In my last blog entry, I described how I had come to be a regular reader of the title and how Stan Lee's and Steve Ditko completely different approach to superhero stories captivated my imagination and made me feel they really understood my life. I didn't realise at the time they were telling stories that resonated with any number of teenagers and tweenagers, and it was this that started Marvel inexorable rise to dominance of the comic business. And I had got as far as Amazing Spider-Man 26, which left an unconscious and helpless Spider-Man in the hands of The Green Goblin, the Crime Master and their baying hordes of gangsters ... a development that had me holding my breath until I could track down the next issue to discover Spidey's fate.
I needn't have worried. Even though Spidey has been trussed up with heavy duty chains, the gangsters are unable to tear off his mask (which he glued in place with webbing last ish, remember?), and he's not about to sit still while they polish him off. For, just as Spidey breaks the grip of the gangsters holding on to him, the police arrive. The distraction allows Spidey the space he needs to literally break free of his chains in one of the greatest single panels of Ditko's entire Spider-Man run. And we're only on page 4 ...
The Green Goblin hangs back, leaving Spidey and the three police officers to battle with the Crime Master's goons over three epic pages. The Goblin escapes but Spidey trails The Crime Master beneath the dockside pilings, losing him in the sewers. Later, when Spidey confronts Frederick Foswell in Jameson's office with his suspicions that Foswell is The Crime Master, the real Crime Master is lurking on a rooftop outside the Bugle building. Cornered by tipped-off police officers, The Crime Master is shot and unmasked. Turns out Foswell has been working on the story for Jameson and uncovered The Crime Master's identity ... a mobster called Nick "Lucky" Lewis. (Stan must've really liked the nickname "Lucky" because he gave it to the gangster Lucky Lobo in ASM23, as well.)
|From Amazing Spider-Man Annual 2 - The Crime Master.|
|From Amazing Spider-Man Annual 1 - The Green Goblin (riding his pre-glider broomstick).|
As for The Goblin's civilian identity, I also recall reading someplace that Ditko wanted to have The Goblin turn out to be a complete non-entity, as he felt it more realistic. But he must have changed his mind as the story in Amazing Spider-Man 26-27 unfolded because in Starlog, Ditko later recounted, "I had to have some definite ideas: who he was, his profession and how he fit into the Spider-Man story world. I was even going to use an earlier, planted character associated with J. Jonah Jameson: he [was to] be [revealed as] the Green Goblin. It was like a subplot working its way until it was ready to play an active role."
This makes me suspect very strongly that Ditko may have been lining up Foswell to be the civilian alter ego of The Green Goblin ... though it's possible he really was going to reveal the Goblin to be someone we'd never seen before. I guess we'll never know for sure, because that story was the last time Ditko would ever draw the character.
The last few pages of ASM27 deal with the nasty shop-bought costume that had been giving Spidey so many problems and his efforts to find another outlet for his crime pictures, which leads him to Barney Bushkin, perhaps the nosiest newspaper picture editor ever. And the comic finishes with Peter and his Aunt May happily going off to the movies together, a rare moment of stability in Peter Parker's normally hectic and unpredictable private life.
So I suppose after this startlingly good brace of issues, the only place for Lee and Ditko to go was down. And, perhaps a little unfairly, Amazing Spider-Man 28, featuring The Molten Man, was never one of my favourites.
In retrospect though, I suppose this would have been a pretty popular issue with most kids. It's certainly action-packed - Spidey's battle with The Molten Man goes on for an epic seven pages. But for me it lacks the cleverness and subtleties apparent in the Spidey-fights of the last few issues. You have to wonder if Ditko constructed a long - and it has to be said, repetitive - toe-to-toe slugfest because he'd been told to by Stan.
|Though the cover design is striking, I'm not sure what story it's telling. And I think the second cover/splash page is a bit bland too. However, the interior 7-page battle between Spidey and the Molten Man is pretty epic.|
Now, back in 1965, I didn't have much grasp of what "graduation" entailed. We didn't have that in the UK back then. The biggest educational challenge that faced me was the "11-plus", an exam that determined whether you'd be sent to an academic "grammar school", or be dumped with the dunces in a "secondary modern", after the summer holidays. But graduation seemed cool and exciting, and even I could gather that it was a big day for Peter and his fellow students. The fact that this ceremony marked an exit for Liz Allan from the series pretty much escaped me at the time and I was only reminded of it while reviewing the story for this blog.
I was never much of a fan of Liz Allan. My first bias was always towards girls with dark hair, so Liz didn't appeal to me on that level. But she always seemed a bit of a game-player, and even at my tender years, I found that annoying. She wouldn't return to the comic until much later, by which time Gerry Conway was writing the series and I had long lost interest in it.
