I think that "clean" and "dirty" are euphemisms for "chaste" and "unchaste". I think that when the Singing Cowboy tells children to have "clean thoughts" he is telling them not to think about sex. When he tells boys to have "clean actions" he is telling them not to get too close to girls. When he tells them to have "clean personal habits" he is telling them not to masturbate.

I don’t think it’s a great idea to look at too much pornographic material; and I definitely think that young people ought to be careful how far they go on a first date; and I am a fan of marriage as only a bachelor can be. But I think that looking at sexy pictures and having sexy thoughts and yes indeed playing with yourself in a sexy way is a perfectly normal part of being a human being, and that it is a very bad idea to tell children to associated their sexuality with dirt.

Chastity — total abstinence before marriage, total fidelity within marriage — is a Christian virtue; but I don’t know why this is the only Christian virtue that a Cowboy needs to worry about. Why not include "going to church on Sundays"; "only worshiping one God"; "not worshiping idols" or, for that matter "not coveting your neighbors ox"?

I don't think that there is any particular split between The Left and The Right over this rule. The Right have been known to prohibit things like pornography and sex-clubs on moral and decency grounds. The Left have also been known to campaign against pornography and sex-clubs on the grounds that they are degrading and insulting to women. Both sides have also said that grown-ups should be allowed to look at pictures of other grown-ups with no clothes on if they really want to.


In summary: this particular member of The Left is in favour of kindness, honesty, toleration, conscientiousness, politeness, law-abidingness and (depending on what you mean) patriotism. I think that The Left, on the whole, places more emphasis on kindness and toleration, while The Right, on the whole, places more emphasis on politeness and law-abidingness. I reject only one of the Singing Cowboy's precepts outright: it is pernicious to teach children that ordinary sexual feelings are dirty.

I know, of course, what five times Hugo Award losing author J C Wright will say at this point. He will say that The Left (on the whole) support a woman’s right to choose, and therefore approve of cruelty to foetuses; that The Left (on the whole) believe that two males who love each other should be treated exactly the same as a male and a female who love each other, and therefore disapprove of chastity; and that The Left support such things as a legal minimum wage and welfare payments for the unemployed and therefore disapprove of hard work. In fact, I think he would say that The Left approve of legal abortion because they positively disprove of kindness and want to encourage as much cruelty as possible; that The Left approve of civil partnerships and equal marriage because they positively hate chastity and want to encourage as much sexual immorality as possible; and that The Left came up with the idea that everyone should be paid enough to live on because they positively hate work and want to encourage everyone to be layabouts and bums.

There difference between The Left and The Right isn’t anything to do with their adherence to the Singing Cowboy Code. We all believe in kindness, honesty, tolerance and good manners in the same way we all believe in oxygen and gravity. We disagree about the extent to which kindness, honesty, tolerance and good manners are matters of individual responsibility; and the degree to which we all have to get together and make a kind, honest, tolerant and well-mannered world. We all agree that big people shouldn’t hit little people. We disagree about whether there need to be laws preventing grown ups from hitting children; or whether we should stop poking our noses into people's domestic affairs. We all agree that you should help people in distress; we disagree about whether the government needs to set up a big anti-distress fund or leave it to individuals to help each other. We all agree that if you see a lady in a burning building, you should try and get her out. We disagree about whether there need to be building regulations that stop ladies living in houses which are constructed of flamable materials; or whether that kind of thing is health and safety gone mad.

There are nasty, immoral people on both sides. We have recently had pundits on The Right saying that they positively hope refugees will drown; and newspapers of The Right positively comparing immigrants with vermin and infections. That goes against the Golden Rule, and the Sermon on the Mount and point 6 of the Cowboy Code. It is wicked, plain and simple. But we on The Left may be tempted to say that anyone who doesn't agree with our particular approach to immigration and asylum is a monster who thinks that foreigners are no better than rats. And that isn't true: only some of them are.

I support the National Health Service: like most British People, it is practically a religion to me. "The collective principle asserts that... no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means." But I couldn't quote you facts or figures to show why the British tax-payer funded system provides better outcomes to say, the German insurance based model; or demonstrate what the optimum balance between standard of health care and tax burden lies. Those sorts of debates are difficult, boring, and once you start looking up facts there is a terrible risk that it will turn out that there are good points on the other side. So the temptation is to say that The Right positively want poor people to get sick and die. And that isn't true. Only some of them do.