So, was ASM28 a filler issue? I think, kind of ... Molten Man is a pretty uninspired villain and I think was just there to provide a peg to hang the story of Peter's graduation on. What's more interesting here is that, at this point, Marvel Comics were allowing their characters to grow and develop. Moving Peter on to University was a massive step and where other companies' characters pretty much stayed static in their lives (Clark Kent was a reporter for the Daily Planet for, what, 25 years? Never promoted, never changed papers, never made editor?), Stan's characters' lives would change as the years passed. That all pretty much stopped when Stan relinquished editorial control of the Marvel line and the suits decided that all character development should be frozen to better serve Marvel's growing number of licensing deals.
|Just about the best hero-in-danger cover of the entire Spider-Man run. Putting the audience's eye-level at the surface of the water makes us feel like we're right in there with Spidey ...|
First, let's take a look at that cover. Steve Ditko had already demonstrated a liking for placing Spider-Man in real danger on the covers. No other Marvel character faced cover jeopardy with quite the same regularity or intensity as Spider-Man. Towards the end of Giant Man's run, some attempt had been made to bring a similar sense of peril to the Tales to Astonish covers, but these had largely failed because they had made Giant Man seem like he was ineffective, rather than generating reader concern for the character.
But Amazing Spider-Man 29 ... now that is a jeopardy cover. I have written about this one on my website, in conjunction with the book I wrote a while back, How To Draw and Sell Comic Strips, offering it as an example of the perfect comic cover. And what made the Scorpion more than a bit scary was that he plainly didn't care whether he killed Spider-Man or Spider-Man killed him. Even as a kid I recognised that that is possibly the most dangerous type of person you could ever meet.
I'll come back to Amazing Spider-Man 30 a bit later, as I missed it in its original run and wouldn't discover a copy until a couple of years later ...
Amazing Spider-Man 31 was the start of an even bigger Spidey saga, that would run across three issues and is still, for my money, the best Spider-Man story ever.
|The start of a super-saga ... this would be one of the last times that Ditko would put a secondary cover on page of of the story. This scene refers to the closing fight with the Master Planner's goons that starts on page 17.|
An unprecedented eight pages are spent on Peter Parker's problems with Aunt May and his (lack of) college social life. Yet none of this is unimportant, and will become the very heartbeat of this whole masterful story. By this point, Steve Ditko was being credited with plotting by Stan, so there's little doubt that lavishing that amount of space on material that isn't superhero action was all Ditko's idea.
Essentially, the entire issue is setting up what will follow ... but stick with it. It's going to be worth it.
|The cover essentially tells the reader the entire plot. The splash page was the first Ditko had drawn that formed the opening of the story. And the violence of Peter's frustration is a startling moment for any 11 year old reader.|
Immediately, Ditko abandons the idea of keeping the identity of The Master Planner a secret. He probably realised that he'd over-played that hand in the battle between The Green Goblin and the Crime Master for control of the city's mobs and just dumped the idea. So we see Doctor Octopus issuing orders to his henchmen, but identifying himself to them as The Master Planner. Why was he keeping his identity a secret? Who knows? Not me ... probably not Ditko, either.
Meanwhile, Aunt May's doctors tell Peter that May is dying of radioactive poisoning. Horrified, Peter realises that it's because of a transfusion May received of Peter's blood back in Amazing Spider-Man 10 and it's his super-power that is killing her. As Spider-Man, Peter manages to enlist the aid of Dr Curt Connors - the former Lizard - to find a cure for Aunt May. Connors identifies the problem and orders a rare isotope, ISO-36, which he'll use to neutralise the radioactivity. But Doc Ock gets wind of the delivery and has his goons steal the rare element. Spider-Man goes after the thieves and starts tearing up the town to find them. Of course he does find Doc Ock's underwater lair and there's a mighty battle, but the structure is weakened by the two enemies flinging heavy plant equipment at each other and, with sections of the ceiling coming down, Doc Ock clears off, leaving Spidey trapped beneath some machinery ...
|There's cliffhangers and there's cliffhangers. This one, surely, must be the grandaddy of them all.|
|Probably Marvel's most memorable moment, and definitely Spider-Man's - wringing such high drama out of such a simple situation is a testament to the storytelling skills of both Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.|
And when he does somehow find the strength to heave that giant block of cast iron off his shoulders, it's the greatest moment in comics.
|Yes, I said the greatest moment in comics ... anyone want to argue? Thought not.|
The battle with the goons is incredible, not because Spider-Man does so well, but because he does so badly. Exhausted, battered and on the point of collapse, Spidey keeps on swinging, even after the last goon is prostrate, hardly even realising he's won.