The Far, Far Right go much further than this. They don't just say that The Left is incorrect about the degree of collectivization that is possible or desirable. They affect to think that The Left -- not just Kim Jong Un and Tony Blair but you and me and Jeremy Corbyn are actually evil -- zombies and moorlocks with funny hats and bad breath who actively reject the basic moral values of humanity. When they see a confused list of watered down Christian morals, written decades ago by a well-meaning celeb, their first reaction is to say "Here is someone who dares to come right out and say that he is in favour of kindness, tolerance, honesty, good manners and chastity — UNLIKE THE LEFT WHO ARE IN FAVOUR OF CRUELTY, BIGOTRY, LYING, RUDENESS AND FORNICATION!!!

I don't think that The Right are, on the whole, wicked and amoral. I do think that one or two of them are very, very stupid.

"Why are you printing this on your blog, Andrew, rather than contributing to the discussion on Wright's own page."

"Because Wright says that he will only publish contributions if they contain offensive, derogatory and intolerant language."


Illustrations of the Tao, taken from the works of the Singing Cowboy.



1.1 Never shoot first,
1.2 Never hit a smaller man,
1.3 Never take unfair advantage.
4.1 Be gentle with children
4.2 Be gentle with animals
4.3 Be gentle with old people.


6. Help people in distress.


2.1 Never go back on your word.
2.2 Never go back on a trust
3: Always tell the truth.


5.1 Do not advocate racially intolerant ideas
5.2 Do not advocated religiously intolerant ideas
5.3 Do not possess racially intolerant ideas
5.4 Do not possess religious intolerant ideas


7. Work hard


8.2 Keep clean in speech
9.1 Show respect to women
9.2 Show respect to your parents


8.1 Have clean thoughts (ie Don’t think about sex)
8.2 Have clean actions (ie Don’t have sex outside of marriage)
8.3 Have clean personal habits (ie Don’t masturbate)


9.3 Show respect to the laws of your nation.


10: A Cowboy is a patriot

(*) "But only in an Irish dictionary." R.I.P Ronnie Corbett.

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Amazing Spider-Man #1

Spider-Man part 2
Spider-Man part 3

Named Characters: 
Aunt May, J Jonah Jameson, John Jameson

Unnamed characters: 
Landlord, TV producer, Bank teller, News Vendor, Diner Man, Pawn Broker

The whole top half of Spider-Man’s costume, including gloves, is a single piece.

Peter Parker and Aunt May live in a rented house. They evidently relied on Uncle Ben for their income.

Flash Thompson, the blond boy with the T on his shirt appears to have morphed in a dark haired boy with an O on his shirt. None of the other schoolkids are named.

first appearance of JJJ
Amazing Spider-Man #1
A hero’s enemy needs to be the opposite of that hero. It might be that the hero is strong, but not-too-bright, so the villain is weak but brilliant. It might be that the hero is a brilliant scientist so the villain pursues the occult and magic with equal genius. The editor of Harvey Comics told Joe Simon that his character the Silver Spider (who Joe had briefly considered calling Spider-Man) should have a nemesis who was the natural enemy of a Spider. “Either The Fly or Mr D.D.T”.

Steve Ditko and Stan Lee came up with something better.

They left us, maybe eight months ago with the message that “with great power there must also come, great responsibility”. That is the moral core of Spider-Man; so his enemy must be the opposite of that: someone powerful but irresponsible

In a speech given in March 1929, British Prime Minister Sir Stanley Baldwin (arguably quoting Rudyard Kipling) attacked the growing power of the press. 

The newspapers attacking me are not newspapers in the ordinary sense. They are engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal vices, personal likes and dislikes of (the editors). What are their methods? Their methods are direct falsehoods, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker's meaning by publishing a sentence apart from the context...What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.
Power without responsibility. Spider-Man's nemesis, his moral opposite was not a supervillain, but a tabloid editor. 