Spidey manages to get the precious isotope delivered to Dr Connors, even finding a few moments to photograph the arrest of The Master Planner's goon squad by the police, but when he goes to The Daily Bugle to deliver the pix, he runs into Betty. When she sees his battered, bruised face, she goes into neurotic meltdown and rushes off sobbing. I think it was at this point that Peter caught up with my 11 year old self and realised what a pain in the butt Betty was. Finally, tired of Jonah Jameson's shenanigans, Peter decides that he'll use his exclusive photos of the police breaking up The Master Planner's gang to gouge the cost of Aunt May's hospital care out of the skinflint publisher. It's as though Peter has addressed each of the responsibilities that have been weighing him down and has finally dealt with them ...
Thinking about it in retrospect, it's almost as though the final page of issue 33 is Ditko's farewell to the character and the book he helped create. And it would have been the perfect place for Ditko to stop ... but that's not what happened.
Where before Stan and Steve had flirted with an extended storyline in ASM26 & 27, this was the first time that a Spider-Man tale had taken up three consecutive issues. Stan and Jack had been doing that kind of thing for a while over on Fantastic Four - at this point the Frightful Four saga was just winding down - and Ditko had told a multi-part story on Doctor Strange (Strange Tales 130-146), which began before ASM 31-33 and ended when Ditko left Marvel with the July 1966 issues. But these Spider-Man comics are a bit of a watershed in that a single coherent story ran across three issues of the comics. Even with Stan's and Jack's multi-parters, the storytelling involved one plotline seguing into another then returning to the previous storyline again - Fantastic Four 36-45 is just that; three intertwined plotlines (The Frightful Four, the loss of powers and Doctor Doom, The Inhumans) rather than a single story.
And I think that's all great. I'm all for an epic storyline - as long as the story is epic. Stan and Steve certainly delivered during the Master Planner arc. No one could complain that the tale lacks action, characterisation and emotional resonance. But as I've said before, the concept of continued stories would have its detractors - me included - as time wore on. Not because I think continued stories are bad, but because they became over-used and a crutch for lazy writers who didn't want to think up a new plot every month.
The remaining five issues of Steve Ditko's tenure as plotter and artist offered nothing as ground-breaking as the Master Planner saga. Even though he seems to be setting Spider-Man up for a return bout with Kraven the Hunter cheerfully enough, nothing he did with the title after this would have the verve and energy of anything he'd done in the first 33 issues.
In all fairness, Amazing Spider-Man 34 isn't a bad comic by any stretch. It has some great developments - Peter trying to strike up a conversation with Gwen Stacy for the first time and getting knocked back, and the plotline with Betty Brant exiting Peter's life - but it can only compare poorly with the issues that immediately preceded it. It does, however, bring back an old foe, albeit not a super-powered one ...
|There's a bit of a feeling that Ditko is marking time here. He's reverted back to using Page 1 as a second cover and the art seems a bit less detailed.|
|The last few covers have been very light on background detail and the interior art lacks the meticulous effort that made issues like ASM25 such a delight. And look at that pointlessly large panel of Spidey on page 11 ...|
|The cover was a big improvement over recent issues, but the splash page did look a bit crude. On the bright side, the interior story and art was almost a return to form for Ditko ... sadly, it wouldn't last.|
|The cover of this issue is an obvious paste-up, the splash page is the weirdest ever seen in a Ditko Spider-Man comic and the interior story is a bit "meh", lacking in any real danger. We should have seen the writing on the wall ...|
The interior story is just about okay, very similar to the Meteor Man tale in issue 36, but just kind of bland and unmemorable. The only vaguely interesting bit is where Norman Osborn disguises himself and hires a bunch of gangster goons to kill Spider-Man. At this stage, we readers can only guess what his beef with Spidey is. But it does seem that even at this late stage, Ditko was setting Norman O up for something bigger than just the role of a walk-on trouble-maker.
Yet, for all my misgivings about Steve Ditko leaving The Amazing Spider-Man, the fact is that by the end of 1966, the title would be racking up an impressive 340,000 sales, overtaking Fantastic Four as Marvel's best-selling title and, though DC's core Superman and Batman titles were all still a long way ahead, this would begin to change over the next two years ...
But issue 39 of Spider-Man would confirm our worst fears. Steve Ditko had walked out on his two seminal characters, Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. From Amazing Spider-Man 39 onwards, a new hand would wield the pencil, and Stan Lee would return as plotter and scripter both ... and to be fair, do a very good job of it.
|In the wake of Ditko's departure, the dynamic of the creative team behind the character would change drastically, not necessarily for the worse ...|
Next: New hands on the tiller