Did Stan Lee know from the beginning that the relationship between Peter Parker and J Jonah Jameson would define his comic for at least the first decade? I doubt it. Why launch a comic which has at its heart the feud between a superhero who tries to do good and a newsman who represents him as doing evil, but leave the newsman out of the first installment? It would have been a good pitch: better than “a kid who climbs walls” or “a comic which breaks the rules.” But J Jonah Jameson never features in Stan Lee’s myths about how his wonderful idea was rejected by an uncomprehending publisher.
The rent collector: another Ditko Stereotype
Amazing Spider-Man #1
When "Mr Jameson" came on stage, for the first time, on the third page of Spidey's first issue, did Lee and Ditko know that he was going to appear in every issue from now on -- one of only five regular supporting characters? It seems unlikely. In Amazing Spider-Man #1, Ditko makes more use than usual of stereotypes and caricatures — characters who appear for single panels and embody particular types. He’s rather good at them. We have the evil capitalist landlord, come to kick the old lady out of her home, with a bald head, bow tie and cigar; the snooty bank teller with fussy suit and little round glasses; the cook who won’t even give Peter a dish-washing job, with bare arms, apron and paper hat; and the man to whom Aunt May pawns her jewelry… Ditko had a thing about bald men and cigars. Jameson could easily have been one more vignette — the nasty journalist in his shirt-sleeves, long fingers ready to start hammering on a big old manual typewriter, and a toothbrush mustache in case we were in any doubt as to whether he was a goody or baddie. He gets fleshed out a bit in the second half; but for all anyone knew, the next chapter might have introduced a different opponent — an F.B.I agent, perhaps?

Amazing Fantasy # 15 began with a crowd of kids gesturing at Peter Parker — the kid in the checked coat stabbing a forefinger at him, the blond girl gesturing with her thumb, “Flash” pushing him away with his hand. On the first page of issue  #1, we have nothing but hand gestures: hostile fingers and fists, waving and jabbing at Spider-Man; and one human face, with shout lines coming out of his mouth. We know now that the shouty-man is is Jameson, but the foul temper, the meanness, the awful grin, even the cigar will come later. Here he is just the spokesman for the mob, and the person who controls it. (Flash Thompson has a similar function, giving a face and voice to the undifferentiated mob of high school students, not one of whom has so much as a name.) 

At this point, Spider-Man is little more than a character that Peter Parker plays on television. Jonah Jameson is going to take control of Spider-Man’s celebrity and tell a different story for his own ends. Parker cares a great deal about what other people think of him, and from on now people will think -- to quote another fictional tabloid editor -- what J.J.J. tells them to think.

The three chapters which appear in Amazing Spider-Man #1 each has its own title and logo “Spider-Man”, “Spider-Man part 2” and “Spider-Man part 3”. Each chapter could very easily have been presented as a single item in an anthology comic. Part 1, in particular, would have worked nicely as a stand alone: a superhero story without a villain, long before the justly famous Amazing Spider-Man #18. It begins and ends with Peter Parker having a temper tantrum; and covers a lot of ground in between. Aunt May is poor; she is going to be kicked out of her home. Peter Parker briefly considers turning to crime; but instead, he resumes his show-business career -- until Jameson terminates it by printing lies in his paper. The final page in particular is wonderfully immersive; we feel Parker’s desperation as Stan Lee gradually closes off all his options. He can’t cash his cheque; he can’t work on TV; he can’t even get a job washing dishes…and then he sees Aunt May pawning her jewelry. This breaks Peter Parker, and the final panel shows him pounding the wall in anger.

It must, incidentally, have been a very strong wall. 

Stan Lee is very proud of the cheque-cashing scene, citing it over and over again as example of Spider-Man’s realism, of the kind of thing that wouldn’t have happened to any other super powered character.  The voice of the snooty bank teller is rather fun ("don’t be silly, anyone can wear a costume") but the scene doesn’t actually make a lot of sense. Spider-Man is, at this point, basically a stage persona, so there is no reason not to reveal his true name to his agent; and his agent warns him that a cheque made out to Spider-Man will be uncashable. The scene is really there to get us over a plot difficulty: if Spider-Man is a huge celebrity, why isn’t Peter Parker rich? Jameson is also, at this point, a narrative answer to the question "if Spider-Man could have a lucrative stage career, why does he get involved in dangerous adventures?"

Chapter 2 goes off in a different direction. Ironically, J Jonah Jameson's son John is an astronaut; ironically, his rocket-launch goes horribly wrong; and ironically the person who saves his life is Spider-Man. Up to now, we have seen crowds of people looking at and reacting to Spider-Man: this section begins with Peter as part of the crowd watching John Jameson launched into space. Page 11 and 12 are some of the most dramatic and kinetic scenes in the early years of the comic; Spider-Man leaping from an army jet to the out of control space capsule and changing its direction with his physical strength and web.

This is the first time Spider-Man acts altruistically: the guy who told the police officer that catching criminals was not his job leaps into action to save his enemy's son just because he can, and because he is the only person who can. (If he thinks that he has a responsibility to do so, he doesn’t say so, and he certainly doesn’t think that he’s doing it for Uncle Ben.) But it is a very public act, and Peter Parker is still thinking in terms of celebrity. He doesn’t think that he has done a good thing for its own sake, or to partly atone for the bad thing he did a few weeks ago. He thinks that he has restored his reputation; taken his story back from Jameson, and (most importantly) that he can now resume his career as a TV celebrity.

Of course, it doesn’t turn out like that.

Why does Jameson hate Spider-Man? Lots of reasons will be given over the next few issues: that he's a bad man bringing down a good one; that it sells papers; that he honestly believe vigilantes are a public menace. But today, his motivation is simple enough. Jameson resents Spider-Man getting the publicity that he feels should go to his son John. On page 1 of this comic, Spider-Man is literally shown with a spotlight shining on him. On the final page Jameson says that Spider-Man engineered the disaster and the rescue in order to “steal the spotlight” from his son.  Publicity, fame and celebrity are what this comic is all about.

The final page is genuinely shocking; turning the agony up a notch. The mob turns against Spider-Man. He has no way of making money, and May has no more jewels. The FBI put out a warrant and issue a reward for his capture, and even Aunt May thinks Spider-Man is evil.

And so we are left pretty much where we started, with Peter Parker being tempted to turn to crime:

“What do I do now? How can I prove I’m not dangerous? How can I convince people I wasn’t responsible for the failure of that capsule? Everything I do as Spider-Man seems to turn out wrong. What good is my fantastic power is I cannot use it. Or must I be forced to become what they accuse me of being and really become a menace. Perhaps that is only course left for me!”

And there, tragically, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s experimental graphic novel comes to an end. It has clearly been left unfinished: parts 1 and 2 are six and five pages long, respectively where chapter 3 stops after only three. The “the end” box has clearly been stuck onto the art after the fact.

So, nothing comes of this dilemma. Peter Parker doesn’t stalk the city by night, whatever that means. The FBI make no attempt to arrest him, and within a month or two, everyone will have forgotten that he's an outlaw. Next month, Spider-Man will solve all his financial problems at a stroke, foil an alien invasion, and the comic will reboot with Spider-Man as a professional crime fighter. 

There is no point in mourning unmade films and unwritten books. Spider-Man, the Spider-Man we fell in love with, is a crime-fighting superhero with a lack of self-confidence and a tendency to over-worry. But still. I wish there were some way of knowing what Ditko and Lee, in the absence of editors and sales figures and pesky readers, would have put into Amazing Fantasy #17.

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

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

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

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Monday, June 06, 2016

From Trowbridge last year, a few seconds caught on my phone of the best musician I imagine I'll ever see live. So pleased that I went to see them three times last year. (On the final occasion, Swarb had to more or less be lifted onto the stage, and couldn't tell his story about "Unst" because of massive dental problems...but it didn't seem to affect his fiddle playing at all.) I heard him do a solo set at the Folk House a couple of years ago, and he described collecting fiddle tunes off an old fiddler and recording them on a primitive reel-to-reel tape recorded. "The same kind we recorded Liege and Lief on..." It suddenly hits you: genuine legend.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Amazing Fantasy #15

Named Characters:

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

Unnamed Characters:

TV Producer, Burglar, Police Officer, Mother and Child

First Appearance of:

Spider-Man costume


Peter Parker wears blue and white striped pyjamas in bed.

His favourite food is wheatcakes.

His Uncle and Aunt call him “Petey”.

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

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

Peter Parker’s school is named Midtown High.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Parker runs away.

*Parker puts on his costume.

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

*Spider-Man squirts some web at a flagpole.

*Spider-Man swings over the docks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what does it actually mean?

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

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

So: anyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Please do not feed the troll. 

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the story simply doesn't fit the facts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

And what’s this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, May 29, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dreams it up.”

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

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

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

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

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

Is it possible to guess what one line summary Lee gave Ditko to work with?
A Close Reading of the First Great Graphic Novel in American Literature
Andrew Rilstone

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

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

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

Pledge £1 for each essay. 

Leave a one-off tip

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

 Please do not feed the troll.